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Growing Crises in Myanmar and Tigray; Getting to Know the US Envoy; Will the UN’s Top Humanitarian Job Go to the UK Again?


Pandemic Classroom exhibition at UN
A new exhibition, called “Pandemic Classroom,” opened this week at United Nations headquarters to encourage governments to reopen schools. They have been completely closed for more than 168 million children globally during almost the entire year of Covid-19 lockdowns. ESKINDER DEBEBE/UN PHOTO

Continuing crises in Myanmar and Ethiopia; the US envoy to the UN’s first week; why Britain has held the top humanitarian job for so long; and women’s gains in the African Union.

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.

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Monday, March 1

• “The African Union, living up to its longtime promise to improve the gender balance in its leadership, has elected the first woman as deputy chair of the organization’s operating commission. She is Monique Nsanzabaganwa, an economist who was deputy governor of the National Bank of Rwanda and earlier Rwanda’s minister of trade and industry”: so begins Barbara Crossette’s multilayered report on the strides women are making in dominating the AU commission. Yet the organization is being scrutinized for allegations of administrative corruption and abuses; moreover, the ambitions of Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, at the AU need to be taken into account too, experts say.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement that he “strongly condemned” the violent crackdown in Myanmar. He urged the international community to “send a clear signal to the military that it must respect the will of the people of Myanmar as expressed through the election and to stop the repression.” A reporter asked: “The Myanmar military said that they had fired the UN Ambassador here [U Kyaw Moe Tun]. Have you received any communication from either the Myanmar military to notify that they’re now in charge or that the ambassador has been fired?” Response: “No. In fact, I just checked on my way here. We have not received any communication concerning changes in the representation of Myanmar here at the UN in New York.” (Channel News Asia’s story on Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun’s roller-coaster ride in his post this week.)

Tuesday, March 2

• In an exclusive book review summarizing the memoir, due out in June, of former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Irwin Arieff zeroes in on a surprising conversation Ban had with Nikki Haley, when she was US ambassador to the UN. She agreed with Ban that the US withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal would be a “disastrous mistake,” Arieff writes, yet publicly she was contradicting that stance and possibly her own convictions. A year later, the US left the deal, and Ban notes in his book, “This effectively killed the accord that so many nations had agreed was the best — or even the only — way to contain Iran’s nuclear program.”

• Spokesperson’s briefing: In response to a pledging event held for humanitarian aid to Yemen, Guterres warned that cutting assistance to the country, where famine is looming, is a “death sentence.” Nevertheless, he thanked those who pledged an approximate total of $1.7 billion, which was less than for the humanitarian response plan last year, and a billion dollars less than what was pledged in 2019.

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• Additionally on Ethiopia: More than 80 aid workers have received clearances to go to Tigray, but the permits are for short missions and personnel returning to the region, where conflict erupted in November between the Ethiopian national government and Tigrayan regional officials. Problems persist in delivering aid because of bureaucratic hurdles, lack of Internet access and the UN not having enough humanitarian workers to reach the people in need, the spokesperson noted on March 5. (Update: The Security Council met privately on March 4 on Tigray. The US ambassador said, in part: “The onus to prevent further atrocities and human suffering falls squarely on the Ethiopian government’s shoulders.” But an AFP report on March 6 said the Council scrapped plans to release a statement on ending the violence in Tigray because of opposition from China and Russia.)

Wednesday, March 3

• Ian Martin, a former UN special envoy in such places as East Timor (now Timor-Leste), Nepal and Libya, asks provocatively in an op-ed: “Should the world’s top humanitarian official be chosen through a meritocratic selection process open to candidates from any country, or should the choice be restricted to a single nationality and nomination by that government?” The answer, he writes, is “obvious — but may be the opposite of what is about to happen again during the imminent appointment of a new head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha).” Find out why, he adds, “British-government nominees have filled the post since 2007, in one example of the stranglehold that the five permanent members of the Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) have on certain top Secretariat posts.”

• Spokesperson’s briefing: UN teams in Africa helped ensure the arrival of millions of doses of Covid-19 vaccines through the Covax facility, the vaccine delivery program to developing countries led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, Gavi and the World Health Organization. The vaccines have arrived in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gambia, Kenya, Rwanda and Senegal.

• Additionally, on Myanmar, a reporter asked, in light of the bloodiest day in the country since the Feb. 1 coup: “What has the Secretary General himself been doing on Myanmar? Has he tried to talk to any of the generals? Has he been talking to leaders in the region?” Response: “He has been spending . . . quite a bit of time on the phone speaking to members of . . . ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), including the current presidency of ASEAN, which is Brunei. And he has spoken, also since the coup, to permanent representatives and foreign ministers from Member States who have shown interest in this and, obviously, members of the Security Council.”

Thursday, March 4

• Spokesperson’s briefing: UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock traveled virtually to the town of Beni, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to speak to internally displaced families there — the site of a “decades-long protection crisis,” the UN said. The country has the second-largest number of displaced people globally, at 5.2 million children, women and men. The country also hosts 527,000 refugees from neighboring countries.

Cherith Norman Chalet of the US was named UN assistant secretary-general for General Assembly and Conference Management in the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management (DGACM). She most previously was deputy permanent representative and ambassador for UN management and reform at the US mission to the UN in New York City.

Friday, March 5

• When she arrived in Turtle Bay the morning of Feb. 25, a day after being sworn in as US ambassador to the UN in Washington, Linda Thomas-Greenfield didn’t hide the tight timeframe she inherited in her new post, which includes president of the Security Council in March. “I’m not only hitting the ground running, I’m hitting the ground sprinting,” she said to reporters that afternoon. Read our monthly Security Council Presidency column, by Stéphanie Fillion, with a podcast episode (produced with Kacie Candela and help from Ivana Ramirez), on how the new UN envoy is already shaking the place up.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: The UN’s special envoy on Myanmar, Christine Schraner-Burgener, spoke virtually at the Security Council’s closed session on Myanmar, warning that “the hope” the people “have placed in the United Nations and its membership is waning” in reversing events in the country since the coup. She also noted that, since her briefing to the General Assembly last week, “the military brutally unleashed its worst crackdown yet since the 1 February coup, killing a total of around 50 innocent and peaceful protestors while seriously injuring scores more.”

Although the Council produced no statement from its session, Britain, which called for the meeting, told reporters, in part: “The UK calls for the immediate cessation of violence, and for those responsible to be held to account. We reiterate our calls on the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] to respect the rule of law, to release all of those arbitrarily detained, lift the state of emergency and all restrictions on rights and freedom with immediate effect. The United Kingdom supports the role of regional organisations, in particular ASEAN, in resolving the crisis.”

The British ambassador, Barbara Woodward, also said: “We are in discussion with Council partners about the Council product, but we think it’s very important that the Council is able to speak with one voice, that we can call for an end to violence, the release of those arbitrarily detained and a return to democracy.” A diplomatic source told PassBlue that Britain is negotiating closely with China on Myanmar, but that China is relegating leadership on the crisis to Asean, while Russia is playing a hard line in the Council against acting on the situation.

China released a statement after the Council meeting, saying, in part, it “supports ASEAN, in continuing to work in the ASEAN way, to play a bigger role to ease the situation.”

At least one expert on Myanmar, a former diplomat with the US mission to the UN, Kelley Currie, took issue with the goal of the Council speaking with “one voice,” tweeting: 

Richard Gowan, a widely known pundit on the UN, wrote an essay on why closed Security Council meetings can produce false hopes that it will unify and fix a crisis. That’s not how most “UNSC diplomacy works,” he notes.

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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