Tough tasks ahead for new UN chief Guterres

Mr Guterres (left) being sworn in as UN Secretary-General by the president of the General Assembly, Mr Peter Thomson, on Dec 12 last year at the United Nations in New York.
Mr Guterres (left) being sworn in as UN Secretary-General by the president of the General Assembly, Mr Peter Thomson, on Dec 12 last year at the United Nations in New York.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Challenges include crises in Syria and South Sudan, overcoming UN's crippling divisions

NEW YORK • Mr Antonio Guterres has taken the reins of the United Nations (UN), hoping to breathe new life into the world body.

The Portuguese former prime minister, 67, took over on Jan 1 as UN Secretary-General from South Korea's Mr Ban Ki Moon, inheriting complex crises in Syria, South Sudan, Yemen, Burundi and North Korea, a clunky entrenched bureaucracy and a bitterly divided Security Council.

He has laid out three priorities for change: working for peace, supporting sustainable development and improving internal UN management.

One issue looms above the others. "My deepest regret on leaving office is the continuing nightmare in Syria," Mr Ban recently declared.

The UN has looked on helplessly as the Syrian army, backed by Russia and Iran, laid siege to the rebel stronghold of Aleppo.

During almost six years of war, Russia has protected its Syrian ally from Western pressure by using its veto in the Security Council to torpedo resolutions over the conflict six times.

Now Russia is pushing a political solution to the crisis that would hugely favour Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, reinforced by his conquest of Aleppo.

Western diplomats believe Mr Guterres needs to put his own ideas on a settlement forward quickly, without binding himself to any formal peace plan. But right now, "he is keeping his cards close to his chest", one diplomat said.

Mr Donald Trump's arrival in the White House on Jan 20 will further complicate his task. The Republican billionaire has shown mistrust and even contempt towards the UN.

Mr Guterres must try to talk Mr Trump out of election campaign vows to cancel the Iran nuclear deal, to back Israeli settlements on land the UN sees as a future Palestinian state, and to withdraw from the UN-brokered climate change deal.

It is also unclear what effect a US-Russia rapprochement - something Mr Trump advocates - would have on the Security Council.

But Mr Guterres' unanimous election has energised UN diplomats, who see a skilled politician who might overcome the UN's crippling divisions.

Mr Guterres has acknowledged that "the Secretary-General is not the leader of the world", but rather that his work depends on the goodwill of the world's great powers. He has vowed to "engage personally" in conflict resolution. "We need more mediation, arbitration and preventive diplomacy," he said.

Other challenges include the helplessness and disunity marking the UN's response to the civil war that ravaged South Sudan for three years. Elsewhere, accusations of rape have permanently tarnished the reputation of UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic.

Mr Guterres has acknowledged all the criticism, saying "it is time for the United Nations to recognise its shortcomings and to reform the way it works". "The United Nations needs to be nimble, efficient and effective," he added.

Promising to build on existing efforts in management reform, Mr Guterres also promised "gender parity" among UN staff. He started by appointing three women to top posts, including Ms Amina Mohammed, formerly Nigeria's environment minister, as Deputy Secretary-General.

Mr Guterres on Sunday asked the world to make "one shared New Year's resolution: Let us resolve to put peace first. Let us make 2017 a year in which we all - citizens, governments, leaders - strive to overcome our differences".

He said: "All that we strive for as a human family - dignity and hope, progress and prosperity - depends on peace. But peace depends on us."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2017, with the headline 'Tough tasks ahead for new UN chief Guterres'. Print Edition | Subscribe