Covid-19 and its vaccine get their own special session; steps to select the next United Nations leader must begin; pressure builds on the United States to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change.
You are reading This Week @UN, summarizing the most-pressing issues facing the international organization. The information is gathered from the UN spokesperson’s press briefings, original PassBlue reporting and other sources.
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Don’t miss our new UN-Scripted podcast episode on how South Africa has brought its continent closer to the Security Council. On the reporting, Stéphanie Fillion says, “My interview with South Africa’s political coordinator was frank, honest and insightful — reflecting South Africa’s overall term on the Council and as a broader UN member.” Kacie Candela, the co-producer, notes that the South African diplomat reminded us “that cooperating is the job of diplomats — it is what they are paid to do.”
Monday, Nov. 30
• In 2021, the process to select the UN’s secretary-general for the term starting in 2022 will begin, but will it be inclusive? Ben Donaldson, a co-founder of the 1 for 7 Billion campaign, a global network of civil society groups, writes that Volkan Bozkir, the president of the General Assembly, should start discussions in that forum “on how to consolidate the progress as soon as possible.” The essay shot to the most-read item in PassBlue and was reposted on the UNA-UK website and by Democracy Without Borders.
• Spokesperson’s briefing: The UN has been repeatedly requesting the Ethiopian government for humanitarian aid access into the Tigray region in the sudden war there, but intervention remains minimal. The conflict has caused nearly 46,000 people — mostly children — to flee to Sudan. [Update: On Dec. 2, the UN said it had signed an agreement with Ethiopia “that seeks to enable unimpeded, sustained and secure access for humanitarian personnel and services in areas under the control of the federal government in Tigray, and the bordering areas of Amhara and Afar regions.”]
Tuesday, Dec. 1
• “Recent events in Hong Kong should alert those people who hope that economic development can lead to democratic change. A few weeks ago, the territory’s fragile democratic order took another hit when opposition members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council resigned to protest the disqualification of four of their members, labeled by the Chinese authorities as ‘unpatriotic’ “: so writes Alan Doss, a former UN development expert who worked in Beijing and traveled to Hong Kong often. [Update: Several prominent pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong were jailed on Dec. 1.]
• Spokesperson’s briefing: Secretary-General António Guterres spoke with US President-Elect Biden over the phone “to extend his personal congratulations on his victory.” Both parties, Dujarric added, “look forward to working together to address the many urgent issues facing the world today, including the pandemic, climate change, upholding peace and security, promoting human rights, and addressing humanitarian needs, to mention just a few.” [Biden’s statement on the call.]
Wednesday, Dec. 2
• Humanity’s survival will be “impossible” without the US rejoining the Paris Agreement and achieving “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, as the incoming Biden administration has pledged, writes Mark Hertsgaard, environment editor for The Nation, quoting Guterres in an interview in the lead-up to the Paris pact’s fifth anniversary. As part of the Covering Climate Now news consortium, PassBlue reposted the article.
• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres, speaking on climate change at Columbia University, said: “The pandemic and the climate crisis have brought us to a threshold, but [we have] the solutions we need to make 2021 the year in which we leap forward to carbon neutrality [by 2050].”
In the same vein, two reports were released on the latest effects of climate change: the UN Environment Program’s Production Gap Report says governments must decrease fossil fuel production by six percent a year “to reduce catastrophic warming”; and the World Meteorological Organization’s State of the Climate Report says climate and ocean heat have reached record highs with widespread repercussions for marine and human life.
Additionally, a reporter asked the spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, at the UN briefing if Guterres uses a hybrid car, “and if he’s contemplating getting a new one if it’s not.” Response: “It is not a hybrid. It is also an armoured vehicle, without going into specific details. But I have no doubt if we could get hold of a hybrid electrical car that would meet the security standards, he would do so.”
Thursday, Dec. 3
• “In the last hurrah of its two-year term, South Africa happens to be president of the Security Council in December, so it is making the most of its final month by holding a debate on the all-important United Nations-African Union relationship. South Africa is also chairing the African Union this year, until February 2021, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will virtually attend the Security Council debate, on Dec. 4.” Stéphanie Fillion’s interview with Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the political coordinator for the South African mission to the UN, describes the country’s effort to win more respect for the continent and the African Union in the Security Council, especially among the permanent members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US).
• Spokesperson’s briefing: The General Assembly is holding a special session on Covid-19 (Dec. 3-4), at which Guterres said, “For the first time since 1945, the entire world is confronted by a common threat, regardless of nationality, ethnicity or faith.” He added that “a vaccine cannot undo the damage that will stretch across years, even decades, to come.”
Heads of state and other government officials were scheduled to speak at the session, including Alex Azar, the head of US Health and Human Services. Azar said to the General Assembly, on Dec. 4, that the US government’s Operation Warp Speed “has supported six different vaccine candidates, three of which have now reported promising data.” Although he did not name China, he said “necessary information sharing did not happen, and this dereliction of duty has been absolutely devastating for the entire globe.” He also criticized the World Health Organization, saying its investigation into the origins of the virus will not produce results “until next year — an unacceptable timeframe.” (The US remains the epicenter of the virus globally, with more than 14 million confirmed cases and nearly 277,000 deaths.)
As to news this week about a Covid-19 vaccine, a reporter asked Dujarric at the Dec. 2 briefing if “the UK has now approved a vaccine . . . aside from Russia, has anyone else offered [the Secretary-General] a vaccine? When would you expect him to take it? And is it something he would consider doing publicly, given he’s fighting against misinformation?” Response: “The offer of vaccines to United Nations’ staff . . . from the Russian Federation is the only one that I’m aware of. We remain in discussions with them and, obviously, with the WHO. . . . When it’s ready for him to take it, I’m sure he will . . . we’ll see if he does it publicly.”
Friday, Dec. 4
• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres notes “the Dec. 3 joint statement on the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh issued by the heads of delegation of the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chair countries” and “welcomes the continuing adherence to the ceasefire” per the Nov. 9 statement by the president of Azerbaijan, the prime minister of Armenia and the president of Russia.