Celebrating Indigenous Languages – Defending Endangered Languages

In April 2022, Westminster UNA, the Foundation for Endangered Languages and the Institute of Ismaili Studies hosted a conference to mark the start of the International Year of Indigenous Languages (IDIL, 2022-2031). This is a short version of the opening address given by David Wardrop, Chair of Westminster UNA.

IDIL (2022-2031) aims to draw global attention on the critical situation of many indigenous languages and to mobilize all of us for their preservation, revitalization and promotion.

This is the 46th UN International Decade but it joins seven other UN decades currently seeking attention. Why a Decade rather than a Day or Year? Firstly, changes take much longer than first imagined. Secondly, each of the UN’s 193 member states have their own priorities. Days and Years can be dodged but Decades cannot. Time will come when a reluctant state sees peers taking the Decade seriously, participating in international initiatives. Peer pressure works.

So, what is behind IDIL? The clue is in the title of this article. All states show pride in their indigenous languages but too many of these are also endangered, their native speakers are disadvantaged by their governments. However, ‘endangered’ is a word that UN circles are loathe to use because it implies that a member state is endangering that language. While not every indigenous language is endangered, every endangered language is indigenous. The link is there. 

Many of these languages are spoken by minorities. But what rights are provided to minorities? We rejoice in the ubiquity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the most translated document in history but on the day it was finally agreed in Paris, 10 December 1948, the clock passed midnight and scheduled discussion on the fate of Minorities was deferred. That ‘fate’ remained unfinished business until December 1992 when the UN agreed to the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious, and Linguistic Minorities. Yes, only a Declaration, not a Convention, but then so was the UDHR.

For indigenous languages, how do we measure progress? Why not by using the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG, 2015-2030)? Take the case of Nigeria, which somewhat failed in achieving its Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015) mainly through communication barriers as many Nigerians cannot speak English, relying on indigenous languages. To achieve its SDGs, its strategy must be people-centred, recognising it is a multilingual nation. Unfortunately, there appears no language plan in its government’s transition strategy. In India, NGOs are translating the SDGs into its many languages.

But are the SDGs referencing indigenous languages? Alas, there are only four references to indigenous peoples, describing them as populations of special interest because they are ‘vulnerable’. Is that good enough? No, but we can flag this shortfall early on in the decade but still need allies.

Cristiana Palmer, Secretariat chief of the Convention on Biological Diversity, highlighted that although they constitute a relatively small part of the world’s population, indigenous people represent “the largest portion of linguistic and cultural diversity on Earth and their traditional lands and waters overwhelmingly contain the greatest remaining reserves of biodiversity”.

Linking biological and cultural diversity, she pointed to the grave threat to the resilience of human communities and ecosystems. She also pointed to the centrality of traditional and indigenous languages in strengthening the links between biological and cultural diversity for attaining the global 2050 vision of humanity living in harmony with nature”.

Recognition of the links between biological and cultural diversity brings to IDIL a potentially powerful partner, one with little Human Rights ‘ideological baggage’ but a great deal of human goodwill.

In conclusion, we have a decade in which to be creative, to be bold, adventurous, to work with allies, to preserve what might otherwise be lost for ever. Let’s ensure we utilise the Decade to the full. 

I watch fleeing mothers and children, remembering I was once one of them

written by Perri Mahmood, Westminster UNA member

Migration has been happening from the beginning of humankind and will continue. The numbers will rise because of global pandemics, climate change, wars and other conflicts.

We all have the right to look for better lives: whether we have entrepreneurial minds and are looking for places in which to build our prosperity and bring our dreams to reality; or if we want to find freedom from fear and to live in dignity. The latter might occur when we are living in regions of war and conflict or under dictatorships and other suppressive societies’; it might also occur when there is no rule of law, democracy, or human rights.

We live in an unequal world: economically, financially, politically and in opportunities such as education.

To decide to leave your home – especially when this might be permanent and you will have no homeland to go back to – can be very difficult: leaving everything you know and with which you are familiar, to go to an unknown land, culture and life.

When there is a war and conflicts, regions become destabilised. For example, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria war has destabilised entire countries around them. Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon and Jordan have large numbers of refugees – for some, more than one million. This is huge compared to the totals who come to the UK, which is also much richer than those countries.

But unfortunately, Priti Patel’s landmark Nationality and Borders Bill will criminalise entering the UK to claim asylum through unofficial routes. When someone is desperately fleeing persecution or war and crossing half the world on foot or through dangerous waters in unsafe boats in the hope of a better life, should this be a crime? This goes against British values.

In addition, when migrants arrive in the UK and are allowed to enter society to build new lives and interact with their adopted home, there should be a law in place to protect them from any abuse against them and their children, such as in school and in opportunities to work. It should be part of the education curriculum to teach the new generation about good citizenship and kindness to migrants.

Migrants should be perceived as bringing wealth and prosperity to their new country, not as criminals. Migrants are courageous individuals who have risked their lives to change them for the better. The next generation after the initial unwanted generation of migrants is the future generation of this society. So it is so important to invest in their well-being.

Sixty years on: the unanswered questions about the death of Dag Hammarskjöld 

Susan Williams 

Sixty years ago today, the world was shocked to learn of the sudden death of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second UN Secretary General. In the middle of the night of 17-18th September 1961, a plane carrying Hammarskjöld and his fellow passengers and crew had plunged into thick forest near Ndola in the British colonial territory of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). The UN team had been on a mission to seek to bring peace to the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), which had become independent from Belgian rule in 1960. Officially there was one survivor of the crash, but he died a few days later. All 16 passengers and crew – from Sweden, Ireland, the USA, Haiti and Canada – perished. 

Questions were asked as strange details of the crash swiftly emerged. Hammarskjöld had “fallen victim”, lamented Cyrille Adoula, the Prime Minister of the Congo, “to the shameless intrigues of the great financial Powers of the West” and had been murdered. “How ignoble is this assassination, not the first of its kind perpetrated by the moneyed powers,” he said bitterly. “Mr Hammarskjöld was the victim of certain financial circles for whom a human life is not equal to a gram of copper or uranium.” 

Three inquiries into the cause of the crash were conducted in 1961-62:  two by the Rhodesian government and one by the UN. All were conducted under the conditions of British colonialism and white minority rule, which were little different from apartheid in South Africa.The Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry identified pilot error as the cause, but without any actual evidence. This explanation of pilot error became widely accepted but has been strongly challenged in recent years by the emergence of fresh evidence and new analysis. 

The racism underpinning the inquiries of 1961-62 was noted by Timothy Jiranda Kankasa, who became a government minister after Zambia’s independence. In 1961, he was the board secretary of Twapia Township, which was adjacent to the crash site. It was “incredible,” objected Kankasa, “that all the black witnesses were supposed to be unreliable. And the white witnesses, those who gave evidence, if they gave evidence in favour of the fact that there was nothing fishy, that it was pure accident, were reliable.” Also rejected were the recollections of the single survivor of the crash, who spoke of “sparks in the sky” and said that the plane “blew up”. 

Timothy Kankasa testified that he saw a small aircraft closing in from behind and flying almost above Hammarskjöld’s plane, and that it was “beaming lights on the bigger plane.” Kankasa’s evidence was roundly rejected by the Rhodesian government attorney. “What you have told us about the two planes,” he told Kankasa, “is completely unacceptable … you made a mistake.” But Kankasa was a reliable witness: he had served in the Allied armed forces during the Second World War as a signalman and had seen aircraft flying in formation at night. 

Some charcoal burners from Twapia who were working in the forest on the night of the crash gave testimony that was similar to that of Kankasa. At about midnight, said Davidson Simango, he saw two aeroplanes flying closer together than was usual. The noise faded but after a few minutes it grew louder again, when he saw one aeroplane coming back—after which there was a flash, and the plane went down. Then there was a very loud explosion, followed by smaller ones. 

Dickson Buleni, another witness, was afraid to give evidence at first but was persuaded to do so by a Swedish trade union official working near Ndola. Buleni explained that he was sitting outside his home in the charcoal burners’ compound that night with his wife, when they were surprised to see a large plane with a small plane flying above it. He saw and heard a “fire” coming from the small plane to the roof of the big plane and then he heard the sound of an explosion. Then the big plane fell down and crashed. After circling once, he said, the small plane flew off in the direction of Kitwe to the west. There were a number of groups in the compound, added Buleni, and nearly everyone was shouting that a plane had come down. People were frightened and many ran into the bush. 

The charcoal burners D. Moyo, L. Daka and P. Banda gave witness statements in which they reported hearing an explosion in the middle of the night. Daka said “he then saw a lot of fire . . . he also saw something coming down and breaking the trees”. At dawn, they discovered the crash, as did many others – belying the official statement that the crash site was not discovered until 3.10 pm. Their testimonies were dismissed as unreliable by the Rhodesian Commission of Inquiry and they were accused of stealing a cipher machine from the crash site, on highly questionable evidence. They were imprisoned for eighteen months with hard labour. 

Other witnesses, too, described strange happenings in the sky that night. But these witnesses were not confined to Zambia. In Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean, 3,000 miles away, the events in Ndola’s airspace were brought to the attention of Charles M. Southall, a young US naval pilot working for the American National Security Agency (NSA), the cryptologic intelligence agency of the US government. 

Southall was stationed at the NSA listening station near Nicosia and was unexpectedly called into work on the night of 17-18th September 1961. He heard the recording of a pilot’s commentary as he shot down Hammarskjöld’s plane: “I see a transport plane coming in low, I’m going to go down and look at it”, and then he said ‘”Yes, it’s the transport”. Southall added, “Now whether he said ‘Yes it’s the Trans Air’, ‘DC6’, or it’s just, ‘Yes, it’s the plane’, I don’t remember, but he said ‘I’m going to make a run on it’.” 

Southall continued, “It’s quite chilling. You can hear the gun cannon firing and he said ‘Flames coming out of it, I’ve hit it! Great’, or ‘Good’ or something like that, ‘it’s crashed’. And that was the end of the recording. I remember the watch supervisors commenting that this recording was only 7 minutes old at the time.” 

Not only from Cyprus but from Ethiopia, too, nearly 2,000 miles north of Northern Rhodesia, some of the airwaves used in Ndola could be heard. In the middle of the night of 17–18th September, a few miles outside Addis Ababa, a Swedish flying instructor heard a conversation over short-wave radio between flight controllers, one of whom was at Ndola airport and expressed surprise that, as far as he could tell, one plane was being unexpectedly followed by another. 

