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17 November 2020

2020 F. Allen "Tex" Harris Award Honorees Conversation

Human Rights Commitment Started Early,
By A. Edward Elmendorf, Past President UNA-NCA

In a wide-ranging conversation, UNA-NCA’s 2020 ‘Tex’ Harris Award recipients for human rights progress through diplomacy, Erin Barclay and Scott Busby of the U.S. Department of State, said that their development as human rights advocates began during their high school and college years.  Both were trained as lawyers but it was evident that their human rights interests, experiences, and concerns extend well beyond a traditional concern with rights as formulated in law. Our conversation showed that Barclay and Busby represent the best of what people in this country can do in public service under political leaders of widely varying views and administrations.

We spoke about how Barclay and Busby came to be human rights advocates on the global stage. Barclay’s experiences in Nicaragua and Poland, as well as addressing the topic of domestic violence, were important stimuli to her engagement in international human rights. She expressed special appreciation for the mentoring support she received from Dr. Isabel Marcus, Professor Emerita at the University of Buffalo School of Law, and Dr. Ann Snitow, formerly a professor at the New School for Social Research and a distinguished feminist and women’s rights activist. The notorious human rights abuses in Chile, Argentina, and Central America in the 1970s and 1980s helped give rise to Busby’s interest in human rights.  Lawyer and founder of Human Rights First Michael Posner was a mentor and then model for him, as was law professor Carolyn “Patty” Blum, who founded the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the UC Berkeley School of Law and worked to bring human rights abusers to justice.

For Busby, the work of ‘Tex’ Harris has also been an inspiration in Harris’ service as a U.S. diplomat in Argentina working to bring abuses to the attention of senior officials, who were working closely with the military-dominated government of the time and paid little attention to human rights problems.  He noted that Tex’s work helped to give rise to the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, where Busby currently works.  Busby also spoke of the inspiration he had received from Bayard Rustin, a 1960s African-American civil rights leader and organizer of the famous 1963 ‘March on Washington’ who later extended his work to international human rights advocacy; and Joe Eldridge, founder of the Washington Office on Latin America and long-time human rights activist on Central America.  Eldridge, it should be noted, received the UNA-NCA Sohn Award in 2007.

Both Barclay and Busby encouraged young professionals wishing to develop careers in international human rights to travel and do human rights work in other countries. For them, there’s no substitute for the ‘feel’ that people get through extended exposure to human rights and other issues, concerns, and abuses outside the United States. Barclay strongly encouraged human rights advocates to develop a large ‘toolbox’ of skills and experiences on which to draw, and not to limit themselves to one discipline, such as law or political science, or even one region of the world. Gaining experience in problem-solving could be a great help, she said.

Busby and Barclay underscored the importance of the United States domestic record on human rights as a factor in its promotion of the rights of people around the world.  Americans often fail to understand how significant the U.S. posture and problems are for other countries.  They both noted the significant impact of the civil rights and women’s rights movements on activists around the world, including in the UN.  (Acceptance of this interaction of national, global, and even local developments in the field of human rights was limited during my years of work on human rights at the U.S. Mission to the UN in New York in the 1960s. At that time the United States discouraged examination of the U.S. domestic human rights record at the UN.)

Both Barclay and Busby saw the UN’s humanitarian system and actions, through UNHCR, WFP, and beyond, as outstanding examples of UN success on human rights.  Similarly, the work leading to UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, and especially the follow-up on the Council’s action at the country level, were UN success stories, which build on U.S. experience. The examination of countries’ human rights performance through the Universal Periodic Review was a positive development, in the view of both Busby and Barclay. They also cited the actions of UN special rapporteurs on human rights and fundamental freedoms such as freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to peaceful assembly, and freedom of religion or belief, and, at the country level, on North Korea and Iran, as UN successes. Last and certainly not least, they mentioned also the work of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Asked what they were most proud of in their work as human rights advocates and leaders, Barclay spoke of the work of the entire team of people who contribute to what the U.S. says and does internationally on human rights.  Busby was, he said, particularly proud of his work on cases of asylum seekers, persecuted human rights activists, and political prisoners. Speaking of why the UN’s work on human rights is important to him, Busby highlighted the value of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The Declaration, he said, has served to spread shared values throughout the world, and he observed that it probably could not be successfully negotiated today. 

