Each year around this time, leaders gather at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York to assess the state of the world. This year, I used the occasion to sound the alarm about our direction as a human family.
We are living through a period of turmoil, transition and transformation. Insecurity, inequality and intolerance are spreading. Governments are wasting vast and precious funds on weapons while reducing investments in people. Too many people in power seem blind to the threat of climate change. Citizens yearn for jobs and the prospect of a decent life. But instead they get divisiveness and delay.
There have been some important steps forward. Extreme poverty has been cut in half since 2000. Democratic transitions are underway in the Arab world, Myanmar and elsewhere. Africa’s economic growth has become the fastest in the world. Asia and Latin America are making important advances.
Still, we must raise our levels of ambition. Poverty and inequality remain rampant. Ecosystems are reaching the breaking point. That is why I have urged world leaders to focus on initiatives on sustainable energy, education, nutrition and the health of women and children. The economic crisis should not be an excuse to default on commitments to the basics that all people need.
Regional tensions are also deeply troubling. The crisis in the Sahel is not getting sufficient attention and support. Poverty, fragility, drought, extremism and sectarian tensions are causing suffering; arms are easy to obtain, but jobs are hard to find. The international community needs a concerted effort to address this alarming situation. The crisis also highlights the need to strengthen food security, nutritional resilience and social safety nets to counter the frequent price shocks that have become a norm.
The situation in Syria is growing worse by the day. We must stop the violence and flows of arms to both sides, and set in motion a Syrian-led transition as soon as possible. Brutal human rights abuses continue to be committed, mainly by the government, but also by opposition groups. It is our duty to put an end to impunity for international crimes, in Syria and elsewhere, and to give tangible meaning to the responsibility to protect.
As the winds of change in the Arab world and elsewhere continue, we need to break the impasse between Palestinians and Israelis. The two-State solution is the only sustainable option, yet the door may be closing. I also reject both the language of delegitimisation and threats of potential military action by one State against another. The shrill war talk of recent weeks has been troubling — and should remind us of the need for peaceful solutions and full respect for the UN Charter and international law.
This is all the more important at a time of heightened tensions over intolerance. In recent weeks, a disgraceful act of great insensitivity has led to justifiable offence and unjustifiable violence. Freedom of speech and assembly are fundamental, but neither of them is a licence to incite or commit violence. Responsible political and community leaders must step up at this time. The moderate majority should not be a silent majority.
With so much at stake, the UN must keep pace across the spectrum of its activities — peace, development, human rights, the rule of law, the empowerment of the world’s women and youth. People do not look to the UN to be simply a mirror reflecting back a divided world. We are meant to provide leadership, hope and solutions to the problems that matter to people by day — and that keep them up at night. No single leader, country or institution can do everything. But each of us, in our own way, can do something. We must put people first, raise our game and take international cooperation to the next level. Time is not on our side, but together, as partners, we can meet today’s tests and seize the opportunities of an era of dramatic change.
Ban ki-moon is secretary-general, United NationsThe views expressed by the author are personal.