While the world was transfixed by the election for the next president of the United States, less attention was paid to the process that delivered the next secretary-general of the United Nations, Portuguese diplomat Antonio Guterres.
The position of U.N. secretary-general has been rightly called the most impossible job in the world. The holder of the position must speak for the global organization and on causes of humanity, big and small, for all of us. The officeholder needs to reflect the idealism that lay behind the creation of the United Nations. But this must be done while avoiding the pitfalls of geopolitics and the inertia of a huge and often unwieldy bureaucracy.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was the foreign minister of South Korea when he was originally elected by the U.N. General Assembly in October 2006. His re-election for a second term in 2011 occurred by a unanimous vote of the Security Council and without a contrary vote in the General Assembly. His service to the United Nations will end Dec. 31.
It is far too early to evaluate Secretary-General Ban’s achievements, but they have been many.
In three different areas, I have seen him up close, although I cannot claim the intimate engagements that staff, colleagues and diplomats, and political figures around the world will have had.
Still, my engagements with him have demonstrated elements of his character that deserve to be noticed, especially as we look to the future and seek to ascertain and assess the qualities of his successor.
Between 2013 and 2014, I served as chair of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights Violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). This brought me to meet him on a number of occasions.
The challenge of North Korea was naturally an issue that would be close to the mind and heart of a secretary-general of Korean ethnicity.
Secretary-General Ban had nothing to do with my appointment, and he took no steps to intrude in any way in the independence of the mandate we were performing. His approach throughout was professional, impartial and even reserved. At no time, either by action or suggestion, did he intrude into our investigations. This was so, despite the horrors on the part of North Korea that were revealed in the public hearings and investigations carried out for the United Nations.
Still, his own commitment to making Eleanor Roosevelt’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights a top priority for the United Nations became an important ingredient in the work of our commission. His commitment to the initiative, Human Rights up Front, was a theme that helped mobilize the relevant U.N. agencies to support our investigations.
A commitment to human rights was henceforth to be placed “up front” in the work of the United Nations. It was not to be an afterthought, as politicians and diplomats scrutinize security and economic implications of the dangerous world of today.
The perplexing challenges presented by North Korea to our world remain unresolved. Indeed, recent events show that they are even more urgent now than when revealed. Yet, they will never be resolved by concentrating only on security issues or negotiating geopolitical priorities.
Where “crimes against humanity” have been demonstrated, the U.N. secretary-general has the vital role to uphold the objectives enshrined in the U.N. Charter. This puts human rights “up front,” just as Secretary-General Ban demanded the U.N.’s cumbersome machinery should always do. And we did so.
Over the last year, I have taken part in another project in which Secretary-General Ban’s values would be seen. This was the High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines, which he established in November 2015 to give operational effectiveness to one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) adopted by the United Nations in September 2015.
SDG 3 committed the United Nations to “ensure healthy lives and to promote well-being for all people of all ages.” Translating that big objective into action by 2030 is quite a challenge. One aspect of the challenge is the “policy incoherence” between the human rights ideal regarding access to essential health care and the sometimes-inconsistent operation of the global law on intellectual property (for which read pharmaceutical patents).
This extremely sensitive issue has legitimate objectives that need to be harmonized on both sides of the debate. The easy way out would have been to leave its resolution to a successor. Yet, Ban Ki-moon grasped the nettle. He established the high-level panel on medicines — and ensured that the voices of the poor and of international pharma would be heard at the table.
The resulting consensus report, delivered in September, does not solve all the problems. But it brings us closer to making the language of the SDGs a practical action plan and not just an empty U.N. resolution.
The third initiative of Secretary-General Ban has been one of importance to me. It has shown his courage and empathy with the downtrodden. This has been his less-well-known leadership on the human rights of LGBTI people everywhere.
The hostility and hatred that is still sometimes felt towards gay people worldwide has led, in the past, to its issues being put in the “too-hard basket” of the United Nations. But it has been under Secretary-General Ban that, effectively for the first time, important steps have been taken to address the violence and discrimination suffered by people on the grounds of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
In July 2013, supporting initiatives in the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Secretary-General Ban said in ringing words: “To those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, let me say, you are not alone. Your struggle for an end of violence and discrimination is a shared struggle. Any attack on you is an attack on the universal values the United Nations and I have sworn to defend and uphold. Today, I stand with you, and I call upon all countries and people to stand with you too.”
History will judge Secretary-General Ban well over his leadership and dedication to human rights on this issue. There will be no U-turning from his stance. It has been the more powerful because it was expressed in such language by a prudent, professional diplomat, whose background was as a diplomat from East Asia.
So, here are the essential requirements of the post:
Prudence, professionalism, and neutrality, when that is called for. Courage, principle, and inspiring words, when they are needed. Converting high ideals into strategic and practical action. Achieving peace and security, but never forgetting the great moral commitments of the United Nations, as expressed in Eleanor Roosevelt’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
These important qualities must now be remembered as the world pins its hopes on Antonio Guterres as he becomes the ninth person to take over the most difficult post in the world.
Michael Kirby is a retired justice of the High Court of Australia and served as chair of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
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