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United Nations

Opinion: Antonio Guterres - A man of words and not (yet) deeds

The new secretary-general must urgently reform the United Nations. However, Antonio Guterres' time as Portuguese prime minister gives reason to doubt that he is the right man for the job, says Johannes Beck.

Confident, precise and eloquent - Antonio Guterres made an excellent impression at his United Nations application interview in New York this April. Beyond his mother tongue of Portuguese, the new United Nations secretary-general presented his ideas in three further languages - English, Spanish and French.

Guterres is a man of words, and it is a joy to listen to him. His idea of making prevention the UN's highest priority for all future activity is a convincing one. Who would not agree with the concept of avoiding problems rather than having to react to them?

The need for a well-established UN

As UN high commissioner for refugees, Guterres was forced to deal with the problems that arise when such preventions are not in place. Around the world, more people were fleeing during his term in office than at any time since the end of World War II. The 67-year-old always managed to find the right words to describe the refugee crisis and did not shy from criticizing the European Union.

Beck Johannes Kommentarbild App

Beck heads DW's African Portuguese section

Yet, in light of the crises that already exist in the world - whether in Syria, South Sudan or Somalia - words alone will not be enough. It is too late for prevention in all of these instances. Action is needed now. And that requires an organized UN. Scenes like those in July, in which UN peacekeepers were unable to protect civilians in South Sudan from murderous militias, cannot be repeated.

Guterres has said that he wants UN peacekeepers to work in line with the highest ethical standards in the future. That is desperately necessary, for all too often those troops have made a name for themselves by engaging in the sexual abuse of minors. The United Nations' reaction to such scandals has mainly consisted of ducking the problems and then attempting to cover them up.

Lack of constructive criticism

That has to do with the lack of a culture of constructive criticism within the UN. Mistakes at the United Nations are suppressed: The organization's international conferences are consistently touted as either very successful, or at the very least, successful - even when failure is clear for all to see. Guterres' predecessor Ban Ki-moon was no exception, and even went so far as to frame the historic disaster that was the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in a positive light.

In fact, all of Guterres' predecessors failed to reform the extremely complex and inefficient apparatus of the cumbersome United Nations. Yet radical reform is the only hope that the UN, with its dozens of at times ineffectual sub-organizations, will ever have if is to effectively deal with the ever larger challenges that it faces.

Really the right man?

There is good reason to doubt that Guterres is the right man for the task. For starters, after 10 years as United Nations high commissioner for refugees, Guterres is part of the system. A strong leader from outside the system, one without the usual inhibitions of UN diplomats, would have been a better choice in terms of pushing such urgently needed reforms.

Moreover, one must recall the euphoria that arose when Guterres first became prime minister of Portugal back in 1995. "No jobs for the boys," he declared at the time. He swore that he wanted to end the tradition of doling out thousands of public administration posts to allied party members. Competence, he said, should be the measure of qualification rather than party loyalty. Nevertheless, it soon became clear that no deeds would follow up those words. By the end of his premiership in 2002, he had handed out thousands of jobs in the government apparatus to "boys" from his own socialist PS party.

For the sake of the United Nations, one can only hope that as secretary-general he will follow up his words with action.

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