Book Review, Crime, U.S. Politics

Marc Lamont Hill’s case for intersectionality

Marc Lamont Hill
Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond
Toronto: Atria Books, 2016
250 pp. $35
9 781501 124945

Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Alton Sterling. Michael Brown. Philando Castile. Eric Garner. Walter Scott. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray.

These names, and far too many others, should be instantly recognizable as those of young African-Americans whose lives were taken by law enforcement authorities or vigilantes in the years since the U.S. elected its first black president.

Some were armed and others were not. Some had committed crimes while others hadn’t. Some of their assailants were white and others were black. But they would all likely be with us today had they not been born black and poor.

As Ta Nehisi Coates wrote, addressing his son, in his masterful Between the World and Me,

And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if that destruction is the result of an unfortuante reaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy … All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.

Morehouse College political scientist, CNN commentator and VH1 host Marc Lamont Hill takes a somewhat broader approach in his latest work, Nobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond. Yes, the aforementioned individuals were victims of their own blackness in a country plagued by deep-seated prejudice against African-Americans, but there are also cultural, socioeconomic and, of course, political factors at play. They weren’t simply targeted for being black, but because they were “nobody,” to borrow the book’s title.

“To be Nobody is to be vulnerable,” writes Hill at the beginning of the book.

In the most basic sense, all of us are vulnerable; to be human is to be susceptible to misfortune, violence, illness and death. The role of government, however, is to offer forms of protection that enhance our lives and shield our bodies from foreseeable and preventable dangers. Unfortunately, for many citizens – particularly those marked as poor, Black, Brown, immigrant, queer, or trans – State power has only increased their vulnerability, making their lives more rather than less unsafe.

In other words, Hill is making the case for intersectionality. In doing so, he lambasts state violence against the vulnerable, but also examines the factors that got us to where we are now – from the white flight that made Ferguson, Mo., a majority black suburb of St. Louis with a mostly white police force to the austerity measures that lead to the emergency management system that tainted the Flint, Mich., water supply with lead.

The author writes with the eloquence and passion he’s become known for as a public intellectual. Take this fiery speech as an example:


Michael Brown’s corpse was left in the street for four hours because he was Nobody, a member of “a disposable class for which one of the strongest correlates is being Black.” But it wasn’t only his blackness – “his death was only made more certain because he was young, male, urban, poor, and subject to the kinds of legal and social definitions that devalue life and compromise justice.”

Perhaps the most novel aspect of Hill’s book is when he deals with the gendered angle of police brutality, using the death of Sandra Bland as a case study. Bland, who was pulled over for a routine traffic stop and ended up committing suicide in her jail cell, was forced out of her car and arrested because the officer didn’t like her attitude. This was a case not only of state-sanctioned racism but of male dominance.

He quotes the black feminist scholar Brittney Cooper, who observed that the officer, Brian Encinia, “expected that she wouldn’t question him. He wanted her submission. Her deference. Her fear.”  But nobody put it better than Bland herself when she told Encinia, as per his car’s dashboard camera, “Don’t it make you feel good, Officer Encinia? You’re a real man now (emphasis Hill’s).”

In jail, Bland’s story becomes a symbol of Hill’s entire argument. After being arrested for being a strong black female who stood up for herself, Bland is unable to pay her bail. Suffering from mental health issues, she takes her own life. This is a powerful indictment of America’s war on the poor, black, female and mentally ill. She lived and died as Nobody.

In the book’s section on mass incarceration, appropriately titled “Caged,” Hill critiques Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. He shares much of her “trenchant analysis,” but objects to her narrow focus on the African-American experience. As Hill writes, “The trend toward incarcerating more African-Americans is matched by the trend toward incarcerating more Latinos, the trend toward incarcerating more women … and the trend toward incarcerating more new immigrants.”

