27 Sep 2020

Julia Roberts presents a world-wide media event – Nations United – on the UN’s development goals

From Smart Talk, 4:06 pm on 27 September 2020
United Nations building, New York

United Nations building, New York Photo: United Nations

Read the transcript of the documentary

Julia Roberts:

This is a very important story. The important story.

I’m Julia Roberts and in the midst of COVID-19, we have an historic opportunity to look at the world as it is, the facts of the world as it is, and then to really focus on the solutions to some of our greatest problems. In the 75 years since The United Nations was founded, the human race has never had to face a set of challenges like we do right now. But together, we can overcome them.

Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

This is Nations United: Urgent Solutions for Urgent Times…. and there is still lots to be done.

September 2020, and the world is still in the grips of a global pandemic. There have been more than 27 million confirmed cases and more than 900,000 people have died. Billions of people have been in lockdown for months. Lives and livelihoods have been threatened and lost. As some lockdowns are easing, people are emerging into a different, uncertain world with a new appetite for change.

UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres

UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres Photo: United Nations

Antonio Guterres:

Today we feel the weight of history on our shoulders. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how fragile the world is.

Julia Roberts:

Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Antonio Guterres:

A microscopic virus has put us on our knees and that fragility should make us humble and should make us recognise that we need solidarity and unity.

Julia Roberts:

COVID-19 has been likened to an x-ray – exposing fractures in the skeletons of the societies we have built. A world with great inequality – which must be righted – and a world which must win the battle against climate catastrophe.

A worker disinfects the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira, an underground church built into a salt mine, in Colombia on August 30, 2020.

A worker disinfects the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira, an underground church built into a salt mine, in Colombia on August 30, 2020. Photo: AFP / Juan Barreto

Antonio Guterres:

The whole planet is at stake. So this is a moment to wake up and this is a moment to recognize that the way we have been moving it’s nowhere and that we need to change course.

Julia Roberts:

The lockdowns also showed that our environment itself could change. In the Punjab, for the first time in generations, the Himalayas are visible once again. Lions have reclaimed the roads in the Kruger National Park, and in Venice the canals run clear once more.

In the first few weeks of lockdown, Andrea Bocceli stood alone and sang on the steps of the Duomo di Milano.

Andrea Bocelli:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

Julia Roberts:

All around the globe people have had to improvise, adapting to a new normal and changing the way they live, to cope with the COVID crisis: from homeschooling and remote working, celebrating the work of doctors and nurses and putting the needs of vulnerable members of society ahead of our own personal freedoms.

Antonio Guterres:

If you look at the response of people to COVID-19, people dramatically changed their lives. So, people are ready to change. Now it’s for political systems to be able to do the same but people have shown an enormous capacity to adapt to new circumstances and enormous capacity to change the way they live, the way they work, the way they organise themselves. So, change is possible. The problem is political will.

Julia Roberts:

On the 25th of September 2015, all United Nations member states signed up to the Sustainable Development Goals. A set of solutions for the biggest problems that our world faces.

Over the next 30 minutes we’ll look at the four key areas where we must take urgent action.

  • Poverty and inequality
  • Justice and human rights
  • and gender equality

But let’s start with climate and our planet.

A bushfire burns in the town of Moruya, south of Batemans Bay, in New South Wales on January 4, 2020.

Photo: AFP

Julia Roberts:

New Year’s Eve, 2019, New South Wales, Australia

RADIO BROADCAST “But if you’re in [UNCLEAR] or surrounding coastal areas, you’re at risk. Leaving now is the safest option, so leave now towards the beach and shelter in place.”

ACTUALITY “Next door’s on fire. Oh my god. Okay, I’m scared. I think it’s time to get in the car and actually go.”

ACTUALITY: “We’re out of here guys 'cause this whole place is on fire. Oh my god, my neighbour’s house. We need to go. Oh my god. Oh my god.”

Last December Australia recorded temperatures above 47 degrees, and in January bushfires caused tens of thousands to flee from their homes.

ACTUALITY: “This is a real nightmare. I can’t believe this is real. I can’t see anything. This is literally not real. This is not real. He’s coming. Oh my fricking god. We just have to get down this road to the beach.”

