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Opening remarks by UN in South Africa Resident Coordinator at UN-DIRCO Seminar on Human Rights Day

Ms. Nardos Bekele-Thomas, UN Resident Coordinator in South Africa

Programme Director,

Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation,

Director General of DIRCO,

Deputy Director General of DIRCO,

Leaders of other Government Departments in attendance,

Heads of United Nations Agencies and UN Colleagues,

Ladies and Gentlemen

I would like to thank the Department of International Relations and Cooperation for the unwavering support consistently demonstrated toward the UN and its work in South Africa.  We are highly appreciative of your leadership and goodwill towards the UN Development System in the country.

Today we come together in celebration of the United Nations. As you all know UN Day is officially commemorated annually on the 24th of October. In 2018 DIRCO graciously offered to use the occasion of UN Day to engage in dialogue on pertinent global issues. To this effect, in our debut discussion in 2019 we agreed to focus on the role of the United Nations in achieving global development, human rights, peace and security. Given the prevailing threat to multilateralism, we wanted to use the occasion to engage on how multilateralism can better and more effectively deliver on creating a better life for all in the global context.

Due to several reasons we could not convene the dialogue on the exact date of UN Day. But here we are at the insistence of our hosts to commemorate the first in a series of UN-Government dialogue. This gesture demonstrates the commitment of the Department of International Relations to constructive conversation aimed at strengthening the role of the United Nations in the country and beyond. We are very grateful for this support from a key member state of the United Nations.

We are convening today’s dialogue a day after International Anti-Corruption Day and on the day the world commemorates International Human Rights Day. With the many challenges confronting South Africa we know  corruption ranks as one of the most pertinent obstacles in South Africa’s development. The occasion of these two international days brings to the fore the nexus between corruption and human rights. This highlights the urgency of seeing the practice of corruption as a major human rights violation which impedes the realization of sustainable human development for all.


Minister, in preparation for next year’s commemoration of the UN, our discussions have been framed around four broad questions which could inform some of the global conversations on the UN@75, namely:

  1. How the multilateral system can be improved to be more responsive to the three pillars of human rights, development, peace and security.
  2. South Africa’s role in the UN Security Council and Human Rights Council – addressing the divisions within these two bodies and promoting inclusive dialogue and the pacific settlement of disputes.
  3. “The agenda of Leaving no one behind”- How do we address the growing domestic, regional and global inequalities? In this regard, how do we ensure the future the UN envisages for South Africa and the world is inclusive and equitable.
  4. South Africa’s development priorities and regional aspirations – how can a UN “fit for purpose” support the implementation of South Africa’s NDP and the SDGs?


We are fortunate to have very strong panelists who will be sharing some of their insights on some of these topics, and I am confident that their inputs will be able to assist us answer some of these very pressing questions.

At this point I would like to reflect on some of these issues which I hope the panelists will be able to build on.

It is worth reminding ourselves that when the United Nations was founded in 1945 one of the founding principles in the Charter was to “ achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”

Seventy four years later this founding principle of international cooperation in solving global problems remains relevant, although the context and complexities of development today reflect the unique challenges of our times.

But what are some of these challenges we are now confronted with, which require our collective response through  international cooperation?

  1. The number of countries with violent conflicts is the highest in the last thirty years and the number of people being killed in battle has increased ten times since 2005. Humanitarian needs associated with conflict have also increased substantially with the number of people forcibly displaced reaching a record of 65.6 million in 2017. These trends dictate the primacy of conflict prevention more than ever. A 2018 study, from Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University the U.S. wars and military action in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Pakistan have cost American taxpayers $5.9 trillion since they began in 2001. That total is almost $2 trillion more than all federal government spending during the recently completed 2017-18 fiscal year. The report also finds that more than 480,000 people have died as a direct result of fighting. Over 244,000 civilians have been killed. Another 10 million people have been displaced due to violence. Added to these are UN costs of peacekeeping. The approved budget for UN Peacekeeping operations for the fiscal year 1 July 2019 – 30 June 2020 is $6.5 billion. These are astronomical figures by any stretch of the imagination, which could have otherwise been directed towards meaningful development work.



  1. According to new estimates released by the United Nations the number of international migrants globally reached an estimated 272 million in 2019, an increase of 51 million since 2010. Currently, international migrants comprise 3.5 per cent of the global population, compared to 2.8 per cent in the year 2000. With regards to forced displacements across international borders, this continues to rise as well. Between 2010 and 2017, the global number of refugees and asylum seekers increased by about 13 million, accounting for close to a quarter of the increase in the number of all international migrants.  Northern Africa and Western Asia hosted around 46 per cent of the global number of refugees and asylum seekers, followed by sub-Saharan Africa (21%).


