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Why Angelina Jolie is Hosting a Global Summit on Sexual Violence in Conflict

For the past week, delegates and representatives from 113 governments and various civil society organizations have met in London to discuss the importance of ending sexual violence against women, particularly in conflict. Recent events – including the kidnapping of 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria by the rebel Boko Haram, recent rapes caught on camera in Tahrir Square in Egypt, and the increase of sex trafficking for Syrian refugees – highlight the need to take on this challenge but also why it is so difficult to combat.

Co-chaired by British Foreign Secretary William Hague and special envoy for the UN High Commission of Refugees Angelina Jolie, the conference has highlighted the experiences of women and girls in conflicts as well as their lasting impact. These experiences have gained new prominence in the 1990s with the violent conflicts in the Balkans and Central Africa but sadly, the cycle of violence continues with new conflicts around the world. This is why much of the conference has focused on the issue of accountability, and how such acts can be deterred in the future rather than tolerated.

Delegates have paid tribute to the work various international tribunals have done in prosecuting sexual violence and called for better cooperation in bringing perpetrators to justice. However some groups are focusing on more practical concerns in bridging the gap between theory and reality. In a side event at the conference, the US-based group Physicians for Human Rights presented one possible option in boosting accountability with a mobile app that would aid health professionals in documenting the crimes when they occur for use by court officials later. Based on traditional medical forms but utilizing mobile and cloud technology, the organization started testing the app this year in the Eastern DRC and hopes to expand its use in the future. If successful, such apps may be able to combat the culture of impunity that surrounds such crimes, but much more is needed to fully meet the needs of victims.

Over the past two decades, new programs dedicated towards first responders mean that health professionals are now generally better prepared to provide treatment to victims but this only helps in the immediate aftermath; long term mental health care to help victims cope with the trauma is still elusive in most conflict zones. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, head of UN Women, also pointed out the importance of economic empowerment for women as a means to combat sexual violence, both in conflict and in ordinary life. When done properly, compensation for victims can help women leave abusive relationships and battle the stigma that often follows sexual assault victims. It also addresses the more practical needs of victims rather than the higher political concerns that typically define prosecutions. All of these elements are needed to build a new culture that treats sexual violence as seriously as other forms of abuse in armed conflict.

Sexual violence in conflict is not new; for as long as there has been war, there has also been those willing to sexually exploit women and children. However the purpose of the conference and the recent UN Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence is to reinforce the notion that such violence and exploitation is not an inevitable part of war. Many question how much the conference will actually accomplish, but its high profile and global participation suggests that the world may finally be ready to start addressing sexual violence in conflict as the war crime it is. It may only be a first step, but it is one that is long overdue.

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Dying for the World Cup

All eyes are on Brazil today. But perhaps they should gaze to Qatar, which in 2022 will host the World Cup. Migrant workers, mostly from Southeast Asia, are living in harsh conditions and dying in large numbers as they construct the infrastructure for the World Cup in the Gulf Kingdom.

I speak with journalist Pete Pattisson of the Guardian who takes us inside the migrant worker industry to expose horrid conditions, stolen wages, and corrupt practices faced by Nepalese workers in the Gulf.

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Previous episodes

Episode 20: Jessica Tuchman Matthews, foreign policy trendsetter

Egypt After the Counter Revolution 

Episode 19: Louise Arbour, human rights pioneer.

What Obama Left Out of His Big Foreign Policy Speech

Episode 18: Zalmay Khalizad, former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the UN.

Why Libya is Suddenly on the Verge of a Civil War 

Episode 17: Gov Bill Richardson, he frees hostages.

The Foreign Policy Implications of India’s Elections

Episode 16: Carolyn Miles, CEO of Save the Children

What Boko Haram Wants

Episode: 15 Laura Turner Seydel, philanthropist

Episode 14: Douglas Ollivant, Iraq expert

Episode 13: Gary Bass, historian

Episode 12: Mark Montgomery, demographer

Episode 11: Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watcher

Episode 10: Live from the UN, Volume 2.

Episode 9: Mia Farrow, humanitarian activist and Goodwill Ambassador

Episode 8: Suzanne Nossel, Big Thinker

Episode 7: Live from the UN, Volume 1. 

Episode 6: PJ Crowley, former State Department Spokesperson

Episode 5: Octavia Nasr, reporter

Episode 4: Arsalan Iftikhar, “The Muslim Guy”

Episode 3: Dodge Billingsley, filmmaker.

Episode 2: Laura Seay,  @TexasinAfrica

Episode 1: Heather Hurlburt, national security wonk

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Why the UN General Assembly Just Selected Uganda’s Anti-Gay Foreign Minister as its President

The General Assembly has selected Ugandan Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa to be its next president. He was unopposed. This is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is his retrograde views on homosexuality and human rights, which included support for Uganda’s disastrous anti-gay law.  He’s also been dogged by corruption charges.

So why would the General Assembly (which is the UN’s ultimate governing body, made up of all its member states) select such a person to hold its top post? The answer has very little to do with Sam Kutesa and very much to do with the way UN member states make big decisions at the United Nations.

Many posts in the UN system are guided by the principal of equitable geographic representation, meaning that a set number of seats on any given body are set aside for a set number of countries from each region. Or, in the case of the position of the President of the General Assembly, the position simply rotates between regions. So, one year the “PGA” is from Latin America, the next year from Asia, the next year from western Europe, etc. (You could actually make the argument that human rights-loving Europe is over-represented because its broken down to two different groups: western and eastern Europe, but that’s a question for another time!)

In any case, 2014 was designated as Africa’s year. And African countries decided internally that it was Uganda’s turn to hold this post. In May 2013 they selected Sam Kutesa to be their nominee. Since he was the only nominee, he was assured to be elected President the General Assembly. His term starts at the UN Summit this coming September and lasts for one year.

The post of PGA is largely ceremonial. It does not have any real power, but it does come with some responsibilities. This includes helping to coordinate actives at the General Assembly and helping to set agendas and manage protocol. The PGA can’t block anything and he has no executive power. It’s basically a ceremonial secretary.

That said, if the PGA happens to be a skilled diplomat who is serving during times of contentious debate he or she can certainly have an impact on the the debate’s outcome. In September 2005, for example, the UN General Assembly negotiated the most substantial UN reforms in decades. The two PGAs who oversaw this process were Jan Eliasson of Sweden and then Jean Ping of Gabon, two exceptionally skilled diplomats (the former is currently the Deputy Secretary General, the latter went on to serve as the head of the African Union). When the process stalled, they basically took over the negotiations and fathered the passage of a sweeping set of UN reforms.

Sam Kutesa seems to be a less than savory figure who has little political capitol in many countries that matter. He certainly does not have the weight of Ping or Eliasson, so we can probably expect him to play a muted role. His views on homosexuality and support of Uganda’s anti-gay law also puts him at odds with Ban Ki Moon, who has made LGBT rights a central plank of his tenure as Secretary General.

Still, forthrightly opposing Kutesa when he was the consensus candidate of African countries is politically very, very dicey. Countries that do so risk alienating African countries, which make up the single largest voting bloc at the General Assembly. From an African perspective, western countries meddling in their internal decision-making has the stench of colonialism.

Because of this dynamic, don’t expect much outright opposition to Kutesa even from ardently pro-LGBT diplomats at the UN. For example, try to find where Samantha Power, in her statement released right after the selection, says the USA opposes Kutesa’s candidacy.

It is fitting that it is Africa’s turn to nominate a President for the upcoming 69th General Assembly session in a year in which the Assembly will make important decisions on such critical issues to the region — and the world — as crafting a transformative new development agenda to succeed the Millennium Development Goals.

The Africa Group nominated Ugandan Foreign Minister Mr. Sam Kutesa as its candidate in May 2013, and today the General Assembly elected Mr. Kutesa to take up the presidency when the 69th General Assembly gets underway in September.

The UN Charter places respect for human rights and dignity at its core, and it is the job of the General Assembly — and its President — to uphold these principles. At a time when girls are attacked by radical extremists for asserting their right to an education; representatives of civil society are harassed and even imprisoned for their work; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are endangered for who they are, including by discriminatory laws, the work of the United Nations to advance equality, justice, and dignity for all could not be more urgent. In the face of these challenges, all of us working in and at the United Nations should recommit to vigorously defending these core principles.

The bottom line is that the optics of this presidency are problematic, and that it’s perhaps a punch in the gut to LGBT activists around the world. But Kutesa will not make a big difference one way or the other to how the UN operates.  And if countries want to avoid this kind of situation in the future, perhaps they ought to consider revisiting how the PGA is selected.


