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

Trending UN News: Week Ending June 23

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The third conference of the heads of national counterterrorism agencies met in a five-day session at UN headquarters this week. Throughout the dozens of panels and meetings, there was much hand-wringing on how to battle terrorism and “extremism.” The eighth review of the UN’s official global counterterrorism strategy was approved without a vote. MANUEL ELIAS/UN PHOTO

This week, the UN secretary-general castigates Russia for its murderous attacks on children in Ukraine; and countries move to save marine biodiversity in a new treaty.

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 opinion piece zooms in on how the UN can be transformed from top to bottom through steps taken now and culminating in the Summit of the Future in 2024; and why the label of “gender apartheid” is being used by human-rights advocates to describe the Taliban’s cruelty in Afghanistan.

An important reminder: PassBlue is a reader-supported, nonprofit news site, which means that we count on you, our audience — the UN community and foreign affairs aficionados — to keep us financially sustainable. We know from informal surveys and our continued growth in subscriptions that our reporting is deeply valued and essential. So please keep up the support by donating to PassBlue as we reach the midway point of 2023.

An open letter sent on June 21 to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, signed by at least 40 feminists and gender-equality advocates from 20 countries, articulates their “insights and aspirations” regarding the “Independent Review of the UN System’s Capacity to Deliver for Gender Equality,” which has been circulating in the UN system informally, pending official publication. The letter, obtained by PassBlue, says that the UN should use the review “to stimulate a global conversation about the question at the core of our work: how can the UN and other multilateral organizations use their collective power and capacity to deliver for gender equality?” While the signatories say they agree with many points in the review — that the “system needs a jolt” — they take issue with others. That starts with criticizing the review’s “bureaucratic strategies,” such as redefining “gender equality” and requiring “executive plans,” which the reviewers “rightly note have failed to deliver.” The letter adds: “If bureaucratic box-ticking is what has weighed down gender mainstreaming, these proposals will sink it further.”

Russia in free fall at the UN: In an emphatic move by Guterres through his new annual report on children and armed conflict, of which PassBlue got an early copy, he names and shames Russia for its perpetuation of atrocities against children in Ukraine. Yet the report does not list Israel as a violator of children’s rights in Palestine, and human-rights parties have criticized the omission roundly. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, hundreds of Ukrainian children have been killed in apparently indiscriminate Russian attacks on apartment buildings and other civilian infrastructure. Russian forces have also bombed hospitals and destroyed schools, which can all amount to war crimes. As to Israel, the last year was the deadliest for Palestinian children in the West Bank in 15 years, rights groups say, yet Guterres did not list Israeli forces. Guterres, said Riyad Mansour, Palestine’s envoy to the UN, “made a big mistake.” Damilola Banjo’s report on May 9, 2023, raised the possibility of Guterres not naming/shaming Russia or Israel in his yearly report. Virginia Gamba, the UN executive who compiles the document with her office, is slated to speak to reporters on June 27 at the UN.

Monday, June 19

• Spokesperson’s briefing: UN member states adopted an agreement to ensure “the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction which cover over two-thirds of the ocean,” said Farhan Haq, deputy spokesperson. Guterres, he added, said the agreement “pumped new life and hope to give the ocean a fighting chance.” Its formal name is the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction, or BBNJ, and the treaty will be open for signature at UN headquarters for two years as of Sept. 20. It enters into force after ratification by 60 countries.

UN member states agreed on a treaty to protect marine biodiversity on Monday. It is open for signature in mid-September and enters into force after 60 countries ratify it.

Tuesday, June 20

Will the New Agenda for Peace and Summit of the Future Transform the UN? Richard Ponzio and Nudhara Yusuf, UN reform advocates based at the Stimson Center in Washington, remind member states that the 2024 Summit of the Future — which is around the corner, they argue — is the moment to strengthen the UN through specific steps to resolve “pressing global challenges.” These include great-power tensions “intensified by Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine, runaway climate change, unconstrained artificial intelligence and a growing global trust deficit.”

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• Spokesperson’s briefing: Valentine Rugwabiza, who runs the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic (Minusca), told the Security Council that progress has been made in carrying out the peace agreement and that “the dissolution in April of two armed groups as well as factions of three other armed groups — all signatories of the peace agreement — were a significant development in the peace process.” But combatants with these armed groups “must be quickly disarmed and reintegrated for this dissolution to have a meaningful impact,” she added. She also made small reference to the Tanzanian unit of 60 peacekeepers who were recently repatriated, with their commander, for alleged sexual abuse and exploitation, including that of minors, by some of the unit’s “elements.” The United States said of the matter in the Council: “We commend the Secretariat for its swift decision following a preliminary investigation to repatriate the unit in support of the Secretary-General’s policy of zero tolerance for sexual exploitation and abuse, and in line with Security Council Resolution 2272. Such behavior is unacceptable, antithetical to the spirit of peacekeeping, and undermines MINUSCA’s positive contributions to CAR. We call for accountability and the full implementation of Resolution 2272 when addressing these acts.”

Relatedly, on June 19, PassBlue asked UN Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq if a representative from the peacekeeping department could provide more details on the repatriation of the Tanzanian troops. Reply: “We’ll see whether someone can talk to you in detail. I mean, we ourselves have some information. If you have any questions right now, I can handle those. PassBlue: I think it’s important to hear from the peacekeeping department about this. Reply: I will see whether any of them intends to do that. [UPDATE, June 23: The peacekeeping department has yet to come to the UN media briefing room to discuss the allegations]

Wednesday, June 21

The ‘Gender Apartheid’ Happening in Afghanistan, UN Experts Say, Should Be Labeled an International Crime: Damilola Banjo delves into why UN rights specialists are calling the relentless repression by the Taliban against women and girls in Afghanistan “gender apartheid”: so that it will become an international crime to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. “This has given a shred of new hope to some Afghan women’s rights activists who felt before that they had hit a wall in terms of trying to make the world respond to their plight,” Heather Barr, a Human Rights Watch expert on women’s rights, is quoted in the story.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Briefing the Security Council on Afghanistan, Roza Otunbayeva, the UN special representative in the country, said that the April 5 restrictions against Afghan women working for the UN “place a question mark over our activities across the country.” Adding that the UN will not put its national female staff in danger, it has therefore asked them not to report to the office. “At the same time, we have asked all our male national staff performing non-essential tasks to stay home to respect the principle of non-discrimination,” Otunbayeva said, emphasizing that “female national staff will not be replaced by male national staff as some de facto authorities have suggested.”

The International Day of Yoga, attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, was enacted on the North Lawn of the UN, June 21, 2023. The actor Richard Gere, in sunglasses, is left; Amina Mohammed, UN deputy secretary-general, is center. ESKINDER DEBEBE/UN PHOTO

Thursday, June 22

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Catriona Laing, the new UN special representative for Somalia and head of the UN Assistance Mission there, told the Security Council that during her travels around the country in her first two weeks in the post she saw “the tremendous progress that Somalia has made in state- and peace-building.” She saw “significant progress” in key national priorities, such as “appointing an Independent Constitutional Review Commission, passing 11 laws and holding ‘one person, one vote’ elections in Puntland.” On the humanitarian side, Laing said that the “current operation” against the Al Shabab militia “has created opportunities for humanitarian access to people in need,” but “insecurity has also contributed to an extremely challenging operating environment for humanitarian agencies.” Cindy McCain, the World Food Program’s new executive director, told the Council that Somalia was no longer on the edge of famine thanks to early-warning signs, yet more than 6.6 million people, one-third of the population, could face crisis or worse levels of hunger. (Reporters had asked Haq for McCain to brief them, but it didn’t happen.)

• Separately, a reporter asked Haq about the submersible that was lost undersea near the Titanic, 900 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., and 400 miles south of Newfoundland, Canada, and the online discussions comparing the search for the sub with the migrant boating capsize in Greece last week, in which 80 people drowned. “Does the Secretary-General have any thoughts on the different responses to these tragedies?” the reporter asked. Reply: “Well, all lives are precious. I think all efforts must be made to save the lives of the people on this submersible, but by the same token, and I did say something similar on this yesterday, all of those who are risking their lives at sea must be protected. Any measures to protect people’s lives, whether they’re on a ship being piloted by human smugglers or whether they’re on a submersible device such as this one, all of them must be cared for.” [UPDATE, June 23: US Coast Guard officials say the Titan submersible imploded with five people onboard, but they have not determined when it happened]

Friday, June 23

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Rosemary DiCarlo, who runs the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and recently traveled to Moscow, where she raised the Ukraine war and other matters, talked to the Security Council about the latest humanitarian crisis to hit Ukraine. That included the June 6 explosion of the Kakhovka dam, of which she said, “While the exact circumstances remain unclear, this is a catastrophe that will have massive adverse consequences.” (The New York Times reported that evidence points to Russia blowing up the dam.) DiCarlo listed the ecodamage from the dam breach, saying, “Inundated farmland is a further blow to the already beleaguered agriculture and food production sector.”

Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s envoy to the UN, said, in part, about Russia: “Two weeks ago, this criminal regime blew up the dam of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plan in an attempt to prevent Ukraine’s possible counteroffensive actions across the Dnipro River. . . . Since then, Ukraine has done its utmost to mitigate the immediate consequences of this act of terror and ecocide.” He said that a full assessment of Russia’s “act of terror” has yet to be done, but it is “already clear that we are dealing with one of the biggest man-made disasters in Europe for decades,” citing oil pollutants weighing at least 150 tons drifting on the Dnipro River; the Kakhovka reservoir clogged with about 95 thousand tons of dead fish; and 500 square kilometers of Ukrainian forests flooded.

Russia’s envoy, Vassily Nebenzia, told the Council about the dam: “It is obvious that those in Kyiv who are behind this terrorist attack, obsessed with the notorious ‘counteroffensive’, do not put the interests of their people and the future of their country in anything. In the time that has passed since the tragedy, even more obvious evidence of responsibility for this crime has appeared not only for the Zelensky regime, but also for its Western sponsors.”

US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield gave the commencement speech to the 2023 graduating class at the Bronx High School of Science, a public high school in New York City. She told the students, after saying that some of them may have fallen asleep on the No. 4 train commuting to school in the mornings, that: “Your generation is going to be the one to tackle the climate crisis. You’re going to prevent the next pandemic. To take on global hunger, end systemic racism, address so many challenges we can’t even predict yet. That’s a lot to bear but don’t worry. I have faith in you, and I know your teachers have faith in you; your parents have faith in you. We believe in you.”


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on gender apartheid in Afghanistan?

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.

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Trending UN News: Week Ending June 23
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Ellen Ferranti MD
Ellen Ferranti MD
2 months ago

Thank you for this Dulcie! Very helpful reporting.

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