World in 'great peril' as nations are divided on key issues, says UN Secretary General

Stark warning issued by Antonio Guterres at opening of UN General Debate in New York

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 20. Reuters
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The world is in “great peril” as nations around the world remain locked in “colossal global dysfunction” instead of tackling humanitarian and climate challenges, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Tuesday.

Speaking on the first day of General Debate at the annual UN General Assembly in New York, Mr Guterres urged leaders to tackle the “big dramatic challenges of our time”, from conflicts to the climate crisis and increasing poverty and inequality.

He said geopolitical divisions are “undermining the work of the Security Council and … people’s faith in democratic institutions”.

The speech began in a more hopeful tone to match the first full in-person version of the global meeting in three years, as Mr Guterres called for a return to the founding principles of the UN organisation: cooperation and dialogue.

“Let’s work as one, as a coalition of the world, as united nations”, he said. “No power or group alone can call the shots,” he said.

Mr Guterres showed a video to masked delegates of the UN's achievements over the year.

It included footage of the first UN-chartered ship carrying grain from Ukraine to the Horn of Africa, where millions of people are on the edge of famine.

The shipment was part of a deal between Ukraine and Russia that the United Nations and Turkey helped broker.

It was, Mr Guterres said, an example of promise and hope “in a world teeming with turmoil”.

But the recognition of issues ahead and a lack of global togetherness set the tone for the week-long meeting, known as the General Debate.

This year, the 193-member General Assembly returns to only in-person speeches, with a single exception — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

As nations continue to treat each other as adversaries, pressing issues of concern to all are left by the wayside, eroding people's trust in democratic institutions, he said.

“We need action across the board,” Mr Guterres said. “Let’s have no illusions, we are in rough seas, a winter of discontent is on the horizon.

“The cost of living crisis is raging, trust is crumbling, inequalities are exploding and our planet is burning.

“The divergence between developed and developing countries, between north and south, between the privileged and the rest, is becoming more dangerous by the day.

“It is at the root of the geopolitical tensions and lack of trust that poison every area of global cooperation, from vaccines to sanctions to trade.”

Mr Guterres also pointed to a potential global food shortage sparked by the loss of grain and fertiliser exports from Ukraine and Russia.

“If the fertiliser market is not stabilised, next year’s problem might be food supply itself,” he said.

“It’s essential to continue removing all obstacles to the export of Russian fertilisers and their ingredients, including ammonia. These products are not subject to sanctions.”

With the world’s spotlight on Ukraine, Mr Guterres reminded leaders of other conflicts and humanitarian crises that pose a threat to international stability.

“In Afghanistan, the economy is in ruins. In Ethiopia, fighting has resumed. In the Horn of Africa, an unprecedented drought is threatening the livelihoods of 22 million people. In Libya, divisions continue,” he said.

One such issue almost ignored by developed nations in the face of Covid-19 and conflict is the climate.

Mr Guterres pleaded with delegates to uphold their climate pledges before the Cop27 conference in Egypt this November.

He said greenhouse gas emissions are going up at record levels, on course for a 14 per cent increase this decade.

“I appeal to all leaders to realise the goals of the Paris Agreement,” he said.

“Loss and damage are happening now, hurting people and economies now, and must be addressed now — starting at Cop27.”

Mr Guterres' speech is usually followed by the US representative as host of the UN in New York.

But this year the death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and her funeral in London on Monday disrupted the timetable.

President Joe Biden will now speak on Wednesday. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is notable absentee, as well as China’s Xi Jinping.

Updated: September 21, 2022, 5:20 AM