INTERVIEW: Climate and women’s rights high on agenda for new UN General Assembly chief

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Updated 20 September 2021

INTERVIEW: Climate and women’s rights high on agenda for new UN General Assembly chief

INTERVIEW: Climate and women’s rights high on agenda for new UN General Assembly chief
  • In his first interview as president of the assembly’s 76th session, Abdulla Shahid tells Arab News about his vision for the 12-month term
  • He also praised the “outstanding” Saudi efforts to tackle climate change and urged other nations to follow the Kingdom’s lead

NEW YORK: Maldivian diplomat Abdulla Shahid this week took the oath to become president of the UN General Assembly’s 76th session. In his first interview since taking office, he spoke exclusively with Arab News and shared his vision for what he intends to be a “presidency of hope.”

Arab News was the first media organization to visit his new office, newly vacated by previous occupant Volkan Bozkir at the conclusion of his one-year term as president.

We were greeted warmly not only by Shahid but many members of the team at the Maldivian UN mission. His election had been hailed as a great achievement for his small island nation and another step toward true representation at the UN.

Shahid, his country’s foreign minister, takes on his new UN role at a time when the world is mired in calamity. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage worldwide as wealthy nations hoard vaccines. The planet is sending daily warning signals that we can no longer afford to ignore the dangerous effects of climate change. Protracted conflicts continue to drive millions of people from their homes and into refugee camps.

At this time, one cannot help but wonder where exactly does hope reside and how do we reclaim it?

The Maldives, an island nation in the heart of the Indian Ocean, is the lowest-lying country in the world, with an average elevation of 1.5 meters, The natural high point of its territory is only 5.1 meters. 

“Coming from the Maldives, the climate-change issue is an existential threat for us,” said Shahid. “We live every day, day in and day out, with the possibility of drowning. The sea levels are rising. The scientists are predicting that we have crossed the red line; 2040 is a date beyond the tipping point.

“But in the Maldives what we survive on is hope, because we have to believe in the common good of humanity.”

The common good has perhaps never been more considered and discussed than during the pandemic, which has plunged economies into depression and wreaked havoc on people’s lives through the deaths of loved ones, the loss of jobs, and lockdowns that create mental challenges for many.

“But there was a glimmer of hope in that: The selfless service of health workers, how they sacrificed themselves in spite of clear-cut dangers to themselves,” said Shahid.

“So we should not lose hope in humanity. The goodness of humanity is there — we have to make sure it thrives, we have (to) celebrate it. If we lose hope what is there for us? There’s nothing. The only thing we stand on is hope that the goodness of humanity will survive.”

On all the issues Shahid considers priorities, the writing has been on the wall for some time. Scientists and UN agencies know, for example, what needs to be done to mitigate climate change, slow the spread of COVID-19, and include the most vulnerable people in global rebuilding efforts.

The only thing that is lacking, one keeps hearing in the halls of the UN, is the political will to take action.

Since he was elected president of the General Assembly in June with a sweeping majority, Shahid has held meetings with representatives of every one of the UN’s 193 member states. As a result, he has a slightly different perspective on the question of will.

“I think there is great political will — it needs to be harnessed,” he said. “We are 193 countries. The UN Charter starts with these three words: ‘We the peoples.’ So the 193 countries are not 193 countries by themselves. They also constitute ‘We the peoples.’”

As an example, he said: “I’ve had the privilege of interacting with (UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s) youth group of advisors on climate change. They are thinking outside the box. They are disappointed. They are talking of action. And they represent 1.8 billion youths in the world. And these 1.8 billion youths constitute 193 countries.

“So I can see the will. I can hear them loudly, clearly. All we need to do is for us to start listening.”

As it is in the Maldives, climate change is also an existential threat to many people in the oil-producing Gulf States. The region has for years been caught in a vicious cycle of rising temperatures that lead to increased use of air conditioners, which requires the burning of more fossil fuels to power them, causing temperatures to rise further still.