Speaking of how the UN’s work on human rights could be strengthened, Busby and Barclay stressed the need for more democratic countries to become active in UN bodies seeking to advance human rights. They noted that countries standing for election to the Human Rights Council should be expected to defend their human rights record publicly, including in response to questions from diplomats and especially civil society representatives. Finally, they underscored the importance of mainstreaming human rights throughout the UN system.

12 November 2020

UN75: Past. Present. Progress.

This October, the United Nations celebrated its 75th anniversary.  Over the past year, the United Nations, United Nations Association of the USA (UNA-USA), and the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA) have both celebrated and examined the first 75 years of the organization in order to better understand what the next 75 years should look like.  One major part of this were the global consultations hosted by private citizens, civil society, and other groups, which UNA-NCA took great  part in.  As the grand finale of this monumental year, UNA-NCA hosted a series of events to further celebrate and examine the future of the UN.  These included more casual, intimate gatherings such as our annual Eleanor Roosevelt Happy Hour and a virtual edition of our Young Professional Career Series featuring Careers in the United Nations.  UNA-NCA also hosted two high profile events including our special October 15th “UN75 Coffee Chat: The Future We Want” featuring Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-MD-8).

As the zenith of our UN75 celebrations, UNA-NCA recently hosted the last installment of our celebration of United Nations Month 2020 entitled “UN at 75: Past. Present. Progress. Building The Future We Want.” The event took place virtually, featuring Keynote Remarks by Ms. Ulrika Modéer, Assistant Administrator and Director of the Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy at the United Nations Development Program. Following her remarks, Ms. Modeéer engaged in an expert discussion with Dr. Robert Orr, Dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, and Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General on Climate Change, that was moderated by UNA-NCA President Paula Boland. Also included in the celebration, was the presentation of the 2020 UNA-NCA Edison Dick Advocacy Award to The Honorable Barbara Lee, Congresswoman for the 13th District of California. 

The evening began with remarks from UNA-NCA  Chair of the board Stephen F. Moseley. Moseley introduced the event and spoke on the miraculous activities that not only the United Nations has accomplished over the past 75 years and the hope that it continues, but also the amazing activities that UNA-NCA  does every day. Following Moseley’s remarks, there was a video presentation from the Secretary- General of the United Nations, António Guterres. The Secretary-General  commended all the work the United Nations Association has done and called for “International cooperation from all countries for the next 75 years.” This was followed by the presentation of the Edison W. Dick Advocacy Leadership Award to The Honorable Barbara Lee, Congresswoman for the 13th District of California. She was honored with this award for her work on H.Res. 1024, Recognizing the 75th Anniversary of the Establishment of the United Nations, and H.Con.Res. 100, Urging the Establishment of a United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation. Ms. Modeer gave her keynote address following Congresswoman Lee’s acceptance of the award. She spoke on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the progress that has been made on the 2030 Agenda. She also cautioned the amount of progress left to make saying “the pandemic has been a siren call” on how much more work is needed. At this point in the event, Dr. Orr joined Ms.Odeer for a Q&A moderated by UNA-NCA President Paula Boland. They covered a wide range of topics with Orr giving a domestic view and Odeer giving a more global view. Some of the discussion included the Sustainable Development Goals and how meaningful they are for local actors here and across the world. 

Participants had the unique opportunity to engage in UN75 Consultation Report Breakout Sessions on the following topics: Global Health, Peace & Security, Gender Equity, Human Rights, Sustainable Development, and International Law.  The main discussion was focused on the climate change crisis and how it affects all of the various aspects of the world. Some other topics that were discussed include the various changing political landscapes across the world (ex. The U.S. election), how to get to the better world we all want, and how poverty can affect your point of view on various issues. The evening was wrapped up with a beautiful euphonium performance by Jordan Moore of Ferdinand David's Concertino for Trombone. Congratulations on 75 years and to the next 75!


13 October 2020

Announcing the Emerging Leaders program

UNA-NCA’s Emerging Leaders program aims to provide youth leaders with the tools and support they need to develop their advocacy skills. As an Emerging Leader, students of all ages, including middle and high school, as well as undergraduates, will have the opportunity to connect with mentors, gain professional development skills, get published on UNA-NCA Snapshots, and advance their knowledge of sustainable development and the UN agenda. Candidates will come out having a demonstrated passion for human rights and social justice.

Ready to get involved? Apply here.
Applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis.


30 September 2020

International Data Sharing and Artificial Intelligence Cooperation in Global Public Health Emergencies: A Virtual Roundtable

Report produced by the UNA-NCA Peace and Security Committee

Events presented on: Wednesdays, August 19, September 2, and September 16, 2020

The United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA) along with its Peace and Security Committee hosted a series of panel discussions, entitled “International Data Sharing and Artificial Intelligence Cooperation in Global Public Health Emergencies: A Virtual Roundtable.”  The events took place virtually and welcomed panelists and participants from all around the world, including the Kingdom of Spain, France, Malta, the People's Republic of China and New Zealand.  All three panels were moderated by Mr. Patrick Realiza, Co-Chair of the UNA-NCA Peace & Security Committee The program provided a platform for discussion among global health experts, government officials, data scientists, researchers, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning practitioners and privacy advocates. The panelists all shared their perspectives on pressing issues related to Big Data and AI in the COVID era, including transnational data collaboration and data privacy.

Panel 1 - Opportunities and Challenges to International Data Cooperation in the COVID Era

The first panel discussion, entitled, “Opportunities and Challenges to International Data Cooperation in the COVID Era”, featured Mr. Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, Director of the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE) and Dr. Ellie Graeden, who is the Founder and CEO of Talus Analytics and has studied the role of Big Data in global infection disease prevention. 

As moderator Mr. Realiza began the program by asking Mr. Lee-Makiyama and Dr. Graeden to define the concepts of Big Data and AI and to describe their impact on global affairs. Mr. Lee-Makiyama explained that Big Data and AI is something that we all have come in contact with in our day-to-day lives, or have already heard much about, whether it is cloud-based services such as Alexa, drones, or maybe even automated vehicles. Mr. Lee-Makiyama further explained that AI has witnessed increasing relevance on the global front, with Europe at the forefront of AI regulation. Dr. Graeden discussed how algorithms used by AI can help assist decision-makers. She explained that the core of AI involves deciphering statistics at scale and applying traditional techniques to large data sets in order to make sense of them.

Mr. Realiza then asked the panelists to discuss how governments use Big Data in addressing global pandemic needs. Dr. Graeden discussed how data has been collected globally, is shared across borders, and allows her team to understand global health conditions within multiple disciplines such as medicine, health systems, policies and economics. 

Mr. Realiza then moved onto another compelling question: How do governments place restrictions on cross border transfers of data? Mr. Lee-Makiyama delved into the consequences of digital protectionism and explained that it prevents market access and can also create market fragmentation. According to him, national governments have used creative ways to stop trade for the “public’s interest.” Mr. Lee-Makiyama also discussed how COVID-19 has amplified many problems that already existed in regards to digital sovereignty and highlighted the importance of uniform standards across data. 

Other questions that were addressed during this webinar included: What is the impact of cloud computing on international data sharing? What role can small enterprises play in COVID-19 data collection? And do international norms exist for data sharing? Both speakers brought very insightful discussions to the panel, resulting in an enlightening and thorough understanding of the questions at hand. 

Panel 2 - Data Sharing, AI Cooperation and the Transnational Response to COVID-19

The second panel was dedicated to the issue of transnational collaboration among researchers to support the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel featured Dr. Pascal Fung, Professor at the Department of Electronic & Computer Engineering and Department of Computer Science & Engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology (HKUST) and Dr. Miguel Luengo-Oroz, Chief Data Scientist at United Nations Global Pulse in New York City.

