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INTERVIEW: ‘Break the bonds of shame’ about slavery – UN rights experts

In his message for the day, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, said it was an opportunity to “celebrate the diverse heritage and culture of people of African descent and their enormous contribution to our societies throughout history.

“Yet, around the world, millions of people of African descent are still subject to racism and deeply entrenched and systemic racial discrimination.  That is why the United Nations continues to call for the full respect of their human rights and fundamental freedoms, for redress when these are violated, and for formal apologies and reparations for the egregious wrongs of slavery and colonialism.”

Dominique Day is a human rights lawyer, and the chairperson of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent. Verene Shepherd is a social historian, and the chairperson of the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

The rights experts sat down with UN News, to talk about their experiences of racism, and why there needs to be a wider acceptance that today’s global economy was built on the oppression of Black people.

UN News Dominique, you say that “everyday racism is normalized”. What do you mean by that?

Dominique Day The idea that I can’t always get a taxi in New York City, the lengths my parents went to, to make sure that I was super educated, to be able to counter the ways I might be misinterpreted or mischaracterized by a world that sees my skin and comes to a different interpretation than who I actually am.

Dominique Day is a human rights lawyer, and the chairperson of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.
Dominique Day is a human rights lawyer, and the chairperson of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent., by OHCHR/ Gabriel Alcaine

UN News So you internalize it and you and you just say this is life, that’s how it is?

Dominique Day Well, not so much “that’s how it is”, but to actually confront every episode of everyday racism you experience from teachers, judges, police, regular society, even people your friends. The idea that casual racism is so normalized in our society means that, for us to survive it, we actually need to be very thoughtful about the ways we engage.

For those of us who work on racism, we have an opportunity to do advocacy and awareness raising. For example, on a country visit, I will talk about racism I may have experienced in that same country, but may not have confronted as directly because my sanity, my equilibrium matters.

This everyday casual racism has actually been so interwoven into our society, we not only fail to see it, but there’s a really active culture of denial that operates transnationally.

UN News Are you seeing acceptance of the idea that there could be some form of reparations?

Dominique Day I think that, like any other topic, talking about it helps. Uplifting examples help. New arguments are being brought forward by people operating in a number of professional spaces. So, the discourse is evolving.

UN News The Transatlantic Slave Trade is referenced in the Secretary General’s remarks on the Website for the International Day for People of African Descent. Are you surprised the Transatlantic Slave Trade is still such a live issue, particularly in the United States?

Verene Shepherd Let me just say that I am happy that it is.

The Mayor of London takes it seriously: I recently gave a lecture there on the subject, my fifth, at City Hall, which was very well attended.

But the first thing that confronted me was that I was finger-printed as I came through immigration, as if I’m a criminal. I really was shattered. But then I said to myself, there are people who need to hear what I have to say tonight, and so, oppressors are not going to stop me from doing what I have to do.

It was sobering because it said to me, no black person is exempt from racism and from racial profiling, and I think we have to be realistic about that.

UN News In the US we’re seeing a backlash to Critical Race Theory…

Dominique Day It is a threat to white supremacy, a threat to the privilege and power that people have been able to accrue by commodifying their whiteness as value. We even see this in international development work.

Critical Race Theory says, let’s look at what has created the world we’re living in today, let’s take a critical view of history. It actually shouldn’t be a threat.

We’re trying to offer a rigorous and honest look at the world as it exists today, and when we talk about things like the Slave Trade, we’re talking about a moment in history, a moment in global history where transnational relationships were being developed, where the market economy and credit economy were being birthed. And all of these fancy economic terms we use today were being developed using black bodies as collateral, as subjects of trade, both in the financial and agricultural markets.

UN News Is it correct to say, then, that the current global economy, the way it is now, is built on the oppression of black people?

Dominique Day That is fair to say, look at the flight paths: if you ever travel in Africa, you’ll be traveling on British Airways if you’re going to former British colonies. You’ll be traveling on Air France if you’re going to former French colonies. Who owns the diamonds in South Africa? These are the legacy of a colonial relationships continue to govern not only global wealth, but geopolitical power.

