passblue Covering the United Nations Tue, 30 Jun 2015 00:21:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Among Security Council’s P5, China and Russia Spending More on Defense Mon, 29 Jun 2015 20:21:08 +0000
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Wang Yi, right, foreign affairs minister; Liu Jieyi, China's ambassador to the UN, February 2015. DEVRA BERKOWITZ/UN PHOTO

Among the permanent members of the UN Security Council, only Russia and China have increased their defense spending in the last year. Wang Yi, right, foreign affairs minister of China, with Liu Jieyi, the country’s ambassador to the UN, February 2015. DEVRA BERKOWITZ/UN PHOTO

Among the five veto-holding permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, some of the most militarized nations in the world — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — only China and Russia have increased their defense spending in the last year.

Britain, France and the US have experienced stagnant military spending, despite major threats since 2014 emanating from Russia’s annexation of Crimea in Eastern Europe as well as the encroachment of Islamic State, or ISIS, in the Middle East. Although Russia and the US remain the world’s major arms exporters, China has been rapidly gaining as the third-largest trader in the world.

As the permanent members of the Security Council, the five countries’ main job is to oversee peace and security in every corner of the globe, but that objective may be at odds with their national interests at ensuring military capacity and production.

“Even as the P5 have subscribed to the ideals of the UN to prevent aggression, they have simultaneously built up their forces along their territorial lines,” said Stephen Schlesinger, a fellow at The Century Foundation policy institute and the author of “Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations.” (P5 refers to the permanent council members.)

“This is a paradox, unfortunately, we have to live with if we want the UN to operate at all,” Schlesinger said.

The US, for example, spent 3.5 percent of its gross domestic product on military expenditures in 2014, down from a high of 4.7 percent in 2010. Britain and France each spent 2.2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense last year, according to data compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), an independent research organization that provides data on armaments and related military information.

China and Russia have both let loose territorial ambitions in recent years, laying claim to contested areas that have not been formally recognized internationally. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in early 2014, where it supports militants who have grabbed territory in the eastern Ukranian region on the Russian border. China has been building islands in the contested South China Sea with evidence of military installations and landing strips for military aircraft.

If viewed solely by military spending in the billions of dollars and not as a percentage of gross domestic product, the US and China spend the most in the world on military hardware, Sipri says.

By that measure of spending, Russia is ranked third in the world, followed by Saudi Arabia, which is ranked ahead of Britain, France and other major powers like Brazil, Germany and India.

Brazil and Germany have shown stagnant military expenditures since 2010: Brazil currently spends 1.4 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, while Germany spends only 1.2 percent. India spends 2.4 percent on defense, a decline from a high of 2.9 percent in 2009.

Germany said it was planning to increase its defense budget by 6.2 percent in the next five years, shifting from its neutral stance to a more assertive world player.

As for exporting weapons, the US remains the world’s leading arms seller, according to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, with 31 percent of all arms exports, followed by Russia at 27 percent. China is the world’s third-largest supplier of arms, as exports rose 143 percent from 2010 to 2014.

Most of the Chinese arms are heading to countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council in the Middle East, in addition to Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan.

The increase in China’s military spending occurs as the government has increased its land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea, claiming sovereignty to 90 percent of the waters. China announced it June it was nearly finished with its land reclamations, which it said was being done for military defense and civilian purposes.

The chances of a renewed arms race among the US, Russia and China are high, said Michael W. Doyle, director of the Columbia Global Policy Initiative at Columbia University. Doyle predicted that the UN Security Council would become more deadlocked regarding action in Syria, and that risks of a “cold war” style confrontation, in the South China Sea or elsewhere, will continue to increase as long as China and Russia continue their land-grabbing policies.

Among NATO members, defense spending has increased slightly since the conflict in Ukraine began last year, but many nations do not meet the 2 percent of gross domestic product threshold that NATO leadership expects.

At the UN Security Council, only two of the five permanent members, China and Russia, are most likely to increase their defense spending again over the next year. A report from the British defense ministry projects that by 2045, US and China will retain the top two spots, respectively, as military spenders, with India and Russia spending more in billions of dollars than Britain and France.


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From the US Supreme Court, a Shot Heard Round the World Fri, 26 Jun 2015 22:04:59 +0000
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Although the United States Supreme Court has legalized same-sex marriage for Americans, 76 other countries worldwide criminalize gay relationships. 

As news of the United States Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage spread across America, reactions around the world were both celebratory and cautious — cautious because in 76 countries gay relationships are criminal relationships, and fear of arrest, violence and even death at the hands of adversaries haunts many lives.

According to a report in May 2015 by the office of the United Nations human-rights commissioner, hundreds of people have been killed, imprisoned or attacked physically in recent years for their sexual orientation or gender identity, many in “grotesque homicides perpetrated with broad impunity, allegedly at times with the complicity of investigative authorities.” Gay marriage is an impossible dream.

“The Supreme Court’s decision will have a ripple effect around the world,” said Jessica Stern, the executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, an advocacy group working to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people everywhere. “It will be seen favorably in some places, and in other place it will be a symbol to justify backlash against LGBTI people locally.” Their adversaries will see it as another threat from the depraved West, she added.

“What people everywhere are responding to fundamentally is the way the US Supreme Court upheld the rule of law, equal protection and the fundamental dignity of every person,” Stern said. “That does not mean that LGBTI communities around the world necessarily want gay marriage for themselves. But they can still celebrate this as a tactic, and they can still celebrate almost on behalf of the American LGBT movement because it has been a priority here for decades.”

Internationally, the advocacy group led by Stern supports grass-roots organizing, but it always lets local people take the lead, she said. “The first principle of dialoging with our colleagues from other countries around the world who are trying to create their own version of success and recognition for LGBTI people is that Americans don’t have all the answers. We still have a lot of work to do.”

The US under President Barack Obama has been outspoken in the UN on gay rights and has directed American diplomats abroad to promote these causes in countries where they are stationed. “This administration has gone farther than any other in US history in its commitment to LGBT rights in US foreign policy,” Stern said, adding, “It wouldn’t take much to be the record holder because President Obama’s predecessors did almost nothing.”

Hyung Hak Nam, president of UN-Globe, which represents LGBTI staff members in the UN system and its peacekeeping operations, welcomed the US Supreme Court ruling from his international perspective. But he was also guarded.

“UN Globe welcomes today’s decision from the United States Supreme Court on same-sex marriage,” he said in an email. “This is a huge step forward for LGBTI people in the United States. However, married LGBTI couples working for the UN have often experienced denials of visas for spouses when posted to countries opposed to gay marriage. This is likely to continue.

“Countries like the United States should expend all diplomatic efforts to ensure that their married LGBTI diplomats can serve in equality to their married heterosexual counterparts,” Nam said. “In doing so, they can set an example to other nations and to international organizations like the United Nations.”

With the decision on June 26, the US aligns with 20 other countries where same-sex marriage is legal — all of them in Europe except for Argentina, Brazil, New Zealand, South Africa, Uruguay and the Pitcairn Islands. (Slovenia is expected to join the list when the president signs legislation passed in March.) In Asia, democracies friendly to the US are notably absent from this group. India is a case in point.

Siddharth Dube, a writer who has advocated for gay rights in India and the UN, where he worked for many years, greeted the Supreme Court decision with joy.

