UN Security Council selects António Guterres as next secretary-general

António Guterres, high commissioner of the U.N. refugee agency, is the next U.N. secretary-general. Photo by: Jean-Marc Ferré / U.N.

António Guterres will become the next U.N. secretary-general, following the Security Council’s  “remarkably uncontentious and uncontroversial” straw poll Wednesday morning, according to Samantha Power, the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations.

Guterres’ unofficial selection came as a surprise to some campaigners and advocacy groups observing the race — and a disappointment to those who had pushed for a woman to lead the U.N.

Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s U.N. and Security Council president announced the results of the straw poll following the closed door session, with the other 14 members of the UNSC standing beside him.

Wednesday’s vote was the last of six straw polls, through which UNSC members could unanimously encourage, discourage or remain neutral on a candidate. Thirteen Security Council country representatives, including four permanent members, voted to encourage Guterres’ candidacy, while two remained neutral. One of these neutral votes came from one of the five permanent veto-wielding members of the council.

Churkin said Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister and high commissioner of the U.N. refugee agency, would be confirmed through a formal vote on Thursday at 10 a.m. “We hope it can be done by acclamation,” he told reporters

Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert closely following the race, said the Security Council’s agreement could suggest a temporary truce in what he described as the UNSC’s recent “very bad mood”. A growing diplomatic breakdown over violence in Syria and inability to reach a cease-fire in Aleppo  has chilled the atmosphere, he told Devex before the vote.

Guterres’ selection may also reflect a power play to block last-minute Bulgarian candidate Kristalina Georgieva, Gowan said. Georgieva received only five “encourage” votes and eight “discourage” votes in yesterday’s straw poll, which marked the veto-holding member countries’ votes with colored ballots.

While Guterres has performed the best on all of the five previous straw polls, attention had shifted in recent days to Georgieva. As a female candidate, she gained certain favor, and also represented the Eastern European bloc. She is on leave from her role as budget chief for the European Commission.

What to expect from Guterres

DevExplains: How does the UN secretary-general election work?

The race to become the next United Nations secretary-general has just entered its final lap, just a few months before Ban Ki-moon is set to step down from his post as U.N. chief. Watch this DevExplains video to know how the process unfolds.

Guterres’ selection comes at a tenuous time for the United Nations, says Jack Leslie, a political consultant and former chairman of the board of USA for UNHCR.

“I think the U.N. needs a real activist,” Leslie said in an interview with Devex before the straw poll. “Given the political climate that so many countries are facing and the backlash against globalization, we need to have a secretary-general who is a strong voice for global institutions. That is needed now more than ever.”

Guterres has an extensive track record in the U.N. system, including as one of the most vocal advocates for the current refugee crisis, which began under his leadership of UNHCR.

The next UNSG will oversee the implementation of several major international agreements, including the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate agreement. Guterres promised in his vision statement to focus his role on “implementation, implementation, implementation.”

On humanitarian crises, Guterres has called for a greater focus on prevention. “TV cameras are not there when a crisis is avoided and it is natural that it is difficult for governments and for international organizations to have prevention as a priority,” he said in his open dialogue with the U.N. General Assembly this summer. “But I believe prevention must be not only a priority, but the priority of everything we do.”

Leslie described Guterres as a “terrific guy, a big, strategic thinker, and a very solid crisis manager, which, unfortunately, is in great demand these days.”

Disappointment and hope

Despite being the front-runner, Guterres’ selection still disappointed some advocates who had pushed for a more diverse pick.

“Many people will be surprised that [the selection of Guterres] is a Western, former prime minister who is being recommended,” said Bill Pace, a director for the global campaign 1 for 7 billion, which had advocated for a more transparent selection process for the UNSG post.

“I think the reason is not because that is what the Council wanted politically, but they felt that this individual was the best qualified,” Pace told Devex.

Pace said he anticipates 1 for 7 Billion’s NGO supporters, which include Amnesty International, will be satisfied with the appointment of Guterres.

“Guterres is multilingual, he is very well spoken, so I think those issues were a real concern to many of our members and they will be pleased with the decision,” Pace said.

The selection, meanwhile, drew condemnation from WomanSG, a campaign to elect a female secretary-general after eight — soon to be nine — male U.N. leaders.

“I’m extremely, extremely disappointed. I think it is outrageous what they did there,” said campaign chair Jean Krasno in a phone call with Devex after the vote. “There were obviously backroom deals to represent the same kind of establishment, a men’s club working out what they want.

“A woman SG for the first time in 70 years could have really inspired people around the world and we have completely lost that momentum,” she said.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will end the second of his five-year terms at the end of December.

After the Security Council’s formal vote, the General Assembly will then vote to confirm the selection of Guterres before he can assume his post.

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.