I’m not suggesting that racial justice work will upset that, but perhaps the awareness of that can motivate activities to actually right what’s been wrong,

Shackles used to bind slaves on display at the Transatlantic Slave Trade exhibition at UN Headquarters in New York. (file)

UN Photo/Mark Garten
Shackles used to bind slaves on display at the Transatlantic Slave Trade exhibition at UN Headquarters in New York. (file)

Verene Shepherd The reparation movement, which is escalating, in my view, is uncovering the facts that people try to hide. I think this is a threat, and this is why there is backlash form those who are seeing the real possibility that this is going somewhere.

They think that it’s better to have a generation of people who don’t know about this stuff. Then we don’t have to feel guilty about the past.

And speaking about the Caribbean region, there is shame about the past, which too often fills the place that should be held by knowledge.

We need to break the bonds of shame that some people feel about the past, and use knowledge as liberation.

UN News What should people who have benefited from this historic oppression do?

Details from 'Ark of Return,' the permanent memorial in acknowledgement of the tragedy and in consideration of the legacy of slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz
Details from ‘Ark of Return,’ the permanent memorial in acknowledgement of the tragedy and in consideration of the legacy of slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Verene Shepherd I don’t think reparation reparatory justice is only something that will satisfy the victims and those who are continuing to suffer the legacies. If we all engage truly and honestly in the reparatory justice conversation, including those who live in Europe, in the belly of the spaces that oppress other people, I think it will be liberating for everybody.

If you live in a privileged society, if you live in a in a former colonial power and you compare the social infrastructure in that country to the social infrastructure in the South, and when you connect the dots, you realize that you are benefiting from the legacies of the suffering of my ancestors, that’s just how it is.

You can’t say it has nothing to do with me, whilst benefiting from a good education system, a good health system, good infrastructure. Some benefited from the inheritance, and other people, who got nothing at the time of emancipation or independence, continue to try to make do with little.

That is why we see so many universities and religious institutions in Britain studying their role, and how they benefited from the transatlantic trafficking in enslaved Africans.

Dominique Day We need to acknowledge the moral wound that racism has inflicted across our society, to the point that we can’t even acknowledge that we walk with racism as an everyday thing.

We are all educated into it. We get benefits for reinforcing it, and it’s also tacitly reinforced in our media and our education and in our intimate lives. That reality is something we need to confront.

Wildfire and floods don’t need to turn into disasters: UN risk report

From record-breaking heatwaves in British Columbia, to wildfires in the Mediterranean, floods in Nigeria, and droughts in Taiwan; the period between 2021 and 2022 saw record-breaking catastrophic disasters in all corners of the world.

Some 10,000 people lost their lives, and an estimated $280 billion was incurred in damages worldwide.

The latest Interconnected Disaster Risks report, from the UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), finds that many of these disasters shared root causes. At the same time, the study’s authors found that the solutions to preventing or managing them are also closely linked.

Strong winds and high temperatures have caused wildfires to spread across Athens in Greece.

Strong winds and high temperatures have caused wildfires to spread across Athens in Greece.

Connecting the dots

“Disasters occurring in completely different parts of the world at first appear disconnected from each other. But when you start analyzing them in more detail it quickly becomes clear that they are caused by the same things, for example greenhouse gas emissions or unsustainable consumption,” said Dr. Zita Sebesvari, lead author and deputy director of UNU-EHS.

To connect the dots, the research team of the Interconnected Disaster Risks report looked “below the surface” of each disaster and identified the drivers that allowed them to occur in the first place.

For instance, deforestation leads to soil erosion, which in turn makes land highly susceptible to hazards such as landslides, drought, and sandstorms. 

An even deeper dive shows that the drivers of disasters are formed by shared root causes which are more systemic in nature, such as through economic and political systems.

Deforestation can be traced back to placing economic interests over those of the environment and to unsustainable consumption patterns.

Other common root causes found in the report include inequality of development and livelihood opportunities, human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, and legacies of colonialism. It is root causes like these that can be found in disasters around the globe. 

The connections do not stop at root causes and drivers either, but also with who and what is at most risk; vulnerable groups, in both human settlements and natural ecosystems, continue to be the hardest hit by disasters.  

Storm approaching Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

© Unsplash/Nahil Naseer
Storm approaching Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

‘Let nature work’

However, the solutions are also interconnected, which means that one type of solution can be applied in several contexts to reduce the impact of disasters in different parts of the world. Additionally, there are multiple solutions to address one disaster and they are most powerful when applied in combination with each other.

The “let nature work” solution, for example, draws on the strength of nature to prevent risks and avoid disasters.

