“The right man for an impossible job”? New UN head has Catholic roots

Antonio Guterres, UN Sec. General elect

Antonio Guterres, UN Sec. General elect

Even before a new president takes office in the United States there will have been another major shift on the global stage. On January 1, a new United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, will replace Ban Ki-moon, who steps down after a decade in office. António Guterres is the first secretary-general from a member-country of the European Union and the first from Portugal. Upon learning that he had been chosen by the five permanent members of the Security Council, Mr. Guterres described his feelings in two words: “gratitude and humility.” These are words not commonly heard around UN halls. However, Mr. Guterres is no ordinary person.

The selection process

Article 97 of the Charter of the United Nations simply states that the secretary-general “shall be the chief administrative officer of the Organization” with a five-year term, and that he can be re-elected for one more term. The office-holder is supposed to be independent, impartial, and respect integrity. To communicate effectively, he or she must be fluent in English and French, the two UN working languages.

A secretary-general cannot be a citizen of any of the five countries that are permanent members of the Security Council but, as per the Charter, the secretary-general is selected by those five permanent members. After an individual is nominated, the recommendation goes to the General Assembly for a vote when the GA convenes for its annual meeting in the fall.

The search for a secretary-general took nearly a year. For the first time there was an open and transparent process, orchestrated by then-President of the General Assembly Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark. Member states were able to propose candidates who then would issue their “vision statement” for the UN. Candidates were vetted on several occasions.

Geography and gender

The United Nations has had eight secretaries-general: three from Europe (Norway, Sweden, Austria); two from Asia (Burma, South Korea); two from Africa (Egypt, Ghana); and one from Latin America (Peru). Six of the eight served two terms. Dag Hammarskjold died in a somewhat mysterious plane crash while on a mission to Africa. Three of the first four were Europeans, and two Africans in a row were chosen prior to Ban Ki-moon.

The UN likes to promote geographical diversity as well as gender equality and women’s empowerment. As for geography, there has been no S-G from “down under”—from Australia or New Zealand—none from Eastern Europe, and only one from Latin America. A large and vociferous feminist contingent started a website and lobbied heavily for a woman to be chosen.

In 2016, there were 13 candidates vying for the job, six men and seven women. Nine were from countries that were once part of the Soviet empire or Yugoslavia. Eastern European nations insisted that it was “their turn” at the top job, although there is no formal system of rotation in choosing the secretary-general.

Five candidates were from former Yugoslav republics; four came from countries that were once members of the Communist Bloc (Bulgaria, with two female candidates, Moldova, and the Slovak Republic). Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and administrator of the United Nations Development Program, comes from the Oceania-Pacific Islands region, which has also never produced a secretary-general. Two candidates hailed from Latin America. António Guterres was the first from Southern Europe.

During the summer and early fall, there were six straw polls taken among the 15 members of the Security Council. Voters expressed their preferences by voting “encourage,” “discourage,” or “no opinion.” António Guterres came out on top in all of them, securing 11 to 13 encourage votes in each round. No other candidate came as close. Four dropped out due to very low scores. In the final poll on October 5, António Guterres emerged triumphant, obtaining approval of the five permanent members (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia) as well as the 10 rotating members. The following day he was formally nominated by the Security Council by acclamation. On October 13, Mr. Guterres was approved by the full General Assembly, also by acclamation.

António Guterres, prime minister

António Guterres brings a wealth of relevant experience to his new job. Born in Lisbon in 1949, he is an engineer by profession, taught for a few years and co-founded a Catholic social organization to work with the poor. He spent 17 years in parliament and served two terms as prime minister of Portugal (1995-2002). He was elected in October 1995, and re-elected four years later, but resigned before the conclusion of his second mandate given that his party had suffered major losses in local elections in late 2001. He was and is a member of the Socialist Party, but definitely from its right-wing, which can best be compared with German social democracy.

During his time in office, Mr. Guterres faced the personal loss of his wife to cancer, which left him with a 22-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. Despite challenges, he presided over several major accomplishments. The most significant was Portugal’s commitment to European unity and pursuit of economic policies to qualify for the euro. On January 1, 1999 Portugal became one of 11 countries that adopted the common currency.

