António Guterres, a thorn in Israel’s side

The U.N. secretary-general, who came to Portuguese politics as a Catholic activist, has become a powerful voice in the face of international aggression and the climate emergency

António Guterres
António Guterres, at an AI Safety Summit in Milton Keynes, U.K., November 2.CHRIS J. RATCLIFFE / POOL (EFE)
Tereixa Constenla

Born in Lisbon, Portugal, António Guterres, 74, is a man of principle, as former U.S. president Bill Clinton is aware. In the midst of the 1999 conflict in East Timor when Indonesia — an ally of the U.S. — enforced its rule on the small East Asian state, Guterres, then prime minister of Portugal, phoned Clinton to tell him two things in a gentle voice: that Clinton was not choosing between Indonesia and East Timor, but between Indonesia and Portugal, one of NATO’s founding members; and that if the U.S. did not support sending an international force to East Timor to support its bid for independence, Portugal would withdraw its soldiers from Kosovo. Guterres got his way, and Clinton would end up attending East Timor’s independence celebration in 2002.

In a way, this episode, recounted in the biography Honest Broker: A biography of António Guterres by Pedro Latoeiro and Filipe Domingues, can be considered Guterres’ first U.N. mission even though he was still some years from being elected U.N. secretary general, a role he undertook in 2017. Now, after six years in office, the Portuguese politician appears to share the vision of the organization’s first secretary-general, Norwegian socialist Trygve Halvdan Lie, appointed in 1946. “The hardest job in the world,” Lie said when he handed over the bulging portfolio of territorial problems to his successor in 1952.

Israel was not yet a state when the U.N. was first established with Lie at the helm, but it was already on the cards as one after the world discovered the industrial extermination of the Jews at the hands of the Nazi apparatus during World War II. Seventy-five years have passed since Israel’s declaration of independence and the portfolio of international resolutions regarding that area of the Middle East has grown fat as it has tried to address the many wars, intifadas, terrorist attacks, illegal settlements and walls. For decades, it has been a huge black hole for U.N. leaders.

Following the October 7 attacks on Israeli civilians by the Islamist group Hamas that took 1,400 lives and more than 240 hostages, Guterres addressed the U.N.’s Security Council. He condemned what happened but also put it in its historical context. “It is important to recognize that the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum,” he said. “Palestinians have suffered 56 years of suffocating occupation, they have seen their lands devoured for settlements, plagued by violence, their economy stifled, their people displaced, and their homes demolished. Their hopes for a political solution to their plight have been vanishing, but their grievances cannot justify the appalling attacks by Hamas, and those appalling attacks cannot justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.” His words so inflamed Israel that they demanded his resignation and announced that they would deny visas to U.N. staff in retaliation. In tweets, Guterres continues to call for a ceasefire and to condemn both Hamas terror and Israeli attacks on civilians imprisoned in Gaza.

Strong words, a gentle delivery

Guterres has become known as the man with a strong message delivered in a soft voice. Each year he moves further away from the figure of a secretary general paralyzed by the politics simmering behind the scenes. He played a crucial role in reaching an agreement during the Russia-Ukraine conflict between Russia, Ukraine and Turkey to allow grain exports. His interventions on the risks of climate change align him more closely to the apocalyptic oratory of activists than to the diplomatic restraint of the U.N. “Humanity has opened the gates to hell,” he warned last September. Nor does he shrink from making direct attacks on large corporations he accuses of using money and influence to “delay, distract and deceive” when it comes to the world’s transition to decarbonization.

“His is one of the few moral voices that can be heard in the world, together with that of Pope Francis. He says what many citizens think,” says Pilar del Río, journalist and president of the José Saramago Foundation. As Portugal’s prime minister, Guterres went to Lisbon airport to receive Saramago in 1998 after he became the first Portuguese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Del Rio believes the description Saramago once made of himself can be applied to Guterres who, she says, has become “freer” with age: “The older he gets, the wiser; the wiser he gets, the more radical.” Alluding to Guterres’ decade as U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (2005-2015) Del Rio adds, “He knows the misery and pain of refugees. Unless you’re a cynic, you can’t stay the same after going through that.”

Following Guterres’ controversial condemnation of the violence on both sides, the former editor of the daily Público, Bárbara Reis, points out there has been a “a long tradition in Portuguese politics of ‘everything for Palestine, nothing against Israel.’ In Portugal’s 50 years [of democracy], there have been 29 governments, some more to the left, some more to the center and some more to the right, but Portugal’s position has remained unchanged, which is in essence: to defend and consider as legitimate the rights of the Palestinian people to a State, to condemn Israel’s occupation of the Arab territories and to defend the existence of the State of Israel,” she wrote in an article.

But it is not only Portugal’s political tradition that explains that Guterres’ perspective. He has been on something of a moral crusade since he was young. Although he did not enter politics until the fall of the dictatorship in Portugal in 1974, as a student he belonged to socially motivated Catholic groups and became involved in volunteer work in shantytowns. His first real political activism started in 1967 when floods destroyed 20,000 homes and caused nearly 700 deaths in the Lisbon region, which the Salazar dictatorship tried to cover up. During his time as prime minister his main thrust was education and cleaning up corruption in public life. “No jobs for the boys,” his biographers recall him saying to socialist militants aspiring to office.

He was a brilliant student of Electrotechnical Engineering when he founded the Group of Light, together with the equally brilliant Law student, Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. An organization which brought together Christians excited by the rupture of the Second Vatican Council, they held domestic Eucharistic celebrations and wanted to change society and politics from within the Salazar regime. On April 25, 1974, it was de Sousa, son of a Salazar government minister, who warned his friend of the imminent coup d’état. They met for lunch a few days later. De Sousa went with the intention of convincing Guterres to join Francisco Sá Carneiro’s center-right party, but Guterres told him that he intended to join the Socialist Party, created in exile in 1973 by Mário Soares and 100 militants.

Both men would go far. One in the Social Democratic Party (PSD, center-right) and the other in the Socialist Party (PS). When Guterres was Prime Minister of Portugal between 1995 and 2002, de Sousa was the opposition leader and his main adversary. During that period they had disagreements, but they also drew on their old friendship to build a common cause against abortion and fight the law approved by the Assembly of the Republic. The Prime Minister called a referendum in 1998 where the noes won out over the ayes (51% vs. 49%).

‘The best of us all’

From his anti-abortion stance, conditioned by his Catholicism, Guterres has gradually moved towards more tolerant positions. At the head of the U.N., he has defended the sexual and reproductive rights of women in the face of setbacks experienced in countries such as the U.S. under Donald Trump. He and de Sousa met again last May, when Guterres received the Carlos V European Award in Yuste, in the Spanish province of Cáceres. Paying tribute to his friend’s time as President of the Republic of Portugal, de Sousa said: “He was the best of us all.”

Guterres joined the PS in Lisbon at the same time as João Soares, former mayor of Lisbon and son of the PS party’s founders, Mário Soares and Maria Barroso. João Soares campaigned for Guterres when he challenged Jorge Sampaio, president of the Lisbon Municipal Chamber, for the party leadership. “I met Sampaio and explained why I would support Guterres,” Soares tells EL PAÍS. “He had fantastic qualities, he knew the whole country and got along well with everyone. He is a classic social democrat, cultured, intelligent, with brilliant and honest oratory. He never got into business like others did.”

Despite his admiration for Guterres, Soares believes that his friend’s declaration over Israel was wrong. “After the Hamas attacks, there can be no buts,” he says, before recalling that it was the U.N. secretary general who recommended that he visit Masada, the archaeological site where the Jews decided to commit collective suicide before surrendering to Rome’s troops.

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