Thirty-two days in office as United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres spoke extensively to the media for the first time at UN headquarters, on Feb. 1. Indicative of the chaos gripping many parts of the world as a result of new White House actions, Guterres might be forgiven for waiting a month to address the media in New York on the immigration ban imposed by President Trump as well as financial threats by his administration that could cripple UN operations.
The United States is the largest financial contributor to the UN’s general operating budget and peacekeeping budget, so big money cuts could impair Guterres’s goals to improve UN functions as he aims to institute reforms quickly.
Yet the first question posed to Guterres on Feb. 1 after his lengthy introduction about his just-finished trip to an African Union summit, zeroed in on his delay in responding to the crisis embroiling immigrants and the US.
“It took four days for you to come up with a response to a policy that has caused so much chaos,” a reporter for Agence France-Presse asked. “Why did it take you so long? And are you calling on President [Donald] Trump to lift those restrictions?”
“Well, first of all, it didn’t take four days,” Guterres said. “I made several statements on that when I was in the African Union.” He was referring to comments he made on the immigration ban at a press conference in Addis Ababa, on Jan. 30, three days after the Trump executive order was issued.
In Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, Guterres said, in part, “I strongly hope that measures that were taken will be only temporary. I strongly hope that refugee protection will become again high in the agenda of the United States of America.”
That message was conveyed more fully in a statement by Guterres on Jan. 31, in which he began by saying, “Countries have the right, even the obligation, to responsibly manage their borders to avoid infiltration by members of terrorist organizations.
“This cannot be based on any form of discrimination related to religion, ethnicity or nationality because: that is against the fundamental principles and values on which our societies are based; that triggers widespread anxiety and anger that may facilitate the propaganda of the very terrorist organisations we all want to fight against; [and] blind measures, not based on solid intelligence, tend to be ineffective as they risk being bypassed by what are today sophisticated global terrorist movements.”
Guterres, who is a former prime minister of Portugal from the Socialist Party and was selected as the ninth secretary-general in October, already had his hands full when he took office on January 1. He had been chosen by the permanent members of the UN Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the US — based on his skills as a negotiator, his serene bearing, his articulate, practical way of relating to people and his refugee roots at the UN — but also because he pledged transparency.
He started his five-year term contending with continuing stubborn crises that affect everyone, from terrorism to swelling refugee camps to new peace talks underway on Cyprus and on Syria and a democratic conflict in Gambia. He is also choosing people to staff his cabinet. In the latter, he had vowed to achieve gender parity, which he has been fulfilling so far.
But it was clear from nearly his first day on the job, when he made a speech emphasizing the overarching need for peace worldwide, that his most belabored task would be managing the UN’s always-delicate relationship with the US.
Back in October, no one knew with certainty which candidate would become the next US president, and it wasn’t until January, when Trump took over the Oval Office in Washington, D.C., how the US-UN dynamic would present itself. By the end of the month, Trump’s administration had proposed a draft executive order threatening to defund parts of the UN; Nikki Haley, the new US ambassador to the UN, said in her first speech there that the US was “taking names” of countries that didn’t support America politically; and a US ban to stop refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries’ entry into America was imposed immediately.
As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for a decade until December 2015, Guterres surely sensed how such a ban could upset immigration structures overnight and personally disrupt thousands of families in the seven countries and beyond those borders. The visa ban has reportedly affected 100,000 people, according to a US government lawyer, although the State Department says the number is 60,000.
When Guterres finally spoke to the media at the UN, his remarks provided a clearer summary of his position on Trump’s ban on refugees and how such a broad, harsh step was far removed from the very principles that the UN stands for and are grounded in the Geneva Conventions.
The UN was not totally silent on the Trump immigration ban; the refugees chief, Filippo Grandi, an Italian, tweeted on Jan. 28, a day after the US edict came out, saying: “Refugee resettlement saves lives. It provides protection & opportunities. It is safe for both refugees and states which resettle them.”
The other vocal UN official to respond to the ban was Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, a Jordanian and the High Commissioner for Human Rights. His tweet on Jan. 28, accompanied by a video, said, “We can build bridges, raise our voices, stand up for values of decent, compassionate societies.”
As federal injunctions and appeals now wend their way through the US justice system, the world awaits the latest status on the immigration ban.
The other threat in the first month for Guterres stemmed from the draft executive order leaked from Trump’s office on Jan. 25 — designed perhaps to instill the fear of God at the UN — about possibly defunding UN agencies and main budgets. Guterres, before he even took office, has been under tremendous pressure by the US and other powerful countries to reform the UN in real time.
The draft called for cutting funding for any UN agency (or other international body) that meets any one of several criteria. That includes programs that pay for abortions, and referred specifically to the UN Population Fund. The UNFPA is the main UN body working on maternal health and does not, in fact, finance abortions.
The order also proposed “at least a 40 percent overall decrease” in US funding toward international organizations, which generally means the UN and NATO. It also recommended a “committee” to study the viability of US donations to UN peacekeeping and to the International Criminal Court, or ICC.
The order undermined its own credibility right away in its reference to the court, as the US is not a member of the ICC. And the UN last week announced it will “assess” the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, or Minustah, as the new US ambassador, Nikki Haley, settles into her job across the street from the UN, ensconced in a towering US office building.
Haley, whose messaging is coming straight from the White House and reflects the current erratic nature of that source, has in her first days in federal government not only told the 193 UN member states that the US was “taking names” (and uses the hashtag #TakingNames on her Twitter page) but also condemned Russia in the Security Council for its 2014 annexation of Crimea in Ukraine.
Haley has now met with all fellow permanent members of the Security Council and is apparently weighing in on decisions about new leadership picks for UN agencies, like peacekeeping. In her Senate hearing to be confirmed as US ambassador on Jan. 18, she projected a mollifying tone, saying that US funding to the UN could be “leveraged.”
Given the unpredictability of the Trump White House, it is no surprise that Guterres would hesitate before leaping into strongly worded pronouncements directed at the US. But in his media briefing on Feb. 1, he was pushed to say how he will stand up for the UN.
“I think that it’s very . . . all complicated things have an easy answer, and the answer is to be firm in assessing all principles and open in engaging in constructive dialogue. And that is this combination that I will try to make effective in the way we deal with US Administration or in the way we deal with any other administration in the world.”
Meanwhile, the Trump draft order to defund the UN, a US government spokesperson told PassBlue, is dead. Congress, however, could have the last word on carrying out a defunding campaign, when the federal budget is negotiated. That is where people talk seriously about a US withdrawal.
This article was updated on Feb. 6, 2017.
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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 and The Hague). 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, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. 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.