Portugal also experienced its first turn at the rotating presidency of the European Union for the six-month period commencing January 1, 2000, an important responsibility involving planning and executing all the administrative activities of the EU membership.

Under Prime Minister Guterres, Portugal established the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (Comunidade dos Países de Lingua Portuguesa, or CPLP) in 1997, bringing together the eight Portuguese-language countries scattered over four continents into a commonwealth-like organization to promote cultural ties, trade, and friendly relations among members. A major hurdle was East Timor (also referred to as Timor-Leste) which had been invaded by Indonesia after independence in 1975. In 1999, Mr. Guterres used his diplomatic skills to bring in UN peacekeepers to end a long war. Once peace was restored, the country joined the CPLP in 2002. Mr. Guterres also maintains close ties with the former Portuguese province of Goa in India, given that his second wife was born there.

Mr. Guterres had to face profound moral issues too. During his first term, some leftist members of the Socialist party proposed Portugal’s first referendum to liberalize abortion. The prime minister opposed it on moral and religious grounds and declared he would vote against it. To be binding the referendum had to be approved by a majority of voters and a majority of registered voters had to participate. The referendum was held on June 28, 1998 and failed both due to the low turnout of 32 percent and a 51 percent negative vote.

Liberalized abortion came later under the administration of José Sócrates, also a Socialist. Another referendum took place on February 11, 2007. This time one condition was met. Not enough voters turned out (44 percent) but a majority (59 percent) of voters were in favor. Although invalid, Sócrates ignored the results and backed the introduction of a law in parliament.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

After spending a few years with Socialist International following his resignation as prime minister, Mr. Guterres was appointed United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and served in that capacity for ten-and-a-half years, until December 2015. When he assumed his post there were about 38 million refugees. When he left, there were more than 65 million, more than half of whom were from Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Despite the magnitude of the problem, he provided a strong voice for the destitute displaced by conflict and persecution.

Mr. Guterres was able to trim a bloated bureaucracy inherited at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva while expanding the organization’s ability to respond to emergencies and amplify care. In addition, he introduced a needs-based budgeting process that proved to be more efficient and effective. Upon his departure, UNHCR had more than 10,000 employees, 87 percent of whom were deployed in the field, and an operating budget exceeding $5 billion, funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions.

Secretary-General António Guterres: Victory and expectations

“What has happened to the ‘dignity and worth of the human person’?” Those words were spoken by Mr. Guterres in his acceptance speech on October 13 before the General Assembly. For some years human dignity has taken a battering around the world and at the UN in particular, especially when it comes to defenseless and voiceless nascent human beings.

Less than a week after his election, Mr. Guterres met with delegates in a General Assembly plenary meeting on October 19. In a brief opening statement, Mr. Guterres said he was there “to listen and to learn” and “begin a dialogue.”

Mr. Guterres held up a copy of the UN Charter, indicating he was going to be guided by its contents. He stated that in making appointments his decisions would be based on three pillars: competence and integrity, gender parity, and regional diversity, while turning the UN into a “champion of transparency.”

Numerous delegates made their concerns known, either urging this or that action or asking the incoming secretary-general about his priorities for the UN. Mr. Guterres responded to all the statements, directly addressing the salient points raised by each delegate. The replies came in English, French, and Spanish, respecting the language in which each delegate had spoken.

Several comments and responses stood out. Replying to the delegate of the Philippines, Mr. Guterres said the UN needs to be “resilient and relevant” while acting with “passion and compassion.” In response to the Syrian delegate’s concern over his beleaguered country, Mr. Guterres simply stated “my heart is broken.” He praised the “generosity” of countries that shelter countless refugees such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.

The Algerian delegate provided a moment of levity. After solemnly telling Mr. Guterres, “We want and expect a lot from you,” he said that due to his election a lot of people were trying to learn Portuguese. He then delivered a short congratulatory message in flawless Portuguese, added a thank you in Korean to Ban Ki-moon, and offered an apology to the translators who only translate “official languages.”

It was the Palestinian delegate who remarked that Mr. Guterres was, “the right man for an impossible job,” while the Canadian ambassador added: “Your appointment brings a lot of hope.


Source: Catholic World Report