United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned on Tuesday that “a wind of madness is sweeping the globe” from a dangerous surge of instability and unpredictable geopolitical “hair-trigger” tensions.
Guterres, laying out his priorities for 2020 when the world body celebrates its 75th anniversary, said he would press to break the “vicious circles of suffering and conflict” and to push for a strong surge of diplomacy for peace to counter the prevailing mayhem.
“Tensions were of course high as the last year ended, but we were moving in the right direction in a number of hotspots. We were seeing signs of de-escalation and some measure of progress. That’s all changed,” Guterres told reporters at his main annual press conference at U.N. headquarters in New York.
“I have spoken recently about winds of hope. But today a wind of madness is sweeping the globe. From Libya to Yemen to Syria and beyond — escalation is back. Arms are flowing and offensives are increasing,” said Guterres.
“All situations are different,” he said, “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.
Libya’s descent into lawlessness since the 2011 uprising toppling and killing dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who ruled for 42 years, is an appalling example of how U.N. Security Council resolutions that are legally binding “are being disrespected before the ink is even dry,” Guterres said.
The country is at war between the Turkish-backed U.N.-recognized administration in the capital, Tripoli, and parts of the country’s west, and a renegade general backed by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, whose forces are based in the country’s east. The U.N. refugee agency suspended operations last week at a migrant transit center in Tripoli hit by airstrikes.
Amid renewed fighting, a fragile ceasefire ended last week despite Germany hosting the heads of Libya’s two main warring factions and leaders of 11 nations at U.N.-supported talks in Berlin, where they agreed to set up a ceasefire committee and respect a widely ignored arms embargo — promises that were almost immediately broken.
“As we can see, problems feed each other. As economies falter, poverty remains entrenched. As future prospects look bleak, populist and ethnic nationalist narratives gain appeal,” said Guterres.
“As instability rises, investment dries up, and development cycles down. When armed conflicts persist, societies reach perilous tipping points,” he said. “And as governance grows weak, terrorists get stronger, seizing on the (vacuum).”
In Yemen, “a new escalation” in the war since 2014 is disheartening, the U.N. secretary-general said, after a recent pause in attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthi Shiite rebels that overran the capital, Sanaa, and much of the country’s north.
A Western-backed alliance of Sunni Muslim Arab nations, led by Saudi Arabia, has been trying to prop up the internationally recognized government of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was driven from Sanaa by the militia in 2015.
A group of international experts assigned by the U.N. Human Rights Council to look into possible war crimes by all sides to Yemen’s civil war reported last September that it found a “pervasive lack of accountability” while violating international humanitarian and human rights law.
Guterres also said he had “enormous concern” at the sharp rise in attacks in Syria’s last rebel-held province of Idlib, where 3 million people live amid fighting between Syrian and Turkish forces. He implored all parties to end the violence before it spirals “totally out of control.” A U.N. independent commission said last month that Syria’s war has stolen the childhoods of 5 million boys and girls.
And the Security Council voted last month to renew a humanitarian operation in Syria but gave in to demands by Syria’s close ally Russia that it reduce cross-border aid, cutting off help to more than 1 million Syrians. The 15-nation council re-authorized just two border crossings in Turkey — for six months instead of a full year — and denied re-authorization for two crossings in Iran and Jordan.
Guterres called on Iraq’s government to respect and protect the rights of anti-government human rights activists who have led mass protests since last October against the widespread government corruption, crumbling infrastructure and lack of jobs. The U.N.’s top envoy to Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, told members of its parliament in November that their role in hearing Baghdad protestors’ demands is vital to restoring stability and peace in a nation riven by war and corruption.
The U.N. secretary-general said the so-called peace plan released by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration last week does not comply with U.N. General Assembly and Security Council resolutions and international law that requires Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be considered illegal and that supports a two-state solution based on 1967 borders.
“I want the United Nations, in this (75th) anniversary, essentially to listen — so we are marking our anniversary based on conversations in every corner of the world about the future we want and the United Nations we need. There is no doubt that people have much to say,” said Guterres.
“The disquiet in streets and squares across the world is proof that people want to be heard. They want world leaders to answer their anxieties with effective action,” he said. “That means addressing cascading challenges and breaking what I call the vicious circles that define our day. One such vicious circle is in the realm of peace and security — making conflicts longer, more lethal and more likely to erupt in the first place.”
“I have spoken about winds of hope. But today a wind of madness is sweeping the globe.”
— Melissa Fleming 🇺🇳 (@MelissaFleming) February 4, 2020
Climate crisis, sustainable development and multilateralism
As a top U.N. priority, the climate crisis demands immediate action. Scientists say the world is now on track for 3 degrees Celsius of global warming that would unleash flooding of coastal cities, upend agriculture and bring vast melting of glaciers and polar regions.
“Last year, ocean heat and mean sea level reached their highest on record. Scientists tell us that ocean temperatures are now rising at the equivalent of five Hiroshima bombs a second,” Guterres said.
“Ecosystems are suffering the fallout,” he said. “Meanwhile, as permafrost disappears, and as tundra thaws earlier and freezes later, vast amounts of methane — a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide — enter the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. And as forests burn, the world loses vital carbon sinks and emissions skyrocket.”
Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States, the world’s second-biggest carbon polluter behind China, from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change played a major role in undermining negotiations at the U.N. climate summit in Madrid in December. Trump wasted no time notifying the U.N. in early November on the first day possible that it plans to withdraw from the Paris treaty.
Guterres said the challenge for this year’s U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland will be for all nations to show “more ambition on adaptation, mitigation and finance,” and for the world’s biggest carbon emitters to lead the way.
“There is some good news. Awareness of the risks is growing. Announcements of climate action by governments and the private sector are gathering steam. Investments are increasing. Minds are changing,” he said. “But we need to keep up the pressure to break the vicious circle that is propelling both humankind and the natural world to the point of no return.”
The U.N. Development Program reported in December that inequalities in education, health and living standards caused a 20 percent loss in global progress towards aspects of needed “human development” in 2018.
In the 21st century, according to UNDP, inequality is less focused on money and more about opportunity, helping to explain why millions of people have been taking to the streets to protest their societal circumstances. The protests exposed what Guterres has called an erosion of public trust in political leaders who need to listen more to people’s real problems.
“Now is also the time to break the vicious circle of poverty and inequality and to shape a fair globalization leaving no one behind. The Sustainable Development Goals are, as you know, our blueprint,” he said. “Development is a goal in its own right. But it is also our best form of prevention.”
But international cooperation and the institutions themselves that were designed to promote work between nations have been under attack from the Trump administration’s “America First” policies and other leaders of populist nationalism. Trump has withdrawn the United States from a series of U.N.-led and other international organizations and treaties since taking office in January 2017.
“Multilateral institutions are needed more than ever and must be tuned to the challenges of the 21st century,” Guterres said. “I will continue my efforts to build both a networked multilateralism, with the United Nations and all international organizations working together, and an inclusive multilateralism able to listen and incorporate the contributions of business, civil society, local and regional authorities, and young people.”