On July 4, 2001, a group of residents of La Verkin, a small rural town on the edge of Utah’s southern border, met for a special City Council session. The mayor and City Council members debated a burning issue in the community — the growing influence of the United Nations on U.S. land and national sovereignty.
One city councilor displayed a U.S. map with color-coded areas which, he claimed, were under U.N. control. Others contended that the global organization was “evil,” “anti-God,” “anti-family” and “is not for peace but for war,” according to the minutes of the meeting. The meeting culminated in the City Council passing an ordinance that declared the town of (then 3,400) now 4,500 an U.N.-free zone. The measure banned city employees from cooperating with the U.N. and required any U.N. supporters to post signs that read, “U.N. work conducted here” and to pay a fee.
Around the country, the town’s opposition to the U.N. made headlines, spurring other places like Bingham, New Mexico, and Grant County, Oregon, to pass similar rules.
In subsequent years, the U.N. approval rating across the U.S. has dropped. Today, 58% of Americans believe the U.N. is doing a poor job, a 20% decrease in approval since 2001, according to a recent Gallup Poll. The distrust and skepticism toward the U.N. still run deep in some communities throughout the West.
But one man has made it his mission to change Americans’ perception of the United Nations.
Felipe Queipo, a communications officer in the Civil Society Unit of the U.N., speaks quickly, jumping between U.N. historical facts, anecdotes from his foreign missions and idealistic visions of how bringing people to the table can change the world. Although Queipo doesn’t consider himself to be high up on the bureaucratic totem pole, he’s unabashedly one of the U.N.’s most passionate champions.
“There is a lack of public support in many cases, because of the lack of public understanding of who we are,” says Queipo. “People don’t know much about us, about what we can and cannot do.” Queipo often finds himself dismantling misconceptions about the U.N., especially about its limitations and purpose when it comes to mitigating conflict. “We are a tool. We are an instrument in the hands of the 193 member states. We will be as useful or as useless as member states allow us to be,” he says.
We are a tool. We are an instrument in the hands of the 193 member states. We will be as useful or as useless as member states allow us to be. — Felipe Queipo
In his day-to-day work overseeing over 1,500 civil society organizations, he partners with local leaders and religious organizations around the globe to help them implement U.N. goals on the ground. That often translates into combing through applications, doing background checks on partner organizations and preparing reports on their compliance with the U.N. rules.
As a member of the U.N. Speakers Bureau, he’s often invited to speak about the U.N.’s work at universities, high schools, nongovernmental organizations and various conferences. In countries where governments view civil society organizations as a threat to their regimes, his efforts are directed at creating “a safe space” for them to participate in U.N. meetings. “We’re really saving lives here — even though I’m not on the ground supporting post-conflict development, we are facilitating civil society organizations to do the work on the ground and provide for those who are in need on the grassroots level,” he says.
In a way, this zeal for a life of dedication and service runs in Queipo’s blood. Growing up in Madrid, he watched his dad come from work at 11 p.m. at night, exhausted from carrying luggage all day at the hotel where he’d worked since he was 16 years old. Forty-five years later, his dad still works at the same hotel. “It wasn’t a fun job, but he did it for us,” says Queipo, pulling out his phone to show a picture of his sister and his niece. His mom worked as a nanny and instilled in Queipo his love for learning and reading. While she preferred romantic novels, Queipo developed an affinity for theology, history, political science and biographies. Although Queipo’s parents weren’t religious, they sent Queipo to a subsidized private Catholic school, hoping to give him the top-notch education they never received. Queipo was the first one in his family to get a college degree. “They were the perfect parents,” he says. He first wanted to be a doctor, but after taking biology in preparation for medical school, he realized saving one person at a time was too slow. “I wanted to save more people,” he said.
Reading the Bible and Thomas Aquinas, he fell in love with the idea of Christ. He became an ardent Catholic and Catechist, and went on to study biology and theology at university.
But it was the smell of home-baked cinnamon rolls that first drew Queipo to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On a cold rainy day, Queipo, then 18 years old, popped into the church building to register for an English class taught by the missionaries. The delicious smell wafting through the space evoked a feeling of home that was so different from how home felt in the Spanish culture. “I loved the way I felt there,” he said. Although he wasn’t initially enthralled with every part of the faith, he felt a personal connection with God. Later on a mission in London, he made another discovery — when he talked about something he believed in, people listened to what he had to say.
He put this newfound oratory prowess to practice when he initially got rejected from a U.N. internship, a decision based on the bad impression left by previous interns. As an emboldened 28-year-old senior at BYU-Idaho, he called the U.N. recruitment officer and made a case for himself: “I told them: I’m only asking for a chance for me. If you don’t like me in a few weeks, you can fire me,” he recalls. After an hourlong conversation with the officer, Queipo got the internship, and then three months later — an invitation to stay.
On a recent morning in February, Queipo, who was turning 41 that week, was milling around the Latter-day Saint temple visitors’ center in Washington, D.C., awaiting a diplomatic tour of the temple, which had just reopened after a yearslong renovation. Amid men in sleek suits and ties, Queipo projected a more approachable vibe: khaki pants with a matching sweater and a white shirt collar peeking from underneath.
He greeted his fellow group members — diplomats from Malaysia, Guyana, Jamaica and a pastor from Michigan. “I just met your president,” he said to one of the Malaysian diplomats. In a setting where his diplomatic and ecclesiastical worlds converged, Queipo felt at ease, passing out hugs and handshakes.