Nearly 3 billion animals were killed or displaced in these fires

“This is literally not real. This is not real. All I want is my family.”

BACKGROUND NEWS ARCHIVE: “4 people have now died because of the (inaudible) wildfire.”

The last decade was the hottest decade on record

“Overnight another onslaught from the ever existing…”

Latest satellite image of Tropical Cyclone Harold above Vanuatu.  The system is swirling over Solomon Islands.

Latest satellite image of Tropical Cyclone Harold above Vanuatu. The system is swirling over Solomon Islands. Photo: Vanuatu Meteorology Service

Julia Roberts:

Extreme weather displaces over 20 million people a year and just this year we’ve seen: 

  • Siberian fires and catastrophic flooding in Jakarta in February.
  • Devastating swarms of locusts in East Africa in April. 
  • Cyclone Amphan in Eastern India and Bangladesh in May.
  • Over 400 wildfires in Alaska, and in August more wildfires on America’s Pacific coast.

(INTERCUT INTO THE ABOVE) “Powerful storms slamming into eastern India, it could be the worst the area has seen in 20 years.”

“(inaudible) and it has just made landfall near India’s border with Bangladesh.”

Climate Change is man-made, and the main driver is CO2 pollution from burning fossil fuels. Global temperatures continue to rise.

But something else is on the rise… climate protests… All around the world:


Climate activists protest at the UN Climate Change Conference COP25 Madrid

Photo: AFP

Julia Roberts:

From London, to Australia (“We are not drowning…)

to New Zealand (Haka Clip)

Uganda (Vanessa Nkate clip)“Climate change is here now and it is killing people right now – the people who are looking at it right in the face.”

Tokyo (Chanting in Japanese)

India. (Indian protests - “I want to breathe clean. I want to breathe clean.”)

Christiana Figueres was the lead negotiator for the Paris Climate agreement in 2015:

“The next eight to ten years is going to determine the quality of life for the next 100 to 200 years. That’s the race that we’re in.”

Don Cheadle

Don Cheadle Photo: United Nations

Don Cheadle:

We all watched with amazement when exactly one year ago, young people from all over the world took to the streets to express their feeling that we’re not doing enough about climate change.

Julia Roberts:

Actor Don Cheadles is a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Environment Programme.

Don Cheadle:

That we’re not treating it like the emergency that it is. It’s a year later now. Have we done enough? We have not. And climate change is only part of the story. Our rainforests are disappearing at an extraordinary rate – a football pitch of rainforest is destroyed every six seconds.One million plant and animal species are on the brink of extinction

By 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. And so, climate change and our treatment of the natural world are combining, and exacerbating each other, to create a perfect storm.

This cannot go on. You know it, I know it. We know what we need to do.

Julia Roberts:

In 2015 the UN announced 17 sustainable development goals, the SDGs, a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. We need to follow these goals to ensure we are the last generation to be threatened by climate change. These are the solutions.

No caption.

Photo: 123RF

Don Cheadle:

We need to reduce global emissions by 50% by 2030. To do this, we need a rapid but just transition to renewable energy. That means an end to the building of new coal power stations, and an end to the subsidizing of fossil fuels.

Governments should shift the tax burden from payrolls to carbon. Taxing carbon rather than people will increase output and employment, while reducing emissions.

And we need to stop deforestation in its tracks – planting trees instead of chopping them down.

We need to think about what we eat, and how we produce food – embracing healthy nutritious diets, sustainable farming methods and reducing food waste.

The climate crisis is an opportunity. Renewable energy is cheaper than fossil fuels. Thousands of businesses are working to go carbon neutral. And the opportunity to generate clean, safe and decent jobs is enormous. The passion for protest can turn into a passion for changing all our behaviour to create a better, safer, just, sustainable world.

The hands of a Syrian child hooked at a fence at the al-Hol camp in al-Hasakeh governorate in Syria, on August 08, 2019.

The hands of a Syrian child hooked at a fence at the al-Hol camp in al-Hasakeh governorate in Syria, on August 08, 2019. Photo: Delil Souleiman / AFP

Julia Roberts:

Poverty and inequality.

