On Friday, February 17th, I had the privilege to attend the United Nations headquarters in New York for the annual United Nations Association Global Engagement Summit. This year’s theme was “Empowered and Emboldened for Impact,” named to inspire attendees to take action in global politics by vocalizing humanitarian concerns to local, state, and national policymakers.
The summit opened with remarks from United Nations Association (UNA)- affiliated professionals, including UNA-USA national council chairperson, Marielle Ali; UNA-USA executive director, Rachel Bowen Pittman; president and CEO of the UN Foundation, Elizabeth Cousens; and US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
The speakers repeatedly emphasized the accessibility of the United Nations to the everyday individual, especially to young people. Ms. Ali prefaced her speech with the first three words of the UN charter: we the peoples. She went on to explain the role of the UN as a grounded, tangible institution meant to serve everyday peoples, as opposed to some lofty, inaccessible ring of high-profile celebrity diplomats. Ms. Pittman echoed Ms. Ali’s rhetoric, reminding listeners that we, too, possess the agency to contribute to the UN by actively pursuing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Ms. Cousens continued vouching for the role of young people, the private sector, and collective action in achieving world change against the myriad of ongoing “polycrises,” a term she defined as a multitude of intersecting crises including poverty, conflict, and disease.
Ms. Thomas-Greenfield went on to gently criticize the UN, claiming the organization needs a “glow up” in order to modernize the UN security council (UNSC) and increase inclusivity. As the UNSC stands today, only the United States, China, the United Kingdom, Russia, and France hold permanent membership. However, according to Ms. Thomas-Greenfield, the United States supports council expansion in both permanent and nonpermanent members. While this expansion is crucial to increasing representation for all, it is hard to believe the United States would advocate for increasing permanent member spots and decreasing their own power. Ms. Thomas-Greenfield concluded the opening plenary by establishing a bottom line and setting the tone for the remainder of the summit: “UN capacity for change depends on you.”
Following the opening, Peter Yeo and Elizabeth Metraux of the Better World Campaign commemorated the one year anniversary of the Ukraine invasion. They opened with startling figures on the toll of the war on Ukrainians: 7,200 civilian deaths, 500 civilian children deaths, and 18 million refugees. They continued by addressing the elephant in the room: why has this particular crisis received so much attention, especially as ongoing humanitarian crises in less developed–and less white–countries report even worse figures throughout the years. According to Mr. Yeo and Ms. Metraux, the global community’s hyperfixation is due to the stark violation at hand, as this was an abundantly obvious international war crime committed by a permanent UNSC member. They also noted the prominence of the geographic location, although ascribing American economic interconnection as the reason for global recognition while ignoring the significance of racial biases–interesting, considering only two European countries are within America’s top ten global trading partners and they both rank beneath countries undergoing much lesser-recognized humanitarian disasters such as China’s Uyghur genocide.
Regarding the UN’s strategy for ending the conflict, Mr. Yeo and Ms. Metraux repeatedly claimed that the “war needs to play out on the battlefield before there can be meaningful negotiations with a resolution.” Whether or not this statement is true, that we must sit tight until enough civilian deaths and war crimes have passed, it certainly seems to align with the current global approach in sanctioning, naming and shaming, and waiting around until a ceasefire is initiated or one side capitulates. The UN also asserts that either “the Russians have to recognize there won’t be a military solution and they won’t be able to control eastern Ukraine” or there must be a “change of leadership,” though the latter seems more plausible than hoping Putin has a sudden epiphany.
The two speakers did express optimism regarding the ease of peace negotiations, accrediting available international “negotiating tables” and shared knowledge of the Russian language for an expected smooth settlement. However, it is hard to imagine that given the sensitive, personal, identity-defining nature of this conflict the resolution will be straightforward.
At their conclusion, Mr. Yeo and Ms. Metraux emphasized the importance of strengthening NATO in order to “bring the world together against Russia,” prosecuting war crimes once the conflict reaches its conclusion, and “recognizing Ukraine’s future as fully integrated into EU and NATO.” Within the American context, they stressed the importance of vouching for the UN at American congress and pushing for more American investment in the UN, which they deemed crucial as a “strong, integrated, and European Ukraine” would prove “an investment for the US” through advancing American interests in Eastern Europe, strengthening economic ties, and halting the spread of Russo-simpatico ideology. Although the US accounts the largest percentage of UN funding, we still fail to pay our dues in full. The Better World representatives stressed the importance of paying peacekeeping dues in order to “remain relevant and influential” in global politics.
