In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with UN News, Secretary-General António Guterres is calling on world leaders to ‘wake up’, make an immediate course correction at home and abroad, and unite.
“The institutions we have, have no teeth. And sometimes, even when they have teeth, like in the case of the Security Council, they have not much appetite to bite”, the UN chief said.
With only a few days until the 76th session of the General Assembly kicks of its high-level week, Mr. Guterres sat down with UN News to answer questions on a host of topics, from the COVID-19 pandemic, to gender equality.
He called for an equitable global vaccination plan, with variants continuing to appear, that at some point, might become resistant to current innoculations. “And on that day, nobody will be safe, in the south and in the north, not even in the countries where everybody was vaccinated,” he said.
On Afghanistan, he argues that the situation is “unpredictable” and warned: “What happened in Afghanistan, might embolden now, terrorist groups or other rebel movements to become more aggressive.”
The UN Chief also highlighted climate change, saying the world is “on the verge of the abyss” and asked all Member States to make the next UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, a success.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
UN News: In your recent report on Our Common Agenda, you singled out multilateralism as the best tool for rebuilding a sustainable world in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Why do you hold this strong conviction that multilateralism is the only sure way forward for our world today?
António Guterres: Well, look what has happened to our world; a virus has defeated the world. More than one year and a half after everything started, we still have the virus spreading everywhere. And we see a dramatic impact on the lives of people, a dramatic increase of inequalities, economies in extremely difficult situations, and of course, the most vulnerable suffering enormously.
The world was not able to come together and to define a global vaccination plan, and bring the countries that can produce vaccines together, with the World Health Organization, with the international financial institutions, to then deal with the pharmaceutical industry and double the production, and make sure that there is an equitable distribution at the production. This cannot be done by a country alone; it needs to be done by all.
The problem is that the multilateral institution we have now – which is essentially WHO – WHO has not even the power to obtain information about the situation. It does not have the power to investigate the origins of a disease.
So, we need to solve the problem multilaterally, bringing everybody together, but we need to have multilateral institutions with a stronger capacity of governance in order to be able to prevent, and in order to be able to solve the challenges that we face.
If you talk about climate, it is the same. We are on the verge of the abyss. The truth is that our objective is very clearly fixed by the scientific community, that temperature should not go above 1.5 degrees until the end of the century.
We are risking not to be able to do it, because countries are not cooperating among themselves. There is a lot of mistrust between developed countries, developing countries. There is a north-south divide that is making it difficult for all to assume commitments, to reduce emissions, in order to have a drastic reduction the next decade or two and reach carbon neutrality in 2050.
So, we need a strengthened multilateralism, it’s clear that only cooperating we can solve the problems. But the institutions we have, have no teeth. And sometimes, even when they have teeth, like in the case of the Security Council, they have not much appetite to bite.
We need a multilateral group of institutions network working together, because everything now is interlinked, and with more authority in order to be able to mobilize the whole international community to solve the problems that we face.
And that is exactly one of the objectives of the Common Agenda – to detect the global commons and the global public goods that need improved governance and to work with member states to find mechanisms in order for that governments to be more effective for us to be able to prevent future pandemics, for us to be able to defeat climate change, for us to be able to address the dramatic inequalities in today’s world.
UN News: Let us now focus on COVID-19. You have been insisting that no one is safe until everyone is safe, but the reality is different, especially in Africa, where less than 2% of the people are vaccinated and in many parts of the world vaccines are not being used. What must be done for developed or richer nations to accept and act on the fact that the fight against COVID-19 can only succeed as a common global enterprise?
António Guterres: Well, as I said, we need the global vaccination plan, and we need to be able to bring together all those that produce or can produce vaccines and double the production and then have an equitable distribution.
This has been clearly our appeal, unfortunately, not yet met. And the result is what you said.
It is mutating, it is changing and there is a risk that, at a certain moment, one of these mutations will bring a virus that is able to resist the vaccines that now are applied.