In 2015 the UN Secretary General appointed the former Chief Justice of Tanzania, Mohamed Chande Othman, to lead a renewed UN investigation into the tragic deaths of Hammarskjöld and his fellow passengers and crew, who gave their lives in the cause of peace. The judge took seriously the testimony of the Zambian witnesses and other evidence that had been rejected by the inquiries of 1961-62, as well as a vast range of new information that had emerged over the years. “It appears plausible,” observed the judge in his report of 2017, “that an external attack or threat may have been a cause of the crash, whether by way of a direct attack … or by causing a momentary distraction of the pilots.” 

Judge Othman has sought assistance from UN member states to supply the documents he needs relating to this tragic episode. His most recent report in 2019 exposes the wholly inadequate and evasive responses by the UK, the US and South Africa and their failures to cooperate fully with the UN. The US sent the UN one single document; the UK sent nothing at all. The UK and the US stated that their previous searches had already been comprehensive and were complete; but, as the report shows, that is clearly not the case, particularly in relation to their security and intelligence agencies. 

 In the case of the UK, such obfuscation is not new. Ever since 1961, the UK government’s conduct in relation to the crash of Hammarskjöld’s plane has aroused suspicion. And it is noteworthy that whereas the UK did not cooperate properly in preparation for the judge’s report of 2019, two former British colonies – Zambia and Zimbabwe – sought energetically to assist the UN in the search for relevant documentation. 

Judge Othman’s search for the truth is ongoing and he will produce a final report in 2022. His efforts are followed and deeply appreciated across the world and in Zambia itself. Hammarskjöld was from Sweden. But when he died on Zambian soil, explains the Rt Rev Dr Trevor Musonda Mwamba, a Zambian politician who is the former Bishop of Botswana, “his soul became a part of Zambia and Zambia a part of him. As Zambians we are therefore desirous to know the truth of why Dag Hammarskjöld was killed.” With Dag Hammarskjöld’s death, maintains the Bishop, “the world lost one of its greatest servants – a brilliant mind, a brave and compassionate spirit, a peacemaker, a mystic. He pointed us to strive diligently for a world in which people solve their problems by peaceful means and not by force.” 

**** 

Dr Susan Williams is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She is the author of Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa (Hurst,2011). The crash of Hammarskjold’s plane also features in her new book White Malice: The CIA and the Neocolonisation of Africa (Hurst,2021). 

Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa  by Susan Williams

For all updates on this issue, see here 

Multilateralism a year on

Sir Peter Marshall reviews the year now passed since the ‘Declaration on the Commemoration of the Seventy-Fifth anniversary of the United Nations’

As world leaders gather in New York, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reminds us that Cop26 is now less than 1000 hours away, we recall that year ago today, September 21, Heads of State and Government of all 193 members of the United Nations, “representing the peoples of the world”, adopted without reservation or amendment the “Declaration on the Commemoration of the Seventy-Fifth anniversary of the United Nations“. The full text follows beneath.

True to form, the event passed all but unnoticed by those in the UK, as elsewhere, whose responsibility it is to keep abreast of developments, by virtue either of the posts they hold, or of their desire to shape the opinions of their compatriots.

Yet the significance, and the potential, of the Declaration can scarcely be over-estimated. First, whereas the United Nations Charter launched the greatest experiment in the management of international relations ever undertaken, the Declaration unequivocally endorses the outcome of that experiment, and sees it as the template for the future.

Never before have the world’s statesmen and stateswomen collectively and unanimously paid such a tribute to the inspiration and the aspiration of their predecessors or reached such a fundamental and wide-ranging judgment about how interdependence should be managed.

Secondly, neither “multilateral”, nor “interdependent” occurs in the UN Charter. But the Declaration confidently asserts, without defining the term, that “multilateralism is not an option, but a necessity”. It can do so on the basis of the demonstrated validity of the propositions set forth in the Preamble to the UN Charter.  

In that sublime 200-word text, “We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”, firstly reaffirm their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small; and secondly declare their intention to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples”.         

Thirdly, while they were remarkably prescient in emphasising the close inter-relationship between what are now called the “three pillars” of co-operation and endeavour – peace and security, human rights and development – the Founders of the United Nations cannot be expected to have foreseen either the near-exponential ramifications of that relationship, as it has developed over the last seventy-five years, or the extent of the benefits which it has conferred on humankind.

Even more noteworthy, perhaps, has been the depth of humanitarian concern, manifested worldwide, not only by governments, but also by non-governmental organisations and agencies of every kind, at every level and in every sphere – the product of civil society at its best. That concern is the greatest feature of governance, as the complement of government, rather than its rival or opponent.   

We are all conscious of the needs of those who are most at a disadvantage of one sort or another. One of the great slogans of the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals is “we will leave no-one behind”. That says a great deal. A key test of civilisation is the treatment accorded to the least fortunate members of the community.

*     *     *

What multilateralism is about in practice – repeat practice – can be summed up in a single prescription: our ready acceptance of responsibility, not only for doling well what may be required of us specifically, but also for having an eye out, and mind open, as to what more needs to be done.

