Tag Archives: United Nations

Falling apart? UN peace deal for Yemen ‘too vague’, Oxfam says

Lack of specific orders results in continued fighting around Red Sea port city of Hodeidah as 21-day deadline expires.

United Nations // The UN’s peace deal for Hodeidah, in war-ravaged Yemen, is unravelling because the text lacked specifics on how rebel forces should vacate the Red Sea port city, the British charity Oxfam says.

Dina el-Mamoun, the aid group’s head of policy and advocacy in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, said the UN’s Stockholm Agreement agreed last month between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government was “too vague”.

“There is an issue with the actual agreement, which is actually quite vague,” Mamoun told Al Jazeera.

“The UN should have made clear these basic issues that go to the heart of the agreement: who needs to hand over what and to whom.”

Under the terms of the UN-brokered deal, the Houthis were expected to hand over control of the ports of Hodeidah, Saleef and Ras Isa, to “local security forces in accordance with Yemeni law”.

However, both sides have disagreed over the meaning of the text. The government says it means the ports should be handed over to the officials who ran the facility before the Houthis seized Hodeidah city in late 2014.

The Houthis, meanwhile, insist the deal refers to the officials currently running the port, who are their allies.

“How can the UN expect a vague agreement to translate, in reality, to what is intended without making it clear?” asked Mamoun.

“An agreement that leads us to a state of confusion over what was agreed is not what we needed.”

The UN special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, met Houthi rebels and members of his monitoring team in the country over the weekend before heading for Saudi Arabia to ensure the peace deal is fully implemented.

Skirmishes continue in and around the Red Sea port city despite the looming 21-day redeployment deadline imposed under a UN Security Council resolution, which set a withdrawal target of Tuesday.

UN spokesman Farhan Haq did not directly answer Oxfam’s criticism, but said rebel and government leaders did not agree despite a “collective recognition of the urgency” of ending hostilities.

“Despite both parties consenting to the Stockholm Agreement, there is still a lack of common interpretation of the implementation and sequencing of the Hodaidah agreement,” Haq told Al Jazeera.

“This is of course driven by the lack of trust among the parties and their apprehension with respect to making operational concessions, outside of a comprehensive political solution to the conflict in Yemen.”

Haq urged both sides to respect the ceasefire and redeploy their forces in accordance with the deal.

“Anything short of that goal could derail the fragile progress being made to address the situation in Hodaidah,” he added.

Both sides have been accused of violating the ceasefire agreement over Yemen’s port city Hodeidah, with the sound of missiles and automatic gunfire a near-daily occurrence for the thousands of civilians who still reside in the city.

The agreement, the first significant breakthrough in peace efforts in five years, was part of confidence-building measures intended to pave the way for a wider truce and a framework for political negotiations.

Under the deal, international monitors are to be deployed in Hodeidah and a Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) including both sides, chaired by Retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert, will oversee implementation.

Cammaert’s team will not be uniformed or armed, the UN has said, but it will provide support for the management of and inspections at the ports, and strengthen the UN presence in the city.

Yemen has been wracked by violence since 2014 when the Houthis stormed south from their stronghold of Saada and overran much of the country, including the capital Sanaa where they toppled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government.

The conflict escalated in 2015 when Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who accuse the Houthis of being Iranian proxies, launched a military coalition that began air attacks against Houthi positions in an attempt to reinstate Hadi.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera English.

Rocket man and Zionist penguins: The week in UN diplomacy

A look at key Middle Eastern moments from an engaging week of statecraft at the United Nations

UNITED NATIONS // Over the years, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) has hosted some standout moments of political theatre. The key event this year was United States President Donald Trump’s debut speech, in which he threatened North Korea’s “rocket man” with annihilation.

Trump’s vow to “totally destroy” the hermit Asian nation of 26 million people along with its missile-toting leader, Kim Jong Un, certainly made the General Assembly’s biggest headline, but the gabfest in New York was not lacking in Middle Eastern diplomacy.

From Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s feeble “dad gags” from the marble dais to Trump’s signal that he would pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran, Middle East Eye picked out the key events for the region from the diplomatic din.

Bibi’s penguin friends

It’s been a tough few months for Netanyahu. The corruption probe is closing in, his wife Sara faces an indictment over $100,000 of dining bills and, all the while, there are foes across Israel’s borders and within his coalition government.

The pressures of leadership may account for some of the screwball moments in a 25-minute UN speech that was loaded with quips alongside his more usual shtick of pro-Israel eulogies and censure of regional bogeyman Iran.

For starters, the Likud leader took delegates on a journey to Antarctica, for the improbable revelation that the flightless birds swimming in the southern hemisphere’s icy waters are “enthusiastic supporters of Israel”.

“You laugh, but penguins have no difficulty recognising that some things are black and white, are right and wrong,” he said.

He was wrong about the first part: the audience had not laughed.

Next, he showcased his exasperation at denunciations of Israel from UN agencies. Netanyahu cited US tennis legend John McEnroe and affected a half-plausible New York accent to recite the athlete’s trademark line: “You can-not be serious!”

Finally, Netanyahu regaled a shrinking crowd with a yarn about Israel’s holy sites.

For proof, they could look in the Bible, he said. The book is not just a “great read” that he studies weekly and recommends “highly,” but also one that gets “4½ out of 5 stars on Amazon,” an online shopping website.

For some delegates, it was not just Netanyahu’s jokes that were cringe-worthy. His fawning praise of the 45th US president raised a few eyebrows. It began by recalling Trump’s visit to Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall in May.

“When the president touched those ancient stones, he touched our hearts forever,” Netanyahu said.

He peppered his speech with venerations of Trump. The president’s words from the same podium earlier on Tuesday morning had been “bolder” and “more courageous” than any other he had heard uttered under the UN’s domed roof, he added.

He was not the only leader that gave admiring speeches regarding Trump.

Before talks with his US counterpart on Wednesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Trump’s commitment to Middle East peace would help yield the “deal of the century” in the region.

A good week for Qatar

The Gulf island of Qatar got a boost in its 108-day-old rift with four neighbours at the UN headquarters this week.

First, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani used his podium set piece to attack Saudi Arabia and its blockade colleagues. Later on Tuesday, his face-time with Trump was viewed as a signal that the US will not prioritise one Gulf ally over another.

From the UN rostrum, Sheikh Tamim accused his neighbours of using a boycott on food, medicine and other items to “destabilise” Qatar and extract policy concessions. “Isn’t this one of the definitions of terrorism?” he asked.

Early in the crisis, Trump had sided with Riyadh and called Qatar a “funder of terrorism”. But he has since worked to broker a way out of the impasse. Before his sit-down with Sheikh Tamim, he told reporters the dispute “will be solved pretty quickly”.

Sheikh Tamim said Washington’s “interference will help a lot”. That may be true. This week, a Bloomberg story said Trump had talked the Saudis and Emiratis out of their plans to use military force against Qatar earlier in the face-off.

“Those who oppose Qatar were obviously looking for signs that Trump would throw the emir under the bus. But it’s now clear that the US is trying to resolve the crisis in a way that doesn’t put the blame on any one party,” analyst Sigurd Neubauer told MEE.

Jonathan Cristol, a scholar at the World Policy Institute, a think-tank, agreed. “Whatever Riyadh says, more countries worry about Saudi-spread extremism than they do about Qatar-funded terrorism,” he told MEE.

Iran nuke deal has a half-life

The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran looked like it was decaying faster than an unstable isotope.

Trump called it “an embarrassment” during his speech to the 193-nation assembly and later tantalisingly told journalists he had already decided if he would move to pull the US out of the accord, but did not elaborate.

He is due to report to the US Congress by 15 October on whether to certify that Iran is upholding its side of the bargain, under which it accepted limits on its nuclear work. That could lead to Congress re-imposing sanctions and an unravelling of the deal.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani bit back, saying the internationally backed accord should not be upended by “rogue newcomers to the world of politics,” in a clear swipe at Trump.

