Guterres’ UN priorities for 2020 and responding to the ‘wind of madness’

Protective equipment at UNICEF’s global supply hub to be shipped to China in support of the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Photo by: Prachatai / CC BY-NC-ND

UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations must respond to escalating humanitarian crises and climate change this year, but the global body should also listen to the public in an effort to address the “wind of madness sweeping the globe,” U.N. chief António Guterres said on Tuesday.

“We need a price on carbon, and an end to subsidies for fossil fuels.”

— António Guterres, secretary-general, U.N.

“There is no doubt that people have much to say. The disquiet in streets and squares across the world is proof that people want to be heard,” Guterres said during a press briefing on U.N. priorities for 2020. “They want world leaders to answer their anxieties with effective action. That means addressing cascading challenges and breaking what I call the vicious circles that define our day.”

These “circles” appear in ongoing peace and security issues, weak governance systems, and an escalation of the climate crisis, he said.

The UN is 'open for business with business'

The United Nations and its various agencies are looking to work with the private sector, albeit often in different ways and on different issues. Here's what U.N. leaders have to say about why and how they are engaging.

Conflict is again escalating in Syria and Yemen, among other protracted conflict hotspots, Guterres said. In Yemen, months of peace talks last year have recently given way to new outbreaks of violence, placing the de-escalation process “under severe strain,” according to the International Crisis Group.

Guterres noted the “extremely worrying,” changing nature of the conflict in northern Syria, where recent attacks by the Syrian and Turkish forces have resulted in military and civilian casualties. Attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure in northwest Syria spiked in the first weeks of 2020, forcing more than 150,000 to flee their homes in January, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross

“All situations are different, but there is a feeling of growing instability and hair-trigger tensions, which makes everything far more unpredictable and uncontrollable, with a heightened risk of miscalculation,” Guterres said.

The secretary-general also addressed the insufficient responses to two other growing risks — coronavirus and climate change — and U.N. engagement on these challenges.

The U.N. has made “strong” recommendations calling for U.N. staff to limit travel to impacted areas to “what it is absolutely needed,” Guterres said, and for people to submit themselves to self-isolation when they do “travel in those circumstances.” The World Health Organization’s panel of experts has been “very active” in supporting China and other countries with declared cases of the virus, while the International Organization of Migration and U.N. Children’s Fund are also engaging on the issue, according to Guterres.

Via Twitter.

“So, I mean, if you ask me, are we doing everything we should? Probably not. I mean, we are trying to mobilize our best capacities and best resources, but obviously, this is something with a dimension and the concern that is sometimes difficult to fully respond,” Guterres said.

Guterres cautioned against the reported rise of discrimination against Chinese citizens and other people of Asian heritage, as the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb.

“In this situation sometimes, it's easy to move into, I would say, perspectives in which there tends to be discrimination, there tends to be violation of human rights, there tends to be stigma on innocent people just because of their ethnicity or whatever. I think it's very important to avoid this,” Guterres said.

The U.N. chief also called for “more ambition” for countries attending the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November — a similar plea made before the COP25 meeting, which didn’t deliver new commitments on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Second Sustainable Transport Conference this May, the Oceans Conference in June, and the UN Biodiversity Conference in October offer “further opportunities for action,” Guterres said.

“All countries must show more ambition on adaptation, mitigation, and finance. And the big emitters must lead the way,” Guterres said. “We need a price on carbon, and an end to subsidies for fossil fuels.”

Guterres singled out the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions — the European Union, China, the United States, India, Russia, and Japan — when pressed by a journalist during the briefing. G-20 countries represent about 80% of all emissions.

“It is absolutely vital these countries respect and assume the commitments to be carbon neutral in 2050,” Guterres said. “If the big emitters do not correspond, our efforts will be completely undermined.”

The World Meteorological Organization issued a new climate alert on Tuesday that showed carbon dioxide concentrations will reach new highs in 2020, following a rise in 2019.

Next steps for the U.N. include a series of events marking its 75th anniversary this year, which will offer some of the listening opportunities Guterres stressed in his remarks. With just one youth event in the books so far, though, it is too early to predict results from dialogues about the future of the U.N., Guterres said.

“We are suggesting governments, trade unions, NGOs, all organizations to engage in discussions of this nature. We are doing two important surveys … but we are just starting the exercise. We will be presenting to the GA a preliminary report in May, and a final report in September,” Guterres said.  

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.