New UN secretary general starts new job ‘without Illusions’

Special to

metzlerBy John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — The page has been turned. And the new UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres of Portugal has assumed office with a stoically realistic vision of both the crises and opportunities facing the international community.

In his first remarks to staff Guterres stated, “I think we should have no illusions. We are facing very challenging times.”

New UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks to his staff.
New UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks to his staff.

He’s right. The new chief executive of the 193-member organization knows of what he speaks. Before being elected to the top post replacing South Korea’s Ban Ki-Moon, Antonio Guterres (67) was the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva. During the past decade massive waves of refugees followed the growing global crisis and disorder.

Sources describe him as a man who spent time in the field knowing the day-to-day travails facing humanitarian aid givers.

“On one hand, we see everywhere in the world conflicts that multiply, that are interlinked, that also have triggered this new photon of global terrorism,” he told assembled staff. He then detailed the breadth of a crisis which has 65 million refugees worldwide, the largest number since the Second World War.

Stressing that, “I have worked as High Commissioner with the Turkish people, (Turkey) became the largest country receiving refugees in the world.” He lamented “having witnessed the generosity of the Turkish people, to see how now the Turkish people being the victims of this terrible terrorist attack.”

Significantly his first official meeting at headquarters was with Turkey’s Foreign Minister.

While the UN is known for its wide-ranging peacekeeping operations, importantly Guterres underscored the fact, “We still fail in relation to prevention of conflicts and conflict resolution.” He stressed that conflict prevention remains a key element in his vision.

He chided the contemporary era’s “conflicts in which international humanitarian law is not respected, situations in which we see massive human rights violations .”

Indeed his pledge to “put peace first” in the New Year reflects a sobering challenge to the chaotic international order.

Yet the new secretary general’s lens widened with praise: “We have witnessed enormous economic progress and enormous technological progress; we have seen less extreme poverty in the world; social welfare has improved as an average.”

Yet he emphasized that as communication and information becomes more global, the fact that you are excluded “makes it even more unbearable” adding “exclusion easily triggers revolt, anger and becomes a factor of instability.”

He conceded that in the more developed world there’s “the growing divide between public opinions and governments or political establishments.”

The UN ultimately remains the reflection of its disparate 193-member states, and especially a mirror of the vital national interests of Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.

Regarding he UN operations themselves, the new secretary general implored, “We need to try to get rid of this straight jacket of bureaucracy” which hinders the efficiency and efficacy of the organization.

Of course the global situation Antonio Guterres inherits reflects a dangerous and ingrained instability. Tragically much of the continuing chaos results from the power vacuum created by the Obama Administration’s indecisive policies in dealing with key trouble spots.

Even if every current war and conflict were to magically cease, the appalling residue of crises from wrecked cities such as Aleppo and Homs, ruined countries like Libya, Yemen, Syria, and the living Hells of ethnic violence in Congo, Darfur, South Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, would still await a complicated solution.

If the guns were to suddenly fall silent, the massive socio/economic challenge of rebuilding lives, cities and cultural heritage would be daunting.

In many ways a steady and pious humility reflects the views of Antonio Guterres, a Roman Catholic and former Portuguese prime minister.

His political, diplomatic, and administrative skills offers the weary United Nations system a chance for a political revival, as much as it is willing to accept it. Antonio Guterres, brings a sobering realism to a cynical and overwhelmed UN system.

But, he concluded, “there are no miracles, and I am sure I am not a miracle-maker.”

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]