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BLUE SMOKE: A monthly column, from PassBlue and UNA–UK, spotlighting senior appointments at the UN

Day 4, UN General Assembly’s Big Week: Hearing the Voices of Smaller Countries

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A Covid-19 “global action plan” event, held on the sidelines of the General Assembly session at the Lotte New York Palace Hotel, Sept. 23, 2022. From left, Lemogang Kwape of Botswana; Linda Thomas-Greenfield of the US; A.K. Abdul Momen of Bangladesh; and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

As the speeches by world leaders in the General Assembly begin to wind down, the focus stays on the devastating war in Ukraine and its rippling effects across the globe, the warming Earth and other serious crises that continue to hurt people everywhere. Some of the world’s smallest countries, however, took the rostrum to make requests particular to them.

Day 4’s roundup features the leaders of three diverse countries — Barbados, Burkina Faso and South Sudan — as well as an exclusive interview by Dawn Clancy with President Egils Levits of Latvia, a Baltic country that shares a long border — 108 miles — with Russia. Finally, the Danes throw a party with a duckling turned swan theme.

Justifying the Burkina Faso coup President Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba swapped his red beret and military fatigues for a navy-blue suit when he spoke to the General Assembly on Sept. 23. It was the second time he has appeared out of uniform publicly in his eight-month tenure, after he and a group called the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration (or MPSR, in French), overthrew Burkina Faso’s democratically elected president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, in a Jan. 23 coup. To the General Assembly, Damiba defended the ousting of Kaboré’s government, which went against the principles of the international community and the UN, by citing the deteriorating security situation. “It was above all a question about the survival of our nation,” he said, later adding that the transitional authorities were “conscious of their responsibilities to the people of Burkina Faso and duty to the international community.” He referred to the agreement brokered by the regional body called the Economic Community of West African States, for democratic elections to be held 24 months from July 1, 2022, as a “dynamic compromise” that would depend on the improvement of the security situation in his country. However, Damiba said that the return of security, state services and displaced people to zones occupied by armed groups would create “favorable conditions for the holding of credible and transparent elections with the view of returning to constitutional rule.” He added that it would be possible only with major support from the West and others. Damiba said that the transitional government of the Francophone country had reorganized the security forces and instituted deradicalization programs that would reintegrate terrorists back into society. Analysts have noted a significant change in how terrorist recruitment is being discussed and have applauded Damiba for speaking against the abuses of volunteer militias, known as Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland. But he has also been criticized domestically for not tackling abuses by state security forces and for lack of clarity about the government’s military gains since the coup. His government is also suspected of cooking the books on the number of displaced people in the country, which was once estimated at two million, whereas Damiba’s government claims it is 1.5 million. “Damiba justified the military takeover on the grounds that Burkina Faso faced an existential threat,” Elanor Beevor, a senior analyst with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, told PassBlue. “The problem is that we don’t yet have much evidence to suggest the military government can turn the situation around.” Mamadou Savadogo, a Burkinabè analyst, noted: “Since January 24, the situation has gotten a lot worse — there were regions that weren’t affected by the violence that are now affected, and the major roads are under the control of terrorists.” Ouagadougou, the capital, was becoming cut off and encircled, he added. Damiba ended his UN speech warning about the terrorism threat posed to much of West Africa — including Guinea, Ghana, Togo and Benin as well as Europe — “if the Sahel is left to its own devices.” In a sad but common refrain among African leaders now, he added, “And nothing, absolutely nothing, can hold back the youth of countries of the Sahel and its surroundings against the temptation of perilous immigration to Europe through the Sahara and the Mediterranean, if this youth no longer has hope in his own land.” — CLAIR MACDOUGALL 

