António Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, said the top two problems he would highlight the most at the opening session of the General Assembly next week were Myanmar’s rapidly unfolding humanitarian disaster and North Korea’s nuclear-weapons provocations.
“The humanitarian situation is catastrophic,” Guterres said at a media briefing on Sept. 13 at UN headquarters in New York, referring to Myanmar. Last week, he noted, “there were 125,000 Rohingya refugees who had fled into Bangladesh. That number has now tripled to nearly 380,000. . . . Women and children are arriving hungry and malnourished.” (The Rohingya who remain in Rakhine State in Myanmar have virtually no access to humanitarian assistance, according to Doctors Without Borders.)
As for North Korea, Guterres said, the nuclear and missile tests “have created great instability and tension on the Korean peninsula, throughout the region and beyond.”
“Unity in the Security Council is critical,” he added. “This week’s unanimous adoption of a new resolution sends a clear message that the DPRK [North Korea] must comply fully with its international obligations.”
Unity, he emphasized, also “creates an opportunity for diplomatic engagement — an opportunity that must be seized.” (Which is what Russia and China have espoused to deal with the crisis.)
As the new secretary-general, Guterres is slowly becoming more comfortable speaking to the media at the UN since he took office in January. At the Sept. 13 briefing to a very crowded room, he fielded questions for an hour from a range of international journalists — working for large sites like BBC, Reuters, Associated Press and The New York Times — and smaller publications based in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, Africa and Asia.
He answered questions on subjects ranging from President Trump to Myanmar, Lebanon to Yemen, Colombia to Libya — and back to Trump — among other concerns. Mostly, he provided specific answers but backpedaled and generalized at times, reverting to hesitation as if a wolf were hiding behind the door.
Guterres was asked, for example, whether he would meet with Trump personally (yes); whether the expulsion of the Rohingya population from Myanmar was “ethnic cleansing” (“can you find a better word to describe it?” he responded, refusing to call it “genocide”); whether he would be “confrontational” with Trump and related hot potatoes (“listen to my speech in the beginning of the Assembly, and . . . your question will be answered”); and whether Kurds have the right to self-determination (“reconciliation,” he advised, is the prescription now for Iraq).
Notably, when asked what “situation” could be fixed in the short term, Guterres said, Libya, where the people there could “seize this opportunity” to “overcome the divisions and move in the direction of a solution.”
Guterres, answering why the United States was not using him to mediate the North Korea tensions, as he has volunteered to do and Russia suggested would be valid, he said, “the good offices of the Secretary-General can only be implemented when there is a consensus in the Security Council about the need to use them.” That consensus, he added, “was not yet reached.”
He also highlighted two UN-centric topics that he will raise at the annual session, which gets into full swing next week: a new 18-member advisory board of high-level “internationally recognized personalities” — some of them past envoys for the UN, to conduct mediation. The notables include Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury in Britain.
The second topic, Guterres said, was to achieve gender parity strategy among senior-level management by 2021 and across the board at the UN by 2028.
“I have already started to do my part,” Guterres said. “Since January, over half of my appointments to the Senior Management Group have been women — a total of 17 women and 15 men so far, including both appointments and renewal of mandates. There is a large majority of men in the present mandates, which means that in the new appointments, the high percentage of women is even higher.”
Leaders of the UN’s 193 member states have plenty of humanitarian crises and nagging warfare around the world to concentrate on as they begin to speak on Sept. 19. (They also like to delve into picayune national matters, to the consternation of their audience.)
The opening of the General Assembly’s 72nd session is the first time that Guterres, a one-time prime minister of Portugal and ex-head of the UN refugee agency for 10 years, will hold court as secretary-general. The pow wow is the most-attended forum all year for UN members, a week or so in which world leaders fly into New York to speechify, participate in UN meetings and conduct “bilateral” discussions behind the scenes.
The session also marks the debut of Miroslav Lajcak presiding as the new president of the Assembly (he is also Slovakia’s foreign minister); and Israel, in a first for the country, to hold the vice presidency — represented by Danny Danon, its ambassador to the UN.
The agenda for the session is relatively light. The presence of Trump is bound to rivet the most attention within hundreds of miles of the UN, as he makes his maiden speech at the world body, on Sept. 19. He is speaking second, after Michel Temer, president of Brazil, following tradition. (The last country to speak, on Sept. 25, is Turkmenistan.)
Otherwise, many major leaders will not be attending the GA, as it’s dubbed. The no-shows include Angela Merkel of Germany, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China. Theresa May of Britain is unconfirmed, a British spokesman said.
Emmanuel Macron of France, Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Justin Trudeau of Canada are expected to speak and participate in meetings, as are dozens of other heads of state across Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia. (Bachelet is also part of the new mediation advisory board.)
Last year, the agenda was heavily weighted on the world’s refugee crisis, culminating in a global compact to be finalized for next year. Last year was also President Obama’s ultimate speech at the UN, so his administration, including Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, worked overtime to leave its stamp on the world body. That was done primarily through a refugee summit conference that appears to have had little effect on the saga.
The year before, Pope Francis’ appearance brought near hysteria to the UN, as the security detail tightened every nook and cranny, and Putin showed up to speak as well, only to drop bombs on Syria soon after, to everyone’s shock.
The US will be taking a much-lesser role at the UN this year, with a UN reform meeting scheduled on Sept. 18, during which countries will sign a pledge to support a US-led plan for shaping the UN to American political wishes. Trump is supposed to speak at the 11 A.M. event. He is said to be holding bilateral talks off the UN campus.
Like other off-site meetings with heads of state, that is where the real deals are cemented, leaving the media to weasel information gracefully or otherwise from the VIPs and their note-takers, whose lips are not always sealed.
Yet it was a Russian reporter from Tass who provided Guterres the most valuable takeaway from the media briefing.
Asked how concerned Guterres was about the “latest diplomatic rift between the United States and Russia?” Guterres responded:
“Well, first of all, I think it is obvious that an important pillar for international peace and security should be a very positive and constructive relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation. And I can only wish that that relationship is established. And, of course, when that relationship is not good, the international community as a whole suffers.
“I think this is obvious, and it is clear for me that many of the problems in the world are easier to solve if the two countries have a common position and work together to address those problems.”
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she 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 near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York 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.