Appraisal of the world’s top crisis manager, the United Nations Secretary-General

António Guterres appears determined to rejuvenate the UN, but he has his work cut out for him. Javier Delgado Rivera takes stock of the UN chief’s tenure so far and the challenges ahead, from US disengagement to internal issues around sexual assault.

By: /
12 April, 2018
Portrait of António Guterres. Illustration by Sami Chouhdary
Javier Delgado Rivera
By: Javier Delgado Rivera
New York-based freelance reporter

April marks 16 exhausting months since António Guterres became United Nations Secretary-General.

During this time, he has been dealing with gruesome conflicts, geopolitical rifts and humanitarian crises, as he contends with a dismissive US administration. All the while, the former Portuguese prime minister has been trying to persuade both the organization’s member states and its deeply entrenched bureaucracy to adopt the broad changes needed to reform the clumsy processes and inward mindset that many believe has been holding it back.

Guterres still has nearly four years left in his term to make an impact (and another five after that, if his mandate is renewed). That may feel like a long span, but his tenure comes at a crucial time, as the UN enters a cycle of long-overdue reforms, the world faces merciless conflicts of a scale unseen since the end of World War II, and the US disengages from the organization and pushes for budget cuts.

It is safe to say that Guterres’ most cumbersome task to date has been to restrain the isolationist instincts of US President Donald Trump, who was inaugurated the very month Guterres took his post, in January 2017.

Since Trump took office, the list of steps the US has taken to disengage from the UN is long: it cut funding from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA); withdrew from the Paris accord on climate change; ended its participation in the UN-led Global Compact on Migration; slashed its financial support to the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA); and, citing an anti-Israel bias, announced its retreat from UNESCO and threatened to abandon the UN Human Rights Council.

On the whole, the UN chief has prevented the worst from happening, as the US has shaved significant sums off UN budgets but did not force more severe cuts that would halt the organization’s operations, noted Richard Gowan, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on UN affairs.

Yet this may be about to change, with the appointment of Mike Pompeo as the US’ new secretary of state and, perhaps more importantly, with John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN, becoming Trump’s new national security adviser. “Bolton does not merely dislike the UN. He knows the organization rather too well for comfort,” pointed out Gowan.

When the 2018-2019 UN budget was agreed, Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, boasted about the US’ role in negotiating a five percent reduction: “We will no longer let the generosity of the American people be taken advantage of or remain unchecked,” she said. Haley, along with other member states, also pushed for a 7.5 percent cut in the UN peacekeeping budget, which for 2017/18 amounts to $7.3 billion and supports 91,544 personnel.

When it comes to handling the Trump administration, Guterres has had to strike a delicate balancing act. “He is letting other UN heads of agencies, like the UN high commissioner for human rights, speak up against US policies while maintaining his more neutral posture to avoid antagonizing the UN’s biggest donor,” Dulcie Leimbach, founder and editor of, a digital publication on the US-UN relationship, told OpenCanada.

There are two fronts where Guterres, who served as the UN refugee chief for a decade, has been forthright in denouncing Trump’s rhetoric and actions. One is Washington’s threats to quit the 2015 deal struck between Iran and world powers to restrain Tehran’s nuclear program, a withdrawal that the new US national security advisor will likely push; the other, most notably, is the US withdrawal from the Paris climate change accord.

The hawkish US administration is one of the most headline-grabbing challenges confronting the UN chief. However, the UN also faces an array of institutional flaws that Guterres is determined to address.

Reform, gender and sexual exploitation

“Our shared objective is a 21st century UN focused more on people and less on process,” the UN chief said in early September during his first public appearance with Trump. Guterres took the reins of the world organization with the bold intention to scale it down and make it more decentralized and entrusted to do less but more efficiently.

To do so, he aims to reform the UN machinery in three key areas: 1) its peace and security architecture, particularly the organization’s peacekeeping system, which has recently suffered a significant increase in fatalities; 2) the organization’s sprawling development system; and 3) in his own words, the UN’s “byzantine procedures and endless red tape.” (The UN tends to work in silos, making it prone to duplicating instruments and tasking its agencies with overlapping responsibilities — for instance, various entities may be involved in similar development work within the same country.)