“For almost all my life, I’ve been criminalized in both the countries that I call home, the US and India, for being gay — and there is no more dispiriting and terrifying burden to bear than this, to face the threat of prosecution, of years in jail, and to know that you don’t have the legitimacy to fight back,” he wrote in an email. “So I still remember, as if it were yesterday, how my self-loathing and terror worsened when I first came to the U.S. in 1982, as a 20-year-old undergraduate.

“The most terrifying realization was to learn that American authorities could bar me from immigrating solely because of my orientation,” he said. “Nearly 35 years later, I’m still criminalized in India because of a retrograde recent ruling by the country’s Supreme Court, a ruling that is absolutely out of synch with popular sentiment as well as the course of democratic progress.

“But here in the US, I finally feel utterly, blessedly, wonderfully free for the very first time in my life — that my orientation in matters of love is respected equally in law in every aspect of my life, now including the right to celebrate my love in marriage. I am overjoyed to have lived long enough to see this come true in the US. And I would give anything to see all this come true in India too in my lifetime.”


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At a Hotel Run by Refugees in Vienna, a Breath of Sanity Wed, 24 Jun 2015 22:38:30 +0000
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At the Magdas Hotel, located in the Prater neighborhood of Vienna, refugees who have won asylum status in Austria do paid work while learning new marketable skills. An Algerian employee, above, tending bar. DULCIE LEIMBACH

At the Magdas Hotel, located in the Prater neighborhood of Vienna, refugees who have won asylum status in Austria do paid work while learning new marketable skills. An Algerian employee, above, tending bar. DULCIE LEIMBACH

VIENNA — Not far from the palatial city center that symbolizes so much of old and modern Vienna, the Magdas Hotel presents an altogether different scene for visitors to this capital. At Magdas — which opened this year and means, in German, “Like that!” — the hotel is managed mostly by refugees: 20 people from a total of 16 countries speaking up to 27 languages: a micro United Nations.

The refugees working at Magdas have approved asylum status in Austria, but as in so much of Europe, asylum seekers in Austria have limited job opportunities for many different reasons.

“Very often they are condemned to lead a life in standby position,” said Anna Radl, a spokeswoman for Caritas Vienna, the main financer behind Magdas.

Amid the explosion of people seeking refuge in Europe from various points in the Middle East and Africa and the panicked decisions by leaders to stop the flow, Magdas represents a voice of sanity in how to cope with the unprecedented numbers of people seeking asylum, having left behind everything they know and relatives they love to find a better life in a foreign setting that can be unforgiving and unwelcoming.

Dinis, who left his home in Guinea-Bissau in 2003, operates the front desk at Magdas; his relaxed grin reveals his natural affinity for his work as he described how he ended up in Vienna after years in Paris, how he has a diploma in hotel management and accounting and that he speaks five languages, including German. He came to Europe on a container ship, he said, as a young boy.

“I can never, ever miss Guinea-Bissau,” he said in English, “but I miss my sisters.”


Sarah, from Guinea, admits that her new life in Austria has been difficult.

Sarah, who works at the front desk, too, is also from West Africa: Guinea. She left three years ago and speaks German, English and her native French. She could not talk much because she was too busy, although she confirmed that creating a life in a new country was a hardship she could never have anticipated. Yet she has persevered.

At the hotel bar and cafe one April evening during this reporter’s overnight stay at Magdas, an Algerian ran the show; on another afternoon visit, in June, a male refugee from Afghanistan was dispensing drinks with a female co-worker, Maryam, from Morocco. She came to Austria in 2001; until 2012, she existed in legal limbo, unsure whether she could stay or she would have to leave. Now, she has positive asylum status, enabling her to work in the Austrian job market. Tall, fit and relaxed, she exuded confidence behind the bar.

Sitting at that spot back in April was another hotel employee, Según, who was born in Benin but grew up in Nigeria. He speaks English, German and French and has been living in Austria for 12 years; he said he “loved it here” – at Magdas, where he is a cook. Según said he left Nigeria because of politics.

The point of Magdas, Radl said, was that although the refugees who work there have legal status to do so, many of them had not had a job for years while they waited for the government to decide their status, leaving them inexperienced in the working world of Europe.

“That is where Magdas Hotel wants to give them a chance,” Radl said.

Besides the refugees employed at Magdas, five other people, who are not refugees, also manage the daily tasks, said Sebastiaan de Vos, the person in charge and a Dutchman. Another employee, for example, is a “job coach,” helping the refugees with the hotel duties and their private lives, like dealing with Austrian bureaucracy and “integrating with Austrian society.”

Magdas is a “brand” of Caritas Vienna’s “social business projects,” Radl said, referring to the local branch of the international Catholic charity. Magdas in general supports people who have problems getting work, such as those with disabilities, refugees and the chronically unemployed, de Vos said in an interview at the hotel.


The main staircase at Magdas, hung with the national flags representing the refugees who work there. JOHN PENNEY

A Magdas restaurant in Vienna, called Kantine, was set up first, followed by a recycling and catering business. The hotel opened in the Prater neighborhood, a few miles from the Zentrum, or city center, in February 2015.

Caritas is run through donations, public funds and the Catholic church; Magdas has been financed by Caritas Vienna but must become, de Vos said, self-sustaining.

How is the hotel doing? “It’s running good,” de Vos said, sipping water that Maryam, the woman from Morocco, brought over to him and to this reporter. “Bookings are coming more and more. We are different than other hotels,” he added, saying that it offers the usual amenities as well as being located near to the famous Prater amusement park, where scenes from Orson Welles’s “The Third Man” was filmed.

The hotel’s extra selling point? Its humanitarian virtues, de Vos said.

The lobby and lounge could not be more inviting: seats are low-slung, with tables positioned at corresponding height. Most walls are sided with bookcases or full-length windows and doors facing the hotel’s budding garden and patio. The building was a former senior citizens’ home, owned by Caritas, and Magdas renovated it, recycling much of the furniture, with a mere budget of 1.5 million euros, or $1.7 million.

“We didn’t throw anything away,” de Vos said.

Some new things were bought, like seat cushions for the lounge’s arm chairs, de Vos conceded, noting that guests expect certain services and comfort, but they also appreciate the quirks, like the coffee tables in the lounge, “upcycled” from a university in Austria and covered in doodles from student imaginations of long ago. The renovation was done by a Viennese architecture firm, AllesWirdGut; in English: All will be well.

For refugees who need to work before they win their asylum status, they have just two stark legal choices in Austria, de Vos said: as seasonal laborers on farms or as prostitutes. (It is legal in Austria, where Viennese red-light districts are interspersed, for example, in the Prater neighborhood, a mix of university dorms, brothels and apartment buildings.)

As for farm work, it is not easy to obtain because refugees cannot register themselves in the labor market service, hence they must find the job themselves, said Ruth Schoeffl, the press officer for the UN refugee office in Austria.


In the lobby, portraits of some employees.

Austria became a main crossroad right after World War II for refugees moving from Western Europe to Central and Eastern Europe and vice versa, so it has a history of contending with people streaming through its borders or trying to stay, more recently as a destination during the Bosnian war.

Now it has tightened its border with Italy to thwart the large flow of refugees arriving in Italy’s southern ports from the Mediterranean. Hungary is planning to build a wall to block refugees coming through Serbia. Italy looks the other way as migrants enter to cross into France, creating friction between the two neighbors.

“Austria has a very elaborated, and thus, also very complicated asylum system; however, it has been proved to be solid over the last years and recognition numbers have been quite high compared to many other EU countries,” Schoeffl said in an email, referring to the numbers of people recognized as refugees.

“However, currently it is facing a lot of challenges due to rising numbers (prognosis for up to 70,000 applications for 2015),” Schoeffl added in an email.

Syrians dominate the refugee list in Austria, as asylum applications to the country soar. In April 2015, nearly 4,000 people applied to Austria, up 183 percent from April 2014, levels consistent for 2015 so far.


Signage on the walls, sparking amusement.

After Syrians, many of the other refugees flocking to Austria come from, in order: Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq, Somalia and Russia. Eighty percent of the applicants are male.

Back at Magdas, the 78 rooms are simply furnished with a bohemian kick — no sight of a Hapsburg swag but plenty of artful touches, like lampshades decorated in crochet. Some rooms have balconies overlooking the garden. A gallery space off the lobby shows local artists; in April, a photography exhibition on homeless people in Vienna depicted a side of the city that tourists may never see. (Next door to the hotel is the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.)

Rates for the rooms go from 65 euros to 110 euros a night. Breakfast meals are cooked in the hotel kitchen — another source of training for the refugees — and served in a spacious white dining room that recalls a school cafeteria without the clamor or grubbiness. Signage painted on a wall in the lobby is meant to amuse: eyeglasses stand for the library.

On the night in April when Dini explained his passage to Europe, he revealed how far he had come from Guinea-Bissau, a struggling country flush on the Atlantic Ocean, as he muttered about the professionalism of a particular staff member from North Africa, saying, “This is not a house, this is a hotel,” turning his gaze back to manage the bookings on the computer.


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From Brahimi to Ramos-Horta, a 15-Year Peacekeeping Quest Tue, 23 Jun 2015 16:03:56 +0000
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Italian troops in the UN mission in Lebanon, called Unifil, en route to the blue line in southern Lebanon. PASQUAL GORRIZ

Italian troops in the UN mission in Lebanon, traveling from headquarters in Naqoura to the demarcation line between Lebanon and Israel. PASQUAL GORRIZ/UNIFIL

SYDNEY, Australia — In August 2000, Lakhdar Brahimi, a prominent United Nations diplomat from Algeria, submitted his landmark review on UN peacekeeping to the secretary-general at the time, Kofi Annan.

The previous year had been crucial for peacekeeping. The retrenchment of the mid-90s had subsided and a new era of peacekeeping activism had begun. Missions were deployed to Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone and East Timor. The Sierra Leone mission, in particular, was indicative of the challenges Brahimi sought to address. It was the first mission embedded with a protection of civilians clause in its mandate, but it was also a mission rescued from the brink of collapse after 500 of its peacekeepers surrendered to the Revolutionary United Front rebels, the army fighting the Sierra Leone government.

Fifteen years later, on June 16, José Ramos-Horta, leading a new independent panel review of peace operations at the UN, delivered the document on both peacekeeping operations and special political missions to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and former president of East Timor, named the report after Nyakhat Pal, a 3-year old South Sudanese girl who sought the protection of the UN in Upper Nile State in her country.

The report has been submitted to Ban amid a similarly turbulent era. Peace operations have been dispatched to the far reaches of the earth, often into the middle of conflicts: in Central African Republic, Mali, Syria, South Sudan, Darfur and Congo. These missions represent an inconvenient fact: that far too often the reflex of the UN Security Council has been to do something. The council’s instrument of choice has been the deployment of heavy peacekeeping missions.

The mantra of finding political solutions resides at the center of the report. The Brahimi review offered similarly sage advice, saying that “peacekeeping cannot be a substitute for an effective political process.” Since then, the phrase “there can only be a political solution” has been uttered ad nauseam. Yet, operationalizing the concept has proven difficult for the UN. Missions nowadays are often sidelined to await the outcome of continuing negotiations. 

By comparison, many UN missions (like those in El Salvador, Namibia, Cambodia and Mozambique) of the early 1990s were more ensconced in the machinations of their respective peace processes. 

In a way, the Ramos-Horta report calls for a return to the format of old: “Whenever a peace operation is deployed, the UN should lead or play a leading role in the political process.”

The panel has invoked the Dutch adage as well, saying: “Prevention is better than the cure.” The cure is almost always costlier in both human and financial terms. The Security Council, however, seldom acts before the fact, and judgments made regarding the effectiveness of preventive measures are fraught. This is because for such measures to be judged effective, nothing happens.

In 1999, Annan spoke of moving from a culture of reaction to a culture of prevention. Yet little has changed. The horizon scanning briefings in the Security Council were meant to accommodate preventive thinking. But they encountered resistance and have been dropped. The only time the council moved to dispatch a force in the name of prevention was more than 20 years ago, when it deployed the UN Preventive Deployment Force (UNPREDP) to Macedonia.

If the UN were to identify states at risk of descending into crisis and conflict, then Article 2 (7) of the UN Charter, which forbids UN intervention in matters of domestic jurisdiction, might be invoked. That is why prevention is a sensitive area for the UN. Ramos-Horta and his panel, as an independent group, have decided to bravely tread this ground. Whether the secretary-general and the Security Council follow suit remains to be seen.

The panel has held to the “view that the three core principles of peacekeeping should be upheld.” As an extension of this commitment, they definitively concluded that the UN should not engage in counterterrorism and exercise caution when considering the deployment of a peace enforcement operation — an intervention brigade — which has been done in the Congo mission.

From here, the panel asks a number of pertinent questions of clarification: what does defense of the mandate actually mean? What is stabilization in the UN context? Both terms (defense of the mandate and stabilization) have entered UN lingo, but they have defied UN definition. Unfortunately, a unified UN doctrine is unlikely to emerge and national caveats — the bane of every force commander’s tenure — might prove difficult to remove. Yet clarity must be rendered on the questions of force: against whom, under what circumstances and to what ends? 

UN force commanders and the forces they nominally command should be clear about how they function: to ameliorate, to contain, to coerce/deter or to destroy (remembering that the military can function only in these four ways).

The UN has consistently failed to appoint exceptional or even competent mission leaders, known as special representatives of the secretary-general. As with everything, there are exceptions, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, Ian Martin, Karin Landgren and Martin Kobler, to name a few. But why would the UN recruit a mediocre envoy when it could easily recruit an excellent mission leader?  The answer is politics trumping competence. The skills and competence of special representatives vary considerably, as there exists neither a standardized competency-based recruitment process or a comprehensive training course for the envoys before their deployment.

More needs to be done to ensure that the right mission leaders are selected, and that those leaders are prepared to the highest standards. The report recognized this reality and recommended establishing an ad hoc independent group of former senior field leaders to advise the secretary-general on potential candidates — a good starting point.

The UN is described as the ultimate bureaucracy, so it is not surprising that the panel has pinpointed the red tape and “compartmentalized mindsets at Headquarters” that “hamper mandate delivery in the field.”  

Another disconnect was also identified: UN missions display a tendency to “focus on capitals and elites” over regular engagement with the local populations (a phenomenon that Séverine Autesserre, a professor of political science at Barnard College, has written about in her book “Peaceland“). To address this gap, the panel has emphasized approaches that “move beyond merely consulting local people, to actively include them in their work.”  

The report is incisive and pragmatic. On the surface, many of the recommendations proposed by the panel echo the Brahimi report: the need for rapid reaction, standby arrangements, leadership and context-sensitive mandates. But this is not a criticism.  The UN membership and the Secretariat have a short memory and need to be constantly reminded and pushed toward improvement. The next step is for both parties to decisively take up the challenges laid down by the report.

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UN Security Council and Troop Contributors Chided by Review Panel Thu, 18 Jun 2015 22:00:30 +0000
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A new report reviewing UN peacekeeping operations recommends smarter preventive steps to avoid superficial solutions. The peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast, above, mourns Egyptian members killed in the line of duty, February 2015. ABDUL FATAI ADEGBOYE/UN PHOTO

While restructuring at the top of the United Nations and better strategies and tactics for troops on the ground are issues provoking discussion and controversy after the recent release of a report by a high-level panel on current and future peacekeeping, less attention has been paid to the experts’ admonitions to the Security Council and to troop-contributing countries who fear where missions are headed in an era of deadly unconventional conflicts.

Contemporary peacekeeping, members of the panel concluded, needs more emphasis on prevention, greater cooperation within the UN system and, above all, more consultation with the troop and police commanders being asked to do the dangerous, dirty work — and sometimes resist orders or fail to discipline soldiers under their commands. But the panel makes clear in its report that “In the face of imminent threat to civilians, there must be no tolerance for national constraints and the failure to follow orders.”

The Security Council, where missions are actually created, must play a central role in almost every aspect of change, the 15-member panel concluded in the report, a copy of which was made available to PassBlue.

“There’s a tendency in the Security Council — even stated somewhere — that the secretary-general does prevention; the Security Council deals with disasters — and we don’t think this is really the right division,” said B. Lynn Pascoe, a panel member and head of the UN Department of Political Affairs from 2007 to 2012.

Pascoe is a strong advocate of the proposal to create a new deputy secretary-general position responsible for cooperative political-military policymaking on peace and security, while the other deputy secretary-general would continue to concentrate on huge issues of development and other areas of UN work. Such changes would be unlikely to take place before Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon leaves office at the end of 2016.

In the Security Council, Pascoe said in an interview, the tendency has been to put a “military Band-Aid” on terrible situations. “They’ve got to be talking about a trouble spot before it blows up, and put their muscle behind it when they can. Let’s get back to the basics, the politics, and trying to prevent things in the first place.”

The panel has listed as its first priority that “Politics must drive the design and implementation of peace operations.” The experts called their study peace operations rather than peacekeeping to emphasize the more comprehensive nature of UN activity that they propose. It isn’t just troops.

Ameerah Haq, vice chair of the high-level panel, spent years in UN fieldwork around the world, including as head of the UN mission in the newly independent Timor-Leste from 2009 to 2012, after which she led the Department of Field Support in UN peacekeeping. She said in an interview that troop-contributing countries must be involved from the start when missions are planned or when the Security Council changes their mandates.

“What we have found through the whole exercise is that many of them are not aware fully of exactly what they’re getting into,” Haq said, referring to the countries providing the troops. “There is a particularly really strong resentment of how the mandate changed in DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo, where an armed intervention brigade was created], and the troop contributing countries were not consulted.”

Changes in tactics and scopes of peacekeeping missions, especially when troops face terror attacks or they are asked to take on offensive, rather than strictly defensive assignments, have led to confrontations by troops with the UN. Such situations are unacceptable and undercut operations, the panel said.

“Troop contributing countries must declare their caveats upfront,” Haq said, “and not change their caveats once they are in the theater.” When contingents demand new caveats in crisis situations, the UN should condemn that as unacceptable, she added. “Where there is poor performance by a TCC [troop-contributing country], those troops should be sent home,” she said. “The troop contributing countries are the ones enabling the operation, and so they are a very important part of the formulation of missions and discussions related to mandates.”

On the conduct of troops under UN command and the civilians employed in UN field missions, Haq clarified the issue of immunity, which differs from military to civilian components. Troops and police who are part of national contingents under their own military command as well as an overall UN force commander in peacekeeping missions have immunity from prosecution in the countries where they serve, whatever allegations are in question. Their national militaries and governments must withdraw people against whom accusations are made and report within six months the outcome of the cases.

In the future, the panel said, all countries with infractions of conduct that go unpunished, including but not limited to sexual abuse or exploitation, will be publicly named and listed in reports by the secretary-general. Such countries can be delisted only if there has been acceptable action on cases.

Civilians who work for the UN directly and not for national governments have immunity, but it is applicable only to the work they do in a peace operation. They have no immunity against allegations of sexual abuse or other crimes, and immediately fall under the legal or criminal jurisdiction of the country in which they are working. Investigations into such cases can also be expected to conclude in six months — down from the yearlong process more common around the UN. This policy has a history at UN headquarters and other UN centers, where people accused of lawbreaking have in the past been turned over to local police or prosecutors.

Troop-contributing countries that prefer to hew to traditional, impartial peacekeeping may take solace in the decision by the high-level panel to argue against any role in counterterrorism. The panel’s report says:

“The Panel believes that UN peacekeeping missions, due to their composition and character, are not suited to engage in military counter-terrorism operations. They lack the specific equipment, intelligence, logistics, capabilities and specialized military preparation required, among other aspects. Such operations should be undertaken by the host government or by a capable regional force or an ad hoc coalition authorized by the Security Council.”

There is a “however”; and many experts outside and inside the UN anticipate exceptions to the rule to multiply in the years ahead, along with continuing controversy. The report says that “Where asymmetrical threats are present in the operating environment, UN missions must be provided with the necessary capabilities and training.”

Ameerah Haq, in her interview, provided insights into the atmosphere in which the panel worked, and the enormous accumulation of expertise they shared. While all panelists were experienced globally in diverse settings, three were veterans of the complicated experience of Timor-Leste: Ian Martin, the international human-rights expert who oversaw the 1999 referendum in which the Timorese chose independence from Indonesia; Haq herself; and José Ramos-Horta, the panel chairman and Nobel Peace laureate, who is Timorese and whose resumé was notably unique.

“What was interesting in having José as chair was that he had lived through all facets of the report,” Haq said. “When does the UN go in? Are we not looking at things early enough? He was pacing the halls in New York urging the UN to get involved. Then, highly unusually, he saw the UN come in as a complete executive authority over the country. Then the experience of a ‘coalition of the willing,’ which was led by Australia. Then New Zealand, Malaysia and Portugal coming with forces, and then blue helmets of UN peacekeeping.”

It did not end there, Haq said. “He saw the UN leaving, because the UN thought the benchmarks had been achieved — and the country relapsing into conflict, and having a UN mission come again to concentrate more on the building of police capacity, solidifying institutions, working towards reconciliation and then finally having the UN transit out of the country a very smooth manner.” Ramos-Horta was president of Timor-Leste before moving on to run a UN mission in Guinea-Bissau.

A great deal of fieldwork knowledge gave the panel depth, Haq said. “There was a lot of understanding that just signing a peace agreement isn’t success enough. At some point, someone counted around the table and there was something like 632 years of experience among us.”

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The Sustainable Development Goals May Be in Place, but Dissent Was Apparent Sun, 14 Jun 2015 23:10:56 +0000
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On the island of Bolama, off the coast of Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. JOE PENNEY

The Sustainable Development Goals are nearing completion, except for a major hurdle: indicators to concretize the goals. Here, inhabitants of the island of Bolama, off the coast of Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. JOE PENNEY

It’s all over but the shouting.

But the shouting is still loud, and it’s mostly about the indicators. And the indicators, ultimately, may be all that matters about the United Nations’ new Sustainable Development Goals.

After more than two years of complex, contentious negotiations, the essential content and most of the actual text of the UN’s post-2015 agenda have now been decided, though nobody will officially say so yet.

