Welcome to the United Nations

Remarks at Cairo University

15 Feb 2017
António Guterres

Honourable President of the Cairo University, 
Honourable Ministers, 
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me say first of all, how grateful I am for this invitation to be here in the same university as one of my predecessor, that I so much admire, Boutros Ghali, as it was said by the honourable Minister, and in a country, Egypt, that is one of the pillars of multilateralism in today’s world. 

Egypt is not only extremely involved in all UN activities, but Egypt has been generously contributing to our peacekeeping operations with the courage of its soldiers, women and men, and with its police, men and women, that many times, are in a peacekeeping operations where there is no peace to keep, and where their lives are in permanent risk. The international community has a debt of gratitude towards the engagement of Egypt in the UN and in multilateralism that I would like to underline here today. 

To be in Cairo University, is also an occasion to pay tribute to the Egyptian and Arab history and culture and civilization. In this city you have a competitor, Al-Azhar University, and it’s important to recognize that when more than one thousand years ago when Al-Azhar University was founded, this area was a beacon of civilization in the world. 

In the middle ages, in the Iberian Peninsula from which I came, the Caliphate of Cordoba, was a much more civilized entity than the Christian kingdom of the north of the peninsual. This is something that Europeans have certain reluctance in recognizing, but I think it’s important to underline it here today in Cairo University. We Portuguese benefited a lot from the knowledge that came with the Arab and the Moorish presence in the Peninsula. With our irrigations systems, with innovations in navigation techniques, that to a large extent, supported the so called Portuguese discoveries that, for the good and for the bad, have shaped East-West relations for centuries. So there is a deep heritage of Arab culture and civilization that we Portuguese recognize and that the world should recognize and it’s important to pay tribute to it here in Cairo University. 

I will not forget that in my past capacity as High Commissioner for Refugees, discovering how deeply engaged is the Arab world and the Muslim world in the protection of refugees, I asked together with the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, Professor Ahmed Abu Al-Wafa of this university, to draft a very important book that we published on the roots of modern refugees law and Islamic law. And, what is extremely interesting, is that contrary to the prejudice that some have that refugee protection law was an invention after the Second World War, refugee protection was deeply rooted in the culture and in the tradition of the Muslim world. Since the very beginning, the most beautiful sentence about refugee protection, is as my good friend Hisham Badr, that was president of the UNHCR Committee for one year knows, very well, is a sentence that is in the Surah Al-Tawbah of the Holy Koran that says that protection should be granted to believers and non-believers. And for those that today attack Islam, considering it to be an intolerant religion, the truth is that in refugee protection it was very clear that it is a faith of tolerance, of solidarity, a faith of humanism that is important to recognize when we talk about Islam today. 

But, having said so, and expressing here my deep appreciation for this institution that, as it was said, it is also a pillar of enlightment in our global society, I would like to say a few words in the most important challenges that I believe we face and why I hope the role of youth will help us to cope with them. 

First, the challenge to peace. The challenge of conflict. When I was a student, I lived in a bipolar world: the cold war. There was not a global governance system, much less a democratic way, but rules were relatively clear. There were conflicts, it is true, but they tended to be predictable, and, to a certain extent limited. When things were going to get out of control, the two superpowers would intervene to put things back on track. Then, when I was in Government in my country, I lived in a period of unipolar world. Again, it was not a democratic governance system, but again the rules were clear and one superpower was able to, to a large extent, define international relations and control the way conflict would develop. Today, we no longer live in a bipolar or unipolar world, but we are not yet also in a multipolar world. We are kind in a chaotic world where power relations became unclear, where impunity and unpredictability tend to prevail and where conflicts multiply, new conflicts emerging everywhere and old conflicts seem never to die, be it in Somalia or Afghanistan or other parts of the world. And the truth is that these conflicts are now more and more interrelated. If one looks from Nigeria ,with Boko Haram, to Mali, to Libya, and then to Somalia, to Yemen, to Syria, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, all these conflicts are interlinked and they are also linked to a new threat of global terrorism. And it is good not to forget that probably the mother of these conflicts is probably in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, lasting for decades and decades without a solution, and the reason why, in a moment like this, it is important today to stress that in my opinion, and I believe in the opinion of the UN, the overwhelming majority of the membership, there is no plan B but the two-states solution and for that [it is necessary] to avoid all actions that undermine the possibility of the two-state solution. 

But in this complex world, in which we see this multiplication of conflicts, it’s important to say that even if the world would already be entirely multipolar, organized in an entirely multipolar order, that would not necessarily mean that it would be more peaceful. We have the experience of the multipolar region, Europe. Before the First World War, it was multipolar, but it had no multilateral governance mechanisms, and the result was the First World War. And that’s why it is so important not only to move progressively into truly multipolar world, but it’s important to build strong multilateral institutions, including the United Nations, that need to be supported and strengthened.

And here, is where I find my hope in the youth, because if one looks today in societies there is a trend for them to be closed on themselves, there is a trend for people to be more nationalistic, less and less open to the need to understand that global challenges need global responses, need multinational cooperation, need multilateral institutions. But on the contrary, usually young people are more cosmopolitan, more internationalists, more open. We do not see the expression in young peoples of the forms of xenophobia, or intolerance, or racism that are unfortunately now prevailing in many of our societies. We see young people reacting to this with new forms of interaction and solidarity and it is why I hope that new generations will be able to do what the present generation has not been able to do, to strengthen a democratic multilateral governance mechanism in order to allow for peace to prevail in our world.

