Let’s face it, many speeches from world leaders at the 2019 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) probably will not make the history books. But the inspiring oratory of many other attendees will and should.
Across the week, inside the UN and outside, a huge and diverse array of speakers proved themselves to be leaders. From the gut-wrenching passion of ‘how dare you,’ to a surprisingly personal moment from a Prime Minister, to impassioned arguments about the ecological expertise of indigenous communities, here are seven speeches that moved and mobilized us. We know there are many others, but want to share these with you.
(Note: We’ve edited some for length and clarity, and provided a link in case you want to watch the whole thing – they’re worth it!)
Youth Climate Activist Bruno Rodriguez: ‘Power will cede nothing without struggle’
Bruno Rodriguez, a 19-year-old Argentine climate activist from the group Jovenes por el clima Argentina, was one of the first speakers at the Youth Climate Summit, inspiring and demanding action:
“Power will cede nothing without struggle, and that is why we decided to fight in the streets, alongside the working-class people of our country and marginalized communities. … Many times, we hear that our generation is going to be the one dealing with the problems that current leaders have created. We will not wait passively to become that future.
“The time is now for us to be leaders and that is why we are here: to lead. My message to the Secretary-General is simple: Let’s stop demanding world leaders listen to science. Let’s start demanding them to act on science!”
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres: ‘We, the leaders, must deliver for we, the peoples’
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivered a powerful speech to world leaders in the main hall of the General Assembly. He gave a stirring defense of the need for international cooperation to solve our shared challenges, and he reminded world leaders why they are in power in the first place:
“We are living in a world of disquiet. A great many people fear getting trampled, thwarted, left behind. Machines take their jobs. Traffickers take their dignity. Demagogues take their rights. Warlords take their lives. Fossil fuels take their future.
“And yet people believe in the spirit and ideas that bring us to this hall. They believe in the United Nations. But do they believe in us? Do they believe as leaders, we will put people first? Because we, the leaders, must deliver for we, the peoples.”
Indigenous Climate Activists: ‘Don’t talk about the future of us without us.’
At the Social Good Summit, indigenous climate activists stated simply but forcefully that traditional communities possess deep-seated knowledge of how to protect the natural world – and should be listened to.
The speakers included Amy Cordalis, General Counsel for the Yurok tribe of Northern California, and Hindou Oumar Ibrahim, a UN SDG Advocate and member of a nomadic tribe from Lake Chad, 90% of whose waters have evaporated in the past decades, even though 30 million people subsist on its shores. Their logic is simple; their loss tragic.
Amy: “In the Yurok creation story…the creator made the land and the waste and the animals, and the plants, and then made humans. And told the people if you live in balance with all of this you will never want for anything. And for thousands and thousands of years, that’s how Yurok people lived. …
“With that great privilege of being close to the land and benefiting from the land, we also have an obligation to protect the land, and to see the land as a part of ourselves. … [That’s when] you realize that if you use that plastic bottle, if you pollute, if you use that toxic chemical, if you consume, consume, consume, your actions are actually harming yourself.”
Hindou: “In all developed countries, when you wake up in the morning, you check your phone to see the weather forecast. If it’s going to be cold, you have your jacket; rainy, you have an umbrella; sunny, sunglasses. Let me give you my grandmother’s app. She observes trees, she observes cloud movement, wind directions, and she can tell you if it’s going to rain in the next couple of hours. She can predict for you if the next year is going to be a good year, like a rainy season or not, because her life depends on it.
“The food that she gives to her children depends on this season. … She has to look to the environment to give her the information so she can predict the health of her family. So my grandmother is better than the app that we have. An indigenous grandmother does not need electricity, she doesn’t need the internet, but she can tell you exactly. Why? Because she lives in harmony with Mother Earth. Indigenous peoples can help in the climate movement, but we need to be at the table to take decisions. Don’t talk about the future of us without us.”
