Thursday, April 28, 2022

Antonio Guterres visits Ukraine

Guterres sees devastated homes near Kyve

Antonio Gutettes, secretary-general of the United Nations and former prime minister of Portugal, seems to have learned much but achieved little during this visits this week to Moscow and Kyve.

He spent the hours before his Thursday afternoon meeting with the Ukraine prime minister  seeing for himself evidence of the atrocities committed by Russian forces in towns on the outskirts of Kyve.  
Tightly surrounded by security guards, he spoke emotionally. 

"When I see those destroyed buildings, I imagine my family in one of those homes now destroyed and black. I see my granddaughters running in panic," said Guterres. 

He continued: "The war is an absurdity in the 21st century. The war is evil and when you see these situations our heart of course stays with the victims. Our condolences to their families. But our emotions - there is no way a war can be acceptable in the 21st century." 

The secretary-general also visited a scene of the alleged Russian killings of hundreds of Ukrainian civilians. "Here you well know how important it is for a thorough investigation and accountability," said Guterres in the town of Bucha near the capital.  He added that he fully supported the International Criminal Court and the need for investigations into war and humanitarian crimes. Russia has denied targeting civilians or civilian buildings.

Astonishingly, Russian missiles slammed into central Kyve close to Guterres and those accompanying him. A UN spokesperson expressed shock, but said all were safe. It was reportedly the boldest attack on the Ukrainian capital since Putin's forces retreated from Kyve weeks ago.

In a joint news conference with President Volodymmyr Zelenskyy  on Thursday evening, Guterres admitted the UN Security Council had failed to prevent or end the war in Ukraine. He said this was "a source of great  disappointment, frustration and anger." 

But Guterres reaffirmed his commitment to help save those barricaded in Mariupol, which Putin on Tuesday had agreed with him ""in principle."  

Saturday, April 23, 2022

António Guterres in talks aimed at bringing peace to Ukraine


The Secretary-General of the United Nations and former Prime Minister of Portugal, António Guterres, may be about to play a key role in de-escalating the war and bringing about peace in Ukraine.

Guterres is to have separate meetings with the presidents of Russia and Ukraine in their respective capitals. He has already told them he would like to discuss what urgent steps could be taken to end the war, as well as the future of multilateralism based on the charter of the United Nations and international law. The meeting with President Putin and his foreign minister in Moscow is scheduled for Tuesday.  Then on Thursday he is due to meet the Ukrainian foreign minister and President Vlodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.

Like Pope Francis, Guterres had called for a four-day truce in the conflict during the Orthodox Christian Easter period with Easter Sunday on April 24. Russia rejected the idea.

In addition to pursuing his official tasks of high international office, the secretary-general has spoken emotionally about the sufferings of the war.

“I will never forget the horrifying images of civilians killed in Bucha. I immediately called for an independent investigation to guarantee accountability. I am also deeply shocked by the personal testimony of rapes and sexual violence that are now emerging,” he said recently.

While awaiting a response to his requests for personal meetings and well-aware that the war displaced more than 10 million people in just one month, Guterres sent his UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, to the warring nations to press for an urgent humanitarian ceasefire.

He had previously set up a Global Crisis Response Group (GCRG) and in commenting on the group’s first report he noted that while most attention has been focused on the effects of the war on Ukrainians, it was also impacting in other countries in terms of increased poverty, hunger and social unrest. 

In highlighting overarching points made clear in the GCRG’s report, he said that “far beyond Ukraine’s borders, the war has led to massive increases in food, energy and fertilizers because Russia and Ukraine are lynchpins of these markets.”

He could almost have been talking about his home country, Portugal, but he was referring to no less than 74 developing countries with a population of 1.2 billion – one third of whom are already living in poverty while struggling with soaring food, energy and fertilizer costs. Thirty-six countries have been counting on Russia and Ukraine for more than half of their wheat imports. Prices of wheat and maize were already on the rise, but the war has made a bad situation very much worse.

At the same time - as well-reported in the media - Russia is a top energy supplier. Oil prices are up 60 per cent over the past year, accelerating the prevailing trends.

“Many developing countries are drowning in debt, with bond yields already on the rise since last September, leading now to increased risk premiums and exchange rate pressures,” said Guterres.

The GCRG report also shows that there is a direct link between food prices and social and political instability, which gave rise to Guterres’ insistence: “Our world cannot afford this. We need to act now.”

The secretary-general has not been without his critics. Before his requests for meetings with the leaders in Moscow and Kyiv, a group of more than 200 former UN officials wrote to him saying that he must personally do more to take a lead and mediate a peace, otherwise the UN itself risked “not just irrelevance, but its continued existence.”

These former staff members urged in their letter that the current UN boss should raise his profile and be prepared to take personal risks to secure peace, otherwise the UN itself would be facing an existential threat due to the invasion of Ukraine by one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

The secretary-general has obviously taken the advice of former colleagues to heart. He faces a massive challenge and we will just have to wait and see what becomes of it.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Portugal and nuclear weapons


As a country fully committed to nuclear disarmament, Portugal shares most of the concerns of others about the lack of concrete steps on this by the major powers within the United Nations General Assembly.

