Anti-Asian violence; the closing window for a woman secretary-general; a UN expert threatened by Saudi Arabia; the UN’s humanitarian-aid agency cries out for changes.
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.
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Monday, March 22
• “The United Nations’ top agency for humanitarian aid is poised for a new boss to arrive, one who could instill a management style far removed from what some of its staffers call a ‘neocolonial mind-set’ under the outgoing head, Mark Lowcock, a Briton.” Laura Kirkpatrick reports for PassBlue on the leadership transition in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which has been directed by a Briton for four successive terms. Calls to end the domination have been made by civil society and a prominent former UN official.
• Deputy spokesperson’s briefing: Saudi Arabia announced its “intention” to “help end the conflict in Yemen, which aligns with the UN’s initiative.” That involves work by the UN envoy, Martin Griffiths, to secure a nationwide cease-fire, reopen Sana Airport to civilian traffic, allow more fuel and commodities to enter Hodeidah port and resume a political process to stop the fighting. (Griffiths is working with Tim Lenderking, the new United States envoy for Yemen.)
A reporter asked: “You said the word ‘align.’ The Saudis kind of sold it as a joint Saudi UN negotiating effort. Which is more correct?” Response: “I think I’ll stick with what we’ve said, which is that this is something that is aligned with our efforts.”
Tuesday, March 23
• “The Covid pandemic has again demonstrated how vulnerable and unequal we are. Nation states alone cannot resolve the existential challenges to our planet and people. We need the UN”: Alan Doss, a former UN development executive now based in Geneva, writes for PassBlue about how the process to creating the Millennium Development Goals and their successor, the Sustainable Development Goals, reflects the crucial role the UN can still play in reducing poverty.
• Deputy spokesperson’s briefing: Secretary-General António Guterres “is profoundly concerned about the rise of violence against Asians and people of Asian descent during the COVID-19 pandemic. In some countries, Asian women have been specifically targeted for attack, adding misogyny to the toxic mix of hatred.” He “expresses his full support for the victims and families and stands in solidarity with all those who face racism and other assaults on their human rights.”
• An unnamed Saudi senior official issued a death threat in a meeting with UN officials against the UN special rapporteur Agnès Callamard after her inquiry into the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Al Jazeera reports the Saudi threatened twice in a meeting in Geneva to have Callamard “taken care of.” [Update: A reporter asked at the March 25 UN briefing: “Your colleagues in Geneva have confirmed the high-ranking Saudi officials did, indeed, issue a death threat against your rapporteur, Agnes Callamard. What’s the message from the Secretary General to Riyadh?” Response: “The Secretary General’s message is very simple and very clear, that any and all such threats are unacceptable.”]
• At a Commission on the Status of Women event, titled “Political Leadership and Violence Against Women and Girls: Prevention First,” moderated by Soon-Young Yoon, a member of the gender-parity task force of the president of the General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir said, in part: “Not all instances of gender inequality lead to violence, but gender-based violence stems very much from that inequality. Prevention therefore requires us to address root causes. We need to keep having these conversations and assess the progress we are making against the areas of concern outlined in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.”
Wednesday, March 24
• “Unless a strong candidate backed by an influential member state comes forward soon, it looks unlikely that Secretary-General António Guterres will be denied a second term and that a woman could be elected to succeed him, starting in 2022.” Sonah Lee-Lassiter reports for PassBlue on the quickly dissolving opportunity for a woman to overtake the UN secretary-general position in the next five-year term. On March 25, Volkan Bozkir, the president of the General Assembly, announced that he would hold an “informal dialogue” with the only official candidate so far, Guterres, on May. 7.
• Deputy spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres released a statement reiterating his “deep concern” over the political strife on holding elections in Somalia, despite several rounds of consultations among Somali political players. Guterres “urged the Federal Government of Somalia and all Federal Member State leaders to engage in dialogue and to resolve their differences on the electoral process.”
• “A new UN resolution on Sri Lanka is an important step forward and offers renewed hope of long-awaited justice for victims of the country’s 30-year civil conflict.” Amnesty International’s statement on the UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka.
Thursday, March 25
• Deputy spokesperson’s briefing: The Vienna-based International Narcotics Control Board launched its annual report for 2020, highlighting a global hidden epidemic of drug use among older people. According to the report, as the world population ages, the number of older people with drug use disorders has been increasing.
