United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is in Kuwait this week for an international conference aimed at raising funds for Iraqi reconstruction. He spoke Wednesday with VOA’s United Nations Correspondent Margaret Besheer at Al-Bayan Palace, Kuwait City, about the effort to rebuild Iraq, ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen, the situation in North Korea, and concerns over ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Question: The conference is wrapping up, but while there have been some significant contributions for the Iraq Reconstruction Fund, they are falling quite short of the $100 billion that was sought at the beginning of the conference. So how concerned are you that if Iraq doesn’t get an infusion of finances quickly, and a significant amount of money quickly, that some of the gains and stability could be lost if basic services aren’t restored, if young people don’t have jobs — are you concerned about that?
Guterres: Well, first of all, this was not a pledging conference, it was a conference about reconstruction, and so not all of the contributions that have been given to Iraq were to be presented here. And I have to say that I am surprised with the high level of pledges that were made in different forms of assistance that were mentioned. The last figure I had was already at about $30 billion. And even if it was a pledging conference, no pledging conference that I remember — and I have been in many, especially in the humanitarian field — ever reach the target. Because after the pledging conference, things go on and then many other donations come and many other commitments come, but here the most important question is not the money that is made available to Iraq, it is the capacity to create conditions for massive private-sector investment in Iraq. And that is why this conference was also so important, because it was an opportunity for the Iraqi government to present a set of very important reforms in regulations for private investment, in anti-corruption, in rule of law. In all those conditions that are essential for private companies to be willing to invest in Iraq — and it is private investment that is going to change Iraq — it’s not through donations that we are going to create the conditions for Iraq to recover, to rebuild the country, and especially to provide all the investments that are necessary to create jobs, to change the society, to make it again a prosperous country, and the country able to play an important role in international relations. So, I am very happy with the way the conference was organized. With the way the Iraqi government participated, the way the U.N. was engaged, the way the World Bank, the European Union were engaged. Of course, the generosity of Kuwait. It’s remarkable. The country that was invaded by Iraq just some decades ago, to be able to now assume the leadership in providing support to the neighbor is quite remarkable, quite an act of generosity that should be underlined. But all these, I think, give me hope that the stabilization of Iraq can be a reality in that the whole region will benefit. And if you look at the region, there is so much trouble around that it’s good at least things are moving in the right direction.
Q: So, if things are moving in the right direction, how do you see the long-term role of the United Nations in Iraq? What do you see the as the future of UNAMI [the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq]? How much longer do you think UNAMI needs to be in Iraq, for instance?
Guterres: Well, this is something that is impossible to predict at the present moment. We’ll have elections — the prime minister was asking about our support in order to make sure that the elections are handled properly — and this will be a very important step, but there [is] still a lot of humanitarian work to be done. There is all the return of people that [were] displaced, there are still more than 2 million people displaced, so this [is] a huge humanitarian work that is still necessary. On the other hand, there is the reconciliation among communities, there is all the work UNDP [the U.N. Development Program] will be leading now in relation to the resilience, the stability of the country. There is the need to have normal relations between Irbil and Baghdad. So, there are lots of things in which I believe a U.N. mission is still necessary, but it now all depends on the rhythm with which the Iraqis will be able to rebuild the county and re-establish a normal democracy in the country. It depends a lot on the success of the Iraqi programs, the possibility to reduce in a quicker way, the presence of the U.N. mission. Then there are the U.N. agencies that will go on their work as they are in many other countries in the world, but the U.N. mission, in itself, is aiming at the stabilization of Iraq. Once that stabilization is reached, normally the U.N. mission will, of course, no longer be necessary.
Q: Secretary-General, staying in the region, if we could talk about Syria. There’s been a real military escalation in the past week. You’ve called for de-escalation, but beyond that, how worried are you that a negotiated political settlement may be slipping further and further away there?
