UN Director-General Michael Møller on Embracing Our Collective Responsibility

UN Director-General Michael Møller. Image via Warwick Economics Summit.
UN Director-General Michael Møller. (Warwick Economics Summit)

For some reason, people are characterizing this refugee crisis as a European problem. It is not. It is the world’s responsibility,” said Director-General of the United Nations office in Geneva Michael Møller during a three-day economics summit organized by students at Warwick University in the UK from February 5–7. His words hint at the broader issue of finger-pointing that afflicts our present political landscape; politicians, institutions, and individuals alike are increasingly unwilling to take responsibility for the world’s problems, and they instead engage in increasingly divisive debates about who else is to blame and who should assume responsibility to rectify these problems in the future.

Considering that our world is more interdependent now than ever, this binary approach of “us” versus “them” is both worrying and unfeasible. The idea that we can be socially and economically separated from other countries — even ones halfway across the world — is unrealistic. This is where the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted in September last year, comes in — Møller highlights that a purely economic focus will not be enough to solve the world’s problems. Through 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets, the agenda sets the broader framework in which we should view the world’s integrated development challenges and points to conditions other than economic growth that must be set in place for sustainable development.

The underlying trust deficit and fragmentation of the international system, in addition to the deepening income inequality throughout the world today, make it clearer than ever that we need a collective solutions on how to restore the integrity of governments and address injustice at all levels. In his speech at the summit and his discussion afterwards with a few students attending the conference, Møller addressed some of these key issues facing our world today, and how we should approach them.

Changing the negative narrative of the Syrian refugee crisis

“It’s hard to change ideology. What we can change is the narrative of the refugee crisis.” Mr. Møller, on the Syrian refugee crisis

The ongoing debates over the crisis in Syria and how to address opposing interests and groups in the region pervades much of our contemporary political discourse. One issue among many is that despite hopes for Russian and American collaboration in Syria, a collective push from a momentarily united Russia and United States will not be enough. There needs to be an armistice between moderate rebel and moderate Islamist forces in Syria, as well as the Syrian government, to jointly eradicate ISIS and al-Nusra. Until the entire region gets its act together, through cooperation between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other close neighbors, the situation is only going to get worse. Following Saudi Arabia’s severing of diplomatic ties with Iran earlier this year, the possibility of regional cooperation seems bleak. Furthermore, Møller asserts that military action will not provide a solution to this crisis. “This is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Møller. “There is a deep sense of injustice in the region and deep religious and ethnic divides. In order to make peace, we need to rebuild government structures.” Rebuilding old and constructing new government structures to reestablish a stable foundation is not going to be easy — even just to get a foot in the door and patch together a provisional government, the cooperation of the different countries in the region is needed.

As the unrest in the region continues unabated, steps must be taken in the interim to address the refugee crisis. There is an immense need to change the negative narrative on refugees. Earlier this year, there were protests in Germany over German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy — especially in the aftermath of the the sexual assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, perpetrated by two dozen asylum seekers. It is important not to cast suspicion on refugees in general — the increasingly divisive didactic of political leaders (in some cases to score political points) has distracted us from research that shows that migrants are actually a positive addition to countries, and become productive members of the societies that they join. A study by Christian Dustmann at University College London and Tommaso Frattini at the University of Milan in 2014 found that between 1995 and 2011, immigrants from the EU had a more positive impact on the U.K.’s state finances than natives did. Furthermore, many countries, especially rapidly aging welfare states in the EU, have gaping skilled labor shortages. Germany alone needs an influx of 350 thousand people per year for next several decades just to sustain the level of economic growth it has now.

Møller reminds us that the present refugee crisis is not totally unprecedented — back in the 70s or 80s, a major problem in Southeast Asia was the large-scale migration of Vietnamese refugees, but it was dealt with back then in a more rational way than we are doing now. The comparatively heightened aversion to Syrian refugees in the present day can be attributed to a myriad of factors, not least the fear of terrorism and the lack of understanding of the nuances of different Islamic groups by the general Western public. Sensationalism in the media and charged discussion on social media has also amplified the divisive discourse. But the bottom line is that there have been refugees in the past, and there will continue to be in the future. “This is just a blip in the road,” said Møller. “We are going to receive many more people in the future. Wait till the climate change refugees start rolling in.” In order to address these issues, we have to seek innovative solutions to refugee challenges, as the UNHCR Innovation is tasked to do, and as the tech sector is starting to undertake.

Combating Climate Change: the Paris Agreement

“We have to start thinking differently not only in places faced with armed conflicts or poverty. Major instances of unrest such as injustice and inequalities, are also on the rise in Western countries.” — Mr. Møller, on world conflicts

Global collaboration is also imperative in combating what is often called the “biggest global health crisis of the 21st Century”: climate change. The Paris Agreement established at the Paris climate conference (COP21) in December 2015 indeed reached some promising deals amongst governments, but agreement to a plan does not necessarily guarantee firm commitment. In the wake of the conference last December, Senior Editor Ruari Arrieta-Kenna penned an article on the Paris agreement, pointing out that although the agreement is ambitious, it lacks a binding agreement for concrete action. With this in mind, I asked Mr. Møller about how international organizations like the UN and individual governments can establish binding enforcement mechanisms to ensure accountability. “That’s an important issue,” replied Møller with a nod, “but we should also remind ourselves that the Paris Agreement achieved more promises than we expected.” Møller explains that the issue of accountability lies with government structures, and the ability of administrations to push through climate change reforms. This is an especially pertinent concern here in the United States, as Arrieta-Kenna’s article points out, and as the Supreme Court’s temporary blocking of the implementation of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan last week very clearly indicates.

But hope still remains in spite of the criticism surrounding government accountability. “Governments aren’t the only actors in the decision-making and monitoring process,” said Møller. “We have a collective responsibility to play a part. It is very much possible for one person to rally people together to change things.” He brings up the example of Jody Williams, an American political activist who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work to ban landmines through the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Fed up with the inaction of governments, she took things into her own hands and strived to help reestablish peace and human security in this respect. From examples such as these, the lesson to be learned seems to be that where there is sufficient will, there is a way. Though some of the problems we face today seem insurmountable, Møller remains optimistic that the collective effort of governments, public and private institutions, youth, academia, and other individuals will enable an integrated approach to peace and sustainable development.

Mr. Møller’s message to us is a call to action. As citizens of the world and leaders of the future, we have a collective responsibility to address the issues of peace, sustainable development, and human rights facing our world today. As he points out on a more optimistic note, the advances that our international structure has enabled in the past few decades has delivered a level of wellbeing that has been completely unprecedented. This should only strengthen our resolve to address these issues — for we have so much to gain, and everything to lose.