Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs
Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs

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US Recommits to the Human Rights Council; Atrocities in Mali; a New Candidate for the UN’s Top Job


In the UN’s General Assembly Hall, parties to the International Criminal Court elected Karim Khan of Britain as the new prosecutor for a nine-year term, succeeding Fatou Bensouda, Feb. 12, 2021. EVAN SCHNEIDER/UN PHOTO

The US returns to the Human Rights Council; atrocities documented in the Mali conflict; a woman declares her candidacy for UN secretary-general.

You are reading This Week @UN, a summary of the most pressing issues facing the organization. The information is gathered from the UN spokesperson’s press briefings, PassBlue reporting and other sources.

In case you missed it: Our latest podcast episode features an exclusive interview with Britain’s new ambassador to the UN, Barbara Woodward, who just arrived from China, where she was her country’s first woman envoy. Now she’s applying her expertise from five years as the top British diplomat in China to the Security Council. She also talks about how her country will focus this month on the link of climate change to conflicts. It’s a topic that could rankle China and Russia, who in the past have said the Council was not the place for this issue. (With an accompanying article.)

Brava to Clair MacDougall, an Australian living in Burkina Faso, who won first place from the International Center for Journalists’ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum for her article in PassBlue on the first official death of a UN peacekeeper from Covid-19. Judges chose the winners from 672 entries, and MacDougall’s story won in the transparency, crime and corruption (English) category. She worked on the article for months, seeking detailed, sensitive information from the UN peacekeeping department in New York City and the peacekeeping mission in Mali, where Carlos Moisés Guillén Alfaro, an El Salvadorean, was based as an air force pilot. MacDougall’s reporting also entailed talking to Guillén’s family about his despairing last weeks and interviewing other peacekeepers in Mali and medical personnel there. She additionally requested information from the El Salvador government — which never came. MacDougall put her journalism skills to work this week for a new story for PassBlue, reporting on atrocity crimes in Mali (see Feb. 8).

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Monday, Feb. 8

• “A recent United Nations investigation has documented years of grave human-rights violations, including war crimes and other atrocities, in Mali that have gone unpunished as the UN peacekeeping mission there struggles to stabilize the troubled West African nation.” In a highly detailed, 336-page report on the abuses, obtained in full by PassBlue in early January, it accuses all sides in the continuing Mali conflict of wrongdoing, including Malian government troops, local militias, the French military and UN peacekeepers. Prepared by a UN International Commission of Inquiry for Mali, the report was confidentially submitted to the 15-nation Security Council in mid-December. But the Council has yet to act on the findings, now public, while it waits for a response from the Malian government. Our exclusive by Clair MacDougall includes comments from US Senator Patrick Leahy’s office on how it will push for tougher enforcement of the law named after him prohibiting aid to military forces committing human-rights abuses. The story was featured in Politico Playbook.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: The US has formally decided to re-engage with the UN Human Rights Council, after the Trump administration withdrew from it in June 2018, accusing the Council of bias against Israel and other problems. (Secretary-General António Guterres’s response to the news.) Additionally, Mark Lowcock, a Briton who leads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, has resigned, saying he wants to spend more time with his family. The spokesperson said the UN was “thankful that Mr. Lowcock has indicated that he’ll be able to continue at OCHA until a successor is found to avoid any large leadership gap.”

• The spokesperson for Volkan Bozkir, president of the General Assembly, said a letter from Bozkir and the current rotating president of the Security Council, Barbara Woodward, has been sent to UN member states to officially launch the selection process for the post of secretary-general this year. A website to track updates has been set up.

Tuesday, Feb. 9

• Alan Doss, a regular contributor to PassBlue and a former longtime UN executive, writes about the Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar by recalling that in May 2016, he was sent by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, to Myanmar to finalize the terms of reference for the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. In Myanmar, Doss met with Aung San Suu Kyi, “who was disarmingly candid about the daunting challenges she faced, especially dealing with the military” and that “underneath the bonhomie she was a person of strength and determination.” He concluded about the coup: “The genie is out of the bottle. The people of Myanmar have tasted freedom and will not easily go back to the days of military autocracy.”

• Spokesperson’s briefing: President Iván Duque of Colombia has agreed to provide temporary protection to the 1.7 million Venezuelans living in his country. This will allow approximately a third of the five million Venezuelan refugees and migrants in the region to access health and other basic services and contribute to the Colombian economy in the pandemic, the UN said.

