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Antonio Guterres: From Porutgal PM to UN general-secretary, meet the world's new diplomat-in-chief

A 67-year-old socialist politician from Portugal is the next secretary general of the United Nations, following a decisive vote by the Security Council on Wednesday.

Antonio Guterres, Portugal's former prime minister, previously led the UN's refugee agency for a decade and won backing in the straw poll from 13 of the 15 council members, while none of the five veto-holding powers blocked his candidacy.

"We have a clear favorite and his name is Antonio Guterres," said Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, who emerged from the council chamber, along with the 14 other ambassadors to declare that Guterres was on course to succeed Ban Ki-moon as the world's diplomat-in-chief.

Once the Security Council formally endorses him, Guterres will be presented to the General Assembly for approval. The new UN chief begins his five-year term on 1 January.

Guterres is the first former head of government to become UN chief, a position that has been held by several foreign ministers, most of whom were chosen during closed-door meetings by the Security Council.

Although Guterres has been considered a frontrunner for the post for sometime now, Vox writes that the selection came as "a bit of a surprise" as many UN diplomats and observers believed that "Moscow would only accept a candidate from Eastern Europe". It adds that the socialist leader is "well-liked" with "a history of challenging powerful countries to do more to help the vulnerable rather than deferring to them".

A file photo of Antonio Guterres as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Kenya. AP

A file photo of Antonio Guterres as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Kenya. AP

Who is Guterres?

Born in Lisbon on 30 April, 1949, Guterres joined Portugal's Socialist party following the country's 1974 "Carnation Revolution", which put an end to nearly five decades of dictatorship.

In 1976, he was elected a lawmaker in Portugal's first democratic election, following the revolution. Guterres, an engineer by training, quickly earned a reputation as a gifted orator. In 1992, he became secretary-general of the Socialist party, in opposition at the time. Guterres then led the party to victory in the next general election in 1995, becoming prime minister.

Guterres, who served Portugal as prime minister from 1995 to 2002, is also know as a 'tireless champion' of migrants: A fervent Catholic, he is known to have fought unflaggingly for migrants' rights over a decade as UN High Commissioner for Refugees from June 2005 to December 2015.

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

Wealthy countries had to take in more, he exhorted.

"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 just before he stepped down as UN refugee chief.

Guterres had also been touted to become the president of Portugal but he declined reasoning that he'd 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 with Portuguese public television RTP in January.

Guterres became a widower in 1998. He remarried three years later. He has two children by his first wife.

Guterres is the first former head of government to become UN chief, a position that has been held by several foreign ministers, most of whom were chosen during closed-door meetings by the Security Council

What about his politics?

In 1995, when Guterres became prime minister, Portugal was undergoing rapid economic growth and enjoying nearly full employment, which allowed Guterres to set up a guaranteed minimum income, one of his government's flagship measures.

He is staunchly pro-EU and Guterres made meeting the criteria for membership in the euro single currency area a priority, and Portugal was among the 11 nations that adopted the common currency when it was launched in 1999.

Under his watch, the Socialists were re-elected in 1999, again without an absolute majority in parliament.

As with every politician, he does come with the so-called flaws.

His detractors blame him for contributing to the victory of the "no" side in a 1998 referendum on a proposal to liberalise Portugal's strict law against abortion. Guterres allowed the referendum, but publicly opposed to the abortion law being changed.

File photo of Antonio Guterres with Angelina Jolie in Mafraq, Jordan. AP

File photo of Antonio Guterres with Angelina Jolie in Mafraq, Jordan. AP

Diplomatic efforts

In 1999, when East Timor (a former Portuguese colony) erupted into violence, after the territory voted in a referendum in favour of independence from Indonesia, Guterres led diplomatic efforts to convince the United Nations to intervene to restore peace.

His stewardship of Portugal's turn at the helm of the rotating presidency of the European Union during the first half of 2000 was considered a success.

Lisbon hosted the first EU-Africa summit and the European Commission adopted the so-called Lisbon Agenda which aimed to make the EU the "most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy" by 2010.

His popularity in Portugal, however, waned during this time as the economy slowed.

Guterres resigned after the Socialists took a drubbing in local election at the end of 2001, saying he wanted to prevent the country from falling into a "political swamp".

He also abandoned Portuguese politics to focus on a diplomatic career abroad.


India has welcomed the selection of Guterres as the next UN Secretary General. "Congratulations & Best wishes. India welcomes Antonio Manuel de Olivera Guterres as next Secretary General of @UN," India's Ambassador to the UN Syed Akbaruddin tweeted.

France's Ambassador Francois Delattre said the choice of Guterres — who speaks French, English and Spanish as well as Portuguese — was "good news for the United Nations", while British envoy Matthew Rycroft said he will make a "very strong, effective secretary-general".

US Ambassador Samantha Power described Guterres' experience and vision as "compelling" and stressed the need for an effective leader at the UN helm during a time of multiple global crises.

Describing Guterres as "exceptional," Portugal's President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said the result was "very good for the world, it is very good for the United Nations, it is very good for Portugal."

Human Rights Watch's UN director Louis Charbonneau said Guterres could "strike a radically new tone on human rights at a time of great challenge," but cautioned that he will be judged on his ability to stand up to the veto powers.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Oct 06, 2016 12:42 PM

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