Edmund Burke famously said – or did not say: the experts are divided on the matter – that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good people should do nothing. In the age of interdependence, we have to go further than that: unless we all do our bit, we all suffer.

Multilateralism is thus concerned both with every element of the substance of international relations, and with every aspect of the processes by which they are conducted, at both macro and micro level, and in every time frame. It is objective in that its foundation is accurate analysis of the relevant factors, and efficient and effective implementation of the policies adopted. 

It is simultaneously subjective because it is qualitative as well as quantitative. It is directed by moral principles and priorities held in common. It is a matter of the heart as well as of the head. Itis driven byaninstinctforwhatis fair. It underlines the truth that a profound understanding, collective and individual, of the past is a prerequisite for wise management of the present and provision for the future.

Pie in the sky? Pabulum for the naive? Open house for freeloaders, shirkers, cheats and bullies? Undesirables there will be under any arrangement: but they can be shown up for what they are by having a prominent code of conduct which everyone professes to respect, and publicising situations in which it is obviously being ignored.  Bullies, of whatever size, are not totally insensitive to attention, especially when they may be endeavouring to appear as paragons of virtue. Peer pressure can work wonders.

And what is the alternative? Hard-bitten, no-nonsense persons speak glibly of a “rules-based international order” an obfuscation which cannot survive a moment’s rigorous analysis. But it is meat and drink to those who behave with total irresponsibility, and to those who are too scared to speak up or out.    

*     *     *

What, then, have we to show as the harvest of this great Commemorative Declaration? The answer is “far more than almost everyone realises”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s General Assembly speech of September 26, 2020 heralded the intention to take a lead, and looked forward to January 10, 2021, the 75th anniversary of the symbolic opening of the inaugural session of the General Assembly in Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, an internationally renowned place of worship at the heart of London, facing Westminster Abbey across historic Broad Sanctuary Green.

The Presidential Election of November 2020 brought us the most welcome prospect of relief from President Trump, whose behaviour in the ensuing two months has marked him out as the most ungracious loser in American political history.         

The planned visit to the UK by the UN Secretary-General to mark the General Assembly anniversary occasion had to be cancelled for Covid 19 reasons. A number of virtual visits and events replaced it. 

Of these, none was as significant as the virtual service organised on the morning of January 10 by Tony Miles, the Superintendent of Methodist Central Hall and broadcast worldwide. At its outset, David Wardrop, the Chairman of the Westminster United Nations Association, was authorised to announce that Broad Sanctuary Green had been renamed “United Nations Green”. 

The photograph below shows the modest welcoming party for United Nations Green held on August 21. “We the peoples”, of every age and nationality, gathered round a display of the flags of the United Nations. They realised that, in the wording of the discreet reminder in the text of the Commemorative Declaration that “there is no other global organisation with the legitimacy, convening power and normative impact as (sic) the United Nations”. Its spirit will outlive the mindless and heartless activities of any terrorist movement.

UNA members and diplomats and their families join refugees and asylum seekers temporarily staying in local hotels in welcoming United Nations Green. Photo: Javier Mandirola

*     *     * 

Although the Commemorative Declaration may have left the vast majority of UK cerebrals unmoved, it did not fail to resonate with the UK Government. The latter in its turn did not fail to pass on the message. It was in a unique position to do so. As 2021 dawned, the Prime Minister was host to the UN Secretary-General’s virtual visit; was “Chair-in-Office” of the Commonwealth, by virtue of the last meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government having taken place in London in 2018; assumed the presidency of the G7; and was the leader of the government which would host COP26 in Glasgow in November. 

It soon showed. At the close of their virtual meeting on February 19, chaired by the Prime Minister, the G7 leaders “resolved to work together to beat Covid 19 and to build back better….  Drawing on our strengths and values as democratic, open economies and societies, we will work together and with others to make 2021 a turning point for multilateralism”. 

The UK Government’s “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy” (CP 406, March 16)) testifies to awesome powers of joined-up thinking. In Section 2 of “The Strategic Framework”, entitled “Shaping the open international order of the future”, it says “the UK remains deeply committed to multilateralism”. 

Most recently, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons has published the detailed and absorbing response of the UK Government (HC 618) to the Committee’s own wide-ranging report on the UK’s role in multilateral diplomacy (HC 199). 

*     *     * 

Multilateralism could be said to have achieved lift-off during the course of President Biden’s visit to Europe in June. We are entitled to draw from the five texts agreed during the course of it – in chronological order, the New Atlantic Charter; the US/UK statement; the G7 Summit communique; the NATO Summit communique, and the US/EU Declaration – the encouraging conclusion that there is near- unanimous agreement throughout the international community as to our multifarious common agenda, and a near-miraculous consensus on the best way of tackling it: namely multilateralism.  

*     *     * 

“And how”, the cynics and the “realists” and the woebegone might ask, “do you reconcile all those fine words and sentiments with the debacle in Afghanistan?”  There is much to be said for starting to answer a difficult question by asking another of the same.  

“Given”, my question would run, “that the US rightly invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty in the light of the Nine/Eleven attacks; given further that the watchword was that if those responsible were not brought to justice, justice would be brought to them; given yet further that the latter procedure was accompanied by a inevitably controversial foreign-financed-and-led policy of “nation building”, was it not apparent that a viable exit strategy would be a matter of extreme delicacy?” 

