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The race is on to join team Guterres at the UN

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6 October 2016 15:30

António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres is all but confirmed as the next secretary-general of the United Nations with the Security Council set to forward his nomination to the General Assembly. He will become the fourth Western European, the ninth man, and the first former head of government to hold the position.

Born in Lisbon in 1949, Guterres trained in electrical engineering and physics at the University of Lisbon. After graduation, he found his true calling: he joined the Socialist Party and was elected to public office. From 1995-2002, he was the prime minister of Portugal. After politics, he held the position of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from 2005 to 2015. He is a polyglot, speaking French, Spanish, English, as well as his native Portuguese.

The Guterres appointment will be welcomed by many at UN headquarters in New York's Turtle Bay. It is hoped that he will rebuild independence of the Secretariat and use the bully pulpit more effectively than his predecessor, Ban Ki-Moon. In many ways, his appointment will be a correction to the salaryman-like Ban and a return to a charismatic style of secretary-general. A strong communicator is what the UN requires in these times of turmoil, and Guterres fits the bill.

As for the poll itself, many observers will be suffering whiplash. The fact that the Council and the P-5 required only one coloured coded straw poll to settle on Guterres came as a surprise. Guterres led all five previous polls but many still expected a more troublesome selection process. In the end, Guterres was selected with a total of 13 encourage votes and two no opinions (abstentions). A break-down of the vote reveals that nine elected members and four permanent members voted to encourage Guterres' candidature, while one elected and one permanent member expressed no-opinion. Crucially, no other candidate came close to securing the nine affirmative votes threshold required for nomination and no other candidate was able to avoid a discourage vote from a permanent member.

Reflecting on the selection, in general, a couple of observations can be made.

First, on the question of regional rotation, 13 candidates from three regional groupings were formally nominated, a considerably wider field than in the past. Nine were Eastern Europeans, two were Western Europeans, two were from Latin America. Russian insistence on an Eastern European was clearly not upheld. Is regional rotation dead? If not, which grouping will declare itself the next presumptive region? Latin America and the Caribbean?

Second, on the question of transparency, the process itself was still largely opaque. However, the atmosphere surrounding the process was far more transparent that it has been previously. For the first time, we saw declared candidates fielding questions from member-states (there was even a debate on Al-Jazeera).

Third, on the question of a female secretary-general, although gender was front and centre throughout the process, the Council ignored the call for a female secretary-general. Some have observed that the Council simply acted as an old boy's club (US ambassador Samantha Power is the only female permanent representative on the Council). Once thing is certain, next time around the call for a female secretary-general will be deafening.

Now the SG race is over, it is down to business. Guterres' first task is to manage the transition. He has approximately three months, which is around the same length as Ban Ki-Moon's transition period.

Forming a senior management team will be high on the agenda. Guterres will need to select a deputy. He would do well to seek out a strong female administrator. As for the other posts, jockeying has already began in earnest.

Kevin Rudd will certainly be in the mix for a 'cabinet' post after his work as chair of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism. The question is what position? Would Rudd, a former head of government, be satisfied with a minor role? Traditionally, the prominent posts are divided among the big powers: France has peacekeeping (DPKO); the UK has humanitarian affairs (OHCA); and the US has political affairs (DPA).

One question that remains unanswered: what did Russia get in return for not blocking Guterres? Some have surmised that the Russians are keen to have their choice take the position of under-secretary general for political affairs. Guterres has suggested that although one cannot 'avoid pressure', one can 'resist pressure'. The question of high level appointments will be a first test of Guterres' independence.

Finally, what does the Guterres selection mean for Australia? In short, Guterres' selection presents a perfect entrée for a strategically informed policy for re-engagement with the UN. The honeymoon period will be brief, so Australia must move quickly to offer support to Guterres' agenda for reform.

Overall, there is a sense of relief that arguably the best candidate in the field has been selected by way of the most contentious diplomatic process ever conceived. Now António Guterres faces the unenviable task of managing the UN – otherwise known as the world's most impossible job.

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