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Empiricism and the Ukraine Crisis

Who shot down the Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine? Given the technology required to strike a commercial airline flying at high altitude, we may know the answer soon enough.

But finding out who did this is only half the struggle.

One of the key distinguishing features of the conflict in Ukraine is that the USA and Russia have not been able to agree to a simple set of facts about the crisis. There is an empirical reality. But then there is the reality as perceived in Washington and Moscow–which may or may not overlap with the empirical reality.

In the coming hours and days, if evidence emerges that pro-Russian, separatist militants shot down this plane, Moscow will face a huge inflection point: it can either agree to the basic set of facts about who bears responsibility for the incident or it can present an alternative thesis. If it choses the former, then it may use this tragedy as a pretext to reign in separatist groups. That, in turn, could offer a pathway to de-escalation and perhaps eventually a peace agreement. If it choses the latter, we can expect further escalation of the conflict.

In the coming days pay close attention to how Moscow decides to interpret the facts on the ground. If it’s at odds with the USA, Ukraine, and/or empiricism we can assume that the conflict will get much worse.

Bonus Content. Here’s Carnegie Endowment President Jessica Tuchman Matthews offering some prescient analysis of the conflict in Ukraine

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How Humanity is Winning the Fight Against AIDS

In the fight between humanity and the AIDS virus, humanity is winning.

That is the top line conclusion you can draw from the newest global data about HIV/AIDS from the United Nations. Erin Hohlfelder of the ONE Campaign is on the line to discuss this report, preview the big International AIDS Conference in Australia next week, and explain why new laws against LGBT communities in some African countries may undermine the progress we’ve made against HIV/AIDS.  Have a listen! 




Previous episodes

Episode 24: Joseph Cirincione, Nuclear Policy Wonk 

A Migrant’s Story: Why are So Many Children Fleeing to the USA?

Episode 23: Live from the UN 2014 (Volume 2); A special edition with a slew of UN officials.

Inside the Iran Nuke Talks

Episode 23: Jillian York, Digital Free Speech defender

Turkey’s Strategic Interests in Iraq

Episode 22: Live from the UN, 2014 (Vol 1); A special edition, featuring the President of the General Assembly,  the UN Ambassadors from Vietnam and Jamaica, the head of the UN Association, and more!

The UN’s View of the Iraq Crisis

Episode 21: Thomas Pickering, former Ambassador to the UN, Israel, Jordan, Russia, India and more.

Dying for the World Cup

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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On Its 16th Birthday, Whither the ICC?

Today is International Criminal Justice Day to commemorate the adoption of the Rome Statute on July 17, 1998. Sixteen years after the international community joined together to fight impunity for the world’s worst crimes, the ICC has succeeded in convicting two warlords from the conflict in the DRC but finds itself facing new challenges that may undermine the effectiveness of the court for years to come.

Since the Rome Statute came into effect in 2003, the ICC’s work has been primarily focused on Africa. Even though this was often at the request of African governments, over time the accusation of bias was leveled against the court by the same governments that initially sought the court’s help. However, in taking up the case of Kenya’s 2007 post-election violence following failed domestic attempts to hold perpetrators accountable, the ICC found itself embroiled in controversy. Unlike most of the previous indictments handed down by the court which mainly targeted rebel warlords the court indicted Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, two prominent Kenyan politicians who joined together to win the 2013 presidential election. The election served as a blow to the ICC’s credibility which now had to deal with two indicted politicians being given the approval of the Kenyan people in an internationally sanctioned election despite the crimes they were accused of.

Now serving as president and vice-president of Kenya, Kenyatta and Ruto wield considerable influence across the continent. This influence, along with general African discontent with the court, led to the African Union passing an amendment to the proposed African Court of Justice and Human Rights last month that grants sitting heads of state and senior government officials immunity from serious international crimes. Although the protocol only applies to the future African Court, the sentiment directly contradicts other international tribunals including the ICC. While Kenya has been giving the ICC a certain degree of cooperation, the new protocol strongly suggests that cooperation from any African government in future prosecution of government officials will be even more difficult to come, by leading commentator Michela Wrong to ask whether Kenya has destroyed the ICC.

Wrong points out the unintended consequences of the court’s troubles with Africa. Chief among them is that activists and civil society actors are now hesitant to call for ICC involvement in new situations such as the conflict in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. The backlash against the court along with its slow response in calls for reparations and protection for victims has diminished the authority of the ICC throughout Africa. When even victims are hesitant in the effectiveness of the court, it shows that the ICC may have a serious credibility problem.

