Interview with UN's Secretary-General: Guterres' Pendulum

The new Secretary-General of the United Nations in an interview with DN/JN - English version

As of Sunday, the office with a view over New York City, at the UN headquarters, belongs to António Guterres. On the day this exclusive interview took place, he"d settled in a room of a secondary building, with shuttered blinds, for security reasons. Despite his infernal schedule, Guterres never showed any signs of weariness or impatience, as if his is not "the most difficult job in the world", in the words of his predecessor, Ban Ki-Moon.

He's the ninth man to be chosen for this post since the United Nations Organization was created, in 1945, and although we can no longer perceive him as «our» António Guterres - that Portuguese man of rural origins but cosmopolitan by choice -, he is still the man who, a day after resigning as Portugal's Prime Minister, was tutoring Math to pupils in run-down districts. He never loses the sense of public service, of duty, of paying attention to those around him. In his hands, power serves only to change the world for the better.

This is an English adaptation of the original Portuguese interview that can be read here

Having addressed numerous times your view of the programming guidelines for the position of the UN Secretary-General, you still delivered a surprising speech, at the reception the Portuguese President threw at the United Nations headquarters on December 12. You thanked Portugal for what this country gave you, underlining the values of "solidarity", "tolerance" and "dialogue", all of them so sensitive nowadays, especially in the USA.

What I said has nothing to do with the United States and everything to do with Portugal. The tolerance and the understanding of diversity as a source of wealth and not as a threat, the fact that societies today are or tend to be multi-ethnic, multireligious and multicultural are assets that require an investment so that things may go well, so that there is social cohesion, without clashes. Unfortunately, that investment has not always been done. Many situations, in Europe, are proof of that. The policies of reception and integration of immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s were very deficient in several European countries and they are now paying the price for it. There must be a political, economic, social and cultural investment to ensure that everyone feels their identities respected, that they are part of the community, that there is a stronger cement than that of the identities of origin.

Do you think Portugal assumed a different attitude in those years?

Portugal does not have the resources other countries do, and, as a country, we have many imperfections and the attention paid to the integration of immigrant communities was belated. But Portugal is a country where populism does not bring votes in, especially the xenophobic populism, and there is not one political force that has made use of the immigration issues with that purpose. And that is, in the European framework, of extremely major significance. As a Portuguese citizen, that gives me a great sense of pride, even more so because I have lived and embraced, for ten years, the cause of the refugees. Almost throughout the entire period that I was high-commissioner, what I witnessed was open-border policies and overall respect for the refugee protection regime. There were few refoulement cases - that's the technical term for returning a refugee to a place where he or she may again be persecuted. After leaving the UNHCR, in 2016, I have observed a growing number of closed borders, rejection of refugee applications, greater reluctance towards integration policies, and it's happening almost everywhere.

And there's also the use of that situation as an electoral tool, with great impact on the electorate?

Precisely. Europe was unable to manage the refugee crisis. One million people arrived in a continent that, in the European Union alone, has more than 500 million citizens. That would be two people for each thousand, whereas in Lebanon there's a refugee for each three Lebanese. With adequate reception, triage, registration, safety notifications and a proportional distribution by airplane per European country, 20 to 30 thousand people would have arrived in Portugal, and that would have been manageable. If Europe had assumed itself as Europe, as a whole, instead of each country for itself, there wouldn't have been any major dramas. But what happened was chaotic, uncontrolled, a throng of people crossing border after border under extremely precarious conditions. Watching their television sets, people got under the impression that "We're being invaded!" The job was made easier for those that exploit people's fears and anxieties, in terms of political populism.

You also thanked Portugal, in that same speech, for the support to your candidacy.

It was the least I could do, to express my gratitude to my country and its sovereign bodies, to the government that put my name forward, to the President of the Republic that was so enthusiastic, to the political parties - both those in the government and in the opposition -, to the Parliament, to the civil society and to so many anonymous people whose enthusiasm with my candidacy and with the results of this UN election was so overwhelming. I was obliged to say how proud I am to come from a country that is capable of setting such an example of union. Not every candidate was so lucky - some came from divided countries and there was even one country with two candidates. And, at the same time, I wanted to talk about the pride I feel for the fact that Portugal continues to embody the values which have been crucial to my work at UNHCR.

