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Don’t Expect The United Nations’ New Leader To Resolve The Syrian Refugee Crisis


The United Nations Security Council unanimously voted this week to nominate António Guterres as the next UN Secretary-General. Guterres, a member of Portugal’s Socialist Party and prime minister from 1995 to 2002, will replace Ban Ki-moon and become the ninth secretary-general of the UN since its founding.

Guterres is a renowned humanitarian activist, and there’s been general excitement about the concern he’ll show for humanitarian crises throughout the world, specifically those involving refugees. Human Rights Watch’s Louis Charbonneau called Guterres “an outspoken and effective advocate for refugees with the potential to strike a radically new tone on human rights at a time of great challenges.”

But it’s this very same quality—and his history working with refugees—that raises concerns about how Guterres will handle the largest migrant crisis since WWII, and a Middle East that seems destined for war and disaster.

Guterres Ignores the Violence Causing the Refugee Crisis

Guterres served as UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 2005 through the end of 2015. He oversaw much of the European migrant crisis generated by ongoing Syrian civil war. During that time, Guterres appealed to the conscience of the international community, referring to our “collective responsibility” and specifically to the “responsibility of the European Union” to welcome and provide aid to refugees.

In an April 2015 op-ed in Time magazine, Guterres wrote, “We can’t deter people fleeing for their lives. They will come. The choice we have is how well we manage their arrival, and how humanely … It’s time for Europeans to abandon the delusion that we can isolate ourselves from this crisis.”

Guterres was quick to recognize our responsibility to take in refugees fleeing horrific civil war. But he has said very little about taking preventative action or intervening in Syria itself. He hasn’t acknowledged any responsibility to intercede on the behalf of civilians slaughtered by the Syrian government, in order to prevent further refugees from having to make the dangerous journey to Europe.

In a Huffington Post op-ed from August 2015, Guterres wrote that global escalation of forced displacement over the past six years demonstrates that “we live in a world in which the capacity to prevent conflicts and to resolve them in a timely fashion is practically non-existent.” Does the UN secretary-general-elect so despair of the potential for no-fly zones or military interventions to prevent or resolve conflict? Is there nothing that can be done to, in his words, “deter people fleeing for their lives”?

The UN Should Do More Than Just Damage Control

Guterres seems to suggest that all we can do is to provide aid in the aftermath of violence. No doubt, the UN has a duty to provide assistance when a humanitarian crisis arises. But its more fundamental purpose, as outlined in its charter, is to prevent war and conflict. Sometimes that means taking action before there’s a refugee crisis.

In the 1990s. the UN Security Council helped end conflicts in places like the East Timor—but today, says Guterres, relations among the great powers are less clear, thus engendering “impunity and unpredictability.”

But some of this “impunity and unpredictability” is not just due to a mysterious change in power dynamics. It’s also due to President Obama’s “leading from behind” foreign policy, so much in vogue in the West today. This has helped embolden countries like Syria, Iran, and Russia. Less, not more, of that approach is needed at the UN.

Guterres isn’t wrong that international conflicts have become increasingly complicated. They now tend to involve multiple layers of players—armies, international forces, ethnic and religious groups, militias and “bandits”—but this is a reason to be stronger, not weaker, in pressing for international stability.

Certainly there are benefits to having a UN secretary-general who understands and is sympathetic to human suffering and the plight of refugees. But the danger is that Guterres might not acknowledge the need for military action to stop refugee crises like the one flowing from Syria.

Europeans’ Concern About Refugees Isn’t Just Xenophobia

In the same Huffington Post op-ed, Guterres writes about Europe’s specific responsibilities for taking in refugees—ignoring the fact that many of the migrants arriving are not, in fact, refugees. He laments the rise of xenophobia in Europe, which according to him, is due to “a lack of understanding of the values of tolerance and diversity—and a lack of recognition of the fact that all societies are becoming multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious.”

Perhaps he means well, but Guterres risks inflaming the very real xenophobic elements of European society by dismissing the legitimate concerns many Europeans have about this sudden influx of conservative Muslims to their countries. He also makes a mistake that others before him have made in underestimating the extent to which European countries remain predominantly based on ethnic majorities.

Will Guterres be able to balance the need for humanitarian aid with an understanding of the unsustainable number of refugees overwhelming Europe? And how does he plan to protect those still suffering inside Syria?

Can Guterres Help Bring Stability to the Middle East?

Guterres is inheriting the UN in the midst of a crisis of diplomacy over the Syrian civil war—and a Middle East that has grown increasing volatile since the 2011 Arab Spring revolts. Thanks to the help of the Obama administration, Iran is reemerging as a regional power, threatening Saudi Arabia and fanning the flames of the Sunni-Shia conflict.

Guterres must ask himself how the UN can help stabilize not only Syria, but the entire Middle East. If he truly cares about the plight of refugees, which is grave indeed, he will focus as much energy on stopping these crises as he does on tending to the humanitarian disasters they leave in their wake.