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Demonstrator at the global #ClimateStrike in New York, September 2019. (Photo: UN Women/Amanda Voisard)

The Elders took part in a range of events at 74th UN General Assembly (UNGA), participating in discussions and taking action on challenges affecting millions across the world. From universal health coverage, to the climate emergency; the refugee crisis, to access to justice, The Elders’ voice was prominent in a busy week of dialogue, debate and commitments from world leaders.

The Elders sought to influence the debate on several key themes at UNGA: urging governments to commit to publically-financed UHC, standing in solidarity with young people leading the calls for ambitious action on climate, and amplifying the positive work of non-state actors on refugees and access to justice.


A major moment for global health priorities

This year’s UN General Assembly had a particular focus on health, and the keynote speech by Gro Harlem Brundtland at the first ever UNGA High Level Meeting on UHC represents a significant moment in the Elders’ global-level work on Universal Health Coverage.

It is testament to the impact of the Elders’ work in this area that Dr Brundtland was asked by the UN to be the High Level Champion for UHC and to speak in the opening plenary immediately after the UN Secretary General, the President of the World Bank and the Director General of WHO.

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Gro Harlem Brundtland addresses the UN High Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage in New York in September 2019. (Photo: UN Photo/Kim Haughton)


In her speech, Dr Brundtland emphasised that countries can only reach UHC through public financing:

 “If there is one lesson the world has learnt, it is that you can only reach UHC through public financing… you also cannot reach UHC through private voluntary insurance, which is extremely inefficient and inequitable.

“I am thrilled that after decades of often bitter debate, the global health community has come together to champion UHC and that we agree on how to achieve it -  through publicly-financed Primary Healthcare-led reforms that ensure nobody is left behind.”

A call from Dr Brundtland for heads of state to ban hospital detentions received spontaneous applause from the audience in the hall.

These key points were also emphasised by Dr Brundtland in an address on UHC in Africa at the ‘One By One: Target 2030’ event and in a keynote on global health security at Columbia University where she also urged world leaders to ensure resilience to epidemics by investing in health systems that deliver UHC.

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Gro Harlem Brundtland delivers a speech at Columbia University in New York in September 2019. (Photo: Columbia University / Eileen Barroso)


Dr Brundtland’s message that UHC requires genuine political commitment and can only be achieved through public financing was well received, and The Elders are pleased to see such a comprehensive final UN statement on health. Attention must now turn to stronger commitments on national public financing targets and increased efforts to put gender and human rights issues at the heart of delivering UHC – including a global ban on medical detentions.

A failure of leadership on climate

Despite global protests on climate change, including 4 million climate strikers led by Greta Thunberg and a determined youth movement, world leaders did not deliver the level of commitment hoped for at the UN Climate Action Summit. Calls on countries to make commitments that would limit global warming to 1.5 degrees went unmet, with very few new commitments announced by the major carbon-emitting G20 nations.

Whilst there were some signs of state leadership, including impressive commitments to go carbon neutral long before 2050 from Denmark, Finland and Slovakia, the most ambitious statements appeared to come from businesses and regional and city authorities. Commitments to go coal free from the Indian state of Chhattisgarh – which hold 16% of the country's coal reserves – is an encouraging move. Additionally, Mark Carney, Governor of Bank of England, spoke of the need for indices which track companies in high-carbon sectors to adopt low-carbon strategies. Not only would this enable greener investments, it would amplify sustainable investment prospects and expose unsustainable activities.

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Mary Robinson speaks at an intergenerational town hallduring the UN Youth Climate Summit. (Photo: UN Photo/Laura Jarriel)


The climate strikes showed that there is real momentum and genuine global demand for significant action on climate, and The Elders now want to see bold announcements from the G20 at the Climate COP in Chile in December. It is also important that the young voices are listened to and that justice is put at the core of any transition to a low carbon future.

