The United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, speaks about his upcoming visit to the Holy See, and his appreciation of Pope Francis, in this interview conducted in collaboration with Italy’s “La Stampa” newspaper.
By Paolo Mastrolilli – New York
Secretary General Antonio Guterres, in Rome you will meet Pope Francis, who has always been a strong voice in support of multilateralism and humanitarian efforts. He has often said that we need to build bridges, instead of walls. What are you planning to discuss with him and how could he help the objectives of the United Nations?
«I wanted to meet with the Holy Father to express my appreciation for his work. He is a strong voice on the climate crisis, on poverty and inequality, on multilateralism, on the protection of refugees and migrants, on disarmament and many other important issues. Through his work, the Pope is contributing to reaching many of our objectives, including the Sustainable Development Goals, combating climate change and promoting a culture of peace. Building bridges is a good analogy, and, as we discuss the issues I just mentioned, I hope to explore how we can increase our collaboration to do just that: build bridges to achieve more results for people who need them most».
Freedom of religion is under threat in the world: what are the negative impacts of this threat and how should it be addressed?
«Freedom of religion is another topic I hope to discuss with Pope Francis. I’m deeply concerned by a rise in intolerance that includes direct attacks on people based on nothing more than their religious beliefs or affiliations. The deadly attacks on mosques in New Zealand, synagogues in the US, and the Easter church bombings in Sri Lanka demonstrate the urgency of acting so that everyone, no matter their religious beliefs, is able to fully enjoy his or her human rights. Diversity is a richness, not a threat. It breaks my heart to see increasing numbers of individuals publicly humiliated, harassed and attacked simply because of their religion or beliefs. Jews have been murdered in synagogues, their gravestones defaced with swastikas; Muslims gunned down in mosques, their religious sites vandalized; Christians killed at prayer, their churches torched. In the past months, I have launched two initiatives: An action plan to support efforts to safeguard religious sites and uphold the right to religious freedom; and a UN system-wide strategy to tackle hate speech. Working with my High Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations, the action plan aims to support Member States in ensuring that worshipers can observe their rituals in peace. Houses of worship around the world must be safe havens for reflection and peace, not sites of bloodshed and terror. We also need strong investments in social cohesion to ensure diverse communities feel their identities are respected, that they do the same for others in return, and that they have a stake in society as a whole. The recent declaration by His Holiness Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Professor Dr. Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed el-Tayeb, was an extremely important contribution for peaceful coexistence, mutual respect and understanding between different religious communities in the world. Education must be a key part of our efforts to combat hate speech. I intend to convene a conference on the role of education in addressing and building resilience against hate speech».
Global migrations are a relevant issue in the Mediterranean Sea and all over the world. You know very well the problem, since you have been the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. What should the European Union do in order to help frontline countries in dealing with the migration issue?
«As we speak, more than 70 million people are forcibly displaced – double the level of 20 years ago, and 2.3 million more than just one year ago. It is a shocking and harrowing number. Conflicts have become more complex, and combined with trends such as climate change, population growth, rapid urbanization, and food insecurity, we can unfortunately anticipate that forced displacement and humanitarian needs will continue to increase. The number of people displaced has been growing faster than our capacity to find durable solutions. On January 17th in Geneva, world leaders gather at the first Global Refugee Forum, hosted by the UN Refugee Agency, to discuss ways to better cope with present realities and prepare for future challenges.
I believe we have to fulfil the promises of responsibility-sharing set out in the Global Compact on Refugees. We must reestablish the integrity of the international refugee protection regime. And we have to collaborate to counter the smugglers and criminals who enrich themselves on the backs of vulnerable people. Deadly shipwrecks cannot become the new normal. Solutions should also address the root causes leading to these dangerous journeys. As long as conflicts and development challenges persist, people will continue to seek a more secure and brighter future for themselves and their families. Cooperation and international solidarity are key to bring sustainable solutions to the men, women and children affected. We also need a real commitment to sharing responsibilities among Member States. In this context, I welcome the new policies of the Italian Government and I reaffirm what I said so many times in my past capacity as High Commissioner for Refugees: There must be effective European solidarity with the countries that are on the frontlines like Italy and Greece».
On the eve of the COP25 in Madrid, you said that we are close to the «point of no return» on the climate change issue, and yet important global players like the United States don’t even recognize the emergency and the COP25 ended without an agreement. What is your plan to overcome this opposition, and convince all the countries to do more than what was agreed in Paris in 2015?
