This week, UN peacekeepers are commemorated, an ex-UN staff member is convicted for assault and lying to the FBI and the war in Ukraine enters its third month.
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• Will the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, on May 11, get more attention by the UN Security Council other than a stiffly worded statement and repeated calls for an investigation? The Council’s remarks of May 13 “strongly condemned” the killing but did not mention Israel’s possible role in the shooting, although numerous accounts immediately reported that Abu Akleh was deliberately hit by Israel Defense Force sniper fire. Another journalist was injured. Both women were wearing helmets and blue protective vests marked “Press.” Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, United States envoy to the UN, said that morning to media: “So, I know that she will be sadly missed by all of us, and we have to ensure that we get to the bottom of her killing.” Israeli officials have said Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American, was killed amid an Israeli raid in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, but they have not determined who fired the deadly shot, according to a preliminary investigation that they say will continue. Israel points out that the Palestinian Authority has not cooperated with the request to do a joint probe. Some media and others have also reported that Abu Akleh was not in the middle of active combat and that though the Israeli Defense Forces have accepted the possibility that one of its soldiers may have been responsible, their interim findings, released on May 13, contend the killing of Abu Akleh was accidental. The Palestinian Authority has asked the International Criminal Court to investigate the death, but the court is overburdened, and the US, a close ally of Israel, could pressure the court not to pursue the case. (Al Jazeera has also referred the case to the court.) On May 26, the Palestinian Public Prosecution found that an Israeli soldier fired bullets at Abu Akleh.
The May 13 Security Council statement issued by the US (as president of the Council in May and because Abu Akleh had American citizenship), Norway and the United Arab Emirates, called for an “immediate, thorough, transparent, and fair and impartial investigation into her killing, and stressed the need to ensure accountability,” but it never said who should lead the probe. The United Arab Emirates told PassBlue that it negotiated with the Palestinians on the statement’s language. “As the Arab member on the Security Council, our priority is to ensure that Arab views are taken into account on matters of regional concern, and we continue to coordinate closely with relevant states on Arab files,” Ambassador Lana Nusseibeh said.
Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland‘s ambassador to the UN, said the Council “could have gone further” in its statement. “Our preference would have been to also include a strong reference to freedom of the media, as well as a clear and unequivocal call for an immediate independent investigation,” she said. “Shireen was an independent journalist, a civilian, doing her job. She should be alive today. And we had been seeking a more robust condemnation of such a heinous crime.” On May 24, Ireland held an informal meeting of the Security Council to discuss media freedom, the safety of journalists and issues around the killing of Abu Akleh, but it was attended by a mix of midlevel and top diplomats, signaling ambivalence by some delegates toward the topic. The statement by the US said, “We expect full accountability for those found responsible upon the conclusion of an investigation.” None of the diplomats mentioned Israel by name in their speeches or said who should lead the investigation.
The Israeli mission to the UN issued a statement on Abu Akleh’s death on May 11, saying: “Al Jazeera’s reporter Shireen Abu Akleh was killed in Jenin, where many of the Palestinian terrorists who recently murdered 19 Israelis came from. She was killed during a counter-terror operation and we express sorrow for her loss.” Yet the statement offers no proof that she was in the middle of a counterterror operation. It also refers to how the Palestinian Authority “rushed to blame Israel without even the ability to know the facts.” Less than two weeks later, on May 23, the Israeli mission seems to have moved on, releasing a defiant announcement about a display that it was presenting on the Knesset at the UN. The press release said: “Originally, the UN was unwilling to host the exhibit unless the Israeli Mission removed references to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Ambassador [Gilad] Erdan staunchly refused, writing a strongly worded letter to the UN Secretary-General António Guterres that the Mission would not alter the exhibit. The UN conceded under the condition that the Mission add a disclaimer noting that these are not the views of the UN.”
On May 24, the mission announced that an Israeli-led delegation of 13 UN ambassadors and their spouses was heading for a week to Israel for an “an in-depth study” to “strengthen Israel’s status and influence at the UN.” The countries going on the trip, it said, are Benin, Burundi, Czech Republic, El Salvador, Estonia, Kazakhstan, Malawi, Mexico, Panama, Poland, Slovakia, Tanzania and Uzbekistan. The UJA-Federation of New York is paying for the trip, but the Israeli mission didn’t provide the amount.
