Press Conference by Secretary-General António Guterres at United Nations Headquarters
Following is a transcript of UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ press conference, held in New York today:
Good afternoon. This is my final opportunity to address you in 2021 — so let me begin by wishing you all happy holidays.
We are coming to the end of a difficult year.
The COVID‑19 pandemic raged on. Inequalities kept rising. The burden for developing countries grew heavier — with diminishing resources for recovery, rising inflation and mounting debt. To add fuel to the fire, we are still off track in addressing the climate crisis — another amplifier of global injustice and inequality.
I am deeply worried. If things do not improve — and improve fast — we face even harder times ahead. COVID‑19 is not going away. It is becoming clear that vaccines alone will not eradicate the pandemic. Vaccines are averting hospitalization and death for the majority who get them and slowing the spread. But transmissions show no sign of letting up. This is driven by vaccine inequity, hesitancy and complacency.
The United Nations has fully mobilized for COVID‑19 response and recovery. Today, we are releasing a report that details our efforts over the past year across all sectors — from health to humanitarian to socioeconomic action. Two months ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) unveiled a strategy to vaccinate 40 per cent of people in all countries by the end of the year, and 70 per cent by the middle of next year. That strategy requires the total commitment of Member States — especially those with vaccine production capabilities or large supplies.
But just days from the deadline, 98 countries have not been able to meet that end-of-year target. Forty of them have not yet even been able to vaccinate 10 per cent of their population. In lower income countries, less than 4 per cent of the population are fully vaccinated. And the vaccination rates in high-income countries are eight times higher than in the countries of Africa. At current rates, Africa will not meet the 70 per cent threshold until August 2024. Vaccine inequity is giving variants a free pass to run wild — ravaging the health of people and economies in every corner of the globe.
We cannot defeat the pandemic in an uncoordinated way. All countries, especially those that have potential of responsibilities, must take concrete action in the coming days to make greater progress to achieve WHO’s global 40 per cent target, and be far more ambitious in their efforts to reach 70 per cent of people in all countries by the middle of 2022.
Dear friends, at the same time, countries and economies are getting squeezed from all sides — especially in the developing world. Lopsided COVID‑19 recovery efforts are accelerating inequalities and increasing stresses on economies and people. Advanced economies were able to mobilize nearly 28 per cent of their Gross Domestic Product into economic recovery. For middle-income countries, that number fell to 6.5 per cent. And even worse, it plummeted to 1.8 per cent for the least developed countries — a tiny percentage of a very small amount.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects that cumulative economic growth per capita over the next five years will be 75 per cent less than the rest of the world. This is unacceptable. Meanwhile, inflation here in the United States and in many other countries has risen to a 40-year high and we see it growing elsewhere. As the U.S. Federal Reserve indicated just yesterday, interest rates will rise with it — and that will place even greater fiscal constraints on the countries that need help the most.
Defaults will become inevitable for lower-income countries that already bear much higher borrowing costs. The need to service an ever-mounting and more expensive debt will leave developing countries with little fiscal space for recovery, job creation, climate action, reimagining education and reskilling and training workers, and so much more.
Today’s global financial system is supercharging inequalities and instability. It is a system that allows credit rating agencies to undermine the credibility of developing countries with good growth prospects and vital development needs, and this obviously makes private finance become more risk averse. International financial institutions alone do not have sufficient capacities to compensate. And the clear majority of Special Drawing Rights are distributed to the biggest and richest economies in a way that is far from being compensated by voluntary redistributions.
Meanwhile, inequalities keep widening. Social upheaval and polarization will be growing. And the risks keep increasing. This is a powder keg for social unrest and instability. It poses a clear and present danger to democratic institutions. It is time to clearly assume the need for reform of the international financial system.
Everything I have described today reveals two governance failures that are also two moral failures. We have a serious governance problem with respect to the prevention, detection and response to pandemics. And we have a serious governance problem in relation to the international financial system.
I am determined that 2022 must be the year in which we finally address the deficits in both governance systems. And this is a central aspect of the common agenda. In making those much-needed reforms, we will move to a much more fair, peaceful and sustainable world.
We know how to make 2022 a happier and more hopeful new year. We must do all it takes to make it happen.
Finally, let me say, my last visit of the year will take me to a country that is in the grip of all these challenges and worse. I look forward to traveling to Lebanon as my quarantine will end at the end of this week, at the invitation of the government on a state visit to express my solidarity with the Lebanese people who have suffered for far too long.
