No. 379: António Guterres Vows to Usher in Gender Equity / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
17 October 2016
The position of UN secretary-general was famously described by its first Norwegian incumbent, Trygve Lie, as "the most impossible job on earth". The five veto-wielding permanent members — the US, Russia, China, Britain and France — have preferred a "secretary" to a "general", and often opted for dull, unobtrusive and malleable figures such as the outgoing South Korean diplomat, Ban Ki-moon.
Last week, the 193-member UN General Assembly unanimously approved the 15-member Security Council's choice of 67-year-old Portuguese politician António Guterres as the new secretary-general for a renewable five-year term from January 2017. The former Portuguese prime minister (1995-2002) and UN high commissioner for refugees between 2005 and 2015 thus becomes the ninth man to occupy the post in seven decades. Rather shamefully the UN, which preaches gender equality across the world, has often not lived up to its own ideals. Senior posts in the organisation remain male-dominated in an era where the leaders of Germany and Britain — and probably soon, the US — are women.
Fluent in Portuguese, English, French and Spanish, Guterres brings many qualities to the position. An engineer who had a successful political career and was considered a dynamic and forceful head of the UN refugee body, he focused on the difficult cases of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Yemen, as the number of refugees throughout the world increased during his tenure from 38-million to 60-million. Guterres was a passionate and articulate advocate of his cause, skilfully mobilising international support. He was also seen as a reformer: leading a 10,000-strong organisation working in 125 countries with a $6.8bn budget, he cut the staff of the UN refugee agency by 20%, while tripling the volume of its activities.
The Byzantine process for picking a new UN secretary-general has long been seen as opaque and secretive, often compared to that of electing a new pope among conniving cardinals. Due to pressure from the UN General Assembly, the process this time was more transparent, as the dozen candidates had to answer questions before the assembly and council in sometimes televised sessions. It was felt at first that Russia would veto Guterres's appointment, particularly since he is from a Nato country. His past presidency of Socialist International apparently mollified such concerns.
Many had felt that a woman from Eastern Europe would win the nomination, and seven of the candidates were female. The early favourite was Irina Bukova, the Bulgarian head of the UN educational and cultural body. But she was regarded as too pro-Russian and her organisation as too anti-Israel. Her compatriot, Kristalina Georgieva, the EU's budget chief, was regarded as unpalatable by Moscow since she represented an organisation that had sanctioned Russia for its actions in Crimea and Ukraine. Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic was opposed by Washington due to his strong criticism of Nato's military actions in Kosovo in 1999. Two other women — Argentina's foreign minister, Susan Malcorra, and New Zealand's head of the UN Development Programme, Helen Clark — also failed to convince the council.
Guterres emerged the clear favourite after five straw polls in which he had consistently led the pack. After winning on the sixth poll with both mastery of detail and charisma, he has promised gender equity in his senior appointments and pledged to use his limited powers to bring uncomfortable issues to the attention of the council. The UN has 100,000 peacekeepers deployed across the world (82% of them in Africa). Its bureaucracy is often seen as dysfunctional, packed with scheming careerists and glorified nobodies, while the UN Security Council is widely regarded as anachronistic and unrepresentative of the contemporary world.
The UN secretary-general has sometimes been referred to as the "Pope on the East River". Now that the white smoke has emerged from the council to signal the appointment of a new papal diplomat on Turtle Bay, Guterres must work hard to ensure the organisation is "fit for purpose" in a new era.
Dr Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town, and incoming director of the University of Johannesburg's Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.