The “agreement” reached between the United States and the Taliban (the Afghan Government not being involved) on February 29, 2020 would seem to raise as many questions as it was intended to answer as its title is supremely uninviting:   Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognised by the United States as a state and the United States”. Alarm bells should surely have been ringing all around. 

Nowhere does the writ of the Law of Unintended Consequences run more freely than in the field of international relations. The unexpected provides opportunities, as well as challenges, to those sufficiently up to speed, and nimble enough, to grasp them. Afghanistan, seemingly doomed to be the cockpit of Asia, is a spectacular case in point.   

Security Council Resolution 2593 of August 30 is an excellent start to the process of furnishing Afghanistan with a secure place within the international community, together with the provision of the assistance it so desperately needs, on condition that its government respects the obligations of UN membership.  

Peter Marshall, 

September 21, 2021 

With CHOGM further postponed, to whom do small Commonwealth turn for support at COP26?

article by David Wardrop

Preparations for COP26, now only six months ahead, are well underway but what form will it take? Siren voices warn that COVID19’s ravage will still roam a world still too sparsely vaccinated to dare to travel to Glasgow. However, if the conference is to avoid a second postponement, its host, the UK should prepare for a virtual event. That would be a disaster for smaller countries, argues Damian Carrington, writing in The Guardian. “Because the UNFCCC requires consensus, a handful of wrecking nations can wreak havoc. At the last Cop, in Madrid in 2019, Brazil held the rest of the world to ransom, refusing to sign up to new carbon rules.”

Carrington recalls that it was on the floor of the Durban conference, the pathway to the successful Paris Summit of 2015, that the EU outfaced both India and China, securing promises of emissions reduction. Nobody likes being humiliated with the entire world watching on but that would not have worked in a virtual environment.

COP26 Glasgow 2021 - Iberdrola

But the Summit is not only for large states, those charged with emitting the greenhouse gasses blamed for our crisis. Also present, in-person or virtual, will be a host of others, the smallest one hundred of which between them contribute only one percent of those damaging emissions but who suffer most from the impact of climate change. Their fate depends on recognition of their plight by the large countries. In a virtual community, as Carrington points out, they can be easily ignored. Not so in-person.

“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”. To prevent this old African proverb putting its signature on COP26, we must ensure that the voices of Less Developed Countries (LDC) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are properly heard. It is important that joint strategies are agreed, and binding alliances formed.

The challenges and dangers caused by climate change facing LDC and SIDS, especially those in the Commonwealth, were tackled in a recent conference in London co-hosted by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICwS) and Westminster UNA. Speakers urged Commonwealth members to ensure that their biennial meeting (CHOGM) scheduled to be held in Kigali in June would lead to a strong and united message addressing the climate change crisis. They and the conference organisers left the event hopeful that at CHOGM, the ‘elephants’ of the Commonwealth and their smaller partners in the forest could thrash out a win-win shared policy to be advanced in Glasgow with confidence and with a sense of equity. But now those hopes are dashed as we learn that CHOGM will not now take place in Kigali in June.

So, without CHOGM to generate that needed sense of focus and strategy for member states, large and small, which they could deploy at COP26, where now do the LDC and SIDS turn for support as they prepare to enter the COP26 arena? Two speakers at the recent London conference, both experienced diplomats representing SIDS, shared their fears that large Commonwealth members, prolific greenhouse gas emitters like India, Australia, Canada and the UK would discount the fears of their smaller cousins when arriving at deals in Glasgow. And if they did not meet up in Glasgow but online instead, then their fears of being discounted altogether would be only strengthened. Either way, the Commonwealth must act now to allay the fears of its smaller members.

So, what should be its plan, one that can allay those fears and also to prepare for COP26 with the confidence worthy of an alliance of fifty-four countries, however loosely linked, and with a total population of 2.4 billion? The Commonwealth must prepare at the soonest moment its policy, one that is radical, inclusive and self-confident. Its commitment to all its members must honour the powerful leitmotif of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – ‘leave no-one behind’.  

What should be the Commonwealth’s next steps? Justin Mundy, its recently appointed Special Envoy on Climate Change, must set up a platform for an online event which sets out the necessary parameters to satisfy small and large member alike. The balance between mitigation (for large members) and funding for resilience and adaptation (for small ones) must satisfy both groups. Only if this is achieved will the Commonwealth be recognised in Glasgow as exercising the power it should and to best effect. Those next steps should be taken now.     

[The House of Lords has debated this issue on Monday 17 May]

Multilateralism is back in vogue but how do we convince people it’s a good thing?

article by David Wardrop

“We are all multilateralists now!” so reported the Financial Times after this week’s G7 Foreign Ministers’ Summit. The event’s conviviality was welcome following Trump’s cold years but ‘making multilateralism work’ is not the snappiest of slogans. Nevertheless, upholding global norms and values, while lacking the ring of a heroic endeavour, both mark out the essential fault line with Beijing and, for that matter, with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. So how do we move forward?

For the 2021 G20 summit, the Italian Presidency has chosen to focus on three broad, interconnected pillars of action: People, Planet, Prosperity. In underpinning its programme, it holds the view that in an increasingly interconnected world, ‘multilateralism is far more than an abstract concept. It is the key to responding to these challenges, and the G20, bringing together much of the world’s population and of the global economy, must live up to its role’.

