Obama at the UN: Unfulfilled Promise

U.S. President Barack Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon toast at a leaders lunch on Sept. 20, 2016 (UN Photo).

U.S. President Barack Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon toast at a leaders lunch on Sept. 20, 2016 (UN Photo).

Sept. 20, 2016 –  U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday for the eight and final time, delivering a lackluster speech, noticeable mostly for the sparsity of applause lines – in stark contrast to his 2009 maiden speech.

That speech seven years ago was constantly interrupted by applause and cheers for the newly-elected U.S. president who promised to herald in a new era of U.S. engagement with the world, music to the ears of UN diplomats and secretariat officials after eight years of George W. Bush and five years after his disastrous decision to invade Iraq without a Security Council resolution.

Obama told delegates in 2009 that he would close Guantanamo, responsibly end the Iraq war, work on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and take action on climate change.

One the latter two, he has shown commitment and desire. The Iran deal, while far from perfect, appears to have, at least temporarily, halted Tehran’s quest for an atomic weapon. The U.S still remains a non-signatory to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, one of nine countries preventing it from going into force.

On climate change, Obama’s rhetoric has been strong but his actions less so. Much is made of the Paris Agreement, but it is just that, a non-binding agreement that lacks the force of a treaty.

The Guantanamo Bay detention facility remains open, albeit with less that 100 detainees. Nevertheless, it remains open and some detainees have spent more than a dozen years there without charge or trial – in fact, Guantanamo has been open for longer under Obama than under Bush.

The U.S. officially withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but has been re-involved there since 2014 supporting the Iraqi government’s fight against ISIS. Despite the different nature of the operation, many aspects of the 2003-11 Iraq war remain, including an insurgency and armed sectarian conflict. The decision to hastily withdraw from Iraq in 2011 has drawn criticism that it left a security void that was exploited by ISIS.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Obama called for a Palestinian state during his 2010 UN address but a year later vowed to veto a statehood bid by the Palestinians at the UN.

Where Obama has taken decisive action, such as in Libya, the outcome has been mayhem. Mandated to protect Libyan civilians using all means necessary, the US along with Arab and European allies ousted Gaddafi but failed to plan for the aftermath. The country now has two competing parliaments while another group controls the ports from where Libya exports its oil. The chaos also allowed ISIS gain a foothold in the country and it has become a major transit route for migrants seeking to make the dangerous crossing into Europe.

From the beginning of the Syria conflict in 2011, Obama insisted that Assad must step down and in 2012 he said that if Syria used chemical weapons that would cross a “red line.” Five years later Assad remains in power and continues to use chemical weapons against Syrian citizens.

While there were no easy options for resolving the Syria conflict, some countries at the UN, friendly to the US, suggest that the insistence by the US, along with France and the UK, that Assad step down prevented a solution, albeit an imperfect one, given Russia’s stance that Assad’s fate should be decided by a national poll. The more cynical inside the UN, say that the US, along with France and the UK, always knew that insisting Assad step down was never going to be viable and the status quo would continue – while giving the appearance that the Western powers were on the side of the Syrian people.

The U.S. also championed the cause of South Sudan independence, which was achieved in 2011. Yet, the breakup of Sudan has seen the misery continue for the South Sudanese people, with an estimated more than 50,000 killed in the past five years. Despite that many of the killings can be attributed to government forces, the U.S. remains opposed to an arms embargo on the country.

On the global refugee crisis, the U.S. president has been strong on rhetoric but short on action. A mere 10,000 Syrian refugees have been admitted to the U.S., which is less than the 13,000 admitted by Singapore and far less than the 600,000 admitted to Germany.

The partisanship and gridlock that characterize U.S. domestic politics are responsible for some of Obama’s failures, particularly on closing Guantanamo, ratifying the CTBT, the Disabilities Convention, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. But that aside, despite his charisma and likability, Obama has lacked leadership and decisiveness in confronting global challenges in what is still a U.S.-led world order.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Respecting the Dignity of People Suffering from Mental Illness

Philippe Pinel, often refferred to as "father of modern psychiatry" releasing people from their chains at the Salpêtrière Asylum, Paris, 1795 by Tony Robert-Fleury

Philippe Pinel, often referred to as “father of modern psychiatry” releasing people from their chains at the Salpêtrière Asylum, Paris, 1795, by Tony Robert-Fleury, (Brigdeman Art Library)

Oct. 10, 2015 – Research from post-conflict South Sudan reported that up to half the population met the symptoms for depression while another study found that 15 percent of ex-combatants wished they were dead.

Yet there are only twelve beds for treatment of mental illness in South Sudan and many of those with serious mental illness or disability are instead sent to prison where they are shackled and locked away for years on end.

World Mental Health Day is commemorated on Oct. 10th and the World Health Organization has declared dignity as the this year’s theme, noting that many people suffering from mental health are sent to institutions, deprived of their liberty and subject to inhuman and degrading conditions.

Yet, it is not only post-conflict developing countries where people suffering from mental illness are denied their inherent dignity. In the United States, prisons often serve as the functioning mental health system especially for the homeless, more than a third of whom suffer from a mental illness.

