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2023 and beyond: Our responsibilities to the future of the world

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Mary Robinson gave a keynote speech at The Genron NPO Tokyo Conference 2023, urging Japan to use its G7 Presidency to push for urgent action on existential threats and concerted efforts to strengthen the multilateral system.

Read Mary Robinson's speech


Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, distinguished guests,

It is an honour and a privilege to be with you here today in Tokyo for this important and timely conference.

My last visit to Tokyo was in September 2019. It was the day after Japan had beaten Ireland in the Rugby and got into the quarter-final. Never under-estimate Japan is my advice.

We meet at a time when interconnected crises are increasing the strains on the multilateral system, making it harder to deliver a coherent, equitable and sustainable response to common challenges.

Humanity is facing multiple, existential threats, from the climate crisis to pandemics, nuclear weapons and superpower confrontation. To speak bluntly, we are on the brink of a precipice, but our leaders are not acting with sufficient moral clarity, speed or ambition to secure a peaceful and liveable planet.

From cutting carbon emissions to strengthening arms control treaties and investing in pandemic preparedness, we know what needs to be done. The facts are clear but the political will is lacking – our leaders need a crisis mindset and must work together to tackle urgent threats.

They must also place the global public good and a principled approach to multilateralism at the heart of their approach.  Russia’s war on Ukraine is a clear example. The consequences of this illegal and flagrant violation of the United Nations Charter are being felt in all corners of the globe, but the pursuit of national interests is undermining the global unity that is needed in response to Russia’s aggression.  

It is incumbent on states in all regions to uphold the UN Charter and stand up for the core principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.

Neutrality in the face of Russia’s aggression is not morally or legally defensible. It was therefore both very important and very timely for Prime Minister Kishida to visit Ukraine on Tuesday this week.

At the same time, we have to acknowledge the reality that powerful states in all regions, including democratic states, bear responsibility for the erosion of international norms, from the invasion of Iraq 20 years ago to the continuing impunity Israel enjoys for its repeated violations of international law in the occupied Palestinian territories.

This is not about supporting a unipolar world, when it is so clear that the geopolitics of the twenty-first century wlll be very different to those of the twentieth century. It is about recognising that having one set of legal standards for the conduct of international affairs is all the more important at a time when the balance of power is shifting so significantly.

Existential Threats

We must also not allow our rightful outrage at President Putin’s aggression to detract international attention from other threats to shared peace and stability, including the climate crisis, pandemics and nuclear weapons.

None of these challenges can be overcome by any one country alone, no matter how big its size, how powerful its economy or how strong its military.

They require concerted and systematic cooperation by nation states, regional alliances and global bodies, combining political commitment, intellectual innovation and a ceaseless determination to confront issues with moral integrity, humility and boldness in equal measure.

In this regard, I applaud the initiative of the organisers of the Tokyo Conference to bring together experts from leading think-tanks from all G7 countries plus Brazil, India and Singapore. Such cross-border exchange and dialogue is indispensable if we are to defend and strengthen multilateralism in the face of deepening global divisions.

Japan has a critical role to play in these global debates, informed by its rich history, its economic ingenuity and its anchoring role as a strong democracy in a region undergoing significant geopolitical transformations.

I have had the pleasure of visiting Japan many times over my career, including as President of Ireland, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and now as Chair of The Elders, the group of independent global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela who work for peace, justice, human rights and a sustainable planet.

I have always valued the rich and stimulating discussions I have enjoyed in Japan, and hope that I can highlight more areas where we can find a commonality of perspective here today.

We have a duty to speak with precision, clarity and humanity in our consideration of our responsibilities to the future of the world, always putting people first: those alive today, and those as yet unborn who will inherit our legacy.

This intergenerational solidarity is a vital strand running through all the work I do with my fellow members of The Elders.

As Elders, we are not beholden to any national interest. We no longer seek public office and can speak freely and fearlessly on any issue we wish.

We understand the challenges of holding political power as much as the opportunities it offers, and we acknowledge that the perspectives of non-Western audiences are still too often disregarded at the global decision-making table. This must change.

At the same time, drawing on the mandate given by our founder, Nelson Mandela, we hold firm as Elders that human rights, freedom of expression and equality are universal values that matter as much here in Asia as they do in Europe, Africa or any other part of the world.

Above all, it is clear to me that we will not meet our responsibilities to the future of the world by offering up the hollow promises of populism or naively utopian demands.

