With new UN chief, what hopes does Latin America harbor?

Many issues of concern need to be addressed by the United Nations – not least how to give the region greater representation in the roster of secretaries-general.

Seth Wenig/AP
Outgoing United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, left, hugs his successor, António Guterres, after Mr. Guterres was sworn in at UN headquarters, Dec. 12, 2016.

A version of this post ran on The Conversation. The views expressed are the author's own.

The United Nations recently welcomed its ninth secretary-general, António Guterres. The former Portuguese prime minister took the helm of the international organization on Jan. 1, 2017, replacing Ban Ki-moon.

In Latin America, as in much of the world, the October 2016 appointment of Mr. Guterres, a European man, was met with mixed emotions. For the first time in the 70 years of history of the UN, half of the candidates for secretary-general were women – a gender equality milepost. And yet a man won out in the end, leaving many observers and member states wondering whether the Security Council was simply not ready to have a woman in charge.

For Latin America the disappointment may have been somewhat keener. Two of the female nominees were from the region: Christiana Figueres, of Costa Rica, and Susana Malcorra, Argentina’s foreign minister. They were the region’s first women to be on the short list, and the first time ever two Latin Americans were in the running.

Still, upon Guterres’s confirmation in October, many of the region’s heads of state, including Brazilian president Michel Temer and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, promptly congratulated him. Costa Rica, Venezuela, and Uruguay, in addition to welcoming the new secretary-general, also invited him to examine the numerous necessities and challenges confronting the region, which is home to 625 million people and growing quickly.

Latin American issues on the UN Agenda

Most of the region’s collective concerns are already specified in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which established an agenda that the General Assembly should work to meet by 2030.

One of the most important objectives is eradicating poverty and hunger on the planet. For Latin America, this is critically important but difficult to achieve: Around 25 percent of the region lives in poverty, subsisting on $4 or less per day, according to the UN’s Human Development Report.

Latin America also has some of the richest people on the planet: Forbes magazine now ranks Mexican businessman Carlos Slim as the world’s fourth-richest man, with a wealth of $48.6 billion. How to help states feed the hungry while reducing this major social gap is one challenge for the new secretary-general.

A related issue shared by many countries in the region is sustainable development. Exploitation of natural and non-renewable resources is a common industry, licit and illicit, across Latin America.

Ending environmentally damaging activities such as mining and logging is not as simple as ceasing operations. How can the region produce sufficient agricultural goods for a constantly increasing population, which has nearly doubled since 1975, without expanding agricultural land? Feeding the population and promoting sustainable development don’t have to be in tension with each other, but in Latin America today, they are.

Another Latin American issue that needs support from within the UN General Assembly is security. Latin America has the world’s highest homicide rates, and danger is a fact of life in countries like Brazil, El Salvador, and Mexico.

Less than a tenth (8 percent) of the world’s population lives in Latin America and the Caribbean, but the region accounts for roughly 33 percent of all homicide cases globally. Tackling domestic and transnational organized crime involves the coordination and cooperation of cities and states within the countries and at the regional level.

The newly nominated secretary-general must deeply consider how the UN can support the efforts of the national governments as they deal with these life-and-death issues.

Unfinished reforms

Finally, Latin America, more than any other region, wants to see the UN continue to reform its institutions, particularly that of the secretary-general selection and nomination process. In 1996 and 1997, the UN’s High-Level Working Group issued a document recommending regional rotation of General Assembly leadership and an emphasis on gender equality in the secretary-general selection process. Clearly, these recommendations were only partially implemented in the 2016 selection process that led to Guterres’s appointment.

Latin America has had only one secretary-general, the Peruvian Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, who served two terms (1982-1986 and 1987-1991). That is a poor regional representation compared to the seven terms of Western European countries, three terms from Africa and four from Asia.

Some Latin American powers expect the UN secretary-general to support the long-standing proposal for the reform of the Security Council. Brazil, in particular, would like to see an increase in the number and tenure of Security Council members. Since the 1990s, it has been seeking global partners and allies to support its ideas of adding an extended number of non-permanent spots as well as finding a place for Brazil among permanent members.

This scenario is highly unlikely to pass. But if it did, such a reform would radically influence the dynamics of selecting the secretary-general. When Guterres was appointed, both Brazil’s official declarations and the congratulations it issued in alliance with other BRICS states highlighted this pending request.

All told, Latin American diplomats and presidents will welcome Secretary-General Guterres with open arms – and a long list of demands.

Raul Salgado Espinoza is a research professor at the Department of International Studies and Communication in the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, Flacso-Ecuador.

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