Wednesday, Feb. 10

• “Like Donald Trump falsely accusing the Biden campaign of doing what he himself was trying to do — steal the election — the Hutu leaders in Rwanda accused the Tutsis of planning to commit genocide against the majority Hutu group, laying the groundwork for their own genocide against the Tutsis. This action was described as ‘accusations in a mirror’ — accuse the other side of committing the crimes that you are committing”: so write Navi Pillay, who was president of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda from 1999 to 2003, and Jessica Neuwirth, senior legal officer for the tribunal, in their startling op-ed, “Hate Speech and Violence at the US Capitol: Lessons From the Rwandan Genocide.”

• Spokesperson’s briefing: In central Mali, 28 peacekeepers from Togo were wounded when their temporary base in the Douentza region was attacked. The head of the UN mission, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, said that peacekeepers have been carrying out security operations in the region to reduce the threat of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Since January, five peacekeepers have been killed in Mali and a total of 46 injured in “hostile acts,” all Africans. Update: On Feb. 12, the UN announced that one Togolese has died from his wounds in the attack.

A reporter asked, “In light of the two attack that took place in Mali, don’t you think that the mandate [of the UN peacekeeping mission] should be more robust? Because obviously, nothing changed and it’s not stable.” Response: “UN peacekeepers are not meant to conduct counterterrorism operations on a regular basis. They are peacekeepers. For there to be a peace to keep, we also need political leaders to assume their responsibilities across the board.”

Thursday, Feb. 11

• “Arora Akanksha, a 34-year-old staff member who works as an audit coordinator for the United Nations Development Program, has announced her candidacy for the job of UN secretary-general, so far the only person to challenge António Guterres, the incumbent”: Stéphanie Fillion’s scoop zeroes in on the first person to declare herself a candidate for the UN’s top job — a daring step to compete against Guterres, who announced in January that he was seeking a second term. The story about Akanksha buzzed on social media and was featured in Politico’s Global Translations newsletter: “OUTSIDE CHANCE: Stéphanie Fillion profiles Arora Akankshathe millennial U.N. staffer running to stop António Guterres winning a second term as U.N. secretary-general.”

• Spokesperson’s briefing: The UN special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, ended a two-day visit to Saudi Arabia, where he met with Saudi Deputy Minister of Defense Prince Khalid bin Salman; Yemen’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Bin Mubarak; and the new US envoy to Yemen, Tim Lenderking, among others. Meanwhile, a new joint UN report said that nearly 2.3 million children under age five are projected to suffer from acute malnutrition this year in Yemen, the poorest country in the Mideast. Of these, 400,000 are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition and could die if they do not receive urgent treatment. Update: On Feb. 12, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that effective Feb. 16: “I am revoking the terrorist designations recently imposed on Ansarallah. We must deliver humanitarian assistance and commercial imports into Yemen. We remain focused on Ansarallah’s malign activity and are identifying additional targets for designation.”

Friday, Feb. 12

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres’s office issued a readout about his call with Secretary of State Blinken on Feb. 11. In the conversation, Guterres “expressed his deep appreciation for the critically important and strong partnership between the US and the United Nations, particularly on issues such as COVID, the climate emergency, multiple peace and security crises, as well as the increasing threats they all pose to human rights.” He also “welcomed the US’ re-joining the Paris Agreement, as well as its reengagement with the World Health Organization as well as the UN Human Rights Council.” The two also discussed Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia and other “situations.”

The spokesperson added about the call: “What we have seen in terms of words and acts from the US, I think, has been extremely positive. We hope that helps build momentum for a political solution to the conflict in Yemen. I think the lifting of the . . .  the reversal of the designation, the naming of the Special Envoy and the clear, clear language from the top of the US Administration, from President Biden himself, expressing his strong support for the UN‑led mediation process and political peace process, I think, are very, very welcome, indeed.”

Additionally, the Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling on Guterres and the UN human-rights chief Michelle Bachelet to give the independent UN special rapporteur on Myanmar, Tom Andrews, “increased assistance, resources and expertise to carry out his job.” Andrews said that the Myanmar military has detained 220 government officials and civil society members since the Feb. 1 coup. The US also issued a statement on Myanmar at the Feb. 12 emergency Council session.


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

Ivana Ramirez is from South Carolina. She will begin matriculating as an undergraduate student at Yale University in 2021. She writes PassBlue’s This Week @UN news summary and is the researcher for PassBlue’s UN-Scripted podcast series.

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US Recommits to the Human Rights Council; Atrocities in Mali; a New Candidate for the UN’s Top Job
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