Shahid believes that the Kingdom’s plans for a Saudi Green Initiative and a Middle East Green Initiative, which were announced this year and will be officially launched in October, could completely reverse this course and set the region on the road to transformation.

“I salute the leadership of Saudi Arabia for the initiatives they have taken, the Saudi Green Initiative and the Middle East Green Initiative,” he said. “The planting of (billions of trees) is going to totally transform the landscape in the Middle East.

“The Saudi leadership is becoming an international champion in the field of addressing climate change, (like) so many other countries in the Gulf (such as) the UAE (and) Qatar.

“Being oil producing countries, the target they have set is outstanding. The leadership they are showing is outstanding. And I wish many many other countries in many other parts of the world would follow the Saudi leadership on this aspect of climate change.”

Shahid was only 26 years old when, as a young diplomat, he attended his first General Assembly session. It immediately convinced him that the way forward in finding solutions to the world’s problems lies in the multilateral system.

“Things are very interconnected,” he said. “What happens in one country has a ripple effect on many others. No country can survive on its own.” 

The biggest threat to this multilateralist approach is “the tunnel vision of ultra-nationalism” which he described as “completely outdated.”

“Unity is the only solution,” said Shahid. “Look at COVID-19. The one thing that it has taught us, and we shouldn’t be blind to that, (is that) no one is safe until everyone is safe. It is the job of leaders here at the UN, (of) respected countries, to continue to give that message that unity is strength.”

As anyone who follows the work of the General Assembly and the Security Council knows, however, unity is a rare commodity. A web of tensions permeates the work of UN bodies.

Shahid said that the role of the General Assembly has evolved in the 75 years since the UN was founded, but a closer look at that evolution raises questions about whether it was all in the right direction. For example, it has oscillated between strongly advocating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was first promulgated in the Assembly Hall, and being frozen by inertia on the issue.

Meanwhile one source of tension between member states concerns the relationship between smaller, developing countries who want more of a say in UN deliberations, and the rich nations who are the organization’s main donors.

It has not always been like this, however. The Uniting for Peace resolution in 1950, initiated by the US, states that if the Security Council “fails to exercise its primary responsibility for maintaining peace and security, the General Assembly should take up the matter itself and urge collective action.”

This resolution was acted upon during the Suez crisis of 1956, when UN intervention led to a ceasefire, the withdrawal of troops, and the establishment of the first peacekeeping force.

Almost half a century later, however, when the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 provoked calls from many organizations for the General Assembly to take on the issue and override a Security Council impasse, it declined to do so. 

More recently, efforts to revitalize the work of the General Assembly have focused on increasing its power in relation to the Security Council, promoting greater transparency, and improving the quality of debates. Some say it is an important institution that has never quite sorted out its role as a truly deliberative and functional body.

The General Assembly has the power to censure states for violating the principles of the UN charter. In the 1960s, for example, it suspended the South African delegation from the UN because of the continued practice of apartheid, which was in violation of Security Council resolutions and international law. The country was only readmitted in 1994 following its democratic transition.

In August 2012, the General Assembly voted 133 to 12 to denounce the Syrian government for atrocities during the Syrian uprising. And in December 2019, it passed a nonbinding resolution condemning human rights abuses against the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar. 

According to Shahid: “The consensus of the General Assembly reflects the world’s conscience. That is the power of the General Assembly.”

One way to enhance this power and render debates more deliberative, he said, is by inviting “other voices” to speak, including representatives of civil society, academics, scientists, gender experts and youth.

With the participation of such voices “the General Assembly will thrive,” Shahid added.

The Security Council, meanwhile, should “reflect the current realities of the world,” he said, and reforms of the council should be expedited because its very credibility is at stake.

An element at the heart of Shahid’s agenda, and vital for any reforms to even begin, is the inclusion of women.