Dr. Luengo-Oroz opened the program by reminding the audience how AI can help combat global pandemics on three different levels. On a molecular scale, AI can help scientists identify promising coronavirus vaccine candidates. On a local scale, AI can also track outcomes for different types of patients and help hospitals decide how many intensive care unit (ICU) beds to deploy. On a societal scale, AI can also measure the efficacy of public health policies and track misinformation about the pandemic.

Professor Fung explained how Natural Language Processing (NLP) tools allowed her and other researchers to create a platform that extracts and summarizes relevant information from around 70,000 publications on the COVID-19 pandemic. She shared her optimism about the engine and emphasized that several UN member states are already using the publicly available platform to better combat the pandemic. Professor Fung echoed Dr. Luengo-Oroz’s concern about the spread of misinformation and stated that she would like to broaden the platform to analyze data beyond scientific publications. 

Mr. Realiza then asked Dr. Luengo-Oroz to describe the role of the UN Global Pulse in facilitating international data cooperation. Dr. Luengo-Oroz explained that the initiative supports all UN Agencies and emerged as a result of the 2008 global financial crisis. In his view, both the current pandemic and the financial crisis emphasize the need for international cooperation in a fast-changing world. The UN Global Pulse works towards that goal by collaborating with, and providing high-quality data to, all UN agencies. 

Both panelists also highlighted how ethical challenges are integral to the use of AI in public health research. Dr. Luengo-Oroz emphasized that the data sets used to train AI are sometimes drawn from specific categories of individuals and may also introduce algorithmic bias due to their lack of appropriate representation. Professor Fung expressed a “great concern” regarding the Chinese contact-tracing system’s combined use of personal data and geolocation.

In closing, Mr. Realiza synthesized some themes and highlights from the rich presentations and conversations. Mr. Realiza encouraged all attendees present at the virtual event to help take on the shared work. 

Panel 3 - Protecting and Advancing Data Privacy as We Battle Global Pandemics

The final panel was dedicated to the issue of health data privacy and featured four leading figures in the field of data privacy: Mr. Joseph Cannataci, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy; Mr. John Edwards, New Zealand Privacy Commissioner and member of the Global Privacy Assembly Executive Committee; Ms. Sophie Kwasny, Head of the Council of Europe’s Data Protection Unit; and Ms. Katitza Rodriguez, International Rights Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

Mr. Realiza began the program by asking Mr. Cannataci to discuss his mandate as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Privacy. Mr. Cannataci explained that his role was created in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations, but that he eventually created an international task force to develop guidelines on health data. The Rapporteur indicated that he had presented a series of recommendations to the UN Assembly last year and is expected to publish a report in the spring of 2021. The report will discuss data privacy in the COVID-19 era. 

Mr. Edwards described New Zealand’s contact-tracing application as a “digital diary” and emphasized the importance of evaluating the impact of contact-tracing applications scientifically. The Commissioner discussed the tradeoffs between manual contact tracing, New Zealand’s Quick Response (QR) code system, and Bluetooth handshakes enabled by Google and Apple’s application programming interfaces (APIs). Mr. Edwards concluded his initial intervention by stating that he was “pleased” with New Zealand’s “conservative approach” to contact-tracing.

Mr. Realiza then asked Ms. Kwasny to explain the role of the Council of Europe’s Data Protection Unit. Ms. Kwasny pointed out that the Council of Europe is a pan-European international organization that shares the European Union’s commitment to human rights. Unlike the European Union, the Council of Europe includes countries such as Russia and Turkey and is not based on the principle of political integration. She explained that Convention 108, and its modernized version Convention 108+, offer international standards for data protection. Ms. Kwasny also stated that Convention 108+ is an instrument of “global relevance” that it is open to ratification beyond European countries. At a national level, it helps national governments reaffirm their attachment to data protection. On a global scale, Convention 108+ establishes standards that could help facilitate better digital data flows and create a space of “trust and reciprocity.”

As International Rights Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Ms. Rodriguez argued that all COVID-19 related technologies should provide sufficient safeguards and should be governed by the principles of necessity, legitimacy and proportionality. Ms. Rodriguez also stated that the use of contact-tracing applications should always be voluntary and argued that location tracing is not sufficiently granular to protect data privacy. Highly aggregated data on the other hand, may provide greater data privacy protections than anonymized or de-identified data. Ms. Rodriguez also explained the main differences between centralized and decentralized contact-tracing systems and ultimately argued that decentralized systems provide greater data privacy protections because they do not share personally identifiable data with government officials. 

