US Has Good Cause to Seek Reductions in Contributions to UN

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March 20, 2017 – At a time when the United Nations is seeking funds to address massive humanitarian crises in Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia, reports that the Trump administration is seeking to cut its funding to the world body by up to half are particularly unwelcome.

The United States is by far the biggest contributor to the UN system, contributing 22 percent to the regular budget and also 28 percent to the peacekeeping budget. That it is a permanent member of the Security Council and that the UN headquarters is hosted in New York City go some way towards the US getting its money’s worth (the economic benefit to New York City from the UN is some $3.3 billion per year).

In truth, the UN is divided into two classes: the veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, and all others, and it is the P5 who rule the roost at UN headquarters. The top jobs are divvied up among the five and they have the power to influence hiring and firing (witness last week’s ‘resignation’ of the secretary-general of ESCWA after angering Washington with a report that said Israeli treatment of Palestinians amounted to apartheid).

As researcher Cedric de Coning recently pointed out in a Twitter post, a fairer system of assessing dues would be for the permanent members of the Council to pay 10 percent each towards the regular budget, which would amount to about $1 billion each – a savings to the US of about $2 billion. Combined, the other four permanent members, Britain, France, China and Russia, pay less than 17%, with the UK and France paying some 6 percent, China, 3 percent and Russia less than two percent.

The UN could also make make life easier for itself and those it serves by imposing mandatory assessments to fund its aid programs, just as it does for the regular budget and the peacekeeping budget. Its dependence on voluntary contributions is not working and when crises emerge, as they constantly do, the UN is hamstrung by lack of money. But the UN also has to improve how it delivers aid and addresses crises. It can do this by continuing to focus on resilience and helping fragile countries increase local capacity.

The UN is vital but it is also a poorly managed bureaucratic labyrinth with some 30 funds, programs and agencies all vying for money and influence and oftentimes operating with overlapping mandates and duplicate efforts, wasting precious resources.

If the UN wants the new US administration to take it seriously then it must get serious about becoming more transparent on how its money is spent and shutting programs that are simply redundant or not working.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Related: Despite Inefficiencies, UN is Big Contributor to US Economy

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Thirty Countries Have Paid Their UN Dues on Time for 2017

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Feb. 8, 2017 – The following is a list of the thirty UN member states that have paid their dues to the United Nations regular budget so far this year. The UN considers members past due if they have not paid by Feb. 10. So far, the member states assessed the biggest dues – the U.S., Japan and Germany, have yet to pay. Besides the U.S., none of the other permanent members of the Security Council have paid yet.

1 Angola
252,229
10-Jan-17
2 Armenia
151,338
10-Jan-17
3 Benin
75,669
10-Jan-17
4 Dominican Republic
1,160,254
10-Jan-17
5 Hungary
4,060,886
10-Jan-17
6 Liberia
25,223
10-Jan-17
7 Senegal
126,114
10-Jan-17
8 South Sudan
75,669
10-Jan-17
9 Ukraine
2,597,959
10-Jan-17
10 Canada
73,676,084
17-Jan-17
11 Singapore
11,274,636
17-Jan-17
12 Liechtenstein
176,560
19-Jan-17
13 Norway
21,414,240
19-Jan-17
14 Luxembourg
1,614,265
20-Jan-17
15 Denmark
14,730,173
24-Jan-17
16 Latvia
1,261,145
24-Jan-17
17 Australia
58,945,913
25-Jan-17
18 Guinea
50,446
25-Jan-17
19 Sweden
24,113,090
25-Jan-17
20 Estonia
958,470
26-Jan-17
21 Finland
11,501,641
26-Jan-17
22 Switzerland
28,754,104
26-Jan-17
23 Georgia
201,783
27-Jan-17
24 Ireland
8,449,670
27-Jan-17
25 New Zealand
6,759,736
27-Jan-17
26 Algeria
4,060,886
2-Feb-17
27 Kuwait
7,188,526
2-Feb-17
28 Austria
18,160,486
6-Feb-17
29 Azerbaijan
1,513,374
7-Feb-17
30 Netherlands
37,380,335
7-Feb-17

Antonio Guterres Recommended as Next UN Secretary-General

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Oct. 6, 2016 – The Security Council on Thursday made a recommendation to the General Assembly to appoint Antonio Manuel de Oliveira Guterres as the next and ninth UN secretary-general.