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Top of the Morning: Iraq Insurgents on the March

Things are getting very heavy. A battle for Baghdad is not out of question. “A day after taking over Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, militants gained nearly complete control of the northern city of Tikrit…Heavy fighting erupted inside Tikrit — the hometown of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein — as the military tried to regain control, the sources and a police official in Baghdad said. According to the witnesses in Tikrit and the Samarra police officials, two police stations in Tikrit were on fire and a military base was taken over by militants, believed to be from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS and ISIL…Suspected ISIS militants raided the Turkish Consulate in Mosul on Wednesday, capturing 48 people, including diplomats, and they also seized parts of Baiji, the site of Iraq’s largest oil refinery.” (CNN


Controversial Pick for President of the UN General Assembly. The “PGA” is a largely ceremonial position that generally involves little more than coordinating meetings. But the pick of Ugandan Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa has created a great deal of controversy because of his shady past and support for Uganda’s horrible anti-gay law. (BBC

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An Ebola outbreak in West Africa that appeared to be winding down has flared up again, with officials blaming the resurgence on ignorance and a lack of experience in handling the virus. (IRIN

Inter-clan clashes over the last week in Somalia’s southern Lower Shabelle region have killed approximately 30 and have forced over 250 to take refuge in African Union Mission in Somalia bases, according to the organization. (IRIN

Ignorance and lack of understanding have blocked the route to redress for women raped in conflict in Liberia and Ivory Coast. (Guardian

Truck drivers who transport humanitarian aid from Cameroon to the troubled Central African Republic have halted deliveries after suspected Seleka rebels attacked killed three of their colleagues.  The truckers say they will not go back to work unless authorities in the C.A.R. can assure them of their safety. (VOA

A measles outbreak continues to spread in Somalia, in part due to the belief by many parents that they should keep measles-infected children at home for a week for what they call an “incubation” period. (AP

In regions controlled by Boko Haram, aid organizations find that their work is becoming more and more dangerous. German development minister, Gerd Müller, is expected to raise the issue during a trip to Nigeria. (DW

The number of centers in South Sudan offering inpatient treatment for children suffering from severe malnutrition has almost halved since 2013 due to conflict, UNICEF said amid warnings of famine. (TRF

The Fistula Foundation announced that it received a $2 million grant to support their work to treat women with obstetric fistula in Kenya, through a new program, Action on Fistula. (VOA


In the early days of Syria’s uprising, many women called on men not to take up arms in response to the Syrian government’s brutal clampdown on street protests. Now, they are trying to build peace between supporters of rebel groups and supporters of the government. (TRF


Better detection and care has led to a dramatic fall in the number of deaths from dengue fever in Sri Lanka over the past five years, but health experts warn there has been no corresponding decline in infection rates, highlighting the need for more effective prevention. (IRIN

Save the Children in Solomon Islands says two more children have died from rotavirus in the past week in Western Province. (Radio New Zealand

The Americas

From Sao Paulo to Mumbai, investors are regaining their faith in emerging markets this year. It’s a big shift from 2013, when investment in those markets dried up because of worries about their slowing economic growth. (AP

Football and politics have become entwined in Argentina as the government is accused of using sporting glory to divert attention from a range of problems that includes one of the world’s highest inflation rates. (FT

The Chilean government rejected the controversial HidroAysén project for the construction of five hydroelectric dams on rivers in the south of the country. The decision came after years of struggle by environmental groups and local communities, who warned the world of the destruction the dams would wreak on the Patagonian wilderness. (IPS


If GM is the Answer, it is Only the Answer Partly, Sometimes, Maybe (Think Africa Press

Volunteering: The paradox at the beginning of an aid career (Development Intern

Putting poverty on the map (AfricaCan End Poverty


An international protocol for dealing with rape and sexual violence in conflict was launched on Wednesday at a historic London summit on the issue, providing guidelines on the investigation of sex crimes and the collection of evidence for future prosecutions. (Guardian
The UK’s Labour party has called on the government to stop UK supermarkets stocking food produced by slaves, after a Guardian investigation into forced labour in the Thai seafood industry. (Guardian

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“Aleppo is our Srebrenica”

Ed note. This op-ed by Jan Egeland and David Milliband appeared in Project Syndicate and is reprinted with permission. 

NEW YORK – After more than a thousand days of death and misery, two important recent public statements show why policy toward Syria must enter a new phase of intensity and focus. Last month, US President Barack Obama, in setting out his broader foreign-policy stance, spoke of Syria’s three evils – brutal military tactics, the terrorist threat from the opposition, and the need to support refugees. A week earlier, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported excruciating details of Syria’s humanitarian crisis, including citizens under fire from all sides, sustained government barrel-bomb attacks, and shortages of food and medicine.

