Former UN General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa-Garcés on the Future we Must Choose

An interview by Laura McDermott  for The Beam. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.


 

The Beam: Ms. Espinosa-Garcés, it is an honor to be speaking with you today for The Beam. We are so grateful that you have given us your time and your voice in this very special interview.

The theme of your UN General Assembly Presidency was “Making the United Nations Relevant to All People: Global Leadership and Shared Responsibilities for Peaceful, Equitable and Sustainable Societies.” How did you implement this during your year as president? We are particularly interested in the mention of “sustainable societies” here, please tell us about the steps that you took to establish greener communities worldwide.

Ms. Espinosa-Garcés: The overarching theme of my presidency was to make the United Nations relevant to everyone. The only way to do this was to bring the organization closer to the people. In consultation with Member States and civil society, I selected seven priorities: migrants and refugees; youth, peace and security; empowering persons with disabilities; decent work and the future of work; gender equality and women in power; the strengthening and revitalizing of the UN; climate and environmental action with a spotlight on beating plastic pollution.

The leitmotif was of course to steer dialogue, commitment and action on the Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2030. This effort involves not only dialogue and awareness but more importantly, behavioral changes. I visited every region, 33 countries. I met not only with government officials, but visited UN field projects and connected with academia, journalists, youth groups and NGOs. We engaged new audiences with strong communications and outreach.

An example is perhaps our global campaign to beat plastic pollution which gathered the attention and active involvement of thousands! We were able to ban single-use plastics in UN premises and to support and encourage restrictive legislation in Caribbean countries and many other parts of the world.

 

© Xavier Granja Cedeño - Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador. © Xavier Granja Cedeño - Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador.

 

The plastic pollution campaign that you headed is actually something I would like to speak about a little later in the interview. 

But next, you were the first female representative of Latin America and the Caribbean to become UN General Assembly president and the fourth woman since the formation of the council in the 73 years prior. It has been proven that female parliamentarians are more likely to pass certain legislation, such as that which is in favour of improving health issues, social security or the quality of education for our youth. Leading from this, why are our female leaders so crucial when it comes to acting on the climate crisis specifically – at both local and international levels?

The shorthand for that question is that we need more women in power. The quality of democracy, the effectiveness and sustainability of peace processes and negotiations, investment in social protection networks; health care, wiser and greener policy decisions depend on having more women parliamentarians, decision-makers, heads of state and government. There are countless studies, hard data, proving that women in leadership can have a strong and transformative impact.

Regarding climate change specifically, we know that the adverse impacts of this existential threat affect the livelihoods, the economic security and the rights of women and girls. If we look at the number of climate refugees, of impacts on food security, the numbers are staggering. There are always more women. Just as an example, extreme weather events such as droughts and floods have a greater impact on the poor and most vulnerable – 70% of the world’s poor are women.

But women and girls are not only victims. They can be agents of change. Just recently, the Gender Action Plan was adopted during the COP25 in Madrid. Focusing on 5 key areas of work to enhance gender-responsive climate action and advance women’s leadership in the climate agenda. This Action Plan wasn’t the making since the Paris Agreement and believe me it wouldn’t have been possible without the drive and leadership of so many women, the feminist movement, first row, and it is good to mention some names, so they are not forgotten. Laurence Tubiana, Cristiana Figueres, Patricia Espinosa, Mary Robinson, Martha Delgado, Myrna Cunningham, Teresa Ribera, and so many others. And at the grassroots level, let´s take Hindou Oumarou for example, she is from a pastoralist community in Chad and has brought the voice from one of hardest hit countries of the world,  to international negotiations. When it comes to food security and health care at the community level, in most cases, women are in charge.

 

"Leadership is sorely needed, but it has to come from the whole of society. It is not only governments, or messianic leaders but social activists, women, journalists, opinion-makers, scientists and indigenous leaders."

 

All four female leaders of the UN General Assembly have also been women from the Global South. It has been argued that the women of these regions have a deeper connection with the environment. 

In 2012, at the fifty-sixth session of the Commission on the Status of Women, you promoted the adoption of the resolution titled “Indigenous women: key actors in poverty and hunger eradication.” Can you tell us a little more about this resolution?

I vividly recall that resolution. I was the Minister of Natural and Cultural Heritage of Ecuador. CSW had to recognize the invaluable contribution of women, especially rural and indigenous women to the eradication of poverty and hunger. Let´s recall that about 1.5 billion women live in extreme poverty, and most of them live in rural areas. Indigenous women are inextricably connected to the production of food and the protection of livelihoods. Additionally, indigenous women possess traditional knowledge that is critical not only to find solutions to food security but also to the management and conservation of ecosystems. Indigenous women play a critical role in managing households and communities and generating income. The idea was not only the acknowledgement but more importantly, the call to action from governments to boost public investment and affirmative action policies to benefit indigenous women.

 

 © UNCTAD photo by Violaine Martin. World Investment Forum 2018. © UNCTAD photo by Violaine Martin. World Investment Forum 2018.

 

Going back to single-use plastics, they are now known to be not only one of the biggest polluters of our oceans but unwelcome inhabitants of our own physical makeup. Tell us about the plastic pollution campaign – aforementioned – that you initiated during your time in office and the impact that the project had. Where does this movement now find itself?

