Much ado about nothing:The strange case of the UN Secretary-General who cancelled himself

27 June 2021  – Mukesh Kapila


We are currently living in the era of culture wars. We don’t quite know what that means but since when did that stop people from fighting?  

Actually, the Peoples’ Oracle aka Wikipedia, has a nifty definition: “a cultural conflict between social groups and the struggle for dominance of their values, beliefs, and practices”.  Still a bit obscure but it becomes clearer on considering typical battlegrounds:  Should footballers ‘take the knee’ in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter?  Should the statues of slavers-turned-philanthropists be toppled? What is a trans-exclusionary radical feminist?

Cultural wars are generally fought on Twitter, the main weapons being the Like or Block buttons, reinforced by armies of trolls. The conflicts can be nasty although the high priests of Twitter try to apply their own version of the Geneva Conventions which can mean getting thrown off the digital battleground, sometimes permanently as with ex-President Trump.

But something even worse happens if you are on the wrong side of a culture war: you get cancelled i.e. put in the naughty corner, which is painful for fragile prominent egos. Such as Bill Gates who has fallen from favour in a spectacular manner, although I don’t know anybody outraged enough by his alleged misdemeanours, to return the millions they received from his Foundation.

Culture wars are emotionally hurtful. There is, however, a more sinister version. Such as in Xinjian where the Chinese are cancelling the Uyghurs by eliminating their way of life. Tibet and Hong Kong have also been cancelled, more or less. The Islamic State tried to do this with the Yazidis in Iraq. And right now, the Ethiopian and Eritrean states are doing their utmost to cancel Tigray. Some of these experiences are also labelled as genocide, the most heinous of all crimes against humanity.

It was the greatest of all culture wars – World War II – and the most formidable of human cancellations – The Holocaust – that stimulated the formation of the United Nations. It’s founding Charter is poetically crafted  in the name of “We The Peoples”. Ultimately that is about ensuring that no people anywhere are cancelled by some despot’s whim.

All this is by way of getting to my main point: the curious case of the current Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres.  He has taken the modern age’s cancel culture to new heights… by cancelling himself.

No Secretary-General has been perfect but all previous ones have done something.  Trygve Lie (1946-52) built the physical organisation of the UN from scratch. The much-loved Dag Hammarskjöld (1953-61) established peace-keeping. U Thant (1961-71) created the UN’s major development and environmental functions. Kurt Waldheim (1972-81) convened several major ‘global good’ conferences but was reviled later for lying about his previous Nazi association.  The diplomacy of Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (1982-91) kept the world safe during the iciest closing period of the Cold War. Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992-96) created the UN’s “Agenda for Peace” although he went on to preside over genocides in Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia. Kofi Annan (1997-2006) is credited with the Millennium Development Goals and criticised for allowing the Darfur genocide on his watch. Ban Ki-Moon (2007-16) had his Agenda for Humanity including the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit.  

What will Mr. Guterres (2017+) be known for? So far, and unlike his predecessors, he is on track for entering and exiting history with little to signify his transit.

How should the SG’s performance be judged?  Unarguably, by reference to the  UN’s main stated purpose which is to save us from the ‘scourge of war’ and that is why its highest organ is appropriately called the Security Council. This is the most important planetary forum to supervise and hold accountable the conduct of nations.

Of course, the UN  does many other important things like promoting human rights, justice, and social and economic progress. But they all connect to its core function to make, keep, and build peace.  And the other subsidiary tasks have their own bodies – there are at least 48 UN system agencies, funds, programmes, commissions, institutes, and other specialised organs – each with their own leadership, governance, financing, and operating modalities.

The SG has a symbolic role in relation to some of these agencies in the same way that a constitutional monarch endorses a prime minister in a democracy.  And, from time to time the SG utilises his celebrity status to push a cause  such as climate change or pandemic response. But these have their own responsible organisations with their own leaders and accountabilities.  By muscling into such causes, the SG gets them a little extra media attention akin to a famous actor promoting a coffee brand or well-known athletes publicising jogging shoes.

