Antonio Guterres: The UN’s utopian, guardian and cosmopolitan

“It is remarkable,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in early May, “that they decided not to give up in the face of this enormous challenge.” He was talking about the Pacific island countries he had just visited to gain a firsthand impression of the already-visible impacts of climate change. The same could be said about Guterres himself.

Since Guterres took over from predecessor Ban Ki-Moon as the head of the UN at the beginning of 2017, the challenges facing the international community have only increased.

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But Guterres — like the Pacific states — decided not to give up. For his commitment, the 70-year-old received the Charlemagne Prize, one of the most prestigious European awards for political bridge builders.

The strategist from Lisbon

A glance at Guterres’ political milestones are enough to make you think his native Portugal felt too small given the opportunities offered by globalization and multilateralism.

He is regarded as a mastermind of the Lisbon Strategy, which was meant to transform the European Union into the world’s leading economic zone within 10 years. When Portugal held the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first half of 2000, Guterres also oversaw Greece’s admittance to the eurozone, a free trade agreement with Mexico and sanctions against Austria for the allowing the far-right Freedom Party to participate in its government.

Certainly, speaking Spanish, French and English fluently, in addition to Portuguese, helped him on the European stage. While occupying the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, Swiss broadsheet Neue Zürcher Zeitung called Guterres a “pragmatic utopian” — a description that still applies to the do-gooder today.

Even in his time as prime minister of Portugal, the search for balance and dialogue was particularly important for Guterres: When his Socialist Party (PS) narrowly missed out on an absolute majority in 1995, the trained electrical engineer formed a minority government. He maintained useful contacts with all other parliamentary groups and was popular across party lines. During his first term in office, he lost his first wife, Luisa Amelia, to an illness. Guterres remarried in 2001.

In the second term of his minority government, however, he came under increasing pressure due to an unbalanced distribution of EU funds: Large chunks flowed into ambitious projects such as the 2004 European Championship in football at a time when rural infrastructure in the country was crumbling. The collapse of a bridge that left more than 70 dead and the poor PS results in local elections finally spelled the end of the Guterres government in December 2001.

Commissioner and admonisher

At that time, Guterres had already established strong international contacts: He advised then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on social issues in Brazil. Annan then promoted him to one of the most important offices at the UN, the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2005. Under Guterres’ aegis, the UNHCR expanded significantly, with a budget of $6.8 billion (€6.1 billion) and more than 9,000 employees in 123 countries by 2015.

But the global refugee crisis continued to grow, especially in Syria. Guterres was quick to criticize the ignorance of wealthy countries and point out that the UNHCR’s precarious financial situation aggravated the conditions for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. When an especially large number of refugees set off for Europe in 2015, Guterres lamented the “chaotic situation of the international community.”

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But Guterres is not one to just complain from the sidelines. When he did not stand for a third term as UNHCR chief in 2015, rumors swirled that he held ambitions for the UN’s top job. Guterres was initially regarded as an outsider, as many people would have preferred to see the first female UN secretary-general, preferably from Eastern Europe. In the end, however, the experienced Guterres prevailed — with unanimous support from the Security Council. Christiana Figueres, former head of the UN Climate Change Secretariat, said at the time that the fact that no woman had yet become UN chief was “bitter,” but she conceded that Guterres was “by far the best man in the race.”

Guterres, the secretary-general

To date as secretary-general, Guterres has focused on migration and climate change. During the first half of his term of office he managed to reach milestone agreements on refugees and migration that were accepted by the vast majority of UN member states in an age of growing nationalism. Both sets of regulations are intended to improve international cooperation and are not legally binding.

Guterres was someone who early on highlighted the catastrophic plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group who have been heavily persecuted in Myanmar since late 2017 but were long powerless against the violence suffered at the hands of the state. He also managed to bring the warring parties in Yemen to one table. But both crises are still unresolved, as are many other conflicts around the world.

Guterres’ area of work continues to include the implementation of the UN’s 2030 development goals. He also is seeking to reform the way the UN General Secretariat works — it remains to be seen whether he will succeed in making the apparatus more capable of action.

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