By Ramesh Jaura
The choice of former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres as the next United Nations Secretary-General is profoundly historic, though it has not come as a surprise.
Guterres has not only gathered valuable experience as head of the UN Refugee Agency for ten years until December 2015, and as prime minister of his country in critical times, but also as president of the Socialist International.
This global social democratic organisation played a significant role at the height of the Cold War and in the Middle East under the stewardship of the late Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky and Nobel Laureate and (West) German Chancellor Willy Brandt.
It is not surprising therefore that he has pledged to show “the humility that is needed to serve especially those that are most vulnerable,” victims of conflict, terrorism, human rights violations and poverty.
Guterres, in his late 60s, will replace Ban Ki-moon on January 1, 2017 after the incumbent finishes his second five-year term on December 31, 2016.
His choice did not come as a surprise because the Security Council’s colour-coded ballot on October 5 clearly showed that there was only one candidate – Guterres – who was likely to receive more than nine ‘threshold’ votes and no veto in a formal vote.
All the other candidates had fewer than nine votes, as well as between one or more potential vetoes. This prompted an unusual media stakeout with all 15 Council members present, where Russian Ambassador Vitaly Chu, as president of the Council in October, announced: “Today after our sixth straw poll we have a clear favourite and his name is António Guterres”.
Guterres – whose formal choice by the Security Council has to be confirmed by the General Assembly this month – had maintained his lead in all the previous five informal ‘straw polls’. In the poll on September 26, he topped for the fifth time running with 12 “encourage”, two “discourage” and one “no opinion” vote, the same numbers as in the fourth poll.
If there had been more than one possible candidate, before adopting a resolution on October 6 recommending a candidate to the General Assembly, the Council might have needed to vote in a secret ballot on the candidates.
In addition to Guterres, 12 other candidates were in the running to succeed the current UN Secretary General.
However, with only one candidate going forward to the formal vote, members agreed that the Council would proceed directly to adopting the resolution recommending Guterres by acclamation. This was the same process used for both Kofi Annan (1996) and Ban Ki-moon (2006) when the Council recommended them.
On an official visit to Italy, Ban said in Rome on October 6 that Guterres is “an excellent choice,” noting that he had worked closely with him during his “long and outstanding tenure” as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“He showed deep compassion for the millions of people who were forced to leave their homes,” Ban said, adding: “His past experience as Prime Minister of Portugal, his extensive knowledge of world affairs and his keen intelligence will serve him to lead the United Nations at a crucial period.”
What makes the decision by the Security Council on October 6 historic is that the selection of a new Secretary-General, traditionally decided behind closed-doors by a few powerful countries, has for the first time in history, involved public discussions with each candidate campaigning for the world’s top diplomatic post.
These so-called ‘informal briefings’ between the candidates, UN Member States and civil society representatives kicked off on April 12, when the first three candidates presented their ‘vision statements’ and answered questions on how they would promote sustainable development, improve efforts to create peace, protect human rights, and deal with huge humanitarian catastrophes should they be selected to lead the world body.
In addition, in July, the UN held its first-ever globally televised and webcast townhall-style debate in the General Assembly Hall, where the confirmed candidates at the time took questions from diplomats and the public at large.
The credit for making the process of the selection of the new UN Chief goes to Morgens Lykketoft of Denmark in his capacity as president of the 70th session of the UN General Assembly.
He was backed by the civil society organisations such as the ‘1 for 7 Billion’ campaign, which includes the World Federation of UN Associations, among others.
Reacting to the choice of Guterres ‘1 for 7 Billion’ said: “The result is a triumph for the more open, inclusive and meritocratic process which 1 for 7 Billion has worked hard to achieve. The . . . nomination of Mr Guterres shows that UN Security Council could not ignore the widespread call for merit to prevail over regional considerations and the political interests of Council members.”
It added: “Guterres was not seen as a frontrunner at the beginning of the race. He was ‘wrong’ in terms of gender and region, but was widely considered to have done well in his General Assembly dialogue and in other events, with many commenting on his experience and ability to inspire.”
Natalie Samarasinghe, co-founder of the 1 for 7 Billion campaign, stated that the number of negative votes for late entry Kristalina Georgieva (of Bulgaria) is an indication that the Security Council has taken seriously the UN General Assembly resolution 69/321 that states that candidates should “be presented in a timely manner”.
“1 for 7 Billion is pleased that the Council has agreed on a well-qualified candidate who has engaged in dialogue with the General Assembly and civil society, and participated in a public debate organised by 1 for 7 Billion’s partners,” Samarasinghe added.
The 1 for 7 Billion campaign is continuing to call for the next UN leader to stand for a single, longer term of office, possibly of seven years. This would provide future Secretaries-General with the necessary political space to get his commitments achieved without the distraction of considering re-appointment.