Instead, we need to pressure leaders to make hard, practical choices backed up by long-term commitment of resources and political capital. I want to highlight some immediate steps decision-makers can take in the months ahead.

Ukraine, global unity and accountability

Looking at the war in Ukraine, it is clear that failure to uphold international law and defend the most fundamental norms of the UN Charter risks opening the door to autocrats and aggressors everywhere, with disturbing echoes of the failure of the League of Nations in the 1930s.

But when we assess global unity in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine, there is not a simple divide between democratic and autocratic states. Some of the world’s leading democracies, including India and South Africa, continue to abstain in UN General Assembly votes on this issue.

Much of the Global South perceives double standards in Western calls for solidarity over Ukraine, arguing, for example, that the same solidarity was not shown by the West when it came to sharing of vaccines and other medical countermeasures during COVID-19.

Insufficient solidarity has also been a key characteristic of the rich world’s response to the climate crisis, although the agreement on loss and damage at COP27 was a welcome step forward, albeit one that needs to be implemented.

Moreover, when it comes to other violent conflicts beyond Ukraine, many powerful states are resisting international scrutiny of violations of international law, and protecting themselves and their allies from accountability.

But our collective response to this challenge must not be to retreat from international law or a principled response to conflict and aggression. Quite the reverse. What we need is a re-doubling of efforts to revitalise the multilateralism system, centred around a renewed commitment to international law and global equity.  

The Elders support accountability. We believe setting up a special tribunal to prosecute the leaders responsible for the crime of aggression in Ukraine can contribute to both justice and a sustainable peace, as well as to deterring such crimes in future. It should take the form of a fully-fledged international criminal tribunal, endorsed by the UN General Assembly, to underscore its global legitimacy and signal to all member states that peace and justice are two sides of the same coin, and impunity will not be tolerated anywhere. The tribunal must have the ability to overcome immunities and prosecute the top leadership responsible for this aggression.

Japan’s Presidency of the G7 this year is an important opportunity to show leadership on this issue, and to forge G7 unity in support of an international tribunal. When this issue is put to the UN General Assembly, as it must be, I hope UN member states will rise to the moment and stand for peace and justice in Ukraine and everywhere. 

Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation

The only solution to address the existential threats we face is greater commitment by states in all regions to multilateralism, and to the consistent application of international law – whether in delivering global public goods, implementing climate action commitments or responding to violent conflict and aggression wherever this takes place. 

This is in the direct interest of all countries, as is taking urgent steps to minimise the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

Japan knows better than any country on Earth how devastating these weapons can be.

It has been deeply disturbing to see President Putin making overt threats over the past year to use nuclear weapons in a futile attempt to influence the response to his brutal war on Ukraine.

His decision to suspend participation in New START, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between Russia and the United States, presents a serious risk of a new global nuclear arms race developing.

Dialogue is essential for limiting risks, and leadership to highlight the threat of nuclear weapons is important. This is why The Elders support Japan’s efforts to highlight nuclear risks as part of its G7 presidency. A strong statement from G7 leaders on the nuclear threat would send an important message, and should increase pressure on the P5 states in particular to finally live up to their commitments to disarmament under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Climate Action

Japan has shown great leadership for many years in galvanising global cooperation to realise a world without nuclear weapons. The climate crisis constitutes an equally acute existential threat, and I hope that Japan will show comparable leadership and prioritise the climate crisis as an important and urgent topic ahead of the G7 Summit in Hiroshima in May.

The climate crisis is multi-faceted and complex, but many of the shocks the world will continue to experience in 2023 such as energy disruptions, inflation, instability and food crises, can ultimately be linked to fossil-fuel dependence.

The war on Ukraine is a tragic reminder of these linkages - and of the benefits for peace and stability that a durable shift to renewable energy would bring. Climate-induced displacement is a growing problem facing the world – one which will fuel further instability and conflict if its root causes remain unaddressed.

Renewable energy is what will give us security, sustainability and affordability – unlike coal or oil or gas where there is a risk of creating new dependencies and stranded assets.

Renewables are a safe bet, unlike unproven technologies to make coal power plants more efficient, and I must say I am somewhat concerned to hear so much talk about the latter in the context of Japan’s climate agenda for its G7 Presidency.

