Speech by Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the United Nations General Assembly
Ladies and gentlemen,
This spring, after a year in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, we looked forward to the summer. We were full of hope and anticipation. Despite our concern for our loved ones and our economies, there was light at the end of the tunnel – thanks to the scientific community, which developed vaccines in record time, offering a way out of the crisis. Defeating the virus seemed like only a matter of time. The summer of 2021 would be the summer of freedom regained.
But in fact, it became a summer of worry. It’s true that, in the most affluent parts of the world, vaccination campaigns are well under way. And globally, vaccination coverage is growing by the day. But it’s not growing fast enough and it’s not growing everywhere. Not by any means. What’s more, the virus hit back, and the Delta variant took hold. The pandemic itself is far from over, let alone the long-term consequences of the crisis.
And there were other major concerns too. Different parts of the world were battered by extreme weather and devastating natural disasters. From heavy flooding in Africa, China and Western Europe, to forest fires in North America and the Mediterranean, and hurricanes in the Caribbean. Using hard science and clear statistics, the IPCC’s climate change report confirmed what we could see with our own eyes: climate change is happening now. It’s impacting us all. And it’s hitting us hard.
On top of all that, this summer a tragedy unfolded in Afghanistan. None of us will forget the heartbreaking images of the violence, the people trying to flee, the desperation and the humanitarian need. Right now it’s hard to predict the consequences of these recent developments, but I’m sure that, like me, you felt powerless and despondent. There was a sense of fighting a losing battle. A feeling that the negative forces are winning out over the positive. A fear that our efforts are futile.
I understand those feelings. But at the same time, I want to appeal to everyone here: let us not give in to cynicism and fatalism. That is my message today. Especially today. And especially here. This place, UN Headquarters, this beacon of international cooperation, has proved in the past that we can find solutions together. Even if our problems seem too big and too complex. You only have to think back to the start of the UN, over 75 years ago, when much of the world lay in ruins. At the very point when the world faced an impossible task, countries united and got to work.
And although the starting points are very different, we need the same approach now. As Secretary-General Guterres wrote in the latest report on Our Common Agenda, ‘In our biggest shared test since the Second World War, humanity faces a stark and urgent choice: a breakdown or a breakthrough. (…) The choice is ours to make; but we will not have this chance again.’
And so, ladies and gentlemen, it is up to us to make the right choices. I see it as our solemn duty to bring about that breakthrough. To work together on solutions to the major problems of our time. Together with people from all walks of life. Together with NGOs and businesses. For today’s generations and for generations to come.
Today I’d like to focus on three critical developments – three crises, in fact – which have dominated our attention this summer. First, the fight against coronavirus and the road to post-pandemic recovery. Second, the disruptive impact of the climate crisis and what we need to do in response. And third, the situation in Afghanistan.
Let me start with the most acute challenge we face: finding a way out of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have to realise how dependent we are on each other. Because the reality is that no one is safe until everyone is safe. COVID-19 will remain a threat for as long as a large part of the world is not fully vaccinated. So global solidarity is not simply the right thing to do. It’s the only thing we can do to end the pandemic.
To that end, we need to put all our effort into stepping up vaccine production and sharing the available doses fairly. So we can vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible. The Kingdom of the Netherlands is fully committed to that goal. We’ve contributed 147 million euros to the WHO’s ACT Accelerator, for example. And for every vaccine dose we administer in the Netherlands, we aim to give one away. By the end of the year, we hope to have donated over 20 million vaccines to countries in need via the COVAX programme.
Alongside the public health crisis, COVID-19 also led to a shadow pandemic. Staying at home under the lockdowns proved especially dangerous for women, as domestic violence increased dramatically. And more broadly, the most vulnerable sections of society are the ones who’ve been hit hardest by the crisis. The impact on young people, women and girls has been enormous. Young people couldn’t attend school, and faced other obstacles to their development. Many women lost their jobs in global supply chains like the clothing industry. What’s more, some governments have used anti-COVID measures as a pretext to restrict fundamental human rights, such as freedom of expression. Many human rights defenders and civil society organisations have suffered as a result.
Given all this, it’s essential that we work to achieve a socioeconomic recovery that benefits everyone. And that we get back on course to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. Together with the Paris goals, the SDGs are our guide towards a sustainable recovery in an uncertain world. To support that objective, the Kingdom of Netherlands has become the second-largest donor, after Norway, to the UN COVID-19 Response and Recovery Trust Fund to bolster countries’ socioeconomic resilience. And we’re supporting valuable initiatives like the Global Financing Facility, which aims to lessen the impact of the pandemic on sexual and reproductive health and rights.
In short, the breakthrough we need requires a two-track approach. One: getting the virus under control around the world. And two: working towards an economic recovery that benefits everyone, and is green and sustainable.
And that brings me to my second point. The disruptive impact of climate change. This is no longer a theoretical doomsday scenario. For many it is now a stark reality.
