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Commentary: Limits to UN secretary general's power evident this year

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres holds a virtual press encounter to appeal for a global cease-fire during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak on March 23, 2020. (UN Web TV)

NEW YORK (Mainichi) -- On March 23, as the world was fighting the novel coronavirus pandemic, Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, addressed the world from U.N. headquarters in New York with a strong statement.

    "I am calling for an immediate global cease-fire in all corners of the world" he said, via a video conference from the U.N. building with a look of great concern in his face. He was aiming his call at Syria, Libya, Yemen and all the other armed conflicts in the world.

    But, the Security Council initially remained silent and failed to adopt a resolution to support his call. The body, a group of member-states who has the ultimate authority to speak at the U.N., lacked consensus, and Guterres could not bridge their differences.

    Despite being "a symbol of the U.N. ideals," the secretary-general can only do so much when there is a confrontation within the Security Council. But there are ways he can still decrease tensions.

    Article 97 of the U.N. Charter describes the secretary-general as the "the chief administrative officer" of the U.N, while Article 99 empowers him to "bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security."

    According to Simon Chesterman, an Australian law professor, one of the secretary-general's functions is an impartial mediator who can smooth over difficulties. He has to know when to be dynamic, when to take a middle ground or when to be content. Because, to advance the U.N. ideals, he still needs to maintain all the countries' trust, especially the big players.

    It is for a reason that the first secretary-general of the U.N. (1946-1953), a Norwegian lawyer and politician Trygve Lie, described it as "the most difficult job in the world."


    A call for a ceasefire

    Antonio Guterres, 71, a Portuguese politician, was chosen to a five-year term as secretary-general by the General Assembly and the Security Council in 2017. He had previously served as prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002.

    Guterres' call for a cease-fire was a strong statement on behalf of the worldwide U.N. system. And even though the Security Council did not arrive at a consensus for almost four months, he was applauded for his efforts by many member states. The states like him speaking loudly for the global interest.

    "I think the secretary-general did a very good job because he mobilized the U.N. system immediately," said Nicolas de Riviere, the French Ambassador to the United Nations.

    Some places with armed-conflicts have also heeded Guterres's call. According to the U.N. statistics, as of Aug. 24, 180 states (including Palestine, an observer) have endorsed the call, as have six regional organizations, 33 individual civil society organizations and five regional coalitions, 22 armed movements and other entities.

    Yet, the cease-fires did not last for long. His call was not backed by a Security Council, the legislative body, until July. A dispute between the U.S. and China grew too big. The confrontation spilled over into the Security Council, as they disagreed about the origin of COVID-19, and about the role of the World Health Organization.

    Diplomats themselves understood, that had the Security Council acted sooner, the cease-fire call would have been more effective. "It would of course have a much stronger effect if we had been successful as the Security Council to adopt the resolution supporting the call for humanitarian cease-fire earlier," said Ambassador Christopher Heusgen, the German Ambassador to the U.N.

    The secretary-general hoped for movements toward adoption of a cease-fire resolution. But he was not able to close the gap between China and the U.S. He avoided criticizing each of the countries -- the two biggest powers in the world -- publicly. He stayed discreet and gave the countries space to resolve it on their own.

    The limits of the secretary-general reconciling the Council, have similarly been on display in the current debate over a Security Council resolution on Iran. But from a different angle -- Guterres could not step in because his power is not legislative.

    The United States disagrees with the majority of the members on how to interpret Resolution 2231, that gives legal support to a political agreement, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015, on Iran's denuclearization. The U.S. wants to dissolve the agreement and trigger a snapback mechanism. Snapback would reimpose all sanctions against Iran. But the majority of the member states believe that the United States have no legal rights in regard to the agreement, given that Trump administration quit JCPOA in 2018.

    The secretary-general, despite saying JCPOA is "as an important diplomatic achievement" and despite that the majority of the states having the same opinion, did not take sides in the conflict. They are sovereign states. And so, it remains stalled.

    The secretary-general's role, which is defined in the Iran resolution, is to "report to the Security Council on the implementation of these provisions" and "take the necessary administrative measures." But not to interpret the laws.

    "We are speaking about procedural things... He, or the U.N. legal office, have no role in this," said Dmitry Polyanskiy, Ambassador and the First Deputy Representative of the Russian Federation to the U.N., pointing at the fact that the U.N. legal office does not interpret Security Council resolutions.

    "It is the Security Council that is the body that is able to do the interpretation of the Security Council resolutions (2231) and we (the U.N.) will act in line," said the secretary-general on Sept. 16, during a press conference in the U.N.

    The rough waters that Antonio Guterres has been navigating this year are similar to what previous secretaries-general have faced. They remain impartial to keep the states' confidence in the U.N.

    "Ban Ki Moon was also a famously careful diplomat. Kofi Annan, even though he criticized the US over Iraq, was very careful not to offend the Permanent Five. As a secretary-general, you have to be very careful and Guterres is very sensitive to offending the big powers," said Richard Gowan, the UN director in the International Crisis Group.

    "Most secretaries-general are, by nature, conciliators, trying to bring states together," said Stephen Schlesinger, international affairs specialist and a fellow at the Century Foundation. "In the end, they have no real powers except their moral authority. They have no armies, no democratic legitimacy (they were not elected by the world) and no taxing powers."

    Nevertheless, the secretaries-general can still connect with the Security Council to discuss a program of work for the council. According to the spokesman, the secretary-general meets the members regularly during their set meetings in the shape of virtual lunches, monthly meets with the incoming president of the Security Council, and is in regular contact with the members of the Council as needed either from his side or from their side. He also briefs the Council when requested by the member states.

    "I think he (the secretary-general) does try to put things on the Security Council agenda. We have a monthly lunch ... where we as a council talk to him about issues which are on and not on the council's agenda," said Ambassador Jonathan Allen, a Deputy Permanent Representative of the UK to the United Nations.

    Another approach the secretary-general may take is to engage in private diplomacy and speak to the representatives without the knowledge of media or without issuing public statements. This approach can be preferred over a heated matter.

    The situation is not simple. Even if the secretary-general has more lunches or calls with the ambassadors, disagreements among the states may still persist.

    Article 99 of the U.N. Charter gives the secretary-general an option to act more independently and draw the council's attention during the times of crisis. That is hardly used.

    Antonio Guterres alerted the Security Council under the article's legal basis only once, while he still did not invoke formally Article 99. He was responding to the Myanmar refugee crisis in 2017, sending a letter with concerns, and calling on the Security Council to press for restraint. Reluctance to use the article suggests caution not to go too far.

    In the past, the secretaries-general were also less assertive in their political role. Walter Dorn, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, counted that in over 100 conflicts that a secretary-general has intervened in the Security Council, only a handful of them was done with an invocation of Article 99. There were three explicit invocations and over a dozen implied invocations.

    Despite the limitations of role, the secretary-general still bears great symbolic importance. Secretary-general is able to mobilize the U.N. in times of crisis, having other ways to coach the members. Only he has to do it with the utmost caution, given the sensitivity of the issues.

    "The secretary-general is sometimes said to be like the pope -- but without a church," said Chesterman. "It's true that his words do not necessarily lead to action. But to stay silent is, arguably, worse."

    (By Lenka White, United Nations correspondent)

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