Africa Watch: Africa’s high hopes for new UN chief
As the world waits in anticipation for the beginning of a new era in global diplomacy, António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres commences his term as the new Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Diplomats at UN headquarters rushed to congratulate Mr. Guterres, 67, when he was selected out of a pool of 12 candidates vying for the position last October. South Africa’s ambassador, Jerry Matthews Matjila, referred to him as a “friend of Africa.” Others took to social media to congratulate him.
Africa, like the rest of the world, will be watching closely as he turns his attention to issues of global peace and security, humanitarian assistance, climate change and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will drive the global development agenda in the next decade or so.
While his experience with Rwanda, South Sudan and Somalia, among other crisis regions, makes him an apt candidate for what some consider the world’s most important job, the question remains: what does his appointment mean for Africa?
Born in Lisbon in 1949, Mr. Guterres has spent much of his professional life in politics and public service. Before occupying the position of Portugal’s prime minister from 1995 to 2002, he held various posts within the Socialist Party from 1974 to 1995. He served as president of the Socialist International until 2005, when he was elected high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) — head of the UN agency tasked with protecting the rights and well-being of refugees. During that time the number of people displaced by conflict and persecution rose from 38 million in 2005 to over 60 million in 2015.
As high commissioner, Mr. Guterres headed one of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations, which at the end of his term had more than 10,000 staff working in 126 countries, providing protection and assistance to over 60 million refugees, returnees, internally displaced persons and stateless persons.
In his leadership position, he oversaw the most profound structural reform process in UNHCR’s history, increasing the organization’s capacity to respond to some of the largest displacement crises since the end of World War II. The agency’s volume of activities tripled, following the introduction of a need-based budgeting approach.
It was also a time when Africa experienced its own displacement crises, in Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and South Sudan, among other countries.
Under Mr. Guterres’s leadership, UNHCR and its partners assisted thousands of refugees and asylum seekers from these countries by offering them protection and other assistance such as health care, education and vocational training. He mobilized the international community to improve access to shelter, education, health care and other basic needs for returnees.
Africa, therefore, expects the world’s top diplomat to continue being committed to the active protection of people in African regions afflicted by conflict.
On his May 2015 visit to Somalia and Kenya, while serving as chief of UNHCR, Mr. Guterres held a meeting with local officials, refugees and host communities in Dadaab, one of the world’s largest refugee camps.
During this meeting, Mr. Guterres helped broker a repatriation agreement between the two countries that President Uhuru Kenyatta guaranteed would enable voluntary and dignified repatriation of the Somali refugees in Kenya wishing to return to Somalia amid a climate of concerns held by Human Rights Watch and others.
Mr. Guterres has also pledged to protect and empower women and girls as Secretary-General.
In his acceptance speech at the UN General Assembly upon his appointment as Secretary-General, he said, “I have long been aware of the hurdles women face in society, in the family and in the workplace just because of their gender. I have witnessed the violence they are subjected to during conflict, or while fleeing it, just because they are women. I have tried to address this through every public office I have ever held. The protection and the empowerment of women and girls will continue to be a priority commitment for me.”
In light of his track record as prime minister and as head of UNHCR, the expectation in Africa is that he will champion policies that enable people to find solutions to the economic development and political challenges facing the continent.