They are universal. They undermine every society, everywhere. But poverty is not natural. It is manmade, so poverty is not inevitable.

It’s an area where the world has made huge progress in the past few decades.

Just 30 years ago there were 1.9 billion people living in extreme poverty, but that number has been transformed.

In 2015 it fell to 734 million. That’s over a billion people lifted out of poverty.

Amina Mohammed:

A billion people out of poverty is amazing.

Julia Roberts:

Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the UN.

UN Deputy Secretary General, Amina Mohammed

UN Deputy Secretary General, Amina Mohammed Photo: United Nations

Amina Mohammed:

It was across the world we lifted people out of poverty. Across the world more kids got into education. It was across the world maternal mortality was reduced. Across the world today, not many people will be left without access to a mobile phone and what that has done to empower them, to access to education, to a livelihood is huge.

Julia Roberts:

But still almost 10% of the human race are living unbelievably harsh lives.

This is largely determined by their circumstances at birth, and these high levels of inequalities work against better opportunities for all. Opportunities that could change the world.

Sugata Mitra

Sugata Mitra Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Prof. Sugata Mitra:

The world is filled with inequality. While we are floating on the same sea we are not in the same boat. It’s clear that some are in super yachts, while others are clinging to drifting debris.

Julia Roberts:

Professor Sugata Mitra is the brains behind what has become known as ‘The Hole in the Wall Experiment.’

Prof. Sugata Mitra:

I want to tell you a story about 1999. I used to teach people how to write computer programs and I had a very, you know, plush office and everything. And just outside of these offices there was this large sprawling urban slum full of children.

These were children who had never seen a computer before and they didn’t know any English, but I had a sneaky kind of suspicion that there was a special relationship between children and computers that perhaps we were not aware of.

So, one day I made an opening in the boundary wall that separated my offices from the slum and then I fixed a computer into the wall, so that from the other side, you could see the computer and a touch pad.

No caption

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

On the first day, we saw this 8 year old boy, teaching a 6 year old girl how to surf. So how on earth did he figure that out? How did he know what the computer was doing? Three months after I had first put the computer in the wall, children said they wanted a faster processor and a better mouse. I asked them, “How on earth do you know these words? Where did you learn this from? And they said, “Well you left a machine here that speaks only in English, so we had no option but to learn the language.”

Easy isn’t it.

I repeated the Hole in the Wall Experiment for five years across the length and breadth of India.

In a village 300 miles from Delhi, one girl is explaining to another girl what a neuron is… they are just 12 years of age.

We have an enormous potential of what children can achieve together if we let them.

Michelle Yeoh:

There is potential everywhere. We just have to unlock it.

Julia Roberts:

Actor and UNDP Goodwill Ambassador, Michelle Yeoh.

Michelle Yeoh

Michelle Yeoh Photo: United Nations

Michelle Yeoh:

A huge amount depends on where public money is spent. More of it must urgently go into health, into giving everyone a safety net.

There’s a revolution that is happening in education: Global digital literacy, connecting every school, every person to the Internet.

This can be done.

The recovery from COVID must lead to an economy that works for all people.

Let’s start with tax. We have widespread tax concessions, tax avoidance and tax evasion, which mean that there’s so much less money for all the crucial things – health, education, social protection, green jobs.

Many developing countries are weighed down by historical debts, spending more money on debt repayments than they are spending on healthcare.

And then, there’s the importance of global investment in peace – more and more, the poorest countries in the world are those countries where conflicts and violence tear apart people’s lives and chances. The peace dividend for the world is immeasurable.

Julia Roberts:

That’s why in March The UN Secretary-General called for a global ceasefire

Michelle Yeoh:

And we must break the vicious cycle of corruption, and increase the power of the people to keep check on the people in power – a strong civil society, a free, independent media and responsible social media platforms that encourage healthy debate. 

Equality unleashes the potential of everyone to improve their own lives and to contribute to the lives of everyone else.

Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy Photo: Mayaank Austen Soofi

Julia Roberts:

In April, the novelist Arundhati Roy wrote an essay entitled The Pandemic is a Portal in which she argued that the pandemic presents us with an unparalleled opportunity to re-imagine our future. Forest Whitaker reads her words…

Forest Whitaker:

Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It’s a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through it lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Julia Roberts:

Amina Mohammed.

Amina Mohammed:

There’s a certain outrage for injustice right now in every sphere. I think we’re at a moment where COVID perhaps has helped us realise that there is an intergenerational transition and that young people now are waking up to the cause that we’ve had for my generation which have said look, this is the opportunity you’ve got to make things change. They are rising up and we are bringing young people to the table now, not as a token but to help us shape and to take that baton, to take up the gauntlet and to move forward.

Julia Roberts:

In June, George Floyde’s brother Philonise gave testimony to the US House Judiciary Committee.

Philonese Floyde:

Thank you for the invitation here today to talk about my big brother. The world knows him as George – but I called him Perry. Yesterday we laid him to rest. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I’m the big brother now. So, it’s my job to comfort my brothers and my sisters – Perry’s kids and everyone who loved him. And that’s a lot of people. I couldn’t take care of George that day he was killed. But maybe by speaking with you today, I can make sure that his death will not be in vain. To make sure that he is more than another face on a t-shirt, more than another name on a list that won’t stop growing, I’m here to ask you to make it stop. George called for help and he was ignored. Please listen to the call that’s ringing out the streets across the world.


Philonese Floyde:

People of all backgrounds, genders and races have come together to demand change. The people marching in the streets are telling you enough is enough.

To the leaders – the people elected you to speak for them, to make positive change – you have the opportunity to make your names mean something too. If his death ends up changing the world for the better, and I think it will, then he died as he lived. It is on you to make sure his death is not in vain.

I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to Perry while he was here. I was robbed of that. But I know he’s looking down at us now. Perry, look up at what you did big brother. You changed the world. Thank you for everything, for taking care of us when on earth, for taking care of us now. I hope you find Mama and you can rest in peace with power.

United Nations building, New York

United Nations building, New York Photo: United Nations

Julia Roberts:

After the genocide and destruction of the Second World War, the United Nations was founded. Enshrined in its charter was the fact that all people are equal and entitled to the same respect, justice and human rights. This remains a simple truth and yet across the globe, this struggle is still being fought.

Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the UN.

Amina Mohammed:

The more we’ve seen poverty and inequality, hunger, conflict. The more we understand that it is about the person that could be left behind. And so, it’s really important that we don’t leave anyone behind. And we ask ourselves, country by country, community region, the world, who are the no ones? They are defined in many different ways, depending where you’re coming from. So, you know, discrimination, exclusion, all of that provides fodder for instability in the world. And we know, that everyone has a right to a life of dignity.

Julia Roberts:

Inequality for women is one of the world’s great injustices but it is an injustice that must be and will be swept away.

Thandie Newton takes up the story:

Thandie Newton

Thandie Newton Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Gage Skidmore

Thandie Newton:

75% of parliamentarians are men, 73% of managerial decision-makers are men, 67% of climate negotiators are men and 87% of the people at the peace table are men… even though we know that when peace settlements include women the negotiations and the outcomes are more durable.

Globally almost one in five women has experienced violence in the past twelve months at the hands of a man they know. Women and girls do three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men.

The global gender pay gap is stuck at 16% with women paid up to 35% less than men in some countries

Every year, 12 million girls are married before 18.

All this has to change. It is time to stop trying to change women and start changing the systems that prevent them from achieving their potential. And this is the battle that women in this century will not lose - they are too strong and their voices will not be silenced. 

Malala Yousafsai

Malala Yousafsai Photo: United Nations

Malala Yousafsai:

I was named after a girl.

An Afghani folk hero, who was killed in battle. Just after I was born my father got out our family tree. It went back 300 years. But not a single girl or woman’s name appeared on it. He decided to make me the first. He wrote Malala. That’s me.

Julia Roberts:

When her father’s school was closed down by the Taliban, Malala Yousafzai began to campaign for the right of young girls across Pakistan to go to school.

