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.”


Boston Celtics’ Kanter sparks backlash in China after comments on Tibet, Xi

Boston Celtics’ Kanter sparks backlash in China after comments on Tibet, Xi
Updated 21 October 2021

Boston Celtics’ Kanter sparks backlash in China after comments on Tibet, Xi

Boston Celtics’ Kanter sparks backlash in China after comments on Tibet, Xi
  • Enes Kanter, who is Turkish and has a history of activism, tweeted a video expressing support for Tibet and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of the Dalai Lama
  • An outspoken critic of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Kanter, 29, was indicted in his home country in 2018 on charges of belonging to an armed terrorist group

SHANGHAI: Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter was pilloried on Chinese social media and his name appeared to be blocked on the popular Weibo messaging platform after he criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping and China’s treatment of Tibet.
Kanter, who is Turkish and has a history of activism, tweeted a two-minute video of himself expressing support for Tibet and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the image of the Dalai Lama, its exiled spiritual leader.
“I’m here to add my voice and speak out about what is happening in Tibet. Under the Chinese government’s brutal rule, Tibetan people’s basic rights and freedoms are non-existent,” Kanter said in the video posted on Wednesday in US time, along with text describing Xi as a “brutal dictator.”
Kanter posted similar messages on his Instagram feed. On Wednesday, he wore shoes emblazoned with the phrase “Free Tibet’ during the game against the New York Knicks made by Baidiucao, a dissident China-born cartoonist and artist based in Australia.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a news briefing on Thursday that Kanter was “trying to get attention” and that his remarks “were not worth refuting.”
“We will never accept those attacks to discredit Tibet’s development and progress,” he said.
Kanter’s remarks, and the backlash, come two years after then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s comments in support of the democracy movement in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong prompted state broadcaster CCTV to cease broadcasting NBA games and e-commerce vendors to remove listings for Rockets merchandise.
The tweet also followed the Wednesday arrival of the Olympic torch in Beijing, whose scheduled hosting of the Winter Games in February 2022 has prompted calls for boycotts over Chinese treatment of Tibet, Uyghur Muslims and Hong Kong.
As of mid-Thursday in China, Kanter’s Chinese-language surname and full name yielded only one result, compared with multiple results earlier in the morning.
Weibo did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the NBA in China did not respond to an emailed request for comment, and the Boston Celtics did not respond to a request for comment sent outside business hours.
Beijing has ruled the remote western region of Tibet since 1951, after its People’s Liberation Army marched in and took control in what it calls a “peaceful liberation,” and considers the Dalai Lama a separatist.
A Weibo fan page for the Boston Celtics with over 650,000 followers wrote that it would cease updating its social feed after Kanter’s tweets.
Twitter is blocked in China.
“Any information on the team will cease to appear on this Weibo. Any behavior that undermines the harmony of the nation and the dignity of the motherland, we resolutely resist!” the page’s administrator wrote.
On the Celtics’ official Weibo page, more than 100 commentators left comments on Thursday criticizing the club and Kanter, with some calling for him to be sacked.
“I’ve been an old Celtics fan for more than 10 years. After Kanter did this, I won’t support the Celtics team a single day any longer. Between my hobbies and my country, there’s no comparison,” wrote one commentator.
An outspoken critic of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Kanter, 29, was indicted in his home country in 2018 on charges of belonging to an armed terrorist group, which he denies. Turkey, which revoked his passport, is seeking his extradition.


Bereaved families angry as Manchester bomber’s brother evades inquiry

Bereaved families angry as Manchester bomber’s brother evades inquiry
Updated 21 October 2021

Bereaved families angry as Manchester bomber’s brother evades inquiry

Bereaved families angry as Manchester bomber’s brother evades inquiry
  • Salman Abedi blew himself up at the end of an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena venue, as parents arrived to collect their children
  • A lawyer representing bereaved families said they had "the very gravest of concerns and the most extreme sense of frustration that this has occurred"

