5 Things to Know About the New UN Secretary General

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres visits a Somali refugee camp in Kenya in July 2011. Guterres is poised to become the new U.N. secretary general. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres visits a Somali refugee camp in Kenya in July 2011. Guterres is poised to become the new U.N. secretary general. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

It’s official — effective Jan. 1, António Guterres will take on the “world’s most impossible job.” In a straw poll held Oct. 5, the United Nations Security Council voted 13 to 0 with two abstentions to give the former Portuguese prime minister and U.N. high commissioner for refugees the job of U.N. secretary general. The U.N. General Assembly is expected to approve the Security Council’s decision shortly.

The Security Council passed on appointing the first woman to head the United Nations and decided not to give Eastern Europe a turn at the helm. What does this role involve exactly, and what challenges will the 9th U.N. Secretary General confront? Here are five things to know:

1) Multitasking skills are essential

The U.N. secretary general needs considerable leadership capabilities to coordinate and cajole the 193 U.N. member states. Manager, crisis mediator and global emergency response coordinator are just some of the many hats Guterres will wear.

The world sees the secretary general as a “secular pope,” someone who gives voice to the U.N. Charter and its aspiration for a peaceful and law-based order that protects human rights and the environment and promotes economic development. It will be no simple task to do all that without stepping on the toes of powerful governments — and with few financial resources and little formal authority to push U.N. members to make compromises and take collective action.

2) Leading the U.N. isn’t easy

A secretary general may have minimal power over member governments — but must push forward important issues such asoverlooked civil wars, the effects of climate change and the suffering of refugees. As a peacemaker, the secretary general channels information between belligerents, proposes possible solutions and helps both sides make concessions. When negotiations break down, the secretary general keeps the peace process alive by arranging cease-fires, keeping communications lines open and developingoptions for the Security Council.

The secretary general can also be an internal change agent, by setting the United Nations’ policy priorities, proposing budgets and organizing senior management and the U.N. Secretariat. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold (1953-1961) effectively fostered a culture of independence among U.N. staff. Outgoing Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (2007-2016) used his first year to restructure the U.N. Peacekeeping Department.

3) With crisis comes opportunity

My research argues that member governments give the secretary general greater freedom and authority during crises. For example, Hammarskjold used the 1953 downing of U.S. airmen in China to expand his office’s peacemaking authority and the 1956 Suez Canal crisis to deploy and manage the first modern U.N. peacekeeping force.

The secretary general occasionally spearheads new global commitments to solve common challenges. Climate activists applaud Ban’s contribution to the recently signed Paris Climate Agreement, while Secretary General Kofi Annan (1997-2006) helped facilitate the Millennium Development Goals and the Responsibility to Protect doctrine.

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SOURCE: Michael Schroeder 
The Washington Post