It was all over in one crucial week. Barring an unforeseen hitch, António Guterres is the clear winner of a second, five-year term as secretary-general of the United Nations, beginning on Jan.1, 2022. This was not a surprise: he had no major competition and the process moved faster than expected.
A three-hour question-and-answer session with UN diplomats from around the world in the General Assembly on May 7 appeared to support a growing sense internationally that the Security Council may decide by late June or July, three months before the normal deadline for a candidacy to go to the General Assembly for final affirmation. Guterres spoke mostly in generalities at the session, but he sometimes used statistics and technical points about his vision for the UN in the ensuing years. The center of his campaign in 2016, on preventing conflicts, has not been borne out under his current leadership, some diplomats contend.
The Armenian ambassador, Mher Margaryan, asked Guterres, for example, how he would “strengthen” the UN’s response to early-warning signs of atrocity crimes occurring. (United States President Joe Biden recently recognized the 1915 Armenian genocide during the Ottoman Empire.)
Guterres answered, in brief, that the problem was not missing early-warning signs but “the problem is in early action.”
In July, the rotating presidency of the Council will be held by France, which may announce the decision to back the 72-year-old Guterres, a diplomat from Latin America told PassBlue. The European Union has been the strongest supporter of the incumbent secretary-general, as Guterres is from Portugal, so a fellow European. He was the only candidate proposed by a government, Portugal.
The Biden administration has not formally and publicly endorsed Guterres. In remarks to a Security Council debate on multilateralism, also on May 7, however, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke of a renewed American commitment to the UN Charter and international cooperation after the destructive Trump years.
“Nationalism is resurgent, repression is rising. Rivalries among countries are deepening — and attacks against the rules-based order are intensifying,” he said to his fellow Council members and the public. “Now, some question whether multilateral cooperation is still possible.”
“Multilateralism is still our best tool for tackling big global challenges, like the one that’s forcing us to gather on a screen today rather than around a table,” Blinken added, describing the Council’s virtually staged session because of the pandemic.
On May 4, the General Assembly president, Volkan Bozkir, explained in a news conference why he had ruled out candidates other than Guterres for the May 7 event. Seven people have submitted applications to him in the last few months, and civil society organizations were also calling for a wider slate. Bozkir, a Turk, passed all applications to the Council, he said at the news conference.
“It looks like the Security Council has a view that only candidates or applicants supported by a country will be considered by the Security Council,” he said to numerous questions on the process. None of the applicants, including those from civil society, has been recognized by Bozkir or any of the monthly rotating Council presidents, who both lead the procedure.
Further confusing reporters, Bozkir added, “And again, this doesn’t necessarily mean that a person who is supported by a country will get the guarantee of becoming a candidate.”
None of the Council’s permanent members with veto power — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US — has so far publicly questioned a second term for Guterres. And Guterres has certainly not ruffled those countries’ feathers too much, to the consternation of certain civil society advocates, like Human Rights Watch. In 1996, the US vetoed a second term for Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt and persuaded other Council members to back Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian, who then served two terms unopposed.
How and why did Guterres win the approval of the Security Council members so easily? With Western support locked in, he spoke last week by phone with Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, without revealing whether the subject of the secretary-generalship came up. China has welcomed his bid for a second term.
Guterres is planning a trip to Moscow from May 12 to 13. The speech by Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, at the Security Council session on May 7 was the most bitter during the discussion of multilateralism. His remarks were directed at Western democracies.
Guterres, who was UN high commissioner for refugees for a decade, has been what could be described as an acceptable head of the UN for many of its 193 member governments. He is, however, not a popular or well-known figure outside the UN, nor is he much liked among many employees of the organization, according to civil society groups, advocates and some UN staff themselves. He is criticized for being a secretive minimalist who has not dealt well with internal crises, such as the continuing, documented sexual abuse in and around UN peacekeeping and the scant help available for survivors of rape and other assaults.
Women are often the most vulnerable people not only where UN peacekeeping operations are based or in active conflict zones but also in refugee camps or ad hoc congregations of displaced people. Men and children also suffer. When babies are born of rape, they often grow up in extreme poverty, hungry and stigmatized for life, and the UN refers the resolution of these hardships to the national governments of the peacekeepers instead of getting involved directly.
Guterres said on May 7 in the General Assembly in response to critiques and questions from civil society participants (only two were given the opportunity to be heard) that the UN was, for example, meeting resistance from governments over problems like conducting paternity tests of peacekeepers when complaints were lodged.