The move came after Wednesday’s sixth straw ballot which saw Guterres, 67, emerge as the clear winner with no opposition among the 15 Council members. He will take office on January 1 after a formal vote by the General Assembly.

Guterres will be the first former prime minister to take the helm at the United Nations having headed Portugal’s government from 1995-2002 as leader of the Socialist party. From 2005-2015 he was head of the UN refugee agency, winning wide praise for his stewardship during the agency’s biggest refugee crisis.

Guterres will also be the first UN secretary-general from a NATO-member country. Portugal was a founding member of the alliance.

Although he led all straw ballots, his victory will be regarded by many as a surprise given the widely held view that it was time for a woman to lead the organization after eight successive male secretaries-general. It was also expected that the next UN chief should hail from Eastern Europe, the only region never to have held the post.

Guterres qualified as an electrical engineer in 1971 but soon became involved in politics and was involved in Catholic youth movements. A committed Catholic to this day, he recently cited the Biblical “parable of the talents” [Matthew:25] as the reason why he entered the race for the UN’s top job. He cited the same parable in a 2005 interview with the Migration Policy Institute.

During interviews with the General Assembly in April, Guterres mooted introducing a Global Tax to fund humanitarian efforts, telling delegates that the UN and international financial organizations need to find ways for humanitarian efforts to be “funded by global funding sources,” such as fees on plane tickets and financial transactions.

In his lengthy vision statement submitted to the UN General Assembly back in April, Guterres called for a surge in diplomacy as a preventive tool, greater accountability in the UN system, and gender parity in senior posts.

While there is little doubt that he has the experience and leadership qualities needed to guide the UN as it confronts multiple crises, some views he held as prime minister will cause unease at Turtle Bay and beyond.

In a 1995 interview with Portuguese television, he said that “homosexuality is not an aspect I particularly like.” He was not questioned about his current views on sexual orientation during the General Assembly hearings and his views may have evolved in the twenty years since. Ban Ki-moon has been widely hailed for consistently speaking out against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Guterres too was opposed to legalizing abortion during his term as prime minister, campaigning actively in a referendum that successfully overturned a parliamentary vote that legalized the procedure. He was also reportedly in favor of a law that sent women who had an abortion to prison.

Speaking at a press conference in Lisbon on Thursday, Guterres expressed his ‘gratitude and humility.’

“To describe what I’m feeling at this moment, I just need two words: humility and gratitude,” he said. “Gratitude firstly towards the members of the Security Council for the confidence in me, but also gratitude towards the General Assembly of the United Nations and all its member states for having decided in an exemplary process of transparency and openness.”

– Denis Fitzgeald
On Twitter @denisfitz

 

Race for Next UN Secretary-General Taking Shape

The six official candidates to date to succeed Ban Ki-moon

The six official candidates to date to succeed Ban Ki-moon

Feb. 22, 2016 – There are now six official candidates to succeed Ban Ki-moon and become the ninth secretary-general of the United Nations.

Four of the six declared candidates hail from the Balkans with the former Yugoslav countries hedging that strong trade links with Russia, as well as EU membership in the case of Croatia and Slovenia, and EU accession status, in the case of Macedonia and Montenegro, could see them bridge the West-Russia divide in the UN and get the support of both.

Besides Croatia’s Vesna Pusic, Macedonia’s Srgian Kerim, Slovenia’s Danilo Turk and Montenegro’s Igor Lusik, the two other candidates are Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova and Moldova’s Natalia Gherman.

Bokova, the current director-general of UNESCO, was nominated earlier this month by the Bulgarian government despite much speculation that her compatriot Kristalina Georgieva was Sofia’s favored candidate – the EU budget commissioner is also favored by the Western P5 countries, Britain, France and the US.

But all is not lost for Georgieva as the candidate process does not rule out a UN member state nominating two candidates nor does it stipulate that a candidate has to be nominated by their country of citizenship.

The sixth and most recent declared candidate is Moldova’s Natalia Gherman. UN Tribune was first to write about Gherman as a potential successor to Ban Ki-moon, noting back in April 2015 that Moldova’s strong ties with Russia, its non-membership of NATO, as well as her own pro-EU outlook, could see her emerge as a compromise candidate.

