‘I have two words to describe what I’m feeling now – gratitude and humility.’ This was the response of Antonio Guterres to the United Nations Security Council vote by acclamation naming him the next UN General Secretary. The formal vote was carried out on October 6, although the decision had in effect been made a day earlier. The UNSC had conducted the last in a series of straw polls on the question of who should replace the outgoing General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon. Secret ballots were carried out for each of the remaining ten candidates before it was revealed that not only had no permanent member vetoed Mr Guterres’ appointment, but that not a single member had voted against him.
This would suggest that the decision was uncontentious, yet approval of the new General Secretary and the processes that led to his selection are far from being universally representative. What all commentators can agree upon is that his election comes at a critical time in world politics. Mutual acceptance of Guterres by the UNSC permanent five demonstrated a rare moment of consensus in an otherwise tense period of political negotiation. The UN as an institution is facing accusations of irrelevance and poor efficacy, as efforts to address Syrian war crimes and the refugee crisis have proven far from fruitful. In the words of the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, James Landale, the role Guterres is taking on is arguably, ‘the most impossible job in the world’.
So who is the man chosen to undertake this ‘impossible job’? For one thing, he is the first to do so having previously been a head of state. Guterres entered Portuguese politics in the first democratic election of 1976 as a member of the Socialist Party. He became Party leader in 1992 before serving as Prime Minister of Portugal from 1995-2002. Then, in 2005 Guterres took over as the head of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and spent the next ten years, ‘repeatedly [appealing] to Western states to do more to help refugees fleeing the conflicts.’
Guterres clearly has a wealth of political and diplomatic experience that should hold him in good stead throughout the complex and sensitive negotiations to come. His expertise on the refugee crisis is also reassuring. He has expressed a commitment to keeping the crisis at the top of the UN agenda because he has been fundamentally changed by seeing ‘levels of suffering that are unimaginable.’ Furthermore, he has promised more generally to maintain a focus on humanitarian issues and remain outspoken in his condemnation of human rights violations. Whether this promise is fulfilled remains to be seen, but it is encouraging that neither Russia nor China revoked their support as a result of this stance, when both states have previously expressed aversion to vocal humanitarian activists in key UN positions.
In spite of this, some have expressed concern over Guterres’ leadership record. His Socialist Party suffered devastating losses in the 2001 Portuguese General Election, following accusations of economic mismanagement. More than one UN report conducted during Guterres’ leadership of the UNHCR also made accusations of poor financial planning, in addition to other deficiencies in governance. As Secretary General, Guterres will have to act not only as a pacifier and moral voice, but as the ‘chief administrative officer’ of the UN. The actors casting doubt on his ability to perform this function are far outweighed by those with every confidence in him, but it is true that economic management does not appear to be the Guterres’ strong point.
Guterres’ appointment has also proved a disappointment for those who were hoping that for the first time the post would go to an Eastern European or a woman. The incoming UN Secretary General saw off competition from a number of experienced Eastern European contenders. This included the two runner-up candidates, Vuk Jeremic of Serbia, who has previously presided over the UN General Assembly, and Miroslav Lajcak of Slovakia. Meanwhile, 7 of Guterres’ final 13 rivals for the job were female, including Director General of UNESCO Irina Bokova and European Commissioner for budget and human resources Kristalina Georgieva.
While some consider that fulfilling criteria of nationality and gender should be of secondary importance to determining the best person for the job, the selection of a female or Eastern European candidate would certainly have acted as a symbol of the UN’s inclusivity. In line with these arguments, the decision not to choose a female in particular has generated criticism. Even Ban Ki-moon had previously stated it was, ‘high time’ a woman was selected. Former candidate Susana Malcorra told Foreign Policy, ‘You don’t have a chance if you’re a woman … It’s not a glass ceiling. It’s a steel ceiling.’ Meanwhile, Jean Krasno, chair of the campaign to get a woman elected, contended that there was a continued prevalence of ‘backroom political deals among the old boy’s establishment.’
This second accusation was to some extent countered by the genuine efforts of the UN to demystify the selection process for the first time. A number of new initiatives were introduced, including a series of televised debates between candidates, greater communication with and inclusion of the General Assembly in the process, and the UNSC straw polls, the results of which were made public.
While these are certainly steps in the right direction, the fact remains that the decision was ultimately down to the permanent five. Relations between these five member states are strained, particularly with regard to the Syrian War. Since a ceasefire collapsed last month, Russia has continued to support government forces and has been accused of playing a role in the bombing of Aleppo. The UK and US Governments have spoken out in condemnation of this involvement, while Putin cancelled a trip to France in early October amid continued disagreement with Hollande over the matter. Accusations of war crimes and terrorist sympathies continue to fly with no resolution of the conflict in sight. How Guterres engages with this rift will be his greatest test. Many expect him to approach the Syrian conflict from the angle of the refugee crisis, so as not to permanently damage his relations with any of the permanent five. It is worth noting that one unidentified member voted on his candidacy with the ‘no opinion’ rather than ‘approved’ card, thus not demonstrating full support. It can only be hoped that he finds balance between maintaining strong multilateral diplomatic relations and playing a tangible role in encouraging solution to the conflict.
After ten years of service, Ban Ki-Moon will step down as UN Secretary General in January. The selection of Antonio Guterres as his replacement not only hints at the current political agenda of the UN, but will inevitably play a considerable role in shaping international political discourse and the role of the UN for years to come.