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The US Rejoins the Paris Agreement; Climate-Related Conflicts; Intrigue With a UN Envoy


John Kerry, the new special presidential envoy for climate, participated in a UN-related event on Feb. 19 marking the United States returning to the Paris Agreement, after the Trump administration left it in 2017. Kerry said, “We have to end the word ‘climate change’ and own up to the fact that it is the ‘climate crisis’ now.”

The United States jumps back into the Paris Agreement; the Security Council tackles climate-security risks (for now); a new UN envoy’s letter from the past returns to haunt him.

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.

We’re excited to tell you about our first reporting collaboration with Geneva Solutions, a nonprofit media site founded in August 2020 and dedicated to “constructive journalism principles, leveraging Geneva’s historical and ongoing efforts to finding solutions to global issues.” The site’s newsletter, the GS Daily Brief, featured a story by Stéphanie Fillion, which appeared simultaneously in PassBlue, on how the Security Council’s upcoming Feb. 23 session on climate change and security risks may already be controversial. (See Feb. 18.)

As a gentle reminder, PassBlue is an independent, nonprofit media site that depends on the tax-deductible donations of foundations and individuals like you for our budget to pay our hardworking team. Please give generously so we can continue to produce crucial journalism on the UN.

Monday, Feb. 15

• Is the world ready for a vaccine passport? Ivana Ramirez reports for PassBlue on the possibility, writing: “ICAO, the Montreal-based air travel policy and diplomacy arm of the United Nations, envisions a coordinated effort to screen travelers by having them present their vaccination records before boarding an international flight. Such a testing certificate would be similar to an e-passport or machine-readable travel document, both established by ICAO and with built-in privacy protections.”

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• Spokesperson’s briefing: Christine Schraner-Burgener, the UN envoy to Myanmar, spoke again with Deputy Commander-in-Chief Soe Win to reiterate the UN secretary-general’s statement to member states “to exercise influence regarding the protection of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the people of Myanmar.”

A reporter asked, “I’m sure we’re all much more interested in what [Win’s] reaction was to . . . the message that she delivered from the Secretary‑General.” Response: “As you know, we don’t speak for member governments, and I wouldn’t be able to speak on behalf of Deputy Commander‑in‑Chief Soe Win.” Reporter: “It would be very interesting to know if the general had a response, and it doesn’t necessarily have to come from him. She, obviously, heard what he said. That’s my point.”

New appointments: Peter Grohmann of Germany is the new UN resident coordinator in Mexico and David Gressly of the US is the new resident coordinator in Yemen.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria has been elected as the World Trade Organization’s new director-general. When she takes office on March 1, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala will be the first woman and first African in this role. Her term, which is renewable, ends on Aug. 31, 2025.

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Tuesday, Feb. 16

• A controversial letter written in 2019 by a Norwegian diplomat who is now a leading United Nations envoy in the Middle East, vouched for an Israeli billionaire’s role in the release of a Norwegian-British citizen sentenced to death for murder in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The tale of intrigue — involving the diplomat Tor Wennesland and Dan Gertler, a notorious businessman sanctioned by the US — was drawn from recently published articles in The Norwegian Business Daily (Dagens Næringsliv/DN), who alerted PassBlue to its reports.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: The World Health Organization approved two versions of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine to be distributed through the Covax facility. The vaccines are produced in South Korea and India. Additionally, Unicef launched the Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative to enable leading airlines “to support the prioritization of the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines and other critical supplies,” the UN said. Update: Just 10 countries have administered 75 percent of all Covid-19 vaccines globally. Meanwhile, approximately 130 countries have not received a single dose, according to the UN. Secretary-General António Guterres called on the G20 countries to set up a task force to create a global vaccination plan.