Gherman is scheduled to speak at New York’s Columbia University next week and it is interesting to note in her bio she lists fluency in English, German, Romanian and Russian – but not French, an unofficial requirement of UN secretaries-general. But there’s little reason for her to worry about this as it’s widely known that Ban Ki-moon was taking intensive French classes after his election, and French-languaue reporters still like to test him on his proficiency.

There are no clear favorites yet to succeed Ban and the list of candidates is sure to increase but what is clear so far is that the next secretary-general will come from Eastern Europe – there is no requirement as such but it is the only region not to have had a secretary-general and there is wide agreement in the general membership, if not the P5, that it is Eastern Europe’s turn – and that the UN may well elect its first female secretary-general.

Update: Feb 29, 2016 – Former UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres has been nominated by the Portuguese government. Guterres is a former prime minister of Portugal and served as UN refugee chief from 2005-15, during the worst refugee crisis in UNHCR’s history. The Portuguese government made the announcement on Monday. He is the first candidate to be nominated by a non-Eastern European member state and his candidacy, while popular, is likely to face stiff resistance from veto-wielding Russia.

– Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

Related: Natalia Gherman – Could Moldova’s Foreign Minister be the Next UN Secretary-General?

Libya Loses UN General Assembly Vote Over Non-Payment of Dues

60th plenary meeting of the General Assembly 66th session:

Feb. 4, 2016 – Libya has been suspended from voting in the UN General Assembly over non-payment of dues.

The country, which has two competing parliaments and governments, has been in turmoil since NATO forces intervened in 2011 and removed Muammar Gaddafi from power following a UNSC resolution authorizing action to protect civilians.

A recent UN report also says ISIS is established and seeking to expand in Libya.

The loss of a General Assembly vote is a result of falling foul of  Article 19 of the UN Charter, which states that countries will lose their UNGA vote if their “arrears equals or exceeds the amount of the contributions due from it for the preceding two full years.”

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A minimum payment of $1.4 million is needed for Tripoli to regain its vote, according to a letter from Ban Ki-moon to the General Assembly.

In total, Ban named 15 countries in his January 18 letter to the General Assembly, including Bahrain and Iran, but the other countries have since either made the necessary payment or, as in the case of Somalia and Yemen, been given a waiver as the UN Committee on Contributions has determined that conditions beyond their control contributed to this inability to pay.

Libya is assessed annual dues to the United Nations’ regular budget of $3.1 million.

– Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

The United Nations and the Death Penalty

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Jan. 5, 2016 – Ban Ki-moon’s statement on Saturday expressing dismay at the mass execution carried out in Saudi Arabia and his concerns over the nature of the charges and due process for those condemned elicited a terse response from Riyadh’s mission to the United Nations.

Ban, as well as the high commissioner and assistant high-commissioner for human rights, Zeid Hussein and Ivan Simonovic, have repeatedly called for states to abolish the death penalty. If they are to use it then they say the death penalty must only be used for crimes of murder or other forms of intentional killing following a fair and transparent process.

At this stage, there is nothing UN officials can do other than urge abolition because under international law there is no treaty or any other instrument that prohibits the use of the death penalty. The closest is an annual General Assembly resolution calling for states to establish a moratorium on the use of the death penalty with a view to abolishing it.

That resolution, which was first put to a vote in 2007, and is spearheaded by EU countries – particularly Italy and France – has been approved each year by some 100 of the UN’s 193 member states while around 40 countries consistently vote against it.

While General Assembly resolutions are not binding under international law, they are intended to express the will of the international community and can act as a persuasive force in creating international norms.

The text of the General Assembly resolution on establishing a moratorium also calls on states that retain the use of executions to limit the number of offenses for which the death penalty can be applied.

The call to limit the number of offenses is well-founded as at least seven states, including Saudi Arabia as well as Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, China and Iran impose the death penalty for drug trafficking.

