The role of the UN secretary general is the most difficult job in the world. But it gets worse when the president of the United States represents a threat to the values enshrined in the charter, writes Manuel Nunes Ramires Serrano
It is a world not of angels but of angles, where men speak of moral principles but act on power principles; a world where we are always moral and our enemies always immoral.
— Saul D Alinsky, Rules for Radicals
ANTÓNIO Guterres was sworn in as the ninth United Nations secretary general a year ago. After taking the oath of office before the 193 members of the United Nations General Assembly, Guterres promised a nimble, efficient and effective organisation capable of working for peace, supporting sustainable development and reforming its internal management. An organisation that focuses more on people, and less on bureaucracy. With the Sustainable Development Goals as its agenda and the values of the UN Charter as its moral compass. The threats to our values, defended Guterres a few weeks after Donald Trump’s elections as president, are based on fear of each other, which can only be defeated by upholding what brings us together. Reading Guterres speech a year after, there is no doubt that he was aware of the dimension of the challenge ahead. He recognised that despite being better connected than ever, fragmentation within our societies has never been greater. Solidarity and tolerance, he hinted, seem to have lost their meaning.
Navigating the restless waters of diplomacy and international affairs is something Guterres is used to after his ten-year mandate as high commissioner for the refugees. But the position of secretary general of the United Nations is the most difficult job in the world. And it gets worse when the president of the most powerful country loathes multilateralism and the United Nations itself. The importance of consensus and mediation in a world always five minutes away from disaster it’s lost on Trump, a nativist and isolationist who threatens most of the values enshrined in the UN charter. Few secretaries general inherited such an unstable international scene while having to accommodate the tantrums of a president in love with himself.
Guterres has enjoyed relative success during his first year in office. He supervised a peaceful agreement in the Gambia, saw new sanctions implemented against North Korea and facilitated negotiations between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot sides. These are not major breakthroughs. Still, they reinforce Guterres’s position as a mediator and diplomat willing to go the distance to restore peace. It would be unfair to expect Guterres to do more, considering the relative power of his office and the largely chaotic world we live in.
There’s a wrong assumption that the United Nations secretary general can change the course of history by himself. He is the symbol of the United Nations and a spokesman for the interests of the world´s people. But the real power lies elsewhere. It is up to the General Assembly to vote any resolutions brought forth by sponsoring states. And it’s up to the Security Council to maintain peace and security, as well as adopting changes to the United Nations Charter.
The secretary general can bring to the attention of the Security Council matters that he believes might threaten international peace and security. He can also hold meetings with world leaders and attend sessions of United Nation bodies. He is also expected to use the so-called “good offices” to prevent disputes from arising or escalating. However, he cannot impose his will on states.
Convincing the President of the United States that political solutions are a better option than an indiscriminate use of force and idle threats it’s a phenomenal challenge. Convincing him that international affairs are a delicate matter seems like a lost battle. The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel it’s a perfect example of Trump’s recklessness. It will only make negotiations more difficult and a two-state solution hardly achievable. It’s worth imagining what Guterres would have been able to do this year if he hadn’t had to keep an eye on the President of the United States. Fortunately, he has been able to establish a good working relationship with Trump. Unfortunately, the time invested in convincing him that he shouldn’t abandon the UN to its faith it was the time he could have spent in actively denouncing the populist wave in Europe, the rise of authoritarianism in countries like Turkey or Egypt and the attacks on civilians in Syria.
Guterres enshrines the moral authority of the United Nations. As such, he is expected to advocate for those who too often fail to make the headlines. But criticising the limitation regarding the number of refugees allowed to enter Europe and the decision to establish a Muslim ban is not enough. Human rights activists and NGO’s have asked him to pay closer attention to the most vulnerable, and to denounce those who violate human rights with impunity. But the former high commissioner for refugees has also been praised for focusing on conflict prevention, peace and security. And opening the doors for an administrative reform that the organisation desperately needed. He also has taken important steps to address gender inequality and has been able to convince the United Nations General Assembly to agree on a reform of UN’s counterterrorism architecture. Guterres’s decision to establish a high-level advisory board on mediation was also welcomed: it will provide his office with advice and back specific mediation efforts.
It’s arguable that the UN secretary general could have done more during his first year in office. However, we should keep in mind that the current international waters are not easy to navigate. And that to be able to do so, Guterres must find the correct equilibrium between diplomacy and advocacy. The secretary general cannot antagonise member states, no matter how strongly he might feel about an issue. Trump decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN Global Compact on Migration is certainly a setback for Guterres. But one that he must be able to turnaround for the benefit of the world´s people.
The crisis in Syria, the war in Yemen, rebuilding Afghanistan, reaching a peace agreement in South Sudan and addressing the human rights crisis in Myanmar involve dealing with internal and external actors, contradictory interests and different agendas. Finding solutions requires months of negotiations and diplomatic efforts. Unfortunately, everyone wants magical solutions, but refuse to believe in magic.
Two thousand and seventeen was a difficult year. Two thousand and eighteen could be even worse if the situation in the Middle East and North Korea escalates. Still, we should trust Guterres. The secretary general of the United Nations knows that this is the world as it is. And as Saul Alinsky wrote, this is where you start.
OpenDemocracy.net, December 22. Manuel Nunes Ramires Serrano holds a bachelor’s degree in Law from ESADE Business and Law School and a master’s degree in international relations from the Barcelona Institute for International Studies. He is an international affairs analyst, journalist and editor.
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