The Socialist former prime minister of Portugal has been chosen as the next Secretary-General of the United Nations – taking over at a time when the world is rocked by terrorism, reeling from the refugee crisis, and struggling to resolve the war in Syria.
Antonio Guterres, the 67-year-old former secretary of Socialist International succeeds Ban Ki-moon on January 1.
On Wednesday, October 5, 2016, the 15 members of the Security Council held their sixth “straw poll” to decide the future leader. Thirteen countries encouraged his candidacy and none discouraged it, making him the clear winner of a process which began publicly in April.
Guterres, who was head of the UN’s refugee agency for 10 years until 2015, emerged as the Security Council’s runaway favorite after the latest in a series of straw polls on Wednesday.
Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN and current Security Council president, told reporters that “after our sixth straw poll we have a clear favorite, and his name is Antonio Guterres,” he said.
The secretary-general of the UN is appointed in a two-stage process. A candidate is first recommended by the Security Council, and must then be approved by the 193-member General Assembly.
Thirteen candidates entered the race, necessitating a series of straw polls held by the Security Council to encourage a thinning of the field and to help to settle on a single candidate.
In every ballot, the 15 Security Council members assessed each candidate by voting either “encourage,” “discourage” or “no opinion.”
In the latest vote, Guterres received 13 “encourage” votes, no “discourage” votes and two votes of “no opinion.”
The next closest candidates, Vuk Jeremic of Serbia and Miroslav Lajcak of the Slovak Republic, each received seven “encourage” votes and six “discourage” votes, while Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova received seven “encourage” votes and seven “discourage” votes.
Guterres, 67, will replace the incumbent secretary-general, South Korea’s Ban Ki-moon, whose second five-year term ends on December 31.
While there is technically no limit to the number of terms a secretary-general may serve, none has held office for more than two terms.
Guterres, a trained engineer who worked as an assistant professor before entering politics in 1974, led his country from 1995 to 2002 as head of the Socialist Party.
From 2005 to 2015, he served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He is credited with cutting costs at the agency during his tenure, as well as lifting its performance as it grappled with the migrant crisis.
A practicing Catholic, Guterres remarried after his first wife died of cancer, and has two children.
In Guterres’ vision statement in applying for the position, he wrote of the challenges facing the world in terms of rising inequality, terrorism and organized crime, climate change and the proliferation of armed actors internationally.
He wrote that the UN was “uniquely placed to connect the dots to overcome these challenges,” but that change and reform was needed.
“People in need of protection are not getting enough. The most vulnerable, such as women and children, are an absolute priority. We must make sure that when someone sees the Blue Flag, she or he can say: ‘I am protected’.”
For the past 10 years, Guterres has served as the high-commissioner for refugees at the U.N., a major leadership role that, coupled with the current global refugee crisis, likely played a critical role in his selection.
Speaking to reporters in Lisbon, Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said he had congratulated Guterres.
“It is great for the United Nations because the best one was elected, and we many times have the feeling internationally that because of imbalances, weights and counterweights, not always the best is chosen. Here the best one was chosen,” he said.
“This is very good for the world, very good for the United Nations, and it is very good for Portugal.”
The ambassadors to the UN for the US and the UK — both veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, along with Russia, China and France — welcomed the result.
Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN, said that “in the end there was just a candidate whose experience, vision and versatility across a range of areas proved compelling. People united around a person who has impressed throughout the process and has impressed across multiple axes in his service in Portuguese politics and at the helm of UNHCR.”
Matthew Rycroft, the UK’s ambassador to the UN, paid tribute to the seven women who had run for the role.
While it was “high time” for a woman secretary-general, he said, “It’s fair to say that Antonio Guterres has come through this new and improved and more transparent process at the top of the league of the thirteen who competed.”
He said the world needed a strong secretary-general who would “provide a convening power and a moral authority at a time when the world is divided on issues, above all like Syria.”
“And I think that Antonio Guterres has demonstrated at the hearings and throughout this process that he is the person to do that.”
Human Rights Watch welcomed the selection of Guterres, with the group’s UN director, Louis Charbonneau, describing him as “an outspoken and effective advocate for refugees with the potential to strike a radically new tone on human rights at a time of great challenges.”
Mr. Guterres has said that he intends to make preventing crises a priority for the 71-year-old organization, which has been hampered by a decade of lethargic responses to crises under Mr. Ban Ki Moon
“We need a surge in diplomacy for peace,” “The international community spends much more time and resources managing crises than preventing them.
“A Secretary-General must continuously seek to contribute to reducing the number of conflicts and consequently the number of victims,” he said.