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America’s Blinken ‘Visits’ the UN; Mexico’s Split Personality on Women’s Rights; New Secretary-General Applicants

Indigenous women perform a Tlalmanalli ceremony to begin the international Generation Equality Forum in Mexico City, March 29, 2021. “Tlalmanali” means an “offering to the earth” in the Nahuatl language, according to UN Women, which convened the forum and will hold a final one in Paris in June. PAOLA GARCIA/UN Women

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken dials the UN; Mexico’s dual-personality approach to women’s rights; a deadly French airstrike on a wedding in Mali; two new applicants for secretary-general.

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.

PassBlue was featured in a live Foreign Press Association event on April 1, focusing on the likelihood of a woman being selected for UN secretary-general for 2022-26. Kristen Saloomey of Al Jazeera English interviewed Dulcie Leimbach, PassBlue’s editor, as well as Stéphanie Fillion and Sonah Lee-Lassiter, contributors to PassBlue. Their conclusion? You never know, but don’t hold your breath.

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Monday, March 29

• “During the arrests and transfers, the report documented, police officers referred to women by using violent, sexualized language and threatened and subjected them to physical and sexual assault. The notion that women should stay at home instead of making trouble for themselves by demonstrating was reinforced by the police in protests nationwide”: Maurizio Guerrero reports for PassBlue on the women’s rights conflicts in Mexico, a sharp contrast to how the country promotes such rights as an elected member of the UN Security Council. (The video below depicts protesters in Mexico City on International Women’s Day, March 8.)

US Secretary of State Blinken visited the UN virtually, speaking at the Security Council’s briefing on Syria. He emphasized the need to keep open the remaining humanitarian-aid border crossing into the country and reopen two that were closed last year when Russia, Syria’s ally, refused to allow the Council to reauthorize them. Blinken said: “We have a responsibility to ensure Syrians have access to lifesaving assistance, no matter where they live. Given that goal, there was no good reason at the time for the council’s failure to reauthorize these two humanitarian crossings.” (This week, Russia said it would not be “flexible” on the matter.)

In the bonanza visit, Blinken also met with Secretary-General António Guterres; the president of the General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir; and the US mission to the UN staff. One topic Blinken apparently discussed with UN officials is the prospects of the General Assembly annual session in September; one source told PassBlue that it could be a hybrid event; last year’s was almost all virtual. The UN is now encouraging diplomats based in New York City to take advantage of its expanding vaccine eligibility. But September is a different ballgame, as many national delegations coming from abroad may not be fully vaccinated by then, so a full-on gathering is not likely to happen. As to whether President Joe Biden will speak in person at the UNGA, as it’s called, is debatable, as the optics of him speaking to a sparsely populated General Assembly Hall will have to be considered as well as the Covid-19 restrictions at the time. UN officials and others want him come to the UN to send a visible message that the US is back, after four years of the Trump presidency bashing the world body. — DULCIE LEIMBACH 

(Guterres’s remarks to Blinken; the State Department’s readout of Blinken’s conversation with Guterres, including on Afghanistan, Syria, Western Sahara, Ethiopia and Libya; Bozkir’s public-video meeting with Blinken, who takes notes.)

• In addition, a hybrid joint press conference on a debt and liquidity event was held with Guterres, Prime Minister Andrew Holness of Jamaica and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada. The policy brief.

• “Scores of Chinese and foreign companies producing ‘well-known global brands’ may be involved in human trafficking, forced labour and other human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region, a UN working group said on Monday, calling more attention to an issue that Beijing is increasingly on the defensive about,” the South China Morning Post reports.

• A new person, Fátima Nouinou, has submitted her application as a candidate for UN secretary-general, as the selection process is underway for the 2022-2026 term. (Officially, only Guterres is a candidate so far.)

• Here’s a good summary of the recently ended Commission on the Status of Women’s conference, by Stéphanie Fillion, for the Friedrich Ebert foundation.


The president of the UN General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, on screen in New York City, meeting US Secretary of State Blinken, beamed in from Washington, March 20, 2021. FREDDIE EVERETT/STATE DEPARTMENT

Tuesday, March 31

• “Inger Andersen, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, has been working from Copenhagen since March 2020 — away from the agency’s headquarters in Nairobi for a year.” Maurizio Guerrero reports for PassBlue on the potentially symbolic effects of the UN agency’s head not being physically in the country, despite the pandemic.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: At the General Assembly session on Syria, Guterres reiterated his call for a negotiated political settlement, per Security Council Resolution 2254. He urged several steps to combat the growing humanitarian crisis in Syria and ending the 10-year war, including allowing free, fair elections and addressing the plight of detainees. “Despite the UN’s massive response in Syria and across the region, more humanitarian access is required to those in need,” he said. “A large-scale cross-border response for an additional 12 months remains essential to save lives.”

• Relatedly, the pledging conference in Brussels for Syrian humanitarian aid garnered $4.4 billion to assist millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons this year, as the civil war entered its second decade this month, VOA reports.

Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy, held a public media briefing in which he touched on, among other subjects, how “our American friends have done a very good job [as President of the Security Council].” Yet Polyanskiy was asked why Russia sent a deputy ambassador to the March 18 virtual meeting with the entire Security Council and President Biden and why Russia refused to speak, unlike the other Council members:

Polyanskiy replied, in brief: “I would like to ask you not to diminish the significance and the rank of Mrs Anna Evstigneeva”; “the update on the US moving this invitation to the White House came on a very short notice”; and “in the context when our Ambassador was called to Moscow for consultations, we thought it would not be very logical for us to say anything because our relations with the United States are undergoing a very deep review right now. So we were present at the meeting. We were polite.”

On the politicization of Covid-19 vaccines, he said: “Vaccines must not be discredited because they are Russian, or Chinese, or Indian, as long as they are efficient.” He added: “Personally, I would be ready to vaccinate here with an American vaccine without any problem. . . . But the fact is that we still don’t have such a possibility to get vaccinated here. Therefore, we will, possibly, solve this issue through importing our vaccine to New York. There is such a possibility for our staff.” But Russias’s Sputnik V vaccine cannot be imported easily to the US, as it requires being stored at -18 degrees Celsius, so the Russian delegation may seek another vaccine, produced back home, to be sent to its UN mission in New York City.

• The US State Dept released its annual human-rights report, as the Biden administration reinstated countries’ records on women’s access to reproductive health services. That information had been dropped in previous reports by the Trump administration.

Wednesday, March 31

A Jan. 3 airstrike by French bombers on a wedding party in a central Mali village left 19 civilians dead, enraging the community of Bounti and prompting calls by local and international groups for investigations, including from the local representative working for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Clair MacDougall reports from Burkina Faso for PassBlue on the UN’s just-released probe into the attack, which may have violated international humanitarian law, and France’s response. The story was co-posted by The Daily Beast, which has approximately one million readers daily.

• The WHO released a report on the history of Covid-19, saying the possibility that the virus had leaked from a lab in Wuhan had been insufficiently investigated. In that vein, a reporter asked at the UN spokesperson’s briefing: “Is the Secretary‑General satisfied with the results of the international investigation into the origins of COVID‑19? Does he think that more investigation needs to be done? And, if so, by whom?” Response: “It’s really not for the Secretary‑General to opine on this. This was managed and launched by WHO. The Secretary-General says several things should be done at once. First, with the pandemic, look at its origin, and continue to do so. And then he also looks forward to the report that is commissioned by WHO from Helen Clark and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.”

US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield took five questions from reporters at a stakeout outside the UN Security Council on the last day of the US rotating presidency. She touched on gender equality, US relations with China and Russia in the Council, Myanmar, North Korea and Ethiopia. (With a video.)

• Christine Schraner-Burgener, the UN envoy for Myanmar, spoke to the Security Council privately; her remarks were made public afterward. She said that more than 520 people have been killed since the Feb. 1 coup began, and that a “bloodbath is imminent.”

• The president of the General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir, a Turk, is traveling on his first official trip since assuming office in September, from April 1-12 to Turkey, Qatar and Azerbaijan. Bozkir received his Covid-19 vaccine in New York City earlier this year.

Thursday, April 1

• Spokesperson’s briefing: A reporter asked, “There are now six applicants [for Secretary General] in addition to Guterres, who is a candidate. We know the Secretary‑General has said repeatedly, in everything he does, he’s in favor of transparency, yet these other six candidates are left in limbo. You like sporting metaphors. They seem to be taking part in the game, but no one seems to have decided the rules. So, is the Secretary‑General, out of fairness, frustrated by this?” Response: “The Secretary‑General is a candidate in this selection process. He does not make the rules.”

• Emma Reilly, a legal adviser in Geneva for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, announced on Twitter her “protest candidacy” for UN secretary-general. A self-described whistleblower, Reilly is Irish and British and has accused the UN of providing “advance information” to China on “who precisely plans to engage with human rights mechanisms.” The UN has denied her allegations. Here is part of her candidacy “vision statement”:

• “Pandemic recovery is an opportunity to rethink our systems to ensure that people with autism can realize their full potential,” Guterres said at the World Autism Awareness event.

• Joanna Wronecka of Poland is the UN’s new special coordinator for Lebanon (Unscol). She succeeds Jan Kubis of Slovakia, who is now head of the UN mission in Libya. (Our 2019 episode with Wronecka is one of our most-popular in the UN-Scripted podcast series.)

Friday, April 2

The UN is closed for Good Friday.

Not to Be Missed

• Who might be picked by the UN secretary-general to be the next “relief chief,” in charge of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs? The New Humanitarian goes “fishing” for names. Britain, a permanent member of the Security Council, seems sure to hang on to the post because otherwise, it would not helm any top UN agency.

• Stéphanie Fillion, a contributing reporter for PassBlue, was interviewed by the Foreign Press Association on a timeless challenge: “Getting Your Stories Published Is a Matter of Trying Hard and Not Giving Up.” 

Dulcie Leimbach contributed reporting to this weekly summary.

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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