Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the opening of the second Partner Towns Conference on Sustainability in Bremen

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the opening of the second Partner Towns Conference on Sustainability in Bremen

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the opening of the second Partner Towns Conference on Sustainability in Bremen, © Thomas Trutschel

04.03.2019 - Speech

It almost feels like the United Nations in New York here – that’s not bad at all! It’s quite a feeling entering this room. The distinguished sounds made by the presumably centuries-old Hanseatic parquet flooring make it absolutely impossible to come in unnoticed. A good reason not to come too late!

The city of Bremen is certainly not too late as this event demonstrates – with its many international guests and above all with its chosen topic, which is absolutely of the essence today. A huge number of people worldwide are working on the sustainable development goals, as I can report from my various travels. It is good to bring these people together, since this is a challenge we can only master if we all work together. It is therefore wonderful that we are all gathered here in Bremen Town Hall. Thank you, Carsten [Sieling].

I have just returned from a trip to Africa – later than planned – and I would like to tell you about an encounter I had there, because it ties in with this event. Whilst in Sierra Leone, I met the new Mayor of Freetown, an incredibly impressive woman, who has only been in office for a few months. And that in Sierra Leone – a country in which the President declared a national emergency just a few weeks ago because of the mind-boggling sexual violence faced by women. And now a woman has become the capital’s Mayor and is tackling the city’s immense problems:

• Gigantic mountains of rubbish and insufficient sewers
• Rapidly growing slums on very steep terrain
• And a smoking ship in the harbour which is poisoning the city’s air with its huge diesel generators.

The Mayor’s optimism and contagious laugh stood in stark contrast to these problems. She did not talk about problems, but about opportunities for change, about sustainable policies – she has launched her own climate programme for the city – and she spoke of the need for international cooperation. All of these issues are on the agenda in Bremen today.

This meeting in Freetown brought three points home to me:

• Firstly, sustainable policies start small and local. It’s at local level that ways of implementing the sustainable development goals have to be developed.
• Secondly, all 17 goals are inseparably interconnected. Climate change leads to drought, drought accelerates rural exodus, rural exodus leads to overpopulation in the cities, overpopulation fuels conflict and causes health and environmental problems. The chain of causality is never ending.
• And thirdly, we must work even more closely together at all levels – I see no sensible alternative – be it under United Nations auspices, at inter state level, inter regional level, and between municipalities and local authorities. Politics, civil society, business and science must all pull together.

At present, the conditions are far from easy. In international politics, the signs are of increased isolation, a policy of “my country first,” to put it neutrally. That, by the way, is not only a problem in one particular country. There are other nations whose policies are also strictly guided by this principle.
But we mustn’t lose heart. If we want to make globalisation fairer and end extreme poverty within a generation, we have to seek new forms of cooperation in this international environment.

Throughout the world, there are partners who are committed to the 2030 Agenda goals. Who take their commitments seriously and implement them at their levels. For as you know, cooperation is essential if we want to achieve even one of these goals.
This same lesson can be drawn several times over from Bremen’s history:

• The Hanseatic League that was established in the Middle Ages was an international confederation of towns which shaped mercantile, political and cultural life along the North Sea coast and around the Baltic Sea for several centuries. The idea behind it was that shared rules, safe transport routes and free trade would bring greater prosperity to all.
• Bremen has remained true to this tradition. Over the centuries, Bremen merchants were pioneers in the field of international cooperation, and to this day the city is one of the most international places in Germany, shaped so much by its connections with overseas – as this room so clearly shows.
• Even the most famous story about the city – the tale of the Bremen town musicians by the Brothers Grimm – can ultimately be reduced to one key message: Cooperation is essential. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
That was true when the Brothers Grimm collected their folk tales 200 years ago. And it is even more true in our globalised world. The great challenges of our time – climate change, migration, terrorism, the advent of the digital age – as diverse and complex as they are, all have one thing in common: they know no boundaries. We will not manage to find purely national solutions to these challenges. We will only master them if we cooperate internationally. We need “Diplomacy for Sustainability”.

The prime characteristic of this brand of diplomacy is that we have to act with greater foresight than we currently do. Virtually all politicians claim to act with foresight. But if we look at the results of such foresighted action, especially at international level, there isn’t always much to see. We therefore need to do better in this area.
Sustainable foreign policy at its best stops wars and conflicts before they arise. There are various warning signs that point to potential conflicts or crises – restrictions on freedom of the press and freedom of opinion, crackdowns on the opposition, ever more climate-induced crop failures and famines. We must spot these signs. We accordingly need to invest much more in the early detection of crises, in stabilisation and in prevention.
For example in Burkina Faso, a country I visited last week. A country with a rapidly growing population, a poor, drought-stricken country which moreover lies in the sphere of influence of Islamist terrorists.

