The Wall Street Journal is Wrong: António Guterres is the Best to Run the UN

António Guterres, candidate for UN Secretary-General and former UNHCR High Commissioner for Refugees
António Guterres, candidate for UN Secretary-General and former UNHCR High Commissioner for Refugees

This post is co-authored by Alexandra Carreira

On merit, skills and qualifications, Guterres is by far the best candidate to run the United Nations. Former Prime-Minister of Portugal, 10 years UN High Commissioner for Refugees during one of the worst refugee crisis since World War II, António Guterres has also won all five secret straws held so far – well ahead of everyone else.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) argued that Vuk Jeremic, former Serbian foreign minister, who came second in last Monday’s straw, is the one who should become the next UN Secretary General. WSJ argument is profoundly flawed.

Firstly, for five consecutive times the security council members disagree with WSJ. Out of a total of 75 possible votes (15 voters x 5 straws), Guterres earned 77% of them so far (58). WSJ does not seem to be very well informed about the type of profile the UN effectively needs for its leader.

Secondly, the WSJ stated that the former Serbian minister understands that “his first job is to bring proper managerial controls to the UN’s sprawling bureaucracy”. Wrong. The next UN Secretary General must first address the crises that are unfolding in multiple locations and which bear serious consequences to global peace and prosperity. Guterres, on the other hand, understands this.

Prevention must become the #1 priority of the UN, Guterres said on several occasions – as opposed to the reactive nature of much of the work done by the organization and its agencies. “That means we need a huge cultural change to affirm the centrality of prevention”, he said, just a few months ago to Time magazine. And this, he knows, “must cover the spectrum from prevention and conflict resolution to peacekeeping, peacebuilding and long-term development – the ‘peace continuum’, which requires a holistic, non-fragmented, approach. And it must have at its centre supporting capacity and institution-building of states”, he said in the same interview.

It is time for the UN to have a truly political face behind its wheel. Guterres has it. He is a very experienced politician, a profound connoisseur of the key cultural and historical idiosyncrasies driving conflict and instability across the globe and a practitioner with tremendous practical and field experience. In addition, he holds outstanding relations with world leaders east and west, north and south.

Thirdly, the WSJ says that Guterres “mismanaged a global humanitarian organization”. Wrong (again!). Under Guterres’ leadership, the UNHCR went through the most substantial (the biggest, actually) agency reform. Some of his accomplishments since he joined the UNHCR include:

sharp reduction from 13,7% to 6,5% in the weight of headquarters expenditure in total costs;

sharp reduction of the weight of staff costs from 41% to 22% in total costs. Guterres reduced his staff by a fifth;

growth in the share of partnerships, with NGOs and Government departments dealing with refugees, from 31% to 38% in the agency budget;

very high levels of programs implementation: always above 90% and, with few exceptions, at 95% or even more. Uncommon in humanitarian and development programs.

In summary, Guterres reduced overall costs of the agency, developed more partnerships, increased its emergency response capacity (which, in the end, it’s what the UNHCR is all about) and improved performance, while coping with record numbers of people in need and under the agency’s protection mandate. Besides the Syrian crisis, Guterres dealt with serious refugee and displacement crises in Iraq, Yemen, the Sudans and Central African Republic. In fact, his humanitarian commitment could only impact positively on the UN’s image and credibility and legitimacy worldwide. His credentials speak to the core of the principles and values enshrined in the UN Charter and, significantly, to the essence of international law and human rights.

The UN needs restored credibility in regards to transparency and financial soundness. While here the WSJ is correct they totally missed the point about who is best qualified to lead the UN.

Fourthly, oddly enough, the reprehensible bias of the WSJ against Guterres goes as far as suggesting that “a lifelong socialist” is not qualified to lead the UN. WSJ should know better and should be able to distinguish between the widespread ideal of social democracy across the European Union and Marx’s socialism that once reigned across Eastern Europe. Currently, 11 governments in the EU are run by socialist/social democrats/labour governments and eight others have coalitions with socialists. For example, the very successful Scandinavian model is a social democratic one. In addition, the European Commission has eight socialist commissioners, of which two are Vice-Presidents.

More facts about Guterres. Guterres held the top job at one of the UN’s most visible agencies -- the UNHCR -- and for ten years he acted tirelessly to try to stretch that agency’s ability to assist in one of the worst refugee catastrophes of the last sixty years: the civil war in Syria and other conflicts across the region. He earned the respect of world leaders and of its own organization internally. He quite vocally called for decisive action from world leaders and from the European Union, in particular, in dealing with the refugee crisis that was letting thousands drown in the Mediterranean. When Guterres took office in Geneva, there were some 38 million refugees and displaced. While today the figure has almost doubled, he increased assistance on the ground and made it more effective, he pleaded money from member states to fund relief activities to refugees, he called on the EU to take in more refugees and to do it in dignified conditions, he called on the international community to focus on solving the problems in countries at war and to support those countries who are, by far, the largest hosts to refugees. He did strike all the chords there and certainly annoy more than a few along the way – but that’s just part of the job.

António Guterres is more than just former High Commissioner for Refugees. No one will dispute that he devoted his entire life to the public service. He was Member of Parliament, he was Party leader and Primer Minister, during which time he heavily contributed to finding an end to the crisis in East Timor, he was Council of Europe representative, he held the Presidency of the EU – when it carried a lot more weight than it does today –, he chaired the first-ever EU-Africa Summit, and he was UN High Commissioner for two consecutive terms. Guterres has a global understanding of what is necessary to bring nations and development institutions together to embrace the Sustainable Development Goals.

Make no mistake: this is what the world needs at the top of the UN. Someone who knows that the answer to the most pressing challenges in our time – from terrorism and human security, from hunger and poverty to climate change – lies in multilateralism. Moreover, he can actually relate and tie all of these challenges together. Guterres possesses the experience of a homme d’état, the art and wit of a brilliant political mind and the skill of an expert negotiator. At a time when walls are again being built to keep people out, these are the qualities we desperately need in someone who is supposed to sail through the complex, mind-boggling and so often imbalanced inner-workings of one of the oldest organizations in the world and one that is – still, no matter its many shortcomings - essential to global peace and prosperity. Guterres is not only the man for the job; he is the best suited to finally set off an important and transformative UN reform process and steer it astutely, yet transparently and decisively.

Alexandra Carreira is a researcher in political science and foreign policy and currently works as a communication advisor in the Portuguese Government.

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