Prescribed burning in forests can reduce the risk of mega-fires in the Mediterranean; restoring urban rivers and streams can reduce the impacts of floods like the one that hit New York in the wake of Hurricane Ida; and investing in boosting early warning systems can improve prediction and communication of risks ahead of time.

In three of the events analyzed in the report – the British Columbia Heatwave, the Tonga volcano and tsunami, and Lagos floods, in Nigeria – early warning systems could have reduced fatalities the report finds. 

 “If we don’t want the disasters which we are currently experiencing to become the new normal, we need to recognize that they are interconnected, as are their solutions,” says lead author Dr. Jack O’Connor.

“We have the right kind of solutions to better prevent and manage hazards, but we need to urgently invest in scaling them up and developing a better understanding of how they can work in combination with each other.” 

Maria Antonia, from Baja California, Mexico, wakes up every day before dawn to catch milkfish, corvina and sierrita.

UNU-EHS / Rodrigo Jardon
Maria Antonia, from Baja California, Mexico, wakes up every day before dawn to catch milkfish, corvina and sierrita.

‘We are all part of the solution’

Not all solutions will be convenient for everyone. The redistribution of resources among generations, countries, and groups of people with different vulnerabilities, or requesting the inclusion of stakeholders who are rarely heard, will mean that some will need to share their resources more broadly than they currently do.

The solutions are not limited to governments, policymakers, or the private sector. They can also be carried out at the individual level, the researchers urge.

“We can let nature work when we give spaces back to it. We can promote sustainable consumption by being mindful of where our food comes from and where we buy it.

“We can work together to prepare our communities in the event of a disaster,” says O’Connor.  “The point is that we, as individuals, are part of a larger collective action, which goes a long way in creating meaningful positive change. We are all part of the solution”.

Visa refusal for UN human rights staff in Palestine part of wider ‘worrying trend’: Bachelet

The development is occurring in a context where Israeli authorities are increasingly limiting what she called human rights “eyes and ears on the ground”

Search for solutions 

Although the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) in Palestine has been operating for 26 years, the 15 international staff there “had no choice but to leave” in 2020, said Ms. Bachelet. 

“Subsequent requests for visas and visa renewals have gone unanswered for two years,” she added. “During this time, I have tried to find a solution to this situation, but Israel continues to refuse to engage.” 

International obligations 

Ms. Bachelet reminded the Israeli authorities of their obligations as a UN Member State. Countries must cooperate in good faith with the UN and grant its officials the privileges and immunities necessary for them to independently exercise their functions. 

This includes exempting UN officials from immigration restrictions and dealing with their visa applications as speedily as possible. 

“Israel’s failure to process visa applications that are necessary for my staff’s access is inconsistent with these standards, and I call on the Government to meet its international obligations in this regard,” she said. 

Expulsions and refusals rise 

Referring to the current context, the human rights chief noted that a growing number of UN staff and mechanisms, non-governmental organisations, and others are being expelled or refused entry

“Israel’s treatment of our staff is part of a wider and worrying trend to block human rights access to the occupied Palestinian territory,” she said. “This raises the question of what exactly the Israeli authorities are trying to hide.” 

Killings and violence increase 

Last year, Israeli Forces killed 320 Palestinians, a ten-fold increase over 2020, she reported.  Troops also injured 17,042 people, or six times the 2020 figure.  

Furthermore, the UN recorded the highest number of incidents of settler violence since recording began in 2017, while arrests of Palestinians doubled. So far this year, Israeli forces have killed at least 111 more Palestinians. 

Children in the Gaza Strip. 08 August 2022.

Ziad Taleb
Children in the Gaza Strip. 08 August 2022.

Commitment to deliver 

Ms. Bachelet said despite the visa refusals, the Palestine Office is delivering on its mandated work in monitoring Israel’s compliance with its international human rights obligations and providing technical assistance.  

“We publicly report on violations by Israel, but also on violations by the State of Palestine, by Hamas in Gaza and Palestinian armed groups. We also provide the principal support to the Palestinian Government to help it improve its compliance with international human rights obligations,” she said. 

We will continue to deliver on our mandate. And we will continue to demand access to the occupied Palestinian territory for our staff, in line with Israel’s obligations as a UN Member State.”  

Protect and support Palestinian children 

Although it is back-to-school time for some 1.3 million Palestinian boys and girls, they face challenges “many children across the world cannot imagine”, a senior UN official said on Tuesday. 

