Sunday, May 29, 2005

Guterres for UNHCR

After a long and public search, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan last week chose former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Manuel de Oliveira Guterres as the United Nations’ high commissioner for refugees.

Mr. Guterres, something of a dark horse, beat out such high-profile candidates as former Australian Prime Minister Gareth Evans, and two strong in-house candidates — Soren Jessen-Petersen of Denmark, a specialist with extensive experience in human rights and humanitarian issues, and Bernard Kouchner of France, who founded Doctors Without Borders and led the U.N. Mission in Kosovo.

Mr. Guterres reportedly was asked to apply for the job by Mr. Annan and could start June 15. Mr. Guterres replaces Ruud Lubbers, who resigned abruptly in February amid charges by female staffers at the agency’s Geneva headquarters of sexual harassment.

Mr. Guterres served as prime minister of Portugal from 1996 to 2002, and was twice elected to parliament. He most recently has been president of the Socialist International. Unlike the other finalists for the U.N. post, he has a background in engineering rather than humanitarian assistance or international law.

According to his official biography, he helped found the Portuguese Refugee Council in 1991 and was active in building international assistance during East Timor’s rough transition to independence. That country, which shares the island of Timor with an Indonesian province, declared its independence from Portugal in 1975, but was annexed by Indonesia the following year and attained independence under U.N. auspices in 1999.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees cares for about 17 million refugees in 115 countries and has an annual budget of nearly $1 billion. The appointment of Mr. Guterres must be approved by the U.N. General Assembly.

McNamara vs. nukes

Robert McNamara will strike some as an unlikely warrior for peace, but the former defense secretary and early architect of the Vietnam War was a passionate presence around the United Nations last week, where 187 nations butted heads at a nuclear nonproliferation conference that ended Friday.

Expressing indignation that the United States still has the same number of nuclear warheads it did when he was defense chief 40 years ago, Mr. McNamara told reporters that he could characterize U.S. and NATO nuclear policies in one sentence:

“I would say they are immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary, very, very dangerous … and destructive of the nonproliferation regime that has served us so well.” He suggested that Mr. Annan and the Security Council assume responsibility for enforcing the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if nations with nuclear weapons or power plants fail to agree on how to achieve disarmament and control fissile material.

The conference, in fact, collapsed before its Friday close, as diplomats had warned. Participants in the monthlong five-year review were unable to agree on any of the issues under discussion: nonproliferation by nonweapons states, disarmament of the nuclear-capable states and peaceful uses of nuclear power.

The discord was underlined as delegates pondered the threat of recent developments in North Korea and Iran; voiced regret over the decisions of India and Pakistan to go nuclear; and expressed long-simmering frustration that the nuclear powers, particularly the United States, refuse to reduce their deadly arsenals. Israel, which has neither signed the NPT nor acknowledged a nuclear-weapons program, also was a source of frustration for many delegations.

Mr. McNamara, an energetic 88, warned that if North Korea or Iran develop weapons, it could touch off arms races in their regions. In Asia, he said, Japan, South Korea and the Republic of China (Taiwan) could seek nuclear weapons, and Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are potential copycats in the Middle East.

“If this conference fails to restrain Iran and North Korea, then other nations will follow,” Mr. McNamara warned. “This point I cannot emphasize strongly enough: Other nations will follow.”

• Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail at

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