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The Surreal Saga of Gitmo; US Rejoins the Human Rights Council; the Taliban Break Promises


A United Nations official showing an empty ballot box to a delegate as the General Assembly voted on the 18 new members of the Human Rights Council, Oct. 14, 2021. Among the elected to the three-year term is the United States, returning to the Council after the Trump administration withdrew from it in 2018. LOEY FELIPE/UN PHOTO

The Taliban break promises to women in Afghanistan; Mali moving toward combatant reintegration; the Kafkaesque legal work representing Gitmo detainees.

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. This week, frozen assets and aid funding contribute to a worsening crisis in Afghanistan, and humanitarian workers in the Tigray region of Ethiopia are still facing high hurdles. 

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• Britain’s ex-health minister Matt Hancock and Parliamentarian tweeted on Oct. 12 that he had accepted the role of United Nations envoy for financial innovation and climate change for its Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), working on the continent’s Covid recovery. But the offer by Vera Songwe as head of the ECA sparked immediate controversy, given that Hancock’s tweet was posted on the same day that a new report by British lawmakers found that the government’s response in the early days of the pandemic was a deadly failure. Hancock also resigned as health minister in June 2021, after he was photographed breaking social-distancing rules by kissing an aide in his office, media widely reported. Moreover, Britain and the United States were among the well-off countries that blocked proposals to help poorer nations boost their vaccine manufacturing abilities, leaked documents revealed in March. Global Justice Now, a civil society group, tweeted on Oct. 12:

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Global Justice Now, an advocacy group, tweeted its response to the Hancock announcement.

By Friday, Oct. 15, the UN spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, told PassBlue: “Mr. Hancock’s appointment by the UN Economic Commission for Africa is not being taken forward. ECA has advised him of the matter.” — DULCIE LEIMBACH 

Monday, Oct. 11

A US Lawyer Who Has Worked With Gitmo Detainees Details Her Journey Into a ‘Kafkaesque’ World: Clair MacDougall interviews Beth Jacob, an American lawyer, who has worked pro bono representing Guantánamo Bay detainees for 15 years, with only four of the clients having been released. She says, “There’s really no effective way to right the wrong or bring justice.” (The story was supported by a fellowship for MacDougall from the Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.)

• No UN spokesperson’s briefing was held. Instead, Secretary-General António Guterres held a short press briefing on recent developments in Afghanistan, saying he was “particularly alarmed” to see promises that the Taliban made to Afghan women are being broken. He stressed that frozen assets and paused development aid (by primarily the World Bank and others in the West) mean that the economy is “breaking down” and essential services have been suspended, and he noted that women make up most of the country’s large informal economy. [Update, Oct. 13: the UN said that there have been 150,000 cases of Covid-19 in Afghanistan, and more than 7,200 deaths, so about five percent of people with the disease die. Nearly 80 percent of the vaccines that have been sent to the country come from the Covax facility; so far, 2.4 million of Afghans, out of roughly 40 million people, have been vaccinated.]

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• The Women’s Forum on Afghanistan, an informal group of Afghan and global women leaders who are focusing on ways to ensure women’s human rights in Afghanistan, since the Taliban takeover on Aug. 15, sent a letter to UN and European Union officials before the EU ministers’ Oct. 11 meeting on humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. The forum is chaired by former Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, and the letter recommended, among other steps, that “decisions relating to the disbursement of funding in Afghanistan, including the funds raised from the recent pledging conference for Afghanistan, be made in close consultation with Afghan women leaders through a formal process established for that purpose. . . .”

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Tuesday, Oct. 12

From the UN75 Declaration to ‘Our Common Agenda’: Perfecting a World Where No One Is Left Behind: In an essay by Alya Ahmed Saif Al-Thani, the ambassador of Qatar to the UN, and Anna Karin Enestrom, the ambassador of Sweden to the UN, they drive home the importance of world leaders’ following the recommendations of UN Secretary-General Guterres to commit to global solidarity, renew the social contract to build trust and ensure respect for human rights, end the war on science and find ways to complement how the world measures economic prosperity and progress.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Mali announced that it will reintegrate 13,000 former combatants by the end of the year, and another 13,000 within the next two to three years, part of the global disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program. Roughly 300 ex-combatant women per region have also been registered as part of the reintegration. This news comes as the Security Council announced that it planned to visit Mali and Niger this month, as reported in PassBlue’s recent monthly column, Security Council Presidency (on Kenya), with a podcast episode. But as of Oct. 15, the Council’s trip is in limbo as it waits for the Malian government’s confirmation, several sources told PassBlue. Additionally, the French military have begun withdrawing from Mali, as France announced it would do early this year, and handing security responsibility to Malian troops. 

Wednesday, Oct. 13

Afghan Students Reach Kyrgyzstan After a Risky Journey: Barbara Crossette’s update on an Aug. 27 story about the evacuation of hundred of students from Afghanistan who have been enrolled in the American University of Central Asia, a plan arranged by the Kyrgyzstan and United States governments. About 60 percent of the students are women, according to the university.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: The situation in northern Ethiopia continues to be “highly unpredictable and volatile” with the delivery of humanitarian supplies into the embattled region of Tigray still “heavily constrained through the only road access route from Afar.” While an increase in the number of trucks carrying humanitarian supplies into Tigray increased to 211 from Oct. 6 to 12, compared with 80 trucks a week earlier, the UN still needs “100 trucks a day arriving into Tigray” to ease the desperate hunger. Responding to a reporter, Dujarric said that Guterres spoke to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia on Oct. 12, “reiterating a lot of things we’ve said publicly . . . to help avoid war.” Dujarric did not say who initiated the call and was unaware of any mention in the conversation about the evidence of the accusations Ethiopia made regarding its expelling seven UN officials recently.