World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus: ‘Our vision is not health for some’
The head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, reminded leaders gathered at the summit on Universal Health Coverage that, through the Sustainable Development Goals, they all signed up to provide affordable health care for everyone, everywhere:
“Ultimately health is a political choice. A choice that you have the power to make. WHO is committed to supporting every country’s transition to a health system based on strong primary health care…a world in which health is not a cost but an investment, a world in which health propels sustainable development, a world in which all of us enjoy the health we deserve.
“Our vision is not health for some. It’s not health for most. It’s health for all. Poor and rich. Able and disabled. Old and young. Urban and rural. Citizen and refugee. Everyone everywhere. Because health is an end in itself, because it’s a fundamental right and also a means to prosperity.”
Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel: ‘Homosexuality is not a choice’
Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel spent much of his General Assembly speech laying out the country’s commitment to tackling climate change and to being carbon neutral by 2050, as well as his country’s support for international cooperation across issues including the Iran nuclear deal, migration, gender-based violence, and conflict and human rights.
But it was his comments on equality that win him a spot on our list, especially as Prime Minister Bettel is the first openly gay national leader to address LGBTQ rights at the UN General Assembly. He said:
“In 2020, we will mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing conference, which set up the Commission on the Status of Women, the CSW. I’m asking myself whether in today’s world we’d be able to re-sign that convention…particularly when listen to the words coming from some quarters with regards to the rights of women.
“You can make the same charge about the rights of people to freely live out the expression of their sexual orientation. The day before yesterday here in New York I headlined a debate about hate speech targeting LGBTI people. As we are all aware, or we ought to be aware, homosexuality is not a choice. Let it be accepted that this is how people are. What is a choice is homophobia, and we should not tolerate it.”
Founder of SheSays Trisha Shetty: ‘We’re laughing to make sense of this madness’
2020 marks one third of the way through the 15-year timeline to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals, and as a recent UN report underlines, there has been some progress but we remain off track to meet the global goals. We have a decade to deliver for people and planet.
The UN Foundation is working with several other organizations to make 2020 a super year of activism and to build the biggest coalition to demand, implement, and accelerate action to kickstart the final decade of delivery. During the UN General Assembly, we and our partners hosted an event at the UN to announce our efforts – stay tuned for more on that.
Opening that event, Trisha Shetty, Indian activist and founder of SheSays, which works to stop gender discrimination in India, transported us to her country to remind us why we must do more to reach those left furthest behind:
“A few months ago, I was in Assam, a state up northeast in India, doing a field trip, going from village to village. …. [I went] to meet women in those communities, to understand their challenges, and how they are hustling to get stuff done. Most of these women live below the poverty line, barely making a few cents a day, complaining about how a lot of the men are prone to alcohol addiction, not carrying their weight.
“They told me a story. They have one ambulance there. And every time someone is sick, they put the person in the ambulance. But the ambulance is barely functioning, and the roads are terrible. So what they do is they put the person in the ambulance and then 10 people surround the ambulance and physically push the ambulance with the hope that the ambulance will kickstart and get the person to the hospital. And they all laughed. And I laughed. And it took me a minute to realize we’re laughing to make sense of this madness.
“The reason I am sharing this with you is I want you to for a brief minute think of your community, think of your people, because those are my people. I made a commitment to them, to make sure their struggles are heard, to make sure they have access to their fundamental rights. Because currently they are being deprived of access to their fundamental rights.”
Youth Climate Activist Greta Thunberg: ‘How dare you?’
We saved Greta Thunberg’s powerful speech for last because it seemed to underline the anger, passion, and urgency of many other speakers throughout the week, and because a movement is about more than one person – and we think she would agree. At the Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit, Greta’s powerful admonition to world leaders started with a promise – and a warning: “We are watching.”
“How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. …You are still not mature enough to tell it like it is. You are failing us. But young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you and if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with us.
“Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up and change is coming whether you like it or not.”