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On New Year’s Day, former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres assumed office as secretary-general of the United Nations. He succeeded Ban Ki-Moon of South Korea as head of the UN Secretariat, a position first occupied by Trygvie Lie of Norway.
Guterres enters into his position facing some unexpected challenges, notably one posed by the incoming president of the United States – Donald Trump. After the UN Security Council approved a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories, Trump criticized the UN on Twitter: “The United Nations has such great potential but right now, it is just a club for people to get together, talk, and have a good time. So sad.” He warned that “things will be different after Jan. 20th,” the day he takes office.
The US is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, one of five with a veto on any of its decisions. It pays 22 percent of the UN’s regular budget and 25 percent of its peace-keeping budget. The UN’s principal headquarters are in New York City, with other main offices in Geneva, Nairobi, and Vienna.
Guterres has called multilateralism – acceptance of the fact that there are always many sides that must be considered in any issue – the “cornerstone” of the UN. And he pledged to be a “bridge builder” when he assumed office last Sunday. He may face an antagonistic incoming Trump administration with an “America First” agenda.
Our own Philippine President Duterte has also had some harsh words for the UN. After Ban Ki-Moon condemned what he feared were extra-judicial killings, the President called the UN “stupid” and threatened to pull the Philippines out of the world organization. The UN special rapporteur on summary executions Agnes Callamard was invited to come to the country and investigate the killings, but there is some disagreement on certain conditions being set by the government for the UN inquiry.
On top of these highly publicized disagreements with two member nations, Guterres will be facing widespread conflicts in Syria and Yemen in the Middle East, South Sudan and Libya in Africa, terrorist attacks in Germany and Turkey, and even disagreements on climate change.
He thus faces big problems as he begins his term as secretary-general of a United Nations of 193 member states that may not be all that united. We can only wish him well as he goes about his mission as bridge builder and as peacemaker in a divided and war-ravaged world.