António Guterres: what do we know about the new UN chief?

By on 14/12/2016
António Guterres, ninth secretary-general of the UN

António Guterres, sworn in as the ninth United Nations secretary general on 12 December, has said that ending the war in Syria is his first priority. The former Portuguese prime minister and UN refugee chief has also pledged to promote human dignity and gender equality, and to fight the twin perils of violent extremism and xenophobic populism.

It’s a pretty ambitious to-do list, but Guterres has form. Michael Doyle, director of the Columbia Global Policy Initiative and former UN assistant secretary general, told Global Government Forum that Guterres’ employment history makes him the best prepared secretary-general in UN history after Kofi Annan.

“But with Putin on one side and Trump on the other, he enters office in the least hospitable political environment for multilateral cooperation on global problems – such as the environment or humanitarian protection – since the Cold War,” he added.

Despite these challenges Guterres, who formally takes over from Ban Ki-moon on 1 January, is widely expected to play a more prominent role in world affairs than his softly-spoken predecessor. We take a look at the next UN chief’s top priorities for 2017.

World peace

“The lack of peace is the most dramatic problem we are facing in today’s world,” Guterres told the UN general assembly in October, adding that the international community has lost much of its capacity to prevent and solve conflicts.

He believes governments and international organisations spend too much time and resource on managing crises rather than preventing them.

Guterres, who served as Portugal’s prime minister from 1995 to 2002, called for a “surge in the diplomacy for peace”, and has promised to act as “a convener, a catalyst, an honest broker” between nations. He is fluent in Portuguese, English, French and Spanish.

On ending the bloodshed in Syria, Guterres has said: “I believe it is the international community’s first priority to be able to end this conflict.” His application to become secretary-general won the unanimous backing of the United Nations Security Council in October, despite bitter divisions within the council when it comes to ending the conflict in Syria.

Refugee protection

As UN high commissioner for refugees from 2005 to 2015, Guterres repeatedly criticised western nations for their poor handling of the refugee crisis, commenting on the hostile, populist and xenophobic responses to migration that are increasingly common in many parts of the world.

As secretary-general, he intends to be a “determined advocate for the values of tolerance and solidarity”, and has promised to do everything he can to ensure that governments around the world meet their responsibilities on refugee protection.

“We can’t deter people from fleeing for their lives. They will come. The choice we have is how well we manage their arrival, and how humanely,” he wrote in Time magazine in 2015.

UN reform

In terms of UN reform, the next chief’s top priority is “to develop a comprehensive, modern and effective operational peace architecture”, he has said.

“It must cover the spectrum from prevention and conflict resolution to peacekeeping, peacebuilding and long-term development – the ‘peace continuum’, which requires a holistic, non-fragmented approach,” he explained, in an interview prior to being nominated.

Guterres also aims to make sure that key plans made under Ban Ki-moon, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Climate Change Agreement, are effectively implemented and monitored.

The UN secretariat that Guterres will preside over is often criticised as a bloated and unwieldy bureaucracy, employing around 40,000 people. With Guterres at the helm, the UN Refugee Agency reportedly improved its capacity and performance while reducing costs and cutting staff by a fifth.

Gender equality

Guterres is expected to appoint a female deputy, after a selection process which disappointed gender equality campaigners by recommending the appointment of another male secretary-general. He pipped seven female candidates to the position, including Unesco director-general Irina Bokova and Helen Clark, the former New Zealand prime minister.

He has committed to making empowerment and protection of women and girls a central priority, and insists the UN is working towards gender parity at all levels of the organisation.

Guterres was appointed by the UN general assembly on 13 October, following a seven-month contest during which the 13 candidates had to publically pitch their suitability for the role. This transparency – absent in previous, closed-door UN selection processes – was a result of pressure from the 1 for 7 billion global campaign, a coalition of organisations brought together to lobby for a better recruitment process.

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See also:

EU local governments at the helm in new UN disaster risk action plan

Protecting nations, respecting rights

A family reunification dilemma for the EU

About Tamsin Rutter

Tamsin Rutter is a journalist based in Brussels, Belgium. She writes on a variety of topics, including public services, cities, local and central government and education. She was formerly the deputy editor of the Guardian's Public Leaders Network and Housing Network.

One Comment

  1. Nicola

    14/12/2016 at

    The most prepared fot the job. Go Guterres! Fight for Peace, as allways you’ve done in Portugal and at the ACNUR
    Good luck and all the best

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