Shunning opportunity to make history, U.N. picks European man as next leader

Antonio Gutterres

It was supposed to be the year of change at the United Nations. It was supposed to produce the first transparent election for a new leader. It was supposed to be a woman. She was supposed to be from Eastern Europe.

Nothing went as planned. On Wednesday the Security Council made its decision. A white European male will be the next U.N. secretary-general.

The well-qualified female candidates from around the world stood no chance at beating out former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres. He led the race at the first straw poll and never let go. Today’s hidden vote revealed what was long suspected, none of the veto-wielding members stood in the way of Guterres and his new job.

Tomorrow the Security Council will go through the formality of voting where Guterres will win. A confirmation from the General Assembly, another formality, comes next and he will officially be in line to take over from Ban Ki-moon when his term is up in a few months.

“Today after six straw polls we have a clear favorite, and his name is Antonio Guterres,” said Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, in announcing the deal alongside the 14 ambassadors from the Security Council.

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The decision cast aside the tradition of rotating the job among global regions and ended a campaign to elect the first woman. More than 50 countries joined advocates in the historic campaign to no success. Highly qualified women joined the race, including long-standing Costa Rican diplomat Christiana Figueres and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark. Neither came close to performing well in the straw polls.

And then there was Irina Bokova, the Bulgarian politician who is the current head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In addition to her experience in foreign affairs and working at the U.N., she checked two major boxes as an Eastern European woman. Like the other female candidates, Bokova never performed well enough to be a serious contender.

Rival Kristalina Georgieva was nominated after the last vote, but it was too late. The dark horse candidate could not turn the tide against Guterres. She did not even manage to beat Bokova or Clark.

“I think the breakthrough was the performance and the experience of the candidate,” said U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, to the media. “In the end there was just a candidate whose experience, vision and versatility across a range of areas proved compelling and it was remarkably uncontentious, uncontroversial.”

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That candidate served as an outspoken advocate for refugees while serving as the High Commissioner for Refugees at the U.N. for the past decade. It was noted by those who congratulated him for the victory. And it is a topic he expected to remain vocal about in the future.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.