But it’s not just drug crimes that are punishable by death in some countries. Apostasy is considered a capital crime in both Saudi Arabia and Iran. In Yemen, there are some 360 crimes punishable by death including adultery and prostitution. In Morocco, there are more than 325 while in Egypt there are more than 40, and death sentences have increased there since the 2011 protests that led to the fall of former dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Indeed, it is Egypt, newly elected to the Security Council, that has led the fight back against the UNGA resolution, sending a letter to Ban Ki-moon on behalf of 47 countries, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, stating that “the Charter of the United Nations, in particular, Article 2, paragraph 7, clearly stipulates that nothing in the Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any State. Accordingly, the question of whether to retain or abolish the death penalty and the types of crimes for which the death penalty is applied should be determined by each State.”

Despite the recalcitrance of some states, there is confidence that over time the death penalty will be abolished universally with the UN’s Simonovic noting recently that when the UN was founded only eight countries had taken the death penalty out of their laws while the figure is now 99, and only five states now execute more than 25 people per year – China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United States.

– Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

Related Story: UN Official Cites Progress, Setbacks in Death Penalty Abolition

Staff at News Org Linked to UN Corruption Scandal Shocked Over Allegations

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Francis Lorenzo (left) pictured with Ban Ki-moon and Antigua’s prime minister Baldwin Spencer in 2011.

Oct. 7, 2015 – Staff at a UN-accredited news organization that received more than $12 million since its inception in 2009 from the Chinese billionaire at the center of a corruption scandal said they are “disappointed and shocked” over allegations against their president.

South-South News is headed by Francis Lorenzo, the deputy ambassador of the Dominican Republic to the United Nations. Lorenzo was charged in New York on Tuesday for facilitating bribes to the former president of the General Assembly, John Ashe, to get Ashe to use his influence to support the building of a UN conference center in Macau by Chinese billionaire David Ng.

“The South-South News staff is disappointed and shocked to learn about these allegations. If they ultimately prove true, it will be a serious blow to our mission, what we believe as staff members, and what we work for every day,” the staff said in a statement issued Tuesday evening.

“Had knowledge of Lorenzo’s alleged activities been made aware to us, we would have strongly objected and refused to comply where relevant,” the statement added. “It is therefore upsetting to us that our hard work could be associated with the allegations against Lorenzo.”

The charges against Lorenzo state that in 2009 he was made honorary president of a New York-based NGO, understood to be South-South News, that was founded by Ng and that he has received a regular $20,000 monthly salary ever since. Ng has wired more than $12 million to the South-South News bank account in New York, the charge sheet states.

The charges allege that payments were made from the South-South News bank account to John Ashe beginning in 2011 when he was Antigua’s ambassador to the United Nations and that, from January 2011 to December 2014, Ashe’s wife was paid a $2,500 monthly salary to work as a “climate consultant” for South-South News though the charge sheet says there is no evidence that she ever actually did any work for the organization.

The criminal complaint also alleges that Ashe got South-South News to pay for Antigua’s then prime minister, Baldwin Spencer, and six others to fly first-class to New York to attend the South-South News annual gala which was taking place during the same week as the UN’s annual General Debate in September 2011.

Ban Ki-moon greeting John Ashe

Ban Ki-moon greeting John Ashe

The charge sheet adds that in February 2012, after Ashe and his wife had received some $38,000 in payments from South-South News, in addition to other gifts including travel and the construction of a basketball court at Ashe’s Westchester County home, that Ashe sent a letter to Ban Ki-moon, as an official UN document, stating that Antigua’s prime minister and other heads of state had decided to launch a “Global Business Incubator, Permanent Expo and Meeting Center” hosted in Macau and to be built by the Sun Kian Ip group, whose chairman is David Ng.

The charges state that Lorenzo then used this official UN document to imply that the conference center that Ng was seeking to develop was in some fashion supported by the United Nations.

Payments to Ashe from the South-South News bank account continued, and got bigger, with some $100,000 paid to Ashe between January and June 2013, in addition to his wife’s monthly salary as well as a separate $25,000 payment to Ashe in February 2013.

Beginning in 2014, Ashe solicited funds from Ng for his General Assembly presidency, including a $200,000 payment from the South-South News bank account that was deposited to Ashe’s account on June 3, 2014. He was elected unopposed in Sept. 2013 to the rotating regional post as the candidate for the Group of Latin American and Caribbean countries at the UN.