And allow me a last word before I close. I want to take profit of this moment to express my deep gratitude to my Chief of Staff, Maria Luiza Viotti, who will be leaving us at the end of this month. Over the past five years, she has been instrumental in not only shaping our vision, but in helping us to realize it. On behalf of the entire United Nations system, I want to express profound appreciation and warmest wishes.
Thank you to all of you and I am obviously at your disposal for a few questions.
Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General: Thank you very much, SG. As a reminder, this is a stakeout format, so we don't have time for too many questions. As I mentioned, there will be a press conference, a more formal one, in January. Please keep it to one question per person. I'm going to go to the room first, and I'll go to Sherwin Bryce Pease. Sherwin?
Question: I wish you continued good health into the New Year. You ended your remarks today by saying that you are determined that 2022 must be a year in which we finally address the deficits in both global governance and financial systems, but you'll agree that you've said similar things before, many times. And yet just this week, a country vetoed a Security Council resolution that sought to link climate change to international peace and security. Countries are being punished for alerting the world to the latest variant against WHO advice, variants that will require more booster shots, which will continue to limit wider distribution of vaccines to poorer countries. Developing economies are in peril and could lead to social unrest and stability. Your words, not mine. You have talked, SG, about a world being on the edge of the abyss, but is it not true, sir, that we are no longer on the edge but in free fall?
Secretary-General: Well, my hope resides, not only on the enormous examples of solidarity that we see also all around the world and not only in the dynamics of youth movements in all those aspects, but I have a hope based on the need to understand what is the enlightened self-interest of the richest countries in the world.
Now, this new pandemic is showing that vaccines alone are not enough, which means that we are witnessing, in highly developed countries that have vaccinated the whole population or almost the whole population, again, the pandemic increasing dramatically even if… with naturally small impact in relation to death and to high levels of suffering. And this demonstrates that the strategy of vaccine hoarding, the strategy of vaccine nationalism or the strategy of vaccine diplomacy has failed. This new variant has demonstrated this failure. And so, my hope is that countries understand that, from now on, we need to have an equitable way to address the pandemic, or we will all be victims of it.
And then the financial system. Now we see inflation everywhere starting by developed countries, and now we see instability everywhere. And the fact that social unrest is increasing in the developing world does not mean that it also does not increase in developed countries.
We see that the injustices created by the international financial system in this situation are undermining global peace and stability. And so, this is the moment to recognise that the system that was designed after the Second World War needs reform. I would say that this is the moment for a new Bretton Woods concept. And then climate. The truth is that we are now seeing devastation in climate or caused by climate change, not only in developing countries, not only in small islands. Look at the tornadoes that happened in Kentucky.
So, I think things are getting so bad; things are getting so nasty in relation to the pandemic, in relation to the dramatic injustice from the economic and financial side, and in relation to the climate situation that my hope is that people will finally understand that the only way to be an egoist intelligence is to be in solidarity; not to be in solidarity is a stupid form of egoism.
Spokesman: Thank you. Next question will go to Al Jazeera. Amanda Price, Al Jazeera?
Question: Hi, Mr. Secretary-General. Thanks very much for this press stakeout. My question is on Libya. Elections there are due to take place in a little over a week, I think a week from tomorrow. But there are growing indications that they could be delayed. Do you think the vote will happen on time? And do you think conditions are right for it to be held now?
Secretary-General: Well, what I can tell you is that my new Special Adviser is extremely active this week. She is visiting all areas of the country until Saturday, trying to reach conditions for an effective mediation for a consensus to be possible. And on Sunday, she will be meeting with the head of the electoral committee and the head of judiciary and also a representative from the Ministry of Interior. As you know, there were questions about the indication of the candidates, different views of these different entities. And so, she'll be meeting with them on Sunday, which means we are doing everything we can to overcome the obstacles. And for the moment, let's keep our fingers crossed.
Spokesman: Thank you. Majeed Gly, Rudaw Media Network. Majeed?
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. I hope you're feeling better and well. And Secretary-General, I wish you a healthy and happy New Year. I want to ask about Syria. The humanitarian situation in Syria has not changed, if not worsened in most parts of Syria. And in… next month, the cross-border authorisation by the Security Council will expire. First, do you think the Council should not vote and just extend it automatically? And second, do you think there should be… on top of Bab al Hawa crossing, there's still a need for other crossing to be opened and Security Council seriously consider it? Thank you.