Netanyahu, who has long railed against a deal that was brokered during Barack Obama’s presidency, urged leaders to “fix it, or nix it”.

Despite frantic diplomacy between the US and its co-signatories on Wednesday, including the first face-time between US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, it remains unclear which route Trump will take.

Doha up, Riyadh down

Saudi Arabia, one of the Middle East’s heavyweights, typically plays a king-size role at General Assembly confabs. This year, its highest-ranking envoy has been Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, as Riyadh kept a lower profile than usual.

Jubeir attended sessions on Rohingya bloodshed and Syria’s civil war and met with British counterpart Boris Johnson, among others. But the foreign policy jamboree did not make fertile ground for Saudis this year, UN insiders told MEE.

The row with Qatar has dragged out longer than expected, Riyadh faces growing outrage over civilian body bags from its coalition war in Yemen and it could soon be named on the UN’s “list of shame” of armed groups that harm children.

“Saudi Arabia cares about its reputation and has built a narrative that it is addressing concerns over civilian casualties during its war in Yemen,” said Dragica Mikavica, from the pressure group Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict.

Shaming Riyadh for abuses in Yemen at the UN would be laudable, but may not affect real change, she added. “It would likely not seriously deter its backers and arms suppliers in Britain and the US,” Mikavica told MEE.

The kingdom is also in the crosshairs of a civil case in US courts – enabled by the 2016 Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) – which allows Americans to sue Riyadh over its alleged role in the 9/11 attacks.

Terry Strada, who lost her husband on 9/11, said petrodollar lobbying potential has waned.

“The tide has turned and their money does not buy them the influence that it used to in Washington,” Strada told MEE. “You know why? It’s because they’re guilty. It’s not a secret anymore.”

Elsewhere at UNGA

There was plenty of other Middle East action at UN headquarters this week. On Thursday, the Security Council approved the creation of a UN investigation unit to collect evidence against fighters from the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq for future war crimes and genocide prosecutions.

Earlier, British Prime Minister Theresa May took aim at Facebook, Google and other social media giants, urging them to more swiftly remove “terrorist content” from the internet and aim to stop it being uploaded in the first place.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used his podium slot to warn that a Kurdish independence referendum in northern Iraq this month could lead to fresh conflicts in the region. He later threatened to impose sanctions against the potential splitters.

Diplomats were unusually optimistic about Libya. UN envoy Ghassan Salame unveiled a roadmap to break a political stalemate in the North African country, which is ruled by three competing governments and has seen little but turmoil since a 2011 uprising.

Despite the scale of human suffering they produce, the conflicts in Syria and Yemen were notably absent from the lips of many envoys this week. With little prospect of diplomatic breakthroughs in either war, world leaders seemingly focused on more pressing headaches.

This article first appeared on Middle East Eye.


On trial: the destruction of history during conflict

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi to plead guilty to destroying sacred sites in Mali. Will other sledgehammer-wielders take note?

NEW YORK // When the Roman Emperor Jovian ordered the burning of the Library of Antioch in the 4th century AD, there was nobody around to make him answer for what ancient Syrian culture buffs deemed a “barbaric act”, according to records.

Modern history is littered with cases of wartime razing, from the levelling of Dresden to the Taliban’s Buddha demolition at Bamiyan. Politicians have been slow to crack down on ruinous acts, but experts hope that this month the curve will bend in the right direction.

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi is expected to plead guilty to war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague after allegedly destroying holy and historic sites in Timbuktu as his al-Qaeda-linked group swept across Mali in 2012.

For heritage lovers, it is a watershed moment. The first ICC prosecution solely for tearing down monuments will deter other wreckers, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, they say.

“The case sets an important precedent by demonstrating, once again, that these attacks on heritage are really attacks on people,” said Tess Davis, a director of The Antiquities Coalition, which seeks to end ISIL-style racketeering.

“We’ve seen it before, from the Nazis to the Khmer Rouge and the Taliban, and we must end impunity for these crimes.”

The ICC has probed the events in Mali since 2012, when Tuareg rebels seized chunks of the country’s northern deserts and desecrated mosques, shrines and monuments in Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

French and Malian troops pushed them back in 2013.

According to prosecutors, al-Mahdi, a former teacher in his 40s, led an anti-vice squad called al-Hesbah, which acted for the Islamic court of Timbuktu, while he was a member of Ansar Dine, a Tuareg rebel group allied with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

He is accused of directing attacks on nine mausoleums and the Sidi Yahia mosque in Timbuktu, a trade hub that became Islam’s “intellectual and spiritual capital” in Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries, according to UNESCO.

In broad daylight, pickaxe-wielding men tore down mud-brick walls in front of television cameras. Mahdi himself spoke on screen, using the alias Abu Tourab, to declare the structures “forbidden” under Islam.

Some 4,000 ancient manuscripts were lost, stolen or torched during the group’s reign. Fatou Bensouda, ICC prosecutor, decried an “irreplaceable” loss of history “felt by the whole of humanity, and at the expense of future generations”.

Al-Mahdi, from Agoune, 100km west of Timbuktu, the so-called “City of 333 Saints”, was later detained by officials in neighbouring Niger and handed over to the court in the Netherlands, where he is in custody.

He is expected to plead guilty at the start of a week-long trial, which can be seen online. It will hear from lawyers, expert and character witnesses and a representative of nine victims before its three judges retire to consider the outcome.

If convicted, al-Mahdi faces jail, a fine and reparation payments to victims. Lawyers contacted by Al Jazeera estimated sentences of between four to 10 years, but said it was hard to predict how the ICC would balance the needs of justice in its first plea bargain.

According to heritage buffs, the case is needed now more than ever.

The Middle East hosts many ancient and valued sites.

“In a matter of days, weeks and months we’ve lost entire chapters of history and sites and objects that had survived for millennia. We’re losing so much from the cradle of civilisation on our watch,” said Davis.

ISIL famously destroyed The Temple of Bel and other sites among the 2,000-year-old ruins of Palmyra, in Syria, and smashed up many statues from the ancient Assyrian era after seizing the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2015.

But less well-known strikes on buildings belonging to Shia Muslims and Yazidis – groups that ISIL views as heretics – are more worrying to Davis, who sees heritage-trashing as a “red flag of an impending genocide”.

According to Lisa Ackerman, an official of the World Monuments Fund charity, heritage destruction in the modern-day Middle East compares to Europe’s intra-Christian violence of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Back then, an “incalculable number of sculptures was destroyed for being the wrong expression of Christianity,” Ackerman told Al Jazeera. In both periods, religious puritanism led to blood and toppled towers, she added.

The ICC’s Bensouda has spoken of prosecuting atrocities in Iraq and Syria but is hamstrung by the court’s limited jurisdiction. Ackerman and Davis both said that global rules on preserving heritage lack teeth.

The ICC builds on national and international laws that mention protecting valued sites in wartime, such as the Lieber Code, signed by then US President Abraham Lincoln after the Civil War, and The Hague Conventions.

Laws accompany practical steps. In World War II, conservators removed statues from plazas and stained-glass windows from churches across Europe to save them from aerial bombing raids, said Ackerman.

Similarly, many relics were shipped from Mosul’s museum to Baghdad before ISIL rolled into town.

Not every effort has worked. In the Balkan wars of the early 1990s, “blue shield” markers on historic sites, used to discourage attacks, were instead used by commanders to target buildings that were valued by an enemy ethnic group.

“They were used for the exact opposite purpose for which they were intended,” said Ackerman.

The ICC treaty outlaws hits on “buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments” and hospitals. But, in a crucial caveat, it permits acts that advance “military objectives”.

This is problematic. In World War II, Allied officials said bombing Dresden and other cities helped shatter German morale, slow the Nazi war machine and end the conflict. The same justifications are available to modern-day generals.

