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The Covid-19 Anniversary; Seeking a Woman Secretary-General; a Sad Women’s Day

Sophia Pierre-Antoine, from the International Organization for Migration’s Gender Coordination Unit, moderated the United Nations Observance of International Women’s Day 2021. This year’s theme, “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world,” marks efforts by women and girls “in shaping a more equal future and recovery” from the pandemic, the UN says. MANUEL ELIAS/UN PHOTO

The Covid-19 pandemic anniversary; digitally recruiting women to run for the United Nations’ top job; International Women’s Day, a bit of a downer.

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

We encourage you to donate to PassBlue to ensure the best reporting from our hardworking team. This week alone, we got a scoop on a new grass-roots campaign to make the UN secretary-general selection process more open; reported on a novel project, a mobile medical unit, being rolled out in Beirut for migrant communities; and published an op-ed declaring that women were never equal players in the UN-led Syrian peace process, despite the window-dressing.

Monday, March 8

• On International Women’s Day, Mouna Ghanem, a Syrian activist, writes in an op-ed that the country’s regime and the opposition are the only parties in the UN-led peace negotiations and that Syrian women’s efforts in peace-building have been ignored. Moreover, she notes, new political negotiations between the United States and Russia on Syria must begin asap, overriding the current “failed” talks. (Update, March 10: A letter signed by more than 630 Syrians was sent to the Ireland mission to the UN, an elected member of the Security Council, demanding that the US and Russia “begin immediate and serious diplomatic negotiations” on Syria and to “jointly develop an action plan to save Syrians from the devastation of inhuman living conditions, both inside Syria and in refugee camps.”

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Secretary-General António Guterres said in a video message for International Women’s Day: “When it comes to the UN, we are on a positive trajectory towards gender parity. We achieved the goal of 50-50 gender parity amongst senior leadership ahead of schedule. In the Secretariat, the proportion of women in the professional categories and above has increased to over 41 percent from 37 percent in 2017.” However, in field operations, “the gender balance there is 31 percent women and 69 percent men.” The 2021 IPU-UN Women Map of Women in Politics, jointly released by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women, highlights a record number of women occupying top leadership roles, which now stands at 22, including 9 heads of state and 13 heads of government. Europe has the most women leaders, and the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway are currently led by women. The number of countries in which women hold half or more ministerial positions dropped from 14 this time last year to 13 in 2021. The environment or energy portfolio tops the ministerial portfolios held by women. Women ministers also dominate portfolios covering social affairs, women’s affairs and gender equality.

A reporter asked, “Women’s Day started in 1977. Since then, nothing has really been done for the woman, and their lives all over the world are more and more difficult. So, what is the point of such a day?” Response: “I think the point of such a day is to refocus the world’s attention on the gains that have been made but also on the enormous challenges that remain. . . . As the Secretary‑General said, the pandemic has set things back across the board, whether it’s on economic power; we see that women are often the first ones to lose their job and the last ones to take them, access to health‑care, the risk to girls, as we’ve outlined through child marriage, and a whole host of other issues.”

Tuesday, March 9

The situation in Myanmar is about to “implode,” writes Noeleen Heyzer, a leading regional analyst, in an op-ed for PassBlue, describing the wide “act of civil disobedience” occurring in the country after the Feb. 1 military coup and the potential for more violence by security forces against peaceful protesters. Heyzer’s plea? For Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) to “recognize that Myanmar is fast becoming a failed state and that some form of serious intervention is required. People on the ground are calling for UN intervention and invoking of R2P, the ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine adopted by member nations at a world summit in 2005.”

• Spokesperson’s briefing: The WHO released a report detailing that violence against women remains a serious problem and starts when women are young. Around 736 million women are subjected to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence from a nonpartner, a number that has remained largely unchanged in the last decade. The report is based on data from 2000 to 2018 and does not reflect the effects of the pandemic.

• On the secretary-general selection process, Brenden Varma, spokesperson for the president of the General Assembly (PGA) said there were four new applicants for the UN’s top job, whose letters and curricula vitae were sent by the PGA (Volkan Bozkir) to the Security Council president (this month, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield). The applicants’ names, however, have not been presented to member states so far, a step in the guidelines of General Assembly resolution 69/321, and the website on the process still shows only one candidate, Guterres. One applicant is Arora Akanksha; another may be Matthew Russell Lee, according to his Twitter account; neither person has a national endorsement, which could prevent them from being considered official candidates. As Security Council Procedure, an independent organization, tweeted about the process: “self-nominations” may not be recognized officially. (Update: A new grass-roots campaign to recruit women candidates for secretary-general debuted on March 11: see March 12 below.)

