Sharad Vivek Sagar put the irony out there for all to consider: “If the UN has not failed in maintaining world peace or bilateral relations between nations, it has definitely not succeeded either.”
From the beginning, the United Nations has had it proponents and detractors, but as the world becomes more infused with non-state actors like terrorist organizations, corporations, and large non-governmental organizations (NGOs), its work has grown increasingly complex and, at times, confounding. We require it now more than ever, yet its effectiveness remains in question.=
It is perhaps for such a time, then, that new UN Secretary General António Guterres is best to lead the world body. His selection for the post wasn’t without controversy, but the amount of wisdom gained from his UN experience over recent years is cumulative and impressive. He understands politics, having served as the former Prime Minister of Portugal. Then from 2005 – 2016 he was placed in charge of perhaps the organization’s most problematic file as the lead for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
During his past tenure at the UNHCR he oversaw crisis after crisis regarding refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East – numbering in the millions. While he had to provide basic survival resources to the world’s most marginalized, he also sought to explore and understand the origins of the refugee problem itself by developing policies, meeting with groups like Doctors Without Borders, the International Organization for Migration, and countless NGOs. But he went further, attempting to draw the clear link between human mobilization and climate change. Most of his term was spent, not in the corridors of power, but at the intersections where refugees met with destitution and international response.
“In a sea of human beings, it is difficult, at times even impossible, to see the human as being,”
Guterres felt his responsibilities to refugee families across a variety of sectors – food security, safety from violence, travel documentation, screening, and basic access to water and medical assistance – but his ultimate goal was clear and unequivocal: finding a secure place for every refugee. That never proved easy and a great portion of refugees had to be helped in UN humanitarian camps instead of in secure environments made available by other nations. That’s a tough job when so many advanced nations were considering closing their borders to future migrations as a result of security fears.
In a very real sense, the arrival of Guterres at the top of the UN structure has come at a pivotal time, as the “refugee dilemma” has become a top drawer policy issue in both Europe and the United States. While the world faces many deep and abiding challenges, like climate change, economic reform, nuclear threats, regional conflicts, and the ever-present threat of terrorism, the sheer human fallout in the form of millions of migrants crossing the globe represents perhaps the greatest immediate challenge facing the world. Guterres knows the refugee system through an intimate practical knowledge that only comes with being responsible for such a huge file. The reality that someone of this calibre is now leading the entire United Nations organization means that, for the rest of his term at least, that a human face, in the form of countless refugees, will now be the United Nation’s calling card to a distracted world.
“In a sea of human beings, it is difficult, at times even impossible, to see the human as being,” Aysha Taryam reminds us. Far better to have someone with an extensive workable knowledge of the world’s most oppressed to lift the human face up for our attention out of the mass of crippled humanity.