Meanwhile, historic sites are targets for other aims. The thick walls and high ground of Crac des Chevaliers, a fortress in western Syria, were as useful to rebel fighters in 2012 as they were to the Crusader force that built them 800 years earlier.

Syrian army generals knew this too, and bombed the castle’s chapel to dust.

The so-called “military necessity” waiver is among the toughest legal aspects of wartime conservation. Some examples of destruction are clear-cut – neither al-Mahdi’s mosque-trashing nor Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht served a military purpose.

But other examples are trickier. Did US troops err by toppling Saddam Hussein’s statue at the end of the Iraq War? Was Al-Qaeda’s Pentagon hit on 9/11 a reasonable target, given the group’s military goals?

And, hypothetically, if ISIL chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were holed up in a historic citadel, would US warplanes be correct to bomb the building – killing the leader but destroying a prized landmark in the process?

Experts are divided on such tough questions.

Tim Slade, the director of The Destruction of Memory, a movie on the topic, said he wanted generals to think twice before pulling the trigger, but acknowledged that they are “weighing up various factors” in split-second decisions.

Others take a tougher line. For Nada Hosking, a director at the Global Heritage Fund, a conservation group, there are no exceptions and buildings deserve similar protections to people. “It has to be a law across the board,” Hosking told Al Jazeera.

For Ackerman, the key is keeping better inventories of valued sites and objects, especially in poorer countries, and protecting them when fighting starts. For Davis, the ICC needs to be able to flex its muscles more easily.

According to Harvard Law School scholar Alex Whiting, progress is slow, but gains are palpable.

“When the US invaded Iraq, there was chaos, looting and the destruction of art and culture. No one had prepared for it at all,” Whiting told Al Jazeera.

“This process is about drawing attention to the importance of those things. Hopefully, more care will be paid in the future.”

This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

A mushroom cloud hangs over Obama’s Hiroshima visit

Has the world failed to learn any lessons from the 1945 US atomic strikes on Japan?

LAGRANGEVILLE, NEW YORK // Of all her painful memories from August 6, 1945, what vexes Tomiko Morimoto West the most is how she argued with her mother on that fateful day, trumpeting her role in Japan’s war effort and slamming the door on her way out.

It was an eventful morning in Hiroshima. The world’s first deployed atomic bomb burst into a 4,000C fireball and flattened the city with a hurricane-like blast, killing thousands instantly and some 140,000 by the end of the year.

West, now 84, recalls a B-29 bomber painting “beautiful” vapour trails above Hiroshima. A “bright, bright light” and the thud of buildings falling. A red flare, looming like a setting sun. A city-wide inferno. Black rain. Charred flesh. Riverbeds full of corpses.

But her overriding memory is how she, as a hot-headed 13-year-old, left her mother on bad terms. At the time, lessons were cancelled and schoolchildren worked in farms and factories or trained to fight off gun-toting US infantrymen with bamboo sticks.

Pumped up with pride and nationalist fervour, her parting words were: “I’m working every day for the government.” The door slammed. It was weeks before she found her mother’s body, under a crushed building, only identifiable by her clothing.

“When you leave the house you have to hug. You never know, you might not see each other again. Had I known she would have died that day, would I have argued? I never would have done that,” West said.

“So, every morning I go pray. I say: ‘Mum, I’m sorry. I was not very nice’.”

It was a tough lesson, but not the only one that month. Nagasaki’s people learned the destructive power of atomic weapons on August 9 and, six days later, Japanese Emperor Hirohito and his generals agreed to surrender, ending World War II.

As Japan picked itself out of the rubble, West left the blighted area, studied and got a job with the occupying US forces. She later married a US serviceman. Nowadays, they live in the leafy Hudson Valley, in an all-American home with Japanese cherry blossoms growing at the front.

Like Tomiko and Melvin West, the US and Japan get on fine these days. On Friday, Barack Obama will become the first sitting US president to tour Hiroshima’s ground zero, accompanied by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

It is a big deal for both countries and revives a thorny question: was the US right to drop apocalyptic bombs on civilians, ostensibly to hasten Japan’s surrender and avert a land invasion that would prove costly in US lives?

