On December 31st 2016, Ban Ki-moon will step down as Secretary-General (SG) of the United Nations. His successor will be the Portuguese diplomat António Guterres. Who is this man, and how are SG more generally elected? Guterres will be the ninth SG in the history of the United Nations (UN). You will not find many observers who question his ability, professional experience and readiness. However, he is not a woman, nor does he come from Central and Eastern Europe. (Featured Image © Wikimedia Commons)
In early October 2016, the UN Security Council (UNSC) announced its decision to nominate António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres for the highest office in the UN. Guterres was elected after a series of straw polls behind closed doors. The fifteen members of the UNSC were asked to form a choice of ‘encourage’, ‘discourage’ and ‘no opinion’ for each of the ten candidates. Guterres received thirteen ‘encourage’ votes and two ‘no opinion’ votes. In addition, he had the support of the five permanent members of the UNSC – China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and Unites States.1
While the UN continues to promote 50/50 gender parity and more women in top positions, it currently does not lead by example.
In the final vote there were ten candidates, including five women. Other contenders included Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova from Bulgaria, European Commissioner for the Budget and Human Resources Kristalina Georgieva from Bulgaria, and former President of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) Vuk Jeremic from Serbia.2 A huge campaign to elect a female SG was set up. The current holder of the office was also of the opinion that his successor should be a woman.3 While the UN continues to promote 50/50 gender parity and more women in top positions, it currently does not lead by example. It has been reported that only 22 percent of all UN leaders are women.4 In the face of quite a few very qualified female candidates, the UNSC could have sent the much-needed message that women can indeed reach the same goals as men.
Furthermore, seven candidates came from the Eastern European Group (EEG). It is currently the only regional group that was never represented in the office of the SG, and will remain so for the next five or even ten years. Other regional groups had at least one SG throughout the history of the UN. Ban is from South Korea. His predecessors were from Austria, Egypt, Ghana, Norway, Peru and Sweden.5 According to unwritten, informal rules, the EEG would be the next in line to fill the vacancy of the resigning Ban.6 It is important that the UN’s top position is a reflection of the world’s population. Not only when it comes to gender, but also when it comes to nationality.
His UN career demonstrates that Guterres is an extremely qualified man committed to everything the UN stands for. Still, it is disappointing that the UNSC did not elect a woman to the office of diplomat-in-chief.
Yet the UNSC decided differently and elected the Western European, male candidate Guterres. The former Prime Minister of Portugal (1995-2002) served as UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 2005 to 2015. In his 10-year tenure, he was known for his tireless efforts and critical remarks trying to persuade the wealthiest countries to do more for humans fleeing war, violence, persecution and disaster. Observers also appreciated the improvements he brought to the capacity and effectiveness of the UNHCR by deploying more staff in the field rather than at the head office in Geneva, Switzerland.7 With reference to the ongoing Mediterranean Refugee Crisis he spoke the following memorable words in an open letter in Time Magazine: “We cannot deter people fleeing for their lives. They will come. The choice we have is how well we manage their arrival and how humanely.”8
Hopes are high that the next SG will finally be a very experienced and qualified woman from Albania, Lithuania, Romania or any other country in Central and Eastern Europe.
Guterres might be the right man in the right place, indeed. His UN career demonstrates that he is an extremely qualified man committed to everything the UN stands for. Still, it is disappointing that the UNSC did not elect a woman to the office of diplomat-in-chief. International Perspective’s Josien Jense rightly argued that more diversity in public offices can be a first step toward equality between men and women. In addition, it perfectly reflects diversity and the gender balance in the world.
Also the failure to respect the informal rule of regional rotation of the appointee’s national origin is disappointing. All of this does not downgrade Guterres’ capability and fitness to be a successful SG. However, hopes are high that the next SG will finally be a very experienced and qualified woman from Albania, Lithuania, Romania or any other country in Central and Eastern Europe. In the meantime, the international community should give all legitimacy to Guterres and support him in fulfilling what is arguably the most important job in the world.