This was a message Mary Robinson took to many of the events she participated in for The Elders, including the UN Youth Climate Summit and Social Good Summit, keynotes on climate and gender, and chairing discussions - such as a high-level meeting convened by the Global Environment Facility on funding commitments for climate preparedness in Least Developed Countries – which saw donor countries commit a further $160 million.

Mary Robinson said: “We urge all nations to commit to carbon neutrality before 2050; to immediately end construction of and investment in coal power; and to implement a green transition that is just and equitable.”

Mary Robinson went on to stress the intersectional character of the climate action that is urgently needed and called on everyone concerned about the future of human rights to step up to the challenge: 

“Intergenerational injustice, poverty injustice, gender injustice, racial injustice – climate change exacerbates them all. Anyone who cares about justice must now step up and join the fight against climate change.”

In addition to the interventions led by Mary Robinson, The Elders Deputy Chair Ban Ki-moon called for global leadership on climate adaptation at the launch of a major report by his Global Commission on Adaptation (GCA). The report found that investing in climate adaptation can yield significant economic, environmental and social benefits. As the GCA announced new financial commitments during the Climate Action Summit, Ban Ki-moon said:

“Today’s financial commitments are a positive step forward, but more must be done to ensure the world’s farmers are equipped for long-term sustainable, climate-smart production.”


Raising the case for refugees in business.

The Elders were also keen to take the opportunity of UNGA week to engage with the business community and were delighted to be part of a Business Refugee Action Network (BRAN) event that saw corporations call on governments to align with the Global Compact on Refugees, measure refugee progress towards the SDGs, and create a policy environment open to refugee employment and economic inclusion.

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Ban Ki-moon greets David Miliband, CEO of The International Rescue Committee in New York, in September 2019. (Photo: Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for International Rescue Committee)


Ban Ki-moon joined the IRC chairman David Miliband, Richard Branson and a host of other international CEOs at the event and spoke of the vital role of business leadership when it comes to refugees and migration.

Speaking at the event, Ban Ki-moon said:

“Businesses can play a crucial role in integrating refugees into their new communities, particularly in countries that border conflict zones and receive the highest number of arrivals, sometimes placing strains on public services and infrastructure.

“The business community can help alleviate these pressures by bringing its knowledge, resources, funding, employment and capacity-building capabilities to bear on the situation, and thus create opportunities and services that allow both new arrivals and host communities to thrive.”


Promoting SDG16 and access to justice

Ban Ki-moon was also able to bring attention to our work on access to justice when he joined young leaders to discuss the importance of SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.

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Ban Ki-moon discusses the importance of access to justice to achieve the SDGs, on a panel with Gululai Ismail and Jhody Polk during UNGA74 in New York, in September 2019.


Speaking alongside Johdy Polk, a justice activist and member of the Namati network (an Elders’ Spark of Hope organisation), Ban Ki-moon emphasised the importance of access to justice in delivering all the SDGs.

Mr Ban stressed The Elders’ concerns that 5 billion people, over half of the world’s population, do not have meaningful access to justice, calling such a circumstance “morally unacceptable”. He went on to say that The Elders wish to see more government support for community-based legal services, more funding for services that support victims of gender-based violence, and a greater focus on civil justice.

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Scenes from the 20 September 2019 demonstration in downtown New York as part of the youth-lead global #ClimateStrike. (Photo: UN Photo/Amanda Voisard)


Health and climate dominated the 74th UNGA and The Elders were encouraged by the growing consensus among Member States for publically-financed universal health coverage – a key demand of our UHC programme.

On climate, the ambition level among the world largest emitters remains woefully low. We hope that these G20 nations take heed of the legitimate outrage of millions of climate strikers and drastically upscale commitments to end fossil fuel use at the Climate COP in December. As Ricardo Lagos, Elder and former President of Chile said:

“Governments must come to the Santiago COP in December with clear plans, and they must be ready to implement those plans. All nations need to firmly commit to net zero by 2050 and say no new coal investment.”

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