In his introductory remarks to diplomats taking part in the live session, in which he appeared flustered at times, he acknowledged that much of civil society had not been offered seats “at the world’s main diplomatic table.” He added that cities, the corporate world and young people are “essential voices that must he heard.”
He also said, agreeing with some envoys who raised the issue at the dialogue, that the UN system needed better coordination of all its parts — agencies, programs and semiautonomous bodies like the World Health Organization. Yet that bureaucratic challenge has never been solved by any secretary-general, despite attempts at reform.
The most insistent opposition to the renewal of Guterres’s appointment came from advocates for the election of a woman and diverse groups that generally backed a more transparent process for selecting the chief official of the UN, such as the 1 for 7 Billion campaign. The UN, at 76 years old, has never been led by a woman. The demands of advocates included adding women to the list of candidates and not requiring applicants to have official endorsement of governments. But both requests have been overlooked by Bozkir and the monthly Security Council presidents.
The important involvement of advocates for a woman as secretary-general is a sign of changing times. More women are emerging in top political positions in many countries, corporations and other high-profile organizations.
Some, like Angela Merkel, the retiring German chancellor, made it clear that she did not want the job of UN secretary-general, despite persistent questions about her interests. Other women elected as prime ministers or presidents of their countries think they would be more useful in geopolitics as national leaders. And some of the women who could have challenged Guterres this year saw the light early on: as a male incumbent who knew how to navigate around the self-interests of the permanent Council members, he was a shoo-in.
In 2016, under a more open campaign process, there was no incumbent. Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean who had completed two terms, was also a widely criticized secretary-general for an administration that was often cloaked in secrecy and shielded by fellow South Korean aides. Well-qualified women competed to be elected his successor in 2016, a position that ultimately went to Guterres, a former prime minister.
Among the women competing in 2016 were Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian and former director-general of Unesco; Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand and administrator of the UN Development Program; Kristalina Georgieva, also Bulgarian, a former European Commissioner for International Cooperation and now managing director of the International Monetary Fund; and Susana Malcorra, who had been Ban’s chief of staff before becoming Argentina’s foreign minister when she ran.
This year, there were no equally qualified women interested in seeking the job against considerable odds; the few campaigns that surfaced — including self-proclaimed “protest candidates” fighting UN “corruption” — quickly became sideshows. Even one potentially serious candidate who emerged recently, Rosalía Arteaga, a short-lived president of Ecuador, said she had the support of President Lenín Moreno but then asked him to drop it, as she preferred to be a “civil society” candidate, she told PassBlue in an email. (A new Ecuadorean president, Guillermo Lasso, is to be inaugurated this month.)
Many feminist organizations, realizing the futility of launching campaigns for candidates this year, opted to wait it out until the 2027 term. With the world in crisis on many fronts and a seasoned politician in charge at the UN, it was believed that being a woman was not enough this year. Moreover, no woman wanted to compete, keenly aware of the negative optics of losing.
A list of six Latin American women — some former heads of state, like Michelle Bachelet of Chile (now the UN high commissioner for human rights) — circulated this spring among high-level political circles in the region to test who might be the most successful candidate to run for secretary-general next time. But Eastern Europe, which tried to win the current term because it was that region’s unofficial turn to claim the job, is ready to contest Latin America on that front.
Last month, Maritza Chan, a diplomat from Costa Rica, pointed out in a meeting at the UN about the overall secretary-general selection process that her country “strongly believes that the time has come to select a female secretary-general. . . . We believe that should qualifications among candidates be equal, we should choose a woman.”
By doing this, she added, “we uphold the principle of equality and empower the women of today and tomorrow.”
Lyric Thompson is the senior director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women, which grades the work of Guterres with annual report card on gender issues. He got a B for 2020, up from a C- in 2017 and a B- in both 2018 and 2019.
Thompson, who was a member of the Biden administration’s delegation to the UN’s annual Commission on the Status of Women this year, pointed to tough speeches by Guterres warning of pushbacks on women’s rights and his frequent condemnations of worsening violence against women and girls. He also attempted, with limited success, to persuade governments to donate more financially to UN initiatives on women.
Indeed, Guterres calls entrenched patriarchy “stupid,” and told an audience in New York City early in 2020: “Just as slavery and colonialism were a stain on previous centuries, women’s inequality should shame us all in the twenty-first.”
In an interview with PassBlue early this year, Thompson said that feminists were focusing on the next election for a secretary-general.
“I think we will see an unprecedented drive for a female SG after his second term,” she said, adding that “this is a long way off. . . . “
This article was updated on May 10 and May 27, 2021.
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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.