Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1315, (13 -19 October 2016)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1315, (13 -19 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

New secretary-general at the UN

Former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres was elected the next secretary-general of the UN this week, in a remarkable show of consensus, writes Camelia Entekhabifard

Al-Ahram Weekly

There had been hope that after 71 years of United Nations history, the organisation’s ninth secretary-general could be chosen from the five female candidates among the 13 nominees.

But in an episode of surprisingly quick decision-making, all 15 members of the UN Security Council showed up at UN headquarters in New York on 4 October to support their favoured candidate Antonio Guterres.

Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal, has served as head of the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and he has now been elected as the next UN secretary-general with a mandate to begin in January 2017.

Guterres succeeds Ban Ki-moon from South Korea, who held the post for 10 years and in the opinion of some diplomats was “a harmless person who did not use his ability or power to give strong leadership.”

However, the veto power of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council means that any secretary-general has to tread carefully in order not to offend one of the big five countries.

It is not clear if behind the scenes Guterres made a deal with the Security Council’s permanent members in order to be elected so quickly and smoothly to the position.

However, it is clear that Guterres’s five-year mandate will be one of the toughest since the end of World War II and in the light of the current refugee crisis. Refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Africa in general are now pouring towards the West, making managing conflicts and the refugee crisis the biggest challenges facing the UN.

Since Guterres has served as head of the UNHCR, the feeling may have been that he would be able to address the crisis as soon as he took office and propose solutions to the refugee problem. 

He will also have the challenge of encouraging the US and Russia to work with each other over the conflict in Syria.

In general, there is a good feeling towards Guterres among almost all the 193 members of the United Nations and the hope that under his leadership the UN may be able to act more efficiently than it has done in the past.

“I am hoping he acts like [former secretary-generals] Boutros Ghali or Kofi Annan, who brought so much value to the United Nations and even challenged the permanent members of the Security Council,” one Arab diplomat said.

“I am glad that the traditional thing did not take place, which would have meant a desire to choose the next secretary-general from Eastern Europe, as Russia was pushing for. This is the first reform to have been made at the UN, and we welcome it. The most qualified candidate should be appointed, not the one who is supported because of geographical rotation,” he said.

With such a positive atmosphere at the UN, there is much hope that after the new year, with a new president in place in the United States and a new secretary-general at the UN, the crises the world faces may be addressed more strongly.

“There was one candidate whose experience, vision and versatility across a range of areas proved compelling, and [his appointment] was remarkably uncontentious and uncontroversial,” US Ambassador Samantha Power said about Guterres.

The United Nations has undeniable power, and if it chooses it can make enormous changes to the course of the crises. However, there is a need for reform at the Security Council, where the five permanent members of the US, Russia, China, France and the UK, are allowed to exercise unchecked power.

The United States pays 22 per cent of the UN’s regular budget of $5.4 billion, along with $8.2 billion of its peacekeeping budget, and this may explain its vast influence at the UN. But the contributions of all members of the United Nations are necessary for the organisation’s reform, something for which almost all countries are now asking.

But observers do not see changes coming as fast as they could wish, and they may not take place even during the first five years of Guterres’s mandate at the UN.

Today, the world will be happy if the new secretary-general shows the courage and passion to work for a better world for everyone and takes his mandate as given to him by all 193 members of the United Nations, and not just the five permanent members of the Security Council, and with an appropriate sense of mission.

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