Portugal's Guterres readies to fill UN chief role

By Amy Lieberman 15 November 2016

António Guterres, new secretary-general of the United Nations. Photo by: Pietro Naj-Oleari / European Parliament / CC BY-NC-ND

António Guterres is quietly readying to lead the United Nations as its new secretary-general, a post he will formally be sworn into in mid-December.

The transition from one U.N. chief to another, following Ban Ki-moon’s two, five-year terms, is complicated. There are the bureaucratic, hiring matters to consider, and then also the expansive crises and conflicts — Syria, Yemen, the U.N.’s responsibility for the cholera outbreak in Haiti, sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers — that will land on Guterres’ desk the first day he assumes office on Jan. 1, 2017.

Yet the switch over is well-underway, without any of the commotion that has characterized the office transition of another recently selected high-profile politician: Donald Trump. Guterres, the former chief of the U.N. refugee agency and prime minister of Portugal, is already spending most of his time in New York, hunkering down for long meetings, policy briefings and work lunches, said Melissa Fleming, Guterres’ spokeswoman and a senior adviser for his transition team.

Devex spoke with Fleming about what’s involved with the secretary-general transition process, meeting with her in the transition team’s temporary, still largely empty midtown Manhattan office, just down the street from the U.N. headquarters.

Press requests have been flying in worldwide for meetings with 67-year-old Guterres, a charismatic orator who is fluent in three of the U.N.’s official languages — English, French and Spanish — in addition to Portuguese. So far, Guterres’ public relations message is clear in his silence.

“He is gathering information, he is not projecting and there is a secretary-general who is still in office,” Fleming said. “He is going to wait to be active in the media.”

His priorities, she says, are already cemented, outlined in the vision statement that circulated earlier this year during the secretary-general race. The document touches on implementing the 2030 development agenda, combatting terrorism, reforming the United Nations and working toward gender equality — in and outside of the U.N. system.

Guterres recently committed to gender parity throughout the U.N., including at top levels, as Devex reported. This announcement followed a campaign for select a female secretary-general, ending the long line of male U.N. leaders.

“He pretty much knows the priorities, but also the backgrounds of some of the key areas that... really have been a major concern like Haiti, and the sexual violence issue in peacekeeping,” Fleming said. “These are areas that are a big focus for him. He wants to know everything possible about what happened, what was the official reaction. He is going to inherit this and he wants to make sure he gets it right.”

Guterres announced a five-person transition team at the end of October, naming Kyung-wha Kang, transition team chief, who now serves as deputy emergency relief coordinator for U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs. It also included Radhouane Nouicer, a UNHCR veteran now working as a regional adviser for the Yemen humanitarian crisis.

Michelle Gyles-McDonnough, the U.N.’s deputy assistant administrator for Asia and the Pacific, and João Madureira, the minister counselor at Portugal’s permanent mission to the U.N., are also senior advisers on the transition team.

These people are working to understand the big issues and the major players Guterres will have to confront and persuade. They are joined by the support of other experts, including some from outside the U.N. system, who tasked with briefing and consulting Guterres. He has also been meeting with various country representatives, who have been filing his days in New York.

“We’re bringing people together, convening, hearing views and then coming out with recommendations on each of the crisis areas — Syria, South Sudan, Yemen, Iraq and maybe brewing ones, emerging ones that he needs to pay attention to,” said Fleming, who is now on loan from UNHCR as their head of communications in Geneva.

“The first part of this — and it is not really a long period of time, [is] absorbing information and hearing different views, seeing presentations,” Fleming continued. “So we are looking at everything from different sides and hearing different views.”

Guterres has also traveled to Colombia and Brazil — two countries he had previously arranged to visit — and will conduct additional travel before the end of the year. In Brazil he attended the Community of Portuguese Language Countries meeting, and spoke at the Iberoamerican Summit in Cartagena, Colombia.

Fleming described the incoming U.N. chief as an avid history reader and detail-oriented thinker, who “absorbs information very quickly, and has the ability to make links and connections and just puts pieces of the puzzle together.”

Guterres’ transition team is also working closely with Ban’s office, which has its own transition team and is consulting on protocol. The members of Guterres’ team, though, will not necessarily follow him when he assumes office.

Other areas of the U.N. system, such as the budget, are already set, at least through 2017, though Guterres has also been briefed on funding. He is also aware of the perpetual underfunding that has plagued almost all U.N. agencies, Fleming says.

Guterres will make his first speech as the newly elected secretary-general, following his selection by the U.N. Security Council, Dec. 12, at U.N. headquarters in New York. The General Assembly approved Guterres’ candidacy in mid-October, following the Security Council’s final selection of the candidate in earlier that month.

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About the author

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Amy Liebermanamylieberman

Amy Lieberman is a reporter for Devex, based out of New York, where she covers global development around the city and out of the United Nations. She has previously worked as a freelancer, reporting on the environment, social justice issues, immigration and development. Her coverage has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Slate and The Los Angeles Times, among other outlets. She received her M.A. in politics and government from Columbia Journalism School in 2014.


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