Walking down a pristine cream hallway of the temple, we spot Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with attendees and volunteers huddling around him. In a hushed voice, Queipo tells me that in 2019 he had a long conversation about sustainable development with Elder Christofferson when he came to tour the U.N. Fast forward to the October 2020 general conference and from the pulpit, Elder Christofferson kicked off his talk titled “Sustainable Societies” with the U.N.’s agenda for sustainable development. “Dude, that was you,” a friend texted Queipo after the talk. Of course, it wasn’t just him, he says, but a result of a relationship that he’d been cultivating between the U.N. and the church over time. Later in 2021, the church gave $20 million to UNICEF to support vaccine access around the world. “I can see the fruits of my work in many areas — I’ve been able to build bridges between communities and convey messages in the languages that they understand,” he says.
In a setting where his diplomatic and ecclesiastical worlds converged, Felipe Queipo felt at ease, passing out hugs and handshakes.
Queipo sees himself as a kind of cultural translator, conveying the message and goals of the U.N. to various groups in a way that resonates with them. “I will not say the same thing if I’m in the Vatican, or in Bangkok or if I’m in Salt Lake City. I will adapt my language,” he notes. For example in a Latter-day Saint setting, when he talks about climate change, he’ll talk about earth stewardship. He’ll draw parallels between sustainable development and self-reliance. In Muslim communities, he’ll draw on the Quran to talk about reducing poverty and hunger. “All of the sudden, we’re talking about the same thing,” he says. “They agree and say, ‘What can we do?’”
Over his 14 years at the U.N., he’s accumulated an enviable travel record: He’s been to Malaysia, Mexico, Austria, Thailand, the Republic of Korea, Morocco and Colombia on foreign missions. But he’s most proud of a conference he helped put on in Salt Lake City in 2019. The event — the Civil Society Conference on Sustainable Communities — was historic and, he believes, has helped shift the narrative in Utah’s relationship with the global community.
Although Salt Lake City’s former mayor Jackie Biskupski got on board, the event organizers ran into some hurdles. The U.S. had never hosted a major U.N. conference outside of New York City. There was also a small legal provision that stood in the way — organizers thought the conference needed a special agreement to move forward.
But Queipo persisted, worked his connections in the U.N.’s legal affairs office, and got the U.N. to approve it. As a result, the conference, in partnership with U.N.-affiliated Utah Valley University, was the largest gathering in Utah since the 2002 Olympics: 6,000 participants, 2,000 organizations and 141 countries represented. “People needed to see the U.N. for what it really was — a convening platform and space for civil society,” Queipo says.
Baldomero Lago, chief international officer at Utah Valley University, met Queipo six years ago and the two clicked immediately: Both Spaniards, they served their Latter-day Saint missions in the U.K. and graduated from BYU-Idaho. “We did something that the state and the U.N. have never done — it was Felipe’s initiative, his vision,” said Lago, who calls Queipo a “U.N. encyclopedia.” After the success of the conference with UVU, the University of Westminster in London is now going through the process of formal affiliation with the U.N. Other universities in Utah have expressed interest as well. Lago admits he’s run into red tape while working with the U.N. in the past. “But Felipe opens all the doors, Felipe opens all the gates.” In March, Queipo was awarded the Atlas Award as “Person of the Year” at a diplomatic conference at UVU for empowering students to become global leaders and citizens.
In the Celestial Room in the Washington D.C. Temple — a room that’s meant to symbolize heaven — the tour group members spread out, finding places to sit. In flawless silence, Queipo sits in a chair, surveying the gold-adorned walls with large mirrors, the crystal chandelier and pointed arch alcoves. When Elder Kevin Hamilton, a Latter-day Saint general authority and the day’s temple tour guide, asks later what everyone was thinking, Queipo speaks up: “In my job, it’s easy to feel like there is so much bad stuff happening in the world, so the temple really is a place of refuge. It’s a reminder of the good that we can do in the world when we serve others.”
Queipo is not shy about his faith — he’ll weave it into everyday conversation. In fact, his religion and his job balance each other. In the U.N. he found a perfect vehicle to live out his faith with a structure that allows him to serve the world beyond his immediate faith community. “I’m a much better member of my faith tradition because of my work at the U.N. And I’m a much better international civil servant because of my faith,” he says. He calls the U.N. “the best secular hope for humanity.”
“Felipe opens all the doors, Felipe opens all the gates.” — Baldomero Lago, speaking of his colleague Felipe Queipo
But Queipo is cleareyed about the fact that the United Nations has made mistakes. “We have learned in the 76 years of existence that we’re a human organization. The question is what do we do with those mistakes? What do we do with the lessons learned and how do we try not to repeat the same mistakes?” Queipo says.
In a recent scandal, the U.N. came under scrutiny after reports emerged about one of its agencies giving away $61 million in loan and grant money to a British family. The organization has taken flak for failed peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, Palestine and Syria. This year, the U.N. drew criticism for not doing more to pass resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “I believe that you need to publicly acknowledge that we are not perfect. We don’t hide behind the idea that the U.N. is here to save the world. No, the U.N. is here to engage with all actors and facilitate the work that may save the world,” he says.
A believer in effecting change from within, Queipo has committed his life to the U.N. He knows the date he’ll retire — April 30, 2046, the exact day he will turn 65. Meanwhile, he’s changing what is within his control: He’s simplified bureaucratic processes by using more technology and tools to make things more efficient for his partners. “This may not mean that the whole U.N. is better, but the work of the U.N. within a specific sector improves,” he says. “And that is a great feeling.”