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UN Chief Urges Leaders to Listen to Their Discontented Citizens

FILE - United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks at the Security Council stakeout at the U.N. headquarters in New York, Aug. 1, 2019.
FILE - United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks at the Security Council stakeout at the U.N. headquarters in New York, Aug. 1, 2019.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres urged leaders to listen to the problems of their people as demonstrations multiply in cities around the world.

“It is clear that there is a growing deficit of trust between people and political establishments, and rising threats to the social contract,” he told reporters Friday.

He cited economic problems, political demands, discrimination and corruption as some of the issues driving protests.

“People want a level playing field – including social, economic and financial systems that work for all,” Guterres said. “They want their human rights respected, and a say in the decisions that affect their lives.”

Demonstrations have erupted this year in scores of countries stretching across nearly every continent.

In Hong Kong, protestors have been on the streets since June, angered by a proposed bill that would allow extradition to mainland China. Hong Kong has been under Chinese rule since 1997. The bill was withdrawn last month, but protesters’ anger has not abated.

In the Middle East, demonstrations started sweeping Lebanon last week, after the government mismanaged the containment of massive forest fires and then, days later, announced plans to tax WhatsApp Internet-based phone calls.

Tens of thousands of protesters in the tiny country are demanding the cabinet’s resignation and early parliamentary elections. They want government corruption investigated, the minimum wage increased, and basic services provided -- including clean water and 24-hour electricity.

Guterres said the Lebanese must solve their problems with dialogue and he urged maximum restraint and non-violence from both the government and the demonstrators.
In Iraq, the U.N. says at least 157 people have died and nearly 6,000 have been injured during protests that began October 1. Young people are frustrated with the lack of jobs and services, as well as government corruption and inefficiency.

“Governments have an obligation to uphold the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, and to safeguard civic space,” the U.N. chief said of all protests. “Security forces must act with maximum restraint, in conformity with international law.”

Guterres said he is “deeply concerned” that some protests have led to violence and loss of life.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, protests have erupted in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, Bolivia and most recently Chile. While in Africa this year, demonstrators have raised their voices in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Guinea and Ethiopia. In Sudan, protesters succeeded in ousting the president who had been in power for 30 years.

Europeans are angry too. France, Britain and Spain have seen disruptive and sometimes violent protests, while in the United States, civil rights groups have marched for women’s rights. Supporters and opponents of President Donald Trump have also taken to the streets during the year.