With characteristic wit, he says, “If there is a ‘new Jim Crow,’ it is joined by a new ‘Jane Crow,’ a new ‘Diego Crow,’ and a new ‘Jim Crow Jr.'” True, and this is an important part of Hill’s analysis, but many would see Alexander’s narrow focus as an asset rather than a weakness. In any case, Hill’s work is more of an extension of Alexander’s analysis than a rebuttal.

However, because Hill casts such a wide net, dealing with America’s war on the vulnerable as a whole, his book occasionally seems a bit unfocused. This broad approach is a double-edged sword – it provides valuable context for America’s war on the vulnerable, taking his argument beyond racism, but with that, the reader’s expectations are raised.

Since the vast majority of the examples he draws from concern African-Americans, his argument for intersectionality sometimes comes up short. It would have served his argument to address the plight of Native Americans, for instance.

Still, Hill’s book is undoubtedly worth reading for anyone concerned with the present state of affairs in the U.S. And it’s analysis can easily be applied to the current standoff in North Dakota between the Standing Rock protesters and a militarized police force over the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Though it may lack the poetic vigour of Coates or Alexander’s laser-like focus, Hill has nonetheless provided a very valuable addition to the canon of non-fiction regarding the African-American experience in the 21st century.

Canadian Politics (Federal), Environment, Global Affairs, Labour

What’s the deal with CETA?

Belgium has agreed to support the European Union’s Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada, removing a major roadblock to the contentious deal’s implementation. The deal, however, must still be approved by the 27 other EU governments, who may raise objections to its entrenchment of corporate power over the state.

Last Friday, Canadian International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland angrily stormed out of a meeting with her Belgian counterparts, as the agreement appeared to have collapsed under Walloon dissent, the product of an increasingly global anti-trade sentiment.

Belgium is essentially split in two – a Dutch-speaking Flemish region, Flanders, in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south. (There’s also a small German-speaking region in the east.) Flanders and Wallonia must both consent to the deal in order for it to move forward. Today the Walloon government, no doubt under immense pressure from the rest of the EU, agreed to support CETA.

Once the deal is signed, which is expected to occur on Sunday, the European parliament and its constituent nations must ratify it, which could take between two and four years.

So what is CETA? Why was Wallonia opposed and why are Canada and Europe so adamant about its passage?

CETA defined

Like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) did with Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, CETA seeks to reduce trade barriers between Canada and the EU. In other words, it would make it easier for Canadian and European businesses to trade with each other by reducing tariffs on foreign goods, which are designed to put domestic industries at an advantage.

“CETA covers all aspects of our broad trading relationship with the EU, including goods, services, investment, government procurement and regulatory cooperation,” according to Global Affairs Canada, so it is very far-reaching, providing Canada with access to a $20-trillion market.

Overall, the Canadian government says 98 per cent of tariffs on goods traded between Canada and Europe will be eliminated.

It will make it easier for Canada to sell maple syrup to Europe, for example, by eliminating the 8 per cent tariff imposed on that product, while making it easier for Germany, Canada’s second-biggest trade partner and largest economy in the bloc, to sell their cars to Canadians by eliminating Canada’s 6.1 per cent tariff on European-made cars.

The question is how will this effect auto manufacturers in Oshawa and Windsor when the Canadian market is flooded with less expensive German cars? There are anti-dumping rules as part of the agreement that created the World Trade Organization, which is still in effect, meaning Germany, in this case, cannot sell its cars below market value. But as the wealthier and more populous nation, Germany has an inherent competitive advantage, able to produce more cars cheaper than Ontario’s struggling auto sector.

The Canadian government’s summary of the pact has vague provisions near the end about “seeking high levels of labour protection” and “commitments to foster environmental governments,” but does not elaborate significantly on how they’ll be achieved.

The U.S. is in the process of negotiating its own CETA-style deal with the EU, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). There’s also the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would similarly reduce trade barriers between its signatories, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and Japan.

Interestingly, the United Kingdom, which voted to leave the EU earlier this year, is part of CETA, as negotiations began prior to the Brexit vote.

CETA can be read in full here.

What does Wallonia have against CETA?