In the same spirit, in December 2018, the UN General Assembly announced a new International Day, for Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace, reaffirming inter alia ‘the importance and relevance of multilateralism and international law and to advance the common goal of lasting and sustained peace through diplomacy’. On 5 May 2021, the President of the UN General Assembly will hold an Interactive Dialogue on the “Achievements of Multilateralism and the Future of the United Nations”, inviting the UN’s principal organs, intergovernmental bodies and the civil society to participate.

In pointing towards how the global community can emerge from the COVID-19 crisis with confidence, the strategies of both initiatives commit to multilateralism. But as ‘relevant’ and ‘non-abstract’ as they may see it as a platform, how will they utilise it in generating the support of a civil society which has been so badly bruised and become fearful of what might come next? If the COVID-19 pandemic and the potentially devastating climate change crisis have taught us anything  ̶  witness their disproportionate impact on those living in poverty  ̶   this time we must ensure ‘we leave no-one behind’.

national flags of countries all over the world

In its programme marking its 75th year, the UN has learned much here despite logistical limitations posed by the pandemic. Its ‘global conversation on building a better future for all’ reached millions of people. Towards the same goal, the Italian G20 Presidency has identified ‘key engagement groups’ it titles Business, Think, Women, Youth, Labour, Urban, Civil, Science, each assured opportunity to contribute input to the G20 Summit. These initiatives, both advancing multilateralism and seeking to engage civil society, are also key to success at COP26 where planners are well-advanced in scheduling a matrix of events, each one recognising that not only governments but also ‘we the peoples’ need to sign off what is agreed in Glasgow in November.     

These three initiatives depend upon a healthy commitment to multilateralism so what can be learned from these, and what can profitably be shared?

To take this forward, Westminster UNA hopes to organise a hybrid meeting in June in London before an invited, live audience, also live-streamed. The speakers would identify with these key fields of expertise: the Italian G20 Presidency; the United Nations; UK COP26; and Africa and Least Developed Countries (LDC).

THE UN DECADE ON ECOSYSTEM RESTORATION

Angela Viano

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 1st March 2019 as a continuation of past actions to preserve natural habitats and more broadly the ecosystem.

Biodiversity has been front and centre of the United Nations effort to act on climate change and reduce its degradation and loss for years. From the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity through to the Declaration of the UN Decade on Biodiversity (2011-2020) with the implementation of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets adopted at the 10th COP to the CBD in Nagoya (Japan), the preservation of ecosystems and biodiversity has never been more important. However, the Declaration of the new Decade which has just started, is deemed as crucial to finally achieve the Aichi Targets and drastically scale up the restoration of degraded and destroyed ecosystems.

On 30 September 2020 world leaders virtually gathered at the first ever global Summit on Biodiversity, building momentum for the 15th COP to the UN Convention on Biodiversity which was postponed to 2021 due to Covid-19.

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration will officially launch on World Environment Day (5 June 2021)

From Grasslands, Oceans to urban areas, its major aim is to prevent, halt and restore the degradation of the Earth’s ecosystems and achieve sustainable development.

The new Decade was proclaimed following a proposal by over 70 Countries for a more focused, action-and solution-oriented decade which also coincides with the end of the pursuit of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (also known as SDGs) in 2030, the deadline identified by scientists and climate experts to prevent an environmental catastrophe.

As a matter of fact, Biodiversity is directly linked to the Sustainable Development Goals and it underpins many of them: SDGs 14 and 15, together with SDGs 2 and 6 are the goals which contain biodiversity-explicit targets. Biodiversity degradation is clearly jeopardizing not only the achievement of the goals but also human life and wellbeing. The post-2020 global Biodiversity Framework which will be adopted at the next Summit on Biodiversity in 2021 is itself a stepping stone to the 2050 Vision of “Living in Harmony with Nature” (A/RES/75/220).

With the UN Environment Programme and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization at the helm, the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration aims at becoming as inclusive as possible, reaching out to Governments, NGOs, Organizations, members of the Civil Society and world citizens to each participate and contribute to its full success.

Through a dedicated platform and several events the UN Decade makes it possible for everyone to become involved in restoring nature, its ecosystems and reach the UN goal of “Making Peace with Nature”, as comprehensively illustrated in the recently launched UNEP Report.

Angela Viano is a member of the Westminster UNA Executive Committee.

Priorities for sustainable development

by Andreea Prisecaru

A strong plan for global development that counteracts violence and promotes the progress of a peaceful civilization could build bridges for harmonious growth on an international level. This idea is encompassed in the UN’s Culture of Peace. At the Peace and Security workshop for the UN75 festival in October 2020, one of the questions participants discussed was: ”what are current priorities for sustainable development?”.

