This week, we focus on UN reform (no joke!); visits by the UN peacekeeping boss to Lebanon, Syria and Israel; and glimmers of hope for Iraq.
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, we also imagine the possibility of diplomats riding a Ferris wheel down the street from UN headquarters.
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• Plans at the UN to mark the one-year onslaught of Russia against Ukraine, on Feb. 24, are emerging: a Ukrainian-led draft resolution is likely to be submitted to the General Assembly. The current draft refers to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s 10-point peace plan, but as it circulates among UN members, a European diplomat told PassBlue this week, feedback will reveal how much support exists for it beyond Europeans and other Ukrainian allies. A ministerial debate in the Assembly is to be held on Feb. 22-23 with a parallel meeting in the Trusteeship Council on human rights and a high-level meeting on Feb. 24 in the Security Council. Speakers there would include its 15 members and, through Article 37, Ukraine and its bordering countries as well as a European Union representative. Since Germany’s Annalena Baerbock is rumored to be coming, the speakers list may be expanded. It is unclear if Foreign Minister Dymtro Kuleba of Ukraine will come to the UN for the commemoration. — DULCIE LEIMBACH
• Speaking of Ukraine, four months after Zelensky fired his former prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, in response to hundreds of criminal investigations involving employees of her office being accused of committing treason and collaborating with Russia, Venediktova was quietly appointed Ukraine’s ambassador to Switzerland recently. According to her resume, she was Ukraine’s prosecutor general from March 17, 2020, to July 19, 2022, when she was fired along with Ivan Bakanov, the former head of Ukraine’s security service. Her role as the Swiss ambassador began on Nov. 17, 2022. However, it wasn’t until Jan. 31, 2023, in a tweet, that Venediktova mentioned her new job. Her ambassadorship comes to light amid new allegations of corruption targeting the highest levels of Ukraine’s government as it prepares to mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion. During the last days of January 2022, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of Zelensky’s office, resigned after reports suggesting he improperly used an SUV that was donated for humanitarian purposes in Ukraine. Oleksiy Symonenko, Ukraine’s deputy prosecutor general, resigned after social media posts revealed he vacationed in Spain in December despite Ukrainian martial law forbidding men of fighting age to leave the country. Vyacheslav Shapovalov, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, resigned amid allegations of embezzlement. In reaction, Zelensky signed a decree forbidding all “central government” officials from traveling abroad for “vacation or any other non-governmental purpose” and vowed, in several video statements, to reform the social, legal and political landscape of Ukraine to make it more “human, transparent and effective.” Although government corruption is not new to Kyiv, the capital, these scandals occur as billions of dollars in humanitarian, military and economic aid from Western countries pour into Ukraine to help it defend against Russia’s war machine and as the UN, Europe and the United States contemplate how to help rebuild Ukraine when the war ends. In an interview that coincided with the Ukraine Recovery Conference held in Lugano, Switzerland, in July 2022, Achim Steiner, administrator of the UN Development Program, warned that in addition to fighting Russia, Ukraine must also “actively combat corruption” to “unleash a massive influx” of money for reconstruction. “It is in Ukraine’s interest . . . to be seen to be proactive” in fighting corruption,” Steiner said, adding, “There is a significant amount of financing that will come from abroad” to rebuild. Meanwhile, as Zelensky prepared for the Ukraine-European Union summit, to be held in Kyiv on Feb. 3, the country’s security service has led a series of anti-corruption raids to further reform. On Feb. 1, the homes of Ukrainian billionaire and an ex-governor of Ukraine’s Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ihor Kolomoisky, and Arsen Avakov, a former interior minister, were searched. During the Feb. 3 summit, Zelensky is expected to discuss Kyiv’s bid for European Union membership with Ursula von der Leyen the president of the European Commission. Ukraine now holds EU candidate status. — DAWN CLANCY
Monday, Jan. 30
• Will UN Reform Happen This Year? Don’t Hold Your Breath: Evelyn Leopold analyzes the possibilities of the Security Council being reformed this year. As the voices to expand the Council grow louder, the cumbersome process of getting it done invariably makes change harder. Yet a new momentum for upending the status quo took off last year, on Feb. 27, when the Council referred the situation in Ukraine to the Assembly, following the Council’s failure to adopt a resolution deploring Russia’s aggression. Two months later, the Assembly decided by consensus that it would meet whenever a veto is cast in the Council. It has since convened three times through this procedure: after vetoes by China and Russia on North Korea; a Russian veto on Syria; and a Russian veto on Ukraine.
