- Views 2635
Security council agrees, in surprisingly quick decision, that former Portuguese PM will succeed Ban Ki-moon at start of 2017
Julian Borger World affairs editor
António Guterres, the former Portuguese prime minister, will be the next UN secretary general, after the security council agreed he should replace Ban Ki-moon at the beginning of next year.
In a rare show of unity, all 15 ambassadors from the security council emerged from the sixth in a series of straw polls to announce that they had agreed on Guterres, who was UN high commissioner for refugees for a decade, and that they would confirm the choice in a formal vote on Thursday.
“Today after our sixth straw poll we have a clear favourite and his name is António Guterres,” the Russian UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters with his 14 council colleagues standing behind him.
“We have decided to go to a formal vote tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock, and we hope it can be done by acclamation.”
The abrupt end to the UN leadership race came as a surprise. Many observers had expected the selection process to go on late into October as the major powers struggled to promote their favourite candidates. And some thought that Russia, currently holding the presidency of the security council, would block Guterres, as Moscow had said it wanted an eastern European in the top UN job.
“I think in the end, the Russians wanted the decision to come during their presidency and to have all the security council come out and stand together at a time of so much deep division on other issues,” said a security council diplomat.
Guterres’s margin of victory was decisive. He won 13 votes in his support and two abstentions, with no one voting against him. The second-place candidate, the Slovak Miroslav Lajčák, had seven votes in support and six against him – two of them vetoes from permanent council members.
“We had a straw poll where, for the first time, the permanent members were filling in ballots of different colour. The permanent members had red ballots and the non-permanent members had white ballots,” said the UK ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft.
“We filled them all in, as we normally do, just once. They all went into a box, they were then counted. We all filled in our tally sheets, and the crucial moment for me was when the fifth permanent member result for Guterres was announced which led to it being very clear that there was no discourages, either from a permanent member or a non-permanent member for Guterres.”
The security council on Thursday will decide whether to have a formal vote or, if the two abstentions change their mind, to simply pass a resolution nominating Guterres by acclamation. That nomination would go to the UN general assembly which would either vote or, more likely, confirm the candidacy by acclamation.
As the UN’s refugee chief, Guterres persistently appealed to the conscience of the international community over the worst refugee crisis since the second world war, and he vowed to carry on being a spokesman for the downtrodden if he became UN secretary general.
“I am totally committed because of what I felt as head of UNHCR for 10 years,” he said during a debate between candidates chaired by the Guardian this summer. “You can’t imagine what it is to see levels of suffering that are unimaginable.”
The fact that he was promising to be an activist on humanitarian causes also makes Guterres victory surprising, as both Russia and China in particular have been resistant to outspoken activists in top UN posts. Also there was widespread sentiment this year that it was time for a woman to run the organisation for the first time in its 71-year history and there were several strong female candidates in the contest.
“I think it’s an excellent choice,” said Michael Doyle, a former UN assistant secretary general and now a Columbia University professor. “We have someone who has great political capability, having been prime minister of his country, he is a strong multilateralist, having a run the UNCHR at a time of tremendous challenges, and he has ways of communicating with an audience that are inspiring.”
In the final ballot, the highest-placed woman candidate, the head of Unesco, Irina Bokova, finished fourth. Another female candidate for the job, Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres described the result as “bittersweet”.
“Bitter: not a woman. Sweet: by far the best man in the race. Congrats Antonio Guterres! We are all with you,” Figueres tweeted.
The quick end to the contest was a particular blow for the European commission’s vice-president, Kristalina Georgieva, who made a belated entry to the race last week. Her candidacy only lasted a few days and eight council members voted against her, including two permanent member vetoes.
The contest to replace Ban as secretary general began in April with public hearings in the UN general assembly, the first time candidates for the job had had to make their pitch in public. The new transparency was a result of a groundswell of pressure from civil society activists, in the 1 For 7 Billion movement.
“This is a testament to the new open process,” said Natalie Samarasinghe, executive director of the United Nations Association – UK and one of the founders of the 1 For 7 Billion movement. “When we looked at the candidates likely to prevail at the start of the race, he wasn’t a strong contender. He became one because of the open process.”