The downtrodden of the Arab world ‘will not be ignored,’ UNGA president tells Arab News

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Updated 18 September 2023
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The downtrodden of the Arab world ‘will not be ignored,’ UNGA president tells Arab News

The downtrodden of the Arab world ‘will not be ignored,’ UNGA president tells Arab News
  • In one-on-one interview, Dennis Francis says his focus will be on mobilizing the world body “to deliver for people and for planet”
  • Urges leaders attending 78th session to maintain and strengthen their support for UN, “a proud organization with a brilliant record”

NEW YORK CITY: When the president of the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly took his oath of office and was handed the gavel, he wished “my parents were still alive to witness this.”

At the same time, he reflected on “the burden of responsibility that I have taken on as president of the General Assembly, the burden that has been created by the legitimate expectation of people everywhere in the world, that the United Nations can deliver for them. And that will be my focus throughout the presidency: How best we can mobilize the General Assembly to deliver for people and for planet.”

Dennis Francis’ stewardship of UNGA comes at a deeply challenging moment for the multilateral system. Since it was established a century ago, multilateralism has provided the global framework for peace and stability, but in a world of conflicts and climate chaos, escalating poverty, hunger and inequality, mistrust and division, there are growing concerns that multilateralism is declining or losing relevance.




Dennis Francis, president of the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, giving an interview with Arab News. (AN photo)
 

Meanwhile, the difficulty governments are facing in reaching global agreements on trade, climate change and other issues has led many to question whether the multilateral model is still fit for purpose in an era of renewed great power rivalries, nationalism, populism and political economy tensions.

Ahead of the high-level week of the UNGA session, Arab News sat with Francis in his new office at the UN headquarters in New York City, where, in a wide-ranging interview, he outlined his priorities for the year to come.

Francis has spent years working closely with multilateral agencies. He offered a nuanced perspective when asked about the state of multilateralism.




Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinians protesting Israeli settlers who set up tents on lands in Halhoul village north of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, on August 1, 2023. (AFP)

While acknowledging that multilateralism faces challenges, he was emphatic that it is not entirely dysfunctional. The conclusion of the BBNJ Treaty, an important addition to the international architecture on the Law of the Sea, and the inclusion of loss and damage in the COP27 agreement. which aims to provide financial assistance to poorer nations as they deal with the negative consequences that arise from the risks of climate change, are two examples of success that demonstrate that multilateralism can indeed deliver results.

“It might not deliver uniformly, but it does and can deliver,” said Francis.

“What we need to do now is to really focus on strengthening that, and that has to do with a process of recommitting and of building trust and confidence among the membership that we have the capacity and the strength. Sometimes it takes strength to make difficult decisions. But difficult decisions we cannot avoid in the interest of serving humanity.”

FASTFACTS

UNGA President Dennis Francis has spent almost 40 years in the diplomatic service of Trinidad and Tobago.

He said willingness of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to share the lessons of their success is highly valued by the international community.

Countries in the Gulf region, Francis said, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, have a track record of successful development. He said their willingness to share their knowledge and engage is highly valued by the international community, contributing to multilateral efforts.

“(Gulf states) have a unique history and they have pursued development with great success in many cases. So, there are lessons that they can share with the international community. And I’m happy to say that much of that sharing is already taking place.

“Saudi Arabia, Qatar the UAE are playing important roles by sharing their knowledge, their know-how, in big ways and small.




A feeling of despair looks obvious on residents of the Libyan city of Derna in the aftermath of the massive flashlood that hit parts of the city on Sept. 10, 2023. (AFP)

“On Saturday, for example, I attended a very relaxed evening for newly arrived permanent representatives. Coming to New York, to the UN, can be very daunting when you first arrive. And I discovered in conversation with my colleague, the ambassador of Saudi Arabia, that the idea to do this was in fact invented, proposed, by one of his predecessors as a way of welcoming the new ones, introducing them in a seamless way to the dynamics of the UN, and helping and supporting them to understand how the processes work and how the organization works.

“I’m very grateful for the support and engagement, the key level of engagement that (Gulf states) have shown and continue to show in all of the processes. They have been willing to share it. And I think the international community very much values that disposition.”

Hailing from the small Caribbean country of Trinidad and Tobago, Francis brings to the General Assembly “a critical perspective,” in the words of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who also said that “so many of the issues we address (at the General Assembly) hit small island developing states like (Trinidad and Tobago) the hardest.




Displaced Yemenis receive essential aid provided by the Norwegian Council to support those affected by flooding, in the northern Abs district of the Hajjah governorate on September 16, 2023. Flooding and lightning strikes in Yemen have exacerbated the crises in Yemen, underscoring the threat of extreme weather in the war-ravaged country. (AFP) 

This includes the disastrous impacts of climate change and the effects of a deeply unjust global financial system that routinely denies developing countries the debt relief and restructuring — as well as financing — they need to invest in their people.

