In the same month that the United States has accused Russia of “barbarism” and Russia has accused the United States of supporting ISIS in Syria, a rare note of bilateral comity has been struck between the two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council in a sudden and ahead-of-schedule selection of the next U.N. secretary-general.
Former Portuguese prime minister António Guterres, the odds-on favorite in many months of straw polling, has been chosen to head the international body following a decade of advocacy work as high commissioner for refugees, whose portfolio, owing to the humanitarian crises in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, has only grown more urgent over the last several years.
The pick was announced cheerfully by Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, at a press conference in New York attended by all 15 diplomats on the Security Council, including his verbal sparring partner and American counterpart, Samantha Power. A vote to confirm Guterres’s appointment is scheduled for Thursday at 10 a.m. in New York, Churkin said.
Moscow now heads the rotating presidency of the council and had given the strong impression that it preferred an Eastern European to take over from current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whose term expires in January. Guterres was a leading light beyond the establishment of Portugal’s Socialist Party, following the country’s Salazar-Caetano dictatorship. After leaving the premiership in 2005, Guterres assumed the presidency of the Socialist International.
Guterres spent the bulk of his decade at UNHCR tightening bureaucracy and warning of the impending migrant crisis now gripping Europe. His three-year post was extended multiple times, and Ban, who is in Rome to celebrate the inauguration of the first annual Conference on Sport and Faith with the Vatican, resisted pressure to keep him on another year. Guterres was often a voice of support for efforts made by front-line nations Greece and Italy, scolding the larger European Union for turning a blind eye to the worsening problem. In a statement months before he retired, Guterres said:
“The selfless generosity of private citizens and civil society organizations reaching out to welcome and help the new arrivals is truly inspiring. And there has been exemplary political and moral leadership from a number of countries. But overall, Europe has failed to find an effective common response, and people have suffered as a result.”
Portugal, an EU member state as well as one of the charter members of NATO, in many ways seemed a strange provenance for the world’s next top diplomat. Most of this year’s contenders hailed from the Balkans or former Soviet satellite countries. In an unprecedentedly transparent process, more akin to a democratic national election, all had to submit proposals for how they intended to fulfill their visions of U.N. leadership and turn up in the General Assembly to defend their policies in a debate-style forum. They even tweeted responses to questions from the public of 7 billion they aim to represent.
The United States and United Kingdom were pushing for a woman, the first in history, to take over from Ban. In recent days, Guterres’s closest opponent was latecomer Kristalina Georgieva, the European Commission’s vice president, who only joined the race last week. Other candidates over the six-month campaign have included Georgieva’s fellow Bulgarian Irina Bokova, the director general of UNESCO who, like Gueterres, has found herself being quoted in the international press as her organization has had to preside over the wholesale destruction of antiquities in Iraq and Syria following the conquest of the so-called Islamic State; and Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand and well as the administrator of the U.N. Development Programme, where despite a somewhat controversial internal tenure, she impressed the broader constituency of U.N. staff, earning the most-favored status for secretary-general in a 1,000-person U.N. survey taken last February.
The U.N. secretary-general is not bound by term limits. However, in 70 years, no one has served more than a decade. Guterres will be the ninth person to occupy the role since the United Nations’ founding in 1946.
“Guterres is a very good politician and politics is important,” Bruno Maçães, Portugal's former Europe minister, told The Daily Beast. “He is no technocrat. To have a first-rate politician at the helm will be a good change at the U.N.”
— With additional reporting by Barbie Latza Nadeau