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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

UN chief calls for unity in the face of escalating conflict

Antonio Guterres addressed military leaders and policy makers at the annual Munich Security Conference

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaking during the 54th Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany. Ronald Wittek /EPA
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaking during the 54th Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany. Ronald Wittek /EPA

His grandfather diagnosed the problems of the world as the lost respect between the generations and as Antonio Guterres spoke on Friday he drew the same parallel with deteriorating relationships between nation states.

Speaking at the annual Munich Security Conference, the UN Secretary General used a keynote address to tell military leaders and policy makers that rediscovering a respect-based unity of purpose was now the only route to avoid a serious conflagration.

Mr Guterres has led the organisation for less than 14 months but in that time he believes the threat to global security has utterly changed.

First there is a nuclear showdown playing out between North Korea and the US that can only be resolved by denuclearisation of the peninsula. In the serene surroundings of the grandest hotel in Munich, Mr Guterres recalled his trip to the Winter Olympic Games at which the North Koreans travelled at the invitation of their southern hosts.

The images, he said, were a sideshow when the bigger issue of a nuclear strike was both real and close.

Next the veteran Portuguese official ranked the crisis in the Middle East in just as grave terms, bringing in the diagnosis his grandfather would have recognised.

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Conflict in the region had been a fact of civilisation but that did not mean that officials should be inured to its changing nature. "All these different fault lines crossing each other have created the situation that there's an authentic quagmire," he observed.

To Mr Guterres this perfect storm in which “the fault lines of conflict” were interrelated had created an imperative for leaders to face up to the gravity of the moment.

Dubbing the situation as a cold war, Mr Guterres called for an equivalent of the last century’s Helsinki Process to stand apart from the multiple tensions and provide a means of dialogue.

Minutes later Mr Guterres was to get an illustration of the very divisions that he decried. An address to the same audience by the Emir of Qatar took a markedly different stance. Dressed in a double-breasted pin stripe suit, Sheikh Tamim took the opportunity for pleading the country’s own case.

The address honed in on European fears of migrants unleashed by Middle East instability. Featuring a word cloud of sectarianism, injustice, hypocrisy, the ultimate point was that shared security was a matter of changing the rules, shifting focus from the GCC and going beyond the Arabian Gulf region. "It is time for wider regional security in the Middle East. It is time for all nations of the region to forget the past, including us, and agree on basic security principles and rules of governance,” he said.

“All the nations need to agree on a baseline of coexistence, backed by binding arbitration mechanism to take part in a regional security agreement.”

In fact that would be a formalisation of the tensions that Mr Guterres spoke very passionately against. The audience was alive to the distinction. An attempt to raise a forced round of applause from the Qatar entourage petered quickly out. A wider caution over the two divergent views of the Middle East prevailed.

Wolfgang Ischinger, the long-serving head of the Munich conference, echoed Mr Guterres theme that states attempting to create their own reality were jeopardising the global order.

"I have the impression that, rather than just threatening the use of force, weapons are increasingly employed to secure narrow interests,” he said. In his address in the Bayrischer Hof hotel, the German pleaded for less set-piece position taking and more dialogue. "One of the key ingredients of global stability is mutual trust," he said. He cautioned not to underestimate the "risks of miscalculation, misunderstanding" in the absence of dialogue.

He also had a warning over the Syria conflict, which could yet see Nato allies fight for the first time since the organisation was founded. In particular the Turkish offensive in Afrin brought the very real possibility of confrontation with the US.

"What kind of crisis for NATO would that be if there was really a clash between Turkish and American forces in the region?" he said.