Ever since the day in 1946 when the first secretary-general of the United Nations, Trygve Lie of Norway, took office, big powers have meddled in how the job is done. Most often, the United States has been the most intrusive.
Lie resigned in 1953, before the end of his second, shortened term, with his global reputation damaged. The US had pressured him to open a Federal Bureau of Investigation office in the UN to ferret out imagined American “Communists sympathizers” in the organization, and Lie complied. Decades later, in 1996, the Clinton administration, running scared of a strengthened radical right-wing Congress, denied Boutros Boutros-Ghali, an Egyptian, a second term. He had antagonized the US and Israel on Middle East policies and other issues.
Kofi Annan was harassed during the George W. Bush presidency by right-wing critics in Congress, echoed in the media (and later proved unfounded) for allegedly allowing violations of UN sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Critics demanded Annan’s resignation. But when an 18-month investigation, led by Paul Volcker, a former US central bank chairman, revealed the guilty parties in what was known as the “oil for food” scandal, among them were dozens of companies beyond the reach of the UN, along with the Australian Wheat Board, a leading French diplomat and the head of India’s foreign ministry.
António Guterres, a Socialist former prime minister of Portugal, has been spared such public assaults and accusations. But his term in office, which began in January 2017 (and ends on Dec. 31, 2021), has been shadowed by a broader campaign of destruction against the UN system and multilateralism generally by Donald Trump and his team of isolationists. They have trampled on agreements and issues important to Guterres, such as climate change, universal human rights and equitable global public health services. Women’s rights, Guterres said, have been repressed globally by “stupid” patriarchies.
The question now being raised by UN-watchers is whether the low-key Guterres, soon free of the malignant Trump presidency, will get a second chance, in another term, to pursue his agenda with more public vigor under an internationalist Joe Biden team. Guterres, who is 71, has repeatedly refused to say publicly whether he will run again.
Lucia Mouat, in her book, “The United Nations’ Top Job: A Close Look at the Work of Eight Secretaries General,” suggests that surprises are possible. Dag Hammarskjold, who took over the job after Lie’s resignation, was a contemplative, intellectual Swede who seemed a safe choice endorsed by the big powers. In office, he turned out to be more assertive.
“In retrospect, Hammarskjold is considered the most effective, innovative and admired of all secretaries-general,” Mouat, a former UN correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, wrote. He became a global hero. Brian Urquhart, a legendary UN figure over decades, noted in an interview with Mouat, “You could go to Rio, New Delhi or Cape Town and the taxi driver would have heard of him and have an astonishingly clear idea of what he was trying to do.” Hammarskjold was killed in 1961 in a still-unsolved plane crash while on a risky diplomatic mission in Africa.
Recently, PassBlue asked four experienced UN observers, from the US, Guatemala and Japan, to assess Guterres’s first four years of his five-year term. Here are their replies:
Stephen Schlesinger is the author of “Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations,” and a frequent commentator on the UN. He wrote:
“UN Secretary-General Guterres has been a competent manager of the United Nations. However, he has not been by any measure an inspirational figure in the grand tradition of former Secretaries-General Dag Hammarskjold or Kofi Annan. Guterres is a politician by vocation. He has shown himself to be a prudent administrator, careful not to offend anybody. His most pressing focus has been on the technical aspects of the job, where he is also least likely to upset the member-states — in the peacekeeping/political affairs reorganization, restructuring the UN development system and streamlining the management of the Secretariat.
“Guterres’s attention to policy matters defaults to the safest outcomes. Thus, he has publicly identified himself with the Paris climate accord, the Sustainable Development Goals and a recent push to obtain cease-fires in conflicts around the planet during the Covid crisis. None of these positions are controversial for a secretary-general. Also, he has expanded female representation among the 180 senior leaders in the UN Secretariat.
“He has eschewed controversial issues, notably in the field of human rights. He is particularly careful to avoid stepping on the toes of the five veto nations on the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States. After all, they determine whether he can get a second term or not and also contribute heavily to the UN’s annual budget. Hence, he sidesteps speaking out about the treatment of the Uighurs in China or repression in Russia or even the Jamal Khashoggi murder by Saudi Arabia. Generally, he has left human rights to the high commissioner for human rights [currently, Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile]. He has also avoided delving too much into the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, Iran and other hot spots. He leaves them to his special UN emissaries.
