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Secretary-general for the world

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On Oct. 5, the U.N. Security Council held the sixth round of informal straw polls — but the first in which red ballots were used for the five permanent members (P5) to distinguish them from the white ballots for the 10 elected members — to gauge support for the 10 remaining candidates to succeed Ban Ki-moon as the ninth United Nations secretary-general on Jan. 1. The UNSC president, Russia’s Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, came out with all other UNSC members to announce agreement on Antonio Guterres. His final vote was 13 yes, none opposed and two undecided. The council met again the next day to formally approve his nomination unanimously for transmission to the General Assembly, where it was ratified by acclamation last week.

The office of the secretary-general combines the role of politician, diplomat and public-sector CEO. His single most important role is to provide leadership, making others connect emotionally and intellectually to a larger cause in the name of our common humanity that transcends their immediate self-interest.

As the U.N.’s chief administrative officer, the secretary-general has to manage, direct and coordinate the unwieldy and sprawling U.N. system that embraces 16 peace operations and a large number of agencies around the world, including the U.N. University headquartered in Tokyo. He has to implement the normative and operational mandates entrusted by the UNSC and the General Assembly with a wide margin of delegated authority.

Politically, he has to act as the interlocutor between the vastly different actors and constituencies that make up the U.N. community and inject himself into various global hotspots to try and defuse tensions.

Symbolically, he — and only he — can represent and speak in the name of the international community as a whole. But, like the pope, he commands no army divisions and so the office is one with considerable influence, but little power.

Is Guterres equal to the challenge?

U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power described his choice as “remarkably” uncontroversial; his “experience, vision, and versatility across a range of areas proved compelling.” He comes to the job with a rare mix of experience in national politics at the very top of government as prime minister of Portugal (1995-2002), followed by experience in the world of multilateral organizations as head of a major U.N. agency for a decade (2005-2015) as the U.N. high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR).

In the latter capacity Guterres became intimately familiar with the U.N. system and the U.N. community in turn acquired direct knowledge about his core values and beliefs, judgment, and management and diplomatic skills. He would also have worked closely with all the major non-governmental humanitarian actors. And of course most incidents of mass population displacements are related to national, regional and global crises, so he would have had wide exposure to various political trouble spots that require U.N. attention. His UNHCR legacy includes shedding staff at headquarters in Geneva with the aim of strengthening the agency’s crisis response capacity by deploying more staff closer to troubled areas in the field.

The UNSC and General Assembly presidents sent out a joint letter on Dec. 15, 2015, seeking candidates; asked the officially nominated candidates to provide vision statements that were uploaded to a public website; and organized interactive dialogues between the candidates and U.N. member states and civil society between April and June. The process allowed all states to learn about the candidates’ personalities, their priorities, and the challenges facing the U.N. over the next five to 10 years, and enabled the General Assembly to influence UNSC perspectives on the several candidates.

Guterres began well and progressively consolidated his pole position, leading the race from start to finish over the six rounds of straw polls between July and October. Of all the vision statements submitted in April, his was the best: concise, clear, visionary yet within the limits of pragmatism.

Impressively, in every poll his vote remained above the qualifying threshold of 9 of the 15 UNSC votes. Of the 13 other candidates, Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova, Slovakia’s Miroslav Lajcak and Serbia’s Vuc Jeremic managed to reach the threshold once or twice but not maintain it. To appreciate the decisiveness of the support for Guterres, it is worth noting that the second-placed candidate Lajcak received seven encouragements against six discouragements — including two P5 vetoes.

Guterres actually had to manage a major international crisis as the head of a big multilateral organization. He stamped his moral authority in the mass refugee crisis engulfing Europe in 2014-15, demonstrating integrity, values and the willingness to speak out in defense of those who lacked voice but needed support. In an article in April 2015, while still UNHCR, Guterres wrote: “border surveillance alone is not an answer to a crisis that involves refugees … we can’t deter people fleeing for their lives. They will come. The choice we have is how well we manage their arrival, and how humanely.” As I have written earlier, Australia needs to heed this message.

Despite his forceful advocacy for the U.N. refugee regime and compassionate advocacy on behalf of the huddled masses of refugees seeking shelter in Europe, Guterres was always courteous and collegial and never alienated the European powers, else Britain or France could have vetoed him. Even more importantly, despite being a former prime minister of a NATO country, not hailing from Eastern Europe, and promising to continue his activism in humanitarian crises like refugees, Guterres managed to avoid a veto from both Russia and China. (Russia is believed to be one of the two to have expressed no opinion on his candidacy on Oct. 5.) This is a rare combination of background, skills and experiences highly relevant to leading the United Nations.

My former U.N. University colleague Vesselin Popovski has speculated that the elected UNSC members may well have rebelled against “the tricks and intrigues” of the five permanent members and consistently discouraged candidates known to be favored by one or more P5, for example Argentina’s Susanna Malcorra, who was too closely identified with Washington. Another possible benefit of the more transparent process might prove to be that Guterres has secured the post without having to negotiate side deals with the P5, such as committing key posts to their nominees. If so, it would leave him free to appoint the best candidates to the U.N.’s most consequential positions.

The 2016 process for choosing the secretary-general was more transparent, inclusive and participatory than previous occasions and has delivered a more than satisfactory outcome. But it was still far from the best possible process. If the secretary general is to be rescued from having been captured by the UNSC — and the P5 in particular — and be the symbolic chief spokesperson of the international community as a whole, then the UNSC-General Assembly relationship in choosing the secretary-general has to be rebalanced.

Some of the built-in disadvantages of the office could be overcome by requiring a slate — which must include both genders — of three shortlisted candidates from the UNSC, with the General Assembly having the final vote; altering the term from five to seven years and making it non-renewable; and exempting the procedure from the veto.

Ramesh Thakur, a professor at the Australian National University and a former U.N. assistant secretary-general, is the author of “The United Nations, Peace and Security.”