The United Nations will soon welcome its ninth Secretary General, António Guterres. The former Portuguese prime minister takes the helm of the international organisation on January 1, 2017, replacing Ban Ki-moon.
In Latin America, as in much of the world, the October 2016 appointment of Guterres, a European man, was met with mixed emotions. For the first time in the 70 years of history of the UN, half of the 12 candidates for Secretary General were women – a gender equality milepost. And yet a man won out in the end, leaving many observers and member states wondering whether the Security Council was simply not ready to have a woman in charge.
For Latin America the disappointment may have been somewhat keener. Two of the female nominees were from the region: Christiana Figueres, of Costa Rica, and Susana Malcorra, Argentina’s foreign minister. They were the region’s first women to be on the short list, and the first time ever two Latin Americans were in the running.
Still, upon Guterres’s confirmation in October 2016, many of the region’s heads of state, including Brazilian president Michel Temer and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, promptly congratulated him. Costa Rica, Venezuela and Uruguay, in addition to welcoming the new Secretary General, also invited him to examine the numerous necessities and challenges confronting the region, which is home to 625 million people and growing quickly.
Latin American issues on the UN Agenda
Most of the region’s collective concern are already specified in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which established an agenda that the General Assembly should work to meet by 2030.
One of the most important objectives is eradicating poverty and hunger on the planet. For Latin America, this is critically important but difficult to achieve: around 25% of the region lives in poverty, subsisting on US$4 or less per day, according to the UN’s Human Development Report.
Latin America also has some of the richest people on the planet: Forbes magazine now ranks Mexican businessman Carlos Slim as the world’s fourth-richest man, with a wealth of US$48.6 billion. How to help states feed the hungry while reducing this major social gap is one challenge for the new Secretary General.
A related issue shared by many countries in the region is sustainable development. Exploitation of natural and non-renewable resources is a common industry, licit and illicit, across Latin America.
Ending environmentally damaging activities such as mining and logging is not as simple as ceasing operations. How can the region produce sufficient agricultural goods for a constantly increasing population, which has nearly doubled since 1975, without expanding agricultural land? Feeding the population and promoting sustainable development don’t have to be in tension with each other, but in Latin America today, they are.
Another Latin American issue that needs support from within the UN General Assembly is security. Latin America has the world’s highest homicide rates, and danger is a fact of life in countries like Brazil, El Salvador and Mexico.
Less than one tenth (8%) of the world’s population lives in Latin America and the Caribbean, but the region accounts for roughly 33% of all homicide cases globally. Tackling domestic and transnational organised crime involves the coordination and cooperation of cities and states within the countries and at the regional level.
The newly nominated Secretary General must deeply consider how the UN can support the efforts of the national governments as they deal with these life-and-death issues.
Finally, Latin America, more so than any other region, wants to see the UN continue to reform its institutions, particularly that of the Secretary General selection and nomination process. In 1996 and 1997, the UN’s High-Level Working Group issued a document reccomending regional rotation of General Assembly leadership and an emphasis on gender equality in the Secretary General selection process. Clearly, these recommendations were only partially implemented in the 2016 selection process that led to Guterres’s appointment.
Latin America has had only one Secretary General, the Peruvian Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, who served two terms (1981-1985 and 1985-1990). And it has seen two unsuccessful nominations, the Argentinean Carlos Ortiz de Rosas in 1971 and the Nobel Prize-winning former Costa Rican president, Óscar Árias in 1992. That is a poor regional representation compared to the seven terms of Western European countries, three terms from Africa and four from Asia.
Some Latin American powers expect the UN Secretary General to support the long-standing proposal for the reform of the Security Council. Brazil, in particular, would like to see an increase in the number and tenure of Security Council members. Since the 1990s, it has been seeking global partners and allies to support its ideas of adding an extended number of non-permanent spots as well as finding a place for Brazil among permanent members.
This scenario is highly unlikely to pass. But if it did, such a reform would radically influence the dynamics of selecting the Secretary General. When Guterres was appointed, both Brazil’s official declarations and the congratulations it issued in alliance with other BRICS states highlighted this pending request.
All told, on January 1, Latin American diplomats and presidents will welcome Secretary General Guterres with open arms – and a long list of demands.