Africa Renewal: In 2019 you were elected by acclamation to preside over the 74th session of the UN General Assembly. As your tenure comes to an end in 2020, how has the journey been?
Prof. Muhammad-Bande: Well, it's a big question. Obviously, the very fact that most meetings are now held virtually suggests the change in the way things are being done. It was not the intention of any of us to be in this situation.
During the initial months of my tenure, things were conducted in the traditional way - we met in the Assembly Hall to take decisions and traveled to countries to conduct activities connected to the work of the General Assembly in particular and the United Nations in general.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, several things are clear. The vulnerability of all of us—rich and poor—and of course the prime importance of common approaches of solidarity in relation to urgent matters of transportation, communication, education and health.
At the beginning of your presidency of the GA, you said your priorities would be poverty eradication, quality education, and inclusion. What are some of your successes so far and what challenges did you face?
Let me talk of education. We know how important education for all is and people are very concerned that it has now been interrupted. We worry about how these interruptions have been mitigated in some countries, and not in others, suggesting the need to deal with the technological divide, which is also related to poverty.
Fighting poverty was also my priority as the President of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly. To push it to the front burner, I recently launched the Poverty Eradication Alliance to serve as a one-stop networking, information sharing and bridge-building centre. The Alliance will pull together all the factors and interests in poverty eradication and provide a mechanism for interrogating the poverty challenge from all possible, or at least, multi-disciplinary, angles. There is no amount of time and attention given to poverty eradication that is too much.
This is important because in our view, probably one half of the world’s problems would be solved if we address the poverty.
I also launched the Financial Accountability Transparency and Integrity (FACTI) Panel, together with the then President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Ambassador Mona Juul of Norway. This initiative is a response to the problem of the financing gap in relation to the implementation of the SDGs. It invites Member States to give appropriate consideration to the importance of combatting illicit financial flows and strengthening good practices on assets return to foster sustainable development. No one is immune from this scourge: these gaps or other leakages to government revenues have real consequences in all countries, from developing to developed. So, the panel will generate ideas and recommendations that Member States can get behind. It will also open up the conversation; and find ways to accelerate progress.
The disruptions in tourism, transportation, and many other economic activities also have shown the urgency to give support, especially to countries that, even before the pandemic, were struggling.
Overall, we succeeded in ensuring business continuity at the UN General Assembly during this unprecedented time due to COVID-19. This required leadership, hard work and constant consultation and collaboration with Member States and the UN Secretariat.
This coordination enabled the UN General Assembly to take crucial decisions to ensure the continuity of work of peacekeeping missions. For instance, during this period, it adopted a decision approving the budget of the United Nations Africa Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID).
Also, we were able to successfully hold the elections of the UN Security Council (UNSC), the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the incoming President of the General Assembly via an unprecedented virtual format and on schedule.
What about the issue of inclusion?
In whatever you do, people need to be included, not only because of their right as individual human beings, but also for the contribution that they can make, when included. Be it inclusion in relation to gender or in relation to poverty or those who are marginalized because of race or a disability.
I think the hallmark of the modern world must be the issue of inclusion, of rights of individuals to dignity, the right to have a life that is meaningful for them.
So, inclusion is, again, something that must be there in whatever aspect we do, whether we are dealing with issues of peace, education, or any other element. Inclusion is key.