What A New UN Secretary General Means for Palestine

Palestinians celebrate UN vote, 2012
Antonio Guterres
Antonio Guterres

António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres will officially become the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations, succeeding Ban Ki-Moon, on 1 January 2017. The former UN High Commissioner for Refugees was elected on 13 October 2016, after receiving 13 out of 15 ‘encourage’ (informal) votes from the UN Security Council and garnering the ‘acclamation’ (unanimous consent) of the UN General Assembly (UNGA).

Following a short stint as an assistant professor of systems theory and telecommunications, in 1974 Guterres launched his political career as a member of Portugal’s Partido Socialista (Socialist Party or PS) in 1974. Guterres quickly asserted himself in the PS and held numerous and prominent positions in government and politics until 1995, when his party won the legislative elections and he became prime minister. During his time in office, Guterres spearheaded Portugal’s accession to the European Union, campaigned for UN intervention in East Timor (then occupied by government-backed Indonesian militias), and oversaw Portugal’s decolonization of Macau (1999).

In 2005, Guterres was appointed to head the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at a time of rapid expansion for the organization. Due to the huge swell in the number of refugees and displaced persons (largely as a result of the global War on Terror) by 2015, the world refugee agency had 10,000 employees in 126 countries, and was providing assistance to over 60 million refugees. Guterres is credited as the architect of many fundamental reforms at UNHCR, including optimizing the structure of the organization’s Geneva headquarters and slashing administration overheads in favor of boosting UNHCR’s presence on the ground in so-called refugee hotspots.

In 2012, Guterres appointed the actress Angelina Jolie as a Special Envoy, and they traveled together to many refugee camps across the Middle East, including Kilis in Turkey (2012) and Zaatari in Jordan (2013); and in 2015 they delivered a joint address to the UN Security Council.

So, what does Guterres’ appointment mean for Palestine, in its pursuit of international legal action at the UN?

Palestine was accorded a non-Member Observer State status at the world body with overwhelming support, 2012.
Palestine was accorded a non-Member Observer State status at the world body with overwhelming support, 2012.

By the end of 2012, following a year-long contentious diplomatic effort, Palestine’s membership status at the world body was upgraded from ‘observer entity’ to ‘non-member observer state,’ allowing Palestine to join fifteen UN treaties in 2014, including the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The government of Palestine has since been working to raise legal claims at the Court to identify and punish Israeli war crimes. In June 2015, Palestine submitted its first piece of evidence on war crimes allegedly committed by Israeli forces during the 2014 onslaught on Gaza, known as Operation Protective Edge. Palestine’s continued effort to expand its status at the UN will certainly remain a sticking-point for the foreseeable future, not least as Palestinians seek to define terms to end the occupation through a Security Council measure.

As UNHCR chief, Guterres described the Palestinian refugee problem “as the largest protracted refugee situation in the world.” When he expressed his indignation at seeing “Palestinian refugees in Syria being forced to flee for the second time,” the statement was met with criticism by pro-Israel commentators who reject attempts to draw parallels between the Syrian and Israeli regimes. During the summer 2014 war, Guterres expressed distress for the people of Gaza who could not seek sanctuary anywhere. “No one wants to be a refugee. But for the people of Gaza, not even that was an option.”

Despite such seemingly sympathetic words, David Bukay of Modern Diplomacy has challenged Guterres for his poor record. He recalled Guterres’ inertia in 2009, when Pakistani refugees were fleeing from the Taliban, despite having called their displacement “one of the most dramatic in recent times.” Haaretz, for its part, implied that the Palestinian people were jilted by the UNHCR’s 2014 ‘#Ibelong Campaign to End Statelessness’ as it failed to include their self-determination efforts.

In fairness, Guterres had no authority as UNHCR chief to assist Palestinian refugees, who are under the jurisdiction of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The fact that he used his position to speak out during the 2014 conflict in Gaza suggests that he might challenge the continuing international differentiation between Palestinian and other refugees.

In October 2014, Guterres said that Palestinian refugees are a “very specific situation” requiring a “political solution.” This could be interpreted to mean that, in terms of international law, the UN’s hands are tied, and that the presumed peace process (Guterres’ “political solution”) is the only option, despite its spectacular failure to deliver any results since the Oslo Accords were inaugurated in 1993.

Meanwhile, both the The Times of Israel and The Jerusalem Post have called Guterres “a friend of Israel.” The Times quoted former Israeli ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, as saying, “There’s no record of him making any remarkable statement against Israel.” Colette Avital, Israel’s former ambassador to Portugal said of Guterres:

He loves Israel. But he’s a very objective man, which means that he sees the whole picture…He won’t support anti-Israel moves at the UN. But he will try to advance the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. He doesn’t consider that to be anti-Israel.

During his campaign for the UN’s top job, Guterres sang the same old refrain. In his vision statement, he said: “First, we need a surge in diplomacy for peace…The [Secretary General] should actively, consistently and tirelessly exercise his good offices and mediation capacity as an honest broker, bridge builder and messenger of peace.” It remains to be seen whether Guterres will achieve these ambitions in his new role. In the meantime, Palestinians have no choice but to accept customary rhetoric, and continue an uphill battle for equality and justice.

Talal Husseini is an Editorial Intern with IPS.