Francis put it this way: “Trinidad and Tobago is a small developing country, the most southerly of the Caribbean islands. We are only seven miles off the coast of South America but one of the most cosmopolitan countries in the world.

“Our history has made us a very diverse population, multicultural, multi-religious, multiethnic. Democracy is very alive and well. We’ve never changed our governments in any other way but by the ballot box.

“And, so, we have a proud tradition of democratic development and of human rights.




Druze residents demonstrate for the third straight week on Sept. 15, 2023, in the southern city of Sweida, Syria, in protests initially driven by surging inflation and the war-torn country's spiraling economy. The protests have later widened to calls for the fall of the Assad government. (Suwayda24 via AP)

“Because we are such a small country — geographically the country is only 1,864 square miles — we have found a formula to coexist, to get along in a relatively small space. It is not that we do not have, from time to time, family squabbles. But Trinidad and Tobago has never had social strife because we found mechanisms of consultation.

“For example, one of the one of the techniques used very early on in government was to establish something called the IRO, the Inter Religious Organization, comprising the major representative belief systems in the country. A significant proportion of government policy goes through the IRO for consideration before they are taken to the parliament, so that you get the input of the religious groups and other groups in society, making it possible, therefore, to maintain a holistic approach to governance. And this has worked enormously well for us in Trinidad and Tobago.

“So, we are very proud of the fact that we are a diverse population, but we get along. Not only is there tolerance; there is integration in the population. It is totally mixed. We have a very rich culture that derives from Africa, India, Europe, Latin America, native peoples, China, Lebanon and others. It’s quite a rich and engaging mix. And it accounts for the diversity and dynamism of the population of Trinidad and Tobago.”




Refugees from war-torn Sudan hold a sit-in seeking support in front of the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in Tripoli, Libya, on July 15, 2023. (AFP)
 

As the premier event of the UNGA high-level week, Francis believes the SDG summit is a crucial moment for heads of state or government to demonstrate their commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals and contribute to global development funding.

The SDG summit will set the tone for other General Assembly processes, Francis said, emphasizing the need for all delegations to recommit to energizing the SDG process and achieving these life-changing goals by 2030.

It is recognized that instability, insecurity and war hinder economic and social development, depriving people of basic necessities and security. To achieve lasting peace, it is essential to address issues like inequality, discrimination, poverty, hunger, and poor health effectively and sustainably “to the satisfaction of the downtrodden.”

That is especially relevant to the Arab world, which has been grappling with a multitude of crises. From Syria and Yemen to Palestine and Sudan, political upheavals, armed conflicts, displacement, economic and humanitarian crises have for decades been the cause of untold human suffering. According to the UN, 116 million people across 10 Arab countries, or 41 percent of the total population, are poor, while another 25 percent are vulnerable to poverty.




Protesters throw glass bottles at the Lebanese Central Bank building amid the deepening financial crisis in Beirut. Four years after Lebanon's historic meltdown began, the small nation is still facing "enormous economic challenges," with a collapsed banking sector, eroding public services, deteriorating infrastructure, and worsening poverty, the International Monetary Fund warned on Sept. 15, 2023. (AP Photo/File)

“My message for (the downtrodden of the Arab world) is that they are not forgotten. And they will not be ignored,” Francis said.

“The focus of the SDGs is on lifting people up, on ensuring that all people enjoy their rights and entitlements, that they share the benefits of society and that development leaves no one behind. This is the thrust of the 78th session of the General Assembly. It is extremely important for promoting peace, prosperity sustainability and growth and that is where we will place our focus: very people-centered, very rights-based.”

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development marked a significant milestone as the first ever fully negotiated, all-encompassing global development strategy formally embraced by both the Global South and the developed world. It was widely celebrated as the dawn of a new era in development collaboration.

Despite significant development gains globally, which have raised many millions of people out of absolute poverty, the UN says that inequality between the world’s richest and poorest countries is widening. This anomaly will also be spotlighted at UNGA this year.

Francis, in his vision statement, called on both to figure out the problematique. Once that is done, then it should not be insurmountable to implement the prescribed solutions.

“(The Global South and the Global North) do come at issues from diametrically opposed positions. But that is not a surprise. It’s a negotiation. If conceptually, both sides accept reality in the same way then there is no basis for negotiation.




Children gather outside their tents at the al-Hol camp in Hasakeh province, Syria, which houses families of Daesh militants. Tens of thousands children and wives of Daesh militants remain in limbo in the camp, unwanted by their countries, making them vulnerable to indoctrination by the extremist group. (AP Photo/File)

“So, there are conceptual differences. There are practical differences. However, in the recent past, what has happened is that there has been an unfortunate deficit of trust. And this has undermined the capacity of the multilateral process to move forward and to create good results and good outcomes.

