The UN chief highlighted the need for Russian fertilizers "in a moment in which we are seeing a fertilizer market crunch."
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres sat down for an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency ahead of the high-profile UN General Assembly beginning on Sept. 20 at UN headquarters in New York.
"We are doing everything and working with the US, working with the EU, working with other partners to make sure that what has been said time and time again, that sanctions do not apply to food and fertilizers, translates itself into reality, and we badly need the Russian fertilizers in a moment in which we are seeing a fertilizer market crunch," he said.
"The Black Sea Grain Initiative was possible thanks to the mediation of the UN Secretariat and Türkiye, President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan and myself are personally engaged in making sure that it goes on, that it has prolonged in time … and we are at the present moment discussing the possibility of exports of Russian ammonia through the same channels by a pipeline that crosses Ukraine. So we have been working hard together, Türkiye and the UN, to minimize the impact of the war in Ukraine," he said.
He spoke about geopolitical divides involving the biggest powers – China, the US and Russia – climate change, the Russia-Ukraine war, Türkiye's mediation efforts, and UN Security Council reforms.
The following are excerpts from the interview, lightly edited for clarity:
Anadolu Agency: As global leaders prepare to meet next week in New York for the 77th session of the UN General Assembly, what message do you have for the world leaders and what commitments would you like to see this year from them?
Guterres: My main message is we need to bridge the geopolitical divides. The present geopolitical divides involving the biggest powers – China, the United States and Russia – are such that they are paralyzing the solutions of many of the problems that we are facing. Climate change is devastating countries. I just came from Pakistan. You can't imagine what it is to see a flooded area that's three times as big as my own country, Portugal and the suffering associated with it. The conflicts that multiply with dramatic consequences not only for those that are fighting, but for the rest of the world. Look at the war in Ukraine. The consequences in relation to the financial situations of developing countries, food security in developing countries, access to energy in developing countries, and at the same time to address future pandemics. We have seen the world unable to be united in addressing COVID-19. We might be facing a worse pandemic in a few years' time. So this is the moment for countries to understand that the world is in danger, that the international community is witnessing a dramatic inequality growing, with enormous potential for tensions, for unrest, for conflict, and we need to in respect of the different positions, in respect of the different visions, to find a way to come together and to address together the challenges that might destroy us as the international community and destroy the planet.
Q: You also talked about the war in Ukraine. It doesn't show any sign of ending, with weapons pouring into the country. And Ukraine seems to be determined to take full control of its territories with their counter-offensive. Do you see any prospects for a cease-fire or peace talks anytime soon? Or do you fear of a protracted war in Ukraine like in Syria or Yemen or Libya?
Guterres: I think it will take some time. I hope not eternally, like other crises sometimes seem to be. But I think it will take some time for the parties to come to a moment in which they understand the need for a cease-fire and they understand the need for peace to be established based on the UN Charter and international law. But that doesn't mean that there is not a lot to do. And I have to say that the UN Secretariat and Türkiye have been solid partners in addressing some of the dramatic consequences of the Ukraine war. The Black Sea Grain Initiative was possible thanks to the mediation of the UN Secretariat and Türkiye, President (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan and myself are personally engaged in making sure that it goes on, that it has prolonged in time … and we are at the present moment discussing the possibility of exports of Russian ammonia through the same channels by a pipeline that crosses Ukraine. So we have been working hard together, Türkiye and the UN, to minimize the impact of the war in Ukraine. Just to give an example, I spoke today with (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin. President Erdogan will meet him in Samarkand (Uzbekistan, for a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit this Thursday and Friday). And I believe our messages will be very similar, both when we work with Ukraine or when we work with the Russian Federation, and the interest of Türkiye and the interest of the UN is peace.
Q: You have worked very closely with Türkiye on the grain deal between Ukraine and Russia. But last week, Russian officials complained about getting their food and fertilizer out to the world despite the deal, and initially it was signed for 120 days, and at the moment, there are concerns that the deal may not be renewed. Do you share the same concerns? And do you think the deal needs to be revised or expanded to address the Russian concerns?
Guterres: I'm not dealing with concerns. We are dealing with solving the problems. So the first problem that needs to be solved is the access of Russian food and fertilizers to international markets. There are still a number of obstacles. And we are doing everything and working with the US, working with the EU, working with other partners to make sure that what has been said time and time again, that sanctions do not apply to food and fertilizers, translates itself into reality, and we badly need the Russian fertilizers in a moment in which we are seeing a fertilizer market crunch. And in many parts of the world, people are not sowing or planting all the land they have because of the lack of fertilizers – point number one. Point number two: We are involved in a negotiation aiming at the export of Russian ammonia through Ukraine and in our conversations with our Russian counterparts. One of the things that has been clear is that these will create conditions to have an extension in time of a program, especially if that program will be conceived in a way that benefits both countries. So we are working hard to preserve the gains that were obtained and to expand those gains, and again, this is an area where the cooperation with Türkiye is always extremely important.
