Speech by UNEP Executive Director at the Presentation of the Champions of the Earth Awards in New York
United Nations Headquarters
New York, New York 19 April 2005
It is my great pleasure to welcome you to the inaugural presentation of the UNEP Champions of the Earth Award.
Each of the seven Champions that we are honouring here tonight is an outstanding leader in the field of the environment.
Between them they represent all regions of the world and all sectors of society.
Together they are setting the environmental agenda, providing inspiration for action, and laying the foundations for a better future.
When UNEP decided to establish a new award we had a very clear purpose.
We wanted to recognize prominent and inspirational examples of environmental leadership.
We were looking for champions.
What is a champion?
Quite simply, someone who fights for, defends or protects.
Ladies and gentlemen,
It is less than a month since the UN released the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
It is yet more evidence that human activities are harming the life support system that we all depend on.
The world is crying out for champions who will fight for, defend and protect the natural riches that we have for too long taken for granted.
Fortunately, there are such champions who are making a real difference.
Eric Falt, UNEP’s Spokesperson and Director of Communications and Public Information, will describe the winners in greater detail.
But let me say a few, personal words about each one.
I am delighted to see the distinguished representative of Bhutan.
Last year my wife and I visited your fairy tale Kingdom and met some of your noble people.
I will never forget the hospitality.
In giving your King and your people this award, the world will hopefully never forget the extraordinary achievements of your country in areas such as forest conservation and eco-tourism.
I am also delighted to see the United Arab Emirate’s ambassador to the UN.
Only yesterday I was in Dubai to present personally and posthumously our trophy to His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Sheik Zayed’s eldest son.
Sheik Zayed was a truly remarkable man and a beacon of environmental stewardship in his region and around the world.
It is fitting that UNEP’s next special session of the Governing Council will be held in 2006 in Dubai also in the International Year of Deserts and Desertification.
I first met the now President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, over a decade ago when I was German environment minister.
The political and social changes in that country since then have been truly astonishing.
Proof that the human spirit can conquer all, overcome all inequalities and indignities.
Now the President and the people of South Africa are championing the Earth.
The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development is one of the essential blue prints for delivering the Millennium Development Goals.
This 20-strong South African delegation, including Marthinus van Schalkwyk, Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, underlines the importance to this country of the environment.
Only some weeks ago UK finance minister Gordon Brown at a meeting of the G8 said: “If our economies are to flourish, if poverty is to be banished….we must make sure we take care of the natural environment and resources on which are economic activity depends”.
Greetings too to His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America.
Here to receive the prize on behalf of His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew—our European winner.
We need the wisdom of all the world’s faiths and spiritual and indigenous beliefs to achieve the vision of sustainable development.
We need the tolerance and understanding so often expressed by this ‘the Green Patriarch” if we are to unite the peoples of the world in our common cause.
Latin America and the Caribbean
Julia Carabias Lilo is our Latin America and the Caribbean winner.
But it is her international work with the Global Environment Facility (GEF) that commands some of my deepest respect.
In 2002, she stepped up to Chair its Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel helping to give this most important of multilateral funds new and fresh direction.
Let us hope together that we see a substantial and sufficient replenishment of the GEF this year.
In UNEP’s chemicals unit, in Geneva, there is grey-green soapstone statute.
It is an Inuit Madonna and child. A symbol of beauty and the vulnerability of the Arctic people to global pollution.
It was a gift from Sheila Wattt-Cloutier, our North American winner.
So it is high time that we returned the tribute by giving Sheila something substantial from UNEP.
In a few short weeks, governments will meet for the first Committee of the Parties to the Persistent Organic Pollutants or Stockholm Convention.
This is also a tribute to Sheila. No one person has so tirelessly worked to realize the dream of a POPs convention.
She has made the Arctic and the world a healthier, safer, place.
Young people are the future.
The young people of China will have a significant impact on how that future unfolds.
There is every chance that their influence will be positive for the environment.
This is in no small part due to the catalytic work of the All China Youth Federation and its charismatic honorary chairman, Zhou Qiang.
To meet those young people as I have, to see their enthusiasm when cleaning up rivers or planting trees.
You know then that there is every chance that China can put itself on the trajectory of sustainability while delivering the economic growth so urgently needed in her western provinces.
Ladies and gentlemen, by choosing champions from each region, we are saying that all the world has a stake in our future.
By recognizing monarchs, and government and religious leaders, we are declaring that we expect our leaders to lead from the front—and applauding their efforts when they do so.
And by rewarding civil society representatives we show that we do not forget the indispensable work of the unsung majority
Later this year we will celebrate sixty years of the United Nations.
World leaders will also gather here to review progress towards the commitments, goals and targets agreed on at the turn of the Millennium.
Environmental sustainability is among those goals.
To many minds it is the goal on which the success of all the other goals depends.
Sixty years ago, when the United Nations came into being, environmental sustainability was not a consideration.
The United Nations Charter pledges “to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”
Sixty years on we can see that humankind’s impact on the environment is threatening that very freedom.
Without a sound environment it will be much harder to reduce poverty, improve health, and create a brighter future for mothers and children.
That is why the environment needs champions.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Before we go for dinner may I leave you with the words of Harry S. Truman, President of the United States at the time of the signing of the UN Charter 60 years ago.
“Men make history, and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”
Today’s world needs courageous leaders to do what it takes to reverse global environmental decline.
We need Champions of the Earth.