I mean, my country [Portugal], that has been very successful, now has 80 per cent of the population fully vaccinated. In Africa, as you mentioned, there are countries with less than two per cent.
And the problem is this virus is spreading like wildfire in the global south. It is mutating, it is changing and there is a risk that, at a certain moment, one of these mutations will bring a virus that is able to resist the vaccines that now are applied.
And that day, nobody will be safe in the south and in the north, not even in the countries where everybody was vaccinated.
So this is a reason to understand that the priority must be to vaccinate everybody everywhere. And that is why we made an appeal for all the measures to be taken in order to guarantee that 70 per cent of the population of the world will be vaccinated in the middle of next year. 70 per cent in an equitable way, not one percent in one place and 20% in another.
UN News: Let’s turn now to Afghanistan where the situation is a huge concern, especially for women. The new Taliban [leadership] does not have a single woman in it and most ethnic groups have also been left out. What broad strategy do you think the UN and its partners should adopt to best help the people of Afghanistan now?
António Guterres: Well, the situation is unpredictable. We all want Afghanistan to have inclusive government.
We all want Afghanistan to respect human rights especially of women and girls. We all want Afghanistan never to be again a centre for terrorists, to have a safe haven; we all want Afghanistan to fight drug trafficking, but it is difficult to forecast what’s going to happen. It’s still unclear what’s going to happen.
I think that UN has a duty, and our duty is to engage, to engage based on what we can deliver, and what we can deliver is essential humanitarian aid, at the present moment, and to engage in order to explain to the Taliban how important it is for them to have an inclusive government of all the different ethnicities, and, of course, with women, to have women and girls’ rights respected.
Women must be able to work, girls must be able to have all levels of education, and, at the same time, to cooperate with the international community fighting terrorism in an effective way. So, we need to engage with the Taliban, and that’s what we have done.
As you know, we have sent Martin Griffiths, our Emergency Relief Coordinator and head of the Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), to go to Kabul and to speak with the Taliban leadership on how can we deliver humanitarian aid or how it can be done in a safe environment or in an equitable way in which there are no discriminations of any kind? And, at the same time, to engage with them on the other aspects that I mentioned, about human rights and other forms of cooperation that are essential? So, we need to engage. We don’t know how things will develop, but we know that if we don’t engage, they will probably go in the wrong direction.
And then we need to mobilize international community to provide humanitarian aid. The Afghan people are suffering so much. It is vital to bring to the Afghans, food, medicine and other basic forms of support to avoid a catastrophic situation in the country.
And the other concern we have is, because of all the different measures and sanctions that exist, that there is a risk of completely strangling the economy.
So, I think the international community must find ways to inject some cash in the Afghan economy in order to avoid the collapse of the economy, that will have devastating consequences in relation to the life of Afghans, and also provoking a massive exodus that, of course, will be a factor of instability in the whole region.
Power today in the world is still essentially concentrated on men and with the male dominated culture.
UN News: In many countries around the world, women are still left behind on multiple fronts. You’ve done a lot to advance the issue of gender parity here in the United Nations. But many critics charge that the UN should be driving this agenda more forcefully. What actions do you wish to see implemented to ensure that gender equality is a reality by 2030?
António Guterres: Well, there are many dimensions. Of course, the representation of women in the different organs of the UN, and also at a national and international level; the questions of a support to women entrepreneurs and the economic empowerment of women fighting gender-based violence. That is still, as you know, a terrible situation in conflict areas, but at home, in many, many circumstances, abolishing all discriminatory legislation that still exists in many countries where full equality between women and men are not in the law.
So, all these things are priorities for us, but there is a central question, which is a question of power. Power today in the world is still essentially concentrated on men and with the male dominated culture.
And power is usually not given, power is taken. So, we need women to fully fight for their rights and we need men that understand that only with full gender equality, the world will improve and the problems we solved.
We need those men, to engage effectively in the fight for gender equality. And on this question of power in the UN, as you know, we have now parity, equal number of women and men in 180 high ranking offices of the UN and in the leaders of our teams around the world, because we feel that if in the organs where the power exists, there is parity, this will inevitably have consequences, down the line.
So, we must have the same in governments, we must have the same in parliaments, we must have the same in all bodies.
We need to have women and men in full equality where decisions are taken, where power exists, to make sure that we change this unbalanced power relationship, that is the result of centuries of male domination and patriarchy.
UN News: Another marginalized group is youth, and you have been calling for everyone to provide youth a seat at the table, as nation strive to build an inclusive and equitable world for all. What would you like to see the youth themselves do to make sure that they get that opportunity?
António Guterres: I think young people now have enormous instruments to come together and to make their voice heard.
Young people dominate social media much more than my generation. Young people have an enormous capacity of mobilization as we have seen in the movements against racism, against climate change, against inequalities of different sorts, the movement for gender equality, where the young generation is extremely progressive in relation to the older ones.
So, we need to create the institutional mechanisms to allow for the voice of young people to be more present where decisions are taken.
And that is the reason why, again, in the Common Agenda, we have a number of important measures to give young people voice and influence in the way the UN works.
UN News: Let’s focus now on Africa, on the issues of conflict. You’ve warned recently that events in Afghanistan could also influence what happens next in certain volatile hotspots in Africa, in particular where extremist ideology is driving conflict. Could you please explain how you see this?
António Guterres: If one looks at a situation like the Sahel, I am very worried. We see a reduction of the French presence. We have seen Chad moving troops from the most dangerous area.
We see the terrorist groups emboldened by the situation in Afghanistan, the victory of the Taliban. And so, I think it’s time to really rally efforts, to make sure that we create an effective security mechanism in the Sahel.
What happened in Afghanistan, might embolden terrorist groups now, or other rebel movements to become more aggressive
That is why I’ve been always advocating for a strong African force by the African union together with the regional organizations, with support from the Security Council and a Chapter 7 resolution [the means by which the Security Council can authorize the use of force], and with contributions, mandatory contributions, to guarantee that force will be effectively supported.
But then we also know that military force is not enough. We need to have development, we need to fight the impact of climate change, and we need to do everything to improve the governance of the area.
So, we need really to boost our efforts and I appeal to the international community to fully support it in the different dimensions.
In the security dimension, in the development dimension, in the humanitarian dimension, in the governance and human rights dimensions. And if we do it, we will be able to defeat terrorism in the Sahel.
But if we keep the same situation we have today, I’m very worried about that development. And the same can be said about other parts of Africa, where what happened in Afghanistan, might embolden terrorist groups now, or other rebel movements to become more aggressive.
UN News: And on global security, as the world continues to grapple with more security threats – of course, you spoke about the issue of extremism, and other forms of conflicts, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. What more can the UN do to make the world a more secure place?
António Guterres: Well, the biggest problem today is the lack of trust. And especially the lack of trust among the big powers. You see that in the difficulties of the Security Council to take adequate decisions with the rest of the different crisis in the world.
And so, with this division, with this divide among the big powers with this lack of trust, what we see is an environment of impunity, people think they can do whatever they want.
So, we need to rebuild trust, and we need to rebuild trust among those that have more influence in world affairs to be able to cooperate in order to make sure that we are able to unite the international community in addressing the crises that are multiplying now.
We see more coup d’états, we see new situations of conflict, we see social instability and unrest.
We need to have a Security Council that is united, that is strong. And for that, we need a serious dialogue among the big powers to try to find common ground.
UN News: The general debate is next week, Mr. Secretary-General, what is your key message the world leaders as they’re coming next week?
António Guterres: My main message: It’s time to ring the alarm bell. We are on the verge of a precipice and we are moving in the wrong direction.
Look at [COVID-19] vaccination, look at the difficulties in bringing together all countries to make sure that we make COP26 a success.
Look at the multiplication of conflicts we have witnessed in the last few months. We need to change course, and we need to wake up. So, my message to the leaders: Wake up, change course, unite, and let’s try to defeat the enormous challenges we are facing today.