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Françoise Jacob, United Nations Resident Coordinator - Serbia

Placing Peace at the Centre

Peace is our most precious possession. As we start 2024, we must recommit to the pursuit of peace in all circumstances ~ Françoise Jacob

Just imagine the power that we could unleash if we focused on peacebuilding, rather than on division, escalation, aggression, war – says UN Resident Coordinator for Serbia Françoise Jacob, speaking in this CorD Magazine interview at the start of a year in which existing crises are set to deepen and new crisis hotspots are emerging. In a world rocked by conflict, the UN remains committed to building peace, while simultaneously struggling to promote solidarity and raise awareness of the perilous consequences of climate change and the challenges posed to humanity by artificial intelligence.

What do you consider as being the greatest challenges facing humanity and the UN this year?

— Peace is our most precious possession. As we start 2024, we must recommit to the pursuit of peace in all circumstances. “We, the people … determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…” – this is the beginning of the Preamble to the United Nations Charter as adopted in 1945 after WWII. Navigating what is now described as a new multipolar global order will undeniably foster new challenges and geopolitical divides. We see the increased polari sation within societies, and between countries around the world, including in Serbia, as a direct threat to democracy and to shaping a sustainable and peaceful future. Placing peace at the centre of our endeavours and ambitions will reap different results, including in contested political spaces.

Promoting solidarity and addressing inequalities will remain at the core of our actions in 2024. We have seen a global wealth increase – with 25 countries having halved their multidimensional poverty in the past 15 Years – but 1.1 billion people remain in poverty. Climate change, poverty and conflicts are drivers of migration. While we should continue to focus on developing local economies and fair social systems, we must support comprehensive migration policies that focus on protection, respect for human rights and the optimisation of labour needs and opportunities.

Across the globe, no election is without its shortcomings, and Serbia’s recent electoral process is no exception. Allegations of irregularities raised during the cycle are serious and must be treated as such

We have endured four years of successive crises, the pandemic, disruption to global supply markets due to the war in Ukraine and other factors, shifting energy economics, high inflationary trends, a series of climate- related emergencies, and more wars in Sudan, in Gaza. One of the great challenges this year will be to shift our focus towards meaningful, long-term structural transformations that are needed both in societies and in our economies, away from short-termism and the temptation to manage our future through reactive and conservative decisions. Transformation of any kind is often presented as a threat. Instead, we have a unique window to shape a new future, with new opportunities of all kinds, in industries, in education, in agriculture, in jobs.

Climate change and the ecological crisis remain the biggest longterm threat to humanity. The world is heating up faster than anticipated, generating natural phenomena and disasters of greater magnitude and instability. There are already many technological, social and business solutions available, but now we need genuine political commitments and extensive engagement with the citizens and stakeholders impacted directly, in order to transform them into makers of their own future.

The rapid expansion of Artificial Intelligence is also a major challenge. It will lead to dramatic changes in the ways that our societies and economies function, and will accelerate technological progress to solve many problems. The unfettered development of AI could also worsen inequalities and disrupt the social order. We will need to balance the race for profits and power with the need to preserve human rights and dignity.

The conflict in Gaza has already resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, with the victims including many women and children. Do you have the impression that the world is responding in the right way to the alarm calls of the United Nations and appeals to halt the destruction of the Palestinian people in the war zone?

— The situation in Gaza is appalling and the risk of a broader regional conflict is increasing. A catastrophic humanitarian situation is unfolding. People in Gaza cannot escape anywhere. The loss of life, including in UN personnel, is unprecedented and unacceptable. The UN is committed to maintaining support for the people of Gaza. Our facilities currently provide shelter to over a million civilians, but the conditions are deteriorating by the day.

