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It Happened at the UN: Week Ending Oct. 20


Protesters at the Gaza border crossing in Rafah, Egypt, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres visited, trying to push the movement of aid into the besieged Palestinian enclave, Oct. 20, 2023. So far, the 20 truckloads of essential items remain stuck on the Egyptian side. ESKINDER DEBEBE

Welcome to This Week @UN, where we summarize the most important news emanating from the organization as well as promote our own articles that you may have missed in the last seven days.

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The news from UN headquarters continues to be dominated by the Israeli-Hamas war that began with the massacre by Hamas terrorists in Israel on Oct. 7. The conditions for Gazan civilians since then, as documented by the UN, worsens daily, with the Palestinian enclave in full electricity blackout for 10 days. (We also note in Tuesday’s item the horrific conditions in the war in Sudan.)

Quick rundown as of Oct. 20: The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) reports that in Gaza, airstrikes continue with hundreds of people, including children, being trapped beneath the rubble. Rescue teams are struggling to carry out their mission amid the aerial bombing, severe shortages of fuel and limited or no connection to mobile networks. Hospitals are jammed with patients; at least 30 per cent of all housing units in Gaza have been destroyed, left uninhabitable or damaged. UN Women estimates that the war has left nearly 493,000 women and girls displaced and resulted in a growing number of widows. The UN Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa) reports that two more colleagues have been killed in Gaza, now totaling 16 dead since Oct. 7.  UN Secretary-General António Guterres is in Cairo, with two UN senior officials, Rosemary DiCarlo and Martin Griffiths, trying to get 20 truckloads of aid stuck at the Rafah border crossing into Gaza, amid the Israeli-imposed siege. — DULCIE LEIMBACH

[UPDATE, OCT. 21: The UN reports that the first aid convoy, with medicine, food and bottled water, has entered Gaza]

Monday Oct. 16

Blue Smoke: Sounding the Alarm: Our joint newsletter with UNA-UK returns with scoops on the latest top appointments and elections at the UN. The team reports, for example, on the new UN Youth Office still lacking a boss; possible nepotism at certain UN entities; questionable leadership at the Beirut-based Economic and Social Commission of West Asia; and the 15 new Human Rights Council members voted in this month and what the election reveals about the standing of Russia and China at the UN.

Spokesperson’s briefing: On the Israeli-Hamas war, Guterres called for the release of Hamas hostages “immediately” and “without conditions”; and reaffirmed that “rapid and unimpeded access” into Gaza for humanitarian aid “be granted for humanitarian supplies and workers.” Additionally, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) reported “intense exchanges of fire” along the country’s southern border with Israel but no casualties.

 Tuesday, Oct 17

• The US Vetoes a UN Security Council Plan to Get Lifesaving Aid Into Gaza: Damilola Banjo reports over three days that the Council rejected a Russian-drafted resolution, on Oct. 16, calling for a “humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza, due to “serious misgivings over aspects of language” in the proposal, Banjo writes. Overall, Council members agreed that humanitarian aid must be provided to civilians in Gaza, but the draft drew fewer than the required 9 votes, and no veto, to succeed. (It received five yes votes: China, Russia, Gabon, Mozambique, United Arab Emirates.) The article was updated on Oct. 18 with news that after two delays to vote on a rival, more comprehensive Brazilian-led draft resolution, calling for humanitarian “pauses” in Gaza to get food, water and fuel into the Hamas-controlled area, the US wielded its veto, shocking fellow Council members. (The resolution got 12 yes votes and two abstentions, from Russia and Britain.) Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US envoy to the UN, said the resolution failed to mention Israel’s right to self-defense, yet Ecuador told reporters afterward that the references to international law in the text implied that right. Additionally, Thomas-Greenfield noted that President Biden’s “diplomacy” in his trip to Israel that day needed to “play out.” She added, acknowledging Brazil’s desire to move the text forward: “Yes, resolutions are important. And yes, this Council must speak out. But the actions we take must be informed by the facts on the ground and support direct diplomacy efforts that can save lives. The Council needs to get this right.” — DULCIE LEIMBACH

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• Spokesperson’s briefing: Almost 4,000 Sudanese civilians have been killed and thousands more have been injured in the Darfur region between April 15 and August, most of them having been “targeted mainly due to their ethnicity,” UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said. Since fighting between the country’s army and the paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces began in April, at least 29 towns and villages have been destroyed throughout Darfur and schools have been closed.