• “The UN and an Ethiopian rights agency said they had agreed to carry out a joint investigation into abuses in the embattled region of Tigray, where fighting persists as government troops hunt down the region’s fugitive leaders,” US News reports.
• US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, to discuss, among other matters, the agency’s work in Mexico, Central America, and Ethiopia. “The Secretary stressed reinvigorated U.S. leadership on humanitarian issues, reflecting the generosity and core values of the United States.”
Friday, March 26
• Deputy spokesperson’s briefing: A reporter asked: On Covax, in the General Assembly meeting today, “the rep of India said that they are delivering 200,000 doses of vaccine tomorrow in Denmark for UN peacekeeping. And then the Chinese rep said that they also pledged 300,000 doses to UN peacekeeping . . . the math adds up to 500,000 doses when you have about 110,000 peacekeepers. So if everyone gets two doses, that’s 240,000. So, what are you going to do with the other 250,000 or so doses of these vaccines that you’re being offered?”
Response: “Obviously, if it’s the case that we have extra, we’ll have to see what we do with that. At this stage, we’re not quite at that, because as far as I’m aware, we’re only guaranteed to receive some portions of these doses that have been pledged. . . .”
• Annadif Khatir Mahamat Saleh of Chad has been named the UN’s new special envoy for West Africa and the Sahel and head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel. He succeeds Mohamed Ibn Chambas of Ghana.
• Secretary of State Blinken is traveling virtually to the UN on March 29 to chair a meeting in the Security Council on humanitarian aid in Syria (Russia intends to close the last cross-border opening for international aid delivery into Idlib); to meet with Guterres on UN reform and pressing issues in the Security Council and with Bozkir on the annual General Assembly session in September; and with US mission to UN staff and Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. No mention was made in the press release of the secretary-general selection process this year. The UN said it intended to livestream the opening remarks of Guterres and Blinken. Blinken, who just returned from a series of trips to Japan, South Korea, Alaska and Brussels, has yet to visit the UN in person.
• In an annual rite at the end of each Commission on the Status of Women session, “agreed conclusions” are reached by consensus among UN member states. But in 2019, the conclusions, which act as a blueprint for governments in advancing women’s rights, were nearly left on the shredding floor. In 2020, the CSW session was canceled because of the pandemic. This year’s, held mostly online, has covered a range of topics, from women’s “decision-making in public life” to the elimination of violence. On March 26, the final day, the negotiations over the conclusions were in such flux that it was unclear if consensus could be reached, but a document materialized by early evening. Several sources said that the same disagreements over language in 2019, on such fraught words as “gender” and “family” as well as the status of women’s sexual reproductive health rights were up for grabs. This year, however, the US was working with Western and other powers to promote women’s rights, unlike in 2019, when it sided with conservative countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran and, to some extent, Russia, to roll back many women’s rights. This year, Russia “played an exceptionally disruptive role in the negotiations,” a European diplomat said, noting that “Russia is doing all it can to undermine progress on the issue” of women’s rights at the UN. Overall, Europe said it would have preferred more “ambitious language” in the document, but that it shows “the importance of ensuring a human-rights based and gender responsive Covid-19 recovery.” — DULCIE LEIMBACH
You Can’t Miss These:
Samantha Power, who was a US ambassador to the UN and is President Biden’s nominee to lead the Usaid, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 23. A delicate sparring between Power and Senator Ted Cruz (Republican, Texas), is worth a few minutes of your time. (About 1:31 into the recording.)
A Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security event on “International Support for Afghan Women”: Diplomats from over a dozen countries called for women’s equal, meaningful participation throughout the Afghan peace process.
US Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s participation in the General Assembly meeting on March 19, on the elimination of racial discrimination, was “personal for me, because I know the ugly face of racism. I lived racism, I experienced racism, and I survived racism,” she said. A video of her remarks has been viewed by 82,000 people so far.
The Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies’ latest podcast program interviews Ambassador Bob Rae of Canada on the country’s approach to the UN and to the issues of Indigenous People; and his thoughts on Myanmar’s Daw Aung Suu Kyi and the coup.
Dulcie Leimbach contributed reporting to this article.
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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.