Q&A with UN Secretary General Candidate Antonio Guterres

6 minute read

The UN will be selecting a new Secretary General this fall. TIME foreign affairs columnist Ian Bremmer spoke with Antonio Guterres, Portugal’s former Prime Minister, about why he should get the job:


What is the single most important thing that a UN secretary general can do to make the United Nations a more effective institution?

We need a surge in diplomacy for peace. The international community spends much more time and resources managing crises than preventing them. But TV cameras are seldom there when a conflict is avoided, so it is difficult for governments and international organizations to make prevention a priority. I believe prevention must be not only a priority, but the priority of everything we do. That means we need a huge cultural change to affirm the centrality of prevention.

But there is no single thing that is the most important. The causes of conflict are complex, multiple and increasingly interlinked. To tackle them we need a comprehensive perspective that encompasses the three pillars of the United Nations’ action: peace and security, sustainable development, and human rights. Given its wide scope, the UN is in a unique position to connect the dots and take the lead in facing this collective challenge, with the primary objective of preventing and combating human suffering. We need an integrated UN, not a fragmented one.


What aspect of the UN’s work do you believe is in greatest need of reform?

The UN peace architecture. The recent reviews of peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and women, peace and security create a unique opportunity to develop a comprehensive, modern and effective operational peace architecture. It must cover the spectrum from prevention and conflict resolution to peacekeeping, peacebuilding and long-term development – the “peace continuum”, which requires a holistic, non-fragmented, approach. And it must have at its center supporting capacity and institution-building of states.

Old conflicts persist and very worrisome new conflicts flare up, which are increasingly complex and often linked to new threats of global terror, confronting us with very pressing and challenging menaces. This means that, as I mentioned, our main concern must now be prevention. So, beyond the reform of the peace architecture, I see a role for the good offices of the Secretary-General, acting with humility, without arrogance or trying to give lessons to anybody, but working as a convener, a facilitator and a catalyst, and acting as an honest broker, a bridge builder and a messenger for peace.


You’ve written of the need to understand “global mega-trends.” In particular, you’ve mentioned income inequality, asymmetric conflict, terrorism, and public health crises. Which of these challenges do you believe should be the most urgent priority for the next secretary general?

It is essential to understand the mega trends, their linkages and how they mutually reinforce each other: dynamics of geopolitical, demographic, climatic, technological, social and economic nature, notably population growth, climate change, a different kind of urbanization without job creation, economic growth coupled with increased inequality, making exclusion even more intolerable. All this leads to the fragility of states and institutions, and stronger competition for resources. This is happening within a global context which is no longer bipolar or unipolar, but is not yet multipolar. Power relations are somewhat unclear, leading to unpredictability, impunity and the multiplication of conflicts. Conflicts whose nature has also changed.

The adoption of the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement are very important steps forward in tackling several of the challenges we face. With a view to fulfilling the Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals of the Agenda 2030, it is essential that the Secretary-General mobilizes the entire UN system, in cooperation with other international and regional organizations, civil society and the private sector, to support member states: they are the leaders of this process. The United Nations Development System must be reformed with this strategic objective.

Overall, reform is a permanent attitude and coordination a permanent must: a results-focused, people-centered and delivery-oriented coordination, not a bureaucratic process-oriented one.


What practical steps can the secretary general take to “foster inclusion, solidarity and the cohesion of multiethnic, multicultural and multireligious societies?”

The Secretary-General must be a determined advocate for the values of tolerance and solidarity – universal values that are shared by cultures and religions around the globe. The fact that societies are becoming increasingly multi-ethnic, multicultural and multi-religious is good. Diversity is a strength, not a weakness. To foster inclusion, states and societies must invest, politically, economically, socially and culturally, to avoid discrimination, intolerance, xenophobia and extremism, and ensure people have a sense of belonging.

In this regard and to ensure no one is left behind, I point to the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals, notably Goal 4, to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education, and Goal 16, to promote peaceful, just and inclusive institutions. And here again, the Secretary-General can play a very active role in making sure the Agenda 2030 is effectively implemented, as well as the agreements that were made in Paris on climate change. I see the Secretary-General role and the UN role as instrumental in supporting member states to make sure that as these recent landmark achievements are implemented they become a true success.


No institution can be all things to all people. What things do you believe the UN should avoid trying to do?

We should be guided by the principle of subsidiarity, and avoid entrusting the UN what member states can do better. The UN cannot and should not replace its member states. It is an intergovernmental organization created by member states to better address common challenges, through collective action, within a spirit of shared responsibility. Moreover, the UN should only do what member states set a mandate for and establish the adequate means to do so.

UN agencies must respect state ownership. For example, it is up to the states to lead the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. They are the drivers. The UN’s job is to deliver full support to their implementation, notably through the UN Development System.


What benchmark should we use to evaluate the success of the next secretary general?

The contribution to the reduction of human suffering, in particular the suffering caused by violent conflict and atrocities.

A Secretary-General must continuously seek to contribute to reducing the number of conflicts and consequently the number of victims, people killed in conflict, wounded or forcibly displaced; the number of individuals suffering human rights violations and abuses; and the number of fellow human beings affected by hunger, catastrophic pandemics and sexual violence, notably women and children.

A stronger and trusted United Nations. It is essential to understand that the UN’s strength lies in its values. The values enshrined in the Charter, the values the UN stands for, the values all religions respect. So the ability to be an advocate for our true universal values is essential in the Secretary-General’s job to strengthen the UN and ensure its centrality and peoples’ trust.

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