The next UN chief: A self-described man of action

Mr Antonio Guterres was the United Nations high commissioner for refugees from 2005 to 2015, and earned a reputation for fighting for migrants' rights while pressing wealthy nations to do more to help them.
Mr Antonio Guterres was the United Nations high commissioner for refugees from 2005 to 2015, and earned a reputation for fighting for migrants' rights while pressing wealthy nations to do more to help them.PHOTO: REUTERS

LISBON • The United Nations' next chief is a self-described man of action who earned his stripes as the world body's refugee champion, tirelessly pressing rich nations to do more.

Former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres, who last Thursday received the unanimous support of the UN Security Council, has been hailed as the best candidate for the challenging job.

The man he succeeds, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, 72, described Mr Guterres as a "super choice".

"I am sure he will carry the torch on the full range of key challenges, from strengthening peace operations to achieving sustainable development, upholding human rights and easing humanitarian suffering," Mr Ban told reporters.

An engineer by training and a fervent Catholic, Mr Guterres, 67, fought unflaggingly for migrants' rights during a decade as UN high commissioner for refugees, from 2005 to 2015.

He repeatedly warned that millions of refugees fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere would turn to Europe if nations such as Turkey and Jordan did not receive more help to cope with their refugee populations.

Wealthy countries had to take in more, he said.

PLAYING INTO THE HANDS OF TERRORISTS

When people say they cannot receive Syrian refugees because they are Muslims, those that say it are supporting terrorist organisations and allowing them to be much more effective in recruiting people.

MR GUTERRES, on wealthy countries needing to take in more refugees.

"When people say they cannot receive Syrian refugees because they are Muslims, those that say it are supporting terrorist organisations and allowing them to be much more effective in recruiting people," he said in December.

Mr Guterres' two terms at the helm of the UN agency were also marked by a reform which boosted the agency's capacity to respond to international crises by deploying more staff closer to hot spots.

Mr Guterres vowed to serve "the most vulnerable" when he takes up UN's top post, such as "the victims of conflict, of terrorism".

Also frequently touted as a possible candidate for the presidency of Portugal, the Socialist Mr Guterres said he declined to run because he would rather "play ball" than be "a referee".

"I like action, being on the ground. I like things that force me to permanently intervene," he said in an interview .

Born in Lisbon in 1949, he joined Portugal's Socialist Party following the country's 1974 Carnation Revolution which put an end to nearly five decades of dictatorship.

Elected a lawmaker in 1976 in Portugal's first democratic election following the revolution, Mr Guterres quickly earned a reputation as a gifted orator. Fluent in English, French and Spanish in addition to Portuguese, he became in 1992 secretary-general of the Socialist Party, in opposition at the time. He led the party to victory in the next general election in 1995, becoming prime minister.

Staunchly pro-European Union, he made meeting the criteria for membership in the euro single currency area a priority.

Mr Guterres resigned after the Socialists took a drubbing in local elections in late 2001. He also abandoned Portuguese politics to focus on a diplomatic career abroad.

A vote by the UN General Assembly's 193 member states to endorse him for a five-year term from Jan 1 is expected this week.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 10, 2016, with the headline 'The next UN chief: A self-described man of action'. Print Edition | Subscribe