  1. Over the past several years, the terrorist threat environment facing many countries has evolved into something more dangerous and complicated than ever before, with implications for both international and domestic security. The threats from violent extremist groups have both multiplied and become more complex, facilitated by the advancement of communication technology such as the internet and social media platforms. Authorities have reason to be concerned, given that the terrorist threats from homegrown violent extremists of all ideological stripes have increased significantly. For example, of the 101 Islamic State-related indictments in the United States between March 2014 and June 2016, 78 defendants were U.S. citizens. Some of the drivers of this violent extremism include: Lack of socio-economic opportunities, which creates hopelessness; Marginalization and discrimination which dampens the spirit of belongingness and patriotism; Poor governance which undermines human rights and the rule of law. These are at times exacerbated by prolonged and unresolved conflicts, and radicalization in prisons.


  1. One of the most pressing issues of our time, climate change threatens the lives and livelihoods of billions of people. Natural disasters, environmental degradation and extreme weather patterns disrupt harvests, deplete fisheries, erode livelihoods and spur infectious diseases. Some effects come on suddenly, as when a typhoon of unprecedented force destroys entire communities. Others unfold over time. Persistent drought, for instance, destroys crops, leaving people without income or food. Demographic trends, migration and rapid urbanization converge with climate change, raising the stakes for those most vulnerable. Climate change is also a “threat multiplier.” The loss of land and livelihoods, against a backdrop of persistent poverty, displacement and other insecurities, can trigger a desperate competition for scarce natural resources and fuel social tensions.


These emerging issues are compounding on traditional challenges that the global community has been trying to respond to for decades, such as poverty, inequality, access and quality to essential social services such as education and health and many others. For example, 736 million people lived below the international poverty line of US$ 1.90 a day in 2015. In 2018, almost 8 per cent of the world’s workers and their families lived on less than US$1.90 per person per day. Most people living below the poverty line belong to two regions: Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. By 2030, 167 million children will live in extreme poverty if the world does not take action to improve health and education.

Minister, the nature of both the emerging global challenges and those we consider as traditional to development can not be solved by individual countries. No matter how resource endowed these countries are.

In this regard, the Secretary General of the United Nations convened a press conference at the beginning of 2019 to provide a briefing on a discussion with the General Assembly. To underscore the importance of multilateralism as an instrument of finding solutions to the global challenges I would like to extract some important points made by the SG. He says:

“As we look to the challenges we face — from climate change to migration to terrorism to the downsides of globalization — there is no doubt in my mind that global challenges require global solutions. No country can do it alone.  We need today multilateralism more than ever. But I am equally convinced that simply saying this will not make it happen. And simply dismissing or vilifying the doubters of multilateralism will lead nowhere. The truth is that many people around the world are not convinced of the power and purpose of international cooperation.  We need to understand why — and act on that understanding”.

From the SGs statement the value of multilateralism is well articulated, but what is more important is the acknowledgement that not all are convinced on this value. For those who continue to champion multilateralism as a plausible solution for the world’s challenges today, like South Africa, we need to work together in demonstrating its value.


Ladies and gentlemen, this is not just an abstract statement we make about the value of multilateralism. We see it in very concrete terms. Examples include the approval of the Paris Climate Agreement , a vital tool for fighting climate change. The adoption of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and the adoption of the Global Compact on Refugees. These are all products of a system of multilateralism concerned with finding workable solutions to some of the challenges I have cited above. Additional to these, there is on-going diplomacy for peace in the multiple conflict areas across the world.

All of these could not be achieved without the system of multilateralism.

South Africa is an important part of this multilateral system, making notable contributions to peace building and development in various parts of the world. Most importantly within the African continent. South Africa’s current membership of the Security Council as a non-permanent member for the period 2019 – 2020 must contribute to the further strengthen this valuable system of multilateralism. The combination of Chair of the AU and non-permanent member of the UN Security Council places South Africa in a prime position to advance important issues in the world agenda in 2020.

Minister, as I conclude please allow me to make some brief reflections on the work of the UN in South Africa. Last week the Government of South Africa and the UN in the country hosted a very successful 2 day consultation meeting on the programme of the UN in the country for the period 2020 – 2024. Largely guided by the on-going reform of the United Nations Development System, the design of the Cooperation Framework between the UN and the Government of South Africa is primarily intended to carve out the specific contribution of the UN to national efforts of implementing the NDP and the SDGs. In doing so, we are prioritising the operational reform of the UN towards a more integrated and coherent system in the country. Where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

We have noted from previous evaluations of UN work in the country the South African Government’s call for the UN to move towards delivery as one entity. We are confident that this Reform will deliver on this call. To this end, the Government’s ongoing support in realising the objectives of the reform in South Africa is highly appreciated. As we conclude the first year of the Reform and look forward to 2020, we must use todays discussion to consider how well we have implemented them in the country and what measures we need to put in place to ensure we strengthen what has been initiated.

I would like to thank DIRCO for hosting us today, the panellists for availing themselves for the various discussions and those in attendance. I am confident that we will have very fruitful discussions.

Thank you very much.