Wednesday Oct. 18

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Israel denies allegations that it is responsible for the explosion at the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza, which killed hundreds of people, although the exact toll is still unknown. A reporter asked the UN deputy spokesperson, Farhan Haq, whether the UN will be involved in investigations. Reply: “We’ll have to see what the arrangements are and we’ll have to take it from there.” President Joe Biden of the US confirmed to reporters on Oct. 17: “Our Defense Department says it’s highly unlikely that it was the Israelis.” Yet on Oct. 20, Forensic Architecture, a university-based research group in London, tweeted that “preliminary analysis” of the hospital blast “casts significant doubt” on the Israeli Defense Forces’ claim that the source was a “Palestinian-fired rocket travelling west to east.”

Vasily Nebenzya, Russian Ambassador to the UN, and Lana Nusseibeh, UAE Ambassador, vote for a Russian draft resolution on Palestine in the UN Security Council on Oct 16, 2023
On Oct. 16, 2023, the Security Council failed to approve a Russian-led draft resolution calling for a humanitarian pause in the Israeli-Gaza war, among other requests. A more extensive draft resolution, led by Brazil, also failed in a vote two days later, thanks to a United States veto. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE 

Thursday, Oct. 19 

Is the UN Whitewashing Azerbaijan’s Ethnic Cleansing in Nagorno-Karabakh?: Hasmik Egian, a former UN official for 30 years, questions the standards that were used by a UN assessment team during its one-day visit to Stepanakert, the capital of the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. The region exploded on Sept. 19, when nearly 120,000 civilians fled the area virtually overnight. Egian asks why the UN team, based in Baku, the Azeri capital, “saw no reason to elaborate on what had caused the ‘sudden’ exodus.”

Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres arrived in Cairo to meet with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to discuss getting urgently needed humanitarian aid into Gaza. After almost two weeks with no shipments of food, water, medicine or fuel into the besieged Palestinian territory, Guterres said, “[all] these things are needed at scale and in a sustainable manner.”

Friday, Oct. 20

Spokesperson’s briefing: On the second day of his Cairo visit, Guterres continued to focus on pushing for the 20 truckloads of items waiting on the Egyptian side of the Gaza border to deliver water, fuel, medicine and food into the Palestinian enclave, calling them a “lifeline,” at a press conference from the Al-Arish Airport in the Sinai. “Now, recently it was announced by Israel and by the United States that humanitarian aid will be allowed to enter Gaza,” he told reporters. “And I know that there is also an agreement between Egypt and Israel to make it possible.” But the announcements, he added, “were made with some conditions and some restrictions” and the parties are working to “clarify those conditions” to get the trucks “moving to where they are needed.”

Guterres, who has suddenly called for a “humanitarian ceasefire” in the war zone, after avoiding the word “ceasefire” since the Oct. 7 attacks and instead using “cessation of hostilities,” said that first there must be “verification” of the goods entering Gaza but that work “needs to be also expedited and practical.” He also noted that it was “essential” to have fuel supplied to Unrwa to distribute aid to civilians in Gaza. “There are lots of complexities in the management of a border like that, and we are doing everything we can with all the parties to [address] those complexities,” he said about what is holding up the emergency goods. On Oct. 18, Biden told reporters that the Rafah crossing was not meant to allow Gazans into Egypt and that his new envoy for Mideast humanitarian issues, David Satterfield, is there leading the initiative, while the UN will distribute the aid once it is released. — DULCIE LEIMBACH 

