United Nations

The United Nations needs the strong leadership that Guterres can bring

Facing criticism for being dysfunctional and ineffective, the body should benefit from the incoming chief’s reputation and track record

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 January, 2017, 2:11am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 January, 2017, 2:11am

There is no more demanding job in the world than secretary general of the United Nations. Former Portuguese leader and head of the UN refugee agency Antonio Guterres took over the job from Ban Ki-moon on Sunday, and expectations are high he can mend an organisation that many believe is dysfunctional and ineffective. He has been left a daunting to-do list: aside from wars and threats, the deep divide persists between developing and developed countries on a host of issues and there is an urgent need to reform a heavily bureaucratic system that is based on an outdated world view. A strong hand at the helm is needed, although change will require time and the cooperation of member nations, especially those of the Security Council.

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The events of 2016 have made this year one of uncertainty, a challenging start for Guterres. Bringing stability to conflict zones and striking a blow against terrorism requires UN members having a common approach, a matter that seems increasingly unlikely given global trends. There is a move away from multilateralism in the name of national self-interest. US president-elect Donald Trump has already vowed a changed American stance at the UN, and elections in Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands could lead to governments that would consider joining Britain in leaving the EU.

Ban’s 10-year tenure at the UN was marked by the ground-breaking Paris accord on climate change, big reductions in rates of extreme poverty and child mortality and a marked rise in education levels for girls. As he left office last Friday, though, he regretted being unable to end the civil war in Syria, which has led to more than 400,000 deaths, contributed to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the second world war and enabled the Islamic State extremist group to become a global threat. To his critics, he lacked leadership and clout. He has been much criticised for the UN’s handling of controversies involving its peacekeepers; they were blamed for a cholera outbreak in Haiti that killed 9,300 and for sexual abuse in Central Africa and elsewhere.

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Those who have called for a strong secretary general welcome Guterres’ taking office. They believe he has the necessary qualities; beyond being the first former head of government to lead the UN and having a strong track record in charge of one of its most important agencies, he has a reputation for being adaptable, affable and a consensus-builder. The Security Council, the only UN body able to issue legally binding resolutions, yet often split on how to deal with serious challenges, needs the direction of someone with such abilities.