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New UN chief has an Indian connection

By Ambassador T P Sreenivasan
October 07, 2016 09:00 IST
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'Antonio Guterres takes over as the UN secretary-general with tremendous goodwill as the process of his election was without the usual horse trading and compromises.'
'We have every reason to believe that he will be sensitive to Indian positions,' says Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

When the customary monthly rotation of the presidency of the United Nations Security Council brought Ambassador Vitaly Churkin to the hot seat, speculation was rife that Russian insistence on a woman secretary-general would hold up the proceedings of nominating the new secretary-general.

But the announcement of the selection of former Portuguese prime minister and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, came within five days of Churkin as president.

The Russian support for Guterres marks a new detente in Europe, not a surrender of interests by Vladimir Putin.

Guterres was the front-runner right from the first straw poll, but he kept getting a couple of 'discourage' votes for the simple reason that there was overwhelming sentiment in the UN this time that the next secretary-general should be a woman.

The general belief that East Europe should have its turn to provide a secretary-general was also widely voiced, though, after the end of the Cold War, Eastern Europe had become a myth.

By breaking the gender barrier and the regional barrier, the Security Council has chosen the right man for the job. It also re-established the unity of Europe in spite of Brexit.

After the very early years, successive secretaries-general were elected on the basis of the lowest common denominator, making it difficult for the best man to win.

The choice often went to someone who was expected to do the bidding of the permanent members, with no views of his own.

The head waiter image was desirable and the best in that category, Kurt Waldheim, was put up even for a third term.

Boutros Boutros Ghali, who was preferred over candidates from Eastern and Southern Africa, was discarded when he stood his ground against the Americans and even Kofi Annan turned out to be unacceptable because of the assertive way in which he handled certain issues.

Ban Ki-moon turned out to be neutral enough to survive for two terms by championing causes like immunisation of children and climate change.

The new process initiated by the president of the General Assembly to make the selection transparent played a role in bringing Guterres to the forefront as each candidate got an opportunity to present his vision and show his record.

The secrecy surrounding the sudden emergence of a consensus candidate disappeared this time.

The uppermost thought of the world community during the election process was the refugee crisis and Guterres, with his record of having reformed the UNHCR, reduced costs by 20 per cent and tripled its activities looked like an ideal choice at this time.

His Socialist International credentials and his impeccable record as Portugal's prime minister and the European Council president, who led the adoption of the Lisbon Agenda gave him an advantage over all others, who resorted to the projection of gender and geography.

The informal dialogue at the General Assembly highlighted not only his accomplishments as an administrator, but also his forthright approach to some major issues.

He noted that as long as the refugee movements were from south to south, his plea to deal with the refugee question seriously was ignored by the powerful nations. But once the refugee flow began towards the north, the refugee issue came to the forefront and he was asked to handle diverse refugee concerns.

He had no hesitation in hinting at the double standards applied in handling refugees.

Guterres was forthright about the charges of serious cases of misbehaviour by UN peacekeepers.

He said it was difficult to preserve diplomatic immunity while also ensuring there is no impunity, but that he would 'pay a lot of attention in trying to find the right equilibrium between these two aspects that are absolutely crucial.'

Guterres indicated it was completely unacceptable that there be UN forces committing human rights violations such as rape and sexual violence.

'All of us together -- States and UN -- must do our utmost to ensure that any kind of action of this type is severely punished,' he remarked.

He also indicated that there is a gap between theoretical zero-tolerance and the ineffective zero-tolerance that actually exists on the ground that needs to be overcome.

These pronouncements will be examined carefully by the UN, now that he is selected. The overall impression that he has created is positive and the general membership must be pleased that such a candidate was not sacrificed at the altar of rotation and other considerations.

Guterres takes over as the UN secretary-general with tremendous goodwill as the process of his election was without the usual horse trading and compromises.

His own attitude was that it was not the end of the world for him since he would have much to do in his country and elsewhere as his abilities were recognised.

He was the picture of humility and confidence when he addressed the Indian Council of World Affairs within hours of his emerging as the front-runner. He merely said there was a long way to go before he came anywhere near the finishing point.

It was not surprising that India expressed support for Guterres as soon as news of his appointment was announced.

Unlike the previous UNHCRs, Guterres showed understanding of India's not having signed the Refugees Convention. He appreciated the fact that India's status as a non-signatory did not stand in the way of India opening its hearts and doors to refugees.

He put behind him the period of tension between India and the UNHCR and also spoke in appreciation of how India handled the East Pakistan refugees crisis before the 1971 War.

Guterres has an Indian connection that is the icing on the cake. His wife is from Goa who moved to Portugal after Goa was integrated with India. He and his family visited India occasionally for sentimental reasons.

India was the only non-member of the Security Council he visited as part of his campaign and he was warmly welcomed.

Although he stated that reform of the Security Council should be driven by the members, he is acutely aware of the need for reform.

We have every reason to believe that he will be sensitive to Indian positions.

Ambassador T P Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA. He is currently Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services and Director General, Kerala International Centre.

Photograph: Jean-Marc Ferre/UN Photo

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Ambassador T P Sreenivasan