It may not make the front page of the New York Times, but behind-the-scenes these events, trends, and circumstances are sure to influence policy makers around the globe in 2016.

The Race to Replace Ban Ki Moon

UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova is one of the front runners to become the next UN Secretary General. Photo credit: UNESCO

UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova is one of the front runners to become the next UN Secretary General. Photo credit: UNESCO

Ban Ki Moon’s second five-year term comes to a close in 2016. Before the year is over, the world will need to choose his successor.

There is a growing consensus that the next Secretary General ought to be a woman–which would be a first for the world body. Already, some prominent women in international affairs have emerged as declared candidates, including UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova of Bulgaria and Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic. Both women are from Eastern Europe–a region that has never produced a Secretary General — and by the UN’s informal policy of rotating regional representation, there’s a some consensus that it’s Eastern Europe’s turn.  In addition to the declared candidates, there are many, many other names that have been either floated in the press or are churning in the rumor mills in the halls of the United Nations, including UN Development Program administrator and former New Zealand President Helen Clark and former UN Women administrator and Chile President Michelle Bachelet.

Historically, the Secretary General has been selected through back room dealings between the USA, Russia, France, China, and the UK.  The General Assembly then rubber stamps the P5’s decision. This year, though, there has been significant pressure to open up the process, and solicit greater input from the General Assembly and civil society. In December US Ambassador Samantha Power, acting as president of the Security Council, and the President of the General Assembly signed a joint letter agreeing to terms that would engage the General Assembly in a more transparent way.

One key question going into the new year is the degree to which the P5 actually abides these pledges when push comes to shove. One thing is nearly certain: by December 31 2016 we will have a new Secretary General, and that person will more likely than not have broken a powerfully symbolic glass ceiling.

— Mark Leon Goldberg

The Last Guinea Worm 

Eradicating Guinea Worm disease, one presentation at a time. Credit: Carter Center

Eradicating Guinea Worm disease, one presentation at a time. Credit: Carter Center

Guinea Worm disease is a parasitic infection in which Guinea Worm larvae grow and develop into an adult worm inside the human body. The worms then cause severe pain and disability as they emerge whole through the skin. The infection is very rarely fatal, but causes tremendous human suffering.

In 1985, there were three and a half million guinea worm infections. In 2014, there were 126. In the first ten months of 2015, there were 20.

In 2016, there will be zero.

Guinea Worm will be only the second human disease to be eliminated, after smallpox. This is especially stunning because there is no vaccine, prevention, or medicine for Guinea Worm disease. It is treated by very slowly pulling the worm out with a stick, just as it was in the times of the Pharaohs.  Guinea Worm is being eradicated through old-fashioned public health education. To stop its spread, you teach people to filter all their water, so they don’t drink the larvae and become infected. You also teach people who are infected to stay away from communal water sources like ponds and wells, so they don’t contaminate them with larvae. Simple messages that need to be acted on universally in order to succeed.

One cannot mention Guinea Worm without mentioning the Carter Foundation. Established by former US president Jimmy Carter, the foundation has been a powerful source of support to countries fighting Guinea Worm. President Carter himself has been a driving force, which has not waned even in the face of cancer. This August, at a press conference in which he disclosed that his cancer has spread to his brain, he was asked about a final wish. “I would like the last Guinea worm to die before I do,” the former president replied.

With Jimmy Carter in remission and Guinea worm firmly on the ropes, his wish may very well be granted.

— Alanna Shaikh 

El Nino in East Africa

El Nino will hit Ethiopia extremely hard and leave millions food-insecure. Credit: OCHA

El Nino will hit Ethiopia extremely hard and leave millions food-insecure. Credit: OCHA

One of the most important global stories going into the New Year will be the effects of El Nino around the world. Perhaps no place will feel this weather phenomenon more intensely than the Horn of Africa and parts of East Africa.

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by flooding in Somalia, due to higher than normal rainfall. Meanwhile, Ethiopia is experiencing its worst drought in 30 years. The region is hardly resilient to these kinds of shocks and the United Nations has appealed for $1.4 billion to support some 10 million Ethiopians facing severe food insecurity and water shortages. The government warns that widespread food insecurity could lead to some 15 million people facing starvation if these funds are not disbursed.

The last big drought in the region, in 2011, led to famine in parts of Somalia under the control of Al Shebaab. An estimated 200,000 people died as a result. The drought this time around is as severe as it was in 2011, but thankfully the region is far more stable. The likelihood of a drought turning into a full blown famine is low. Still, you will be hard pressed to find a place on earth where el nino will have a more consequential effect on humans than in Ethiopia.

— Mark Leon Goldberg

A New Plan for Humanitarian Emergencies

Refugees flee across the Mediterranean in an iconic 2015 image from the UN Refugee Agency

Refugees flee across the Mediterranean in an iconic 2015 image from the UN Refugee Agency

With all the ongoing humanitarian crises in the world – from Syria to the Central Africa Republic – the UN has had its hands full in 2015. One thing that is abundantly clear: the humanitarian status quo is no longer feasible as the cost and impact of disasters and conflict continue to grow. As a result, Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon launched a process back in 2014 that will finish with the first ever World Humanitarian Summit held in Istanbul this May.

The Summit aims to bring together governments, humanitarian organizations and those impacted by current natural and man-made disasters to improve the delivery and efficiency of humanitarian aid. Similar to the process the international community embarked on with the Sustainable Development Goals, the Summit hopes to break the traditional barriers that define humanitarian aid and find new ways to cope with the new realities. As seen in Europe over the past year, technology and globalization means that humanitarian crises can quickly spread to other regions, making every crisis a global concern. The Summit is the first attempt to deal with the humanitarian sector in that light, and while welcomed, is actually long overdue. This makes the outcome of the Summit that much more important, as it will likely mark the beginning of a much longer – and desperately needed – reform process.

— Kimberly Curtis

A Deadly Year for Journalists in Azerbaijan

Three policemen man-handle one political activist during a protest in Baku, Azerbaijan, 12 March 2011.Credit: Amnesty SE Via Flickr

Three policemen man-handle one political activist during a protest in Baku, Azerbaijan, 12 March 2011.Credit: Amnesty SE Via Flickr

Azerbaijan is one of the worst places in the world for journalists. President Ilham Aliyev’s government is quick to harass and imprison anyone it perceives as threatening or defamatory. In 2014 the government launched an unpresented campaign of repression against journalists and human rights defenders. Eight journalists are currently imprisoned, where they are subject to persecution, systematic abuse, and torture. In August 2015, a sportswriter, Rasim Aliyev, was killed in a conflict over his soccer reporting. His colleagues place the blame on the government, seeing Aliyev’s death as the direct result of a culture in which journalists can be attacked with impunity.

Now, the country faces more bad news than ever. Its currency has plummeted in response to lower oil prices, destabilizing the economy. There is more to question about government policy, and more to hide. Combined with the campaign of repression, it becomes grimly obvious that Azerbaijan will lose another journalist in 2016. It might be a journalist who is already in prison. It could be Khadija Ismailova, a courageous investigative journalist sentenced in September on trumped-up charges. Or Nijat Aliyev, editor of a news website that spoke out against repression of Muslims, and in jail since 2012. It might be a freelancer attacked by thugs who know that journalists are disposable in Azerbaijan, or some outspoken independent reporter who targeted directly by Baku.

Journalists are under unprecedented threat around the world. With journalists’ deaths in Syria, Mexico and Russia often making headlines. But under-the-radar, Azerbaijan is increasingly dangerous territory for journalism, and that may lead to fatal results in 2016.

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