Future of global cooperation at stake as UN gathers for 76th session

Future of global cooperation at stake as UN gathers for 76th session
The president-elect of the UNGA, Maldives’ Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid, has vowed not to take part in any panel that is not gender-balanced. (AFP)
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Updated 15 September 2021

Future of global cooperation at stake as UN gathers for 76th session

Future of global cooperation at stake as UN gathers for 76th session
  • Uncertainty as to who will attend, with KSA and UAE represented on ministerial level
  • Report by secretary-general warns of risk of ‘serious instability and chaos’

NEW YORK: As his one-year tenure as the president of the UN General Assembly comes to an end, Volkan Bozkir spoke of the necessity for diplomatic talks to be held “over coffee,” with “handshaking and eye contact” if they are to be successful.

“Nothing can replace this kind of communication,” said the Turkish diplomat in his final briefing to reporters at the UN headquarters in New York. “It helps people to understand what others think and (to gauge) whether there’s a possibility for a compromise.”  

His statement came at the closure of a year during which UNGA organizers tirelessly negotiated health guidelines with authorities of their host city in hopes of avoiding a repeat of last year’s gathering, which took place entirely online.  

New York, the pandemic’s epicenter in the US last year, saw a 90 percent decline in visitors, causing untold economic losses, especially in the city’s bottom line.

Its hotels, which usually reap about $20 million from UNGA attendees’ room rentals alone, were instead hosting essential workers, offering them more than 17,000 free nights.


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This year, although on the outside everything seems to have gone back to normal in the city — with its traffic congestion, deafening noise, and thriving restaurants and bars — the delta variant of COVID-19 still looms large, and the recent rise of infections is keeping both city officials and federal authorities on their toes.

“I hope that with the support of technology, we’ll be able to minimize the negative dimension of a General Assembly that isn’t done in the full presence of full delegations from all over the world,” said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

“This is what I believe is the best way to serve diplomacy, the best way to create contacts, to forge forms of dialogue. The presence of everybody, here, together, during a meaningful period, is a very important instrument that nothing can replace,” he added.

“We’ll be … mobilizing all our resources to allow for a maximum of interaction among member states.”

And so, on the eve of the UNGA’s 76th session, with the signature high-level debate only one week away, there is still lingering uncertainty as to who will come to New York — a stark reminder that the pandemic is far from over.

Although the UN has made vaccination mandatory for its staff, it has issued no such requirement for foreign diplomats, triggering condemnation from New York City Council, which said the decision will expose foreign delegations and the city to serious risk.

The US mission to the UN urged heads of delegation to send a pre-recorded video message to avoid turning the UNGA into a “superspreader event.”

The mission said in a letter: “The United States needs to make clear our call, as the host country, for all UN-hosted meetings and side events, beyond the General Debate, to be fully virtual.”

The UNGA had already decided that only four delegates, including the head of state or government, could attend the debate in the Assembly Hall during the high-level week.

This, however, has added to the hesitation of world leaders who tend to travel with a large entourage.

It is not even clear whether the president of the host country, Joe Biden, will come to Manhattan or will send a link from Washington, DC.

Last year, then-President Donald Trump spurned the UNGA, sending a video shortly before the beginning of the session.

According to a very provisional list of speakers issued by the UN, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will be represented in person on a ministerial level, whereas Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Morocco’s King Mohammed VI will send pre-recorded messages.

Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas will travel to New York, as will his Tunisian counterpart Kais Saied, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Lebanese President Michel Aoun. The prime ministers of Iraq and Sudan will also attend in person.

Whether world leaders will gather online or in person, however, the stakes could not be higher this year for the world body: The pandemic rages on amid a continuing politicization of vaccine distribution.

The pandemic has fueled new conflicts, exacerbated older ones, caused an unprecedented wave of displacement and humanitarian disasters, and widened the inequality gap between nations.

A recent spike in natural disasters — from fires to hurricanes, droughts and floods — has also prompted UN officials to sound the alarm yet again, urging those listening to immediately begin reducing emissions and speeding up the transition to clean energy.  

It is becoming more and more clear that women are disproportionately affected by such disasters, and the call for women’s rights, inclusion and gender parity across all levels will be loud this year.

The president-elect of the UNGA, the Maldives’ Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid, has vowed not to take part in any panel that is not gender-balanced.

Guterres released a landmark report on Friday titled “Our Common Agenda,” setting out his vision for the future of global cooperation.

He gave a severely critical overview of the plight of the world, and warned of the risk of a future of “serious instability and chaos.”