All panelists agreed on the need for continued cooperation among data privacy experts, advocates and regulators. In her final remarks, Ms. Kwasny noted that the European Court of Justice in Luxemburg ruled that the data transfer agreement “Privacy Shield” failed to adequately protect European citizens’ data and pointed out that a certain level of protection “has to be afforded to allow [global] data flows.” She expressed her confidence about the future of data privacy and invited all UN member states to consider adopting Convention 108+ as the new international data protection standard.  

In conclusion, the virtual roundtable series collectively convened close to 100 attendees from around the globe and highlighted the importance of data sharing in the ongoing battle against COVID-19. As noted by the majority of the panelists, the challenges brought forth by the current pandemic are not entirely new to the global stage, but institutions at the local, national and international levels must strive to work more collaboratively than ever before to effectively address the impact of technologies such as AI and cloud computing. Furthermore it is important to keep in mind the necessary integrity that should be put into practice when it comes to health data privacy. There is no one size solution to this crisis and may never be one, but collaboration is still possible if countries are willing to share their respective ideas and best practices with one another. In the end, this series shed greater awareness of the continuing challenges to data security, but also gave participants hope and the chance to see the benefits of a more globalized and data driven world which could very well just be on the horizon following the conclusion of the pandemic.

24 September 2020

Mourning the Loss of a True Hero for Women Rights and Human Rights. We Must Keep Up her Fight!

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a hero in every sense of the word. Her recent loss is devastating to us all.

Justice Ginsburg led a truly remarkable life. Appointed by President Clinton in 1993, she became the second woman ever to be sworn in as a justice for the country’s highest court. 

She devoted her life to lifting up others and breaking down barriers for all people. There was no obstacle too large and no setback too great in the fight for equality and justice. She was an advocate for progress with an unwavering commitment to the Constitution and her pursuit of equality and justice for all Americans.

I came to know about Justice Ginsburg’s legacy when I was pursuing my Masters in Law degree in the United States. As I reflect on my professional journey, starting as a young female attorney working in the private and public sectors, and later through my career in nonprofit management, I am grateful for the opportunities Justice Ginsburg forged for women and for instilling the call for living a meaningful life. 

Justice Ginsburg spent her career protecting marginalized communities and lifting others up. “If you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself, something to repair tears in your community, something to make life a little better for people less fortunate than you.”

As a working mom, I follow her guidance when seeking balance, finding parenting not to be an obstacle to success but rather a relief and inspiration “Each part of my life gave me respite from the other.”   

If Justice Ginsburg taught us anything, it is to keep up the fight. She showed us why we must never give up. The best way to honor such a remarkable legacy is to remain vigilant in our shared struggle for justice and equality through education and advocacy.

Paula Boland
National Council Chair, UN Association of the USA
President, UN Association of the National Capital Area

UNA-NCA is compiling an advocacy resource centered on how Justice Ginsburg’s life and legacy can continue to guide and inspire for years to come. Below are excerpts of some testimonials from UNA-NCA leaders and more to come next week!

Stephen Moseley, UNA-NCA Chairman of the Board

"Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's lifelong devotion to equitable justice and human rights for all, especially for Women and Girls and for LGBTQ rights has changed the judicial landscape and culture in America and around the world during the past four decades, since her appointment to the Supreme Court by President Clinton. More than anyone perhaps she mirrored in her life a resounding commitment to many of the principles set forth in the US constitution, but also the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is as essential today as it was when adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948..."  

Sultana Ali, UNA-NCA Vice Chair of Communications

"How do you measure a loss as wide as a nation, as deep as our collective hearts, as high as the mountain of accomplishments you have battled for, and won for us all? One person may never fill your shoes, but together, we will keep moving America down the path toward a better future that includes us all—the mighty and the weak; the rich and the poor; women, men, non-binary, nonconforming, and all the children, whomever they choose to be or love. For you showed us that there are no limits to the human heart, and no barrier is high enough to keep us from our destiny..." 