Barbados slaps down the veto Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, asked for the veto power set up in the UN Charter to be scrapped. Addressing the General Assembly on Sept. 22, Mottley said the UN was established when 25 percent of the current members didn’t exist. (The veto powers are Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.) She referred to “echoing calls by world leaders from Africa” and President Biden’s call in his Sept. 21 speech for reforming the Security Council. “We believe that a Security Council that retains the power of veto in the hands of a few will still lead us to war as we have seen this year, and therefore the reform cannot simply be in its composition but also the removal of that veto,” Mottley said. She also pointed out that the US has maintained sanctions against Cuba, despite 30 years of the General Assembly voting against them. “Do not be shortsighted in your goals, for in this hemisphere peace and prosperity is the province of all,” Mottley told the US. Reiterating Ghanaian President Nana Nana Akufo Addo’s verdict in his Assembly speech on Sept. 21 that the international financial system is skewed against developing countries, Mottley suggested that island developing nations and other fledgling economies should be given longer-term debts and structured borrowing terms that better reflect the realities that triggered the borrowings. She recalled that Britain paid off war bonds to recover from World War I only eight years ago. She reminded the audience that debt servicing on Germany’s loans after World War II was capped at five percent of its exports. Seventy-seven years later, Germany is Europe’s leading economy. “Why must the developing world now seek to find money within seven to ten years when others had the benefit of longer tenors to repay their money?” she asked. Mottley, a British-trained lawyer, has been pushing for reform of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and these efforts have been conceptualized in what is called the Bridgetown Agenda, a document that is the result of civil society and academia consultation in Barbados. She noted that the “Bretton Woods institutions no longer serve the purpose in the 21st century that they served in the 20th century.” A broad stroke of her rethinking of the global financial space is mandating multinational companies and big corporations to give a small percentage of their profits to the protection of “public goods” through the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), a subsidiary of the World Bank. She commended the IMF for creating a resilience and sustainability trust that is soon to be launched but asked that the quotas tied to accessing the fund be removed. (Mottley also spoke at the International Peace Institute, on Sept. 23, as the inaugural Kofi Annan lecturer.)  — JOE PENNEY

South Sudan wants the UN arms embargo lifted Hussein Abdelgadi, South Sudan’s vice president, asked the Security Council in his speech on Sept. 22 to lift sanctions imposed on members of his government to help it carry out provisions of the 2018 revitalized peace agreement. In his speech, Abdelgadi was representing South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, who has led the country since its birth 11 years ago. The revitalized agreement aims to stop the civil war sparked by the first vice president and rebel leader, Riek Machar, and Kiir. The country descended into violence in 2013, two years after its hard-fought independence from Sudan. In 2015, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and his then-Sudanese counterpart, Omar al-Bashir, brokered the first peace agreement. The war gathered pace again in 2018, requiring another peace deal later that year. It came with an arms embargo imposed by the Security Council. “As we make progress on the revitalized peace agreement on the resolution of the conflict in the Republic of South Sudan, we are calling on the international community and the UN in particular to revise individual and targeted sanctions and arms embargo imposed on South Sudan to ensure successful completion of the remaining provisions of the peace agreement outlined in the new roadmap,” said Abdelgadi, who is a member of the opposition party in the unity government. The UN panel of experts on South Sudan recommended in May 2022 that the sanctions highlighted by Abdelgadi in his speech and the arms embargo be renewed for one year. The experts’ advice was based largely on the continued breach of the cease-fire by the parties to the conflict and the importation of armored vehicles by the  government. At the request of the current elected African countries in the Security Council — Kenya, Gabon and Ghana — the South Sudanese military is allowed to import nonlethal equipment. Insecurity is a serious problem in the country. Abdelgadi told the General Assembly that 55.3 percent of his country’s population is food insecure. He said that 80 percent of the country has been ravaged by floods in three consecutive years. He asked for more financial support to help his country deal with the shocks of the warming planet. Young and troubled it may be, the country is helping to mediate the border dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia and the war in Ethiopia between the government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Force, Abdelgadi said. While he said that South Sudan needs to find lasting peace within its own borders, the UN peacekeeping mission in the country wrote in its most recent report that fighting this year between the government and rebels left at least 173 people dead in Unity State. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in March that abuses by the government amounted to war crimes. The office penciled 142 names of people it says should be charged with crimes against humanity. — JOE PENNEY

Egils Levits
When asked about Putin’s threat this week to use nuclear arms in his war on Ukraine, Latvian President Egils Levits told PassBlue: “Russia has nuclear weapons, but NATO has the proper answer,” without elaborating. DAWN CLANCY

A rough neighborhood Latvian President Egils Levits sat down with PassBlue on Sept. 22, on the sidelines of the General Assembly’s high-powered week, to discuss Ukraine’s fight to oust Russia from its territory, Russia’s threat of nuclear war and how the British novelist George Orwell shaped the president’s view of today’s crises. Levits was elected to office in 2019. Latvia, a Baltic country that shares a 180-mile-long border with Russia, is a first-time candidate for an elected seat in the Security Council, for the 2026-2027 term. Latvia became a member of the UN in 1991 and joined the European Union and NATO in 2004, along with Estonia and Lithuania. The conversation has been edited and condensed. — DAWN CLANCY

PassBlue: Earlier this week, President Putin announced a partial mobilization for military reservists. Since then, there have been reports of Russians fleeing their country en masse to avoid conscription. However, the Baltic countries, along with Poland, recently decided to prohibit Russian tourists from entering their territories as long as the war in Ukraine continues. What about citizens who are fleeing military mobilization? 

Levits: As a member of the European Union, we have a common asylum policy. And common legal norms about asylum. So if someone is really threatened by their government, then he or she is entitled to asylum. There are proceedings to examine whether the claim is true. And if it’s true, and there are real threats for political reasons, not criminal, then he or she is entitled to stay to get a residence permit. This applies to all countries, including Russia. So if someone fears that he will be threatened contrary to democratic norms, he can apply for asylum. [If it’s determined your asylum claim is valid], you can stay; if not, you should go back to your country of origin or turn to another country. This applies to people who don’t want to be mobilized in the Russian army.

PassBlue: Putin also doubled down on his nuclear threats, reminding the West that he has such weapons and that “this is not a bluff,” he said. Given that Latvia and Russia are physically close neighbors, how concerned are you about nuclear escalation?

Levits: Russia has nuclear weapons, but NATO has the proper answer. And the point is that the answer will not be announced before Putin can react to that. This ambiguity is part of the concept to deter Russia from using nuclear weapons not only to NATO member states but to Ukraine. So there would be a very severe answer, but what kind of answer Russia does not know.

PassBlue: In your address to the General Assembly on Sept. 21, you stressed that Russia’s war isn’t just a regional security issue but also a threat to global stability. Please expand a bit on some of the most pressing regional issues for Latvia, a country that shares not only a border with Russia but also a lot of history.  

Levits: It is a global issue because Russia is challenging the world’s peace order. That order is based on international law, which is formulated in the UN Charter from 1945. If Russia succeeds, then, of course, that means that this basis of the global peace order would be thrown away. It would be chaos in the world. Therefore, it is in the interest of all countries or states to protect this order, which was, I would say, effective for 77 years now. There is one very good precedent after the Second World War. It was the invasion and annexation of Kuwait by Iraq in 1991. For principled reasons, we could not allow one state to invade another state. So after a relatively short war, Iraq was pushed back to its own borders. [Russia’s war] is a regional challenge, too, because Ukraine is fighting for international law and peace. Our task is to help Ukraine, to provide military help, which we are doing. The United States is also sending military equipment and weapons and other states are, too. So it’s not a bilateral conflict. It is a real challenge to international peace.

PassBlue: So it would be accurate to say that Latvia sees Ukraine as being on the front line of defending the world order? 

Levits: Yes, exactly.

PassBlue: It’s interesting that you mentioned Kuwait as a precedent because you could look at Kuwait and the West’s reaction to the invasion by Saddam Hussein of Iraq as swift. Today, you could look at Putin, and if you connect the dots backward, you could say there were opportunities for a swift reaction from the global community to stop him. In your opinion, looking backward, do you agree that there were opportunities to rein Putin in but world leaders didn’t take him seriously?

Levits: I agree that it was a serious failure of NATO, the most powerful military defense alliance in the world, not to react correctly to this challenge. The first failure was in 2008, when Russia invaded parts of Georgia. The second failure was in 2014, when Russia invaded and partly annexed parts of Ukraine and Crimea. Today is a consequence of not reacting correctly to these challenges.

PassBlue: In your address to the General Assembly, you referenced this quote from George Orwell, “Contrary to popular belief, the past was not more eventful than the present.” To me, this speaks to the idea that human beings, no matter how technologically advanced we become, don’t seem to learn our lessons. What’s your take?

Levits: Today, the 22nd of September 2022, is a result of the decisions made yesterday and the day before yesterday, a year ago, 10 years ago, and 100 years ago. So we should understand that today’s decisions will make our future tomorrow. We are acting on a time continuum, and therefore, we cannot ignore the past. That is the meaning of this quotation. For example, the ideology of colonialism and racism, which has returned to Russia, is nothing new. It’s an ideology of the 19th century. It’s an ideology of Nazis in Germany, and it’s the same today. We shouldn’t think that this is something strange. These ideologies led to certain results. And we should be aware of that to understand how to properly react to the re-emerging of the racist and fascist ideology embedded in the previous decades and previous centuries. This should be in our minds to find the right solution.