Critics of that decision say Japan would have surrendered anyway, and that Washington was more interested in showing off its new city-killers to the Soviet Union, pre-empting the coming Cold War and its nuclear arms race.

This puts Obama on the spot. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate is warier of deploying military hardware than many of his predecessors and his decision to lay a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial suggests remorse over the double doomsday bombings.

White House officials say Obama will not apologise during his remarks. Fifty-six percent of Americans believe the atomic strikes were justified under the circumstances, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center poll.

Joseph Gerson, an anti-war activist, said a formal US apology would “upset the debate in the coming presidential election” and give Republicans ammunition against Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, who pledges to advance Obama’s legacy.

“But, at some point, you have to face history,” Gerson, from the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group, told Al Jazeera.

Obama’s problems do not end there. In April 2009, upon taking office, he delivered a speech in Prague calling for a world without nuclear weapons. Now his presidency is winding down, critics question his efforts on nuclear disarmament.

There have been gains. The New START deal with Russia, ratified in 2010, limited the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550. Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit meetings have reduced global stockpiles of weapon-making isotopes.

His 2015 nuclear deal with Iran may have helped avert a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. According to Ben Rhodes, his deputy national security adviser, the administration has “bent the curve in the right direction”.

But the gains may be dwarfed by the setbacks.

The US is spending as much as $1 trillion over three decades to modernise its nuclear arms stockpiles. Britain plans to renew its missile-launching submarines. North Korea is now believed to be able to mount a small nuclear warhead on missiles capable of striking neighbours.

Pakistan is deploying small, tactical nuclear weapons that are vulnerable to theft or misuse. Kenneth Luongo, president and founder of the Center for a Secure Nuclear Future, a policy group, described the situation as a “free-for-all in South Asia”.

According to Setsuko Thurlow, 84, a Japanese peace activist who was 1.8km from the hypocentre of Hiroshima’s blast, Obama is a “decent human being” but he “hasn’t done enough to be complimented” on his nuclear disarmament efforts.

Thurlow has her own horror stories from the carnage of 1945. She recalls “thick, black liquid” oozing from sickened relatives as their organs rotted. When dressing, she scoured her skin for “purple spots” of radiation poisoning that were a “sure sign you were to die”.

A witness to such terrors, the Toronto resident argues fervently for wholesale nuclear disarmament. Her views are shared by many younger people who endured the Cold War, fearful of nuclear Armageddon. For millennials, however, the threat is less palpable.

“People went back to sleep,” Thurlow told Al Jazeera.

Prospects for more deals between the world’s top nuclear hoarders – Russia and the US – are bleak, given tensions over Ukraine and Syria. Instead, activists focus on a so-called “humanitarian initiative” to stigmatise nuclear arms via UN talks in Geneva.

Others call for unilateral disarmament – a move that requires more courage than most politicians can stomach.

“The pathway to ultimate nuclear disarmament is filled with hairpin twists, and is a very long road,” Luongo said. Belt-tightening in Washington, Moscow and other cash-strapped capitals may hasten arms reductions more quickly than pressure groups, he added.

Army chiefs want weapons they can use on battlefields, not locked up in missile silos. “At some point, decision-making will be driven by dollars, not necessarily by ideology or by arms control calculations,” Luongo said.

This would, of course, fall short of the universal scrapping of nuclear weapons demanded by Thurlow, West and other survivors of Little Boy – the oddly innocent codename for the bomb that levelled their city. But it may be the best deal on offer in an unstable world.

West learned her lesson from Hiroshima. Her mother’s memory looms large. Instead of rowing with her husband, she turns the other cheek. “I just say: ‘OK’. My mother should just see me now,” said West, who doesn’t have children. “I’m like a different person.”

But broader lessons from the calamity have not been learned. Seven decades since mushroom clouds towered over southern Japan, it seems as though humanity will still have enough weapons to wipe out life on the planet for many years to come.

