The new UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who takes office on January 1, arrives with strong credentials — both as a former Prime Minister of Portugal and an ex-UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
As a senior UN official, he spearheaded an ambitious but politically intricate action plan to battle one of the world’s major humanitarian crises that threatened to unravel European unity as millions of refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Asia landed on the shores of Europe last year.
Guterres was elected mostly on merit – with a rare unanimous decision by the five veto-wielding permanent members at a time when the Security Council is sharply divided over Syria, Yemen, Ukraine and North Korea. The consensus in the 15-member Council, and the approval of his nomination by the 193-member General Assembly, underlined a strong affirmation of his appointment.
When both the Security Council and the General Assembly gave their overwhelming support to Guterres, they side-stepped two alternative options: picking the first woman Secretary-General or the first Secretary-General from Eastern Europe.
The lobbying for a female UN chief was initiated by more than 750 civil society and human rights organizations, while the proposal for an East European as UN chief came mostly from member states.
While there was a strong case for a woman Secretary-General in a 71-year-old male-dominated world body, Eastern Europe had less of a legitimate claim. As a geographical entity, it existed only within the confines of the UN, not outside of it. After the end of the Cold War, most Eastern European states became an integral partner of the European Union (EU) or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and often both
So, in effect, Guterres overcame both campaigns, as he was anointed the fourth Western European to hold the position. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, who will step down on December 31 after a 10-year tenure, will leave behind two legacies: the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. But it will be left to Guterres to ensure their implementation.
A member of the Socialist Party in Portugal, Guterres spent over 20 years in government and public service before he was elected by the UN General Assembly to become the 10th High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), serving for a decade until the end of 2015.
His work with the UNHCR was nothing short of groundbreaking. As High Commissioner, he oversaw the most profound structural reform process in UNHCR’s history and built up the organization’s capacity to respond to some of the largest displacement crises since the end of World War Two.
Guterres has already pledged to serve the “victims of conflicts, of terrorism, human rights violations, poverty and injustices of this world”. Ban Ki Moon rightly complimented Guterres as a “superb choice” and said “his experience as Portuguese prime minister, his wide knowledge of world affairs, and his lively intellect will serve him well in leading the United Nations in a crucial period”.
However, he acknowledged that the election was also a disappointment as his vision of a female successor did not become a reality. Ban Ki Moon, is not alone in his sentiments, as many consider the outcome of the election to be “bittersweet”. Christiana Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat and one of Guterres’ female rivals for the job, tweeted on 5 October, “Bitter:not a woman. Sweet: by far the best man in the race. Congrats Antonio Guterres! We are all with you”.
Guterres takes over the UN at a time when the world body has remained paralyzed over several unresolved political problems, including the five-year-old devastating civil war in Syria, hundreds of civilian killings in Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, and the emergence of North Korea as the world’s newest nuclear power in defiance of Security Council resolutions.
The new Secretary-General will also be entrusted with the task of resolving several lingering problems, including ongoing reports of sexual abuse of women by some UN peacekeepers and compensation for Haitian victims of cholera inadvertently brought in by UN peacekeepers, and address new challenges, such as helping muster the trillions of dollars needed to implement the 17 SDGs and the Climate Change agreement as well as ensuring a 50:50 gender parity in senior and decision-making positions in the UN Secretariat.
One of his first appointments should be to name a woman as his Deputy, preferably from the developing world. We wish him well in his endeavors.