He added: “From the climate crisis to our suicidal war on nature and the collapse of biodiversity, our global response is too little, too late. Unchecked inequality is undermining social cohesion, creating fragilities that affect us all.”

The UN chief offered two visions of the future: One in which rising temperatures will make the planet inhabitable and COVID-19 will perpetually mutate because rich countries hoard their vaccines, or one where vaccines are shared, recovery is sustainable, and the global economy is reconfigured to become more resilient and inclusive.

Guterres called for a new era of multilateralism in which countries come together to achieve a vision of a world at peace; where terrorism, crime and human trafficking are kept at bay; and where the world comes together to end poverty, protect the vulnerable and create a sustainable economy.

UNGA highlights include a high-level meeting on Yemen, a high-level dialogue on energy — the first of its kind since the early 1980s — and a food system summit.

Pakistan to appoint head of spy agency within week

Pakistan to appoint head of spy agency within week
Updated 18 October 2021

Pakistan to appoint head of spy agency within week

Pakistan to appoint head of spy agency within week
  • News comes amid reports of rift between govt and army chief over the appointment

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s interior minister said on Saturday that matters relating to the appointment of the new head of Inter-Services Intelligence, the country’s premier intelligence agency, would be resolved within a week.

The army is arguably the most influential institution in Pakistan, with the military having ruled the country for about half of its 74-year history since independence from Britain, and has enjoyed extensive power even under civilian administrations.

The head of the intelligence in turn, is one of the most important posts in Pakistan.

The army’s media wing on Oct. 6 announced Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmad Anjum as the agency’s new head, and posted the current chief, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, as Corps Commander Peshawar.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, though, has yet to issue an official notification about the posting, fueling reports of a rift between the government and army over the appointment.

Earlier this week, the prime minister and head of the army, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, held consultations over the role.  

“From this Friday, which passed yesterday, till the next, all issues will be resolved,” Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said at a ceremony in Islamabad.

“The ones who wish ill of our institutions and can’t stand Imran Khan’s democracy keep talking, but they will not succeed,” he added.

Created in 1948,  Inter-Services Intelligence gained importance and power during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and is now rated one of best-organized intelligence agencies in the developing world.

The agency is seen as the Pakistani equivalent of the US Central Intelligence Agency, or Israel’s Mossad. Its size is not publicly known but the agency is widely believed to employ tens of thousands of agents, with informers in many spheres of public life.

The threat to Pakistan from nuclear-armed neighbor India has been a main preoccupation of the ISI throughout its existence.


Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region

Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region
Updated 18 October 2021

Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region

Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region
  • Russia has occupied Ukraine’s Crimea and has troops stationed in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia

WASHINGTON: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin headed to the Black Sea region Sunday aiming to shore up alliances with countries pressured by Russia and show gratitude for their contributions to the two-decade war in Afghanistan.

Austin will visit Georgia, Romania and Ukraine before taking part in the in-person defense ministers summit at NATO in Brussels on Oct. 21-22.

“We are reassuring and reinforcing the sovereignty of countries that are on the front lines of Russian aggression,” a senior US defense official told reporters ahead of the trip.

All three countries are in the NATO orbit — Romania a full member and Georgia and Ukraine partner states.

All three also sit on the rim of the Black Sea, where Russia has sought to expand its own influence and prevent expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the US-European alliance.

Russia has occupied Ukraine’s Crimea and has troops stationed in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And Kiev is battling pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east, in a conflict that has cost 13,000 lives.

In June, Russian forces menaced Dutch and British warships as they sailed near Crimea.

Austin will also extend thanks to its partners for their contributions, and significant losses, as part of coalition forces in Afghanistan over two decades, before the hasty US exit this year that ceded the country to the Taliban.

“We are going to be showing recognition and appreciation for the sacrifices and the commitments of our partners and allies,” the official said. In Georgia, Austin will meet with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and Minister of Defense Juansher Burchuladze, with a key aim to keep up defense cooperation as a three-year US Army training program expires this year.

Georgia hopes Austin’s visit will help advance its case for becoming a full NATO member.

It will be “another clear message from the US in support of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, its stable and democratic development, and for the country’s Euro-Atlantic goals” Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani said Wednesday.

“We expect that meetings will be focused on further deepening our cooperation, regional security issues, and the process of Georgia’s NATO integration,” he said.

In Ukraine, Austin will have talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky and Minister of Defense Andriy Taran, both of whom visited Washington at the beginning of September to press their case for NATO membership with President Joe Biden.

