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An New UN?: The United Nations Names the Next Secretary General

After the most transparent selection process in history, the United Nations has settled on a new Secretary-General: former prime minister of Portugal and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.

Picking a Secretary-General is a complex and politically fraught process. This year’s election was a departure from the traditionally closed-doors process; for the first time, candidates held forums in front of the General Assembly. But still, the Security Council voted for a candidate to submit to the General Assembly, which has traditionally always approved the recommendation. Any of the five permanent members of the Security Council: Russia, the United States, France, the UK, and China can veto any candidate. Ordinarily, it is the United States and Russia who jockey for their respective picks, trying to avoid a veto by the other.

The position has traditionally rotated regionally, and to date no Eastern European has served as Secretary-General. No woman has ever served as Secretary-General, either. Given this history, many expected Irina Bokova, the head of UNESCO and Bulgaria’s official nominee, to win the election. She was also the candidate backed by Russia. Her campaign floundered and sources said that two of the discourage votes she received in the third straw poll came from the UK and France, effectively vetoing her candidacy. The United States’ preferred candidate, Susana Malcorra, never gained traction. Guterres was a frontrunner for the entire election, receiving few “discourage” votes in straw polls and no vetoes. He passed the most crucial test: being palatable to the United States and Russia.

As a Socialist prime minister of Portugal, Guterres presided over his country’s entry into the European Union in the late 1970s. He later worked as the president of Socialist International, and in 2005 was elected UN High Commissioner for Refugees. He was responsible for launching a $5 billion aid effort, the biggest in UN history, to aid Syrian refugees. Ban Ki-Moon praised his work in the position, saying that Guterres was “best known where it counts most: on the front lines of armed conflict and humanitarian suffering.” But Doctors Without Borders disagreed with this assessment of Guterres’ efforts, accusing the UNHCR of “overwhelming failure at coordinating assistance.”

Much initial criticism of Guterres also comes from the fact that he simply does not fit the demographics expected. Jean Krasno, a lecturer at City College of New York who also lectures part-time at Yale, chaired Campaign to Elect a Woman U.N. Secretary-General and harshly criticized the Security Council’s recommendation. Her organization’s statement called the decision “a disaster for equal rights and gender equality,” “unfair to women and Eastern Europe,” and typical of “the usual backroom deals that still prevail at the UN.” Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, wrote a joint letter with President of the General Assembly Mogens Lykketoft in December encouraging the selection of a woman as Secretary General. In the letter, they wrote of “the need to guarantee equal opportunities for women and men in gaining access to senior decision-making positions,” and that “Member States are encouraged to consider presenting women.”

Nonetheless, Powers spoke in favor of Guterres at a press conference announcing the Security Council’s choice, calling him “a candidate whose experience, vision, and versatility across a range of areas proved compelling,” and perhaps more telling, “remarkably uncontentious [and] uncontroversial.”

Perhaps in response to this controversy swirling around his selection Guterres addressed gender inequity in a brief statement he gave in front of the General Assembly, saying “I have long been aware of the hurdles women face in society, in the family, and in the workplace just because of their gender…The protection and empowerment of women and girls will continue to be a priority commitment for me.”

Guterres will lead a United Nations embattled on many fronts. First, the many scandals: The UN recently caused an outbreak of cholera and the deaths of at least 10,000 Haitians, and there have been sexual assault and rape by peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. Guterres will be tasked with restoring trust and integrity to an organization that tolerates corruption as “business-as-usual,” in the opinion of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. ­­

He will also have to tackle the massive issues facing the UN and the world right now, including a civil war raging in Syria, U.S.-Russia relations at a post-Cold War nadir, and a newly ratified climate agreement that must be enforced. Guterres succeeds Ban Ki-Moon, whose tenure as Secretary-General has been widely derided as uninspiring. A leaked memo sent to him from an adviser warns that “the secretariat is now in the process of decay” and “is drifting into irrelevance.” Guterres will have to fight to make the position of Secretary-General relevant again in global politics.

Yet Guterres acknowledged the limitations of his position, possibly suggesting that he is looking to collaborate more with the Security Council rather than operate independently, as has been the case historically. “The secretary-general alone neither has all the answers nor seeks to impose his view,” he said.

The biggest change from Ban Ki-Moon’s tenure to Guterres’ might be the visibility of the office. Ki-Moon was never fluent in English, which meant he rarely made TV appearances and observers often criticized him for being “invisible.” His staff defended him as someone who operated best out of the limelight, and preferred private conversation to public confrontation. But as Guterres demonstrated in his public forum with the General Assembly, he is poised and well-spoken in front of a camera, and therefore may be a more effective communicator of UN policy and international diplomacy.

Broadly, it seems as though the focus of Guterres’ tenure will be defusing tension in the pursuit of peace. In an earlier speech during his candidacy, he emphasized that he wanted to lead a proactive United Nations, not one that spent more time managing crises than preventing them. “TV cameras are not where a crisis is avoided,” he said, but that should not prevent the United Nations from working harder to prevent conflict. In the closing words of his statement accepting the position as Secretary-General he delivered a rousing pitch for diversity, likely based on his experience trying to persuade countries to accept refugees from different religious, ethnic, and geographic backgrounds: “I believe that diversity, in all its forms is a tremendous asset, and not a threat; that in societies that are more and more multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious, diversity can bring us together and not apart.” It remains to be seen whether he can transform the UN from a scandal-plagued and inefficient diplomatic organization to one that can effectively implement his goal of a more accepting and peaceful world.