Malala Yousafsai:

I have rights. I have the right of education. I have the right to play. I have the right to sing. I have the right to talk. I have the right to market. I have the right to speak up.


ARCHIVE: They shot her in the head, she is still in critical condition.

ARCHIVE: She was airlifted to a military hospital in Pashawa, where she had surgery to…

Julia Roberts:

As surgeons battle to save her life, vigils took place throughout the world.

ARCHIVE: In the first photo release today, Malala’s eyes are open and she appears alert.

ARCHIVE: We have some good news to report today, Malala Yousafzai walked out of a London hospital today.

Malala Yousafsai:

Today it is an honour for me to be speaking again after a long time! They thought that the bullet would silence us, but they failed. Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born. Today is the day of every girl who has raised their voice for their rights.

Malala Yousafzai has become the youngest Nobel laureate.

Malala Yousafzai has become the youngest Nobel laureate. Photo: AFP

Julia Roberts:

In 2014, at the age of 17, Malala Yousafsai became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Today she continues to campaign for universal education for girls, but she doesn’t want to do it alone…

Malala Yousafsai:

(Paraphrased) My message right now is to young people, we are living in a world where things are not the way we want, we are getting a system that is unequal, sexist, racist, it discriminates against people, our climate is at risk and there is so much to be done. But I hope that young people stand up and start their activism. Let your age not stop you, you don’t have to be 40 or 50 to change the world. Even if you are 11, 16, change is possible any time, and I want you to believe in yourself and make the world a fairer and more equal place that is better for everyone.

Julia Roberts:

Thandie Newton.

Thandie Newton:

And once again, there are positive solutions that can turn things around fast. We need more women in positions of power at every level of government. Women are more likely to argue for investment in education and health and to seek cross-party consensus and peace,

The time has come for quotas that make sure women are equally represented in every country.

It’s time to make our laws equal so that every woman is entitled to a job and a national identification card and to own property

Women must be able to live free from violence and have control over their own bodies especially in choosing if, and when they marry.

We must guarantee full access to sexual and reproductive health services and rights.

We must provide the money to close the gap in girls’ education.

And there are important changes needed to achieve economic empowerment for women from equal access to finance to ending the gender pay gap to equal access to the digital world, from mobile bank accounts to digital payment systems.

70672660 - men and women on scales. concept of gender inequality

Photo: prazis/123RF

Julia Roberts:

It just doesn’t make sense. Women are half of the population, but society does not treat them/us as equals. This is a legacy that needs to change here and now. By changing our behaviours, but also by changing laws and common practices across the world. We must all make that happen now.

It’s a myth that each and every one of us doesn’t have the ability to change the world dramatically and quickly. There have been enormous shifts in power and behaviour to the benefit of all humanity. It can happen again. We can create and enjoy green jobs, live healthier lives with cleaner air and better diets – and in more equal societies, all of us; men and women, can enjoy safer and more productive lives.

There is power in every decision we make. We can shape society and the future of our planet and people in every choice we make. 

Antonio Guterres:

My final message is let’s be humble.

Julia Roberts:

Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the UN.

Antonio Guterres:

Let’s recognise our fragilities and let’s understand that only in unity and solidarity we will be able to address them. It’s true in each one of our countries. It’s true at the global level. Let’s take profit of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations to think together how better we can organise the international community to address climate change, inequality, pandemic like the COVID-19 and so many other aspects that can only be solved if we join together and if we are able to have one common strategy, one common project and one common determination in favour of peace, of development and human rights in the world.

Julia Roberts:

So can we do it? Is change possible?

Antonio Guterres:

It is. Depends only on the political will.

Julia Roberts:

Our final word – goes to Beyoncé.


Beyoncé Photo: United Nations


Julia Roberts:

We know the facts. We have the solutions

With Nations United, power can be given to all, and that power used for justice and equality for people and planet.

Use your power. Find out how.

Beyoncé performs at the United Nations

Beyoncé performs at the United Nations Photo: United Nations

Nations United was created to promote the UN’s sustainable development goals, and mark the 75th anniversary of the organisation. It is being distributed internationally across many platforms to advance the idea of the need to reshape and reimagine the future.

No caption

Photo: United Nations