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France’s Audrey Azoulay wins vote to be next UNESCO chief

October 14, 2017

PARIS (AP) — UNESCO’s executive board voted Friday to make a former French government minister the U.N. cultural agency’s next chief after an unusually heated election that was overshadowed by Middle East tensions.

The board’s selection of Audrey Azoulay over a Qatari candidate came the day after the United States announced that it intends to pull out of UNESCO because of its alleged anti-Israel bias. The news rocked a weeklong election already marked by geopolitical resentments, concerns about the Paris-based agency’s dwindling funding and questions about its future purpose.

If confirmed by UNESCO’s general assembly next month, Azoulay will succeed outgoing Director-General Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, whose eight-year term was marred by financial woes and criticism over Palestine’s inclusion in 2011 as a member state.

Azoulay narrowly beat Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari in the final 30-28 vote after she won a runoff with a third finalist from Egypt earlier Friday. The outcome was a blow for Arab states that have long wanted to lead the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

UNESCO has had European, Asian, African and American chiefs, but never one from an Arab country. In brief remarks after she won the election, Azoulay, 45, said the response to UNESCO’s problems should be to reform the agency, not to walk away from it.

“In this moment of crisis, I believe we must invest in UNESCO more than ever, look to support and reinforce it, and to reform it. And not leave it,” she said. The new director will set priorities for the organization best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions. The agency also works to improve education for girls, promote an understanding of the Holocaust’s horrors, defend media freedom and coordinate science on climate change.

The next leader also will have to contend with the withdrawal of both the U.S. and Israel, which applauded its ally for defending it and said Thursday that it also would be leaving UNESCO. The election itself had become highly politicized even before the U.S. announced its planned departure.

Azoulay started the week with much less support than Qatar’s al-Kawari but built up backing as other candidates dropped out. She went on to win a runoff with a third finalist, Moushira Khattab of Egypt. Egypt’s foreign ministry has demanded an inquiry into alleged “violations” during the voting.

Jewish groups opposed al-Kawari, citing a preface he wrote to a 2013 Arabic book called “Jerusalem in the Eyes of the Poets” that they claimed was anti-Semitic. He wrote, “We pray to God to liberate (Jerusalem) from captivity and we pray to God to give Muslims the honor of liberating it.”

In March, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre wrote an open letter to German Ambassador Michael Worbs, chair of the UNESCO Executive Board, to criticize the organization for accepting the former Qatari culture minister’s candidacy.

During the months leading up to the election, Egypt and three other Arab nations were engaged in a boycott of Qatar over allegations that the government funds extremists and has overly warm ties to Iran.

French media reported that Qatar recently invited several members of the UNESCO executive board on an all-expenses-paid trip to the country’s capital, Doha. Azoulay’s late entry into the leadership race in March also annoyed many UNESCO member states that argued that France shouldn’t field a candidate since it hosts the agency. Arab intellectuals urged French President Emmanuel Macron to withdraw his support for her.

She will be UNESCO’s second female chief and its second French chief after Rene Maheu, UNESCO’s director general from 1961-74. While she is Jewish, her father is Moroccan and was an influential adviser to Moroccan kings, so she also has a connection to the Arab world.

The Trump administration had been preparing for a likely withdrawal from UNESCO for months, but the timing of the State Department’s announcement that it would leave at the end of 2018 was unexpected. Along with hostility to Israel, the U.S. cited “the need for fundamental reform in the organization.”

The outgoing Bokova expressed “profound regret” at the U.S. decision and defended UNESCO’s reputation. The U.S. stopped funding UNESCO after it voted to include Palestine as a member state in 2011, but the State Department has maintained a UNESCO office and sought to weigh in on policy behind the scenes. UNESCO says the U.S. now owes about $550 million in back payments.

Azoulay acknowledged the image of the organization — founded after World War II to foster peace, but marred by infighting between Arab member states and Israel and its allies — needed rebuilding. “The first thing I will do will be to focus on restoring its credibility,” she said.

While UNESCO’s general assembly must sign off month on the executive board’s leadership pick, but officials said the confirmation vote typically is a formality.

Masha Macpherson contributed to this report.

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France and Qatar get to final of UNESCO chief vote

October 13, 2017

PARIS (AP) — The election of UNESCO’s new chief has been narrowed down to two candidates, one from Qatar and the other from France. The winner to be selected on Friday will succeed outgoing Director-General Irina Bokova, whose 8-year term leading the U.N. cultural agency was marred by financial woes and criticism over Palestine’s inclusion as a member.

The final vote comes the day after the U.S. and Israel said they plan to pull out of the Paris-based organization over perceived anti-Israel bias. Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari and France’s Audrey Azoulay are vying to get the needed 30 votes from UNESCO’s executive board.

