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

Major UN Elections, Covid-19 Help, Saudis Off the Hook


Katalin Bogyay, the ambassador of Hungary to the UN, about to cast her secret ballots for the elections in the General Assembly Hall, June 17, 2020. The process required new procedures amid the pandemic, but it went well by all accounts. ESKINDER DEBEBE/UN PHOTO

Starting in June, a summary of the most important news on the United Nations’ work in New York City and worldwide will be highlighted weekly. The news will be drawn from the UN spokesperson’s media briefings, our original reporting and other sources. We welcome your feedback on the new series, called This Week @UN.

We also want to alert you to our special podcast episode coming June 26, featuring exclusive interviews with savvy youth and wise elders on the 75th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco. Stay tuned for more details on our social media accounts — Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — and in emails. Until then, tune into previous UN-Scripted episodes, featuring interviews with experts on the latest geopolitical tensions and other matters at the UN.

Thank you, as well, to everyone who donated to our recent fund-raising campaign to help us pay for our stellar reporting and editing on the UN in the pandemic. The response has been terrific, enabling us to raise $7,300, but we are still aiming for $10,000! So please donate to ensure that we keep covering the most important stories at the UN: Covid-19, big powers, women’s rights, human rights, and that we keep holding the UN to account. — Editors

Monday, June 15

• Fiona Shukri, an American who worked in Kabul for many years, reported how Trump’s withdrawal from the WHO could hurt polio eradication. The article took weeks for her to compile, spanning Ramadan, time zones and hesitant interviewees. But Fiona, who lives in New York City, wrote a fitting ending to her story, “The Collateral Damage in Trump’s War on the WHO: Ending Polio for Good.”

• The spokesperson’s daily briefing touched upon, among other things, the impact of Covid-19 on abuse and neglect of older people; and the UN team in Colombia (which has 49,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases), preparing a $303 million plan focusing on health and protecting certain communities. In addition:

• More than 20 leaders, including the WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, sent a letter calling on the UN to “step up and act decisively to help end systemic racism against people of African descent and other minority groups.” (See our June 16 story, below, for more details.)

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• Secretary-General António Guterres “strongly condemned” an attack on a UN convey in the northern Mali, killing two Egyptian peacekeepers on June 13.

• More than 80 tons of health supplies, including 478 emergency health kits, were sent to Syria by the WHO. The kits are part of a three-cargo response to support health care systems in northeast Syria, where fighting continues despite declarations of cease-fires.

• The International Atomic Energy Agency launched Zodiac, a project to create a global network to help national labs in monitoring, surveillance, early detection and control of animal and zoonotic diseases, such as Covid-19, building on the agency’s experience with nuclear weapons. With funding from the United States and others, the agency is also helping developing countries fight the pandemic by offering free nuclear-derived testing kits.

• Maj. Gen. Kefyalew Amde Tessema of Ethiopia was appointed force commander for the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (Unisfa, in Sudan). Tessema worked with the Ethiopian Armed Forces for more than 30 years. He has a master’s degree in business administration from Ashland University in Ohio.

Tuesday, June 16

• Stéphanie Fillion’s breaking-news story about the Human Rights Council confronting racism in the US for the first time in its history centered around a figure from the 1960s: Malcolm X, the African-American activist who tried to internationalize the US civil rights movement by taking the cause to the UN. Decades later, the Human Rights Council’s decision to examine racial discrimination in the US also reflects China’s growing upper hand in Geneva since the US dropped out of the Council in 2018.

• Today’s media briefing, presented by Eri Kaneko, an associate spokesperson for the UN secretary-general, talked about, among other things, the UN Refugee Agency and the World Food Program launching a project in Libya to provide food to 10,000 refugees; the UN humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan asking for an additional $390 million for Covid-19 support, bringing the total appeal to $1.9 billion (the country now has more than 1,700 confirmed Covid-19 cases). Moreover:

• Nongovernmental organizations in Yemen will be forced to cut clean-water services to six million people, half of them children, by the end of June if they don’t receive the $1.35 billion in pledges from the Yemen conference held on June 2. The special envoy in Yemen, Martin Griffiths, is also working with women to strengthen their role in peace processes.

• In Brazil, which has 900,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases, the International Organization for Migration has distributed 159 hygiene kits and 15,000 meals to communities bordering Venezuela, which is mired in a political and socioeconomic crisis.

• A letter signed by 50 independent experts was released, opposing the annexation of Palestine by Israel, which is to begin July 1. The experts say the annexation is a violation of international law. Kaneko said the UN was committed to achieving a two-state solution.

Wednesday, June 17

• Stéphanie Fillion was busy all day and night covering the UN Security Council elections for the open seats in the 2021-22 term — and the winners are: India, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico and Norway. India replaces Indonesia, which has been a staunch supporter of Palestine in the Council; and Mexico also ran unopposed. The three-way race among Canada, Ireland and Norway left Canada in the dust; Djibouti and Kenya duked it out for two rounds.

