Remarks to the UN General Assembly on the Appointment of António Guterres as the Next Secretary-General of the United Nations

Ambassador Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
October 13, 2016


Thank you very much, Mr. President. As the proud host country of the United Nations, the United States joins all the other delegations in this room in welcoming the appointment of António Guterres as the next Secretary-General.

Let me start by saying a word about Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who over the last 10 years has shown that progress can be made by setting ambitious goals and mobilizing Member States to meet them. Secretary-General Ban was instrumental in driving the momentum and the concrete commitments necessary to achieve both the historic Paris Agreement on climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals. These are achievements that – if implemented by Member States – will improve people’s lives for decades to come. The United States is profoundly grateful to Secretary-General Ban for his leadership and his service to our people and to our planet. Thank you.

The selection of António Guterres as the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations is an extraordinary outcome that matches the world’s growing demands for a strong UN. It is all the more extraordinary because – let’s be honest – all too often at the UN, narrow agendas keep us divided and prevent us from taking constructive action. I would like to highlight three ways in which this appointment, and the process that gave rise to it, exceeded expectations. This should inspire us all going forward.

First, given the well-known divisions on the Security Council, many feared that the Council would fail to reach consensus on the next Secretary-General. I confess I harbored some of these doubts myself, wondering if I should avoid making Christmas plans with my family in case the process dragged on and I would end up spending Christmas Day on our 49th Security Council straw poll. (Laughter.) Others thought – given the polarization of the Council – that we would agree on a recommendation to the General Assembly, but we would necessarily have to settle for a lowest common denominator candidate, someone who would avoid taking stands on the world’s most pressing issues.

We have the privilege today of appointing a supremely qualified candidate as Secretary-General, but also one who has a passion for using this office as an independent force to prevent conflict and alleviate human suffering. The countries of the world – here reflecting, I believe, the longings and the urgent needs of our citizens – are calling on the UN, and by extension, the Secretary-General, to do more than this institution has ever done before.

For the UN to succeed, we are asking you, Mr. Guterres, to serve as a peacemaker – looking for ways to end the brutal conflicts in places like Syria, Yemen, and South Sudan. We are asking you to serve as a reformer – streamlining the bureaucracy and eliminating redundancies, making sure that peacekeepers are willing and able to protect civilians at risk. And we’re asking you to serve as an advocate – rallying the world to respond to humanitarian and manmade catastrophes, and defending the human rights of all people, regardless of their race, creed, nationality, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Mr. Guterres, challenging as these roles may be, we are confident that you can fill them with distinction.

Second, there were fears that this decision-making process for such a critical position would again end up being narrow, exclusive, and shrouded in secrecy. Even though fewer people smoke cigarettes in 2016, the image of a few countries huddled in smoke-filled rooms pervaded. But this year, at long last, the process evolved. For the first time, those vying for the job had to defend their visions for a more secure, just, and humane future in informal dialogues that the entire world could watch in real time. And these conversations mattered – there is no question that the General Assembly and other dialogues shaped perceptions, informing the Council and broader UN membership thinking from the outset. I thank all the exceptional candidates who participated in this more inclusive, more transparent process, and the United States thanks all Member States who contributed to making this process so much stronger.

Of course, some envisaged that change would look a little different in the end. Hopes were high that this election process would deliver the UN’s first-ever woman Secretary-General. As the only woman permanent representative serving on the current Security Council, and as one of only 37 women perm reps out of the 193 permanent representatives in the organization, I joined others in encouraging a level playing field for women. And we should consider that until this year, only three women were ever voted upon by the Security Council as candidates. Three women over the course of 70 years. This time, seven out of the 13 candidates voted upon by the Security Council were women. So, over twice as many women were considered in 2016 than in all the previous year’s put together. And while being a woman is not among Mr. Guterres’s many qualifications (laughter), he has pledged gender parity at all levels of the United Nations, with clear benchmarks and timeframes. This builds upon Mr. Guterres’s progress toward achieving gender parity in the workplace as UN High Commissioner for Refugees and back when he was Portuguese Prime Minister.

Third and finally, there was skepticism that we could find in a single candidate a person who could simultaneously get heads of state on the phone to mobilize coalitions and be a person of the people, someone who really appreciated – indeed felt – the pain of the vulnerable. And these are vulnerable people who don’t just want the UN to do and be better; they need it and us to be and do better.

In Mr. Guterres, we’ve selected a candidate who brings both head and heart to the job. Former UNHCR staff have described Mr. Guterres as so impatient to find out the facts of a crisis that he never hesitated to call staff in the field, no matter their rank or their place in the hierarchy. He always asked how headquarters could serve their needs, rather than the other way around. He saw that UNHCR teams in the field were starved for resources, and so shifted funds to help refugees in need, instead of adding jobs in Geneva. And he got out from behind his desk. Mr. Guterres traveled to the refugee camps and witnessed the current crises and the pain and suffering of the displaced for himself, even spending the night in tents in these refugee camps.

We have selected a candidate who is prepared to cut past the jargon and the acronyms, and the sterile briefings, and get real. He knows the only measure of our work here is whether we are or are not helping and supporting real people.

In closing, in 1953, the first Secretary-General, Trygve Lie, heavily criticized both by the Soviet and the United States governments, was so frustrated by the limits of his office that his parting advice to his successor was, “Welcome to the most impossible job on this earth.” (Laughter.) The job has not grown easier with time, but it has arguably become even more important.

Mr. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Mrs. Ban, thank you again for your tireless, tremendous service and for your sacrifice. Mr. Secretary-General-Designate Guterres, thank you for taking on this monumental responsibility. We hope that the unity we see today can be sustained, the inclusivity and transparency of the process extended, and your compassion – and that of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon – embodied in the daily work of this organization. We look forward to a partnership that pays dividends for the people out there who count on us. Thank you.