“School systems are failing; media is failing; governments are failing to help young people understand the world they live in,” said Thurlow. “They don’t know what it means to live in a nuclear age.”

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.

UN’s ambitious new development goals could fall flat

The world cannot afford for another round of multilateral negotiations to implode

United Nations bureaucrats work hard to ease the woes of the world. Apart from war, they also tackle poverty, climate change, inequality, joblessness, weak governance, discrimination, shabby schools and crumbling hospitals. Ambitious U.N. targets for addressing these woes are being drafted and are expected to be called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) when they are signed by world leaders in New York in September 2015. The SDGs will succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the poverty-reduction targets that reach their deadline next year after 15 years in place.

Like all examples of U.N. idealism, the initiative looks good on paper. The problem is not that the new goals are too ambitious but that the world cannot handle watching another round of important multilateral negotiations do a belly flop. Diplomats are already quibbling over the details. A failure to negotiate meaningful SDGs will mark another failure of nations to come together on the most important global issues. Not only would that kill a useful deal, but it could also kill the spirit to negotiate.

Though they are not legally binding, U.N.-set goals serve a purpose: giving NGOs and governments something to aim for. Advocates have a yardstick to measure governments’ progress. Leaders do not want to be outpaced by school enrollment and maternal mortality figures from next-door nations.

Even so, the MDGs have had a mixed record. Halving the number of people living in extreme poverty was reached ahead of schedule. Targets for reducing hunger, childhood deaths and primary school enrollment are likely to be missed.

But the headline target of halving the global number of people living in extreme poverty (on less than $1.25 a day) was almost certainly achieved by export-driven growth and industrialization in China and India. Targets set in New York cannot take credit for the results of a more globalized world economy.

The SDGs are much grander than the MDGs. They draw together input from the Rio+20 U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, a 27-member panel of politicians and luminaries and a survey of 2 million people in mostly poor countries. They concern rich and poor states alike and expand the MDGs’ remit of poverty reduction to a more ambitious but poorly defined goal of sustainability. It will almost definitely include eliminating extreme poverty by 2030.

The new SDGs are already showing their frailties. First, the global economy is in much worse shape than it was in 2000, when world leaders signed the MDGs into life at the Millennium Summit. It’s harder to improve livelihoods when the world is still recovering from the effects of the global recession. The MDGs’ budget was effectively the $130 billion annual foreign aid packages of rich countries. Sustainability targets are much more expensive: Limiting global warming to a rise of 2 degrees Celsius, for example, would cost $1 trillion a year, says the International Energy Agency.

Second, the headline SDG target of eliminating extreme poverty, everywhere, is a stretch. Wiping out extreme poverty among the first half of the world’s poor population was a success of the MDGs. But development workers acknowledge it was low-hanging fruit, with swaths of easy-to-reach city-dwellers being nudged across the poverty line.

The global poverty that’s still around will be tougher to get rid of. One study, “Work With Us: How People and Organisations Can Catalyse Sustainable Change,” found the world’s poorest are often handicapped, LGBT or elderly or from indigenous, religious or ethnic groups that are more likely to be eschewed by their government than to benefit from largesse.

Likewise, there are some states where poverty eradication is close to impossible. The people of Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic will continue to suffer hardship while their countries are riven by civil war. No magic U.N. wand can tackle poverty during conflict.

Third, the SDGs seek to measure all countries on one scale. Grading such divergent states as Bolivia, Belarus and Botswana was already difficult. Adding Belgium to the mix is even more of a headache.

Finally, the U.N. has set itself up for a negotiation process in which the lowest common denominator will prevail. Rich countries will struggle with meaningful targets for tackling income inequality, even if it is a policy for left-leaning politicians in those economies. Likewise, U.N.-set immigration targets, which are featured in drafts of the SDGs, will encounter resistance, despite the potential boon for migrants from the developing world.