Over the past three years, at least 160,000 people have been killed, nine million displaced, and three million refugees have flooded into neighboring countries. Many have suffered untold horrors, from repeated chemical weapons attacks to the bombing of hospitals and bread lines.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, growing ever stronger, is acting with impunity. The opposition is fragmented, comprising more than a thousand armed groups. And Syria’s neighbors are struggling to cope with the conflict’s spillover.

Three years ago, few would have believed that the world would do so little to prevent such a situation. But diplomatic efforts during this time have been lamentable. Indeed, the UN still has not replaced Lakhdar Brahimi, who recently resigned as its peace envoy to Syria.

With little hope for a political solution, we must focus on relieving the humanitarian crisis. The Norwegian Refugee Council and the International Rescue Committee, for example, are doing important work, delivering cross-border humanitarian supplies into Syria and helping refugees and host communities in four countries. They currently aid more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees, including a half-million who are internally displaced, traumatized, angry, and bewildered by the lack of outside assistance.

More can and must be done. First, we must focus on the four million civilians trapped inside Syria and cut off from aid. Some are being starved into submission, while others are being subjected to unspeakable atrocities. Aleppo is our “Srebrenica” – the site of Serbian forces’ 1995 genocidal massacre of Bosnian Muslims – except that in Aleppo, more lives are at stake and no international witnesses are there to report on what is happening. Despite the UN’s ill-fated observer mission, the Security Council must seek ways to increase the international community’s presence on the ground.

Second, we need to address the Security Council’s insufficient attention to the humanitarian situation, and specifically its failure to implement Resolution 2139. We propose that the Council’s permanent members, along with key Middle Eastern states, appoint humanitarian envoys whose sole purpose would be to secure access to those in need. The envoys would be senior diplomats and politicians who could tap the highest levels of government to challenge abuses of international law, cut red tape, and apply pressure on warring parties to agree to local ceasefires.

Third, we must intensify cross-border operations. Of course, there will be concerns over sovereignty and consent, but there are millions of desperate people within just a couple of hours of those borders. Simple measures –including easier registration, swifter visa procedures, improved information-sharing with Damascus-based aid workers, and predictable funding mechanisms – would allow colleagues in the field to concentrate on reaching those in greatest need. This would make a huge difference, especially when coordinated with aid packages that are delivered to border crossings.

Finally, we must recognize that the refugee crisis is a collective international responsibility. Jordan has more than 600,000 registered refugees, and a similar number who are unregistered; it expects a half-million more this year. Lebanon has more than one million, the world’s highest refugee population per capita – equivalent to the combined populations of Germany and France migrating to the US. Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq are also severely affected.

However, only 26% of the funds needed to support Syria’s neighbors have been pledged, resulting in a patchwork of short-term aid. As resources dwindle and tensions rise, these countries need help to ensure that refugee assistance is aligned with longer-term national development plans, such as Jordan’s National Resilience Plan and Lebanon’s Stabilization Plan. Half-funded, half-coordinated, and half-committed international responses not only threaten regional stability, but also endanger millions of lives.

Syria’s seemingly endless civil war, waged without regard for international law, has left countless civilians at fate’s mercy. We should have done more to prevent this disaster; now it has become this generation’s greatest humanitarian challenge.

Jan Egeland, a former UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, is CEO of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

David Miliband, Britain’s Foreign Secretary in 2007-2010, is President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee


Photo credit: Aleppians waiting in a bread line during the Syrian civil war, wikimedia commons

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Giving Birth in an IDP Camp

The math is not good for displaced women in South Sudan.

Since the start of the civil war in South Sudan in December, some 1.3 million people have been displaced. This means that many hundreds of thousands of women and girls of child-bearing age have been dislocated from their homes and communities.

This fact sheet from the Reproductive Health in Crisis Consortium says that between 6 to14 percent of all displaced women between the ages of 15-49 could be pregnant at a given time, and 15 out of every 100 pregnant women will experience unpredictable obstetric complications.

Those are terrible statistics. But to make matters worse even in peace time, South Sudan had the worst maternal mortality ratio in the world, with as many as one in seven women dying from complications of pregnancy or childbirth.

This excellent video from UNICEF  offers context for the immense challenges facing pregnant women in IDP camps.  

Unfortunately, relief for the women of South Sudan is not coming soon enough. Fighting continues, and funding levels for the humanitarian relief operation–the kind that saved this woman and her baby — are only filled to 41% of the required $1.8 billion

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