A Portuguese who headed the UN’s refugee agency for a decade, António Guterres, is the new Secretary-General of the United Nations. He acknowledged “huge challenges” and promised to serve the voiceless. As a devout Catholic, his inspiration comes from the Bible. (Read more…)
The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell
In 1946, at the beginning of the Cold War, the Soviet Union vetoed the first application of Portugal to be a member of the United Nations. Salazar’s dictatorship was staunchly anti-communist and, while officially “neutral” in World War II, it was perceived as sympathetic to the Axis powers.
Seven decades later, in 2016, going against those expecting a woman and/or a representative of Eastern Europe to be the ninth Secretary-General, Russia lauded Portuguese António Guterres as “the best candidate available” for the job.
“You are witnessing, I think, a historic scene”, said Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, in October, announcing the Security Council’s unanimous backing of the man who served a decade as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.).
In January 2017, Guterres will replace Ban Ki-moon, of South Korea, who served two five-year terms.
“This was a ‘selection’ not an election, [but] the 2016 version was an improvement on previous ones,” said Thomas G. Weiss, expert on the politics of the UN, in an interview. “It was modestly more transparent and accountable”, added the author of “What’s Wrong With The United Nations and How To Fix It.”
“When I heard the Security Council’s decision to recommend me to the General Assembly, my feelings could be described by just two words: gratitude and humility,” Guterres stated.
“Humility [is what I feel] 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.”
To those who call him to follow in the footsteps of the Swedish “secular Pope” Dag Hammarskjöld, who earned this title when leading the UN from 1953 to 1961, Guterres cautioned to his own limitations.
“The Secretary-General alone neither has all the answers, nor seeks to impose his views. [He] makes his good offices available, working as a convener, a mediator, a bridge-builder and an honest broker to help find solutions that benefit everyone involved.”
Thomas G. Weiss, Presidential Professor of Political Science and Director Emeritus of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the City University of New York, offers an advice to the new “top diplomat”: to make clear that expectations of “miracles” are misplaced. “Guterres should quickly dispel notions, for instance, that he or anyone else is going to solve [the war in] Syria or halt climate change, or reform the Security Council.”
In Lisbon, where Guterres was born, a Franciscan priest is confident that the man to whom he has been a spiritual leader for almost half a century is set to be the best Secretary-General ever.
“Guterres was 18 year-old, a student [of electronic engineering], the most brilliant of his college, when we met for the first time”, recalls Father Vítor Melícias, in an interview. “By then, on his own initiative, he was already an active volunteer doing social work in the poorest areas” of the Portuguese capital.
Both men and other youngsters formed a prayer group in the Franciscan chapel of the Missionaries of Mary. “After Sunday Mass, we used to discuss our civic projects and the country’s problems (poverty, emigration, colonial war, censorship), in the context of the Second Vatican Council.”
The Second ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church (1962–65) “encouraged the laity to be more politically active,” said the Portuguese priest. “With the rapid expansion of the group, we were forced to move into another place to elude the almighty and suspicious Secret Police [PIDE]”.
The new location was the Franciscan Convent, at Largo da Luz, in Lisbon, where Melícias lived. “We’re like a close-knit family, an active group without an organic structure, engaged in the defense of freedom and the less fortunate.”
This “Light Group” (Grupo da Luz), with other influential members such as the current Portuguese President, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, would be a source of inspiration to Guterres. His spiritual counselor cites several examples of a later work, including the foundation of the first national consumer protection agency, and the creation of the Portuguese Council for Refugees.
In 1974, after the April Revolution, Guterres quit academe to join the Socialist Party, going through the rank and file all the way to the leadership. Between 1995 and 2002, he was twice prime minister, a skilled negotiator who adopted long-lasting social and economic measures, from pioneering a new pre-school system to introducing an unprecedented law decriminalizing the personal use of all drugs.
In foreign affairs, two of his greatest diplomatic achievements were Portugal’s successful bid to join the euro and the role he played to secure the independence of East Timor.
Fiascos were also unavoidable. By the end of 2001, his party suffered huge losses in local elections. To avert “a political quagmire”, Guterres quit the government. He went back to his volunteer social activities, anonymously teaching Mathematics in a “problematic” community, before embracing an international career.
Personal ambition is not his motivation. He had previously declined an invitation to be president of the European Commission, refusing to be an absent father to his two children, who had lost their mother to a debilitating disease.
In 2005, the charismatic and diligent Guterres rose again to notoriety as the 10th High Commissioner for Refugees, reforming the organization to face the worst humanitarian disaster since the end of the Word War II.
As UN Secretary-General, Guterres’ mission “is almost impossible”, according to ambassador Vitaly Churkin.
“Transformations are imperative, in headquarters and in the field, if the world organization is not to become a relic and capable of responding to a growing list of the twenty-first century’s life-threatening challenges,” Thomas Weiss said, listing “proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, pandemics, terrorism, climate change, mass atrocities [wars in Syria, Yemen and Africa] and poverty [more than 65 million people are displaced and almost 800 million face starvation]” among them.
