High Commissioner António Guterres exchanging views on peace, security and humanitarian assistance with residents of Dongo, Equateur province, northwestern Democratic Republic of Congo. / UNHCR / C. Schmitt / July 2010

The Next UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres “Speaks Truth To Power.” (So how is it that the most powerful countries in the world selected him?)

Antonio Guterres is a paradoxical figure to become the next UN Secretary General. As the longtime head of the UN Refugee Agency he developed a reputation for his outspoken style and willingness to confront powerful countries over policies that did not serve the interests of the world’s most vulnerable people. Yet the same powerful countries of which he’s been critical just picked him to become the next Secretary General of the United Nations.

During his tenure as High Commissioner for Refugees, Guterres styled himself less as the manager of a complex UN organization and more as the voice of voiceless refugees. He’s chastised American officials in Washington, DC over the paltry number of Syrians resettled in the USA; criticized Chinese officials in Beijing over their policy of forced repatriation of North Korean refugees; and as European countries were tightening their asylum and refugee policies he described the refugee crisis in sharply moral terms, calling for “a massive programme for resettlement and other forms of admission to European countries.”

So how is it that Guterres was able to simultaneously speak out against injustices and also curry favor with the very governments of which he’s been critical?  I’ve out this question to several people who have worked with Guterres and they who point to two qualities: agile political skills and managerial competence.

“He speaks truth to power. But he’s also a good diplomat,” says Michel Gabaudan, the president of the advocacy organization Refugees International who previously served in top posts at the UN Refugee Agency under Guterres’ leadership. “He knows how to couch things in ways that are not conflictive, but he doesn’t shy away from the issue.”

Others agreed with this assessment. “He has no qualms about delivering a tough message,” one longtime aid told me. “He studies the situation of the country to know where they are coming from. He has an ability to make them unfold their arms and listen to him, and then when he walks out the room they’d say ‘he’s a good guy.'”
Bo Waterside to Sinje Transit Center, Liberia where the returnees spend the night before moving on to their home villages. / UNHCR / E. Kanalstein / 20 June 2006.
Bo Waterside to Sinje Transit Center, Liberia where the returnees spend the night before moving on to their home villages. / UNHCR / E. Kanalstein / 20 June 2006.

His confrontational style may have been partly allayed by of his reputation as a competent manager.  He took over the UN Refugee Agency in 2005 at a time of upheaval for the organization. (His predecessor resigned amid accusations of sexual harassment.) Guterres quickly turned to organization around. He cut overhead budgets at the Geneva headquarters by transferring staff to much less expensive cities and devolving more power to UNHCR’s field offices. He also introduced a “needs based budget” in 2009 that more directly tied budget increases to the number of people displaced around the world in need of UNHCR’s services.

These reforms were particularly important to the organization’s main funders, which are governments in the United States and Europe. UNHCR, like most humanitarian agencies, is funded mainly through the voluntary contributions of donor governments.  Top donor countries like the United States, United Kingdom and Germany, have an outsized interest in ensuring that their funds are used to their maximum efficiency. Guterres’ reforms directly addressed the concerns of the agency’s top donors– many of whom also happen also to sit on the Security Council.

These qualities might explain why Guterres entered the race for Secretary General with no opposition from the Security Council. In the first straw poll he received 12 votes in favor and none against. (Three countries expressed “no opinion”) It was only in later straw polls that two countries — possibly China and Russia, but we don’t know —  expressed opposition. But those countries’ level of obduracy was apparently quite low. They did not oppose Guterres all that strongly and were able to come to terms with his nomination.  In fact, it was the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin who announced the Security Council’s pick, saying Guterres was  the “clear favorite.”

So now, the UN System is poised to be lead  for the first time ever, by a well known former Prime Minister from Western Europe who was somehow able to bring together an otherwise divided Security Council. His political acumen is apparently manifest even before he takes office.