And a day after Abu Akleh’s death, Israel announced construction of thousands of new settlements in the occupied West Bank — breaching international law. (The Security Council did not release a statement on the news.) But Tor Wennesland, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said “continued settlement expansion further entrenches the occupation, encroaches upon Palestinian land and natural resources, and hampers the free movement of the Palestinian population.” Joe Biden is expected to make his first visit to Israel as president in late June. Will the US get to the bottom of the killing of Abu Akleh during his visit? — DULCIE LEIMBACH
• “At least 19 victims”: Karim Elkorany, a former UN staff member and resident of West Orange, N.J., has pled guilty to one count of assault of an internationally protected person and one count of making false statements to FBI agents. His plea was entered in the US District Court for Southern District of New York. In November 2016, when the assault occurred, Elkorany was posted in Iraq as a communications specialist for the UN, a position he held until 2018. Previously, from 2013 until early 2016, he worked for Unicef in Iraq. The original indictment issued in 2020 described Elkorany as having worked in communications, “international aid, development, and/or foreign relations.” It covered one count of assault and two counts of false statements. As part of his plea, Elkorany admitted to drugging “at least 19 victims, and sexually assaulting at least 13 of them while they were unconscious after he drugged them,” according to a release by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. The assaults, which occurred from 2002 to 2019, happened around the world, including during his UN postings in Egypt, Iraq and the US. Elkorany worked in international affairs from 2005 to 2018, per the US release. According to a New York Times report of the original indictment, the woman Elkorany assaulted in 2016 informed the UN at the time, and the organization investigated his conduct. When the UN concluded its own investigation, it referred the case to US authorities, Stéphane Dujarric, the UN spokesperson, told PassBlue. The FBI began its probe in 2017 and Elkorany resigned from the UN in 2018. Additionally, Elkorany admitted to drugging and assaulting a second woman, who served as a UN contractor, on many occasions from 2014 to 2019, in many countries, including Iraq and the US. He was not convicted of any crime for this admission. Elkorany faces a total maximum prison term of 15 years and will be sentenced on Sept. 29, 2022. US Attorney Damian Williams urges anyone who may be a victim of Elkorany to contact the FBI at 800-CALL-FBI or tips.fbi.gov. — LAURA E. KIRKPATRICK
Monday, May 23
• What Russia’s Lavrov Left Behind: Those Golden UN Years: Sergey Lavrov is one of the longest- serving civil servants in Russia, rising through the ranks to become Moscow’s top diplomat at the UN and now foreign minister. Irwin Arieff looks at Lavrov’s career and the legacy he may be leaving behind as his government continues to wage war in Ukraine.
• Spokesperson’s briefing: The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said there were now 100 million people displaced around the world. This number, worsened by the war in Ukraine, is the first time “on record,” the agency said. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said “this is not a refugee crisis” but a “political crisis” that can be solved only with “solidarity and political will.” The number included refugees, asylum-seekers and the more than 53 million people displaced inside their own country because of war, the UN said.
Additionally, a reporter asked why new restrictions were placed on the use of UN headquarters and offices there on weekends and evenings by accredited journalists. The reporter said it has been the culture for reporters to have access to their UN offices even on weekends and asked what prompted the sudden change. The spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, said he would “look into it.” [Update, May 27: A reporter asked again about the new restrictions, and Dujarric repeated his earlier comment]
Tuesday, May 24
• Russian Diplomat Resigns His Post in Geneva, Citing the War in Ukraine: A Russian expert in disarmament and a counselor to the UN in Geneva, Boris Bondarev, resigned his role in protest to the war in Ukraine. Michelle Langrand writes about his impassioned decision on a LinkedIn post. PassBlue reposted this story by Geneva Solutions.
• Spokesperson’s briefing: A new report by Unicef finds that “most wealthy countries are creating unhealthy, dangerous and noxious conditions for children, not just within their borders but also across the world.” The report looks at indicators such as exposure to harmful pollutants, including toxic air, pesticides, damp and lead; access to light, green spaces and safe roads; and countries’ contributions to climate crisis, consumption of resources and the dumping of electronic waste. According to the report, if everybody in the world consumed resources at the rate people do in Europe and those countries in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), the equivalent of 3.3 Earths would be needed to keep up with consumption levels.
