Cold war chill greets Guterres at the UN
UN secretary-general designate António Guterres faces a tough task as US-Russia tensions escalate © AFP
Exasperated by cold war intrigue between the Soviets and the Americans, Trygve Lie of Norway, the UN’s first secretary-general, warned his successor in 1953: “Welcome to the most impossible job on this earth.”
Now António Guterres, who was confirmed as the UN’s new boss on Thursday, is taking over an organisation that is once again caught in the middle of escalating tensions between and Moscow and Washington.
Following the breakdown of talks this month over a ceasefire in Syria and outrage over Russia’s role in the intense bombing of Aleppo, the former Portuguese prime minister will inherit a Security Council that risks being brought to a near standstill by a return to cold war-like posturing between the west and Moscow.
“It is hard to think of worst circumstances to take over the job. The level of friction among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council is exceptionally high,” said Richard Gowan, an authority on the UN at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “There has been such a massive loss of trust that it is hard to see how western diplomats at the UN are going to trust Russian diplomats for some time.”
Mr Guterres, who replaces Ban Ki-moon, said: “Whatever divisions might exist, now it is more important to unite.”
As relations between Washington and Moscow have deteriorated in recent weeks, the Obama administration has accused Russia of trying to manipulate the US election by hacking emails of key Democrats and moving nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad in eastern Europe.
But nowhere has the tension been felt more acutely than at the UN, where the collapse in diplomatic efforts to halt the killing in Syria has sparked an unusually bitter confrontation between Russian and western diplomats.
“I have never seen it quite like this,” said one UN diplomat.
There have been disagreements over how to respond to the Syrian conflict since it erupted in 2011. Feeling they were misled by the west over the UN-backed intervention in Libya after the uprising in that country, Russia and China vetoed a series of resolutions calling on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down at the beginning of the war.
But the failure of a shortlived ceasefire in Syria last month has sharpened those disagreements, with western countries hat back Syrian rebels accusing Moscow of using the UN-led talks as cover to help the Assad regime launch an all-out assault on eastern Aleppo.
This week, France proposed a UN resolution that demanded an end to air strikes on the divided northern Syrian city, which diplomats admitted was designed largely to embarrass Russia. Issuing a veto, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s UN ambassador, said the resolution was a “waste of time”.
At a meeting of the Security Council two weeks ago, the US, UK and French ambassadors walked in out in protest at the bombing of Aleppo as the Syrian representative was called to speak.
Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, accused Russia of “barbarism”.
For their part, the Russians accuse western powers of hypocrisy because of their backing of Saudi Arabia’s air campaign in the war in Yemen.
“In some places they want to whip it up, in other places they want to hush it up,” Mr Churkin told Inner City Press, a website that reports on the UN.
One western diplomat said: “Look, it would be an exaggeration to say that everything the Security Council does is now on hold because of our disagreements with Russia. But the sorts of recriminations that you have seen over Syria have spread into many of our other interactions. There has been a slow poisoning of the well.”
The disagreements have not been limited to Syria, diplomats say.
Russia and China have stopped the Security Council from being more critical of human rights violations in Burundi and in Sudan, while the council has also struggled to decide a course of action over fighting in South Sudan.
It is this environment that will confront Mr Guterres, a former head of the UN’s refugee agency, when he takes office in January. With the UN climate treaty up and running, the early part of Mr Guterres’ tenure will be defined by how he responds to the Syrian crisis.
At the UN, there is optimism that as a former prime minister and good political communicator, Mr Guterres might be more effective than Mr Ban at handling world leaders.
“The secretary-general does not have a lot of power but there is a moral authority,” said Jim Della-Giacoma at New York University’s Center on International Co-operation. “Ban has not been so good at using the bully pulpit.”
Mr Guterres has already pulled off one feat — getting himself elected as the tensions mount. He was not the preferred candidate of the US or Russia, but managed to win their backing in a 13-person race.
“There is a demand for some sort of saviour for the UN system,” said Mr Gowan. “At least we have an effective operator.”