“Women have been exploited, trampled upon, suppressed for far too long; we shouldn’t be accepting it,” he said as he called on all who have not yet become “gender champions” to join the fight.

In what is perhaps one of his most radical positions, he vowed in his new role not to take part in any panel that is not gender balanced.

“My staffers have told me that it will be a difficult one to keep but I told them that it is their job to make sure panels are gender balanced,” Shahid said.

“And for me as the president, it is very simple: I will say, ‘No, if there is no gender balance I will not attend.’ And that statement itself, coming from the president of the General Assembly, is a strong message and it will be respected. And I hope that if they want me to be on these panels they will make them gender balanced.

“The next time, such organization or associations (organize) panels they will always recall that President Shahid insisted that panels need to be gender balanced.”

To those who continue doubt the necessity or suitability of women in leadership positions and decision-making roles, Shahid’s message could not be simpler.

“If the person who is doubting the role of women is a man, I would ask the person to just sit down and think: Where did they come from? Who carried the person for nine months? The mother,” he said. “It’s very simple: Respect your mother. Give your mother the respect that she deserves.

“And when you have a daughter, look at her, see whether you would want your daughter to suffer. Give respect to your daughter — it’s very personal.”

Failure to recognize the importance and value of women means that the world is wasting one of its great human resources, Shahid said.

“The world is made up of men and women. If we want to lock (away) half of the world population and not benefit from them, we are utilizing (only) 50 percent of the population,” he said. “Does that make sense at an economic level? At a humanitarian level? At a social level?

“It does not take a genius to say simply that the only way humanity will progress is (if we) respect women.”

Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years

Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years
Updated 16 sec ago

Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years

Fiji reopens to foreign tourists for first time in nearly two years
CANBERRA: Fiji reopened its border to international travelers for the first time in nearly two years on Wednesday, as the Pacific Island country seeks to revive its dominant tourism industry.
Fiji shut its border to all foreign nationals in March 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19 in a desperate bid to stop its limited medical facilities being overrun.
With about 90 percent of all Fijian adults now fully vaccinated, the Pacific Island reopened its border to tourists from a small number of countries — much to the relief of tourism operators.
“To see the Fiji Airways plane full up and for us to welcome those tourists today was so amazing. It was a great, great feeling and I’m glad to have been there personally,” James Sowane, director of the Fiji tourism company, Tewaka, told Reuters.
Tourists arriving will have to stay three nights in an approved resort and undergo rapid testing. They can move around designated areas, including bars and restaurants within the hotels, while they can embark on some day trips and activities.
Although limited, the resumption of tourism is a boost to many of the island nation’s 1 million people.
Tourism accounts for 40 percent of Fiji’s economy and the border closure saw an estimated 10 percent of the population unemployed.
Still the reopening marks a risk to Fiji with Australia one of a few countries to record cases of the Omicron variant.
Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama hailed the return of tourists, who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and tested for infection.
“Today, we are proud and most importantly prepared to welcome the first tourists to fly to Fiji in almost two years. Our message to every fully vaccinated, COVID-tested traveler who arrives to our shores is simple: Welcome Home,” Bainimarama said in a post on Facebook.

Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks

Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks
Updated 01 December 2021

Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks

Taliban urges US to release frozen funds in Doha talks
  • Taliban government leader Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund is among those targeted by the US sanctions

