The secretary-general of the United Nations is conventionally thought of as the world’s most high-profile diplomat, charged with the responsibility of bringing calm and astute leadership to bear at times of war and international crisis. This is a core purpose and mission that appears to have escaped the attention of António Guterres, the UN’s current chief.
Addressing a meeting of the UN Security Council in New York on Tuesday, Guterres said the situation in the Middle East was growing more dire by the hour and urged all parties to respect and protect civilians. Fair enough and exactly the kind of thing that UN leaders are expected to say. It is what came next that has prompted an almighty diplomatic row.
Guterres, through sheer arrogance or a lack of political nuance, has damaged his office
Guterres said he condemned unequivocally the deadly attacks by Hamas gunmen in Israel two weeks ago but that it was important to recognize that they “did not happen in a vacuum,” adding: “The Palestinian people have been subjected to fifty-six years of suffocating occupation.”
So, not such an unequivocal condemnation after all? In fact, something else altogether, an attempt at explanation that comes pretty close, deliberately or otherwise, to a justification of the attacks.
That is certainly how Israel interpreted his remarks, which prompted a furious response. The Israeli foreign minister, Eli Cohen, criticized Guterres in his own speech to the Security Council, asking him: “In what world do you live?”
Cohen later wrote on X, formerly Twitter: “I will not meet with the UN secretary-general.” That’s hardly a satisfactory outcome for the UN, an organization whose goal is to talk with all parties in any conflict and try to hammer out a solution.
Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, was even more forthright in his criticisms, accusing Guterres of “justifying terrorism,” adding that he was “not fit” to lead the UN and demanding his immediate resignation.
Guterres has since responded by saying he is “shocked” by “misrepresentations by some of my statement” on Gaza. He claims he was not justifying the acts of terror by Hamas and now wants to set the record straight, “especially out of respect for the victims and their families.”
It all feels rather too little too late. Guterres, through sheer arrogance or a lack of political nuance, has damaged his office, reducing his own capacity to act in the traditional honest broker role of the UN secretary general. That is reason enough to question his position. He has also managed to make the jobs of UN people on the ground that much harder, if not impossible.
The consequences of his ill-considered and ill-timed public disquisition on the Middle East conflict do not end there. Israel says it will ban UN representatives from visiting the country “to teach them a lesson.” This move includes denying a visa request from Martin Griffiths, the UN’s under secretary general for humanitarian affairs. The scale of Israeli anger at the remarks reflects a wider and long-running belief that UN agencies, and in particular the Human Rights Council, have an anti-Israel agenda. The UN has only itself — or to be more precise its own leader — to blame for the diplomatic mess. Why did Guterres seemingly go out of his way to alienate Israel at this precise moment when the situation is so delicate? What could he possibly have hoped to achieve beyond alienating Israel’s leaders whose cooperation is paramount if diplomatic efforts are to succeed? His claims to have been misinterpreted smack of expediency, a belated attempt to limit the diplomatic consequences of his own recklessness.
Someone should have reminded Guterres — before he spoke — that he is there to soothe rather than ruffle feathers, and that it is not in his job description to pour fresh fuel on the burning fires of the Middle East. The row prompts fresh questions about the political judgment of Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal, who was appointed to succeed Ban Ki-moon as the ninth secretary general of the UN in 2016. Just one faceless bureaucrat succeeding another to the top UN job, at a time when the organization is struggling to define its role in an increasingly fractured world.
To outsiders, the UN looks more and more like a bloated irrelevance. António Guterres, causing insult and offense with his diplomatic blundering, has only damaged the UN’s reputation further. It is hard to see a way back for him.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.