Richard Seifman, UNA-NCA Board at large member

"Notorious RBG’s tireless efforts to expand the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to cover women, men, and every sexual orientation, and her defending of the Affordable Care Act from legal attack, are of immeasurable value for all Americans. As we globally face new challenges to equal opportunity to health, housing, and employment, as well as equitable access to a vaccine in this Covid-19 pandemic period, her constant strong voice for a just society will be profoundly missed worldwide."

Karen Mulhauser, UNA-NCA Past President

"I will mourn the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the remaining days of my life. In my view, the best way to celebrate her amazing legacy is with action! Action includes education and advocacy for the values that she advanced throughout her life – but it also means what I call extreme advocacy, which is supporting the candidates, the policy-makers, who support the policies that are important to me. RBG understood that if we do not use our democracy we can lose it..." 

10 September 2020

The World and the UN Association Lose a Bright Star at 100: Jim Leonard

By A. Edward Elmendorf, UNA-NCA Past President

Arms control experts and diplomats, experts on the United Nations, and United Nations Association friends and colleagues mourn the passing of Jim Leonard, a bright star in the UN world for many years.  His star was a shooting one, lasting a full 100 years.

As a US foreign service officer, Jim was Ambassador at the US Mission to the UN with special responsibilities for arms control. In UNA-USA he served as Senior Vice President responsible for policy and subsequently became President and CEO. He continued to engage on critical issues in his retirement years, and served on the Advisory Council of UNA-NCA.

Jim’s friends and colleagues know that Jim was a dream for UNA -- a subtle and knowledgeable supporter of American moral purpose in building a peaceful world. He stepped in to steady the UN Association during its upheavals in the 1990s, and he tried to teach his UNA colleagues how to navigate the shoals and cross-currents of politics in Washington when cooperative security or nuclear arms limits or the very existence of the United Nations was under challenge. Few knew or understood the UN – and its potential -- as well as he did.

Jim was a bright and kind person, and a wonderful, thoughtful individual. He played an important role in empowering UNA-NCA’s young professionals, and hosted a retreat for them many years ago.

In sum, Jim Leonard was a great leader for the United Nations and the United Nations Association. He will be sorely missed.

08 September 2020

Equal in Dignity and Rights: The UN, The US, and Anti-Racism

“You in the United Nations are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. I am asking you to help me get justice.” 

-Philonise Floyd

Our nation has been at protest for far beyond the nearly 100 days that have passed since George Floyd's murder; for generations, our neighbors, community members, friends, and loved ones have struggled for justice, support, and their inherent right to life. 
Recent violence and heartbreak in Kenosha, Wisconsin is a tragic reminder that our work to advance universal human rights and dignity is far from over.

UNA-NCA's Advocacy Team has produced a new report on the UN, the US, and Anti-Racism, documenting the UN's role in the global fight against racism. This report offers a foundation from which we can thoughtfully deliberate the future we hope to collaboratively forge.

Access the report here


Report Excerpt: 
"Through its Resolutions, Declarations, and Conventions, the UN has long cultivated a landscape of diverse legal instruments in support of its anti-racism agenda. The movement sparked in Minneapolis presents a critical opportunity for the United Nations to propel its anti-racism crusade forward.

Over twenty senior leaders in the UN, including the head of the World Health Organization and Executive-Director of UNAIDS, resoundingly declared that “now is the time to move from words to deeds.” Their statement calls on the United Nations to lead by example with “an honest assessment” of how it upholds the UN Charter. The current movement of reckoning also presents Member States with a critical opportunity to evaluate their compliance to international law and submit comprehensive reviews to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. 

Systemic racism must be acknowledged at all levels – international, national, and local. International instruments for reform instituted by the United Nations can in turn serve as critical frameworks and mechanisms through which local stakeholders can advocate for anti-racist legislation. The UN’s arsenal of legal precedent against racism in any form can guide U.S. attempts to reform racist policies and practices, representing a toolkit for a new, equitable future."

