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Why Was a Western European Man Selected for Secretary-General?

By Jonathan Cristol

On Oct. 5, 2015, Russian Permanent Representative to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin emerged from the Security Council chamber and announced that the next U.N. secretary-general would be former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres. Guterres has not yet been elected to the position by the General Assembly, but the backing of the Security Council makes his election a certainty. Guterres’ selection concludes a year-long process. While he is a fine choice, he is a surprising one, as it was thought Russia would only support an Eastern European, and the decision is a disappointment to those who had hoped the next secretary-general would be female.

The U.N. Charter says very little about how the secretary-general should be selected and says nothing about his term length. Article 97 provides the only guidance on this matter, stating, “The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” There are traditions that govern the process: The secretary-general rotates between the five “Regional Groups of Member States” and serves five-year terms, renewable once. After member states nominate candidates for the position, the Security Council deliberates in secret and announces its selection. The five permanent members must be in agreement about the nominee. The General Assembly then approves whomever the Security Council has nominated. 

This year, two major reforms were enacted. First, the candidates were subject to open U.N. hearings at which any member state or invited NGO could ask questions. Second, the results of a series of “straw polls” of the Security Council were made public (including which votes were from P5 countries), making it possible to follow and to speculate about the race. It is still possible that the position will be changed to a single, eight-year term.

António Guterres’ selection was surprising for two reasons: He was not vetoed by Russia and he is not a woman. The traditional geographic rotation meant that it was the Eastern European Group’s turn, as this is only group from which there has never been a secretary-general. There was also a major push for the selection of a female candidate. If it was supposed to be an Eastern European woman, why did it end up a Western European man? And why would Russia support someone from outside its own regional group?

Perhaps the most important reason is that there were no strong Eastern European candidates that both the U.S. and Russia would approve. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova from Bulgaria was thought to have a strong chancebut the public hearings made clear what people inside the U.N. knew for years, that Bokova lacks the charisma required for the job. Former Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremić was also thought to be a strong candidate, but there was never a real chance the U.S. would back a Serb, who are seen as too close to Russia. Furthermore, the French are reluctant to back a non-French speaker like Jeremić out of a long-standing desire to keep French on par with English within the U.N. system. 

While Eastern Europe had no clear favorite, Guterres was a very strong candidate from Western Europe. And by “very strong,” I mean “not so strong.” Guterres has a record of being an effective manager and technocrat who gets along with everyone and has no strong opinions or major agendas of his own. That is not a negativeit is what the process of filling the U.N.’s highest post necessitates. Anyone who is perceived as having vocal opinions about actions of any P5 country, or who might take strong action against any P5 country, is highly unlikely to be selected. The system’s requirements explain why former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark never had a chance, despite New Zealand holding a rotating seat in the Security Council. If Russia were to break the geographic rotation, it surely would not have been for an outspoken woman.

Guterres has had a long career in Portuguese politics and in the U.N. He has been the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and has worked on the Syria and Ukraine conflicts. Both of those conflicts required putting diplomatic pressure on Russia, and in both instances Russian actions have continued unabated. What better Western candidate for Russia than one who is proven not to push them too hard?

Another reason for Russia’s support is that the selection of Guterres undermines the geographic rotation at a time of maximum benefit to Russia. Guterres is the best possible Western European and Others Group candidate for the Russians, especially when they don’t have a particularly strong Eastern European candidate. Now that precedent has been broken to benefit Western Europe, how can the U.S. object when Russia and the Eastern European Group want to break the traditional rotation in the future, be it for the secretary-general or for any other major appointment? 

In hindsight, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Security Council did not select a woman. The “Campaign to Elect a Woman UN Secretary General” had a tremendous amount of support, but China was largely indifferent to the gender discussion, and Churkin said on April 27 that, “discrimination against men is also unacceptable.” There is a lot of anger that a woman was not selected, but not anger that a particular woman was not selected. The lack of an obvious female choice for the Security Council to get behind may be part of the reason that the new secretary-general will be male.

That Guterres is a technocrat and not a charismatic visionary is not a criticism. He has vast executive experience and has worked closely with a wide array of states, organizations, and leaders. He has important background in and technical knowledge about the refugee crisis and many other current global problems. His record may not be flashy, but his experience is important and there was probably not a better candidate for secretary-general than Guterresat least, not one who could get elected.

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Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College.  Follow him on Twitter at @jonathancristol. He reports from the United Nations on international security and UN reform.

[Photo Courtesy of Eric Bridiers]

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