That hesitancy seems to extend to the ICC itself. Although the ICC did heed calls for a preliminary investigation into possible crimes committed in Ukraine, there are doubts about whether anything will come from it. The renewed conflict between Israel and Gaza also raises questions about what the court is willing to investigate and what situations it still feels are too politically controversial to wade into. Meanwhile investigations in Colombia and Afghanistan continue to trudge along, leading to nothing yet after years of involvement by the ICC.

Already at least $1 billion has been spent on the ICC with little to show for it and the court increasingly seems behind the curve, both politically and judicially. The ICC still holds a lot of potential in fighting impunity but its short history demonstrates that the court needs to be more pro-active in asserting its authority and defending its credibility. As new challenges emerge, the court needs to be flexible enough to take them on and believe in their own strength. This capacity exists but it is still up to the ICC to fully realize it as the court continues to develop.

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New AIDS Data Brings Some Positive News

Ahead of next week’s big International AIDS Conference in Australia, UNAIDS released a report demonstrating that new HIV infections and deaths were decreasing, putting in prospect the an end to the epidemic in by 2030. Key data from the report (UNAIDS

-New HIV infections have fallen by 38% since 2001.

-Worldwide, 2.1 million  people became newly infected with HIV in 2013, down from 3.4 million in 2001

-New HIV infections among children have declined by 58% since 2001.

-Worldwide, 240,000  children became newly infected with HIV in 2013, down from 580,000 in 2001.

-AIDS-related deaths have fallen by 35% since the peak in 2005.

-19 million of the 35 million people living with HIV globally do not know their HIV-positive status.

-90% of sub saharan Africans who learn they are HIV positive seek treatment.

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A humanitarian pause for Gaza? Israel has agreed to a UN-brokered six hour ceasefire from 10-3pm today to allow humanitarian supplies to enter Gaza. Hamas appears to be abiding by it as well. In the meantime, Israeli officials strongly signaled that a ground invasion was likely. (NYT

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…And a happy 9 month book publication anniversary to Jessica Alexander for the publication of her memoir: Chasing Chaos: My Decade in and Out of Humanitarian Aid


West Africa: Since the Ebola outbreak began last March, more than 600 people have died. This mounting death toll is presenting families and health authorities with a grim new problem: What do you do with the bodies? (NPR

Fighting in Central African Republic may have claimed more lives than previously thought because many Muslim victims were never taken to state hospitals and families buried their dead at home because of security fears, according to aid workers. (Thompson Reuters Foundation

A United Nations panel that monitors compliance with UN sanctions on Somalia has accused the country’s president, a former minister, and a U.S. law firm of conspiring to divert Somali assets recovered abroad, according to a new report. (Reuters

A Nigerian military offensive against Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram has opened up a corridor for mobile units of health workers to vaccinate children against polio in parts of the northeast. But the worsening insurgency poses a grave risk to the campaign to stamp out the crippling virus. (VOA

Worsening conflict in Darfur and an influx of people fleeing war in South Sudan helped push to almost seven million the number needing aid in Sudan, the UN said Wednesday. (AP

An estimated two million people with disabilities in Zambia face significant barriers to HIV prevention, testing, and treatment, according to a new Human Rights Watch report. (allAfrica

Malawi’s Solicitor General told that UN that people are not being arrested in the country for same-sex acts, until the anti-gay laws are reviewed. (Nyasa Times


Four young children were killed by an Israeli mortar as they played on the beach in Gaza. The scene was witnessed by many journalists staying at a nearby hotel. (WaPo

Western consultants helping Egypt compile an economic reform plan say it needs at least $60 billion of investment to reach average GDP growth of 5 percent by 2018 and the same amount again to bolster its foreign reserves, senior officials said. (Reuters

An Egyptian court on Wednesday sentenced nine men accused of sexual assault to terms of 20 years to life, in an apparent sign that officials were following through on a personal promise by Egypt’s new president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, to crack down on sexual violence against women. (NYT

Two philanthropists are in the final stages of preparing what is thought to be the first privately-funded search and rescue operation for migrants in the Mediterranean. (Guardian


The Philippine government turned its focus to cleaning up after a strong typhoon cut across the northern island of Luzon Wednesday, causing flooding in the capital, killing at least 10 people and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands. (VOA

As the fiercest storm since Haiyan lands, the Philippines is keen to prove it has learned lessons from last year’s tragedy. (Guardian