The first proposal concerns the call for a global ceasefire – the General Assembly supported this back in April. Action needs to be taken immediately in this direction – as UNICEF said: ‘’for 250 million children caught in the nightmare of armed conflict, a global ceasefire could be the difference between life and death’’. We know for sure that unless armed conflict stops, it will be impossible for people delivering Covid-related medical help to reach communities in conflict in Libya Syria, and elsewhere. We also know that hospitals have been a common target for airstrikes and even if a ceasefire is achieved, delivery of humanitarian help will not be without challenges. Therefore, this resolution aims to push for global advocacy for a ceasefire. The obstacle right now is that powerful countries choose the Security Council table to continue their traditional conflicts, to everyone’s loss, especially those who the Sustainable Development Goals have committed should not be left behind. The US and Russia claim they must continue with counter-terrorism operations while China fights over having a nice paragraph referring to the World Health Organization. However, there is one resolution the General Assembly can use in its advantage. The 70-years old Uniting for Peace resolution came about when in 1950 the Security Council failed to act, empowering the General Assembly to consider the matter immediately and use all means to maintain international peace and security. Therefore, I hope you agree that the UN should continue to push for a global ceasefire, one important way in arresting the spread of the COVID pandemic. Despite inherent difficulties, the principle behind the Uniting for Peace resolution is the recognition that there will be times when the global community, acting together, makes it clear to the Great Powers that even though they led the fight against tyranny seventy five years ago, the future of humankind trumps their replaying Cold War games.  

My first proposal identifies with one of the proposals detailed in Stepping Stones for a better future published by Together First: We demand a Security Council that acts   or gets out of the way’ 

My second proposal introduces the Smart Sustainable Cities project, which aims to integrate technology with sustainable management strategies for utilising resources in a more efficient way. This initiative has already been embraced by many countries – we can see how in Copenhagen, street lights have efficient/ lamps /adjusted/ on an algorithm /with /lighting/ triggered by human activity and with intensity adjusted at night for efficiency. Worldwide, Zurich and Stockholm are in the top ranks, followed by Geneva and Vienna. Why is this important? Because 30 years from now it is estimated that 70% of the world’s population will live in cities so the concept of Sustainable Cities makes it an important, as well as an efficient resolution to the world’s growing population. However, cities need more preparation before they can offer a healthy life for all their inhabitants, despite their economic power. Look at Paris where one year of living in its streets is the equivalent of smoking 90 packs of cigarettes. In light of these and other data, we need cities to continue to improve their infrastructure, becoming more sustainable, also sharing their knowledge with those cities in developing countries, reducing the knowledge gap. It is important to help the environment in a holistic way: from improving waste management to optimising traffic flow and sanitation systems. Some businesses have aligned with environmental goals – for example, the ride-sharer Uber has committed to carbon-free rides by 2040. The Smart Sustainable Cities project resonates completely with the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals. Yes, some initiatives have to be global, but we need to engage communities better than we have done so far. The current disagreement between national and local government leaders in England regarding COVID19 shows these challenges. With their engagement and leadership, an important condition for the Culture of Peace Initiative is secured.  

ITU-T, Smart Sustainable Cities at a Glance

My second proposal: Encourage city leaders in richer countries to embrace the Smart Sustainable Cities project and similar initiatives and to share them with poorer cities.     

Tolerance and Solidarity

By David Wardrop

In our Peace and Security workshop for the UN75 festival in October 2020, we used the UN Culture of Peace Initiative as our platform. I presented questions relating to ‘tolerance and solidarity’, one of the eight essential elements in the UN Culture of Peace Initiative. Like other presenters, I was charged to pose the audience an ‘impossible choice’ with both options being unequivocally desirable. So how might they vote?   

I recalled that those who built the United Nations 75 years ago had lived through a pandemic, a global depression, genocide and world war. We are facing only one of these but still need to act in that same sense of solidarity for, as we look around, far too little assistance has been extended to countries with the fewest capacities to face the pandemic challenge.

UN International Day of Tolerance - Global event | New Europeans

People ask why Tolerance is included in the UN’s Culture of Peace Initiative. After all, it is not a challenging word, not the word we would pin on a flag as we storm the ramparts of prejudice. When the concept of the Culture of Peace was being hammered out in UNESCO, we should note that in 1984, Ronald Reagan had pulled the US out of UNESCO and the following year Margaret Thatcher did likewise. Their reasoning, influenced by the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing US think tank, was that UNESCO was seeking to control the media. In fact, that was a proposal put forward by the then East Germany, but which did not even reach general debate.

With the US and UK no longer members, the balance of Anglophone and Francophone thinking in UNESCO tipped towards French concepts and interpretations. In 1995, UNESCO launched the International Year for Tolerance, asking all UN member states, UNESCO members or not, to promote its ideals.

Those of us in the UK advocating its return to UNESCO membership – we were back in 1997 – were puzzled. How could we promote a campaign for an attitude which can best be described as sufferance or liberality, at best neutral? But when we learned that in French the word tolerance has a more dynamic meaning, implying curiosity in the other, a wish to understand the other side of the argument and that only then could we manifest tolerance, it all made sense! We knew exactly which communities we should target, those who suffered that fuzzy anglophone type of tolerance but who needed the francophone type! Some years earlier, at the UK launch of the UN International Year of Disabled Persons, we had watched open-jawed as all pressure groups talked about their challenges, but none would listen to each other. In time they learned. So, for the International Year of Tolerance, we brought together those representing the deaf, blind, physically, and mentally handicapped, and those campaigning on gender and sexuality platforms, encouraging them to share how they overcame those challenges. All admitted they had not listened to each other’s challenges all those years back but now quickly joined a supervisory group to take the new Year of Tolerance forward.  

