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The UN Sticks to Afghanistan; Ireland Steers the Security Council; Preying on Mothers’ Fears


Photo of Ramiz Alakbarov at UN Press Conference
Ramiz Alakbarov, the United Nations’ top humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan, briefed reporters from Kabul, the capital, on conditions there on Sept. 1. He described Taliban rule as “decentralized” in the country, with UN humanitarian-aid delivery authorized from the top but not always enforced from province to province. JOHN PENNEY  

The UN’s priorities in Afghanistan for now; how certain multinational corporations feed on new-mothers’ fears amid Covid; Ireland’s envoy defends the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.

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.

After a pause in the dog days of summer, the summary is back to keep you well informed, and much happened in August, mostly evolving around the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the UN’s role there. Approximately 3,000 Afghans work for the UN in their country and most remain there as of this writing, the UN said recently; about 200 international personnel are still present as well. Hundreds of other such staffers have been evacuated to Almaty, Kazakhstan, working remotely.

The major evacuation by the United States — 123,000 people, including about 6,000 Americans — were flown out of Kabul by Aug. 30. The US called it a “massive diplomatic, military, and humanitarian undertaking,” but which also left 13 US service members and hundreds of Afghans dead in the final days when a terrorist attack took place at the Kabul airport.

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Our coverage of the UN in Afghanistan under the control of the Taliban since Aug. 15 led with an article about the UN’s commitment to staying in the country, followed by a story on how Afghans working for the UN feared for their lives and the UN’s response and another on how Kyrgyzstan was offering visas to enable Afghan students in Kabul to attend the American University of Central Asia, in Bishkek. All articles were updated continuously. Overall, the UN is navigating tricky new waters in Afghanistan under the current circumstances, appearing to take one step at a time, but its focus will be on development and humanitarian-aid delivery, a UN official said, noting that the institution has had contact with Taliban, especially in the provinces, for a long time, and that its political mission in the country, Unama, had contact with the Taliban during the peace talks in Doha. Yet ensuring the rights of women and girls, a challenging exercise for the UN throughout many parts of the world, will be uphill. An immediate focus for the UN Security Council is the mandate of Unama, which expires Sept. 17; it will probably be rolled over for a temporary period until Afghanistan’s political situation becomes clearer, several sources told PassBlue. On Sept. 13, UN Secretary-General António Guterres will travel to Geneva to hold a “high-level ministerial humanitarian meeting to address the growing needs” in Afghanistan. The summary below provides more details. — DULCIE LEIMBACH 

Our UN-Scripted podcast series this month features Ireland’s ambassador to the UN, Geraldine Byrne Nason, who was interviewed on what this small but formidable European country will tackle in September as rotating president of the Security Council. Afghanistan and protecting the rights of women and girls there will be foremost, Byrne Nason said in an exclusive interview. (The diplomatic flair of two Bernese mountain dogs are also included in the episode and accompanying article.)

ICYMI, at the end of the summary we list the other articles we published in August, many of them concentrating on women’s rights as well as an investigation into how multinational food and beverage companies are preying on mothers’ fears in the Covid era.

And on a “we have heard” note from several sources: Sima Sami Bahous of Jordan may be named the executive director of UN Women next week.

As always, we encourage your donations to PassBlue, an independent, nonprofit media site that has been reporting on the UN since fall 2011: Ten years!

Monday, Aug. 30 2021

• Spokesperson’s briefing: The World Health Organization said that a plane carrying its medicines and health supplies landed today in Afghanistan for the first time since the Taliban took control on Aug. 15. They will provide basic health needs for over 200,000 people and others in 29 provinces. This marks the first of three flights planned with Pakistan International Airlines to “fill urgent shortages” in such supplies. Separately, no updates on evacuations of UN national and international staff from Afghanistan were provided by the UN. 

A reporter asked whether the UN has any presence at the Kabul airport. Response: “We very much hope that the Taliban will be able to secure the airport and provide an environment in which . . . aircraft operators feel that their planes can land and take off safely,” Stéphane Dujarric, the UN spokesperson, said. Additionally, there are no plans to deploy UN peacekeepers to Afghanistan.