LONDON: The brother of a suicide bomber who killed 22 people in Manchester in May 2017 failed to appear on Thursday at a public inquiry investigating the attack, angering bereaved families seeking answers about the killer’s motivations.
Salman Abedi blew himself up at the end of an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena venue, as parents arrived to collect their children. Among those killed were seven children, the youngest aged eight, while 237 people were injured.
Ismail Abedi, the bomber’s older brother, had been summoned to give evidence at the public inquiry, which has been running for more than a year to examine issues raised by the bombing.
Paul Greaney, counsel to the inquiry, told Thursday’s public hearing that Abedi was stopped at Manchester airport on Aug. 28 while trying to leave the country. But he boarded a flight at the same airport on Aug. 29 and has not returned to Britain.
Duncan Atkinson, a lawyer representing bereaved families, said they had “the very gravest of concerns and the most extreme sense of frustration that this has occurred” and accused Abedi of “profound disrespect” toward them.
The inquiry chairman, retired judge John Saunders, said the circumstances of his departure, and whether the police, the courts or the inquiry itself could have done more to prevent it, were matters that were not yet fully understood.
“The means of enforcing someone’s attendance at an inquiry are not straightforward,” he said, urging people not to jump to conclusions about who or what was to blame.
The inquiry was due to hear evidence later on Thursday from a friend of Salman Abedi, Ahmed Taghdi. He was arrested on Monday as he tried to leave the country and is in custody.
Another brother of Salman Abedi, Hashem Abedi, was found guilty of murder and jailed for at least 55 years in August 2020 for helping Salman plan the attack.
The brothers were born to Libyan parents who emigrated to Britain during the rule of Muammar Qaddafi. The parents and their younger children are in Libya and are also refusing to cooperate with the inquiry.


Activist dad of school shooting victim joins anti-gun group

Activist dad of school shooting victim joins anti-gun group
Updated 21 October 2021

Activist dad of school shooting victim joins anti-gun group

Activist dad of school shooting victim joins anti-gun group
  • Guttenberg, who has become a nationally known activist in the years since the shooting, visited his daughter's grave this week and “asked her for guidance”
  • Brady PAC supports candidates who promote gun violence prevention and spent $5 million during the 2020 election cycle

WASHINGTON: The father of a 14-year-old girl killed in the 2018 Florida high school shooting massacre announced Thursday that he’s joining the top ranks of a progressive anti-gun group. This comes to promote like-minded political candidates around the country ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
Fred Guttenberg will be a senior adviser to Brady PAC. His daughter Jamie, an aspiring dancer and gymnast, died with 16 others during the Valentine’s Day 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Nikolas Cruz pleaded guilty Wednesday to 17 counts of first-degree murder for that shooting and could face the death penalty during sentencing in January. Guttenberg, who has become a nationally known activist in the years since the shooting, said he visited his daughter’s grave this week and “asked her for guidance. ‘Cause Jamie is my strength.”
“Jamie may only have been 14, but she was the toughest, wisest person I ever knew,” Guttenberg said in an interview. “If you want to know my motivation for why I’m doing this with Brady PAC right now, that’s the reason.”
Brady PAC, formed leading up to 2018′s midterm elections, supports candidates who promote gun violence prevention and spent $5 million during the 2020 election cycle. It has promised to pump millions more into next year’s races.
Guttenberg, a 55-year-old former small business owner, said, “I believe we are one election cycle away from either getting this done, or one election cycle away from losing the chance.”
“We do it now,” he added, “or we never do it.”
Guttenberg noted that Democrats, most of whom agree with him and Brady PAC on top gun issues, control Congress and could hold both chambers after 2022 — even though the party that wins the White House, as Democrats did through Joe Biden in 2020, historically loses seats in the next election.
“I think people need to stop acting like everyone knows what’s going to happen in 2022 and get back to working for what you want to happen,” Guttenberg said. “I want more gun safety candidates elected to the House and the Senate. Period. Full stop. And I think that voters agree with me.”
Cruz killed 14 students and three staff members during a seven-minute rampage through Stoneman Douglas, using an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle to shoot victims in hallways and classrooms. Cruz had been expelled from the school a year earlier after a history of threatening, frightening, unusual and sometimes violent behavior that dated to preschool.
The shootings caused some Stoneman Douglas students to launch the March for Our Lives movement, which pushes for stronger gun restrictions nationally. Besides Guttenberg, several other parents of students killed have also become activists.
Last February, Guttenberg attended President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address and began yelling after the Republican president said, “I will always protect your Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.” Guttenberg was escorted out and later apologized via Twitter.
Guttenberg also drew attention in Congress in September 2018 when he attempted to shake hands with Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during a break at the latter’s Senate confirmation hearing. Kavanaugh looked at him, turned and walked away. Kavanaugh later said that he had assumed Guttenberg was a protester and that he would have expressed his sympathy and shaken Guttenberg’s hand had he recognized him before being whisked away by his security detail. Kavanaugh was confirmed to the court.
Brady PAC is the political arm of a nonprofit named in honor of former White House press secretary James Brady, who suffered a bullet wound to his head in the assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan outside the Washington Hilton Hotel in 1981.
Together with his wife, Brady became a leading gun control activist before his death in 2014. A federal law requiring a background check on handgun buyers bears Brady’s name, as does the White House press briefing room.


