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After four months and six rounds of votes, the UN Security Council has chosen its successor to Ban Ki-moon and the organisation’s new Secretary-General: former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres. Despite indications from the US and the UK that they would have preferred a woman in the role and suggestions from Russia that it favoured an Eastern European, the choice was a man from Western Europe.
At one level, this is no mean achievement: since 2014, relations between the West and Russia have deteriorated, and increasingly so in recent months. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea exacerbated this, as did Moscow’s increased military involvement in Syria, notably its support for President Bashar al-Assad. So, the appearance of all fifteen Security Council ambassadors at the announcement of the appointment was a first in the history of the organisation. And it was also an important show of solidarity and faith in Guterres’s capability, as well as a show of support for the continued relevance of the UN.
Guterres is not only a consensual but also a potentially progressive choice for the role. He has impressive experience in international affairs and embodies strong humanitarian principles, following a lengthy period as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). His strong multilingual skills, charisma and ability to chide the UN’s big powers for their various failings were surprisingly well received by the Security Council.
The choice was also an implied rebuke to current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s perceived technocratic and weak tenure. US Permanent Representative to the UN Samantha Power said Guterres was the candidate ‘whose experience, vision, and versatility across a range of areas proved compelling’, while Britain’s Permanent Representative Matthew Rycroft praised him as ‘exactly the strong Secretary-General the UN needs’. Moscow too did not object.
However, the honeymoon period is not expected to be long, for at the start of the new year, Guterres will face a full agenda and a set of Herculean tasks:
1. Guterres will need to forge some meaningful consensus in the Security Council over the nearly six-year-long war in Syria. The medium- and long-term effects of the Syrian refugee catastrophe are also an area which will need close attention. If no sustainable solution is found to the mass movement of millions, the instability in the Middle East and North Africa and its worrying effects on European solidarity will become endemic. Guterres cannot be expected to perform miracles, but his experience from leading the UNHCR will prove invaluable.
2. The nuclear deal between the US and Iran will need careful monitoring, as will the ever-present threat of nuclear proliferation. North Korea’s threat to its neighbours and regional stability will also tax the new Secretary-General’s abilities.
3. Africa poses its own set of challenges. Guterres will be under extraordinary pressure to reform peacekeeping operations and bring those allegedly guilty of abuse in the peacekeeping operations undertaken in the Central African Republic to justice. Conflict in South Sudan may spill over the border to the north, reigniting internecine battles. The influence of extremists in Nigeria, Somalia and the Sahel, who prey on the absence of education and development, risks creating a generation of radicalised youth. At every level, the demand will be for both more and better peacekeeping.
4. The frozen conflict in Ukraine and Crimea will need to be addressed, as will Saudi Arabia’s hot war in Yemen.
5. The longer-term effects of climate change on population movements, borders, and economic development may mean the UN takes a more security-centric view of environmental issues.
6. And, last but not least, there is the question of internal reform at the UN. An overhaul of its numerous agencies and organisations, and the enforcement of broader gender equality within the Secretariat are long overdue. This may be given an impetus by the appointment of a woman as his Deputy Secretary-General. The future Secretary-General will need to enact all of the above with the neutrality and the humanitarian convictions that have led his work to date while simultaneously avoiding the frustration that is inherent to the job. Let us not forget that even Kofi Annan – renowned for his patience –on a few occasions expressed frustration with the UN system and its approach to the Syrian conflict.
In sum, Guterres’s vision for the UN is undoubtedly more robust and positive than that of his immediate predecessor, and he enjoys a stronger initial backing from the UN Security Council. While the Security Council has certainly not broken the mould of previous appointments by ducking the opportunity to select a woman from Eastern Europe, for instance, the decision to appoint a former prime minister who has built his reputation and career on the strength, humanity and decisiveness of his policies is a notable change of direction for the organisation. He is the first Secretary-General to have led a government in his country before his appointment in New York.
Guterres will take on what the UN’s first Secretary-General Trygve Lie described as ‘the most impossible job on this earth’, and many are setting high expectations. Whether he can actually meet them will not only depend on his skills, but also on the five veto-wielding powers of the Security Council.