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Christian Friis Bach

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The Executive Secretary's Blog

We are here today to celebrate 70 years of achievements in UNECE. There is a lot to celebrate.

The vision for our organization, as stated in resolution 1, was constructive economic cooperation to the maintenance of peace. During the difficult days of the Cold War, UNECE was one of the few places, if not the only place, where countries cooperated peacefully across different political systems, with a positive impact on the life of citizens throughout the region. Despite significant tensions in other areas, the technical work in UNECE continued to support economic cooperation in a fragmented Europe – quietly, constructively.

Hundreds of norms, standards and conventions have been negotiated, often without creating headlines, but always with a positive impact on the daily life of citizens. Tools like the TIR Convention and UN/CEFACT standards has saved companies billions of dollars by cutting red tape and avoiding delays at our borders. The vehicle safety regulations have – without doubt – helped save the lives of millions of people on our roads over the past decades. The reduction in air pollution under the Air convention has increased the average life span of our citizens by around one year. The agricultural standards guide a significant part of world trade in fruit and vegetables and give better products to consumers and higher prices to farmers. The global harmonized system for chemicals has improved safety and saved companies for hundreds of millions of dollars. These are just a few examples. UNECE has been connecting countries, driving progress and impacting people’s lives throughout these 70 years.

Our work is a testament to the value of international cooperation and its concrete benefits. UNECE brings life to the values of the UN Charter.  At a time when international cooperation is questioned in some quarters, we are a tangible proof that we can achieve concrete results. And, if I may add, these results are an excellent value for money.

Our anniversary is a moment to look back, but, just as much, a time to look ahead. Our region, and the world at large, have changed in many ways. New organizations have emerged and the economic dynamics are significantly different from those in Europe right after WWII. Our membership has grown significantly. Yet, despite all these fundamental changes, the work of UNECE is a steady force that remains highly relevant. We provide normative instruments that glue the economies of our region together. We contribute to the “hidden integration” of UNECE region.

In many ways UNECE is an expression of what is now referred to as cooperative sovereignty. Sovereign national states engaging in beneficial cooperation. And beneficial cooperation that strengthens the sovereignty of the national state. But it is also an example of what is called responsible sovereignty or even the sovereign obligation. The obligation of states to cooperate on the necessary norms, standards and conventions that can address threats and ensure peace and progress for all citizens. This is especially urgent in Europe – having been so divided, but also a region with a strong historic will to become united. Here we must not waver.

We owe it to the first Executive Secretary of UNECE, Gunnar Myrdal, but most importantly to ourselves and to our citizens to keep alive the idea of an integrated Europe transcending the divisions of the Second World War, the Cold War and the current tensions and divisions.

Here UNECE provides a well-tested, reliable platform to address common challenges and to ensure closer economic cooperation. And it is an impressive platform. UNECE supports 218 bodies, including 31 convention bodies, 50 subsidiary bodies and 137 expert bodies. We hold around 900 meetings and issue around 600 parliamentarian documents every year. For each working day it is more than four meetings and three documents. Every day. This is per staff member by far the highest efficiency in the UN Secretariat.

And UNECE’s work makes a difference – the best proof is the fact that many of the instruments hosted in UNECE generate interest and is used well beyond the region, often worldwide. We see it in the many new partnerships, not least within the UN System, we have established in recent years.

We owe the success of this work to our member States. Thank you for your leadership, trust and political support. I would also like to acknowledge the contributions of UNECE staff – colleagues who serve today and work hard to implement the mandates entrusted to us, just as well as those who came before us. I would like to welcome and recognize the contributions of three former Executive Secretaries, Ms Brigita Schmognerova, Mr. Yves Berthelot and Mr. Ján Kubiš. Thank you for joining us for this anniversary Commission session.

I often say that UNECE is an organization whose time has come. Our strong normative role is critical in an even more interconnected world. And it is key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. A revitalized multilateral agenda must be built on a strong, inclusive normative framework. Norms, standards and conventions that can help the nation state to build the institutional backbone needed for globalization to work. This is what UNECE can offer. This is what our region and the world needs.

If we get it right, the benefits will be substantial.

In 2030 freight transport can be totally digitalized allowing for cargo and containers to move freely between trucks, rail, ships and air and fast and secure across borders facilitated also by efficient trade procedures.

In 2030 we can have smart and sustainable cities using digital solutions and shared services with affordable and energy efficient housing, clean, safe and healthy transport with cities designed for walking and biking and new autonomous and shared electric or hydrogen vehicles.

In 2030 we can have reduced air pollution significantly adding another year to the average life-span of our citizens and see cooperation between countries to protect the quality of water.

In 2030 we could have millions of new jobs in the green economy, boosted the production of sustainable agricultural products, minimized food loss and we could have 10% more forests, all managed sustainably and with biodiversity loss reversed.

In 2030 we could have meaningful and effective public participation and assessments leading to sustainable decision making and we could have significantly increased the use of efficient people-first public-private partnerships to invest in sustainable development.

In 2030 we could have fully integrated energy markets in Europe allowing energy from the sun, the wind, water and waves to act in synergy throughout the continent, unleashing enormous forces of innovation, reducing carbon intensity significantly and improving the quality of life delivered by energy.

These are just examples. All examples are closely related to the work of UNECE. All examples will help us implement the Sustainable Development Goals. But none of this will happen without a strengthened normative framework. UNECE is ready to support our member States every step of the way.

To be ready for this ambitious agenda, we must be even more efficient and focused. When I entered office almost three years ago I described my four management goals: Accountability, Transparency, Participation and Equality. We have delivered on all of them. The UNECE house is in order. Apart from the parts that rely on highly needed changes in UN personnel rules or UN regulations. We have improved transparency, project management, evaluation, gender policy, climate-neutrality, visibility, communication and our partnerships with the regional UN System and with other international organizations.

And we have deepened our programmatic reach. We have seen increased accession to conventions and legal instruments, strengthened efforts on Road Safety, Public-Private Partnerships, energy efficiency standards in buildings, and hopefully soon also on geospatial information management and we have established the Regional Forum for Sustainable Development, which had its first successful meeting yesterday.

We have achieved a lot, and this positive trend continues and is reflected in the many draft decisions that will be tabled in this Commission Session.

I would like to congratulate all member States who have jointly made these achievements possible. We are on a good path but there is more work to do.

We cannot change the past. But we have the power to shape the future. We have the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which provides a unique opportunity. And we have an obligation – a sovereign obligation, an institutional obligation, a personal obligation - to do our outmost to ensure economic integration and cooperation to support the maintenance of peace and to enable all countries of our region to implement the Sustainable Development Goals.

UNECE is ready to do our part.


Statement delivered by Mr. Christian Friis Bach, Executive Secretary of the UNECE, during the 67th session of the Commission, on 26 April 2017


If you wonder why the animal accompanying my blog is a cow, it is because cows are fascinating animals; the cows of our host country, Switzerland, are famous for their quality; and because I am still a farmer, and miss the cows I had in Denmark. Now I got one back.