Antonio Guterres, the Man Who May Become the Next UN Secretary-General

The former Portuguese prime minister came out on top in a recent UNSC straw poll, despite there being some groundswell for the next UN chief to meet at least one of two criteria – being an east European or a woman.

Antonio Guterres at an event organised by the Indian Council for World Affairs in New Delhi. Credit: The Wire

Antonio Guterres at an event organised by the Indian Council for World Affairs in New Delhi. Credit: The Wire

New Delhi: Less than 24 hours after coming out on top in the first straw poll among members of the UN Security Council for the job of the next UN secretary general, former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres took off his jacket on a humid day in Delhi and didn’t pull his punches at European leaders for providing grist to the ISIS propaganda mill.

Guterres, who was also UN high commissioner for refugees from 2005 to 2015, is on the campaign trail to drum up support for his candidature for, perhaps, the “most impossible job in the world”. His latest pit stop was New Delhi on Friday, where he met with the external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj.

Sixty-seven-year-old Guterres found himself at the top of the heap among dozen candidates in the first straw poll held among UNSC members on July 21. He received 12 ‘encourage’ votes, three ‘no opinion’ and was the only one with no ‘discourage’ ballots.

Soon after the results, Guterres made his first public appearance at an event at the Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA), a think-tank run by the Ministry of External Affairs. ICWA chair Nalin Surie introduced Guterres as the former Portugese premier and UN high commissioner for refugees, and then added, “if my memory is correct, he is also standing to be the next secretary general of the United Nations”. Guterres looked askance.

“It is a bit sweaty,” he said as he removed his jacket before his speech to an audience of retired Indian diplomats, international relations researchers and other members of Delhi’s diplomatic community.

Over the next 75 minutes or so, Guterres criticised the “schizophrenic” European concern over the “invasion” by Syrian refugees, even as he showered praises on India for “opening its heart”. He answered questions on UNSC reforms, called for legalising migration and spoke about the biblical parable that inspired his bid to become the ninth UN secretary general.

But not once did he allude to the good news from New York.

Front-runner for the UN top job

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said, when approached at the end of his speech for a comment about his pole position among the candidates to succeed Ban Ki-Moon in 2017. Guterres has assiduously kept away from any public commentary, even among the media of his own country, despite being pursued relentlessly since the news leaked about the straw poll results.

Diplomatic sources told The Wire that Guterrres was certainly happy with the result, but unlike other candidates, was determined not to be seen to comment on a result that was only the first roadblock to be cleared on a long and uncertain road ahead.

Guterres had made a strong impression during the open debates, but it was not expected to necessarily translate into popularity among the UNSC members, where support is largely based on the interests of the major powers. There was also a groundswell to ensure that the next UN chief meets at least one of two criteria – being an east European or a woman.

The UNSC straw poll is an example of the traditional opaque way in which only a handful of countries actually have a say in choosing the UN head, even though this year there was an effort to bring some transparency with an open question-and-answer session at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and a televised debate. But the results of the informal poll are not released formally even to the president of the General Assembly.

“This (straw poll) was important, but there is still a long way to go. It does not guarantee winning. This only means that games have only just begun,” said a west European diplomat.

Incidentally, while Guterres had visited all the 15 UNSC member countries, he has only included South Africa and India as the non-UNSC countries for a personal trip, so far.

While the winning candidate has to win the support of the majority of UNSC, a ‘discourage’ vote from any one of the permanent five is an immediate veto. It is not known if any of the P-5 cast Guterres’ two ‘no opinion’ votes. An Iberian diplomat speculated that Russia had indicated that it will back an east European candidate at least in the preliminary straw polls.

When a retired Indian diplomat asked Guterres why he would like to apply for a job that is rather “powerless”, he cited an example from the Bible: “I am Catholic. What I believe is my motivation is a certain story in the gospel called the ‘Parable of the talents’…I feel that it is my obligation to use my abilities to address urgent concerns”.

But, he made it clear that losing the race for the secretary general will not be the end of the world. “If I am not a secretary general, I will have a fantastic life in my country… Now, everyone thinks me to be a fine person. Even those who had been politically opposed to me earlier,” he said with a smile.

During the UNGA informal dialogue in April, Guterres was asked about his plans to reform the UNSC on behalf of the ‘group of four’ – India, Germany, Japan and Brazil. He had given a non-committal answer, noting that it had to be member-driven.

Expanding a bit more on New Delhi’s pet theme, Guterres said on Friday that while the secretary general could “facilitate the debate, the members need to agree or to find a formula for a solution as per the rules”.