DOHA: The Taliban renewed its call for the United States to release billions of dollars in frozen funds after two days of talks in Doha as aid-dependent Afghanistan grapples with an economic crisis.
The Afghans also called for an end to blacklists and sanctions in meetings led by Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and Tom West, the US special representative for Afghanistan.
It was the second round of talks between the two sides in Qatar since the US ended its 20-year occupation of Afghanistan and the hard-line Islamists rapidly returned to power.
“The two delegations discussed political, economic, human, health, education and security issues as well as providing necessary banking and cash facilities,” tweeted Afghan foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi.
“The Afghan delegation assured the US side of security and urged that Afghanistan’s frozen money should be released unconditionally, blacklists and sanctions must end and human issues be separated from political ones.”
Washington seized nearly $9.5 billion in assets belonging to the Afghan central bank. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank also suspended activities in Afghanistan, withholding aid as well as $340 million in new reserves issued by the IMF in August.
The Afghan economy has effectively collapsed, with civil servants unpaid for months and the treasury unable to pay for imports. The United Nations has warned that around 22 million people, more than half the population, will face an “acute” food shortage in the winter months.
Taliban government leader Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund is among those targeted by the US sanctions. The US side stood firm on the measures and said it was taking steps to get support to ordinary Afghans.
“The United States remains committed to ensuring that US sanctions do not limit the ability of Afghan civilians to receive humanitarian support from the US government and international community while denying assets to sanctioned entities and individuals,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
“The Department of the Treasury has issued general licenses to support the continued flow of humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan and other activities that support basic human needs.”
The US also urged the Taliban to provide access to education for women and girls across the country and “expressed deep concern regarding allegations of human rights abuses.”
It reminded the Taliban of its commitment not to allow terrorist organizations to operate on its soil and to guarantee safe passage for US citizens from Afghanistan.
The Americans also called for the release of US citizen Mark Frerichs, who was kidnapped in Afghanistan in February last year.
The Taliban called the talks “positive” and said Muttaqi also met with the Japanese and German ambassadors to Afghanistan in Doha.

Japan expands travel ban to halt spread of omicron coronavirus variant

 A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 30 min 6 sec ago

Japan expands travel ban to halt spread of omicron coronavirus variant

 A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
  • Border closing affecting residents of southern African states will be in effect for at least a month

BRASILIA/TOKYO: Japan has expanded its travel ban on foreigners coming into the country, preventing entry to those with resident status from 10 southern African nations.

Two Japanese airlines ANA and JAL also said they were suspending new reservations for international flights to Japan until the end of December and NHK public television said the government was seeking a halt to all such reservations.

Japan took some of the strictest steps globally on Monday by closing its borders to non-Japanese for about a month in light of the emergence of omicron. A day later, Japan’s first omicron case – in a Namibian diplomat – was discovered.

Japanese media also reported on Wednesday that a second case of the omicron virus had been confirmed in a traveller. NHK said it was a foreign man and FNN television said it was a traveller from Peru.

The border closing affecting residents of southern African states will be in effect from midnight on Wednesday for at least a month. It applies to foreign residents from South Africa, Eswatini, Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Angola, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Brazil and Nigeria also joined the rapidly widening circle of countries to report cases of the omicron variant Tuesday, while new findings indicate the mutant coronavirus was already in Europe close to a week before South Africa sounded the alarm.

The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute disclosed that patient samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23 were found to contain the variant. It was on Nov. 24 that South African authorities reported the existence of the highly mutated virus to the World Health Organization.

Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.

The pandemic has shown repeatedly that the virus “travels quickly because of our globalized, interconnected world,” said Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious disease specialist at the Yale School of Public Health. Until the vaccination drive reaches every country, “we’re going to be in this situation again and again.”

Brazil, which has recorded a staggering total of more than 600,000 COVID-19 deaths, reported finding the variant in two travelers returning from South Africa — the first known omicron cases in Latin America. The travelers were tested on Nov. 25, authorities said.

France likewise recorded its first case, in the far-flung island territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Authorities said the patient was a man who had returned to Reunion from South Africa and Mozambique on Nov. 20.

It has decided to extend until at least Saturday its suspension of flights from southern African countries which have been hit hard by the omicron variant.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease expert, said much more will be known about omicron in the next several weeks, and “we’ll have a much better picture of what the challenge is ahead of us.”

In the meantime, a WHO official warned that given the growing number of omicron cases in South Africa and neighboring Botswana, parts of southern Africa could soon see infections skyrocket.

