U.N. Chief: Security Council Gridlock Blocks Effective Coronavirus Response

Jun 9, 2020
Originally published on June 9, 2020 7:02 pm

The coronavirus pandemic set a new record this weekend: More than 136,000 new cases around the world were reported on Sunday, the highest number in a single day.

The statistic comes from the United Nations, the global body the world often turns to in a crisis.

"If the pandemic represents something, it is a demonstration of our fragility. Something that you can only see in a microscope has put us on our knees," U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said during an interview with All Things Considered. "And that humility should lead us to solidarity and unity."

Instead, he says, there was no unity in the strategy to fight the pandemic. "Each country went its own way, with the epicenter moving from country to country."

The U.N. can distribute aid and help governments shape their coronavirus responses. But it has limited tools to force a country to, say, follow guidelines from the World Health Organization, a U.N. agency.

And gridlock in the U.N. Security Council — which can pass enforceable resolutions — has stalled any real action.

That frustrates Guterres.

"We see that the very dysfunctional relationship that exists today between the United States-China, United States-Russia, makes it practically impossible for the Security Council to take any meaningful decision that would be fundamental" to fight COVID-19 effectively, he said.

Here are excerpts from the interview.

You say there's an absence of a coordinated international response. Do you think that shows the system is too broken to be useful?

The point is that we have multilateralism, but the multilateralism we have has no teeth. We need mechanisms of cooperation, with mechanisms of governance, that simply do not exist. And even where we have in the multilateral system some teeth, as is the case of Security Council, it has shown very little appetite to bite.

So I do believe that when we look into the future — and we are in the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, time to think about the future — we need to strengthen multilateral institutions and to give them the instruments in order to make sure that an effective global governance is able to work and to face the dramatic challenges we are having in front of us.

President Trump has announced that the U.S. will pull out of the World Health Organization. Do you believe the U.S. is relinquishing its leadership role on the world stage by pulling inward?

What I believe is that the role of the U.S. in the international community is essential. I believe that the world needs an engaged United States, that United States leadership is absolutely fundamental to having a world order in which democratic values can prevail, in which human rights can prevail and in which peace and security can get guaranteed by international cooperation.

On questions of moral authority, the U.S. has represented itself as a force for democracy and free expression around the world. How you view the president's reactions to protests against police brutality?

First of all, we need to be very firm in the absolute condemnation of racism in all its expressions. It's an abhorrent thing. It's totally against the values of our common humanity. Second, it is clear that we have grievances related to racism, grievances related to inequalities, that those grievances lead populations to demonstrate, that those demonstrations are legitimate, they should be peaceful.

But it is also very important that the authorities show restraint and do not become themselves a source of violence in relation to the way those demonstrations are handled.

Listen to the full interview at the audio link above.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A record was set this week, and it is nothing to celebrate. On Sunday, more new cases of the coronavirus were reported in a single day than ever before. That is a global statistic, and it comes from the global body the world often turns to in a crisis, the United Nations. Our next guest leads the U.N., Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. He has pushed the U.N. Security Council to act, urging a global cease-fire, but there has only been gridlock. When I spoke with Guterres earlier today, he told me the coronavirus has exposed real weaknesses in the global order.

ANTONIO GUTERRES: If the pandemic represents something, it's a demonstration of our fragility. Something that you can only see in a microscope has puts us on our knees. And that humility should lead us to solidarity and unity. But unfortunately, it's not only the Security Council. There was no unity around the world in the strategy to fight the pandemic. Each country went its own way, with, of course, epicenters moving from country to country and all from north to south, before from east to west, and then a second wave being possible at any moment. We see that the very dysfunctional relationship that exists today between the United States-China, United States-Russia, makes it practically impossible for the Security Council to take any meaningful decision that would be fundamental to solve if you want it to be effective against the COVID.

SHAPIRO: You say there's an absence of a coordinated international response. If the U.N. is unable to organize an international response to a threat as significant as this, do you think that shows the system is too broken to be useful?

GUTERRES: Now, the point is that we have the multilateralism, but the multilateralism we have has no teeth. We need mechanisms of cooperation, with mechanisms of governance that simply do not exist. And even where we have in the multilateral system some teeth, as is the case of Security Council, it has shown very little appetite to bite.

So I do believe that when we look into the future - and we are in the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, time to think about the future - we need to strengthen multilateral institutions and to give them the instruments in order to make sure that an effective global governance is able to work and to face the dramatic challenges we are having in front of us.

SHAPIRO: While you're calling for increased multilateralism and international cooperation, President Trump has announced the U.S. will pull out of the World Health Organization, which is just one of several ways the president has reduced the role the U.S. plays in international bodies. Do you believe the U.S. is relinquishing its leadership role on the world stage by pulling inward?

GUTERRES: What I believe is that the role of the U.S. in the international community is essential. I believe that the world needs an engaged United States, that United States leadership is absolutely fundamental to having world order in which democratic values can prevail, in where human rights can prevail and in which peace and security can get guaranteed by international cooperation. So my appeal to the leaders of all countries, not only the United States, is to be more and more engaged in the forms of international cooperation that are necessary.

SHAPIRO: There are also questions of moral authority. The U.S. has represented itself has a force for democracy and free expression around the world, so I wonder how you view the president's reactions to protests against police brutality. He tweeted, once the looting starts, the shooting starts. He sent federal forces into D.C. against the wishes of the mayor. He cleared a peaceful protest outside the White House with tear gas. What is your reaction?

GUTERRES: Now, first of all, we need to be very firm in the absolute condemnation of racism in all its expressions. It's an abhorrent thing. It's totally against the values of our common humanity. Second, it is clear that we have grievances related to racism, grievances related to inequalities, that those grievances lead populations to demonstrate, that those demonstrations are legitimate, they should be peaceful. But it is also very important that the authorities show restraint and do not become themselves a source of violence in relation to the way those demonstrations are handled. And the grievances must be heard, and the governments must act to promote the social cohesion of societies. These are problems that are happening everywhere. Everywhere people are feeling uncomfortable, are feeling angry, are feeling anxious, after losing confidence in their institutions. They have grievances. Their grievances must be heard. And governments must be able to have a meaningful dialogue with societies to overcome these mistrusts.

SHAPIRO: As these protests go global, do you see a role for the U.N.?

GUTERRES: I think the U.N. has a key role in pushing for the social cohesion that governments and societies have to bet on in order to be able to address the grievances that are expressed. And these are to do with the fight against racism, with the fight against xenophobia, with the rights of vulnerable populations, with the fight against inequality, with the creating of conditions, as I said, for each one to feel that they are respected in society and that they count, that they matter, that they are heard.

SHAPIRO: Antonio Guterres is secretary-general of the United Nations.

Thank you for joining us.

GUTERRES: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.