A judge on Tuesday set bail at $1 million for Ashe and he was also ordered to wear an electronic bracelet. In total, he is accused of accepting $1.3 million in bribes and failing to pay adequate taxes.

Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

UN General Assembly Debate – Day 3 Wrap

Agila Saleh Essa Gwaider, Acting Head of State of Libya

Agila Saleh Essa Gwaider, Acting Head of State of Libya (UN Photo)

Sept. 30, 2015 –  The president of Libya’s House of Representatives told the General Assembly on Wednesday that the proliferation of weapons and spread of armed groups, resulting in criminality and terrorism – and exploitation of this chaos by those with personal interests – has severely undermined the central authority.

Agila Saleh Essa Gwaider said the Islamic State terrorist group wants to take over the country and exploit its resources as it seeks to spread its “law of the jungle” from Mauritania to Bangladesh. He said the terrorists and militias who have taken over the capital Tripoli and are fighting to take over Benghazi, are tools of foreign governments. Gwaider also said the Security Council is taking a contradictory stance by refusing to ease an arms embargo on Libya, a move which he said would enable the internationally-recognized Libyan authorities to fight terrorism, and stem the flow of foreign terrorist fighters into the country.

Also speaking on Wednesday was the prime minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat, who noted that his country is located “at the crossroads between the Middle East, Europe and Africa.”

He spoke of Malta’s role in the current Mediterranean refugee crisis, saying, “We are the only country in Europe, and probably in the world, that dedicates 100 percent of its limited military resources to saving people at sea.” Muscat said this year has broken all records for people attempting to flee persecution and that the scale of the situation demanded a global response. “The first priority must remain the saving of lives,” he said. “This is our moral duty as human beings.”

He added that solving the conflict in Syria will not solve the refugee crisis, mentioning the high number of people fleeing Somalia and Eritrea and those that will be forced to flee because of climate change.

Speaking at a Security Council meeting on Thursday convened by Russia on solving conflicts in the Middle East, Brazil’s minister for External Affairs, Mauro Vieira, said, “It should be noted that the common trait to all those situations is the international community’s failure in dealing with the underlying causes of conflicts.”

“As long as we disregard poverty and the fragility of national institutions as drivers of armed conflict, there will no lasting solution in sight,” he said.

Vieira added that military interventions have also undermined state institutions leading to their ultimate collapse. “We have seen time and again the harmful effects of bending the rules and invoking exceptional rights in order to justify military interventions.”

“Military interventions led only to weak national institutions, increased sectarianism, power vacuums and arms proliferation, paving the way for the rise of radical groups such as the Islamic State,” Vieria told the Council. “Those groups thrive in the absence of the State and benefit from the flow of weapons to non-State actors,” he said, and called on the Security Council to “learn from past mistakes.”

On the refugee crisis, he said that Brazil had given 7,700 visas to Syrians affected by the crisis, and that it will continue to host more, noting that Brazil is home to the largest Syrian diaspora in the world, estimated at some 4 million.

UN Guards Raise the Palestinian Flag at UNHQ on Sept. 30 (UN Photo)

UN Guards Raise the Palestinian Flag at UNHQ on Sept. 30 (UN Photo)

Also on Thursday the Palestinian flag was raised for the first time on UN grounds as a result of a Sept. 10th General Assembly resolution allowing the flags of non-member observer states to be flown at UN headquarters and other United Nations offices around the world.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the ceremony that, “The symbolism of raising your flag at the United Nations reflects the commitment of the Palestinian Authority to pursue the long-held dream of the Palestinian people for their own state.”

Ban added that, “We can be under no illusion that this ceremony represents the end goal.”

“Achieving Palestinian statehood requires decisive action to advance national unity,” he said, not least having a central governing authority for the West Bank and Gaza and peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The UN chief also noted the central role of the United Nations in resolving the Palestinian question, with Security Council and General Assembly resolutions on the issue dating back to 1947.

– Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

UN General Assembly Debate – Day 2 Wrap

Petro Poroshenko addressing the UN General Assembly, Spet. 29, 2015 UN Photo)

Petro Poroshenko addressing the UN General Assembly, Sept. 29, 2015 UN Photo)

Sept. 29, 2015 – Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko on Tuesday responded to Vladimir Putin’s speech on Monday by telling delegates that, “Over the last few days we have heard conciliatory statements from the Russian side in which, in particular, it called for the establishment of anti-terrorist coalition, or warned of danger to flirt with terrorists.”

