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Address at the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in the US


Madam President, Mr. Secretary General, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen!

Ten days ago, I was in Ukraine. Picking up syringes and empty bottles in a park next to a kindergarten in the industrial city of Dnipro. It was for the first World Clean-up Day. The biggest-ever civil society action fostered by digital technology and the voluntary will of millions. Fifteen million people in 140 countries, including many presidents and prime ministers, decided to do something for our planet. It was in response to the cry for help made by Estonians, who launched a volunteer clean-up action ten years ago. It is very easy to merely talk about a cleaner environment or climate change. But if you really want to get things done, then often, you simply must get up and do it yourself.

In many ways, this is also the reason why Estonia is running for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for 2020-2021. Small countries have no time for small objectives: our aim is, among other issues, to bring all things digital to the Security Council. Cyber risks are something Estonians, as citizens of a fully digitised state, understand better than most. We want to offer our perspective to make sure that humans remain safe in this new world, where cyber-related threats compound with conventional ones. The vision we have for our candidacy and for the UN as a whole is based on three keywords: empathy, equality, and efficiency.

First, empathy. We must speak honestly about our worries, however sad they may be. Aggression should be called aggression, war is war, and occupation remains occupation, regardless if it’s in Africa or Europe. I am deeply moved by the misery that war and conflict bring, whether it’s talking with internally displaced women and children in occupied Eastern Ukraine, or speaking with Georgian politicians who are being told that due to occupation, their country will forever be denied full participation in the democratic world in the formats that we, the luckier others, so cherish.

Estonia stands in solidarity with all those affected by conflict, terrorism, and violent extremism. We reach out with humanitarian aid, practical assistance, and also peacekeepers, from Africa to the Middle East. We do what we can, yet it feels like it is never enough.

Ongoing military aggression in Eastern Ukraine is continuing in the very heart of Europe. The Crimean Peninsula remains occupied, as do parts of Georgia, and there has been no resolution of the protracted conflicts in Africa. It is hard to tolerate these tragic issues. Yet it is no solution to mince words just to make ourselves feel better. For those in distress, recognition of their true situation, together with a humble recognition that we cannot do much more than commiserate, at least offers them some hope. Hope that one day, things might be better. A hope that cannot feed on euphemisms, which avoid straightforward admittance.

In July, we reached an agreement on the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. And I’m looking forward to its adoption in Marrakech in December. But an agreement needs implementation. Without implementation, it is hollow; as hollow as the days ahead for those who do not know where they will rest their heads for the night. Or do not know how to calm their crying, hungry, and frightened children. We simply need to get up and help.

The same applies to the Paris Climate Agreement. In order to tackle the global challenge of climate change that is affecting billions, we must implement the commitments we have taken collectively. For the effects of climate change are increasingly being felt all over the world. Not only in developing countries, but particularly by smaller island states where homes, food, and even clean drinking water are greatly at risk. These countries are forced to jump through varied and highly expensive hoops in order to gain access to relief funding. However, this does also affect the developed world, where people have lost their loved ones or homes in Europe’s forest fires. Or because of hurricanes in America and the Pacific.

Yet we are still not dealing with the root causes. We are not making the world safe for our children by applying the proper and best-available technological standards to all energy production and use in both the developed and the developing world. We should also – and yes, it is that simple – never forget to switch the light off when leaving a room, acquire an air conditioner that shuts off when we open the door, and, in short, take whatever measures we can when we see that we cannot do so on a global scale just yet.

Ladies and gentlemen.

We are all equals in this hall. Not only because we have declared so in the UN Charter. It is also because the challenges we now face are going to affect each and every one of us. Equality in the face of global challenges is the law of nature, much stronger than our international law could ever be. Yet, the international legal space matters, as common solutions demand that each and every one is abided to.

We see a solution in the liberal way of thinking, according to which progress is not possible under the conditions of polarisation, fragmentation, or tribalism. Progress is a force that is born from debate and seeks common solutions. Sovereign equality, the idea that all sovereign states are equal, is a fundamental tenet of international law and relations. The role of the UN is to provide this equality as a guarantor of the rules-based global system. We depend on each other, whether we like it or not.

