U.N. Secretary-General Guterres: The world needs a U.S. that is engaged

In his first American television interview since becoming secretary-general of the United Nations, António Guterres sits down with Judy Woodruff to discuss why the world needs a United States that is engaged in issues of security, development and human rights, plus opportunities for reforming the U.N., the importance of protecting refugees, the struggle to end the bloodshed in Syria and more.

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    Now to my interview with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

    He took office on January 1, after a decade as head of the U.N.'s Refugee Agency.

    I sat down with him this afternoon for his first American television interview since becoming secretary-general. We spoke at the World Bank here in Washington, where he is attending the annual meeting of the bank and International Monetary Fund.

    Mr. Secretary-General, thank you for talking with us.

  • ANTONIO GUTERRES, United Nations Secretary-General:



    You were at the White House earlier today. You met briefly with President Trump. You also spent some time with the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster.

    What did you discuss?


    Well, we discussed, of course, the problems of the world, and especially how the U.N. and the U.S. can cooperate better.

    It is, for me, clear that the world needs a United States that is engaged in security issues, in development issues, in human rights issues. The contribution of the United States for global affairs is absolutely crucial. And the cooperation with the U.N. is very important from our perspective.

    And I presume the U.N. can also be very useful to the United States, especially if we will be able, as I strongly intend, to have a more dynamic, more reformed, more nimble U.N.


    I ask because we have been hearing — we know that this — because this president has said so, he has concerns that the U.N. and other international organizations have already gotten a lot of support from the U.S., and now may be a good time for the U.S. to pull back, and to pull back in foreign aid, in humanitarian aid.

    How concerned are you that they may do that?


    Well, he also said that the U.N. has a lot of potential. I think it's my role to try to prove that that potential can be translated into reality.


    How do you do that?


    Well, we need to be able to demonstrate that what we do in today's world, in humanitarian aid, the enormous effort to minimize the tragic situations that we see all over the world, I think, without the U.N., people would suffer much more, and the situation would be much more terrible.


    But this is a president who has spoken about pulling back, pulling the U.S. back from the rest of the world, except maybe, now we see, in a military sense. Are you worried about that?


    I think the U.S. is too important for the U.S. to be possible to pull back.

    I think that it's very important to have the United States' engagement in many situations we have around the world, be it in Syria, be it in the African context.

    The United States represents an important set of values, human rights, values related to freedom, to democracy. And so the foreign policy engagement of the United States is a very important guarantee that those values can be properly pursued.

    And, in that regard, the cooperation between the U.S. and U.N. is absolutely essential for those values to be preserved in our world.


    But are you not at all concerned about cuts in U.S. contributions to the United Nations and to the other U.N. agencies?


    Well, I hope those cuts will not materialize.

    And I hope that we — we need to do better and to do more. And we need to be able also to be more cost-effective. And we are ready to discuss with the United States how to make our work more able to correspond also to what it is the aspiration of the American people.

    But it is my deep belief that when a country is so concerned — there are so strong reasons to be concerned with global terrorism, with the security of the American people — that it is very important to recognize that that is not possible to guarantee if, at the same time, the country is not very active in addressing the root causes of terror.


    Well, you mentioned terrorism. You mentioned security.

    There is focus today on Paris. They're calling it a terrorist attack. There's every reason to believe this is going to raise concerns in leading up to the French elections this weekend, pushing the — what is already an anti-foreigner sentiment to be even stronger.

    As someone who heads the preeminent international organization, the U.N., how concerned are you about that?


    I was — for 10 years, I was the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.

    And I always fought for the possibility for those that flee conflict in desperate situations to have access to international protection. That is absolutely crucial. It's an essential democratic value.

    What I think it's important to recognize in today's world is that all of our societies are multiethnic, multi-religious and multicultural. And that is a positive thing. That's a richness, and also strength.