Arab countries have long wanted to lead the organization, but the Palestine issue has complicated the election. UNESCO’s general assembly will have to sign off on the board’s pick.

US, Israel to exit UNESCO over its alleged anti-Israel bias

October 13, 2017

PARIS (AP) — The United States announced Thursday it is pulling out of the U.N.’s educational, scientific and cultural agency because of what Washington sees as its anti-Israel bias and a need for “fundamental reform” in the agency.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel plans to follow suit. While the Trump administration had been preparing for a likely withdrawal from UNESCO for months, the timing of the State Department’s statement was unexpected. The Paris-based agency’s executive board is in the midst of choosing a new chief — with Qatar’s Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari leading the heated election heading into Friday’s final vote.

Outgoing Director-General Irina Bokova expressed “profound regret” at the U.S. decision and tried to defend UNESCO’s reputation. The organization is best known for its World Heritage program to protect cultural sites and traditions, but also works to improve education for girls, promote understanding of the Holocaust’s horrors, and to defend media freedom.

Bokova called the U.S.’s planned departure a loss for “the United Nations family” and for multilateralism. The U.S. and UNESCO matter to each other more than ever now with “the rise of violent extremism and terrorism,” she said.

The U.S. stopped funding UNESCO after it voted to include Palestine as a member state in 2011, but the State Department has maintained a UNESCO office and sought to weigh in on policy behind the scenes. The U.S. now owes about $550 million in back payments.

In a statement, the State Department said the decision will take effect Dec. 31, 2018, and that the U.S. will seek a “permanent observer” status instead. It cited U.S. belief in “the need for fundamental reform in the organization.”

Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel also plans to withdraw from the agency, saying it had become a “theater of the absurd because instead of preserving history, it distorts it.” Israel has been irked by resolutions that diminish its historical connection to the Holy Land and have instead named ancient Jewish sites as Palestinian heritage sites.

Praising Trump’s decision as “brave and moral,” Netanyahu said he has ordered Israeli diplomats to prepare for Israel’s withdrawal from the organization in concert with the Americans. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, also praised Washington’s move as heralding “a new day at the U.N., where there is a price to pay for discrimination against Israel.”

“The United States stands by Israel and is a true leader for change at the U.N,” Danon said. “The alliance between our two countries is stronger than ever.” U.S. officials said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the decision and it was not discussed with other countries. The officials were not authorized to be publicly named discussing the issue.

Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called UNESCO’s July designation of Hebron’s Old City and the Tomb of the Patriarchs as Palestinian territory the latest of many “foolish actions” that had made the agency “a chronic embarrassment.”

Haley also criticized UNESCO for “keeping Syrian dictator Bashar Assad on a UNESCO human rights committee even after his murderous crackdown on peaceful protesters” The United States has pulled out of UNESCO before. The Reagan administration did in 1984 because it viewed the agency as mismanaged, corrupt and used to advance Soviet interests. The U.S. rejoined in 2003.

The State Department informed Bokova it intends to stay engaged at UNESCO as a non-member “observer state” on “non-politicized” issues, including the protection of World Heritage sites, advocating for press freedoms and promoting scientific collaboration and education.

“We will be carefully watching how the organization and the new director-general steers the agency,” Charge d’Affaires Chris Hegadorn, the ranking U.S. representative to UNESCO, told The Associated Press. “Ideally, it steers it in way that U.S. interests and UNESCO’s mandate will converge.”

UNESCO’s 58-member executive board plans to select Bokova’s successor from among three finalists remaining from the field of seven candidates under consideration at the beginning of the week. Along with al-Kawari, Qatar’s former culture minister, the finalists are Audrey Azoulay, a former culture minister in France, and former Egyptian government minister Moushira Khattab. The board’s pick then goes to the full UNESCO general assembly next month for final approval.

Lee reported from Washington. Edith M. Lederer in New York, Aron Heller in Jerusalem and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

UN: Myanmar violence a deliberate strategy to expel Rohingya

October 12, 2017

GENEVA (AP) — A report by the U.N. human rights office says attacks against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar point to a strategy to instill “widespread fear and trauma” and prevent them from ever returning to their homes.

The report released Wednesday is based on 65 interviews conducted in mid-September with Rohingya, individually and in groups, as more the half a million people from the ethnic group fled into Bangladesh during a violent crackdown in Myanmar.

The attacks against Rohingya in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state by security forces and Buddhist mobs were “coordinated and systematic,” with the intent of not only driving the population out of Myanmar but preventing them from returning, the report said.