Most controversial, and where it departs most significantly from past trade agreements, is the deal’s investor state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism, whereby companies are empowered to sue governments for reducing their profits, which critics say will reduce governments’ ability to impose regulation and was the linchpin of Wallonia’s rejection.

As a condition for Wallonia’s approval, an adjustment was made to have the European Court of Justice approve any ISDS application, which still doesn’t address the issue of shifting power away from elected representatives, for all their flaws, to unelected corporations. It just uses the unelected European judiciary as a middleman.

The problem with this aspect of CETA, writes copyright lawyer Michael Geist, is that the deal has extended its reach by forcing “changes to domestic regulations and the creation of dispute settlement mechanisms that may prioritize corporate concerns over local rules.”

Wallonia has been hit hard by unemployment – 11 per cent, which according to the Financial Times is nearly double that in neighbouring Flanders – so there is little appetite for giving multinational corporations more power to move away.

This is why the Walloons also demanded the ability to re-establish tariffs if a specific agricultural market will be negatively impacted by the deal. They have one year after signing the deal to determine which markets these are.

Walloon Prime Minister Paul Magnette, a social democrat, is now reportedly “extremely happy” with CETA.

Why are the Canadian and European governments so eager?

According to the Globe and Mail, Freeland called CETA “the most progressive trade deal negotiated,” which may not be saying much. While the deal certainly pays lip service to environmental and socioeconomic sustainability, there is little in terms of enforcement.

The same article cites a joint Canadian-EU study from 2011 that says CETA “would boost Canada’s income by up to $12 billion a year,” which “is the equivalent of adding an average of $1,000 to Canadian household incomes,” yet it doesn’t indicate how this wealth will be distributed.

European President Jean-Claude Juncker echoed Freeland when he called the pact “the best and most-progressive agreement we have ever, as a European Union, negotiated,” emphasizing its “new approach to investment that is transparent and … impartial.”

The Globe concedes the agreement is “a mixed bag for Canadian consumers,” with cheaper cars and cheese, “which could take a bite out of the market shares of dairy in Ontario and Quebec,” and more expensive drugs for the average Canadian, due to a two-year extension on European pharmaceutical patents.

Canadian and European leaders are eager to pass CETA because, to put it simply, it’s good for business.  This is precisely why the Canada Business Council, along with its European counterpart, demanded the “swift approval and implementation of CETA to boost trade and investment and create jobs.”

As a result of this rapidity, “The announcement of the completion of CETA was … the first time people in Canada and Europe were allowed to see the official text of the agreement,” reads a statement from the left-leaning Council of Canadians. “The deal was signed without any public consultation.”

In other words, this purportedly transparent deal was negotiated above Canadians’ and Europeans’ heads, primarily to benefit big business. The negotiators will no doubt take credit if some jobs trickle down to the working class.

Canadian Politics (Federal)

Trudeau announces 9 new senators, more appointments to come this week

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced the appointment of nine new senators – five women and four men – keeping with his promise to shake up the upper house that has almost become synonymous with old, white, male, entitled partisan hacks.

None of these appointees have official ties to the prime minister’s Liberal party, as they were selected under a new arms-length process that allowed Canadians of all backgrounds to apply, leading to 2,700 applications, of which 105 were recommended to Trudeau.  He is expected to name two more bundles of senators in the next few days, according to the Canadian Press.

The current nine nominees- who run the gamut of backgrounds from business to social work – come from B.C., Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and P.E.I. They are:

  • Harvey Chochinov, a Winnipeg psychiatrist and internationally renowned expert in palliative care, who is particularly notable for his opposition to assisted suicide, which was passed into legislation by the Trudeau government earlier this year.
  • Patricia Bovey, a Manitoba art historian who is the former director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery and former board member of both the National Gallery of Canada and the Canada Council for the Arts.
  • Yuen Pau Woo, a Malaysian-born professor of public policy at the University of British Columbia and former president of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.
  • Marilou McPhedran, a lawyer, human rights activist and professor at the University of Winnipeg Global College. She was the co-leader of the Ad Hoc Committee of Canadian Women and the Constitution, which in the early 1980s successfully campaigned for stronger equality provisions in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, passed by Trudeau’s father.
  • Rene Cormier, president of the New Brunswick-based Societe Nationale de l’Acadie, which promotes Acadian artists abroad, and formerly of the Commission international du theatre francophone.
  • Nancy Hartling, a women’s issues expert from New Brunswick who founded the non-profit Support to Single Parents Inc. and St. James Court Inc., which provides affordable housing to single parents.
  • Wanda Thomas Bernard, the first African-Canadian to hold a tenure track position and become full member of Dalhousie University. She is also a founding member of the Association of Black Social Workers and the present chair of the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women.
  • Daniel Christmas, senior advisor for the M’ikmaw First Nation in Membertou, N.S., is credited with the economic transformation of his community that was once approaching bankruptcy into what the Canadian Press calls “one of the most successful in Canada.”
  • Diane Griffin, a Stratford, P.E.I., town councillor, who received the Governor General’s Conservation award and used to be the provincial deputy minister of environmental resources.

Earlier this year, Trudeau named seven senators selected under the same arms-length process. Of them, only one – House Leader Peter Harder, a long-time bureaucrat – had ties to the current government.

All of the prime minister’s appointees will sit as independents, a custom that began when Trudeau booted Liberal senators from his caucus when he was still a third-party leader in 2014.

The New Democrats, who were then Official Opposition and now a dwindling third-party, vowed to scrap the Senate altogether, while ex-prime minister Stephen Harper simply ceased appointing senators in 2015, creating the vacancies Trudeau is filling.

The impetus for this appetite for change in the upper chamber was the expense scandal of Conservative Senator Mike Duffy, who was charged with 31 counts of fraud, breach of trust and bribery, and acquitted of every single one, which is why he remains in the Senate.

Charles Vaillancort, the judge who presided over the Duffy trial, said in his ruling that the regulations for senators’ expenses were too vague and accused the former prime minister of essentially scapegoating Duffy to take the bigger issue of senators’ lavish lifestyles away from the public eye.

The systemic problem of entitlement in the Senate will not be fixed by Trudeau’s efforts to make the upper house less partisan, however laudable a goal that may be.

Global Affairs, U.S. Politics

Clinton, Trump spar in bizarre second debate

The absurdity of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s town hall-style debate Sunday is difficult to do justice.

Coming off the heels of embarrassing leaks for both candidates – Trump boasting of his sexual improprieties and long-awaited transcripts from some of Clinton’s paid speeches to banks – and considering how belligerent the campaign’s tone has already been, it was clear this was not going to be a serious, policy-focused exchange.

The day of the debate Trump held a press conference with Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones, three of the many women who have accused President Clinton of sexual assault, and Kathy Shelton, a woman whose alleged rapist was defended pro-bono by Hillary Clinton. The four of them were also brought to the debate by the Trump campaign. Clearly, this had a triple purpose – to throw his opponent off balance, deflect from Trump’s own history of sexual aggression and make him appear compassionate.

There was no ritual handshake at the beginning, which although repeated ad naseum on social media, was another harbinger of the debate’s tone.

The first question, as most viewers probably anticipated, asked how each candidate would serve as a role model for Americans, a clear allusion to the Trump tape. The Republican nominee reiterated his apology immediately before dismissing his recorded remarks as mere “locker room talk” that provides no evidence he engaged in sexual assault. He then added a non-sequiter (there were a lot of those) about the need to keep the nation safe from ISIS.

Clinton was put on the defensive herself when co-moderator Martha Radatz asked about the recent Wikileak of a paid speech to a bank where she distinguished between her “public and private positions on certain issues,” which the presidential candidate called “principled and strategic.” Clinton said she had just seen Spielberg’s Lincoln and was inspired by his “great display of presidential leadership” in using different arguments in front of different crowds.

