LONDON – Newly chosen U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who takes up his post in January, will have a very full plate.
Quite aside from the crises that fill the daily news headlines, such as the unbearable and unending violence in Syria and Iraq, tensions in the South China Sea, and the streams of migrants, refugees and homeless people on an unprecedented scale across the planet, he will have to face an even more fundamental issue.
This arises from the fact that the United Nations as an institution now has to operate in conditions totally different from those in which it was founded. It remains, and is becoming more than ever, a indispensable forum in which the problems of a violent world can be addressed, but it has to do so while the very member nations it is meant to unite are under existential attack from within, while the boundaries delineating some of its 193 member states are blurring and even disappearing, and while sub-state authorities and non-state actors strut the world stage in increasing numbers.
The latter have scant regard for the law between nations upon which the authority of the U.N. has always rested. Instead of abiding by the demands of international justice they look to the gun, the suicide bomb, the drone and the internet as their means of power. Legitimacy concerns them not at all.
What can a U.N. secretary-general do in the face of this unruly world and of the intolerable human suffering it is creating? His powers are obviously limited by the support he can draw from the U.N.’s membership and leading voices. For example, there is nothing he can do, at least not in the short term, to overcome the anomaly of the permanent membership of the Security Council, the P5 — a frozen feature of the mid-20th century in the second decade of the 21st century. Reform there has been tried and failed many times over.
Nor can he brush away the current aura of bitterness and hostility between P5 members, Russia and the United States in particular, that is reminiscent of the bad old early U.N. days when the Cold War split and emasculated the whole organization. This was a phase that many people hoped had ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but which has returned, vampire-like, to darken U.N. debates.
Nor can he resolve the immediate turbulence at the U.N. caused by the United Kingdom’s plan to exit the European Union. That will be up to the British and the other European powers to sort out.
But that does not mean Guterres will be powerless. For one thing, he has an immense stock of goodwill. He is a highly experienced U.N. figure who has been working on the front line of the most crucial crisis area — namely the handling of the colossal world refugee problem.
Another bonus is that he was elected not behind closed doors but by a most open and transparent process that gave the General Assembly a full voice in the decision. At the end he gained the support not just of the West, or of any particular region, but of the whole comity of nations, including the prickly Russian Federation, which, it was feared, might object to a Western European (he comes from Portugal). When it came to the point, he was given full backing.
All this means that he can live properly up to the title of his office, acting both as a secretary and as a general. He can bridge and persuade, but he also has direct authority to command. This authority he should use both to make immediate changes and to set in motion longer-term reforms.
First, he can make moves to set the U.N. “house” in order and prepare it better for storms to come. The multiplicity of U.N. agencies and fiefdoms threatens incoherence, which he must check and overcome by insisting on tighter budget control and stronger central accountability.
Second, he can use the powers given to him by the U.N. Charter to press member states to channel their disputes through the U.N. and respect its views, even where they may not like them, as is the current case with China and the Philippines.
Third, he can encourage better pre-deployment training and preparation for peacekeeping operations, most of which must be much better equipped. He can also finalize steps to eradicate all manifestations of sexual violence, which has disfigured some operations.
Fourth, he must start building a new global consensus on how to deal with refugee and migrant flows (two different but intertwined problems), which have grown on a scale not envisaged at the time of the original U.N. convention on refugees back in 1951.
Fifth, he can give a lead in bringing new techniques and thinking to bear in promoting and permitting sustainable development and environment goals.
He can do none of these things alone. But by clear presentation of the issues and by profundity of analysis in a radically changed world he can win over not just member states but a younger generation across all states who may not be fully aware of how much a reinvigorated U.N. organization is now needed to prevent a slide into international anarchy.
David Howell is a British Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.
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