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The New US Envoy Begins Working; Iran’s Threatening Nuke Actions; Murders in the Congo

Myanmar’s ambassador, U Kyaw Moe Tun, pleaded in the General Assembly on Feb. 26 for international support to overturn the military coup in his country. Here, he signals support to protesters in Myanmar. He was reportedly fired the next day by the Myanmar military.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United States envoy to the UN, starts her job; Iran’s troubling nuclear developments; UN-convoy murders in the Congo.

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.

As International Women’s Day approaches on March 8, we want to remind you that PassBlue is a women-led, nonprofit media site that depends on the tax-deductible donations of foundations and individuals to pay our team (mostly women!). Please give generously.

And see our two stories, published on Feb. 22 and 23, below, on women. The week was also momentous for the new US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who arrived in New York City to begin her job on Thursday morning, “hitting the ground sprinting,” as she said to reporters that afternoon. (See our video.)

Our influence: Clair MacDougall, who won an award from the International Center for Journalists for her PassBlue story on the first official peacekeeping death from Covid-19, was interviewed by the center. Check it out (14:50).

Sunday, Feb. 21

• From Vienna, Stephanie Liechtenstein reported breaking news on how Rafael Mariano Grossi, the head of the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, preserved some of its monitoring and verification work on Iranian nuclear facilities after a weekend trip to Tehran. The temporary plan, Liechtenstein writes, “also provides a bit of space for the United States and Iran to find a diplomatic path to return to mutual compliance and save the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.” Iran has significantly breached its commitment to the nuclear deal since the Trump administration withdrew from it in 2018. The remaining parties to the pact are trying to coax the US and Iran back to compliance with it.

Monday, Feb. 22

• It has been widely documented that 2020 — the year the pandemic struck — hurt women far more than men. But Barbara Crossette writes that the year also revealed “women were standing out for their leadership under pressure in political and economic decision-making” — citing such examples as Mette Frederiksen of Denmark and Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. “Generally, the empathy and care which all of these female leaders have communicated seem to come from an alternate universe than the one we have gotten used to,” an expert says in the article.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: A World Food Program (WFP) delegation traveling in a two-vehicle convoy in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo was attacked in an apparent kidnapping plot. Three people were murdered: Luca Attanasio, Italy’s ambassador to the Congo; Vittorio Iacovacci, his bodyguard; and Mustapha Milambo, a WFP staff member and driver of one of the vehicles. The attack occurred on a road that was reportedly deemed safe; the vehicles were stopped by an unidentified armed group and all passengers were forced to leave their cars. Milambo, below, was killed on the spot, and the remaining six people were forced into the bush, where shots were fired, leaving the Italians dead. The four others in the group — WFP personnel — escaped safely. The UN Department of Safety and Security is leading a review of the incident, the UN said.

Mustapha Milambo, the UN staffer who was killed in the Feb. 22 attack on a World Food Program convoy in the Congo. An Italian ambassador and his bodyguard were also killed.

• UN Secretary-General António Guterres addressed the opening of the 46th regular session of the Human Rights Council via pre-recorded video. He remarked, in part, “I commend the Human Rights Council decision to report on systemic racism, accountability and redress, and responses to peaceful anti-racism protests — and look forward to concrete action.”

Tuesday, Feb. 23

• Simone Filippini, a Dutch expert on the Sustainable Development Goals, presents her case that the UN needs a woman secretary-general now rather than later, as the selection process starts. She notes that “it would be logical” for the respective presidents of the Security Council and the General Assembly to ask countries to propose women candidates, but they have not done so. Filippini ends, “Unless there is a fair chance of success, it is unlikely that many women will step forth, which may be fine for the patriarchy.” (Portugal has formally endorsed Guterres’s candidacy for re-election.)

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres spoke at the Security Council thematic debate on climate and security, stressing that “unless we protect those most exposed and susceptible to climate-related impacts, we can expect them to become even more marginalized.” (Our Feb. 18 story on the topic.) John Kerry, the US envoy for climate, participated in the Council meeting.

• A report by the UN peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan (Unama) and the UN Human Rights Office warned that more civilians are being killed and injured in Afghanistan since the US-Taliban peace negotiations started in September. “More women were killed in the conflict in 2020 than any other year since UNAMA began systematic documentation in 2009,” the report said. “Afghanistan remains among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian.”

• “A Malaysian court paused the deportation of 1,200 Myanmar nationals after human-rights groups argued they could be unsafe under military rule in their home country. Tomorrow the court will consider a longer suspension. Among those facing deportation are members of Myanmar’s Chin and Kachin minorities and non-Rohingya muslims who fled persecution at home”: The Economist.

