The New UN Secretary-General Is a Portuguese Socialist Who Speaks Out for Refugees

António Guterres isn’t perfect, but he’s been a consistent voice for multiculturalism in an increasingly right-wing world.

Marc Daalder

António Guterres, during a press conference in 2013 discussing Syrian refugee children. (UN Geneva / Photo by Jean-Marc Ferré / Flickr)

On January 1, as revelers worldwide welcomed the end of a disastrous 2016, the United Nations swore in its new Secretary-General. António Guterres, a Portuguese politician and diplomat who has occupied major positions in his country’s government, in the UN and in the Socialist International, began his five-year term with a commitment to multiculturalism and humanitarianism in the face of a global rise of right-wing nationalist movements.

Guterres also worked to achieve gender parity within the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

In an Oct. 13, 2016, statement, he declared his belief that diversity in all its forms is a tremendous asset, and not a threat; that in societies that are more and more multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious, diversity can bring us together, not drive us apart..”

Guterres is exactly the sort of Secretary-General that the United Nations — and the world — needs today.

He began his political career as a fast-rising star in the Portuguese Socialist Party shortly after the Carnation Revolution unseated Portugal’s 41-year fascist dictatorship in 1974. In the late 1970s, he worked in the Office of the Secretary of State of Industry, negotiating the entrance of Portugal into the European Community (which would later become the European Union).

By 1988, Guterres was the leader of the Socialists in Parliament, in opposition to the neoliberal Social Democratic Party. Three years later, he helped found the Portuguese Refugee Council, which serves as a national partner to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees — this was an early indicator of his later path in life as a refugee advocate.

Finally, after the Social Democrats routed the Socialists yet again, Guterres became head of the Socialist Party in 1992, and led it to victory in the 1995 elections. As prime minister, he worked hard to finalize Portugal’s decolonization, relinquishing Macau to China in 1999 and campaigning for UN peacekeeping protection for the former colony of East Timor as it rejected a 24-year Western-backed Indonesian occupation. He also successfully pushed for the decriminalization of drug use in 2001.

This doesn’t mean his tenure was perfect. Despite its name, the Portuguese Socialist Party is in truth closer to the center, and as its head Guterres oversaw the increased privatization of industry. He did attempt to democratize this process, however, giving more shares to more people in major industrial and media companies.

He also proved flawed on abortion and LGBT rights. On the former, Guterres opposed the liberalization of Portugal’s draconian abortion laws in 1998 — which only permitted abortions in cases of rape, threats to the woman’s health, or malformations of the fetus — going against the majority of his party. He ultimately led the No campaign to a referendum victory, in a defeat for reproductive rights advocates across the country. Not until 2007, under a different Socialist Party leader, were the laws liberalized.

On the latter, Guterres said in 1995 that he did not like homosexuality.” He did, however, preside over the legalization of same-sex civil unions a few years later.

Also during his time as Prime Minister, Guterres became the President of the Socialist International, which he led until 2005.

After an economic downturn led to losses for the Socialist Party in local elections in the early 2000s, Guterres resigned from office, and turned instead to diplomacy. It was here he began the work that would lead him to head the United Nations.

In 2005, Guterres was elected as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations’ premier refugee agency. His most significant act was to overhaul the agency’s bureaucracy, slashing budgets in the Geneva headquarters to free up more resources to deploy in the field. He also worked to achieve gender parity within the organization, bringing the percentage of women in UNHCR senior positions to 42 percent from less than 30 percent. On his Senior Management Committee of 20, by the end of his tenure, ten members were women.

The first external focuses of his tenure were the Iraqi refugee crisis and a number of crises in Central Africa, which he described as underreported and underrepresented in Western media coverage. When announcing Guterres’ later appointment as UN Secretary General, current UN head Ban Ki-moon said that Guterres is best known where it counts most, on the front lines of armed conflict and humanitarian suffering.”

In 2010, Guterres was re-elected for another five-year term, and in 2015 he was appointed for an additional six months. Thus, he was also the head of the UNHCR during the Syrian refugee crisis, the largest since the Second World War. More than 6 million Syrians are internally displaced, and more than 4 million are refugees outside Syrian borders.

Guterres worked hard to secure aid for these refugees, most notably launching UNHCR’s largest ever aid drive to raise $5 billion for Syrians.

What he is most noted for, however, is his tireless effort to push Western and particularly European countries to accept more refugees. Guterres repeatedly admonished these nations for not making enough of an effort to raise money and admit refugees. Lebanon and Jordan, he said, were bearing the brunt of the crisis while the Europeans dithered and debated the supposed dangers to their national cultures if too many Syrians were to enter their countries.

In April 2015, Guterres wrote in Time that it’s time for Europeans to abandon the delusion that we can isolate ourselves from this crisis. Our region is living through the greatest humanitarian disaster since World War II, but our response is lagging far behind. It’s time to shift gears.”

He called not just for more humane treatment of more refugees, but also for an active and explicit embrace of multiculturalism. He sees a rising trend of xenophobic nationalism as a threat to the safety and comfort of refugees as well as to the fabric of European society.

At the National Press Club on Oct. 27, 2015, Guterres said that Europeans have a sense of false identity related to a reality that is no longer possible. … Diversity is the essence of society. All societies are becoming multicultural … and that is a good thing.”

This is essential, especially in light of a worldwide rise of right-wing movements that view diversity as undesirable at best, and as white genocide” at worst.

That the new Secretary-General of the United Nations is so outspoken in favor of a worldview that rejects the isolationism and xenophobia of the Right is one of the few things progressives can be thankful for in the years to come. Seeing as Guterres’ first term will coincide with Trump’s first term and elections across Europe, we must work to encourage him to speak out in favor of multiculturalism domestically and humanitarianism internationally, no matter the forces that stand against him.

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Marc Daalder is a journalist based in Detroit, Michigan and Wellington, NZ who writes on politics, public housing, and international relations. Twitter: @marcdaalder.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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