“A reform requires vote of two-thirds in general assembly, including from all the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. This would require a lot of capacity to overcome the traditional divide which has not allowed for reform to take place. This will not be easy,” he said.

“I full recognise that this is an important issue. We live in a world which is very different from the post second world war,” Guterres added, using a favourite argument used by India and other G-4 members who are proponents for an early expansion and reforms of the security council.

After UNGA agreed last year to start text-based negotiations, the process has yet to begin since at least two P-5 members are not interested in an expansion in the permanent seat with veto category.

Former New Zealand prime minister and UNDP president Helen Clark, also a contender for the UN top job, had visited India in April. In an interview to BBC, she had described the G-4 as the “obvious candidates” for a reformed security council, which she would like “to look more like the 21st century”. She however came in a rather disappointing fifth in the straw poll.

The Indian connection

Guterres is rather familiar with India, having visited the South Asian giant several times due to his wife’s personal connect. “My wife was born in Goa. Her father was a doctor and the family moved back to Lisbon after it became part of India…But we have been back to visit, to see where she was born, where she was baptised”.

Guterres was generous in his praise for India for hosting refugees of all hues, even though he pointed in the beginning that New Delhi has never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. “They always found in India open borders, open doors and open hearts”.

“The biggest migration has not been from north to south, but south to south. Take the India-Bangladesh migration,” he said.

When pointed out that India had felt abandoned by the international community at the time of its biggest refugee crisis in 1971, Guterres said, “Not only did India not receive support, but was angry with the UNHCR [UN high commissioner for refugees] and apparently misbehaved. It showed that when a country wants, they can do it”.

He was referring to India’s fractious relations with the then UNHCR, which descended into open hostility from New Delhi after Sadruddin Aga Khan travelled to Dhaka in June 1971 and advocated repatriation in a broad framework. Uncertainty over its testy relationship with Delhi had been one of the factors for UNHCR to close down its Indian office for several years from 1975 to 1981.

Guterres also used the India-Bangladesh relation to illustrate another worry – the loophole in the refugee convention in dealing with climate change refugees.

“If climate change is not controlled, Bangladesh will be facing a dramatic erosion in the southern part of the country. This will force displacement 20-30 million people to India,” he warned.

Having no illusions that the international community will agree on a new global convention to cover this area, he said that there was more scope for regional mechanism to deal with this critical issue.

Guterres also contrasted his praise for India with his severe criticism of the European leadership in being short-sighted to the Syrian refugee crisis.

The refugee crisis and terrorism fears

While the refugee protection regime had largely worked during his 10 years, Guterres said that in the “last few months”, there has been a “serious degradation” in the international community’s response.

“When as high commissioner, I used to go in September for General Assembly, I tried for nine years to put refugees on agenda, but it was very difficult.  All of a sudden, when I was New York last year, everybody wanted to discuss refugees”.

The reason was because for the “for the first time, a meaningful number of refugees came as a massive movement into the global north”.

“The global media discovered the problem of refugees. The pope spoke of refugees, president spoke of refugees. And I as poor high commissioner was called for all kind of events to make speeches and interventions”.

He pointed out that while Europe with a population of 500 million received 1 million refugees on its doorstep by boat, Lebanon had a far dire proportion of one refugee for every three Lebanese.

While Germany was welcoming at the beginning, the former Soviet bloc EU members were not amused and started to put in border controls. If Europe had agreed to adopt a system of regulating flow of refugees, Guterres claimed, there could have been a better distribution across the EU countries based on their population and absorption capacity.

Instead, EU members started to panic and put up barriers, the ripples of influence stretched back to mid-east as Turkey also began to control the flow of people on its borders with Syria. “When especially in the global north people start to reject refuges, it has an impact which spreads like a virus”.

He assailed European leaders and US politicians, including US presidential candidate Donald Trump, for announcing that they will not accept Muslim refugees. “That form of discrimination is the best way to support the propaganda for Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic term for the so-called Islamic State.

“Now if you want to be clever terrorist – there could be stupid one too – you will not enter a country as a refugee. To go to a centre for reception (of refugees) means to be screened, fingerprinted, to be included in a system of verification of all kinds of possible things and that data is shared with all countries… In Europe, there are much easier ways to enter European territory than come as refugee.”

Noting that there were more examples of “lone wolves” type terror attack by long-term residents of western nations, Guterres said that they were more a consequence of alienation and lack of integration within their own citizens. “If their name is Mohamed, and they go for job, they are rejected… You need to address those problems in your own countries and not say that stop the refugees and terrorism will be solved.”

Note: The article has been edited to correct the years when the UNHCR office in Delhi was closed. it was from 1975 to 1981 and not till 1988 as originally stated.