“There is a possibility that really we’re going to be seeing a serious doubling or tripling of the cases as we move along or as the week unfolds,” said Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, a WHO regional virologist.

Cases began to increase rapidly in mid-November in South Africa, which is now seeing nearly 3,000 confirmed new infections per day.

Before news of the Brazil cases broke, Fauci said 226 omicron cases had been confirmed in 20 countries, adding: “I think you’re going to expect to see those numbers change rapidly.”

Those countries include Britain, 11 European Union nations, Australia, Canada and Israel. American disease trackers said omicron could already be in the US, too, and probably will be detected soon.

“I am expecting it any day now,” said Scott Becker of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “We expect it is here.”

While the variant was first identified by South African researchers, it is unclear where and when it originated, information that could help shed light on how fast it spreads.

The announcement from the Dutch on Tuesday could shape that timeline.

Previously, the Netherlands said it found the variant among passengers who came from South Africa on Friday, the same day the Dutch and other EU members began imposing flight bans and other restrictions on southern Africa. But the newly identified cases predate that.

NOS, the Netherlands’ public broadcaster, said that one of the two omicron samples came from a person who had been in southern Africa.

Belgium reported a case involving a traveler who returned to the country from Egypt on Nov. 11 but did not become sick with mild symptoms until Nov. 22.

Many health officials tried to calm fears, insisting that vaccines remain the best defense and that the world must redouble its efforts to get the shots to every part of the globe.

Emer Cooke, chief of the European Medicines Agency, said that the 27-nation EU is well prepared for the variant and that the vaccine could be adapted for use against omicron within three or four months if necessary.

England reacted to the emerging threat by making face coverings mandatory again on public transportation and in stores, banks and hair salons. And one month ahead of Christmas, the head of Britain’s Health Security Agency urged people not to socialize if they don’t need to.

After COVID-19 led to a one-year postponement of the Summer Games, Olympic organizers began to worry about the February Winter Games in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said omicron would “certainly bring some challenges in terms of prevention and control.”

World markets seesawed on every piece of medical news, whether worrisome or reassuring. Stocks fell on Wall Street over virus fears as well as concerns about the Federal Reserve’s continued efforts to shore up the markets.

Some analysts think a serious economic downturn will probably be averted because many people have been vaccinated. But they also think a return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, especially in tourism, has been dramatically delayed.

Prepare sanctions on Russia and ramp up military cooperation, Ukraine tells NATO

Prepare sanctions on Russia and ramp up military cooperation, Ukraine tells NATO
Updated 01 December 2021

Prepare sanctions on Russia and ramp up military cooperation, Ukraine tells NATO

Prepare sanctions on Russia and ramp up military cooperation, Ukraine tells NATO
  • NATO should prepare economic sanctions to be imposed on Russia if it “decides to chose the worst-case scenario” and boost the military and defense cooperation with Ukraine

RIGA: Ukraine urged NATO on Wednesday to boost military cooperation with Kyiv and prepare a package of measures, including sanctions, to deter Russia from attacking the country.
“We will call on the allies to join Ukraine in putting together a deterrence package,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters on arrival for talks with his NATO counterparts in Riga.
As part of this package, NATO should prepare economic sanctions to be imposed on Russia if it “decides to chose the worst-case scenario” and boost the military and defense cooperation with Ukraine, he said.

Nigeria confirms first cases of omicron among travelers from South Africa

Nigeria confirms first cases of omicron among travelers from South Africa
Updated 01 December 2021

Nigeria confirms first cases of omicron among travelers from South Africa

Nigeria confirms first cases of omicron among travelers from South Africa
  • Retrospective sequencing of previously confirmed cases among travelers to Nigeria

ABUJA: Nigeria confirmed its first cases of the omicron COVID-19 variant among two travelers who arrived from South Africa last week, the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) said on Wednesday.
The NCDC said retrospective sequencing of previously confirmed cases among travelers to Nigeria had also identified the variant among a sample collected in October.