05 September 2020

A New Way to Move Ahead from COVID-19

While the immediate crises of health and human services, and the devastating effect of COVID-19, must be at the top of the global agenda, it is time now to think ahead, to contemplate further crises that might unexpectedly befall the world community and what can we do now. To this end we have prepared a draft speech for a Head of State of a UN Member State, in the traditional but now “virtual” General Debate of the UN General Assembly beginning on September 22, 2020.

Your Excellencies,

Today I "zoom" before you on this, the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. Who could have imagined we would have the electronic wherewithal and need to hold this Assembly virtually? Seventy-five years ago, our Charter was so beautifully written and wide enough to accommodate new Member States and in language sufficiently broad to allow for our Organization to address both known and, even more importantly, then unknown global challenges. From the original 51 Member States in 1945, we are 193, both small and large, rich, and poor, with diverse political structures, economies, ethnicities, and cultural orientations. We have encouraged our Member States and the wider community of business, civil society, and philanthropy to address new topics such as human settlements, technology, gender, and many more.  

We need now to look over the horizon and act together, beyond Covid-19, to another subject of common cause and future threat to all humanity. It is the interaction of human, animal, and environmental health. Let me explain why this new topic merits our attention and offer a simple and doable course of action for this General Assembly.

Let me first give you a sense my country.   Our land borders several countries much larger than ourselves. We are a mix of varied ethnic and racial groups, with different religions and cultural orientations, and many are under 21 years of age. Sadly, education at all levels is short of where we need and want to be, in part because we do not have the teachers and professional educators needed. But we have been improving and we expect to continue to do so.  

We are neither close to the bottom nor top of national economies Our domestic economy is dependent on livestock and tourism, complemented by modest mineral resources, which we export.  We have borrowed from international financial institutions, as well as some private lenders. According to the major financial institutions we have been prudent in managing our economy.

Given an agrarian history and traditions, our people are sensitized to both animal and human health and have come to appreciate that they are inter-dependent. Over time, with changes in weather, land, and water access, we have become even more attuned to such factors affecting our daily lives. 

My government and most importantly our people have recognized the need to better prepare to deal with viruses, bacteria, and parasites.  For us, a future epidemic might well come from a viral transfer from an animal, probably a bat, to an intermediary specie, and then cross over to humans.   As a result, some years ago we invited UN technical agencies, including WHO, FAO, UNEP, to help us understand  the challenges and prepare a strategy to deal with the interface of human, animal, and environmental health, often referred to as One Health. With their assistance  we developed a strategy which includes strengthening intersectoral coordination at national and district levels; enhancing  surveillance and risk analysis systems for prioritized zoonotic diseases; improving  the effectiveness of our communication tools and networks; strengthening coordinated joint field outbreak investigation and response; and investing in human, animal, and wildlife professionals.

We have not been immune from the COVID-19 threat, but we have been able to limit the number of positive COVID-19 cases to double digits, and the number of deaths to a single digit. When WHO first communicated with us and others about the virus, we responded with a major public awareness campaign, quickly instituted surveillance measures at entry points, undertook widescale testing and active contact tracing. This is our situation and story – a positive one.  

To date globally COVID-19 has resulted in over 25 million cases and 840,000 deaths.  The World Economic Forum COVID-19 Action Platform estimates that fighting COVID-19 costs 500 times as much as pandemic prevention measures. Some project that the global economy could lose up to $21.8 trillion in 2020 alone.  Damage done to social cohesion, the poor, and indeed, the effect on each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, will be incalculable.  

We must collectively take the next step to come to grips with the interface between human and animal health and our environment. Building on past Special Sessions which dealt with Pandemic Preparedness and Antimicrobial Resistance my country’s delegation plans to put forward a new agenda item, one which we entitle “One Health: Addressing the Interaction of Human, Animal, and Environmental Health.” We envision an initial, exploratory discussion during this Assembly, and adoption of a resolution calling upon the Secretary-General to convene an expert group to review and derive lessons from prior actions on One Health, and to propose a strategy for adoption by the United Nations and its partner agencies.  The strategy would foresee actions at the level of individual countries and by the global community. With UN agency engagement and endorsement, the Strategy would be presented to a Special Session. We hope other countries will join us in this initiative.

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