He will formally take office on 1 January as the ninth UN Secretary-General (UNSG), replacing incumbent Ban Ki-moon, 72, a former South Korean foreign minister, who has held the UN’s top job for a decade.
That Guterres was on his way to becoming the world’s chief diplomat became clear last week when Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin, president of the 15-member UN Security Council for October, said that Guterres had emerged as the front-runner after six straw polls—as the informal secret ballot within the UNSC is known.
“We wish Mr. Guterres well in discharging his duties as the Secretary-General of the United Nations for the next five years," Churkin said.
The UNSC has been holding informal secret ballots since July in a bid to reach consensus on a candidate. Members had the choices “to encourage," “to discourage" or “no opinion". According to Churkin, Guterres had come out on top of all the polls and last week, received 13 encourage votes and two no opinion votes.
Other media reports like one on the Time magazine website said Guterres would be the first person to hold the office of UNSG who has served as the chief executive of his country.
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“As prime minister of Portugal (1995-2002), and much more as the United Nations high commissioner for refugees (2005-2015), he has demonstrated a resolve to tackle tough problems," said the Time magazine report, which went onto add: “Experience and a political sensibility can add much heft to the office."
In a previous role as the UN high commissioner for refugees, Guterres was able to not only work with the major powers but to nudge—and sometimes push—them to go where they might otherwise have feared to tread. “This is a skill that should come in very handy in his new role," the Time article noted.
When Guterres spoke to the General Assembly in April as a candidate for the UN’s apex post, he described a UN chief as “acting with humility, without arrogance, without giving lessons to anybody, but working as a convener, as a facilitator, as a catalyst and behaving like an honest broker, a bridge builder and a messenger for peace".
Born in Lisbon in 1949, Guterres studied engineering and physics before getting into academia after graduating in 1971. He joined the Socialist Party in 1974—the same year that saw five decades of dictatorship came to an end in Portugal—and soon became a full-time politician.
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In 1995, three years after being elected the Socialist party’s secretary general, he was voted in as prime minister, a position he held until 2002. After stepping down, Guterres, fluent in Portuguese, English, Spanish and French, turned his attention to international diplomacy, becoming the UN’s high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) in 2005.
Ahead of his nomination, Guterres said his work at the UNHCR had been excellent preparation for the post of UN secretary-general.
According to a recent BBC report, his term as UN’s high commissioner for refugees is expected to be remembered for his efforts to get key countries in the world to do more for those fleeing conflict and disaster.
“We can’t deter people fleeing for their lives," he wrote in an article for Time magazine last year. “They will come. The choice we have is how well we manage their arrival, and how humanely."
The nomination of Guterres as next UN secretary- general came despite efforts by some countries for the role to go to a woman.
Vying with Guterres for the job of the world’s chief diplomat were a dozen others including seven women. Former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, former Slovenian President Danilo Turk and former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark were among those competing with Guterres.
The BBC report cited above said Guterres was widely expected to select a woman as deputy secretary-general, having said that “gender parity" is crucial at the United Nations.