The Unbearable Lightness of Being UN Secretary-General*

Photo by John Penney/Passblue

The news about the United States spying on United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and his deputy, Amina Mohammed, revealed dissatisfaction in leaked US intelligence documents over Guterres’s perceived lack of toughness regarding the Russians and their invasion of Ukraine in 2022. One would expect the Russians, undoubtedly also spying on Guterres, to have different views, annoyed by his apparent siding with the West, as they have indicated in their own way. Multiply the spying on and opinions about Guterres’s conduct of his job, it can be easily said that it is an impossible job indeed.

If it is accepted that the goal of a secretary-general is to please everybody, starting from the most powerful countries down the pecking order, it is surely an unfeasible position. But should there be another goal? What about serving the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the basic principles of moral behavior that are common across humanity’s many political systems, cultures and religions? Abiding by all of the above would make the UN leader’s job easy.

Or perhaps doing so would make the UN chief’s role unrealistically lightweight and irrelevant by his using idealistic language and wishful thinking to address real-world geopolitical and economic interests? With the illusion of post-Cold War peace and prosperity for everyone gone down the drain for good, the ugly face of politics as ancient, blood- and profit-thirsty as ever is staring at us once again. This is not happening only in one country or region, but quite a few Medusa-like faces exist all around.

Despite these vicissitudes and without oversimplifying it, the job can be straightforward if the 38th-floor occupant strives to pursue it that way. Here are a few rules for that to happen, if it does not come naturally to the incumbent:

Love thy UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and universal ethics rules

These make up your compass, legitimacy and light to guide you in your pronouncements and actions. Do not be led astray by strong voices, threats and enticements — look straight into the source of your light and move in that direction. If being straightforward does not come easily, for politicians in particular, try to unlearn your previous roles and learn the new one properly, if you want to leave a good legacy.

Love thy member states

All of them, big and small, veto-yielding and veto-less, developed and developing. They are supposed to be your masters, but you are their steward, so it’s important to rise to the task. Get their advice and advise them, remind them of the principles that the UN embodies and guide them back to a positive path of action.

Love thy organization and thy staff, know them well and engage them appropriately

The UN does not start or end on the 38th floor of the Secretariat building. Get to know all the resources at your disposal and deploy them wisely. There is an entire universe that has been put together around your position, not always rationally or efficiently, but it has many bright lights for you to deploy to good end. This is true in terms of UN departments and UN system organizations, as well as terms of the staff that move them. Get used to the variety of backgrounds, languages and ways of thinking that make the UN so special, a miniature of the actual world. Not all apples are good in your garden, but neither are they all rotten. Approach them, inspire them and ask for their services and their advice, not only those who say they agree with you.

Love civil society the world over and other nonstate actors

You should listen to the world’s public opinion, the general and the specialized one, common citizens and scientists, the poor and the rich. That does not mean that you have to side with one or the other, or pay lip service to all while working with a few of them. Watch the proxies of geopolitico-economic interests lest you be misled by them, and remember that you are not an academic expert or an activist, nor is the UN a think tank or a nongovernmental organization.

Love action, not just words

There are things that you can say and things that you can do; choose wisely the course of action in each case, but do not fudge issues or wait things out because of risk-averseness. No pain, no gain is one way to remind yourself when you are making decisions; it is about gains for the world and the common good, not political survival. Remember that action is not just feeding the hungry and helping the destitute survive. The UN can set the agenda and lead the action, not just sweep away the mess that the big players make with their fights.

Love thy office, thy role and play it well

You have been given the most difficult but also the easiest, most rewarding job in the world. Your mandate is to speak for humanity and for our planet, for the incredible diversity of beings and ways of living, for a paradise that remains to be built, while doubling as hell in the meantime. The responsibility is huge and simultaneously light and clear: lasting peace, sustainable prosperity, respect for every human person — human resilience and well-being, that is. All for one and one for all, and you stand in the middle of it, reflecting the light of the Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and human ethics. Or you can stand in the black hole, watching the mess and destruction unfold.

If you abide by the above rules, you do not care who is spying on you and to what end, who is calling to threaten or to entice you, who is happy or less happy with your pronouncements and deeds, because you are doing the right thing.


*This article has been previously published by PassBlue. See the original version HERE

Georgios Kostakos

Dr Georgios Kostakosis Executive Director of the Brussels-based Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability (FOGGS). He has been extensively involved in global governance, sustainability and climate-related activities with the United Nations and beyond. The starting point for the work of FOGGS is the need for a new Grand Narrative for a fair, human-centred and inclusive globalization. One of its projects is the UN2100 Initiativefor UN reform, which includes the proposal to establish a Global Resilience Council to effectively address non-military threats to human security like climate change and pandemics.

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