By Sir Ronald Sanders
United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, has announced his availability to serve a second term when his current term ends on December 31.
Arguably, Guterres is the UN Secretary-General that has paid the greatest attention to the concerns and challenges of the countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Over the last four years, the policies and priorities he has vigorously pursued and tirelessly advocated have aligned with the interests of the people of the region.
When three Caribbean countries experienced grave destruction in 2017 and 2019, Guterres made it his business to fly to them, not only to witness the devastation but to make the world aware of the catastrophes, and to formulate plans to help.
Visiting Barbuda in 2017, weeks after the ravages of hurricane Irma, he walked with the people who had suffered in the disaster that left no inhabitable house and no functional building. Guterres told the world, “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.” Moving from Barbuda to Dominica, which was worst affected because its population was much larger, the UN chief declared, “the link between climate change and the devastation we are witnessing is clear, and there is a collective responsibility of the international community to stop this suicidal development.”
He immediately launched an agenda on the theme of connecting climate change to natural disasters. Justification for his campaigning and advocacy was bolstered two years later, in 2019, when hurricane Dorian demolished islands of The Bahamas chain. Again, turning up to focus world attention on the catastrophe, Guterres told global audiences, “hurricane Dorian has been classified as Category 5. I think it’s Category Hell.”
The secretary-general recognised the links between natural disasters caused by climate change, the accumulation of unsustainable debt by countries struggling to rebuild infrastructure and economies, and the crucial need for better debt forgiveness; debt rescheduling; and access to concessional financing from the International Financial Institutions. He has championed this stance relentlessly.
As recently as January 25, he told a Climate Adaptation Summit meeting in The Netherlands, “We are facing a climate emergency. We are already witnessing unprecedented climate extremes and volatility, affecting lives and livelihoods on all continents. According to the World Meteorological Organization, there have been more than 11,000 disasters due to weather, climate and water-related hazards over the past 50 years at a cost of some US$3.6 trillion.
Extreme weather and climate-related hazards have also killed more than 410,000 people in the past decade, the vast majority in low and lower-middle-income countries”.
And, he added, “We must expand the provision of liquidity and debt relief instruments to developing and middle-income countries that lack the resources to relaunch their economies in a sustainable and inclusive way”. Guterres was commanding world attention to issues confronting the Caribbean region with the authority that Caribbean countries alone cannot muster.
He has also stressed that “The share for Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States in total climate finance remains small, representing only 14 percent and 2 percent of flows respectively”. In that context, he has argued for “support for regional adaptation and resilience initiatives, that would allow, debt-for-adaptation swaps for the Caribbean or the Pacific Islands and provide much-needed liquidity to vulnerable countries in dire need”.
Similarly, since the middle of 2020, he has been warring for developing countries, particularly small states, over the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In his unflagging championship, on January 25, he told the World Economic Forum in Davos, “Inclusive and sustainable recovery around the globe will depend on the availability and effectiveness of vaccines for all, immediate fiscal and monetary support in both developed and developing countries, and transformative longer-term stimulus measures”.
Declaring that “Vaccines must be seen as global public goods – people’s vaccines”, Guterres told the world’s leading economic and financial leaders, “If developed countries think they will be safe if they vaccinate their own people while neglecting the developing world, they are wrong”. He argued that what is required is “full funding for the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator and its COVAX facility led by the World Health Organization (WHO)”.
Countries in CARICOM, which now have no vaccines and little prospect of getting sufficient, under the existing COVAX programme of the WTO to inoculate their populations, strongly agree with Guterres’ position.
It is significant that he attended CARICOM heads of government meetings in 2019 and 2020 to hear their concerns first-hand.
On January 28, the secretary-general outlined his priorities. They reflect concerns expressed by CARICOM leaders, including promoting vaccine equity, providing access for the world’s poorest countries; combatting climate change and biodiversity loss; conquering the grave impacts of poverty and inequality; and strengthening multilateralism to ensure delivery of public health, peace and a healthy environment.
Undoubtedly, there’s good reason for all CARICOM leaders to take leaves from the books of Antigua and Barbuda’s prime minister, Gaston Browne, who pledged his support by letter to Guterres on January 12, and British prime minister, Boris Johnson, who on the same day, “warmly welcomed the secretary-general’s decision to run for a second term and congratulated him on a successful first term”.
António Guterres, by just doing his job with fidelity to the countries he represents – including small states – has proven himself very worthy of the unequivocal support of CARICOM countries.