Lynn Hastings, UN Resident Humanitarian Coordinator in the occupied Palestinian territory, detailed how violence, violations, demolitions, and deprivation have had an impact on young lives in the West Bank and Gaza. 

“Palestinian children hold in their hands the potential and drive to reimagine education, co-create new pathways for development, and transform their lives. They are tomorrow’s leaders. We must do more to protect and support them, as children must not be exposed to violence or exploited for any purpose,” she said. 

Ms. Hastings reported that 20 children have been killed in the West Bank since the beginning of the year, compared to 12 during the same period in 2021. 

Girls work at a shared desk during a lesson at Omar Ben al-Khattab School in the town of Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip.  (file)

© UNICEF/UNI6786/El Baba
Girls work at a shared desk during a lesson at Omar Ben al-Khattab School in the town of Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip. (file)

Education-related violations 

Additionally, there are 56 outstanding demolition orders against schools where at least 6,400 children are taught in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. 

The UN has recorded 115 education-related violations in the first half of this year, which include direct or indirect firing of tear gas, stun grenades, and/or rubber-coated bullets, intimidating military and settler presences at schools, detentions, and movement restrictions preventing students from reaching their classes.  

Overall, nearly 8,000 students have been impacted, increasing the risk they will drop out of school. 

Deadly escalation  

Seventeen children were killed during the latest escalation in Gaza, and schools are overcrowded, with 65 per cent operating on double shifts.  

Ms. Hastings added that the conditions in Gaza for children, including having lived through four escalations in hostilities during their lifetime, increase the need for specialized psychosocial support services. 

Despite the many challenges, she pointed to bright spots.  The youth literacy rate among Palestinians is over 99 per cent, and nearly 94 per cent of children graduating from primary school go on to a secondary education.  

“The United Nations wishes all children a successful and fun-filled year where their fundamental right to education is protected and realized by all. We remain committed to protect children from violence and support them to fulfill their potential,” she said. 

Mikhail Gorbachev: UN chief hails ‘one of a kind statesman who changed the course of history’

António Guterres said he was deeply saddened to hear the news of his passing in Moscow, announced by Russian State news agencies, which reported that he had died after a “long and grave illness.”

Mr. Guterres extended his heartfelt condolences to the whole Gorbachev family, and to the people and Government of the Russian Federation.

‘Towering global leader’

The world has lost a towering global leader, committed multilateralist, and tireless advocate for peace.”

Mr. Gorbachev became Soviet leader in 1985, when nuclear tensions between East and West were still running high, with a reformist programme designed to revive the economy and modernise the political system, adopting the policies of “perestroika”, and “glasnost”, or openness.

He ended the Cold War by successfully negotiating with US President Ronald Reagan to abolish a whole class of missiles through the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, ended the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and precipitating the breakup of the Warsaw Pact, Soviet domination of eastern Europe, and ultimately the Soviet Union itself, all in the space of just six years.

Nobel Prize

In 1990, lauded internationally, but suffering increasing criticism at home, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, for the leading role that he had played in the “radical changes in East-West relations”, according to the judges.

The Secretary-General noted in his statement, that in receiving the prize, “he observed that ‘peace is not unity in similarity but unity in diversity.’ He put this vital insight into practice by pursuing the path of negotiation, reform, transparency and disarmament.”

Mr. Gorbachev faced a coup initiated by hard-line communist elements in 1991, and was arrested while on a Black Sea vacation, but the then party leader in Moscow, Boris Yeltsin, effectively ended the Soviet army-backed uprising in the capital, and ushered Mr. Gorbachev into retirement, and the final dissolution of the USSR.

Mikhail Gorbachev (l), the former President of Soviet Union visits UN Headquarters in 1988 and presents the UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar with a gift to the United Nations.

UN Photo/Yutaka Nagata
Mikhail Gorbachev (l), the former President of Soviet Union visits UN Headquarters in 1988 and presents the UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar with a gift to the United Nations.

Embraced new challenges

Mr. Guterres said that in his later years, Mr. Gorbachev “embraced a new challenge just as vital for the wellbeing of humankind: creating a sustainable future by cultivating harmonious relationships between humans and the environment. It was in this spirit that he founded Green Cross International.”