And in Romania, he will see President Klaus Iohannis and Minister of National Defense Nicolae-Ionel Ciuca, amid a fresh political crisis in the country.

In all three, the US wants to expand defense support but also sees problems of democratic development and corruption.

In Georgia, tens of thousands of protesters were out in the streets this week over the arrest of ex-president and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili and over allegations of fraud in recent elections.

Ukraine is under heavy pressure from the West, which provides the country extensive aid, to halt rampant graft.

“It is our belief that strengthening democratic institutions creates greater resilience against Russian influence and external manipulation,” the US official said.

“Our bilateral assistance is actually very much focused on the specific aspects of institutional reform that are necessary for NATO. And that applies to both Georgia and to Ukraine.”

Austin will end the week at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where ties with the US, frayed by the previous administration of Donald Trump, took a fresh hit last month when Washington unexpectedly announced a new pact with Australia and Britain focused on China in the Indo-Pacific region.

The US official said Austin would reinforce US commitment to the pact and press for military adaptation to address future threats.

“NATO needs to keep building its credible deterrence capabilities for its deterrence and defense mission,” the official said.

For Afghans fleeing Taliban rule, experience of Syrian refugees in Scandinavia is a cautionary tale

For Afghans fleeing Taliban rule, experience of Syrian refugees in Scandinavia is a cautionary tale
Updated 18 October 2021

For Afghans fleeing Taliban rule, experience of Syrian refugees in Scandinavia is a cautionary tale

For Afghans fleeing Taliban rule, experience of Syrian refugees in Scandinavia is a cautionary tale
  • Scandinavia opened its arms to Syrian refugees in 2015, but attitudes have since hardened
  • The waves of people fleeing Afghanistan have brought the issue of European asylum policy to the fore

STOCKHOLM: Of the millions of Syrians displaced by civil war since 2011, a significant minority has managed to reach Europe, escaping not only violence and persecution but also forced army conscription and poverty.

Even in the initial phase of the arrival of the wave of humanity, many European countries closed their borders. But along with Germany, the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark were among the most welcoming.

In September 2014, images of the drowned toddler Alan Kurdi lying face down in the Mediterranean surf near Bodrum in Turkey drove home the terrible truth about the Syrian civil war.

A graffiti by artists Justus Becker and Oguz Sen depicts the drowned Syrian refugee boy Alan Kurdi at the harbor in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on March 10, 2016. (AFP) 

That same month, the Swedish Migration Authority announced that all Syrian refugees applying for asylum would be granted permanent residency on arrival.

“Our assessment is that the conflict will not end in the near future,” Anders Danielsson, the agency’s director general, told national radio at the time. “Therefore, international law dictates that they should receive permanent residency permits.”

Following the announcement, the number of Syrians applying for asylum in Sweden rose from 30,000 in 2014 to 51,000 in 2015, according to government figures. Neighboring Denmark also saw an increase during 2015, processing about 21,000 asylum applications.

But six years on, the pendulum of public opinion has swung far in the opposite direction.

Along with Germany, the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Norway and Denmark were among the most welcoming to Syrian refugees. (AFP file photo)

“Denmark went first down the nationalist-populist road, followed by Norway,” Swedish socialist MP Ali Esbati told Arab News.

Esbati fears his own country is beginning to follow suit. “This is due in part to many people in Sweden feeling that we did what we could in 2015 and took the responsibility that a rich country should take, while other countries did not.”

Indeed, as the situation in Afghanistan again brings the issue of European asylum policy to the fore, the political mood in Sweden is a far cry from the receptiveness of 2015.

“We will never go back to 2015. Sweden will not find itself in that situation again,” Stefan Lofven, Sweden’s prime minister, told the national daily Dagens Nyheter on Aug. 18, three days after the Taliban seized Kabul.

Afghans gather on a roadside near Kabul airport on August 20, 2021, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. (AFP)

Esbati said that what upsets him most about the comments is the lack of acknowledgement of Sweden’s success in welcoming and integrating Syrians.

Among those who fled to Scandinavia in 2015 was Abdulla Miri. Desperate to avoid conscription into the Syrian regime’s armed forces, Miri chose to flee to Europe, promising his fiancee Nour he would get her out, too.

Refugee Abdulla Miri

“I’d paid so many bribes that my money was running out,” he said, speaking to Arab News at his home in Stockholm.