Average monthly reports of domestic violence cases by the Prosecutor’s Office show an increase from 1,500 in 2018 to over 2,000 in 2023, indicating growing trust in institutions and the measures implemented

The demand of the United Nations has been consistent: the release of all hostages taken by Hamas on 7th October, 2023; an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and complete adherence to international humanitarian law by all parties involved in the conflict. Our aim is to halt attacks against civilians on both sides, against personnel and infrastructure, particularly healthcare workers and hospitals. The response from the international community needs to be swifter and more substantial, and we welcome the ongoing initiative of top EU diplomats and mediation work from neighbouring countries. Diplomatic efforts also need to intensify in order to secure the release of all hostages and to influence all parties to end this tragic conflict. Protracted conflicts, as they exist in other regions around the world, bring suffering and loss to all parties. Ultimately, regional stability and a peaceful solution for Palestine and Israel hinge on a commitment to finding a solution that works for everyone, including through the application of international law, mediation and dialogue.

It was almost ten years ago that the UN defined its Sustainable Development Goals as part of Agenda 2030. Among other goals, this agenda calls for the creation of a world without poverty and hunger, the reducing of inequalities, decent work for all, a responsible economy, high-quality education and healthcare etc. Is humanity progressing or regressing when it comes to achieving the proclaimed goals of Agenda 2030?

— The world is off track when it comes to achieving the SDGs by the 2030 deadline, as ambition, urgency and resources have been lacking amid a series of setbacks. On the positive side, there is now greater awareness that the principles outlined in agenda 2030 are transformative and relevant for every country. Much of the past eight years have been spent testing these principles with the reality on the ground, and finding ways to transform our economies, our relationship with the environment, and the social contract between states and their citizens. We have enough good examples from around the world to really accelerate the pace of change. Everyone needs to contribute – states, municipalities, communities, education institutions, the wider private sector and financing institutions, citizens.

Half way through Agenda 2030, Serbia achieved about 25% of the SDGs. which is slightly above the global average of 18%. Serbia is one of 32 countries that recently recommitted to the realisation of Agenda 2030, during the 2023 UN General Assembly. The commitments feature six transitions that will ground the country’s future national development plan in sustainability: the just energy transition; transformation of the education system; social protection and jobs; sustainable food systems; digital transformation; and the fight against the triple planetary crisis. This will provide the blueprint for the work of the UN in the coming years, along with our ambitions to strengthen human capital, expand the human rights and gender agenda and provide safer solutions for refugees and migrants. As for the private sector, the Serbian Chamber of Commerce & Industry and the local UN Global Compact have actively promoted the principles of agenda 2030, such as sustainability in supply chains and human rights in business.

Finally, a core principle of Agenda 2030 is to Leave No One behind, which is achieved by identifying the needs of special groups of people, depending on their degree of vulnerability and marginalisation – for example elderly citizens, poor households – and shaping dedicated solutions. Serbia is the first country to have developed a legislative tool to Leave No One Behind, which de facto screens new laws and strategies to ensure such specific provisions. It is yet to be implemented.

Serbia is emerging from another election cycle. Given that “peace, justice and strong institutions” have been defined as one of the pillars of Agenda 2030, and that the rule of law is among the priorities of the UN in Serbia, how do you view the election process and claims of widespread electoral irregularities?

— Elections are the cornerstone of democratic societies, serving as a vehicle for citizens to express their will and facilitating the peaceful transfer of power. Across the globe, no election is without its shortcomings, and Serbia’s recent electoral process is no exception. Allegations of irregularities raised during the cycle are serious and must be treated as such. As per procedures, accredited observers, both local and international, along with formal appeals processes, are essential in establishing the credibility and integrity of the elections. Their findings should guide the required corrective actions, without political interference. One major aspect of advancing “peace, justice and strong institutions”, as stated in Agenda 2030, is the willingness to acknowledge and address election imperfections. Constructive criticism should not only be tolerated but encouraged, as it leads to strengthening institutions, advances democratic processes and improves processes and safeguards. This requires transparency, commitment and maturity from all parties, and the recognition that the grievances of all citizens and propositions of multiple stakeholders should be considered.

The UN partnered Serbia on reforms in the area of strengthening human rights during the previous period, as well as providing great support to civil society organisations in their struggle to combat violence, particularly violence against women and girls. How would you evaluate the situation in this area?

