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Category: Human Rights

UN Day: Changing of the Guard

Secretary-General Meets António Guterres before General Assembly Appointment

UN Day, 24 October, this year is marked by preparations for a changing of the guard. The ten years of Ban Ki-moon as Secretary-General will give way on one January 2017 to the new Secretary- General, Antonio Guterres, who was during the same ten-year period the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. As with the changing of the guard in front of a palace or national monument, the persons change but the guards have the same uniform. 

Ban Ki-moon brought his long experience in South Korean diplomacy and a certain non-confrontational Asian style – somewhat similar to that of the Berman U Thant- to the UN. (1) The major road marks of UN action during his leadership of the organization were related to socio-economic development: the setting of the 2015-2030 Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Both agreements are important and needed a good deal of “behind the meeting hall” efforts to reach consensus.  However development goals and anti-poverty measures have been relatively the same since the early 1960s when the former African colonies joined the UN. As has been said, setting goals is relatively simple, reaching them is more difficult. 

Development is at the heart of the UN system – the UN and its programmes and the major Specialized Agencies (FAO, ILO, WHO, UNESCO) as well as the two financial bodies (the World Bank and the IMF). There are issues of coordination and overlap of tasks, but basically the development efforts continue with few changes. 

The same steady continuation can be said to be true of the UN's human rights efforts. The international norms have been set, but the UN Secretariat has relatively few ways of control or pressure on what member States do in the human rights field. In keeping with the development focus of the UN system, there has been a somewhat greater emphasis on socio-economic rights and the fight against poverty but most of these goals had also been set earlier. 

Mercosur to Suspend Venezuela over Human Rights Record?

Venezuela, South America, Mercosur, Human Rights, European Union

Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami famously wrote, “Hell has no true bottom.” And Venezuela may be proof. As the country continues its downward economic spiral, it now faces pressure from Mercosur to meet the organization’s human rights and immigration standards. The South American trade bloc warned that Venezuela’s membership will be suspended if it fails to meet the December 1st deadline to improve conditions, Bloomberg reported. (Upon joining in 2012, the country agreed to the four-year timeline to meet all the requirements.)

In June, Caracas was set to assume the bloc’s rotating presidency, but leading members Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay filled the role using an interim team from other states in order to “preserve and strengthen Mercosur,” the ministers said. It was an early warning sign that Venezuela was on shaky ground with its trading partners.

The decline in global commodity prices has led Mercosur to seek out new ties with other trade blocs—including the European Union, which evaluates the human rights records of potential partners. Given Venezuela’s increasing political turmoil, the oil-rich nation is quickly becoming a liability. 

“The European Union has condemned Venezuela for human rights violations. So (Venezuelan President Nicolas) Maduro isn’t exactly the best face for Mercosur to have right now,” Roberto Moritan, a former deputy foreign minister in Argentina, told The Wallstreet Journal.

Maria Montessori: The Spirit of Education for World Citizenship

Global Citizen Education Program at UNESCO would make Maria Montessori proud.

Maria Montessori (1870-1952), an Italian childhood educator and world citizen, would have been pleased at the efforts of the United Nations and UNESCO to promote Global Citizenship Education1. Montessori argued for a child's dignity and autonomy and for the ability of the child to break out of the narrow bonds of nationalistic education. She stressed that children have a unique consciousness and a special sensitivity in the early years which must be nurtured and allowed to develop along its own course.

The world citizen spirit of Maria Montessori's teaching displeased the narrow nationalist leaders in power in the 1930s. The Fascist government of Mussolini closed the Montessori schools in Italy in 1934 as did Hitler in Germany and then in Austria when Hitler's  troops moved into Vienna.  The dictators saw that creative thinking among children was a danger to their authoritarian rule.  She spent the Second World War years in India where her educational ideas influenced a growing number of Indian teachers.

 She stressed education for world citizenship in both content and methodology for as she pointed out access to education and to various forms of learning is a necessary but not sufficient condition to world citizenship education. A comprehensive system of education and training is needed for all groups of people and at all levels, both formal and non-formal. The development of a holistic approach based on participatory methods is crucial.

Dag Hammarskjold (29 July 1905 -18 September 1961) Crisis Manager and World Community Builder

A collage of stamps from around the world honoring Dag Hammarskjold

You wake from dreams of doom and −for a moment− you know: beyond all the noise and the gestures, the only real thing, love's calm unwavering flame in the half-light of an early dawn. Dag Hammarskjold Markings1

Dag Hammarskjold became Secretary-General of the United Nations at a moment of crisis related to the 1950-1953 war in Korea, and he died in his plane crash in 1961 on a mission dealing with the war in the Congo. The first Secretary-General of the UN, Trygve Lie, had resigned in November 1952 in the light of the strong opposition of the Soviet Union and its allies to the way the United Nations Command operated in Korea. Even though it was called the “United Nations Command”, the main fighting forces and the logistic support were provided by the United States.

Among UN Security Council members and other important delegations, it was felt that, given the way Trygve Lie was pushed out before a second term, he should be replaced by a person from a Nordic country, and the name of Dag Hammarskjold started to be proposed as a suitable candidate from an appropriate country, Sweden. It took five months of discussions before on 10 April 1953 Hammarskjold took office in New York.

Yemen negotiations move ahead slowly – post-war planning needed

Over 170 schools have been destroyed in the north of Yemen due to the conflict.

The UN-mediated peace negotiations for Yemen led by Ismail Ould Cheikh in Kuwait move ahead slowly. The 13-month war was at first between Hauthis tribal forces loyal to the former president Ali Abdallah Saleh and those supporting the current president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi who had been Saleh’s vice-president for many years. The war is a struggle for power but is not an ideological-religious-tribal conflict.

Into this conflict has come a Saudi Arabian-led military coalition using bombs and sophisticated weapons. As a result, some 2.5 million people have been displaced within the country. Yemen was already a poor country which needed to import much of its agricultural and food supplies. As a result of the Saudi bombing raids, the underdeveloped socio-economic infrastructure has been largely destroyed.

Thus, there is a serious need first for post-war planning to be followed by international aid for development. “Reconstruction” would be the wrong term since there was little that had been “constructed”. Rather, we need to look to a post-war socio-economic construction developed on a basic needs approach.

The Basic Needs Approach to Development with its emphasis on people as central to the development process is embodied in the June 1976 World Employment Conference Declaration of Principles and Programme of action.[1] The Declaration underlines the importance of the individual and the central role of the family and household as the basic unit around which to work for development.

The Refugee Crisis: United Nations Declares the Problem “Unprecedented”

Migrants on the move with small children in Miratovac, Serbia

One of the unintended consequences of people fleeing their homelands as a result of conflict, terrorism, famine, and political and religious persecution has been an increase in right-wing nationalism and an anti-immigrant populist uprising as witnessed by the recent “Brexit” vote in Great Britain.

From France to Germany, Italy and Austria; from the Netherlands to Hungary and Greece, a wave of nationalistic leaders has taken center stage across the continent of Europe seeking to capitalize on the anti-refugee bias.

We in the United States have witnessed political rhetoric that feeds on the fears of the populace – real or imagined. Despite passage of the American SAFE Act in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris, some seek to completely bar Syrian refugees from entering the U.S., fearing that refugees are posing as terrorists. The vetting process is extremely stringent, as it should be, but it is wrong to assume all refugees mean us harm.

Each year on June 20th the world comes together to mark World Refugee Day. Beginning in 2001 it is a time to commemorate the strength, courage, and resilience of millions of refugees. The U.N. estimates that 65 million people have been displaced as a consequence of ongoing regional hostilities. This is the largest number ever to be reported by the U.N.

To place this figure into some perspective, consider this: one in every 113 people is now a refugee, asylum-seeker or internally displaced. Furthermore, in 2015 24 people had to flee their homeland every minute due to conflict or persecution, according to the U.N.’s Global Trends 2015 report submitted by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Rio 2016: Olympic Games Trump Human Rights?