Countries with poor records on government corruption, accountability and political freedom are already raising objections to committing themselves to targets for cleaning up the political class. That leads to the root problem of the SDGs: They come in an era when multilateral talks tend to flounder. Whether it’s the World Trade Organization’s Doha trade negotiations or a new U.N. climate change treaty, when discussions get too big, complicated and expensive, they tend to collapse.

This raises questions about why the U.N. is setting the bar so high. Reaching for the stars and then falling short is OK under normal circumstances because some people will benefit from whatever gains are achieved. But setting another lofty target when world powers disagree on so much else — from Syria to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and next year’s climate treaty in Paris — could overload the diplomatic wagon.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera America.

The UN should set aside a day for common sense

Although it has probably escaped your notice, tomorrow is World Philosophy Day.

The annual dedication to history’s great thinkers may not be the only commemorative day you have missed. The month of November has no less than a dozen celebratory days designated by the United Nations.

Some highlight worthy causes, such as remembering the victims of road accidents (November 21), ending violence against women (November 25) or standing shoulder to shoulder with Palestinians (November 29). Others are more obscure, harder to justify and even irrelevant.

Does either World Television Day (November 21) or Africa Industrialisation Day (November 20) warrant a dedication? Did people behave in a more broad-minded manner than usual for the 24 hours of International Day for Tolerance yesterday?

And tomorrow, the UN-designated homage to philosophy, an annual occurrence on the third Thursday of November, is unlikely to yield any great debate on the Socratic dialogues or Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

With a cluttered calendar, whole weeks are now devoted to issues such as breastfeeding (in August), interfaith harmony (February) and – in lumbering UN language – Solidarity with the Peoples of Non-Self-Governing Territories (May).

It does not stop there. The year 2010 is dedicated to two issues: biodiversity and cultural rapprochement. From January 1, 2011 you can begin celebrating forests and chemistry

Most people are oblivious to the current decade-long commemorations for 10 lofty themes, from indigenous people (2005-14) to fighting desertification (2010-20). Next year begins a decade for road safety.

It is only a matter of time before all 365 days have been taken, and UN members will clamour to pass a resolution utilising the final vacant slot for a pet project – perhaps February 29, which occurs only once every four years.

As well as the 192-nation UN General Assembly, private groups have joined the dating game, designating days for left-handers (August 13), veganism (November 1) and – more comically – talking like a pirate (September 19).

The result is a calendar overloaded with observances. While many are noble and noteworthy in their own rights, they often fail to leave a mark on the popular imagination.

Celebrating annual events dates back to early civilisations, when timings were fixed by solstices, equinoxes, the solar and lunar calendars and seasonal occurrences. The ancient Egyptians celebrated the annual inundation of the Nile.

Religions fixed the most recognisable days, such as Eid al Adha, Eid al Fitr, Easter and Christmas. Anniversaries of historical events, such as the UAE’s upcoming National Day (December 2), are equally well-received, often marked with a public holiday.

The problem with UN observances is that there are now so many that they have lost significance. The most recently designated UN date, World Statistics Day (October 20), hardly threatens the status of days such as the Prophet’s birthday, Mothering Sunday or Diwali.

Even Shrove Tuesday, celebrated as Pancake Day with a fried-batter treat in some western countries, is more remarkable than a day that the UN says will commemorate “the many achievements of official statistics”.

Statistics are, of course, useful and important, but that does not mean that they deserve an annual celebration. For this reason, it is time for the UN General Assembly to exercise restraint before elevating another annual observance to international law.

Advocates point to the usefulness of World No Tobacco Day (May 31) in helping quitters, or days for spotlighting important issues like cancer, corruption and human rights – that they do more good than harm.

But the Gregorian calendar has been used far too liberally and the time has come to de-commission dates that have failed to garner mass appeal. We can surely live without days for intellectual property (April 26), mountains (December 11) and audiovisual heritage (October 27).

At the very least, we could spare one single day on the calendar from Manhattan’s resolution-hungry bureaucrats. Using the clunky language of UN resolutions, it could even be called the International Day Without Observance.

This article first appeared in The National.