Saying no to Muslim refugees is the best propaganda for Islamic State

DNA India

The use of force against Islamic State is legitimate and necessary but it will not solve the problem alone

Antonio Guterres has emerged as the front-runner to become the next United Nations Secretary-General. The 67-year-old former United Nations high commissioner for refugees and former prime minister of Portugal got 12 votes in a straw poll conducted by the 15-member UN Security Council in New York on Thursday. In an exclusive interview to Ramesh Ramachandran in New Delhi, Guterres says some political leaders in Europe and North America are not helping the fight against Daesh or the so-called Islamic State by alienating or discriminating against the Muslim communities. He says “xenophobic populist leaders are the best allies of terrorist groups.”

Edited excerpts from an interview:

We are meeting the day after you emerged as the most popular of 12 candidates for the next UN Secretary-General in a straw poll conducted by the UN Security Council. What is your state of mind? Satisfied? Relieved? Anxious?

I would say that probably the most important feeling is that of gratitude and humility.

The UN has had eight male Secretary-Generals in its 70-year-old history. Is it time for a woman to head it? Time also perhaps for Eastern Europe to be represented? Do you feel that it would be unfair to bring gender or region into the debate and that merit should be the sole criterion?

Gender is very important. All my life I’ve been very strongly committed to gender equality. I introduced mandatory gender quotas in Portugal. It was not popular or easy but I felt that this was the only way to break the glass ceiling. We had the first action plan for equality at the time. In the UNHCR, we did our best not only to protect women and girls but to empower them. We also managed to reach parity in senior management positions in the organisation. 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.

Some in India feel that if the UN does not change, it runs the risk of being reduced to becoming just another non-governmental organisation. How would you respond to this criticism?

I think the only way is to make the UN more effective; a more coordinated approach instead of working in silos. There is scope, mainly in relation to the Secretary-General, for the exercise of his or her good offices. We need a surge in diplomacy for peace. The Oslo accord and the Iran (nuclear) agreement are good examples of discreet diplomacy; a lot of shuttling. 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.

Some countries and their leaders have spoken about a policy of pre-emption and pre-emptive strikes. You on the other hand speak about the centrality of prevention. What would your policy of prevention entail and does the UN have the tools to do it?

The problem with prevention 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. Pre-emption is the opposite. 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.

India lives in a dangerous neighbourhood. A common refrain here is that the international community only pays lip service to its concerns about terrorism. One example is the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism which India first mooted two decades ago but which is still hanging fire because of a dispute over the definition of a terrorist. In your estimation, who is a terrorist? When does a terrorist stop being a so-called freedom fighter?

The difficulty of the Convention lies exactly in the definition. I would be very much in favour of the international community being able to come together and to find a common definition that would allow the Convention to move forward. I think it would be a very important instrument. My main concern is not to spend hours trying to find the wording that everybody can accept. My main concern is to use the present instruments in order to make sure that we have effective international cooperation in combating terrorism and to use the common interests to overcome the semantic problems that are still an obstacle for the Convention becoming a reality.

You have said that no UN reform will be complete without reform of the Security Council. When will candidates such as Brazil and India get their rightful place in an expanded Security Council such that it reflects the aspirations and realities of the 21st century?

There has been some progress in the working methods of the Security Council. But the central questions about the composition in terms of permanent and non-permanent members and veto rights, etc, are still stuck. I think there is a disconnect between the world after the end of the Second World War and today’s world. But the reform will only be possible if the member-states come together in finding ways to achieve it. The Secretary-General can only be facilitator of this dialogue. But it is not in the Secretary-General’s powers to overcome the difficulties that existed and which exist to this present moment.

What specific steps can and should the UN take to ensure that the UN peacekeepers do not perpetrate violence against women?

This is an area where we must implement zero tolerance. There is a zero tolerance policy not an effectively implemented zero tolerance. I would like to look at the possibility of establishing at the heads of state level a kind of commitment that the guilty will be punished. I believe things can change if leaders play a role.

Let’s talk a bit about refugees, a subject you have closely been associated with. Some in Europe are debating about uncontrolled migration. You have said that the migration debate in Europe is irrational and schizophrenic. You also want migration to be made legal and structured. Please elaborate.

Migration is part of the solution of global problems. 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. There is no way Europe, an aging continent, can deal with the problems of the elderly people without migration. So if migration is necessary, better to organise it. True, smugglers and people traffickers are controlling the movement and it makes migration something that disrupts societies and that can sometimes facilitate the work of terrorist organisations. 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. 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.

What are some of the failures of the UN? Would you characterise Iraq and Syria, for instance, as a failure of the world body in general and the functioning of the Security Council in particular?

I think they are a failure of the international community. 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.

How can the international community combat the rise of Daesh or the so-called Islamic State?

This is a battle for values but this battle for values is not only within the Muslim world. It is also for instance in Europe and North America in creating the conditions for Muslim communities to feel that they belong. If to fight this terrorist organisation you start discriminating Muslims you are only helping these terrorist organisations. So we need to make sure that we use force because obviously we are looking into threats that became a reality killing people in horrible ways and violating rights. The use of force is legitimate, is necessary, but it will not solve the problem alone.

Source: DNA India / Ramesh Ramachandran