Values which are in stark contrast with the atmosphere surrounding the USA's president-elect and his whole campaign.

It makes little sense to isolate the United States - this is an overall climate. Globalization and technological progress have had outstanding results on global economic growth, and even on poverty reduction. Absolute poverty was reduced worldwide, with a decisive contribution from China. Social indicators, such as infant mortality, have improved globally. At the same time, inequality has increased, which make social exclusion even more unbearable. Globalization have had its losers. In the developed countries, in North America and Europe, there are industrial areas where a large number of jobs disappeared and there are entire generations left vulnerable, with difficulty in adapting to jobs created by new technologies. These people have developed a progressive rejection of political systems they believe have not cared for them and that the politicians only want to conquer and stay in power. Thus, they tend to vote against status quo. European governments are losing referendums, reflecting not so much the nature of the questions asked but a malaise regarding how they have been governed. What happened in the USA has a lot to do with this: people were tired of "more-of-the same" and wanted something different.

Everything you did, throughout your life, seems to have been in preparation for the position you're about to hold. Everything fits together in a kind of construction that places you, in the words of ambassador Samantha Power, as the ideal man for this particular moment.

I'm not sure that I am, apart from anything else because the difficulties are huge. Until very late in the process, I never thought I could be secretary-general of the United Nations. In the logic of the regional rotation that was largely mentioned, the post should not be attributed to Portugal but to Eastern Europe, a group of countries that has no geopolitical consistency nowadays but that, bureaucratically, still exists in the United Nations geographical division for the allocation of places. By the end of my term of office at UNHCR, I felt increasingly frustrated for not being able to solve the problems of people living in the most desperate situations who still give you extraordinary lessons of resistance, courage, hope in the future. I realized the solution had to be political and that it was up to the United Nations to do more. But that doesn't concern only the secretary-general but also, above all, the member-states and the way in which they are organized and how they could relate to each other. I felt a great urge to try and do something, instead of spending the next few years leading a more quiet life. When the Portuguese government received a letter with the invitation to submit applications, there were no strict conditions, so I thought I could apply. That it was an open-ended, interactive process was a great help.

That urge is, with the necessary adaptations, the same one you've had since you were young, when you headed CASU?

They're different things. There's a kind of a reciprocating motion, like a pendulum's. When I was a young student, I wanted to be a research scientist in Physics. I loved it. I went to Instituto Superior Técnico, which had the best Physics teaching in Portugal. I even came to be a teaching assistant and taught theory classes.

Do you still follow such matters?

I read what comes out in popular science publications, because there's been a colossal evolution since then and the level of detail and complexity is huge. It's an intellectual seduction that I will never forget. I got involved in social work in the slums of Lisbon and I was shocked. I had felt poverty before, the poverty of the Portuguese Beira region - it was part of my infant imagination, from when I spent long stretches of time at my grandparent's home, before the emigration waves. But in the slums of Lisbon, poverty was appalling, the deterioration degree of the living conditions of people so near the city, where you could live as well as I did... That shock led me to action at a humanitarian level and to understanding the limitations of such action. I realized that the solution had to be political and I got involved in politics. My intervention capacity met with limitations, so I took the first opportunity I got to once again dedicate myself to humanitarian work, but at a global scale. When I saw that there were also limitations to this action, and having realised once again that the solution was political, the present opportunity arose and I decided I should present my candidacy.

And there you are, always side by side with the compassion, the concern for your fellow human being?

I was enormously privileged, I had access to everything I could have. My family provided me with the best education available at the time. And in 1974, there was a revolution in Portugal, when I was twenty-something years old. Those were extraordinary experiences. In the post-revolutionary period, I had the responsibility of setting up the structure of the Socialist Party, in Lisbon. Oh, the opportunities of a post-revolution in terms of political intervention... Then, due to accidental circumstances, there was a vacancy at UNHCR, I applied and was appointed. I had the privilege of spending ten years working in exhilarating conditions.

It is exhilarating but, at the same time, it is also going all the way through to the bottom of human suffering, is it not?

It's double-sided: the human suffering, under the most terrible conditions, and the enormous capacity of people to endure and live that situation in positive terms. Having experienced first-hand the world's several crisis has also given me a wider understanding of the political mechanisms that caused them.

