Opening Address by Mr Alain Berset, President of the Swiss Confederation, WEF Annual Meeting - Check against delivery.

The post-war order is currently experiencing its greatest crisis. Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine constitutes a brutal attack on a peaceful country. But it is also a brutal attack on international law and multilateralism.

The war is causing great suffering. And it is playing a decisive role on the global development of democracy. That is why the great solidarity shown by democratic countries with Ukraine is crucial – solidarity with the people in the country, but also with those who have fled.

And this aggression has come, of all countries, from a member of the UN Security Council, which, and I quote from the UN Charter: bears ‘primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security’.

In spite of this – no, precisely because of this! – Switzerland, will make every effort to again strengthen international law and multilateralism in the UN Security Council – for the first time this year and through International Geneva, the seat of one of the most important multilateral platforms.

The world needs strong multilateral platforms because the greatest present-day challenges are transnational – climate change, pandemic, war, migration, proliferation.

This Annual Meeting is also an important platform for global dialogue. It is a place of optimism, of can-do-spirit. This is especially so in times of crisis.

When I first attended the Annual Meeting back in 2012, the motto was: “The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models.” It was a call to look to the future with optimism – and to have confidence in: ‘the strength of our shared values and vision’.

But even at the time, WEF founder Klaus Schwab warned that: “Inclusion is critical at a time when the number one risk to the world is rising inequality.” This warning has proven to be as accurate as it was far-sighted.

For since then, inequality worldwide has continued to grow: The World Inequality Report 2022, which measures global wealth, income, gender and ecological inequality, comes to the conclusion that inequality today is as great as it was twenty years ago.

And all the fears expressed at the 2012 Annual Meeting have come true. Inequality brings with it huge political and social collateral damage. What we call populism is essentially a reaction to growing inequality.

We all know that: Extreme inequality undermines social cohesion. It creates resentment, causing us to seek scapegoats. And it is politically toxic, eating away at our faith in democracy.

The number of democracies worldwide has diminished very much. According to Freedom House, around 50% of the world’s population lived in democracies ten years ago – Today, that figure is just 20%.

We find ourselves at a tipping point. Democratic institutions are being weakened. In certain places, the rule of law is under threat – even in some democratically constituted states. And the rule of law is also at risk of eroding in the international system.

Business as usual is no longer an option: We must take steps to defend steadfastly the foundations, that are a prerequisite for civilised coexistence.

We have given much thought – also here at the Annual Meeting – to efficiency and prosperity but too little to social fairness.

What applies in the domestic politics of most countries, also applies in relations between states. Here too, inequality is growing at an alarming rate – and already fragile states are further weakened. First, by climate change and the pandemic, and then by the war in Ukraine.

Around 350 million people in 82 countries are currently at acute risk of hunger, according to the UN World Food Programme. That’s 200 million more than before the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

In large parts of Africa, the consequences are dramatic: Before the war, 90 per cent of grain supplied to Eritrea and Somalia came from Russia and Ukraine. The sharp rises in the price of fertiliser and oil have a huge impact on the continent’s poorest countries, weakening them further still.

The COVID pandemic also hit already fragile states hardest. Inequality increased significantly. And what is particularly difficult to accept is that prior to 2020, African countries were among the fastest growing in the world! Many countries in Africa – just as many parts of the world – have been weakened by this terrible war, and seen their ambitions reduced.

But that does not diminish the importance of these countries. It does, however, require a rethink. It needs an active global partnership. A partnership that recognises the enormous potential of countries in Africa and strengthens human rights and democracy. A partnership that addresses humanitarian needs as well as supports economic opportunities and innovation.

Inequalities are not eliminated by charity. Take the example of COVID-19 vaccines. Promises were made to help fragile countries – Switzerland too lent its financial and political support to the COVAX initiative of the World Health Organization, which wanted to achieve equitable access to vaccines worldwide. But when it came to distributing vaccines, there was little evidence of that kind of partnership.

In light of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, we have seen that: The risk of fragility is no longer a one-way street. The problems experienced by fragile states do not remain within their own borders. They are always exported, to neighbouring countries, but also to far-flung regions – in the form of migration, corruption, terrorism.

We must do all we can to support fragile states – otherwise they risk becoming failed states. That is why Switzerland will work systematically on behalf of the most vulnerable – in particular to protect the civilian population and improve food security.

Fragility poses a threat to us all. That is true domestically. And internationally.

Self-interest and supporting those weaker than ourselves – We have long considered these to be two different things. Now we know: They are one and the same.

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Last update 29.01.2022


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