PassBlue: It sounds like it’s also the responsibility of the individual as a citizen of the world to understand current events. So that when we have a scenario where Putin invades Ukraine, we aren’t scratching our heads and wondering why he’s doing it. Because, as you said, it’s happening on a continuum. 

Levits: This is a realistic view of the world. If you ignore history, you will fail because you cannot react properly. So, in order to react properly, you should understand the broader picture. The failure of many Western analysts and think tanks is that they are not aware of the broader picture. Today, if I were the director of a think tank, I would dismiss many of these analysts because [Ukraine] was avoidable. It shows that the analysts were not competent.

PassBlue: Now on to something more positive, Latvia is a first-time candidate for the Security Council for the 2026-27 term. Could you walk me through your vision for your candidacy? What can Latvia bring to the table? What issues will you take on? How can Latvia contribute to the reform of the Council?

Levits:  Latvia could contribute to the broader view of the United Nations, especially the Security Council. The problem is that one of the permanent members is now committing the gravest crimes against the UN Charter. Today, there is no real instrument within the Council to deal with it. Therefore, we see a swift shift to the General Assembly. For example, the resolution in March to condemn Russia’s attack was a reaction to a certain inability of the Security Council to act. But we are not saying that the Security Council is not useful for other issues, such as climate change and pollution, the world’s oceans.

PassBlue: Do you support reforming the Council veto?

Levits: President Biden said it would be possible to limit the veto, which is a very good proposal. I had a short conversation with President Biden after his speech, and I told him it was a very good proposal and that we should consider it. There’s a lot of good proposals on how to reform the Security Council, but for the moment, it may not be possible because some members oppose it. But the Security Council is still useful, and Latvia is a candidate, so I hope we will be selected.

Yoshimasa Hayashi, foreign minister of Japan, attending the Covid meeting at the Lotte New York Palace Hotel, Sept. 23, 2022. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Denmark’s campaign with a swan Jeppe Kofod, Denmark’s foreign affairs minister, formally launched his country’s bid for an elected seat in the Security Council for the 2025-2026 term, speaking at a packed reception held on Sept. 22 amid the greenery of the Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice, a block from the UN. As a small country of just under six million — the total population of New York City is roughly eight million — Kofod said if elected to the Council, Denmark planned to deliver on the principles of “equality, security, and action,” by finding “common ground” with fellow member states. “This is a spirit of cooperation and peacebuilding [Denmark] hopes to bring to the Security Council in 2025-2026,” he said. Elections will be held in the spring of 2024. As of now, Greece is also running for one of the two seats in the bloc called the Western European and Others Group, or Weog. The Council has five permanent members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US) and 10 rotating nonpermanent member seats, who each serve two-year terms. Kofod noted that Denmark is a founding member of the UN. “This isn’t just something that matters to us,” he said. “It defines who we are as a nation and as a member of the international community.” Flemming Moller Mortensen, the minister for development of Denmark, told PassBlue that the Security Council needed voices “from small countries like Denmark” to foster partnerships. On Council reform, he said that Denmark had been “very open and frank” on the need for change. To the gathering last night, he said that his country had been busy trying to find the right campaign logo — “and I hope that whenever you see a swan, the beautiful bird of Denmark. . . . or whenever you hear the words ‘equality, security and action,’ it will remind you that Denmark is running for a seat on the UN Security Council 2025-2026.” — DAWN CLANCY 

Ahmad Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, prime minister and incumbent emir of Kuwait, arriving at the UN, Sept. 20, 2022. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on Russia's threat to use nuclear weapons?

Clair MacDougall is an independent journalist who reports throughout Africa from her base in the western Sahel region, where she is currently reporting on the security and humanitarian crisis there. She holds an honor’s degree in political theory and a master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. In February 2021, the International Center for Journalists awarded MacDougall for her article on the first official death of a UN peacekeeper from Covid-19, published jointly by PassBlue and The Daily Beast.

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Day 4, UN General Assembly’s Big Week: Hearing the Voices of Smaller Countries
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