It is Portugal’s view that the well- documented catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons should reinforce commitments to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signed in 1968, which Portugal sees as the cornerstone for the pursuit of nuclear disarmament.

This opinion, last delivered in a formal statement to the UN in 2018, noted that “we are witnessing a rise in global and regional tensions. We particularly call on the United States and the Russian Federation to preserve the treaty and ensure its full implementation, which is crucial for European and global security.”

The 10th review of the treaty scheduled for January this year was postponed because of COVID restrictions. It will now take place in New York from the 1st to the 22nd of August. Meanwhile, concerns are growing about the possible use of tactical missiles with nuclear warheads let alone intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Concerns increased with President Putin’s implied threat to turn the Ukraine war into a   broader nuclear conflict when he told his top defence and military leaders to put nuclear forces in “a special regime of combat duty.” That is not as worrying as it may sound because both Russia and the United States are understood to keep their nuclear arsenals on high alert at all times.

But then there was that other remark from Putin warning that any attempt by other countries to intervene with his military campaign would lead to “such consequences that you have never encountered in your history.”

Last Thursday the Kremlin went further and threatened to deploy nuclear weapons in the Baltic region if Sweden and Finland went ahead and joined NATO.  Now, the latest bur probably not the last warning from Moscow is that if the US and its allies don’t stop supplying weapons to Ukraine there will be “unpredictable consequences.”

The thinking among Western officials is that all this tough talking may be because of Russia’s setbacks in Ukraine. Unless phase two of its invasion achieves much more success against the Ukrainian resistance, Putin may want to ramp up his hopes for a glorious legacy by going nuclear.

Following Russia’s alleged use of chemical weapons against Ukraine, Putin may also feel the need to go further as his conventional military might is less than that of the former Soviet Union and much less than that that of the 30 combined forces of NATO.

The deliberate use of short-range tactical weapons would be bad enough. Recent studies have concluded that - unlikely as it may be - the use of hypersonic or ballistic missiles equipped with nuclear warheads would create unprecedented destructive blasts and firestorms, hurl up to 150 million tons of smoke and soot into the upper atmosphere and cause widespread and deadly radioactive fallout.

It‘s not possible to foretell the likely impact on Portugal of a large or even a relatively small nuclear exchange between the superpowers. It would involve many unknown factors. If the impact here did not include many deaths from fallout, it could at least enforce even tighter in-house isolation than COVID and affect such things as communications, international trade, food and other essential supplies.

It may not be very  reassuring to most of us, but the fact is that while ‘nuclear’ is a worrying word when applied to warheads rather than the peaceful source of energy, the use of small nuclear devices in Ukraine could be far less destructive than the continued, concentrated dropping of a large number of conventional bombs expected in the days and weeks ahead.    


Saturday, April 9, 2022

How best to cope with bad news

“No news is good news,” as the old saying goes. Sadly, the opposite is true nowadays. Almost all the headline news is bad news, very bad news.

We’re constantly being bombarded with news about the horrific war in Ukraine, the soaring costs of living, the continuing COVID pandemic and the calamitous threat of climate change.

Those who regularly read or tune into quality news services in Portugal or elsewhere in the Western world can expect for the most part reliable, up-to-date information.

Unlike the propaganda and disinformation dished out by the state-controlled media in Russia, even reliable information in the West can be hard to manage. More and more people are suffering from bad news fatigue.

Older folks will tell you they have lived in “the good times,” meaning between the Secord World War and what many fear may soon become the Third. But the way things are going is especially troubling for the young. A major survey conducted among 16 to 25-year-olds found that nearly 60% of 10,000 respondents in 10 countries said they felt afraid, sad, anxious, angry or powerless about climate change, mainly because of inadequate government measures to avoid a climate catastrophe. In Portugal, 65% of respondents said they were very worried or extremely worried, one of the highest percentages in the countries surveyed worldwide.

One way for all age groups to dodge the negative impact of bad news is by resorting to wilful blindness. Switching off the TV and radio, not reading newspapers and having little or nothing to do with true or fake news on the Internet can provide relief. Wilful blindness has its merits, but also its disadvantages. Burying one’s head in the sand may be okay for a while, but the importance of accessing new information should not be underestimated.

Ignorance can be a temporary shelter, but ignorance is not bliss. It may ensure a degree of happiness for a while, but not for long.

 The notion that “ignorance is bliss” was first raised by the 18th century English poet Thomas Gray who wrote: “Ignorance is bliss. Tis folly to be wise.”  He went on to suggest that ignorance is more about not encumbering one’s mind unnecessarily rather than being apathetic about knowledge.

Thomas Jefferson in the 18th century certainly did not believe in being “lazy minded.”  He once recalled: “I was bold in the pursuit of knowledge, never fearing to follow truth and reason to whatever results they led, and bearding ever authority which stood in their way.”

To the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), “the good life is inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” As an ardent atheist he had his own version of the 10 commandments. Here they are:

1: Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2: Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3: Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.

