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The UN General Assembly President Turns His Focus on Women, but Why?

Volkan Bozkir, president of the General Assembly, chairing a meeting of the body, Nov. 5, 2020. Bozkir, who is a diplomat and former politician, has created a gender advisory board in the Assembly while his country regresses on protecting women’s rights. ESKINDER DEBEBE/UN PHOTO

When it comes to power and influence in the United Nations system, the president of the General Assembly has little control beyond a procedural role in managing an often-fractious body of member nations, now numbering 193, each with policies of its own. The Assembly is forbidden by Article 12 of the UN Charter, for example, from making recommendations to the mighty Security Council unless asked, but only regarding matters in which the Council is exercising its Charter functions.

So how can an Assembly president, with an impossibly short one-year term in office, make a mark in the annals of the organization?

The answer is to create an initiative that can become a legacy. Most notably in recent years, the 2016 tenure of Mogens Lykketoft stands out. Lykketoft, a Danish economist and politician with virtually no experience in diplomacy and little patience for timeworn procedures, designed a system by which the secrecy among Security Council members in choosing the UN secretary-general could be tempered by a public vetting of candidates. That system will be remembered in 2021 as Secretary-General António Guterres decides whether to seek a second term.

The current Assembly president is Volkan Bozkır of Turkey, a lawyer and diplomat with 39 years in his country’s foreign service and later a member of the Turkish parliament. While Turkey is considered to be regressing in protecting the rights of women, Bozkır has formed a gender advisory group on “equality and women’s empowerment in the multilateral system,” his office announced on Oct. 23.

Although such an initiative might be welcomed by women globally, its timing comes as Turkey is threatening to leave a 2011 treaty against domestic violence that is known, ironically, as the Istanbul Convention. The pact, negotiated by the 47-member Council of Europe, is being strongly defended by women in Turkey who are alarmed by a steady rise in deaths from violent abuses by domestic partners — 400 in 2019.

An advocacy group based in Istanbul, Women for Women’s Human Rights – New Ways Foundation, found that only seven in a hundred victims report abuse to the police, and prosecutors take on only four percent of those cases. Penalties, when they are imposed, are often minimal, the organization says.

Bozkir did not respond to a request from PassBlue for an interview to talk about why he chose this topic and what he hopes to accomplish in his presidency year. His spokesman, Brenden Varma, said in an email that when Bozkir took office in September, “he had already identified gender equality and the empowerment of women, and the protection as two of his top priorities.”

Varma added that when Bozkir presided over the UN’s high-level meeting in October on the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women — Beijing+25, he discovered that “despite palpable progress, it was clear that no country could claim to have achieved gender equality. There is more work to do.”

Bozkir’s gender panel, which held its first meeting on Nov. 10 with no fixed agenda, will be asked “to come up with a road map,” Varma said. It will be an informal group that will guide and advise “on an ad hoc basis” about relevant issues, including violence. “It will be a legacy of President Bozkir.”

Thomas G. Weiss, the author and co-author of numerous books on the UN and how it works, said in an email that while a year may seem a short time, a well-planned, well-staffed campaign can make a difference on an important issue.

“My impression is that all well-prepared PGAs have a theme in mind just as all SC presidents do,” Weiss, a distinguished fellow on global governance at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and presidential professor of political science at the City University of New York Graduate Center, said in his message. (“PGA” stands for president of the General Assembly and “SC” refers to the Security Council.)

“For Lykketoft, for example, I met with him and a couple of his NY staff long before he assumed the position,” Weiss said. “He and his staff wanted ideas about the previous elections suggestions from reports, people to contact, etc. They hit the ground running.”

Weiss said he was not familiar with the details of the new gender campaign, “but I assume that neither the staffing nor the issue will lend themselves to much beyond platitudes.”

The six members of Bozkir’s advisory panel are almost all drawn from established institutions or organizations, not advocacy groups or other nongovernmental groups, though several have had experience in human-rights work. They are:

Sanda Ojiambo, a Kenyan who has been the executive director since 2000 of the UN Global Compact, which is the secretary-general’s strategic policy and advocacy initiative to align business operations and strategies with 10 universal principles in the areas of human rights, labor, environment and anticorruption.

Jukka Salovaara, the ambassador of Finland to the UN and president of the secretariat of UN Women’s executive board. He was formerly director-general for political affairs in the Finnish foreign ministry, specializing in Europe.

Dubravka Simonovic, a jurist and expert on human rights from Croatia who is well known for her work on women’s rights, including as a UN human-rights monitor on violence against women since 2015 and chairperson of the Cedaw committee from 2006 to 2008. From 2008 to 2010, she co-chaired the committee that developed the 2011 Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, the so-called Istanbul pact now facing a Turkish withdrawal.

Patricia Torsney, the permanent observer of the Inter-Parliamentary Union at the UN. She was formerly vice president of the Capital Hill Group, a national government-relations firm, Torsney represented Burlington, Ontario, in the Canadian parliament from 1993 to 2006.

Nahla Valji, the senior gender adviser in the UN’s Executive Office of the Secretary-General and a Canadian.

Soon-Young Yoon, a Korean-American, has been first vice president of CoNGO, the conference of nongovernmental organizations in consultative relations with the UN, and is chair of the board of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO).

Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not alone in considering withdrawing its accession to the 2011 Istanbul Convention.

All along the eastern edge of Europe, media are reporting opposition to the treaty among conservative, populist governments — including Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Latvia — where ratification is on hold.

As violence is being magnified by the constraints and strains of the coronavirus pandemic and taking a high toll on women globally, increasing calls are being made for more efforts to stem personal abuse. The initiative of Bozkir will be followed closely to test whether it has any effects on governments everywhere.

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This article has been updated to correct the fact that Volkan Bozkir is not Turkey’s ambassador to the UN. 

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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