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UN Chief Calls for Global ‘New Social Contract’

FILE - United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
FILE - United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The U.N. secretary-general called Saturday for a new social contract and global deal to create equal opportunities for all in an address on the birthday of late anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela.

“A new social contract within societies will enable young people to live in dignity, will ensure women have the same prospects and opportunities as men, and will protect the sick, the vulnerable and minorities of all kinds,” Antonio Guterres said in a keynote speech to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela Foundation on what would have been the late president’s 102nd birthday.

Guterres said people want social and economic systems that work for everyone, and a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

“They want their human rights and fundamental freedoms to be respected,” the U.N. chief said. “The new social contract, between governments, people, civil society, business and more, must integrate employment, sustainable development and social protection, based on equal rights and opportunities for all.”

His address was delivered virtually from New York, due to the coronavirus pandemic. South Africa has more than 325,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

“COVID-19 is a human tragedy,” Guterres said. “But it has also created a generational opportunity -- an opportunity to build back a more equal and sustainable world.”

His remarks focused on addressing global inequalities, which he said the pandemic has underscored.

The U.N. chief urged reform to tackle the heart of the problem.

“Inequality starts at the top: in global institutions,” Guterres said. “Addressing inequality must start by reforming them.”

He also warned against populism, nationalism, extremism and racism, saying they would only lead to more division and inequality in society.

Guterres, who referred to himself as “a proud feminist,” also called for dismantling the “patriarchy” and moving toward gender parity.

“Globally, women are still excluded from senior positions in governments and on corporate boards. Fewer than one in 10 world leaders is a woman,” Guterres said. “Gender inequality harms everyone because it prevents us from benefiting from the intelligence and experience of all of humanity.”

He has acted to put this into practice at the United Nations, where the ranks of his senior management reached gender parity on January 1 of this year. But the shift at other levels in the organization has been slower.

The so-called “digital divide” is also exposing global inequalities, particularly between developed and developing countries, he said. In 2019, nearly 90% of people in developed nations used the internet, while the figure was only 19% for developing countries.

“We are in danger of a two-speed world,” Guterres cautioned.

His proposal includes social safety nets, including universal health coverage and the possibility of a universal basic income. He called on governments to implement affirmative action programs and policies to resolve historic inequalities in gender, race or ethnicity, and he said “the vicious cycle” of corruption must be broken. His plan also considers the effects of climate change and urges a greening of the economy to both protect the planet and create new jobs.

Guterres said he is observing the beginnings of a new movement in demonstrations for racial equality and campaigns against hate speech.

“This movement rejects inequality and division, and unites young people, civil society, the private sector, cities, regions and others behind policies for peace, our planet, justice and human rights for all,” he said. “It is already making a difference.”

He said world leaders must decide whether they will give in to chaos, division and inequality or right the wrongs of the past.

“We are at breaking point, but we know which side of history we are on,” the U.N. chief said.

Mandela was South Africa’s first democratically elected president and its first Black head of state. Madiba, as he is affectionately known, was president from 1994-1999. He died in 2013 age 95.

In December 2009, the U.N. General Assembly declared his birthday “Nelson Mandela International Day” to recognize his role in promoting democracy and peace. People around the world are encouraged to mark his birthday doing good works for 67 minutes – the number of years he spent fighting for social justice. It is meant to symbolize that every individual can do good things and that small steps can lead to big changes.