Guterres wants to build bridges in UN job

By Edith M Lederer in New York

Former Portuguese PM says he wants to ‘pay back the talents that I received’.
Antonio Guterres served for 10 years as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Picture / AP
Antonio Guterres served for 10 years as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Picture / AP

Portugal's former Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, who is virtually certain to be the next United Nations secretary-general, says he wants to be "an honest broker, a bridge-builder and someone who tries to create conditions for consensus".

The veteran politician and diplomat, who won unanimous backing from the UN Security Council yesterday, said in an interview with the Associated Press and two other news organisations during his campaign that if he got the job his aim would be to work with all countries to help solve the myriad problems on the global agenda.

The Security Council was scheduled to meet behind closed doors overnight for a formal vote on Guterres' candidacy. Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the current council president, expressed hope that the council will recommend Guterres by "acclamation" to the 193-member General Assembly, which must approve a successor to Ban Ki Moon, whose second five-year term ends on December 31.

Guterres topped all six informal polls in the council after receiving high marks from almost every diplomat for his performance in the first-ever question-and-answer sessions for candidates in the General Assembly. He was the only candidate of the 10 in the race to receive no "discourage" votes in yesterday's poll, which was the first to use coloured ballots to distinguish the votes of the five veto-wielding permanent members - the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France.

The result disappointed campaigners for a woman or East European to be the world's top diplomat for the first time.

Guterres will almost certainly select a woman as deputy secretary-general and he said in the interview that one of the things that is "crucial" at the male-dominated UN is "to have gender parity". He said that his 10 years as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which ended in December, were "excellent preparation" for a secretary-general who needs to be an honest broker and be seen by countries as independent in order to promote consensus and overcome crises.

"I think we are living in a world where we see a multiplication of new conflicts, and you see an enormous difficulty in solving the conflicts," Guterres said. "There is a clear lack of capacity in the international community to prevent and to solve conflicts."

What's needed, he said, is a new "diplomacy for peace" which requires discreet diplomatic contacts and shuttling among key players in conflicts and disputes. The secretary-general should also engage as much as possible and "act with humility to try to create the conditions for member states that are the crucial actors in any process to be able to come together and overcome their differences", he said.

Guterres said the simple answer to why he wants to be secretary-general can be found in The Parable of The Talents from the New Testament, which has been the central thing in his life.

"I think that one in life receives a lot of gifts, and one has the responsibility to pay back, no? And to multiply the gifts that were received," he said.

Guterres received a very good education and said he dreamed of being a researcher in physics, and became an assistant physics professor. But he also got involved with a group of students and volunteered in the slums of Lisbon and saw tremendous social problems in the last years of Antonio Salazar's four-decade dictatorship in Portugal, which ended in 1974.

"That made me rethink my life," Guterres said. "Now, again, because of The Parable of The Talents, where can I pay back better?"

He left physics, which he said "still remains the most important intellectual passion of my life", and became totally involved in the revolution, where he was in charge of organising the centre-left Socialist Party. He became party leader and in 1995, at age 45, when the party won the election he became Prime Minister, a post he held for 10 years.

Guterres said he decided to leave political life because "if you really want to do things, there is a moment in which you discover that it's probably better to let others do it".

He was still president of the Socialist International but he said he really wanted to do humanitarian work at the global level, so he applied to be the UN refugee chief and got the job.

The 10 years as high commissioner were "the most remarkable experience you can imagine", he said. "It's the most fascinating work you can have, very demanding ... and I gained a lot of experience in dealing with all crises and all governments" involved in crises everywhere.

After his term ended, Guterres said, he felt an obligation to do something "having had this dramatic experience of dealing with people that are suffering enormously" as refugees and having no solution to their plight.

He said the place where he could probably contribute the most to solve that problem and other global crises was at the UN so he decided to apply to be secretary-general.

"If I get it," Guterres said, "I will do my best to be useful and to pay back the talents that I received."

- AP

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