The General Assembly has further discussions scheduled through the end of July. Informal talks are likely to continue into August to meet the Sept. 25-27 Sustainable Development Summit deadline. Meanwhile, in mid-July, UN member states will convene in Ethiopia for the Third International Conference on Financing for Development, where they are supposed to figure out how to pay for this immensely ambitious 15-year global development plan.

Nevertheless, UN member states have already reached a consensus on the precise number and content of the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. The 17 goals and 169 specific “targets” adopted by the General Assembly’s post-2015 Open Working Group will be approved intact — indeed, almost verbatim. Continuing tussles over minor syntactical corrections and missing source and time references have underscored the political difficulty of any major revisions.

The “zero draft” of the September summit declaration — grandiloquently titled “Transforming Our World By 2030: A New Agenda For Global Action” — has also been circulated for member-state review.

An inoffensive if uninspiring document, it summarizes the overarching purposes of this international priority-setting exercise. Unlike the antipoverty-focused Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which the SDGs replace, they are designed to be universal, applying to all developed and developing countries.

“We are announcing today 17 Goals with 169 associated targets,” the draft says. “Never before have world leaders pledged common action and endeavor across such a broad policy agenda.”

The  17 goals do not lack ambition:

  1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere
  2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
  3. Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages
  4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
  5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
  6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all
  7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all
  8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all
  9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation
  10. Reduce inequality within and among countries
  11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
  12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns
  13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts
  14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
  15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
  16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels
  17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development

Though the multiple implementation challenges of this vast global plan have yet to be itemized, much less funded, the draft declaration makes this sweeping promise: “We will implement the Agenda for the full benefit of all, for today’s generation and for future generations.”

In the third week of June, members of the General Assembly will reconvene to redact and refine the draft text. They are not likely to make it better. Sincere efforts to strengthen stated commitments to human-rights principles and official transparency and accountability will be met with counterproposals for more caveats and ambiguity in its few compliance requirements.

Illustrative of the perils in collective General Assembly editing was the contretemps in May over the term “vulnerable groups” in an outline for an orchestrated public dialogue at the September summit. Who, some wondered aloud, are these “groups,” exactly? Are they defined by race, religion, age, income, gender, geography? Or all or none of those categories? And who defines them, and for what purpose?

A proposal by Egypt to change the locution to “people in vulnerable situations” was debated for two hours, until the Assembly adjourned without agreement on the terminology. (An eventual compromise also crept into the draft declaration: “People in vulnerable situations and marginalized groups.”)

But the real post-2015 debate is focused on the indicators that will factually define and monitor the 17 goals and 169 targets for the next 15 years. The indicators will not be selected until next March, six months after the SDGs are formally adopted.

This daunting task has been entrusted to a misleadingly named Inter-Agency and Experts Group (IAEG) on SDG indicators, a 28-country subset of the 193 national statistical offices represented on the UN Statistical Commission. The IAEG, led by co-chairs from Italy and the Philippines, held its inaugural session June 1-2. It didn’t go well.

Over the weekend before that meeting, as delegates traveled to New York, the UN Statistics Division — a small office of UN data specialists who serve as the staff secretariat for the member states’ UN Statistical Commission — sent them an unexpected list of what it called “priority” indicators for the 169 SDGs targets, one for each.

The Statistics Division’s previous proposal, submitted in March, had 304 provisional indicators of widely varying quality. Though fewer, proportionately, than the 48 indicators originally assigned to the 18 targets of the eight MDGs, 304 was still six times as many in absolute terms. That had deepened concerns in senior UN circles that the post-2015 compendium of goals, targets and indicators was becoming too overstuffed and complex to measure or communicate, much less actually achieve.

While the 17 goals and 169 targets were now politically untouchable, the indicators had not yet been selected, and were seen by some as the last opportunity to insert greater clarity and concision into the SDGs. The UN’s parallel advisory Sustainable Development Solutions Network recommended trimming the indicators further, to an even one hundred. Many of the network’s proposals, as in the Statistics Division’s priority list, were designed to serve two or more targets at once.

The short list of 169 indicators had been hurriedly assembled just days before circulation, with input from UN agencies that had provided previous indicator recommendations. The participating IAEG statisticians from member states complained that few of them had even seen the new list before their UN meeting got underway. And some who had read it complained crankily but correctly that it did not incorporate recommendations submitted by member states in response to the previous indicators list, relying instead on UN agency proposals.

More critically, some member states argued that this one-indicator-per-target proposal violated General Assembly instructions on the letter and spirit of the draft SDGs.

Many targets had been deliberately drafted with several related challenges, such as reducing air, water and soil pollution (SDG 3.9); banning both child marriage and female genital mutilation (SDG 5.3); and ensuring public access to information while protecting broader “fundamental freedoms” (SDG 16.10). Choosing which items to prioritize — clean air over clean water? — would leave some targets stripped of essential and previously agreed elements, some delegates charged.

More than a few countries viewed the single-indicator proposal as a stealth attempt at SDGs reverse-engineering by UN technocrats intent on streamlining the General Assembly’s proposal. The Assembly had previously decreed that indicators “must not undermine or re-interpret the targets,” but should correspond directly to the language of each, neither adding new or “contentious” elements nor subtracting through omission any agreed-on provisions.

In many cases, the collapsing and cross-referencing of indicators is statistically defensible. Yet if indicators become less numerous than the targets, and some target components are left statistically orphaned, those indicators themselves become the “real” targets. Indeed, they become the real SDGs, which are ultimately just thematic clusters of targets and indicators. If progress toward a target is not factually monitored, that target becomes little more than rhetoric.

Diplomats and statisticians from many member states were not happy with the June 1-2 proceedings and said so. Under whose authority had the missing indicators been excised?, some asked. Were the UN staff specialists in attendance “observers,” as the expert group’s mandate stated, or were they the prime movers, as meeting optics and documents sometimes suggested?


A General Assembly debate, held in February 2015, on the 2015-2030 development goals. Jan Eliasson, the UN deputy secretary-general, sits on the dais in the front row, third from left. LOEY FELIPE/UN PHOTO

Equally displeased were some of the specialized UN agencies and civil society groups that had pressed for specific development objectives in the SDGs and their corresponding but now-deleted indicators.Brazil, a driving force behind the post-2015 negotiations, archly declared that it “was not comfortable with the [IAEG] governance process so far.” Egypt’s ambassador, speaking for the Arab states, questioned the Group’s authority to proceed with its indicator-review plans, prompting a mid-peroration outburst from a Swedish delegate demanding to know when the diplomat would be concluding his remarks so that the statisticians could get back to their “important technical work.”

The Group then struggled to reach agreement on such practical matters as to how (or if) to divide up their indicator-evaluation tasks among thematic working groups in the months ahead. They decided to split into two, one on “interlinkages” and the other on an overall “statistical framework” — still far from dealing directly with the conceptual and methodological strengths and weaknesses of the proposed indicators themselves.

Stefan Schweinfest, chief of the UN Statistics Division, conceded at the close of the IAEG’s inaugural session that “it has not been an easy meeting,” a wry bit of German understatement.

The next IAEG meeting, however, may not be any easier.

It is not taking place until October, and the group hopes to deliver a full set of recommended indicators by December. That is not much time for such a complex undertaking. Most of the preparatory work must be done by those who are paid by the UN to do so — the small corps of Statistics Division professionals — with 28 national statistical agencies looking over their shoulders. This is a new, difficult task for the Statistics Division, which is run by data experts, not diplomats or policymakers.

