UN chief warns of 'colossal global dysfunction' but urges world to unite on sweeping solutions

Secretary-General António Guterres spoke on climate, economic inequity and more.

September 20, 2022, 3:53 PM

As global leaders descend on New York City for the annual U.N. General Assembly, the body's Secretary-General António Guterres issued a dire warning in an opening speech on Tuesday: "Our world is in big trouble."

"Divides are growing deeper. Inequalities are growing wider," he said. "And challenges are spreading farther."

The annual gathering of high-level diplomats in the General Assembly is the first to happen in a fully in-person format since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it's the first to take place since Russia's invasion of Ukraine -- an international conflict that has drawn deep divides between the organization's most powerful members, sparking calls for the U.N. to be reformed and prompting questions about whether it can still serve its stated purpose "to maintain international peace and security."

Guterres alluded to these fractures in his address Tuesday, arguing they undercut the organization's work.

"We are gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction," he said. "The international community is not ready or willing to tackle the big dramatic challenges of our age. These crises threaten the very future of humanity and the fate of our planet. Our world is in peril -- and paralyzed."

Overcoming those major challenges, he said, depended on cooperation.

"Let's work as one, as a coalition of the world, as united nations," he urged.

Hunger on the horizon

While much of Guterres' speech was devoted to outlining the problems facing the planet, he sought to remind the audience that the U.N. was still capable of finding solutions.

Large projectors in the room displayed a picture of a ship called Brave Commander that Guterres called "an image of promise and hope." Laden with grain and flying the blue-and-white flag of the U.N., the vessel was the first to leave Ukrainian ports since the outbreak of Russia's invasion, navigating Black Sea trade routes to bring its badly needed cargo to the Horn of Africa thanks to an agreement Guterres played a pivotal part in brokering.

"Some might call it a miracle at sea. In truth, it is multilateral diplomacy in action," he said, calling the dozens of ships that have followed in Brave Commander's path a testament to what can be accomplished through cooperation.

But while that safe passage deal is allowing grain exports to ameliorate the global food crisis, Guterres warned there was another on the horizon due to a shortage in fertilizer -- saying that while the current problems can be chalked up to distribution issues, the world's hunger may soon be the result of not having enough to go around at all.

"Without action now, the global fertilizer shortage will quickly morph into a global food shortage," he said.

PHOTO: United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the 77th session of the General Assembly at U.N. headquarters Sept. 20, 2022, in New York City.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the 77th session of the General Assembly at U.N. headquarters Sept. 20, 2022, in New York City.
Mary Altaffer/AP

The secretary-general then alluded to the U.N.'s next major initiative: a proposal to export Russian fertilizer components through Ukraine.

"It is essential to continue removing all remaining obstacles to the export of Russian fertilizers and their ingredients, including ammonia. These products are not subject to sanctions, and we are making progress in eliminating indirect effects," Guterres said.

The U.N. separately says it is "pursuing all efforts" to maximize fertilizer output, but the clock is ticking. The body's trade negotiator advises that shortages need to be addressed in October and November before the window for the northern hemisphere's planting season closes.

Dire problems, drastic plans

The secretary-general on Tuesday also spoke to the even broader-sweeping challenges of the day, and advocated for even more ambitious -- or, to some, radical -- plans to address them. "We need action across the board. Let's have no illusions," he said. "Our planet is burning,"

Guterres called not only for initiatives to address the root causes of damage to the environment but also to compensate developing countries that bear the brunt of those problems.

"Polluters must pay," he said. "Today, I am calling on all developed economies to tax the 'windfall' profits of fossil fuel companies. Those funds should be re-directed in two ways: to countries suffering loss and damage caused by the climate crisis, and to people struggling with rising food and energy prices."

Guterres argued that the climate crisis was fueling "a once-in-a-generation global cost-of-living crisis" that could only be remedied through radical change.

"Today's global financial system was created by rich countries to serve their interests. It expands and entrenches inequalities. It requires deep structural reform," he said. "The divergence between developed and developing countries -- between North and South, between the privileged and the rest -- is becoming more dangerous by the day. It is at the root of the geopolitical tensions."

PHOTO: Displaced people wade through floodwaters after heavy monsoon rains, Sept. 18, 2022, in Usta Mohammad, Pakistan.
Displaced people wade through floodwaters after heavy monsoon rains, Sept. 18, 2022, in Usta Mohammad, Pakistan.
Fida Hussain/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. agenda

While President Joe Biden isn't scheduled to take part in the summit until Wednesday, Guterres' speech mentioned a number of other items that coincide with the White House's priority list.

On nonproliferation, the secretary-general noted that "a nuclear deal with Iran remains elusive."

The Biden administration, with help from the European Union, has been embroiled in months of indirect negotiations with Tehran over returning to an Obama-era nuclear pact that then-President Donald Trump scrapped in 2018. But talks appear to have stalled again. Although a high-level delegation from Iran will participate in the General Assembly, there are no planned meetings with any U.S. officials.

While addressing women's rights, Guterres also hit on a domestic matter: the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

The U.N. women's rights committee has previously denounced the landmark ruling which reversed the national access to abortion in the U.S., calling "access to reproductive rights is at the core of women and girls' autonomy and ability to make their own choices about their bodies and lives, free of discrimination, violence and coercion."

More broadly, Guterres said that gender inequality is "going backwards" and "women's lives are getting worse, from poverty, to choices around sexual and reproductive health, to their personal security."