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Can a new UN secretary general help solve the global refugee crisis?

Antonio Guterres was the longtime commissioner for the UN's agency on refugees. He'll become top diplomat during a moment of historical crisis for the displaced.

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Current Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon, right, embraces the Secretary-General designate, Antonio Guterres of Portugal, after he spoke during his appointment at U.N. headquarters, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.

Seth Wenig/AP

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Former UN commissioner for refugees Antonio Guterres was elected as the next secretary-general of the United Nations on Wednesday after topping all six of the informal polls performed last week among Security Council members.

Mr. Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister whose 10-year term as refugee commissioner ended at the close of 2015, will begin his new position as the world’s top diplomat on Jan. 1, according to NBC. His arrival coincides with an inflow of refugees into wealthy countries – particularly from Syria into Europe – that has proven deeply unsettling for the politics of would-be receivers, generating animus from nativists and frustration from UN officials and refugee advocates, while some poorer countries are finding themselves overwhelmed with new arrivals.

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“It’s a crisis point,” says Karen Musalo, director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at University of California-Hastings College of the Law.

“I’ve been working on refugee issues for 30 years. I can’t remember a time more dispiriting as now, where in so many regions of the world we see a virtual repudiation” of nations’ obligations under UN conventions and protocols established after World War II, she tells The Christian Science Monitor.

“Having somebody like Guterres as the secretary general just changes the calculus. It puts somebody front and center who deeply cares about this issue.”

Symbolism is a crucial value for the UN. And it’s likely that Mr. Guterres, a onetime engineering professor who first became involved in public life during the 1970s military dictatorship in Portugal, will resort to the bully pulpit more vigorously than his soft-spoken predecessor Ban Ki-moon.

In an analysis for UN Dispatch, journalist and longtime UN-watcher Mark Leon Goldberg wrote of being impressed by Guterres’s unusually frank criticisms of Obama administration officials at an event in Washington dealing with an offer to settle a comparatively small number of Syrian refugees. Guterres, Mr. Goldberg wrote, positioned himself as “the voice of world refugees … a sort of moral center.”

A runaway victor in straw polls, Guterres’s popularity is likely a reflection of his understanding for how the institution works, says T. Alexander Aleinikoff, deputy high commissioner for refugees from 2010 to 2015.

Unlike Mr. Ki-moon before him, Dr. Aleinikoff tells the Monitor, Guterres brings “deep knowledge from the field, a very full view from the ground where refugees are.”

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The question may be whether his stout renderings of rich countries’ obligations will translate into breakthroughs on an ongoing crisis.

James Hathaway, a leading authority on international refugee issues and director of the refugee and asylum law program at the University of Michigan Law School, praises his talents as a manager and negotiator, as well as his poise as a diplomat.

“His staff at the UN refugee agency loved him. That’s important, because a secretary general has to depend on thousands of people to actually get things done,” Dr. Hathaway tells the Monitor.

But Guterres, he adds, was “not an innovative leader in any sense,” missing the opportunity to draw up and sell European leaders on a large-scale resettlement program before incoherent national responses ate into the political viability of such a plan – and shifted the burden onto Syria’s neighbors, where as many as one in five residents are refugees.

“I would’ve hoped for more intellectual courage at a moment when, for the first time, rich countries confronted what poor countries had long confronted,” says Hathaway.