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

It Happened at the UN: Week Ending July 14

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Ms. Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UN-Habitat
At the political forum on Sustainable Development Goals this week, Maimunah Mohd Sharif, chief of UN-Habitat, explained why Goal No. 11, on cities and communities, may not be achieved by the 2030 deadline. A main ambition of the goal is safe, affordable and adequate housing in cities, so Sharif proposed that a format like the Paris Agreement, which combats global warming, be applied to the need to create housing standards worldwide, July 13, 2023. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

This week, we focus on the failed renewal of the UN’s cross-border humanitarian aid tool into Syria. And will the Black Sea Grain deal survive Russia’s latest threat not to renew it? No definitive word is out yet. 

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 look at promising developments around the FSO Safer crisis, a decaying supertanker that if not remedied soon could spill more than a million barrels of oil into the Red Sea.

We also report on Russia’s criminal abductions of Ukrainian youngsters in the war by examining the numbers and status of the missing children, plunging into an aspect of the crisis that other media have overlooked.

PassBlue’s hardworking team needs your donations to ensure our independent, influential reporting. With your support, we can substantially boost our midsummer fund-raising drive to reach $5,000. The goal is to not only keep producing the investigative journalism that is essential to keeping powerful nations and people to account but also to strengthen our resources to cover the UN General Assembly’s biggest forum of the year, come September.

We also want to introduce you to Chloé Cosson, our summer intern, who is writing the weekly summaries and building up PassBlue’s social media accounts. She hails from Nyons, two hours from Marseille, where it is superhot but dry in July and August. Remarkably, she figured out in one attempt how to get to the Vienna Cafe for a sandwich from our perch in the Secretariat building. Besides her native French, she speaks German and English. We are so lucky to have her joining us. — DULCIE LEIMBACH

Monday, July 10

Is Western Pressure on the UN to Probe Russia’s Use of Iranian Drones Working? Kourosh Ziabari reports that the United States and some of its allies have asked the UN Secretariat to once again investigate the use of deadly Iranian drones, or UAVs, by Russia in its war in Ukraine, which according to the US and others constitutes a violation of  Security Council Resolution 2231. Iran and Russia disagree on this interpretation of the resolution; the UN says repeatedly that it doesn’t have the mandate to do such a probe. Meanwhile, Iran keeps building its drone-making weapons capacity.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: The UN resident and humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, David Gressly, announced a positive development regarding the FSO Safer Operation — a mission to mitigate the risk posed by the deteriorating oil tanker that has been stuck in the Red Sea for at least two years and could spill more than a million barrels of oil into the water. According to Gressly, the Yemeni authorities O.K.’d on July 10 to transfer the oil from the tanker to Nautica, the replacement vessel. Nautica will moor alongside the Safer and should begin taking on the oil by next week, the UN said. Gressly told the Security Council from Sana, Yemen’s capital, that although “the Safer is fully stabilized for the ship-to-ship transfer of the oil,” the oil transfer still presents “residual risk.” The UN has installed a “robust crisis management team,” he added, based in Hodeidah, Yemen, to respond to an incident.

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Li Junhua, Francesca Perucci and Astra Bonini of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (Desa) briefed the press for the launching of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Report 2023. The report provides a snapshot of the most recent data on the goals’ progress midway through their 2030 deadline. “The picture of the whole progress is very sobering; we have to say that,” Li Junhua, undersecretary-general for Desa, said. “Of the roughly 140 assessable data targets, the latest data shows that only about 15 percent are on track.”

Tuesday, July 11

Russia’s Seizing of Ukrainian Children: Why the Crisis Is Anything but Clear: As the bitter issue of Russia’s abductions of Ukrainian youngsters in the war was featured in the UN’s recent annual report on children and armed conflict, Maria Luisa Gambale reports on how the numbers and status of the missing children tracked by Ukraine, the UN and other entities remain in disarray. But the bottom line, as a human-rights specialist says of Russia’s actions: “It’s a war crime. They can say until they’re blue in the face, we’re just evacuating schools. The bare unemotional fact is that this is an international crime.” At first, the months-long investigation by Gambale, a freelancer for PassBlue, was focused on writing about the commitments the UN was making to hold Russia accountable for its atrocities against children in Ukraine. A bigger picture loomed, however: the facts behind the abductions.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Secretary-General António Guterres’s spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, said that Guterres was “disappointed that the Security Council was not able to reach agreement . . . on extending the authorization of UN cross-border relief operations in Syria,” which expired on July 10. Difficult negotiations before the vote on Tuesday further split the already divided Council.

On the matter, Brazil and Switzerland proposed a draft resolution that in its final version requested that the Bab al-Hawa crossing, located on the Syria-Türkiye border, be extended for nine months, based on a 2014 resolution that originally allowed four crossings into war-torn Syria but has been whittled to the single opening over the years, delivering aid into the country’s rebel-held northwest. In the Council on July 11, Russia vetoed the resolution; China abstained; and the remaining 13 members voted yes, with the veto killing the draft. Initially, the P3 (Britain, France and the US) pushed to expand the number of crossings beyond Bab al-Hawa as well as a 12-month extension. Guterres also backed this timeline. The lifesaving help reaching Idlib is estimated to be alleviating conditions for 3.3 million people, who don’t have enough to eat, especially women and children. An escalation in violence could also worsen the humanitarian cliff, with airstrikes and artillery shelling targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure in the region, according to the Syrian American Medical Society.

