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#UNGA76 Is Here; Women on Edge in Afghanistan; Biden’s Hit-and-Miss With Allies

Photo of Mary Robinson, chair of The Elders group
As chair of The Elders group of global leaders, Mary Robinson, above, led a discussion in the Security Council on the catch-all rubric of “maintenance of international peace and security,” Sept. 7, 2021. Specifically, she advised the Council to keep a close eye on the threats of climate change and nuclear weapons to humanity. MANUEL ELIAS/UN PHOTO

Calling all world leaders to the General Assembly; the Taliban shun women; Biden’s confounding foreign policy.

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.

Scoop: Incoming members of the obscure but influential UN General Assembly Credentials Committee have been appointed (not public yet) for the 76th session, beginning Sept. 14, when the new president of the Assembly, Abdullah Shahid of the Maldives, proposes the members to the Assembly as a whole. If there is no objection, the nine members become official. Longstanding members are China, Russia and the United States; the others are new and chosen for their independence and ability to get along with other countries, several sources told PassBlue. Two are from the Latin American/Caribbean region; two from Africa; one from Europe (Sweden); and one from Asia (Bhutan). The most urgent decision for the committee to make — or not — is who will represent Myanmar in the UN, as the current ambassador, U Kyaw Moe Tun, is being challenged by the junta that seized the democratic government of Myanmar on Feb. 1 and that intends to replace Kyaw Moe Tun with a military man. But the committee, which is expected to meet soon after the Sept. 14 announcement, may defer the decision as the most expeditious way to handle the dueling claims on the UN seat, given the opposing views of China and the US on the politics in Myanmar. Interestingly, of the new incoming six committee members, one abstained from voting in the General Assembly resolution condemning the coup in June. Two others didn’t vote and the other three voted yes. (US voted for it; China and Russia abstained.)

It is rare for the committee to accept the credentials of an ousted government that does not hold power or control territory, but it is not unprecedented (Haiti in 1992, Sierra Leone in 1997). In some cases, the committee deferred making a decision (Afghanistan in 1996 and Cambodia in 1997). Which raises the question of the current Afghanistan seat in the UN as well. The Taliban, who now govern Afghanistan, have not sent a letter to the UN secretariat regarding the status of its seat in the General Assembly. Although Rule 27 of credentialing has a deadline “if possible not less than one week before the opening of the session,” it is not usually enforced. Which means that Ambassador Ghulam Isaczai, who was appointed to the post by the Ashraf Ghani government in June, could keep the seat for now, unless the Credentials Committee acts on it before the end of the year. — DULCIE LEIMBACH

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Monday, Sept. 6: The UN was closed for Labor Day.

Tuesday, Sept. 7

A Jordanian Diplomat With Development Expertise Will Lead UN Women: Barbara Crossette reports that Sima Sami Bahous, 65, until recently Jordan’s ambassador to the UN since 2016, has been chosen as the next executive director of UN Women, the third person to hold the post since its inception in 2010.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Martin Griffiths, the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, met Mullah Baradar and the other Taliban leaders in Kabul Sept. 5-6 to “engage with the authorities on humanitarian issues.” Griffiths spoke to the media at the UN on Sept. 7, saying that he stressed to the Taliban that the UN’s delivery of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan required independence; security of its workers, men and women; humanitarian facilities not be used for military purposes; and UN “values” would be respected, including the freedom of movement and right to an education for women and girls. “He agreed to this,” Griffiths said of Mullah Baradar. 

A reporter asked the spokesperson if the UN would recognize the new Taliban government. Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for Secretary-General António Guterres, replied: “The UN Secretariat and the UN doesn’t engage in acts of recognition of Governments. That is a matter that’s done by Member States, not by us.”

• Pramila Patten, acting head of UN Women, released a statement on the new Taliban government including no women. “Following today’s news of the exclusion of women in the new Government announced by the Taliban, I join with many around the world in expressing my disappointment and dismay at a development that calls into question the recent commitments to protect and respect the rights of Afghanistan’s women and girls,” she said.

Wednesday, Sept. 8

What to Expect From This Year’s UN General Assembly, So Far: Stéphanie Fillion reports on the contours (and which world leaders may show up) for the high-level week, starting Sept. 21, of the Assembly’s opening session. Given the Delta variant and restrictions on the number of delegates allowed in the Assembly Hall, some VIPs are skipping it and sending a pre-recorded video, such as President Macron of France and Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan. Some maybes: Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain and President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria. For sure: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Big question: President Joe Biden of the US. The article was co-published with Geneva Solutions.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Alison Davidian, the deputy country representative for UN Women in Kabul, provided an update on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan (see video below). The Taliban’s recently formed government has yet to “fully articulate” its stance on women’s rights. There are reports of women being unable to leave their home without a male guardian, among other limits, but noting the progress of women in the country over the last 20 years, she said, “We cannot go back to when women were erased.” Davidian said that UN Women counts 75 employees in Afghanistan (15 of them international) and that it “intends to stay,” though its field offices are closed for now. Afghanistan, she added, is facing a triple crisis: a security crisis, climate crisis and fourth wave of the Covid pandemic.