“So, we need to work on rebuilding that trust, restoring that confidence and building solidarity.

“Some unfortunate things have happened. For example, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the behavior of (certain) states suggested a very individualistic approach to the pandemic, rather than taking a holistic coordinated, cooperative approach as one international community. This was unhelpful for multilateralism. And so those memories linger in the minds of many delegations, because they’re not quite sure if there will be a repeat of the pandemic. And let’s recall that scientists have indicated that there is likely to be another pandemic. They’re not quite sure what will happen. So, we have got some work to do.

“But, bear in mind, building trust is a process, not an event. So, we will invest considerable time and energy in the General Assembly in trying to bring people together to build bridges, to build hope, so that we can get beyond the doctrinaire positions and really begin to listen to each other in goodness. And to react in a way that could probably bring us a point of common ground.”

 


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Trump announces Ohio Senator J.D. Vance as running mate

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Heavy rains kill at least 35 in eastern Afghanistan — official

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Updated 2 min 48 sec ago
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Heavy rains kill at least 35 in eastern Afghanistan — official

Heavy rains kill at least 35 in eastern Afghanistan — official
  • The storms and rains collapsed trees, walls and roofs of several houses in Jalalabad and Nangarhar
  • The tragedy comes after flash floods killed hundreds of people and swamped agricultural lands in May

KABUL: At least 35 people were killed and 230 injured on Monday after heavy rain in eastern Afghanistan, a local official said.
“On Monday evening, stormy rains killed 35 people and injured 230 others in Jalalabad and certain districts of Nangarhar” province, Quraishi Badloon, head of the department of information and culture, told AFP.
The casualties were caused by heavy storms and rains that collapsed trees, walls and roofs of people’s houses, Badloon said.
“There is a possibility that casualties might rise,” he went on, adding that the wounded as well as victims’ bodies were brought to Nangarhar regional hospital and Fatima-tul-Zahra hospital.
Images shared by Badloon’s department showed medical personnel wearing white and blue uniforms giving treatment to the wounded.
Other pictures on social media showed battered buildings and power masts.
Nangarhar authorities said on X that 400 houses were damaged, while electricity was out of service in the provincial capital of Jalalabad.
They added that several citizens had donated blood at the hospital to support the recovery efforts.
A camp at the Torkham border crossing with Pakistan, built for Afghans returning to their country, was particularly devastated as tents were swept away.
“We share the grief of the families of the victims,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban government.
“The relevant institutions of the Islamic Emirate have been directed to go to the affected areas as soon as possible,” Mujahid wrote on X, adding they would provide shelter, food and medicine to displaced families.
The tragedy comes after flash floods killed hundreds of people in Afghanistan in May and swamped agricultural lands in the country, where 80 percent of the population depends on farming to survive.
Among the poorest countries in the world, Afghanistan is particularly exposed to the effects of climate change.
This year, it saw an unusually wet spring after an extremely dry winter.


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Updated 22 min 52 sec ago
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Germany arrests suspected Hezbollah member

A masked demonstrator waves a Hezbollah flag during a demonstration supporting the Palestinians in Beirut. (File/AFP)
  • The Lebanese man named as Fadel Z was arrested on Sunday, prosecutors said in a statement
  • He was “strongly suspected of membership of a foreign terrorist organization,” the prosecutors said

BERLIN: A suspected member of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has been arrested in Germany, accused of procuring components for drones believed to be used in attacks on Israel, German prosecutors said Monday.
The Lebanese man named as Fadel Z was arrested on Sunday, prosecutors said in a statement.
He was “strongly suspected of membership of a foreign terrorist organization,” the prosecutors said.
The man is believed to have “procured components, particularly engines for the assembly of drones” which “were supposed to be exported to Lebanon and used in terrorist attacks on Israel,” they added.
The prosecutors added that the man was suspected of having joined Hezbollah “no later than in summer 2016” and that he was apprehended in the town of Salzgitter in Lower Saxony province.
The Israeli military has been trading regular cross-border fire with Hezbollah since early October.
The Shiite Muslim movement has been supporting its ally Hamas since the group’s October 7 attack on Israel triggered war in the Gaza Strip.