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Photo of Geraldine Byrne Nason at UN Press Conference
Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland’s envoy to the UN, met with reporters on Sept. 1 at the UN in New York City, the first day of her country’s presidency of the Security Council this month. It’s the busiest time of the year for the UN overall, with the opening session of the General Assembly midway through the month. JOHN PENNEY 

Tuesday, Aug. 31 2021

How Infant-Formula Makers Feed Off Covid Fears, by Lori Silberman Brauner: Nearly every expert agrees that breast milk beats formula on every score, but that hasn’t stopped infant-formula makers from pushing their products, cutting breastfeeding rates globally and now using scare tactics amid Covid to sell more of their goods.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Virginia Gamba, the UN special envoy for children and armed conflict, and Najat Maalla M’jid, the UN special envoy on violence against children, called on the Taliban to respect the “dignity and human rights of all Afghans, including boys and girls.”

A reporter asked what the UN is doing on the ground. Response: “We’re continuing to support humanitarian operations in most parts of the country. . . . So, for us, the day after is just another day in Kabul. We’ve been present in Afghanistan for over 60 years.” Guterres met personally with representatives of the Security Council’s permanent members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US) to get a “convergence of the different approaches of the international community” regarding the situation in Afghanistan, Dujarric said, adding that Guterres described the meeting as “pleasant and constructive.” (His statement on Afghanistan.)

• The UN Security Council passed a resolution, with 13 yes votes and two abstentions (China and Russia) that encourages the Taliban in Afghanistan, as the US State Department put it, “to seek an inclusive, negotiated political settlement with full, equal, and meaningful representation of women”; allow the “safe passage” of Afghans who want to leave the country; abide by commitments that Afghanistan not be used to threaten or attack any country; and uphold the rights of women, girls and minorities in the country.

Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021

How Tough Can Ireland Be on Protecting Afghan Women’s Rights? Ireland may be a small European country but it speaks loudly on defending the rights of women, especially as a current elected member of the Security Council and as Afghanistan undergoes enormous changes from the top down. Stéphanie Fillion reports on Ireland’s presidency of the Council in September (with a podcast episode produced by her and Kacie Candela).

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Florencia Soto Niño-Martinez, the associate spokesperson for Guterres, updated on another humanitarian crisis: in Ethiopia. Stocks of relief aid, fuel and cash are low in Tigray, where most of the fighting between rebels and government forces are taking place; and the only access route to the region has been inaccessible since Aug. 22. “We estimate that 100 trucks of food, non-food items, and fuel need to enter Tigray every day to sustain an adequate response. Since 12 July to date, less than 10 per cent of the required trucks have gone in,” Soto Niño-Martinez said.

In the briefing, Ramiz Alakbarov, the deputy special envoy and UN resident and humanitarian coordinator in Afghanistan, said from Kabul (see video below) that the World Food Program in the country will run out of stock in late September and that it has airlifted medical supplies to 20 health centers. The Taliban have permitted aid delivery, but enforcement varies from province to province. Alakbarov, from Azerbaijan, is the top UN official communicating with the Taliban — generally by text messages and phone and other means.

Thursday, Sept. 2 2021

• Spokesperson’s briefing: The UN Humanitarian Air Service (part of the World Food Program) is resuming flights “to enable 160 humanitarian organizations to continue their life-saving activities” in Afghanistan. The service is currently linking Islamabad, Pakistan, to Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar in Afghanistan. (The UN currently has no access to the international airport in Kabul.) Three flights have landed in Mazar-i-Sharif since Aug. 29, and a cargo airbridge is being established for nonfood items.

Friday, Sept. 3, 2021

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Announcements: on Sept. 7, the UN will beam in Alison Davidian, the deputy country representative for UN Women, from Afghanistan to the noon briefing; on Sept. 10 at 12:30 P.M. EDT, Guterres will brief the media to give his pre-UN General Assembly opening session press conference.

The spokesperson provided details on the humanitarian conditions in Afghanistan, as the UN seeks $766 million in its “humanitarian response plan,” saying: more than 12 million people are “acutely food insecure and their situation is expected to be greatly worsened by the drought”; and an economic crisis looms, as job opportunities remain limited. Additionally, the UN Refugee Agency said that it was seeing no large influx of people trying to cross the borders into Pakistan and Iran, but “a displacement crisis is, in fact, taking place inside Afghanistan.”

ICYMI: PassBlue stories published in August:


Anna Bianca Roach is a Simon and June Li Center for Global Journalism Fellow who focuses on climate reporting. She has worked in Canada, Armenia and the United States and is a native speaker of English, French and Italian. She has an M.S. in investigating reporting from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in conflict studies from the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. She has written for OpenDemocracy, The Washington Post and Deutsche Welle.

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