Welcoming the new UN chief
It has to be a good omen that Antonio Guterres, the next secretary-general of the United Nations, was unanimously supported by the UN Security Council. In a rare show of unity, none of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council tried to block Guterres’s candidacy.
Even Russia, which holds the Security Council presidency and had previously said it wanted an eastern European in the United Nations’ top job, applauded Guterres’s selection.
This is the nearest thing to a mandate for the next secretary-general. He will need it. In 1945, the job was described by the first UN boss as the most impossible in the world. That remains just as true today.
Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), will take charge of the organisation at a deeply troubling time marked by wars and the unprecedented problem of population displacement with which he is all too familiar.
With 65 million people displaced by conflict, destitution and terror, this is the biggest refugee crisis since the second world war. Establishing a realistic plan to address the migration crisis will hinge to a great extent on resolving the multiple conflicts of the Middle East and North Africa and preventing others from erupting.
When he takes over from Ban Ki-moon on January 1st, Guterres will have to fine-tune the United Nations’ role in trying to bring some measure of stability to Syria. Ongoing strife and terror elsewhere in the region, especially in Iraq and Libya, will have to be on his radar screen.
It will be also unreasonable to ignore the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or think that without a fair settlement it will just go away.
Overall, the international stakes are too high to let such problems fester.
Fortunately, Guterres has the right experience to address these enormous tasks in the right spirit. Which is to say, he sees them as inextricably interlinked and inescapably urgent for every country and every part of the world.
In February 2015, he spoke about the refugee issue in a severe and unusually frank manner. Visiting Sweden in his capacity as UNHCR, Guterres warned of a backlash if Europe did not do more to share the refugee burden, which disproportionately rests on Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. For Europe to ask Syria’s neighbours to open their borders at the time it closes its own would be a mistake, he said. And Europe urgently needs to fix its “dysfunctional” asylum system.
Guterres was right about the backlash. He has been praised for speaking out strongly while at the UN refugee agency but as UN secretary-general he has to do more. He must require — and inspire — the world to act in concert on Syria. This is easier said than done. The Security Council is divided on the Syrian conflict. Two of its permanent members — Russia and the United States — have given up all pretence of fashioning a ceasefire and are not even talking to each other. Meanwhile, the brutality and bloodshed continues.
Addressing the urgent issues in the Middle and North Africa will unavoidably be among Guterres’s top priorities.