«Let’s be clear. I am disappointed with the results of COP25which just concluded in Madrid. The international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation and finance to tackle the climate crisis. We must not give up and I will not give up. I’m more determined than ever to work for 2020 to be the year in which all countries commit to do what science tells us is necessary to reach carbon neutrality in 2050 and a no more than 1.5-degree temperature rise. The climate crisis is a race against time for the survival of our civilization. It is unfortunately a race that we are losing. While many people already face the dire consequences of the climate crisis, the reality of an environment that is becoming uninhabitable is still not obvious to everyone. But we can still reverse the trends. Solutions exist. We have science on our side, we have new models of cooperation and we also have a growing momentum for change. Next year, we must deliver what the scientific community has defined as a must. All countries must commit to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, and to achieving net zero CO2 emissions by 2050. Here, I must welcome the European Union’s commitment to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 and I urge countries worldwide to follow this example of climate action. So, in the crucial 12 months ahead, it will be essential that we secure more ambitious national commitments – particularly from the main emitters – to bring us on the path to immediately start reducing greenhouse gas emissions at a pace consistent to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050».
After the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and other international arms control measures, a new arms race appears to be taking shape. Do you see the risk of a new arms race and how could it be prevented?
«During the Cold War, mechanisms were created to limit the risk of nuclear confrontation and a disarmament framework was put in place. These mechanisms worked, leading to a remarkable reduction in nuclear arsenals and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. I am very concerned because this framework, essential to our collective security, is moving backwards. Some of the very important agreements established during the Cold War have been eroded. The nuclear dimension of regional tensions is becoming more dangerous, as we can see in Northeast Asia and the Middle East. It is absolutely essential to bring nuclear disarmament back to the heart of the international agenda. It is also essential to make sure that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, or NPT, maintains its status as a fundamental pillar of the global order. As I laid out in my vision for disarmament, I will increase my efforts to help Member States to return to a common vision and path leading to the total elimination of nuclear weapons. Developments in technology are also concerning. The growing frequency and severity of cyberattacks are undermining trust and encouraging States to adopt offensive postures for the hostile use of cyberspace. I worry that cyberattacks could trigger new conflicts. Autonomous weapons that could have the power to kill without human intervention are politically unacceptable and morally despicable. I strongly believe they should be prohibited but there is currently no consensus in the world on how to regulate these new technological developments. This is a challenge that we must address urgently».
Tensions between China and the United States are not limited to trade, several analysts fear a Second Cold War. Do you share this preoccupation and what could the United Nations do to prevent a Second Cold War?
«On the one hand, we see a world that is more and more interconnected with positive benefits for millions of people. And on the other hand, we see greater risks of fractures: social, political, economic and technological. I am also concerned over the possibility of what I call a great fracture. If the two largest economies of the world move apart in areas such as trade and technology for example, we face the risk of creating two sub worlds. Each one would have its own trade and financial rules, its own internet, its artificial intelligence strategy, and its own geostrategic and military developments. This is something we must avoid. To guarantee peace and security, we need to work towards one world with a single set of global rules that everybody accepts and that keep everyone safe. We need a strong multipolar world with strong multilateral institutions».
Next year will mark the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. Today some countries are not paying their dues to the UN. What is your reply to the critics of multilateralism, and what could Italy do to help strengthening the United Nations?
«The United Nations was founded in 1945 to support collective action to realize peace, development and human rights for all. As some challenges persist, others, like the climate crisis, are getting worse, and new issues are arising, such as how we harness technology as a force for good. We will mark the 75th anniversary of the United Nations with a series of global conversations. I want the UN to hear the concerns, aspirations and ideas of people from every walk of life, from all around the world, about what the UN should look like by our 100th anniversary.
This initiative will reach out to all segments of society – from classrooms to boardrooms, parliaments to village halls – and will place special emphasis on youth and those whose voices are too often marginalized or not heard in global affairs. How do they see their world evolving? How can the United Nations better support them to build the future we want? Contrary to what is often said, we need greater international solidarity and more multilateralism. We need to work together to address issues of peace and security, to promote sustainable development, to advance human rights, to reduce inequalities and to avoid a climate catastrophe. We need a universal system that respects international law and is organized around strong multilateral institutions. But this multilateralism needs to adapt to the challenges of today and tomorrow. This vision is at the heart of the reflection that will take place next year, for the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. The results will be presented to world leaders at the seventy-fifth session of the General Assembly and I look forward to building on the outcome of this conversation».
Do you think the Security Council should be reformed, to better represent the world, and how?
«I fully agree with Kofi Annan when he said that there will be no complete reform of the United Nations without reform of the Security Council. The present Council still reflects the world of 1945. That being said, the UN Charter is clear: it is up to Member States to determine how the Security Council will be reformed, and I hope that they will do so».