What you've witnessed has put into perspective everyday life minor problems, including those you've lived as a politician in Portugal?

I will tell you a story I heard told at Uvira, a small place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, near Tanganyika Lake. In that area, there had been terrible violations of human rights, militias that had done horrifying things. A group of women that had been raped showed interest in speaking with me and with the head of UNICEF that accompanied me, to tell us their story. I hesitated to comply, because I feared it would be too violent an experience for them, but they really wanted to. Everything was most discreet. They were working in a field and there was an attack. One of them, with about 50 years old, was raped 17 times, by 17 armed soldiers or militias. When her son came to her aid, one of the soldiers shot him to death and when her husband, in the village, was told of what had happened, he suffered a heart attack and died. I confess I doubted her - there were too many coincidences -, but my colleagues told me it was true. Can you imagine the suffering this person endured? She was speaking to me and she breathed an incredible force. These are things that, as I said, relativizes every little obstacle along the way.

As UN secretary-general, will you be staying a lot in New York or will you be going out, on the field, as you did while at UNHCR? I imagine your first impulse is to go on the field.

That would be my impulse, yes. But a secretary-general has political action - the essential part of his function is not on the field. To do that, there are UN's various agencies and respective officials. And then it is necessary to be in New York, because this is a gigantic machine with many dysfunctional aspects.

Are you talking about UN's reorganization, one of the programming guidelines you proposed?

The UN is a centralized, bureaucratic organization, with rules, like those derived from the difficulties of the state-members in reaching agreement, and the contradictions between those states make it all inflexible. A secretary-general has reduced actual manoeuvring capacity. As the head of UNHCR, I had greater freedom in terms of reforms. Here, I've got to get a consensus between all parts involved to implement some changes that seem obvious but that have generated controversy.

During your oath speech, you were interrupted by applause precisely when you were addressing the issue of UN's reorganization. Did you notice that?

Everybody feels a sense of bureaucratization and of the ineffectiveness that that translates into. Perhaps many of those who applauded represent countries that have difficulties reaching agreement about the indispensable transformations. I want to build bridges to overcome the mistrust that leads to paralysis.

Are you aware that Father Melícias said that you are the "Pope Francis of the United Nations"?

We must make allowances for him because he's an old friend of mine and everything he says about me is tinted by exaggeration as a result of our friendship. Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air not only to the Catholic Church, but also to international life. He's a model of simplicity and pertinence in his observations about what is required to reform the Church and the world.

Have you spoken with him?

Twice. I was individually received by him, as high-commissioner, and some other time as part of a group of lead officials of the United Nations.

In direct contact, is he the same as he appears to be?

He's exactly as we think him to be. He's got this authenticity, and simplicity, and an extraordinary human warmth about him. And also a tremendous courage, confronting traditional and ankylosed situations. Every institution tends to perpetuate itself and its ways of functioning, even when those ways are outdated.

And that's the case with the United Nations?

It's the case with the United Nations, with the Catholic Church, with numerous states and with many administrations. I give you the example of technological evolution, especially in relation to communications... that is one of the least developed sectors within the United Nations. Suffice it to say that we have three people dealing with social networks and 56 handling radio broadcast information [he laughs]. That is, not wishing to belittle the people who do handle radio broadcasting, especially in certain areas of the African continent, where the United Nations radio stations are a major tool. But three people for social networking, on the whole...

Your new position will force a change of life on you. For instance, in what concerns your personal safety, which seems to involve very tight measures.

At UNHCR I had only field-level security. That is one of the most difficult issues to me, dealing with a level of security way more heavy. Even before I took office, they were already heavier than when I was prime-minister.

It's not really your style, is it?

It's not me at all. It's the price to pay, as well as being far away from the family. When in Geneva, it was easy to come and go every weekend, being just a two-hour flight. I have extraordinary support from my wife and the whole family. My mother is 93 years old and this was a source of great joy for her, but, as I'm sure you understand, she'd rather have her son close by. My family was fully on board my candidacy and willingly prepared to pay the price required by this kind of functions, in terms of estrangement.

Will you be living on the official residence of the secretary-general?