The UN released a statement regarding the murder of schoolchildren in Texas, saying: “The Secretary-General is deeply shocked and saddened by the heinous mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. It is particularly heart-wrenching that most of the victims are children. The Secretary-General extends his heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims and to the entire community.”
Wednesday, May 25
• In a Rare Sign of Unity, the World Celebrates Cycling: Getting a General Assembly resolution adopted can be difficult, writes Deborah Baldwin, but Leszek Sibilski, a Polish-American cycling enthusiast, got the UN’s 193 countries to support a 2018 resolution declaring June 3 World Bicycle Day. Turkmenistan also helped. The story was reposted on StreetsblogUSA, which has a daily circulation of 20,000 approximately.
• Spokesperson’s briefing: Dujarric said that Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, who is traveling in China from May 23-28, has not spoken to Guterres about her trip so far, despite its potential for controversy given China’s alleged human-rights abuses. Bachelet on Wednesday said she had been able to “discuss discreetly” important issues by videolink with China’s premier, Xi Jinping. Dujarric also said he was “not aware” that Bachelet “admired” China’s stand on human rights, as stated by Chinese state media (see tweet below).
Thursday, May 26
• Spokesperson’s briefing: The UN observed the International Day of UN Peacekeepers. Guterres laid a wreath at the Peacekeepers Memorial at UN headquarters, paying homage to the approximately 4,200 peacekeepers from 42 countries who have died while serving the UN since peacekeeping began in 1948. Guterres also participated in the Dag Hammarskjold ceremony to honor the 117 peacekeepers who died last year while peacekeeping. The UN mission in Mali, Minusma, suffered the biggest loss. (Our related story.)
• Richard Bennett, the new UN special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, finished an 11-day visit there. In a press briefing he “expressed alarm” that many of the Taliban policies and “drive for absolute control” are creating a “society ruled by fear.”
Friday, May 27
• Spokesperson’s briefing: As the Ukraine war enters its fourth month, battles are further escalating in the east, particularly in Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbas. The eastern city of Kharkiv was shelled on Thursday, after weeks of calm and being reclaimed by Ukraine. The UN said it would continue to increase provisions of “life-saving humanitarian aid and support millions of Ukrainians impacted by the war.” The UN says it has now reached reached 7.6 million people in the country, an 11 percent increase from the number of people it reached by the end of last week.
• “Vienna Peace Plan” roundtable discussion on June 1 with Franz Baumann, New York University; ACUNS; John Dunn, Cambridge University; and Mona Khalil; Harvard University; UNIDIR. Held by the Vienna School of International Studies and focusing on a peace deal “project” to end the Russian war in Ukraine. This event will be live in Vienna and streamed simultaneously on https://www.facebook.com/DiplomatischeAkademieWien/live.
• UN Guterres’s commencement speech at Seton Hall University, in South Orange, N.J., on May 24, referred to the school’s location “at the edge of Newark’s Ironbound district,” where it was “a home for homesick Portuguese like me, with some of the best Portuguese restaurants in the tri-State region.” More seriously, he prevailed on the students to fight climate change, saying, “Don’t work for climate-wreckers. Use your talents to drive us towards a renewable future.”
• Guterres awarded the “Captain Mbaye Diagne Medal for Exceptional Courage” to the late Capt. Abdelrazakh Hamit Bahar of Chad at the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers commemorations in New York City on May 26. The Chadian was shot and killed on April 2, 2021, in a counterattack operation he led at a peacekeeping base in Mali. Military Observer Major Winnet Zharare, 39, a Zimbabwean peacekeeper recently with the UN mission in South Sudan (Unmiss), was awarded the 2021 UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award at the ceremony.
• Declaration in Support of the Creation of an International Anti-Corruption Court: a new effort supported by “concerned individuals, former officials, business leaders, representatives of civil society and of government, dedicated to promoting human rights, human health, and international peace and security.”
• Alena Douhan, a UN special rapporteur who focuses on the negative effects of sanctions and a Belarusian lawyer, has been accused of accepting bribes from China.
• A new report from the UN Development Program, “The Impact of the War in Ukraine on Sustainable Development in Africa,” echoes findings of the UN’s Global Crisis Response Group that the war is pushing the Sustainable Development Goals and the African Union’s Agenda 2063 further out of reach.
• “Think and Resist”: a new podcast on feminism and peace from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
This summary was updated to include the “Vienna Peace Plan” event.
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Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.