Former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres was sworn in on Monday as the 9th United Nations Secretary-General, pledging to work for peace, support sustainable development and reform the UN to become more effective.
Ban Ki Moon’s 10-year leadership was among the least inspirational in UN history. Syrians, Yemenis and Iraqis have endured years of slaughter, while Palestine and Kashmir struggle under stifled political and religious freedoms. In this environment of unrelenting warfare, the impotency of the UN to generate consensus between powerful states like Russia and the US is clearer than ever before. Does it even matter then, that the UN has a new chief? There are hopes that Guterres’ empathy for refugees, socialist roots and charisma will add some vivacity to the tarnished body, but good intentions have rarely turned into sustainable solutions since the Cold War.
Guterres was Portugal’s prime minister from 1995 to 2002. An engineer by training and a practising Catholic, Guterres fought for migrants’ rights over a decade as UN High Commissioner for Refugees from June 2005 to December 2015. The man has an impeccable resume, but the fact is that even though he may be the right man for the job, the failure of the UN is due to the failure of member states to follow the rules they agreed to when they joined the UN. The five permanent members of the Security Council are especially to blame, for treating the UNSC like a rich man’s club and their own personal panic room.
When the dust clears in Aleppo, in Mosul, in Sana’a and in Gaza, history will look back at these countries, and blame them for the death of millions, for staying quiet, for selling guns to rebels and empires, for ignoring humanity and choosing “national security”, which means nothing and feeds and clothes no one. So much death at a time when food, money, medicines, transport, shelter and technology is available to keep every single person on the face of the earth safe. The new Secretary General will preside over an organisation bogged down in endless bureaucracy and limitless selfishness of the countries it relies on.