Mark Garten

World News


António Guterres and the Expectations Game

Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of United Nations, once said: “More than ever before in human history, we share a common destiny. We can master it only if we face it together. And that, my friends, is why we have the United Nations.”

However, a realistic look clarifies that the international political arena today is more involved in conflict and regional and international competitions. Meanwhile, the UN Secretary General is an authority who the public expects to do something to strengthen international peace and security. Antonio Guterres, the current UN secretary general, and his deputy, ban Ki-Moon, are now expected to do so. Guterres is a 67-year old man who is experienced as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Therefore, his selection was a positive choice, especially at a time when the Syrian crisis has become the most important international challenge. Will Guterres be able to play an active role in settling international conflicts, especially the Syrian crisis?

Stelios Kouloglou, a member of the European Parliament and a member of Syriza party in Greece, in an interview with International Policy Digest said: “Mr. Guterres is a great choice for this position. I am not sure he can change the current status quo in Syria or push for a ceasefire, as this largely depends on a compromise between all involving parts. Nonetheless, he can certainly mediate to that end, and bring them all to the negotiation table to reach a solution with strict deadlines. Mr. Guterres should call on all actors to find a solution in Syria and put an end to this expansive bloodshed. As far as I know, he has the will and commitment to do so, though, as I told you before, it is a multidimensional and extremely complicated situation.”

However, Heinz Bierbaum, a German politician, a member of the European Parliament and former deputy chairman of Left Party (Die Linke) has a more optimistic view. He said: “Yes, I think he is the right person to face the hard challenges ahead of us, in particular the very difficult situation in the Middle East and the refugee question. His experiences with the United Nations regarding especially refugees are certainly very useful. On the other hand his possibilities to act are limited. Therefore I’m still a little bit skeptical if he will be able to change the current situation really. I’m convinced that Mr. Guterres will play a positive role for solving the Syria crisis. Unfortunately the United Nations didn’t play a decisive role in this conflict. In my opinion he should contribute to encourage negotiations between all the concerned parties. He could perhaps act as a mediator in particular concerning the USA and Russia.”

In the middle of the Syrian crisis, many governments, including Iran, have accused Saudi Arabia of human rights violations in its own country against Shiites and against the people of Yemen during the air strikes against Houthi. The Yemen crisis and the approach against Saudi Arabia can be a new challenge for the new UN secretary general, especially now that many observers accuse Ban Ki-Moon, the former UN secretary general, of passivity toward Saudi Arabia.

Liliana Rodrigues, a member the European Parliament and a member of the socialist party of Portugal, told International Policy Digest: “Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world and it is also one of the countries devastated by violence and war. More than 6,800 people have been killed and 35,000 injured since March 2015. 3.1 million Yemenis are internally displaced, while 14 million people are suffering from food insecurity and 370,000 children under the age of five are at risk of starving to death. More than 1,900 of the country’s 3,500 health facilities are also currently either not functioning or partially functioning, leaving half the population without adequate healthcare. I do not know if the influence of Guterres in this matter will be as fast as I wish, but I know that this situation cannot be maintained. António Guterres is a great man, but he is not a superman.”

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pictured with his successor, António Guterres. (Evan Schneider)
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pictured with his successor, António Guterres. (Evan Schneider)

Heinz Bierbaum in criticizing the approach of Saudi Arabia toward the Yemen crisis said: “I hope that the new General Secretary will take a more critical stance on the politics of Saudi Arabia. The role of Saudi Arabia should be more criticized concerning foreign policy and home affairs as well. We – DIE LINKE – are criticizing the stance of our government regarding Saudi Arabia.”

Regional crises, namely the crisis in Yemen and Syria, cannot be dealt with without considering the origin of these problems like the crisis between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the two regional rivals, Shiite and Sunni. Will Antonio Guterres be able to help improve the relationship between the two countries and solve the disputes between them?

Stelios Kouloglou is an optimist and said: “Mr. Guterres will emphasize on all regions and conflicts in an equal and fair manner, respecting the universal chart of human rights and implementing the international law when necessary. His diplomatic capacity should also play a positive role.”

Liliana Rodrigues has similar opinion and explained: “Today, 25 October 2016, we will vote a resolution about the agreement between Iran and the European Union in the European Parliament. That is, slowly relations between Europe, the West and the Arab world are evolving. We all have a deep hope that this dialogue will enable an opening in the human rights field. We must be optimistic. Responding directly to your question: yes. I have this deep hope that there is a positive development in relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia which reflects some progress in human rights. If I lose this hope then the political work no longer makes sense. What is politics if it not helps to improve people lives?”

Along with the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia at the level of regional powers, Russia is considered as an international power, especially regarding the Syrian crisis, in which it is an important player. In addition to increased Russian influence in the Middle East, it has a serious disagreement with the European Union and America about Ukraine and Crimea and these inevitably are the challenges ahead of the UN Secretary General regarding how to establish a rapport between Russia and the West.

Kouloglou believes that Mr. Guterres should foster dialogue with Russia but also between Ukraine and Russia and said: “However, what the EU and Russia need to understand is that they need to co-exist and respect each other’s interest. This also applies in the Ukrainian crisis.”

Mr. Bierbaum believes that the involvement of Russia in international negotiations is decisive for a new approach of a policy of détente and added: “ I hope that Mr. Guterres will act in this direction. But his role is not so important that his election is seen as bad news for the US and NATO. On the contrary they will intend to influence him and I hope he will resist.”

Mrs. Rodrigues explained that Europe has no enemies and said to International Policy Digest: “We have partners. Russia is one of them. And it has had an important role on the Syria war. This is my opinion, is very personal and is not binding any party. Above all, it takes good judgment. We should not turn our backs to a country as important as Russia. Likewise, it would never have in mind the hypothesis of antagonizing the US and NATO. As a member of the NATO delegation of the European Parliament I believe there is a crucial role for this institution in the world. In this respect, I don’t know and I can’t tell you about what the UN Secretary General is thinking. But I know that he a man of sense. And nobody, but nobody, should be left behind.”

Another serious crisis in the Middle East that has remained unsolved for several decades is the Israel-Palestine conflict. Not only the United Nations, but also the United States couldn’t help make progress in the dead-ended negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Therefore, expectations for the new UN Secretary General in this regard are high.

Liliana Rodrigues believes that the success of António Guterres will be the success of all of us and said: “His diplomatic skills will surprise us all. In the case of Israel and Palestine it is not enough to have intermediate diplomacy even from the UN. It depends on the willingness of both parties. And here we are, all together, to help build peace.”

Mr. Kouloglou believes that given his pacifist mentality, Mr. Guterres could be a strong asset for both the Palestinians and the Israelis and added: “Above all lies the will of both sides to reach a definite, mutually acceptable and comprehensive agreement.”

Beyond playing the role of UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres was a member of Portugal Socialist Party. Is it possible to find a relationship between his socialist thoughts and his effort to promote international peace and security?

Liliana Rodrigues who is from the Socialist Party of Portugal believes Socialism and Democracy are a way of life. “I believe in the pillars of democracy and in the idea of Republic: justice, sovereignty and representation. And we represent those who trust in this ideological vision. We need men and women who share more humanism and more love to others. We already have too many who love money. We need more justice and less ratings. We cannot afford to strip ourselves of our history, which contributed to build us as people. With António Guterres the same will happen. I usually ask my philosophy students if they had taken a Civil Engineering course instead of a Philosophy course if they would be different persons? I think the answer is ‘yes.’ We are what we build inside us and through education.”