Secretary-General: Well, I've just issued a report that was requested by the Security Council. That report underlines that we are making strong efforts in relation to cross-line. Two operations took place, and I hope that we will be able to accelerate now. We also, in that report, demonstrate all the efforts we are making to put the questions of recovery on the agenda and on active, effective action. And at the same time, the report recognises that the bulk of the support has been provided by cross-border operations. So, with all these aspects and with the content of this report that was, as you know, the request of the Security Council, I'm very optimistic that everything will go well.
Spokesman: Thank you. We'll go to Margaret Besheer, Voice of America. Margaret?
Question: Thank you, Steph. Thank you, Secretary-General. On Sunday, you're going to Lebanon, you mentioned. The country's in a total state of economic collapse, pretty much. The middle class is vanishing, and people are heading for the exits if they can. So, we've been hearing from the UN quite a bit on trying to stop the economic collapse in places like Yemen and Afghanistan, but we're not hearing so much about it in Lebanon. So, my question to you is, what will you propose to stop the total collapse of Lebanon's economy when you go there this weekend?
Secretary-General: Well, the first thing that's necessary is that the political leaders of Lebanon come together. I mean, the divisions among political leaders in Lebanon have paralysed the institutions, and the paralysis of the institutions, of course, leads to the impossibility to reach agreement with IMF, to the impossibility to launch effective economic programmes, and to create the conditions for the country to initiate the recovery. So, that's the first thing. I think the Lebanese leaders have not the right to be divided in a moment of such dramatic crisis.
On the other hand, creating the conditions of unity that I mentioned, then there is a number of things that will need to be addressed, things related to the reforms of the political and economic system, things related to the fighting and corruption, things related about the establishment of truth in relation to what has happened in the harbour and, of course, the launch of an effective recovery programme with an agreement with IMF and with the support of the international community that needs to be strongly enhanced to the Lebanese people and also to the refugees that generously Lebanon is receiving.
And so, obviously, only the Lebanese can lead this process. It's… the Lebanese must do their part of the job, but my duty as Secretary-General of the United Nations is to be in permanent solidarity with the Lebanese people. And I was High Commissioner for Refugees. I saw they were accepted in Lebanon. So, we all, as international community, have an obligation to do everything we can to help the country.
But as I repeat, there is no way Lebanon can find the right track if the Lebanese political leaders are not able to understand that this is the moment, probably the last possible moment, to come together.
Spokesman: Thank you. Abdelhamid Siyam.
Question: Thank you, Mr. Secretary-General. I wish you a happy end of year and a happy New Year. You have ended your five-year term, and you're charting for another term. I asked you when you took office in the first year a question, and I will repeat it five years later. I asked you, do you believe that there is a chance to establish a viable contiguous, independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and you told me then there is no option B. I want to ask you now, candidly, do you believe that we are much further from that goal, or we are one inch closer? Thank you very much.
Secretary-General: Sorry. Can you repeat the question, because the sound is not good for me?
Question: Mr. Secretary-General, I asked you when you took office the first year a question…
Secretary-General: No, the last part, the question, the question.
Question: The question is, do you believe that we are one inch closer to that goal, or we are much further from that goal of establishing a Palestinian… independent Palestinian state?
Secretary-General: I think that, on one hand, we are closer in the sense that there was peace in Gaza, in the sense that, even if the settlements continue and even if the other violations of UN resolutions continue, there has been, I would say, some change of attitude in some aspects of the Israeli Government. But I believe that, unfortunately, what we have witnessed are very small steps.
We need a much stronger engagement of the international community. That stronger engagement has not been possible to mobilise until now. It's essential to do so, because we must avoid at all costs that the progression of settlements and other measures will, at a certain moment, make impossible the implementation of the two-State solution that I go on believing it is the only solution that is acceptable, allowing two countries and two peoples to live in peace and security.
I think that we need to make progress much more quickly than what we are doing now. We had worse moments in the recent past, but we are far from having the minimum necessary to move forward.
Spokesman: Great. Thank you very much. Thank you, Secretary-General. And we will all see you soon, hopefully. And we'll have, as I mentioned, a fuller press conference in the New Year. Thank you.
Secretary-General: Happy New Year!