Former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres is set to replace U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whose term ends at the end of this year. Guterres, 67, who previously served as U.N. high commissioner for refugees, will lead the international organization from January 2017 after being officially elected at a U.N. General Assembly session.
He will face numerous serious challenges such as the Syrian civil war -- which now appears endless due to a conflict between the United States and Russia over the issue -- as well as the refugee crisis seriously affecting Europe.
It is hoped that Guterres, who will be the ninth "face" of the United Nations, will take advantage of his experience to exercise leadership in resolving various international problems.
The process of selecting the U.N. chief has been reformed to increase transparency, such as by holding an open debate. Initially, a candidate from Eastern Europe or a woman looked likely to be elected. However, Guterres earned acclaim as he spoke enthusiastically and without looking at his script about contributing to the international community, and gave clear-cut answers to questions during the debate.
In six rounds of mock voting, Guterres garnered the largest number of votes, and Russia, which is believed to have wanted someone from Eastern Europe to become U.N. chief, accepted his nomination. Rumors had circulated that the nomination was done behind closed doors and even through backdoor deals between permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), which have veto power. However, Guterres was picked based on the evaluation of his personal character. It was the fruit of the transparency reforms. This will likely ensure that Guterres will properly exercise influence on even major powers.
Guterres served as Portuguese prime minister for 6 1/2 years from 1995 in a Socialist Party-led administration, and played a key role in currency unification in the European Union and helping East Timor win independence. He also traveled around the world while serving two five-year terms as U.N. high commissioner for refugees. His achievements have been highly appreciated by human rights organizations.
Many U.N. chiefs are career diplomats or former foreign ministers. He will be the first U.N. head who has served as a prime minister. Ban, a former foreign minister and consensus-oriented politician, has failed to exercise sufficient leadership. Therefore, in nominating him as secretary-general, U.N. members valued Guterres' leadership ability. As such, high expectations are being placed on Guterres' experience responding to refugee crises.
The U.N. secretary-general is the top leader of an organization that employs more than 40,000 people. The U.N. Charter empowers the secretary-general to "bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security." However, the U.N. chief does not have the power to issue a direct order to the UNSC.
Rather, the U.N. secretary-general needs to have political power to appeal to public opinion through his words and deeds, and create an environment that pressures the UNSC to take action. It is indispensable for the U.N. chief to communicate with major powers, but to perform his duty Guterres should take advantage of his political experience winning support from the public in elections.
While serving as U.N. high commissioner for refugee, Guterres downsized his office's organizations and instead increased on-site activities to support refugees. He is expected to exercise leadership in reforming the United Nations, which critics call bloated and inefficient.
It is indispensable for any U.N. chief to have political power to carry out reforms of U.N. organizations, including the UNSC.
Guterres, who has repeatedly visited Japan since he became prime minister of Portugal, is knowledgeable about the country. Japan should support moves to reform the United Nations while supporting Guterres.