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Portugal's Antonio Guterres is set to be the next UN secretary-general

Portugal's Antonio Guterres is set to be the next UN secretary-general
Antonio Guterre (Salvatore Di Nolfi / European Pressphoto Agency)

With rare agreement from the United States and Russia, the United Nations is ready to choose a former Portuguese prime minister as the next secretary-general, the international body's top position.

Antonio Guterres, 67, who served a decade as U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, received "consensus" support from the Security Council. His formal nomination was expected to move formally through the Council on Thursday for subsequent vote in the General Assembly.

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A dozen candidates initially vied to replace Ban Ki-Moon, who will complete his second five-year term on Dec. 31. Half the group were women, raising expectations that the 193-state organization would have a female leader for the first time since its creation in 1945.

But that was not to be.

"In the end, there was just a candidate whose experience, vision, and versatility across a range of areas proved compelling," Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said in New York.

If approved, Guterres would assume leadership in January of an organization plagued with financial scandals and reports of sexual abuses by some U.N. peacekeeping troops overseas.

His diplomatic skills will be tested by numerous wars, spates of terrorism and a refugee crisis of epic proportions. The U.N. has been unable to stop the war in Syria, where several hundred thousand people have been killed since 2011.

Until now, selection of the secretary-general was essentially brokered behind the scenes. This year, for the first time, the process shifted to a relatively transparent election and more public scrutiny.

Candidates were publicly nominated and faced public forums where they answered questions and discussed issues and proposals.

Then the 15-member Security Council held six straw polls, which winnowed the field. In Wednesday's vote, Guterres reportedly received 13 "encouragement" votes, as they are called, and two "no opinions."

Guterres was prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002 and headed the refugee commission for the last decade.

Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the U.N., told reporters in New York that he expected a unanimous recommendation to the General Assembly on Thursday, with a final vote by all members to come in the near future.

"We wish Mr. Guterres well in discharging his duties as the Secretary General of the United Nations for the next five years," Churkin said.

Initially, the Russians reportedly backed a candidate from Eastern Europe. Under informal rules, the selection is meant to rotate among regions and many thought it was East Europe's turn.

Power would not say why support shifted in Guterres' favor, but said the final vote in the Security Council was "remarkably uncontentious, uncontroversial."

Rachel Vogelstein, who directs the women and foreign policy program at the non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations, praised what she called Guterres' commitment to gender equality in appointments.

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But she said his selection should "give us pause" that no female candidates won sufficient support. Most were eliminated in early  straw polls.

"After 70 years of male leadership at the helm of the U.N., it is past time for this institution to implement its commitment to gender equality in its own ranks—particularly in light of the evidence we now have on the importance of diversity in decision-making," Vogelstein said.

Peter Yeo, president of the Better World Campaign, a non-profit group that supports the U.S.-U.N relationship, and vice president of public policy at the United Nations Foundation, said there was "legitimate" disappointment that the U.N. will not get a female leader.

But he praised Guterres' "significant and real" political skills, which were especially tested as he struggled with the exodus of refugees from Syria and other parts of the Middle East.

"He used his position to pressure major world powers," Yeo said. "He continued to call for a political solution to stop the flow of refugees, while constantly pointing out that the world was under-funding the humanitarian needs of these people."

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