• The spokesperson for the president of the General Assembly told reporters that the office had received two separate letters, from the delegations of Russia, Nicaragua and Syria as well as from Jordan and Mauritania (on behalf of Arab states and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), requesting the resumption of the 10th emergency special session on “Illegal Israeli actions in occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” Dennis Francis, the General Assembly president, is consulting member states on a date for a meeting on Palestine. The spokesperson, Monica Grayley, also said that an Assembly meeting in which the US would be expected to explain its veto in the Security Council on Oct. 18 would be superseded by the emergency special session since the topics overlapped. [UPDATE: OCT. 23: Francis will convene the 10th emergency special session on Oct. 26, 2023, at 10 AM in the General Assembly Hall]


• The UN noted on Oct. 16 the death of Martti Oiva Kalevi Ahtisaari of Finland. Ahtisaari, the UN spokesperson said, was “a distinguished statesman, diplomat and an exemplary mediator who dedicated his life to the cause of peace.” In 2008, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his decades-long efforts to resolve conflicts around the world. He “made invaluable contributions to the work of the UN,” the spokesperson added, including as the secretary-general’s special representative for Namibia, under-secretary-general for administration and management, special envoy for the Horn of Africa and special envoy for the Future Status [Process] for Kosovo. He was also Finland’s president from 1994 to 2000.

This article was updated on Oct. 23 to better reflect the request by Jordan and Mauritania for a General Assembly meeting on Palestine and to add information about a third letter sent to the president of the Assembly.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the second week of the siege in Gaza?

Arthur Bassas is a researcher and writer who graduated from St. Andrews in Scotland, majoring in international relations and terrorism. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and speaks English and French.

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It Happened at the UN: Week Ending Oct. 20
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Martinoli Emmanuel
5 months ago

Good morning, my comment concerns the fact that you did not mention in the week ending October 20 the meeting of the Security Council devoted to the situation in Western Sahara, to the examination of the report of the Secretary-General on this subject and to the report of his personal envoy to the region. Can you comment on this? Thanks and best wishes

5 months ago

Thanks for your comment. Alas, we cannot cover everything that happens at the UN each day. But it’s important you raised the matter. Feel free to send us an opinion piece on the topic for our consideration. — Editors

Martinoli Emmanuel
5 months ago
Reply to  PassBlue

Western Sahara: Security Council’s Yearly Ritual
Like every year, on October 31 2023 the Security Council will approve the resolution on Western Sahara. It will extend for one year the mandate of MINURSO, the United Nations Mission for the organization of a referendum in Western Sahara. It is the only UN mission to fulfill the obligation to enable the self-determination of a people.
Like every year, the Security Council will reaffirm its commitment to assist the parties “to achieve a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution, based on compromise, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara in the context of arrangements consistent with the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations.” (S/RES/2602(2021).
In reality, the Security Council has not provided MINURSO with the means to guarantee the full implementation of its mandate, defined in resolution 690 (1991): the organization of a free and fair referendum, without military or administrative restrictions, allowing the people of Western Sahara to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination and independence.
The Security Council, based on the latest report of the Secretary-General (S/2023/729), demonstrates an unjustified reluctance to hold the occupying power, Morocco, responsible for its illegal occupation, its violation of the ceasefire of 1991 and of the military agreements of 2020.
The POLISARIO Front, for its part, reaffirms that the Settlement Plan between the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity remains the only agreement that enjoys the consent of both parties, unanimously approved by the Security Council in its resolutions 658 (1990) and 690 (1991), by which the Council established MINURSO.
Western Sahara is also the largest and richest non-autonomous territory, and should represent an opportunity for the population of the territory, but which has become the reason for an illegal military occupation by a neighboring state, Morocco, which violates systematically the fundamental rights of the Sahrawi people and the norms of international humanitarian law, in order to exploit the natural resources of the territory.
Year after year, the report of the UN Secretary General, while emphasizing that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is not able to carry out the slightest visit to Western Sahara, highlights the repression suffered by Sahrawi activists and human rights defenders. But it does not mention the systematic violations of all civil, political, economic, social, cultural rights, including the right to development of the Sahrawi population in the occupied territory.
Emmanuel Martinoli, Delémont, Switzerland,, Oct. 25, 2023.

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