Antonio Guterres currently leads the United Nations as secretary-general, a position he has held since January 1, 2017. Previously, from 2005 to 2015, he was the UN’s high commissioner for refugees. In that function, Guterres gained the wisdom to now help solve one of the most pressing issues of our time: the displacement of 65.6 million people around the world due to conflict or persecution.
In this interview with Maurits Elen, which has been edited for clarity, Guterres focuses on Asia, a region that for half a century has seen remarkable growth and stability but also faces unique challenges — from devastation caused by environmental disasters to increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the outpouring of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.
Maurits Elen: A few days from now, the annual ASEAN summit will be held in the Philippines, where you will sit down with leaders from around the world. What are your views on ASEAN?
Antonio Guterres: In Asia, as in other parts of the world, I am convinced that multilateralism and regional integration are absolutely vital to promote prosperity as well as to advance human rights and the rule of law.
I believe that regional organizations play a crucial role in the maintenance of international peace and security, with ASEAN being a positive example of multilateral cooperation. Under the ASEAN-UN Comprehensive Partnership, we can intensify our work in areas such as peace and security, sustainable development, human rights, and humanitarian action, with close attention being paid to prevention.
Regarding prevention, I have called on all parties to resolve their disputes, including maritime disputes, in a peaceful manner, in conformity with international law, and to avoid unnecessary escalation or provocation. In that regard, I see the recent adoption of the framework of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea as a positive step.
The situation on the Korean Peninsula continues to be a great source of concern, not just in the region, but around the world. I welcome the efforts of ASEAN foreign ministers to de-escalate tensions through dialogue within the ASEAN Regional Forum.
On the crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, I am deeply concerned by its serious implications for stability in ASEAN and the wider region. The United Nations welcomes constructive approaches by ASEAN member states, as well as the provision of humanitarian assistance. I hope that ASEAN can intensify its actions because the time to act is now.
In any crisis, communication can be a decisive factor. Regarding the United States and North Korea, would it be a realistic idea for the United Nations to appoint a mediator country or individual to help bring both parties to the table?
The nuclear and missile tests by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) have created great instability and tension on the Korean Peninsula, throughout the region, and beyond. As I have stressed repeatedly, the solution to this situation can only be political, as military action could cause devastation on a scale that would take generations to overcome. There have been suggestions that I mediate in the situation, and while I remain available for any actions that may be seen as useful, this can only happen if the parties agree to it.
At this stage, how can we avoid seeing both parties make unfortunate miscalculations?
I strongly believe that unity in the Security Council is critical – such unity creates an opportunity for diplomatic engagement, an opportunity that must be seized to prevent miscommunication and miscalculations.
Since last summer, countless Rohingya refugees have been stranded in Bangladesh. What is needed to help solve this crisis?
The United Nations is committed to easing the heart-breaking suffering of so many of these vulnerable people, and I thank the people and government of Bangladesh for the tremendous generosity they have shown to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have fled Myanmar since late August of this year. The international community should show generosity and solidarity towards both the Rohingya refugees and the country that is hosting them.
All of those people who have fled to Bangladesh must be able to exercise their right to a safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable return to their homes. The United Nations is committed to a plan for a voluntary return, including the implementation of the Kofi Annan-led Rakhine Advisory Commission’s recommendations regarding verification and citizenship.
I believe these refugees should also be able to return to their homes in Myanmar in peace, not to yet another cycle of violence. The core of the problem is protracted statelessness and its associated discrimination. Myanmar’s leaders must condemn incitement to racial hatred and violence and take all measures to defuse tensions between communities. They must also end the military operations and allow unfettered access for humanitarian aid in Rakhine State.
A recent report by the United Nations showed that the greatest impacts of disasters are in countries which have the least capacity to prepare or respond to these events. In Asia, what particular countries should we be worried about and what are your views on disaster risk financing?
Due to their size, location and characteristics of their economies, small-island developing states (SIDS) are particularly challenged by intensive disaster risk. In the Asia-Pacific region, Vanuatu, Tonga, and Fiji face particularly high risks.
I recently visited Caribbean islands in the aftermath of massive hurricanes Irma and Maria: there, I witnessed a level of devastation that I had never seen in my life. Our response cannot be limited to traditional instruments. It requires new financial tools, linked mainly to the build-up of resilience.
For each hazard there are different risk profiles. For example, tsunami risk is particularly high in Japan, China, and Indonesia; while tropical cyclone risk is high in Philippines, Bangladesh and others; and flood risk is high in Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia.
Financial strategies can complement and reinforce broader disaster risk reduction initiatives, but need to be adapted to different national circumstances and contexts. Disaster risk financing can include public compensation mechanisms, financial sector mechanisms for sharing or transferring risks (such as insurance), and better allocation of resources for disaster risk reduction.
Aid remains essential to help those most in need during crises, help cover insurance premiums, and support quick disbursing catastrophe funds. In addition, state contingent debt instruments, which reduce or delay debt payments during disasters, can also be helpful. Although the private sector has not yet shown interest in investing in these instruments, the United Nations encourages development finance providers, including bilateral and multilateral creditors, to make use of them.
Are you confident that the goals set in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will be met and what points does Asia still need to work on?
I am confident that the 2030 Agenda can be achieved, in Asia and everywhere around the world. It came from an elaborated intergovernmental process of three years, which means the goals are endorsed by heads of state and government to start with. Where there is political will, there is momentum for progress.
Agenda 2030 also takes its strength from the compact formed with governments, civil societies, private sector, academia, municipalities, youth, and others, in the planning and the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, in an unforeseen manner. Over the past decades, Asia has delivered the most significant progress in poverty eradication globally. I’m confident that such momentum will be brought forward.
We do see challenges, including in Asia, but I believe that challenges are opportunities for improvement. Among these challenges, Southern Asia has an alarming stunting problem, which is also closely linked to a relatively high neonatal mortality rate. It also has a considerable amount of out-of-school population in primary and secondary education. Lacking safe water, sanitation and hygiene is another problem facing Central and Southern Asia, especially in rural areas, which is a major risk factor for infectious diseases and mortality. The continent also hosts a large amount of people without access to clean fuels and more efficient technologies for cooking, while some Asian countries face the challenge of gender-based violence on a large scale. This means continued and focused efforts are required to ensure the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.