Pakistan: $160 million UN emergency plan launched, as ‘monsoon on steroids’ continues

An estimated 33 million people have been affected by the “worst flooding in decades “and more than 1,000 people, mostly children”, have died since mid-June when heavy rains began pounding the country, Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the UN humanitarian coordination office, OCHA, said on Tuesday.

“Pakistan is awash in suffering,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a video message to launch the six-month appeal in Islamabad and Geneva.

‘Unprecedented climate catastrophe’

In a note to correspondents issued on Tuesday afternoon in New York, the Spokesperson’s Office said that given the “tragic situation facing millions” across the country, the UN chief would travel to Pakistan on a solidarity visit, arriving on Friday in Islamabad.

“He will then travel to the areas most impacted by this unprecedented climate catastrophe.”

In his video message earlier, Mr. Guterres said “the Pakistani people are facing a monsoon on steroids – the relentless impact of epochal levels of rain and flooding.”

According to Mr. Laerke, 500,000 people displaced by the floods “are sheltering in relief camps … nearly one million homes have been damaged and over 700,000 livestock have been lost”.

The humanitarian situation has also been compounded by severe impacts to infrastructure. Damage to nearly 3,500 km of roads and 150 bridges has impeded the ability of people to flee to safer areas, he said, and compromised the delivery of aid to the millions in need.  

Three key objectives

According to the OCHA spokesperson the plan focuses on three key objectives: “first, delivering lifesaving and livelihood assistance, such as health services, food, clean water and shelter.

“Secondly, to prevent large outbreaks of communicable diseases such as cholera and assist small children and their mothers with nutrition.”

The third aim is to ensure that “people can access assistance and protection in a way that is both safe and dignified, including family tracing”.

Matthew Saltmarsh, UN refugee agency (UNHCR) spokesperson, told reporters in Geneva that to date, the agency’s response has focused on “emergency provision going into the affected regions and providing emergency relief items. These include primarily shelter items, but also, “cooking stoves, blankets, solar lamps.”

“So far, we’ve delivered $1.5 million worth of aid, but much, much more will be needed in the coming weeks and also over the medium term, including development assistance,” Mr. Saltmarsh said.

Devastating impact

Pakistan has endured severe monsoon weather since June, which saw rainfall levels 67 per cent above normal in that month alone, OCHA said in a statement. As of 27 August, rainfall in the country has been equivalent to 2.9 times the national 30-year average.

To date, 72 districts across Pakistan have been declared “calamity-hit” by the government. Amid ongoing rains, the number of calamity-declared districts is expected to increase.

“When we hear flooding, we very often just think about people drowning, but it’s so much more to it,” said Christian Lindmeier, World Health Organization (WHO) spokesperson. “You have crush injuries from the debris floating in the water. You have electrical shocks from wires… you have the lack of drinking water,” which is “not only a problem for the immediate situation, but for the medium situation as well”.

The WHO spokesperson also warned that “at least 888 health facilities have been severely affected…180 of which are completely damaged at this point”.

The ‘pendulum has swung’

According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2021 and Climate Watch, Pakistan is among the 10 countries most affected by extreme weather events, despite its very low carbon footprint.

According to Clare Nullis, World Meteorological Organization (WMO) spokesperson, the deadly flooding is “the footprint of climate change where it is becoming more extreme”. In March and April, Pakistan “was in the grips of this devastating heat wave and drought” and now “the pendulum has swung”, she warned.

Libya: Political stalemate and lack of progress on elections

The North African country became divided between two rival administrations in the years after the overthrow of former leader Muammar Gaddafi a decade ago.  The Government of National Accord (GNA) is based in the capital, Tripoli, located in the west, while the Libyan National Army (LNA) is in the east.  

Despite relative calm in recent years, tensions have been simmering following the failure to hold long-awaited elections last December, and the refusal of incumbent Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, to step down. 

Rival Fathi Bashagha, who was appointed Prime Minister by the parliament in the east, has been attempting to enter Tripoli. 

Ms. DiCarlo said she is deeply concerned that the ongoing stalemate and continued delays in implementing the electoral process pose a growing threat to security in and around Tripoli, and potentially to all Libyans

‘Theatre of violent clashes’ 

“That threat materialized just a few days ago, when Tripoli was again the theatre of violent clashes between armed groups supporting Mr. Dbeibah and Mr. Bashaga respectively,” she told ambassadors.  

The violence broke out on 27 August, leaving at least 42 people dead, including four civilians, and nearly 160 injured, according to the Libyan authorities. Some 50 families were reportedly displaced, while five health centres and two migrant detention centres were damaged. 

