Gary Harkin.

Antonio Guterres, High Commissioner for Refugees. United States Mission Geneva. flickr cc.

Antonio Guterres has recently been appointed the Secretary General designate of the UN. He hails from Portugal, was born in 1949 (aged 67), and has a strong background in public service and administration at the highest level. He has a reputation for advocacy and dialogue, and is fluent in Portuguese, English, French, and Spanish.

Guterres worked as an academic before joining his country’s Socialist Party in 1974, and was the Prime Minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002. From 2005 to 2015, he was the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

He is generally regarded as a man of moral integrity, well versed in the international sphere, and reform oriented. During the years he headed the UN refugee agency (the UNHCR), Guterres achieved acclaim for his management approach, reducing bureaucratic personnel by a third, and despatching increased numbers of people to field placement.

Erika Feller, writing recently in Inside Story, suggests that, “For ten years, with energy, integrity, and a belief in accountability to beneficiaries, he (Guterres) skilfully steered the organisation (UNHCR) through a dramatically worsening displacement environment, recurring budget crises, and the quicksand of UN politics”. Feller should know; she is a distinguished Australian diplomat, who for eight years served as the UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner under Guterres.

Guterres, a seasoned politician

Guterres has a strong track record as a politician and effective administrator. As High Commissioner of the UN refugee agency, he headed one of the world’s largest humanitarian organisations. At the end of his term, the UNHCR had more than 10,000 staff working in 126 countries to provide protection and assistance to over 60 million refugees and displaced people, the greatest migration crisis facing the world since World War II.

Earlier, as Prime Minister of Portugal and as President of the European Council, he played an important role in the administration of the European Union. Guterres was a member of the team which negotiated the terms of Portugal’s entry into the European Union in the late 1970s. Later, he was a key player in finalising the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, which ushered in a new strong European Union. The Treaty of Lisbon (initially known as the Reform Treaty) is an international agreement which amends the two treaties forming the constitutional basis of the EU.

Guterres campaigned for United Nations intervention in East Timor in 1999, after the former Portuguese colony was virtually destroyed by Indonesian-backed militias when it voted for independence.

Yet Guterres will have many critics. The Neoconservative side of the political divide is already out in the High Street with ‘guns blazing’ for Guterres the Socialist. Jennifer Oriel writing in The Australian on 10 October declared, “The appointment of Antonio Guterres as Secretary-General of the United Nations poses significant danger to the free world”. Guterres is certainly at odds philosophically with some western governments who seem to orient refugees with jihad. As Guterres has stated, “Let us be perfectly clear: refugees are not terrorists, they are the first victims of terror”.

UN challenges ahead

A major challenge faced by Guterres before he is actually installed on 1 January 2017 is, of course, the outcome of the 8 November US presidential elections. Should the Republican Party candidate win the day, Donald Trump will bring a legacy of stated positions which would potentially derail the UN. This covers an aggressive stance to immigration laws, including a potential temporary ban on Muslims, and the implementation of his infamous ‘Mexican Wall’. Trump has also stated that he intends to ‘cancel’ the 2015 Paris climate deal, a cornerstone of the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and already ratified by the US. Perhaps Trump’s alarming rhetoric needs to be viewed through the lens of classical stump oratory associated with electioneering. Nevertheless, his approach has given oxygen to the naysayers and climate change deniers, and will encourage laggard nations.

Understanding and compassion for the sixty-five million displaced people around the globe is a massive challenge. Nations such as ours have hardened their hearts. The exodus of millions of Syrians is an indication, if one is needed, of the scale of the challenge represented by mass displacement in 2016 and beyond.

Finally, perhaps the biggest challenge is the long overdue review of the anachronistic post-war structure of the UN, specifically the Security Council and the veto power of its five permanent members. Also, the current reality of geopolitics is that, while over half the world’s population lies in the Asia-Pacific area, their only permanent Security Council representation is with China.

Gary Harkin has a background in marketing and business general management, and holds a degree in theology from the University of Divinity. He is a member of Social Policy Connections.


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