The post of Secretary General of the UN, perhaps the most symbolically important leadership position in the international community, is changing hands for the first time in over a decade. Under the leadership of Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, the UN and the world faced new conflict and resolved old. Today, climate change, conflicts in Yemen, Syria and North Korea, and the world’s largest ever refugee crisis have emerged as the primary concerns of the international body. In January 2017, former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres became the new UN Secretary General, entering the post in the midst of this quagmire of conflict. Given his experience, educational background, and established relationships across the globe, Guterres is particularly qualified to helm the organization.
Guterres’ approval process faced little to no opposition in a rare show of unity from member states and the UN Security council. The smooth nature of the vote is only the first of a broad swath of indicators that prove Guterres will be particularly effective in overcoming the animosity which exists between many of the world’s major powers in addressing the world’s challenges. The Chinese government, in a rare show of support for the United Nations, pledged last year to create a standby peacekeeping force of 8,000 for the UN, as well as a $2 billion fund to support cooperation in Southern Asia. Following Guterres’ appointment, President Xi Jinping was quick to show an unusual amount of support, meeting with the appointee and pledging greater cooperation with the UN under Guterres’ leadership. This support was quickly seconded by Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the United States’ Ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers.
But why has the support been so unusually abundant? Members of the Security Council and member states recognize that Guterres’ experience and academic background make him unusually qualified for the position. Guterres studied engineering and physics in Portugal, eventually leading to work in academia. In the 1970’s, he joined the Socialist party; twenty years later, he was elected the party’s secretary general. In 1995, he became the Prime Minister of Portugal and remained in the position until 2002. As Prime Minister, he gained a reputation for acknowledging and working with his critics and was praised internationally for his virtuous motivations.
Following his tenure as Prime Minister, Guterres entered the world of international politics and was eventually elected the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2005. Guterres’ background in a wide range of fields, including his scientific educational background, make him an unusually well-rounded candidate. As the former leader of Portugal, Guterres has experience from the perspective of those who lead individual countries and understands the efforts to protect an individual country’s interests. This understanding is countered by his experience as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a position especially central to international concerns giving the increasing migration and refugee crises facing the world today.
As High Commissioner, Guterres faced a number of refugee crises in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Focused on efficiency and efficacy, Guterres decentralized the main refugee office in Geneva, cutting staff members at the central office in order to increase staff in crisis hotspots. As refugee response teams were frequently faulted for immobility and ineffective response, the increased staff were intended to decrease response time; they succeeded in doing so, earning Guterres praise for his leadership. Additionally, Guterres focused much of his efforts on increasing international aid from wealthy countries, succeeding in coordinating a $5 billion aid effort for refugee assistance. Recognized by the world as a leader on the front lines of the conflict the UN is tasked with ending, Guterres has expressed his firm belief that refugee protection should be a top global priority. As a majority of member states are currently experiencing increased migration patterns and an influx of some of the 20 million refugees identified worldwide by the UN in 2015, Guterres’ experience in dealing effectively with refugee crises will be invaluable to a broad and diverse swath of member states.
As High Commissioner, Guterres has come to believe that migration is an effective solution to global problems and a natural resolution to conflict. A world leader who views migration as a tool rather than a danger to society and national sovereignty has the potential to begin reversing the international trend towards populist anti-migration sentiment. Guterres has claimed that politicians often ignore those who have suffered from the negative effects of globalization, which can spur the growth of anti-establishment anti-migration populist sentiment. Rather than caving to the populist anti-migrant desires, Guterres will fight for economic redress in order to stem the sway of the populist movement. His position as the next Secretary General will grant him an unusually prominent platform to advocate for this rethink in establishment thought, propelling the UN in an innovative direction to address the linked crises.
The United Nations has lost legitimacy for failing to address crises with speed, efficacy, and efficiency, and Guterres’ nomination reflects the international priority to reverse this trend. His experience uniting parties in disagreement should reduce the inefficacy and inefficiency which plagues the UN’s reputation. Guterres has identified organizational reform as one of his primary goals, and his success reforming the UN Refugee Commission indicates he is especially qualified to do so. He has promised to reduce redundancies by ensuring that each branch of the UN is working towards the same purpose without repeating the same task. UN peacekeepers have also experienced a spike in sexual abuse allegations, primarily in the Central African Republic and the Congo. The future Secretary General will be responsible for revamping the peacekeeper training program, and Guterres plans to do so by working directly with the African Union and smaller organizations that are central to peacekeeping and conflict resolution on a regional level. His understanding of the quirks which make every conflict unique to its region are essential in addressing the deficiencies of the UN.
The UN has also faced criticism for failing to establish gender parity in leadership positions. Because Guterres is a white male, his selection engendered protests from some members of the international community. He has emphasized, however, a firm commitment to gender equality across the UN and plans to appoint a female Deputy Secretary General. He publicly addressed criticism that he is a white male, stating that while he cannot change the fact of his gender, he believes that for every male secretary general, there should be a female Deputy Secretary General, and vice versa. The primary leading female candidate, Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica, immediately tweeted to congratulate Guterres following his nomination, throwing her support behind his qualifications rather than his gender.
Guterres’ popularity thus stems from a broad range of factors, all of which combine to make him unusually qualified for the position. For the first time, in what are usually closed-door deliberations, the selection of Guterres was a transparent process supported by the General Assembly and subject to public scrutiny. The result of this new transparency? The selection of a man who will herald the UN into a new era of efficiency in a world whose crises revolve around the displaced.