António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres was born and raised privileged in Lisbon. He enrolled in a technical institute to study physics and engineering. And then, as he tells the story, he volunteered as a student to work in the slums of his native city, and that decision shattered his views of society and politics and put his life on a new trajectory. He joined protests in the “carnation revolution” of the 1970s, which ended decades of dictatorship in Portugal, he became a Socialist leader and prime minister in a restored democracy, and then he moved into the international arena as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from 2005 to 2015. On October 5, the Security Council chose him as their choice for the next UN secretary general.1

“Why am I here as a candidate?” Guterres, 67, asked rhetorically when he began campaigning for the job in a speech to the General Assembly and the world in April. “I believe I’m an extremely privileged man. God has given me the opportunity to accept a wide range of opportunities…and this creates an obligation for public service,” he said. His 28-year political career was motivated “by the shock I felt as a student volunteer in the slums of Lisbon.” His ten-year term later as head of the refugee agency, he added, gave him the chance “to serve the most vulnerable of the vulnerable” on a global scale.2

“The best place to address the cause of human suffering is at the center of the UN system,” he said. “And that’s why I am a candidate for secretary general.”3

In coming weeks, Guterres will be preparing for his swearing-in on January 1, succeeding Ban Ki-Moon. The job facing him for the rest of this year will be at least as important as what he does in the days after he takes over. He will have to choose a new senior management team for the heavily burdened organization. In the UN means that means negotiating with member governments demanding good, high-ranking positions for their candidates, and he will have to live up to his promise of gender parity along the way. A fair number of posts have already been unofficially allocated in backroom deals among the most powerful nations, giving him limited space for maneuvering.4

Guterres was a beneficiary of a new, more open and transparent system of choosing a secretary general created in the 2015–16 UN session by General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark. Instead of backroom bargaining in secrecy, candidates were given the floor to promote their qualifications publicly and take questions from diplomats representing the UN’s 193 member countries, as well as members of civil society organizations and the media.5

“Guterres was not generally considered a front-runner at the beginning of the race, given the calls to appoint a woman and the informal practice of regional rotation, which saw many in Eastern Europe claim it was ‘their turn’,” said Natalie Samarasinghe, co-founder of the “1 for 7 Billion” campaign for a more open and inclusive selections process, and executive director of the United Nations Association–UK, the first woman to hold this role. “That changed after his strong showing in the first-ever open General Assembly dialogues with candidates, which Samantha Power [the US ambassador to the UN] has described as his ‘breakthrough’ moment. In my view, the result is testament to the impact of the more open process that UNA-UK and its partners in the 1 for 7 Billion campaign worked hard to achieve.”6

Yet as public hearings and forums progressed through the spring and into the summer, the call for a break with tradition and the choice of a woman for the first time in the organization’s 71-year history grew stronger, along with the campaign by Eastern European nations for the election of someone from that region, which had never been able to field a successful candidate.7

In the end, to the disappointment of many, the winner was a man, and a Western European at that.8

“A cynic would say that the Security Council’s approach represented a reassertion of power,” Samarasinghe said in e-mail comments from London. “Many states had supported the opening up of the process as a way to signal their frustration at the General Assembly being sidelined. Virtually unanimous backing of a generally well-regarded candidate was probably the easiest way for the council to counteract this. But I also hope that this rare moment of P5 unity—and their choice of someone seen as a strong leader—shows that even they recognize the need for an effective UN system at this turbulent time.”9

“I would have loved to have a woman prevail—it would have been a powerful symbol,” Samarasinghe added. “But a symbol is not enough. Having a feminist (male or female) was always more important to me.” Women who have worked for Guterres told her that he has a good record on gender equality, she said.10

Anwarul Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi diplomat and former UN under-secretary general, takes a different view of the outcome. This year, Chowdhury has been one of the most outspoken advocates for female candidates and a strong supporter of the New York–based Campaign to Elect a Woman UN Secretary-General, led by Jean Krasno, an academic specialist on the UN. “I am appalled by the choice of another man, following eight others, as if only men were destined to lead this global organization,” Chowdhury wrote in an e-mail interview. He described the decision as “totally insensitive to a groundswell worldwide for a woman as the next SG.”11

He called for a new system by which all 193 member nations in the General Assembly would be given a chance to hold unofficial straw polls on candidates and submit their findings to the 15-member council, the arbiter on a final nominee, who then is expected to be rubber-stamped in the Assembly. The council, he said, was “carrying on the legacy of ignoring 50 percent of humanity.”12