    But we also have to recognize that, for those societies to be harmonious, there is a lot of the investment that needs to be made in social cohesion and inclusivity.

    But the important thing to recognize, and particularly Europe, most of the terrorist attacks are not done by people that came from the outside. They are homegrown.

    And I think, in North America, both in Canada and the United States, it has been much easier for communities to live together than in several European countries.


    So much to ask you about, Mr. Secretary-General.

    One thing I don't want to leave out, of course, is Syria. People look at the U.N. The U.N. has been involved in trying to find peace in Syria. It hasn't happened. There are critics saying the Security Council is paralyzed, hasn't been able to move on Syria. There's a very critical story coming out of The New York Times over the weekend looking at the failure of the U.N., the U.N. system, to be able to deal with something like Syria.

    How do you look at Syria? How do you see the responsibility of the U.N. there?


    With peace about security, there is a central body. And that body is the Security Council.

    It is the Security Council that has the responsibility to preserve peace and to address the situations of conflict. The truth is that the Security Council has been, now for a large period, essentially divided, not only on Syria, on several other situations. And that division has led to paralysis of the capacity of the international community to come together and to push for an effective political solution in Syria.


    Well, what can be done about it?


    Now, it's high time for all those that have an influence on the parties with the conflict to understand that it is in the interest of everybody to put an end to this conflict.

    But this kind of persuasion, this kind of intense pressure, I believe it's my duty to do, even if I recognize that the contradictions and the different perceptions of interest that exist are making it very difficult.


    So, this is clearly a priority for you?


    It is a priority for me. To see these people that has been so hospitable to others now suffering so much, and being rejected also in so many parts of the world, it really breaks my heart.


    Two other things I want to ask you about.

    One is the reports recently building on previous reports about U.N. peacekeepers in different parts of the world being guilty of the worst kind of sexual abuse, sexual assault on vulnerable people, women, children, boys, girls.

    Now that this is coming into the open, what is the responsibility of the U.N. to make sure this doesn't happen again, and are people being held accountable for it?


    Well, it is a huge responsibility. And I have taken it very seriously.

    One of the first reforms I presented already to the General Assembly was exactly on redesigning all our capacity to respond to sexual exploitation and abuse, and trying to create the conditions to mobilize member states to assume their responsibilities.

    We — U.N., we cannot condemn a soldier to jail because of that. It must be the country to which the soldier belongs. But we need to be able to create the conditions for that to be possible. And we need to do the job ourselves of a much better protection of the victims.

    We must be absolutely determined, with a zero-tolerance policy in this regard. But we also need to pay tribute to those that are sacrificing their lives to protect other lives, and that — sometimes also do not see that properly recognized.


    Last question.

    You were not very long ago on the African continent. We know there are four different countries experiencing famine to one degree or another, not because of a lack of food, but because of conflict. And you have spoken about this. It's received some attention.

    How do you get others to understand the problem? Because every country has a different reason for the conflict in each one. How do you get the rest of the world to pay attention, to make a difference, when people are — who don't deserve to die are dying by the thousands and more?


    We are doing our best to raise awareness and to mobilize the international community in support to the victims of these situations.

    We had recently in Oslo a conference on the Lake Chad Basin. I'm doing on Tuesday to Geneva for a conference, pledging conference, to support the victims in Yemen. We will have another conference in London on Somalia.

    So, we are really trying to mobilize the international community in order to have an adequate response, knowing that that response cannot be only humanitarian. That response — as you said, when you said that the real reason for this famine is the conflict, that response needs to be political.


    Mr. Secretary-General, you have a full plate. And we thank you very much for talking with us today.


    It was a pleasure.

  • Editor’s Note:

    This interview with the UN Secretary-General includes a map that shows three African nations — Nigeria, South Sudan, and Somalia — that are suffering from famine. A fourth country, Yemen, on the Arabian peninsula, was included on the map because the U.N. considers its famine as part of this four-nation crisis.

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