— Violence against women and girls continues to be one of the most widespread human rights violations. The whole of society and multiple institutions share the responsibility to address this problem. Judicial institutions, social work centres, healthcare and education institutions, NGOs, local communities and the media all have a crucial role to play. In Serbia, important mechanisms have been put in place, including ratified conventions, laws and mandated requirements for institutions, all of which indicate progress. Average monthly reports of domestic violence cases by the Prosecutor’s Office show an increase from 1,500 in 2018 to over 2,000 in 2023, indicating growing trust in institutions and the measures implemented, yet analyses conducted by civil society organisations show that 80% of femicides are the result of unreported cases.

Civil society organisations show that 80% of femicides are the result of unreported cases

Women’s organisations report a constant annual average of around 30 cases in family-partner relationships. In Europe, there has been an average decrease in such murders of 20% over the past decade. The missing link is a shift in focus from reporting violence to preventing high-risk situations. Continued education and media programmes for women and girls, as well as for men and boys, with a focus on equal partner relationships, behaviour as an alternative to violence and protection mechanisms, as well as specific programmes for perpetrators, would contribute to reducing violence against women and cases of femicide.

Green transformation is one of the UN’s strategic priorities in Serbia. Efforts linked to the Green Agenda in Serbia range from raising awareness of the importance of environmental protection and the challenges of climate change among citizens to announcements that Serbia could be the site of major mining endeavours that have lasting environmental ramifications. Can a balance really be struck between the call for accelerated industrial development and the Green Agenda?

— The green transformation should not be pitched against industrial development, nor infrastructure development. There are many technological solutions, economic models and social approaches that spin the concept of development towards environmentally friendly sustainability! The main threat is resistance to change and rent-seeking behaviours, including from state institutions and parts of the private sector, both investors and individuals. Since 2021, Serbia has adjusted and expanded its legislative and strategic framework to suit the green transformation. It is now time for the state authorities to incentivise the transformation and enforce regulations, including in the case of major mining investments or in the development of public infrastructure. Monitoring the quality, integrity and compliance of large infrastructure investments with sustainability principles will be equally important for Serbia’s future. Such processes need to be transparent and effective – not only in order to secure a healthy development, but also to address corruption risks that are typically high in any large construction investment programme. Citizens must be informed and must utilise the multiple democratic representation mechanisms and civil society to be heard and to participate meaningfully.

Since 2020, the UN in Serbia has promoted the “just transition” approach. This approach acknowledges the need for economic progress, while simultaneously demanding that it be anchored in social and environmental responsibility. It shapes solutions for the more vulnerable segments of the population in times of deep changes, such as the closing of coal mines. Achieving significant reductions in its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 is within Serbia’s capabilities, but requires concerted action and integrated policymaking across key economic sectors. To achieve this, we must engage with individuals, industries and communities, communicating the urgency of the matter and the opportunities that lie ahead. That’s why we are calling for collective action and a shared vision of a prosperous but green future. And that, I believe, is what can bring citizens together.

Could you tell us something about the mural that was recently painted on UN House in Belgrade?

— The mural is a vibrant image of Serbia’s outstanding biodiversity, crafted by artists Maria and Stefan Soln. Serbia is one of Europe’s six biodiversity hotspots, home to over 40% of Europe’s land mammals and more than two-thirds of its bird species. The mural reminds us of our collective responsibility to protect and nurture this precious, diverse expression of life. Some of the animals depicted on the wall are endangered, symbolising the urgency of action to safeguard this biodiversity, in addition to fighting climate change and pollution. The mural also tells us to incorporate nature into our urban environment, to mitigate the climate crisis and protect the wellbeing of citizens. Cities like Belgrade must make the right choices today that will positively impact our environment and our health for the next 30 years, particularly in terms of sustainable mobility, infrastructure and housing.

UN PREAMBLE

“We, the people … determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…” – this is the beginning of the Preamble to the UN Charter as adopted in 1945 after WWII

DEMOCRACY

We see the increased polarisation within societies, and between countries around the world, including in Serbia, as a direct threat to democracy and to shaping a sustainable and peaceful future

INEQUALITIES

We have seen a global wealth increase – with 25 countries having halved their multidimensional poverty in the past 15 Years – but 1.1 billion people remain in poverty

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