The Times Picks a UN Bureau Chief as Syria Arms Destruction Begins

OPCW team arriving in Damascus 1-10-13
The joint team of UN and Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons inspectors driving into Damascus on Oct. 1, 2013. HEND ABDEL GHANY/UN PHOTO

The New York Times has assigned Somini Sengupta to be its new full-time bureau chief at the United Nations. Sengupta replaces Neil MacFarquhar, who left the position this summer after five years and will be based in Moscow for the newspaper. The announcement regarding Sengupta has not been formally made yet by the paper because she is finishing her assignment as a technology correspondent in San Francisco.

Sengupta arrives at the UN as a 33-member team of UN and other international inspectors began overseeing the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons supplies on Oct. 6. The team supervised as Syrian personnel used cutting torches and angle grinders to destroy or disable items that included missile warheads, aerial bombs and mixing and filling equipment, the UN News Center reported.

Although Sengupta is expected to begin the UN position in a few weeks, she was there to help cover the annual UN General Assembly debate, from Sept. 24 to Oct. 1, reporting on such leaders as Hassan Rouhani of Iran and, with a byline shared by Rick Gladstone, a writer and editor for breaking news, on the speech by Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.

Sengupta has a foreign affairs background, having been a New Delhi bureau chief covering South Asia and West Africa bureau head in Dakar, Senegal. In 2004, she won a George Polk Award for foreign reporting for her articles from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and other countries in the region. She fills the one-person office at the UN during an intense time for the world body, which has found itself thrust into daily front-page news articles lately.

The UN’s recent investigations into the use of chemical weapons in Syria have placed it since August in the forefront of  news related to the 30-month conflict, which has killed, UN estimates say, at least 100,000 people and left millions of others displaced.

The investigation team, organized by Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, concluded in a report in mid-September that sarin gas had been used but not by whom in Syria on Aug. 21, 2013. Separate independent conclusions determined that the Syrian government had fired the gas in a morning assault that left hundreds dead in Ghouta. Another recent visit by the team to additional sites in Syria will finish with a report submitted by the end of October.

The UN report on the Aug. 21 incident coincided with hurried diplomacy by the United States and Russia that resulted in an agreement for Syria to destroy its chemical weapons arsenal by mid-2014. The agreement was enshrined in a Security Council resolution, passed unanimously in late September, followed soon after with the council demanding unfettered humanitarian access to Syrians in need countrywide.

The spotlight on the UN in Syria continues as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Hague-based entity responsible for carrying out the Chemical Weapons Convention, conducts the first steps with a UN logistics team of overseeing the elimination of the Syrian stockpile in both rebel-held areas and those still under the control of the government of Bashar al-Assad. The team arrived in Syria on Oct. 1 and is already working.

The annual General Assembly debate also attracted more-than-usual serious media attention because of new engagement by Iran to discuss its nuclear ambitions and expressions of rare warmth toward the United States.

Yet the UN remained steadfast to the General Assembly debate’s theme this year, the creation of post-2015 development goals to carry on the original Millennium Development Goals. Dozens of side panels, with such mind-bending topics as “frameworks for human rights in the post-2015 development agenda” kept people racing around UN hallways to conference rooms day after day.

Meanwhile, some UN experts have said that the UN has been making positive strides for a change, especially on Syria, yet typically wary commentators remind the UN — Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council — that it can’t forget to tackle the other burning issues of the day, including murderous tensions in South Sudan-Sudan; terrorism in the Sahel region of Africa; Mali’s struggle to democratize; the Central African Republic’s collapse; Congo’s conflict; militaristic factions in Somalia and Kenya; North Korea’s nuclear weapons; and peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

In addition, ensuring the protection of people caught in the middle of conflicts, the equality of women and the rights of everyone — from migrants to indigenous people — could keep Sengupta’s byline active in The Times.

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