The world needs Japan’s government and great industrial powerhouses to recognise the imperative of rapidly committing to go fossil-fuel free – and the risk of not doing so. The synthesis of the recent IPCC report earlier this week was stark and unequivocal. The future of our planet will not be well served if the titans of the industry become obsolete and defunct, because they did not act in time to adapt to the realities of our changing climate and economic paradigms.

It is critical that the G7 maintains and builds on its collective climate commitments in previous years: to end fossil fuel subsidies by 2025, phase out coal by 2030, and to entirely decarbonise the power sector by 2035. By stepping up on this, the G7 would send a strong signal to the rest of the world on its members’ unity in pursuing net zero.

The world’s leading industrialised economies must also show they are listening to vulnerable countries that are being buffeted by climate impacts on top of multiple other crises, and are struggling to access finance. This is critical to build trust between North and South at a time of division.

The historic agreement of a loss and damage fund at COP27 was a good step forward in this regard, and showed that multilateral cooperation is possible even in these testing times. Wealthy nations must now build on this momentum and take a lead to ensure that money is urgently put into the hands of frontline communities when climate disaster strikes.

They must also show they are honouring their existing commitments – to double adaptation finance by 2025 and meet the decade-old pledge of $100 billion in climate finance to vulnerable countries. 

2023 provides a long-overdue opportunity for the international community to reform international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

These reforms are vital to unlock unprecedented sums for sustainable development and just energy transitions in the Global South. This kind of upfront investment is critical to strengthen the resilience of vulnerable countries to climate and security shocks, as well as to accelerate the private sector investment needed to build the decarbonised economies of the twenty-first century. I often say we are on the cusp of a clean energy world, but we are also on the cusp of a 2.4 degree centigrade warming which would be devasting for the world.

Making funding available at scale will also act as a disincentive for countries tempted to seek support from lenders and states who are less scrupulous with regard to climate concerns and sustainable development. It is thus in G7 states’ own interest to support expansive and radical reforms to international finance institutions that will benefit the world’s poor.


The same symbiotic relationship between solidarity and self-interest is at play regarding the world’s recovery from COVID-19 and the need to better prepare for, and hopefully prevent, future pandemic outbreaks.

The multilateral system offers several opportunities in the months ahead for progress on pandemic preparedness and response.

The ongoing negotiations over the pandemic accord present an important chance to redress the inequities so starkly exposed and exacerbated by COVID-19, which have further eroded trust in the multilateral system in many quarters.

The Elders strongly support the recommendation of the International Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response for the establishment of a Global Health Threats Council, to elevate leadership on pandemic preparedness and response to the highest levels, and to foster a “whole-of-society” approach.

The upcoming Pandemic High-Level Meeting at the UN in September is another important opportunity to make progress on this and other crucial recommendations, through an ambitious Political Declaration. I hope that Japan can play a leading role here as it has in the past on Universal Health Coverage, another critical piece of the global health architecture with solidarity at its core.


From conflict resolution and upholding the UN Charter to tackling the existential threats of the climate crisis, nuclear weapons and pandemics, multilateral action and bold, ethical leadership are essential.

The challenge is not one of understanding or insufficient knowledge. Our leaders cannot claim they have not been warned about the dangers ahead or provided with credible, detailed proposals for action.

We have the recommendations on the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, UN Secretary-General Guterres’ warnings that humanity is “one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation”, and the scientific data and recent synthesis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

We have the inspiration of great peacemakers like Kofi Annan and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who offer a stern rebuke to cynics or fatalists claiming that conflicts can never be resolved or that the values of the UN Charter will always be secondary to national self-interest.

What we now need to do is strengthen and improve the multilateral system, with the United Nations at its core, to make it fit for purpose.

This also means global citizens must work together through democratic institutions and public fora, such as this Conference, to bring pressure to bear on their leaders and hold them accountable for their actions.

The task is daunting, no doubt, but I am confident that humanity will rise to the occasion. When G7 leaders meet in Hiroshima in May, I hope that they will seize the moment and act with unity, urgency and solidarity.

Distinguished guests of the Tokyo Conference,

I would like to conclude my speech with the words of the former Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Satō, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974 for his work on nuclear non-proliferation, together with the great Irish patriot, diplomat and peace activist Seán MacBride, who was also a good friend of mine:

“All peoples should be united in positive efforts to make peace a reality, and to strengthen the foundations on which that peace rests, so as to secure for all humanity progress and a better life.”

Thank you.

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