Michael Williams
Distinguished Visiting Fellow
In selecting Antonio Guterres, many members of the Security Council were acutely aware that migration and refugee issues are likely to continue to dominate the international agenda in the coming years.
Newly appointed United Nations General Secretary, Antonio Guterres speaks to the press, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Lisbon, on October 6, 2016. Photo by Pedro Fiúza/NurPhoto via Getty ImagesNewly appointed United Nations General Secretary, Antonio Guterres speaks to the press, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Lisbon, on October 6, 2016. Photo by Pedro Fiúza/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Antonio Guterres has defied expectations. It had been anticipated that the ninth Secretary General of the United Nations would be a woman and from Eastern Europe.

There were no shortage of women candidates including former New Zealand Prime Minister and head of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) Helen Clark, two Bulgarians, former EU Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva and Irina Bokova, former Director General of UNESCO.

The other women candidates were Vesna Pusic, former Croatian Foreign Minister and Natalia Gherman former Moldovan Deputy Prime Minister.

The other male candidates were Vuk Jeremic, a Serbian politician and the Slovak Miroslav Lajcak, former Montenegrin Prime Minister Igor Luksic former Macedonian Foreign Minister Srgjan Kerim and finally the former Slovene President Danilo Turk.

Extremely well-qualified

In many ways Antonio Guterres is extremely well-qualified for the post. He is a former Prime Minister of Portugal, a long standing member of the EU and NATO.

But more relevant is the fact that for ten years he was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 2005 to 2015, one of the most important UN agencies.

In selecting him many members of the Security Council were not only recognising that he had acquitted himself well in that post, but also acutely aware that migration and refugee issues are likely to continue to dominate the international agenda in the coming years.

And deep though the divisions are between Security Council members over issues like the long running Syrian civil war, there is recognition in Washington and Moscow, as well as London, Paris and Beijing that a way forward must be found in the long dormant peace process.

The fact that Guterres was not vetoed by any of the permanent members of the Security Council stands him in good stead for the many challenges ahead. After all the divisions of the past year, especially over Syria, it was very striking to see the current head of the Security Council, the Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin announcing the decision alongside US Ambassador Samantha Power.

Described by the first Secretary General the Norwegian Trygve Lie as ‘the most impossible job in the world’, Antonio Guterres probably comes better equipped than many of his immediate predecessors, such as Ban Kim Moon, Kofi Annan and Boutros Boutros Ghali.

Not only has he a decade experience as head of UNHCR but his time as Prime Minister of Portugal and head of the Socialist International has enabled him to build up a wide ranging circle of relationships among both EU and NATO members, including in the US. This will surely stand him in good stead.

At the same time as head of the UN refugee agency he has first-hand experience of the powerful pressures in Africa and the Middle East driving tens of thousands to seek shelter in Europe. His empathy and compassion for those forced to leave their homes and countries has been abundantly apparent.

But there is another aspect to Guterres’ victory which gives him a stronger mandate than any of his predecessors. For the very first time in the 70-year history of the UN there was a relatively open electoral process. Not only were there multiple candidates but there were hustings in which the candidates had to present their views on major international issues.

These events were all the more remarkable in that they took place not before the fifteen members Security Council, but before the full 192 members of the General Assembly and were televised live.

Compared with any of his rivals, Antonio Guterres will come to the post of Secretary General with a head start. He will be keen to be granted space to reclaim for the UN perceived lost ground and the Security Council are likely to be generous in that regard.

While not forgetting the important developmental and environmental issues, vital for member states in the developing world, under the present Secretary General Ban Ki Moon the UN has ceded ground on the critical issue of international security.

In selecting Antonio Guterres the Security Council has demonstrated its willingness to appoint a bolder Secretary General to tackle the growing security threats the world faces.

Indeed the very divisions in the Security Council may present him with opportunities. The many differences between the United States and Russia, and above all over Syria, may give the new Secretary General the opportunity for the UN to become again a real peace maker.

The author is a former UN Under Secretary General who served in Cambodia, the Balkans, the Middle East as well as in New York.