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BLUE SMOKE: A monthly column, from PassBlue and UNA–UK, spotlighting senior appointments at the UN

Who Makes Up the UN Leader’s Inner Circle? Your Rough Guide


UN Secretary-General António Guterres attending a Security Council meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, above, speaking remotely, Aug. 24, 2022. Guterres’s formal and informal cabinet of advisers is small and diverse, but at the end of the day, decision-making burdens on the world’s worst headaches rest with him. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

António Guterres entered his second term as United Nations secretary-general on the first day in January 2022. With about four and a half years to go in one of the world’s most demanding jobs, Guterres keeps a close group of advisers in the UN and a few outsiders to help him in everything from internal communications to phoning combatants in wars. Who are these advisers? What role are they playing in the UN Secretariat, the policymaking center of the organization? Here are insights into the tightest corners of Guterres’s circle at the UN — and some Americans beyond it — who play integral roles in the secretary-general’s decision-making. 

The roundup is neither exhaustive nor definitive and though some insiders who provided information to PassBlue about the list contend that Guterres is aloof, the roster of 10 people — in alphabetical order — aims to dispel the mystery of who the secretary-general, a former Portuguese prime minister, may turn to or listen to amid the spiraling conflicts, vicious wars, near famines, nuclear threats, gender violence, pandemics, global warming, coups, massacres and so many other horrific problems that fall in his lap — heaped on by Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine this year. At the core of his UN entourage, known as the senior management group, sits a small number of people whom Guterres worked with in Geneva when he was the UN high commissioner for refugees, from 2005 to 2015. He became head of the UN organization in January 2017.

One way that Guterres unwinds, his spokesperson told PassBlue, is to read history; he’s also “an avid visitor to New York’s art galleries and museums.” His wife, Vaz Pinto, was until recently the deputy mayor of Lisbon, but now she spends time in Manhattan as well. The secretary-general’s official residence, at 3 Sutton Place, on the Upper East Side, was donated to the UN in 1972 by Arthur Houghton Jr., president of Steuben Glass Works. Houghton received a tax break for donating the townhouse by gifting it through the United Nations Association of the United States. The four-story residence, which overlooks the East River, was built in 1921 for Anne Morgan, a daughter of the industrialist J.P. Morgan. — ALLISON LECCE

Michelle Bachelet, Chile
Ex-UN high commissioner for human rights

Bachelet is a woman of firsts. In 2000, she was the first female to lead Chile’s health ministry, and in 2002 the first woman to lead its defense ministry. In 2006, she was the first woman to be elected president of Chile, to a four-year term (she was re-elected, after a compulsory legal gap, in 2014). Her first term was marked by an ambitious social and economic agenda advancing women’s rights and improved health care for Chileans, but her second term fell flat in achieving big success in reducing inequalities, while she was dogged by family controversies. In 2010, she was appointed the first executive director of the newly established UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, or UN Women. Bachelet, 70, was until Aug. 31 the high commissioner for human rights, based in Geneva, a role she held since 2018. In that role, she was the chief adviser to Guterres on human-rights policies. Amid a controversial visit by Bachelet to China in May 2022, she announced soon afterward that she would not seek a second term as human-rights chief and was returning to Santiago to be with her family and to possibly work for the new president, Gabriel Boric. But it is highly possible that Bachelet will stay close to Guterres, as they share an affinity for Socialist politics, among other commonalities. She was rumored to have been ready to run for the post of UN secretary-general in late 2021, when it was unclear if Guterres would seek a second term (and whether he would win it). While Western Europe and the United States preferred to keep Guterres in the job for practical and political reasons, Bachelet could become a candidate the next time around, despite distrust of her by global human-rights advocates and backlash from her assessment of the repression of ethnic Uighurs in China. (She released her long-awaited report on the status of the Uighurs on her last day.)

As a Chilean diplomat recently told PassBlue, Bachelet is hardly slowing down in her next chapter. Yet in an interview with PassBlue in 2018, she advised women to “don’t try to be a superwoman or a supergirl, because it will only bring frustrations.” Instead, she added: “Seek the help of someone you can count on. Be assertive but also learn the art of dialogue, learn to communicate. And, of course you should have a sense of humor!” 

Ian Bremmer, United States
Founder and president of Eurasia Group

Bremmer‘s firm assesses political risks in the financial markets and is a global consultant helping “business leaders, policy makers, and the general public make sense of the world around them,” the Eurasia Group website says. That array apparently includes the secretary-general of the UN, according to a source on Guterres’s informal advisers. In this role, Bremmer, 52, cuts through the formalities when providing insights to the UN boss by presenting the hard facts and vagaries of geopolitics. (And he may skip the use of UN acronyms.) In addition to the Eurasia Group, Bremmer’s GZERO Media company offers “intelligent and engaging coverage of international affairs,” according to its website. Given that “Ian is an independent voice on critical issues around the globe, offering clearheaded insights through speeches, written commentary, and even satirical puppets (really!),” he could be the cleareyed consultant that Guterres needs to rely on beyond his cocooned office in the UN. (Bremmer also wrote his Ph.D. thesis at Stanford on the political ethnicity of Russians in Ukraine.) Bremmer’s roots — growing up in housing projects near Boston and attending St. Dominic Savio High School there — may also provide a common thread between the two men, given that Guterres is Catholic. 