The US Senate approved Thomas-Greenfield as the new ambassador to the UN by a vote of 78-20, less than a week before the US holds the monthly rotating presidency in the Security Council and after a stinging hearing in January in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as Barbara Crossette reported. Thomas-Greenfield was sworn in on Feb. 24 by Vice President Kamala Harris.

Wednesday, Feb. 24

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Myanmar has developed a “meticulous national vaccination plan,” by having already inoculated 105,000 health workers by the end of January. Unicef, however, said in another matter that it was “alarmed” by the continued use of excessive force against children by Myanmar security forces during public demonstrations protesting the recent coup.

• Guterres addressed the Call to Action for Human Rights, saying: “We will soon launch the system-wide guidance on human rights due diligence for the development and use of technology, informed by a broad spectrum of actors.”

• After the Trump administration left the Human Rights Council in 2018, the Biden team announced its intent to seek election to a seat again, for a two-year term as of January 2022. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said virtually to the Council, “We humbly ask for the support of all UN Member States in our bid to return to a seat in this body.” The US will have to compete against Finland, Italy and Luxembourg, unless one of those countries withdraws from the election, Patrick Rosenow, a German expert on the UN, tweeted.

• Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s first deputy ambassador to the UN, held a media briefing, delving into a range of topics from the Iran nuclear deal to the arrival of Thomas-Greenfield to the UN. He said, in part: “We heard that she’s a professional. She’s one of us, let’s put it this way. It’s always easier to interact with professionals. . . . Only the red carpets and warm welcome. I’m absolutely sure about this.”

Thursday, Feb. 25

• “The International Atomic Energy Agency reported in a confidential document, seen by PassBlue, that Iran has added 17.6 kilograms of uranium, enriched up to 20 percent, to its total stockpile.” In an exclusive story on Iran’s latest breaches of the nuclear deal, Stephanie Liechtenstein also reports that the US may soon condemn Iran’s actions. The article was featured in Politico’s Global Translations newsletter.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: The militaries of India and Pakistan agreed to a cease-fire at the Line of Control in Kashmir and “engage through established mechanisms.” The spokesperson said there was no plan for Guterres to help negotiate the Kashmir problem.

• “Amnesty International stripped Russia’s jailed opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, of his status as a ‘prisoner of conscience.’ The human-rights group was responding to complaints about videos of Mr. Navalny, filmed around 15 years ago, in which he appears to compare immigrants to cockroaches and rotten teeth. His supporters regard the complaints as a spurious attempt by the Kremlin to discredit him,” reports The Economist.

• Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield presented her credentials to Guterres in the early afternoon, after she arrived at 11:30 A.M. by car in New York City for her new post. She then spoke to the media at the Security Council stakeout, taking no questions but promising to do so “in the coming days.” She summed up: “Multilateralism is back, and diplomacy is back, and America is back, and we’re ready to get to work.”

Ligia Noronha of India has been named assistant secretary-general and head of the New York office of the UN Environment Program.

• The large tapestry of Picasso’s Guernica painting that had been lent to the UN by Nelson Rockefeller (through his wife, Happy Rockefeller), hanging outside the Security Council since 1985, has been removed. Nelson A. Rockefeller Jr., who owns the tapestry, asked for its return, the UN said, noting that the request surprised Guterres. Letters were exchanged; phone calls were made, but Guterres was unable to change Rockefeller’s mind. The UN “will review options for art to be displayed outside of the Security Council Chamber.” The news was first reported by Foreign Policy. Reactions on Twitter ranged from sadness to amusement to speculation — why did Rockefeller want it back? — to ideas on replacements.

The “Guernica” tapestry, lent by the Rockefeller family for decades, was returned to Nelson Rockefeller Jr., the owner, recently, leaving the Security Council media stakeout area devoid of the Picasso replica. TOBY BURNS

Friday, Feb. 26

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres “strongly condemns the abduction of over 300 girls during an attack today on a secondary school in Zamfara State, Nigeria.” Unicef said the attack happened overnight at a government secondary school.

• At the General Assembly special session on Myanmar, the country’s ambassador, U Kyaw Moe Tun, made an emotional plea by saying, “We need further strongest possible action from the international community to immediately end the military coup, to stop oppressing the innocent people, to return the state power to the people and to restore the democracy.” Update: The Myanmar military apparently fired the ambassador after his speech.]

ICYMI: The African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (Unamid) reported that a traffic accident on Feb. 2, 2021, involving a Pakistani peacekeeper, Lance Naik Tahir Ikram, resulted in his death on Feb. 20.

Dulcie Leimbach contributed reporting to this article. 

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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