By Bashir Goth
As the UN Security Council nominated the former Portuguese Prime Minister António Guterres as the next UN Secretary-General, one wonders if the man hasn’t already been handed a poisoned chalice.
It was the first UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie who described the position as the “most difficult job in the world”. And indeed Guterres’ appointment comes at the most difficult times of all.
Serving as former UN High Commissioner for Refugees for about 11 years may have prepared him for the challenges ahead, particularly during these trying times, but if history is any guide the head of the UN usually ends up as more Secretary than General and definitely less than “world moderator” as US President Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned the role.
Kofi Annan, the seventh secretary-general, and a man trained in the corridors of the organisation, said: “And you get the mandates, yes. You just don’t get the commensurate resources to deal with it, so you are bound to run into difficulties and fail. And then be blamed. One of my predecessors used to say the letters SG [secretary general] stood for scapegoat.”
And yes, history tells us that despite the Security Council being the body fully in charge of the decisions of the UN, it is always the poor SG that takes the blame for its failures.
Authors of the book Secretary or General, Simon Chesterman and Thomas M. Franck say the person in the post is sometimes treated as “an errand boy and punching bag,” expected to be at once an independent political force and a public servant, according to a citation in the website of the Council on Foreign Relations.
But more often Security Council members prefer to see the secretary-general as public servant rather than an independent political force. And we remember what happens to those who try to exercise conscientious judgment like the story of Dag Hammerskjold who died in a mysterious plane crash while on a mission to prevent a civil war in newly independent Congo. It is documented that Hammerskjold was acting against the wish of some Security Council members who had vested interests in the mineral rich Katanga province that wanted to secede from the leftist government of Patrice Lumumba. The jury is still out on the cause of Hammerskjold’s death.
Boutros Boutros Ghali lost a second term re-election, and became the only one to suffer this punishment, due to his clash with the US administration at the time. He had also to repeatedly accept the blame for failing to stop the genocide in Rwanda despite his knowledge of who was the real culprit for the failure.
“I have tried,” he said. “I have been in contact with different heads of state and begged them to send troops… Unfortunately, let us say with great humility, I failed. It is a scandal. I am the first one to say it. And I am ready to repeat it,” he said in a statement to the Los Angles Times. It must be painful to take responsibility for a failure you know is not entirely your fault.
Now, whether the new secretary-general is going to be an obedient punching bag or a moral leader is to be seen, but the biggest task on his desk will be the horrific war in Syria and the worst humanitarian crisis it created. Three seasoned and world class diplomats, Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi and Staffan de Mistura, have all failed to find a solution to what Annan called “mission impossible.” Not because they were incapable men but because as Annan underlined, they lacked the unified support of the Security Council.
‘Near impossible task’
“The first thing I said to the Security Council was: ‘This is a near-impossible task. I’m going to try, but I can only do it if I have your united and sustained support’. Because you need that support in order to put pressure on all the parties. ‘United’ is key. Be united.”
But the Security Council remained divided, and as a consequence, Annan said gravely: “The Syrians are going to pay the price.”
And pay they did. In fact neither the Syrian people nor the rest of world has any illusions what the new secretary-general can and cannot do, especially as the political atmosphere between the US and Russia is so poisoned that any future US president might find it tempting to give a bloody nose to Vladimir Putin. The Syrian people, however, cannot help but at least invest some hope in his good office as they did in all his predecessors despite the repeated hopelessness they face.
And one thing that we would expect Guterres to choose is to be a leader with moral authority who heeds the advice of Sir Jeremy Greenstock, former UN Representative of the UK, who talking to London’s Daily Express said: “The next Secretary-General should try to exert his moral authority with more determination… Exercising the voice of moral authority needs to brought more into play.”
But in the event that Guterres decides to exert moral authority, I would offer one suggestion. Guterres needs to place on his desk the photographs of the young Kurdish Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi whose tiny body washed up onto the shores of Turkey and that of the bloodied and shell-shocked Aleppo boy Omran Daqneesh to remind him every day of the cry of children for peace and dignity and of the impossible task ahead of him.
Until now, these photographs have changed nothing as lamented by Aylan’s father, but at least by sitting on your desk, they may prick the consciences of the big players and remind them that your mandate could be a little more than being just a scapegoat.
They may also be your strongest argument to the actors in this horrible war that as UN secretary-general you “can’t want peace more than the protagonists, more than the Security Council or the international community, for that matter,” to again quote that resourceful Kofi Annan.
Bashir Goth is an African commentator on political, social, and cultural issues.