- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Under pressure to open up the process and break with seven decades of tradition, the United Nations is set to elect a white, male Western European insider as its top diplomat for the next five years.

In the face of a concerted lobbying effort to name a woman to the post, the U.N. Security Council Wednesday voted without dissent to make former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, the world body’s top official dealing with refugees for the past decade, the next secretary-general. The 67-year-old socialist politician beat out a field of more than a dozen candidates, including former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, former Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic and, in a late bid backed by Russia, European Union budget chief Kristalina Georgieva of Bulgaria.

Mr. Guterres would be the ninth man to head the U.N., succeeding Ban Ki-moon, the South Korean diplomat who will leave the post at the end of the year after two five-year terms. The Portuguese politician served for the past decade as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, one of the highest-profile posts in the U.N. bureaucracy.

Mr. Guterres, who in January will oversee a massive U.N. bureaucracy, a global peacekeeping force of 105,000 troops and an annual budget of $13 billion, was considered a safe choice, a self-described “honest broker” well known to the U.S., Russia and the other powers that dominate the Security Council.

The U.N. held an unprecedented set of public hearings in April for the secretary-general candidates to make their case in a bid to open up a process that critics said was rife with backroom deals and a lack of transparency.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power told reporters in New York Wednesday that the result, completed after six rounds of Security Council straw polls dating back to July 21, was “remarkably uncontentious, uncontroversial.”

“People united around a person who impressed throughout the process and has impressed on multiple axes — in his service in Portuguese politics and then, of course, at the helm of the UNHCR,” she said.

But the safe choice did not satisfy everyone. Mr. Guterres would be the fourth Western European secretary-general at a time when Russia and many East European nations argued it was their region’s turn for the top job.

Even more pointedly, women’s rights activists saw a two-year campaign to get the first female secretary-general end in frustration. The leading group lobbying for a woman for the job called Wednesday’s vote “an outrage.”

“The announcement today by the Security Council, with smiling faces, that they have chosen a man for [secretary-general] once again is a disaster for equal rights and gender equality,” the Campaign to Elect a Woman U.N. Secretary-General said in a statement right after the result was announced.

“It is unfair to both women and to East Europe and represents the usual backroom deals that still prevail at the U.N.,” the group said. “There were seven outstanding female candidates and in the end they were never seriously considered.”

The insider as reformer

Mr. Guterres received generally good reviews for his tenure from 2005 to 2015 as head of the UNHCR, a position that put him in the thick of the refugee crises springing from the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. His campaign was based in large part on his claim that he could help reform the U.N. from inside, addressing such problems as sexual abuses by U.N. peacekeepers, the U.N.’s shaky funding base and the need to rein in an unwieldy bureaucracy.

Although he was the top finisher in each of the straw votes taken this year, he acknowledged the pressure on the U.N. to seek a fresher face in an interview in September with Bloomberg News.

“I cannot change what I am,” he said. “If the decision is that the symbolic value of having a woman is what matters, then choose another person.”

The Security Council’s recommendation still must be officially ratified by the 193-nation General Assembly, but approval of the choice is not expected to be controversial. The Council itself will formally ratify its nomination in a vote Thursday, diplomats said.

Wednesday’s overwhelming vote for Mr. Guterres was something of a surprise, as Russia, which holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council this month, was reportedly backing Ms. Georgieva. Each of the five permanent members of the 15-country Security Council — the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia — had a veto over the nomination.

But Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly I. Churkin, the current presiding officer of the Security Council, told reporters in New York that Mr. Guterres was “the clear favorite,” receiving 13 affirmative votes and two abstentions. In second place was another man, Slovakian Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak, who had seven affirmative votes but vetoes from at least two of the permanent Council members.

Bulgarian diplomat Irina Bokova, head of UNESCO, was the highest-finishing woman, ranking fourth in Wednesday’s final straw poll. Ms. Georgieva finished seventh.

The fact that both Mr. Churkin and Ms. Power praised the selection suggested both Moscow and Washington have concluded they can work with the Portuguese diplomat. Divisions between the two Security Council powers have become more pronounced in recent months as U.S.-Russian relations have deteriorated.

Reformers who have been pressing for greater openness in the selection of the secretary-general said the Guterres selection was a mixed bag.

“He was ‘wrong’ in terms of gender and region, but was widely considered to have done well in his General Assembly dialogue and in other events, with many commenting on his experience and ability to inspire,” Natalie Samarasinghe, co-founder of the “1 for 7 Billion Campaign,” told The Associated Press.

Mr. Ban, a onetime South Korean foreign minister and the first East Asian to hold the post, was seen as an effective but relatively uncharismatic secretary-general during his two five-year terms, although he emerged as a strong voice on such issues as climate change and the need to address the refugee crisis.

The diminutive, jowly Mr. Guterres is in the classic diplomatic mold — an urbane, opera-loving onetime physics professor who speaks four languages. He emerged in the 1990s as part of a wave of center-left reformist politicians on the continent, the Portuguese equivalent of Britain’s Tony Blair. He pushed through a number of reforms in Lisbon while strongly supporting European Union integration, but abruptly resigned in 2001 after seven years in office after the Socialists suffered local electoral losses.

“I found out that politics has its limits,” Mr. Guterres said at the time.

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