By Ramesh Jaura
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has warned against a repeat of what happened with the League of Nations and the threat of a nuclear conflict, stressed the need for breaking the Gordian knot in the “broader Middle East”, called for establishing an international legal framework for “cyberwars between States”, and asked the international community to build a consensus on regulating the “so‑called Internet of things.”
Guterres was speaking at the opening ceremony of the three-day Munich Security Conference that concluded on February 18. Its motto “To the Brink – and Back?” seemed an apt description of the situation confronting today’s world.
The UN chief explained how conflicts with devastating humanitarian consequences are becoming “more and more interrelated and more and more related to a set of new global terrorism threats to all of us.” With this in view, he called for the need to learn “with what happened with the League of Nations to make sure that the same will not be repeated at the present times.”
The League of Nations was founded on January 10, 1920 after the First World War ended. The onset of the Second World War showed that the League had failed its primary purpose, which was to prevent any future world war. The United Nations replaced it after the end of the Second World War.
According to historians, while the diplomatic philosophy behind the League represented a fundamental shift from the preceding hundred years, its credibility was somewhat weakened by the fact that the United States never officially joined and the Soviet Union joined late and only briefly.
During the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (referred to as the Second Italo-Abyssinian War), when the League accused Italian soldiers of targeting Red Cross medical tents, Benito Mussolini responded that “the League is very well when sparrows shout, but no good at all when eagles fall out.”
Guterres did not draw any parallels between the situation leading to Second World War but said: “We need to understand that the level of threat we have demands, from all of us, a much stronger bet in the cohesion of our societies and in the unity, building a true and strong multilateralism to address the challenges of the present times.”
The current U.S. Administration’s attempts to dictate terms to member nations of the United Nations, threatening an end to funding support to organisations of the UN system not pursing the U.S. agenda and openly rejecting multilateralism indicate some similarities between the situation then and now.
Referring to the developments in relation to nuclear weapons and long‑range missiles by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – in total contradiction to the will of the international community and in clear violation of several resolutions of the Security Council – Guterres warned: “For the first time since the end of the cold war, we are now facing a nuclear threat. A threat of a nuclear conflict.”
However, unlike what transpired in the League of Nations, the Security Council has demonstrated unity and put through sanctions “a very meaningful pressure over North Korea,” a pressure that in the UN chief’s opinion is absolutely essential to be maintained, in spite of the fact that the relations between the two Koreas have improved as a result of North Koreans and South Koreans in a competition together at the Olympic Games of PyeongChang.
The central question, Guterres said, remains the question of denuclearization. And the question of denuclearization, in his opinion, requires “that we all engage actively in order to be possible for, I would say, the two key stakeholders in relation to this crisis, the United States and North Korea, to be able to come together and have a meaningful discussion on these issues.”
While there is a role for all the other countries of the so‑called Six Party Talks, and for the international community, it is important for all to abide by Security Council resolutions.
“It is important that we all participate in this need for pressure over North Korea, but it is also important not to miss the opportunity of a peaceful resolution through diplomatic engagement, as a military solution would be a disaster with catastrophic consequences that we cannot even be able to imagine,” Guterres said.
Turning to “the broader Middle East,” he said, the region had witnessed conflicts since the beginning of civilization “and in the last few decades, we got used to a succession of conflicts and crisis but always with this idea, perhaps naive, that the international community would be able to deal with each one separately or in succession.”
But what has changed is that today, the whole global Middle East is a mess. It became a mess with a number of different fault‑lines that are completely crossing each other and interconnected: the fault‑line that remains between Israelis and Palestinians; the fault‑line that represents the memory of the cold war, that is still there; the fault‑line between Sunni and Shia; the fault-line between Iran and Saudi Arabia and its allies; a fault‑line with Israel and a fault‑line with the United States – all this making the situation extremely complex.
Guterres said, even if the contradictions of interest of both the global Powers and the regional Powers are clear, “the threat for all of us, and the threat for them, first of all, would justify a serious effort to come together and to try to cut this Gordian knot” that the ‘global Middle East’ embodies. The Helsinki Process during the cold war – the old cold war – could help establish a platform for discussion, the UN chief added.
He described “cyberwars between States – episodes of cyberwar between States” – as as another global threat. The fact is, he said, that we have not yet been able to discuss whether or not the Geneva Conventions apply to cyberwar or whether or not international humanitarian law applies to cyberwar.
In view of this, he added, “it’s high time to have a serious discussion about the international legal framework in which cyberwars take place” and “essential to use what is the competence of the First Committee of the General Assembly of the United Nations to do it, and to do it sooner rather than later.”
But the concerns go far beyond cyberwar, Guterres said, the concerns relate to what is today the permanent violation of cybersecurity. There is the multiplicity of activities, some by States, some by different actors, and even by amateurs. There are the different uses that criminal organizations and terrorist organizations are making of the web. All of these create a level of threat that is becoming higher and higher and for which we have not yet found an adequate response.
The different methods of regulation, both at State level and through international conventions, do not easily apply to a situation like this. There is also an absence of consensus in the international community about how to regulate “the so‑called Internet of things,” Guterres said.
It might be naive to think that with the level of contradiction that exists today in the world a common vision is possible; “but it is more naive to believe that divided, we can survive facing the challenges that we are facing in today’s world,” he added.
The UN chief called for necessary steps to overcome differences and contradictions and to understand that to face all the challenges that humankind is facing, it is imperative to come together. “And this is the raison d’être of the United Nations. And this was the vision that led many visionaries at the end of the Second World War to create the United Nations.”