She then switched gear to blaming Russia for the leak, insisting they’re attempt to embarrass her and make Trump president because he would go easier on them, to which Trump responded, “I know nothing about Russia,” which is eerily similar to what he said last year after receiving former KKK grand wizard David Duke’s endorsement.

On foreign policy, Trump and Clinton alternated as hawks and doves, with Clinton coming off the slightly more hawkish candidate on some issues and Trump on others. Clinton defended the merits of Obama’s Iran nuclear deal she helped negotiate, which Trump called the “dumbest deal perhaps I’ve seen in the history of deal-making.”

On Russia and Syria, the roles were reversed, as Trump disagreed with running mate Mike Pence and Clinton on the need for a more forceful intervention against the Assad regime. “I don’t like Assad at all but Assad is killing ISIS, Russia is killing ISIS and Iran is killing ISIS,” he said shortly after denouncing the Iran deal.

“Russia hasn’t paid any attention to ISIS,” argued Clinton. “They’re interested in keeping Assad in power, so when I was secretary of state advocated, as I do today, a no-fly-zone.” She proceeded to link the Assad regime’s brutality to the “ambitions and aggressiveness of Russia,” who have gone “all-in in Syria.” Yet she said she was willing to co-operate with Russia on issues of common interest, like nuclear disarmament.

Trump reiterated his demand that Clinton refer explicitly to “radical Islamic terror,” as if further alienating and stigmatizing Muslims were a step in the right direction. “Before you solve it, you have to say the name,” said Trump.

Clinton seized the opportunity to present herself as the inclusive candidate, pointing out that there have always been Muslim-Americans, “from the time of George Washington” to Muhammad Ali. These comforting words stand in stark contrast to her record – as senator she voted for the Iraq War and agitated as secretary of state for attacking Libya and Syria.

“The Muslim ban has somehow morphed into extreme vetting,” said Trump in defence of his policy of banning Muslims form the United States, which was deservedly subject to much ridicule on social media.

Much fuss was made by the punditry of Trump’s quip that if he were president, Clinton “would be in jail,” but it wasn’t at all surprising hearing that from the man whose supporters have been chanting “lock her up” for months.

Towards the town hall’s conclusion, Trump called Clinton evil for her remark calling half of his supporters a “basket of deplorables,” for which she had previously apologized.

Shortly afterwards, they finally shook hands.

Entertainment, U.S. Politics

Donald Trump’s woman-hating is old news

We’ve seen this act before.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump says something outrageous, GOP leaders rush to condemn and distance themselves from him and then nothing happens.

This time, a private 2005 conversation Trump had with television host Billy Bush was leaked where he essentially boasted of his proclivity for sexual harassment.

“You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful [women] – I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait,” he said in the leaked audio. “And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.

“Grab them by the pussy,” was one such example.

Some pretty awful remarks, certainly, but is it really any worse than other comments Trump’s made about women, including his own daughter, in the past?

As Jeffrey St. Clair, editor of Counterpunch, observed, what Trump said in his conversation with Bush is probably no worse than private discussions had by Presidents Kennedy and Clinton, two other notorious objectifiers of women. They were just never recorded.

According to Politico, unnamed Republican National Committee lawyers are looking for ways to deny Trump the party’s nomination – one month before the election. It’s not going happen, as “the lawyers have concluded that Trump would have to cooperate in any attempt to replace him,” the article noted, based on another anonymous GOP insider.

The hopelessness of their cause aside, the reaction from the party establishment – the very leaders who Trump won the nomination by attacking – was swift.

Here are some tweets:

Trump endorsed Romney in 2012 and after the former Massachusetts governor refused to turn the favour this year, was dubbed “irrelevant” and a “choke artist.”

Rubio was the scion of the party establishment before his campaign collapsed and was trounced by Trump in his own state, Florida.

I’m not sure whether Mitt Romney, “Little” Marco Rubio or “Low Energy” Jeb Bush’s denunciations will hurt so much as help Trump’s campaign, as they feed into the narrative that the establishment is out to get The Donald.