Mr Guterres has been good at doing that through Twitter. An analysis of his tweets in the one week after he tweeted his re-election on 18th June,  indicates that he has parroted many worthy topics such as climate change, sexual violence, torture, refugees, the plight of widows and disabled. But the banal nature of his pronouncements – without specificity to real life-and-death happenings – effectively sanitised these topics. Even in the case of  Syria and Libya that were specifically honoured to receive two tweets each. It was only just recently that he voiced his condemnation of the killings of MSF aid workers after his total silence on Tigray that spanned several months over which a multitude have been starved, raped and displaced, as admitted by his own top humanitarian official.  

His anodyne tweets – although it is doubtful that he even tweets personally –  are a cheap way to show proof-of-life at the top of the United Nations. But they are little else and perhaps even a distraction from his key job.  What, then, is that job? The UN Charter does not describe it but 75 years have shaped the role quite well. Apart from administrative functions at the apex of a mammoth bureaucracy, the SG symbolises the ideals of a global humanity. Most importantly, he (all are men so far) is expected to uphold the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the world’s peoples, especially the wretched, down-trodden,  and oppressed. In essence, his minimal job is to give voice to the voiceless.

Inevitably, that means challenging Member States when they murder, starve, torture, displace, or rape their peoples. Which several do only too often. So, SGs  need unquestionable integrity to confront the bad behaviours of States by speaking truth to power. This is tricky as he is also beholden to them for voting him into office while keeping a tight grip on his financial cojones.  So, the SG also needs unwavering courage to stand up.

Mr Guterres has not shown possession of this vital commodity. That is not surprising. The UN’s founders were already worried  at the organisation’s inception that any SG who had a modicum of courage would have this squeezed out by the political compromises necessary to get him to the podium. And once there, he would need all his faculties just to hold on, such are the furies of the conflicting pressures on him. So they gave him a  special weapon: article 99 of the Charter empowers the Secretary-General to bring to the Security Council any matter he thinks is a threat to international peace and security.  In other words, he can oblige the world’s most powerful nations to listen even if they don’t want.  

In his first four years, Mr Guterres has not only not used the obvious levers at his disposal but gone out of his way to say precisely nothing that may offend anybody. Is that because he is  busy in his private and confidential “good offices” role to settle disputes and protect people being snuffed out by tyrants? There is no evidence of that. Take the recent G7 summit, for example. While we saw a dapper SG bounding down the steps of his jet in Cornwall,  we don’t know what he said on, for example, Tigray. Did he raise himself to his full height, wave his fists, and thump the desk to insist on strengthening  the anaemic reference to this genocidal war in the final communique? Unlikely.

Of course, there is a traditional argument that diplomacy is most effective when conducted quietly behind the scenes. Perhaps that was so in a different age where Raoul Wallenberg’s “protective passports”  and Nicholas Winton’s “kindertransport” rescued thousands of Jews from the Nazis. But today, such blessed souls are few and far between. And although there is still a role for discreet diplomacy when, for example, the International Committee of the Red Cross accesses prisoners of war or negotiates ambulances crossing frontlines, this is in the strict humanitarian sphere with narrow objectives.   

In the political sphere, we live in a very different hyper-connected age where despots and dictators – ranging from Belarus to China, Myanmar to Ethiopia – are easily emboldened by the silence of good men. And indeed, they relish filling the vacuum of silence, ignorance, or indifference with their own words of incitement that are highly effective in finding the needed adherents to accomplish their high crimes and misdemeanours.

Many ordinary good people are countering such poison through vocal opposition, often at the risk of landing in prison, earning torture, or worse. But not  the good man who cowers in a palatial office on the 38th floor of the United Nations building in Manhattan. His silence betrays the most desperate people on the planet.

The concept of zero was invented several millennia ago and the mathematical zero and the philosophical notion of nothingness are related. They are essentially benign or neutral. However, Mr. Guterres has given zero a deeper negative meaning. By cancelling himself, he has degraded his high office into one that is now much ado about nothing.

Published by Mukesh Kapila


7 thoughts on “Much ado about nothing:The strange case of the UN Secretary-General who cancelled himself

  1. There is nothing more satisfying than the description of the incumbent UNSG put in your article. Wondered why he kept queit on Tigray genocidal war! Tried to compare him with his two of his predecessors and found no resemblance at all except occupying the high office. Seems he does not have sense of responsibility. It is a shame he is in the high office fof another term.


  2. Brilliant article! It is so precise about the inherent danger of cancel culture going unchecked.


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