Transcript: Helen Clark

  • 29/08/2015
Transcript: Helen Clark

Lisa Owen: Helen Clark has a lot on her plate. If it's not urging developed countries to do more on climate change, it's helping push through the sustainable development goals - the United Nations' big new set of global targets for the next 15 years, replacing the Millenium goals. But when I sat down with the UN development programme head this past week, we started by talking about the pictures of thousands of desperate refugees pouring into Europe by train..mile after mile on foot.. and by boat. Yet not all make it.. in recent days 200 died off the coast of Libya and 71 suffocated in the back of a truck in Austria. So I asked her, given we've always had war and poverty, what's changed in recent months to start this flood.

Helen Clark: I think it can be explained by the scale of the Syria crisis. You have four million refugees – larger than the neighbouring countries – but only a small fraction of four million need to start a desperate, dangerous journey for that to be very, very large numbers. As well as the 7.6 million people displaced within Syria itself. So they start to move, then you have a hugely magnified crisis. And there's also the other conflicts that are fuelling migration. For example, Yemen is in a very difficult state at the moment. And then just plain poverty – people coming up out of the Sahel, out of Central Africa and looking for a better life in Europe.

But these are huge numbers. I think some of the UN figures for Turkey alone could be up to what, two and a half million people that will have arrived in Turkey by the end of the year. But do you think that those numbers could be even worse?

They could be larger. There are at least two million in Turkey now – at least 1.75 million Syrians and another quarter million Iraqis. As I say, if things got even worse within Syria and more people decide to cross the border, then it would be very, very difficult. The solution, of course, is a peace settlement in Syria. But we don't see that on the horizon in the very complicated situation at the moment. It's possible that diplomacy may produce something between the existing government and element of the opposition. But then you still have IS and you still have al-Qaida-related elements.

So if there's not that short-term solution on the horizon, what do these countries do when they're faced with thousands of people coming in on a weekly basis? Are they compelled to let them in or do they take, say, Hungary's point of view and start building a wall?

So I think we need a comprehensive approach here. Firstly, if there was more support for people who are internally displaced within Syria, if there was more support for people who are living in the neighbouring countries, fewer people would be making the desperate, dangerous journey. So that's something for the donor community to reflect on. But the UN is also calling for more comprehensive solutions within Europe itself at the moment. Germany and Sweden are taking disproportionate numbers of those coming through. So others need to pull their weight too in terms of receiving refugees.

So when you say that Turkey – they're largely paying for this themselves, aren't they? $6.5 billion, I think, are some of the figures. So when does the sign go up that says, 'No room left at the inn for these countries'?

Well, it's tough. When I was in Lebanon in September last year, they were saying then, 'We want to close the border.' This is also said in Jordan from time to time, because they're struggling. Take Lebanon, which has a population of around the size of New Zealand, with their 4.2 million population, they have another 1.2 million refugees. So we put ourselves in their shoes of 1.2 million people turned up on their shores, we would be sweating. Lebanon's sweating. Jordan's sweating. Egypt has well over a hundred thousand. Turkey has the two million. The burden—

So can they close the door? Can they close the door and say no?

Well, they could try, but I recall a conversation I had in Jordan about two years ago, before the numbers were what they are today, of a very senior official, who said he went to the border and looked at the tide of humanity coming over – old people struggling, other's carrying their children, wounded people – and he said, 'I said to one of the army officers who was with me, "If we should close the border, what could you do?" He said, 'We can't turn these people away.'

So what can the rest of the world do, then, and why aren't they stepping up?

In the last decade humanitarian relief spending has tripled, and it's still not enough. It's also draining money from day-to-day development in the stable but poor countries. So we have a problem. And I hope that perhaps there'll be a reflection about investing longer term in what makes for more peaceful, more inclusive, stable societies. This is the long-term answer. In the short to medium term, peace in Syria would help enormously. But that's not about to happen. So what the international community can do is support the efforts to build the resilience of the countries in the neighbourhood to host the large numbers of people, the services. For example, if you have another two million people, that's another how many children wanting to be at school, how many more people needing health services, energy supply, water supply. So there's got to be an investment in what will enable the neighbouring countries to cope and what will enable the displaced and affected within Syria to cope. If we could invest in the resilience of people in the affected areas of Turkey, in Lebanon, in Jordan, in Syria itself, we would see the refugee flow come down.

But you talked earlier about the international community stepping up. Doesn't that mean also taking more refugees in? Other countries -- other developed countries – accepting more refugees?

It is part of the answer, and certainly for Europe, I think if you're Germany and Sweden and taking significant numbers, you would like to see that burden also shared more widely. But when we look at the scale of the issues – four million refugees, 7.6 million displaced in Syria – in the end, it's going to be about how people can be supported where they are now rather than probably the much smaller numbers who would be settled in the West.

But John Key makes that argument. He says there are so many people who are displaced, there's not really much point in New Zealand taking more refugees. But we take 750 a year. We're way below. We're near the bottom of the OECD in terms of number of refugees per capita. Do you personally think that we should be stepping up, taking more?

Well, it will be more than 750, because there's always the Family Reunification as well.

But as a baseline group at 750?

And it's been that way for a lot of years now, since the late '90s. But of course there are many more refugees now than there were in the late '90s.

Yes. So shouldn't we do more? Couldn't we do more?

I mean, look, everybody could do more. But in the end, that's not solving the basic problem. The basic problem is the ongoing conflict in Syria and the problems that people have sitting in camps for a long time. But when I was in Turkey in April and went to two of the refugee camps there, one family I sat with in a tent, I asked, 'How long have you been here?' Three and a half years sitting in a tent. I can understand people wanting to try and break out of that. That's human nature.

I want to talk about sustainable development goals now. Part of those goals that have been set is getting corporates to pay their fair share of tax. So do the big multinationals need to brought to heel here?

Yes, people should pay their fair share of tax. And the good news is that with a lot of support from the OECD, good work has been done on this by the G7 – the world's richest club of big economies, and the G20. So there's action at the international level. But then we need to support the capacity of developing countries to actually collect the money and trace what is their due. UNDP has just formed a partnership with OECD around Tax Inspectors Without Borders, where together we will support bringing in tax experts to sit alongside developing country counterparts so they can track the tax.

But let's look at Google, for example. Google's motto is, 'Don't be evil.' But are they being good corporate citizens by avoiding paying taxes, particularly in poor countries? Because you have said that these countries – the best way for them to get ahead is by encouraging business development, getting the tax, reinvesting.

And we would like to see companies pay tax where they make the revenue, for sure. And let's hope that with all the attention this is now getting – OECD, G7, G20 – we can get some action on it. We're still going to have to build the capacity of national tax authorities.

So those big corporates – would you be calling on them to not just do what they are required by law, but to make the right, moral and ethical choices?

I think they should pay tax where they make the money. That's the basic principle.

Let's move on to climate change, then. You have given a lecture this week in which you say that the commitments for greenhouse gas reductions made for Paris will not add up to what is needed. Every country seems to have a bunch of reasons as to why they can't do more. 'It's too costly. It's unfair. We're doing our bit.'

As our former head of Treasury once said, it's the argument, 'Not me, not now, not this way.' So we have to get past that. Look, the commitments that countries collectively are making in the run-up to Paris are not enough. They're not enough to stop that tip-over point of global warming going above 2 degrees above the pre-industrial levels. The EU is calling for more action; the UN's calling for more action. We need Paris to be a success. Whether things will add up to enough by Paris is obviously a moot point. If they don't, we just have to keep at it till it does add up.

So that means, doesn't it, that developed countries like New Zealand need to do more, need to do better?

Everyone needs to do more, and there is a special responsibility on developed countries who historically have contributed to the stock of carbon in the atmosphere. But we need every economy to act. We need the emerging economies to act as well.

Including New Zealand.

Well, we need New Zealand to act. We need everyone to act. We need China to act; we need India to act. Everybody has to act.

But you also say that it requires urgent action. So are countries like New Zealand—Is New Zealand's response urgent enough?

Well, I haven't looked enough at what New Zealand has said – that it's 'intended nationally determined contribution' – that's the jargon—

 30 percent. 30 percent reduction.

But overall, it needs to be a lift in ambition. Otherwise, the world's poorest people are going to suffer the most from this. But we all suffer. Look at the erratic climate in New Zealand now –much less predictable. You hear the same thing from the Kiwi farmers you hear from the smallholder in Africa – don't know whether the rain's going to come; how long they'll be; whether there'll be a cloudburst, whether it will be consistent rain; when do you plant; does your crop get ruined? It's very, very difficult for agriculture.

So part of the UN's goals are also striving for equality and inclusion, regardless of your ethnicity. So I'm wondering how comfortable are you with Chinese people in New Zealand being singled out for purchasing property here.

Well, I like to operate on a principle that ethnicity is never a factor as a political target. I think that New Zealand is a country of many many peoples, and everyone deserves to be treated on an equal basis, without reference to their ethnicity.

So are you comfortable with a certain ethnicity – in this case Chinese – being singled out as adding to the housing problem by purchasing properties here? Because they're being singled out based on ethnicity.

I am not even going into that debate, because I have a policy of not commenting on New Zealand political issues. But I think we have to take very seriously the basis of what makes for harmonious living in New Zealand, which is not ever to discriminate on the grounds of ethnicity.

I'm not going to ask you whether you are interested in the Secretary General's job, but can I ask you what qualities you think the next person who holds that job should have?

Well, not really for me to say, but what I know that the world faces huge challenges, and when the world faces huge challenges, the first question usually is, 'What's the UN going to do about it?' So it has to be somebody who relishes a challenge and has the skills to try and bring people together to find solutions. I think the present Secretary General has worked very hard at that. Sustainable development, climate change have been huge on his agenda. And I think his legacy will be the sustainable development goals, and I think a new climate agreement in Paris.

Thank you so much for joining us. We do appreciate your time. It's lovely to have you here.

Thank you.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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