But when your own running mate denounces you, after spending an entire debate denying your more controversial positions, you’re in trouble.

Mike Pence went so far as to issue a formal statement, expressing his remorse at Trump’s comments, which he emphasized are from 11 years ago.

Trump’s non-apology

The Donald was naturally on the defensive when he released a video statement last night, which looks like it was filmed on the set of a late night television show.

“I said it. I was wrong and I apologize,” he said shortly before implying that it’s not too big a deal. “This is nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today,” citing job losses, government corruption and national security.

He then almost immediately pivots to Bill Clinton’s own history of misogyny, which is certainly deplorable in its own right.

“I’ve said some foolish things, but there’s a big difference between the words and actions of other people. Bill Clinton has actually abused women and Hillary has attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims,” said Trump.

Trump, too, has been accused of sexual assault on at least three separate occasions, including once by his ex-wife, Ivana.

“See you at the debate on Sunday,” he concludes. Looks like it’s going to be a nasty one.

Conspiracy Theories, Film

Denial: An impressively nuanced depiction of Irving v. Lipstadt

I caught a screening of Denial yesterday, the dramatization of British author David Irving’s libel suit against Emory historian Deborah Lipstadt, and was quite impressed.

The film is largely based on Lipstadt’s account of the proceedings, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, so it is told from her perspective. She is played exceptionally by Rachel Weisz, while Irving is depicted by Timothy Spall, who the audience may recognize as Peter Pettigrew from the Harry Potter films, or J.M.W. Turner in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner.

David Irving, author of some acclaimed works dealing with the Second World War from the German perspective had always been criticized for having a pro-Nazi bent. By the 1990s, however, he started engaging in full-scale Holocaust revisionism, denying the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz, for instance, and speaking at white supremacist gatherings.

He sued Lipstadt after she called him a Nazi apologist, “falsifier of history” and “dangerous spokesperson” for Holocaust revisionism in her book Denying the Holocaust. As is pointed out in the film, Irving chose to file the lawsuit in the U.K. where Lipstadt would be put on the defensive, having to prove that what she said about him is true. In the U.S., Irving would have had to prove that he is a legitimate historian.

Though the film is told from Lipstadt’s purview, which is difficult to avoid since she won the trial, it doesn’t present Irving as a cartoonish villain.  He is a loving father, shown playing with his children in between meetings with Lipstadt’s legal team.

Nor is Lipstadt depicted as a flawless hero. In the film, she’s obstinate, repeatedly demanding Holocaust survivors testify against her lawyers’ wishes.

Ultimately, she doesn’t take the stand, nor does a survivor, but one of the film’s major tensions is Lipstadt coming to terms with the distinction between her work as a historian and the legal system.This tension is encapsulated in her relationship with a Shoah survivor who attends the trial and continuously asks Lipstadt to ensure their voices are heard.

Her lawyers, led by Anthony Julius, insisted that bringing Holocaust survivors to testify would make the trial about whether the Holocaust occurred when it should be about demonstrating Irving’s unsavoury worldview.

There is a view held by many civil libertarians, myself included, that prosecuting Holocaust denial only serves to draw attention to deniers’ repugnant views. However, this case is different, as Irving initiated the lawsuit, putting Lipstadt’s right to harshly criticize him under risk of censorship.

As in reality, the film’s Irving is highly articulate and scrupulous, keeping an entire library’s worth of diaries, which Lipstadt’s team pored over for Third Reich sympathies.

The film’s Irving is also gracious, offering to shake hands with  Julius, after the judge’s ruling, an example of what Hannah Arendt, herself a Holocaust survivor, called the “banality of evil.”

Towards the movie’s conclusion with the Judge Charles Gray’s ruling, the justice asks a question that represents one of the film’s key themes – What if Irving sincerely believes the Holocaust was a lie? Perhaps he’s an anti-Semite, but Lipstadt accused him of deliberately falsifying the historical record.

Ultimately, the judge ruled in her favour. The mistakes found in Irving’s work were not the result of simple errors or genuine conviction, but malicious intent rooted in anti-Semitism.