“The Secretary-General did what many thought was impossible: he has developed a near consensus amongst member states on the need for reforms and he has enunciated three clear paths for such reform,” Marc-André Blanchard, Canada’s ambassador to the UN, told OpenCanada.

The Secretary-General did what many thought was impossible: he has developed a near consensus amongst member states on the need for reforms.

“‎He now needs to climb two further mounts: the UN bureaucracy that is showing resistance and is not known for embracing change, and, even more fundamentally, the agreement of member states to provide depoliticized and predictable funding for the initiatives. We, member states, need to stop micromanaging the UN,” Blanchard said.

Since Guterres is the ninth male — out of nine — to be appointed Secretary-General of the UN, he has also been urged to address the manifest gender imbalance among UN staff. As a result, earlier this year, he achieved gender parity among its 44 most senior positions. However, this is just the low-hanging fruit, as further down UN ranks the gender picture is still patchy, particularly at director and highly-skilled professional levels.

Guterres is also under pressure to address allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse committed under the UN flag: 40 cases arose in the last three months of 2017, including 15 reported from peacekeeping operations. Furthermore, the deputy heads of two big UN agencies announced in February their departure linked to allegations of harassment in the job or before joining the organization.

To clean up this stain on the organization’s reputation, Guterres has already issued a new whistle-blower policy, created the post of UN Victims’ Rights Advocate and launched a 24-hour helpline. Yet there are questions about whether these actions will be followed by mechanisms enabling the UN to push for criminal accountability in the member states where accusers are from. Moreover, critics believe that an external independent body should be tasked with looking at allegations of sexual abuse and harassment, “because there is a sense that the UN is policing itself,” as one BBC reporter put it.

When prevention becomes a motto

For Guterres, as determined by the UN founding charter, the UN’s central goal is to prevent global crises from happening in the first place, as opposed to putting out the diplomatic and humanitarian fires resulting from failing to do so.

“There are countries that slip out of the global collective consciousness until they are at the brink of disaster,” Karin Landgren, former head of three UN peacekeeping and political missions, said in an email exchange with OpenCanada. “A steady, positive engagement with fragile states may be the most important element the UN can bring to sustain peace. The UN is under-resourced for this purpose and terribly stretched.”

When Guterres got the top UN job he also inherited from his successor, South Korea’s Ban Ki-moon, what some have called the most ambitious plan in human history: the Sustainable Development Goals, a UN-led scheme to end poverty, create prosperity and protect the planet.

Poverty eradication and inequality reduction are essential to prevent the outbreak of crises and violent conflict, as well as to maintain peace. This is hardly a new finding, but Guterres has cautioned UN member states not to lose track of this link and to support his plans to revamp the multi-billion UN development system in this direction.

In his proposed reforms to the UN development system, Guterres argues that to effectively help poor and vulnerable people help themselves, the UN should secure the quality, quantity and predictability of financing and resources for development.

In a conversation with OpenCanada, Macharia Kamau, who was Kenya’s ambassador to the UN until last month, paints a dire picture in terms of the UN’s ability to accomplish this. “Guterres has come during a period in which the UN suffers a crisis of solidarity, with several Western countries turning their backs on multilateralism and cooling down their contributions to help poor people around the world,” he said.

Given the dramatic intensification of migration over the last few years, the UN chief has been quite assertive on the issue — a phenomenon where international solidarity, poverty and conflict meet. Ahead of this year’s negotiations to adopt a framework for international cooperation — the global compact — on migration, which is expected to take place during the UN General Assembly in September, Guterres has pointed fingers at governments’ dismal response to migration movements. In a benchmark report, he condemned the use of short-term and reactive security approaches to migration. “Political leaders must take responsibility and dispel alarmist misrepresentations of the effect of immigration […] and put in place more legal pathways for migration,” he said early this year.

But the world’s 244 million international migrants should not hold their breath. Migration is an extremely delicate political topic, and many countries, like the US, see any kind of multilateral initiative in this regard as an interference in their sovereignty. In addition, the global compact will not be legally binding, a factor which casts a long shadow on UN efforts to set norms and guidelines to stem the growth of migration globally.