Scooplet: The Security Council has not met physically in its UN chamber in several months as consensus for gathering remains a problem. There was hope that the Security Council’s Feb. 16 meeting would be physical, but tensions over where to meet are keeping Council sessions virtual for now. When the Council first met physically in the pandemic, it convened in the UN’s Ecosoc chamber in July, as it was deemed safe for social distancing. Then Russia donated customized plexiglass dividers for the Council’s horseshoe table in its regular chamber and members met there sporadically. But it turns out the partitions do not ensure social distancing, according to UN medical services, a source told PassBlue, so Ecosoc is the only alternative. At least one Council member, however, apparently insists on returning to the Security Council chamber.

• The US Senate is scheduled to vote in full on the nomination of Linda Thomas-Greenfield as UN ambassador on Feb. 22. That gives her little time to prepare for the US assuming the Security Council rotating presidency in March, though much planning is happening behind the scenes. That may include a focus on Covid-19 vaccinations globally as well as climate-security risks, à la Britain’s presidency in February.

Isabelle Durant of Belgium was appointed acting secretary-general of the UN Conference on Trade and Development by Guterres, after she served as the deputy secretary-general since 2017. Meanwhile, Guterres has begun a recruitment process to find a successor to lead the organization after Mukhisa Kituyi of Kenya resigned amid controversy.

Wednesday, Feb. 17

• Spokesperson’s briefing: In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the WHO and Unicef are helping to support an Ebola response by rehabilitating treatment centers and boosting contact-tracing capacity as new outbreaks in the country have been reported. In Guinea, where Ebola has also been suddenly detected and where the disease originated in the deadly epidemic in 2014, a UN team is assessing the situation in the southeast area of Nzerekore.

• In the UN Security Council, led by Britain in February, a call for a global cease-fire to vaccinate people against Covid-19 in conflict zones was made amid a meeting that included US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who briefed the Council for the first time in his new role in the Biden administration.

Thursday, Feb. 18

• “British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is scheduled to preside over a Security Council meeting virtually on climate and security risks on Feb. 23,” Stéphanie Fillion writes. “The British introduced the topic to the Council in 2007, but with Washington’s 180-degree turn toward climate change action and some new Security Council members being climate-friendly, 2021 could be the year the theme becomes more prominent in the UN’s most important decision-making body.” That is, if China and Russia do not get in the way. Our story, produced with Geneva Solutions.

• Guterres spoke at a press conference with Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Program, to launch its report, “Making Peace With Nature: A scientific blueprint to tackle the climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies.” Guterres noted that three interlinking climate crises — climate disruption, biodiversity loss and pollution — threaten the planet and that two-thirds of global CO2 emissions originate in households. He recommended that all countries adopt a carbon-neutral plan by 2050 and provide assistance to developing nations.

• Khardiata Lo N’Diaye of Senegal is the new deputy special envoy for Sudan with the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (Unitams); she will also be the UN’s resident coordinator and humanitarian coordinator.

Friday, Feb. 19

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres participated in two events: virtually at the Munich Security Conference segment on “Priorities for Global Action,” where he listed “four imperatives”: a global vaccination plan; the world reaching net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by midcentury; easing “geopolitical tensions” and enhancing “diplomacy for peace”; and calling for a “redefining of global governance for the 21st century and a strengthening of multilateralism.” President Biden laid out his foreign policy focus for Europe at the conference as well, repeating how “America is back”; relatedly, President Emmanuel Macron of France, speaking to the Financial Times, says he will fight “superprofits” being made through “vaccine scarcity.”

The second event, marking the rejoining of US to the Paris Agreement, was broadcast live by the UN and sponsored by UNA-USA’s global engagement summit. It featured John Kerry, the new special presidential envoy for climate, Guterres and others. (Watch it here.)


Ambassador Munir Akram of Pakistan, president of the UN’s Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc), briefed the media on Feb. 19 on the organization’s priorities and vision in the Covid-19 pandemic. He stressed the serious problems of inequalities and how UN development experts could be better used by member states in rebuilding in the post-pandemic world. Listen to the transcript.

• An interview in Devex with a former UN Women who was in charge of addressing sexual harassment and other discrimination in the UN writ large delves into the structural gaps that enable the problems to persist.

Dulcie Leimbach contributed reporting to this article. 

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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