While the fighting subsided the following day, a fragile calm prevails but it is unclear how long it will last.

“In light of the deterioration of the political and security climate in Tripoli, the United Nations must continue to provide and enhance good offices and mediation to help Libyan actors resolve the ongoing impasse and seek a consensual pathway to elections,” she said.

“I urge everyone to support the Secretary-General’s efforts to help Libyans forge a path to peace.”

Ms. DiCarlo was also concerned about the limited political progress towards the elections, which the UN sees as the only way to break the current impasse. 

No progress 

“Despite our continued efforts, no progress has been made on forging a consensus on a constitutional framework for the elections,” she said. “It is critical that an agreement is reached on a constitutional framework and timeline for elections that will enable the Libyan people to choose their leaders.” 

The UN political affairs chief did highlight some positive developments, such as the ongoing efforts by the 5+5 Joint Military Commission (JMC) to preserve and strengthen the implementation of the ceasefire agreement. 

The JMC brings together five military representatives each from both sides. 

“Of note, on 27 August the eastern delegation to the JMC called their counterparts in the west to reassure them that the Libyan National Army would not be involved in the fighting,” she reported. 

Earlier this month, the JMC also met with the UN Mission in the country, UNSMIL, to enhance the readiness of the Libyan Ceasefire Monitoring Mechanism.  They also finalized modalities for the withdrawal of foreign forces, foreign fighters and mercenaries from the territory. 

Oil flowing again 

Turning to economic developments, Ms. DiCarlo reported that oil production resumed in July, following a nearly three-month shutdown. Production had reached pre-shutdown levels of 1.2 million barrels a day by the end of that month, with plans for further increase. 

However, she was worried that oil fields could again close due to growing public discontent in the south over lack of basic services and poor living conditions.   

“Libya’s natural resources belong to all Libyans, and revenues from oil exports should be distributed equitably and fairly,” she said. 

Smear campaigns, and hate speech 

Meanwhile the human rights situation in the country continues to be a concern.  

Last week, armed groups affiliated with the Libyan National Army, one of the rival government structures, encircled the town of Qasr Bouhadi. Although these “military actors” have since withdrawn, they continue to control movement there.  

Ms. DiCarlo called for restrictions on the population to be immediately lifted, warning that the situation could escalate

She reported on other violations, including against people exercising their right to freedom of expression, migrants and refugees, and women activists. 

“Smear campaigns targeting civil society actors, particularly women, consisting of hate speech and incitements to violence, are deeply concerning and must cease,” she said.  

UNGA77: 5 key things to know about the upcoming General Assembly session

Csaba Kőrösi, President-elect of the seventy-seventh session of the United Nations General Assembly, addresses members of the General Assembly.

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
Csaba Kőrösi, President-elect of the seventy-seventh session of the United Nations General Assembly, addresses members of the General Assembly.

  1. A Hungarian President takes the gavel

A new session means a new President of the General Assembly. The current PGA – as the UN acronym goes – Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives, will bow out, and Csaba Kőrösi of Hungary will take on the mantle for the next twelve months.

The handover will take place on Monday, 12 September; Mr. Shahid will close the 76th session of the GA in the morning, and the 77th session will be officially opened at 3pm the same day (site goes live at that time).

Mr. Kőrösi’s has held several roles within his country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, his most recent post being Director of Environmental Sustainability at the Office of the President of Hungary. He has been involved with the UN for several years, and the Presidency probably won’t involve too much of a learning curve: Mr. Kőrösi  served as Vice-President of the General Assembly during the 67th session in 2011-2012.

  1. Transforming Education Summit

As usual, international attention (as well as large numbers of police, and complaints about traffic jams from New York residents) will be centred around the High-Level Debate week, which begins on Tuesday 20 September.

However, the Transforming Education Summit, which takes place the week before at UN Headquarters – on Friday 16, Saturday 17 and Monday 19 September – is billed as a major event by the organization.

Friday is “Mobilization Day”, which will be youth-led and youth-organized, bringing young people’s concerns over their education to decision and policymakers, and will focus on mobilizing the global public, youth, teachers, civil society and others, to support the transformation of education across the world.

The second day is all about solutions, and is designed to be a platform for initiatives that will contribute to transforming education. The day is grouped around five themes (“Thematic Action Tracks”): inclusive, equitable, safe and healthy schools; learning and skills for life; work and sustainable development; teachers, teaching and the teaching profession; digital learning and transformation; and financing of education.

