UN faces biggest crisis in its history due to political impotence of Secretary General Guterres
By Douglas Roche
At 2:30 p.m. on Oct. 24, 1962, the eighth day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, acting secretary-general U Thant sent an urgent message to Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. president John F. Kennedy, appealing for a moratorium to halt further action. Even though he had not yet been confirmed in his job, U Thant knew he had to act. At first, Kennedy and Khrushchev reacted negatively and were even hostile to UN intervention. U Thant sent out a second set of appeals. The secretary-general’s move broke a deadlock: the Soviets suspended sending nuclear arms to Cuba and the U.S. lifted the naval quarantine it had imposed.
U Thant’s diplomatic manoeuvrings defused an explosive crisis by using the authority of his office. His action was the UN’s finest hour, even though it has never been given the historical acclaim it deserves.
Other UN secretaries-general have acted in moments of crisis: Dag Hammarskjold, killed in a plane crash, gave his life trying to negotiate a ceasefire in the Congo in 1961; Kofi Annan incurred the wrath of Washington for courageously calling the 2003 U.S. war in Iraq “illegal.” Both Hammarskjold and Annan won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Now it is the turn of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to step up in the crisis of the Ukraine war. As I write, on the 56th day of the gravest international crisis in decades, the UN secretary general, now in his second term, has barely been heard from. In the eyes of more than 200 former senior UN officials, he has failed to personally lead a mediation process in Ukraine, and thus jeopardized the “continued existence” of the organization. “What we and the broader public want to see…is a political UN presence and public engagement, in addition to the UN’s notable humanitarian response to the Ukraine crisis,” the former officials said in an open letter. The officials seemed to echo the derisive dismissal of the Security Council by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who said that, given its many standoffs, the council might as well “dissolve yourself altogether.”
Is this stinging indictment of Guterres fair and is the continued existence of the UN really at stake? I think the criticism is not fair. And the UN is needed now more than ever. It is not the weakness of the Secretary-General that should be criticized, rather it is the weakness of the support countries give the UN that should be examined.
First, Guterres has not been silent. Two days before the war started, he criticized Russia over its actions in Ukraine, not only describing them as a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, but disparaging the Kremlin’s descriptions of its troops as peacekeepers. He called the crisis a test of the global organization. But the UN Security Council failed to stop the war because Russia used its veto to block what would have been a legally binding resolution. The General Assembly then condemned Russia’s brutal offensive by an overwhelming margin of 141 to five, with 35 abstentions. It later suspended Russia from the Human Rights Council.
On March 22, Guterres urged an end to the “absurd war,” calling it an “unwinnable” conflict that is putting people through “a living hell.” “Continuing the war in Ukraine is morally unacceptable, politically indefensible, and militarily nonsensical,” he told reporters in New York. His calls for a cease-fire were ignored. But his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow April 26 has revived a flicker of hope for at least a pause in the war.
Throughout this period, public attention shifted from the early hopes of a negotiated end to absolute victory over Russia. Russia’s slaughter of innocent people became more egregious. The West, including Canada, reacted by sending more arms to Ukraine. War, in all its pernicious forms—brutality, propaganda, disillusion—took over the public debate on what to do.
Guterres is now blamed for “inaction.” It is true that he did not get on a plane immediately and go to Moscow to talk President Vladimir Putin down from his war perch. He did not go to Kyiv to convince President Zelensky that joining NATO is a non-starter. He has not led a world-wide revolt against the veto system in the Security Council that makes a mockery of the idealism of the UN Charter.
Guterres is not Hammarskjold and he is not Annan. He is a former prime minister of Portugal who led the UN refugee agency, but otherwise showed no great international statesmanship before arriving at the UN’s 38th floor. It takes a strong leader to overcome the intimidation tactics of Washington and Moscow. Guterres is not that leader.
However, the moral power of the entire UN is of greater consequence than the characteristics of any secretary-general. It is a huge mistake to transfer the weakness of the present secretary general to disdain for the UN as a whole. The UN is by far the best instrument we have to cope with the common threats facing the world: climate change, the covid pandemic, nuclear weapons, huge numbers of refugees.
The UN has uplifted huge sections of humanity, but it cannot stop all wars. It is deprived of political support and adequate funding. To be successful, the UN secretary-general must be a master juggler. Hammarskjold and Annan were better jugglers than Guterres.
Former Senator Douglas Roche is an author, whose books include The United Nations in the 21st Century: Grappling With the World’s Most Challenging Issues—Militarism, the Environment, Human Rights, Inequality.
Published in The Hill Times on April 25, 2022 (reprinted with permission of the author)
(Cover: New York, NY – March 28, 2022: Secretary-General Antonio Guterres speaks to reporters on the situation in Ukraine at United Nations Headquarters. Via Shutterstock)