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New UN chief calls for peace: What challenges will he face?

António Guterres could face significant resistance in the form of the incoming leader of the United States, President-elect Donald Trump.

Seth Wenig/AP/File
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (l.) clasps hands with UN Secretary-General designate Antonio Guterres after Mr. Guterres was sworn in at UN headquarters in New York. Guterres takes the reins of the UN on New Year's Day, promising to be a 'bridge-builder.'

At midnight on Jan. 1, António Guterres began his term as United Nations secretary general, marking the start of a new era in international politics.

In a speech marking his first day in office, Mr. Guterres delivered a message of peace for 2017 to the UN's 193 member states. Guterres, the ninth secretary general to hold the position, called for peace and international cooperation heading into the rest of the year.

The UN faces a number of challenges going forward into 2017, including climate change, the ongoing refugee crisis, and heavy skepticism from the new leader of the United States, one of the international organization's key members. President-elect Donald Trump's anti-internationalization stance, coupled with a surge in right-wing populism throughout Europe, could make Guterres's calls for nations to work together toward peace more difficult to achieve in the coming years. But Guterres has vowed to build bridges between nations, despite what seems to be increasing resistance toward international cooperation in key parts of the globe.

"How can we help the millions of people caught up in conflict, suffering massively in wars with no end in sight?" asked Guterres in a speech opening his tenure as secretary general. "Civilians are pounded with deadly force. Women, children, and men are killed and injured, forced from their homes, dispossessed and destitute. Even hospitals and aid convoys are targeted. No one wins these wars; everyone loses. Trillions of dollars are spent destroying societies and economies, fueling cycles of mistrust and fear that can last for generations. Whole regions are destabilized and the new threat of global terrorism affects us all. On this New Year's Day, I ask all of you to join me in making one shared New Year's resolution: Let us resolve to put peace first."

The UN Security Council unanimously confirmed Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal, as the next secretary general in October of last year. His first term will last five years, though most UN secretaries have served two terms, including Guterres's immediate successor, Ban Ki-moon.

The new secretary general characterizes himself as a "bridge-builder" and "consensus maker," skills that will be necessary to bring about his vision of peace through diplomacy and cooperation. He is no stranger to getting antagonistic forces to work together for the greater good. According to The Guardian, Guterres himself is a devout Catholic who is also leader in the international democratic socialist community, a rare feat for a section of the political spectrum often associated with atheistic Marxism.

Nevertheless, Guterres's diplomatic skills could be put to the test in dealing with Mr. Trump, who has vocally dismissed the UN on multiple occasions, tweeting last week that the international organization is "just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time." 

Such criticism from the future leader of the United States has prompted concern from many prominent figures in the international community, since the US paid 28.57 percent of the UN's peacekeeping budget in 2016 and accounts for the lion's share of general budget of the organization as well. The US is also one of only five permanent countries on the Security Council with veto powers, an ability that gives it a significant say in international matters. As such, it remains in the organization's best interest to work with the incoming Trump administration as much as possible.

"It is certainly in my interest to visit him [Trump] as soon as possible," Guterres said in an interview broadcast by Portuguese television channel SIC on Wednesday. "The United States is not only the main donor of the United Nations but a fundamental element in its actions."

As secretary general, Guterres's responsibilities include administrative duties, overseeing peacekeeping missions, appointing undersecretaries for major posts, and mediating conflicts. He will also serve as a balance between the five members of the Security Council and the countries that make up the General Assembly.

Guterres says he hopes to reform the UN to make it a more efficient and effective organization, promoting a "culture of prevention" to stop conflicts before they occur. He says he also hopes to appoint more women to key positions, despite having beaten out seven female candidates for his own position. Chief among his concerns, however, will likely be the ongoing refugee crisis, continuing his work on the issue that he began as UN high commissioner for refugees from 2005 to 2015.

This article contains material from the Associated Press.

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