In the eyes of many, Guterres, a Socialist, had made an impressive campaign debut in April in the open “town hall” atmosphere of the General Assembly with a spirited, self-confident, even passionate pitch long on respect for humanitarian principles and human rights. His decade as commissioner for refugees had left him with both a reputation for managing crises and empathy for the tens of millions of desperate displaced people roaming the world in 2016. His short speech, under the time limit set by the Assembly president, drew heavily on his five-page vision statement, which all candidates were required to submit. In his statement, Guterres said:13

It is widely recognized that there is no peace without development and no development without peace. It is also true that there is no peace and sustainable development without respect for human rights.… The UN should ensure the mainstreaming of human rights across the whole UN system, notably through the Human Rights Up Front initiative, preventing violations and abuses, ensuring accountability and addressing the plight of victims.14

Peace, justice, human dignity, tolerance and solidarity are enshrined in the Charter and bind us together. These values are central to all cultures and religions and are reflected in the Holy Books.—from the Qur’an to the Gospels and the Torah, from the Upanishads to the Pali canon.15

Over the months that followed his campaign appearance, the Security Council lined up behind Guterres, even those permanent members who are not the strongest supporters of human-rights causes—or of UN interference in national politics on human rights grounds. In six straw poll ballots in the council between the end of July and the beginning of October, Guterres never lost his lead among candidates. It took barely 90 minutes on October 5 for the council to make its final decision, announced by Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s UN ambassador and president of the council for October. Churkin said that Guterres was the council’s “clear favorite.” Russia had earlier expressed its preference for an Eastern European, but it appeared that none of them in the race could seriously challenge Guterres’ credentials.16

The United States mostly stayed silent throughout the campaign, publicly noncommittal and toying with women’s names, but saying officially that Washington wanted the best candidate and would welcome a woman, but was not making a decision based on gender. Ambassador Power’s brief comments made to reporters after the announcement of the council’s choice suggested that Guterres was always the strongest contender in Washington’s view. “In the end, there was a candidate whose experience, vision and versatility across a range of areas proved compelling, and [the choice] was remarkably uncontentious, uncontroversial,” she said.17

Thirteen candidates had been nominated by their governments. Seven of them were women. Geographically, nine of them—women and men—were from Eastern Europe; two were from Latin America and two from the Western European and Others Group (WEOG), which included Guterres and Helen Clark of New Zealand. Clark, administrator of the UN Development Program had been considered an early front runner among the women but did not get enthusiastic backing from the United States and was apparently opposed outright by Russia. Those two nations worked together to seal the deal for Guterres, but what other secret agreements they may have made about future UN appointments will emerge fully only in coming weeks or early in 2017 when Guterres announces his senior management choices—the UN’s “cabinet.”18

The United States and Russia appear to have avoided unrelated confrontations—the most contentious of which is over the Syrian war and Russian air raids in support of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad—in order to deal with the UN secretary-general election separately, drawing in China, which was thought to be wary of the kind of activist human-rights advocate Guterres is likely to be.19

China, as well as the United States and Russia, may also be seeking a good position in the UN hierarchy, possibly in peacekeeping, which would be a departure for Beijing. China has sharply stepped up participation in the UN peacekeeping field. Beijing, which is reportedly ready to offer the UN a trained and equipped quick-response battalion of up to 8,000 peacekeeping troops and police, has recently overtaken Japan as the second-largest financial contributor to the UN’s 2016–18 peacekeeping budget, after the United States—up from sixth place in the last budget period. China is already the largest contributor of peacekeeping troops and police among the permanent five members of the Security Council. Among all 135 countries providing uniformed personnel, China ranks eighth, according to the peacekeeping department.20

Thomas Weiss, Presidential Professor of Political Science at the University of the City of New York’s graduate center, suggested that the Chinese may look favorably on Guterres because he was prime minister of Portugal when the former Portuguese colony of Macau was formally returned to China without incident in 1999.21

As for the importance of the personal style of the incoming prime minster, Weiss, who wrote the book What’s Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix it and has been very critical of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon because of the closed, uncommunicative system he ran, looks for a more engaged and visible approach from Guterres. In an e-mail exchange Weiss said this of the newly appointed chief: “Not as photogenic and charismatic a leader as Kofi Annan, and not as abrasive as Boutros Boutros-Ghali, nonetheless, Guterres could and should aim to emulate them—and Dag Hammarskjold, usually at the top everyone’s list of secretaries-general who made a difference.”22