ROME– Former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres is set to become the next United Nations secretary-general, and as a Catholic Socialist with a deep concern for refugees and global justice generally, he could become a key ally of Pope Francis.
Guterres emerged as the Security Council runaway favorite on Wednesday, when all 15 members agreed to put his name forward to a formal vote, which happened on Thursday.
Having the support of the world’s super-powers: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, makes him first in line to replace South Korean Ban Ki-moon, though he still needs the approval of the U.N. General Assembly. The voting will take place on Oct. 17.
Guterres, a trained engineer who worked as an assistant professor before joining his country’s Socialist Party in 1974, led Portugal from 1995 to 2002. From there, he moved on to international diplomacy, becoming the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees in 2005, a post he held for a decade.
Fluent in Portuguese, English, French and Spanish, he’s a father of two. His first wife died in 1998, and in 2001 he married again.
He’s generally regarded as a man of moral integrity, well versed in the international sphere, and reform-minded: during the years he headed UNCHR, the UN’s refugee agency, Guterres reduced bureaucratic personnel by a third, sending more people to the field.
In his vision statement in applying for the position of secretary general, Guterres wrote of the challenges facing the world in terms of rising inequality, terrorism and organized crime, climate change and the proliferation of armed actors internationally.
All are issues about which Francis has often spoken, even producing a teaching document on the environment.
Last September, when addressing the UN’s General Assembly during his visit to New York, Francis called for an institutional reform that guarantees all countries have a genuine and equitable influence on decision-making processes.
He also warned against the body losing its pillar of integral human development and the ideal of saving future generations from war by becoming “idle chatter which serves as a cover for all kinds of abuse and corruption, or for carrying out an ideological colonization by the imposition of anomalous models and lifestyles which are alien to people’s identity and, in the end, irresponsible.”
The Portuguese Guterres visited the Argentine Pontiff in Rome on December 2013.
At the end of their private audience, Guterres said: “The Catholic Church has always been a very important voice in the defense of refugees and migrants. A voice of tolerance, of respect to diversity in an indifferent world, if not hostile, to everything that’s foreign.”
At the time, Guterres also said that in Europe, as in many developing countries, there’s an eruption of xenophobia. “Pope Francis not only indicates what must be the just doctrine for the Christian community, but he’s a personal witness,” he said, before praising the pontiff’s Evangelii Gaudium exhortation and his visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Speaking to Vatican Radio after the audience, Guterres also spoke about his previous visit to the Vatican, when he met with Benedict XVI. Then too, the former prime minister said, they had agreed on their positions on refugees.
On other social issues the Church has as key concerns, such as the protection of the life of the unborn, most of the information available on Gueterres dates to the late 1990s.
His country’s opposition accuses him of being key in the victory of the “no” vote on a 1998 referendum on abortion, despite being a member of the Socialist Party. He allowed for the voting to take place, but openly opposed abortion citing his personal convictions.
When a similar popular consultation was done in 2007, he remained quiet. The “yes” to abortion on demand during the first 10 weeks of the pregnancy won the second time around, but it was voided for low turnout. However, a bill allowing it was eventually passed that year.
Rapport between the Vatican and the United Nations, where the Holy See has an observer position, has always been good. Ban, the outgoing secretary general, visited Francis several times, the last time being this week, when the two leaders kicked-started a conference promoting sports at the service of the common good.
The two also worked together to guarantee the success of the Paris climate summit last year.