It's not the kind of house that I would like to own, it's very ancient. I prefer my house in Lisbon and I liked my apartment in Geneva even better - it was small and nice.

Are you still able to read about History?

I'm a compulsive reader of History books. And not only those. I read every night, before going to sleep, for 30 minutes or one hour. I just finished this magnificent book by Francisco Bethencourt about the history of racism. It has to do with the problems of today's world.

I was told that you have a strong capacity to organize travel plans...

One of my greatest pleasures is to organise travel plans to go with the family and get to know the world. And the same goes for the trips, in themselves.

Oliveira Martins told me about a trip you made to Malaysia in which you followed the same path as the one allegedly taken by Sandokan in his adventures.

I went on that journey with the purpose of visiting Malacca, where I'd never been before, and to spend a few days on the island of Borneo, in an area called Saba, a paradise in terms of Nature. It is one of the best, if not the best place to visit a virgin forest, the primary forest. Islands have exceptional conditions for snorkelling and scuba diving.

And where's Sandokan, in the middle of all that?

The first books I ever read - I was 8 years old - were by Emilio Salgari and they were based on total ignorance about that region. He describes things that do not exist. I was curious to see the area where, shall we say, the adventures of Sandokan took place. There was a Portuguese character, a kind of first mate of his. Just by way of example, there was a raja of a lake, near the Kinabalu mountain, but there isn't any lake at all in there. That says it all!! [He laughs]. It was all a fantasy, although some references do correspond with reality. But it was clear that Salgari had never been there.

You have also read, for sure, Jules Verne.

Of course, "Around the World in Eighty Days", "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" and all that.

"Around the World in Eighty Days" helps to understand the time zones.

With the extra day, exactly. I have crossed four times, in the near past, the international time zone line.

But isn't that highly exhausting?

Yes, it is. Jet lag is a major problem, not least because I sleep very poorly on planes. In three weeks and a half I did Lisbon-Paris, Paris-Lisbon, London-Madrid, Madrid-New York, New York-Lisbon, Lisbon-Astana, in Kazakhstan, Astana-Moscow, Moscow -Lisbon, Lisbon-Beijing, Beijing-New York. I try to rest in airplanes but, even in business class with horizontal seats, on those transcontinental flights I sleep very little. When I get two hours of sleep, that is a very good thing, and usually I don't get more than one-hour sleep periods.

One of your pleasures has always been the cinema. Is it still?

The ability to watch films at home, with quality screens and high definition, nowadays is such... but I still like going to movie theatres. What I like the most is opera and music. Catarina has been taking me to more contemporary shows, to performances of the most varied natures. I endeavour to keep track of the evolution in theatre and dance. In connection with the contemporaneity in the arts, namely the performing arts, she's been a very stimulating presence.

No one in your family accepted my invitation to talk about you, in a synchrony that I can only compliment. Nevertheless, it must be difficult being married to someone so thinly stretched due the many claims on his time and attention and who's away for such long periods.

Indeed. Concerning that, I'm greatly indebted to my wife and all my family. The job and duties I hold may never, in any way, constitute a limitation to the professional relations of the other members of my family, in particular my wife's. Catarina has carried out and is still carrying out a very interesting activity, which I follow with great interest. [Catarina Vaz Pinto is Councilwoman for Culture at the Lisbon's City Council]. And that's how it should be. I do not see her chasing me around, from place to place, only to keep me company. That would be absurd. For a married couple to be counterbalanced it is very important that both partners have their own fulfilling occupation, and that there is no integral subordination of one's life to the other's. It wold make no sense for me to fight for gender equality and for parity within the United Nations and, at the same time, view my marriage as a kind of secretary-general support service.

That must involve a broader understanding concerning the issue of family relationships.

That's exactly it. That which enriches a family is not necessarily a continuous presence, but a shared set of values and the ability to esteem those moments when we can be together.

In the face of the horrors that you've witnessed, how does one maintains his faith in God?

I reject the idea that what is happening in Aleppo is God's plan. I believe there is a guiding principle, creator of the world, and that there has progressively been an approximation - I do not say that the Big Bang is proof of God's existence; that would be an absurd -, but there is a closer approximation between modern physics and the feeling of the absolute. I reject the idea of an intervenor God that sits planning misfortunes. If God were like that, I could not have faith in Him. The Gospel is a timeless book, to which I cling to without reservation. It establishes the link between the divine and the human.