UN communications people are still grappling with how to explain and to sell this new post-2015 agenda to the world at large, a challenge unhelpfully illustrated by a working title with a built-in Dec. 31 expiration date. Now they must also explain how world leaders will know exactly what they are approving in September, when precise definitions and monitoring plans for the 17 goals and 169 targets will not be agreed until the following year.

That concern could prompt premature UN circulation of incomplete and, in some cases, ill-conceived indicators before the September summit. Pressure to see such a document will build during the culminating two weeks of pre-summit negotiations in New York in July. That’s understandable. Without indicators, it’s hard to evaluate the targets, and without a clear grasp of the targets, it’s impossible to meet the goals. But with indicators that are imprecise or insufficient or too narrowly mathematical, it will never be known if the goals are really being achieved.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly delegated to the UN Statistical Commission the job of choosing SDG indicators that are relevant, methodologically sound, global in scope and comparable across countries, limited in number and “easy to communicate and access.”

The Commission in turn assigned that task to its newly minted 28-member Inter-Agency Expert Group. But as the Group’s difficult birth this month showed, the hard work of fulfilling that General Assembly mandate has barely begun.


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Clinging to Coal: A New Report Belabors Increasing Use by Many Nations Mon, 29 Jun 2015 11:09:58 +0000
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Coal burning not only costs more to produce than some cleaner resources, but it also leads to premature deaths, a report from Oxfam says. UNDRIM ALIU/UN

SHANGHAI — Coal use by some of the world’s most advanced societies — Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, known as the Group of 7 — has been increasing deaths and disease globally, Oxfam International, a consortium of 17 affiliates fighting poverty, found recently in a report titled “Let Them Eat Coal.”

The report, published in June, was released as part of Oxfam’s advocacy ahead of the much-anticipated United Nations climate negotiations in December in Paris. The report argues that rich countries have the responsibility and capacity to stem climate change by reducing their dependence on coal, yet it also acknowledges that burning of fossil fuels in China and India is adding significantly to global carbon emissions.

In the report, Oxfam looks at all countries’ past emissions and the proportion of their citizens who earn above a global poverty line of $9,000 a person each year to calculate that the G7 countries hold 50 percent of historical responsibility for causing climate change and 67 percent of current global financial capacity to address it.

As such, although China now burns almost the same amount of coal as the rest of the world combined and is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, the report says that the country has only 7 percent of current global financial capacity to grapple with climate change. India is the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide, but the report says it has only 0.03 percent of global financial capacity to tackle climate change.

Oxfam expects the ability of China and India to cope with climate change to increase as they become richer, although it does say that China’s coal consumption has already peaked because of an aggressive switch to renewable energy.

Among the G7 countries, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan increased their coal use after the last UN climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, the report says. Germany, Italy and Japan are also planning to build more coal power plants.

This is despite the fact that burning coal has been the biggest single cause of climate change since 1850, responsible for a third of all carbon dioxide emissions, according to statistics by the International Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body under the auspices of the UN.

Developed countries now produce an outsize proportion of these emissions. The G7 countries, for instance, are emitting as much carbon dioxide from fossil fuels as the entire African continent, says the International Energy Agency, an advisory body to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, whose membership is wealthy countries.

At the same time, climate change disproportionately affects poorer countries that have the least ability to manage. From 2005 to 2014, approximately 77 percent of people who died from climate-related disasters and 98 percent of those most affected by climate change lived in developing countries, according to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, which is affiliated with the World Health Organization.

Coal also has a large negative effect on people in developed countries. In the US, for example, 13,200 people died prematurely directly as a result of coal-fired power plants in 2010 — the latest year for which figures were available, the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit group, reports.

Even more people in the US are indirectly affected by coal use. The Environmental Protection Agency found that 72 percent of toxic water pollution comes from coal-fired power plants, making coal plants the main source of toxic water pollution. The monetized value of adverse health effects attributable to existing coal plants in the US exceeds $100 billion a year.

It also costs more in dollars to produce coal power than some cleaner alternatives. Lazard Ltd., an investment bank based in New York, calculates that without subsidies and including capital costs, it takes $37 to $81 to generate a single megawatt hour of electricity using onshore wind farms in the US, compared with $66 to $151 to generate the same amount of electricity through coal power.

Oxfam urges the G7 countries to commit to direct government action to urgently transition from coal. Such action could include supporting the use of renewable energy through subsidies and passing legislation to stop the building of coal power plants and phase out existing ones.

In the US, the Obama administration is making strides toward reducing reliance on coal. Enesta Jones, a spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency, said in an email: “In September 2013, EPA announced proposed standards for new power plants and in June 2014 proposed the Clean Power Plan for existing power plants. Since 2009, the US has increased solar electricity generation by more than twenty-fold, and tripled electricity production from wind power.”

Reducing or stopping the use of coal in other G7 countries is meeting similar opposition from businesses and right-leaning politicians. Given the powerful interests of the coal industry worldwide, it is not a given that the Paris climate change summit meeting — whose main goal is to pass a universal treaty to reduce carbon emissions — will succeed. The UN entities responsible for the conference, however, project optimism, hoping to keep the momentum going.

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The Wave of People Leaving El Salvador Will Rise Wed, 17 Jun 2015 21:03:06 +0000 ]]> In San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, this market is selling tortillas: 14 for a dollar.

In San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, the women at this market are selling homemade tortillas: 14 for a dollar.

El Salvador is one of the most violent and dangerous countries in the world. It is so difficult a place to live that tens of thousands of migrants have been taking El Tren de la Muerte, or The Train of Death, to cross into Mexico to try to arrive safely — without losing a limb or one’s life — to the United States. This voyage refers to the network of Mexican freight trains that migrants use to quickly traverse the length of Mexico, also known as La Bestia (The Beast) and El Tren de los Desconocidos (The Train of the Unknowns).

This mode of travel is extremely hazardous and illegal, but that does not stop more than 500,000 Latin Americans from making the trip annually. This year so far, the number of migrants from El Salvador apprehended by the US Border Patrol could be as much as 25,000, says the Washington Office on Latin America, a human-rights advocacy organization. In 2014, roughly 80,000 Salvadoran migrants were apprehended by the Border Patrol. No figures definitively ascertain how many migrants cross into the US successfully.

Yet the danger of staying home, in El Salvador, is worse for many people, which is why migrants make the trek north, determined to leave behind violence, extreme poverty and gangs, a trio of ills that drives not only Salvadorans but also others from Latin America to the US. Some people also leave to see relatives they may have not seen in a decade, others who fled north.

In El Salvador, which has a population of 6.3 million and where I am originally from, the statistics keep pouring out: the weekend of May 16-17 was the most violent of the year so far: that Saturday, 26 murders were committed; the next day, 37 murders were confirmed, according to the National Civil Police in El Salvador. The 635 homicides tallied for all of May made it the single-deadliest month since the end of the nation’s civil war in 1992, The Associated Press reported.

El Salvador is the smallest, most densely populated country in Central America. Located between Guatemala and Honduras, it is only 20,720 square kilometers of land, or 8,000 square miles. More than 25 percent of its population, it is estimated, migrated or fled during the country’s long civil war, which began in 1979 and ended in 1992. Approximately 1.6 million Salvadorans now live and work in the US, the fourth-largest Hispanic community in the country. Salvadorans are predicted to become the third-largest Hispanic group in the next census in the US, replacing Cubans.

Salvadoran migrants are not confined to the US: 39,000 live in Canada, according to Statistics Canada; 20,000 in Australia; and 12,000 in Italy, says the Migration Policy Institute, based in Washington, D.C.

