On October 5, 2016, the UN Security Council unanimously chose António Guterres to be the next Secretary General of the world organization. Late this month, the General Assembly will formally select Mr. Guterres to replace the outgoing Ban Ki-Moon as of January, 2017.
By all indications, this is an exciting new development for the UN, which is in dire need of an energetic and visionary new leader to steer the UN in the right direction. Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal who served for ten years as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has the right credentials to assume the UN’s mantle in an era marked with multiple crises, unresolved conflicts, rampant global poverty and inequality, growing North-South divide, and a tsunami of mass refugees. A socialist with an impressive background in European parliamentary affairs, Guterres is likely to seek a greater involvement of the General Assembly in key UN decisions hitherto reserved for the (elitist) Security Council, to distinguish himself from Ban as a more independent Secretary General who is less apt to be influenced by Washington decision-makers, and to focus on UN’s economic input in global affairs for the sake of reducing poverty and inequality and closing the various gender, education and other similar gaps and to prioritize climate change.
Under Ban, the UN largely turned into a bystander in many crucial global issues and according to some UN insiders the whole bureaucratic headquarter in New York suffered from an “internal malaise” that was partly due to a subtle politics of Americo-centrism followed by both Ban and, before him, Kofi Annan. This will hopefully change to some degree and Mr. Guterres will be able to leave his mark on the UN as a representative of the global community who does not owe his allegiance to any particular country or big power.
Undoubtedly, given his background with refugees, Guterres will be prioritizing the plight of some 60 million refugees in the world today, whose numbers might increase substantially with the continuation of crises such as in the Middle East and Africa, which in turn mandate a more robust UN peacekeeping and peace-making posture. Compared to Ban who has been relatively ineffectual, and at times invisible, with respect to Syria, Guterres can likely make an early impression as an astute leader by actively searching for sustainable peace in Syria, which requires working closely with all the members of Security Council as well as the regional stakeholders in the Syrian conflict. That conflict has the potential to spiral out of control if the US decides to hit the Syrian army, backed by Russia, which can then pose a grave threat to world peace.
As a European politician with leftist orientation, Guterres’s choice is likely welcomed by Russia and China, and he can make some inroads in the current icy Russia-West relations. On issues of disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation, the next UN Secretary General can take some proactive steps, such as by vigorously pushing for a much-delayed conference on a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone.
A big question mark regarding Guterres is if he will succeed in initiating any meaningful UN management reform and streamlining the decision-process in the UN hierarchy? Guterres has a superb background in reforming the UN refugee agency and can now apply that experience to the entire organization. The UN is a constantly under-budgeted and over-committed organization, with so many peacekeeping operations that swallow a lion share of its annual budget, and it is therefore incumbent on the next Secretary General to explore creative venues to substantially increase the UN’s budget in order to tackle the numerous priorities, challenges and opportunities, facing Mr. Guterres as he prepares to steer the ship of UN through the turbulent waters of global affairs today.
Without doubt, Mr. Guterres will not single-handedly perform miracles as the next UN Secretary General and his tenure will likely be constrained by the limitations of UN itself, as an inter-governmental agency beholden to the big powers, yet as a skillful politician with a deep commitment to humanitarian causes, Guterres can achieve a great deal by simply optimizing the UN resources at his disposal.
This article was published at Iranian Diplomacy