The new UN secretary general’s biggest priority must be Syria

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Today the United Nations security council has confirmed the former Portuguese prime minister and occasionally outspoken former head of the UN High Commission for Refugees, António Guterres, as the next UN secretary general – a choice that is likely to reaffirmed by the UN general assembly shortly. Guterres’ elevation follows what has for the United Nations been the most transparent process of nomination and public debate to date, even if recent weeks have been bedevilled by acrimonious briefing and plotting.

This new UN-style glasnost has the advantage of lending Guterres added authority as he prepares to step into Ban Ki-moon’s shoes in December. And despite stealing an early march on most of his opponents in a series of straw polls, the emergence of Guterres still comes as something of a surprise. This was supposed to be eastern Europe’s turn; there had been a strong push to have a woman as UN secretary general for the first time; and the ever present threat of a veto from a permanent member might have meant that the strongest candidates would be blocked.

The optics and choreography of the blessing conferred on Guterres by this month’s president of the security council, Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin, flanked by fellow members, including US ambassador Samantha Power, sends a powerful message. Given that he wasn’t its preferred candidate, Russia might have been expected to veto Guterres. But faced with the withdrawal of Bulgaria’s support for its and Russia’s favoured candidate, the head of Unesco, Irina Bokova, Churkin knew that the game was up.

The Russians were said to be furious that, under EU pressure, Bulgaria had instead tried to opt for the EU finance commissioner, another Bulgarian, Kristalina Georgieva, despite being unable to do so under the rules. But today no one can accuse Russia of saying “nyet” to the most popular candidate for the job, and many now expect that both Russia and China will demand their fair share of senior appointments. Indeed there is already speculation that Bokova will become deputy secretary general. Without giving any special favours, Guterres will need clear ideas about personnel. He will need to improve the efficiency of the organisation while drawing strongly on the ethos and experience of a loyal staff who are able and willing to properly communicate and champion the achievements of the United Nations.

As the world’s secular pope, Guterres inherits the charnel house that is Syria. It will fall to him to take the lead where the security council has so demonstrably failed. He has won plaudits for speaking out strongly in the past over a wave of migration from a wartorn Middle East that is now larger than that which took place at the end of the second world war. He will need to put Syria at the top of his list of priorities.

This may call for a more muscular, hands-on approach. The UN needs to be right, left and centre of the intense shuttle diplomacy that should have the very best diplomats involved at the highest levels in the capital of every country involved. Building on the happy collusion between the United States and Russia over his selection, Guterres will know that a thawing in relations between these two powers offers the best hope for an eventual peace in Syria, tackling Isis and a series of broader issues – from encouraging nuclear non proliferation to calming tensions on the Korean peninsula – as well as the prospects for wider peace in the Middle East.

is predecessor, Ban, has made tackling climate change and the new sustainable development goals very much his signature tune. A good deal of the groundwork has been done but, as the world continues to warm, much of the heavy lifting remains.

Ban often used to say that when he assumed office 10 years ago the biggest conflict in his in-tray was in Darfur, Sudan. But in the period since, wars have intensified and become more protracted. Women and children, hospitals and aid convoys have become targets with an apparent impunity for those carrying out the heinous deeds.

The new secretary general will hopefully use his good offices to encourage the security council to give up its power of veto when war crimes are being committed, as they are today in Aleppo and in Yemen. The UN must be able to act decisively and with properly supported peacekeeping operations.

The new secretary general will of course be the very model of courtesy and good manners with whomever is elected the next president of the United States, the country that hosts the organisation’s imposing headquarters. He will wine and dine him or her in his marvellous eyrie on the 38th floor of UN headquarters, with its panoramic views of the Chrysler tower and Turtle Bay. But there is little doubt that many in the UN will be privately praying for a female US president, even if they haven’t yet managed a female UN secretary general.

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