UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. (REUTERS) Exclusive
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. (REUTERS)

UNSG Antonio Guterres is set for a second term. This time, it will be different

There is a perception that Guterres’s first term lacked the fizz his election generated in 2016. Perhaps it was on account of the SG being in firefighting mode to keep US financial cuts at bay and ensuring damage limitation
By Syed Akbaruddin
UPDATED ON JUN 17, 2021 11:53 AM IST

As per convention in the 21st century, Antonio Guterres is cruising unchallenged to a second five-year term as Secretary General (SG) of the United Nations (UN). He is being reappointed by acclamation, well ahead of the end of his current term on December 31, 2021.

The contrast with his first campaign is stark. In 2016, Guterres overturned conventional thinking. Some argued for an East European as no SG had come from the region. Others talked about a woman SG to overcome a historic lacuna. Seven of the 13 candidates were women. Formidable leaders such as Helen Clark, Irina Bukova and Kristalina Georgieva were in the fray.

Yet, the former Portuguese Prime Minister leveraged the procedures adopted in 2015 to open new forms of engagement to his advantage. A combination of a politician’s innate people skills; an insider’s grasp of UN issues on account of a decade’s experience as High Commissioner for Refugees; and proficiency in several UN languages — English, French and Spanish — helped the charismatic Guterres impress the overwhelming majority of UN delegates. This made it easier for him to navigate the byzantine dynamics of the Security Council (SC).

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However, fate had a surprise in store. A month after Guterres’s victory, Donald Trump was voted in as the 45th President of the United States (US). It meant that much of Guterres’s first term was focused on shielding the UN from the recession of multilateralism that followed. Guterres’s re-appointment follows President Joe Biden’s return to the US’s traditional approach to multilateralism.

There is a perception that Guterres’s first term lacked the fizz his election generated in 2016. Perhaps it was on account of the SG being in firefighting mode to keep US financial cuts at bay and ensuring damage limitation. He did try to put into practice his vision of a “surge in diplomacy for peace”. The environment of great power competition ensured that such efforts could not take off. Then the Covid-19 pandemic led to UN institutions being pushed to the margins and operating in a business processes continuity mode.

This is not to say that there were no diplomatic successes. These include facilitation of the reconciliation process in Colombia; managing the transition in Bolivia; the setting up of a Government of National Unity in Libya; and considerable humanitarian efforts in Yemen and Syria. However, these are not the first rank geo-political issues that a UNSG is judged by. Even what was described as “low hanging fruit” of the Cyprus dispute remains on the unfinished agenda.

Guterres has had a stab at managerial reforms. He shuffled the jurisdictions of UN departments; revamped the role of UN country offices; enhanced oversight of UN Representatives by the deputy SG; and significantly redressed the gender imbalance among senior UN staff. However, such navel-gazing evokes limited interest outside the UN system. These measures primarily appeal to major financial contributors as efforts at enhancing efficiency and lowering expenditure. The UN Charter terms the SG as “Chief Administrative Officer”. That role has grown. More is expected of any incumbent now.

The present global environment that the 72-year-old Guterres finds himself in may be akin to what he had hoped for when he threw his hat into the ring in 2016. What then is in store in Guterres 2.0?

Unencumbered by the need to go through any more electoral processes, Guterres’s enthusiasm for making a difference is bound to resurface. The realisation about the limitations of UN’s role in major geopolitical issues has meant that Guterres veered in another direction. He turned to the climate crisis as a signature issue, as had his predecessor Ban ki-Moon later in his tenure. An advocacy role is what Guterres thrives on. He is passionate, articulate and genuinely desirous of promoting change for the better. Climate advocacy brings into play his considerable diplomatic skills.

Guterres is to report on the challenges the UN faces. This will unveil his thinking about the next phase. Peace and security matters in Africa will remain staples and new roles in hot spots such as Afghanistan and Yemen may emerge.

However, it is the big challenges of environment, health, digital technologies, expanding space of civil society and other stakeholders and a host of trans-boundary issues “focusing on people” that will come to the forefront, amidst the perennials. In short, the agenda of Guterres’s second term is likely to be different from that of the first and his profile will grow.

Many have faulted Guterres for supporting China’s Belt and Road Initiative and turning a blind eye to Chinese human rights violations. Notwithstanding the US-led western push, a radical change in approach is not likely. In pursuit of his coveted path towards a climate agreement and a forward-looking agenda, Guterres will tread carefully, ensuring that equities with China and other important actors, including Russia and India, are maintained. Without all on board, the climate accord that Guterres desires will not be possible. Further, collaboration on key trans-boundary challenges will be a casualty. This also means that the practice of permanent members retaining key portfolios in the UN bureaucracy will not be fundamentally altered.

What does this continuity and change mean for India? The new agenda will open opportunities in tune with India’s mounting concerns on several of these subjects. Without the reticence that binds us to limit engagement on specific political issues, the broader agenda dovetails into our desire to engage and gain from such involvement.

The growth of global issues on UN platforms provides more opportunities to play a larger active role. Antonio Guterres often mentions that he considers Indian cuisine as among his favourites. Let’s hope that what he serves as food for thought is also palatable to us in India.

Syed Akbaruddin is a retired diplomat who served as India’s permanent representative at the UN. He is now the dean of the Kautilya School of Public Policy

The views expressed are personal

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