• Justice Richard Goldstone of South Africa delives into the proposed Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Humanity, to be considered on Oct. 13 in the UN’s General Assembly committee on legal questions. The essay is part of a series published by the Global Justice Center and Just Security on the proposed convention.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, being congratulated after the US won a seat in the Human Rights Council in a vote by the General Assembly electing new members, Oct. 14, 2021. With her is Dahir Salad Hassan, a Somali diplomat whose country is also joining the Council in January for a three-year term.

Thursday, Oct. 14

Dahlias for Your Darling, and a Lavender Latte While You Wait: Deborah Baldwin and Irwin Arieff have reupped their UN Eats column, reviewing places to eat in the UN neighborhood on the East Side of Manhattan, as businesses are slowly reopening. The reviewers checked out two cafes that have become hangouts for UN folks in the pandemic.  

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres is “deeply concerned” about the street violence in Beirut on Oct. 14 that left at least six people dead, Dujarric said. The secretary-general has reiterated “the need for an impartial, thorough and transparent” probe into the August 2020 explosion. (See PassBlue’s podcast episode and article on the explosion.) The UN’s special coordinator for Lebanon, Joanna Wronecka, condemned the use of armed violence “outside of state authority,” adding, “Now is the time for all sides to support judicial independence in the interest of the people,” she said.

• The General Assembly voted in 18 new members from the UN’s five regional groups to join the Geneva-based Human Rights Council for three-year terms, starting on Jan. 1, 2022. Monica Grayley, the spokesperson for the president of the General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid, listed (see video below) the newcomers and voting breakdown: Benin, Cameroon, Eritrea, Gambia and Somalia (African Group); India, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (Asia Pacific); Lithuania and Montenegro (Eastern Europe); Argentina, Honduras and Paraguay (Latin America and Caribbean); and Finland, Luxembourg and the US (Western European and Other Groups).

The number of votes won by countries in their respective regional groups:

Benin: 189, Gambia: 186, Cameroon: 179, Somalia: 171 and Eritrea: 144

India: 184, Kazakhstan: 184, Malaysia: 183, Qatar: 182, United Arab Emirates: 180

Lithuania: 178, Montenegro: 178

Paraguay: 185, Argentina: 175, Honduras: 172

Finland: 180, Luxembourg: 180, US: 168

The US rejoins the Council after the Trump administration withdrew from it in 2018 and has held “observer” status since then. Its return follows through on a pledge made by Joe Biden in his presidential campaign in December 2020 that his administration would seek to become a member again in the 47-member body. Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group, a think tank in New York City, tweeted that the US got 167 votes when it last ran for a Council seat, under the Obama administration in 2009, after his predecessor, President George W. Bush, shunned the Council. In the 2009 election, the US ran on a clean slate, like this time.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US envoy to the UN, released a statement after the vote, saying that her country would focus on “situations of dire need, such as in Afghanistan, Burma, China, Ethiopia, Syria, and Yemen.” More broadly, she added, the US “will promote respect for fundamental freedoms and women’s rights, and oppose religious intolerance, racial and ethnic injustices, and violence and discrimination against members of minority groups, including LGBTQI+ persons and persons with disabilities. And we will oppose the Council’s disproportionate attention on Israel, which includes the Council’s only standing agenda item targeting a single country.” — DULCIE LEIMBACH 

Friday, Oct. 15

• Spokesperson’s briefing: The UN secretariat has “responded positively to the request of the National Electoral Council of Venezuela” to deploy a panel of three UN experts to follow the process of the November 2021 municipal and regional elections and provide the secretary-general with an “independent internal report of the overall conduct of the elections.” A panel of electoral experts is one type of such assistance that the UN provides to member states at their request. Unlike UN electoral observation missions, which require a mandate by the Security Council or the General Assembly, a panel of electoral experts does not issue evaluative public statements on the overall conduct of the process or their results.


• US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee’s hearing on Oct. 14, “Tunisia: Examining the State of Democracy and Next Steps for U.S. Policy,” featured as a witness Alexis Arieff, Africa policy analyst for the Congressional Research Service (and the daughter of Deborah Baldwin and Irwin Arieff, two editorial standouts of PassBlue).

• Five names were submitted by the Oct. 1 deadline for consideration to become the next director-general of the International Labor Organization, succeeding Guy Ryder. The candidates include two women: Kyang-wha Kang of South Korea and Muriel Pénicaud of France. The election by the ILO’s governing body will be held in March 2022 for the term beginning Oct. 1, 2022.

• The Washington Post’s Afghan bureau chief, Susannah George, took questions on what it’s like in the country since the Taliban takeover on Aug. 15: to sum up, it’s different.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

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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The Surreal Saga of Gitmo; US Rejoins the Human Rights Council; the Taliban Break Promises
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Arun Shori
Arun Shori
2 years ago

It is a sad day for the UN when it appoints failed British politicians to postions even if unpaid. The prestige and expenses paid would however be an excellent position for this failed politician. The UN loses whatever little credibility it has when the old boys’ network ensures this carries on. The good work done by the majority is all lost. It is 2021 and not the 1960s. Very sad.

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