Next, we heard a discussion on delivering humanitarian aid by Mr. Maher Nasser, the Director of Outreach in the United Nations Department of Global Communications; Ms. Shameza Abdulla, a Senior Emergency Specialist at UNICEF; and Ms. Selly Muzammil, an officer at the World Food Programme (WFP). The speakers emphasized the humanitarian imperative: “providing aid to those in need regardless of politics,” and outlined the three pillars of humanitarianism: “peace and security, sustainable development, and human rights.”
Ms. Muzammil from the WFP detailed the myriad challenges in delivering aid, from coordinating with local populations to ensure resources reach the intended population to physically accessing conflict-ridden regions. Additionally, the WFP struggles with resource deficits as a result of lacking monetary reserves, as it is entirely volunteer funded. While they receive some financial support from the government and some from the private sector, they are determined to enhance collaboration with the private sector to advocate for increased donations.
UNICEF focuses on local solutions by collaborating with domestic actors at the municipal or state level while they aim to improve by eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy and streamlining the aid delivery process. Ms. Abdulla with UNICEF described unique humanitarian resources such as the “school in a box” initiative, a makeshift school set up to service children affected by emergency situations. In addition to basic schooling, these kits include methods of psychological support for children such as art supplies. The set up includes a tent which is often utilized in refugee camps, both to provide education to children and a safe place for children or women in need.
The summit continued with a discussion regarding the importance of protecting human rights, spearheaded by Leyla Sharafi, Senior Gender Adviser of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Craig Mokhiber, Director of the New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Mr. Mokhiber opened his talk with a concise, yet extremely poignant point, which has resonated with me ever since: we live in a country where “guns are a human right but health care is not.” He expanded on his opening statement with examples, both broad and specific; America’s legacy of racial discrimination, with which the government has yet to “come to grips;” falling behind international legal standards, exemplified by our refusal to sign the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and continuation of capital punishment; and failure to protect human rights defenders advocating for “less popular topics,” especially those that contradict American foreign policy such as standing up for Palestinian rights.
Mr. Mokhiber continued by acknowledging a point that I’d yearned to hear earlier during the Ukraine commemoration: the discrepancies in international support towards refugee populations of different racial backgrounds. He addressed the audience with a collective call to action: “Look at the contrast in refugee acceptance of Ukrainians versus brown, black, [or] Muslim [individuals].” Mr. Mokhiber strayed from diplomatic sugarcoating and beelined directly to the point, candidly describing the “human rights gap for migrants and refugees” in what was a fresh breath of clear, concise honesty. He used the Rohingya genocide as an example, explaining how “over one million Rohingya fled in 2017 from genocide,” yet until this day there is still “zero accountability for perpetrators” and still “one million refugees,” most residing in refugee camps where human rights cannot be fully realized.
Ms. Sharafi detailed gender rights in Afghanistan and the United States. Relating to Afghanistan, she shared updates on the status of women, telling how women are now banned from universities and from working for NGOs. She also explained the dire reproductive health crises occurring in both Afghanistan, where “over 24,000 a month women give birth in isolated areas” without access to proper healthcare, and America, where a “pro-natalist push” has emerged as governments are “concerned about population decline,” a phenomenon that has even reflected in health insurance, which has been discreetly removing birth control from policy plans. Concerning America, she voiced the intersectionality between racism and sexism, providing examples of unequal access and discrimination within healthcare, where “women of African descent are disadvantaged before, during, and after.” She echoed Mr. Mokhiber’s view that the root cause of discrimination must first be addressed before long lasting change can manifest.
The seminar continued with Jamal Hill, founder of Swim Up Hill Foundation for teaching low-income communities swimming skills, Jen Mozen, Vice President at InnerView, and Harshani Dharmadasa, leader of the UN’s Our Future Agenda initiative describing the UN’s SDGs, a set of seventeen goals set to ameliorate international issues by the year 2030.
