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

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Updated 18 September 2023

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.”


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 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.”

Liz Magill, University of Pennsylvania president, resigns as antisemitism testimony draws backlash

Liz Magill, University of Pennsylvania president, resigns as antisemitism testimony draws backlash
Updated 10 December 2023

Liz Magill, University of Pennsylvania president, resigns as antisemitism testimony draws backlash

Liz Magill, University of Pennsylvania president, resigns as antisemitism testimony draws backlash
  • Calls for Magill’s resignation exploded after her testimony in a US House committee on antisemitism on college campuses
  • Universities across the US have been accused of failing to protect Jewish students amid fallout from Israel’s intensifying war in Gaza

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania: The University of Pennsylvania’s president has resigned amid pressure from donors and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say under repeated questioning that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy.

The departure of Liz Magill, in her second year as president of the Ivy League school, was announced by the school late Saturday afternoon. The statement said Magill will remain a tenured faculty member at the university’s Carey Law School. She has agreed to keep serving as Penn’s leader until the university names an interim president.
Calls for Magill’s resignation exploded after Tuesday’s testimony in a US House committee on antisemitism on college campuses, where she appeared with the presidents of Harvard University and MIT.
Universities across the US have been accused of failing to protect Jewish students amid rising fears of antisemitism worldwide and fallout from Israel’s intensifying war in Gaza, which faces heightened criticism for the mounting Palestinian death toll.
The three presidents were called before the committee to answer those accusations. But their lawyerly answers drew renewed blowback from opponents, focused particularly on a line of questioning from Rep. Elize Stefanik, R-N.Y., who repeatedly asked whether “calling for the genocide of Jews” would violate Penn’s code of conduct.
“If the speech turns into conduct it can be harassment, yes,” Magill said. Pressed further, Magill told Stefanik, “It is a context-dependent decision, congresswoman.”
Criticism rained down from the White House, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, members of Congress and donors. One donor, Ross Stevens, threatened to withdraw a $100 million gift because of the university’s “stance on antisemitism on campus” unless Magill was replaced.
A day later, Magill addressed the criticism, saying in a video that she would consider a call for the genocide of Jewish people to be harassment or intimidation and that Penn’s policies need to be “clarified and evaluated.”
Magill had been under fire from some donors and alumni this fall over the university’s handling of various perceived acts of antisemitism.
That included allowing a Palestinian literary arts festival to be held on its campus in September featuring speakers whose past statements about Israel had drawn accusations of antisemitism.
A former US Supreme Court law clerk, Magill, 57, is the daughter of a retired federal judge and was dean of Stanford University’s law school and a top administrator at the University of Virginia before Penn hired her as its ninth president last year.
Earlier Saturday, New York’s governor called on the state’s colleges and universities to swiftly address cases of antisemitism and what she described as any “calls for genocide” on campus.
In a letter to college and university presidents, Gov. Kathy Hochul said her administration would enforce violations of the state’s Human Rights Law and refer any violations of federal civil rights law to US officials.
Hochul said she has spoken to chancellors of the State University of New York and City University of New York public college systems who she said confirmed “that calling for genocide of any group” or tolerating antisemitism violates codes of conduct on their campuses “and would lead to swift disciplinary action.”
The governor’s letter doesn’t address any specific incidents. Her office didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
A popular chant at pro-Palestinian rallies at Penn and other universities has been falsely misrepresented in recent months as claiming to call for “Jewish genocide.”
Experts and advocates say the chant, “Israel, we charge you with genocide,” is a typical refrain heard at pro-Palestinian rallies. Jewish and Palestinian supporters both acknowledge protesters aren’t saying “We want Jewish genocide.”

A British Palestinian surgeon gave testimony to a UK war crimes unit after returning from Gaza

A British Palestinian surgeon gave testimony to a UK war crimes unit after returning from Gaza
Updated 10 December 2023

A British Palestinian surgeon gave testimony to a UK war crimes unit after returning from Gaza

A British Palestinian surgeon gave testimony to a UK war crimes unit after returning from Gaza
  • Human rights groups have alleged that Israeli forces have dropped shells containing white phosphorus on densely populated residential areas in Gaza and Lebanon during the ongoing Israel-Hamas war