“Guterres has had a bad hand to play. He has been in office during the era of Donald Trump, Xi of China and Putin of Russia. In the case of the United States, this means he has had to tolerate, without complaint, Trump’s bashing of the institution through his America First agenda, including withdrawal from the Human Rights Council, the Paris climate accord and the Iranian nuclear deal, among others — while at the same time he must try to cooperate enough with Trump to assure that the US, the largest UN donor (22 percent of the annual general budget) will continue to support the body financially. Basically, he has kept his head down.
“He has been for the most part an invisible figure on the world stage. He does not deliver eloquent speeches; he has not linked himself with any grand plans or visionary global policies. Nor has he really used his position as a moral arbiter or sounding board. There is a certain bland, if dutiful, aspect to his tenure. He has generally articulated progressive views as the secretary-general. Still, he is fundamentally a technician. In being so low-key, he may have missed unique opportunities to promote the UN and himself. He failed to take advantage of the UN’s 75th anniversary to project its image around the world — and draw attention to his own leadership. Admittedly, the Covid pandemic crimped his abilities to put on a celebratory event. In the final analysis, he is who he is.”
Yasuhiro Ueki is a professor in the department of global studies at Sophia University in Tokyo. He is a former political affairs officer and deputy spokesman for the UN who also worked in the UN mission in East Timor. He wrote:
“There are a few basic things that the UN secretary-general must do if he (in this case) wants to be re-elected for the second term. First and foremost, he must not make an enemy out of the permanent members of the Security Council during his first term. Two UN secretaries-general failed in this regard: Trygve Lie, who upset the Soviet Union over the UN response to the Korean war; and Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who quarreled with the United States over policy issues. Other secretaries-general tended during their first terms to maintaining good working relations with the permanent members. Secondly, the secretary-general must not make big mistakes politically. He does not have to have big successes, either. It is important for the secretary-general to maintain the house in order and to try not to politicize the UN.
“A secretary-general must appear to be reforming the UN to appeal to the member states by trying to make it as efficient as possible. The UN is a publicly funded organization. Therefore, this is a natural corollary. It does not matter in real life whether the UN has become more effective or not. The UN is such a large organization. It is hard to evaluate its effectiveness. It is a matter of degree, after all. But appearance is important for the secretary-general. Finally, it is important for the secretary-general to have no challenger to his post at the end of his first term.
“Just looking at the chances of Guterres getting re-elected from these standpoints, he has not made any enemy among the permanent members. He has been very careful in dealing with them. The most challenging was Trump. Guterres has maintained good distance from him. He met with Trump and impressed on him that he a was a reformer. Any money saved through reform would please Trump. Guterres did not contradict the US or other permanent members on most policy issues. No harm done.
“What are Guterres’s political successes during his first term? There have been no ‘Guterres Plans’ that resolved major crises. He did not make any major political mistakes, either. Guterres instituted a major organizational reform, particularly bringing the UN’s resident coordinator system in missions under his office. It made sense logically, but its real impact is yet to be tested. Still, appearance of such an effort is politically very important to Guterres.
“Now we are entering Guterres’s last year in his first five-year mandate. Any challenger to him? No. Everybody assumes that he will serve two terms, as has been the case with his two predecessors. Why challenge him now? The next challengers will make their noises when an end to Guterres’s second term is in sight. They are likely to come from Latin America, and I am sure that many women will be vying for the post next time around.”
Gert Rosenthal is a former foreign minister of Guatemala and Guatemalan ambassador to the UN. In recent years, he has taken on special assignments for the UN, including a critical 2019 report on the UN in Myanmar from 2010 to 2018. He replied to PassBlue through email exchanges, which have been condensed here:
Latin America as a region has not figured much among the priorities of the UN or the secretary-general, in Rosenthal’s view. He noted that although all Latin American countries have been traditionally firm supporters of the organization, positions have varied from country to country and over time. “During António Guterres’s term, the countries that have figured most on the SG’s agenda are Colombia and, to a lesser degree, Haiti,” Rosenthal wrote. “Also, Brazil, historically a strong supporter of multilateralism, has taken a more nuanced position towards the UN under the Jair Bolsonaro administration.”
“Guterres is known for his tact and caution in dealing with senior officials in member states of all stripes,” Rosenthal added. But from the Latin American perspective, one incident tested his diplomatic skills: a highly unusual confrontation provoked by the government of Guatemala in 2018 surrounding the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala.
