High Commissioner António Guterres begins UNHCR duties

Press Releases, 15 June 2005

15 June 2005

GENEVA Declaring firm support for the core values of international refugee protection, Mr. António Guterres officially assumed his duties Wednesday as the 10th United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The former Portuguese Prime Minister arrived early at UNHCR's Geneva headquarters for his first official day as head of the 54-year-old humanitarian agency, whose 6,000 staff protect and assist more than 17 million refugees and others of concern in 115 countries.

In a series of familiarisation visits to UNHCR headquarters over the past few weeks, Mr. Guterres has already met with many Geneva-based staff and senior managers, as well as the agency's field representatives from Africa and Europe who were in Switzerland for previously scheduled regional meetings.

Mr. Guterres is planning his first field mission, to Uganda, next week. His mission will coincide with the annual World Refugee Day on Monday, June 20. He will spend the day with refugees in a camp in northern Uganda.

In a message released Wednesday, Mr. Guterres noted that the theme of this year's World Refugee Day "Courage" was especially appropriate.

"Over the past five and a half decades, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has had the privilege and the responsibility of helping more than 50 million uprooted people rebuild their lives," he said. "Throughout UNHCR's proud history, we have been constantly inspired by the incredible courage of the refugees we help and protect. While every refugee's story is different and their anguish personal, they all share a common thread of uncommon courage the courage not only to survive, but to persevere and rebuild their shattered lives."

Mr. Guterres was nominated for the position on May 24 by Secretary-General Kofi Annan and formally elected three days later by the UN General Assembly to a five-year term. He succeeds former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, who served as UNHCR's head from January 2001 until February of this year.

Mr. Guterres, 56, told refugee agency staff that he had assured Mr. Annan that he would be "firm in asserting the core values of the office and that refugees and states alike should expect a principled, effective and committed UNHCR."

"My conviction is strong," he said. "I believe the millions of people women, children, and other vulnerables who depend on us for protection should expect nothing less from the High Commissioner for Refugees."

The new High Commissioner noted that finding safety in today's world was becoming increasingly difficult. While developing countries least able to afford it host most of the world's refugees, many industrialised nations continue to impose ever stricter controls on asylum.

"All of us bear a responsibility for ensuring that those genuinely in need of international protection receive it," he said, adding that more also needs to be done for the estimated 20-25 million internally displaced people who are uprooted within the borders of their own countries.

Before joining UNHCR, Mr. Guterres spent more than 20 years in government and public service. He served as the Portuguese prime minister from 1996 to 2002, and as president of the European Council in early 2000, co-chaired the first EU-Africa summit and led to the adoption of the so-called Lisbon Agenda. He founded the Portuguese Refugee Council in 1991, and was part of the Council of State of Portugal from 1991 to 2002.

From 1981 to 1983, Mr. Guterres was a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, as well as chairman of the Committee on Demography, Migrations and Refugees.

Mr. Guterres was born on April 30, 1949, in Lisbon. He is married with two children.