The UN’s Guterres, an Incumbent With Strong Backing by Europe, Is Bound to Win Another Term
By Barbara Crossette*
NEW YORK, May 12 2021 (IPS) – It was all over in one crucial
week. Barring an unforeseen hitch, António
Guterres is the clear winner of a second, five-year term as
secretary-general of the United Nations, beginning on Jan.1, 2022. This was not
a surprise: he had no major competition and the process moved faster than
three-hour question-and-answer session with UN diplomats from around the world
in the General Assembly on May 7 appeared to support a growing sense
that the Security Council may decide by late June or July, three months before
the normal deadline for a candidacy to go to the General Assembly for final
Guterres spoke mostly in generalities at the session, but he
sometimes used statistics and technical points about his vision for the UN in the ensuing years.
The Armenian ambassador, Mher Margaryan, asked Guterres, for
example, how he would “strengthen” the UN’s response to early-warning signs of
atrocity crimes occurring. (United States President Joe Biden recently recognized the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire.)
Guterres answered, in brief, that the problem was not missing early-warning
signs but “the problem is in early action.”
In July, the rotating presidency of the Council will be held
by France, which may announce the decision to back the 72-year-old Guterres, a
diplomat from Latin America, told PassBlue. The European Union has been the
strongest supporter of the incumbent secretary-general, as Guterres is from
Portugal, so a fellow European. He was the only candidate proposed by a
The Biden administration has not formally and publicly
endorsed Guterres. In remarks to a Security Council debate on multilateralism,
also on May 7, however, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke of a renewed American commitment to the UN Charter
and international cooperation after the destructive Trump years.
“Nationalism is resurgent, repression is rising. Rivalries
among countries are deepening — and attacks against the rules-based order are
intensifying,” he said to his fellow Council members and the public. “Now, some
question whether multilateral cooperation is still possible.”
“Multilateralism is still our best tool for tackling big
global challenges, like the one that’s forcing us to gather on a screen today
rather than today rather than around a table,” Blinken added, describing the
Council’s virtually staged session because of the pandemic.
On May 4, the General Assembly president, Volkan Bozkir,
explained in a news conference why he had ruled out candidates other than
Guterres for the May 7 event. Seven people have submitted applications to him
in the last few months, and civil society organizations were also calling for a
wider slate. Bozkir, a Turk, passed all applications to the Council, he said at
the news conference.
“It looks like the Security Council has a view that only
candidates or applicants supported by a country will be considered by the Security
Council,” he said to numerous questions on the process. None of the applicants
has been recognized by Bozkir or any of the monthly rotating Council
presidents, who both lead the procedure.
Further confusing reporters, Bozkir added, “And again, this
doesn’t necessarily mean that a person who is supported by a country will get
the guarantee of becoming a candidate.”
None of the Council’s permanent members with veto power —
Britain, China, France, Russia and the US — has so far publicly questioned a
second term for Guterres. And Guterres has certainly not ruffled those
countries’ feathers too much, to the consternation of certain civil society
advocates, like Human Rights Watch.
In 2001, the US vetoed a second term for Boutros
Boutros-Ghali of Egypt and persuaded other Council members to back Kofi Annan,
a Ghanaian, who then served two terms unopposed.
How and why did Guterres win the approval of the Security
Council members so easily? With Western support locked in, he spoke last week
by phone with Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, without revealing whether the
subject of the secretary-generalship came up. China has welcomed his bid for a
Guterres is planning a trip to Moscow from May 12 to 13. The
speech by Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, at the Security Council
session on May 7 was the most bitter during the discussion of multilateralism.
His remarks were directed at Western democracies.
Guterres, who was UN high commissioner for refugees for a
decade, has been what could be described as an acceptable head of the UN for
many of its 193 member governments.
He is, however, not a popular or well-known figure outside
the UN, nor is he much liked among many employees of the organization,
according to civil society groups, advocates and some UN staff themselves.
He is criticized for being a secretive minimalist who has not
dealt well with internal crises, such as the continuing, documented sexual
abuse in and around UN peacekeeping and the scant help available for survivors
of rape and other assaults.
Women are often the most vulnerable people not only where UN
peacekeeping operations are based or in active conflict zones but also in
refugee camps or ad hoc congregations of displaced people. Men and children
When babies are born of rape, they often grow up in extreme
poverty, hungry and stigmatized for life, and the UN defers the resolution of these hardships to the national
governments of the peacekeepers instead of getting involved directly.
Guterres said on May 7 in the General Assembly in response
to critiques and questions from civil society participants (only two were given
the opportunity to be heard) that the UN was, for example, meeting resistance
from governments over problems like conducting paternity tests of peacekeepers
when complaints were lodged.
In his introductory remarks to diplomats taking part in the
live session, in which he appeared flustered at times, he acknowledged that
much of civil society had not been offered seats “at the world’s main
diplomatic table.” He added that cities, the corporate world and young people
are “essential voices that must he heard.”
He also said, agreeing with some envoys who raised the issue
at the dialogue, that the UN system needed better coordination of all its parts
— agencies, programs and semiautonomous bodies like the World Health
Organization. Yet that bureaucratic challenge has never been solved by any secretary-general,
despite attempts at reform.
The most insistent opposition to the renewal of Guterres’s
appointment came from advocates for the election of a woman and diverse groups
that generally backed a more transparent process for selecting the chief official
of the UN, such as the 1 for 7 Billion campaign.
The UN, at 76 years old, has never been led by a woman. The
demands of advocates included adding women to the list of candidates and not
requiring applicants to have official endorsement of governments. But both
requests have been overlooked by Bozkir and the monthly Security Council
The important involvement of advocates for a woman as
secretary-general is a sign of changing times. More women are emerging in top political positions in many countries,
corporations and other high-profile organizations.
Some, like Angela Merkel, the retiring German chancellor, made it clear that she did not want the job of UN
secretary-general, despite persistent questions about her interests. Other
women elected as prime ministers or presidents of their countries think they
would be more useful in geopolitics as national leaders.
And some of the women who could have challenged Guterres
this year saw the light early on: as a white, male incumbent who knew how to
navigate around the self-interests of the permanent Council members, he was a
In 2016, under a more open campaign process, there was no incumbent. Ban Ki-moon,
a South Korean who had completed two terms, was also a widely criticized
secretary-general for an administration that was often cloaked in secrecy and
shielded by fellow South Korean aides.
Among the women competing in 2016 were Irina Bokova, a
Bulgarian and former director-general of Unesco; Helen Clark, a former prime
minister of New Zealand and administrator of the UN Development Program;
Kristalina Georgieva, also Bulgarian, a former European Commissioner for
International Cooperation and now managing director of the International
Monetary Fund; and Susana Malcorra, who had been Ban’s chief of staff before
becoming Argentina’s foreign minister when she ran.
This year, there were no equally qualified women interested
in seeking the job against considerable odds; the few campaigns that surfaced — including “protest
candidates” against UN “corruption” — quickly became sideshows.
Even one potentially serious candidate who emerged recently,
Rosalía Arteaga, a short-lived president of Ecuador, said
she had the support of President Lenín Moreno but then asked him to drop it, as
she preferred to be a “civil society” candidate, she told PassBlue in an email.
(A new Ecuadorean president, Guillermo Lasso, is to be inaugurated this month.)
Many feminist organizations, realizing the futility of
launching campaigns for candidates this year, opted to wait it out until the
2027 term. With the world in crisis on many fronts and a seasoned politician in
charge at the UN, it was believed that being a woman was not enough this year.
Moreover, no woman wanted to compete, keenly aware of the negative optics of
A list of six Latin American women — some former heads of
state, like Michelle Bachelet of Chile (now the UN high commissioner for human
rights) — circulated this spring among high-level political circles in the
region to test who might be the most successful candidate to run for
secretary-general next time.
But Eastern Europe, which tried to win the current term
because it was that region’s unofficial turn to claim the job, is ready to
contest Latin America on that front.
Last month, Maritza Chan, a diplomat from Costa Rica, pointed out in a meeting at the UN about the overall
secretary-general selection process that her country “strongly believes that
the time has come to select a female secretary-general. . . . We believe that
should qualifications among candidates be equal, we should choose a woman.”
By doing this, she added, “we uphold the principle of equality
and empower the women of today and tomorrow.”
Lyric Thompson is the senior director of policy and advocacy
at the International Center for Research on Women, which grades the work of
Guterres with annual report card on gender issues. He got a B for 2020, up from a C- in 2017 and a B- in both
2018 and 2019.
Thompson, who was a member of the Biden administration’s
delegation to the UN’s annual Commission on the Status of Women this year,
pointed to tough speeches by Guterres warning of pushbacks on women’s rights
and his frequent condemnations of worsening violence against women and girls.
He also attempted, with limited success, to persuade governments to donate more
financially to UN initiatives on women.
Indeed, Guterres calls entrenched patriarchy “stupid,” and told an audience in New York City early in 2020: “Just as
slavery and colonialism were a stain on previous centuries, women’s inequality
should shame us all in the twenty-first.”
In an interview with PassBlue early this year, Thompson said
that feminists were focusing on the next election for a secretary-general.
“I think we will see an unprecedented drive for a female SG
after his second term,” she said, adding that “this is a long way off . . .
which means the UN will not have had a woman leader across its
*Barbara Crossette is United Nations
correspondent for The Nation, a senior fellow of the Ralph Bunche Institute at
the City University of New York, contributing editor at PassBlue.com, and a
freelance writer on foreign policy and international affairs. Most
recently she was a co-author with George Perkovich of a section on India in the
2009 book Powers and Principles: International Leadership in a Shrinking World.