Q: You're talking about efforts, but at the same time, we're seeing mass displacement, serious human rights violations, kidnapping of children for adoption. And just last week, we heard from the UN that there are credible reports of the forcible transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia for adoption. Russia is being accused of forcibly deporting 900,000 to 1.6 million Ukrainians to Russian territories and there are accusations of war crimes. Do you think war crimes were committed in Ukraine?
Guterres: Well, the decision is to be made by courts. We have the International Criminal Court acting in Ukraine. It's up to the International Criminal Court to fully investigate and to act as a court. We know that there are serious violations of human rights. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been active and has been clear in its positions. We know that there are a number of other aspects in which people suffer in different ways. Our interest is to make sure that international humanitarian law prevails and that the rights of people will be respected, whether inside Ukrainian controlled territory or inside the Russian controlled territory in Ukraine or inside the Russian Federation. And of course, I have asked the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to be particularly attentive to the situation of people that might have been moved against their will.
Q: The UN is facing a funding crisis for humanitarian aid, but this was not the case for Ukrainians, and Martin Griffiths, your humanitarian aid chief, also talked about it and said that donor countries did not extend the same generosity to other people as they're showing to the Ukrainians. What message do you have for these donor countries who were not as generous as before for the Syrians, Libyans, Ethiopians and many others?
Guterres: A very clear message. Those countries need support, and it will be inconceivable that the humanitarian aid in Ukraine will be financed by the lack of support to populations in extreme danger and in extreme suffering in different other parts of the world. I think that the donor community is able to understand that support to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people cannot be to the detriment of support to the dramatic humanitarian situations that we face in different parts of the world.
Q: I will move on to the Security Council now. Those in charge of maintaining peace and security at the Security Council have been the troublemakers themselves, with Russia launching a full-scale war on Ukraine, with China blocking decisions on Myanmar, and the history of the US blocking UN resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We know that you would like to see reforms, but you also said: "I have no illusions about the possibility to do it immediately." Do you see the lack of willingness for reforms as a threat to the future of the United Nations?
Guterres: I started my intervention talking about geopolitical divides. I mentioned some three countries. Those are the three countries you just mentioned. So I think that we understand each other very well. I do believe that there was in 2021 and 2022 – in the session that took place in 2021 and 2022 – that there was an important step. First of all, the General Assembly has assumed, with clarity, a number of positions where the Security Council has failed. And second, it was now determined that whenever a veto is issued within the Security Council, the country that issued the veto must go to the General Assembly to explain its veto, and then a general discussion in the General Assembly is to take place. This means that there is a growing recognition of the effects of the paralysis of the Security Council and an attempt knowing that the reform of the Security Council requires to serve the votes in the General Assembly, including of the five permanent members. So that is why I have no illusions about the dimension of the reforms that are possible. But some things are changing. And I think they have been changing in the right direction in the last year.
Q: The war in Ukraine has shifted global attention from other conflicts in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Ethiopia, and today, a UN report coming out of Geneva by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said that Syria is at risk of returning to larger-scale fighting again. How worried are you about these forgotten conflicts?
Guterres: I am not really worried. I mean, we are very active in Syria. We are very active in Libya. We are very active in Yemen, where a truce is still holding and we need to renew it. We are active in Afghanistan. We are active in the Sahel. We are active in Somalia. There is no hot spot in the world in which we are not active. And the fact that we have a war in Ukraine is in no way undermining our commitment and our action, that is fighting for peace and security everywhere else in the world.
Q: Climate change has been one of your priorities. And when you talk about climate change, you talk about your grandchildren. Are you hopeful for the future of your grandchildren, given the slow process coming from the developed world?
Guterres: We never lose hope, but things are moving in the wrong direction. And I was in Pakistan, as I mentioned. We will need now to start reducing emissions. And we still have the perspective of increased emissions in the next few years. And if that happens, forget that 1.5 degree limit. It will go to two degrees to more than that. And that means that we will have a planet that we can't imagine, in which the (recent flood) tragedy in Pakistan, that is gigantic today, will be considered one of the many crises of similar size everywhere in the world. So we absolutely need to make leaders understand that climate change is the defining issue of our time and that they need to concentrate in a high priority both in reducing emissions and in supporting developing countries, namely in adaptation and resilience to be able to resist the impacts that are already inevitable and to seriously discuss loss and damage that until now has been to a certain extent permanently postponed when it was one of the issues defined by the Paris Agreement.