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President of the World Parliament María Fernanda Espinosa: Reflections and Power

Exclusive interview with the President of the UN General Assembly on the migrant crisis, climate, multilateralism vs. sovereignty and… her powers

The ex-Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ecuador and first Latin American woman to be elected President of the General Assembly of the UN answers our questions on Sustainable Development Goals and the UN’s battle – that sees Italy among its protagonists – to reform the Security Council. Maria Fernanda Espinosa also offers her views on the attacks against freedom of the press.

Last June, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés was elected President of the seventy-third session of the General Assembly, only the fourth woman to hold that position in the history of the world body – the “parliament of humanity” as she defined it – and the first since 2006. Espinosa has more than 20 years of political experience in terms of international negotiations and multilateralism. She served her country, Ecuador, two times as Minister of Foreign Affairs, as well as Minister of Defense and Coordinating Minister of Natural and Cultural Heritage.

The day before our exclusive interview a historic event took place at the UN which saw the President gather some of her predecessors, who then answered questions posed by journalists of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA) in an informal meeting. We asked, “how can we explain to the general public the extent of the powers held by the President of the General Assembly” — a topic that is covered in this interview. The answer is categorical: the President has great power, especially in formulating an agenda that she can carry out as her term progresses. And it is for this reason, they added, that the mandate is for “one year only”. The leaders of the World Parliament stressed the strategic importance therefore – in view of the brevity of the President’s tenure – of maintaining as much continuity as possible by the staff.

Left, H.E. Mr. Peter Thomson (Fiji), President of the 71st session of the General Assembly,
H.E. Mr. Vuk Jeremić (Serbia), President of the 67th session of the General Assembly,
H.E. Mr. Mogens Lykketoft (Danmark), President of the 70th session of the General Assembly,
Maria Fernanda Espinosa (Ecuador), President of the 73th session of the General Assembly, H.E. Mr. Jan Eliasson, President of the 60th session of the General Assembly & former UN Deputy Secretary-General, H.E. Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa (Bahrain), President of the 61st session of the General Assembly, H.E. Mr. Joseph Deiss (Switzland), President of the 65th session of the General Assembly. Also H.E. Mr. Miroslav Lajčák (Slovakia), President of the 72nd session of the General Assembly (not in this photo) attended to the event.

We met her in her office at the United Nations Headquarters, where we had a long and rich conversation on migration and human rights, on multilateralism’s role in the global context, on the Security Council’s and UN’s reforms, as well as her priorities, functions and powers as President of the General Assembly and freedom of the press. 

Election of María Fernanda Espinosa as new President of the General Assembly (UN Photo/Loey Felipe).

Madam President, thank you so much for this interview. First of all, we would like to talk about one issue that you also mentioned when you became President: migration, and this crisis that looks even worse than what it really is by numbers. Can you explain to us what’s happening, seen from the UN? Is this crisis really like the media and politicians are describing?

“We must remind ourselves that the history of humanity is the history of migration, in a way. So, it’s not unusual. Since the very beginning of humanity people have moved from one place to another for different reasons, for ecological reasons, for economic reasons, because they wanted a better future, not to speak about the two World Wars that caused great displacement in the places that were most affected. Especially in the Second World War, we saw the massive exodus of the Jewish people that were threatened by the prosecution of the Nazi regime, and they were received by all the countries in the world, including my region of origin, Latin America. The history of humanity is the history of migration, there is nothing unusual about it, but of course we are seeing, in recent years, the numbers going up. Why? Because of conflicts, because of climate change, because of the lack of opportunity, especially for the younger generations in terms of access to jobs and education. There are different driving forces for migration and I have to tell you that no one in their right mind would leave family, home, country – sometimes culture – behind just because they want an adventure. Human beings are not like that. They have to leave because there are situations that threaten their lives or their future. This means that immigration is by nature a transboundary issue that needs a global response”.

The UN found that global response in the so-called Global Compact for Migration. After the conference of Marrakech last December, the General Assembly finally adopted it, but some countries, such as the United States and Italy, didn’t go along. What happened? Do you think there was a communication problem?

“Within the UN, the members are 193 countries, and we have to be prepared to respect the sovereign right of a country to say whether it will join some initiative or not. But, on the other hand, it is a pity that sometimes decisions are made because of a very aggressive campaign of misinformation about the content and the reach of the global compact. The global compact is not a legally binding instrument, it is a framework whose purpose is to encourage the corporations’ exchange of best practices, and to provide 23 policy guidances for countries, according to their own national legislation, policy and decision. Unfortunately, there was a big campaign, especially on social media, creating false messaging regarding the reach and the nature of the Compact, and I think that sometimes public opinion plays a role and puts a lot of pressure to say “no”. Unfortunately, and painfully, some countries said “no”. There are also countries and communities that are the outcome of a migration process themselves and that at some point in history were well received by the generosity of others. So, with that said, I think the Global Compact provides a good framework and good grounds to encourage corporations to exchange good information, good practices among countries, and to also burden-share between countries of origin, of transfer, and destination. It is a useful tool, and a shame that perhaps the misinformation campaign happened, but we have also to respect, at some point, the sovereign right of countries that are not ready. Anyway, the Compact allows countries to join whenever the they feel ready, and they’ve studied the contents of the agreement”.

