The annual diplomatic gathering at the United Nations this week places the spotlight on its top chief, António Guterres, the secretary general, who is responsible for persuading an increasingly fractured and skeptical world that the U.N. — and, by extension, his position — is still vital for international order and multilateralism.
In his opening remarks Tuesday, Mr. Guterres said that the world was in peril, and geopolitical divides were undermining international law, trust in democratic institutions and all forms of international cooperation.
“We cannot go on like this,” Mr. Guterres said. “We have a duty to act. And yet we are gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction.”
In remarks that pivoted between alarm and hope, the secretary general made demands for collective action. He warned of a world burning because of climate change and said ideals of the U.N. charter — which pledges to end “the scourge of war” and to regain “faith in fundamental human rights” — are in jeopardy, alluding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the inequalities that have exploded as food and energy prices rise.
“Let’s have no illusions. We are in rough seas,” Mr. Guterres said in one of the most blunt speeches he has delivered to world leaders.
Mr. Guterres identified three areas where he said world leaders should come together: peace and security, the climate crisis and addressing inequality in developing countries.
The war in Ukraine, Mr. Guterres said, has “unleashed widespread destruction with massive violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.”
The conflict unexpectedly elevated Mr. Guterres’s role as a humanitarian mediator. He has bluntly condemned Russia for violating the U.N. charter and called for investigations into potential crimes against humanity in Ukraine. And early on, he opened investigations into the rippling affects of the war on rising food and energy and economic downturn.
But Mr. Guterres also reminded the audience of other crises still posing a threat to global stability, such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Israel and Palestine.
Turning to climate, Mr. Guterres accused the fossil fuel industry of “feasting on hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies and windfall profits” and called on the leaders of wealthy countries to issue additional levies to help vulnerable nations facing the irreparable damages of climate change.
“Today, I am calling on all developed economies to tax the windfall profits of fossil fuel companies,” he told the heads of state and other government officials gathered at the United Nations General Assembly hall. “Those funds should be redirected in two ways: to countries suffering loss and damage caused by the climate crisis, and to people struggling with rising food and energy prices.”
The call for action represents his most forceful comments yet on a lightning rod issue of loss and damage, which is polite diplomatic speak for reparations for poor countries that suffer the greatest effects of climate crisis but that bear little responsibility for it.
The issue of loss and damage financing is emerging as an important fault line in the upcoming climate negotiations in Egypt. The secretary general’s remarks sets up a potential showdown with the United States and the countries of Europe, who have long resisted the idea of a separate funding mechanism for loss and damage.
In the third part of his speech, Mr. Guterres emphasized the many challenges faced by developing countries, including food insecurity, debt and poverty, that has resulted in them “getting hit from all sides.”
“These cascading crises are feeding on each other, compounding inequalities, creating devastating hardship, delaying the energy transition, and threatening global financial meltdown,” Mr. Guterres said.
He called on banks to facilitate financial assistance for developing countries by lifting borrowing conditions and increasing their appetite for risk, while telling creditors to consider debt relief, particularly for climate funds. Mr. Guterres said the International Monetary Fund and major central banks must expand their liquidity facilities and currency lines significantly.
Somini Sengupta contributed reporting.