This week, we look at Russia’s continued degradation of the UN Security Council as rotating president in April while it wages illegal war on Ukraine; and a c’est la vie shrug from the UN spokesperson on reports of the United States spying on Secretary-General António Guterres.
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, our interview with a Ukrainian do-gooder reveals an unexpected twist in the war: it has brought deeper respect for women in the country. Plus: news on the ever-precarious Black Sea Grain deal.
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• Fact-checking a Russian statement this week by Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia as his country leads the Security Council this month. His partial remarks during an April 10 debate on “risks stemming from violations of the agreements regulating the export of weapons and military equipment”: “Russia also contributes meaningfully to the work of the existing international mechanisms in the UN framework. In particular, we view the UN Register of Conventional Arms as a universal tool to promote transparency. We submit data to the Register on a regular basis, and such imperative is enshrined in the Russian national legislation. We are convinced that the most important thing we need to do to achieve the goals of the Register is to make it more universal, i.e. to ensure that more countries submit to the Register their regular annual national reports on export/import of arms.”
Sounds good, but full transparency it’s not. Nebenzia is referring to Russia’s “regular” data submission to the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs’ (Unoda) Register of Conventional Arms. It compares the amount and category of arms transfers of a participating country as declared voluntarily by both exporters and recipients. But a preliminary verification of the register shows that Russia’s dossier contains many discrepancies. Admittedly, the deadline for countries to submit such information lands annually on April 30, so Russia still has time to report its arsenal for 2022. Yet in examining 2021 data, Russia’s listed imports often differ from that of its trading partners. For example, according to the UN’s Transparency in the Global Reported Arms Trade website, Russia reports a total of imported 1,638 large-caliber artillery systems, compared with the 8,775 total reported by its partners. One citation: Russia claims to have received no missiles and missile systems from Jordan, its third-biggest trading partner, as opposed to the 11,492 claimed by Jordan. Numerous other examples show inconsistencies across every weapon category in the register. There may be reasons the numbers don’t match, among them varying definitions of which weapons belong in which category, some countries declaring the contract signing date instead of the transfer date (which would lead to reporting in different years) or inconsistencies between the numbers agreed on in a contract and those actually shipped. — ARTHUR BASSAS
• PassBlue and UNA-UK published the third edition of Blue Smoke, a monthly newsletter highlighting the latest top UN appointments. The new issue asks whether the head of the UN counterterrorism office, a Russian, will be reappointed by Guterres. The topic came up in a UN media briefing this week as well, when a reporter asked whether Russia will get the job again. The spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, replied: “I think it’s not that Russia has the job in counter-terrorism. Is that the job is occupied by someone who is a Russian citizen. Mr. [Vladimir] Voronkov is serving as an international civil servant, fully implementing his mandate as an international civil servant. The Secretary-General values, personally, Mr. Voronkov very much and has full, full confidence in him and his ability to do his job as an international civil servant.”
Sunday, April 9
• Security Council Members Must Boycott Russia Again. April 10, to Be Precise: In an op-ed by Andrea Venzon and Colombe Cahen-Salvador, founders of Atlas Movement, a global advocacy group focusing on improving democracies, they called for Council members to boycott meetings this month on anything remotely related to Russia’s war on Ukraine, including the April 10 debate on weapons flows. Besides Russia, three ambassadors showed up for the meeting: Ecuador, Gabon and Ghana. The deputy permanent representative for China, Shuang Geng, was also there. The other members sent lower-level diplomats.
Monday, April 10
• The War in Ukraine Has Brought a Welcome Surprise: Deeper Respect for Women in the Country: In an exclusive interview by Dulcie Leimbach, she talks frankly with Lyuba Maksymovych, who runs a nonprofit group in Lviv promoting women’s rights, about the war’s damaging effect on everyone in Ukraine. Yet a bright star has emerged amid the relentless brutality inflicted by Russia: Ukrainian women are getting more respect in their country.
• Spokesperson’s briefing: A reporter asked about Nicaragua’s “years-long crackdown on the Catholic Church by the . . . Government of Daniel Ortega”; “instances of excessive violence, abductions”; and police brutality on “Catholic temples” as the UN’s team of human-rights experts has condemned the government for committing serious and systematic crimes against humanity. Question: “What is clear for the Secretary-General with the situation in Nicaragua?” Reply: “We continue to be very concerned by the continuing human rights crackdown that we see in Nicaragua, the shrinking of the civil space for civil society, as well as the stripping of nationality, which it contravenes international law. And we encourage the Nicaraguans to engage with our colleagues from the Human Rights Office.”
• AnneMarie van den Berg of the Netherlands has been named assistant secretary-general for supply chain management in the UN Department of Operational Support, succeeding Christian Saunders of Britain, who was appointed special coordinator on improving the UN response to sexual exploitation and abuse.
• Guterres on the death of Benjamin Ferencz on April 7 at age 103, an American prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials: Ferencz spent most of his life to trying to make the world a better place, including helping to establish the International Criminal Court, Guterres said, noting that “our best tribute to Mr. Ferencz is to continue his essential work to promote accountability for atrocity crimes and ensure that the voices of victims are heard.”
Tuesday, April 11
• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres arrived in Somalia on his annual solidarity visit for Ramadan. He went to Villa Somalia, the home of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, where they discussed tackling terrorism and “advancing peace and security”; in a joint media encounter, Guterres said he was also in the country “to ring the alarm on the humanitarian crisis, noting that Somalia is experiencing its worst drought in recorded history” with nearly five million people experiencing “high levels of acute food insecurity” coupled with rising prices. The UN’s 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan for Somalia is only 15 percent funded.
Wednesday, April 12
• Washington, D.C., Just O.K.’d a Law Equalizing Women’s Rights. Why Can’t the US Senate Do the Same?: Karen Mulhauser, a stalwart advocate for gender equality who is based in the D.C. metro area, writes that the District of Columbia has passed a law localizing the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which legally guarantees the equal rights of girls and women in public spheres of life. But the US Senate has yet to ratify the treaty.
• Spokesperson’s briefing: The Security Council met on Mali (see video above), with El-Ghassim Wane, the head of the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the country (Minusma), briefing on Mali’s volatility, including a surge in clashes among jihadists, severe restrictions on peacekeepers’ movements by the military-led government and the teetering state of the 2015 Algiers peace agreement. The pact, signed by the government and opposition parties, is at risk of dissolving and war could erupt as tensions between separatists in the north and the government worsen as Russia’s Wagner Group is ostensibly providing more security in the country. Joe Penney, who lived in Bamako, the capital, for several years and is a founder of the news site Sahelien, has been following developments closely for PassBlue. At the Council meeting, Russia said, in part, “States which have reacted negatively to Moscow’s offer of support in Mali must renounce their own ‘neo-colonial habits,'” adding, “This region does not belong to you — let Malians resolve their own problems with the partners they themselves have chosen.” Mali’s UN ambassador, Issa Konfourou, criticized France for having “selective memory.” Nicolas de Rivière, the country’s envoy, duly responded. [Update, April 14: In central Mali, a UN peacekeeper vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb near Douentza. One peacekeeper was severely injured, according to preliminary reports]
— PassBlue (@pass_blue) April 12, 2023
Thursday, April 13
• Spokesperson’s briefing: Reporters glommed to the news that the US has been spying on Guterres, as reported by the BBC and others. The following is verbatim questions asked to Dujarric: What is the Secretary-General’s reaction to the fact that the US has been spying on his telephone calls with the Deputy Secretary-General? Reply: The Secretary-General has been at his job for quite some time. He’s been in politics and a public figure for quite some time. So he’s not surprised, I think, by the fact that people are spying on him and listening on his private conversations. Unfortunately, either for various reasons, it allows such private conversations to be distorted and made public.
Q: What precautions did the Secretary-General and Deputy Secretary-General [Amina Mohammed] take when they’re making phone calls? Do they use encrypted apps? Do they use secure lines? Reply: I don’t think me answering publicly what precautions we take in detail for our phone calls would be helpful in trying to protect the sanctity of communications.
Q: Well, what about the substance of this? The idea that the Secretary-General is being soft on Russia. The idea that he will protect the Black Sea Grain Initiative at all costs. Is it something we put to you before in this room when you cancelled the Olenivka prison inquiry, when you decided not to launch an inquiry into the use of Iranian drones by Russia and is he soft on Russia? Reply: I think those were policy decisions. The Secretary-General is not soft on any one country or another. On the conflict in Ukraine, he has been very clear about the violations of international law, very clear about the violations of the Charter. He says the same thing when he’s in Moscow, when he’s in Kyiv, when he’s in New York, and that’s in the open record. Our efforts, his efforts, have been to mitigate the impact of the war on the world’s poorest, and that means doing what we can to drive down the price of food and the price of grain and fertilizer worldwide.
Friday, April 14
• Spokesperson’s briefing: In a follow-up to a UN statement on April 11 regarding the UN-Turkish led Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul that no inspections were held that day of cargo vessels participating in the Turkish-Russian-Ukrainian Black Sea Grain deal, Dujarric said on Friday, as inspections resumed: “We’re obviously concerned about the recent impediments in the implementation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Various people on the Secretary-General’s team and including the Secretary-General have raised our concerns with the signatory parties. The Secretary-General has written letters to the parties. And we are diligently working in close collaboration with Türkiye to maintain the continuation of the vital agreement. . . .” The Kremlin, however, issued a statement on April 13, saying the UN’s April 11 statement “distorts data and facts,” while adding that Russia would not continue talks on extending the deal after May 18 without “progress” on five “systematic problems”: reconnecting Rosselkhozbank to the Swift banking system; resuming supplies of agricultural machinery, spare parts and maintenance service; lifting restrictions on insurance and reinsurance, plus unblocking access to ports; restoring the work of the Tolyatti-Odesa ammonia pipeline (which runs through Ukraine); and unblocking foreign assets and accounts of Russian companies related to the production and transportation of food and fertilizers. Most important, the grain shipments can’t work without Russian cooperation.
• The US mission to the UN’s new fact sheet on efforts to “modernize” the UN’s workforce and “strengthen accountability.”
• William O’Neill, an American lawyer based in New York City, has been named a human-rights “expert” on Haiti by the UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Turk
• A new think tank based in the US, the International Center for Dialogue Initiatives, founded by a group of former UN special envoys, details how Ukrainian and Russian negotiations early in the war in 2022 fell apart.
• South Sudan is an oil-rich country that depends on diesel fuel for energy, a paradox that is elaborated on in a report on promoting renewable energy in the UN peacekeeping mission in the country; produced by the Powering Peace Program of the NYU Center on International Cooperation.
• From the Rockefeller Foundation: “Anticipate and Localize: Leveraging Humanitarian Funding to Create More Sustainable Food Systems”
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.