António Guterres was sworn in as the ninth United Nations secretary-general on Dec. 12 in a low-key ceremony played out in the General Assembly Hall, featuring moving tributes by ambassadors to the 10 years that Ban Ki-moon has led the UN, a job he hands to Guterres on Jan. 1. Among other remarks, Guterres pledged gender parity in top UN posts through his administration.
Guterres’s speech to the UN representatives assembled in the General Assembly on Monday morning ran along two parallel lines: how the UN must help the world in a more constructive, crucial way and how it must fix itself. Although he did not dwell on the Syrian war, which has moved into a seeming military triumph for the government and Russia, Guterres said, “Our most serious shortcoming — and here I refer to the entire international community — is our inability to prevent crises.
“The United Nations was born from war. Today we must be here for peace.”
In his speech, Guterres touched on the huge disconnect between voters in many parts of the world and their governments, reflecting a gut rejection of the political status quo and magnified in the recent presidential election in the US, in the surge of far-right parties in such European countries as France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and the Netherlands and in the decision by the British electorate to have the country exit the European Union.
“It is time to reconstruct relations between people and leaders — national and international,” Guterres said. “Time for leaders to listen and show that they care, about their own people and about the global stability and solidarity on which we all depend.
“And it is time for the United Nations to do the same: to recognize its shortcomings, and to reform the way it works. This organization is the cornerstone of multilateralism, and has contributed to decades of relative peace. But the challenges are now surpassing our ability to respond. The UN must be ready to change.”
Guterres’s five-year term coincides with the arrival of a new president, Donald Trump, into the White House for four years. Throughout the Obama administration, the US has been the UN’s loyal and largest financial backer. No one can say with certainty, however, that this relationship will last, especially if John Bolton is named deputy secretary of state for the US, as rumored. Bolton was a temporary permanent representative to the UN under the George W. Bush administration. In 1994, Bolton famously said of the UN: “The Secretariat Building in New York has 38 stories. If you lost ten stories today, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”
The swearing-in ceremony at the UN, which lasted nearly two hours, involved a formal oath read by Guterres, who was a Portuguese former prime minister and managed the UN’s refugee agency for 10 years through 2015. His wife, Catarina de Almeida Vaz Pinto, was in the audience.
Guterres’s succinct speech was preceded by much praise for Ban’s achievements, including the promotion of women’s rights at the UN and throughout the world. Yet this part of the ceremony fell grossly short of equal time for half the world’s population. Only one speaker among six people representing the UN’s regional groupings was female — Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN. Later, ambassadors designated to officially congratulate Guterres numbered five women among at least 20 men: it was hard to find the females.
Power was the only person in the regional speechmaking thread to mention Ban’s wife, Yoo Soon-taek.
“Let me also thank Mrs. Ban for her exemplary service, or the compassion that she exudes everywhere she goes, and also — perhaps less heralded — for her sacrifice and that of her family,” Power, the mother of two children, said. “It’s not easy to marry into a job like this one, but you have shown nothing but grace from the beginning.”
Guterres reiterated in his remarks that one of his most important goals in his first 100 days of office — which calculates to early April — will be ensuring gender parity in senior-job appointments at the UN.
As he told the media after his swearing-in: “I think that one very important element of the agenda will be to give a clear signal that gender parity is a must, and so, in the appointments I’ll be making, and the first ones will be announced soon, you will see that gender parity will become a clear priority from top to bottom in the UN. And it will have to be respected by all.”
(His deputy, whose name has not been announced, is most likely to be a woman, and he asked reporters to dispense with the honorific of calling him “excellency.”)
Not coincidentally, a new exhibition, “HERstory: A Celebration of Leading Women in the United Nations,” runs from Dec. 13-23 in a UN foyer. The time-line display shows how women have contributed to the UN — mostly stuck behind the scenes — through their jobs and other roles in the world body and outside it, with Eleanor Roosevelt the embodiment of such value. The display was organized by the Colombian mission to the UN, whose ambassador is María Emma Mejía.
Mejía is one of the most visible feminist ambassadors at the UN, having originated the Group of Friends in Favor of a Woman Candidate for Secretary-General last year, now renamed the Group of Friends for Gender Parity, to provide advice to Guterres, Mejía told PassBlue, to improve gender rates in the UN. (The group’s 61 member countries include just one of the Security Council’s five permanent members, France; leaving Britain, China, Russia and the US outside the loop.)
Guterres’s other immediate goals, he said, include improving the UN’s internal management by enhancing its communications, breaking down its infamous bureaucracy and becoming more decentralized to create better flexibility in what it does.
Yet it is development, he emphasized, that would take center stage of the UN’s work through the 17 sustainable development goals as the ultimate recipe for addressing the world’s worst problems — conflict, refugees, poverty, human-rights abuses, unemployment, famine, corruption, gender inequality — as well as in the UN itself.
“Twenty-one years ago, when I took the oath of office to become prime minister of Portugal, the world was riding a wave of optimism,” Guterres told the UN General Assembly, in English and in French. “The Cold War had ended; and some described that as the end of history. They believed we would live in a peaceful, stable world with economic growth and prosperity for all.
“But the end of the Cold War wasn’t the end of history. On the contrary, history had simply been frozen in some places. When the old order melted away, history came back with a vengeance.”
Guterres, who is 67 and was born in Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, noted that conflicts have become more complex and interlinked, and that they “produce horrific violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses. People have been forced to flee their homes on a scale unseen in decades. And a new threat has emerged — global terrorism.
“Megatrends — including climate change, population growth, rapid urbanization, food insecurity, and water scarcity — have increased competition for resources and heightened tensions and instability.”
Fear, he said bluntly, “is driving the decisions of many people around the world.”
The tributes to Ban, who is 72, focused heavily on his work in promoting the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which went into effect in November, and pushing through the global development goals.
Ban’s work on reforming UN peacekeeping — stopping sexual abuse by troops — was also cited, as were his efforts to fighting terrorism, resolving the refugee crisis, encouraging an active role for women in peace negotiations, disarmament and protecting the “vulnerable” – people of all sexual-preference stripes.
The representative from Latvia, speaking for Eastern Europe, noted Ban’s “subtle humor as you tackled this most impossible job.”
It was Ban himself who could finally let his hair down, marking his remaining days of a grueling 10 years of speechmaking, traveling, hand-holding, fretting and worrying, taking calls from irate leaders and dealing with scores of deadly crises spreading from continent to continent.
Reminding the General Assembly of his obscure beginning as a child born into a country of residual conflict, a situation that seared his soul, Ban said: “As some of you said, I am a child of the United Nations. After the Korean War, UN aid fed us. UN textbooks taught us. UN global solidarity showed us we were not alone. For me, the power of the United Nations was never abstract or academic. It is the story of my life, and many Korean people. It is a story of many millions, and millions of people around the world, many children, young boys and girls.
“This profound appreciation grew even stronger every day during my service with the United Nations.”
Julie Vanderperre contributed reporting to this article.
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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.