In other religions, people are equally strong believers - faith pervades different cultures. In a time when there are so many extremisms, do you think that there is also surfacing a "parity" of religions?

If I"d been born in Norway or Sweden I would be perhaps a Lutheran, or in Jordan probably a Muslim, in Japan maybe a Buddhist. To me, the idea of absolute does exist and that absolute is lived in a different way by different people, in distinct contexts and civilizations. This must be viewed with openness and tolerance. There is no such thing as "my truth" and "everyone else is wrong". We all have our part of truth and we should live it with authenticity, although respecting the truth of the other.

Without fundamentalisms?

In every religion, there has been, over time, expressions of a fundamentalist or extremist nature. We had the Inquisition and there are still today the "born again Christian", very radical. In Hinduism there are today extreme expressions, and in Buddhism - look what has happened in Myanmar, with the Buddhists persecuting Muslims in the most terrible way. The risk of perversion exists in every religion, the same way there are fanatics in politics. Europe has made a very significant contribution to the universal civilization through the values of Illustration. And the supremacy of Reason is very important - not of an abstract reason, but of a reason that takes emotions into account. Today, we witness the success of irrationality in many aspects of the international life. It"s the religious fundamentalisms, the political populisms, the nationalist extremisms. These are all irrational forms of conduct and they pose a risk to the peace and security on an international level.

Isn't there a paradox, somewhere? There is globalization, the possibility of having widespread and real-time information, and there's that irrationality and ignorance.

Yes, there is. But young people, today, are much more cosmopolitan and that constitutes a sign of hope for the future. Societies are not adapted to those technological innovations, namely at the communication level, that change living conditions on a fast-track basis. Political systems have experienced major difficulties in taking that into account. This factor may also have greatly contributed to the increasing estrangement between political systems and public opinions.

Since the beginning of your candidacy process to the final oath of office, which moment would you say has had greater impact on you?

The moment when, expecting the process would take another two or three week, but already having great hopes for my candidacy, I observed the members of the Security Council leaving a session where they'd been engaged in hard debates over Syria and saw ambassador Churkin, Russia's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, announce that they'd reached a consensus over me. That was one of those moments of great intensity.

What about your acclamation in the General Assembly?

Those are intense but not really surprising moments. They're important in our lives, but they must be regarded with humility and some degree of relativism. This is all very well, but what matters now is what you're able to do, in reality. But in that decision of the Security Council there was the element of surprise... Suddenly, without warning, they all came out saying they'd reached a decision.

Did you see the announcement live, on TV?

I saw it live on my laptop, it was broadcast over the internet. I was on a work meeting, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and had my laptop on to see what would come out of the Security Council, and suddenly I watched the declaration of the Russia's representative, ambassador Churkin. It was a great emotion. Those are enjoyable things, but they're not the froth of everyday life. Much more important is when you're able to solve a particular situation and there's a lot of people who's no longer suffering. That's what is truly worthwhile.

Do you feel that that's what you've achieved at UNHCR?

There a lot of things that I would have like to have done, but there was a lot of people that, thanks to the work of my colleagues, in which I myself participated, are now at least living better. We were able to help approximately 100 thousand people per year in the area of organized resettlement, that is, changing from a country of first asylum - be it from a refugee camp in Kenya or Jordan to Canada, to Australia, to the USA, to Sweden, or to Germany. To feel that a family that had absolutely no chance of a comfortable life - in some cases, with the most complicated diseases - will now be able to live in a country where their children can attend the university, where they may have their own little business company, that matters more than a simple acclamation.

What is the problem that is now on top of your worries?

In terms of a concrete situation, Syria. Then there are many problems of varied natures. The issues related to the dramas lived in several areas of Iraq, of Sudan, of the Democratic Republic of Congo. But there's also the climate change, the problem of the malnutrition. There's a significant number of children that will never be able to have a normal life, because they will reach adulthood with greatly impaired growth. And the most bothering issues are the bureaucracy, the obstacles, not letting us do what we want, because, in theory, those are problems that could very well be solved.

Translated and adapted from the original Portuguese interview by Adelaide Cabral

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