The Americas

The growing vitality of the group of countries made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, which is beginning to formalise its institutions even as it tries to bridge very disparate realities, seems to be partly cemented by increasing links between its companies. (IPS

Protesters and counterprotesters squared off in a small Arizona community over where to shelter a surge of unaccompanied immigrant children entering the country, becoming the second border state this month to enter the emotional controversy. (CNN

Human trafficking in Latin America and the Caribbean is becoming nearly as profitable as drug trafficking, for organized crime. (El Mundo


What’s the difference between immigrant and refugee? (CNN

Conflict over water rights in Ecuador (Al Jazeera English

There’s a looming political crisis for the USA should the Security Council press for a Gaza ceasefire resolution. (UN Dispatch

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SG; Middle East; UNAIDS

SG: The SG addressed the DR’s congress today and commended their efforts in achieving the MDGs. He also praised President Medina for his leadership surrounding the newly adopted law recognizing Dominican-born persons of foreign descent.

Middle East: The SG supports Egypt’s ceasefire initiative as the fighting continues between Israel and Hamas. He continues to make calls to world leaders to encourage parties to stop fighting and negotiate. Referencing civilian casualties, a New York Times article reported the first Israeli fatality and nearly 200 Palestinian deaths.

UNAIDS: UNAIDS reported that more than half of the 35 million people living with HIV are unaware they have the virus. UNAIDS Executive Director stressed that smarter scale-up is needed to increase the amount of people with access to HIV tests.

Afghanistan: UNAMA supported the Federation of Afghanistan Civil Societies call for a ceasefire during Ramadan and Eid-ul-Fitr as families should be able to celebrate in peace without fear of violence.

Iraq: Iraq’s Council of Representatives elected a new Speaker and Deputy Speakers. The SRSG for Iraq congratulated the Council and urged them to agree on key legislation as a key step toward restarting the democratic process. The SRSG on Sexual Violence in Iraq voiced concern over reports of rape near Mosul.

Sudan: OCHA reported that Sudan requires $982 million to assist the 20% of the population in need of humanitarian assistance as 85,000 people have sought refuge in Sudan without access to basic humanitarian services.

Surveillance: High Commissioner for Human Rights Pillay expressed concern over a lack of transparency regarding government surveillance policies. OHCHR issued a report  today stressing the need for procedural safeguards against governmental surveillance programs.

Central America: The SG stated today that unaccompanied child migrants from Central America is an urgent humanitarian situation. He called on Governments of countries of origin, transit and destination to protect the human rights of migrant children.

Cambodia: A peaceful protest in opposition of the Cambodia National Rescue Party turned to violence yesterday leaving 40 people injured. UN expert on the situation of human rights in Cambodia urged all sides to exercise restraint and called for an end to the official ban on demonstrations.

UNIOGBIS: The SG appointed Mr. Miguel Trovoada of São Tomé and Príncipe as the new Head of the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau.

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The Security Council and the Conflict in Gaza

The statistics are alarming: As of 3 PM local time yesterday, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that at least 149 of the 194 people killed thus far have been civilians. That included 38 children. Over 1,300 people have been injured, and 18,000 seeking shelter in UNRWA school. There is also a brewing humanitarian emergency as 600,000 people risk losing access to safe drinking water. Meanwhile,  Israel has warned 100,000 people to flee their homes in northern Gaza or risk being bombed.

And just today, there is word that four Palestinian kids were killed when an Israeli mortar struck a beach. 

If this drags on much longer without a ceasefire brokered regionally, it is very likely that many members of the Security Council, including key American allies like France and the UK, will try to impose a ceasefire through a legally binding resolution. Such a move would put the Obama administration in a tough spot. In general, permanent members of the Security Council are loathe to caste lone vetoes; on this particular issue vetoing a ceasefire resolution would be deeply unpopular internationally and perhaps even jeopardize other foreign policy priorities. On the other hand, backing a ceasefire resolution without Israeli support could pose political problems domestically for the Obama administration.

A  Security Council vote to impose a ceasefire would be a no-win situation from an American political standpoint. This means that the closer the Security Council comes to voting on the matter, the more urgently the USA would want to do what it can to obviate the need for this kind of resolution by directly or indirectly brokering a ceasefire that Israel and Hamas can accept. But the USA does not have much time.  As the humanitarian situation in Gaza gets worse, there will be growing pressure by other Security Council members to move quickly on a legally binding ceasefire resolution.

The USA would not benefit from a showdown at the Security Council. But the only way to avoid that is to swiftly broker a ceasefire.

photo credit:  Shareef Sarhan/UNRWA Archives

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