MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A time of great peril - that is how the head of the United Nations, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, sums up the state of things. In a press conference this week as the annual U.N. General Assembly kicks off, Guterres pointed to wars, he pointed to poverty and hunger and to what he described as climate chaos. He called for solidarity, for cooperation, even while acknowledging that the global response to all these challenges seems, quote, "paralyzed." Well, we have reached Guterres at his U.N. offices in New York. Secretary-General, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
ANTONIO GUTERRES: It's a great pleasure to be here with you.
KELLY: On Ukraine, There's a lot of concern about fighting around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The International Atomic Energy Agency is proposing a safe zone around the plant. How is that going? Is there any progress?
GUTERRES: I don't think there is much progress. It was my belief since the beginning that the parties should agree that there will be no shooting from or into the plant. And we have suggested the creation of a perimeter in which Russian troops would not be, but also the Ukrainian troops would commit not to enter. I don't think we are approaching a solution of this type. The negotiations are taking place between the parties, but I'm not very optimistic.
KELLY: This is very worrying.
GUTERRES: It is.
KELLY: This is the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe, and you're saying you don't see signs of progress in securing it.
GUTERRES: Yes. In any case, the six reactors now are not working. They need to have the supply of electricity to guarantee the cooling together with other parts.
GUTERRES: I've been told that that supply of electricity is being guaranteed by generators, but also by links to the grid. So I hope that this kind of stalemate will not bring any catastrophic situation.
KELLY: Do you - by which I mean the United Nations - you have any leverage over Russia in persuading them to try to establish a safe zone and hold it?
GUTERRES: Well, I think that our leverage depends on the IAEA capacity, because that is where the authority of the international community has been invested, and in the possibility of an agreement between the two sides to guarantee an effective demilitarization. The Russian concern was that if they leave the plant, the Ukrainians might come. It has been my point since the beginning we need a strictly civilian entity able to manage the power plant with a guarantee that neither side would attack it or try to occupy it.
KELLY: Another area where the U.N. is trying to make progress in Ukraine is trying to get grain out. I know the U.N. brokered a deal in July to export Ukrainian grain. Ethiopia just received the first shipment of that grain. That was just last week, and it was only six truckloads. So there's so much more that's needed. How much more is on the way?
GUTERRES: Well, we have already more than 3 million tons that went out of the Black Sea from Ukraine. The movement is taking place in a very positive way. Our biggest problem in relation to food security now is not food in itself, it's fertilizers. And indeed, until now, we have had a number of obstacles that have not permitted the flow of Russian fertilizers in meaningful quantities to the global markets. And this is having a dramatic impact. In West Africa, for instance, farmers are already planning to farm less than land available because of the fertilizer price and its availability. The same, the private sector tells us, about the whole world. So as we were able to unblock the Ukrainian grains in the Black Sea, now it's essential to unblock the fertilizer exports by Russia.
KELLY: So a practical question. Russia is sending a delegation to the General Assembly. Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has been granted a visa. He's reportedly only being allowed to bring half the number of people that he wants to bring. It seems like tensions are so high before they've even walked into the room. Realistically, how much progress do you hope to be able to make next week?
GUTERRES: I do not hope to make progress here in New York. I don't think there will be any chance to have any kind of dialogue between Russians and the Ukrainians or Russians and Americans or Russians and Europeans. But we are working hard in order to put together a fact-finding mission to the place where so many prisoners of war were killed. If you remember, there is now an agreement with the Russian Federation. Putin has guaranteed to me that they can go through the Ukraine-controlled territory. So there are concrete things in which we are making progress. But let's be clear. In relation to the key question, which is peace, I think we are still very far.
KELLY: Let me turn you, Secretary-General, to climate change. I know you are just returned from Pakistan, where floods have now killed more than 1,300 people. You said you have never seen climate carnage on the scale of the floods you saw there. Would you describe it for me? What was it you saw that worried you so?
GUTERRES: I was able to see a flooded area that is three times the whole area of my country, Portugal. People have lost their houses, their crops completely. This is an absolutely dramatic situation, not to mention the people that died. It's at the scale for which Pakistan simply has no capacity to respond. So they need massive financial support from the rest of the world.
KELLY: My question is, how do you break through? The U.N. has been calling for years now for rich countries to step up, to do more. And yet I saw this week you, yourself talked about the sheer inadequacy of the global response to the climate crisis - your words.
GUTERRES: What we need is effective cooperation to support developing countries. That requires a huge investment. And the same applies to questions that are related to drought. The same applies to the rising level of the seas and forest fires. So all these things to be prevented or to be minimized in their impacts need the massive investment in adaptation. And simply, there has been no money for that. And it's essential that there is money for that.
KELLY: Last question. The line that caught my ear from your press conference this week was the following, and I quote, "the solidarity envisioned in the United Nations charter is being devoured by the acids of nationalism and self-interest." That's a pretty depressing sentence.
GUTERRES: It is.
KELLY: What gives you hope that the U.N. still has a vital role, a positive role to play in the world?
GUTERRES: Well, there are things we can't solve because it depends on the Security Council. And the Security Council is blocked, as we all know. But the U.N. is not only the Security Council. We are able to mediate an agreement like the Black Sea agreement. And then the U.N. is much more than that. I mean, without the World Food Program, without UNICEF, without the refugee agency, I can't imagine the tragedies that would occur in so many areas of the world, peacekeeping missions that protect civilians in extremely difficult situations. We have a problem. The geopolitical divides are such that in the political body that is the Security Council, we are not able to reach consensus in order to be able to prevent crises and to solve them in an acceptable amount of time.
KELLY: Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaking with us from the United Nations as the 77th U.N. General Assembly gets underway. Thank you.
GUTERRES: Thank you very much.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.