Reflections on a Summer UN Sojourn, Ruth Tekleab Mekbib

11 Jul

Editor’s Note:  Ruth came to us from the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program as a somewhat last-minute but most welcome member of our summer cohort.  An Ethiopian by birth, she has shown great interest in the African issues that often punctuate the UN’s agenda, especially in the Security Council.  Ruth’s perspective on the UN has proven highly valuable to us.  Indeed, seeing the UN through a fresh lens of those who will inherit the successes and failures of this system gives purpose and energy to our work. 

This past month, I’ve had the opportunity of attending high level meetings at the U.N. covering a wide range of topics including peace and security, human rights and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to name a few. These meetings gave me a new insight and deeper understanding of the U.N. system and how it functions as an organization made up of more than 190 countries. On my first day, I witnessed a historical moment as the next president of the General Assembly, the current foreign minister of Ecuador, was elected. She becomes the fourth woman to hold this position since the creation of the United Nations and it was indeed a cause for celebration. I was surprised to see that the U.N. uses a paper ballot system for general elections but with all the technological advancements, they should be using an electronic voting system because it would be time efficient and environmentally friendly. Despite the archaic way of conducting votes, it was interesting to see how the vote of each member state proved crucial in determining who the next president should be.

During my time at the UN, I have been especially interested in attending meetings addressing concerns on the African continent in part because of my family connection to Ethiopia. I attended numerous Security Council meetings concerning the continent including countries such as South Sudan, Mali, Rwanda and Central African Republic (CAR) to mention a few. In my opinion, the Security Council is the most interesting place at the U.N. because you can see how the diplomats interact with one another closely. Before meetings starts, you can see diplomats hugging each other and conversing amicably even though that they may have opposing views. Once the meeting starts, each representative reads out a prepared statement that argues for one cause or another. However, after the meeting ends you can see the diplomats go back to being friendly to one another and maintaining close ties with not just their allies but also their “enemies”. This showed me the importance of diplomacy in maintaining peace and security and how it is important to foster friendly relations even with those who may not agree with your position. It is a great lesson to learn and I only hope that more people would choose to act similarly.

There were also interesting side events to participate in on a diverse range of topics including a recent meeting on the reintegration of child soldiers. One of the panelists in this meeting was from Sierra Leone who himself was a child soldier and discussed the difficulties of reintegration into society due to stigma and discrimination. I learned a lot about the efforts by U.N. agencies such as UNICEF in creating programs to help children reintegrate into society despite the permanent psychological trauma they may face. Another panelist highlighted how girls are particularly disadvantaged because of sexual abuse and other gender-based violence. In this meeting, there were conversations in the impact of race, gender and socio-economic background, all of which are important topics to discuss in an organization such as the U.N.

I also attended a meeting on financing the SDGs where several private sector companies were invited to speak about how their resources could help achieve the SDGs by 2030. What intrigued me in this meeting was the fact that some representatives were claiming that there was no lack of money for sustainable development while others refuted this, arguing that governments alone cannot achieve the SDGs and that they need the help of the private sector and multi-lateral lenders. Interestingly, most of the panelists in this meeting were from Europe with a clear lack of representation of speakers from regions such as Africa or Latin America who might have been better able to demonstrate the current disparities in wealth that must be overcome. One member from the audience voiced this concern with inequalities, posing the question “Why are we not redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor?” to which none of the panelists were able to fully answer his question. In my opinion, his question was valid and shows how, at the U.N., these issues are often overlooked and not prioritized, which only threatens to weaken the credibility of the institution among the world’s peoples.

All in all, through my experience I was able to see that despite the lack of inclusivity in some policy discussions, the U.N. still tries to be an organization responsive to the needs and concerns of all. It is actively working towards closing the gender gap, which was demonstrated by the election of the female PGA, and it gives sustained and priority attention to some of the most critical challenges facing our planet. There is still a long way to go to achieve balanced representation in U.N. policy discussions, but I am encouraged by current efforts to achieve equality. If such efforts continue, I might see a female Secretary General in the fairly near future which will inspire many young people around the world to achieve their full potential.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: