Interview: António Guterres

From Darfur to Afghanistan, the U.N.’s point man on refugees says, the world’s conflicts are getting “more worrisome and more difficult to solve.”


As High Commissioner for refugees at the United Nations, António Guterres monitors the safety, security, and well being of the some 10.5 million refugees in the world today. And though that figure is down by 8 percent from 2009, thanks mostly to returns and changes of status among the displaced from Iraq and Colombia, the challenge it poses is still enormous. Now, as he comes to the end of his five-year term, Guterres reflects on fast-changing situations in Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. "Conflicts are not getting better," he tells Foreign Policy‘s Elizabeth Dickinson. Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: You just got back from the Central African Republic (CAR), a country caught in the middle of the continent, amid conflicts in Sudan, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). What did you see?

António Guterres: CAR represents the most ignored and forgotten human tragedy in the world. It’s not the biggest human tragedy in the world — DRC, for instance, presents a bigger tragedy — but I believe the number of people aware of its existence is very small. CAR is a country of 4 million inhabitants, bigger than France and Belgium, in which you have about 200,000 people displaced. And you have a very complex governance problem. The truth is that half of the territory of the country is completely lawless, and it’s becoming an international problem. You have Central African Republicans that go to Cameroon to kill, hijack, and rob.

FP: Many have cited improvements in the related conflicts in Darfur and Eastern Chad in recent months. Do you see that?

AG: It’s still too early to fully [say], but there are recent developments that represent a potential change for the better. First, Chad and Sudan have made an agreement that’s apparently more solid than past agreements [which have fallen apart]. They’ve agreed to fully normalize relations and establish common patrol forces along the border area. It’s clear that there won’t be any support for the other country’s rebels, especially because the key rebel element in the Darfur situation that had been supported by Chad, the Justice and Equality Movement, has also made an agreement with Khartoum.

Some might argue that the key problem in Sudan is now the North-South relationship, because there will be a referendum [on southern independence in 2011], and the possible creation of a new state [South Sudan]. There might be a genuine interest in Khartoum to have a more manageable situation in Darfur.

FP: Is your agency preparing any contingencies for the April elections in Sudan?

AG: Everyone should contribute [to a peaceful elections environment] so that things take place in a harmonious way. But of course it’s important to be prepared for whatever might occur. So today this is one of our key concerns. And for us, Southern Sudan has regained priority for our operations in Sudan.

FP: Let’s move to the situation of Iraqi refugees and their slow return home. Are things progressing?

AG: There have been some returns from Syria and Jordan to Iraq. But we’ve been witnessing a trend for a core of people to remain [outside Iraq]. Our two key challenges now are: first, the preservation of asylum space and protection space in the surrounding countries, and second, to improve the functionality of the government’s support to returning people from inside and outside Iraq. We now have a presence in 14 districts in Iraq, but there is no way the international community or civil society can replace the need to have a functioning state to deal with these problems.

FP: How about the situation in Afghanistan, given recent U.S. operations there?

AG: In Afghanistan, the key problem is still the security problem. We have control over only half the territory of the country. The number of returns to Afghanistan has dramatically decreased because obviously the conditions are not met for the easy reintegration of people. There’s been some new displacement because of military operations taking place. [Because of the security situation,] we have reduced the footprint of the international presence by 30 to 40 percent both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. We had three staff members killed in Pakistan last year, so that’s been a major concern for us. But we have to go on.

If you look at the questions you’ve asked, they identify what we could call an "arc of crisis" from South Asia — Afghanistan, Pakistan — going into Iraq, the Middle East — and then back to Sudan and Chad. We could also easily mention the Horn of Africa: Somalia, Yemen. This is an "arc of crises" from which two-thirds of the world’s refugees originate. All these crises are becoming more and more interrelated. You see the links between Somalia and Yemen. If you look at Iraq, there’s a clear connection between Iraq and what’s happening the Middle East. The Palestinian question is invoked by many in the whole region.

FP: If you compare today’s situation to that of 2005, when you became high commissioner, what’s the biggest difference?

AG: Conflicts are not getting better. Conflicts are getting more worrisome and more difficult to solve. For example, the number of people we helped to return last year decreased dramatically. The three biggest countries where return operations are taking place face complex security challenges: Afghanistan, Southern Sudan, and DRC. Conflicts aren’t getting better, the number of refugees and internally displaced people aren’t decreasing. That’s one point.

The second point is that in general the human rights agendas are losing ground to the national sovereignty agendas. That has many important implications.

The third — and I don’t want to look too pessimistic — is that we’re witnessing new trends of forced displacement. A refugee in the traditional vision is someone who flees from country to another because of persecution or conflict. But what we’re witnessing now more and more is a certain number of mega-trends interacting with one another: population growth, urbanization, food insecurity, water scarcity, climate change, and conflict. More and more people are on the move for reasons that are sometimes difficult to differentiate. If a Somali crosses the Gulf of Aden, is it because of the conflict or because [there are no] jobs? Probably both. Climate change [also] enhances conflict. If resources become scarce, people tend to fight for them. This is increasing the number of people on the move and the number of people forced to move. They’re not refugees, according to the legal definition, but they represent a major humanitarian and human rights challenge, as well as a major challenge for world politics.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola