On October 13, the United Nations appointed by acclamation its ninth secretary-general in 70 years. Antonio Guterres will become the world’s “top diplomat” once current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon retires at the end of the year. Inheriting a world in crisis and a UN that has seen a number of successes and failures over the past decade, Guterres is an enlightened choice for the position.
A UN ROLLER COASTER
The UN bestowed upon Guterres is one that has been relatively scandal free, generally successful in its traditional peacekeeping efforts, heavily focused on issues such as climate change and educational equality, and actively working toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
The Paris Climate Conference, which witnessed the largest gathering of heads of state since 1949, was considered a resounding success in terms of global discussion around the issue. The appointment of Michele Bachelet, former president of Chile, as the first executive director of the newly created United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women was similarly considered a watershed moment.
Of course, it is not only the large accomplishments that make a significant difference, but the small ones, too. In 2014, the UN adopted a new staffing mobility system, thus “setting the stage for a more strategic and holistic staffing approach to strengthen the capacity of the UN Secretariat to retain a dynamic, adaptable and global workforce that can deliver on increasingly complex mandates.” Ostensibly, this system is meant to help the UN overcome the bureaucratic issues associated with complacency that it has so often been accused of in the past. “You know how long it took me until I got this mobility proposal adopted?” stated Ban in an interview with The Nation, “Seven years!”
Ban cites incidents like these as indicative of the processes that hamper the UN. “There are many issues for which I’ve been fighting to make this complex organization into a modern organization—more efficient, more accountable, and more transparent.” This has included such efforts as annual reports and performance goals from senior UN officials, measurable gender equality targets, and a stronger code of ethics for the organization as a whole.
Ban’s tenure has not been entirely scandal free. In 2015, the damning report Taking Action on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by Peacekeepers uncovered that UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic—specifically, members of the French Sangaris Forces—were sexually exploiting children in exchange for food and money.
Similarly, the UN admitted it was responsible for introducing cholera to Haiti during rescue efforts following the 2011 earthquake there. Nepalese aid workers accidentally introduced the disease, which until that point was foreign to Haiti, causing devastating results: 10,000 perished and hundreds of thousands of others were left sickened. The failure to assess the mistake before disaster struck, as well as the subsequent failure to stem and acknowledge accountability for the spread of the disease was beyond excusable.
A WORLD IN CRISIS
Adding to the complexities of the organization are continued external issues of the war in Syria, the famine in South Sudan, the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, human trafficking, and, of course, the growing numbers of refugees and internationally displaced persons, among others. This last issue is potentially the most pressing. The 65 million people displaced— the highest since post-WWII Europe—have become increasingly exposed to educational and economic deficiencies, inadequate access to healthcare, lack of food security, and exposure to various abuses.
Guterres, a previous prime minister of Portugal from 1995–2002, has most recently served as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Guterres’ tenure at UNHCR was marked by a deep compassion and professionalism in managing the international efforts to care for the world’s displaced. He is considered a deal broker who has sought the best solutions to help the maximum number of refugees around the world.
Despite eminently qualified female leaders within the UN who vied for the top position, Guterres was ultimately tapped for the post, perhaps implicitly indicating that the global refugee problem is being prioritized by the UN Security Council over other contentious challenges such as gender equality.
As secretary-general, and in light of this grave humanitarian crisis, Guterres will be able to coordinate the larger efforts of the UN toward accommodating the needs and issues facing displaced persons who, as a bloc, are disproportionately affected by the other issues that the Sustainable Development Goals seek to address. Every past indicator of the type of leader and person that Guterres is could spell a more efficient UN—one driven around a central goal intricately tied to the universal goals espoused and articulated by the member states over the last two decades.
AN UNORTHODOX MAN
Antonio Guterres is considered by many to be something of an enigma: As a socialist Portuguese politician, he remains practical yet conservative on social issues. While prime minister of Portugal, he opposed abortion rights, decriminalized drug use, and provided state-sponsored therapy programs for addicts, and called upon more affluent nations to redistribute wealth to help developing nations. Many sources have cited that his political and policy positions could bring more conservative members of the United Nations—many of whom have felt alienated—back into the larger consensus.
Many have also identified Guterres as a potential key ally of Pope Francis, who, although enjoying a friendly relationship with Ban-Ki Moon, disagrees with the retiring secretary-general on several key policy points. Francis, who is considered one of the most popular public figures in the world, has been a leading voice for the poor and disenfranchised—especially refugees. It is therefore with no small consensus and support that Guterres ascends to the Secretariat.
Born in Lisbon in 1949, Guterres studied engineering and physics and entered into academics upon graduating in 1971. Spending three years in academia, he eventually joined the Socialist Party in 1974—a landmark year in Portuguese history known as the Carnation Revolution. He spent the next two decades working with the Socialist Party in a variety of capacities, including the Portuguese parliament, before assuming the office of prime minister.
In the seven years he served as prime minister, he oversaw the finalized transfer of Macau to China, urged the peaceful intervention in East Timor, served as president of the European Council, and vastly increased Portuguese spending on public welfare. At UNHCR, Guterres cut down on staff yet increased his offices´ ability to respond to conflicts in global hotspots and oversaw the expansion of the number of people his offices´ cared for.
His election presents a unique moment for the United Nations. Ban Ki-moon summed up Guterres the best, stating upon his election: “Secretary-General-elect Guterres is well known to all of us in the hall. But he is perhaps best known where it counts most: on the front lines of armed conflict and humanitarian suffering.” Despite the many challenges he will face, the United Nations can be assured of a prepared, engaged and capable leader to see the world’s largest forum through these times of great challenge.
Image: António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees during the press conference on the topic “One Million Syrian Refugee Children” (Creative Commons, UN Geneva’s Jean-Marc Ferré)
Nicholas D. Sawicki, a native of Lackawanna, NY, is an Advancement Officer for America Media in New York City. A recent graduate of Fordham University with a B.A. in theology and history, Nick has served as an intern with the State Department at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, has done mission work in Nicaragua and India, completed an internship with the District Attorney of New York, and worked on issues related to human trafficking, the economics of poverty, human rights, and church-state relations.