Statement delivered by Helen Clark, New Zealand candidate for UN Secretary General, 14 April 2016.

I welcome this opportunity to present my vision for the United Nations, to engage with members of the General Assembly, and to tell you why I believe I have the experience and the leadership skills required to serve as Secretary-General.

I am greatly honoured to have been put forward as New Zealand’s candidate, with the full support of the Government and of Parliament. First, however, let me tell you a little about my story. I grew up on a backcountry farm in New Zealand. There I learned from my parents values which I believe are essential to leadership: being ambitious, but also realistic; and being hardworking and resilient when times are tough. 

Many in my family and local community fought and were killed in World Wars One or Two.

So, like other New Zealanders of my generation, I was raised with deep respect for the United Nations - and for the important role it was given to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.

I am proud that New Zealand was a founding member of the United Nations and has a long tradition of support for it. 

I also grew up in a society which prioritised opportunity and fairness for people. Throughout my life, I have done my best to find ways to overcome injustice and inequality wherever I have encountered them.

The first cause I became actively involved in as a young person was the movement against South African apartheid. Apartheid was a unique, pernicious, and systematic form of discrimination which stripped people of their dignity. Its end, to which the United Nations contributed a great deal, was a major achievement of the late 20th century.

My commitment to social justice at home and abroad led me to a 27 year parliamentary career which culminated in nine years as Prime Minister of New Zealand. Since then, I have been in New York these past seven years as Administrator of UNDP.

  • I have met and worked with many of you in this room
  • In my different capacities, I have been welcomed in many of your countries
  • I have met many of your Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Ministers over many years, and I have listened to and learned from them 
  • I have also visited many communities struggling with poverty and conflict. Everywhere, I have been inspired by the determination of people to strive for a better life for their families, no matter how steep the odds against them are. 

But their determination alone cannot produce progress.

So, let me talk about the importance of tackling the serious challenges of our times. Around our world, many people look to the United Nations with hope and expectation that it will strive to help overcome conflict, achieve sustainable development, and reduce inequality.

We look to the UN to bring us together around the common cause of building a better, fairer, and safer world.

Seventy years on from the UN’s creation, however, serious challenges are testing its capacity to deliver.

The problems are getting harder to solve, and the opportunities to do so are more difficult to grasp.  

Yet we must strive to do our best through closer collaboration, dialogue, and broader partnerships.

I see the years ahead as vital for renewing the UN’s capacity to deliver. 

Without doubt, the UN has contributed to largely ending conflicts between nations. 

It has supported development and prioritised the eradication of poverty.

It has deepened respect for human rights, including for gender equality.   It has helped to rein in the nuclear arms race.

Of course there have been failures and bleak moments, but we should acknowledge the organisation’s strengths and build on them. 

All my life, I have been deeply committed to the ideals of the UN Charter.  I see them as enduring.   But since they were drafted, the nature of the challenges the United Nations must confront has changed a great deal. 

The responsibility to adapt and modernise our organisation to ensure that it is fit to tackle the issues of today and tomorrow falls to Member States and to the Secretary-General.

I am optimistic that if the United Nations does adapt, that, together with its unique convening power and global coverage, will enable it to be both relevant and more effective.

In my vision statement, I have set out some of the challenges we face:

  • the perpetuation of extreme poverty,
  • the protracted conflicts, the terrorism, and the violent extremism,
  • a displacement crisis across continents,
  • the pandemics,
  • the impacts of climate change, and the resource shortages. 

The list could go on. We all know what is happening. 

Now, we need to focus together on what we do about it. We must shift the focus from solving problems after they have arisen to helping to prevent them occurring.

So – how to deliver results for future generations

You as Member States have agreed on the visionary and ambitious 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development, and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.  

I am strongly and personally committed to driving progress on these. Particularly urgent action is needed on implementing the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Poor and vulnerable countries need support to build resilience to the changing climate, including to the severe weather events they are already facing. We face worsening weather for decades.   

Whatever the problems we are seeking to solve, our chances of succeeding are better if we can harness our collective strengths. 

All my life I have fought for gender equality and women’s empowerment.  As Secretary-General, I would ensure that the United Nations prioritises the full and equal participation of women in decision-making, economies, and societies.

I am a long-time advocate of the importance of harnessing the potential of youth as a huge force for good in our world - when given the opportunity to contribute and engage.

To deliver results in all these areas, the UN must be practical and effective

The incoming Secretary-General will need to update the administration, and make full use of new technologies in doing so. 

The United Nations must become more effective in delivering to Member States, and be a better place to work.

It must be transparent and frank about what it can and cannot do.

It should work closely with Member States to ensure that the resources entrusted to it are prioritised around activities where the United Nations can make the most difference.

Transparency should be a guiding principle for the way in which the Secretary-General relates to the Security Council, the General Assembly and engages with Member States. I have led UNDP to its current ranking as the world’s most transparent development organisation. I want to bring that approach to the whole United Nations.

All parts of the UN need to embrace open, modern management practices and governance. And I believe in investing in our staff. They are the UN’s greatest asset, and we must reward talent to get results.

Anticipating and responding

As well, the UN must get better at both anticipating and responding to the serious challenges arising in our world.

My UNDP experience has given me many insights into how the UN’s impressive response machinery – across peace operations, humanitarian responses, human rights, peacebuilding, and development programmes – could be better co-ordinated.

If you elect me as the next Secretary-General, one of my first priorities will be to enhance partnerships with regional organisations which are playing an increasingly important and complementary role.  I would also seek to include the unique contributions of the private sector, academia, and civil society

The UN can bring many diverse players together around one table.  Together, we can mobilise great knowledge, networks, and strengths around tackling the world’s most difficult problems, and around responding more promptly to negative trends and warning signs of instability or conflict. 

The UN needs a proven leader who is pragmatic and effective. I have demonstrated those qualities during those nine years as a Prime Minister and seven years as Administrator of UNDP. 

I am skilled at bridging divisions and getting results.

Coming from New Zealand shapes who I am and what I have to offer. My country is highly culturally diverse in a region of great diversity – the Asia-Pacific. 

Throughout my career, I have shown my ability to build unity amidst diversity.

As your Secretary-General, I would commit to upholding the United Nations Charter, and to listening to and working with every Member State.

I am acutely aware that what the United Nations does or does not do affects the everyday lives of countless millions of people.

This is a responsibility which we all share.

In New Zealand there is a Māori proverb which says:

He aha te mea nui o te ao?   What is the most important thing in the world? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. It is people, it is people, it is people.      

We owe it to people everywhere to make the United Nations the best it can be. 

We owe it to all of us to work together to build a better, fairer and safer world.

In that spirit I look forward to engaging with members of the General Assembly today and responding to your questions.

Thank you.