Former Danish PM Nominated to Head UN Refugee Agency

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Sept. 4, 2015 –  Former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt was nominated by her government on Friday as a candidate to succeed Portugal’s Antonio Guterres as head of the UN refugee agency. Guterres, also a former prime minister, has headed the agency since 2005 and was nominated unopposed by Ban Ki-moon for a second term in 2010.

His successor will be elected by the General Assembly in the fall.

Thorning-Schmidt would be the eleventh high commissioner for refugees and the second woman to head the world refugee agency since its inception in 1950. The agency, with almost 10,000 staff members, works in 123 countries responding to a growing global refugee crisis. Japan’s Sadako Ogata was the first female high commissioner for refugees. She served from 1991-2001.

There are currently 60 million refugees around the world, a figure which includes 40 million displaced inside their own borders and five million Palestinian refugees, whose welfare is handled by a separate agency, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Syria overtook Afghanistan this year as the world’s biggest source country for refugees with more than four million having fled the country – 3.7 million of whom are hosted in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – in addition to almost eight million displaced inside their own borders. Afghanistan, for long the world’s biggest source country, has the second highest number of refugees residing outside its borders at 2.6 million – mostly hosted in Iran and Pakistan, followed by Somalia, with 1.1 million refugees who are mostly residing in Ethiopia and Kenya.

Thorning-Schmidt served as her country’s prime minister from October 2011 until June this year and was Denmark’s first female premier. She was a member of the European parliament from 1999-2004 and in 2005 succeeded Mogens Lykketoft as leader of Denmark’s Social Democrats party. Lykketoft has since been elected as president of the 70th UN General Assembly and will assume his post this month. Thorning-Schmidt is daughter-in-law of the former leader of the British Labour party, Neil Kinnock.

During her time as prime minister, she rolled back anti-immigration policies put in place by her predecessor including eliminating the immigration and integration ministry although she was criticized during her 2015 campaign for prime minister – which her party lost to an anti-immigration coalition – for taking a tough stance on immigration saying immigrants and refugees must learn Danish and must work. During Thorning-Schmidt’s tenure time in office the number of asylum seekers and refugees in Denmark more than doubled and she proposed sending people back to their home countries if the situation permitted.

She made global headlines in 2013 when she posed for a selfie with US President Barack Obama during Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.

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Eight of the 10 previous high commissioners for refugees have been Europeans including Thorning-Schmidt’s fellow Dane, Poul Hartling, who served from 1978-1985 and collected a Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the agency in 1981. While senior UN positions are ostensibly open to nominations from all member states, the top posts tend to be divided among the permanent members of the Security Council and major donor countries.

Having missed out on the top humanitarian job, which a Norwegian and Swede held in the past, there’s a view among Danish diplomats that the refugee chief job should go to a Scandinavian.

– Denis Fitzgerald @denisfitz

Updated to reflect Thorning-Schmidt would be only second ever female high-commissioner in 65 years.

Peshawar Attack is Deadliest Assault Yet on Children’s Education in Pakistan

Schoolgirls in Abbotabad, Pakistan, 2013 (wikimedia)

Schoolgirls in Abbotabad, Pakistan, 2013 (wikimedia)

Dec. 16, 2014 – Less than one week after Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousefzai collected the Noble Peace Prize for her championing of children’s education, a cause for which she was shot in the head by the Taliban as a 14-year-old two years ago in the Swat Valley, the fundamentalist group has carried out its deadliest attack so far on a school in the country.

Tuesday’s assault by the Pakistan Taliban on a military-run school in Peshawar, which killed scores of children as well as teachers, is the latest in a growing list of attacks in which Taliban militants have attacked childhood education, with girls schools and female university students frequently the target.

Two schools for girls in Pakistan were blown up in November and October this year, one of which had recently been reconstructed following a previous attack.

According the UN envoy for children and armed conflict, 78 schools in Pakistan were attacked in 2013. A separate report, from the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, reports there were 838 attacks on schools in Pakistan from 2009-2012, more than in any other country, as well as attacks on school buses, such as the one targeting Malala, which also resulted in two of her schoolmates being shot.

Research from Save the Children, a non-governmental organization, suggests that children entering primary school in countries affected by conflict are 20 percent more likely to leave primary school before completion than children in countries not affected by conflict.

In addition to Pakistan, neighboring Afghanistan, where some 550 children have been killed in the past year, according to reports by Ban Ki-moon, and Nigeria, where the terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls in March this year, are two of the other worst countries for attacks on children’s education.

Intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to education is a war crime, according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Ten Countries Infected by Polio Virus as WHO Declare Emergency

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May 5, 2014 –  Cameroon, Pakistan and Syria pose the greatest risk for exporting the polio virus that was on the verge of eradication a couple of years ago.

The vaccine-preventable disease has already spread across the borders of these three countries with neighboring Equatorial Guinea, Afghanistan and Iraq also infected.

Declaring the situation a public health emergency of international concern, the World Health Organization on Monday said “the consequences of further international spread are particularly acute today given the large number of polio-free but conflict-torn and fragile States” where vaccination programs have been interrupted because of fighting.

Ethiopia, Israel, Somalia as well as Nigeria have also recorded cases of polio in the past year whereas prior to 2013 only three countries – Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan – were considered endemic countries. The number of cases had decreased from some 350,000 in 1988 to 223 in 2012 as it seemed that the virus would join smallpox and rinderpest as the only diseases ever eradicated.

There were 417 polio cases last year, according to the Global Eradication Initiative.

Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Lebanon are at high risk of becoming infected countries due to their proximity to currently infected countries and the risk of conflict interrupting vaccination campaigns there.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Kosovo Next for UN Recognition?

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Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian delegation celebrate Thursday’s historic UNGA vote recognizing Palestine as a state. (photo credit: UN photo)

Nov. 30, 2012 – Yesterday’s victory for Palestine at the UN will give hope to Kosovo that it too can soon join the United Nations as a non-member state.

To date, some 96 countries have recognized Kosovo as an independent state including 22 of the 27 EU member states. Pristina needs 97 votes in the General Assembly (simple majority) for admission as a non-member observer state.

Like the Palestinians, Kosovo’s road to full UN membership is blocked in the Security Council, with Russia sure to use its veto to prevent Pristina’s full-member state status 

Among the countries that have yet to recognize Kosovo are several member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, including Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Libya, Morocco, Pakistan and Tunisia.

Morocco and Pakistan have expressed support for an independent Kosovo state but are concerned about the implications for their own territorial integrity due to the situations in Western Sahara and Kashmir.

Similarly, EU member states, Cyprus and Spain – who both voted in favor recognizing Palestine – have not recognized Kosovo. Both are also wary of the implications for their own territorial issues regarding Catalonia and Northern Cyprus.

It may well be the fledging governments in Libya and Tunisia who will bring Kosovo over the threshold with Tunis and Tripoli in the past year indicating support for recognizing an independent Kosovo, though neither has yet made a formal declaration.  

Should Kosovo seek a General Assembly vote before Sept 2013 then former Serb foreign minister Vuk Jeremic would preside over the session in his capacity as president of the 193-member assembly.

Denis Fitzgerald

(UN recognition of Kosovo as a state would also pave the way for its acceptance into football’s international governing body, FIFA. The country could then participate in international qualifying competitions for the quadrennial Euro and World Cup tournaments, a move that would be very welcome in football-mad Kosovo)