The Commission was created by the Guatemalan peace accords of 1996, after years of conflict, to address the concern of both ex-combatants and civil society that the Guatemalan judiciary was too weak to deal with the legacy of illicit security forces and clandestine organizations that acted with total impunity during the war. “The Commission turned out to be a very creative institutional arrangement between a member state and the United Nations,” Rosenthal said. It was conceived as a Guatemalan institution and sanctioned by the Guatemalan Congress, with the cooperation of the UN. Specifically important, he added, “was the critical matter of giving the secretary-general the right to designate the head of this hybrid arrangement.”
The Commission began its work in September of 2007 — a decade before Guterres took office — with the full support of the government of Guatemala and enthusiastic assistance of a group of international donors. “It was quite successful in cases of human rights violations, proving to a skeptical population that impunity can be addressed,” Rosenthal said. But with time it became a victim of its success, he added, and garnered powerful detractors, including the organized crime cartels, numerous politicians and, ultimately, private sector organizations that were upset when some of their prominent members were charged with participating in corruption schemes.
The government of Jimmy Morales, who had been elected president in 2016, announced toward the end of 2017 that it intended to unilaterally terminate the Commission. Secretary-General Guterres resisted, indicating that the agreement that created the Commission did not contemplate unilateral decisions of that sort. A rather protracted period of tensions developed between Guatemala and the UN, the former accusing the organization of intervening in the country’s domestic affairs. President Morales even took the floor of the general debate of the 73rd session of the General Assembly to deliver a blistering attack against the UN and a personal attack against the secretary-general. But during this whole period, Guterres held firm. “He took a principled stance and appeared on the right side of history,” Rosenthal emphasized.
From a broader perspective, Guterres’s legacy from his first term will be remembered as a leader with a steady hand, who instituted rather profound internal reforms in the areas of peace and security, development and management, Rosenthal said, noting that Guterres had the misfortune of facing two major obstacles: first, the emergence of nationalist governments in different parts of the globe, and particularly in the United States, now highly skeptical of the organization it had been central in creating in 1945; and second, the Covid-19 pandemic. Both affected the work of the organization adversely in multiple ways. Nevertheless, in Rosenthal’s view, in the substantive arena, the secretary-general’s legacy, while not delivering major achievements, is also devoid of major failings. “Perhaps under the circumstances, it is the most one could have expected,” he said.
The International Center for Research on Women’s annual “Report Card” on Guterres:
In 2016, when finding a successor to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon topped the UN’s agenda, women became active in several outside campaigns to field a choice of mostly well-qualified candidates to break the chain of male dominance and install a woman as the UN’s ninth secretary-general. The candidates — seven women and six men — went through a nearly yearlong vetting process, peppered with public appearances to make their cases.
The big powers, who traditionally make the choice in back rooms, selected a man. But the winner, António Guterres of Portugal, had been the UN’s high commissioner for refugees for a decade and a former politician. He seemed to sense the changing mood around the UN, and even more widely in global civil society. Women were on the move and on the rise. He made promises to women, and the International Center for Research on Women and its Feminist UN Campaign decided to grade his performance periodically.
In Guterres’s first year in office, 2017, he was awarded a C+ based on six measures. He responded quickly, the authors of the report card said. They welcomed in particular his commitments to “publishing online more information about his efforts to advance gender equality [and] ensuring in his speeches to speak about women as active agents of change, not simply victims of discrimination and violence.”
In the report cards for the second and third years, Guterres got a B-minus each time. But issues of a pushback or stalling of the secretary-general’s efforts were becoming apparent. “Guterres and his team have continued to make some progress, but much as we see enormous backlash against women’s rights defenders around the world, so too is his leadership in this area being hobbled by bureaucratic inertia, funding shortfalls and overt opposition internally,” Lyric Thompson, senior director of policy and advocacy at the ICRW, wrote in the third report card.
A fourth one is being compiled to be released early next year, Spogmay Ahmed, the center’s global policy advocate, said in an interview with PassBlue. It will be a difficult year to cover, since the unexpected Covid-19 pandemic and the accompanying economic and social strains that affect women’s lives have introduced topics now engulfing the UN, such as the horrific rise in domestic violence against women and sex trafficking of girls. On April 5, 2020, Guterres released a video message worldwide, in which he said, while reminding listeners that he was calling for global cease-fires during the pandemic, “Violence is not confined to the battlefield.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.