Meet UN’s Secretary General: ‘Tireless Refugee Champion’ Antonio Guterres

AFP/File Kena Betancur
AFP/File Kena Betancur

Former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres has been unanimously chosen as the next Secretary-General of the United Nations in a Security Council straw poll.

A formal vote must still be held by the Security Council on Thursday, followed by a vote from the entire 193-member General Assembly, but nearly every source at the UN describes Guterres’s confirmation as a certainty. His five-year term will begin on January 1st, succeeding Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The Wall Street Journal reports Guterres was the favored candidate of the United States and Europeans but describes other members’ “rapid coalescence around his candidacy” as “something of a surprise.”

“Russia, one of the council’s five members with veto power, was considered the wild card in the selection process after earlier indicating it preferred the U.N.’s top job go to an Eastern European for the first time. There was also considerable pressure for naming the first woman to the post,” the newspaper notes.

After serving as Prime Minister of Portugal for seven years, the 67-year-old Guterres spent 10 years as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The Wall Street Journal describes the UN’s failure to deal effectively with conflicts such as Syria and Yemen as stains on the organization’s credibility, which Guterres can hopefully address.

“With António Guterres, the Security Council has chosen an outspoken and effective advocate for refugees with the potential to strike a radically new tone on human rights at a time of great challenges,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director for Human Rights Watch.

“Ultimately, the next U.N. secretary-general will be judged on his ability to stand up to the very powers that just selected him, whether on Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, the refugee crisis, climate change or any other problem that comes his way,” Charbonneau added.

The BBC quotes Guterres saying he will “serve the victims of conflicts, of terrorism, rights violations, poverty and injustices of this world.”

“I have two words to describe what I’m feeling now – gratitude and humility,” he said from Lisbon. “Humility about the huge challenges ahead of us, the terrible complexity of the modern world. But it is also humility that is required to serve the most vulnerable, victims of conflicts, of terrorism, rights violations, poverty and injustices of this world.”

Israeli officials told the Jerusalem Post they expected Guterres to be a “friend of Israel,” citing his long relationship with former Prime Ministers Ehud Barack and Shimon Peres.

“He was friendly and was definitely not part of the extreme Left in Europe. I don’t remember any anti-Israel comments by him. I think he will be more fair and less aggressive in the UN than his predecessors,” said former Trade Minister Micha Harish.

“I am delighted by the outcome of the Council’s selection process. He will need the firm support of the Security Council as well as the wider membership of the United Nations to help him fulfill his mandate in these challenging times,” said a previous Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, who now chairs The Elders, described by the BBC as “an independent group of global leaders.”

Former UN Ambassador John Bolton was less complimentary of Guterres during a Thursday morning appearance on Breitbart News Daily:

He is a former socialist Prime Minister of Portugal, a great believer in the European Union. And I recall in our first conversation, as he was heading the High Commissioner Office for Refugees, he told me how much he was worried about “populism” in the Western world – which he defined as “people who wanted control of their own borders.” And so we had, as they say, a polite exchange of views on that subject.

Kofi Annan figured in Bolton’s critique of Guterres:

I think it’s possible he will be very different from Ban Ki-moon, the outgoing secretary-general, who we did elect in 2006 for the first time, precisely because we didn’t think he would try to be a “secular Pope,” as Kofi Annan, his predecessor, had been described. I think Guterres – we’ll have to see how it plays out – but I think he may be more in the model of Kofi Annan than Ban Ki-moon, which would be a problem.

AFP describes Guterres as “an engineer by training and fervent Catholic” who has been a “tireless refugee champion.” He is anti-abortion, having permitted a referendum to change Portugal’s strict abortion law in 1998 but received neither credit nor blame for its failure.

“When people say they cannot receive Syrian refugees because they are Muslims, those that say it are supporting [sic] terrorist organisations and allowing them to be much more effective in recruiting people,” AFP quotes him saying in December.

Guterres was indeed a member of the Socialist party in Portugal, in fact, its Secretary-General in the nineties. AFP notes one of his “flagship measures” was establishing a guaranteed minimum income. The Socialists suffered at the polls when the economy began to decline, and Portugal is now viewed as a prospect for Europe’s next great economic disaster.


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