Magazine article UN Chronicle

A Time for Bold Reforms

Magazine article UN Chronicle

A Time for Bold Reforms

Article excerpt

When the United Nations was born in 1945, I was six years old. The world was emerging from the horrors of the Second World War and Norway was reasserting and re-establishing its democracy after five long years of Nazi occupation. By the time I was ten, my family was living in New York and I was proud and keenly aware that a fellow Norwegian, Trygve Lie, had become the first Secretary-General of the United Nations. Little did I know then that I would also have a long involvement with the Organization.

Over the past 35 years, I have had the honour and privilege to serve on various United Nations commissions and panels, as well as to head one of its flagship agencies. I have seen many positive United Nations-led initiatives which have helped to promote peace, democracy and human rights, improve living conditions and protect the environment, to name a few.

However, now, more than ever, the relevance of the United Nations is at a crossroads. There have been profound shifts of power and wealth in the world since the Organization was established. Of the 193 Member States of the United Nations today, nearly three quarters were not members in 1945.

The purpose of the United Nations is greater than trying to maintain peace and security among nations; it is also to help humanity solve the economic, social, humanitarian and environmental problems facing us.


As a young Minister of the Environment in the 1970s, I witnessed not only the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), but also the United Nations itself engaging Governments in addressing key concerns and challenges. In 1976, my work with the Ministry of the Environment brought me to Vancouver, Canada, for the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, and a year later, in 1977, to Mar del Plata, Argentina, for the United Nations Water Conference. I also travelled to Nairobi, where the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was established after the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972.

My first role serving the United Nations was in 1983 when Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar invited me to establish and chair the World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Commission considered the intertwined challenges of environmental degradation, poverty and population growth. The Commission, which is best known for developing the broad political concept of sustainable development, published its report Our Common Future in April 1987.

This report placed environmental issues firmly on the political agenda, and presented them not in isolation, but as intrinsically linked to development and as a right for all people and nations, thus recognizing their interdependence. The recommendations by the Commission led to the Earth Summit--the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

We have come a long way since the publication of the report more than 25 years ago. Indeed, great strides have been made since the launch of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000. We have dramatically reduced the proportion of people living in extreme poverty. More people have access to safe drinking water. Fewer children are dying in infancy.

However, even a cursory glance will show that while some in the world are experiencing unprecedented levels of prosperity, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. Environmental degradation continues, and the effects of climate change have begun to threaten the world's most vulnerable populations and ecosystems.

This is why the sustainable development goals (SDGs), which will be launched in September 2015, will be crucial in continuing the momentum to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 and to address a number of critical economic, social and environmental issues, including climate change.


In 1998 I had the honour to be elected Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). …

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