Wednesday, March 10

• Maria Luisa Gambale reports for PassBlue on Beirut’s efforts to equitably combat Covid-19 through a novel project, financed by the Mayors Migration Council: a mobile medical unit to serve some of the extensive migrant/immigrant communities in the city. The council’s million-dollar Global Cities Fund for Inclusive Pandemic Response, initiated to respond to the urban needs of migrants, refugees and internally displaced people during the pandemic, chose cities in Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Sierra Leone — and Lebanon. Coupled with management help from UN-Habitat, the project in Beirut will provide free Covid-19 testing and related offerings. The mobile unit could also act as a model for other cities with large migrant populations.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres’s special envoy in Myanmar, Christine Schraner-Burgener, “remains in close contact with key actors in the country” and regional parties, “including senior officials in China, leaders of ASEAN countries and other regional organizations.” Yet “there’s no indication as to when she’ll be able to travel to the region, let alone inside the country,” the UN said. The UN Human Rights Office reports that, as of March 8, at least 67 people, including women and children, have been killed. Hundreds more people have been injured.

• The US, in its role as president of the Security Council in March, released a much-negotiated presidential statement from the Council, reiterating its support to the UN envoy Schraner-Burgener and “encourages” her to “maintain communication” and continue to “to engage intensively with all relevant parties in Myanmar, and to visit Myanmar as soon as possible.”

UNA-UK, a nongovernmental organization that educates the British public on the work of the UN, published a letter from dozens of prominent national figures urging Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “champion a transparent, inclusive and merit-based appointment process for the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC), the head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UN’s most senior humanitarian official” — to succeed Mark Lowcock, a Briton who has recently resigned. The letter was sent with a press release that included PassBlue’s March 3 op-ed calling for qualified candidates for the high-profile post, and not necessarily a Briton. (Update: March 12, AFP’s UN correspondent reported that two candidates are finalists for the job: Nick Dyer of the UK; and Olof Skoog, a Swede who is the European Union’s ambassador to the UN.)

Thursday, March 11 

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres released a statement that “commends” women, men and young people everywhere for adapting to the Covid-19 pandemic on its one-year anniversary. He reiterated his concern over unequal vaccine distribution and vaccine nationalism persisting globally. The UN, in conjunction with New York City, will hold a one-year virtual memorial on March 15 at the Brooklyn Science and Engineering Academy in East Flatbush, “to honor victims of COVID-19 and reflect on the one year anniversary of the pandemic.” Worldwide, there have been more than 119 million cases of the disease and more than 2.5 million deaths. In the US, the toll has surpassed 29 million cases and more than 527,000 deaths. In New York City, the epicenter of the virus for several months last spring, more than 733,000 cases have been reported and more than 29,400 deaths.

• “Myanmar’s military coup leaders accused the country’s toppled de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, of illegally taking payments, including gold, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. An army spokesman also accused the former president and other toppled ministers of corruption. Violence continues in the streets; at least seven protesters were killed on Thursday,” The Economist reports.

Friday, March 12

• Stéphanie Fillion writes for PassBlue: A new grass-roots campaign, called #Forward, is launching open, digital global primaries to find a “people-backed” candidate to run for UN secretary-general this year, filling a five-year term starting in 2022. The campaign aims to make the selection process more transparent and democratic while also attracting more attention to the election itself. One catch: no men need apply. The story was reposted on Digital Diplomacy’s Medium page.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: The 65th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) runs March 15-26 (last year, it was canceled because of the pandemic); it will be a hybrid format with mostly virtual meetings. The theme is “women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.” Guterres will speak at the opening and participate in a town hall meeting with civil society on Tuesday, streamed on UN WebTV. Vice President Kamala Harris will also speak at the CSW on March 16, the US said. In addition, 25,000 “feminists representing millions of women” globally will participate in a virtual forum held in parallel with the CSW, according to the NGO Committee on the Status of Women New York. Up to 700 events will be held.

• The International Peace Institute announced that Zeid Raad Al-Hussein is its next president and chief executive. Zeid previously served as the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, from 2014 to 2018, after being a Jordanian diplomat, including as his country’s permanent representative to the UN and ambassador to the US. Zeid succeeds Terje Rod-Larsen, a Norwegian diplomat, who resigned last fall amid a scandal linking him to the accused pedophile (and now-deceased) Jeffrey Epstein, reported by PassBlue.

• Richard Mills, the deputy representative for the US mission to the UN, spoke to civil society on how the US is re-engaging with the UN under the Biden administration, at a forum organized by the World Federation of United Nations Associations, or WFUNA.

Weekend reading:

Rasna Warah, a Kenyan writer and journalist, writes in Africa Is a Country, a possible hard truth: “Even if a woman is nominated and appointed as the UN Secretary-General, we are not likely to see significant reforms in the gender arena because such a woman would be reluctant to bring about major reforms for fear of being labelled too feminist or losing the support of influential UN member states.”

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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