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Trending UN News: Week Ending Jan. 14

Najiba, 8, lives with her mother and five siblings in a displaced-persons camp in Kabul, Afghanistan, where the family fled two years ago from Kunduz because of fighting there. They haven’t seen their father, a drug addict, in three years. Sometimes, the family has no food to cook, so they subsist on bread and tea, says the Norwegian Refugee Council, which is providing “winterization” goods such as boots and blankets to people in the camp. Najiba’s mother told the refugee council that she hoped the “freezing of Afghan funds” would be undone soon. The UN is seeking $5 billion for 2022 for humanitarian and other aid to the country. CHRISTIAN JEPSEN/NRC

Kazakh military dons UN “blue helmets”; US warns Russia at the UN of consequences from any military aggression in Ukraine; nationalism rises in Serbia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

You are reading This Week @UN, summarizing the most pressing issues before the organization. The information is gathered from UN press briefings, PassBlue reporting and other sources. This week, learn about the European woman official helping to broker negotiations between the West and Russia and read why the rising numbers of women judges isn’t reducing gendered violence. 

We are pleased to announce that Open Society Foundations has awarded a two-year grant to PassBlue, enabling us to expand our operations covering foreign policy through the UN. This is a great honor to be recognized by Open Society, and we are eager to begin enhancing our reporting in the years ahead.

Monday, Jan. 10

Helga Schmid, the Persistent European Negotiator: Stephanie Liechtenstein’s report from Vienna profiles a German career diplomat who is a top leader for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The story highlights Schmid’s high-stake role this week in the organization’s talks in the Austrian capital between the West and Russia. The story was included in Politico’s Global Insider roundup.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Nearly 8,000 people have reportedly been detained in Kazakhstan during sudden protests against rising fuel prices and other problems in the country. A reporter asked the UN spokesperson about photos that appeared showing Kazakh forces wearing UN peacekeeping helmets. “Any UN troop and police contributing countries are to use UN insignia only when they are performing their mandated tasks as UN peacekeepers,” said Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson. He added that the Kazakhstan mission to the UN was notified about the use of the helmets and that the UN has “received assurances . . . that this issue [has] been addressed.” 

A German expert on the UN tweet on Jan. 10 points out Kazakhstan’s misuse of UN peacekeeping helmets in the country’s military crackdown on protests.
The Kazakh mission to the UN’s public response to the use of the helmets.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres “formalized his prior announcement” that Amina J. Mohammed of Nigeria will continue in her role as deputy secretary-general during his second five-year term, beginning Jan. 1, 2022.

Tuesday, Jan. 11

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Schools reopened in Uganda after being closed for nearly two years, marking the end of the longest Covid-related school closure in the world, the UN said. Susan Ngongi Namondo, the UN resident coordinator in Uganda, “acknowledged that challenges remain,” and called on renewed commitment from the UN team, national and international partners to address them. Bloomberg reported that the school reopenings were possible after most educators have been at least partly vaccinated against Covid. Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world. (Our essay on how the pandemic has especially hurt children who live in the streets of Kampala, the capital.) 

Capt. Bill Ball, a 33-year veteran of the UN Security Services, died unexpectedly on Jan. 10. Before joining the UN, he served in the US Marine Corps. “I first met Billy when he was on Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s security detail,” Dujarric said at the noon briefing. “As the new kid on the block, he always made sure that I didn’t miss a motorcade and I wasn’t getting lost. He then rose through the ranks to become a supervisor. For the past few years, he was working the midnight shift so was not seen by many people, but, like so many of his colleagues, worked in anonymity keeping all of us safe — in New York and around the world.”

As New York City has been experiencing a surge in the number of Covid cases in the last month because of the Omicron variant, the UN has been quiet, too, though public meetings are still being held, mostly by the Security Council. Ironically, the president of the General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid, postponed the Jan. 13 debate on “galvanising momentum for universal vaccination” because of the “sudden spike in the number of COVID-10 cases around the world and in NYC.” The main cafeteria in UN headquarters is closed until further notice due to “low customer demand,” the UN said. Yet the rate of Covid cases in the city may be leveling off.

A scene in a quiet UN this week: using an exercise band while talking on a cellphone, in the lobby cafe area. 