In the last ten years, under the “invisible” Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. has “almost disappeared from many radar screens, and its staff morale has sunk to new lows”. For Guterres, the biggest challenge will be to “move quickly during the first few months of 2017 to rapidly set a new tone and shake up the bureaucracy.”
So seven decades after replacing the unsuccessful League of Nations, we might ask, borrowing the title of Weiss forthcoming book (available in 2018), “would the world be better without the U.N.”? The author’s answers are questions:
– “Would the world be a better place if Syria still had its chemical weapons? Would women’s plight worldwide not be even worse without efforts to publicize gender inequality since the Commission on the Status of Women began operations in 1946? Would we be closer to halting climate change without analyses by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? Would the bird flu and Ebola pandemics not have been even bigger blights without the World Health Organization? Would the world’s trouble spots be calmer without 110,000 Blue Helmets?”
“One can imagine a UN and a planet without concerns for peace, stability, and prosperity, but it would be a much poorer world and, at its core, much less human and humane than the one to which the world organization aspires, and at its best contributes and achieves”, Weiss said.
“Of course, the United Nations could and should have been better and done more”, Weiss added. “There is still time. A world without the world body is neither plausible nor desirable. A world with a more creative and effective UN is both.”
In July, explaining why he applied to the “most difficult job in the world” (as defined by Trygve Halvdan Lie, the first UN Secretary-General), Guterres stated: “I am Catholic. I believe that my motivation is a certain story in the Gospel called the ‘Parable of the Talents’ [Mathew 25:14-30]. I feel that it is my obligation to use my abilities to address urgent concerns.”
Father Melícias clarifies why the “Parable of the Talents” is so important to his “Christian humanist, radically ecumenical and pluralistic” disciple. “We used to meditate on this biblical text. It’s our philosophy. The principles guiding Guterres are the words of Christ in our prayer: ‘I came to serve, not to be served’.”
Top diplomats and their missions
Trygve Halvdan Lie (Norway, 1946-1952)
The Korean War, which broke out in June 1950, was one of his biggest challenges. He supported U.N. action against North Korea as the aggressor. The Soviet Union did not like this stand and rejected him. In 1952, US senator Joseph McCarthy ordered “a hunt for spies and communists” in the UN, accusing Lie of “hiring disloyal Americans”. The double pressure led him to resign.
Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden, 1953-1961)
One of the most revered secretaries-general, Hammarskjöld was a pioneer of preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution processes. He is widely credited for inventing peacekeeping in its current form, when he assembled the first UN Force within weeks of the Suez crisis in 1956. His most prominent engagement was the decolonization of Africa, mainly the Congo crisis. He died in 1961 while trying to secure peace. His plane crash is now being investigated as murder.
U Thant (Burma/Myanmar, 1961-1971)
He encouraged negotiations between Kennedy and Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), “averting the possibility of a global catastrophe”. During his tenure, the Operation Grand Slam ended the secessionist insurgency in Congo, newly independent African and Asian states entered the UN, and the Holy See was admitted as a permanent observer.
Kurt Waldheim (Austria, 1972-1981)
Not too much to reckon with. Waldheim participated in the Paris International Conference on Vietnam and presided over the 1st phase of the Geneva Peace Conference on the Middle East. “He had little choice”, noted The Economist. “The world was frozen into Soviet and American blocks and the UN was impotent.”
Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (Peru, 1982-1991)
During his two terms, he led mediations between Britain and Argentina in the aftermath of the Falklands War, and tried bringing peace to Central America. He also interceded in the negotiations for the independence of Namibia and the conflict in Western Sahara.
Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt, 1992-1996)
The genocide in Rwanda that left over one million people dead was the UN’s biggest failure, admitted Boutros-Ghali. He was also criticized for not pushing hard enough for an intervention to end Angola’s civil war in the 1990s, and not preventing the deaths of about 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men in the Srebrenica massacre. The conflicts in Yugoslavia and Somalia set him at odds with the US, which vetoed his candidacy for a second term.
Kofi Annan (Ghana, 1997-2006)
His first major initiative was a plan to save the UN from bankruptcy. He served as an important broker in several diplomatic crises, namely in Nigeria, Iraq, East Timor and Lybia. A Nobel Peace Prize laureate, he also played a central role in the creation of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the adoption of the UN’s first-ever counter-terrorism strategy, and the acceptance by Member States of the “responsibility to protect” people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
Ban Ki-moon (South Korea, 2007-2016)
It was a difficult ride: the global financial crisis, the Haiti earthquake and cholera epidemic, the Arab Spring, Ebola in West Africa, wars in Yemen, Syria, Libya and South Sudan, the Ukraine crisis, the rise of modern terrorism, and UN peacekeeping sex scandals. His main achievements were reaching a landmark global climate change pact and finalizing the 2030 Sustainable Development agenda.
This article was originally published in the magazine “World Mission” (Manila, Philippines), January 2017 edition