Traditionally, when white smoke comes over the Vatican in St Peter’s Square, Rome, it is the sign that the College of Cardinals has elected a new Pope. The cardinals proceed to cast their votes by using paper ballots. After the vote, the ballots are burned and the smoke goes out into St. Peter’s Square through a special chimney in the Sistine Chapel. If there is a consensus on a new pontiff, the smoke is white. If no new Pope has been chosen, the smoke is black. Smoke is thus used to let the public know the outcome of the balloting.
The fifteen members of the Security Council who gather in close doors meetings to choose the UN Secretary General are not cardinals, but they decide on the future of the only global organization in the world, which comprises 193 countries. They use (colored) paper ballots to cast their vote, and the process itself is marked by the same secrecy as in Vatican. The ballots are not burned, so there is no real smoke coming over the UN Headquarters in New York, but in the current complicated international context the election of the next Secretary General may have a significance comparable to the election of a Pope.
Thirteen candidates – seven women and six men from three continents, entered the race to get the job of the next (the ninth) Secretary General of the United Nations: nine candidates from Eastern European Group (the only region that was not given yet a UN Secretary General), two from Latin American and Caribbean Group, and two from Western European and Others Group. Three candidates withdrew before the final selection took place.
After an unprecedented transparent procedure which included hearings of all candidates by the General Assembly, meetings with the ambassadors from the five regional groups and even a first ever Global Town Hall Meeting broadcasted life by Al Jazeera, the Security Council organized five informal (and secret) straw polls where the candidates were rated with “encourage”, “discourage” or “no opinion”. Antonio Guterres, former Portuguese Prime Minister (1995-2002) who also served for ten years as UN High Commissioner for Refugees (2005-2015), won categorically in all five, being the only candidate to always score 11 or 12 “encouragements”. The moment of truth came with the sixth straw poll on 5th October, when the P5 (the five Permanent Members) used colored ballots to signal their eventual vetoes. Mr. Guterres received 13 positive votes and two “no opinion”, with no veto from any of the P5.
At the end of the vote, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the President of the Security Council for the month of October, announced that: “after sixth straw polls we have a clear favorite and his name is Antonio Guterres”, while US Ambassador Samantha Power remarked: “In the end, there was just a candidate whose experience, vision, and versatility across a range of areas proved compelling”. I add that Mr. Guterres was also the only candidate who, during the hearings in the UN General Assembly, spoke without any written notes and, when answering questions posed by the audience, he switched from English to French or Spanish, responding in the language questions were asked.
On 6th October, the Security Council adopted by acclamation a resolution which “recommends to the General Assembly that Mr. Antonio Guterres be appointed Secretary-General of the United Nations for a term of office from 1 January 2017 to 31 December 2021”. Maybe the best synthesis of this text came from Matthew Rycroft, British Ambassador to the UN, who twitted: “Resolution only has 49 words in it, but the two most important ones are Antonio & Guterres”.
The vision Antonio Guterres has on the organization’s role has been presented to the General Assembly on 12 April 2016, when he said: “The UN is the institutional expression of the international community, the cornerstone of our international system and the key actor of effective multilateralism. It is the essential instrument of member States to confront common challenges, manage shared responsibilities and exercise collective action. The UN is uniquely placed to connect the dots to overcome these challenges. To succeed, it must further strengthen the nexus between peace and security, sustainable development and human rights policies – a holistic approach to the mutually-reinforcing linkages between its three pillars. Now that we know what, we must work on how. With the horizon of 2030 the focus is on action and the watchword is implementation, implementation, implementation.”
And he added: “The Secretary General must maintain unwavering commitment to transparency, accountability and oversight. Moreover, the SG must stand firmly for the reputation of the UN and its dedicated staff. Leading by example and imposing the highest ethical standards on everyone serving under the UN flag.”
Concrete results at high standards is a long term credo of Mr. Guterres. In his first speech as UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, on 17 June 2005, he announced: “What really matters is delivering protection and solutions to those who need it. UNHCR must be a pioneer in the international community. I am personally committed to a management system based on attaining measured results.”
Ten years later in New York, on 21 December 2015, in his last statement as High Commissioner, he said: “Many times we have early warning and then we do nothing. To address a complex phenomenon we need holistic views. There is no such thing as an easy solution or a one size fits all solution… The lessons of history show that peace cannot wait. The world needs a surge in diplomacy for peace.”
In a piece I published in Huffington Post on 21st April 2016 (“The Race for the Next UN Secretary General – First Round”), I argued that candidates for Secretary General should possess professional skills, political acceptance, and acceptability to public opinion. All the thirteen candidates shown commitment and determination to make the UN fit for purpose in the XXI century.
But the UN needs in its top job not only a knowledgeable person and a skilled manager. It also needs a visionary leader with moral authority, able to guide the organization through an extraordinary array of global challenges, in a time when there is no substitute for the United Nations legitimacy.
Antonio Guterres was the candidate who proved unwavering credentials for all these qualities. He will succeed to Ban Ki-moon, whose tenure comes to an end on 31st December 2016. After ten years as Secretary General, Mr. Ban’s legacy is about the power of relationship, engagement, dialogue before confrontation and humanity. In the document “Furthering the work of the United Nations”, recently released, he says: “Today, we are more connected than ever, better informed than ever, and have better tools than ever. The recipes for positive change are on the table; the ingredients for success are in our hands.” A reverence must also go to the current Deputy Secretary General, the exceptional diplomat Jan Eliasson.
On 13th October, the UN General Assembly will convene to appoint the candidate recommended by the Security Council. At that moment the race for the next Secretary General will come to its final round. As so inspired The New York Times titled a few days ago, the UN will have “a new voice for a complicated world.” Let’s wish the best of luck to Mr. Antonio Guterres. We all need his term to be successful.
*Ambassador Ion Jinga is the Permanent Representative of Romania to the United Nations, New York