Opening of the global compact for migration conference in Marrakech, Morocco. Dec 10, 2018 (UN Photo/Mark Garten)

There are countries that didn’t sign, that are closing their ports to ships that rescue migrants dying on their trip. We are talking especially about the Mediterranean Sea. What is your wish for the respect of human rights in this regard?

“The numbers are very telling. If you look at last year for example, almost 2,300 died and disappeared just crossing the Mediterranean. So, one life is already too much, and I think we have to do what we need to do to ensure that these people are protected under international law, starting with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document speaks about human dignity, the right of people to proper shelter, to live in a secure environment. And I think these people that are escaping from the war in Syria and Libya and in other parts of the world, need a safer place. The call is that we comply with international legal instruments and of course we also look at the national legislation of countries regarding the rights of migrants”.

Climate change, we are too close to the point of no return. What can the UN really do, other than sounding the alarm? The SDG goals are there, but are they enough?

“I think indeed climate change is one of the most pressing survival threats against humanity. We have gone far in terms of adopting the UN Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris agreement, which is a collective effort and commitment to reduce emissions and to work more on adaptation to climate change and building resilient societies. So, the framework is there, the convention is there, the Paris agreement is there. In Poland we were able to agree on a rule book, a program of work to enforce the Paris agreement. But we really need to speed up action, because all scientific reports are very pessimistic, saying that we are not performing well. Emissions are increasing, the possibility of not being able to stop the increase of temperature by 1.5 degrees is not going to be feasible if we continue with the same patterns of consumption and production and our emission footprint continues to increase”.

María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, President of the seventy-third session of the General Assembly meets with Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (UN Photo/Ariana Lindquist).

But the US itself, under the Trump administration, has a very different policy. What can the UN do?

“Sometimes, some member states decide that they are not ready to join the shared responsibility to fight climate change. There are also local governments, states or cities in the US that are willing to commit to deliver on the Paris agreements. States like California, one of the biggest economies in the world, have committed to comply with the Paris agreement requirements, that is really a sign of hope. Not only in the United States, but across the globe, the role of mayors and local governments is just so important”.

Among the Sustainable Development Goals, are there some that you feel more strongly about, or that you worry more about, that maybe are encountering some problems?

“I think the package of the 17 SDGs is very strong, because all the goals are interconnected. You cannot fight poverty and inequality if you don’t have proper institutions, proper governance, proper partnerships in place. The same goes for water and sanitation. There is no way to have societies that are sustainable, that give space and opportunity for everything, if you don’t have decent work. You cannot comply with the 2030 SDG agenda if you leave 50% of your population behind – and that’s the gender equality and women’s right goals. So, they’re all interconnected and the purpose is to provide a survival kit for humanity to plan and work towards societies that are more sustainable, more equal, more inclusive, prosperous and with access to jobs for everyone. Just realizing that in order to meet the 2030 agenda we have to create 600 million new jobs, and that 70% of them have to be for the younger generation, helps us to understand the huge challenge that is ahead of us”.

Opening of the General Debate of the Seventy-third Session of the United Nations General Assembly including a Moment of Silence for former Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan (UN Photo/Cia Pak).

Are you satisfied with the way in which the 193 countries are moving to respect women’s equality?

“I think there is an uneven progress. If you look at the numbers in terms of extreme poverty, in terms of access to jobs, to equality in salaries, the gap is about 20%. The same qualification, the same job, 20% less salary because it is a woman. This continues to exist everywhere. Also, in terms of the access of women to positions of power, of decision making, we still have a lot to do. If you look at the international community, although there are 193 member states, only 20 have female presidents. If you look at the proportion of women parliamentarians, it’s about 23%. The same if you look at the victims of climate change. The level of vulnerability of women during climate disasters is higher. If you look at domestic violence, the victims in the majority of the situations are girls and women. One out of three women in the world has been or will be, a victim of violence. Sometimes it seems like we repeat ourselves, but we need affirmative action, to work seriously for women’s rights and empowerment, and that’s also one of my priorities this year”.

Last September, at the beginning of the General Assembly, you witnessed both Secretary General António Guterres’ speech, and then Trump’s. The first about multilateralism, the second practically affirming that the sovereign nation is more important. These are two really conflicting views of the world. How can the UN actually persuade the people that there is no way out of multilateralism?

