Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF-2019) on 6 June:
First of all, I would like to say that today is Pushkin’s day, and I’d like to pay tribute to the Russian language that I do not speak. I apologize for not being able to speak in Russian, but I pay tribute to that wonderful language and to Pushkin’s fantastic contribution to world culture.
Now, first of all, why was it necessary to have the Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2030? Twenty years ago, I was in government in my country, Portugal, and there was a naive optimism about globalization, technological progress – the idea that globalization would generate enormous wealth and that would trickle down and, in the end, solve all the economic problems around the world. Now the truth is, that, indeed, globalization, technological progress increased enormously global wealth, global trade, had fantastic improvements in the lives of billions of people, a much larger middle class, we live more years, less children die on birth.
But the same globalization and the same technological progress increased dramatically inequality in the world and left people, regions, sectors, areas behind. In the rust belts of this world, or in countries that for different reasons could not catch up. And these are generating an enormous malaise, this is generating an enormous break of trust. Trust between people and the political establishments, trust between people and the international organizations. And there was an understanding that it was necessary to find a way to move towards a fair globalization. A globalization that would benefit all.
And that’s how we were able to gather in the United Nations all nations and come up with a program of actions for 2030. The objectives were the eradication of poverty, the eradication of hunger, an enormous effort in education, in health; but also in the environment, also in governance, in all other aspects in order to be able to take profit of technological progress, take profit of globalization for everybody to benefit. Now this is a very ambitious objective. And it is true that we are lagging behind in relation to this objective. First of all, because it would be very difficult to mobilize all the resources and all the capacities, and second, and it is true, I don’t like to use the interpretation of things in the world based on one person. But let’s look into the objective situation of today. Let’s look into the objective…
Moderator: You never mentioned President Trump yet, so we’re waiting…
Secretary-General: Let’s look at the present situation of today. We see growth slowing down. And growth slowing down is of course an obstacle to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We see trade conflicts and other unilateral decisions that have an impact on trade and we see also conflicts related to technology, namely related to the key aspects of the 5G or artificial intelligence, that create enormous unpredictability and contribute to the volatility of markets.
We see at the same time climate change. Climate change is a major threat to us all. And a major limitation to our capacity to deliver in relation to the Goals. And we see the impact of new technologies, namely, the so-called fourth industrial revolution, the artificial intelligence that will have massive impacts on the markets, especially in the labour market. There will be a massive creation of jobs and massive destruction of jobs. And we are not prepared for that. So, obviously we need to rethink education systems. To make sure that we learn not to learn instead of learning too many of the things that no longer serve any purpose. We need to base things on lifelong learning, we need to create a new generation of safety nets for many people who have difficulties adapting.
So, it is necessary to recognize that we are in a moment in which all these reasons are making it more difficult to implement the Sustainable Development Goals. And, of course, all these reasons are related to the politics in a world that at certain moment was bipolar, then became unipolar, and today is a bit chaotic and as recently has been very fashionable to say so-called Thucydides Trap, when you have one power that emerges and one power becomes less dominant there is indeed a risk of conflict. The Thucydides Trap, if you remember, it was the rise of Athens and the fear that that generated in Sparta that made the war of Peloponnesus inevitable. I don’t think that we have a war that is inevitable, but I think we need to do everything possible to have the wisdom of leadership everywhere, with all leaders to make sure that we don’t move into a new Cold War and to make sure that we don’t have not only with climate change, a global warming, but with other kinds of conflicts, a global political warming that will undermine the Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2030, and undermine our collective security.
Moderator: Because countries now appear to be in this moment more focused on their individual needs and ambitions and not on the collective ambitions the way that the Sustainable Development Goals proposed. But let me ask you in a different way, Secretary-General, the Goals talk about the indivisibility that every part of the Goals are important. China, the Chinese leader is here in St. Petersburg, has lifted 250 million people out of poverty. What do you think is more important: lifting people out of poverty or human rights and democracy?
Secretary-General: I think that everything is important, because to lift people out of poverty is a basic human right. People sometimes think about human rights only about political and civil rights. But there are economic, social, cultural rights. And to lift people out of poverty is basically a human rights action. So, indeed, from that point of view, we have to recognise that the most remarkable achievement in relation to the eradication of poverty in the world was done by China in
the last few decades. And I would remind that the plan according to President Xi Jiangpin, as referred several times, is to completely eradicate absolute poverty, the poverty that is below the level that is internationally accepted, to totally eradicate absolute poverty in China in 2020. And that, in my opinion, is an important achievement from the point of view of human rights. There are aspects in which I might disagree on human rights – civil, political or others. But I think it’s important to be objective and not to be so passionate in what we say or the way we express our things that we don’t make justice to what deserves that justice.
Moderator: So you do feel able to criticize China in terms of human rights?
Secretary-General: I can criticize China when I believe China is not doing well on whatever is not doing well. But it is clear that to eradicate poverty in a country with the history of China and the problems of China is an absolutely remarkable achievement and it would be stupid not to recognize it.
Moderator: A little bit more context of just in terms of your own home: The United Nations faces its own challenges even with these goals of funding particularly because of a lack of money from the United States. I gather that you even suggested that you might propose selling your residence in New York in order to fund the United Nations, perhaps you should think about maybe moving into a Trump Hotel, that might help with the diplomacy.
Secretary-General: I see that you have an obsession, but let’s be objective again. We have a very difficult cash situation in the UN, because of an increase of arrears, and because of old-fashioned methodologies in budget management that need to be addressed. And that cash situation, I hope, we are now discussing it in the General Assembly, I hope we will find ways to overcome it. But it is absolutely essential that all countries pay their fees, pay them on time, pay them entirely and pay them without conditions – that applies to every country, including the country that you have mentioned.
[other participants answer questions]
Moderator: Secretary-General, I want to end with you. We started it [the opening session] late, but we are also overtime. There are huge positives: Save the Children issued a report just in the past few weeks. It said that 280 million children around the world are significantly better off today than they were 20 years ago. And they praise both China and America for their role in helping that enormous number of children. And yet when you talk to leaders like these gentlemen and others around the world, their attention is so pulled now to the problems that the world is facing. What other conversations you are having?
Secretary-General: Well, I do not accept the idea that we reduce international relations today to a confrontation between the United States and China or that we accept that we are moving into a new Cold War between the United States and China. What we need is a multipolar world. What we need is the United States, China, the Russian Federation, India, the European Union and several other key partners able to address their problems and to address their problems in a
multilateral way. We had the experience in Europe before the First World War of a multipolar Europe. In the absence of multilateral mechanisms of governance, the result of that was the First World War. So we need a multipolar world with all these actors to play a relevant role in world affairs and we need that multipolar world with multilateral forms of governance and international relations based on international law.
Moderator: Final question: with all of this going on and all of these challenges for you, do you plan, do you hope for another term as Secretary-General?
Secretary-General: There is only one way to be a Secretary-General. It is to be an honest broker. And to be an honest broker, there is something you can never have in your plans is to submit what you do to any consideration about candidacies or things of the sort. You need to do at any moment what you think is the right thing to do and that eventually might create the conditions in which you cannot be reelected. It does not matter.
Moderator: But it is a “yes” if they will have you, is that right? It is “yes” if they want you, then you would like a second term?
Secretary-General: Well, when I was Prime Minister in Portugal, the day I determined that I had no conditions to apply the projects in which I believed, I was in government and I resigned, and let the others have the opportunity to do what they believed could be done.
I think it only makes sense to be a public servant nationally and internationally if you are there to do things in which you believe. If you have no conditions to do the things you believe, you had better do something else. And my position has always been – in my life, in all things – the same. When I am here, I do my best to do what I have to do as the Secretary-General of the United Nations. I do not think about what the future will bring. The day I will start thinking about the future I will start undermining my action today.