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The United Nations is marking the new year with a change in leadership and five new Security Council members. But is it really the start of a new era?
At midnight Saturday, Ban Ki Moon relinquished his role as UN secretary general to Antonio Guterres, who then made a global appeal for peace, urging all people to make a shared New Year’s resolution: “Let us resolve to put peace first.”
His words echo those of his predecessor, Ban, who on assuming the role of secretary general of the United Nations in January 2007 declared that his mandate would be “marked by ceaseless efforts to build bridges and put an end to divisions.”
Ten years later, the Korean leader has arguably fallen short of his mark. Critics have blamed Ban for a lack of charisma and a failure to muster the requisite authority to lead the international agency.
Many observers are confident that Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister and high commissioner for refugees, who was unanimously elected to replace Ban, can breathe new life into the UN.
“We need mediation, arbitration, as well as creative diplomacy,” said Guterres, 67, after he was named the new UN chief. He added that the institution “must focus more on delivery and less on process, more on people and less on bureaucracy.”
Described as an intellectual with a consensual leadership style, Guterres has been lauded for his political judgment, his vast knowledge of culture and history and for a personality that seeks to be socially engaged.
His supporters say these are the qualities that make him so qualified to take on the mantle of chief international mediator at a time when the UN faces some of its toughest challenges.
Challenges in 2017
In 2017, the UN will be grappling with numerous crises. Bringing an end to the Syrian conflict, which has ravaged the country for nearly six years, managing a migrant and refugee crisis triggered by it, but also ensuring that the gains made in combating climate change, via the COP21, COP22 and the upcoming COP23 agreements, are upheld.
Richard Gowan, an analyst at the European Council of International Relations, says that the new secretary general “could give the UN the kind of kick to the back that it needs”.
“Whether it is on Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, the refugee crisis or climate change, he will be judged on his ability to stand up to the powers that have chosen him,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
According to UNHCR, 21.3 million people are refugees around the world. Fifty-three percent of these people are from Syria (4.9 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million) and Somalia (1.1 million). In South Sudan, the UN will have to keep up its engagement to try to put an end to the civil war that has already killed thousands and forced more than one million people to leave their homes.
Human Rights advocates say Guterres’s international work, which includes 10 years serving as UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), has prepared him well for global challenges, particularly those brought on by the refugee and migrant crisis.
“The Security Council has chosen a fervent and effective refugee advocate who has the potential to adopt a radically different tone on human rights at a time of great challenges,” said Charbonneau in an article for Le Monde in October following Guterres’s nomination.
Is the UN still relevant?
Many believe the UN no longer reflects contemporary international society with increasing criticism focused on its unwieldy bureaucracy and the presence of the five permanent members at the Security Council, which have the right to veto resolutions.
Among recent critics is the US president-elect, Donald Trump, who said, “The United Nations has such great potential, but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!”
He took a swipe at the UN Security Council after it passed a resolution to end Israeli settlements – a vote enabled by the US, which took the almost unprecedented decision not to veto it.
Joining the Security Council this year are Bolivia, Ethiopia, Sweden and Kazakhstan, who replace Angola, Spain, Malaysia, New Zealand and Venezuela as non-permanent members sitting for two years.
Italy, which is the fifth country elected, will be in office for one year only. After five rounds of voting at the UN Assembly back in June, Italy, which had the same number of votes as the Netherlands, decided to share its seats. “We will sit a year each,” said Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.
These five new members are in addition to the five permanent members (France, United States, Great Britain, China, Russia) and the remaining five non-permanent members: Egypt, Uruguay, Ukraine, Senegal and Japan.
The UN, however, seems fully cognisant of what potentially undermines its capacity to be representative of the international community. On its website it says that “more than 60 UN member states have never been members of the Security Council.”
This year’s membership will do little to mitigate the imbalance, with Europe overwhelmingly represented compared to other regions.
The continent has five member countries, while Africa has three representatives along with the Americas and Asia. This year, the Middle East is the only region without representation at the council.
Guterres has promised that the UN’s “duty is to the peoples we serve, is to work together to move from fear of each other to trust in each other, trust in the values that bind us, and trust in the institutions that serve and protect us,” he said. “My contribution to the United Nations will be aimed at inspiring that trust.”