WHAT’S THE STORY?
AS THE world staggers into 2017 reeling from terrorist attacks, the refugee crisis and the war in Syria, much lies on the shoulders of the new secretary general of the UN, Antonio Guterres.
Despite a strong push for a woman to take over the job for the first time in the 71-year-old organisation’s history, the former Portuguese Prime Minister beat off the opposition to succeed Ban Ki-moon who stepped down on December 31.
Loading article content
However, while some believe the new secretary general could be the best the UN has ever had others are more critical, pointing to perceived failures while he was UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR).
There’s no doubt he is an interesting character – while he was prime minister he would secretly visit Lisbon slums to give free maths lessons to children.
Unusually too, for a socialist of the 1974 Portuguese revolution, he is a practising Catholic. Many of the members of his Socialist Party were Marxists but while his politics remain left of centre, he modernised the party he eventually took over.
Formerly known as “the talking pick axe” for his verbal talent in demolishing opponents, many believe he “could give the UN the kind of kick up the backside it needs”, according to Richard Gowan, UN expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
WHAT IS HIS BACKGROUND?
BORN in 1949 in Lisbon, Guterres was often taken to visit relatives outside the city where he witnessed how the poor were suffering under the dictatorship.
Later, as a star physics and engineering student, he found the time to volunteer on social projects. On graduating from the Instituto Superior Tecnico, he entered academia but when the dictatorship ended in 1974 he joined the Socialist Party and became an MP in 1976 in the country’s first democratic vote following five decades of dictatorship.
In 1992, he became leader of the party and modernised it while remaining left of contemporary European politicians like Tony Blair.
Gutteres became prime minister in 1995, campaigning with the slogan “heart and reason”. Despite failing to win an absolute majority his minority government was able to introduce nursery education for all and a guaranteed minimum income. Guterres used his skills at oratory to win over the opposition.
“He was a skilful person – very smart, very quick to understand the other point of view and very focused on having solutions – that’s why it worked,” said António Vitorino, former deputy prime minister and defence minister.
AND HIS INFLUENCES?
A HUGE influence on Guterres was his first wife, Luísa Guimarães e Melo, the mother of his two children. A psychiatrist, she was critically ill during his first term of government and he spent his weekends in London where she was being treated in hospital, flying back in time to start work on a Monday morning.
She died in 1998 but Guterres said recently: “She taught me something that was extremely useful for all my political activities. When two people are together, they are not two but six. What each one is, what each one thinks he or she is and what each one thinks the other is.
“And what is true for people is also true for countries and organisations. One of the roles of the secretary general when dealing with the different key actors in each scenario is to bring these six into two.
“That the misunderstandings disappear and the false perceptions disappear. Perceptions are essential in politics.”
Guterres continued as prime minister after his wife’s death but again failed to win a majority in the 1999 elections and was forced to form another minority government.
WHAT HAS HE ACHIEVED?
BECOMING increasingly frustrated with internal party politics, Guterres became more involved in the international scene, winning praise for leading efforts to persuade the UN to help restore peace in Timor-Leste, the former Portuguese colony which was riven by violence after a 1999 referendum in favour of independence from Indonesia.
Guterres also won praise during Portugal’s presidency of the EU in 2000.
“He did something very original – he looked at what every country wanted and set up an agenda that could be interesting for everyone,” said Francisco Seixas da Costa, former European affairs secretary. “Small countries disappear in the decision-making process so we tried to listen to their interests.
“At the European council, I remember a conflict between Jacques Chirac and Helmut Kohl over one issue. Guterres asked for the floor. I was sitting next to him, I was afraid it might be naive. But he took the floor and made a proposal that covered both their interests, and it was a success. It worked. He had a fantastic capacity to moderate and create links and bridges.”
At home Guterres’s Socialist Party was not doing so well, with an economic downturn increasing voter dissatisfaction. After the party was soundly beaten in the 2002 local elections, Guterres stepped down even though voters still considered him honest and fair.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
GUTERRES did not return to national politics, becoming UNHCR chief from 2005 until 2015. Here he widened the categories of people under its protection to include migrants forced by climate change and natural disasters to leave home, cutting overheads to convince donors to fund the organisation’s expansion.
“Like all UN organisations, as the organisation had grown up, it had become a little bit top-heavy and one of his first actions was really to slim down headquarters fairly substantially. He sent people back to the field and he put some of the services in much cheaper places than Geneva,” said Michel Gabaudan, of Refugees International.
However, Guterres attracted criticism for not speaking out strongly enough in defence of the rights of refugees although it is recognised that he has worked tirelessly on behalf of the Syrian refugees, putting together a £4bn aid package.
Fluent in French, Spanish, English and Portuguese, Guterres is determined to use his powers of persuasion to make preventing crisis a priority for the UN.
“We need a surge in diplomacy for peace,” he said. “The international community spends much more time and resources managing crises than preventing them.
“A Secretary-General must continuously seek to contribute to reducing the number of conflicts and consequently the number of victims.”