How to fix the United Nations | The Economist Podcasts

published on July 2, 2020

seventy-five years ago 50 countries

signed a charter that changed the course

of history the United Nations Charter

marked the start of a new world order

its founding principle was international

collaboration today nationalist agendas

and great power rivalry threaten the

future of the global organization we

asked Antonio Guterres the United

Nations secretary-general whether the

organization is fit for purpose in the

21st century the UN 75 multiple crises

and new challenges you said yourself

that these are dark days how would you

define the biggest challenges I said we

have two kinds of challenges one is the

fact we are an intergovernmental

organization and as an inter government

organization that has bobby's like the

General Assembly or the Security Council

it depends on the capacity of member

states to come together special when we

have such dramatic challenges as the cop

in 19 or climate change or the impact of

new technologies in our economies and

our societies and the two seas that we

have now a very dysfunctional

relationship namely among the three

biggest powers and that this functional

relationship makes it very difficult for

the Security Council to take adequate

decisions in addition to the major

crises we face and it creates other

difficulties in the way the organization

works the other challenges that are more

related to our own activities the

Secretariat organization is of course

they need to be able to make the

organization more nimble most effective

more cost-effective and we have devoted

ourselves very strongly to the reform

the internal reform of the organization

as if we made a lot of progress on that

but there is still a long way to go

if you take your first point that the

relationship between three major powers

is dysfunctional with it

this is hardly new for the United

Nations what makes us different from you

take the broad sweep of 75 years of

the United Nations how has this changed

the present pattern is relatively new we

have of course the Cold War and the Cold

War has its rules there were two

superpowers essentially those two

superpowers were confronting each other

in many aspects but to a certain extent

everything was predictable then we had

the period of I would say American

supremacy the 90s I was prime minister

of Portugal and again the rules were

clear now it's much more messy we have

three powers the United States China and

Russia but the relationship is very

dysfunctional it's very unpredictable

it's much more difficult to create an

international environment in which the

spoilers are forced to play by the rules

how much more difficult is it made by

the fact that America has stepped back

to some extent from the world we already

saw this under President Obama

nation-building at home but now we see

this even more with the Donald Trump who

is for example pulling America out of

the United the World Health Organization

can the UN function without an engaged

America I don't see the international

community can leave without a strong

engagement in the United States in

international affairs if we want to

promote the number of key values so

democracy human rights and others where

I believe the President of the United

States and the function United States

would be extremely extremely important

but you're very careful in how you treat

President Donald Trump for example you

made the critical an American policy

you've never criticized him by name is

that a deliberate strategy I do not

believe that in international politics

it's good to enter into personal

confrontations with whoever that leads

nowhere and I think I have a major

responsibility to preserve United

Nations and to preserve a functional

relationship without the key partners of

the United Nations including obviously

the United States and what about the

other major powers first of all China

you've been criticized for not speaking

up loudly enough on human rights for

example for with China how do you handle

this question of trying to having a very

different view of human rights the most

spoken question when we talk about human

rights related to Chinese of course the

legal question I had the occasion to

discuss it several times with the

Chinese authorities to make it public

and to clearly assert that human rights

need to be fully respected they're more

than that that in situations where you

have a minority it is absolutely

essential that all communities feel that

their identity is respected and at the

same time that they are recognized as

part as the community as a whole and

let's not forget Russia its asserting

itself more and more and vetoing many UN

Security Council resolutions how do you

how do you handle the the somewhat

disrupted behavior of Russia and how do

you get towards a Security Council that

can actually agree on things I was

definitely simpleness to tell the truth

and to make the proposals that make


independently of sometimes being in

opposition in relation to the positions

of the Russian Federation just to give

you an example we have been very clear

in recent times asking for cross-border

American aid to be possible relation to

Syria and so this has been a bone of

contention in relation to the Russian

Federation in several moments at the

same time it's to recognize that the

Russian Federation the pressure of the

Syrian government to allow for the

constitutional committee to move forward

Russia has brazenly grabbed a piece of

Ukraine China has occupied disputed

territories in the South China Sea these

are exactly the kind of areas where we

would expect the Security Council to be

active has it become too slow and it is

it not being challenged enough to do the

job it's there to do

is not an abstract entity it is an

acting with member states and five of