• Guterres appointed Christian Ritscher of Germany as his special adviser and head of the UN Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL.

Thursday, Sept. 9

The Mess in Afghanistan Weakens Biden’s Push for Renewed US Leadership: Irwin Arieff analyzes how the “chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has weakened the Biden administration’s campaign to restore multilateralism as the touchstone of United States foreign policy, eroding international support for US global leadership.”

• Spokesperson’s briefing: The Security Council held a meeting on Guterres’s latest quarterly report on Afghanistan and the implications of the Taliban takeover for international peace and security. Highlights: 

Deborah Lyons, the UN special envoy for Afghanistan and head of the UN’s political mission (Unama), said: “The new reality is that the lives of millions of Afghans will depend on how the Taliban will choose to govern.  But we must ask also ourselves: what can we do and what must we do? The answers I have for you are not comfortable. They present real dilemmas and will require united leadership from the Security Council, from Member States that comprise the Council, from the neighbouring countries, and from the international community more broadly.” Many of the names listed in the Taliban’s newly announced government appear on the UN sanctions list, she pointed out, saying: “All of you will need to decide which steps to take regarding the sanctions list, and the impact on future engagement.”  

A lifelong Afghan women’s rights activist, Wazhma Frogh, gave an impassioned speech to the Council, saying, among other things, “Can you please put aside your political differences and act as one voice supporting the people and women of Afghanistan?”

Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, said that efforts of the previous Afghan government were “clearly insufficient” to fight the “scourge” of terrorism or poverty. Humanitarian missions should prioritize financial support, he added. Full statement here.

China joined Russia in calling to unfreeze Afghan assets abroad. The international community, he said, should respect Afghanistan’s sovereignty and independence and seek “more dialogue with and guidance to the new authority in Afghanistan.” Full statement here.

Ambassador Jeffery DeLaurentis, US senior adviser for special political affairs, said his country would work with a new Afghan government that “protects the gains of the past two decades,” but will not do that “on the basis of . . . faith alone.” Full statement here.

Volkan Bozkir, the outgoing president of the General Assembly, gave his last press conference before he returns to Istanbul. A Turkish politician, Bozkir strove over his yearlong tenure to bring the UN headquarters “back to life” amid the pandemic lockdown in New York City and continuous lighter restrictions. The UN corridors, he said, had been “deafening silent,” with sandwiches left on tables as if a disaster had taken place, inviting rodents. Converting UN meetings to virtual formats eased the isolation of the world body, he said, yet online meetings with diplomats would never replace in-person ones. His views on what the UN needs to do evoked absurd images of red tape (he cited his success in enabling coffee to be served in a meeting in the UN’s Dag Hammarskjold library). More important, he said the UN must work on preventing conflicts better, rather than arriving on the scene after the fact. He also said it would be useful for the General Assembly president to be paid (by member states), to have a permanent residence and health care insurance while serving in New York City. “My country took care of me,” he noted, which is not always possible for other countries to do when they might hold the Assembly presidency. On a final remark, after describing his travels during the pandemic to many places throughout the world, Bozkir said: “The UN flag is the most credible flag in the world.”

Friday, Sept. 10 

• No spokesperson’s briefing; instead Guterres addressed the media about his “Our Common Agenda” report and took questions from reporters ahead of UNGA76 (see video below). He said the report “takes a long, hard look at global governance, and finds it wanting. From global health to digital technology, many of our multilateral frameworks need updating to deal with today’s challenges.” Highlights:

Immediate action to protect the world’s most precious global assets, “from the oceans to outer space, and to deliver on our common aspirations: peace, global health, a livable planet.” He proposed a global Summit of the Future “to consider all these issues and more, to be held in two years.”

Using “new technologies to forecast and model impacts of today’s policies, while strengthening global coordination and introducing new voices to decision-making processes.” A new United Nations Futures Lab will publish regular reports on megatrends and risks.

He also proposed that member states “should consider repurposing the Trusteeship Council, to create an intergovernmental body for intergenerational issues.”

To support all new efforts, he added, “we will launch a UN 2.0 that offers more relevant, systemwide, multilateral and multi-stakeholder solutions to the challenges of the 21st century.”      

ICYMI: Afghanistan stories

Analysis: Taliban Hard-Line Path Worsens Afghanistan Dilemma

Taliban Imposes New Dress Code, Segregation of Women at Afghan Universities

Who Leads Afghanistan’s New Government?

Inside Afghanistan, a Mad Scramble to Save Those Left Behind 

Aid Workers Staying in Taliban-Ruled Tread a Tricky Path

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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