The World of International Organizations Explained

U.N. chief lays out 5 priorities for 2019

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres at the Web Summit 2017 in Lisbon, Portugal (ARÊTE/Seb Daly)

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres cited the “deeply corrosive” effects of armed conflict, poverty, hunger, inequality and climate change as his chief concerns for 2019.

“I won’t mince words. Alarm bells are still ringing. We face a world of trouble,” Guterres told an informal meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

“Armed conflict threatens millions and forced displacement is at record levels,” he said. “Poverty is far from eradicated and hunger is growing again. Inequality keeps rising. And the climate crisis is wreaking havoc.”

Guterres, who formerly led the U.N. refugee agency and served as Portugal’s prime minister, set out five priorities. He called for greater diplomacy; more climate ambition; better use of technology; more focus on the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030; and reaffirmation of the 1945 Charter of the United Nations’ foundational values.

Though he did not directly mention the United States, Guterres can blame a lot of his recent headaches on U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration. Guterres, at the start of his third year as U.N. chief, must contend with a U.S. leader who frequently lambastes — and withdraws from — the multilateral system of international organizations and treaties.

The United States traditionally contributes about 22 percent of the U.N.’s budget, and its overall share of contributions since 2001 to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the world’s biggest disease-fighting financial tool, stands at about 32 percent.

Guterres noted that over the past year the world has been troubled by “growing disputes over trade, sky-high debt, threats to the rule of law and human rights, shrinking space for civil society and attacks to media freedoms,” though he refrained from naming specific names.

“In such a context,” said Guterres, “it is not difficult to understand why many people are losing faith in political establishments, doubting whether national governments care about them and questioning the value of international organizations.”

‘We get things done’

Trump snubbed America’s G-7 and NATO allies, and he reversed predecessor Barack Obama’s policies on broad fronts, including decisions to exit the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and U.N. cultural and educational agency UNESCO.

Trump also announced his decision to pull the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, known as the Iran nuclear deal, the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council and the U.S.-Russia Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

However, America’s foreign policy and its traditional, bedrock financial support for international organizations has become an emerging battleground in the newly divided U.S. Congress. After eight years in the minority, Democrats vowed to redirect, block or investigate Trump’s programs and priorities as they take control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Guterres cited Yemen, Liberia and Cambodia as places where the United Nations made a difference in the past year. The U.N. climate conference in Poland, where almost 200 nations agreed on a set of rules for the Paris climate treaty, demonstrated collective progress, he said.

He acknowledged that the world body has been widely viewed as “ineffective, cumbersome and bureaucratic,” however, and that it must make itself more efficient, transparent and effective. “Let’s be clear: the lack of faith also applies to the United Nations,” Guterres said.

“But the truth is that the experience of last year proves that when we work together and when we assume our responsibilities, we get things done,” he emphasized. “Despite the headwinds we know so well, we have shown the United Nations added value.”

The world of international organizations explained.

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