BEIRUT: A British Palestinian surgeon who spent weeks in the Gaza Strip during the current Israel-Hamas war as part of a Doctors Without Borders medical team said he has given testimony to a British war crimes investigation unit.
Ghassan Abu Sitta, a plastic surgeon specializing in conflict medicine, has volunteered with medical teams in multiple conflicts in Gaza, beginning as a medical student in the late 1980s during the the first Palestinian uprising. He has also worked in other conflict zones, including in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Abu Sitta crossed from Egypt into Gaza on Oct. 9, two days after the war began and remained in the besieged enclave for 43 days, working mainly in the Al-Ahli and Shifa hospitals in northern Gaza.
The war was triggered by a deadly Hamas-led incursion on Oct. 7 into southern Israel in which militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians. Since then, Israel has launched a punishing air and ground campaign that has killed more than 17,700 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-controlled territory.
Abu Sitta told The Associated Press in an interview during a visit to the Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut on Saturday that the intensity of other conflicts he experienced and the war in Gaza is like “the difference between a flood and a tsunami.” Apart from the staggering numbers of killed and injured, he said, the health system itself has been targeted and destroyed in Gaza.
“The worst thing was initially the running out of morphine and proper strong analgesics and then later on running out of anesthetic medication, which meant that you would have to do painful procedures with no anesthetic,” Abu Sitta said.
He said that when he returned to the UK, he was asked by the war crimes unit at the Metropolitan Police to give evidence in a possible war crimes investigation, and did so.
The police had issued a call for people returning from Israel or the Palestinian territories who “have witnessed or been a victim of terrorism, war crimes or crimes against humanity” to come forward.
Abu Sitta said much of his testimony related to attacks on health facilities.
He was working in Al-Ahli hospital in northern Gaza on Oct. 17 when a deadly blast struck the hospital’s courtyard, which had become a shelter for displaced people, killing hundreds. Israeli authorities, along with US and French intelligence agencies, have said the explosion was caused by a misfired Palestinian rocket.
Hamas maintained that it was an Israeli strike. Abu Sitta said many of the injuries he saw were more consistent with damage caused by an Israeli Hellfire missile which he said “disintegrates into shards of metal that cause amputations.”
The international group Human Rights Watch said the fragmentation pattern around the impact crater lacked the pattern typical of the Hellfire missile or others used by Israel.
Abu Sitta said while in Gaza he also treated patients who had burn wounds consistent with white phosphorus shelling, which he had also seen during the 2009 war.
Phosphorus shells cause a “chemical burn that ... bursts into the deep structures of the body rather than a thermal burn, which starts at the outside and (covers a) much larger surface area,” he said.
Human rights groups have alleged that Israeli forces have dropped shells containing white phosphorus on densely populated residential areas in Gaza and Lebanon during the ongoing Israel-Hamas war. Israel maintains it uses the incendiaries only as a smokescreen and not to target civilians.
Abu Sitta, who rotated between Al-Ahli and Shifa hospital, had left Shifa when Israeli forces encircled the hospital, eventually storming it in search of what they described as a Hamas command center. Israeli officials released visuals of an underground tunnel and rooms that they said were used by Hamas, but have not provided further evidence.
Abu Sitta, like other medical workers in the hospital, denied the allegations.
He said he had complete access to Shifa and there “was never, ever even any military presence.” He said policemen whose job was to control the crowds in front of the emergency department only carried truncheons.
The physician said he hopes the UK war crimes investigation will lead to prosecutions, locally or internationally.
The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, said after a visit to the West Bank and Israel last week that a probe by the court into possible crimes by both Hamas militants and Israeli forces is a priority for his office.


Iran begins trial of Swedish EU employee detained in 2022

Iran begins trial of Swedish EU employee detained in 2022
Updated 10 December 2023

Iran begins trial of Swedish EU employee detained in 2022

Iran begins trial of Swedish EU employee detained in 2022
  • The Swedish charge d’affaires was at the court but was refused the right to participate in the trial