4: When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5: Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6: Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

7: Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8: Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9: Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

So, having taken all this in, perhaps it’s a good idea to check a quality news source at least once a day or so, but not to overdo it.


Saturday, April 2, 2022

Religious battle in Ukraine war

President Putin and Patriarch Kirill

With the approach of Easter, the commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a Christian battle is raging within the war in Ukraine.

The battle is between leaders of different factions of the Christian Orthodox Church, the predominant religion in both Ukraine and Russia. It is reminiscent of so many other religious conflicts dating back, from Portugal’s point of view, to the second Crusade to the Holy Land and the Battle of Lisbon in 1147 when the city was captured from Almoravid Muslim occupation. It was a pivotal event that allowed Portugal to become an independent Christian kingdom.

 Portugal is not innocent of forcibly occupying other countries.  Beginning in the 1400s, this small nation sent occupiers as well as explorers to South America, Africa and Asia. One of their main objectives was to spread Catholicism.  Portugal’s Christian empire survived for more than six centuries and only finally ended after wars in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau in 1975. But none of this was nearly as devastating as the present invasion in Ukraine.

It should be noted that although Jesus Christ’s name has often been used to justify military conflicts, the Gospels contain no record of Jesus giving his disciples any explicit teaching on the subject of war. 

Unlike Jesus, the leader of the 60 million Orthodox Christians in Russia, Patriarch Kirill, has certainly not been silent on the present war in Ukraine. He has given Russia’s brutal civilian killings and urban destruction his wholehearted blessing. In televised sermons from Moscow’s cathedral he has described the war as “an apocalyptic battle against evil forces that have sought to destroy the God-given unity of Holy Russia.”
Patriarch Kirill and President Putin share a nationalist ideology that they believe justifies the war. Kirill once went so far as to say Putin’s presidency was “a miracle given by God.”

Putin himself is thought to be a devout Christian and he has often appeared with Kirill at Easter services. It will be interesting if they are together this year on Sunday April 24 to bolster the propaganda being regularly aired by the Kremlin’s state-owned media.

In contrast to the Russian claims, the leader of the worldwide Orthodox Church,  Bartholomew , theEcumenical Patriarch of Constantinople who is based in Istanbul, has joined forces with other Orthodox leaders and denounced the invasion as an “atrocious" act that is causing enormous suffering. During a recent visit to Poland, which has welcomed the largest number of refugees fleeing the war, Patriarch Bartholomew said: “It is simply impossible to imagine how much devastation this atrocious invasion has caused for the Ukrainian people and the entire world,” He went on to say during a Warsaw news briefing that solidarity with Ukrainians “is the only thing that can overcome evil and darkness in the world.”

Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, the head of the Polish Bishops' Conference, has also deplored Russia’s invasion of Ukraine saying it has resulted in the deaths of “thousands of innocent people, including hundreds of children, elderly people, women and men who had nothing to do with the hostilities. Many of the aggressor’s actions bear the hallmarks of genocide.”  Gądecki has urged Russia’s patriarch to use his influence on President Putin to demand an end to the war and for Russian soldiers to stand down. Kirill has done just the opposite and highly praised the Russia forces.
The Orthodox Church in Ukraine is divided between an independent church based in Kyiv and another one loyal to Kirill in Mosco. Kirill and the Russian Orthodox Church severed contact with Bartholomew after the Istanbul patriarch recognized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine as independent of the Moscow patriarch in 2019.

Even though Putin justified his invasion of Ukraine in part as a defence of the Moscow-oriented Orthodox Church, leaders of both the Ukrainian Orthodox factions have condemned the invasion, as has Ukraine’s significant Catholic minority.

Globally, the Orthodox Church is the smallest of the Christian denominations with about 260 million members, 60 million of them in Russia, the rest spread mostly across Ukraine and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East. Protestants have approximately 800 million members worldwide and the Roman Catholics about 1.2 billion.
Despite the current bitter rivalry, as a whole the Orthodox Church claims to be the one true church established by Christ and his apostles. So does the Roman Catholic Church from which people in parts of Russia and Ukraine split and converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity in 988. 
For the first time since the thousand-year- old schism, a Catholic pontiff and an Orthodox patriarch met in 2016. Then last month Pope Francis spoke again with Patriarch Kirill, this time in a video conference. The Pope rejected the Russian’s religious defence of the Ukraine crisis. The Pope insisted that wars are always unjust, because the ones who pay are “the people of God.”

Acording to a Vatican statement, the Pope continued: “We must unite in the effort to help peace, to help those who suffer, to stop the fire.” He added: “Our hearts cannot help but cry out in front of the children, the women killed, all the victims of the war. War is never the way. The Church must not use the language of politics, but the language of Jesus.”

Many non-religious people across the world who do not believe in God must be wondering if indeed  He really does exist and does not take sides in wars, is it worthwhile for anyone in any religion to pray for peace?
President Putin is a Christian. So is President Biden. Will God be listening to their very different points of view and prayers on Easter Sunday?