those member states have a veto right

and we know that whenever there is a

very serious question related to the

israeli/palestinian question the

Americans will veto we know that there

is a serious question Asia to Ukraine or

to Syria the Russians will veto and we

know that there is something on the

South China Sea or equivalent to China

will probably veto so we know that this

is the reality but I also think that

people tend to look into the I mean the

when as a huge activity in the world

that sometimes ignored we recently

launched a global response package

humanitarian response package for the

Pahlavi 19 to support 110 million people

in 64 countries and these on top of all

the other he managed an action we are

providing is my challenge to you I

suppose I wondered whether in your view

the UN was pivoting towards judging

itself by its successes in terms of

humanitarian relief refugee crisis and

the other things that it does in that

sphere World Health Organization etc and

last about security we are at the

present moment deeply engaged in Yemen

trying to bring together the parties to

the conflict to reach an agreement and

we we have been more far away we have

been very actively engaged and I myself

have been on the phone with the key

actors of the conflict and with the

regional powers and the global powers

for that our objective is to have a

global ceasefire in Yemen we are doing

the same very actively engaged in

supporting the peace process in

Afghanistan we are extremely engaged in

Libya and it must I must tell it's the

biggest frustration at the mall because

we're the spoilers are

simply undermining the chance of a

ceasefire in that context but at the

same time in Syria I think it's fair to

recognize that we have been able to

bring together the parties even in it's

very difficult to make problems but the

constitutional committee was created and

that was an achievement of the when

diplomacy now the truth is if we have a

United Security Council if we have a

functional relationship among the

superpowers then of course things will

be much more easy then of course our

action would be much more successful

could I talk about the relationship

between China and Russia which seems in

some ways to restored kind of character

that talks back to the Cold War in in

many respects and I'm wondering what you

think the implications of that are you

diplomatically saying it it's obviously

good if you get more cooperation between

the major players but in some ways it's

not so good if two of the major world

powers who have anti-democratic use

leanings are budding up together


situation in relation to the future I

think it is defined by the present

circumstances to a large extent but we

look at the challenges of the world

today there is an absolute need for

countries like Russia China the United

States to be able to understand that

they need to work together to mobilize

the whole of the international community

for those challenges to be faced

positively means by the change pocket 19

or other similar aspects can I turn you

to the future of the UN here we are 75

the institutions are really quite long

in the tooth a they should they should

rightly have some reform to modernize

them but is reform impossible given

these divisions

the top one of my main objectives in

everything I've been doing is exactly to

reduce the bureaucracy anywhere and to

make the minute you have much more

nimble and much more effective and I

think we made some meaningful progress

on that exact of course it's a huge

transformation also in the system of

power in the organization but having

said so I also think the UN needs to be

humble and needs to listen and that is

the reason why instead of using the 75th

anniversary to launch I would say a big

campaign to promote the UN we put us

exactly in a listening mode and we

launched a huge survey and a huge debate

at the global level the survey that was

done in cooperation with several

entities have already 222,000 answers of

people coming from one other than 93

countries telling what they think about

the future what should be the priorities

of the International Corporation are you

hearing things in this great exercise

that to some some extent surprise you

and make you think that the UN needs to

change course in some ways there is a

huge that it's a huge request of

accountability accountability of the UN

accountability of government

accountability of institutions and the

transparency and accountability probably

the two most important demands that I

feel and that I will do my best to put

in the center of our reform concerns in

the world

again back to the grand sweep of history

what do you see the next period of the

UN heralding we've got 275 years take us

forward to a hundred years there are two

dimensions that I believe are absolutely

crucial for the intervention of the UN

in the future one is climate change and

the other is the digital world we have

today a situation in which it is clear

we live in law with inner lawlessness in

the cyberspace we see artificial

intelligence developing at fantastic

and we do not see effective mechanisms

of governance it's clear those

mechanisms cannot be the governance

mechanisms of the past the UN is better

placed at any other organization today

in the world to be that platform where

different entities government civil

society businesses science come together

and try to find the mechanisms of the

governments of the problems of the

future until you go cherish thank you

very much for joining us

it was a pleasure this interview is from

our show The Economist asks and every

week we publish a new episode in which

we interview key figures in world events

the link opposite will take you to a

page with all of our previous episodes

thanks for watching

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