STOCKHOLM: An Iranian court has begun the trial of a Swedish national employed by the European Union who was detained last year, Sweden’s foreign minister said on Saturday.
“I have been informed that the trial of Johan Floderus has begun in Tehran,” Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom told Swedish news agency TT.
“The Swedish charge d’affaires was at the court but was refused the right to participate in the trial. Sweden has ... requested the right to be present when the trial resumes.”
Floderus was detained in April 2022 while on holiday in Iran for what his family said was alleged spying. Billstrom did not specify what Floderus had been charged with.
Floderus’ family has said he was detained “without any justifiable cause or due process.”
Rights groups and Western governments have accused the Islamic Republic of trying to extract political concessions from other countries through arrests on security charges that may have been trumped up. Tehran says such arrests are based on its criminal code and denies holding people for political reasons.
Relations between Sweden and Iran have been tense since 2019 when Sweden arrested a former Iranian official for his part in the mass execution and torture of political prisoners in the 1980s. Hamid Noury was sentenced to life in prison last year, prompting Iran to recall its envoy to Sweden in protest.
In May, Iran executed a Swedish-Iranian dissident convicted of leading an Arab separatist group Tehran blames for a number of attacks including one on a military parade in 2018 that killed 25 people.

Son of Somalia president flees Turkiye after crash

Somaliaís President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. (AFP file photo)
Somaliaís President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. (AFP file photo)
Updated 09 December 2023

Son of Somalia president flees Turkiye after crash

Somaliaís President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. (AFP file photo)
  • The republic’s prosecutor issued an international arrest warrant on Friday after police went to the suspect’s home only to find “he had been gone since Dec. 2,” the channel said

ISTANBUL: The son of Somalia’s president, alleged to have knocked over and killed a delivery rider in Istanbul, has fled Turkiye despite an international arrest warrant, media reported.
Police had released Mohammed Hassan Sheikh Mohamud without any bail conditions after preliminary investigations into the accident, said daily newspaper Cumhuriyet.
“The suspect left Turkiye freely,” said Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu on X, formerly known as Twitter.
The mayor — a leading opponent of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — accused the authorities of “allowing this escape” and being “incapable of defending citizens’ rights in their own country.”
The son of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud had collided with a motorbike delivery man on Nov. 30, according to a police report quoted by A Haber television.
Father of two children, Yunus Emre Gocer, died in hospital six days later.
The republic’s prosecutor issued an international arrest warrant on Friday after police went to the suspect’s home only to find “he had been gone since Dec. 2,” the channel said.
The dead man’s lawyer told Cumhuriyet that a first traffic police report into the crash had blamed the victim for “negligence.”
A second expert’s report with video recordings showed that the Somali suspect was “100 percent responsible,” the lawyer said, but it added doubts he would “ever be caught.”
Turkiye has had close relations with Somalia for the last 10 years and is the Horn of Africa nation’s leading economic partner, notably in the construction, education and health sectors and in military cooperation.


Tens of thousands march in London calling for Gaza ceasefire

Tens of thousands march in London calling for Gaza ceasefire
Updated 10 December 2023

Tens of thousands march in London calling for Gaza ceasefire

Tens of thousands march in London calling for Gaza ceasefire
  • Organizers vow to continue protests over attacks on Palestinian civilians as death toll climbs to 17,700

LONDON: Tens of thousands of people joined a pro-Palestinian march on Saturday in the British capital to demand a full ceasefire in Gaza, organizers said.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign said that marchers were voicing opposition “to the indiscriminate attacks on civilians which have claimed the lives of at least 17,000 Palestinians, including more than 7,000 children.”

People from across the UK gathered in central London for the ninth Saturday in a row after Israel launched its assault on Gaza.

“This has been one of the largest, sustained political campaigns in British history,” PSC, one of the six organizers of the march, said.

It added that on Nov. 25 more than 300,000 people marched in London, while last Saturday there were more than 100 events across the UK in a third “day of action.”

Speakers at Saturday’s rally included MPs, trade union leaders, and representatives from a wide range of civil society organizations.

Ben Jamal, PSC director, said: “We are witnessing unrelenting horror in Gaza. Palestinians have been bombed, displaced, and deprived of food, water, fuel, electricity and health services for 62 days and counting.

“The amount of destruction has been compared to that of German cities in the Second World War, except it’s happened in a far shorter time.”

He said a permanent ceasefire must be the starting point to address the underlying causes of the situation, including “decades of Israeli military occupation, and a system of oppression against the Palestinian people that is considered internationally to meet the legal definition of apartheid.”

Jamal called on the British government to end its “complicity in Israel’s crimes,” and work to stop the killing of civilians.

He condemned UK political leaders who have failed to call for a ceasefire.

“We will continue to march, demonstrate, and organize to demand an immediate and permanent ceasefire, and justice for the Palestinian people,” he said.

Meanwhile, police in London announced that they arrested 13 people on Saturday mostly for offensive signage, they said in a statement following the rally.