Some of those interviewed said that before and during attacks, megaphones were used to announce: “You do not belong here — go to Bangladesh. If you do not leave, we will torch your houses and kill you.”

According to the U.N. researchers, measures against the minority group began almost a month before the Aug. 25 attacks on police posts by Muslim militants that served as a pretext for what Myanmar’s military called “clearance operations” in Rakhine.

“Information we have received indicates that days and up to a month before the 25th of August, that the Myanmar security forces imposed further restrictions on access to markets, medical clinics, schools and religious sites,” Karin Friedrich, who was part of the U.N. mission to Bangladesh, said at a news conference. “Rohingya men aged 15 to 40 were reportedly arrested by the Myanmar police” and detained without any charges, she said.

U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said the Myanmar government’s denial of rights, including citizenship, to the Rohingya appeared to be part of “a cynical ploy to forcibly transfer large numbers of people without possibility of return.” He has also described the systematic attacks and widespread burning of villages as “textbook ethnic cleansing.”

The report said efforts were made to “effectively erase signs of memorable landmarks” in Rohingya areas to make the landscape unrecognizable. Myanmar’s Buddhist majority denies that Rohingya Muslims are a separate ethnic group and regards them as illegal immigrants.

UN ending 13-year military peacekeeping mission in Haiti

October 06, 2017

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — A U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti that has helped maintain order through 13 years of political turmoil and catastrophe is coming to an end as the last of the blue-helmeted soldiers from around the world leave despite concerns that the police and justice system are still not adequate to ensure security in the country.

The U.N. lowered its flag at its headquarters in Port-au-Prince during a ceremony Thursday that was attended by President Jovenel Moise, who thanked the organization for helping to provide stability. After a gradual winding down, there are now about 100 international soldiers in the country and they will leave within days. The mission will officially end on Oct. 15.

Immediately afterward, the U.N. will start a new mission made up of about 1,300 international civilian police officers, along with 350 civilians who will help the country reform a deeply troubled justice system. Various agencies and programs of the international body, such as the Food and Agricultural Organization, will also still be working in the country.

“It will be a much smaller peacekeeping mission,” said Sandra Honore, a diplomat from Trinidad and Tobago who has served since July 2013 as the head of the U.N. mission in Haiti known as MINUSTAH, its French acronym. “The United Nations is not leaving.”

MINUSTAH began operations in Haiti in 2004, when a violent rebellion swept the country and forced then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide out of power and into exile. Its goals included restoring security and rebuilding the shattered political institutions. In April, the Security Council deemed the country sufficiently stable and voted to wind down the international military presence, which then consisted of about 4,700 troops.

Many Haitians have viewed the multinational peacekeepers as an affront to national sovereignty. U.N. troops are believed to have inadvertently introduced the deadly cholera bacteria to the country and have also been accused of causing civilian casualties in fierce battles with gangs in Port-au-Prince and of sexually abusing minors.

But the mission, with additional help from the U.S. and other nations, is also credited with stabilizing the country, particularly after the January 2010 earthquake, and building up the national police force.

“The job may not be complete but they have essentially done much of what they were originally designed to do in terms of preventing any kind of armed takeover of the state, in terms of increasing the safety of civilians,” said Mark Schneider, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It takes work to maintain that and Haiti needs to maintain that.”

MINUSTAH, Schneider said, has been key in helping Haiti develop a credible civilian national police from “almost zero” to its current level of about 15,000 officers, which most experts believe is still too small for a country of nearly 11 million. The police force was intended to replace the army, which was disbanded by Aristide in 1995 because of its repeated role in a series of coups and that the Haitian government is now seeking to reconstitute over international objections.

“Haiti needs an atmosphere of peace so we can take responsibility for ourselves,” said Haitian Sen. Jacques Suaveur Jean. “We don’t need foreign soldiers.” The new U.N. mission will consist of seven police units that can respond to major incidents, in addition to officers deployed throughout the country to advise and assist their Haitian counterparts. Civilians will also be working with the government to improve the country’s justice system, which the State Department said in this year’s annual human rights report has serious flaws, including severe prison overcrowding, prolonged pretrial detention and an inefficient judiciary.

Honore, in an interview ahead of Thursday’s ceremony, cited the training and hiring of police officers as one of the U.N. successes. MINUSTAH had already been scaling back before the Security Council voted to end the mission. In the aftermath of the earthquake, which killed 96 U.N. personnel, including former head of mission Hedi Annabi, the number of troops reached more than 10,000. But when Honore arrived there were about 6,200 soldiers from around 20 countries, a figure that dropped again by nearly a third within two years.

