Letter from America

Written By: Ian Williams
Published: October 25, 2016 Last modified: October 25, 2016

It was not good week for the bean counters. António Guterres is neither East European, nor female, but the newly designated ninth UN Secretary General is indisputably the best person for the job. In the end, it is almost reassuring to note that the permanent five and the other members of the Council care enough about the organization to choose the best candidate!

Guterres walked to an easy finish as soon as the first “real” straw ballot – in which the veto-holding permanent members showed their true colors by voting with red ballot papers. If those who wanted a woman had united behind one suitably qualified candidate, they might have won the day, but seven women running against each other made it easier for the best candidate to win. In fact, from the permanent five only Britain said it would prefer a female candidate, but presumably drew the line at an Argentinean foreign minister who wants the Malvinas back, or a Bulgarian apparatchik with Putin’s hearty support. The key issue was whether veto-wielding Moscow could take a West European democratic socialist. It was helped when Bulgaria supported a second Bulgarian candidate weakening the expedient Russian stand for an East European and a woman, by which they meant Irina Bukova the head of UNESCO.

The newly “transparent” procedure, under which candidates addressed the General Assembly with its 193 members, did expose the selection to the light of day. Even if the Security Council made the final decision, it did so knowing it had to choose from candidates who had been under the scrutiny of the Assembly and the public. One wonders whether Kurt Waldheim or Perez de Cuellar would have passed such scrutiny.

Guterres’ candidacy was also helped by support from African countries who maintain good relations with Portugal, whose socialist Rose revolution ended the colonial power’s wars of repression, and also by his record as head of the UN refugee agency, the most overworked, active and least hidebound section of the UN apparatus.

Not least, as a former Prime Minister of an important, but non-threatening power, with his relationships with world leaders going back years, not to mention contacts across the whole spider’s web of UN organizations, Guterres is not going to be a mere secretary, taking dictation from the great powers. He has an independent stature and presence that will help him tell the not-so-good great powers when they are failing in their responsibilities. Sadly, as we see in Syria, and indeed Yemen, that is all too often.

Intriguingly but understandably, the elephant in the room is that none of the candidates mentioned the Israel-Palestine issue, even though it occupies so much time and effort at the UN. This was an issue that Ban Ki-Moon had taken some time to acquaint himself with, and after visiting Gaza he quickly learnt that Washington’s views were not shared by the rest of the world. Within a short time, Ban was condemning settlements and assaults on Gaza with a brio that would have risked his suspension from the Labour Party as an anti-Semite.

In contrast, Guterres hits the ground running. As Portuguese Prime Minister, as President of the Socialist International, and above all as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, he has been deeply involved in the Middle East in all its manifestations, not least in its tragic role as one of the globe’s leading producers of refugees.

He lamented in 2014, that the world’s various refugee crises “pale in comparison to the desperate situation of the Palestinians, the largest protracted refugee situation in the world”. He pointed out that Palestinians in Syria were “being forced to flee for the second time,” but it was “shocking” that Gazans “could not even flee to seek safety” from the latest Israeli onslaught. “No one wants to be a refugee. But for the people of Gaza, not even that was an option.”

The rational conclusion is that Israel once again faces a UN Secretary General who is quite prepared to talk to its leaders, some of whom he knew from the Socialist International, but who will firmly remind them that they are not exempt from the UN Charter and International Law.

A Secretary General has many other problems to face. Climate Change, world poverty, the teetering international financial situation and great power conflicts more threatening than anything since the fall of the Berlin Wall. On all of these, he can do little or nothing without the backing of the world’s major powers, but the evidence of his career is that he is in position to do better than any other candidate would have been. His election is good news for the UN and the world.

While in internationalist mode, Guterres is a former President of the Socialist International, from which the Labour Party withdrew with no debate or membership consultation a few years ago. It is now only an observer party,  though it actually refounded it in 1951, Neil Kinnock is still listed as an honorary President and its headquarters is still in London. The new Labour leadership may have other things to think about,but it would be good to rejoin the SI and align with the New Secretary General.

About Ian Williams

Ian Williams is Tribune’s UN correspondent