The first proposal was that negotiators, international and inter-personal, must be encouraged to show evidence of their understanding of each other’s position, and to share publicly that evidence.  

With regards to Solidarity, COVID-19 has forced us to step up and show it – and share! 

We have seen how cautiously countries approached the decision on whether to endorse the international COVAX programme, sharing research, sharing vaccines and treatment with nations and their peoples. As the UN Secretary-General said in his address on 21 September, ‘The dangers of “vaccinationalism” is not only unfair, but also self-defeating. None of us is safe, until all of us are safe.’ The UK has joined COVAX, but it took its time but now 172 countries have shown solidarity and joined.  

But let us not overlook what we can do on a personal level, for instance, Black Lives Matter. Would we be taking it as seriously had not images of George Floyd gone round the world? Those who watch Premier League matches must hail the determination of its leading players to honour this commitment. Will we stick with this new realisation, recognising we have turned a blind eye to this over these last decades? The International Year for Disabled Persons I mentioned earlier was quickly seen as offering inadequate time for the world to be mobilised and was immediately followed by a Decade. And still the job’s not done but even so, legislation is sufficiently embedded.   

So, who are we showing solidarity with, for how long and how do we measure outcomes?

Last month, in Ethiopia ten Amhara and Oromo political parties signed an interim agreement on joint political positions in Addis Ababa. The interim agreement marked an historic milestone in the relations of the two largest ethnic groups in Ethiopia and issued a strong call for de-escalation of tensions and for reconciliation. And yet, a month later, the Tigray community is at war with the Ethiopian government and all previous sense of solidarity has been tragically lost.

In Cyprus, study visits are designed in a way to provide students with an opportunity to collaborate with each other and integrate new perspectives with cultural heritage environments to enhance learning initiatives. This sounds good but what have they been doing over these 30 years and why are today’s 50-year olds not showing tolerance? In Bosnia, neighbouring schools separated by faith play basketball against each other – but only once a year. That is just not good enough, but we must be persistent, ‘tie ourselves to the mast’, commit as did the founders of the United Nations.

Therefore, my second proposal was to challenge the audience to commit to Black Lives Matter, recognising it to be a milestone albeit an important one on the route to true international and interpersonal solidarity and to rejoice that we have the opportunity to play a part in it – and to do so.  

By a smallish margin, the audience voted for the first proposal.

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Democratic Participation

By David Wardrop

In our Peace and Security workshop for the UN75 festival in October 2020, we used the UN Culture of Peace Initiative as our platform. I presented questions relating to democratic participation, one of the eight essential elements in the UN Culture of Peace Initiative. Like other presenters, I was charged to pose the audience an ‘impossible choice’ with both options being unequivocally desirable. So how might they vote? 

Firstly, I recalled that the UN Secretary-General wants better public engagement and communication with communities. So, let us make that a priority, globally and within our communities, learning from each other. But how do we ensure it actually happens?

In 2011, the Open Government Partnership was set up by governments and civil society advocates seeking to create a unique partnership—one that combines these powerful forces to promote accountable, responsive and inclusive governance.

Today, seventy-eight countries including the UK and a growing number of local governments—more than two billion people—along with thousands of civil society organisations are members of the Partnership. Its Implementation Plan showcases successful case studies and identifies ‘bright lights’, those communities which are exemplars of reform. These can be in stable democracies, even in those experiencing civic tension as in the United States. On our page on the UN75 festival website, we showed how the Police Department in Camden, New Jersey, can be as an exemplar to all US police departments, especially those being stressed by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. And this begs the question: who initiates these reforms, giving breath back to minority groups, those whose voice is unheard? In such developed states, the rise of the BLM movement makes us ask why these issues are too often seen through the white man’s lens only. Last month, a revealing survey run by the UK journal Peace News showed the impact BLM has had on the British peace movement, prompting self-identified white readers to unlearn a lot and to listen to other voices.

Facing quite different challenges, following inter-faith warfare in the Central African Republic, the NGO Search for Common Ground is now launching a 24-month project with funding from the UN Democracy Fund to promote permanent and collaborative dialogue between citizens, civil society, and local authorities across eight districts in the capital Bangui. A brave initiative but even if it falters, we must watch it and we must learn from failure. Peace really is a dynamic. 

United Nations Democracy Fund |

So, my first proposal was this. We should urge that evidence of the representation of the interests of minorities be a pre-requisite for any national or civic review, and it must be clear at all times.

Then again, in all these programmes, youth is in danger of being excluded from proposed solutions. Recognising this, the well-received report Stepping Stones for a Better Future published by Together First, the  network of people and organisations co-led by UNA-UK, supports the view that ‘When it comes to the future, younger participants and those in many developing countries tend to be more optimistic than those who are older or living in developed countries’. Optimistic, yes, but is that enough? This week’s news that young people in the USA, UK and Australia are questioning the value of democracy demands action, in both developed and developing countries. Let us harness this tremendous energy and commit to creating a UN youth council. Just do it! Create a high-level champion for civil society itself.

So, my second proposal was to ensure youth be represented even in the highest fora, starting with a UN Youth Council, despite local and national cultural obstructionism.

How did the audience vote? They preferred the first proposal, 51% to 49%. 

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