The cholera outbreak, which started in October 2010 after peacekeepers from Nepal contaminated the country’s largest river with waste from their base, killed an estimated 9,500 people and irrevocably damaged the reputation of the organization in Haiti. Many critics felt the U.N. did not adequately respond to the outbreak, something the organization sought to later remedy.

“It was a fundamental error because it undermined the image not just of MINUSTAH, but of the international community,” Schneider said.

Associated Press writer Ben Fox in Miami contributed to this report.

50 nations ink UN nuclear ban treaty opposed by big powers

September 21, 2017

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Fifty countries on Wednesday signed a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, a pact that the world’s nuclear powers spurned but supporters hailed as a historic agreement nonetheless. “You are the states that are showing moral leadership in a world that desperately needs such moral leadership today,” Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said as a signing ceremony began.

Before the day was out, 50 states as different as Indonesia and Ireland had put their names to the treaty; others can sign later if they like. Guyana, Thailand and the Vatican also have already ratified the treaty, which needs 50 ratifications to take effect among the nations that back it.

They would be barred from developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, otherwise acquiring, possessing or stockpiling nuclear weapons “under any circumstances.” Seven decades after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan during World War II — the only use of nuclear weapons — there are believed to be about 15,000 of them in the world today. Amid rising tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Tuesday that the threat of a nuclear attack is at its highest level since the end of the Cold War.

“This treaty is an important step towards the universally held goal of a world free of nuclear weapons,” he said Wednesday. Supporters of the pact say it’s time to push harder toward eliminating atomic weapons than nations have done through the nearly 50-year-old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Under its terms, non-nuclear nations agreed not to pursue nukes in exchange for a commitment by the five original nuclear powers — the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China — to move toward nuclear disarmament and to guarantee other states’ access to peaceful nuclear technology for producing energy.

More than 120 countries approved the new nuclear weapons ban treaty in July over opposition from nuclear-armed countries and their allies, who boycotted negotiations. The U.S., Britain and France said the prohibition wouldn’t work and would end up disarming their nations while emboldening “bad actors,” in U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley’s words.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has called the treaty “wishful thinking” that is “close to irresponsible.” The nuclear powers have suggested instead strengthening the nonproliferation treaty, which they say has made a significant dent in atomic arsenals.

Brazil was the first country to sign onto the ban Wednesday, followed by nations from Algeria to Venezuela. “Those who still hold nuclear arsenals, we call upon them to join this date with history,” Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis said as he prepared to sign.

UN chief to open signing for 1st nuclear ban treaty

September 20, 2017

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will open the signing ceremony for the first treaty to ban nuclear weapons and the Security Council hold a high-level meeting on its far-flung peacekeeping operations as world leaders tackle a wide range of crises and challenges on the second day of their annual gathering.

More than 120 countries approved the treaty in early July over strong opposition from nuclear-armed countries and their allies, who boycotted negotiations. The U.N. treaty office said 51 countries are expected to sign during Wednesday’s opening day.

Guterres is also expected to brief the Security Council meeting on reforming U.N. peacekeeping — a key item on the Trump administration’s agenda, which will be represented by Vice President Mike Pence.

Ethiopia’s U.N. Mission, which holds the council presidency, said nine presidents, three vice presidents, six prime ministers, three deputy prime ministers and more than 30 foreign ministers are scheduled to attend the day-long session where 71 countries have signed up to speak.

In the General Assembly, leaders from several dozen countries will address the 193-member world body including the presidents of Iran and Ukraine, the prime ministers of Japan and the United Kingdom, and the Palestinian leader.

North Korea’s race to develop nuclear weapons that could hit the United States dominated Tuesday’s opening ministerial session of the assembly. President Donald Trump threatened to “totally destroy” the Asian nation if the U.S. is forced to defend itself or its allies against aggression. Guterres warned that the threat of a nuclear attack is at its highest level since the end of the Cold War and “fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings.”

The treaty bans all countries that eventually ratify it “never under any circumstances to develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters Monday that France refused to take part in negotiations on the treaty because it can only weaken the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, considered the cornerstone of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. He called the nuclear ban treaty “wishful thinking” that is “close to irresponsible.”

But Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said countries signing the treaty will be taking a stand against nuclear weapons, “the only weapons of mass destruction not yet prohibited despite their immense destructive power and threat to humanity.” She said that with Trump threatening to use nuclear weapons, the need for the treaty is even greater.

In the Security Council, members are expected to vote on a resolution that would recognize “the primacy of politics” including mediation, monitoring cease-fires and assisting the implementation of peace accords in the U.N.’s approach to resolving conflicts. The draft resolution also underscores the need to enhance the overall effectiveness of peacekeeping operations and “the critical importance of improving accountability, transparency, efficiency and effectiveness.”

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