2016 Olympics, Brazil, Rio de Janiero, Human Rights, Police Brutality

Ready or not, Rio de Janeiro will host the 2016 Summer Olympics in August.  The Brazilian city, which is set to receive one million visitors,  has long been plagued by violent crime and police brutality—a security risk for both athletes and tourists.  In order to combat these fears, Brazil loaned $895 million to the city to keep the peace. But there is another, often neglected group, that also deserves protection: Rio de Janeiro's residents.

Combined with the numbers on police violence, Brazil's security policy gives NGOs and observers reason to pause.  Police in the state of Rio de Janeiro were responsible for 436 killings in 2014 alone, according to Human Rights Watch. And no fewer than 85,000 security officers will be deployed throughout the games. (Forces include civilian and military police, National Public Security Force soldiers, members of the armed forces,  and privately funded brigades.)

Police Brutality

Brazil's extreme security measures might make visitors feel more at home, but the same can't be said for millions of residents who face high rates of homicides committed by police. These security operations to reduce crime before events such as the World Cup or the Olympics often threaten the local population, according to Amnesty International.

Reimagining the United Nations: A 2020 Vision

Future Parliament

This essay is a revised and updated version of the cover story for the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of DISARMAMENT TIMES, the journal of the United Nations NGO Committee on Disarmament, Peace, and Security.

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"Does the United Nations Still Matter?" It often seems so irrelevant to the problems of the modern age that those words appeared last year on the front page of The New Republic magazine. More than seven decades after the UN's invention in 1945, our multiple planetary crises seem dramatically different from those confronting the generation that emerged from the rubble of the Second World War. Isn’t it time to devise architectures of global governance intended not to avoid the mistakes of the 1930s, but focused instead on the intertwined predicaments of our own 21st Century?

A New Global Governance Commission

If so, we have a new guide to start the journey. It’s the report from the “Commission on Global Security, Justice, and Governance,” co-chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former UN Under-Secretary-General Ibrahim Gambari. The name they chose reflects the inescapable links the Commission sees among those three variables. Their report elaborately makes the case that we can’t have security anywhere without justice, or justice anywhere without security. And it asserts that nothing could do more to provide both security and justice to much of humanity than smart 21st Century innovations in global governance.

The Security of Human Rights

Recently, President Obama announced the end of the arms embargo against Vietnam, “ensur[ing] that Vietnam has access to the equipment it needs to defend itself and...underscoring the commitment of the United States to a fully normalized relationship with Vietnam.” While the Obama Administration has maintained that this is not being done as a response to China’s growing military, and hold over the disputed South China Sea, others see it as strategic decision to balance a rising China.

But some, like John Sifton of Human Rights Watch, have criticized the move as being “undeserved at this time.” With Obama too noting that “there are still areas of significant concern in terms of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, [and] accountability with respect to government,” many argue that Vietnam’s current treatment of human rights does not merit closer ties with the U.S. For example, an activist was grabbed and held until after Obama had left the country.

World Humanitarian Summit: On the front lines for action

World Humanitarian Summit 2016

The World Humanitarian Summit organized by the United Nations will open on 23 May 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey.  The aim of the conference in the words of the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki moon is to see what should be done “to end conflict, alleviate suffering and reduce risk and vulnerability.”  Turkey is on the front lines of the consequences of armed conflict with nearly three million refugees from Syria and Iraq as well as its own attacks against Kurds. Turkey has entered into agreements with the States of the European Union concerning the flow of refugees through Turkey to Europe − agreements that have raised controversy and concern from human rights organizations.

Given the policies of the Turkish government, some non-governmental organizations have refused to participate in protest.  Doctors Without Borders − one of the best-known of the relief organizations − has pulled out.  However, the Association of World Citizens will participate while working for a settlement of Kurdish issues at the same time.

As with all UN conferences, there has been a good deal of earlier discussion. These discussions within UN agencies, national governments, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have led to a synthesis document which sets out the agenda and the main lines for discussion in Istanbul.  It is the Secretary-General’s report for the World Humanitarian Summit One humanity: shared responsibility. (A70/709). There is a useful overview of the current world situation of refugees, internally-displaced people and of people on the move to escape persistent poverty.  There are also warnings about future displacement of people due to the consequences of climate change.