“Cool story, but really hard to believe,” Poroshenko continued. “How can you urge an anti-terrorist coalition – if you inspire terrorism right in front of your door? How can you talk about peace and legitimacy – if your policy is war via puppet governments? How can you speak of freedom for nations – if you punish your neighbor for his choice? How can you demand respect for all – if you don’t have respect for anyone?”

He added that Russia “shamefully” used its veto twice to block Security Council resolutions related to Ukraine, the first in March 2014 that would have condemned the Crimea referendum and, more recently, a resolution that called for establishing an international criminal investigation into the downing of Flight MH17.

Ukraine is set to join the Council as a non-permanent member for a two year term beginning in Jan. 1, 2016.

Speaking later on Tuesday, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said his country, one of the top humanitarian donors to the UN system, would step up its funding for refugees and internally displaced people from Syria and Iraq. The funding would not only go to neighboring countries hosting the vast majority of refugees, but also to countries on Europe’s borders, particularly Serbia and Macedonia.

He also expressed frustration at the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament, noting that this year marked the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Abe called for continuing reductions in Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals, as well as all other countries that possess these weapons.

Also speaking on Tuesday was Liberia’s President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson who said progress towards gender equality was well behind schedule. She noted that only a few of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special representatives were women, that only one woman had ever served as president of the General Assembly, and that there had never been a female secretary-general.

Johnson said the response to the Ebola crisis in her country, as well as in neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea, which she called the “greatest modern threat to global public health” showed that the promise of the United Nations works when we “find it within our humanity to respond even to unknown enemies to our collective progress” and she thanked Ban Ki-moon as well as other international organizations for mobilizing their response to fight Ebola.

At a side event on Tuesday, foreign ministers from Argentina, Benin, Fiji, Italy and Rwanda spoke for the need to work towards global abolition of the death penalty.

Also speaking was human rights high commissioner Zeid Hussein and US campaigner Sister Helen Prejean. Zeid noted that 82 percent of UN member states have either introduced a moratorium or have abolished the death penalty. In the past twelve months, Fiji, Madagascar, Suriname and the U.S. state of Nebraska have abolished the practice.

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Sister Helen, who had to leave the event early as she is actively campaigning for a stay on the execution in Oklahoma of Richard Glossip, who the U.S. state is set to execute tomorrow. She said after witnessing her first execution in Alabama, she vomited. She then decided that she needed to educate the American public about the cruelty of the death penalty. In the course of her campaigning she met many victims families – those whose killer was executed – and discovered that, for many, they are hidden victims of the death penalty. “Don’t kill for us,” she quoted victims families as saying. She called it revictimization.

Sister Helen noted the racial disparities among those on death row, saying that in the U.S. when a person of color is put to death it is negligible and that while there’s a perception that the US has the best justice system in the world, 150 people on death row have been exonerated, while others who have been innocent have been put to death.

At least 11 countries have applied the death penalty in 2015: Afghanistan, Chad, China, Indonesia, India, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and the United States.

– Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

UN General Assembly Debate – Day 1 Wrap

Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin at the leaders lunch hosted by Ban Ki-moon (UN Photo)

Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin at a leaders lunch hosted by Ban Ki-moon on Monday (UN Photo)

Sept. 28, 2015 – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the 70th General Debate with a speech in which he called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court and said that five countries – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey and the United States – are key to finding a solution to the conflict, now in its fifth year, and which has claimed more than 250,000 lives.