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Miguel de Serpa Soares, Portugal
Under secretary-general for legal affairs and legal counsel

De Serpa Soares was appointed as the UN’s top lawyer in 2013 by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and Guterres kept him on when he became the UN boss in 2017 — Serpa Soares is Portuguese, which may have influenced Guterres’s decision. De Serpa Soares, 55, was born in Angola (a former colony of Portugal that became independent in 1974) but was raised and educated in Portugal. He received his law degree in 1990 from the University of Lisbon and was a legal adviser for Portugal’s permanent representative to the European Union in Brussels from 1999 to 2008, before becoming director-general of the Department of Legal Affairs in Portugal’s foreign affairs ministry. His expertise at the UN was grounded in working with the Sixth Committee of the General Assembly, which handles UN legal issues. He has made the Law of the Sea treaty a priority for his office, and in August 2022, he led the UN in overseeing the conference to draft the first treaty on the ocean’s biological diversity. (It failed to materialize.) He is the man Guterres “turns to before sending in the peacekeepers, constructing a complex multilateral treaty or negotiating any international issue that requires legal gravitas,” the Chinese Business Law Journal wrote about de Serpa Soares.

Rosemary DiCarlo, US
Under secretary-general, Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs

DiCarlo, a native of Providence, R.I., was appointed under secretary-general for political affairs in 2018; she now leads the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, a 2019 merger of two departments, nicknamed DPPA. She is the top American official at the UN in a job that has been the country’s unofficial domain since 2007. She is also the first woman to hold this post — calling this firstness a “heavy burden” — and is chief adviser to Guterres on peace and security issues as well as “field-based political missions carrying out peacemaking, preventive diplomacy and peace-building activities” around the world, according to her UN profile. She is often traveling — from Libya to Afghanistan and other highly charged spots in between — and one of her tasks is overseeing the electoral assistance the UN provides to member states. In a 2019 interview with PassBlue, she had just traveled to four cities in four countries in nine days.

DiCarlo was born in 1947 and spent more than 35 years in public service and academia before joining the UN. She entered the US foreign service in 1984 with assignments in Moscow and Oslo. She was a US deputy ambassador to the UN under Ambassador Susan Rice, who held that job from 2009-2013. DiCarlo became acting US ambassador when Rice was named national security adviser by President Obama. DiCarlo also served as director of UN Affairs at the National Security Council in Washington. Her foray in public service began at Unesco. She said of her role at the US mission to the UN and now in the UN Secretariat, “I covered a lot of issues on the Security Council, but now I’m dealing with the whole world.”

Melissa Fleming, US
Under secretary-general, Department of Global Communications

Fleming has held this post for three years, based at New York City headquarters. In an interview with PassBlue in 2020, she said the strategy of her office is to “lead the narrative.” That means “we need to be and continue to be the source of authoritative, factual, neutral information. . . . And we need to make sure that the information is rigorous, that the same journalistic standards apply.” From 2009 until 2019, she led global communications and was the spokesperson for the UN high commissioner for refugees, mostly under Guterres, where she became a public figure advocating for refugees, partly during the height of the crisis that engulfed Europe in 2015. Fleming is a frequent interviewee on international media platforms, and a Ted Talk attracted 1.8 million views. She is author of “A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea,” a 2017 book about a Syrian refugee’s journey to Europe, and hosts the UN podcast, Awake at Night. She also was the spokesperson and head of media outreach for the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, based in Vienna, from 2001-2009. Before that, she headed the press and public information office for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), also in Vienna, from 1994-2001. She began her career in public affairs for Radio Free Europe in Munich. Fleming keeps a much lower profile at the UN headquarters than she did in Europe, but in her 2020 interview (and podcast episode) with PassBlue, she called the Secretariat “like being at the seat of government” and “very close to the member states.”

Amina Mohammed, Britain-Nigeria
Deputy secretary-general and chair of the UN Sustainable Development Group

Before her current role as deputy head of the UN, since 2017, Mohammed’s tenure at the organization began in earnest in 2012 as the architect of the Sustainable Development Goals. She was the minister of environment for Nigeria, from 2015 to 2017, under President Muhammadu Buhari. She previously worked in the private sector in Nigeria, designing schools and clinics. Mohammed had her first brush with the UN in 2002, when she coordinated the task force on gender and education for the UN Millennium Project think tank. Mohammed, 61, was born in Liverpool, but is also a Nigerian citizen. As the deputy chief of the UN, she is sometimes the enforcer — the person making the tough phone calls to help straighten problems out for Guterres — and is in charge of the organization when Guterres is on leave, or vacation, as Americans say.

