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Can Guterres succeed where Ban Ki-moon didn't? Open in fullscreen

Samir Bennis

Can Guterres succeed where Ban Ki-moon didn't?

Guterres visits Lebanon's Arsal refugee camp as UN High Commissioner for Refugees [AFP]

Date of publication: 18 January, 2017

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Comment: Guterres will be in a better position to give fresh impetus to the UN political process aimed at finding a political solution to the Sahara conflict, writes Samir Bennis

Earlier this month, Portuguese diplomat Antonio Guterres was officially inaugurated as the United Nations Secretary-General.

From the start, Guterres will have to address many pressing issues, chief of which are the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, the worrisome spread of extremist violence and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Added to this are the challenges posed by the long overdue internal reforms to the UN system, and disputes of a lesser intensity such as the Western Sahara.

However, of all these issues, the most pressing is perhaps the refugee crisis, and the massive influx of migrants arriving in Europe.

While Mr. Guterres' predecessor Ban Ki-moon made limited progress in this regard, there is reason to hope that the Portuguese diplomat's presence at the helm of the UN will bring good news for refugees. When Guterres was UN High Commissioner for Refugees, he was a keen advocate of the rights of refugees and migrants.

From the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Guterres sounded the alarm about the worsening situation for Syrian refugees in host countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

He repeatedly urged the European Union and the United States to help these countries cope with the increasing numbers of refugees arriving on their shores.

Guterres is also known for his stances against racism and Islamophobia

In addition, Guterres often reiterated that the Syrian and Iraqi refugees would eventually take the road to Europe if the EU did not provide financial aid to Syria's neighboring countries, and was vocal in calling on rich countries to welcome more refugees.

As a European, he will presumably renew his calls to the European Union and the United States to treat Syrian refugees with humanity, and in compliance with international law.  

Guterres' legacy - a good peacemaker

Guterres left an honorable legacy as head of UNHCR. During his tenure, he improved its performance and ability to respond in a timely manner to crises around the world.

For example, he reduced UNHCR staff based in Geneva by one-third. This reform has improved the UNHCR's capacity to deal with international conflicts through the deployment of more staff in crisis areas. Many came to see him as a champion of refugee and migrant rights around the world.

Guterres is also known for his stances against racism and Islamophobia. Following the Paris and Beirut attacks in November 2015, he said it was "nonsense" to accuse refugees of being involved in acts of terrorism.

He has often stated that "It is not the refugee outflows that cause terrorism, it is terrorism, tyranny and war that create refugees."

Based on his legacy at the UNHCR, Guterres is in a better position to introduce necessary reforms to the United Nations, both in terms of its administrative structure and mode of operation, and its role in maintaining peace and international security.

There is reason to hope that the Portuguese diplomat's presence at the helm of the UN will bring good news for refugees

After Ban Ki-moon's failure to make any real headway on this topic, one of Guterres' first missions will be to reform the Department of Peacekeeping Operations and make it more responsive to the new global challenges.

In the same vein, Guterres should breathe new life into the efforts of more than two decades to reform the Security Council, in such a way that it reflects the new balance of power at the international level and today's geopolitical realities.

Guterres will also have the difficult task of restoring the image of the United Nations in international public opinion. During Ban Ki-moon's tenure, international public opinion, especially in the Arab world, grew tired of seeing the UN chief repeatedly express "his concern" over the conflicts that break out in different parts of the world, without providing realistic solutions to help resolve them. 

Unlike Ban Ki-moon, who was often regarded as lacking charisma, Guterres is an engaging personality. The experience he acquired during his 10 years at the head of UNHCR, and leading the Portuguese government, will set him in good stead to improve the record set by Ban Ki-moon.

Read More: Secretary-General Guterres at the head of an undemocratic institution

Concerning the Western Sahara, the appointment of Mr. Guterres is good news for the parties to the conflict and is likely to breathe new life into the negotiation process and restore trust between the UN Secretariat and Morocco.

Guterres had a cordial relationship with Morocco during his tenure as head of UNHCR, and cooperation between the two sides is stronger than ever before.

Moreover, his thorough knowledge of this ongoing conflict - thanks to the geographical proximity of Morocco and Portugal, and his time as Prime Minister from 1995-2002 - makes him uniquely qualified to instill a positive dynamic going forward.

Mr. Gutteres was at the head of the Portuguese government when negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario Front entered a new phase in 1997 under the leadership of James Baker, the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General in the Sahara from 1997 to 2004.

Algeria will be under more pressure than it was during Ban Ki-moon's tenure to allow the United Nations to conduct a census in the Tindouf camps

The international stature of Guterres and his diplomatic experience will command the respect and consideration of the leaders of influential countries. Guterres will be in a better position to give fresh impetus to the UN political process aimed at finding a political solution to the Sahara conflict.

Thanks to his experience at the UNHCR and personal management of the population of Tindouf, Algeria will be under more pressure than it was during Ban Ki-moon's tenure to allow the United Nations to conduct a census in the Tindouf camps.

Guterres has repeatedly asked the Algerian government to allow the United Nations to conduct the census and to respect its international commitments related to the protection of refugees and stateless persons. 

It is likely that the reports Mr Guterres will submit to the Security Council in the coming years will reflect his knowledge on the matter, and his personal conviction that Algeria must be compelled to respect its international commitments on refugees.

Guterres is responsible for setting the number of Saharawis at Tindouf at 90,000, while Algeria and the Polisario have been claiming that this number amounts to 160,000. Given his in-depth knowledge of the conflict, is it also likely that the diversion of European aid to the Tindouf camps will be among the aspects he will address during his term of office.

Samir Bennis is a political analyst. He received a PhD in international relations from the University of Provence in France and his research areas include relations between Morocco and Spain and between the Muslim world and the West, as well as the global politics of oil.

He has published more than 150 articles in Arabic, French, English and Spanish, and authored Les Relations Politiques, Economiques et Culturelles Entre le Maroc et l’Espagne: 1956-2005, which was published in French in 2008. He is the co-founder of Morocco World News and lives in New York. 

Follow him on Twitter: @SamirBennis

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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