As for myself, a Salvadoran who lives in New York, I grew up in a world of shooting. When I was a child, everyone in San Salvador, the capital, had to be home by six in the evening because of the curfew. Almost every night since 1980, I heard clashes between the left-wing guerrillas and the military-led Salvadoran government — until 1992, when the peace agreements were signed.

It became normal to live with high walls around our homes and to endure constant power outages and helicopters flying day and night. People in the countryside fled their homes every time they heard that guerrillas or soldiers were coming to their villages. Nowadays, the confrontation between the guerrillas and the armed forces has been replaced by violent confrontations between gangs and the rest of society.

The effect has been so huge that humans are replacing coffee, cotton and sugar as the country’s most important export. Remittances have become critical sources of revenue — more than half of all export earnings and more than 17 percent of the gross domestic product.

Yet the government appears to be more focused on engaging its diaspora rather than stopping the outflow of its citizens. It is also dealing with immigrants coming in from neighboring countries and the attendant issues around human trafficking.

El Salvador is a source, transit point and destination country for women, men and children who become subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. Women and girls, many from rural areas of El Salvador, are exploited in sex trafficking in urban centers. Some Salvadoran adults and children are forced to work in agriculture or domestic service or beg.

The majority of foreign victims are women and children from countries nearby, particularly Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras, who come to El Salvador, responding to job offers. They end up forced into prostitution, domestic service, construction or work in the informal sector.

Gangs exert an enormous negative influence on our society: they use children for a range of illicit activities, sometimes through coercion. Narco gangs use children, women and the very poor to become drug mules and even assassins, says the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a research group in Washington. Sexual violence against people who have been recruited or are forced to work for drug gangs is common. Drug cartels recruit at schools, youth centers and churches.

The San Salvador airport, located south of the capital.

The San Salvador airport, located south of the capital.

The desperate conditions for many El Salvadorans came to light in the US last summer, when a surge of children crossing illegally into the US hit the front pages and nightly news of major media. More than 68,000 children caught crossing the US border alone, without adults, were tallied in October 2014. President Obama called the surge an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

Although the number of unaccompanied children escaping Latin America this year has appeared to halved compared with last year, one reason for the decline has been the increasing militarization of Mexico’s southern borders, said Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations human-rights commissioner, recently.

Among the northern triangle of organized crime in Central America — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — the network of gangs members and drug trafficking has intensified in El Salvador. Douglas Farah, an American ex-journalist in El Salvador and now a security consultant, points out in a report that in El Salvador, certain gangs are collaborating with drugs traffickers tied to Mexican drug cartels. But not all gang members collaborate with such consortiums; some browse — working now and then for them.

How did El Salvador turn into such a crime-ridden country? Like most Central American nations, it remains a bastion of huge inequalities, even after its long civil war was meant to counter that gap. The minimum wage is low among most economic sectors, from coffee to sugar to textile manufacturing, while the number of millionaires is high. Food costs generally outrun the average paycheck of a textile worker.

The UN played a large part in ending the civil war, including setting up a peacekeeping mission from 1991 to 1995. The UN also helped the left-wing militia, Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), become a formal political party as part of the peace accord. The country’s current president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, is from the FMLN party.

Although the UN has a more limited participation in El Salvador’s governance now, it has not abandoned its focus on the entrenched human-rights problems in the country.

As Zeid, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, said at a Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs discussion in May, “We had a discussion with a group of very seasoned UN mediators, and they were telling us that in Central America the only frame through which they could push the political discussions in Guatemala and El Salvador and Nicaragua was the human rights frame.”

Zeid added that they all agreed “that there were certain boundaries beyond which you couldn’t go in terms of human cruelty.”

It is the government of El Salvador that needs to take the big steps to counter the gangs, the organized crime and the corruption running throughout our government forces and to address the inequalities that hurt the human rights of so many people. Until then, the large wave of people leaving El Salvador to find a better world will grow.


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Europe Forges Ahead to ‘Disrupt’ Human Smuggling at Sea From Libya Mon, 22 Jun 2015 15:12:14 +0000
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Migrants at the port of Augusta in Sicily rescued and briefed by the International Organization for Migration. FRANCESCO MALAVOLTA/IOM

Migrants at the port of Augusta in Sicily briefed by the International Organization for Migration, June 2015. FRANCESCO MALAVOLTA/IOM

After a month of near silence in Europe on a proposal to stop human smuggling across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to European shores, European foreign ministers are moving ahead this week on a plan to “disrupt” smugglers’ vessels in international or European waters.

The plan, introduced on June 22, was noted in the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council agenda, released June 21. The item, titled EUNAVFOR Med, was found near the bottom of the list of items, beneath one on Macedonia. Given its military approach, the plan might have been obscured to avoid much notice.

Reuters and other news sources quickly reported on the plan, which has been modified from an original one outlined in May, describing it as a naval “surveillance” operation against “gangs” smuggling humans from Libya to Europe. The European Union does not have approval from the United Nations Security Council to take more aggressive action, particularly in Libya itself.

The announcement of the plan sends large signals to Libya and to smugglers, however, that a major naval contingent is on its way toward the region.

“The operation is being launched today,” Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said in Luxembourg, where foreign ministers met on June 22. “Let me be very clear: The targets are not the migrants, the targets are those that are making money on their lives and too often on their deaths. It is part of our effort to save lives.”

A European Foreign Affairs Council statement said the operation would be “in full compliance with international law, including humanitarian and refugee law and human rights.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon participated in a lunch discussion at the Luxembourg meeting, but his public comments on the topic were relegated to noting “the challenges of migration.”

An Associated Press report said five naval units, led by the six-year-old Italian aircraft carrier Cavour, would include two submarines, three maritime surveillance planes, two drones and two helicopters. The boats and planes will be involved in rescue work if needed, the AP said.

The operation commander, Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino, an Italian, will oversee operations from Rome.

“EUNAVFOR Med is the only operation on offer, which was agreed conceptually by EU MFAs on May 18, and launched a three stage process to full operation,” said Christopher Matthews, the press spokesman for the European Union at the UN, referring to the continent’s ministers of foreign affairs.

The current phase, Matthews said, is “limited to gathering Intel/surveillance, rather than direct engagement, search and seizure, and limited to international waters in the southern central Mediterranean.”

The second stage will entail “the search and, if necessary, seizure of suspicious vessels,” the European Council said; the third phase allows “the disposal of vessels and related assets, preferably before use, and to apprehend traffickers and smugglers.”

The council, it said, “will assess when to move beyond this first step, taking into account a UN mandate and the consent of the coastal states concerned, and subsequent phases will be conducted accordingly” — in other words, whether the force will move into Libyan waters.

A proposal to manage the unprecedented flow of migrants and attendant smuggling from Libya across the Mediterranean Sea in the last year was formally broached at the UN in May. The proposal drummed up attention worldwide, as it posed for the first time the possibility of using military force to intercede against smugglers’ vessels at sea and in Libyan ports and land.

The plan posed such practical questions as: Would boats loaded with migrants, many of whom are Syrians escaping war and Africans fed up with poverty, be attacked by European navies? Would Europe use ground forces in Libya, where a civil war is being fought and where the UN is struggling to broker peace?

Doubts on the plan remained on legal and moral grounds.

Nevertheless, efforts to find a solution to the continuing influx of sea migrants from Libya, who have been drowning in record numbers, a draft resolution was put forth by the European members of the UN Security Council — Britain, France, Lithuania and Spain — and by the Italian government. It was also circulated among China, Russia and the United States.