100 injured as Bangladesh student groups clash over job quotas

100 injured as Bangladesh student groups clash over job quotas
Updated 15 July 2024
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100 injured as Bangladesh student groups clash over job quotas

100 injured as Bangladesh student groups clash over job quotas
  • The quota system reserves more than half of well-paid civil service posts totalling hundreds of thousands of government jobs
  • These jobs are reserved for specific groups, including children of heroes from the country’s 1971 liberation war from Pakistan

DHAKA: Rival students in Bangladesh clashed on Monday leaving at least 100 people injured, as demonstrators opposing quotas for coveted government jobs battled counter-protesters loyal to the ruling party, police said.
Police and witnesses said hundreds of anti-quota protesters and students backing the ruling Awami League party battled for hours on Dhaka University campus, hurling rocks, fighting with sticks and beating each other with iron rods.
Some carried machetes while others threw petrol bombs, witnesses said.
The quota system reserves more than half of well-paid civil service posts totalling hundreds of thousands of government jobs for specific groups, including children of heroes from the country’s 1971 liberation war from Pakistan.
“They clashed with sticks and threw rocks at each other,” local police station chief Mostajirur Rahman told AFP.
Masud Mia, a police inspector, said “around 100 students including women” were injured, and had been taken to hospital. “More people are coming,” Mia added.
Students launched protests earlier this month demanding a merit-based system.
They have continued despite Bangladesh’s top court suspending the quota scheme.
Anti-quota protesters blamed the ruling party students for the violence.
“They attacked our peaceful procession with rods, sticks and rocks,” Nahid Islam, the national coordinator of the anti-quota protests, told AFP.
“They beat our female protesters. At least 150 students were injured including 30 women, and conditions of 20 students are serious.”
Critics say the system benefits children of pro-government groups who back Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Hasina, 76, won her fourth consecutive general election in January, in a vote without genuine opposition parties that saw a major crackdown against her political opponents, who boycotted the poll.
Injured student Shahinur Shumi, 26, said the protesters were taken by surprise.
“We were holding our procession peacefully,” she said from her hospital bed at Dhaka Medical Hospital.
“Suddenly, the Chhatra League (the ruling party student wing) attacked us with sticks, machetes, iron rods, and bricks.”
Police said hundreds of students from several private universities shouting anti-quota slogans joined the protests in Dhaka, halting traffic near the US embassy for more than four hours.
“Some 200 students squatted and stood on the road,” deputy police commissioner Hasanuzzaman Molla told AFP.
Thousands of students also marched in a dozen universities overnight Sunday into the early hours of Monday morning, protesting against what they said were Hasina’s disparaging comments.
Protesters said they were compared to collaborators of the Pakistani army during Bangladesh’s war of independence.
“This is unacceptable,” a female student from Dhaka University said, asking not to be named for fear of reprisal.
“We want a reform of the quota system so that meritorious students can get a fair chance.”
Violence also erupted during protests in Bangladesh’s second city Chittagong late on Sunday, anti-quota students said.
Khan Talat Mahmud Rafy, the organizer, said two fellow protesters were injured.
“Dozens of Chhatra League activists attacked one of our processions,” Rafy said.
Students are demanding that only those quotas supporting ethnic minorities and disabled people — six percent of jobs — should remain.
Bangladesh was one of the world’s poorest countries when it gained independence in 1971, but it has grown an average of more than six percent each year since 2009.
But much of that growth has been on the back of the mostly female factory workforce powering its garment export industry, and economists say there is an acute crisis of jobs for millions of university students.


Pro-Palestinian activists held after protest at UK war memorial

Youth Demand activists hold placards reading “Stop arming Israel” and “Never again for anyone.”
Youth Demand activists hold placards reading “Stop arming Israel” and “Never again for anyone.”
Updated 15 July 2024
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Pro-Palestinian activists held after protest at UK war memorial

Youth Demand activists hold placards reading “Stop arming Israel” and “Never again for anyone.”
  • A Palestinian flag was laid in front of the Cenotaph and “180,000 killed” spray-painted on the ground in front of the monument
  • The Cenotaph is the focus every year of of national events to commemorate Britain’s war dead

LONDON: UK police on Monday arrested two pro-Palestinian demonstrators after a protest at Britain’s Cenotaph war memorial in central London.
A Palestinian flag was laid in front of the Cenotaph and “180,000 killed” spray-painted on the ground in front of the monument, photos and video footage showed.
The Cenotaph is the focus every year of of national events to commemorate Britain’s war dead.
“Two women were quickly arrested on suspicion of criminal damage and are in custody,” the Metropolitan Police said on X, adding that damage was caused to the road and not to the monument itself.
In a statement, the Youth Demand group said its supporters had taken action to “commemorate the thousands killed in Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza.”
It said Youth Demand was calling for a two-way arms embargo on Israel and for the new UK government to halt all new oil and gas licenses granted since 2021.
Supporters planned to disrupt the State Opening of Parliament by head of state King Charles III on Wednesday, it added.
Youth Demand last month staged a protest at the constituency home of former prime minister Rishi Sunak.
The war in Gaza was sparked by Hamas’s surprise October 7 attack on southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,195 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.
The militants also seized 251 hostages, 116 of whom are still in Gaza including 42 the Israeli military says are dead.
Israel responded with a military offensive that has killed at least 38,584 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to data provided by the Gaza health ministry.