• Spokesperson’s briefing: Stéphane Dujarric, the UN spokesperson, was asked about details from a morning media briefing (see video below) with Martin Griffiths, the UN relief chief, and other humanitarian-aid groups on the Taliban’s recent banning of Afghan women aid workers in the country. But details are murky, such as whether the ban applies to all of the UN agencies, including the World Food Program. PassBlue asked a press officer of the Rome-based agency about it, but she referred us to Dujarric. On Feb. 3, he said that “it appears that the rules are being implemented in different ways in different places throughout Afghanistan. My understanding is that the UN is exempt from this ban on female humanitarian workers working. As to the detailed operationalization and how that happens with World Food Programme, I would advise you to talk to them, even here. They have an office here.”
Tuesday, Jan. 31
• Malawi to Receive Russian-Donated Fertilizer Near the End of Planting Season. Does Russia Really Care?. Russia donated 20,000-metric tons of fertilizer to Malawi as a supposed good-will gesture to the developing world. But in our exclusive investigation, Damilola Banjo looked at the impact of this donation, which has yet to arrive after leaving a Dutch port more than two months ago, and how it will likely miss a crucial stage of farmers’ planting season.
• Spokesperson’s briefing: Under Secretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix completed his visit to the Mideast, meeting with senior government and security officials in Lebanon, Syria and Israel about peacekeeping missions. At the UN Disengagement Observer Force (Undof), he toured UN positions in the “area of separation” and on the Israeli-occupied Golan. During his stop at Unifil (UN Interim Force in Lebanon), he joined a patrol on the Blue Line and met with peacekeepers at the headquarters in Naqoura. He also visited the Irish peacekeeping contingent in Camp Shamrock “to express his condolences for the tragic loss of Private Seán Rooney” and “stressed to the Lebanese authorities the importance for the perpetrators to be held accountable.” Lacroix ended his trip by visiting the UN Truce Supervision Organization (Untso), which is based in Jerusalem.
Wednesday, Feb. 1
• Spokesperson’s briefing: An associate spokesperson was asked if the UN was aware of a New York Times article about a developer planning to build on a large plot a block south of the UN, on First Avenue, a casino and possibly a Ferris wheel and if the UN objects to such an idea, given security concerns during the annual gathering of the General Assembly in September. The spokesperson said: “I’m sure a lot of the delegates would like to unwind. Like, they do like to unwind after very long meetings. I’m sure, maybe they would welcome that. . . . We have seen the reports and we’ll see how it shakes out.”
Thursday, Feb. 2
• Spokesperson’s briefing: The UN special representative for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, told the Security Council that the new government’s first three months in office has “shown its commitment to tackle the most pressing challenges facing the country, including endemic corruption, poor public service delivery and high levels of unemployment.” The envoy, who also heads the UN mission in Iraq, Unami, also cheered on the recent victory of Iraq’s national soccer team, and the country’s hosting the Gulf Cup for the first time since 1979. Yet enormous problems loom in the country, as it recovers slowly from decades of war amid continued violence. It is one of the most explosive-ordnance contaminated places in the world, and in 2022, the remnants were the leading cause of child casualties. Meanwhile, mine-action operators are facing a steep drop in donor funding. The US, whose invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to a conflict that ended in 2011, said that it was “eager to work with the Government to address the impacts of climate change.” (The full speech is not posted on the US mission to the UN website.)
Friday, Feb. 3
• Spokesperson’s briefing: The UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (Unmiss) “is welcoming the arrival of His Holiness Pope Francis today as an opportunity to provide a much-needed boost to the peace process.” The UN special envoy, Nicholas Haysom, said the visit by the Pope and leaders of the Anglican and Presbyterian churches, “will focus attention on the country at a time when South Sudan’s challenges are less visible due to other regional and international crises.” During his four-day visit, the Pope will meet with internally displaced people and humanitarian organizations as Unmiss provides logistical support, the UN said.
• An evocative photo essay by Jaclyn Licht in The Washington Post captures the settings and moods of UN headquarters in New York City
• Essay on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict published in The Critic, a British monthly, by Dave Smith, a former UN official under Kofi Annan
This article was updated to reflect the number of times the General Assembly has met under the new veto initiative.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts on the Pope's visit to South Sudan?
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.