Miri recalls an incident soon after his arrival in Denmark en route to Sweden when he noticed two police officers watching him. “This was before I started to dress like a Scandinavian, so it was pretty obvious to them that I was a refugee,” he said.

“I thought I was in trouble, but the police officers helped me buy a ticket to Sweden. They knew that almost all the refugees wanted to cross the bridge to Sweden, so the three of us just laughed about the situation.”

Nine months later, Sweden granted Miri political asylum.

The Syrian refugee crisis began in March 2011 after a brutal regime crackdown on protests in support of a group of teenagers who were rounded up over the appearance of anti-government graffiti in the southern town of Daraa.

The arrests sparked public demonstrations throughout Syria, which were violently suppressed by security forces. The conflict quickly escalated and the country descended into a civil war that forced millions of Syrians from their homes.

Syrian refugees have sought asylum in more than 130 countries, but most live in neighboring states: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Turkey has the largest share of the refugee population, today sheltering around 3.6 million people.

European countries collectively host around a million Syrian refugees, with 70 percent hosted by just two countries: Germany with 59 percent and Sweden with 11 percent. Austria, Greece, the Netherlands and France host between 2 and 5 percent, while other countries host below 2 percent.

Most refugees from Middle Eastern and African states reach Europe by trekking overland from Turkey via Bulgaria and Romania, or by crossing the Mediterranean on rickety boats operated by people traffickers.

At least 1,146 people died attempting to reach Europe by sea in the first six months of 2021, according to the International Organization for Migration — more than double the number during the same period in 2020, when 513 migrants are known to have drowned.

Those who survive the perilous journey get a mixed reception. Many trying to reach the UK, for instance, tend to find themselves stranded at the French port of Calais in squalid makeshift camps. For the most part, those who choose to settle in Germany or the Nordic states are afforded international protection status.


6.6 million Syrian refugees worldwide, of whom 5.6 million are hosted by neighboring countries.

1,146 Asylum seekers who drowned attempting to reach Europe in the first 6 months of 2021.

Since the onset of the Syrian crisis in 2011, well over a million international protection decisions on applications by Syrians have been taken by asylum authorities in EU+ countries, according to UNHCR.

However, economic problems, a spate of Islamist terrorist attacks, and a sense that migrant communities have failed to fully integrate have led to a rise in right-wing populism in many European states, causing the welcoming spirit exhibited in 2015 to ebb away.

Nawal Abdo Hadid, a 62-year-old Syrian who lives in the quiet Copenhagen suburb of Gentofte, has been told her residency permit will not be renewed because the Danish authorities consider the situation in Syria no longer dangerous.

Nawal Abdo Hadid

“When I got the letter, I had a heart attack,” Hadid told Arab News. In addition to her heart problems, Hadid suffers from asthma, which makes it difficult to climb the three flights of stairs up to her one-room apartment. Her home is sparsely decorated, giving the impression of a life spent in perpetual limbo.

Hadid believes her return to Syria could be a death sentence because of her posts on social media that are critical of the government. A neighbor whom she accused of being a pro-Assad “criminal” has threatened Hadid and her son, who still lives in Syria with his six children.

“I haven’t seen my grandchildren for more than six years,” she said. “I’d rather die alone in Denmark than go back to Syria and put my son’s family at risk.”

Miri’s situation could not be more different. On receiving his Swedish citizenship in July 2017 after five years in the country, he flew to Beirut to marry Nour and then brought her home with him to Stockholm.

Although Sweden suffers from a shortage of affordable housing, the couple have been fortunate. A widower rented them the ground floor of his home in an affluent Stockholm suburb.

“Having him in our lives is a blessing,” Nour told Arab News. “I can always ask him for help and he is something of a father figure for us.”

Nawal Abdo Hadid's home in Sweden. (Supplied)

Nour, who studied English literature in Damascus and who loves the poet Lord Byron, has already begun to discover Swedish authors.

“Everything I don’t remember,” by the celebrated writer Jonas Hassen Khemiri, himself the son of a Tunisian immigrant, has left a distinct impression. “He understands what moving between countries does to the soul,” Nour said.

Miri, who now uses his Swedish nickname “Abbe,” speaks flawless Swedish. Nour’s Swedish has a barely detectable Arabic accent although she struggles at times to find the right words.

Every year, on June 6, Miri hosts a Swedish National Day party for their friends. Native Swedes do not usually bother with the holiday, so the gatherings are something of a novelty.

“My Swedish friends don’t even call it National Day any longer,” he said. “They call it Abbe’s Day instead.”

