UN chief: World is worse now because of COVID, climate, conflict

UNITED NATIONS – Beginning his second term as UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres on Thursday said the world is worse off in many ways than it was five years ago, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and the geopolitical tensions that have sparked conflict everywhere – but unlike US President Joe Biden, he believes Russia will not invade Ukraine.

Guterres said in an interview with The Associated Press that the call for peace he issued on his first day at the UN’s highest office on January 1, 2017, and his priorities in his first term to prevent conflict and address global inequalities, the COVID -19 crisis and a warming planet have not changed.

“The Secretary-General of the UN has no power,” Guterres said. “We can influence. I can persuade. I can mediate, but I have no power.”

Before becoming UN chief, Guterres said he envisioned the post as “a convener, a mediator, a bridge builder and an honest broker to help find solutions that benefit everyone involved.”

He said Thursday these are things “I have to do every day.”

As an example, the secretary-general said he had spoken this week with African Union envoy Olusegun Obasanjo, twice with Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and once with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to secure a cessation of hostilities in Ethiopia between the government and troops in the contested Tigray region.

“I hope that we are in a situation where it may soon be possible to cease hostilities and that is where I am focusing most of my efforts,” Guterres said.

As another example, Guterres said he also made calls to try to get Mali’s military leaders, who recently pushed back next month’s elections to 2026, to cut the schedule. He said he spoke with Mali’s military ruler, President Assimi Goita, three presidents of the 15-nation West African regional group ECOWAS, Algeria’s prime minister and the head of the African Union about “how to ensure that Mali has an acceptable calendar for the transition to civilian government.”

Guterres said he hoped Mali’s military leaders would understand that they had to accept “a reasonable amount of time” before the elections. The Secretary-General believes the vote should take place in a “relatively short period of time” and said: “All my efforts have been directed towards creating conditions to bridge this gap and allow ECOWAS and the Government of Mali to reach a solution to come an acceptable delay for the elections.”

Guterres said the UN Security Council, which has the power to maintain international peace and security, including by imposing sanctions and ordering military action, is divided, particularly its five permanent members, who hold a veto. Russia and China are often at odds with the US, Britain and France on key issues, including new sanctions on North Korea on Thursday.

On the question that now tops every country’s mind – whether Russia, which has 100,000 troops stationed on Ukraine’s border, will invade the former Soviet republic – Guterres said: “I don’t think Russia will invade Ukraine, and I hope that my belief is correct.”

What makes him think Moscow won’t invade when Biden and others think Russian President Vladimir Putin will send troops to Ukraine?

“Because I don’t believe in a military solution to the existing problems, and I think the most sensible way to solve these problems is through diplomacy and engaging in serious dialogue,” Guterres said, stressing that an invasion would be “terrible.” would have been consequences.”

The secretary-general said “we have of course been in touch” with top officials in Russia, even though the UN is not directly involved in the Ukraine crisis.

Guterres is scheduled to address the 193 UN member states at the General Assembly on Friday on his priorities for 2022.

He identified three immediate priorities that “concern me enormously”: the lack of immunization in much of the world, particularly in Africa; the need to reduce emissions by 45% this decade to try to meet the international goal of limiting future global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit); and the “extremely unfair” financial situation in the world that favors rich countries.

Many developing countries have very few resources, high debts that are growing, and they pay much higher interest rates than in Europe or North America, lack vaccines, and suffer disproportionately “from the effects of climate change,” Guterres said.

“We need a profound reform of our international financial system to ensure that resources are more equitably available for recovery (from COVID-19) to happen everywhere,” he said.

On another important issue, Guterres stressed that the Afghan people cannot be punished collectively for “false acts by the Taliban”, so it is absolutely necessary to massively increase humanitarian aid “because the Afghans are in a desperate situation with the Taliban are at risk of starvation” and disease deaths in a cold winter with COVID-19.

“More than half the population is in dire need of humanitarian assistance,” he said, and money needs to be pumped into the economy to ensure Afghan banks are functioning and doctors, teachers, engineers and other workers are paid to stem the country’s economic collapse to prevent.

The issue of recognizing the Taliban government is a matter for member states, Guterres said, but the UN has pressured the Taliban, who took power in August when US-led NATO troops withdrew after 20 years, to respect human rights, especially women, to ensure girls’ rights to work and education, and to make government more inclusive and responsive to Afghanistan’s diverse population.

The Secretary-General said he will attend the Beijing Olympics in February “which is not a political act” but “to be present when the whole world comes together forever – for a peaceful message”.

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