World Report

A man of faith and vision
Antoni Guterres promises a revived United Nations, writes Paul Keenan

The new UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres.

How long, if at all, one wonders, do staff at the United Nations pause to wish one another “Happy New Year”?

The question is posed from a knowledge that the multitudinous issues with which the international body concerns itself do not ebb and flow with the seasons or any man-made calendar, and, taken in isolation, some enduring conflicts hardly allow for a belief that the new year will be any better than the old.

A handful of examples suffice.

On December 23 – with swathes of society gearing down for the Christmas break – the UN experienced something of an historic first in a Security Council vote when, in seeking to condemn Israeli settlements, the path to a 14-0 result was achieved when the United States abstained from the ballot. 

Not unexpectedly, the other result has been an almighty row between nation states in and beyond the UN chamber. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his nation’s Foreign Ministry to limit working links to those UN Security Council nations which supported the settlements resolution (Angola, Britain, China, Egypt, France, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, Senegal, Spain, Ukraine and Uruguay). 

Great potential

A further knock-on has been the outrage felt within political circles in the United States, notably that of incoming President Donald Trump who made his feelings known in a Tweet: “The United Nations has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!”  

He had previously tweeted on the decision:  “As to the UN, things will be different after January 20”, a reference to his inauguration date. 

Other voices, meanwhile, called for tangible sanctions against the UN for its actions.

Later, and from South America, came video footage of two UN peace monitors marking New Year’s Eve by joining female members of the FARC guerrilla group in a dance. Innocuous enough on one level, the video nevertheless incensed some Colombian legislators who questioned the UN’s ability to remain impartial in overseeing the long-sought but divisive peace accord with the fighters.

Meanwhile, amid mild winter conditions, the flood of migrants undertaking the treacherous Mediterranean crossing between North Africa and Europe showed no signs of abating, with rescues continuing through the Christmas period and keeping up the pressure on the UN and others in providing for the tide of humanity displaced for one reason or another worldwide.

These are but a smattering of the ‘in-box’ matters to greet Mr Antonio Guterres on his first day as Secretary General of the UN. Having risen steadily through the ranks, the 67-year-old Portuguese politician ascended to the diplomatic top-slot on January 1, replacing South Korea’s Ban Ki-moon (departing after 10 years). 

Now faced with – literally - a world of troubles, the inevitable question must be why, at an age when most others would be slipping into welcome retirement, Mr Guterres would choose to have entered a race for the seemingly impossible role of being all things to all men – or at least to the 193 member nations of the UN. And yet, a trawl through the life and career of this leading diplomat provides evidence enough of a man not built for quiet retirement and in many ways the very best man for the UN job.

Born into a devout Catholic family 1949, Antonio Guterres has been, from the earliest, a figure to surprise and to swim against the current of expectation. Educated as an engineer, this career path was to reach a crossroads in 1974 with Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, when the nation shed its dictatorship and promised free and fair elections for the first time. 

Aged 25, Guterres was drawn to politics, but in a move seemingly at odds with his faith credentials (which endure), he opted to join the Socialist party. 

Fortunes waned

Frequently at odds with a rank and file comprised of secularist Marxists, Guterres nevertheless displayed talents sufficient to lead him to become the party’s secretary general in 1992 and, ultimately, the country’s prime minister by 1995, a post he held until 2002 when the party’s fortunes waned amid an economic downturn. (His departure from his post led subsequently to the revelation that Guterres was no less busy with a project that had long engaged him, that of visiting poorer districts in Lisbon to read with children and teach them mathematics – a personal outreach he had quietly undertaken for many years.)

By 2002, Guterres and his persuasive diplomacy had already come to the attention of the UN, specifically in relation to the crisis in Portugal’s former colony of Timor-Leste in 1999, when violence accompanied that nation’s referendum to seek independence from Indonesia. 

Guterres led diplomatic lobbying at the UN to have the body intervene directly in the crisis. (Ireland would subsequently send peacekeeping troops as part of a UN multinational force to Timor-Leste)

Clearly identified as a diplomatic talent, Guterres would subsequently be offered his first UN role, that of High Commissioner for Refugees, a post he held for the next 10 years and one which demonstrated his dedication to issues of social justice with a ready ability to oversee what was to become the busiest area of responsibility for the UN. 

During his tenure, Guterres insisted his office expand to include not just conflict refugees, but also those fleeing climate change and natural disasters.

Now, in 2017, all has changed again for Antonio Guterres, but he has vowed already that he will not be alone in this, stating publicly his intention to vastly overhaul a maligned UN with a focus on preventing crises rather than forever reacting to them as they erupt. 

His vision, he says, is a UN that is an “honest broker, bridge-builder and messenger for peace” with a commitment to an increased diplomacy in gaining that peace.

Guterres has a five-year term (with a maximum five years additional) in which to prove his mettle on all fronts, but as shown, he already has enough to contend with in this early part of 2017. 

On this, he clearly showed himself undaunted when, in his inaugural address he declared: “Let us make 2017 a year in which we all, citizens, governments, leaders, strive to overcome our differences.”

For good measure he shared his own New Year’s resolution: “Let us resolve to put peace first.”