Miri’s journey will be difficult for future asylum-seekers to mimic. On June 23, the Swedish parliament approved a new immigration bill that makes temporary residency permits the norm, just like the Danish system.

“We need an entirely new political (framework) in order for people to be included in society and to settle in,” Maria Malmer Stenergard, an immigration policy spokesperson for the conservative Moderate Party, recently told national radio.

“We have to start by decreasing immigration.”

Still, hope springs eternal. On the windowsill of Miri and Nour’s home sits a pile of books on pregnancy and parenthood. They arrived as a gift from a Swedish neighbor when she learned the couple were expecting their first child.


This is the first of a two-part series. Next: What Afghan asylum-seekers can expect.

Landslides, floods kill at least 25 in southwest India

Landslides, floods kill at least 25 in southwest India
Updated 17 October 2021

Landslides, floods kill at least 25 in southwest India

Landslides, floods kill at least 25 in southwest India

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India: At least 25 people have died in landslides and floods triggered by heavy rains in southwestern India, officials said Sunday, as rescuers scoured for survivors in muddy debris and the military flew in emergency supplies.
Residents were cut off in parts of the coastal state of Kerala as the rains, which started to intensify from late Friday, swelled rivers and flooded roads.
Some 11 bodies have been found so far in Idukki district and another 14 in Kottayam district, officials told AFP, after the areas were hit by landslides and flash floods.
Thousands of people have been evacuated and at least 100 relief camps have been set up, Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said Sunday.
The army, navy and airforce are assisting with flood relief and rescue operations. Officials could not say how many people were missing.
“It was my livelihood. Everything is gone,” a distraught man told Kerala news channel Manorama TV in Koottickal town in Kottayam, which was hit by a landslide.
“The hill broke off near us. There has been a lot of damage and loss. The house has gone. Children have gone,” a woman from Koottickal added.
Video shared on social media showed buses and cars submerged in floodwaters.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his condolences and said authorities were working to help those who were affected or hit by the deluge.
The India Meteorological Department said the heavy rains, caused by a low pressure area over the southeastern Arabian Sea and Kerala, were expected to ease on Monday.
In northern India, some states including the Himalayan regions of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh are forecast to experience “heavy to very heavy rainfall” in the next two to three days, the weather bureau said.
The northern weather system would be caused by a low pressure area over Afghanistan and its surroundings interacting with strong winds from the Bay of Bengal, it added.
In 2018, nearly 500 people were killed in Kerala when it was ravaged by the worst floods to hit the state in almost a century.

Japan PM says Fukushima wastewater release cannot be delayed

Japan PM says Fukushima wastewater release cannot be delayed
Updated 17 October 2021

Japan PM says Fukushima wastewater release cannot be delayed

Japan PM says Fukushima wastewater release cannot be delayed
  • The Fukushima Daiichi plant suffered a triple meltdown in 2011 following a massive earthquake and tsunami
  • The government and TEPCO announced plans in April to start releasing the water into the Pacific Ocean in the spring of 2023 over the span of decades
TOKYO: Japan’s new prime minister on Sunday said the planned mass disposal of wastewater stored at the tsunami-wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant cannot be delayed, despite concerns from local residents.
Speaking at his first visit to the facility since taking office, Fumio Kishida said his government would work to reassure residents nearby the plant about the technical safety of the wastewater disposal project.
The Fukushima Daiichi plant suffered a triple meltdown in 2011 following a massive earthquake and tsunami.
Kishida’s brief tour of the facility by its operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, focused on the ongoing decommissioning of the plant, and the massive amount of treated but still radioactive water stored there.
“I felt strongly that the water issue is a crucial one that should not be pushed back,” Kishida told reporters after the tour.
The government and TEPCO announced plans in April to start releasing the water into the Pacific Ocean in the spring of 2023 over the span of decades.
The plan has been fiercely opposed by fishermen, residents and Japan’s neighbors, including including China and South Korea.
Contaminated cooling water has continued to leak from the damaged reactors since the disaster. The water has been pumped up from basements and stored in about 1,000 tanks which the operator says will reach their capacity late next year.
Japanese officials say disposal of the water is indispensable for the plant cleanup, and that its release into the ocean is the most realistic option.
Kishida said the government will do its utmost to address concerns the water disposal will hurt local fishing and other industries.
“We will provide explanation about the safety (of the disposal) from a scientific viewpoint and transparency in order to dispel various concerns,” Kishida said.
Japan has requested assistance by the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure the discharge meets global safety standards.