Antonio Guterres takes over as UN chief at critical juncture (Profile)

New York, Oct 6 (IANS) Antonio Manuel de Oliveira Guterres, the 67-year-old former Prime Minister of Portugal, is the first former head of government to become UN Secretary General.

Guterres, formerly UN High Commissioner for Refugees, will be taking over as the ninth chief of the United Nations at a time when two major powers, the US and Russia, are sharply at odds over the world’s most pressing crisis — Syria — and the world is rocked by terrorism and reeling from the refugee crisis.

Guterres has said that he intends to make preventing crises a priority for the 71-year-old world body.

“We need a surge in diplomacy for peace,” he said, outlining his plan. “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,” he is quoted as saying by The Telegraph.

Guterres is well-liked, with a reputation for being eloquent and outspoken on human rights. He also has a history of challenging powerful countries to do more to help the vulnerable rather than deferring to them, says vox.com.

He has been at the helm of the UN’s refugee organisation at a time when the refugee crisis began to spiral out of control.

As UNHCR chief, Guterres gained reputation for being an effective manager as he cut expenditures on headquarters and staff by about half, while simultaneously growing the organisation’s capacity to handle larger numbers of refugees.

Born in Portugal’s capital Lisbon, the trained engineer who worked as an Assistant Professor before entering politics in 1974, Guterres helped organise the Socialist Party and build democracy in the country after overthrowing the Antonio Salazar regime which used heavy handed censorship and secret police to quell the opposition.

After the Guterres-led Socialist Party won the general elections in 1995, he became Prime Minister, during a time when his country was crippled with heroin addiction.

As Prime Minister, Guterres pushed through an unprecedented law decriminalising the use of all drugs which turned out to be successful as Portugal’s drug addiction rate is five times lower than the European Union average while the number of new HIV infections per year fell by 95 per cent since the decriminalisation came into effect, Vox.com reported.

During his tenure from 1995 to 2002, Guterres developed a sterling reputation among Portuguese politicians. Even his political opponents in Portugal’s centre-right Social Democratic Party respected him.

After his Socialist Party ranked poorly in 2002 elections, he stepped down as PM and entered international politics, leading the Socialist International (a global organisation of Social Democratic parties) for a short while.

In personal life, Guterres is a practising Catholic and remarried after his first wife died of cancer in 1998.

In Guterres’ vision statement in applying for the position of UN’s Secretary General, he wrote of the challenges that the world is facing in terms of rising inequality, terrorism and organised crime, climate change and the proliferation of armed actors internationally.

He wrote that the UN was “uniquely placed to connect the dots to overcome these challenges” but that change and reform was needed.

“People in need of protection are not getting enough. The most vulnerable, such as women and children, are an absolute priority. We must make sure that when someone sees the Blue Flag, she or he can say: ‘I am protected’.”

He will take over as UN chief in January next year.

Describing Guterres as “exceptional”, Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, said: “The best person for the job was selected and it is very good for the world, it is very good for the United Nations, it is very good for Portugal.”

Human Rights Watch’s UN director Louis Charbonneau said Guterres could “strike a radically new tone on human rights at a time of great challenge” but cautioned that he will be judged on his ability to stand up to the veto powers.

There were 10 candidates in the race to become the next UN chief including EU budget commissioner Kristalina Georgieva from Bulgaria who entered the fray just last week.

Georgieva failed to garner crucial support from two of the permanent members, with speculation turning to Russia’s opposition to her candidacy, The Australian reported.

The Secretary General of the UN is appointed in a two-stage process. A candidate is first recommended by the Security Council, and must then be approved by the 193-member General Assembly.

–IANS

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