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António Guterres, Sounding Priestlike, Arrives for Work as UN Secretary-General


António Guterres, the new United Nations secretary-general, left, arrives for his first day, Jan. 3, 2017, as UN staff members appear for a “meet and greet.” MANUEL ELIAS/UN PHOTO

He is no longer the “next SG,” as Twitter posts have been referring in the last few months to António Guterres, the man who was selected by the United Nations Security Council in October to lead the world body as the ninth secretary-general.

Guterres, a 67-year-old former prime minister of Portugal who also managed the sprawling UN refugee agency for 10 years until 2015, arrived at the UN amid dismal rain on Jan. 3 to start his first day in office on the 38th floor of the Secretariat building. There, picture windows in his office look east to a big chunk of New York City, including La Guardia Airport.

Guterres, who was born in Lisbon and is a practicing Roman Catholic, quickly showed to UN staff and everyone else who greeted him at the UN on Tuesday morning that he is trying to represent a man of the people while also forging a close bond with UN employees, who under Ban Ki-moon, the previous secretary-general, felt underappreciated and ignored.

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At 9:15, Guterres spoke to an exuberant crowd in a UN lobby to convey that he was also a person comfortable talking about his feelings, saying: “Dear colleagues, this is indeed a very emotional moment for me. I am humbled and happy to be with all of you here today.”

With his new cabinet members standing behind him, Guterres expressed warmth for UN employees, noting after a year’s sabbatical from the UN as refugee chief, “it is for me an enormous happiness, an enormous privilege to again call you my colleagues, and I’m very proud to be your colleague.”

(When he was sworn into office in December 2016, he told reporters to dispense with the UN honorific of calling him “excellency.”)

After calling it a “privilege” for having served 10 years as the high commissioner for refugees, Guterres soon turned more serious about the UN’s work, saying in his morning speech: “I think we should have no illusions. We are facing very challenging times.”

He stressed the formidable challenges facing the the world body, describing a complicated world riven by the “new phenomenon of global terrorism,” triggered by multiplying, interlinked conflicts — a world where international humanitarian law is no longer respected, massive human rights violations are carried out and refugee law is no longer “respected as it was few years ago.”

He did not mention that since his selection as secretary-general in October for a five-year term, a new administration in the US White House is about to move in, too, further complicating matters for the UN and the planet.

As if to emphasize that Guterres’s own administration would work concertedly as a team, his recently named UN advisers stood nearby: Fabrizio Hochschild of Chile, assistant secretary-general for strategic coordination in the executive office; Amina Mohammed of Nigeria, deputy secretary-general; Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti of Brazil, cabinet chief; and Kyung-wha Kang of South Korea, in a new position as expert on policy.

Hochschild, Mohammed and Kang have served the UN in various functions; Viotti is a former Brazilian ambassador to the UN.

Even when Guterres aimed to be positive in his address to the UN staff members, he couldn’t help acknowledging how entrenched global crises have become for any one institution to deal with, declaring, “It is true that we have witnessed enormous economic progress and enormous technological progress; we have less extreme poverty in the world, in general social welfare has improved as an average, but the truth is also that inequalities have grown quite dramatically.”

As he continued, Guterres reverted to the UN’s perennial theme, as if to signal to certain parties in the US Congress who are plotting to weaken the UN through budget cuts, that no single country or the UN can juggle so many grave problems — intrastate wars, refugee influxes, environmental catastrophes, coups, diseases, famines, inequalities, terrorism — by itself, let alone find expedient solutions.

“So when one looks at the global mega-trends of population growth, climate change, and other aspects that are interlinked, we see that we live in a world where problems became global and there is no way they can be solved on a country by country basis,” Guterres said. “And so this is the moment in which we have to assert the value of multilateralism.”

This is the moment, he reasserted, that the “UN is the cornerstone” of the multilateral approach, finding “global solutions” to global problems.

Earlier, Guterres rolled out a New Year’s Day video message through his new Twitter account and other avenues, featuring a concise text in six languages: Arabic, English, French, Russian, Spanish and, in a new twist, his native Portuguese.

Focused almost priestlike on “appealing for peace,” he said: “All that we strive for as a human family — dignity, hope, progress and prosperity — depends on peace. But peace depends on us. Let us make 2017 a year for peace.”

At his first day of work on Jan. 3, Guterres sounded priestly again, reminding the UN folks assembled in the white-marble lobby: “I think it is useful to say that there are no miracles, and I am sure I am not a miracle-maker.

“And the only way for us to be able to achieve our goals is to really work together as a team, and to be able to deserve to serve the noble values enshrined in the Charter, that are the values of the UN, that are the values that unite mankind.”

To which the group clapped heartily, as if relieved that hope had arrived just in time — yes! — to steer the boat in the right direction.

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Dulcie Leimbach

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland, The Hague and Cyprus). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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