António Guterres, a former Socialist prime minister of Portugal and until recently head of the United Nations refugee agency, has been selected by the Security Council to become the next secretary-general of the UN, starting a five-year term on Jan. 1. The decision is subject to two formal votes: one confirming acclamation in the council on Oct. 6 and a follow-up by consensus from the UN’s 193 members in the General Assembly.
The council took a mere 90 minutes to emerge from its closed chambers on Oct. 5 to yield the results of the sixth straw poll to assembled international media as council members smiled in nervous unison — rare for a group that is not known for its camaraderie after meetings. More so, the council’s most powerful members have been fighting among themselves in the last month over the death siege of Aleppo, carried out by Russian, Syrian and other forces.
But after the straw poll, council members presented a single face, as if they had put aside their animosities for an act of heroism: to preserve the waning credibility of the council despite its inability to stop Syria from killing its own people through such tactics as starvation, aerial bombardment and chemical attacks.
Even elected council members were surprised by the smooth decision-making by primarily the permanent members — Britain, China, France, the United States and Russia — to express their unqualified support of Guterres.
PassBlue tweeted out the Guterres choice at 11:28 a.m. as Vitaly Churkin, president of the council in October, seized the moment to make the announcement, saying in a rushed voice, with most of the other council members standing beside him, “Ladies and gentleman, you are witnessing, I think, a historic scene. I don’t know if it has ever been done this way in the history of the United Nations before,” he began.
“Today, after our sixth straw poll, we have a clear favorite: and his name is António Guterres,” Churkin culminated, saying that the vote on Oct. 6 will be held to be ensure acclamation. “We wish Mr. Guterres well in discharging his duties as the secretary-general of the United Nations for the next five years. Thank you very much, thank you.”
To which Samantha Power, the American ambassador to the UN, added, “Thank you, all.”
Power, speaking to the media a minute later, was asked about the new breakthrough in the selection process, noting, among other aspects, the transparency of the first-ever public hearings conducted by the General Assembly in which candidates promoted themselves and their platforms.
“I think the breakthrough was the performance and experience of the candidate,” Power said. “And fundamentally, for all of the divisions on the Security Council, we, I think, are united in understanding the gravity of the threats that are out there: 65 million displaced people, ISIL — who need to be defeated — climate change that’s burning up the planet, inequality, the SDGs. And we went through a really long process, an elaborate process — more scrutiny, I think, of more individuals than we’ve ever had in the history of the SG race.
More scrutiny in more quarters, as well — a much more transparent process, where I think the General Assembly’s will and the kind of zeitgeist out of the General Assembly’s sessions actually translated also into results in the many straw polls that led up to today.”
From the outset of the selection process of anonymous straw polls in the last four months in which council members voted “encourage,” “discourage” and “no opinion,” Guterres, who is 67, held the lead. None of the seven female candidates who have participated in the process reached the top-two spots in the series of informal votes.
That situation has frustrated if not angered advocacy groups lobbying hard for UN member nations to finally select a woman as secretary-general, keenly aware that the UN needs to better represent half the world’s population and is not actually a male haven rife with sexism.
A latecomer, Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union’s finance minister, jumped into the selection process one week ago, after announcing that she would take the leap if her government, Bulgaria, reinforced her. After Bulgaria hemmed and hawed — it had already nominated Irina Bokova, the head of Unesco, as a candidate — it switched to endorse Georgieva within 48 hours. Yet Georgieva did not impress the Security Council enough to upset the Oct. 5 vote, receiving 5 encouragements, 8 discourages and 2 no opinions.
The straw poll that gave the final nod to Guterres was color-coded, differentiating the permanent-five members’ votes from the 10 elected members, for the first time. When the ballots were counted, it became obvious to members who was the resilient favorite, given that four of the permanent members voted “encourage” for Guterres and one voted “no opinion,” or abstained. The latter vote was speculated to be Russia’s.
Churkin, in meeting the press two days earlier at the UN, on Oct. 3, had indicated the council would decide on a candidate soon, adding that the process had instilled “constructive fatigue” among members. He also said that Russia wanted a candidate from Eastern Europe to get the post — reiterating the priority of UN geographical rotation — and that it wanted a woman.
Guterres fits neither category, of course, so rumors now dog the council’s decision on his selection as to what Russia might have bartered in return for giving up on Eastern Europe, especially as Russia and the US have dug themselves into political trenches on how to handle the war in Syria. France has stepped into the void by proposing another cease-fire in Aleppo to allow food and other necessities to get in, but Churkin said he would veto the resolution.
Some people knowledgeable with trade-offs regarding the sudden solidarity behind Guterres contend that an overnight decision was brokered by the US and Russia after Georgieva had not won over the council during an informal interview on Oct. 4.
Some diplomats on the council wonder aloud whether Russia will get a top job in the UN next year, possibly running the UN’s Department of Political Affairs. That post is held by an American, Jeffrey Feltman, who could be asked to move on under a new secretary-general. Rumor has been circulating that Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, wants that UN spot.
It is also difficult to imagine the US, which has been in charge of the UN’s political affairs office for many years, to hand it to Russia. So diplomats also suggest that Russia was fundamentally more comfortable with Guterres running the UN than with the wide range of Eastern European candidates who had been hoping to get the job.
One diplomat, speaking off the record, vented after the council’s announcement of Guterres that it appeared that regional rotation is “becoming less relevant, which might mean smaller players will have to ensure they have the backing of either Russia or US in the future important UN elections, no longer relying on regional rotation.”
For the many advocacy campaigns working to select a female secretary-general, the reaction to yet another man to be in charge of the UN was bruising, even if Guterres’s record on promoting women in his previous UN job was praiseworthy.
“The announcement today by the Security Council, with smiling faces, that they have chosen a man for SG once again is a disaster for equal rights and gender equality,” a statement from the Campaign to Elect a Woman Secretary-General was posted immediately after the Oct. 5 vote.
“It is unfair to both women and to East Europe and represents the usual backroom deals that still prevail at the UN,” the statement continued. “There were seven outstanding female candidates and in the end it appears they were never seriously considered. This is an outrage!”
Reporters at the UN tried to ask Power about the failure of a woman to be chosen, but her press officer whisked Power away.
Guterres, who was born in Lisbon, is well regarded at the UN, having been the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for 10 years, until his second term ended in December 2015. As prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002, Guterres helped to usher Portugal toward further democracy while also instituting such popular policies as guarantee of income, ensuring a safety net for the working class. He was known for holding dialogues among the political parties in Portugal rather than taking an authoritative approach, like his predecessors.
At times, that meant Guterres could not make important decisions, said a longtime observer of Portugal’s politics, but Guterres’s self-confidence always prevailed, to the point where nothing seemed to faze him.
Guterres’s role in the UN refugee agency has been well regarded, given that he helmed the agency during the incredible surge of refugees and migrants pouring into Europe from parts of Asia and Africa. Critics said he spent more money, budgetwise, than previous people who had the job but that he dealt with unprecedented challenges.
His success has not made him immune to social-media pranks. A Twitter account, @AntGuterres, opened on Sept. 29, claiming to be Guterres’s official site, announced his good news on Oct 5.
“An agreement has been reached. UN Security Council members to elect me as new UN Secretary General. I’m honored and happy.
“Thanks thanks thanks.”
Many ambassadors and other notables rallied to congratulate him and retweet comments, maybe too eagerly, as Twitter has since removed the account as a fake.
Lori Silberman Brauner and Laura Kirkpatrick contributed reporting to this article.
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.