Russia voiced its opposition to the proposal, citing legal concerns of such an operation, even in international waters.

The resolution, which had been kept from the media and most of the elected members of the Security Council, foundered in the weeks since it materialized. Mogherini, an Italian, spoke about the plan to the media at the UN in May, but she left more questions than answers in her remarks.

Italy has been receiving most of the migrants who land in European ports, yet a majority of the migrants who get that far try to travel to northern Europe to resettle.

European leaders first met in April on the migrant smuggling problem, prompted by 800 people drowning in a sea crossing. (This year so far, more than 100,000 people have entered Europe from the Mediterranean and last year 3,300 died on the route.) The foreign ministers agreed to take actions “to prevent further loss of life in the Mediterranean and tackle the root causes of migration pressures,” the European Council said at the time.

Europe’s progress on that angle has not been obvious, whereas its attention on disrupting the migrant smuggling from Libya has stayed in the foreground.


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Health Services Still Lag in Haiti, Shadowed by Cholera Mon, 15 Jun 2015 20:02:59 +0000
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Haiti has yet to develop adequate health care and sanitation infrastructure, despite billions of dollars in aid. Vaccinations doled out, above, by the World Health Organization with Cuban doctors, in Port-au-Prince. SOPHIA PARIS/MINUSTAH

More than five years have passed since the heart of Haiti was crushed by a cataclysmic earthquake that killed at least 230,000 people, only to be followed by an outbreak of cholera later that year that has left about another 9,000 dead. Billions of dollars in international aid have begun to show gains in infrastructure reconstruction, but improvements in health and sanitation remain far from meeting the country’s needs, leaving Haitians still vulnerable to epidemic disease and generally poor health.

Haiti, proud of its place in history as the first black republic, created in 1804 in the wake of a slave revolution, has never reached its potential over two centuries of political turmoil, dictatorship, black-mulatto racial strife, France’s imposition of crippling economic reparations on its former colony and later an American invasion and occupation that lasted two decades. The country has long suffered the worst human development levels in the Western Hemisphere by virtually every measure, including in health care, with high rates of infant mortality, malnutrition and stunted children. In 2010, cholera rolled across a country without sewage systems or reliable potable water for drinking or washing.

In October 2014, during an international conference in Washington on Haiti’s water and sanitation situation, the World Bank pledged $50 million to improve coverage of these services over the next three years. “We have made significant progress in controlling the cholera epidemic in Haiti, but too many people are still getting sick,” said Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank president. “Cholera remains endemic and water borne diseases are one of the leading causes of infant mortality.”

Global health specialists recall that the Ebola epidemic in West Africa apparently started in one village in Guinea and moved rapidly through Sierra Leone and Liberia, where governments did not have adequate health systems. Only in Nigeria, where the first case of Ebola arriving from Liberia met a well-prepared emergency public health service response, the disease never spread.

In early June 2015, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of the United States Congress, released a detailed report on successes but also delays and cancellations in promised American post-earthquake aid programs in Haiti, among them health service improvements. It cited numerous problems, including the American partnership with the Haitian Ministry of Public Health and Population and other government offices and outside contractors. The US is Haiti’s largest single source of assistance.

“According to USAID/Haiti officials, factors that affected the activities’ results and caused delays included lack of staff with relevant expertise, unrealistic initial plans, challenges encountered with some implementing partners, and delayed or revised decisions from the Haitian government,” the report said, adding that “low government interest” was another factor. The Haitian government under President Michel Martelly — a popular musician known as Sweet Mickey — has drawn considerable criticism in Haiti and from the US and other international donors for its handling of the country’s continuing crises.

“For example,” the US accountability report said: “as of September 2014, work on the State University Hospital in Port-au-Prince had begun but was scheduled to end 3 years later than planned. USAID/Haiti officials noted that delays in rehabilitation of the hospital, which occurred during the procurement phase, resulted from lengthy negotiations among the activity’s donors — the U.S., French, and Haitian governments — and from logistical challenges due to the Haitian government’s decision to keep the hospital open during the rehabilitation. USAID/Haiti officials attributed delays at other sites to land tenure issues, delays in the Haitian government’s approval of activity design, lack of relevant construction engineering experience among USAID staff, and lack of local technical capacity.”

The United Nations has met similar problems.

Haiti, with its weak infrastructure further crumbled by the earthquake, is still suffering greatly from the toll the disaster took on its educated and skilled technical and policy experts, who could have served as experienced local partners. The UN estimated that the earthquake killed more than 16,000 of Haiti’s civil service employees and destroyed almost all government ministry buildings. Ninety-six UN peacekeepers were also killed, along with the civilian head of the UN mission, Hédi Annabi.

There is no longer a dispute as to where the outbreak of a virulent strain of cholera endemic in South Asia was introduced in Haiti. The outbreak was almost immediately traced to an encampment of Nepali soldiers deployed as UN peacekeepers in a watershed feeding the Artibonite River, the most important waterway in the country. Nepal had apparently not tested its soldiers before sending them to Haiti, as required. (Nepali soldiers are still serving there, with contingents from 19 other countries.) Insufficient or carelessly constructed latrines, the responsibility of a UN contractor, allowed contaminated sewage to reach the Artibonite, in which people bathed and collected water for drinking or cooking. Haiti had no defenses to stop it.

The dispute that continues, however, is whether and to what level the UN should be held accountable to the victims of the cholera epidemic. Since November 2011, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti has pressed claims against the UN, demanding not only compensation for victims but also the installation of a national water and sanitation system to control the epidemic, which was still infecting 15,000 people in the first 10 months of 2014, according to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. (In 2011, total infections for the year numbered about 352,000.)

The UN has consistently claimed immunity under international agreements and refused to accept responsibility, although it has invested in public health projects. In October 2013, the Institute for Justice and Democracy, which works in Haiti to support and train civil society, moved with other petitioners to a US Federal District Court in New York, where oral arguments were heard the next year. In January 2015, the judge hearing the case dismissed its demand for a waiver of UN immunity, arguing that only the UN could take that step. The plaintiffs are appealing that decision.

In light of what happened to Haiti and its extremely fragile to nonexistent public health system, the UN peacekeeping department does not deny that Nepali peacekeepers introduced the cholera epidemic in a country previously free of cholera. The UN, with numerous countries and nongovernment organizations, turned their attention and donations immediately after the outbreak to health and sanitation.

Some crucial projects have nevertheless fallen behind schedule in the last five years, and a few public rumor mills have tried to block other projects, such as a vaccination drive promoted by Paul Farmer of Partners in Health, who is also Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special adviser on Community Based Medicine and Lessons Learned from Haiti, working with the Haitian ministry of health. Despite the misinformation being spread, experts consider the vaccine drive successful in its early stages if not promising for future control of cholera, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minnesota reported in February 2015.

The US Government Accountability Office said in its report, based on months of investigation in Haiti and Washington, D.C., that since the 2010 earthquake, American government agencies have allocated $4 billion to earthquake-related efforts, including $2.7 billion for reconstruction. The US Agency for International Development (USAID), which was allocated over half of the reconstruction funding, “has directed its efforts to eight sectors: energy, shelter, ports, education, governance and rule of law, economic security, health, and food security,” the report said.

“As of September 30, 2014, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) had allocated $1.7 billion to the Haiti reconstruction effort, directing more than half of this funding to the health and food security sectors.”

While some infrastructure projects, including an electrical power plant in northern Haiti, have been completed, the US has reduced plans for three of the 17 key noninfrastructure projects, such as providing access to basic health care.


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