But Russia submitted its own draft resolution a few days before the July 11 vote, allowing only a six-month extension; in the Council, that version received two yes votes (Russia and China), three no votes from the P3 and the other members abstaining; without meeting the required 9 yes votes, the resolution also failed. According to Security Council Report, an independent publication tracking the UN body, “[Russia and China] believe that cross-border deliveries are extraordinary measures that undermine Syria’s sovereignty.” The US ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said after the votes that “the United States could not, in good conscience, support the text that Russia forced upon this Council. Russia’s resolution failed to ensure that aid would continue to reach the Syrian people during the cold winter months.” Besides the competition over the length of time extending the mandate, Russia’s draft resolution requested a “special report” from Guterres on the effects of sanctions on humanitarian conditions in Syria.

[UPDATE, July 14: According to media reports, the Syrian government sent a letter to Guterres on Thursday, saying that it would keep the Bab al-Hawa crossing open for the UN to still deliver aid into the northwest. (There have been no UN aid deliveries through this crossing since the mandate expired. Two other crossings into Syria, authorized by the government, also allow UN aid to get in, but the volume is far less than at Bab al-Hawa.) On Friday, Dujarric said the UN was “continuing to look” at the offer and was “consulting with a number of partners on this.” Martin Griffiths, the UN humanitarian relief chief, is considering the legal ramifications, among other factors, of agreeing to Syria’s plan, as the UN wants to keep the aid channel alive while adhering to international humanitarian laws. One skeptic about Russia’s motives behind its draft resolution suggested that Syria’s new offer was meant to bypass the Security Council through “asserting its right to decide aid to Idlib unilaterally,” tweeted Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group. “And maybe that was Russia’s plan all along.”]

Wednesday, July 12

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres launched “A world of debt” report produced by the Geneva-based UN Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad) and the Economic and Social Committee for Asia and the Pacific (Escap). Guterres told reporters: “Some 3.3 billion people — almost half of humanity — live in countries that spend more on debt interest payments than on education or health. And yet, because most of these unsustainable debts are concentrated in poor countries, they are not judged to pose a systemic risk to the global financial system. This is a mirage.” In his briefing, Dujarric added: “Some of the poorest countries in the world are being forced into a choice between servicing their debt or serving their people. This is the result of the inequality built into our outdated global financial system, which reflects the colonial power dynamics of the era when it was created.” The report outlines a roadmap toward “global financial stability.”

Thursday, July 13

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Good news: A UN team in Micronesia launched a program to help empower small island developing states across the Pacific by providing “better access to digital services, spur economic activities and strengthen climate change resilience,” Dujarric said. Consultations are being held to ensure the sustainability of the program through “action plans” focusing on e-health, e-agriculture and e-commerce, a press release says.

• The Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS (Unaids) released its 2023 Global AIDS report, providing an update on the global HIV situation and outlining a path to end the pandemic by 2030. Angeli Achrekar, Unaids’ deputy executive director, told reporters: “Investments are paying off. In Eastern and Southern Africa for example, new HIV infections have been reduced by 57% since 2010.” Achrekar stressed, however, the importance of  “increased investments in the HIV response to end it” in 15 years.

Pascale Baeriswyl, the Swiss ambassador to the UN, and Sérgio França Danese, Brazil’s envoy, the Security Council members responsible for the Syria humanitarian file, told reporters that a vote to renew the crucial cross-border aid tool into Syria from Türkiye needed to be extended by nine months rather than the regular six-month interval. But the draft resolution failed as did a rival submitted by Russia, July 11, 2023. Two days later, Syria proposed to keep the border opening accessible to the UN, which has not immediately accepted the plan. UN PHOTO

Friday, July 14

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres met the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in Brussels for the annual UN-EU “high-level dialogue,” to strengthen cooperation between the two organization on such subjects as peace and security, the digital transition, the Sustainable Development Goals and reforms of international financial institutions,” Dujarric said.

• As the renewal of the Black Sea grain deal, expiring on July 17, is hanging in Russia’s balance, a reporter asked for an update on the negotiations among the UN, Türkiye and Russia to renew it. Dujarric: “The discussions are being had, WhatsApp messages are being sent, Signal messages are being sent and exchanged. We’re also waiting for a response to the letter [sent by Guterres to Putin on July 11].”

ICYMI:

Maternal Health Analysis of Women and Girls of African Descent in the Americas: Afrodescendant women and girls are disadvantaged before, during and after pregnancy, the study found, with their maternal deaths “particularly alarming.”

UN Security Council: Between Rifts and Reform: commentary from the International Crisis Group

• The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2023: Which goals are scraping by (getting people out of extreme poverty), which are slowly chugging along (access to safe drinking water) and which are on target (more people have access to electricity). “With only seven years remaining for implementation of the Goals, the stakes are huge,” the report warns. (It was released during the political forum on the SDGs, held at the UN from July 10-19, preceding the SDG Summit, Sept. 18-19.)


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the status of the SDGs?

Chloé Cosson has a master’s degree in cultural journalism from Sorbonne University, in Paris, and a B.A. in literature (writing and English studies) from Lumière University, Lyon. She was most recently a digital managing editor of Arte TV, in Strasbourg, France.

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It Happened at the UN: Week Ending July 14
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