In China, there’s barely one psychiatrist for every 100,000 people, even though more than 17 percent of the adult population have a mental disorder at some stage of their lives.

For countries currently experiencing conflict, the treatment of mental illness is often neglected as over-burdened aid agencies focus on delivering food and trauma care. In Syria, for example, the World Health Organization said there’s a shortage of medication for those suffering from depression – and the number is growing – and other mental illnesses.

On this year’s Mental Health Day, WHO is calling for governments, communities and donors to invest in a holistic approach that respects the rights of those suffering from mental illness, and for treatment to not just focus on managing symptoms but on recovery so that people can achieve their full life’s potential.

– Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

Syria Overtakes Afghanistan as Top Source Country for Refugees

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June 18, 2015 – Before the conflict in Syria started, the country was among the top five refugee hosting states. It is now the number one source country for refugees, having overtaken Afghanistan which had been the number one source country since 1981.

There are now a record 59.5 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, mostly as a result of war and persecution, according to figures released Thursday by the UN Refugee Agency in its annual Global Trends report. In addition to the 3.9 million Syrian refugees in 107 countries, there are another 7.6 million internally displaced Syrians. The vast majority of Syrian refugees are hosted in neighboring countries Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.

The number of Afghan refugees stands at 2.6 million, making them the second largest refugee group. The majority of Afghan refugees are hosted in Pakistan and Iran.

The next highest group of refugees are Somalis with 1.1 million, mostly residing in Kenya and Ethiopia.

Sudan and South Sudan are the third and fourth largest countries of origin for refugees with the latter experiencing a massive outflow of people fleeing war and hunger in the past twelve months – some 616,200 South Sudanese are now refugees compared with 114,400 last year. Ethiopia and Kenya were the top destination countries for South Sudanese.

Armed conflicts in the Central African Republic and Ukraine saw the number of refugees from these countries grow with Cameroon hosting the majority of CAR’s 412,000 refugees while more than 270,000 Ukrainians applied for asylum or refugee status in Russia. There are also more than 800,000 displaced inside Ukraine.

Developing countries continue to bear the primary burden of hosting refugees while the Americas hosts the lowest number and Europe – excluding Russian and Turkey, which is now the world’s biggest host country – the next lowest.

UNHCR said in its report that at least 3,500 people died crossing the Mediterranean last year seeking shelter in Europe.

More than half of the world’s refugees are children, the agency said.

The full report is here.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image: Wikimedia

South Sudan’s Expulsion of UN Official Brings Controversial Integrated Approach Into Focus

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June 2, 2015 – Since the early 2000s, the United Nations has favored an integrated approach for some of its most difficult missions with the ostensibly neutral Humanitarian Coordinator also double hatted as the explicitly political Resident Coordinator, and triple hatted as the deputy special representative of the secretary-general.

The reasons behind an integrated approach were well-intentioned: to streamline UN efforts and ensure that the objectives of all UN forces and agencies are channeled towards an over-arching common goal (Weir:2006). But aid agencies have raised concerns on the basis of neutrality and impartiality, saying that the line between the UN’s military objectives and its humanitarian objectives is increasingly blurred by an integrated approach, and that it leads to the shrinking of humanitarian space (see Stimson Center report here). In Somalia and Afghanistan, NGO’s have withdrawn from, or refused to enter into, UN coordination mechanisms because of the support of these missions for the Afghan and Somali governments respectively.

UNMISS in South Sudan is one of the more recent integrated UN missions. On Monday, the government in Juba expelled Toby Lanzer, reportedly for comments he made criticizing the government’s failure. Lanzer is an experienced United Nations official who was chief-of-staff of one of the first UN integrated missions, in Timor-Leste in 2006. In South Sudan, he wears four hats: deputy special-representative of the secretary-general; UN resident coordinator; humanitarian coordinator; and resident representative of UNDP.

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Diagram from UN OCHA showing civil-military coordination in South Sudan: source UN OCHA

His is, or rather was, an impossible task – Lanzer was due to be replaced at the end of the month. The original UNMISS mandate in 2011 called for UNMISS to protect civilians and support the South Sudan government in consolidating peace and building state institutions, but the language on supporting the government has been stripped from subsequent resolutions – the most recent mandate renewal was passed by the Security Council last week.

UNMISS has essentially shifted into neutral mode following reports of mass graves, extra-judicial killings, sexual violence, attacks on peacekeepers and massive displacement of civilian populations – tens of thousands of whom are sheltering in UN bases – and the world’s newest country is currently at risk of famine.

But peacekeeping missions are hardly neutral and require the support of the host government to achieve peacebuilding and institution building mandates and need freedom of movement to fulfill a protection of civilians mandate.

UNMISS is a $1 billion mission, financed by mandatory assessments on UN member states, while the UN’s humanitarian appeal for South Sudan is for $658 million, though only $70 million has been received as it relies on voluntary contributions.

There are no easy answers to the South Sudan crisis but it puts the utility of integrated missions once again under the microscope and the wisdom of having one person responsible for coordinating humanitarian activities while also responsible for political activities and institution building and will likely lead to further calls for the UN to re-examine the integrated approach.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz