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High hopes for new U.N. chief

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The General Assembly last week appointed by acclamation Antonio Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal, as the new United Nations secretary-general, replacing the outgoing Ban Ki-moon for a five-year term beginning in January. The appointment followed a recommendation from the powerful Security Council, which chose Guterres after six rounds of straw polls conducted since July.

Guterres received 13 “encourages,” no “discourages” and two “no opinions” at the sixth straw poll held Oct. 5, during which color-coded ballot papers distinguishing five veto-wielding permanent members — China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States — from the 10 elected members of the council were introduced for the first time in this year’s selection process. He was confirmed as the council’s choice the next day when a resolution recommending him to the General Assembly as the next U.N. chief was adopted unanimously.

In addition to his long career in national politics, Guterres is well-versed in the inner workings of the organization, having served as the head of the U.N. refugee agency for 10 years from 2005 to 2015. He is also known as a good communicator who is fluent in three of the five U.N. official languages — English, French and Spanish — in addition to his native Portuguese. His linguistic skills were a factor that helped his selection since these four languages represent the official languages of nine of the current council members.

Also behind Guterres’ appointment was this year’s selection process, arguably the most transparent and inclusive in the U.N.’s 71-year history. In response to the prevailing criticisms from general U.N. members and civil society that the previous process of choosing the secretary-general had been shrouded in secrecy and that important decisions had been made behind closed doors by the permanent members of the Security Council, this year’s process started with a joint letter from the presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council inviting all U.N. members to submit the names of candidates with a view to picking the most suitable person for the top U.N. job.

Mindful of the views advocated by some member states that the next U.N. chief should come from Eastern Europe on the basis of geographical rotation or be a woman following eight male predecessors, the letter specifically encouraged the member states to “consider presenting women, as well as men, as candidates,” while noting “the regional diversity” in previous selections. A total of 13 candidates, including seven women, were nominated, though three later dropped out of the race.

The candidates were scrutinized by the 193-member General Assembly during a series of public hearings and town hall meeting organized by the General Assembly president from April through July. The Security Council also held separate private meetings with the candidates ahead of the six rounds of straw polls that took place from July through October. Guterres emerged quickly as the most favorable candidate.

During the straw polls, he was the only candidate who consistently received “encouragements” from nine or more members, including the five permanent members — a requirement for anyone to be selected as the council’s recommended choice. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin of Russia, the council’s rotating presidency for October, said after the sixth straw poll that his country was in a tough spot because Russia favored an East European candidate and wanted a woman candidate, but that in the end, “We chose the best candidate.”

While it is welcoming that the next secretary-general has been selected on the basis of merit with the blessing of all U.N. member states, Guterres faces a set of formidable challenges when he assumes office on Jan. 1, including Syria, international terrorism, refugees, North Korea, climate change and U.N. reform, just to name a few. The first order of business will be to constitute his own Cabinet in the secretariat, paying due consideration to the competency and gender balance in senior-level posts.

Following his appointment as the ninth U.N. chief, Guterres told a packed General Assembly Hall that his priorities are to serve the most vulnerable people, particularly refugees and those in conflict zones. The plight of socially and economically underprivileged people “makes me feel the acute responsibility to make human dignity the core of my work,” he said.

As for his role as U.N. chief, Guterres said that the secretary-general should act with humility, without arrogance, and work for the organization’s entire membership as “a convener, a mediator, a bridge-builder and a honest broker.” He knows that the power of the office of the secretary-general derives solely from moral authority as the messenger of peace and that support from the 193 U.N. member states is a prerequisite to being successful in dealing with the formidable issues facing him. If Guterres sticks to his words and gets the support he needs from member states, there is a good chance that he can be a strong and effective secretary-general capable of restoring the U.N.’s credibility as the vanguard of world peace and stability.

Former U.N. official Hitoki Den is the author of “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”) and many other articles on U.N. and Asian issues.