United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

A world of hurt

The UN must act before it’s too late

Artillery Row

Coming out of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral this week, leading mourners from Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron to Liz Truss head straight to New York for a General Assembly of the United Nations that will address a world facing any number of crises and few solutions. 

You can start with the war in Ukraine — at a critical juncture, it seems, with the counter-attack against the Russians — and conclude that this alone should be enough to concentrate minds. But no. Consider the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and the huge bills yet to be paid. Witness the first increase in extreme global poverty in twenty years, with the threat of starvation looming for millions. Oh, and by the way, don’t let’s forget the way the planet is heating up — unleashing floods in one continent and raging fires in another.

His plea is greeted with deafening silence in Moscow

“You’d imagine this would be a moment for such a meeting to seek a sensible, united response to a world of hurt,” according to one UN veteran. “Not happening. And the organisation itself is in crisis, with leadership lacking.”

Take the most immediate of issues: that nuclear power plant in Ukraine occupied by the Russians, but still run by Ukrainian engineers. “We’re playing with fire,” says the head of the UN’s Atomic Energy Agency, fresh from visiting the site, desperately seeking a deal between the two warring parties. “The risk of a nuclear accident is real.” 

His boss, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, calls for the Russians to leave the plant and allow a security zone to be created. His plea is greeted with deafening silence in Moscow. Hardly a surprise when you consider how Vladimir Putin publicly lectured Guterres when the Secretary-General made his only up-front attempt to talk to both sides in late April. A phone conversation the other day yielded little more, it seems.

To be fair to the Secretary-General, his UN organisation itself is hobbled by the deep divisions within. Russia uses its veto power in the Security Council to make the UN semi-impotent on so many levels, aided by the likes of China and India. 

Ponder what the UN leadership has been pushing in recent times. Yes, the Secretary-General has been rightly voluble on the climate crisis, “sleepwalking to catastrophe”, as he puts it, even if the message is often framed as domesday warnings rather than proactive responses. Yet, even as Putin laid siege to Kiev back in March, was it really the best time for Guterres to present the latest round of “Our Common Agenda”, his vision of “global cooperation, inclusive, networked and effective multilateralism to better respond to humanity’s most pressing challenges”? 

Try telling of that cooperation to those besieged engineers running the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant. Try selling that multilateralism to the likes of Germany and Britain, both countries that are signalling reductions in the contributions they make to the United Nations. There is no sign that President Biden, who has yet to invite this Secretary-General to the White House, is in any hurry to make up America’s arrears.

When Liz Truss makes her debut on the international stage, at the UN headquarters in New York, questions abound and the need for some semblance of action is acute.

Why can’t the UN stare down polluters?

Surely, instead of the annual talkfest, with its heavily-choreographed meetings, plus entertainment (last year the Korean K-pop band BTS played to the Assembly — hard not to roll eyes, I’m told by some present), surely this year demands urgent intervention, not business as usual?

Why is the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, not summoned by the Secretary-General to a meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart, along with others from the Big Five on the Security council, to settle the simmering fire at Zaporizhzhia? Maybe, just maybe they might frisk each other, search each other out on the issue of peace. What’s the harm in trying when you have them all in New York? 

On the climate crisis, why can’t the UN stare down polluters (I’m thinking of everyone, including the United States and the Europeans), as they seek to replace Russian oil and gas with an increase in fossil fuel production? As for paying the bill of the climate crisis — 100 billion dollars for starters — why not call out the oil-producers, led by the Saudis and the Gulf states, and demand their huge profits help the poorest countries suffering the most devastating effects?

Finally, just listen to David Beasley, the American head of the UN’s World Food programme, who has been multiple times this year to Odessa in person, the gateway for Ukraine’s critical supply of grain to the world, with the UN playing a serious role in getting the Russians to allow shipments out. “Let me be crystal clear,” says Beasley. “Conflict in Ukraine is quickly transforming a series of already terrible hunger crises into a global food crisis that the world cannot afford.”

Where is the clarion call meeting at the UN, to confront a threat of mass famine the world has not seen since the dark days of the 1980s, when I reported on such from Uganda, Ethiopia and Somalia? The best of humanity confronting the worst, a line I helped write for the late Kofi Annan when he was Secretary-General and I a member of his team. Where is that call to our better selves? Where is the call to action? 

“The UN needs teeth,” one former colleague in New York confided. “And it needs a leader who understands when and how to bite.”

To my eye Rafael Grossi, that head of the UN’s Atomic Energy agency, had it best when he emerged from tense days spent getting access to that nuclear power plant, in the heart of the Ukraine war zone. Common sense, and the common fear of nuclear disaster, demanded a common sense response, he argued — so a security zone to seal off the plant and ensure its safety. 

Da, I thought, in my lamentable Russian from my Moscow days. Surely, as we see world leaders hustle from Westminster Abbey to the UN in New York, we need common sense for our world of hurt. When Liz Truss, Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron hear the Secretary-General flag his “Summit of the Future” for next year, the response should be: the time for the summit, Sir, is now.

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