'The most impossible job on this earth'

UNITED NATIONS • It's a job that was described by its first incumbent, Mr Trygve Lie, as "the most impossible job on this earth".

When Mr Antonio Guterres takes over the reins of the United Nations as secretary-general next year, he will inherit an organisation with 193 member states and a mammoth bureaucracy that has haphazardly evolved.

The UN Charter says little about the top job, which is defined by the incumbent and circumstance, notes The Guardian. No one can meet everyone's expectations or standard and people often seek the qualities lacking in the last holder, as well as those that seem the most needed at the time.

Mr Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister, will step into the secretary-general's role at a time when 24 people worldwide are fleeing their homes every minute due to war or persecution. But he will have only the authority that is permitted by the great powers and which will be determined by negotiations between them.

For this reason, the secretary-general requires the icy realism to make necessary compromises, while also having the most passionate idealism to seek the best possible outcome. That may prove to be a difficult task at a time when relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated badly.

Although Mr Guterres' nomination was widely hailed, there was disappointment among some, who had hoped to see the first female secretary-general or a candidate from Eastern Europe. In that sense, it will be disappointing if it turns out that Mr Guterres' appointment was made solely on the basis of who was the least offensive candidate and which favours could be traded for support.

Crucial to the new secretary-general's efforts is the need to get UN humanitarian and peacekeeping operations into shape. The world body has 100,000 peacekeepers worldwide, but their ranks are stretched thin and besmirched by failures to protect, abuse and cover-ups.

Mr Guterres' predecessor, Mr Ban Ki Moon, has been admired for his efforts to get nations to address climate change through delicate prodding and cajoling, The Guardian notes. But there is now a hunger for a strong crisis negotiator or a charismatic moral force at the helm of the UN. In that regard, Mr Guterres' role as head of the UN's refugee agency from 2005 to 2015 put him at the forefront of some of the world's worst refugee crises. That experience could serve the world body well.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2016, with the headline ''The most impossible job on this earth''. Print Edition | Subscribe