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Election of New United Nations Secretary General Signals Focus on Refugees

Election of New United Nations Secretary General Signals Focus on Refugees

The United Nations General Assembly voted by acclamation on October 13 to approve incoming Secretary General Antonio Guterres, following his unanimous approval by members of the Security Council on October 5. Guterres previously served as Prime Minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002, and for the last decade, he has served as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Before entering Portuguese politics, Guterres studied theoretical physics and worked in academia.

Although many global leaders have hailed Guterres as uniquely qualified for the position, others had hoped that the UN would elect its first woman as Secretary General in this election. Still, Guterres has made gender parity in high-level UN posts a priority and is expected to appoint a woman as his Deputy Secretary General. He will succeed current Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the beginning of 2017.

Guterres served as the UN High Commissioner on Refugees at a time of unprecedented forced migration throughout the world. By the end of his term in 2015, an average of 42,500 people fled their homes every day. Faced with a crisis of such tragic scope, Guterres grew the agency’s budget significantly and spread more staff into field offices, rather than stationed at headquarters in Geneva.

Guterres’ unanimous approval by the Security Council members was a heartening show of unity among nations that have struggled to work together to address pressing conflicts. A Russian veto killed a recent attempt to pass a resolution calling for a cessation of air bombardments in Syria. This measure would have provided an opportunity for desperately needed humanitarian aid to reach the battered Syrian population. The successful vote to approve Guterres provided US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Powers with hope that the Security Council may yet be able to take decisive action on Syria.

As the conflict in Syria and the resulting global refugee crisis reach a fever pitch, acting to address these crises will be a major priority for Guterres and the UN in the coming year. He has been outspoken in his calls for Europe to resettle more refugees and to manage refugee arrivals humanely. While brokering a peace deal in Syria seems like a tall order, providing immediate humanitarian relief is a pressing necessity. Any further agreement on Syria will be a major test of Guterres’ reputation as a deal-maker.

For more information and to take action on Syria and the refugee crisis, visit our international issues and refugees pages. 

Shelby Friedman is a 2016-2017 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant. Shelby is from Dallas, TX, where she is a member of Temple Emanu-El. She graduated from Middlebury College. 

Shelby Friedman

Published: 11/03/2016