“I think it is a false dichotomy when you say something like, ‘it’s either you take up national interest or you look at the global scenario and you can meet to join forces to solve global problems’. The only way to solve global challenges is through collective responsibility in a multilateral institutional framework. The house of multilateralism is the UN. It’s a false dichotomy because, of course, you can do both. For example, you might be concerned about creating a strong public health system for your people, but if you have no clarity or commitment on the global level about the issue of non-communicable diseases, how are you going to do that? Last September, we had a strong political call, a political declaration of non-communicable diseases as a major threat to public health. There is no way to fight climate change if you don’t have a collective response, if you don’t share responsibility in a global leadership. Is there any other way, despite how big or small a country is, to combat terrorism, for example?”. 

María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, President of the seventy-third session of the General Assembly speaks with Secretary-General António Guterres, left, before the start of the Mandela Peace Summit Opening Ceremony (UN Photo/Ariana Lindquist).

The Secretary General António Guterres himself actually stressed the crisis of multilateralism…

“When I say it is a false dichotomy, I don’t mean to say it is not in play. We need to come up with a strong narrative to say that the only way to address global challenges that affect our people on the ground level is through multilateral action, global leadership and collective responsibility. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t facing a situation where we see exacerbation of extreme nationalism and populism in many parts of the world, and that is worrisome. But, at the same time, we need to make our case and be very clear as to what is the value added of the United Nations. If you look at humanitarian situations, the architecture of the UN is present. When you see major conflicts, we have 100,000 peacekeepers around the world, present in 14 countries with 14 peacekeeping operations. We are responding with a High Commissioner on the refugee crisis, and we are on the ground, and really changing the life of people. We are delivering, but we need to be bolder and stronger to get our message across”.

What is the UN’s most urgent reform in your opinion?

“I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition. I think it’s a process that should bring all parts of the UN together. This year, we have a big challenge ahead of us, which is to implement the three–string reform process: the management reform, the new development architecture and the new peace and security model. The challenge is to implement the three pillars of the reform that was adopted by member states and proposed by the Secretary General, António Guterres. We are also working very hard to have a meaningful outcome of the revitalization of the General Assembly. It is the parliament of humanity, it has to deliver better, it has to be less bureaucratic. We need to mainstream the work we do, and comply with the resolutions that we pass ourselves; that’s very important to me”.

What about the power of the President of the GA? Did the past Presidents use their powers fully? And what about you?

“I think I have been very bold to establish seven priorities for my work, and to deliver on the seven priorities. We also have gone through some moments of tension during my first 4 months of tenure. You really have to take the lead and rule on the basis of what we have, the possibilities that the procedural limits provide, deciding on how we need to proceed on a resolution like the one relating to Hamas, or like Palestine being appointed as chair of the G77. You have to take these procedural decisions – that in the end are political decisions – and you have full power to do that. In terms of delivering on the normative role of the General Assembly, you have to make sure that all six committees deliver with quality and on time. We passed a little over 260 resolutions this year, each of them requiring immense negotiation efforts, so it’s a tremendous amount of work. I had received more than 50 mandates as President of the General Assembly, and your work depends very much on the buy-in, the corporations, and the commitment of member states. But you must have a position of leading, encouraging, and making sure we reach consensus”.

María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, President of the seventy-third session of the General Assembly at the G77 Annual Ministerial
Meeting (UN Photo/Ariana Lindquist).

Do you have an idea of what the way to reform the Security Council should be?

“This is a very complex issue, I’m not going to be naive about it. It is one of the most divisive issues in the House, it requires the engagement and the political will of the member states. On that particular issue, you can lead and guide the process, but it’s not wise to replace the will of the House. We are speaking about the will of 193 countries that have very different views on how far we should go. There are countries that are more interested in improving the working methods of the Council, some that say we can’t improve unless we change the composition, others that say we can do both, and others that are happy with the status quo. My role as leader of the General Assembly is to ensure that a process for the reform continues in a transparent and inclusive way, but I think that my personal view really does not matter”.

Christoph Heusgen, Permanent Representative of Germany to the UN, addresses the Security Council meeting on non-proliferation (UN Photo/Evan Schneider).

During the last Super Bowl, the Washington Post launched a very impressive campaign for freedom of the press. Do you think the UN should do more to protect journalists?

“I think every campaign, every engagement to protect the principle of freedom of expression and of the press has to be valued. But regarding the response of the UN, we have to remind ourselves that there is a special rapporteur on freedom of expression, that is part of the special procedure of the HR council. There is the committee to protect journalists as well, that gave us figures from last year that are really painful: 53 killings of journalists just in 2018. One is too many already. On the Khashoggi case, I really called for an urgent, thorough, and independent investigation. As we know, Agnes Callamard, the Special Rapporteur on Executions, has already completed part of the investigation and we should hopefully have a complete report from her soon. I think we have to be careful not to duplicate: we do already have the structure, under the framework of the HR council, the special procedures, the committee to protect journalists, public opinion, and you, journalists. I believe, you having mentioned the Super Bowl campaign, that we should all work together on efforts like this. The UN of course, is responding. It is not an abstract body, the member states, the secretariat are all working together. We are all doing our share”.

Interview by Stefano Vaccara
Text and video editing by Giulia Pozzi
Text review by Grace Russo Bullaro

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