The luminary speakers highlighted intersectionality within the SDGs in order to find more comprehensive solutions. They continued stressing the importance of the private sector in creating positive change, as the private sector is able to move quicker than the bureaucratic public sector and is often better endowed with liquid funds. Ms. Mozen supplemented this idea by demanding businesses use their platforms to advertise the SDGs more frequently and more effectively. She stated that many corporations do in fact contribute to positive development but do not vocalize their contributions enough nor specifically tie them to the UN’s SDGs, a strategy Ms. Mozen claimed would be immensely helpful in propelling the advancement of the goals. The speakers concluded by emphasizing the role of the youth in actualizing SDGs, providing examples of how to get involved via school clubs, regional organizations, or simply independent research.
Lastly, I observed a speech by Mr. Selwin Hart, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Climate Action and Just Transition. Mr. Hart, like previous speakers, relayed the vitality of private sector contributions, of utmost importance especially in combating climate change considering their substantial contributions to global carbon pollution.
To me, the most significant takeaway from Mr. Hart’s speech was his synthesis of climate crises with humanitarian crises. While living in America, it can be easy to be oblivious to how severely climate change affects underserved populations, especially when this is so rarely broadcasted or taught. Although I consider myself relatively aware of intersectionality, such as that between racism and sexism, I’ve been ignorant to the connection between climate change and disadvantaged regions, and how tangible the effects of climate change are to those living in conditions more susceptible to extreme weather, less equipped with sustainable infrastructure, and less able to access advanced technology. Personally, I’ve always been concerned about climate change, but other than slight deviances in the weather, it has never really impacted my life; until Mr. Hart’s speech, it was hard to fathom how relevant it is to the daily lives of other populations.
He buttressed his claims with startling statistics, such as how “Africa, South America, and the Global South are fifteen times more likely to die from climate related issues” than those living in the Global North. Additionally, “70% of all climate related deaths occurred in the 40 poorest countries,” although the majority of carbon-emitting enterprises operate in the wealthiest countries. In regards to technology accessibility, “six out of ten Africans are not covered by early warning systems” that can provide alerts in preparation for weather crises. As a call to action, Mr. Hart recommended that “public and private finance flows towards renewables and support for less-developed countries” rather than towards increasing carbon pollution while chasing profits. Currently, twenty billion dollars are “put towards combating climate-caused damages” annually, while the top five largest gas and oil companies profited 200 billion in the past year. Mr. Hart called for “tax profits of fossil fuel companies to pay for damages from climate change,” a completely rational solution likely to be shut down by our oil-guzzling government.
In the bold words of Mr. Hart, “those who contributed the least pay the highest price,” and “incrementalism cannot be the name of the game;” the health of our Earth is unable to sit around and wait for a solution, and neither should we.
Overall, the summit was an extremely informative and comprehensive peek into the inner-workings and priorities of the United Nations. The prevailing theme seemed to be a call to action for youth to get involved in any way possible and also an imploration for the private sector to increase both intellectual and pecuniary investment in improving human rights conditions worldwide.
Personally, I did feel driven to take action; following the summit, I began laying the foundation for establishing USC’s own UNA-USA chapter–a project I hope to get up and running by next semester. As I was inspired to continue my UN involvement, I’ve maintained close correspondence with some of the amazing connections I made, which has allowed me to attend a conference with The Promise Institute for Human Rights and to return to the United Nations for the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues next month as an active representative for the Hawai’i Institute for Human Rights. I am extremely excited to continue working alongside the United Nations, and sincerely appreciate all those who’ve helped me along the way.
While I did not explain in depth, it is important to also recognize the other incredible discussions presented at the conference: Maintaining International Security and Peace with Paul Snyder, Daria Miglietta Ferrari, and Elizabeth Metraux; Preserving our Cultural Heritage with Justin Hansford, Christinia Eala, Kathryn Kross, and Estelle Zadra; Upholding International Law with Sofia Borges and Odo Tevi; and Supporting the Evolution of the UN with Jordie Hannum, Deanna Bitetti, and Jake Sherman. On behalf of myself and all other attendees, I can confidently give our collective appreciation for this incredible learning opportunity and all those involved.