“I’ve never seen a Portuguese taking care of my mother,” Antonio Guterres says, with a tinge of exasperation at the ongoing debate in Europe and North America about migration.
His 93-year-old mother needed a caregiver, so he contracted one from a private agency. “They are all migrants,” he says.
And then he drives home his point. “There is no way Europe, an ageing continent, can deal with the problems of the elderly people without migration.”
Guterres would know. The 67-year-old is a former prime minister of Portugal and former United Nations high commissioner for refugees.
In an exclusive interview in New Delhi on July 22, the day after he emerged as the front runner to become the next United Nations secretary-general -- he is expected to be formally voted in as the next UN chief on Friday -- Guterres insisted that migration is part of the solution to global problems.
And he has a compelling argument against the insular, myopic and at times hypocritical debates, bordering, some would say, on xenophobia and racism, which have engrossed and agitated Britain, Hungary and France in Europe and across the Atlantic in the United States.
The fertility rate in most European countries is below 1.5. In my country Portugal it is between 1.2 and 1.3. There is no way these countries can survive without immigration
Fertility rate is the ratio of births to the population, expressed per 1,000 population per year.
“So if migration is necessary, (it is) better to organise it,” Guterres wonders aloud.
He concedes that there may be some truth to the claims that smugglers and people traffickers are manipulating the migration of millions into Europe and that, in turn, is causing social tensions in local communities and aiding some terrorist organisations. But he is categorical that the alternative is not to say no to refugees.
“Several leaders in Europe and North America say we don’t need Muslim refugees. This is the worst thing you can say in a country that has millions of Muslims. This is the best propaganda for Daesh,” Guterres says, taking the Arabic name for the so-called Islamic State.
“Those that are saying these things are helping terrorists recruit people. They are telling Muslims that you don’t belong and this is absolutely crazy. Xenophobic populist leaders are the best allies of terrorist organisations,” he adds.
Guterres has in the past said that the migration debate in Europe is irrational and schizophrenic. He wants migration to be made legal and structured.
He is equally critical of some leaders in Europe and North America for failing to, what he calls, create "the conditions for Muslim communities to feel that they belong". He says the fight against the so-called Islamic State is a battle for values which needs to be waged on two fronts – by the Muslim and the non-Muslim worlds alike.
On the one hand, the Islamic religious scholars and civil society should fight radicalism and the rise of extremist tendencies with as much intensity and effective propaganda as the terrorist organisations. On the other hand, governments must realise that if they “start discriminating against Muslims you are only helping these terrorist organisations".
He cautions that the use of force against the so-called Islamic State “is legitimate (and) is necessary but it will not alone solve the problem".
Guterres feels the need for a surge in diplomacy to make the UN a more effective organisation. “The Oslo accord and the Iran (nuclear) agreement are good examples of discreet diplomacy,” he says. “I see the need in today’s world for an honest broker; someone that is independent; someone that wants to cooperate with States and is at the disposal of the States, to create the bridges that are necessary. Today’s wars are wars that nobody wins.”
He speaks about the centrality of prevention of conflicts as opposed to the policy of pre-emption, which some countries such as the United States have espoused and practised before.
“The problem with prevention,” he says, “is that TV cameras are not there when prevention takes place. TV cameras are there when a crisis erupts. So prevention is normally not a political priority for parliaments, for governments and for international organisations.”
“We also need to have a comprehensive approach to prevention. To invest in adaptation for climate change is a way to prevent conflicts. To make sure that human rights are respected is a way to prevent conflicts. Then there are inequalities of development.
“We need to bring all of this together and then use the classical instruments of diplomacy and political dialogue to avoid conflicts and to make sure that parties are able to resolve their contradictions peacefully.”
In sharp contrast, pre-emption is rooted in suspicion and miscalculation. “We need dialogue to prevent misunderstandings. Some countries believe that what some other countries are doing can be a threat to them but it can be completely false, it can be their imagination so they strike first. We need to avoid misunderstandings and misperceptions that have contributed to so many conflicts in the world.”
So are Syria and Iraq among some of the UN’s failures?
The diplomat ventures only so far as to say that they represent “a failure of the international community” and “to that extent they are also a failure of the UN. But the UN would never be able to solve the problem if those key stakeholders that have an influence on the parties to the conflict would not be able to come together and solve the problem.”
In the straw poll conducted by the United Nations security council in New York on July 21, Guterres got 12 out of 15 votes. The Council is composed of five permanent members - China, France, Russia, the UK and the US - and 10 non-permanent members elected for two-year terms by the General assembly currently consist of Angola, Egypt, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal, Spain, Ukraine, Uruguay and Venezuela.
There are 12 candidates in the fray, half of them women. In the UN’s 70-year history there have been eight secretary-generals, all male and none from eastern Europe. Eight of the 12 candidates this year hail from eastern Europe, including three women. So should the next secretary-general be a woman and/or from eastern Europe?
Guterres has this to say: “I understand the symbolic value of having a woman secretary-general and if I have to be a victim of my own convictions in relation to gender equality I am ready to accept it. I believe that if elected I will be totally committed to gender parity in the organisation and to effective protection and empower of women in everything the UN does.”