A second challenge, I would like to underline is the following: if we look at the modern trends of populations growth, climate change, food insecurity, water scarcity, urbanization, movements of people, migrations, refugees, it is clear that all these mega trends are now interacting with each other, strengthening each other and they are causing more and more dramatic impact in our world. And in this context, it is important to recognize that climate change is the main accelerator. We have always had droughts and storms, but now droughts and storms are becoming more frequent, are becoming more intense and with more dramatic humanitarian consequences. Deserts have progressed and we are close to the Sahara, but now they progress more quickly and they undermine the possibility to have a human life and communities in larger and larger parts of the world forcing people to move also for natural disasters or the slow onset of droughts in many parts of the continent or the international community as a whole.

And so, when one sees these global megatrends interacting with each other and when we see climate change becoming the main accelerator, it is extremely worrying to see how difficult it is today to rally the international community in order to take all the appropriate actions to ensure that we take climate change as it was recognized by the Paris Agreements. And again, my hope is in the new generations. Probably many people from my generation think that well, when climate will change and I will no longer be there, but for young people the catastrophic consequences of climate change can come during their lifetime, and, at the same time, their commitment, their generosity, their interest in global affairs, I hope will drive new champions in fighting climate change and creating the conditions for the international community to unite in order to make sure that we are able to tame these dramatic impacts in our societies.

And then, allow me to say a few words in relation to a third challenge. Globalization and technological progress have indeed increased tremendously global wealth, they have contributed to the growth of trade, the growth of prosperity in many societies, and living conditions have improved also in many parts of the world; even extreme poverty has been reduced quiet substantially globally, but, at the same time, inequalities have also grown tremendously. 

Today, the eight richest persons in the world have the same amount of wealth that the poorest half of the global population has. This shown how unfair today’s global economy is. Unfair in the relations among countries, in which the divide, as it was said is increasing, but unfair also in the divide within each country, in which the gap between the richest and the poorest tends to increase and in which globalization and technological change works also as an accelerator of that increase gap. 

Well, in these circumstances it is very important to recognize that there are many people left behind and in many societies this generates a reaction against globalization, against free trade, against many of the aspects of the technological progress. We see in the rust belts of this world the expression of anger in relation to political establishment, [inaundible] no longer to be able to address the challenges that globalization has created to large parts of the population of a respective countries. We see a growing divorce between public opinion and governments, political establishments, in many circumstances we see referenda that are always won by the most extreme positions, and this lack of trust that is undermining the way governance works at global level is becoming a serious problem when we want to bring together people in order to face the challenges of the modern world. And again, this is an area where my faith and my hope is in the youth, in the new generations. When one looks at the pattern of votes, for instance in the Brexit referendum, it is very interesting to note that the young people voted more largely against Brexit than the older generations, which, to a certain extent creates a paradox, as in many situations, the older generations are defining the future of the younger generations. 

So there is here a central question for us all: believing that we are facing enormous challenges, believing that the best hope for those challenges is with the new generations, we need to make sure that we are able to strongly invest in those new generations. 

And this relates essentially to two questions, and I believe countries, the international community, the UN, need to be fully engaged in these two questions: the first has to do with youth unemployment.

I believe youth unemployment is today not only a terrible, terrible problem for those young people that see themselves without hope in the future, not only a terrible gap in relation to the development of countries, but it also became probably one of the worst threats to global peace and security.

Nothing [is] worse than a young man or a young woman that have graduated [from] a University to find no job, to have no hope and to have no expectations [for] the future; nothing [is] more easy for this frustration and this anger to be utilized by the propaganda of extremist organizations of different sorts. 

It can be Da’esh but it can be a populist xenophobic party in some parts of the world or, we have seen recently in one country, a terrible murder committed by a white supremacist. So we see extremism in different forms, in different ways. 

But the frustration generated in young people that have no hope in the future is a major source of insecurity in today’s world. And it is essential that when Governments plan their economic activities, when the international community develops forms of cooperation, it is essential to put youth employment, youth skills [at] the centre of all priorities, [at] the centre of all projects.

Unfortunately, this sometimes tends to be forgotten. And one way to avoid this to be forgotten is to bet strongly on the empowerment of young people. 

I am a strong believer in the philosophy of a German author called Habermas that tends to recognize that in modern societies, one of the key factors of progress is the permanent interaction between the political society and the civil society. In a way, this permanent interaction allows for the political society to take decisions that are different, based on this intercommunication.

Now, the truth is that we are seeing with new developments in technology information and communication more and more difficulties for political systems everywhere in the world to interact with their own population, to interact with their own societies. And this is where, I believe, the youth has a key role to play.

I myself am already a little old-fashioned in these new technologies but the youth is able to communicate in fantastic ways, to interact in fantastic ways. 

We need to adapt our institutions, we need to adapt our political establishments to be able to interact also in those ways, in order to have a capacity for our young people to have a say in the way we manage our countries, the way we manage our institutions, the way we manage our organizations, in order to make sure that the role of the youth, through their empowerment, can be determinant in the definition of our global objectives as an international community.

Here in Cairo University, and in a country with an extremely vibrant young population, it is important to say how much I believe that young population can contribute to making Egypt one of the leading countries not only in this part of the world but in the international community as a whole.

I would like to express again my deep gratitude for the role Egypt has been playing and to wish all the best [to] your country but to wish in particular all the best [to] all those students of this University, to encourage them to play a leading role in the construction of the future of this wonderful country and of this wonderful region.

Thank you very much.