By Dr. Ion I. Jinga
On 7 May 2021, the UN General Assembly had an informal interactive dialogue with Antonio Guterres, as a candidate presented by Portugal for re-appointment to the position of UN Secretary-General for the 2022-2026 mandate.
Article 97 of the UN Charter provides that “The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council”. Article 35 of the General Assembly resolution 69/321 “requests the Presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council to start the process of soliciting candidates for the position of Secretary-General through a joint letter addressed to all Member States”, and article 39 “invites Member States to present candidates with proven leadership and managerial abilities, extensive experience in international relations and strong diplomatic, communication and multilingual skills.”
In 2016 there were 13 competitors from three continents, but as the 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”. Now (at least to this day), Antonio Guterres is the only candidate proposed by a UN Member State.
Five years ago, he noted in his vision statement: “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. To succeed, it must further strengthen the nexus between peace and security, sustainable development and human rights policies. The focus is on action and the watchword is implementation, implementation, implementation.”
Consequently, in 2017 he launched a large scale reform of the UN on three dimensions: development system, peace and security, management. His report “Shifting the management paradigm in the UN” (General Assembly resolution 72/492) identified key challenges: slow service delivery; fragmentation in management structures; weak performance management culture; ineffective management of resources; gaps in transparency and accountability; trust deficit between Member States and the Secretariat. Therefore, his reform was guided by two principles: a new contract between the Secretary General and the managers in the field (delegated authority, more transparency), and a contract between the Member States and the UN Secretariat (more freedom of action to the Secretariat, accountability and full control of the Member States over its activity).
Focus was placed on results and on an organizational culture based on accountability, team work, leadership, ethics and integrity, gender balance, morale, and risk appetite. The UN moved from a biannual budget for its programs to an annual budget, enabling a more realistic distribution of resources according to needs. The concept of “networked multilateralism” was introduced, in which the UN works hand in hand with regional organizations, international financial institutions, development banks, specialized agencies and civil society, “in order to bring multilateralism closer to people”.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a challenging test for the Organization. Antonio Guterres provided exemplary leadership, shaping the UN response according to the “peace-security-development” nexus, mobilizing the material and human resources of the system, talking to world leaders and launching initiatives aimed at limiting the crisis. The UN offered humanitarian aid to countries affected by the pandemic, provided water and soap for refugee camps, assisted hospitals and clinics, organized information campaigns and facilitated the transport of medical equipment to 120 countries. The Secretary-General appealed for a ceasefire in international conflicts, launched the UN Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19, called the G-20 leaders for more resources to keep the global coronavirus pandemic from reaching “apocalyptic proportions”, and asked for solidarity and cooperation: “We need concrete action now, especially for the most vulnerable. It is the only way to stop the pandemic. Solidarity is indeed survival.” Speaking at the General Assembly Special Session in Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic last December, he advocated that the vaccines be made available to all: “When countries go in their own direction, the virus goes in every direction. In a global crisis, we must meet the expectations of those we serve with unity, solidarity and coordinated global action.”
Last week, his message as a candidate for the position of the Secretary-General of the United Nations for the 2022-2026 mandate followed the same logic: “The climate emergency and COVID-19 have exposed the ways in which our fates are connected and the costs of our inability to solve shared problems. Out of immense suffering, we have an once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity. It requires a reset multilateralism for the new era, based on principles of equity and solidarity. Simply put, the choices we make now will determine our trajectory for decades to come.” His priorities for the next five years include an enduring response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences; a comprehensive approach on peace and security; peace with nature and climate action; accelerating the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals; ensuring the centrality of human rights; advancing gender equality; rising the challenge of digital transformation; advancing multilateralism.
The election of the UN Secretary-General is always a crucial moment. Candidates should possess professional skills, political acceptance, and acceptability to public opinion. In its top job the UN needs not only a knowledgeable person and a skilled manager. It also needs a visionary leader with moral authority, capable of guiding the Organization through an extraordinary array of global challenges and of leading by example in times when there is no substitute for the United Nations legitimacy.
In his acclaimed memoir “Promises to Keep”, the US President Joe Biden confessed that his life’s work credo was inspired by his grandfather: “He wanted me to understand two big things: First, that nobody, no group, is above others. Public servants are obliged to level with everybody, whether or not they’ll like what he has to say. And second, that politics was a matter of personal honor. A man’s word is his bond. You give your word, you keep it.”
On 7 May 2021, Antonio Guterres told the General Assembly: “I feel myself extremely grateful for the extraordinary opportunities I had, and I know how important is to honor them in the service of humanity, for a bigger purpose, and with utmost humility. We exist to serve people. That has guided my whole life”. He is ready to continue at the helm of the United Nations. The decision lies in the hands of the 193 UN Member States.
*Ambassador Jinga is Romania’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, New York.
**Opinions expressed in this article do not bind the official position of the author.