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Biden and Harris Interact With the UN; a New Envoy for Afghanistan; Canada Meets a Secretary-General Candidate

Jane Connors
Jane Connors, the UN victims’ rights advocate, and Christine Besong, on the screen, the victims’ rights advocate in Bukavu, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, briefing reporters on the latest report of “Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Abuse,” March 19, 2021. The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed people in vulnerable situations to more risks of sexual exploitation and abuse, the report says. JOHN PENNEY 

The Security Council gathers with President Biden; commercial surrogacy is legalized in New York State; Kamala Harris on women and democracy; a UN secretary-general aspirant meets with Canadian diplomats.

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

We appreciate the huge support from our readers to ensure that we keep the UN and its member states accountable to the public. If you haven’t donated to PassBlue recently, we encourage you to join thousands of others in keeping democracy alive and kicking.

Our influence: Barbara Crossette’s March 15 article on New York State legalizing commercial surrogacy got the attention of the UN’s special rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, Shushan Khachyan. She asked PassBlue for more information about the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women’s opposing the new law and possibly following up with other UN experts on it.

We thank Ryan Heath, the editor of Politico’s Global Translations newsletter, for including Stéphanie Fillion’s latest coverage of developments in the UN secretary-general race, which began early this year. Her March 12 report describes a campaign by two techies to find a “people-backed candidate” who is also a woman. So far on PassBlue’s Twitter page, some women have been suggested, from Pakistan’s former Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar to Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados.

Sunday, March 14

“While recently attending a virtual tour of the United Nations Office at Vienna, I was astonished to learn that the translation services did not include sign language interpreters. There are six official UN languages — Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish,” writes Vero Dimoplon, a disability expert, in an op-ed. “With one billion people, or 15 percent of the global population, living with a disability, the UN should add sign language as the seventh official language to its spoken communications.”

Monday, March 15

• “In the middle of the night on April 2, 2020, buried in a 400-page state budget, a provision to make commercial surrogacy legal in New York was adopted despite a campaign against the move by leading advocates of women’s reproductive health and rights.” Barbara Crossette reports on activism by Taina Bien-Aimé and her organization, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, against the new law. The campaign leading to its “controversial passage was buoyed by misinformation, disinformation and total disregard of women’s rights to health and equality,” Bien-Aimé is quoted.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Secretary-General António Guterres spoke at the opening of the 65th session of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, the annual international gathering of women’s rights advocates. He called on leaders to recognize women’s equal rights fully, ensure women’s economic inclusion, enact an emergency response plan to address violence against women and increase support for young women agitating for a more equal world. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the head of UN Women, which sponsors the CSW, said this was her last year running the UN entity.

El-Ghassim Wane of Mauritania is the new UN special envoy and head of the UN mission in Mali (Minusma); he succeeds Annadif Khatir Mahamat Saleh of Chad, whose five-year term is ending.

Tuesday, March 16

• “Facing a world unsettled and even shocked by what has happened to the United States in recent years and not sure what to expect of Americans now, Vice President Kamala Harris spoke today in clear, reassuring terms to a United Nations audience, tuned in globally” for the CSW confab online. But as Barbara Crossette reports, Harris warned that democracy everywhere was in peril and that strengthening it “depends fundamentally on the empowerment of women.” Ms. reposted the article.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: A reporter asked: “US Secretary of State [Antony Blinken] and Secretary of Defence [Lloyd Austin] have gone on a visit to Seoul. A statement has come from the sister of Kim Jong Un [of North Korea]: ‘We take this opportunity to warn the new US Administration trying hard to give off gunpowder smell in our land. If it wants to sleep in peace for the coming four years, it better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.’ What is the Secretary‑General’s view on what doesn’t seem to be particularly good signs in diplomacy with regard to North Korea?”

Response: “The Secretary‑General’s position on the situation on the Korean Peninsula remains the same. He wants dialogue. He wants to see a denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula. He wants to see tensions lowered, whether those tensions are military or rhetorical tensions. I think we would want to see a re‑engagement of the major players on this file to try to find a diplomatic solution forward.”

(Relatedly, the US confirmed that the Biden administration contacted North Korea but has not received a response. The US also “reached out to the North Korean Government through several channels starting in mid-February, including in New York. And to date, we have not received any response from Pyongyang.” The New York contact might have been the North Korean mission to the UN.)

