How the UN ended up with António Guterres as its new secretary-general

The final informal poll has been cast, and it is all but certain that the United Nations’ next secretary general will be a white, middle-aged man from Western Europe.

António Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal and until last year the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, was backed by 13 ambassadors to the UN Security Council with two remaining neutral. Because, of course, this wasn’t a democratic process involving all 193 UN member states – instead, the task fell to an elite few countries on the most powerful and least transparent of the UN’s main bodies.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council – China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US – can veto any of the council’s resolutions, and that includes the choice of secretary general.

Throughout the process, they conduct a series of straw polls in which they indicate whether they encourage, discourage, or have no opinion on the candidates whose names have been thrown into the hat. These straw polls lead to candidates dropping out along the way, but also draw in new nominations.

And so it unfolded this time around.

There were initially five male and five female candidates for the position. Many people have campaigned for years to have a female secretary general, and the UN’s Charter legally binds it to promote gender equality – but at the organisation’s upper echelons, such equality is so far unforthcoming. The UN has never been led by a woman, and the top jobs are still disproportionately taken by men.

Ban Ki-Moon with his apparent successor. EPA/Martial Trezzini

Equally, the UN has long been under pressure to appoint a candidate from Eastern Europe. Again, it has fallen short of its own requirements. The charter mandates the UN to achieve proportionate representation across its regional groups, but of the nine secretaries general to have served so far, four were from the Western European and Others Group, two from the Asian Group, two from the African Group, and one from the Latin American and Caribbean Group.

This year, Russia apparently pushed hard for a candidate from the Eastern European Group. Among those who were nominated were three women, two from Bulgaria and one from Moldova, along with men from Macedonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Serbia. In the end, they all fell short.

Until the Security Council announced it had backed Guterres, many observers thought Russia would support the newest nominee, Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva, whose name was thrown into the ring only days before the Security Council’s decision.

It seems Russia backed down – and whatever political sweeteners it was offered to do so we may never know. Make no mistake about it: for all the lofty talk of improved transparency, this election has been as full of backroom deals as any other. Yes, the candidates faced questions from UN General Assembly members, from civil society, and even from the public. But the process itself remained opaque, and the result has mystified even the most seasoned observers.

A done deal

From the first straw poll onwards, it was clear that the Security Council members cared little about the gender issue, and that the geographic requirements didn’t much move them either.

What might have been: Kristalina Georgieva. EPA/Stephanie Lecocq

At the penultimate straw poll the female candidates lagged behind their male counterparts. Georgieva emerged, even though that meant Bulgaria had to withdraw support from its original candidate, Irina Bokova.

Many onlookers thought Georgieva would be a shoo-in; supposedly, she had the backing of the US and Russia. Clearly this wasn’t the case. It’s hard indeed to imagine both those countries would trust a non-Russian Eastern European to promote their interests – and when the US and China were in a similar position ten years ago, seeking to find a mutually acceptable candidate from the Asian Group, they settled on one of the most inoffensive secretaries general imaginable. That’s how we ended up stuck with the passive and ineffective Ban Ki-Moon for the past decade.

So here we are, looking at another five (or probably ten) years of the UN being led by a man from Western Europe for the fifth time in its history. This is not a glorious day for the global community – and certainly not for gender relations, inter-regional relations, decolonisation, or the overall legitimacy of an organisation that many believe has failed to live up to expectations or to fulfil its mandate.

And what of Guterres, who has been slated for his response to one of the worst refugee crises in modern history? An awful lot of disappointed eyes will be following his every move extremely closely.

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