We felt it this summer. Every part of the world experienced extreme weather and devastating natural disasters that are clearly the result of climate change caused by humans. The Kingdom of the Netherlands wasn’t spared, either. The six low-lying islands of the Caribbean part of the Kingdom live with the constant threat of sea-level rise, drought and tropical hurricanes, as does much of the global South. In Europe, the Netherlands and its neighbours were hit by extreme rainfall this summer. Tranquil rivers transformed into raging torrents that destroyed everything in their path. Elsewhere in the world extreme temperatures had devastating impacts, including severe forest fires that forced many people to flee their homes.
Clearly, we need to collectively embrace climate action. And we need to do it fast. So it’s more vital than ever that the COP26 summit in November succeeds. Together, we must find a way to reduce harmful emissions to net zero by 2050. And we must keep the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees within reach. We can’t allow political tensions between countries to get in the way of achieving those goals. We can’t saddle our future generations with the problem.
And limiting emissions is not the only challenge. Climate adaptation is at least as important. Because the impact of climate change is already a threat – one we have to arm ourselves against now.
For the Kingdom of the Netherlands, this is not new. For centuries we have been battling the elements – from North Sea floods to Caribbean storms. Climate adaptation is in our DNA. That’s why we hosted the online Climate Adaptation Summit at the start of this year. An event which saw the launch of the Adaptation Action Agenda, which aims to turn words into deeds.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands understands that we not only need to get our own house in order, but we also have to help others do the same.
So we are providing expertise and financial support to protect vulnerable areas against the elements. We are increasing our public climate finance and supporting Secretary-General Guterres’ call to spend at least half of it on adaptation. In fact, in recent years the Kingdom of the Netherlands has spent almost 70 per cent of its public climate finance on adaptation.
Of course, it’s not a matter of ‘either/or’. We need to step up our efforts on both adaptation and mitigation. And help each other to do so. We’re all facing the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat. That means developed countries have a responsibility to help developing countries take the necessary measures. Only together can we turn things around.
And lastly, ladies and gentlemen, this summer we saw a tragedy unfold in Afghanistan. The situation is desperate. We cannot abandon the millions of Afghans who need urgent humanitarian aid and whose rights are being trampled. Especially the rights of women, girls and minorities. Various UN organisations are doing all they can to provide that aid. The people of the UN are our eyes and ears on the ground. And even more important: they’re the helping hands reaching out to those who need aid, and protecting the weakest in society.
We must support and facilitate that good work. To that end, at the donor conference on the 13th of September the Netherlands pledged an extra 13.5 million euros for the Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund and the Regional Refugee Preparedness and Response Plan. The people of the world, and the Afghan people in particular, are counting on the UN.
Over the past 20 years the international community, including my country, has worked very hard in Afghanistan. Many countries, together with the UN and the Afghan people, have tried to ensure a better future for all Afghans. One where everyone has opportunities, regardless of their gender, ethnicity or beliefs. And it’s important to note that we’ve definitely taken steps in the right direction.
The Netherlands would like to express our thanks and appreciation to all the military personnel, diplomats, and aid workers, and of course the many brave and driven Afghans themselves, who made that possible. And we will never forget the many people, including 25 Dutch military personnel, who paid the ultimate price. Thanks to their courage and commitment, a generation has grown up in Afghanistan with better opportunities: child mortality fell by 60 per cent, more girls and women were able to get an education, and life expectancy rose by 16 years.
These are figures that matter. But the harsh reality is that we have to pause those efforts now. The question is whether all the hard work of the past 20 years will be undone by the recent developments. It’s too soon to tell. There are still many possible outcomes for Afghanistan. But we must be mindful of the Taliban’s track record. Whatever happens, we will continue working to push developments in Afghanistan in the right direction, however difficult that may seem right now.
Because ultimately, we have to keep defending the international legal order and universal human rights – in Afghanistan, and around the world.
For the Kingdom of the Netherlands, this is especially true in the context of the downing of flight MH17. Together with the other countries of the Joint Investigation Team, we are still doing all we can to ensure that justice is done. At the moment, family members of the victims are getting the opportunity to share their stories in court.
And the emotional impact of that is enormous. One of them said: ‘we will never be able to come to terms with our loss as long as those responsible refuse to accept responsibility.’ So, once again, I call on all countries to cooperate fully with the investigation, in line with Security Council resolution 2166. So that justice is served and responsibility accepted.
Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
In recent months we have been confronted with our own vulnerability, and that of the world around us. I began my remarks by urging you not to give in to cynicism and fatalism. Because, as the philosopher Karl Popper once wrote, ‘We are all responsible for what the future holds in store.
Thus it is our duty not to prophesy evil but, rather, to fight for a better world.’ Please be assured that the countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands will continue working with full conviction to that end.
Together with you.