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It Happened at the UN: Week Ending Nov. 17

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UN flag is lowered to half-mast to pay tribute to fallen colleagues in Gaza.
The United Nations flag was lowered to half-mast at the headquarters in New York City and UN sites worldwide on Nov. 13, 2023, to memorialize colleagues killed in the Gaza war: at least 103 individuals, all Palestinians, working for the UN Relief Agency for Palestine Refugees, or Unrwa. The head of the organization, Philippe Lazzarini, said this week: “I do believe there is a deliberate attempt to strangle our operation and paralyze UNRWA operations.” JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE  

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

Forty days into the Israel-Hamas war, the UN Security Council finally passed a resolution on Nov. 15, focusing especially on children, and calling for an immediate humanitarian pauses. Israel’s UN envoy called the text “meaningless.” (See Nov. 16 item.)

The latest news on the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza via the UN, as of Nov. 16:

For the second consecutive day, Israeli forces raided Al Shifa hospital in Gaza City, reportedly taking control of several sections; the “impact of the military operation remains unclear.” Although Al Shifa is in the headlines, the WHO says only 10 of the 36 hospitals in the strip are functioning, so more casualties are expected. Preemies, for example, are dying as their life-support systems stop working.

The UN reiterates that hospitals and medical personnel are protected under international humanitarian law and all parties to the conflict must ensure their protection. “Hospitals must not be used to shield military objectives from attack.”

For the second consecutive day, no trucks of aid entered Gaza from Egypt due to the UN’s “inability to receive and distribute additional loads, because of its lack of fuel.” On Friday, Israeli public radio reported that two fuel tankers will be allowed to enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing daily and delivered by the UN to civilian facilities in south Gaza.

For the fifth consecutive day, after hospitals in north Gaza stopped functioning, the Ministry of Health did not update casualty figures for the enclave. The reported fatality toll of Palestinians as of Nov. 10: 11,078, of whom 4,506 were apparently children and 3,027 women.

• Herein, too: Our latest podcast episode on Uyghurs in America; a report on the UN’s memorial for the personnel killed in Gaza; and is there a process in place should the secretary-general resign? (See Nov. 14.) Also news on Sudan, Mali and Myanmar.

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Double your donation to PassBlue: Our annual fund-raising campaign is drawing enormous support as readers contribute from now through Dec. 31, with their gifts matched up to $1,000. To double your donation, please go here. The job of a journalist challenging powerful countries and officials — some of them civil servants — involved at the UN just gets harder, as some of our reporters note. Often, subtle barriers keep us from obtaining information, such as our emails are ignored or we are prevented from interviewing experts directly. Yet we plow on, driven to ask tough questions to keep the public informed.

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Editor’s note: We are pausing the weekly summary on Nov. 24. Have a fantastic Thanksgiving.

Monday, Nov. 13

The UN Holds a Minute of Silence for Its 101 Killed in the Gaza War So Far: Dulcie Leimbach reports from the UN headquarters in New York City, where joined by its offices worldwide, the organization brought its flag to half-mast and held a minute of silence to mourn the 101 UN employees — the highest number in any conflict in its history — who have been killed in Gaza, all Palestinian. No speeches were made, but Secretary-General António Guterres has “noted that some UN personnel killed in the war died at home with their families,” Leimbach writes, adding that in an interview with CNN, “he did not say that Israel was responsible for the dead.” (The UN reported on Nov. 17 that 103 staffers have been killed.)

Spokesperson’s briefing: The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali (Minusma) continued withdrawing from its Kidal base, reporting that 23 military officers and 880 personnel from troop-contributing countries, including Chad, Guinea and Niger, left Mali between Nov. 10-12. “The Mission continues to make all efforts to meet the 31 December deadline for the withdrawal, as mandated by the Security Council of these United Nations,” said Stéphane Dujarric, the UN spokesperson; 7,485 out of 13,871 Minusma personnel have now departed the country.

First Sgt. Renita Rismayanti of Indonesia has won the 2023 UN Woman Police Officer of the Year Award. She handles the crime database for the peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic (Minusca), which enables UN police there to map and analyze crime hotspots.

First Sgt. Renita Rismayanti of Indonesia won the 2023 UN Woman Police Officer of the Year Award this week. EVAN SCHNEIDER/UN PHOTO

Tuesday, Nov. 14

Meet the Uyghurs Preserving Their Culture in the US, Despite Risks: Damilola Banjo delves into the lives of Uyghurs in the diaspora fighting to keep their heritage alive in the US while those living in their homeland in China‘s Xinjiang Province endure the government’s harsh crackdowns. In our monthly podcast, Banjo speaks to the owner of a Uyghur restaurant in New York City and travels to Fairfax, Va., to meet the owners of a Uyghur school, all while China carries out the monthly rotating presidency of the UN Security Council. Listen to the episode, produced by Olivia Ndubuisi, in Lagos.