Three of those countries – the United States, Russia and Iran – spoke in the morning session with U.S. President Barack Obama telling delegates that the US is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to find a solution but there is ultimately no place for Bashar Al Assad in a future Syrian government. He called for a “managed transition away” from Assad who he held responsible for killing tens of thousands of his own citizens and creating the conditions that led to the emergence of ISIS, who he called “an apocalyptic cult.” Obama said military power alone is not sufficient to resolve the situation in Syria. Preempting criticism from Putin, he said the U.S. learned a “hard lesson” in Iraq and that after the 2011 intervention in Libya, U.S. and other NATO members did not do enough for the country after the killing of Muammar Gaddafi and this had contributed to the collapse of institutions there.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, making his first appearance at the UN in ten years, told the General Assembly that foreign interference in the Middle East and North Africa had lead to the “flagrant destruction of national institutions” and that “nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life.” He said arming opposition forces in Syria only leads to more arms going to, and people joining, ISIS. Putin said it should “be acknowledged” that Assad forces and Kurdish militia are the only ones “truly fighting ISIS.” Russia has been supplying arms to Assad forces and recently moved military logistics equipment into Syria. Putin called for a coalition to fight terrorism “similar to the anti-Hitler coalition” and that the Sept. 30 ministerial Security Council meeting under the Russian presidency is aimed at agreeing on a resolution on coordinating actions on fighting ISIS and other terrorist groups.

Neither Obama nor Putin made any mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in their addresses. Nor did either mention the deteriorating situation in Yemen.

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, began his speech by saying mismanagement by Saudi Arabia had led to last week’s Haj tragedy that left more than 800 pilgrims dead, including more than 200 Iranians. He called for an independent investigation and immediate consular access to help identify the bodies. Rouhani said the agreement reached with the E3+3 on Iran’s disputed nuclear program had opened up a “new chapter in Iran’s relations with the world.” He said his country is “prepared to assist in the eradication of terrorism and … are prepared to help bring about democracy in Syria and Yemen.” He blamed U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan and its support for Israel, which he called the “Zionist regime,” for the current situation in the Middle East. He closed by declaring “ultimate victory will be won by those with good-natured piety.” Iran provides arms and financing for Hezbollah, which is currently fighting in Syria in support of Assad forces. Members of Iran’s Republican Guards are also fighting on Assad’s behalf in Syria. A recent UN Security Council report stated that an Iranian vessel had delivered 180 tons of arms to a Yemen port under Houthi control.

In the afternoon, Obama held a leaders summit on peacekeeping and said some 50 countries had pledged to contribute an additional 30,000 troops to current and future peace operations. He added that the US would double the number of military advisers serving in UN peacekeeping operations. In a separate memo, Obama said he would not relinquish command over any troops deployed to UN peace operations. The US currently has 78 personnel deployed in UN missions. The total number of current peacekeepers deployed in 16 missions is more than 106,000. The U.S. is the biggest financial contributor to peacekeeping operations – assessed at 28 percent of the more than $8 billion annual budget.

China’s President Xi Jingpin said his country would provide 8,000 troops to a UN peacekeeping standby force as well as providing $100 million to the African Union for peacekeeping operations. Beijing, which is the largest troop contributor among the permanent five members of the Security Council, will also take the lead in establishing a standing UN police force.

Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, said his country – currently the fourth largest troop contributor with more than 7,500 Pakistanis deployed in blue-helmet operations – vowed continuing support for peacekeeping, including pledging additional utility helicopters, an infantry battalion, and a canine unit. He said UN peacekeeping should not be used for counter-terrorism operations.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the summit that troop contributing countries do not have a role in the decision-making process to form a peacekeeping operation. He also said troop contributing countries lack representation in senior management posts and as force commanders. India, which UN insiders say covets the top peacekeeping job currently held by France, is the third biggest troop contributor, and has served in 48 of 69 peacekeeping mission and lost 161 troops. Modi pledged an additional 850 troops for new operations as well as three police units. In closing, he called for reform of the Security Council to keep the UN relevant.

Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi spoke of his country’s contributions to peacekeeping, which includes heading the UN mission in Lebanon, a 10,000-strong force. He proposed establishing a peacekeeping unit that would be tasked with preserving cultural heritage.

Among the some 50 countries also speaking was the Netherlands. The country’s prime minister, Mark Rutte, announced that the current deployment of 450 Dutch troops with MINUSMA in Mali would be extended by one year. He also said the Netherlands, in conjunction with the U.S., is devising a training program for peacekeepers on protection of civilians. The country is still grappling with shame over the decision by its troops to handover Bosnian Muslims to Serb forces in 1995 when they were sheltering in a UN compound. A court in the Hague last year found the Netherlands liable for the deaths of 300 Bosnian Muslim men killed in the Srebrenica massacre.

– Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz