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Resetting the moral compass

A Norwegian diplomat and politician, Trygve Lie, who was the first Secretary-General of the United Nations (1946-52), famously described the post as the “most impossible job on earth”. The ninth UN Secretary-General, > António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres, will assume office on January 1, 2017, at a time when the world is dangerously poised, the multilateral system anchored in the UN is being tested as never before, and the organisation looks ineffective on the pillar of peace and security. This was the pillar which provided the rationale for its establishment, to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”, the organisation’s impressive contribution in other areas such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, climate change, human rights and humanitarian work, up to a point, apart.

Impeccable credentials

The good news is that the man who will assume stewardship of the UN comes with excellent credentials, a wealth of experience, and is best qualified not only amongst the slate from which he was elected but, in terms of experience and suitability, perhaps amongst all those who have occupied this high office. If anyone has a fighting chance to be an effective and secular pope, Mr. Guterres has probably the best chance.

I first witnessed his performance as a statesman and public figure when, as a young Joint Secretary on the West Europe desk, I had the privilege of accompanying the then President of India, K.R. Narayanan, on a state visit to Portugal in September 1998. Mr. Guterres was the Prime Minister of Portugal (1995-2002). Several years later, when I was serving as Permanent Representative of India to the UN in Geneva, he was appointed, in June 2005, as the tenth UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Most Permanent Representatives interact with heads of international organisations on a regular basis. A few weeks into his new job, I found myself, in sad circumstances, addressing, along with him, a memorial service for my childhood friend Rajiv Kapur who died whilst serving the UNHCR on a mission in Colombo. Even in those early days of interaction with him, the man’s empathy, maturity and humanity stood out.

Mr. Guterres was appointed the UNHCR following allegations of sexual harassment levelled against his predecessor Ruud Lubbers, a former Dutch Prime Minister, by several women members of the UNHCR staff. Quite apart from these allegations, Mr. Lubber had lost the support of most of the Permanent Representatives on account of what was regarded as an arrogant and supercilious attitude. Mr. Guterres was a refreshing change. A few days into his new job, he delineated his first substantive statement: “What really matters is delivering protection and solutions to those who need it.” He was already a champion of gender equality, five years before UN Women was established. He said the UNHCR must be a pioneer in gender equality and concerns for women, children and other vulnerable groups. “My vision for protection at UNHCR is to erase the separation between protection and operations,” he said.

Fast forward 11 years — after the Security Council decided by acclamation in a closed-door session on October 5 to recommend his appointment, this is what he had to say: he would show “the humility that is needed to serve, and especially to serve those that are most vulnerable”, the victims of conflict, terrorism, human rights violations and poverty.

A consensus foretold

Rewind back to the election process. Appearing in a ‘town hall’ format meeting organised by Al Jazeera on July 12, 2016, it was clear that in terms of popular support amongst member states, standing as a global statesman and what can only be described as ‘popular acceptability' amongst member states, Mr. Guterres was clearly pulling ahead of the dozen or so candidates in the field. After the third straw poll, I had in fact written for an Indian wire service that “barring some completely unforeseen development(s), Guterres is likely to be the ninth Secretary General of the United Nations”. This was a good one month prior to his election following the sixth straw poll.

Mr. Guterres was in fact the only candidate who, apart from impressive performances in public appearances, consistently polled more than the threshold of nine votes out of 15 required in the six straw polls. In fact, in the last round, he polled 13 ‘encourage’ votes, no ‘discourage’ votes, with two undecided. This round had the negative or veto votes of the permanent members clearly indicated. The next three candidates got seven each, well short of the required nine with six or more negative votes, including vetoes. The five women candidates failed to get the required traction within the UN Security Council.

Other contenders

The campaigning had indicated a fairly strong demand for regional rotation and a candidate from Eastern Europe. That plus a strong push for breaking the glass ceiling and a woman Secretary-General after 71 years of the UN’s existence focussed attention on the need for a woman candidate from Eastern Europe. The candidature of Irina Bokova initially seemed a possibility. Viewed by one permanent member as being too closely identified with Russia, her candidature failed to take off.

It was mistakenly believed that Russia would insist on a East European, that it would not agree to the former Prime Minister of a country that was a member of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and that there was scope, Mr. Guterres’s impressive showing in the straw polls notwithstanding, for another woman candidate from Eastern Europe, Kristalina Georgieva, to be introduced.

Information in the public domain indicates that egged on by one permanent member of the Security Council, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke about it to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 meeting in Hangzhou, China. In fact, on September 7, Russia issued a statement regarding Ms. Merkel trying to influence Bulgaria to replace Ms. Bokova as its candidate in favour of her compatriot, Ms. Georgieva. The rest is history.

The hurriedly introduced candidature of Ms. Georgieva, aimed at derailing the candidature of Mr. Guterres, proved counterproductive and the latter surged ahead. The U.S. Permanent Representative’s statement summed it up: “In the end, there was just a candidate whose experience, vision and versatility across a range of areas proved compelling.” Moreover, his being a feminist and asserting that the UN must be at the forefront of efforts of the international community for gender equality reassured many.

The ninth UN Security-General will be the first former head of government to assume the office. In addition, he has handled a major UN agency, the UNHCR, for 10 years. He is expected to reinforce the UN’s enormous convening power, strengthen its moral authority and hopefully swing the pendulum back to diplomacy with an emphasis on mediation and prevention and away from the disastrous last five years that have resulted in the unravelling of countries due to the “use of force”.

Hardeep S. Puri was India’s Permanent Representative to the UN in New York from May 2009 to February 2013.

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