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UN cautions against populism

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Warning that the world has a bad case of “trust deficit disorder” and risks “runaway climate change”, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged global leaders yesterday to abandon unilateralism and reinvigorate cooperation as the only means to tackle the challenges and threats of increasingly chaotic times.

The UN chief painted a grim picture of the state of the world in his opening address to the annual gathering of presidents, prime ministers, monarchs and government officials from the UN's 193 member nations. He pointed to rising polarisation and populism, ebbing cooperation, “fragile” trust in international institutions, and “outrage” at the inability to end wars in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.

“Democratic principles are under siege,” Guterres said. “The world is more connected, yet societies are becoming more fragmented. Challenges are growing outward, while many people are turning inward. Multilateralism is under fire precisely when we need it most.”

In contrast, US President Donald Trump, who spoke later in the morning, defended an “America first” policy, rejecting “global governance, control and domination”. He said he expects other nations to honour America's sovereignty in return.

“America is governed by Americans,” Trump said. “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.”

But French President Emmanuel Macron assailed self-interest in his address soon after Trump, saying “nationalism always leads to defeat.”

He drew loud applause for his impassioned plea against isolationism and for global cooperation.

“Friends, I know you may be tired of multilateralism. I also know that the world is flooded with information, and one becomes indifferent. It all starts to look like a big show,” he said. “Please, don't get used to it, don't become indifferent. Do not accept the erosion of multilateralism. Don't accept our history unravelling. I'm not getting used to this, and I'm not turning my head.”

Guterres highlighted two challenges that have taken on “surpassing urgency” since last year: climate change and new risks from advances in technology.

“Climate change is moving faster than we are,” he warned. “If we do not change course in the next two years, we risk runaway climate change... Our future is at stake.”

Guterres said artificial intelligence, blockchain, and biotechnology can potentially “turbocharge progress”, but also pose risks and serious dangers.

Technology stands to change or eliminate some jobs and is being misused for sexual abuse, for terrorism, and for malicious acts in cyberspace including disinformation campaigns, discrimination against women, and for reinforcing “our male-dominated culture”, he said.

“The weaponisation of artificial intelligence is a growing concern,” he added.

General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces opened the gathering by asking the VIPs in the chamber to stand in silent tribute to former Secretary General Kofi Annan, who died August 18 at age 80.

Espinosa Garces, who was Ecuador's foreign minister, echoed Guterres' appeal on multilateralism in her welcome, saying the General Assembly is “the only place where a meeting of this kind is possible”, and where all countries “have the opportunity to hear and be heard”.

She said the UN's global contribution has been immense, from international law and the promotion of peace to human rights, combating poverty, and preserving the environment.

“The reality is that the work of the United Nations is as relevant today as it was 73 years ago,” she said. “Multilateralism stands alone as the only viable response to the global problems that we are faced with. To undermine multilateralism, or to cast a doubt upon its merits will only lead to instability and division, to mistrust and polarisation.”

Brazil's President Michel Temer also focused on threats to global cooperation.

“We live in times clouded by isolationist forces,” he said. “Old forms of intolerance are being rekindled. Unilateral relapses are, today, increasingly less of an exception.

“However, these challenges should not and cannot possibly intimidate us. Isolationism, intolerance, unilateralism — we must respond to each of these different trends with the very best of our peoples,” Temer said.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was sharply critical of the veto power wielded by the five permanent members of the Security Council — the US, Russia, China, Britain and France — and warned that the UN risks becoming an organisation with “a reputation for failure” if it continues catering to them “while standing idle to the oppression in the other parts of the world”.

He cited genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda and the failure to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling for the Security Council to be restructured to reflect the 21st century.

This year 133 world leaders have signed up to attend the General Assembly session, which ends October 1 — a significant increase from the 114 leaders last year.

Besides Trump, populist leaders attending this year's meeting included Poland's President Andrzej Duda and Italy's Premier Giuseppe Conte, along with the foreign ministers of Hungary and Austria.

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