The identity of the next secretary-general of the United Nations shouldn’t be so important. By now we all know that he has little real power, and that all major decisions are made in the Cold War-era echo chamber that is the Security Council. But the fact that, once again, we’ve got an old white Western male in the top job does little to convince the rest of us that the world body is looking out for our interests. By SIMON ALLISON.
Antonio Guterres. Get used to the name. Repeat it until it rolls off the tongue like food parcels from the back of an aid plane, because unless something goes very wrong, Portugal’s former prime minister will be the next secretary-general of the United Nations.
The first question to ask, and it’s a good one, is so what? Cast your mind back over Ban Ki-moon’s decade in charge of the global body – yes, it really has been that long – and it’s hard to remember any standout moments, any quotable quotes, any instance in which he transcended the diplomatic niceties expected of a man in his position. He’s a nice guy. He may even be a good guy. But like his predecessors, he was crippled by the limitations of the office, and beholden to the superpower politics which continue to define every major United Nations decision – including, naturally, the appointment of the secretary-general.
In a process almost as opaque as the Vatican’s selection of a new pope – minus the smoke signals – Security Council members vote in a series of straw polls that successively eliminate candidates for the top job, using a convoluted system of ‘encourage’ and ‘discourage’ votes. Once the Security Council has decided informally, they will then vote on a formal recommendation which the General Assembly will rubber stamp. At any stage, each of the permanent five members of the Security Council – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – can use their veto to torpedo a candidate’s chances.
This, then, is the primary qualification of any United Nations Secretary-General: he must be so bland, so inoffensive, so pliable, that he poses no real threat to the interests of any major power. Hardly a recipe for progress, given that the United Nations is in theory supposed to be cleaning up the messes made by those same powers, and making sure they don’t happen again.
Guterres fits the bill. Beyond new rugs in the New York office, he won’t be bringing significant change with him, never mind the drastic reform that the outdated UN system so desperately needs. In fact, his major selling point is his long record within that system. He is a “consummate UN insider”, as Vox described him, and he won’t rock any boats.
Not that he isn’t qualified. His 10-year tenure as UN High Commissioner for Refugees was widely praised, even as global refugee numbers surged. He’s got a reputation as an efficient and budget-friendly manager, and he’ll also have a bit more personality than Ban. “Guterres… oozes charisma. He’s a nimble, eloquent polyglot who has an ability to connect to an audience as you would expect of any skilled politician. He eschews jargon — indeed he semi-jokingly told the UN General Assembly that as secretary general he would ban the use of acronyms at the UN,” said Mark Leon-Goldberg on UN Dispatch.
Charismatic. Efficient. Inoffensive. Guterres will get the job done. But it’s hard not to see his appointment as a lost opportunity: given the limits on a secretary-general’s actual power, it’s in the realm of symbolism and meaning that he – not a she, still never a she – can have an actual impact. And as far as symbols go, old, white, Western European males simply reinforce existing privileges. They are the status quo.
“So here we are, looking at another five (or probably ten) years of the UN being led by a man from Western Europe for the fifth time in its history. This is not a glorious day for the global community – and certainly not for gender relations, inter-regional relations, decolonisation, or the overall legitimacy of an organisation that many believe has failed to live up to expectations or to fulfil its mandate,” wrote Rosa Freedman, professor of law, conflict and global development at the University of Reading, on the Conversation.
Particularly troubling is the unusually high number of female candidates who were overlooked this year. There has never been a female secretary-general, and even Ban Ki-moon thought it was time for this to change. As Susana Malcorra, Argentina’s foreign minister and one-time favourite to succeed Ban, said in an unguarded moment: “You don’t have a chance if you’re a woman. It’s not a glass ceiling; it’s a steel ceiling.”
So yes, the identity of the UN secretary-general does matter. It matters very much – not, perhaps, in the day to day running of the organisation, but instead in how that organisation is perceived; and who it is perceived to be working for. Guterres does nothing to show the rest of the world that the UN is truly representative of them. He’s just a new figurehead for the old world order. DM
Photo: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Manuel de Oliveira Guterres informs the media about the Launch of UNHCR’s global Statelessness campaign during a press conference at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, 903 November 2014. EPA/SALVATORE DI NOLFI
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