It is our objective to defuse this dangerous situation. We therefore pledged funds last week to improve the living conditions of people in the very areas in which terrorists and criminal gangs find their fresh recruits. We are supporting the build up of a police force grounded in rule of law principles and fostering cooperation between security forces within the country and across borders because we know that only if we give people better life prospects are they less susceptible to the lure of extremism and terrorism. Here, too, it is clear that climate-related issues, droughts and famines, are inseparably connected with security. That is why it is our objective to unpick this dangerous mix.
We also want to use our term on the United Nations Security Council to put crises on the international agenda at an earlier stage. The Security Council has to become the early warning system of international politics, as it were, precisely because it is so often deadlocked once conflicts have actually emerged.

We therefore put climate change and security on the agenda back in January – in cooperation with the Dominican Republic, a country that is already directly affected by the issue. Our message was – and I met with some astonished looks from other members of the Security Council, above all from some of the permanent members who think they are only responsible for ending wars and conflicts, a task that has not met with any great success in the past few years – our message was: Meteorological disasters, the destruction of vital natural resources, the loss of biodiversity – these all pose direct risks to global peace and security. We have established a group of friends with those Pacific island states that are so small they have little influence in the United Nations. We offered to give them a voice as a member of the Security Council. Small island states that are already affected by rising sea levels to such an extent that land loss is resulting in migration problems and will ultimately lead to major security problems, such island states know that climate change is not some theoretical scientific question, but a practical and immediate problem for many people in the world.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is also very clearly illustrated by another example, by the sustainable development goal, “Responsible Consumption and Production”. At core, this is about making globalisation fairer.

As long as forced labour and exploitation are the order of the day in many countries – and that is still the case in far too many places – as long as fair wages and minimum social standards remain a dream for millions of people, especially those affected, we are still a long way from this goal.

Sustainable production is simply not possible without decent work. Responsibility for achieving this does not lie solely with the producer countries, but also with us, the consumers, and of course with the internationally active firms concerned.

Germany’s economy is more closely integrated in global supply and value chains than almost any other. It thus behoves us to make the global economic order sustainable in social respects as well. As an export nation, we have profited more than many others from globalisation and integrated flows and trade in goods. We therefore bear greater responsibility for this issue than others perhaps do.

Our National Action Plan for Business and Human Rights, which focuses on decent working conditions, sustainable economic growth and responsible consumption, addresses this issue from both sides. Just a few weeks ago we reminded several thousand companies in Germany to implement this plan.
Ultimately, all participants will benefit. For without human rights, there can be no sustainable development.
Without fair framework conditions, at least in the medium to long term, globalisation will fail.

The spread of new nationalist sentiments in almost all world regions, here in Europe too, and in Germany as well, are just the first harbingers.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Global supply chains bring me to the third component of diplomacy for sustainability: Talking to governments alone does not suffice. We need new, more diverse partnerships.
Of course it is important for governments in particular to take their commitments to achieve the sustainable development goals seriously. They serve as role models.
That’s why it is so regrettable that we have so many problems internationally in this regard.

But it’s not only governments that can be partners. Even though the United States has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, federal states including California, cities such as New York, as well as firms and active elements in civil society all seek to move forward, to enter into international partnerships, especially on climate protection. We need them to be partners in our diplomacy for sustainability. That too is a topic of this meeting, and is embodied by the many international visitors present here today.
By the way, we also need closer partnerships within Germany – between the federal government, the Länder, local authorities and civil society.

The distinction between foreign and domestic policy is growing ever more blurred – regardless of whether we are talking about implementing the SDGs, the effects of international conflicts or external influence on domestic debates. At the Federal Foreign Office, we consider it to be one of our paramount tasks to bring all players to the table in order to reflect this situation and to ensure that the action plans which have been drawn up are coordinated with each other and ultimately work.

Another point that I consider important is that policies are only sustainable if they can genuinely be forged by society as a whole – including women and girls. Gender equality is not an act of charity, but a fundamental democratic principle and one of the keys to achieving the SDGs.

Ladies and gentlemen,
I already mentioned the Mayor of Freetown and her optimism and her courage to embrace change. We could also use some of that!
Three years after the adoption of the sustainable development goals, it is already apparent that implementation is lagging – also here in Germany. You, as the leaders of municipalities and local authorities, have an extraordinarily important role to play.
You know all about the challenges of uncontrolled urbanisation. But many of your cities are also showcases of innovative, sustainable developments.

I would like to ask you to contribute to the international debate by sharing your experiences. Today is the perfect opportunity to do this! Other opportunities will follow, for example at the SDG summit in New York this September and the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit, both of which will address the special role of cities. This gathering in Bremen today is of course also an example of diplomacy for sustainability in the very best sense, and I can only encourage you to continue your good work.
It is at local level, in the cities, that people will find out whether the 2030 Agenda will succeed or not. And it is also there that the necessary change in attitudes must take root. People everywhere must come to embrace sustainability in all spheres of life.
This will require courage and optimism, especially in our difficult world, under difficult framework conditions. May we all have courage and optimism!
Thank you.


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