Spokesperson’s briefing: Israel’s foreign minister, Eli Cohen, said Guterres “does not deserve to be the head of the United Nations,” claiming that his condemnation of Hamas for attacking Israel on Oct. 7 was insufficient: “Guterres like all the free nations should say clearly and loudly: free Gaza from Hamas.” Asked by a reporter to comment, Dujarric said: “The Secretary-General continues his work with nerves of steel, calmly, focused, and based on principles, notably principles of the Charter, international humanitarian law, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” (In the last month, Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan called twice for Guterres to resign.)

The UN doesn’t appear to have a formal process to deal with such contingencies. General Assembly Resolution 52/12B created the role of deputy secretary-general in 1998, but there is nothing explicit saying that the individual automatically assumes the role of secretary-general if the post becomes vacant. When Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden died in a plane crash, in 1961, Burma’s permanent representative, U Thant, assumed the role of acting secretary-general after he was unanimously appointed by the General Assembly upon recommendation of the Security Council. He went through the same procedure in November 1962 for a term ending in November 1966, according to UNA-UK. — DULCIE LEIMBACH

Wednesday, Nov. 15

Spokesperson’s briefing: Catherine Russell, the head of Unicef, cut short her trip in the Mideast after being involved in a car accident in Egypt. Dujarric said that “she, along with the passengers, are fine.” Russell still made her day visit to Gaza, but was later told by doctors that she needed more care, forcing her to postpone travel to Israel, where, Dujarric said, “she had hoped to meet with families of abducted children.” An email to a Unicef spokesperson for more information about Russell went unanswered.

Thursday, Nov. 16

The Road Out of ‘Hell’ to a Ceasefire in Gaza Is Still Long, Experts Say: Damilola Banjo interviews experts on their reaction to a Security Council resolution adopted on Nov. 15, calling for immediate humanitarian pauses to address the essential needs of civilians in Gaza. One expert said the resolution, the first to be approved since the war began 40 days ago, “is a good measure of the global temperature on the war,” but that “negotiations outside the UN would ultimately influence the direction of the fighting.” The US, Britain and Russia abstained on the vote. US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, in the video above, elaborated on her country’s position to reporters on Nov. 15.

Spokesperson’s briefing: In a Nov. 15 statement, Guterres said he was “deeply concerned” by the recent rise of violence in Myanmar, where attacks by an ethnic group called the Arakan Army in Rakhine State broke a yearlong ceasefire with Myanmar’s junta government. Guterres urged all parties to “adhere to international humanitarian law and to do their utmost to protect civilians.” Dujarric said the UN was trying “as quickly as possible” to name a special envoy to succeed Noeleen Heyzer, who resigned in May.

Abeer Etefa of the World Food Program, based in Cairo, above, and Juliette Touma, spokesperson for Unrwa, based in Amman, detailed to reporters on Nov. 16 the extreme deprivations Gazan civilians are facing at this stage of the war. 

Friday, Nov. 17 

Spokesperson’s briefing: Dujarric confirmed the UN received a letter from the Sudanese government to “terminate” immediately the organization’s political mission, Unitams. The mandate of the mission, created by the Security Council in June 2020, ends Dec. 3. Guterres has named Ian Martin to review the mission’s role in Sudan for the Council to decide how to adapt to the new circumstances. Guterres is also appointing Ramtane Lamamra of Algeria as his personal envoy for Sudan. PassBlue’s recent op-ed on the crisis in the country, by Akshaya Kumar of Human Rights Watch.

Additionally, PassBlue asked Dujarric at what point would the UN possibly declare what is happening to Gazan civilians a genocide? Reply: “The Secretary-General does not have the legal authority to declare a situation of genocide. . . . that determination has to be made by a competent judicial authority, court.” Later, Dujarric told PassBlue that the International Criminal Court or an international tribunal, for example, could do so.

ICYMI:

• Voice of America’s report on the independent assessment commissioned by the UN on Afghanistan, particularly the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls.

• For the first time in Unesco’s history, Russia failed to be elected to the agency’s executive board. Russia’s candidate also failed to be elected to the Hague-based International Court of Justice.

• Fedor Strzhizhovskiy, spokesperson for the Russian mission to the UN, said goodbye to journalists, as he returns to Moscow with his wife and newborn, Zoya, after seven and a half years in New York City.

Fedor Strzhizhovskiy, Russia’s spokesperson, said farewell this week. 

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the UN's challenges in the Gaza war?

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 Nov. 17
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