‘Our Multilateralism Has No Teeth’: Why It’s Incredibly Difficult for the UN to Make Real Change

From the war on Syria to climate change, UN Secretary General António Guterres sat down with VICE News to talk about the world’s most pressing crises.

If any one person is immersed in the world’s constant chaos, it’s United Nations Secretary General António Guterres.

He began his first term just weeks before Donald Trump took office in 2017, and whose presidency ushered in an era of particularly fraught U.S.-UN relations.

Guterres has presided over the leading international body during one of the most volatile periods in recent history, which includes a climate crisis that is already forcing mass migrations, multiple ongoing wars, and most recently, a global pandemic that has killed millions.


As an organization, the UN has become increasingly vocal around climate change under Guterres, who in early March called for an end to all planned coal projects worldwide. His climate change appeals are mostly directed towards wealthy nations who emit the most carbon, but urging them to make and follow through on commitments to reduce their carbon emissions isn’t always effective.

“The problem of the UN is that our multilateralism has no teeth,” Guterres told VICE News. “Our power in the UN is the power of persuasion, is the power of speaking up, is the power of denouncing what needs to be denounced. But we cannot order countries to do what they must do.”

The UN’s lack of enforcement power also applies to protracted conflicts like the war in Syria, which recently entered its tenth year. An average of one child in Syria has been injured or killed every eight hours in that conflict over the past decade.

“It's a horrible failure of the international community as a whole,” Guterres said.

The UN Security Council, which is tasked with maintaining international peace and security, has remained deadlocked over what to do about Syria. Russia has supported strongman Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and vetoed 16 council resolutions about the ongoing war, along with the support of China, another security council member with veto power.  

“It's true that now we have a cease fire that is more or less holding. It's true that now there is some movement with the Geneva talks,” Guterres said of the Syrian conflict. “But let's be clear, we are far from having a solution. And people are suffering in a way that really breaks my heart.”

Watch our full interview with Guterres for his other thoughts on some of the world’s most pressing crises.

Video hosted by Sebastian Walker, produced by Milena Mikael-Debass, and shot by Srdjan Stojiljkovic.