A few challenges for new UN Secretary General António Guterres

The first United Nations Secretary-General, Trygve Lie, knew what he was talking about when he described his office as the most impossible job on this earth. He faced the daunting challenge of building the UN during the early years of the Cold War when divisions between the Soviet bloc and the West left the organization teetering between paralysis and open conflict. His reward was to be assailed by the Soviet Union for opposing its position on the Korean War and by Senator Joseph McCarthy for being soft on communism.

Syria, climate change, North Korean nukes, African wars are enough to pose serious challenges for the new UN Secretary General. Moreover, he will have also to cope with the dire challenge of refugee and migrant crises. Global mega-trends is very crucial and current dynamics of a geopolitical, demographic, climatic, technological, social and economic nature enhance both threats and opportunities to an unprecedented extent. Exclusion, competition for dwindling resources and shortcomings in governance further contribute to the eruption of violent conflicts. Furthermore, the nature of conflict is changing; terrorism, international organized crime and illicit trafficking pose real threats; and the effects of climate change and the prospect of devastating epidemics loom persistently on the horizon.

The new Secretary-General has taken office at a unique moment in the UN’s history and one throws up its own challenges. The first of these is the rising tension within the Security Council evident in the conflict over Ukraine and the sharp disagreements over Syria. It is an exaggeration to describe this as a new Cold War, but the struggle between Russia and the West goes beyond routine a clash of national interests and reflects divergent ideas about the values and structure of the international system itself. It has the potential to create political stalemate within the UN machinery if it isn’t managed properly.

A second challenge comes with the shift in global wealth and power to the East and the South. This raises obvious questions about China’s role and whether its traditionally cautious approach within the international community is about to give way to a more assertive stance. China’s willingness to provide limited diplomatic support to Russia during the Ukraine crisis, by agreeing a strategic energy deal, for example, is a notable contrast to the more neutral stance it adopted over Georgia eight years ago. Emerging regional powers like India, Brazil and Turkey also becoming impatient for change that reflects the emerging power realities of the twenty-first century.

A third challenge is the need to acknowledge and harness the growing power of civil society at a global level in furthering the UN’s work. Kofi Annan did much to improve the UN’s working relations with civil society, but CSOs are becoming more demanding at a time when Russia and some other countries see them as vehicles for Western interference in their internal affairs.

Russia’s revisionist challenge, the rise of China, the emergence of new regional powers, the growth of civil society and uncertainly about America’s future attitude all call for a Secretary-General with a unique combination of qualifications and talents. They will need to be a skilled diplomat and have the ability to maintain the trust and respect of all of the P5. Good relations with the United States, Russia and China in particular would be a major advantage, as would experience of working within the UN system.

The South Asia is of the view that the new UNSG will play a positive role on those issues which are of vital importance for the region including the unresolved Kashmir issue between Pakistan and India. Another the expectation is that the new UNSG-designate would focus on crises situations in the Middle East which are directly impacting international peace and security.

With his experience in UNHCR, he is also expected to play a positive role in slowing down the steady flow of migrants into Europe. Finally, his election also demonstrates that despite the prevailing tensions between the Russians and Americans, they are still able to agree if the situation warrants. This is a positive sign which the new Secretary General should use to his advantage in the interests of a multi-polar and secure world.

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