Man charged with ‘terrorist’ murder of British lawmaker Amess

Man charged with ‘terrorist’ murder of British lawmaker Amess
Updated 21 October 2021

Man charged with ‘terrorist’ murder of British lawmaker Amess

Man charged with ‘terrorist’ murder of British lawmaker Amess
  • Amess’s murder has shocked Britain’s political establishment coming five years after another lawmaker was murdered
  • Ali is the son of an ex-media adviser to a former prime minister of Somalia

LONDON: British police charged Ali Harbi Ali, 25, with murder of lawmaker David Amess, who was stabbed to death on Friday at a meeting in his constituency, saying it was an act of terrorism.
Amess’s murder has shocked Britain’s political establishment coming five years after another lawmaker was murdered, prompting calls for increased safety for members of parliament.
“We will submit to the court that this murder has a terrorist connection, namely that it had both religious and ideological motivations,” Nick Price, Head of the Crown Prosecution Service Special Crime and Counter Terrorism Division.
“He has also been charged with the preparation of terrorist acts. This follows a review of the evidence gathered by the Metropolitan Police in its investigation.”
Ali, the son of an ex-media adviser to a former prime minister of Somalia, is due to appear at London’s Westminster Magistrates’ court later on Thursday.
“There has been considerable speculation in the media about the background, history and motivation of the man now charged,” said Matt Jukes, London police’s Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations.
“I understand the huge level of public interest in this case, but now a charge has been brought, it is vitally important that everyone exercises restraint when commenting on it publicly, to ensure future court proceedings are not prejudiced in any way.”


UK troops kill 2 suspected Daesh fighters in first Mali clash

UK troops kill 2 suspected Daesh fighters in first Mali clash
Updated 21 October 2021

UK troops kill 2 suspected Daesh fighters in first Mali clash

UK troops kill 2 suspected Daesh fighters in first Mali clash
  • Soldiers came under attack while on patrol as part of UN mission

LONDON: British troops have fatally shot two Islamist fighters, believed to belong to Daesh, in Mali.

The shooting is the first contact experienced by regular UK forces since combat operations in Afghanistan drew to a close in 2014.

The soldiers came under attack while on patrol as a part of a UN mission in Mali, where local forces have required support from Western allies — predominantly France — to counter a fierce insurgency.

The UN’s role in the Sahel nation is considered to be the most dangerous peacekeeping mission to which it deploys troops. It is continuing alongside a counterinsurgency operation led by French soldiers.

The sudden firefight between the Britons and the suspected Daesh fighters took place in a remote area in the east of the country where troops from the Queen’s Dragoon Guards — a light cavalry unit — were scouting for alternative routes after popular roads had been subject to improvised explosive devices.

The gunmen opened fire on the troops who were traveling in light armored vehicles between Indelimone — a town where a Malian military base had recently fallen to Islamist attackers — and Menaka, a regional hub.

The British soldiers reportedly chased down the Islamists in a 20-minute exchange, which ended when the gunmen were pinned down in some undergrowth on Wednesday morning.

The British troops from the Long Range Reconnaissance Group are taking part in Operation Newcombe under UN rules of engagement, which makes room for appropriate action in self-defense.

The British military said its intended action was to detain the two gunmen, who fired in excess of 100 rounds.

“Today’s action demonstrates exactly what the UK is bringing to the UN’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission — a long-range force that doesn’t just find those who harm civilians, but acts as well,” said Lt. Col. Will Meddings, the commanding officer of the deployment.

“Results like this come from patrolling huge distances, day and night, in places where ISGS (a term for Daesh in the Greater Sahara) feel they have the freedom to extort and murder, and proving to them that they cannot act with impunity.”