Human Rights

These are the UN's 7 priorities for 2023, according to Secretary-General António Guterres

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The UN has a number of priorities for 2023. Image: Ilyass SEDDOUG/Unsplash

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Human Rights

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  • United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, has outlined seven priorities for the intergovernmental organization in 2023, providing a ‘roadmap’ for human rights.
  • They include the New Agenda for Peace, women's rights and a Code of Conduct for information integrity.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report has found the interconnected nature of global risks threatens a polycrisis.

“The Doomsday Clock is a global alarm clock. We need to wake up - and get to work.”

This was the stark warning given by United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres in his speech to the General Assembly in February.

In January, the atomic scientists who created the clock in 1947 as a way to measure how close humanity was to self-destruction, said we now have just 90 seconds to ‘midnight’ - the closest we’ve ever been to destroying ourselves due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, nuclear proliferation and the climate crisis.

It came just weeks after the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2023 found that the interconnected nature of global risks threatens a “polycrisis” - where “the overall impact exceeds the sum of each part”.

The cost-of-living crisis was identified by 1,200 risk experts as the most severe short-term risk, whereas the failure to mitigate the climate crisis was the most significant long-term risk.

Top 10 Global Risks. UN priorities for 2023
The global risks landscape over the short and long term. Image: Global Risks Report 2023

Top priorities for the UN in 2023

“The good news is that we know how to turn things around - on climate, on finance, on conflict resolution,” said Guterres, outlining the UN’s priorities for 2023 and calling for decision-makers to commit to a long-term vision to benefit people and planet.

“My message today comes down to this: Don’t focus solely on what may happen to you today – and dither. Look at what will happen to all of us tomorrow – and act.”

1. The right to peace: A New Agenda for Peace

This December marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the UN General Assembly proclaimed in Paris. It set out a common standard for all peoples and nations for the first time - recognizing human rights as the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”.

Guterres said we need to take inspiration from the Declaration - his first priority for the year was protecting the right to peace, especially for the two billion people living in countries affected by conflict and humanitarian crises.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine is inflicting untold suffering on the Ukrainian people, with profound global implications … I fear the world is not sleepwalking into a wider war. I fear it is doing so with its eyes wide open.”

The UN’s proposed New Agenda for Peace includes a focus on investing in prevention to avoid conflict arising, as well as greater participation from women and younger people.

Guterres said it must address “threats, old and new” - from the 13,000 nuclear weapons in the world to cyberattacks on civilian infrastructure.

2. Social and economic rights and the right to development

“Something is fundamentally wrong with our economic and financial system,” said Guterres, listing growing global inequalities.

“The global financial architecture does not need a simple evolution; it needs a radical transformation. It is time for a new Bretton Woods moment.”

In 1944, delegates from 44 countries met in the US to create a new international monetary system - the Bretton Woods system - designed to aid post-war reconstruction. It was when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and what would become the World Bank were established.

Guterres said to meet the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, we need to “place the dramatic needs of developing countries at the centre of every decision and mechanism of the global financial system”.

3. The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment

“We must end the merciless, relentless, and senseless war on nature,” said Guterres, declaring that 2023 is a “year of reckoning” that must be one of “game-changing climate action”.

The two urgent priorities are cutting emissions and achieving climate justice, he added.

To meet the target of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5°C or below, compared with pre-industrial levels, businesses, investors and cities need more ambitious pledges.

“If you cannot set a credible course for net zero, with 2025 and 2030 targets covering all your operations, you should not be in business.”

In September, Guterres will convene a Climate Ambition Summit ahead of COP28 in November. He invited leaders from business, government and civil society to develop new, ambitious net-zero plans.

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4. Respect for diversity and universality of cultural rights

“Culture is humanity’s heart and soul. It gives our lives meaning,” said Guterres, warning that universal cultural rights are being attacked and cultural differences are being “weaponized”.

He called for action by those with influence to stem the spread of misinformation and disinformation online: “Stop the hate. Set up strong guardrails. Be accountable for language that causes harm.”

The UN is convening stakeholders around a Code of Conduct for information integrity on digital platforms.

“We will also further strengthen our focus on how mis- and disinformation are impacting progress on global issues – including the climate crisis,” Guterres added.

5. The right to full gender equality

Progress towards gender parity has stalled in the past few years, with the time taken to close the global gender gap growing from 100 years pre-pandemic to 132 years in 2022, according to the Forum’s Global Gender Gap report.

“Gender equality is both a fundamental human right, and a solution to some of our greatest global challenges,” said Guterres.

“But half of humanity is held back by the most widespread human rights abuse of our time.”

He noted the situation for women in Afghanistan and Iran but added: “Gender discrimination is global, chronic, pervasive and holds every single country back.”

“Gender equality is a question of power,” he said. “The patriarchy, with millennia of power behind it, is reasserting itself.

“The United Nations is fighting back and standing up for the rights of women and girls everywhere.”

He outlined measures the UN is taking to close gaps in women’s representation, both inside and outside the organization.

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6. Civil and political rights as the basis of inclusive societies

Civil rights are “vanishing”, warned Guterres, with the number of journalists killed growing by 50% over the past year.

“Freedom of expression and participation in political life are the essence of democracy and strengthen societies and economies,” said Guterres.

“But in many parts of the world, these rights are under threat as democracy is in retreat. The pandemic was used as cover for a pandemic of civil and political rights violations.

“Repressive laws restrict the freedom to express opinions. New technologies often provide excuses and methods to control freedom to assemble and even freedom of movement.”

As part of Guterres’ Call to Action for Human Rights, the UN is working to protect civic space across the globe and strengthening its support for laws and policies that protect the “right to participation and the right to freedom of expression, including a free and independent media”.

7. The rights of future generations

Governments have a “basic responsibility” to uphold the rights of future generations, said Guterres.

A new UN Youth Office is being set up this year, and in September 2024, the UN will hold a Summit of the Future in New York, bringing together the public and private sectors, civil society and young people to discuss the theme ‘Multilateral Solutions for a Better Tomorrow’.

Guterres said the Summit must bring the rights of future generations to the forefront of the global discussion – “making peace with nature; ensuring an open, free, inclusive digital future for all – a Global Digital Compact; eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction; and building more just and inclusive governance.”

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