Guterres: “Well, I’m, first of all, very worried with the conflict in itself. We were hoping that with all the measures that were taken in Astana with the escalation that, progressively, violence would diminish in Syria and, unfortunately in the recent past, as you have seen, it became again extremely increasing. We have seen it in Eastern Ghouta, in Idlib, we have seen it in Afrin, we have seen it in the conflict between Israel and the different militias more or less directly linked with Iran. It has been, indeed, a series of developments that are very worrying. Obviously, that was a positive thing in the fact that the Sochi Conference — that many suspected could be a new process that would undermine Geneva or could launch a number of disturbing initiatives on the country — Sochi was finished with the decision to have a constitutional commission, but that to be formed in Geneva and under the auspices of my special envoy and in the context of the Geneva political process that, as you know, was launched by a resolution in the Security Council on both governance, elections and the constitution. So theoretically, conditions are created to move forward with the political process, but all this violence and all this contradiction are indeed a threat to the political process in itself. And so, obviously, I’m worried, but we’ll do everything we can to make sure that in Geneva we can move positively in the future to try to create conditions to put an end to this horrible conflict.
Q: But in the past week, since Israel had struck inside Syria and such, have you been on the phone with anyone in Israel? With Anyone in Turkey? We have Afrin going on. Have you been in touch personally or is this — [U.N. Special Envoy on Syria Staffan] de Mistura?”
Guterres: We have been in contact through different, through different — including personal contacts of mine — but through all our mechanisms, we have been trying to do our best in order to reduce this dramatic escalation of conflict. Fortunately, some of the aspects have been reduced, but others are still going on and they are a source of great concern to me. And the suffering of the Syrian people especially — the suffering of the Syrian people — people usually don’t talk about it. I mean, we talk about military operations, the parties to the conflict, the political dimension, but those that are there — living, being bombed, not having hospitals, not having schools for their children, in permanent threat for their lives. I mean this level of suffering, that I have been following since I was High Commissioner for Refugees, is absolutely appalling, and I mean there should be, based on their conscience in all the actors that are relevant in this conflict, that its high time to stop it. This is nonsense.”
Progress in Yemen
Q: Well, we can look a little farther east and see more suffering in Yemen, 22 million people in need of assistance. This week, you welcomed a $1 billion commitment from Saudi Arabia and the UAE toward the humanitarian needs there. Since these two countries are leading the coalition that’s fighting the Houthis on the ground, have you been able to elicit any personal — have you made any personal progress yourself in terms of getting a commitment from the coalition to stop the fighting?
Guterres: I think that there are some important developments. Recently, there was an increase in humanitarian aid. There is the decision to open corridors to facilitate access to the different areas of the country. These are positive steps. We are still lacking a political process, and I’m appointing a new special envoy and I will do everything I can to make sure that a serious political process can be put in place, because without a political process this will be a never-ending conflict. And, as we know in relation to Yemen and in the past, Yemen is a place where it’s impossible to win a war, and so only a political process can solve the problem.
Q: So what do you think your new envoy, Martin Griffiths, I believe it’s going to be?
Guterres: This is not yet decided because it needs to go through the Security Council, and that process has not been launched.
Q: I think it’s been launched, but it hasn’t — they have until Thursday, maybe, to come back to you. What do you think? I mean, nothing has changed among the parties in terms of political will, to come to the table.
Guterres: Many things have changed since, if you look at, I mean, we had recently divisions on the side of the Houthi-Saleh coalition that was dismantled, and you also had divisions in the south. So, some things have changed and these things [that] have changed prove that a political solution is necessary. And I hope that the Houthis will feel the need to seriously engage in a discussion, and I hope that the coalition and the government will also feel the need to engage in a serious discussion. I mean, what is the solution that is needed, of course, a situation that allows for the Houthis to have a normal participation in the political life of Yemen. But at the same time, to have guarantees from the security point of view in relation to the neighbors of Saudi Arabia and not to allow for the creation inside Yemen of an army that is not the army of the country. That, of course, will have to be discussed, negotiated, both from the point of view an inclusive political system allowing for everybody to participate and from the point of view of the security arrangements that are necessary to make sure that all will feel comfortable with the solution. But it’s, it’s seen from the point of view of an observer. It looks reachable, but political will is always the difficult part.
Q: So do you think we could be close to some sort of breakthrough?
Guterres: I hope that soon it will be possible to relaunch a serious political process, but we need to cross our fingers.
Watching North Korea
Q: OK. You just came back from South Korea. You went for the Olympics and to make an official visit. You met briefly with the ceremonial head of state of North Korea, Kim Yong Nam. Did you any have contact with any other members from the North Korean delegation?
