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 – ?



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