What challenges await Antonio Guterres, the new UN secretary-general

Antonio Guterres, the new United Nations secretary-general.

Story highlights

  • Few thought that a split Security Council would be able to come together on a candidate
  • Diplomats were quick to list the challenges the new leader will face

Richard Roth is CNN's senior UN correspondent. He's covered the UN for 23 years. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

(CNN)It seemed like a mirage at first. I was standing outside the UN Security Council chamber Wednesday morning. Media and diplomats stood around awaiting the results of the latest "straw poll" inside the Security Council on the 10 candidates still running to be the next UN secretary-general.

After years of deadlock and division on seemingly everything among the major members of the Security Council, what did I see?
    Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the president of the Security Council for October, suddenly walked out of the chamber, smiling, with US Ambassador Samantha Power right behind him, along with the 13 other ambassadors in a diplomatic conga line.
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    Just a few weeks ago in exactly the same spot, the US and Russian ambassadors hurled invectives at each other in a verbal shootout over Syria.
    Few thought that a split Security Council would be able come together on a candidate. Wednesday was the first time that the five permanent council countries could formally use their vetoes against a candidate. It was possible that longstanding disputes could spill into the selection process.
    Instead, they came together for former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres. In a flash, months of hype and holler about electing a woman as the secretary-general for the first time ever and choosing a candidate from the unofficial "next up" region of Eastern Europe, were dashed.
    The announcement of Guterres by Ambassador Churkin elicited yells of "whoa!" from nearby media and diplomats. It shouldn't have been a shock though; Guterres had led the previous five rounds of secret balloting.

    What happened behind closed doors?

    Ambassador Churkin led the meetings in the council's consultation room. On Monday, Churkin told reporters that he detected a "fatigue" among council members who wished to resolve the question of who should be the next secretary-general sooner rather than later. The council hires the secretary-general and gives him or her marching orders, such as where and how it wants to set up a UN peacekeeping mission, or an inquiry into abuses somewhere.
    Entering the chamber for the vote on Wednesday, US Ambassador Power said "this is either the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning." Years and months of lobbying and informal votes could have resulted in major divisions in the final stages of choosing the next top UN diplomat, emblematic of the breakdown among large powers on issues ranging from Syria to North Korea.
    Guterres makes a speech during a press conference in Tokyo
    For the Wednesday vote, the 15 countries again used the word "encourage" if they favored a candidate, "discourage" if opposed, or "no opinion." The five most powerful wielding vetoes got to use a red colored ballot if they wanted to block a candidate and really send a message to think again about one's candidacy.
    The moment of decision came late Wednesday morning. UK Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told reporters: "The crucial moment for me was when the fifth permanent member result for Guterres was announced which led to it being very clear that there was no 'discourages,' either from a permanent member or a non-permanent member for Guterres." No vetoes meant no objections to Guterres. After a quick discussion, it was time to tell the world.

    What awaits the new secretary-general?

    After the vote, all of the balloting for the secretary-general election is shredded in the council chamber.
    Too bad it's not as easy to dispose of some of the big global challenges facing Guterres.
    As the Security Council formally approved Guterres on Thursday, diplomats were quick to list the striking issues confronting the world organization and its experienced new leader.
    Syria, climate change, North Korea nukes, Africa wars. Had enough? Oh, and don't forget mass refugee and migrant crises. Guterres, who headed the UN's refugee agency for 10 years, is well versed on that issue. And if the major world power thought he screwed up that job he would never be appointed to lead the entire UN.
    One reporter asked a question to an ambassador that I rarely hear at the UN: "Do you think things are gonna change around here?"
    Ukraine's ambassador said: "I hope so very much."
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    You get the sense these veteran diplomats have worked with Guterres. They know his style and his ability to be honest and forge agreements between parties at odds.
    Russia's ambassador told reporters people knew that Russia was in a tough spot. It favored a candidate from Eastern Europe, but apparently wasn't overjoyed at the dozen or so candidates from that region and elsewhere.
    Rycroft said there are only 49 words in the resolution approving the next UN secretary-general. But the "two most important are Antonio Guterres."