Portugal's Antonio Guterres poised to be next UN secretary-general

Antonio Guterres speaking to reporters on the selection of the next UN Secretary-General in April 2016.
Antonio Guterres speaking to reporters on the selection of the next UN Secretary-General in April 2016.PHOTO: AFP

UNITED NATIONS, United States (AFP) - Portugal’s former prime minister Antonio Guterres is poised to become the next secretary-general of the United Nations following a decisive vote by the Security Council on Wednesday (Oct 5).

Guterres, who led the UN’s refugee agency for a decade, won backing in the straw poll from 13 of the 15 council members while none of the five veto-holding powers blocked his candidacy.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin emerged from the council chamber along with the 14 other ambassadors to declare that Guterres was on course to succeed Ban Ki-moon as the world’s diplomat-in-chief.

“We have a clear favourite and his name is Antonio Guterres,” he said.

Churkin announced that a formal vote by the council will take place on Thursday to confirm the choice of Guterres, adding that he expected the selection to be “by acclamation.”

“We wish Mister Guterres well in discharging his duties as the secretary general of the United Nations in the next five years,” he added.

As the first former head of government to lead the world body, the 67-year-old Socialist politician has pledged to revamp the United Nations to bolster its peacemaking efforts and promote human rights.

During the secret ballot, Guterres won four positive votes from veto holders and one “no opinion”, clearing the way for him to become the new UN chief.

Veto-holders Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States used color-coded ballots to indicate for the first time whether they intended to block a candidate.

Guterres, who was Portugal’s prime minister from 1995 to 2002, had held the number-one spot in the previous five informal votes, but the quick consensus decision took many diplomats by surprise.

Once he is formally endorsed by the Security Council, Guterres will be presented to the General Assembly for it to approve his candidacy. The new UN chief begins his five-year term on January 1.

France’s Ambassador Francois Delattre said the choice of Guterres – who speaks French, English and Spanish as well as Portuguese – was “good news for the United Nations” while British envoy Matthew Rycroft said he will make a “very strong, effective secretary-general”.

US Ambassador Samantha Power described Guterres’ experience and vision as “compelling” and stressed the need for an effective leader at the UN helm during a time of multiple global crises.

“We are united in understanding the gravity of the threats that are out there,” said Power.

 

Describing Guterres as “exceptional”, Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, said: “The best person for the job was selected and it is very good for the world, it is very good for the United Nations, it is very good for Portugal.” 

Human Rights Watch’s UN director Louis Charbonneau said Guterres could “strike a radically new tone on human rights at a time of great challenge” but cautioned that he will be judged on his ability to stand up to the veto powers.

There were 10 candidates in the race to become the next UN chief including EU budget commissioner Kristalina Georgieva from Bulgaria who entered the fray just last week.

Georgieva failed to garner crucial support from two of the permanent members, with speculation turning to Russia’s opposition to her candidacy.

The former World Bank vice-president received eight negative votes including two from veto-holding members, five positive votes including two from the permanent council members and two “no opinion.” 

Unesco chief Irina Bokova, who was pushed aside by the Bulgarian government to make way for Georgieva, received two negative votes from veto-holders.

Throughout the campaign, there had been calls for the council to choose the first woman secretary-general and to pick a candidate from eastern Europe, the only region that has not been represented in the top job.

Another high-profile woman in the race, Argentina’s Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, received one negative vote from a veto-holder, while Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak received two, according to diplomats.

New Zealand’s former prime minister and head of the UN Development Programme Helen Clark received three negative votes from the veto powers as did Serbia’s ex-foreign minister Vuk Jeremic, Macedonia’s ex-foreign minister Srgjan Kerim and Natalia Gherman of Moldova.

Slovenia’s former president Danilo Turk received four negative votes from the permanent five members.