The UN General Assembly has appointed Antonio Guterres to a second term as the Secretary General to lead the world body through the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic and the fight against global warming, which he has made his priority. After being sworn-in to his second term, Guterres said that he would work for a “breakthrough” for a world at “a critical moment in history”. The world is “at the cusp of a new era”, he said. “We are truly at a crossroads, with consequential choices before us. Paradigms are shifting. Old orthodoxies are being flipped.”
The 193-member General Assembly’s resolution adopted by acclamation said that in “appreciation for the effective and dedicated service rendered to the United Nations”, it approved the Security Council recommendation to give the former Portuguese Prime Minister another five years starting in January as the world’s top diplomat. Security Council President Sven Jurgenson said that Guterres confirmed to the highest standards of competence and integrity. The Assembly’s endorsement of the Council’s recommendation was only a formality because, in reality, the five permanent members of the Council through their veto powers control the selection and reappointment of the Secretary General.
Guterres ran unopposed because none of the self-nominated candidates was sponsored by a member nation. India, which is a non-permanent member of the Security Council, supported Guterres’s re-election there and in the Assembly. After a meeting with Guterres last month, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar tweeted that New Delhi “values” his leadership and would back his re-election. Guterres said: “We are writing our own history with the choices we make right now.” But he warned, “It can go either way: breakdown and perpetual crisis or breakthrough and prospect of a greener, safer and better future for all.”
However, he said that there were hopeful signs and “we feel a new momentum everywhere for an unequivocal commitment to come together to chart a course towards a better future” because of the pandemic’s lessons of “our shared vulnerability, our inter-connectedness and the absolute need for collective action”. The cooperation seen now in the fight against Covid-19 may not have been possible a decade ago, he said. He said that the world was beset by “geostrategic divides and dysfunctional power relations” that are manifest in “too many asymmetries and paradoxes”.
They have to be met head-on and “we also need to be aware of how power plays out in today’s world when it comes to the distribution of resources and technology”, he said. The global proliferation of mistrust is another problem that should not be allowed to overwhelm the world, he added. Guterres displayed masterful diplomacy in navigating a deeply polarised Council without antagonising the permanent members while managing the reflexive opposition of former US President Donald Trump to the UN and China’s aggressive diplomacy.
Earlier this month announcing the Council’s recommendation for a second term for Guterres, Jurgenson described him as a “bridge-builder”. Seven of Guterres’s predecessors were re-elected and only Boutros BoutrosGhali, an Egyptian, was limited to a single term because of Washington’s opposition. During the Covid-19 crisis, Guterres pursued the equitable distribution of vaccines and other resources while fighting disinformation, and set an agenda for post-pandemic rebuilding to put the world back on track in pursuit of the UN’s sustainable development goals.
His first term was marked by his passionate advocacy of fighting global warming, which he has called an existential threat to humanity, and a top agenda item. Guterres, who was a UN High Commissioner for Refugees, was the surprise consensus candidate in 2016 when the bets were on a woman, likely from East Europe, getting the job that had been held only by men and never by a East European. In his first bid in 2016, he received the essential approval of the Security Council after six straw polls in which he outlasted 12 candidates, seven of them women.But this time Guterres, who was nominated by Portugal, had no official rivals as the Security Council did not recognise at least seven other self-nominated candidates — including Arora Akanksha, a Canadian of Indian descent — because they lacked the backing of any nation.
The requirement for sponsorship by a UN member is not unambiguously stated in the UN Charter or its regulation, but the Council and the Assembly considered it a de facto qualification based on tradition. The Assembly resolution appointing Guterres to a second term, said it was “guided by the principles of transparency and inclusivity” as set out in its 2015 resolution that established a modicum of openness to a process that had been shrouded by backroom deals. The Assembly required the candidates to appear before it to make a pitch for their election.
This time only Guterres came before the Assembly to layout his vision for his second term and the others were excluded because they were not recognized. Jugenson and General Assembly President VolkanBozkir have maintained that a nomination by a member state is necessary — a requirement that would prevent a stampede of self-nominated candidates demanding equal time at the General Assembly with the officially nominated candidates.
Of the self-nominated candidates, only Rosalia Arteaga, a former President of Ecuador, had any shred of credibility and the self-nominations were publicity stunts. Akanksha, 34, is an employee of the UN Development Programme who made a splashy campaign video pitching her youth and the need for change at a UN weighed down by a sclerotic bureaucracy. Although she received media coverage, she could not get the support of even her country, Canada, or of India and Saudi Arabia, where she had lived earlier.
(Arul Louis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed @arulouis)