Who Can Lead The UN?

09/21/2016 04:34 pm ET | Updated 4 days ago
José Ramos-Horta

I won't say that I am a person of great consequence to the UN. But for about 40 years, I have been known in its hallways, as my life and the survival of my country have been intimately intertwined with the UN's workings. I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly.

I arrived in a snow-covered Manhattan in early December 1975, just as Indonesian forces, with US blessing and weapons, invaded my country, East Timor (now Timor-Leste). I was 25, having grown up on a small island that was a remote Portuguese tropical colony. I'd never seen snow. I'd never being to a major city at all, let alone one as fabled as New York. I hadn't even brought a coat.

Shortly after my arrival, I walked into UN and addressed the UN Security Council, pleading with the powers that be to roll back the occupation of my impoverished country. As I spoke, my countrymen and women were being lined up on the docks and hillsides in our capital, Dili, and executed at point blank range.

I believe I remain the youngest person ever to address the Security Council. I remember how the then Soviet Permanent Representative to the UN Yacob Malik dozed off as I tried to explain the plight of my people. Not wanting to disturb the powerful Soviet Ambassador's well-deserved siesta, I spoke politely and softly. I looked at his aide, seeking a hint on whether to stop talking or continue; he gestured to continue, suggesting that Malik, though sleeping, was also listening.

For the next two decades I walked the corridors of the UN and got to know its strengths, imperfections and failings, sometimes too well. While one third of the population of my country perished, I was mostly ignored in the hallowed halls of the UN. Sometimes I was treated with undisguised disdain by diplomats. American diplomats were instructed not to talk to me.

I also met some caring diplomats and UN officials. I remember each and every one of them --- the kind ones and the unkind ones. I learned to swallow my pride and stay focused on the cause, for there was no other institution like the UN. All of our hopes, literally our hope for survival as a people, were pinned on the world body.

In 1999, the international community, still shaken by Srebrenica, Kosovo and Rwanda, was galvanized into action by reports of unfolding killings in remote Timor-Leste, prompting the UN Security Council to authorize a multinational force that was deployed in record time. In a conversation with President Clinton in September 1999, he said: "It was Antonio Guterres who most touchingly and persuasively pleaded with me to do something." In fact, without President Clinton's leadership the UN would have been again witness to another tragedy without doing anything to prevent it.

In 2013-2014 I served as the Secretary-General's Special Representative in Guinea-Bissau, helping to walk the country out of a military coup and into peaceful democratic elections. In 2014-15 I co-chaired the High Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations and co-chaired the Independent Commission on Multilateralism, a project of the International Peace Institute.

Coming from one of the world's smallest and poorest countries I value the UN and multilateralism. And it pains me deeply as I see how world and regional powers consistently undermine the only truly global institution created by Member States to prevent wars.

For all it has accomplished in the world, for the fact that no further World Wars have occurred since the UN was formed to foster international dialogue, today the UN is adrift and is in danger of sliding into irrelevance. This is not the fault of the Secretary-General, current or past. Even a charismatic and inspirational leader like President Barack Obama, notwithstanding his many remarkable achievements, wasn't able to influence the course of world events through the UN, whether in Syria or South Sudan. He failed in his 2009 pledge to see a Palestinian State sitting side by side with Israel in the United Nations. The mightiest of all, the US with a truly inspirational President, has not been able to turn our illusions, hopes and expectations into reality.

For better or for worse, through bad and good times, my experiences in the UN have brought me into direct engagement with a fair percentage of both UN and world leaders. One such world leader I came to know well over 20 years is Antonio Guterres, former Prime Minister of Portugal. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for 10 years, Guterres showed exceptional leadership skills in carrying out reforms in the organization, slimming down the bureaucracy without causing dissension and anger, and elevating more women to senior positions. More importantly, he showed a genuine commitment and compassion towards those he was mandated to serve --- the tens of millions of refugees caused by man-made and natural disasters worldwide.

It is not in question that the UN needs substantial reforms from the top down. It must be more field-focused and less New York, Geneva, Paris, Roma or Vienna based. It needs a Secretary General with proven, tested skills in managing complex political and humanitarian challenges. It needs a person of unquestionable integrity and inspiring humility; someone who knows how to reach out, build bridges and inspire the people under his/her command and the world at large.

Among the candidates in the running, Antonio Guterres is unmatched, uniquely qualified to lead the UN in the next five to 10 years.

Guterres comes from a country, Portugal, that though an active NATO member, is too small and too far in the Western fringes of Europe to have quarrels with anyone. His country enjoys excellent relations with all of its European partners as well as countries of the developing world in the Arab-African region, Asia and Latin America. While being a historical ally of the US, France and UK, it has also maintained exceptionally good relations with Russia and China as well as with India. A global statesman and a true believer in multilateralism, Guterres is highly regarded by all.

Because of his integrity, humility and accessibility, he is immensely popular both inside and outside the UN. One senior Nordic diplomat who has been among the most ardent advocates of a woman for Secretary-General told me recently: "I have become a fan of Antonio Guterres." The eloquent Russia's Permanent Representative to the UN Vitaly Ivanovich Churkin was quoted as having said "Antonio Guterres is a good man."

The UN needs a brilliant, experienced and well tested leader. It also needs a good man, a compassionate and humble leader.

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