Portugal’s Antonio Guterres likely next UN secretary-general
Washington - The UN Security Council voted unanimously in support of Portuguese former prime minister Antonio Guterres to become the organisation’s next secretary-general. Guterres must be confirmed by a vote of the UN General Assembly but his approval by the Security Council makes his election all but a certainty.
US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power described the vote for Guterres, who has also served as UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as “remarkably uncontentious and uncontroversial”.
If formally confirmed, Guterres would take over from Ban Ki-moon as secretary-general on January 1st. He would be the ninth person to serve in the post.
Given the tensions among Security Council members, and especially between the United States and Russia over Syria and other issues, Guterres’s uneventful selection was a rare example of consensus. His closest competition was from Kristalina Georgieva, a Bulgarian former budget chief of the European Commission. No woman has served as UN secretary-general.
Some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and activist groups had pushed for the selection of a woman as secretary-general and expressed disappointment with the choice of Guterres. WomanSG, an organisation established in 2015 to advocate for the selection of a woman to the United Nations’ top post, said on its website: “There have been eight male secretaries-general but never a female even though women represent half the world’s population.”
Guterres has long experience within the UN system and, as head of UNHCR, has been the organisation’s most vocal advocate for addressing the global refugee crisis. He has argued that the best way to deal with humanitarian crises is through a greater focus on prevention.
In an open candidate’s dialogue before the General Assembly last summer, Guterres said: “TV cameras are not there when a crisis is avoided and it is difficult for governments and international organisations to have prevention as a priority… But I believe prevention must be not only a priority but the priority of everything we do.”
In the vision statement that Guterres submitted to the General Assembly in April when he announced his candidacy, he wrote: “Understanding global mega-trends is crucial. We live in times of multiple, evolving and mutually reinforcing shifts. These dynamics, of geopolitical, demographic, climatic, technological, social and economic nature, enhance threats and opportunities on an unprecedented scale.”
On the issue of fighting terrorism, which Guterres also said should be based on a strategy of prevention, he wrote: “Force must be used when necessary and in accordance with the UN Charter but let us not forget that it is also a battle for values.”
In comments made in 2015, Guterres was highly critical of Europe’s handling of the refugee and migrant influx. He called Europe’s lack of organisation and an “extremely dysfunctional” asylum system a major impediment to resolving the crisis.
“To me it is… clear that if Europe would be properly organised, it would be a manageable crisis,” Guterres said at a news conference in Paris. “We’re talking about 4,000 or 5,000 people per day in a union that has 508 million people. We had until now 300,000 that crossed the Mediterranean, which is less than one per 1,000 of the European population.”
Along with humanitarian crises, Guterres will face a number of simmering global conflicts in addition to the Syrian war, including recent tensions between nuclear powers India and Pakistan.
In his vision statement, he called for “a surge in diplomacy for peace” and promised that if elected he would “exercise his good offices and mediation capacity as an honest broker, bridge builder and messenger of peace.”
He also will be tasked with overseeing the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate accord.
Jack Leslie, former chairman of USA for UNHCR, an activist group that raises funds in the United States to support the work of UNHCR, expressed pleasure with Guterres’s selection. In an interview with the newswire Devex, Leslie said: “I think the UN needs a real activist… given the political climate that so many countries are facing and the backlash against globalisation.”
Leslie described Guterres as a “terrific guy, a big, strategic thinker and a very solid crisis manager, which, unfortunately, is in great demand these days”.