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Guterres, a Strong New UN Secretary-General (Insofar as the P5 Allows)

The former Portuguese Premier overcomes the obstacle of the UN Security Council in getting the top UN position

straw poll

António Guterres with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Former UNHCR head António Guterres was chosen as the next Secretary-General of the United Nations by the Security Council during its sixth and final straw poll Wednesday morning. With his insider's perspective and command of public speaking, Guterres has the potential to become a formidable leader, if he is able to stand up to the powers that selected him.

Former prime minister of Portugal António Guterres was selected as the next Secretary-General of the United Nations by the Security Council during its sixth and final straw poll Wednesday morning.

The decision was made surprisingly quickly by the otherwise estranged 15-member Council. Guterres, a longtime front-runner in the selection process, received 13 “encourage” votes and 2 “no opinion” votes. This final poll was also the first round to include color-coded ballots that indicated the preferences of the five Permanent Members of the Security Council. The P5, as they are often called, cast 4 encourages and 1 no opinion for the candidate, according to the group 1 for 7 Billion.

The Security Council will hold a formal vote Thursday around 10 am, after which Guterres’ nomination will be sent to the General Assembly for final approval.

Speaking to press after the meeting, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s Ambassador to the UN and President of the Security Council this month, called Guterres “a clear favorite.”

The swift acceptance of Guterres surprised some who had speculated that Russia, which advocated for an eastern European to fill the top spot, would block the nomination. Another less surprising development was the failure by the Security Council to choose a woman. Five of the 10 remaining candidates were women, but none, including latecomer Kristalina Georgieva of Bulgaria, were able to gain enough votes. The Council’s decision may end up placing more pressure on Guterres to select a woman  as Deputy Secretary-General.  

At 67, Guterres has the potential to become a formidable Secretary-General. As the former High Commissioner for Refugees—he led the UN refugee agency for 10 years—he has an insider’s perspective of the nebulous UN system. In addition, Guterres is a commanding public speaker, a skill demonstrated during his informal dialogue session with the General Assembly and an Al Jazeera-sponsored debate in July where he said he was “totally committed” to the job of Secretary-General because of what he had seen as head of UNHCR.

“You can’t imagine what it is to see levels of suffering that are unimaginable,” Guterres said.

His level of outspokenness on humanitarian issues  also makes him a remarkable choice. The Security Council is known to prefer a complaisant leader; current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has been called “powerless observer” and a “nowhere man”, is widely thought to have been chosen after his predecessor, the charismatic and debonair Kofi Annan, proved too difficult to control.   

Many groups are hopeful that Guterres will bring a more commanding presence to the role and ultimately shake things up in the Secretariat. Guterres is “an outspoken and effective advocate for refugees with the potential to strike a radically new tone on human rights at a time of great challenges,” said  Louis Charbonneau, UN Director at Human Rights Watch, adding that he “will be judged on his ability to stand up to the very powers that just selected him.”

The true path for Guterres will lie in this balance between unreserved, emboldened public speaker and being an establishment man. It is a road he must successfully navigate if he hopes to effectively wield the office of the Secretary-General for the next five or ten years. In fact, the reelection could always become problematic, as it happened before with the Egyptian Boutros Boutros Ghali.

With all his potential, António Guterres remains—for now—a question mark.

UPDATE, October 6, 2016.

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