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U.N. Secretary General, António Guterres, visits SOAS

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The 16th November marked the visit of the ninth Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres. It was a remarkable day for SOASians, students and teachers alike. Guterres was appointed as the Secretary General of the United Nations in January this year. His relationship with the UN has been a long and substantial one, having held the position of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 2005 to 2015. Prior to this appointment, Mr. Guterres was also the Socialist Prime Minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002. The evening’s topic was on “Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights”, with the focus on how to win the fight against terrorism whilst upholding principal values of all human rights.

Mr. Guterres began with a thought-provoking speech followed by a discussion with the audience, moderated by SOAS director Baroness Valarie Amos. At the outset, he said: “Nothing justifies terrorism.” He spoke about the pattern of terror attacks around the world over the last three years. Just last year, approximately 11,000 attacks took place in more than 100 different countries.

Mr. Guterres explained that this exponential increase is due to a change in terrorism’s nature, for example with its spread through cyberspace, and the newfound method of randomised truck attacks.

He added that his visit to London was to deliver one simple message: “Terrorism is the outright denial and inevitable destruction of human rights”. He then said the protection of fundamental human rights is the only weapon that will combat terrorism at its root. Guterres that traditional military schemes alone will not end terrorism. He proposed five key counter-terrorism strategies:

  1. Stronger International Cooperation on Counter-Terrorism

As there is still no universal convention on countering terrorism, Guterres spoke of his efforts to unify international bodies in the fight. These have ranged from commencing the first UN summit on counter terrorism agencies to coordinating 38 international groups in the formation of a counter-terrorism office.

  1. Sustained focus on prevention

Guterres explained this goal has a wider meaning , addressing factors that radicalise young people. He proposed to do this through the creation of jobs and vocations for young people. The role of teachers, academics and social workers were pushed to the frontline regarding this topic.

  1. Upholding human rights and the rule of law as being the best way of terrorism prevention

Guterres warned that without a firm base in human rights, counter-terrorism policies may have a reverse effect because lack of attention to human rights breeds terrorism.

  1. Lifting the voices of the victims of terrorism

The Secretary General gave the example of Manchester’s response to the monstrous terrorist attack it faced earlier this year and said that it showed an ‘amazing example of unity’. He also discussed a potential proposal for the 21st of August being ‘International Day of Remembrance for victims of terrorism’.

  1. Prevention also meant winning the fight online.

With new technology constantly being developed, the fight is no longer purely physical but also technological. The development of better technology is therefore necessary to combat any way that terrorists may want to cause harm. Conversely, Guterres admitted that principles and policies are never enough; he said that the fight may only be won by ‘upholding the dignity of the human person’.

Following the speech a Q&A session was held. Many students from SOAS’s Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy were present. One asked: “We see members of the UN violating its charter and ignoring the maintenance of human rights. What do you think of this and what does the UN plan to do about it?” In response, Guterres said the UN would use human rights bodies to bring their actions to light. He then conceded that he had been reluctant to taking decisions on issues regarding the conflict between national sovereignty and the human rights agenda.

Another student asked what the UN plans to do about members who make large profits and run their economies based on arms dealership. Guterres firmly stated his belief in disarmament. But he added that the arms dealership business has become a ‘cruel reality’ in the world. The president of the UN Society, Yatana Yamahata, asked how students could play a part in helping to combat terrorism. Guterres responded that they may do this by fully assuming citizenship and realising that there is not weakness, but strength in diversity. He stressed that terrorists can be recruited from any community, and a way of preventions that students may also get involved in is by creating an inclusive society.

In response to a similar question, he stated the UN needs to have the world’s youth play a larger part in meeting their goals. He stated that the organisation fails to do this because of two reasons: the generational gap between those in power and those who aren’t, and the fact that the UN’s means of communication is not very youth-friendly. In response to the Guterres’s statement that “the power of human rights to bond is stronger that the power of terrorism to devastate”, Ms Yamahata said: “We need to break the vicious cycle of destruction by taking preventative measures; and this means to build communities to be more equal.” Guterres acknowledged that it would be an illusion to believe that terrorism can be eradicated in the near future. However, he is optimistic that one day it may be.

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