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U.N. chief hears message of mass protests

A year of mass street protests exposed an erosion of public trust in political leaders who need to listen more to people's real problems, the U.N. chief said.

UNITED NATIONS (AN) — A year of mass street protests against governments around the world exposed an erosion of public trust in political leaders who need to listen more to people's real problems, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said on Friday.

Guterres said the wave of demonstrations in the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and Asia illustrate deep political unrest, disgust with corruption or discrimination and resentment at rising prices, persistent inequality and financial systems that benefit elites.

"It is clear that there is a growing deficit of trust between people and political establishments, and rising threats to the social contract," Guterres told a briefing for journalists at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Human rights, anti-corruption and economic injustice are among the foremost of protesters' major complaints. But the spreading protest movement among youth who feel betrayed by adult inaction towards the global climate crisis also has taken wing, spreading an urgent message worldwide.

Many of the protesters, particularly those in the climate movement, are adept at using social media to organize themselves and challenge their governments' political leadership.

"The world is also wrestling with the negative impacts of globalization and new technologies, which have increased inequalities within societies. Even where people are not protesting, they are hurting and want to be heard," said Guterres. "People want a level playing field — including social, economic and financial systems that work for all. They want their human rights respected, and a say in the decisions that affect their lives."

Street protests and movements to overthrow governments have been going on for decades, including those in former Warsaw Pact nations and, more recently, in the Islamic world as part of Arab Spring. Massive public protests against government corruption erupted in South Korea and the Philippines in the past several years.

But the surge in mass demonstrations has exploded in recent weeks and months in capitals and cities such as Algiers, Baghdad, Barcelona, Beirut, Cairo, Conakry, The Hague, Harare, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Khartoum, La Paz, Lilongwe, Lima, London, Managua, Moscow, Paris, Port au Prince, Quito, Santiago and Tegucigalpa.

Guterres called on everyone, governments and protesters alike, to eschew violence.

"There can be no excuse for violence — from any quarter. Above all, I urge leaders everywhere to listen to the real problems of real people," he said. "Our world needs action and ambition to build a fair globalization, strengthen social cohesion, and tackle the climate crisis."

Human rights in focus

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, has been calling on a wide range of nations such as Bolivia, Egypt and Iraq to end their crackdowns on protesters and human rights defenders.

Though the reasons behind these protests are complex and varied, said OHCHR's spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani, some "common threads" exist among the people who are fed up and angry: their complaints over living and work conditions, corruption, inequalities and the increasing gap between rich and poor.

"These sentiments are exacerbated by growing mistrust of institutions of government, politicians and ruling elites. Some protests have been triggered by one or two specific developments, and have then metamorphosed into expressions of deep public dissatisfaction on a whole range of issues spanning the political, social and economic spectrum," Shamdasani told a press briefing on Friday in Geneva.

"Some have been fanned by poor government responses or by excessive use of force against the initial protestors," she added, "which have brought tens of thousands more people onto the streets in solidarity with those who have been killed, injured or arrested by security forces who in many cases have failed to abide by international standards governing use of force, and tried to obstruct fundamental human rights such as freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and freedom of expression."