By Evelyn Leopold
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Secretary-General Kofi Annan chose former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres on Tuesday as the new U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, responsible for 17 million homeless people around the world.
Guterres, 56, president of the Socialist International since 1999, replaces former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, who was pressured to resign in February following allegations of sexual harassment, which he vigorously denied.
The Geneva-based UNHCR, the largest refugee agency in the world, has an annual budget of close to $1 billion and 6,000 staff in 115 countries.
The U.N. General Assembly must approve the nomination, said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric in making the announcement. Diplomats said the 191-member body was expected to do so soon.
Guterres was one of eight candidates interviewed by a panel of senior U.N. officials and outside experts. Annan made the final decision.
The final short list, U.N. sources said, included Guterres, Gareth Evans, Australia's former foreign minister and now president of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank, and Jessen-Peterson of Denmark, now head of the U.N. administration in Kosovo.
Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy group, who sat on the selection panel, said Guterres' political skills would help him face challenges at the agency.
UNHCR was struggling with funding shortfalls, a growing tendency of countries to close their borders to asylum seekers and a large, unprotected, population of stateless and homeless people, Bacon said.