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'I Am Motivated by the Hope, Courage and Resilience of Refugees' — António Guterres on His Vision for the UN

UNA-UK/Zoe Norfolk.

The location was fitting for UN Secretary General António Guterres’ first address to the UK since he was elected in 2016. The speech took place at Central Hall in Westminster, where the very first UN General Assembly was held 71 years ago in the aftermath of the Second World War. 

Since its foundation in 1945, the UN has sought to promote international peace and stability by preventing conflict, defending human rights, and fighting poverty. Its effectiveness depends on global solidarity, but in an age of rising nationalism, its identity and influence is under threat. 

Hosted by UNA-UK, Guterres spoke to this challenge in his expansive speech. 

“We are witnessing a lack of trust between the public and political establishments, and international organisations,” he said. 

"When one looks at globalisation it is clear that technological progress and globalisation have increased wealth, promoted trade, had a positive impact on wellbeing, and reduced absolute poverty. At the same time it is also true that globalisation and progress have increased inequality and left people behind."

He emphasised that his objective was “to serve the people,” a reminder of the 1 for 7 billion campaign that opened up the process for electing the UNSG to a public audience, one step in the process of reforming the UN for the 21st century. 

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Several questions from the audience focused on the resurgence of populist nationalism that has revived the divisions the UN seeks to overcome. Trump and Brexit inevitably came up. One student asked a question that was greeted with nods of approval from across the room: 

“What can we, as global citizens, do to combat the tide of nationalism and make the world a friendlier place?” 

Guterres emphasised the need to move beyond quick-fix solutions or purely intellectual arguments. 

“It is not enough to fight nationalism ideologically. We need to look into the root causes. Many people feel left behind. The only way to solve the problem is to invest in social cohesion.”

“British society is a fantastic example of multiculturalism,” he said. However, the rise in xenophobia and racial hate crimes in the aftermath of the Brexit vote shows that this cannot be taken for granted — diversity is hard work. 

“We need to make each group feel like its identity is respected. We need a world where difference is respected.” 

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Despite the political shift that has taken place in countries like Britain and the US, Guterres is confident that these divisions can be overcome. This optimism extends to his determination to fight climate change and resist leaders who deny scientific fact. In his eyes, the world is moving in the right direction when it comes to sustainability: “the green economy has become the good economy; good business is green business.” 

While his speech focussed on big geopolitical questions, his experience as UN High Commissioner for refugees brought a personal note. When asked what motivates him in his new role, Guterres spoke movingly about the lives he encountered. 

“To see people that have fled conflict, in traumatic situations, to see their courage, their resilience, their hope in the future, is something I can never forget. This is the reason why I decided to run for Secretary-General,” he explained.  

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From Uganda to Jordan or the shores of the Mediterranean, there are more displaced people around the world than ever recorded. 65.3 million people have been forced to flee their homes. Voices like Gutteres are a necessary reminder of the reality of a crisis that is driven by issues as wide-ranging and interwoven as conflict, poverty and climate change — global challenges that require global solutions.