In his three and a half years as Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres has proved himself sensitive and alert to the difficulties confronting Caribbean states. He has been an example that Secretaries-General of other intergovernmental organisations would do well to emulate, particularly those interested in being elected for second terms.
His address to the 40th Regular Meeting of the CARICOM Heads of Government on July 3 was the most important statement made by any UN Secretary-General about the Caribbean region. It deserves more attention than it has received.
What will be a most enduring depiction of António Guterres’ concern about the well-being of the Caribbean peoples was his appearance in Dominica and in Antigua and Barbuda in 2017 after the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Of all the Secretaries-General of intergovernmental organisations to which Caribbean countries belong, he was the only one who turned up in the aftermath of the destruction.
On October 7, standing amidst the wreckage of decimated Barbuda from which every person had to be evacuated by the Antigua and Barbuda government, a visibly shaken Guterres declared, “I have been in areas torn by conflict. In my own country, I have seen earthquakes, I’ve seen storms […] I have never seen such a high-level of devastation like the one that I witnessed in Barbuda.”
And, he did not leave it there. He put the blame for the devastation squarely where it belonged, acknowledging that Caribbean countries are victims of the profligacy of larger and richer nations. He called for immediate and long-term help for the affected Caribbean countries, saying: “This is an obligation of the international community, because they (the Caribbean countries) are suffering the effects of climate change but they have not contributed to it.”
He then went back to the UN headquarters in New York to launch an appeal for international assistance. The fact that the response was large on promises and small on delivery was not Guterres’ fault. Indeed, it is troubling to think how much less might have been delivered if the Secretary-General had not taken a personal interest.
At the forefront of Guterres’ thinking is that Climate Change is the root of the problem, not only for the Caribbean and Pacific small islands that are devastated by brutal hurricanes, but for the entire world. This thinking was evident when he addressed the Meeting of CARICOM Heads of Government on July 3.
His message was meant more for the leaders who were not in the room, including those that deny the existence and effects of Climate Change. It was also intended for those leaders on all sides of the political divide in big countries who shy away from the urgency of convincing their populations that, in the interest of the world, their carbon emissions must be significantly reduced.
“I am asking all leaders, from governments and the private sector, to present plans – at my Climate Action Summit or at the latest by December 2020 – to cut greenhouse emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 and get to carbon neutrality by 2050”, he pleaded.
But, the experience of Climate Summits has not been encouraging. Promises have been made to help the countries in the front-line of climate devastation with funds to build resilience from the worst effects of disasters. Yet, the problem of devastation will never stop until Climate Change itself is stopped. That is the inconvenient truth that all the international conferences have refused to confront. Promises of money to help build resilience does no more than contribute to a waiting game whose result, if greenhouse emissions are not halted, is the extinction of small island states.
Guterres minced no words in agreeing that the money for building resilience is necessary now and the unlocking of its flow is urgent. He said, “I also agree with you that the speed and predictability of climate financing, especially for the Least Developed Countries and SIDS, should be improved”.
The Secretary-General also identified himself with the crucial issues confronting the region to which the international financial institutions, and the major countries that control their policies, pay little more than lip service. His own words are worth emphasizing.
On vulnerability: “I have assisted too many technocratic discussions about vulnerability and what it means but having visited several Small Island Developing States in the Pacific and the Caribbean I never found one that was not a clear case of vulnerability. That should be recognized by all”.
On de-risking: “The small size of their domestic markets and their limited capacity to participate in global markets particularly, is damaging when it translates itself into the isolation of their financial systems from the global financial system [and] hinders them in generating economies of scale”.
On the restriction from access to concessional financing on the sole criterion of per capita income: “Eligibility for Official Development Assistance and other forms of concessional financing should include vulnerability criteria, in addition to Gross National Income per capita […] For middle-income countries that are particularly vulnerable, the multilateral development banks and development finance institutions have key roles to play in providing more long-term, low-cost debt financing”.
On debt: “The time has also come for the international community to consider seriously how best to address the rising problems of over-indebtedness of middle-income countries”.
And he pledged to act: “I am determined to change that by bringing more resources and strengthening UN support to SIDS”.
On a related matter, the 14 CARICOM countries have been divided over the situation in Venezuela, most visibly in the Organization of American States where four of them have sided with anti- Nicolás Maduro supporters to seat a designee of the self-proclaimed President of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, as the representative of Venezuela. Other CARICOM countries regard the seating as contrary to the rules of the Organization and international law.
In stark contrast, Guterres has steadfastly maintained a position of honest broker over the situation in Venezuela. In the margins of the July 3 CARICOM meeting where the Prime Minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, was also present, the UN Secretary-General expressed strong support for the Norwegian facilitation initiative on Venezuela, and called on all parties in Venezuela to avoid any actions that might increase tensions in the country and undermine the facilitation initiative.
The difference exhibited by António Guterres is striking; it could make a difference for the Caribbean.
(The writer is Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own).
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