But this is a question that has always vexed me about Holocaust deniers – are they genuinely convinced that the Holocaust was exaggerated, or is denial merely a neo-Nazi recruiting tool?

With its nuanced approach, the film does a good job of bringing this question to light without providing a definitive answer.

Global Affairs

Former head of refugee agency slated to be next UN chief

António Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) and a former prime minister of Portugal is primed to be the next UN secretary general after a Security Council straw poll selected him over 12 other candidates.

The UN Security Council endorsed him – with 13 votes in favour and two abstentions – as the most qualified candidate to be the successor to outgoing, and woefully uncharismatic, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. This relative unanimity, as no one voted against Guterres, is an unexpected development given the enhanced U.S.-Russian tensions that have characterized the last few years in geopolitics.

There will be an official vote in the Security Council Thursday and then in the General Assembly next week, where Guterres will require two-thirds support.

Trounced competition

There was hope among some members that the next secretary general would be Eastern European or female, as neither one has been at the head of the UN. Bulgaria’s Irinia Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, and Kristalina Georgieve, a former UN budget commissioner, match both these characteristics, but neither received enough approval form the Council to be considered for the top job.

Hamstrung by her week-before entrance into the contest, Georgieve fell behind Bokova, who in turn was outvoted by Serb diplomat Vuk Jeremić, who himself was outvoted by runner-up and Slovakian Foreign Affairs Minister Miroslav Lajčák. None of these candidates received more than seven votes in favour, making Guterres’s 10 votes a landslide.

U.S.-Russian unity for now, but to what end? 

Russian ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin, who currently serves as the Council’s chair, announced the choice of Guterres Wednesday jointly with his U.S. counterpart Samanatha Power, in another unusual display of diplomatic cooperation.

The selection of the former UNHRC chief, who served the organization for a decade until last year, is particularly symbolic, given the global refugee crisis that has shocked and paralyzed the international community for the past two years with no end in sight. It is also a direct consequence of foreign meddling in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

Churkin simply called Guterres the “clear favourite” for the job, whereas Power spoke about the importance of “unity,” particularly when dealing “with carnage as horrific as that in Syria.”

It will be interesting to see what specific measures Power has in mind for Syria, given her well-established affinity for military intervention as espoused in her highly-regarded bookA Problem from Hell.

It also remains to be seen whether Guterres will remain subservient to U.S. militarism, like Kofi Annan’s first-term support for President Clinton’s bombarding of the Balkans, or a critic of their foreign policy, like second-term Annan’s denunciation of George W. Bush’s Iraq War.

The secretary general appears to serve as a wild card in international affairs.

Guterres’s record

The secretary general-designate entered politics during Portugal’s first democratic election in 1976, which took place after 50 years of dictatorship.

The trained engineer was elected as a Socialist, eventually becoming the party’s leader in 1992 and leading them to victory in the 1995 election.

His signature achievement as prime minister was to bring about Portugal’s law decriminalizing all drugs, which Vox reports did not lead to any significant increase, or decrease for that matter, in drug abuse.

As head of the UNHCR from 2005 to 2015, Guterres was forced to deal with the worst refugee crisis the world has seen since the UN’s foundation. Civil strife in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen kept him busy throughout his time there and earned him a reputation as a staunch humanitarian.

Guterres takes the helm for a term of five years when Ban steps down in January. In 2021 he will be eligible to run for a second five-year term, which would begin in 2022.

A brief timeline of UN Secretary Generals

  • Trygv Lie (Norway) 1946 – 1953
  • Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden) 1953 – 1961
  • U Thant (Myanmar) 1962 – 1971
  • Kurt Waldheim (Austria) 1972 – 1981
  • Javier Pérez de Cuellar (Peru) 1982 – 1991
  • Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt) 1992 – 1996
  • Kofi Annan (Ghana) 1997 – 2006
  • Ban Ki-moon (South Korea) 2007 – 2016
  • António Guterres (Portugal) 2017 – ?