There is a clear discomfort among international activists and commentators who follow the United Nations, as well as among former UN senior officials and special rapporteurs, with the organization’s growing irrelevance as the world is faced with increasingly complex global challenges. The Secretary General’s performance is starting to be questioned, and one begins to wonder what his legacy will be. The answers tend to portray him in an unfavorable light. Let us not forget that António Guterres (AG) succeeded Ban Ki-moon, whose legacy was unanimously viewed as nonexistent, or very weak at best. Will AG’s be all that different? Will his second term change how his performance is perceived?
Although it is true that AG’s first term was marked by two adverse circumstances – Donald Trump’s hostility (the US accounts for 22 percent of the UN budget) and the COVID-19 pandemic –, the truth is that the United Nations is a large and very powerful organization and that, instead of using that power, AG has chosen to overplay his low profile. By so doing, he has been a contributing factor to the UN no longer being recognized as a relevant international authority that can be counted on to uphold the UN Charter’s two major mandates: to defend human rights and ensure world peace and security. AG has acted as a technician whose main task revolves around the UN’s internal organization. He has given the secretariat-general a more prominent role (which in itself is somewhat problematic) and has made it his main concern not to antagonize any of the five permanent members of the Security Council, especially the US.
It is widely recognized that in their first terms of office Secretaries General need to be wary in this regard. Many of us remember what happened to Boutros Boutros-Ghali, whose bid for a second term was vetoed by President Clinton. What is particularly troubling is the fact that AG has given no indication that he will be more assertive in his second term. As a politician who favors consensus and the building of bridges and who is overly cautious as well as incapable of standing up to the powerful, he is the opposite of the inspiring leader that the UN needs to make a difference in an increasingly multipolar world that is heading toward ever more threatening clashes. No one expected AG to be a hero like Dag Hammarskjöld, but he could at least act firmly, as Kofi Annan did when he spoke forcefully against the invasion of Iraq, which he considered to be a huge mistake. Kofi Annan was very active in promoting the human rights agenda and introduced a number of far-reaching innovations, including the active participation of non-governmental actors in UN deliberations. When faced with important international issues, he tended to act ahead of world leaders, so as to make clear where the UN stood. One of the signs that the UN has lost its relevance is that, when faced with this sort of issue, AG only rarely shows any leadership at all. When he does, it is only after making sure that the issue is no longer a divisive one (as is the case with the climate crisis), and even then all we get from him are vague statements of little practical consequence. When the issues are controversial, he hides behind his senior officials or specialized agencies. Surely no one has failed to notice that the resignation speech of Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, the former High Commissioner for Human Rights, contained an indirect criticism of AG. If, as al Hussein claimed, it was true that human rights had become a pariah of international relations, wouldn’t he have stayed on if he felt he had the strong support of the Secretary General?
By appointing Michelle Bachelet to the position of human rights chief, AG confirmed the suspicions that above all else he favors senior officials who do not make waves, especially with regard to the US. In fact, there is the belief among the special rapporteurs that, while their voices were previously perceived as impartial, and therefore invested with special authority, nowadays they are viewed by AG himself as likely to upset the great powers, their reports therefore requiring greater control. Everyone recognizes AG’s excellent job as High Commissioner for Refugees – and in retrospect, this may actually help explain the disappointment with his poor performance as Secretary General so far. A committed progressive Catholic, AG felt the job – which called for solidarity with the wretched of the earth – suited him well. When he happened to clash with governments, he did not need to advertise the fact.
Despite all this, I believe AG’s tenure as Secretary General can still be salvaged over the next five years. I think there is one area in particular where he can make a difference, reinstating the UN as the beacon of hope it once was for the entire world. I allude to the area of human rights. I shall not go into the grave violations we’ve witnessed in the recent past: the targeted drone killings in Yemen and Somalia (USA), extrajudicial executions (Sahel, the Philippines, Colombia), the poisoning of Alexei Navalny (Russia), the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani (Israel and USA) and of Jamal Khashoggi (Saudi Arabia), and the slow death of Julian Assange (England and USA). Instead I will focus on the massive violation of human rights in the shape of vaccine apartheid, and the deep effect it is having on the 21st century. It is by now clear that there will be no global health security until virtually the whole world is vaccinated.
From a technical point of view, vaccines could be made quickly and easily accessible to every person in the world, based on the principle that a human life is worth as much in Mumbai as it is in Brussels. The only reason this is not possible is because the large pharmaceutical companies producing the vaccines refuse to waive their patent rights. Their profit projections on what has already been called “liquid gold” are huge. According to the findings of a study by Imperial College London, the costs of the Pfizer vaccine add up to US$ 1.18 a dose and Moderna’s costs US$ 2.85 to produce. The two have been selling, on average, for US$ 25.15 and US$ 25.50 a dose, respectively, which is more than ten times the cost (Light and Lexchin, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 2021, vol. 114, 502-504). What’s more, the big companies expect to raise their prices significantly once the pandemic is declared over. Such profits are simply not acceptable, given that research has relied mostly on public funding. Besides, according to the Financial Times, the pharmaceutical companies are demanding that the countries of the global South effect legislative changes prior to vaccine delivery. These changes are aimed at protecting companies against future lawsuits or patent waivers, forcing countries, for example, to commit public funds for that purpose – a move denounced by South Africa as an “illegitimate surrender of national sovereignty”.
The issue of patent suspension is currently being discussed within the World Trade Organization, whose default solution, as we all know, is to decide in favor of companies. It is clear that the COVAX initiative (an international partnership to ensure global equitable access to patent-protected COVID-19 vaccines) will not be enough. COVAX has distributed a mere 1.4 billion of the 11 billion doses it promised to deliver in 2021. Over 60 percent of the population of rich countries have already been vaccinated with multiple doses, while in Africa only 6 percent of people have received vaccine shots, and only one dose at that. There is currently a worldwide outcry to put an end to this gross injustice, which is also a major source of insecurity for the world as a whole. António Guterres should seize on this opportunity to establish himself as a world leader. In order to accomplish that he will have to step out of the UN headquarters and into the world and the corridors of public and private power, in search of solutions that ensure that collective global health will ultimately prevail. He cannot go on hiding behind the WHO, nor should he content himself with abstract and overcautious statements, as has been the case until now. If he fails to do this, I’m afraid he will just not be able to salvage his two-term tenure. It may be that the world will one day remember António Guterres only for being the first Portuguese-speaking Secretary General. Not much to brag about, is it?
Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and Global Legal Scholar at the University of Warwick.