7 October 2016
Former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres, will be the next UN secretary-general, after the Security Council agreed on Thursday he should replace Ban Ki-moon at the beginning of 2017.
The UN General Assembly is expected to meet next week to approve his five-year appointment.
The 67-year-old, who led the UN refugee agency for 10 years, was born in Lisbon in 1949. He studied engineering and physics at the Instituto Superior Tecnico, before going into academia after graduating in 1971.
Academia only held the fervent Catholic’s interest for a couple of years.
He joined the Portuguese Socialist Party in 1974 – the same year five decades of dictatorship came to an end in Portugal – and soon became a full-time politician.
In 1995, three years after being elected the Socialist party’s secretary-general, he was voted in as prime minister, a position he held until 2002.
Thereafter, Mr Guterres, fluent in Portuguese, English, Spanish and French, turned his attention to the world of international diplomacy, becoming the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2005.
Under his guidance, the numbers working in the UNHCR’s Geneva head office were slashed, while its capacity to respond to international crises by deploying more staff closer to hotspots was improved.
It is his tireless attempts to get the world’s richest countries to do more for those fleeing conflicts and disasters around the world that people remember, however.
“We can’t deter people fleeing for their lives,” he wrote in Time magazine last year. “They will come. The choice we have is how well we manage their arrival, and how humanely.”
“I think we are living in a world where we see a multiplication of new conflicts, and you see an enormous difficulty in solving the conflicts,” he said.
“There is a clear lack of capacity in the international community to prevent and to solve conflicts,’’ he noted.
Prior to his nomination, he said that his work at the UNHCR had been excellent preparation for the office of UN secretary-general.
Guterres has two children from his marriage to his first wife, who died in 1998. He remarried in 2001.
He paid tribute to Ban Ki-moon and called on UN member states to “strongly support him in his actions and his initiatives” in his final months in office.
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, 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.
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.”
His 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.”
Richard Gowan, an expert on the UN at the European Council on Foreign Relations said: “The big question is whether Guterres has had to offer Russia and China big concessions to let him win, such as senior political or peacekeeping posts at UN headquarters. That may not become clear for some weeks or months.”
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.
“I have two words to describe what I’m feeling now – gratitude and humility,” Mr Guterres said in Lisbon.
“Humility [is what I feel] about the huge challenges ahead of us, the terrible complexity of the modern world. But it is also humility that is required to serve the most vulnerable, victims of conflicts, of terrorism, rights violations, poverty and injustices of this world”.
Speaking earlier, Mr Ban, 72, described Mr Guterres as a “superb choice” to succeed him in the role.
“His experience as Portuguese prime minister, his wide knowledge of world affairs, and his lively intellect will serve him well in leading the United Nations in a crucial period,” Mr Ban told reporters during a visit to Rome.
His appointment was also welcomed by The Elders, an independent group of global leaders started by Nelson Mandela but now chaired by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
“I am delighted by the outcome of the Council’s selection process,” Mr Annan said. “Antonio Guterres is a highly-qualified candidate who is well-prepared for the many daunting challenges he faces.
“He will need the firm support of the Security Council as well as the wider membership of the United Nations to help him fulfil his mandate in these challenging times.”