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May 29, 2017

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Challenges surpassing our ability to respond, new UN chief warns

UNITED NATIONS -- While Washington awaits the inauguration of a new president on Jan. 20, the United Nations has quietly passed its baton of leadership to a new secretary-general from Portugal. Addressing the U.N. General Assembly amid the current global chaos, Antonio Guterres warned candidly, "Our most serious shortcoming, and here I refer to the entire international community, is our ability to prevent crises." He added, "The United Nations was born from war. Today, we must be here for peace."

After taking the oath of office, incoming Secretary-General Guterres stressed, "The challenges are now surpassing our ability to respond."

Crises throughout the Middle East with the seething epicenter in Syria not to mention waves of migrants numbering over 65 million, have jolted the global order. The U.N. Security Council meets regularly to manage and contain, but tragically not solve, many of the crises.

Antonio Guterres recalled that when he first became Portugal's Prime Minister back in the 1990's "the world was riding a wave of optimism. The Cold War had ended and some had described that as the end of history." Yet the new secretary-general advised that the end of the Cold War was not the end of history, "On the contrary history had simply been frozen in some places. When the old order melted away, history came back with a vengeance."

He continued, "Hidden contradictions and tensions resurfaced. New wars multiplied and old ones reignited." The key point he added, "Lack of clarity in power relations led progressively to greater unpredictability and impunity."

Yet it's not only the new geopolitical challenges which Antonio Guterres addressed. He advised that the last 20 years have seen "extraordinary progress" and the proportion of people living in poverty has "fallen dramatically." Still the secretary-general designate concedes that, "A lot of people have been left behind, even including in the developed countries where millions of old jobs have disappeared and new ones are out of reach for many."

Guterres underscored, "All this has deepened the divide between people and political establishments."

He presented a plan of action which would focus on more effective U.N. peacekeeping missions, reaching the socio/economic Sustainable Development Goals benchmarks, and U.N. management reforms.

As for the 193-member state organization itself, Antonio Guterres stressed, "The United Nations needs to be nimble, efficient and effective. It must focus more on delivery and less on process; more on people and less on bureaucracy."

Outgoing Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon from South Korea recalled his own ten-year tenure as facing the economic recession, regional conflicts, refugee flows and the intractable Syrian conflict. Yet, as Ban stressed in his own patient way, "day by day, brick by brick, we built stronger foundations for peace and progress."

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