Wednesday, Jan. 12

More Female Judges Are Named to Top Courts, Yet Brutality Against Women Persists Barbara Crossette writes: “While globally, the number of women judges in courts at all levels has been rising, when cases involve sexual abuse or other gender-specific crimes, a judgment ruled against a man can often be disastrous for the presiding judge.” Yet good news about the first woman Supreme Court judge has come from Pakistan.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: A reporter asked about Guterres’s stance on vaccine mandates. Dujarric said: “Our focus is getting the vaccines . . . to places that need it” and that is taking priority over the “very sharp debate” about vaccine mandates.  

Thursday, Jan. 13

• No noon briefing was held. Instead, Guterres held a press encounter (below) that was not announced in the Jan. 12 spokesperson’s briefing, as the usual procedure to alert reporters. Guterres focused on the “nightmare unfolding” in Afghanistan, where UN operations “desperately need more money and more flexibility” to offer “lifesaving” humanitarian help for the population as a hard winter sets in and the economic meltdown portends a worse disaster. His plea to the Taliban leaders to recognize the rights of women came in the second half of the speech. The UN’s humanitarian and refugee “response plans” are seeking more than $5 billion this year. 

• Noeleen Heyzer, the new UN envoy for Myanmar, released a statement about a call she held with Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, in which she “urged” immediate action to strengthen UN-Asean “cooperation to prevent further deterioration of the situation in Myanmar and address the desperate needs of its people.” Heyzer is based in Bangkok and is scheduled to brief the UN Security Council in January. (Our latest story on Heyzer.)

Friday, Jan. 14

• Spokesperson’s briefing: The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said it was “deeply concerned” by rising ethnic violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia before elections planned in 2022 by both countries. The human-rights office cited, among other acts, “large groups of people chanting the name of convicted war criminal Ratko Mladić,” and the groups singing “nationalistic songs calling for the takeover of various locations in the former Yugoslavia.”

• In a media briefing held by the US mission to the UN on Jan. 14, officials told reporters that Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and other US diplomats have been focused recently on possible “Russian aggression on Ukraine” by having meetings in New York City recently with NATO allies at the UN, fellow Security Council members, Ukraine and other countries. Thomas-Greenfield has met with her Russian counterpart, Vassily Nebenzia, at the UN to convey that if Russia “further escalates tensions,” such actions would go to the heart of the UN Charter principles. Such aggression would also “complicate” Russia’s ability to carry out multilateralism at the UN, the US officials added, including in the Security Council on such topics as the pandemic and nonproliferation. “All options are on the table,” the officials noted. That means looking at the “appropriate time” to hold a public debate in the Council on the matter. — DULCIE LEIMBACH 

Sweden announced it was withdrawing its 100 troops from the European Union’s Operation Takuba, a counterterrorism effort working in the Sahel region of West Africa, after the private Russian mercenary Wagner Group reportedly arrived in Mali. The country’s military-led government, which has undergone two coups since 2020, denies the presence of the Wagner Group in Mali, as does its top diplomat to the UN, who told PassBlue that Mali is “desperate” to improve its security against growing jihadists incursions in the north and central parts of the country. Sweden is also reviewing whether to withdraw its 250 peacekeepers from the UN mission in Mali (Minusma), because of the Wagner Group’s presence. Relatedly, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) announced this week that it was placing more sanctions against the Mali transitional government after it reneged on a commitment to hold a presidential election by February 2022 and delay it until December 2025.

As to Sweden’s “review,” a spokesperson for the UN Department of Peace Operations told PassBlue: “We have seen the news reports. UN peacekeeping has not received any information on this matter from the Member State. MINUSMA plays an important role in the support of peace and stability in Mali, and we are grateful for the critical contributions of all troop and police contributing countries in implementing the Mission’s mandate.”

In the Jan. 11 video below, the African members of the UN Security Council, from left, Gabon, Kenya and Ghana, speak to the media about Ecowas’s steps against Mali. — DULCIE LEIMBACH 

ICYMI

Estonia’s two-year term in the UN Security Council has ended, allowing its ambassador, Sven Jurgenson, to speak frankly to the media on Jan. 14 about how his small country, nestled in the Baltics, experienced its role as an elected member.

• The new voluminous Human Rights Watch world report documents “how people see that unaccountable rulers” — authoritarians — “inevitably prioritize their own interests over the public’s, the popular demand for rights-respecting democracy often remains strong.” In country after country, “large numbers of people have recently taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot. There are few rallies for autocratic rule.”

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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