UN Secretary General Guterres pitches himself for a second term in closed race

Seven people nominated themselves as challengers, but UN chief has no serious contender

FILE PHOTO: United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres poses for a photograph during an interview with Reuters at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., September 14, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

Antonio Guterres made his pitch for a second five-year term as UN secretary general on Friday, describing himself as a “bridge-builder and an honest broker” at a “fragile moment” in world affairs.

Mr Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister and UN refugee chief, looks set to keep his job once his first term expires at the end of 2021, thanks to an opaque selection process that is micromanaged by the US, China and other big powers.

Seven people have nominated themselves as challengers to the incumbent, including former Ecuadoran president Rosalia Arteaga, but none of them has the necessary backing of a UN member state.

“We are at a fragile moment, and it is absolutely clear to me that today’s complex challenges can only inspire a humble approach,” Mr Guterres, 71, told the UN General Assembly.

“I would be deeply honoured if you were to entrust me with the responsibilities of the second term.”

The 193-nation assembly elected Mr Guterres to succeed South Korea’s Ban Ki-moon after a competitive and transparent race in October 2016 that initially featured 13 candidates – six men and seven women. He took office on January 1, 2017.

The assembly elects the secretary general on the recommendation of the 15-member Security Council, where the five permanent members (P5) — the US, Russia, China, Britain and France — have veto power, so their support is crucial.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has “warmly welcomed” the re-election bid from Mr Guterres, who appears to have retained support from the P5. He will visit Moscow next week in what is widely seen as a campaign stop.

Mr Guterres has been praised for pushing climate change to the top of the international agenda, for his staunch criticism of Myanmar’s February 1 coup and for nimbly deflecting criticism from the US during the administration of former president Donald Trump.

Still, he is bashed for being too timid in the face of widespread human rights abuses, including during Ethiopia's offensive in Tigray.

The polyglot addressed the chamber in three of the UN’s official languages – English, French and Spanish – before taking questions from UN members and non-governmental organisations in a three-hour grilling.

Against a backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, deepening inequality, climate change and an era of populist politics and online echo chambers, Mr Guterres told diplomats it was time for a “renewed social contract”.

“It is not surprising that some people have lost trust in political establishments, both in the ballot box and on the streets,” said Mr Guterres, who was nominated by his native Portugal.

“Today’s marches against racism were preceded by widespread protests against inequality, discrimination, corruption and lack of opportunities all over the world, notably for women, young people and the poor – grievances that still need to be addressed.”

A General Assembly resolution adopted in September 2015 made the UN chief's once-secretive selection process more transparent, with the publication of candidates’ names and resumes and debates between opponents.

This is the first time an incumbent has sought a second term since that resolution and critics have complained of a return to the closed shop.

Arora Akanksha, a UN staffer, nominated herself as a candidate in February but lacks the backing of Canada, her home country, meaning she remains only an applicant in what she calls a “hypocritical sham” election.

“The UN preaches democracy to the world but can’t organise a competitive election in its own backyard,” said the 34-year-old.

“The absence of any women, people of colour or young people from the race should set alarm bells ringing for anyone who cares about democracy, justice, or equality.”