The world should listen to Guterres's historic speech at UNGA 2022

The UN's secretary general has just issued a damning assessment of global security

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. AP
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The 77th UN General Assembly got off to an unambiguous start on Tuesday. In his opening speech, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres issued about as urgent a warning as a secretary general can: “Our world is in peril and paralysed.”

In a sign of how troubling and complex the global situation is, much of his address was taken up by listing urgent problems. In terms of countries, Mr Guterres drew attention to troubles in Iraq, Palestine and Israel, Myanmar, Syria, Yemen, Colombia, Iran, Ukraine and others.

In terms of issues, old ones and new were given equal time. He lamented the lack of a structure to deal with the seismic shifts of modern technology, from AI to social media and a breakdown in multilateralism. An older issue he referenced was the climate crisis. For many years now, it has been perhaps the most existential issue that the UN is dealing with. In 2022, Mr Guterres fears initiative is stalling: “Emissions are going up at record levels... we have a rendezvous with climate disaster.”

All these issues come together to make UNGA 2022 one of the most important instalments in the meeting's history.

The war in Ukraine is key. Europe is going through its most damaging 21st century war, with no end in sight, indeed, escalation at the moment seems more likely than de-escalation.

The most terrible burden is carried by Ukrainians. But in a sign of how widely reverberations are felt in today’s connected world, even people in faraway lands are feeling the consequences severely. It could be food-insecure Ethiopians in need of certainty about their next meal, or the millions of Pakistanis affected by recent floods, and the sense among many of them that due attention to the crisis – a third of the country is underwater – is not being given.

The UAE is contributing to shaping the direction of UNGA 2022. It is now on its two-year stint on the UN Security Council. Speaking to The National, Lana Nusseibeh, the UAE’s Permanent Representative to the UN, said the meeting is taking place at a “particularly difficult geopolitical time on the international scene”. She is also added that this meeting is an opportunity for leaders to come together for solutions.

Unfortunately, the possibility of diplomacy taking over to ease these troubles can often seem distant. Nonetheless, even as fighting rages in Ukraine, it is important to remember that diplomacy has shown its power at points during this most vicious of conflicts. Grain deals were struck between both sides with international mediation relatively early on in the conflict. The situation is far from resolved, but it was an important lifeline and a reminder that even amid the most intense animosity compromise can be struck.

It is also important to remember that had diplomacy been more robust in the years prior to the conflict, this death and destruction might have been avoided altogether. This lesson should be applied to other geopolitical challenges in 2022, including US-China tensions over Taiwan and the question of Iran's nuclear programme.

Most of all, it is important to remember that none of these issues are isolated. Mr Guterres has been speaking a great deal about education in recent days. It is the perfect demonstration of a long-term imperative that can get swept up by bigger, more dramatic headlines. The anniversary of the Taliban banning girls' secondary education, for example, has just passed too quietly.

Now, with so many world leaders gathered in one building, there is a chance to remind key decision makers of the responsibilities that they hold. Hence the power and necessity of forums such as UNGA, even if at points they seem slow-moving and powerless.

For now, it seems strong words are the main tools being used. None were stronger than this from Mr Guterres: “We cannot go on like this.” Whether a girl in Kandahar or a civilian in Kharkiv, too many today have life-threatening reasons to agree with him.

Published: September 20, 2022, 3:27 PM