Incoming UN Chief António Guterres Poised to Put Prevention, Cooperation at Core of Agenda

13 October 2016

António Guterres has been recommended by the UN Security Council as the next United Nations Secretary-General, besting 12 other candidates in the running through a selection process which allowed public access to the proceedings to an unprecedented degree.

The recommendation will now go to the UN General Assembly for confirmation. The former Prime Minister of Portugal is set to serve a five-year term, commencing 1 January 2017, as the ninth Secretary-General in the UN’s 71-year history. The incumbent, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, has occupied the post since 2007.

Moves towards an open selection process

The selection process for Secretary-General has undergone some reforms in favour of transparency, having previously faced criticism for being a historically closed-door decision-making process that some observers say represents the interests of only a select group of powerful countries.

The selection process was initiated with a joint letter from the Presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council soliciting recommendations for candidates from member states in December 2015.

A series of informal briefings have unfolded since April, giving the spotlight to each candidate in turn to present their vision statements before the General Assembly, including a broader audience of the 193 UN member states as well as representatives from civil society.

Candidates campaigned to demonstrate command of a multiplicity of languages, advanced communication and diplomacy skills, relevant qualifications and experience, and commitment to the values and objectives set forth in the UN Charter. A globally live-broadcasted town hall debate was held in the General Assembly Hall in July, allowing the candidates on the docket at that stage to address questions from the audience.

Parallel to these interviews and presentations, six straw polls were held in the Security Council, the results of which had António Guterres consistently in the lead. The most recent ballot, held on 5 October, saw Guterres with 13 votes in his favour, no votes against him, and two “no opinion” votes. Thereafter a formal nomination was reached by the Council and the recommendation was passed to the General Assembly for approval under Article 97 of the Charter.


Guterres previously served as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 2005 to 2015, a period in which the number of migrants fleeing war and oppression escalated from 38 million in 2005 to over 60 million in 2015 in the face of crises in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Somalia, the Central African Republic, and Yemen.

Guterres had a long career as a member of the Portuguese Parliament, since his first election to the Socialist Party in 1976 in the aftermath of the Carnation Revolution two years prior, which saw the overthrow of the right-wing Estado Novo regime.

Guterres later emerged as Secretary-General of his party in 1992, and finally served two terms at the helm of the Portuguese government, holding the role of Prime Minister from 1995 to 2002. In his capacity as Prime Minister, Guterres served as President of the European Council in early 2000, co-chaired the first EU-Africa summit, oversaw the adoption of the Lisbon Agenda, and was instrumental in the international effort to resolve the crisis that had emerged under the Indonesian occupation of East Timor.

In the same period, Guterres served as Vice-President of Socialist International, a global association of social democratic political parties spanning upwards of 100 countries, from 1992 to 1999, when he eventually became president of the organisation until mid-2005.

An inclusive vision for the future

In his vision statement, Guterres underlines the challenge of understanding evolving “global mega-trends,” where advancements in globalisation and technology have both enabled economic growth, improved living standards, and reduced extreme poverty on the one hand, and engendered broad inequality on the other.

Guterres also points to terrorism, organised crime across borders, looming epidemics, climate change, and the exploitation of oceans as emerging challenges facing the UN in its mandate to achieve peace, ensure sustainable development, and safeguard human rights.

Furthermore, he said in his statement, ensuring the UN’s long-term success will also require the ability to constantly evolve and innovate, particularly as it works to resolve these interlinked challenges – especially given the momentum generated from the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, Paris climate accord, and Addis Ababa Action Agenda.

In this landscape, Guterres maintained, the UN should seek to promote a preventive stance, encourage an inclusive and cooperative international community, and better engage with and empower women.

First, Guterres suggests a pivot on behalf of the organisation towards prevention. In his presentation to the General Assembly as part of the informal dialogues, he affirmed that “prevention must be not only a priority but the priority of everything we do, and that of course demands a huge cultural change and a true revolution in global advocacy.”

As part of this pillar, he calls for redoubled investment in capacity-building within states as a preventive step in order to secure global development in an inclusive and sustainable manner, as well as to facilitate the protection of human rights.

In addition, his vision statement highlighted prevention as key to tackling terrorism, where the values of solidarity and tolerance – as upheld in the UN Charter – yield multicultural and multiethnic societies,  and are thus cited as a strength that must be cultivated to combat violent extremism.

The vision statement also encourages increased coordination, based on the philosophy that the “key to further enhancing UN’s effectiveness is attitude: cooperation instead of duplication, sharing instead of competing, and collective responsibility instead of circumstantial individual interests.” In particular, Guterres emphasises the need for renewed partnerships with regional organisations, drawing attention to the relationship with the African Union; international financial institutions; and civil society and the private sector.

Finally, Guterres puts gender equality high on the agenda, as a crucial human right, where the “full participation of women is essential to the success of any peace process.” In his vision statement, the UN should not stop at treating women and girls as a subject of protection, but a step further should be taken to empower them.

At the institutional level, the Secretary-General should put in place a road map for gender equality, prioritising the appointments of senior staff, specifically the members of the Chief Executive Board and the Senior Management group.

Other institutional recommendations included improving efficiency and productivity, along with transparency, accountability and oversight; ensuring the organisation lives by the “highest ethical standards”; and better communicating its message to the public.

ICTSD reporting: “Portugal's Guterres poised to be next U.N. Secretary-General,” REUTERS, 6 October 2016; “António Guterres Is the Right Choice for U.N. Secretary General. But the Process Is Flawed,” TIME MAGAZINE, 10 October 2016.

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