• Unicef, WHO and Unfpa released a report saying the pandemic has led to 4.5 million girls likely to never return to school. The girls are at particular risk due to deteriorating access to sexual and reproductive health services.

Wednesday, March 17

• Peter Splinter, a human-rights expert in Geneva, writes in an op-ed that the key issue the US faces as it rejoins the Human Rights Council is racism. That entails, he notes, focusing on the follow-up to the debate in the Council in June 2020 on “racially inspired human-rights violations, systemic racism, police brutality and violence against peaceful protests.”

• Spokesperson’s briefing: In a video message marking the International Day Against Islamophohia, Guterres said that “anti-Muslim bigotry is in line with other disturbing trends we are seeing globally, including a resurgence in stigma and hate speech that targets vulnerable populations.”

• A UN panel of experts has determined that the arms embargo the Security Council imposed on Libya in 2011 is “totally ineffective” as blatant violations by various UN member states are committed.

Thursday, March 18

• Arora Akanksha, the UN millennial staffer who launched her own campaign to run for secretary-general last month, held meetings with three top Canadian officials this week in New York City, including Canada’s ambassador to the UN, Bob Rae. Akanksha is a Canadian citizen who was born in India. So far, her candidacy has no national endorsement. She is challenging Secretary-General Guterres, who is running for another five-year term starting in 2022: Stéphanie Fillion’s exclusive on the latest news on the secretary-general race.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres has appointed Jean Arnault of France as his personal envoy on Afghanistan and Regional Issues, as the US further pressures the country to negotiate with the Taliban. Arnault, who has more than 30 years’ experience in diplomacy and UN missions in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, including Afghanistan, will start as soon as possible.

A reporter asked of Arnault’s appointment, “Have those duties now been taken away from Deborah Lyons?” (A Canadian and UN special envoy for Afghanistan, who has been doing shuttle diplomacy on the Afghan peace talks for months.) Response: “No. In terms of rank, they are both at the Under‑Secretary‑General level. They will both report to the Secretary‑General through the Department of Peacebuilding and Political Affairs (DPPA). Neither outranks the other. They’re just different functions.”

The spokesperson added that Arnault “will work very closely with Deborah Lyons and the whole UN team in Afghanistan.” A reporter asked, “Do you think this reflects poorly, in the middle of the CSW [Commission on the Status of Women], that a woman who was doing this job has now been replaced or succeeded or will be doing work in parallel with a man?” Response: “In my mind, the two are unrelated. She is not being replaced. He is not succeeding her. He’s not overshadowing her. They will work in partnership.”

• The White House hosted a gathering of UN Security Council members with President Biden and the US presidential envoy on climate, John Kerry. One Council member told PassBlue that Biden spoke approximately for 7 minutes and Kerry for 12; the 15 Council ambassadors were given 2 minutes each to speak, making for a quick, concise affair to mark the US presidency of the Council this month. (In pre-pandemic times, the Council would normally travel to Washington for lunch with the president, as it did during the Trump administration.)

Additionally, the Council has not met in its chambers this year, according to Security Council Procedure, an independent entity. A Council member told PassBlue that the US was reluctant to return to the chamber because of physical distancing problems amid the pandemic, whereas Russia and numerous other countries are eager to return. The alternative place to meet (besides videoconferencing) is the large Economic and Social Council chamber, but Russia doesn’t think it projects enough gravitas.

Friday, March 19

• Spokesperson’s briefing: For World Water Day, the UN Environment Program said that globally, more than three billion people are at risk of disease because the water quality in their rivers, lakes and groundwater is unknown because of no data. Researchers surveyed more than 75,000 bodies of water in 89 countries and found that more than 40 percent were severely polluted, suggesting that the world is falling behind on a global push to provide safe drinking water to all of humanity.

Worth watching:

The Konrad Adenauer foundation‘s office in New York City presented a live virtual program on women in foreign policy. As it says in its description, “Only a few women sit at the negotiating table when it comes to war and peace. Foreign and security policy remains a largely male-dominated domain in politics. As of November 2020, 10 women are serving as Head of State and 13 are serving as Head of Government. Only 21 percent of government ministers worldwide were women.” (The foundation is close to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat Party; in New York City, KAS focuses on the UN.)

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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