On the 13 of October, the UN General Assembly, by acclamation, appointed Antonio Guterres, the former Prime Miniser of Portugal and the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees as the Secretary General of the United Nations, taking on the role of the actual UNSG Ban Ki-moon when he steps down on 31 December, 2016.
Adopting a consensus resolution put forward by its President, Peter Thomson, the Assembly acted on the recommendation on the UN Security Council, which on 6 October forwarded Mr. Guterres’ name to the 193-member body as its nominee for UN Secretary-General for a five-year period, ending 31 December 2021.
“I believe this process means that the true winner today is the credibility of the UN. And it also made very clear to me that, as Secretary-General, having been chosen by all Member States, I must be at the service of them all equally and with no agenda but the one enshrined in the UN Charter,” Mr. Guterres stated upon being appointed.
Given his background in refugee work, Mr. Guterres stated his priority in alleviating the suffering of refugees and vulnerable people. During his role as UN High Commissioner, Mr. Guterres made fundamental organization reform in order to best expand the emergency responses of UNHCR and cutting staff and administrative costs as well. His term over that period was met with providing humanitarian and emergency aid particularly to Iraqi refugees and further into his term, for Syrian ones.
Mr. Guterres was also critical of European countries and their role in providing aid to the refugee crisis, taking on the role of advocate for the refugees and displaced persons.
The appointment of Antonio Guterres came during a time where numerous efforts were made to appoint the UN’s first female secretary general. Among the 13 candidates who were condemning for the role, 7 of them were women, including Irina Bokova of UNESCO from Bulgaria, and Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and head of UNDP. However, given Guterres’ role on the frontline of conflict situations, it seemed to be a fitting role for him to take on.
According to Ban Ki-moon, Mr. Guterres’s predecessor, the new secretary-general is “perhaps best known where it counts most: on the front lines of armed conflict and humanitarian suffering.”
The Assembly’s resolution also welcomed the historic process Member States set in motion late last year: the selection of a new United Nations 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.
However, Mr. Guterres is taking on the hardest diplomatic role in the world during a schism within the UN Security Council. The United Nations is under intense scrutiny for its current inability to react on the refugee crisis, with serious tensions between the Russia and Western states, taking on something Mr. Ban calls a “Cold War ghost.”
The incumbent is also met with other criticism as previous failures to implement action during high chaotic times have been addressed by Doctors without Borders. Critics have stated that Guterres is known for dealmaking, which has constrained him when trying to persuade powerful countries with action, particularly the ones that have financial means. Doctors Without Borders accused UNHCR for not meeting the standards to protect the outpour of refugees.
Arjan Hahenkamp, head of the Dutch Branch of Doctors Without Borders stated “I felt he was doing mainly what was feasible, trying hard to strike bilateral deals with specific countries to keep their borders open. He should have, in my opinion, demanded the world to do what was necessary instead.”
Mr. Guterres has a long stride of making deals and negotiations to enter into. He has to take on a role where he needs to appease to the larger industrialized and wealthy nations while also staying true to his goal of protecting the most vulnerable. He has a great deal of pressure entering into this role.