Members' Research Service By / May 12, 2017

António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General: a strong reformist agenda in difficult times

Written by Ionel Zamfir, The election António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres became the new Secretary-General (SG) of the United Nations…

Photo/Manuel Elias

Written by Ionel Zamfir,

The election

António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres
António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres

António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres became the new Secretary-General (SG) of the United Nations on 1 January 2017, following an election process that was unprecedentedly transparent, including public debates with the ten candidates. His election raised much hope that he would be able to tackle the difficult challenges confronting the global body, whose prestige and credibility – many believed – had diminished under the previous leadership. The election of a Portuguese national to the top UN post was somewhat surprising. It had been assumed that an informal principle of regional rotation would guide the choice, which would have favoured a candidate from the Eastern Europe group of states, rather than Western Europe – home to most former UN Secretaries-General. Guterres’ smooth selection by the Security Council was likely made possible by his personal and professional qualities and by his extensive diplomatic and political experience. It was also in line with the UN General Assembly’s recommendation, calling for a new Secretary-General who ‘embodies the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity and demonstrates a firm commitment to the purposes and principles of the UN’.

The person behind the role

Anónio Guterres is the first UN Secretary-General to have previously held a top political position at the national level. He was Portugal’s Prime Minister between 1995 and 2002 and chair of the European Council in early 2000. Ideologically, Guterres is a socialist politician, and is also a practising Catholic, demonstrating on many occasions his compassion for the disenfranchised in both words and deeds. Guterres is a polyglot, speaking several languages fluently (English, French, and Spanish, as well as his native Portuguese). During his campaign, he emphasised the importance of fostering multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious societies. He is also father to two children.

As UN High Commissioner for Refugees between 2005 and 2015, Guterres is not new to the UN, and is credited with reforming this UN body: cutting the share of headquarters and staff expenditure in total costs by roughly half, reducing staff by a fifth, and Geneva-based staff by as much as 30 % through redeployment to crisis regions, and all while partnerships with NGOs and governments increased and programme implementation was high. His experience in dealing with refugees is likely to have favoured his selection, given the urgency of the refugee issue worldwide today.

The task at hand

The UN Secretary-General is the United Nations’ top official and the world’s chief diplomat. He is empowered by the UN Charter to bring any threat to international peace and security to the Security Council’s attention. He cannot receive instructions from any government, but in practice has to take into account the concerns of member states, while upholding the values enshrined in the Charter. The SG often takes a mediation role, providing ‘good offices’ to prevent international disputes. The duration of his term is five years.

António Guterres’ vision for the UN

Guterres has outlined his vision for the UN top job on several previous occasions, and most prominently in the vision statement he presented to the General Assembly on 4 April 2016 to launch his candidacy, and in the speech he delivered at his investiture in December 2016. Guterres emphasises that today’s world faces serious challenges, such as horrific violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses, large scale migration, global terrorism, and megatrends such as climate change, population growth, rapid urbanisation, food insecurity and water scarcity, which increase competition for resources and heighten tensions.

Conflict prevention was the mantra of Guterres’ candidacy to the UN’s highest post. As he has repeatedly stated, the most serious shortcoming of the UN is its inability to prevent crises. The global institution is much more focused on solving conflicts then on preventing them. This can be remedied by strengthening the resilience of societies, re-establishing human rights, including social and economic rights, as fundamental values applicable also to minorities, and promoting gender equality. This fundamental shift of policy orientation may however not be easy to accomplish, since many states could prove reluctant to finance peace building initiatives.

In order to achieve this objective, Guterres proposes to reform the UN in three main areas:

(1) Peace. A global reform of the UN strategy, operations and structures in the field of peace is the cornerstone of his approach. To this end, Guterres commissioned a review by a special team, whose report is due in June. A review of UN anti-terrorist activities and better coordination among the 38 UN bodies dealing with terrorism-related aspects will also take place. A zero tolerance policy for sexual crimes committed by UN peace keepers – an issue of serious concern affecting UN peace-keeping in the past – will be implemented.

(2) Sustainable development. A comprehensive reform of the United Nations development system, at headquarter and country levels is envisaged, to involve the humanitarian and development spheres directly from the outset of a crisis.

(3) The internal management of the institution. Eliminating red tape, decentralisation and flexibility is the third big objective, coupled with more effective communication, as well as gender parity. Guterres explicitly states that the need for reform is urgent: ‘looking at United Nations staff and budgetary rules and regulations, one might think that some of them were designed to prevent, rather than enable, the effective delivery of our mandates.’

The current challenges faced by the UN Secretary-General

Guterres has to steer the organisation through choppy waters. From his position at the helm of the UN, he has to restore confidence in its capacity to deal with the world’s most pressing crises, after this was shaken by the UN’s inability to deal with the Syrian conflict and its humanitarian consequences. Moreover, Guterres has to deal with a United States’ administration openly hostile to the UN and to global multilateral institutions and cooperation in general. One of his most difficult tasks is therefore to maintain US interest in and support for the UN. While his reformist agenda may find some common ground with long-term US demands for a slimmer and more efficient UN, any reduction in US funding, as advocated repeatedly by the Trump administration, could significantly incapacitate the UN. The US provides around a quarter of the UN budget, and the cuts would most likely affect UN agencies that rely on voluntary funding, as well as peace operations. The USA has already cut its financing to the UN Population Fund, under a policy that bans US aid to organisations promoting abortion. This cut was allegedly based on a false perception of the activities of this agency. All this raises questions about what kind of relation Guterres will have with the USA and other powerful countries – either appeasing or assertive – a dilemma that previous secretaries-general also faced in the past.

United Nations – European Parliament rapport

Guterres will address the European Parliament Plenary on 17 May 2017. This will not be the first time that he visits the institution. He visited the EP in April 2010 to deliver a speech on refugees, and in September 2015 participated in a debate with MEPs on migrants’ human rights. Following his election, Martin Schulz, then President of the European Parliament, expressed his satisfaction with the choice of a European candidate, and his confidence that Guterres will strengthen the UN’s role as a central actor in global governance.

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