Antonio Guterres sworn in as UN secretary general

Antonio Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal who later spent 10 years as head of the UN Refugee Agency, was sworn in today as secretary general of the United Nations.

Portugal's former PM pledges to help broker peace in world conflicts and bring gender parity to UN

UN Secretary General-designate Antonio Guterres told the UN's 193 members it must work to simplify, decentralize and make more flexible its sprawling bureaucracy. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Antonio Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal who later spent 10 years as head of the UN Refugee Agency, was sworn in today as secretary general of the United Nations.

Guterres, 67, served as prime minister from 1995 to 2002, and was UN high commissioner for refugees from June 2005 to December 2015. He was formally named the world's top diplomat in October and will start his new role Jan. 1.

The swearing-in ceremony was held in the UN's General Assembly hall in New York City following tributes to outgoing Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

"We have every confidence he will lead our organization with wisdom and rectitude," said General Assembly president John William Ashe. 

After taking the oath, Guterres spoke about his goals as secretary general, saying the optimism felt at the end of the Cold War has been replaced with old wars multiplied, and new wars created. 

"The UN was born from war. Today we must be here for peace," he said. 

In his address to the 193 member nations, Guterres said the world body must work to simplify, decentralize and make its sprawling bureaucracy more flexible.

"It benefits no one if it takes nine months to deploy a staff member to the field," he said. "The United Nations needs to be nimble, efficient and effective. It must focus more on delivery and less on process, more on people and less on bureaucracy."

Guterres also said he would send a clear signal that gender parity "from top to bottom" within the organization would be among his first priorities.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon embraces his successor, Guterres, who was sworn in Monday at UN headquarters in New York City. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Diplomats said Guterres is expected to shortly name Nigeria's Environment Minister Amina Mohammed as his deputy secretary-general. He is also planning to appoint a woman as his chief of staff before the end of the year, diplomats said. Another of his pledges was to personally help broker peace. 

"From the acute crises in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and elsewhere, to long-running disputes including the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, we need mediation, arbitration as well as creative diplomacy," Guterres said.

"As part of my good offices I am ready to engage personally in conflict resolution where it brings added value," he said.

New selection process

Guterres was selected through a new process, which included the first-ever televised town hall debates between the 12 candidates. The selection process was changed to allow public discussion and more transparency about how the secretary general is chosen.

Ban, who officially steps down Dec. 31, praised the man who is replacing him.

"Secretary general-elect Guterres is well known to all of us in the hall. But he is perhaps best known where it counts most: on the front lines of armed conflict and humanitarian suffering," referring to his time as head of the UN refugee agency," Ban said.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power lauded Ban's accomplishments while in office and said she was confident Guterres is the right person to replace him. "He is the man for the job in such challenging times," she said. 

As head of the UN Refugee Agency, Guterres made the agency more efficient and introduced needs-based budgeting, during an increase in people displaced by conflict, particularly in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Yemen. 

He had said the world was too slow to respond to the world's refugee crisis and only took notice once refugees started arriving in Europe

"Unfortunately only when the poor enter the halls of the rich, do the rich notice that the poor exist," Guterres said in September 2015.

Decades in public office

Before joining the UN, Guterres spent more than 30 years in public office in Portugal.

Guterres left his job as a physics professor in the 1970s to join the revolution and help form Portugal's centre-left Socialist Party. He said he got involved after volunteering in the slums of Lisbon and seeing the social problems in the last years of Antonio Salazar's four-decade dictatorship.

He was first elected in 1976 and chaired various committees, and was named party leader in 1995.

The 10 years as high commissioner for refugees were "the most remarkable experience you can imagine," he said. "It's the most fascinating work you can have, very demanding ... and I gained a lot of experience in dealing with all crises and all governments" involved in crises everywhere.

After his term ended, Guterres said, he felt an obligation to do something, "having had this dramatic experience of dealing with people that are suffering enormously" as refugees and having no solution to their plight.

Guterres is married and has two children. He is fluent in Portuguese, English, French and Spanish.

He said his 10 years as UN high commissioner for refugees were "excellent preparation" for a secretary general, who needs to be an honest broker and be seen by countries as independent in order to promote consensus and overcome crises.

With files from The Associated Press and Reuters