UN Day 2023
24 October 2023
Speech by Funmi Balogun, UN Resident Coordinator in Timor-Leste
Excellency, the President of the Republic of Timor-Leste and Nobel Peace Laureate, Dr. Jose Ramos-Horta
Excellency, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation, Bendito Freitas
Excellencies, Ministers, Vice-Ministers, Secretaries of State, Distinguished Members of the IX Constitutional Government
Excellencies, ambassadors and Charges of UN Member States
My dearest UN Heads of Agencies, UN colleagues – co-celebrants with me today,
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen
It gives me immense pleasure to stand before you today, celebrating the United Nations' momentous founding 78 years ago. When the UN was founded by 51 countries from the ashes of World War II, a significant number of the countries that are now members were under colonial rule. Over time, in alignment with the fundamental principles upon which the UN was established, nations and peoples united to confront imperialism, colonialism, and occupation. I am deeply honored today to be standing as UN Resident Coordinator in Timor-Leste, a country that exemplifies all the principles of the founding of the United Nations – a hard fought independence, a country built on the principles of human rights and with a thriving democracy.
Since 1945, we have had amazing hope about the future, periods of great prosperity and innovation, but there also exists a despair about the state of our planet, of our people, with poverty continuing to grow especially among the most vulnerable, shifts in international alliances and power, and increasing conflicts and wars, within and between countries. As we struggle to resolve all that ail us, we continue to hold out, and believe that the UN continues to be the best model of multilateralism that we have. In the words of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, "Multilateral cooperation is the beating heart of the United Nations, its raison d’être and guiding vision. The establishment of the United Nations in 1945 represented humanity's best attempt to prevent any repetition of the horrors of two world wars and the Holocaust”. And over the past 78 years, the multilateral system as represented by the UN, even with its flaws, continues to deliver, to all peoples, not just the hope, but progress on peace, on climate, on human rights and on development.
Through the Universal Declaration of the United Nations, "we the people" took on a new meaning, with the universality of rights established and agreed upon. These global standards and principles, while idealistic, form the foundation upon which our collective humanity has depended and will continue to stand.
It is easy to want to lose hope, with a world that seems to be constantly on the edge, with continuous wars, increasing tolerance, backlash on all rights we thought were settled, climate-induced disasters, increasing numbers of people in need of aid, the rising inequalities between those who have and those who do not, the systemic discrimination against women and girls under the guise of culture and religion fueled by misogyny and violence, as well as discrimination against LGBTQI+ individuals and others seen as non-conforming. And even with these challenges, it's vital to remind ourselves of the incredible progress we have made over the last 78 years. For instance, in East Asia and the Pacific, approximately 84% of the population lived in extreme poverty in 1981 compared to just 1.9% in 2019. Additionally, while there were around 770.6 million children in school in 1950, this number rose to approximately 1.9 billion in 2020. We have made great achievements in upholding the universality of human rights, of the right to vote, of majority rule and democratic governance, freedoms of speech/association, and even with a few countries backsliding on democratic norms, the world, led in part by the UN remains unananimous on these core values and principles.
Not only was the founding of the United Nations momentous, but this significance extended to the establishment and integration of specialized agencies within the United Nations, such as WHO, UNICEF, WFP, UNFPA, UNESCO, and FAO. These agencies, with a visionary mindset, set the agenda for and enabled human development to take a leap. Diseases like smallpox, polio, and malaria were eradicated in some places, including in Timor-Leste, maternal deaths and child mortality were reduced, and the number of children in school dramatically increased. Child and adult malnutrition rates were also reduced. Agencies like UNDP, IOM, UN Women, and ILO have supported the development of institutions and capacities of people, strengthened gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, and supported the establishment of systems to ensure the sustainability of the development agenda. They have also co-created and supported governments in running their systems and states according to global standards and norms.
These advancements were necessary for human beings to foster creativity, adaptability, and resilience, paving the way for the technological advancements we are witnessing today. We now have a thoroughly interconnected global community, making for incredible economic growth and wealth/wellbeing that has not been seen in previous lifetimes. Even with challenges we face, the social-economic growth has continued to spread from Timor-Leste to Thailand to Tunisia, and from Indonesia to Italy, from South Africa to South Korea to Seychelles. These advancements we could not have imagined just 30 years ago.
The United Nations, and those of us who work to fulfill its mandate, take pride in our neutrality and impartiality as we support all our member states in achieving these incredible progress through ongoing consensus and ensuring that states continue to hold themselves accountable to the development agenda they have set, and the norms they have committed to.
In Timor-Leste, the UN remains proud of the trust the government and its people have placed in it since 2002 and continue to place in it as a partner in supporting its development journey, including in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The goal is to transition the country to a middle-income status, ensuring that all children have access to quality education with excellent learning outcomes, providing opportunities for young people both within and outside the country, and creating an environment where all individuals and families can thrive. This includes upholding governance and the rule of law in accordance with universal human rights and gender equality principles.
Over the past two decades, Timor-Leste has undergone significant transformation since the restoration of independence. Health outcomes have greatly improved, with reduced child mortality rates (from 83 in 2002 to 43.1 per 1,000 in 2021) and decreased maternal mortality (from 660 to 195 per 100,000 live births by 2022). The healthcare workforce has grown from just a handful to nearly 1,000 doctors in just a decade and a half. The education sector has flourished, with primary school enrollment reaching nearly 90%, and economic advancements have led to a decrease in unemployment rates from 10.4% to 5.1% in 2022. Timor-Leste also made progress in human rights, gender equality, and democracy, including in increasing women's representation in the national parliament, one of the highest in the world. The country's reputation extends globally, reflected in its journey towards ASEAN accession and its strong relationships with the Committee of Portuguese Speaking Countries. Challenges remain, but as we have all seen, Timor-Leste is committed to fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as it continues its journey towards a brighter future for its people.
Let me take the opportunity today, to pay respect to the extraordinary work of UN Agencies, Funds, and Programmes and to share some of the ways they continue to contribute to Timor-Leste's achievement of the SDGs under the government's guidance and leadership. Through their collective support over the last 2 decades, the government of Timor-Leste has been able to eradicate diseases like Polio and Maternal Neonatal Tetanus, introduce critical vaccines such as PCV and HPV, the building of the health infrastructure and was in the forefront of ensuring that Timor-Leste was minimally impacted by COVID-19. UN AFPs have brought innovation, including pioneering community-driven preschools, breastfeeding and health awareness campaigns to reduce child nutrition and mortality while critical interventions on school feeding has enabled the reduction of malnutrition and contributed to the high enrollment rates of children in school, while supporting a more robust social protection system that enables not just protection, but employment. With UN support, government has established critical governance systems, including on border management, decentralization, establishment of the single window to facilitate trade and Timor-Leste’s accession to WTO and ASEAN, community resilience building while strengthening parliamentary oversight and citizens’ engagement in governance. The EU-UN Spotlight Initiative for ending violence against women and girls, under my leadership, and with strategic direction of UN Women, implemented by UNFPA, UNDP, ILO, and UNICEF, has made significant strides, on laws, prioritization of resources and an integrated approach to addressing a multidimensional challenge of persistent gender based violence through an integrated model.
The UN in Timor-Leste remain committed to supporting the development goals and aspirations of Timor-Leste, bringing in its firepower made up of incredible wealth of knowledge, convening power, spaces for difficult conversations and dialogues, including on conversations around the ‘hows’. On financing for development, bringing in private sector investments for social impact, connecting the the country with global conversations on the restructuring of the international financial architecture, peacebuilding, and climate change. The UN will remain the partner of choice, in supporting Timor-Leste to tap into global standards and best practices, including through South – South Cooperation, from which Timor-Leste can adapt and more importantly, achieve scale of results and impact.
I would like to pause here and give a shoutout to all my UN colleagues and their families here in Timor-Leste, as well as thousands of other UN staff members and peacekeepers around the world, who continue to work tirelessly, including taking significant risks to ensure that the principles outlined in the founding document of the United Nations are realized in the lives of all individuals. We continue to honor the memory of our fallen colleagues and peacekeepers, including the 40 employees of UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees killed in Gaza in the last 2 weeks.
Ours is a life of passion and service. And the most challenging job to explain to the layman. "What exactly do you do?" is a question I hear every day, including from my children. How do you convey that your daily activities, which may seem like only attending meetings, are actually dedicated to making the world a better place? It's about ensuring children are not malnourished, enabling them to attend school, creating job opportunities for families to provide for themselves, securing decent shelter, ensuring access to healthcare services, helping people achieve their aspirations, facilitating their right to choose their leaders, allowing them to speak out against injustices, and promoting a universal understanding of rights where breaches, whether by an individual or a state, have consequences.
I am deeply honoured once again to stand before all of you and express our sincere appreciation, not only to the government and people of Timor-Leste but also to all the esteemed ambassadors of of UN member states, including Multilateral partners, the EU, World Bank and ADB who remain as committed and passionate as we are, to supporting Timor-Leste achieve the development vision for its people. We are grateful that you have placed your trust and resources in UN agencies in the spirit of multilateralism to continue partnering with Timor-Leste in not only achieving the 2011-2030 Strategic Development Plan (SDP) but in rescuing the Sustainable Development Goals.
I would like to remind all of us, as I conclude, that there is no country that is an island, just as there is no individual who is an island. We have a Yoruba/Nigeria saying – a rich person in the midst of poor people, is also poor – we are completely dependent on each other, as it should be. Every child who is hungry and not in school represents our collective failure, and every family unable to access food, shelter, and health services is a stain on our collective conscience. Every young person without a job, every discriminated against person, represents a threat to our peace.
Finally, excellencies, dear colleagues and friends, I pose the question that I ask myself every day, and I now ask it to all of you: Can you imagine a world without the United Nations?