Confluence of Crises: Warnings by the UN Secretary-General
Arthur Lyon Dahl
21 February 2023
If anyone should have a clear view of the present crises and global governance failures, it should be UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and he has recently provided the most damning critique of those failures in surprisingly undiplomatic language. In his 6 February 2023 briefing to the General Assembly on priorities for 2023, he warns about “a confluence of challenges unlike any other in our lifetimes. Wars grind on. The climate crisis burns on. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty rage on. The gulf between the haves and have nots is cleaving societies, countries and our wider world. Epic geopolitical divisions are undermining global solidarity and trust. This path is a dead end.”
Seven governance failures
While we know what to do, and that the cost of inaction far exceeds that of action, we are trapped in short-term thinking which he describes as deeply irresponsible and immoral. He calls for transformation through action in deep and systemic ways founded in human rights. Beyond all the issues of sustainability, the environment is near the top of his list, and he draws an important conclusion. We need to emphasize, as he does, the ethics of action. He lays out seven of the human rights concerned, summarized as follows.
Faced with wars and their enormous environmental impact, we must start with the right to peace, preventing conflict as proposed in his New Agenda for Peace. Faced with poverty and hunger, we require rights to social and economic development. He says there is something fundamentally wrong with our economic and financial system, requiring a radical transformation in our global financial architecture with priority to developing countries. To rescue the Sustainable Development Goals, the SDG Summit in September will be the centrepiece moment of 2023, providing the foundations for a New Social Contract.
The war on nature
As an environmental scientist, I was particularly struck by the language the Secretary-General used when he expressed his third priority as our right to a clean, healthy, sustainable environment. “We must end the merciless, relentless and senseless war on nature.” We are hurtling towards a deadly 2.8 degrees of climate change, a brutal, irreversible loss of biodiversity, an ocean choked with pollution, vampiric overconsumption of water draining the lifeblood of the planet, requiring disruption to end the destruction. We need climate justice to replace the bottomless greed of the fossil fuel industry. Fossil fuel producers should not be in business when their core product is our core problem, and countries should stop subsidizing fossil fuels. The language the SG has chosen is more that of radicals demonstrating in the street rather than diplomats in a conference room, but what else might catch attention when faced with government inertia and inaction before impending catastrophe? He calls for a Climate Solidarity Pact and a Climate Ambition Summit in September, and concludes that “climate action is the 21st century’s greatest opportunity to drive forward all the Sustainable Development Goals.”
One of the consequences of global heating is sea level rise, both from thermal expansion of water and melting ice on land. In a briefing to the UN Security Council on 14 February 2023, the Secretary-General warned that this was creating new sources of instability and conflict, and a threat multiplier, with low-lying communities and entire countries disappearing and 900 million people at risk. How can anyone of right mind ignore such dangers that can no longer be avoided? See a more complete report here.
Continuing with his briefing to the General Assembly, the SG’s fourth priority is respect for diversity and the universality of cultural rights, since culture is humanity’s heart and soul and gives our lives meaning. While universality and diversity are critical to cultural rights, they are under attack from all sides, with ethnic and religious minorities, refugees, migrants, indigenous people and others increasingly targeted for hate. Mis- and disinformation are impacting progress on global issues, including the climate crisis. The fifth right is to full gender equality, with half of humanity held back by the most widespread human rights abuse of our time, and things getting worse. Gender equality is a question of power, and the patriarchy, with millennia of power behind it, is reasserting itself.
Sixth is civil and political rights as the basis of inclusive societies, but these rights are under threat as democracy is in retreat, with media in the firing line and the space for civil society vanishing. Finally, he raises the rights of future generations, to be addressed at next year’s Summit of the Future with the aim of making peace with nature; ensuring an open, free, inclusive digital future for all; eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction; and building more just and inclusive governance. He has created a UN Youth Office, and intends to bolster global action and build a United Nations fit for a new era – ever more creative, diverse, multilingual and closer to the people it serves.
While the Secretary-General points to the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the way out of today’s dead end, we know that there are flaws in the system that have prevented reaching these high ideals. In particular, the destructive forces in society are clinging to national sovereignty as their rampart against interference with their selfish ways. Replacing this out-of-date paradigm with rich national autonomy within a globally unified system is an essential step forward. The IEF is working with other partners including the Global Governance Forum to prepare proposals for better global governance, including environmental governance, to fix this broken system in response to the diagnosis of the Secretary-General. Given the urgency of all these issues and their interrelationships, we have no time to lose.
Blog based on a similar blog for the Global Governance Forum on 21 February 2023.
Last updated 21 February 2023