'Talking jackhammer’ Guterres goes from refugee chief to UN secretary-general

Kena Betancur, AFP | Antonio Guterres speaks to reporters at the UN headquarters in New York, on April 12, 2016

Antonio Guterres of Portugal was sworn in on Monday as the secretary-general of the United Nations, where he will face challenges from the US and Russia on migration.


The 15 members of the UN Security Council unanimously nominated Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal and head of the UN's refugee commission, during a closed-door session in October.

His election was a compromise: Guterres was successfully nominated in part because he was one of the few candidates that Russia and the United States agreed on.

But will this devoted Catholic and Socialist be able to bring Europe together to make progress on the migrant crisis?

The ‘talking jackhammer’

Guterres' political career began when he was elected as a Socialist member of Parliament in 1976, just two years after Portugal’s democratic revolution. He earned the nickname “the talking jackhammer” for his strong speaking style. He became prime minister when the Socialists gained power in 1995.

Critics say he blocked reforms of Portugal’s strict anti-abortion laws in 1998. But he is more positively remembered for overseeing the transition to the eurozone in 1999, and for his leadership during Portugal’s turn in the rotating presidency of the European Union in 2000.

He resigned in 2001 as the Socialists fell out of favor.

Putting the UNHCR on the world stage

During his 10 years as head of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Guterres brought a new visibility and effectiveness to the organisation, says Brad Blitz, professor of international politics at Middlesex University in England.

“Guterres put UNHCR back on the world stage and streamlined protection to include groups [that were] previously neglected, like stateless people,” Blitz told FRANCE 24.

In response to the biggest migrant crisis Europe has experienced since World War II, Guterres pressured the EU to develop a unified policy, and criticised the EU-Turkey migrant deportation deal.

“This is a completely manageable crisis if the European countries get together to guarantee the conditions of reception” for migrants, Guterres told FRANCE 24 in October.

“If you compare the effort that the EU is making to the efforts of Lebanon or Jordan or Turkey, you have to recognise that we’re not asking Europe to do something enormous,” he said in 2015.

Streamlining or mismanagement?

Supporters say that Guterres oversaw important structural changes at the UNHCR: He improved the agency’s information-gathering capabilities and ramped up its use of statistics.

Guterres also streamlined his agency. Alexandra Carreira, a communication advisor to the Portuguese government, wrote in the Huffington Post that he reduced office costs by 6 percent and personnel costs by 19 percent, while making the UNHCR more responsive and mobile.

Critics of Guterres argue that he is a poor manager, citing a 2016 internal UN audit that found there were “unsatisfactory” controls of funding to UNHCR partners. However, out of dozens of other internal audits from Guterres’ years at the UNHCR, most were marked “partially satisfactory”.

Finding consensus for refugees

Guterres may have been able to bring the US and Russia together for his nomination, but Blitz pointed out that standing up to the superpowers on the refugee issue may be Guterres’ biggest challenge as secretary-general.

“I hope he will press the big states like the US and Russia, to whom he used to have to go cap-in-hand,” Blitz told FRANCE 24. “But he may have to continue using the offices of the UN agencies to advocate the case of refugees.”

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