In Depth

Antonio Guterres: Will new secretary-general 'kick UN up the backside'?

Syria will be a top priority when Portugal's former prime minister replaces Ban Ki-moon in January

The UN has a new secretary-general. Portugal's former prime minister Antonio Guterres takes over from Ban Ki-moon in January, after being selected from a final list of 13 candidates.

Guterres, a firm Catholic fluent in four languages, has set his sights on Syria as his major concern. He is also expected to show his commitment to gender equality by appointing a female deputy.

But what else do we know about him - and how might his tenure differ from that of his South Korean predecessor?

What is Guterres' background?

Born in Lisbon 67 years ago, Guterres trained as an engineer and entered politics in 1976, winning a seat in the Portuguese parliament after the Carnation Revolution ended five decades of dictatorship.

He became leader of the country's Socialist opposition in 1992 and prime minster in 1995, when the economy was booming. Re-elected once, he resigned in 2001 after growth slowed and his popularity faltered.

What is his biggest challenge?

"Syria is of course issue number one" for the new secretary-general, says Al Jazeera's James Bays. It is a subject Guterres knows "extremely well" after spending ten years as the UN's High Commissioner for refugees.

The politician himself told the BBC that ending Syria's bloody civil war must be the international community's "first priority", after which it must "try to address all the other conflicts that are interlinked".

Will he make a difference?

As head of the refugee service, Guterres worked tirelessly to "get the world's richest countries to do more", says the BBC, backing up the opinion of one UN expert who told the broadcaster earlier this year the politician could "give the UN the kind of kick up the backside it needs".

He is expected to "play a more prominent role" than Ban, says Al Jazeera.

Wasn't Ban prominent enough?

Ban was praised for his "soft-spoken persistence", says the BBC. However, his very quietness led him to be dubbed the UN's "invisible man", as The Guardian reported in 2010, and seen as almost entirely ineffective.

In May, The Economist said the outgoing secretary-general was widely viewed as one of the "dullest" the UN has had - and "among its worst".

He lacked eloquence and flexibility, added the magazine, and was hidebound by protocol.

Ban was only elected, it continued, because the Security Council's permanent members – the UK, US, China, Russia and France – all believed he would keep out of their respective spheres of influence.

Nevertheless, says the Economist, the South Korean does deserve credit for proposing new sustainable development goals and for staging the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris last year.

Antonio Guterres poised to be next UN Secretary-General

6 October

Former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres is poised to become the new secretary general of the United Nations.

Gutteres, 67, was chosen to succeed Ban Ki-moon in a "rare show of unity" by the 15 members of the Security Council, reports The Guardian.

"Today, after our sixth straw poll, we have a clear favourite and his name is Antonio Guterres," announced Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin.

US ambassador Samantha Power said: "In the end, there was a candidate whose experience, vision and versatility across a range of areas proved compelling. It was remarkably uncontentious, uncontroversial."

The "deeply divided" Security Council sent "a clear signal that Russia and the West saw [Gutteres] as someone they could work with", reports the New York Times.

The UK's ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, said Guterres "will take the United Nations to the next level in terms of leadership" and be "a moral authority at a time when the world is divided".

Gutteres was head of the UN refugee agency from 2005 to 2015 and has promised to stand up for humanitarian causes. This makes his election "surprising", the Guardian says, "as both Russia and China have been resistant to outspoken activists in top UN posts".

Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres, who was also in the running for the position, said she had mixed feelings about the result.

The Security Council will hold a formal vote to nominate Gutteres today, before the decision is ratified by the entire 193-member UN General Assembly.


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