29 October 2020

Caribbean Leaders’ Unique Voices Vital as World Tackles Climate Change, COVID-19, Systemic Inequalities, Secretary-General Tells Regional Conference

Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ opening remarks to the forty-first regular meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), held today:

Thank you very much.  It’s an enormous pleasure to be back in the Caribbean even if it’s just virtually.  I thank the Caribbean Community, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves and Secretary-General Irwin LaRocque for your invitation.  I’m indeed sorry that we cannot be together in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.  But, I welcome this opportunity to meet with you at such a crucial time.

We are facing the greatest test of global solidarity in generations.  Despite tremendous efforts to contain its spread, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the world.  It is in every country’s national and economic self-interest to work together to beat the pandemic.

I salute all of you for your exceptional leadership.  CARICOM countries have continued to report generally low levels of COVID-19 cases and some have been able to avoid any virus-related deaths.

A number of CARICOM countries have also successfully held elections during the pandemic, putting in place protective measures.  The principled solidarity of CARICOM was instrumental in Guyana’s democratic transition.  At the same time, we know that COVID-19 is dealing a devastating blow to your economies, already burdened by the high levels of public debt and debt-service payments.

And thank you very much, Prime Minister of Barbados.  I have to say that, last Sunday, I had one hour on the phone with Kristalina Georgieva and of that one hour, 20 minutes were dedicated to the Caribbean countries and to a number of other small countries in the world, and I was trying to convince her that it doesn’t make sense to look to the questions of debt on a case-by-case basis for these groups of countries.

One needs to have an approach that allows to deal with them, of course. Another thing is to deal with Argentina or to deal with even Angola or Nigeria.  Those, of course, require a case-by-case approach, but we absolutely need a quick mechanism that goes beyond the one that exists for the least-developed countries, a quick mechanism to address the debt problems of relatively small economies that are dramatically impacted.  And being developing or middle-income countries is irrelevant from that point of view.

The tourism sector has been decimated, trade has declined significantly and remittances have fallen by almost 20 per cent.  Job losses and business closures are mounting and hitting low-income Caribbean households especially hard.

You have launched successful efforts to support people and business, especially small and medium[-sized] enterprises.  And your innovative ideas to address the economic fallout — such as proposals to attract long-stay visitors who can contribute to the local economy — may even point the way to new services.

As we invest in the recovery, we need to build greener, bluer, diversified, resilient and inclusive economies.  And allow me to briefly touch on a few key issues on just how to do that.

First, of course, we must defeat the pandemic itself.  I continue to push for a massive expansion of access to tests and treatments and support a people’s vaccine as a global public good — available and affordable for everyone, everywhere as soon as possible.  Investing in the Access to COVID-19 Tools — or ACT — Accelerator is critical — including its COVAX Facility, which focuses on the development of a safe vaccine as quickly as possible.

Second, for some developing economies, including the Caribbean, the socioeconomic impacts have been worse than the virus itself.  To support your recovery efforts, I have been pushing for a relief package amounting to at least 10 per cent of the global economy.

Now, developed countries have announced their own relief packages, because they can.  Yet, of the $12 trillion so far allocated for immediate response measures, a tiny fraction has reached the developing world.  Without concerted international action, we risk the reversal of decades of development gains and backsliding on the Sustainable Development Goals — even as countries fight on the frontline of the climate crisis.

And once again, Caribbean leadership has helped elevate the challenge on the global stage.  I salute Prime Minister Holness of Jamaica for co-leading our initiative on Financing for Development in the era of COVID-19 and beyond.

I have been calling for concrete actions with respect to debt and liquidity.  Specifically, the international community should increase resources available to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), including through a new allocation of Special Drawing Rights and a voluntary reallocation of the existing Special Drawing Rights.

At the same time, many countries urgently need debt relief.  I welcome the G20’s [Group of 20] extension of the Debt Service Suspension Initiative for another six months, but I will continue to push for extension through the end of 2021, and critically, to expand its scope to all developing and middle-income countries in need.

As you have long advocated, the world must look beyond incomes and factor in the vulnerabilities of countries.  The private sector, including the credit rating agencies, also must be engaged in relief efforts.  I have been strongly encouraging providing resources at scale to developing economies, namely through the World Bank and other multilateral development banks.

