Why the new UN head faces high expectations on refugee crisis

António Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal who served as UN High Commissioner for Refugees for a decade, will most likely secure a formal vote Thursday from the 15-member Security Council.  

Denis Balibouse/ Reuters/ File
Antonio Guterres, then the High Commissioner for Refugees, pauses during a news conference for the launch of the Global Humanitarian Appeal 2016 at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland on December 7, 2015.

Faced with the worst refugee crisis since World War II, when the United Nations was founded, the UN is widely expected to select a new Secretary General whose résumé and rhetoric appreciate the interests of individual countries while prioritizing displaced people. 

António Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal who served as UN High Commissioner for Refugees for a decade until last December, has emerged as a favored candidate and will most likely secure a formal vote Thursday from the 15-member Security Council behind closed doors. 

Ambassador Vitaly Churkin of Russia, the current council president, stood alongside his 14 colleagues Wednesday as he offered his congratulations.

"We wish Mr. Guterres well in discharging his duties as the Secretary-General of the United Nations for the next five years," Mr. Churkin told reporters.

If, as expected, at least nine council members vote in favor of Guterres and none of the five countries with veto power object, then Guterres will be presented to the 193-member General Assembly, which must pick a successor for Ban Ki-moon, whose second five-year term concludes at the end of the year.

Mark Leon Goldberg, the managing editor of UN Dispatch, noted that Guterres has support from non-governmental organizations and served successfully as high commissioner on refugees during Republican and Democratic administrations in the United States.

"This is key, because the USA is the single largest funder of the UN Refugee Agency, and accordingly holds a great deal of influence over who leads the agency," Mr. Goldberg wrote.

But the new job means Guterres must not settle for satisfying world politicians, said Louis Charbonneau, the UN director for Human Rights Watch.

"Ultimately, the next UN secretary-general will be judged on his ability to stand up to the very powers that just selected him, whether on Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, the refugee crisis, climate change or any other problem that comes his way," Mr. Charbonneau said, according to Reuters.

The New York Times Editorial Board called Guterres "an excellent choice," lauding his "experience, energy and diplomatic finesse" as tools the UN needs to confront rising international tensions and the flow of displaced people.

"As the refugee crisis has worsened, it has generated a nationalistic backlash in Europe and the United States," the board wrote. "Mr. Guterres's understanding of the problem and his passionate advocacy for just and compassionate solutions could persuade governments to keep accepting refugees, rather than shut them out."

But it will be a hard sell, as governments worldwide deal with political backlash against refugees and migrants, as The Christian Science Monitor's Howard LaFranchi reported last month:

The European Union’s agreement with Turkey, whereby most asylum seekers in Europe would be returned to Turkey, appears to be unraveling. The EU is holding conversations with refugee-sending countries like Sudan and Eritrea about financing detention facilities in those countries for would-be refugees. Australia has faced searing international criticism for housing asylum-seekers on inhospitable islands.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta persists in his pledge to close Dabaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, by the end of the year. If carried out, the camp closing would send 260,000 Somalis back to their unstable and violence-torn homeland. And even Jordan, which normally receives kudos for accepting more than 1 million Syrian refugees, recently closed its border with Syria over security concerns – trapping 75,000 Syrians in the desert.

With such actions on the rise, world leaders must move beyond hopeful pledges to recommitting to international standards on treatment of refugees, human rights activists say.

Last year alone, more than a million people made their way into Europe, seeking freedom from civil war or corrupt governments, or better economic conditions. Although many countries were welcoming at first, coping with the influx has proved daunting, and faced stern resistance.

Guterres, who spoke in English, French, and Spanish during his two-hour town hall meeting with the General Assembly last April, said he wants to be secretary general because "the best place to address the root cause of human suffering is at the center of the UN system."

Six of the other candidates for secretary general were women, as groups pushed for the first female head in the male-dominated body. Guterres pledged earlier this year to present a plan to pursue gender parity if elected.

Material from Reuters and the Associated Press was used in this report.

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