Guterres: Yes, there were some brief contacts but there was not a negotiation, obviously in this context. I had very important contacts with the government of South Korea, and I think the central question is the following: These Olympic Games created an improvement in the relations between the North and the South. So, there is an improvement in the inter-Korean relations. But these needs [sic] to be used as a window of opportunity to solve the real problem — and the real problem is the need for a peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. And that requires not only good relations between North and South, but it requires, in my opinion, essentially a serious discussion between North Korea and the United States, together with the other relevant countries — that’s the group of six, but I mean between North Korea and the United States. And the North Koreans must understand that they have to accept denuclearization, but the others must understand that denuclearization needs to be accompanied by the security guarantees that allow for it to be acceptable for North Korea. And this is where we are not yet — the need for these direct discussions, serious discussions, aiming at a peaceful denuclearization of North Korea, and are not yet in place. And it’s essential to take profit of this window of opportunity, and that the unity of the Security Council — that unity is crucial also for diplomatic engagement to be launched and to be successful.
Q: Do you have any plans to send [Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey] Feltman back, or to do anything from your end?
Guterres: No. We are in permanent contact with the parties and we will do whatever at the certain moment might be useful. We are not agitating ourselves. We don’t intend to have any protagonism or try to have any merits on whatever. We are here to serve. We know who are the key interlocutors. The key interlocutors inside in the front line — North Korea and the United States — but, of course, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, these are the protagonists. We are in a supporting role. We’ll do everything possible to facilitate what is needed, and what is needed is a serious negotiation for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, done in the context of a regional security arrangement and in a peaceful way.
Myanmar and the Rohingya
Q: Finally, Secretary-General, I wanted to ask you about Myanmar. On Tuesday, your refugee chief Filippo Grandi, he told the Security Council that the conditions are not conducive for the voluntary return of the Rohingya refugees because the causes of their flight have not been properly addressed yet. So are you, have you been in touch, are you disappointed in Aung San Suu Kyi? She’s been highly criticized for her handling of this. Have you spoken with her recently, and are you still planning to name a special adviser?
Guterres: Yes, the special adviser will be soon appointed. But the central question that Filippos Grandi raised is the following: We considered that it is essential to recognize the right of return, voluntary in safety and dignity, of those that fled and returned to their place of origin not to be put in camps. But for that to be possible, a massive investment is necessary. Not only in the reconstruction of the villages destroyed in the field, but in the reconciliation for people not to be afraid to come back. And the guarantees that the forces that were expelling them will not be retaliating against them again. And this is the investment that the government of Myanmar has not yet made. And before that investment is made, it will be very difficult to have conditions for that massive voluntary repatriation as we all wish to happen. There is still a long way to go, and I think the government of Myanmar needs to understand that they cannot procrastinate things, that they need to engage seriously in creating the conditions for the return to be possible. And, fortunately, that has not yet been done with the determination and the courage, because we know that large part of the population is against the Rohingya’s, we know that. But that is why politicians need courage, is to overcome those differences because the situation of the Rohingya population in Myanmar was absolutely unacceptable.
Q: But those sorts of reconciliation talks and unity talks and things like that, can — they are such drawn out processes, they can take years. So, what are these Rohingya that are in Bangladesh going to do in the meantime?
Guterres: There are many things that can be done much more quickly than years. There’s physical reconstruction and there are a number of things that can be done both to support the Rohingyas and the local community. And doing so, people understand that they have also something to gain with this process. So, reconciliation is not just a matter of gestures, it is a matter of investments made for people to understand that living together, they can live better.
Q: So, realistically, how long do you think before the Rohingyas can start going back?
Guterres: I think that, in small numbers, there are things that can be done relatively quickly. A process of return, a large group of refugees — and we have done several processes of return … in different parts of the world as High Commissioner for Refugees — a process of return can take sometimes two, three years to be properly organized. But it requires planning, it requires investment, it requires a very serious effort in order to make it successful. If not, we risk to have a situation in which return takes place and then people flee again. And unfortunately, that’s, for instance, what we see in South Sudan. I helped as UNHCR, together will all my colleagues, and lots of elements of the civil society, we have helped about half a million people return to South Sudan and now there are more than one million refugees that fled South Sudan again. This is what we don’t want to happen with the Rohingyas in Bangladesh.