SALT LAKE CITY — As Salt Lake City bid farewell Wednesday to the historic 68th Annual United Nations Civil Society Conference, Utah government and faith leaders joined their global counterparts to issue a warm but urgent call to people worldwide to come together despite their differences to combat threats to life.
Those threats that resonated from the three-day conference include not just climate change, but also social issues that continue to divide communities — from gender inequality, intolerance regarding sexual orientation, xenophobia, restriction of religious freedom, and a long list of other issues.
Utah leaders of starkly different backgrounds — including Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski and Gérald Caussé, presiding bishop of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — joined the call to work together.
And for the first time in U.N. history, a president of the United Nations General Assembly — María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, a former Ecuadorean Foreign Minister — came to personally receive the U.N.’s 2019 adopted outcome document, a document drafted from the conference’s dozens of sessions and workshops to establish the U.N. Civil Society’s stated goal for this year.
Between 5,000 and 6,000 people were estimated to have participated in the U.N. conference, bringing people from 138 different countries all over the world to play a role in crafting the outcome document.
The document — paired with a youth-driven Youth Climate Compact — articulates the U.N. Civil Society’s specific goal to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable by 2030.” It’s among the 17 sustainable development goals the U.N. General Assembly adopted in 2015. Others include ending hunger and poverty, reducing inequality, and promoting decent work and economic growth — all by 2030 as climate change pressures loom.
The document, among a long list of calls to action to encourage eco-friendly and sustainable practices individually and across communities, also urged all stakeholders to “build and sustain safe, peaceful, and just societies, free from war, civil strife, human exploitation, hate speech and other crimes.
“Conflict resolution; respect for the faith, values, and traditions of all; and access to healthcare, including mental and behavioral health, are central to this effort,” the document states.
It comes during a time of heightened political division in the U.S. and against a backdrop of President Donald Trump’s oftentimes inflammatory comments regarding immigration and a lack of prioritization of policies to address climate change.
“The anxieties people are experiencing is being used to divide our communities,” Garcés said after accepting the adopted document. “Intensifying racism, xenophobia and violence has given space to those who peddle an insular vision. But yet every analysis shows that these challenges will not be addressed if we don’t work together.
“In our increasingly interdependent world where shocks in one country can affect the lives and livelihoods of people across the globe, it seems clear that we need more cooperation and not less,” she said. “More solidarity and not less.”
Among Wednesday’s speakers were U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California, who urged conference-goers to “create a better world” by encouraging “inclusivity” and “respect for human rights.”
“Which means we must call out racism, xenophobia, religious intolerance whenever and wherever we see it,” she said. “We must do that. That is our moral responsibility as human beings.”
At that moment, her microphone flared loudly, forcing her to pause her speech. As the noise died down, someone in the crowd shouted, “Get rid of Trump!”
Earlier in the closing comments Wednesday, Bishop Caussé, speaking on behalf of the church, said, “We are heartened to see this broad array of nations and organizations united to make this world a better place to live for all mankind.”
“I’m inspired by the theme of this conference, creating inclusive and sustainable cities and communities,” he said. “As I travel abroad, I can’t help but also see the need to create communities that sustain one another and include those who may be seen as different or vulnerable.”
Caussé spoke of how members of the church serve people worldwide in widespread volunteerism efforts, including natural disaster relief and serving meals to the hungry. He applauded members of the U.N.’s Civil Society for being part of that effort.
“It invigorates me to see how eager you are to improve lives,” he said. “Show us the way. Carry the baton. Maintain the flame.”
Caussé said the teachings of the church aims to “inspire volunteerism” and encourages citizens to “sustain one another.”
“Together we seek to reach across barriers and boundaries in the great work of creating a world in which we include, sustain, serve, and more importantly love one another,” he said.
Biskupski in her final comments thanked the U.N. for welcoming Salt Lake City to host the conference — the first time it’s been held on U.S. soil outside of New York. She said her “greatest takeaway from this historic gathering has been you, the activists, the scientists, the educators, the people faith.”
“Civil Society, you are the world’s conscience,” the mayor said. “This is a role needed more than ever.”
Biskupski spoke of how, at the close of this year, she’ll conclude her term as mayor, as she has previously announced. But she said she was “grateful” that one of her final duties as mayor was to host the conference — grateful to show the world how Salt Lake City is helping to contribute to sustainable practices.
She also said the conference gave her “hope” for multiple reasons.
“Hope as an openly gay woman who has proudly served my community and government for more than 20 years, and still feels the pain of discrimination directed toward me and my family and people like us,” she said. “Hope as a mother of two sons of color who is daily concerned not only for the fate of the planet they will inherit, but whether it will be a place free of discrimination and hate. Hope as a woman who has had the opportunity to lead for decades, but still finds that I too often am the only woman at the table.”
“I am confident and certain that this city is a better place because you were here.”
Biskupski said that the U.N. conference showed that even if people of different faiths and countries of origin “may not agree on every topic,” they gathered in one place “because we believe that together we have the power to affect change.”
“My wish for you is that as you leave this conference, you feel a renewed sense of support and strength to be the change agents that I know you are,” Biskupski said. “Thank you again for bringing your talents and your voice to Salt Lake City. I am confident and certain that this city is a better place because you were here.”