The third day, on Monday 19 September, is Leaders Day, capitalizing on the fact that so many Heads of State and Government will be descending on New York that week. Expect a host of National Statements of Commitment from these leaders.

SDGs signs displayed at UNHQ in New York.

UN News/Abdelmonem Makki
SDGs signs displayed at UNHQ in New York.

The day will also feature the presentation of the Summit Youth Declaration and the Secretary-General’s Vision Statement for Transforming Education.

  1. SDG Moment

This year’s SDG Moment, which will take place between 08:30 and 10:00 on Monday 19 September, immediately before Leader’s Day of the Transforming Education Summit, will be an opportunity to refocus attention on the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN’s 2030 Agenda, a blueprint for a fairer future for people and the planet.

Speaking at the High-Level Political Forum – a key annual development forum – in July, Amina Mohammed, the Deputy Secretary-General, said that transitions in renewable energy, food systems and digital connectivity along with “investments in human capital, financing the opportunities”, are needed in order to turn multiple crises into opportunities.

Ms. Mohammed said that this year’s Moment will be “an opportunity to focus on these deep transitions, and on the work needed to get us back on track. It will also be an important milestone on the way to the 2023 SDG Summit.”

Last year’s Moment was notable for the involvement of Korean megastars BTS, who reflected on the huge disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and challenged the notion that they are part of a “lost COVID generation”.

Women of the Lisu ethnic minority, from Yunnan province, China, in traditional dress.

UNDP China
Women of the Lisu ethnic minority, from Yunnan province, China, in traditional dress.

  1. The rights of minorities

On 18 December 1992, UN Member States adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious, and Linguistic Minorities (UN Declaration on Minority Rights for short), described by the UN as a key instrument to address the political and civil, economic, social, and cultural rights of persons belonging to minorities.

On Wednesday 21 September, in the Trusteeship Council Chamber, a High-Level Meeting will take place, as part of the year-long commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Declaration.

Speaking in June, Paolo David, Head of UN Human Rights’ Indigenous Peoples and Minorities Section, said that, while the adoption of the Declaration brought hope three decades ago, this feeling was quickly lost due to the armed conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Mr. David noted that minorities continue to be instrumentalised in many conflicts, including in Ukraine, Ethiopia, Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

Today, minorities face unprecedented barriers and challenges, according to the UN. In many countries they deal with modern threats such as online hate speech and are being stripped of citizenship rights.

The event is billed as a chance to take stock of constraints and achievements, share examples of best practice, and set priorities for the future.

The Sustainable Development Goals are a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.

The Sustainable Development Goals are a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.

  1. Global Goals Week

The General Debate will overlap with Global Goals Week which, despite the name, is actually a nine-day programme of virtual and in-person events taking place between 16 and 25 September, involving more than 170 partners across civil society, business, academia, and the UN system, to accelerate action on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

There are too many events to list in full here, but they include NYC Climate Week, covering a wide range of climate-related challenges; the UN Private Sector Forum, run by UN Global Compact, which brings together business, the UN and civil society, to address global crises; and the launch of the 2002 Climate Action Project from Take Action Global, which brings classrooms from over 140 countries together, for a series of live interviews, school visits and social media takeovers.

There will be plenty of SDG Media Zone videos to watch during Global Goals Week, with dozens of interesting speakers, including  content creators, influencers, activists and media partners, taking part in panel discussions that will highlight actions and solutions in support of the Sustainable Development Goals. The list of speakers will be announced nearer the time, here.

Pakistan: WFP working to expand food aid as deadly flooding continues

Through its National Disaster Management Authority, the Pakistani Government – which has declared a national emergency – is leading the response in coordinating assessments and directing humanitarian relief to affected people.

Since June, flooding and landslides caused by heavy monsoon rainfall have brought widespread destruction across Pakistan, creating its “biggest challenge” in decades, according to Julien Harneis, UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator in the country.

He has called for “burden-sharing and solidarity” internationally in the wake of the “climate-change driven catastrophe.”

According to news reports, a third of the country could be left underwater as the monsoon weather continues, and the death toll is likely to rise as more rivers burst their banks, washing away roads and bridges, with many communities in the mountainous northern regions cut off.

