António Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who has been United Nations secretary-general since January 2017, is seeking a second five-year term in office, beginning Jan. 1, 2022. UN officials confirmed on Jan. 11 that on Friday, Jan. 8, Guterres told the five permanent members of the Security Council of his decision. He also spoke to the president of the General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, a Turkish diplomat, who had originally requested the information from Guterres.
On Jan. 11, UN officials said that Guterres notified Bozkir by letter of his intentions as well as the current president of the Security Council, Tarek Ladeb, Tunisia’s ambassador to the UN. Guterres let heads of regional and political groups know about his intent over the weekend. (Guterres’s letter to Ladeb is here.)
The permanent Council members — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — will make their choice known in coming months. There is no deadline for the decision, which needs only the approval of the 193-member General Assembly after the fact. A new process selecting the secretary-general was outlined in a 2015 General Assembly resolution, spurred by civil society and a coalition of UN member states pushing for more transparency in the 2016 selection process, in which seven women and six men competed. In the past, the selection of a secretary-general had been done secretively. Nevertheless, the US and Russia were the main decision-makers in the final pick of Guterres, announced in October 2016, despite more openness through public dialogues and a series of straw polls in the Council.
“Since assuming office, I have had the privilege of working towards the reform of the UN to meet the aspirations of member states, striving for the dignity and the well-being of people, while ensuring the sustainability of our planet for future generations,” Guterres wrote in his letter notifying the parties of his intention for another term, according to Reuters. Bloomberg News was the first to report on Guterres’s plans. He has not tweeted about them.
Guterres’s bid for a second term was not unexpected, since he has no serious challengers for the job at this point, although some women in the UN arena were waiting to see what Guterres would do, since he has refused to reveal until now his intentions. A second term would be easier for the incumbent with the departure of President Trump, who scorned global institutions.
“Women will have to wait,” one Latin American diplomat told PassBlue, “unless the Security Council and General Assembly decide otherwise.”
Trump’s successor, Joseph Biden, is known as an internationalist in outlook and experience who announced he will return the US to international agreements and agencies from which Trump withdrew or criticized repeatedly.
Biden has also nominated a leading diplomat for the recently neglected job of US ambassador to the UN. The proposed envoy, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, has been assistant secretary of state for African affairs and is an expert on the region, which was denigrated by Trump. The UN spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, said he didn’t know if Guterres had spoken to Thomas-Greenfield since her nomination was announced.
Guterres, 71, has played his role wisely and carefully, Yasuhiro Ueki, a professor in the department of global studies at Sophia University in Tokyo who was political affairs officer and deputy spokesman for the UN, said in an email interview with PassBlue.
“Just looking at the chances of Guterres getting re-elected . . . he has not made any enemy among the permanent members,” Ueki wrote. “The most challenging was Trump. Guterres has maintained good distance from him. Guterres did not contradict the US or other permanent members on most policy issues. 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.”
Before Guterres was chosen in October 2016 as designated successor to Ban Ki-moon, a concerted effort was made by a range of civil society organizations to have a woman picked as secretary-general for the first time. With Guterres in a strong position to be re-elected this year, a similar campaign has not emerged yet, though women’s organizations in particular remain active on the issue. Western Europe has been keen to keep Guterres in the job, even though other regions think the next UN leader should come from their parts of the world.
One nongovernmental organization, the American-based International Center for Research on Women, produces an annual “report card” on Guterres — the one for 2020 will be completed soon.
“With the news that Guterres will seek a second term, we’re encouraging him to double down on achieving gender equality as a cornerstone of his campaign and a priority focus in a second term,” Lyric Thompson, senior director for policy and advocacy, said in a comment to PassBlue about the news on Guterres.
“Where he has made great strides in advancing gender parity within the UN system and been a visible advocate for women’s rights and gender in COVID-19 response and recovery,” she wrote, “in term two, he should focus on increasing resourcing for gender equality and insuring accountability for violations of women’s human rights, within the system and globally.
“This should be a cornerstone of his campaign and a key focus of his final year of the first term, including leading the UN delegation to the Generation Equality Forum events [in connection with the Commission on the Status of Women] this spring and summer, sending a strong expectation that from his office on down, all entities and governments alike are expected to make transformative commitments for which progress will be reported publicly over the duration of their five years.”
Human Rights Watch responded to the news about Guterres, saying in a statement, in part: “If confirmed, he should not be handed a new term on a silver platter. The process should include multiple candidates who all publicly present concrete plans to improve the UN, including how to reinforce its human rights pillar at a time when some governments are actively working to undermine it. Guterres’ performance on human rights over the past four years has been mixed, largely characterized by an unwillingness to publicly criticize rights-abusing governments by name and a preference for closed-door diplomacy.”
As for the next step in the process, Bozkir’s spokesperson, Brenden Varma, wrote in a media summary on Jan. 11, after speaking virtually to journalists, that General Assembly Resolution 69/321 requests the presidents of the General Assembly and Security Council to “start the process of soliciting candidates for the position of Secretary General through a joint letter addressed to all Member States.” Bozkir spoke with his Security Council counterpart, Ambassador Ladeb, by phone on Jan. 11 and is meeting with him tomorrow on the matter; once they send a letter to the UN member states, more information will be provided, Varma said.
Asked in his briefing if Guterres and other possible candidates would be interviewed by member states, Varma said it was too early to discuss more details about the process. It is not clear, for example, if there will be other candidates. Varma noted that in the 2016 process, when member states agreed on having a “more transparent and inclusive process,” an incumbent candidate was not involved. So “nothing set in stone about exact procedures or dates,” he said in his summary, adding “this would be determined and communicated to Member States.”
He noted that a submission of vision statements or informal dialogues with member states and Guterres and other candidates in the process needs to be clarified. Bozkir is scheduled to hold a media briefing physically in the UN on Jan. 15, his first since mid-September.
Due to an editing error, this article has been updated: Guterres is 71 years old, not 70.
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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.