- - Tuesday, October 11, 2016


On New Year’s Day, Ban Ki-moon will step down as secretary-general of the United Nations. The U.N. Security Council has voted to recommend former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres to succeed him. When the U.N. General Assembly approves that recommendation this week, it will be a done deal.

An unusually high number of candidates had been vying for the post, but Mr. Guterres had been the front-runner for the job for months. This sounds more impressive than it is. The field, though crowded, was weak.

While Mr. Guterres has long been the clear favorite to win Turtle Bay’s top job, his record raises questions about whether he will be willing and able address the challenges facing the U.N.

Mr. Guterres was a successful politician serving as prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002. From 1999 to 2005, he presided over the Socialist International — a London-based association of 153 social democratic, socialist and labor parties from around the world. He then went to the U.N., serving as the organization’s high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) for a decade.

That’s certainly the kind of experience one would expect the U.N. to look for in a secretary-general.

But a closer look reveals that he was forced to resign as prime minister after his Socialist party suffered devastating losses in the 2001 local elections due to economic mismanagement under his leadership.

Likewise, his tenure as high commissioner was criticized for financial negligence and mismanagement.

In 2010, the U.N.’s independent Board of Auditors lambasted UNHCR for “weaknesses in control and financial management oversight in a number of areas.” The board also expressed “significant concerns about important aspects of UNHCR financial, risk and performance management and the difficulties that the Office is encountering in its attempts to put value for money at the heart of its decision-making and operations.”

A report released this year by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services indicates that management problems continued to the end of Mr. Guterres‘ tenure. It assessed UNHCR governance, risk management and control processes as “unsatisfactory” — which is defined as “one or more critical and/or pervasive important deficiencies exist in governance, risk management or control processes, such that reasonable assurance cannot be provided with regard to the achievement of control and/or business objectives under review.”

The U.N. faces many significant challenges — the most horrendous being repeated instances of U.N. peacekeepers refusing to defend civilians under their protection and, even worse, preying on vulnerable populations.

The U.N. also seems increasingly impotent when it comes to easing, much less resolving, crises around the world. Exhibit A: Syria.

The secretary-general can bring attention to these matters and urge action. But the primary job of the secretary-general — and the only one specifically mentioned in the U.N. Charter — is to be the “chief administrative officer” of the U.N. Overall, the organization remains plagued by poor management and a continuing commitment to far too many outdated, duplicative and ineffective activities. The next secretary-general should focus on addressing the many management and accountability deficiencies besetting the U.N.

Although Mr. Guterres has won praise due to his rhetorical skills and experience heading the U.N. organization charged with addressing the growing refugee concern, his record raises questions about his ability — and even his interest — in addressing these problems.

Like his predecessors, he is all too likely to follow the siren call of being the “secular pope” and ignore the more mundane responsibilities of his office. If he does, he will be doing far more harm than good.

The secretary-general has no real power to force sovereign states to do anything. But he does have the authority and ability to manage and lead the U.N., which can have far-reaching impact on millions of people around the world who depend on the U.N. for food, shelter, health and protection.

Although it does not get headlines, mismanagement, lack of prioritization, and tolerance for corruption and incompetence undermine this important work. Hopefully, Mr. Guterres understands that he can do more good being “secretary” than “general.”

Brett D. Schaefer is the Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs.

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