The voting scene at the UN among diplomats, who social distanced and wore face masks, also included elections for the president of the 75th session of the General Assembly and the new Economic and Social Council members. The new Security Council members include two female ambassadors, from Ireland and Norway.

• The spokesperson’s briefing touched upon, among other things, increased violence in South Sudan, where a UN peacekeeping mission is based; the UN in Serbia is providing $26 million for medical supplies and public health campaigns on Covid-19; and:

• Guterres’s remarks at the China-Africa summit on Covid-19 noted that although the number of reported cases in Africa are lower than expected, the virus still poses a “grave threat” to the continent’s progress, especially on hunger and malnutrition.

• From New York City, Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed addressed the Human Rights Council in Geneva on racism in the US and called on the UN to respond to racism “in all forms and structures.” She referred to the problem as “today’s sacred battle.” (See our June 16 story.)

• The deputy spokesperson, Farhan Haq, said the UN was urging China and India to “exercise maximum restraint” after a clash on the border in the Himalayas.

• When asked by a reporter about what he called “the hypocrisy” of some countries commenting on the problem of racism and police brutality in the US, while they had issues of human-rights abuses of their own nations, Haq said:

“In order to deal with these issues, we ourselves have to take a critical look and a hard look at what each country does. And we made it very clear; there’s no political ideology, no national capacity that is immune from racism. This is something that all societies have to tackle, and one of the ways that they need to tackle it is by dealing with it honestly.”

Thursday, June 18

• Barbara Crossette wrote a stunning portrait of the declining state of most of the world’s children in the pandemic, with some forced to work and most out of school. Against this backdrop stands Guterres’s recent decision to remove the Saudi-United Arab Emirates military coalition from a UN blacklist of countries committing serious violations involving children. Human Rights Watch said the delisting brings “shame” to the UN. The UN envoy for children and armed conflict, Virginia Gamba, briefed the media on June 15.

• The spokesperson’s briefing discussed the Sahel region in Africa, where 24 million people need humanitarian help, half of them children; a Covid-19 update on Zambia, which has 1,400 confirmed cases; and Unicef delivering 10,000 Covid-19 tests to Yemen by chartered plane. Also:

• More than 1 percent of people today are forcefully displaced, according to this year’s Global Trends report by the UN Refugee Agency. The displacement is disproportionately occurring in Yemen, Syria, the Sahel and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Filippo Grandi, the head of the agency, told the UN Security Council that the number of displaced people is twice as many as 10 years ago.

• France, which is president of the Security Council in June, said at its meeting on refugees: “France is actively working towards the implementation of its commitments taken at the Global Refugee Forum, notably regarding resettlement, with 10,000 places for 2020-2021, legal cooperation and the inclusion of climate and environmental criteria in its Humanitarian Strategy.”

• Leni Stenseth was appointed deputy commissioner-general of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or Unrwa. Stenseth previously worked with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Norwegian Red Cross.

• In the media rush on John Bolton’s new book on his short tenure as US national security adviser in the Trump administration, he writes that Secretary of State Pompeo called Nikki Haley, the US envoy to the UN at the time, “light as a feather,” prompting PassBlue to recall this video moment at the UN in 2018.

Friday, June 19

• In the spokesperson’s briefing, it was noted that a new agreement was signed in Bosnia-Herzegovina for Mostar residents to vote for the first time since 2008; the UN was offering Covid-19 related help to Nepal and Venezuela; and a new Bolivia-UN agreement will support “dialogue and human rights for peace building in the country.” Other highights:

• The International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict was marked with Guterres’s speech on the increased challenges faced by survivors of sexual violence in the pandemic.

• In a new policy brief on Covid-19 and the World of Work, Guterres spotlighted the “dramatic effect” of the pandemic on jobs, livelihoods and the well-being of workers and their families as well as on businesses. Huge losses in working hours are predicted for the 2nd quarter of 2020, and Guterres noted that women have been especially hard hit as well as young people and people with disabilities. He emphasized that action is needed immediately on providing support to “at-risk workers, enterprises, jobs and incomes to avoid closures, job losses and income decline.”

• There is no update on Guterres’s naming a new envoy for the UN political mission in Libya. Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesperson, provided no comment as well on the US proposing Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a former Danish prime minister, for the role as a negotiator in Libya. Stephanie Williams, an American, is the UN’s acting special representative for the mission there.

• Reem Abaza, the spokesperson for the president of the General Assembly, reiterated that for the high-level session in September, world leaders’ speeches will most likely be prerecord by video and projected onto a screen in the GA Hall in New York. Other procedures, such as “right of reply” to speeches, are being worked out.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

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.

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Major UN Elections, Covid-19 Help, Saudis Off the Hook
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