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Back at Westminster Central Hall: UN's new Secretary General on renewing the organisation

UN Secretary General, Antonio Gutarres at Westminster Central HallUN Secretary General, Antonio Gutarres at Westminster Central HallWestminster Central Hall was the venue for the first meeting of the United Nations Organisation (UNO) following its formation in 1947, its creation having arisen out of the conflicts of two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century.

It was an attempt by governments to bring the nations of the world together to ensure that such conflict should not take place again.  May 10, 2017 saw another major UN meeting in Westminster Central Hall - organised by the United nations Association (UNA)..

The UK branch of the UNA is a charitable organisation that represents people in the UK who care about and want to contribute to debates within the UN. UNA UK has branches around the country where members meet to discuss global issues and feed those issues back to HQ.

This was the first visit of the new Secretary General to this country since his appointment in January 2017. Antonio Gutarres comes from a very distinguished background having been Prime Minister of Portugal (1995 - 2002) and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (2005-2015) heading one of the world's foremost humanitarian organisations during some of the most serious displacement of people crises in decades.

Having witnessed first hand the suffering in refugee camps and war zones, he made it clear that he was determined to make human dignity central to his work and to serve as a peace broker, a bridge-builder and a promoter of innovation and reform in the UN: “We are living in a rapidly changing world with new threats and challenges of climate change and extremism and mistrust of the political establishments”.

He made some interesting points to an estimated audience of 2,000 people

On the positive side:

  • In many ways the world is in a better place than it ever has been with lower levels of infant and maternal mortality and better access to health care and education.
  • Globalisation has created greater wealth.
  • Fewer soldiers are engaged in conflict than for many years.
  • Current conflicts are internal confined to particular countries, Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria rather than international.
  • There are examples of countries in which conflict has been locally and successfully managed – he quoted The Gambia whose internal conflict had been quelled by the surrounding countries.
  • With the increasing threat of climate change “Green business is good business”.

In considering the causes of the current conflicts in the world he mentioned the

  • Fragility of institutions in those countries
  • Huge disparities of wealth leaving the poor feeling abandoned and angry
  • External economic shocks – the turbulence of global markets
  • Divisions between different faith groups
  • Population growth
  • Chaotic urban development
  • Human rights abuses

In terms of his role as Secretary General of the United Nations and the UN itself he made two broad points.  Firstly that the world in which we are now living is a very different world to that in which the UN was created 70 years ago.   The UN needs to adapt to that change.  Secondly there is a real need for institutional reform within the United Nations.

  • We are all members of the UN and must support its work.
  • He understood that there is an anger directed at the International Monetary Fund the World Bank and the UN and there is a need for these institutions to be working more closely together.
  • There will be no peace without development and the UN should devote more of its energies on development, human rights, investment in social cohesion (he pointed positively to the predominantly young and very diverse audience in front of him in Westminster Central Hall), and tackling the causes of inequality.
  • These four issues need to be brought together as one rather than the fragmented approach currently adopted by the UN.
  • There should be greater accountability and transparency at the UN. The UN is perhaps best known for its peacekeeping “the blue helmets”. But there has been a reprehensible and totally unacceptable incidence of sexual harassment of local people by peacekeeping forces.
  • The UN should devote more attention to “fragile states”
  • Youth unemployment is a central cause of conflict and getting worse and this must be addressed. Looking to the future, an example of a major threat to employment is driverless vehicles. We must adapt to this threat and address it.
  • The UN must work with all states to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goals set out in 2015 are written into their strategic aims.

A questioner from the floor asked how the UN should respond to the conflicts taking place in Sudan, Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan all of which are fuelled by external intervention. The Secretary General responded that the message he was putting across in the Security Council is that “These wars are unwinnable!” And that the impact of the movement of refugees to surrounding countries was intolerable particularly for those fleeing conflicts, but also on neighbouring countries whether Kenya, Uganda or Lebanon.

If anyone reading this account is moved as I was by Antonio Gutarres’ words and his understanding of the world’s problems and his determination to address those problems, I would strongly advise you to join the United Nations Association.

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