António Guterres Assumes UN Secretary General Office, Calls for Peace

Secretary General António Guterres takes the oath of office
Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The new United Nations Secretary General, António Guterres, recently appealed to Member States to join him in committing to ensuring and sustaining peace and has further called for a holistic approach to the UN’s work through close coordination between the UN’s three pillars: peace and security, sustainable development, and human rights policies. Guterres, who assumed office on January 1, 2017, replacing Ban Ki-moon, will hold the post for a five-year period, ending December 31, 2021. While only a few days in to his term, Guterres’ initial remarks have shed light on his goals and priorities and include an appeal for peace, a call to the UN to support sustainable development and the Paris Agreement on climate change, and a notice to the UN as an organization to prepare for change in its internal management structure. See United Nations, Secretary-General-designate António Guterres’ remarks to the General Assembly on taking the oath of office. On linking the three pillars, he has said, “there is no peace without development and no development without peace; it is also true that there is no peace and sustainable development without respect for human rights.” [UN News Centre: Photo Feature]

Guterres was chosen for the role after the UN implemented a more transparent selection process, which included dialogues with Member States and civil society. [UN News Centre: Guterres; IJRC] Guterres, who is fluent in Portuguese, English, French, and Spanish, previously served as the 10th UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from June 2005 to December 2015, as Portugal’s Prime Minister from 1995 to 2002, and as president of the European Council in 2000. [UN News Centre: Photo Feature]

Goals and Priorities

Guterres has indicated that his top priority is ensuring peace in the world. [UN News Centre: Interview] Stating that “peace must be our goal and our guide,” Guterres plans to embark on a process to build peace through conflict prevention and resolution, peacekeeping and peacebuilding, and development. See United Nations, Secretary-General-designate António Guterres’ remarks to the General Assembly on taking the oath of office; United Nations, Appeal for Peace from UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Guterres has acknowledged a need to improve the international community’s ability to prevent crises and suggested addressing the root causes through the three pillars, which would require strengthening institutions and ensuring human rights. For the most severe crises, he recommended more mediation, arbitration, and a surge in creative diplomacy. See United Nations, Secretary-General-designate António Guterres’ remarks to the General Assembly on taking the oath of office. Fostering diplomacy, Guterres believes, will not only achieve peace from conflict, but also alleviate human suffering generally. [UN News Centre: Interview]

In an effort to ensure peace and improve conflict prevention, Guterres called for reforms within the UN system. He wants to revise the UN strategy, operations, and structures for peace and security, including the UN’s work in the field of counter-terrorism and to include an improved coordination mechanism among the 38 UN entities. Specifically, Guterres addressed one of the UN’s most appalling abuses—crimes of sexual violence and exploitation by UN employees or volunteers against those the UN is supposed to protect—and stated that he would work to make the zero-tolerance policy a reality in practice by working with Member States on structural, legal, and operational measures. Additionally, he called for more accountability at the individual agency level and in the UN system as a whole, placing particular importance on independent oversight mechanisms. See United Nations, Secretary-General-designate António Guterres’ remarks to the General Assembly on taking the oath of office.

With regard to sustainable development, Guterres stated that it will form the center of the UN’s work but that the UN development system at both country levels and headquarters will undergo a comprehensive reform in order to ensure optimal support to Member States in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. In line with his primary goal of sustaining peace, Guterres believes the UN should coordinate humanitarian and development work, particularly during crises, in an effort to maintain peace. [UN News Centre: Taking Oath] Guterres also emphasized that gendered equality is essential to sustainable development and to maintaining peace. See United Nations, Secretary-General-designate António Guterres’ remarks to the General Assembly on taking the oath of office.

Guterres has also remarked on the need for management reform at the UN, which would include ensuring gender parity and geographical diversity at the UN Under-Secretary-General and Assistant Secretary-General levels. Accordingly, Guterres has already announced that he is appointing three women to top posts on his team. Amina J. Mohammed of Nigeria will serve as UN Deputy Secretary General, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti of Brazil will serve as Chef de Cabinet, and Kyung-wha Kang of the Republic of Korea will take on the newly created position of Special Advisor on Policy. [UN News Centre: Gender Promise]

Guterres has remarked that he would like the UN internally to focus on results and efficiency over process and bureaucracy. Additionally, he has called for better protections for whistle-blowers and increased transparency through communicating effectively about the UN’s activities. See United Nations, Secretary-General-designate António Guterres’ remarks to the General Assembly on taking the oath of office.


Guterres was appointed on October 11, 2016 by resolution of the General Assembly. Unlike his predecessors, Guterres’ selection process involved public dialogues between Member States, candidates, and civil society that aimed to make the process more open, transparent, and inclusive. See United Nations, Procedure of Selecting and Appointing the next UN Secretary-General. The public dialogues were a break from the norm governing the selection process of the previous eight individuals who served as UN Secretary Generals, all of whom were chosen privately by the major powers on the Security Council and then referred to the General Assembly for approval. [UN News Centre: Guterres; IJRC]

The Secretary General is appointed by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the UN Security Council. The Secretary General’s selection is therefore subject to the veto of any of the five permanent members of the Security Council: China, Russia, United States, France, and the United Kingdom. UN Secretary Generals serve five-year terms, and while there is technically no set limit to the number of terms one can serve, no Secretary General has served more than two terms. See United Nations, Appointment Process.

Responsibilities and Mandate of the SG

The role of the Secretary General is “[e]qual parts diplomat and advocate, civil servant and CEO.” See United Nations, The role of the Secretary-General. The UN describes the Secretary General as “a symbol of United Nations ideals and a spokesperson for the interests of the world’s peoples, in particular the poor and vulnerable among them.” The UN Charter grants the Secretary General a considerable scope of action as the “chief administrative officer” of the United Nations, whose mandate also includes performing duties prescribed to the Secretary General by the Security Council, the General Assembly, Economic and Social Council, and other United Nations Organs. Further, the UN Charter empowers the Secretary General to “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” See United Nations, The role of the Secretary-General.

In addition to being the face of the organization, the Secretary General is charged with tasks such as attending sessions of United Nations bodies, meeting with world leaders and government officials, remaining engaged with the peoples of the 193 Member States, and staying informed of issues of international concern on the UN’s agenda.

Further, the Secretary General serves as the chairman of the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB), a board that coordinates the UN’s substantive and management matters, and issues annual reports on the work of the UN. Importantly, the Secretary General uses his “good offices,” to prevent or limit international disputes through public or private means. See United Nations, The role of the Secretary-General.

Additional Information

For more information on the UN or on the selection process of Guterres as Secretary General, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.