Access constraints

WFP has been asked to assist in the emergency response, and staff are working with the authorities and partners to expand food assistance.

The aim is to reach nearly half a million people in the badly hit provinces of Balochistan, where the agency already supports nearly 42,000 people, and Sindh.

However, distributions are currently on hold as floodwaters create access constraints across the country.

Waters have also disrupted lives and livelihoods in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab.

More than 100 bridges and some 3,000km of roads have been damaged or destroyed, nearly 800,000 farm animals have perished, and two million acres of crops and orchards have been hit.

UN funding appeal

Mr. Harneis has warned that the humanitarian situation is expected to worsen, with diseases and malnutrition expected to rise along with the number of districts reporting that they have been affected.

The UN is set to launch a $161 million flash appeal for Pakistan on Tuesday.

The funding will provide critical food and cash assistance to nearly one million people in districts in Balochistan, Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.

More than $34 million is urgently needed to enable the scale-up.

UN relief chief stresses need to stay and deliver for all Afghans

UN Humanitarian Coordinator Martin Griffiths, who briefed ambassadors, reported on the ongoing hardships and uncertainty facing Afghans, nearly half of whom – 24 million people – require aid relief to survive. 

“Afghanistan’s crisis is a humanitarian crisis, but it’s not only that. It’s an economic crisis. It’s a climate crisis. It’s a hunger crisis. It’s a financial crisis. But it’s not a hopeless crisis,” he said. 

A critical situation 

Although conflict, poverty, climate shocks and food insecurity have long been a “sad reality” for Afghanistan, Mr. Griffiths outlined why the current situation is so critical. 

Firstly, large-scale development assistance has been halted for a year in a country that was already facing severe levels of food insecurity and malnutrition, which have only deteriorated. 

Humanitarians are also confronting an “exceptionally challenging” operating environment, he added, as engaging with the de facto authorities is “labour intensive”. 

Liquidity crisis, rights reversal 

Furthermore, there is no confidence in the domestic banking sector which has sparked a liquidity crisis, that has affected aid delivery. A Humanitarian Exchange Facility intended to partially alleviate the liquidity crisis, is still being negotiated with Taliban leaders. 

Meanwhile women and girls “have been pushed to the sidelines”, Mr. Griffiths added. Rights gains have been reversed, and adolescent girls have not attended school in a year. 

“In the 21st century, we should not need to explain why girls’ education and women’s empowerment are important to them, to their communities, to their countries, and indeed to all of us,” he said. 

Funding shortfall 

The UN relief chief stressed that preserving basic service delivery alongside humanitarian assistance “remains the only way to prevent a catastrophe even greater than what we have seen these many months.” 

He reported that poverty is still deepening, the population continues to grow, and the de facto authorities have no budget to invest in their own future, making it clear that “some development support needs to be restarted”. 

A $4.4 billion Humanitarian Response Plan for Afghanistan currently has a gap of $3.14 billion, he said.

With winter approaching, more than $600 million is urgently needed to support priority preparedness activities, such as upgrades and repairs to shelters, as well as provision of warm clothes and blankets.  

Additionally, $154 million is needed to pre-position supplies, including food and livelihood assistance, before the winter weather cuts off access to some areas of the country. 

Prosperity and safety 

“The people of Afghanistan are still there. They have shown incredible resilience over the decades and in this last year. Our task is to help them to prosper, to flourish and to be safe,” said Mr. Griffiths, who also called for action by the de facto authorities. 

“Bureaucratic interferences and procedures slow down humanitarian assistance when it is needed most. Female humanitarian aid workers – both national and international – must be allowed to work unhindered and securely. And girls must be allowed to continue their education.” 

‘Ambiguous’ engagement 

Markus Potzel, the Secretary-General’s Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan, reported on the UN’s ongoing engagement with the de facto authorities, as well as efforts towards promoting inclusive governance, rights and freedoms. 

He said the Taliban have been “ambiguous” as to the extent to which they want to engage, predicated on being in accordance with their interpretation of Sharia law.  

Mr. Potzel underlined the vital need to move “beyond an exchange of hardened positions” towards a sustained dialogue between the Taliban, other Afghan stakeholders, the wider region and the international community. 

“Such dialogue must place the interests of all Afghans at its centre,” he advised.  “The future stability of Afghanistan rests on meeting the needs of the Afghan people, preserving their rights, and reflecting the country’s diversity in all governance structures.” 

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