This could be done either using existing facilities or innovative facilities of concessional financing that are so important for countries in greatest need and several of those facilities have been proposed and we need them to be recognized and put in place.  I have called for the exploration of creative approaches, such as debt swaps and to cancel or restructure debt, to unlock resources for the Sustainable Development Goals and climate action.

In all these efforts and more, the UN family will continue to support Governments’ response through promising partnerships, as guided by the Multisectoral Response Plan of the Eastern Caribbean for socioeconomic recovery.  In this respect, we are working with the Caribbean Development Bank to craft a multidimensional vulnerability index that will help CARICOM countries make a more evidence-informed case to international financial institutions.

A Government-brokered regional compact with the IFIs [International Financial Institutions] and the UN is critical for a sustainable recovery — one that opens channels for financing renewable energy, sustainable transport, digital infrastructure and productive services.

Next April’s fifteenth UNCTAD [United Nations Conference on Trade and Development] quadrennial conference in Barbados will provide another important platform to discuss a more open and equitable global trading system that takes account your specific vulnerabilities and enables effective integration of SIDS [small island developing States] into the global economy.

The twin crises of COVID-19 and climate present a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Caribbean and its development partners to form a new alliance for inclusive, sustainable and resilient recovery.  We don’t have a moment to lose.  Climate change is an existential threat to the region.  Your leadership and moral voice on the front lines is crucial for charting a recovery that will accelerate the decarbonization of the global economy and build a more inclusive and resilient future.

I stand with you and am working to expand the growing coalition of leaders committing to net‑zero emissions by 2050 in order to achieve the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement [on climate change].  And we had two big victories this week, with Japan and Korea, two countries we have been engaging very strongly and finally have committed to net zero in 2050 which is, after the Chinese decision and what has happened in Europe, a very promising development.  We’ll see now what happens in the US [United States] elections.  It will also be of course extremely important in this regard.

We fully support the Caribbean vision to become the first climate-resilient region in the world — and to implement the Caribbean Recovery to Resilience Facility.  Access to low‑cost and affordable public finance will be critical.  You face significant barriers — not least the fragmented and complex financial architecture to access climate finance.  We must work together to bring greater coherence to the system, while assisting your countries in building capacities at the national and regional levels to access public and private finance.

Recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and securing climate action are not separate efforts — they are a single agenda.  The work under way to develop and implement the nationally determined contributions, socioeconomic response plans and domestic stimulus strategies must be coherent and mutually reinforcing.  You can count on the United Nations family to do our part to support concrete efforts that link your pandemic recovery plans with climate goals as set in your nationally determined contributions, underpinned by enhanced climate finance.

Many of you have committed to become carbon neutral by 2030 and are taking bold actions to strengthen adaptation and resilience.  This ambition must be supported as others follow your lead.  I want to take this opportunity to personally invite you to the 2020 Climate Ambition Summit that I will co-convene on 12 December.

The stresses on your economies are high and the need to protect and expand your development achievements for the Caribbean people is urgent.  The UN system is intensifying support for the Caribbean and all small island developing States.  We are putting our best capacities and resources to support your voice and participation in global governance processes, to provide sound policy advice and help broker the partnerships that will facilitate your continued progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

This includes expanding and reconfiguring as necessary our physical presence and ensuring tailored support to every country in the Caribbean.  This was an important component of our reform of the UN development system.  I know it is something you have long advocated and it represents a step change in support.  This is now possible with Member States’ approval of the reform measures to strengthen our support to small island developing States and the multi-country offices that support them.

I also want to thank you for highlighting the crucial issue of advancing gender parity.  Sadly, eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls has become more pressing during the pandemic.  I am pleased that several of your countries are engaged with the EU-UN [European Union-United Nations] Spotlight Initiative.

As we work towards gender parity in the UN system, I am delighted to note the Caribbean’s contribution.  Of the 564 nationals from CARICOM member States working in the UN Secretariat, 57 per cent are female.  There is strong female leadership at the very top of the Secretariat, including my personal office.

Finally, I thank CARICOM leaders for your unwavering support for multilateralism.  Your unique voice is vital as we tackle shared threats, such as climate change, citizen insecurity and the COVID-19 pandemic that expose deep and systemic inequalities.  The UN system is your platform to continue your compelling push for a more just, balanced and equitable international system — and the full realization of the rights of the UN Charter.

The pandemic has upended our world, but that upheaval has created space for creative and constructive initiatives.  I look forward to our discussions on how to make the most of that vital space and I thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.