Frequently, it’s not state or international organisations that are getting things done, but rather grass-roots activism and NGOs that have a vision and a sense of responsibility. A principled voluntary approach can shift mountains of inefficiency, bad governance, neglect, and a lack of ideas. It can guide and catalyse policymaking, but cannot replace it.

Recent women’s movements such as HeForShe have come a long way to counter gender-based and sexual violence. Gender equality lies at the very heart of human rights. With this in mind, Estonia is a very active participant on the Commission on the Status of Women. I have gladly accepted Secretary General Guterres’s invitation to co-chair the High-Level Steering Group for Every Woman Every Child for the next two years.

During my tenure, I intend to raise awareness of the heroic efforts people are making across the globe, often working without any institutional support. I wish to demonstrate how many good ideas there are around the world that have already been found, already been tried, but only on a small scale. There are ideas helping someone somewhere, just waiting to be discovered and upscaled in order to help as many more people as possible. I hope to provide them with recognition, but also to disseminate the very best practices – often this is one in the same thing. This is a way that I, personally, can get something done.

Dear colleagues!

In terms of efficiency – which is my third keyword – nothing is more important than truly effective multilateralism.

This organisation holds great legitimacy as a result of its inclusiveness, as well as because of its high standards. We are a moral force. International law should be the primary yardstick of national interest. The less-powerful understand it well.

As for Security Council reform, we need to win more space for common ground. Peoples and states, both big and small, should feel that the Security Council is acting in their best interests. Too often, the Council falls victim to internal differences and clumsy procedures. However, it should not be rendered powerless, especially when mass atrocities are being committed. We, together with the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group, have called for Security Council members to behave more responsibly and be held more accountable if action against breaches of international humanitarian law is impeded. It is telling that already 116 states have signed the ACT Group’s Code of Conduct. Furthermore, we continue to support the proposal of President Macron of France that in the face of great human suffering, the Permanent Members should voluntarily refrain from use of the veto.

Ladies and gentlemen, to continue on the topic of efficiency, the ICT can revolutionize entrepreneurship, education, employment in general, and even healthcare. Digital online services provide economic growth, bring down unnecessary barriers between citizens and the state and between businesses and sectors, and transcend geographical limits. Estonia has shared its knowledge with many nations around the world and will continue to do so in cooperation with the UNDP, the African Union, and all those who are interested and willing.

New technologies should always be seen as enablers. They create equal opportunities if supported by the proper policies. The risks related to them should not be ignored – also because they do not replace, but rather enhance, most of our conventional risks. However, a well-established international legal space should be able to deliver for humankind and avoid Armageddon scenarios.

No new technology can thrive in a fragmented world. Now, more than ever, we need global free trade as an essential element for fostering long-term development and growth. Estonia, as a small export-dependent country, is an advocate of free trade, the creation of better market access for developing countries, and improving business conditions for investments. Trade and economy are closely tied to security, as history has so often demonstrated. We stand for protecting what the developed world has achieved, what the WTO stands for, and what aspiring regions and bodies have set out to accomplish, such as the free movement of labour and goods on the African continent thanks to the legal space established by the African Union. We wish them rapid success. And we stand by them to help wherever we can with our own leapfrogging experience in the field of digital technology.

Madam President!

Empathy starts at home. If we wish to care about others, then we need to care about ourselves as well as the people and the environment around us. Being connected to and dependent upon each other more than ever, we simply cannot afford to be self-centred and ignorant. We all need to see the bigger picture.

Empathy can easily be translated into efficiency if we really wish to get things done. Words are important, but are not sufficient if they are not followed by concrete action. Wars and conflicts are continuing, global warming is speeding up, and the heaps of litter around us just keep growing. We share equal responsibility to be more pro-active in preventing and solving the challenges of our times. When you feel helpless, it’s sometimes best to do the little things you see can be done. Globally, if we all do our share, things can only get better. Our planet can’t take any more freeriding. Any more hand-wringing and saying, ‘We can’t.’ Any more inaction. Any more hiding behind our current comforts, just to forget about what the state of the world we leave to our children will be. So, let us act both individually and collectively. Today, and every day.

Thank you!