Catherine Pollard, Guyana
Under secretary-general for management strategy, policy and compliance

Pollard, 62, was appointed to her current job in 2019. She joined the UN in 1989 and, having received a master’s degree in accounting from the University of the West Indies, in Jamaica, she has worked in various positions related to finance and administrative management during her 30-year tenure. Pollard’s first post was with the UN Development Program, before joining the peacekeeping department in the former Yugoslavia. She later became chief of staff in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. In 2008, she was appointed assistant secretary-general for human resources management, representing Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon at the time. In 2014, Pollard became assistant secretary-general, and later under secretary-general, for the department of General Assembly and Conference Management. She has also served as the coordinator for multilingualism in the UN Secretariat.

Samantha Power, US
Administrator of the US Agency for International Development

Power has been involved with the US foreign service and the UN for much of her public career, but she started as a journalist, reporting from places like Bosnia and Kosovo. She was named administrator of Usaid by President Biden in 2021. As an unofficial adviser to Guterres, she counsels him on a range of global policies through a relationship that originated in her support of his selection as secretary-general in 2016, when Power was US ambassador to the UN and a permanent member of the Security Council. She started working for the US government in 2009, as a member of the National Security Council under President Obama and senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights. There, she advised the administration on issues such as women and LGBTQ rights, human trafficking, refugees, corruption and democracy promotion. In 2013, Power became the UN envoy, holding the post until 2017. During that time, Power was instrumental in helping to ratify the Paris climate agreement and enabling the passage of the Sustainable Development Goals in the General Assembly. She took a main role in Security Council efforts to fight the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and to diminish ISIS terrorists. In the Council, she championed human rights, above all, but sparred vociferously in the body with the Russian ambassador at the time, Vitaly Churkin, over Russia’s bombardment in the Syrian war and the killing of civilians. (He died in 2017.) Power, 51, was born in London and raised partly in Ireland and in the US. She has published several best-selling books, including, most recently, “The Education of an Idealist,” a memoir about her rise from war correspondent to White House adviser.

Earle Courtenay Rattray, Jamaica
Chef de cabinet

Rattray, 62, was appointed chef de cabinet by Guterres in December 2021, succeeding Maria Luiza Ribeiro, a Brazilian. Rattray is the top aide to Guterres, overseeing the management of his office and the Secretariat. Rattray began at the UN as a permanent representative of Jamaica, from 2013 to 2021. During that time, he was also co-chair of the group of friends on the financing of the Sustainable Development Goals; children and the SDGs; and the group of friends on decent work. After his ambassadorship, Rattray became high representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States, in 2021. He has also worked in committees on disarmament and international security. Rattray was Jamaica’s ambassador to China from 2008 to 2013, and some diplomats told PassBlue that Guterres picked him as his closest aide for his knowledge of China, which is a permanent member of the UN Security Council that is expanding its presence in UN posts. Rattray was born in London.

Volker Turk, Austria
Under secretary-general for policy 

From 2019 until 2022, Turk was assistant secretary-general for strategic coordination in Guterres’s executive office. Among his roles, he has been responsible for coordinating Guterres’s Call to Action for Human Rights, an advocacy project that prioritizes themes related to sustainable and equitable development goals. Turk’s additional — and perhaps more crucial job now — is as point man to ensure the success of “Our Common Agenda” report, which centers around a “social contract” of goals agreed on by the UN’s 193 members to reinforce international cooperation and action to stabilize the planet for the next 25 years. He was promoted to the policy job in January 2022. Turk, 57, has long been a staple in the UN system. Before his work in the 38th floor, he worked as an assistant high commissioner for the UN high commissioner for refugees from 2015-2019, focusing on developing the Global Compact on Refugees under Guterres, when he led the Geneva-based agency from 2005-2015. Turk is rumored to be the top candidate for the UN high commissioner for human rights to succeed Michelle Bachelet, whose last day at the UN was Aug. 31. If Turk is appointed, he will leave the “Common Agenda” effort on the desk of another UN executive, possibly someone who is not as intimate with Guterres’s ambitions for the report, one diplomat noted.

Dulcie Leimbach contributed reporting to this article.

We welcome your comments on this article.  Who did we inadvertently leave out?

Allison Lecce is a graduate of Fordham University, with a degree in international studies and journalism. She received the Fordham College Alumni Association Journalism Scholars Award and is working for the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development.

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.

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Who Makes Up the UN Leader’s Inner Circle? Your Rough Guide
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Mark Ritchie
1 year ago

Thank you for this very informative piece – please keep this updated as the world turns!

Sam James
Sam James
1 year ago

This SG continues the UN’s relegation to oblivion with his aloofness. With the exception of [Ian] Bremmer, the rest of the insiders have no backbone! None of this SG’s choices are leading by example and the only success the UN can show for under Guterres is the Black Sea Grain Initiative with his visit coming at the heels of 300 former senior officials urging him to visit and do something about the Russian war! We need to Make the UN Great Again!

Robert Lemoine
Robert Lemoine
1 year ago

Too many high-level high-level executives with fingers in the pie to be effective.

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