And now the niceties — global peace and security

“I am absolutely convinced that […] the next war will begin with a massive cyber attack to destroy military capacity […] and paralyze basic infrastructure such as the electric networks,” said Guterres recently.

Counterterrorism, disarmament and cybersecurity are three additional areas under the Secretary-General’s ‘prevention’ drive. But critics argue that this all-embracing proposition, although well-meaning, contradicts his intentions to shrink the UN’s scope of work so that the organization grows more focused and decisive.

While it is true that the UN cannot be tasked with leading the whole range of world efforts against these menaces to global security, given the interconnectivity of all these threats, it is bound to play a coordinating, standard-setting role.

Some have said that Guterres should first of all focus on ending the enduring agony of millions around the world. Yet in places like Syria and Yemen, the UN’s failure to settle the fighting has laid bare the organization’s inability to stop, let alone prevent, human bloodshed. The Syrian conflict entered its eight year last month and has left 400,000 dead, but the sluggish UN-led Geneva peace talks have not gathered steam.

The council…plays chicken with vetoes or worthless ceasefires to score points. That is not the UN’s fault but it could signal its downfall.

In addition, divisions among the Security Council’s five permanent members (the P5) expose a blunt truth: that the Secretary-General does not have many tools at his disposal to bring the council together on issues where it operates on the basis of national interests, not in the interest of the people in the ground. Appealing to the conscience of member states is not enough.

As we have recently seen with Syria’s Eastern Ghouta, when the P5 agreed to a ceasefire ignored on the ground, “the council […] plays chicken with vetoes or worthless ceasefires to score points. That is not the UN’s fault but it could signal its downfall,” Ben Parker, senior editor with IRIN, a news agency focused on humanitarian affairs, wrote in an email.

The Rohingya refugee plight is another situation where the UN has been unable to help manage a crisis the field. The UN chief has spoken with Ann San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, and repeatedly called on the country’s authorities to stop the ethnic cleansing initiated in late 2016 and recognize the refugees’ right of safe return. However, these appeals have not gone very far, and today almost 700,000 Rohingyas still remain in refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh, with little prospect of returning back home without the risk of facing renewed violence.

There is one geopolitical crisis which Guterres can take some credit in helping to avert, at least for the time being. Following North Korea’s 2016 and 2017 nuclear tests and missile launches, tensions between Trump and Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, escalated rapidly. In an attempt to take the edge off, in December Guterres sent his under-secretary-general for political affairs to meet with North Korean authorities.

The details of what was discussed have not been made public, but the trip yielded results. In February, athletes from the two Koreans marched together in the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, and just a few weeks ago, Trump and Kim agreed to meet. There is no evidence that the UN diplomatic visit to the hermit kingdom prompted Pyongyang to relax its bellicose disposition, but the timing speaks volumes.

Around 7,000 km to the west of Pyongyang, the simmering conflict in Eastern Ukraine hands the Secretary-General an opportunity to prove that the UN peace and security capabilities are still fit for purpose. Months after separatist pro-Russian groups took up arms in 2014, the Ukrainian president called on UN peacekeepers to facilitate a resolution to the conflict. Then, last September, Russia’s Vladimir Putin floated the idea of deploying UN troops to this part of Ukraine.

“Ukraine needs UN peacekeeping shoulder to shoulder to restore its sovereignty and territorial integrity. I hope António Guterres [will follow up on] my president’s invitation to carry out a technical assessment for the deployment of a peace operation in Ukraine,” Volodymyr Yelchenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN, wrote in a statement for OpenCanada.

With his proposals to revitalize the UN’s peacekeeping, development and bureaucratic machineries, Guterres is presiding over a momentous period in the UN story. “One of the responsibilities of the UNSG is to help sort out what the UN can do, what it can’t and what needs to happen in other settings and institutions to take things forward,” Robert Zuber, director of Global Action to Prevent War, pointed out.

The UN can only become what its member states allow it to be. The organization’s chief can pitch ways out of some of the big dilemmas plaguing the world today. But if geopolitics, ill-disposed governments and financial considerations, as well as distrust in the organization, get the upper hand, Guterres will run against the same old walls that eight other men hit before him. If this ends up being the case, the world’s poor, most vulnerable and war-torn communities may give up on the UN as their last hope, with no alternative in place.

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