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Where Are the Women Leaders?; War Sparks in the Caucasus; Sadness and Hope at the Beijing+25 Event

Carlos Alvarado Quesada, president of Costa Rica
President Carlos Alvarado Quesada of Costa Rica wore a mask during his entire video speech to the UN General Assembly high-level debate this year. Of 190 leaders who spoke, only 9 were women. JOHN PENNEY

The annual debate of world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly ended on Sept. 29, after a weeklong screening of prerecorded video speeches by 190 member states. The numbers were impressive: videos by 102 heads of state, 1 vice president, 55 heads of government, 1 deputy prime minister and 26 ministers. Startling, however, was that of the 190 participants, only 9 were women, or fewer than 5 percent.

Greetings from This Week @UN, our summary highlighting the most important news on the UN. The news is drawn from the UN spokesperson’s briefings, our original reporting and other sources.

Of the 9 women who spoke, there were 4 heads of state, 4 heads of government and 1 minister, according to the president of the General Assembly’s office. (PassBlue reported on Sept. 10 about the few women who were expected to speak at the debate, with other media jumping on the reporting bandwagon thereafter.)

Mali, which is transitioning from a military coup in August to an interim government, was the only country to not take part. The president of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, has Covid-19, so his foreign minister, a man, stepped in with a video speech. When PassBlue live-tweeted many of the leaders’ remarks, from Sept. 22 to 29, online responses focused not only on what they said but also on the videos’ backdrops and the leaders’ wardrobes, including “best tie” going to Kiribati. (It read, vertically, “Kiribati.”)

Stéphanie Fillion’s story on the etiquette of virtual diplomacy captured the essence of the Assembly session this year, unlike any other in the history of the UN, concluding that some leaders rose to the occasion to shine while others did not quite.

Our coverage began with the UN’s 75th birthday commemoration, on Sept. 21 (in which President Trump was a no-show) and continued with the high-level speeches, starting with President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, followed by Trump, who shockingly ended his remarks with “God bless the United Nations.” Our reports also concentrated on Latin America as well as the first woman leader to deliver her remarks, 51 speakers into the session, from Slovakia.

We wrapped up the UNGA session reporting on the virtual celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, which produced the momentous Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action for gender equality. Like most UN commemorations in the pandemic, the tone was subdued, given that one of the biggest victims in the crisis is women.

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Bhutan’s prime minister, Lotay Tshering, said in his speech that his kingdom currently had no Covid-19 cases, partly because of full health care coverage for all citizens there. 

Monday, Sept. 28

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Regarding the sudden fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic-Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, Secretary-General António Guterres said he was “extremely concerned over the fresh resumption of hostilities along the line of contact in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone.” His message to both leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia was this: “For an immediate stop to the fighting and resumption without precondition of meaningful negotiations without delay. . . .”

Tuesday, Sept. 29

• “In the rubble of what’s left of American commitments to international organizations, one survivor is doing well. The United Nations Population Fund, or UNFPA, the perennial target of Republican politicians and presidents since the 1980s, is thriving”: Barbara Crossette’s report was a bright spot for the UN this week. She included in her writeup an American woman, Jane Roberts, who has doggedly helped fund-raise for the UN agency.

• No spokesperson’s briefing but a virtual UN event on financing for the 2030 agenda amid Covid-19 was held with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and Prime Minister Andrew Holness of Jamaica, in a follow-up from May. Guterres said of the global “acute crisis”: “So far, we have not yet seen enough solidarity to assist with the massive and urgent support those countries and communities need.”

Prime Minister Mette Fredericksen of Denmark was one of the nine women to speak at the GA session in 2020. 

Wednesday, Sept. 30

• Although it has been a banner year for the long-overdue push to appoint women to the notoriously male-dominated leadership ranks of UN peacekeeping and political missions, progress remains painfully slow, say two researchers from New York University. Their essay for PassBlue introduced a “UN Senior Appointments Dashboard,” which will enable a “quick look at how many women from a country or region have been appointed in a given year or over the past quarter century,” the authors write.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: The UN’s first biodiversity summit was held virtually, with prerecorded video messages by global leaders screened to national delegates in the General Assembly Hall and the rest of the world, emphasizing, as Guterres said, rebuilding “our relationship with nature.” Ten years ago, he said, “We secured commitments that should have protected our planet, but we have largely failed to implement them.”

Thursday, Oct. 1

• Spokesperson’s briefing: At the 25th virtual anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, known as Beijing+25, Guterres described the bleak reality: that women and girls are bearing the brunt of the social and economic impact of the pandemic. “Twenty-five years after Beijing, we are facing a women-led recession as women employed in the informal economy are the first to lose their jobs,” he said, adding that unless action is taken now, Covid-19 “could wipe out a generation of fragile progress towards gender equality.”

Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez Blanco of Colombia, one of four women vice presidents from Latin America to speak at the Beijing+25 ceremony on Oct. 1. The others were from Costa Rica, Ecuador and Uruguay. 

Friday, Oct. 2

• “The 25th anniversary of the landmark global action plan that was adopted to expand the equality and rights of women and girls was jinxed from the start,” Barbara Crossette wrote about the daylong Beijing+25 event of speeches by world leaders and UN executives. Long scheduled for March, the UN commemoration was postponed as Covid-19 spread, so when the ceremony took place on Oct. 1, it was virtual. Most important, she wrote: “The messages were mixed and often sobering. Evidence suggests that the pandemic has worsened the lives of women everywhere.”

• Spokesperson’s briefing: At a high-level meeting to commemorate and promote the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, Guterres said that “the world continues to live in the shadow of nuclear catastrophe.” Progress toward the total elimination of nuclear weapons has stalled and could backslide, he added, and programs to modernize arsenals threaten to bring faster, stealthier and more accurate weapons to the world as “spending money on such ill-conceived upgrades is simply staggering.” He appealed to Russia and to the US to extend, “without delay,” the New Start treaty for the maximum duration of five years.

Dulcie Leimbach is the founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal) as well as from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, NHK’s English channel and Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles.

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. She has also worked as an editorial consultant to various UN agencies. 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 before she worked in New York at Esquire magazine and Adweek. In between, she was a Wall Street foreign-exchange dealer. Leimbach has been a fellow at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and was a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.

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