Plastics are one of the top pollution challenges that we face. Since 1950, more than 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been produced in the world. We have seen heartbreaking images of plastics in animal bodies, oceans, and now we know that we, humans, have microplastics in our bodies. Oceans, ecosystems, animals, are being killed by plastics. Our campaign aimed at fostering awareness, encouraging governments to take bold actions to ban single-use plastics. And we succeeded. We organized an incredible concert sponsored by Norway and Antigua and Barbuda called “Play it Out” that attracted more than 10.000 people and nearly 400 million social media impressions. We were successful in eliminating single-use plastics from the UN premises, not only in NY but in Geneva and Vienna. Nairobi was the pioneer. We signed the St. John´s Declaration: the Caribbean Plastic Action Plan. We teamed up with Antigua and Barbuda, Norway, National Geographic, Monaco, Qatar, the Lonely Whale Foundation, among many others.

 

© Inter-American Dialogue © Inter-American Dialogue

 

It is an undeniable fact that Climate Migrants, particularly Climate Refugees are rapidly growing in numbers around the world as natural disasters and extreme weather conditions worsen. What would be your message to world leaders on dealing with this humanitarian crisis? How does their rhetoric come into play with this issue?

Climate refugees are growing exponentially. Climate Action is sorely needed. We cannot even think about COVID-19 recovery, or sustainable development, or fighting poverty and inequality if we do not address climate change. Science is clear, the knowledge, the technologies are  there. We need the political drive, the audacity, the responsibility. We know that to decarbonize, to boost our mitigation commitments will pay off. The COVID19 recovery packages that countries are putting together are opportunities to build back better and should consider green jobs, green production. This is why the World Future Council, of which I am a member, urged global leaders to take immediate targeted and multilateral action to rebuild a resilient and just post-pandemic world. We published a statement in May because we thought – and still think – it’s a missed opportunity if we don’t work for a greener recovery, through smart public investment, greener infrastructure, greener public policies.

 

© UNCTAD photo by Violaine Martin. World Investment Forum 2018 Opening © UNCTAD photo by Violaine Martin. World Investment Forum 2018 Opening

 

“Leaving nobody behind” is often a statement attributed to refugees within the climate crisis, however it was also one of the ‘key asks’ of the UNC2030 Co-Chairs – a panel that you are on – when addressing world leaders in relation to COVID-19. It wouldn’t be an interview of the current times we are living in if I didn’t ask you about the pandemic. How do you think we, as humans of the Earth, should recover from this horrific virus? What can we learn from it?

The COVID-19 pandemic is teaching us so many lessons: the first one is that we are all vulnerable, frail, and interdependent. We need a robust public health and education systems. Both are critical to enhance preparedness and a stronger response capacity when facing any catastrophic scenario. And, that’s something we addressed in the above-mentioned statement, we urgently need a strong and efficient multilateral system, we need global leadership, collective action and shared responsibilities in support of current and future generations. Because the virus knows no boundaries, and neither does climate change.

COVID-19 has had a magnifying glass effect. It has put in the spotlight poverty and inequalities. The most affected are of course: persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, refugees and internally displaced persons. Women deserve a special analysis. There is a paradox. We see a wise response capacity of women heads of State and Government and an incredible strength of health care providers that are 70% women, but at the same time, women are  suffering greater domestic violence, especially in zones of war and conflict. The workload for women has increased, because of homeschooling and domestic responsibilities. Unemployment is affecting more women than men.

Therefore, women have to be front and center of the responses to the pandemic. The  post-COVID plans have to be holistic, addressing the full package social, economic, environmental, political, at the same time.

Unilateral, “go it alone” responses are insufficient to address a global crisis of the proportions of the current pandemic. We need strong and efficient global governance.

And… the pandemic is not over yet! So, first response with prevention, care treatment testing, is still urgent and necessary.

This crisis is an opportunity to fight indifference, selfishness, and greed. It is an opportunity to build a new common sense and a new social contract that will work for all, for people and our planet.

 

© Valencia City Council. Joan Ribó, Mireia Mollà and Maria Fernanda Espinosa participate in the celebration of World Food Day 2019 © Valencia City Council. Joan Ribó, Mireia Mollà and Maria Fernanda Espinosa participate in the celebration of World Food Day 2019

 

The youth are stirring up the status quo when it comes to climate and have been now for several years. Where do you see the youth standing in this movement?

Youth are central, not only for climate action. Youth are key actors in the shaping of a new and better society. Their role as peacemakers, peace mediators, activists, influencers, etc. is critical. Youth engagement should not be tokenistic. We have to be careful. Youth engagement and participation should be meaningful, real, they should be heard and have a seat at the decision-making table. The future of work, of sustainability, of climate resilience, is in their hands. I am a strong believer in the power of intergenerational action. Children, youth, the elders, everybody has a role to play.

 

"We need more women in power. The quality of democracy, the effectiveness and sustainability of peace processes and negotiations, investment in social protection networks[...]. There are countless studies, hard data, proving that women in leadership can have a strong and transformative impact."

 

D.A.R.E. is an acronym that guided you during your presidency: standing for delivery, accountability, relevance, and efficiency. How did you apply this guide when it came to decision making around the climate crisis?

D.A.R.E should not be applied only to climate action, but to politics, to the multilateral system, to civil societies agency. We have to be serious about reconnecting to peoples’ needs, to respond  to their anxiety and fear. To listen more, to understand better. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a violent wake-up call. Leadership is sorely needed, but it has to come from the whole of society. It is not only governments, or messianic leaders but social activists, women, journalists, opinion-makers, scientists and indigenous leaders. We all have a role to play in building a new social contract between society, the economy, politics and nature.