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OpinionsCan the new UN general-secretary make a difference?

Can the new UN general-secretary make a difference?


Lyse Doucet

Antonio Guterres will face herculean battles on many fronts.

Imagine a job application which says: strong preference is for a woman from Eastern Europe.

And then, the winning candidate? It's a man from Western Europe.

“I'm not a woman and there's nothing I can do about that,” Antonio Guterres tells me with an apologetic smile, in an interview for BBC News last week – his first interview after he received a standing ovation and a unanimous vote in the UN General Assembly.

But the next UN secretary-general took pains to emphasise he was “deeply committed to a big push for gender equality in the UN”.

His transition team, comprising three women and two men from Tunisia, the United States, South Korea, Portugal and Jamaica, is already at work to prepare him for his new job which starts on January 1.

One of his senior aides tells me that his deputy UN secretary-general will be a “woman from the south”.

Guterres is acutely aware he will be judged on his promise to promote gender equality. There's added emphasis in the midst of accusations of systemic gender bias in the UN club which weighed against the five female candidates who competed against as many men in the final list.

The 67-year-old whose candidacy marked a rare consensus and clarity in the Security Council, the UN's most powerful body, will face herculean battles on many fronts.

“He inherits a very difficult world,” Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin says of the man he describes as the “the best candidate available” for the job.

When I remind ambassador Churkin that the first UN secretary-general called the job “the most impossible job on earth”, he replies “almost impossible”.

Guterres will need to muster all the great skills and goodwill which landed him the job of world's top diplomat.

That includes the political savvy developed during his years as Portugal's prime minister and president of the Socialist . There's also his understanding of the inner workings of the UN system and the world at large gained through his decade as the UN's refugee chief.

“I saw how he was able to travel the world, pick up the phone and call anyone,” recounts Melissa Fleming, his former UNHCR spokesman who is now a special advisor and spokesperson on his transition team. “Everyone was ready to meet him,” she says.

Doors were open even though he's known as a man who speaks his mind. His was a diplomat's school of hard knocks as he berated and cajoled world leaders, often unsuccessfully, to do more to respond to the worst refugee crisis in decades.

On a panel of the World Economic Forum, with senior Jordanian and Western officials insisting they could not open their doors to more refugees because of security fears, Guterres bluntly retorted: “Refugees are not terrorists.” Then, he said it again, in case it had not been clear.

As he sat cross-legged in a cold shack in Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp, an extended Syrian family huddled around him, a microphone picked up his lament that “Syria hasn't had enough help from the world”.

In his interview with me for BBC World News, Guterres describes his job as “an honest broker, a messenger for peace, and a bridge builder”.

And he acknowledges his “first and biggest challenge” would be to end the suffering of Syria which “has broken our hearts”.

The agony and anguish of Aleppo symbolises the world's failure to stop a nation's descent into appalling destruction and despair.

Successive UN Syria envoys have cited the gridlock in the UN Security Council as a major element in their failure to stop the fighting and provide vital humanitarian aid.

Guterres will open this file at a time when tensions between Russia and the United States, backing rival sides in this terribly tangled conflict, are at their worst since the Cold War of decades ago.

It's still not clear what Guterres can bring to the table. It's often said the job is more secretary than general.

“Someone who won unanimity from the Security Council has more moral authority to push the great powers,” says Ghassan Salame, former senior advisor to Kofi Annan when he served as a UN Syria envoy. “He has their confidence and has seen the Syrian tragedy from very close.”

Others are more sceptical. “After what we saw during his time as UN refugee chief, I fear we may have an efficient politician, not a leader,” remarks a senior Western official.

“But Kofi Annan became a different man so one must hope,” he adds, referring to Annan's tenure as UN secretary-general.

Many expect much of a new secretary-general designate who speaks eloquently and passionately, in four different languages, for the values the UN is meant to embody.

But Antonio Guterres will be judged by what difference he makes in the lives of women and men, girls and boys, the world over. That's the job he's signed up for.


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