Discover more from The Chief Brief
The yardstick of Right/Wrong
As the London heatwave began yesterday (yes, we consider 29 degrees Celsius/84.5 degrees Fahrenheit a heatwave!) I was sweltering away in a taxi, having a very intense conversation with the driver about the state of the world. What an insightful and well-read man he was! As the conversation meandered its way to the war in Ukraine, burst dams, drowning dogs and floating land mines, he asked a very pertinent question.
Was his strategy of verifying a news story by checking its coverage at multiple sources, a good one? I told him, my journalist grandfather who definitely pre-dated the internet, AI and algorithms, would have approved even 30 years ago.
My cabbie then proceeded to talk about the world’s forgotten wars, and questioned why the political system and the news business moves on from them so quickly? The British child of Somali immigrants, he talked about loving his nation but feeling intense frustration at the callousness with which nations not considered important or close to power (like his parents’) were left behind. He then burst out with the statement - ‘just get rid of the UN (United Nations). It is just a smoke screen.’ His opinion? That the organisation is stuck in the past. That it remains reflective of the winners of a war that ended 78 years ago. That its wastes money. Most critically, that it doesn’t reflect what a global, interconnected world looks like today — one, quite different to when the UN charter was signed in San Francisco on June 6, 1945.
It was a bit surreal to be having that conversation with a cabbie in London just 48 hours after I was in the European Parliament in Brussels. Guess what I was discussing with some of the world’s most influential political figures? The nuances of whether the UN Charter could be kept alive in today’s environment. Serendipity indeed!
Thanks for reading The Chief Brief! Subscribe to receive new posts and support not just my work, but the women leaders changing the world.
The Women Political Leaders (WPL) summit was held in Brussels after a long hiatus, this week. The European Parliament probably hasn’t seen that many XX chromosomes or such a level of diversity of geographies and ethnicity in its hallowed halls since the last WPL summit held there, a decade ago in 2013. The theme of the WPL 10-year anniversary seems to be in tune with the crux of my cabbies issue with the international system — ‘Representation Matters!’
Within that concept comes the question about the relevance of the UN and its security council in a world where regional alliances now seem to have far more power and impact (think ASEAN/African Union/EU/NATO etc). It’s a pertinent question considering that time after time, the way the UN is structured has blockaded not just its own relief and reconstruction agencies on the ground, but the very reason for its creation - the prevention of war!
From the atrocities in the forgotten wars of Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and others, to the raging human rights issues in Palestine, Myanmar, Philippines and other places. There are the wars that remain hidden in the shadows in places that don’t have a voice, or proximity to power, or those like in Ukraine which is at NATO’s door step, actively consuming our emotions and our economies. Where ever the war though, the parameters of the conversation about the UN/International order haven’t changed in years.
• how does Russia’s attack on Ukraine impact the rules-based system?
• can global partnerships be built?
• how can we defend a rules based international order?
• do we need to revise the rules?
We’ve hammered on, about these points for what feels like forever but there’s been no real push for action/change. We are told - It’s takes time to reform a behemoth of a bureaucracy. The security council did after all allow others in, so what if Veto powers weren’t reformed? But all inaction and the passage of time does, is erode the faith of the people these institutions were built for, in the first place.
The questions that scroll to the 🔝 of my mind every time the topic of the international system and its effectiveness/ineptitude are brought up are - the simple sounding, yet probably unanswerable ones:
• How do we see the 🌎 today? Are we still looking at US centric Vs. the other
• How do we recognise this new world order and does the rules-based order have to adjust for this new perception?
• How do we build partnerships if we are mostly still carrying on with old mindsets?
• Do we even know what rules to change?
• How do we revise them if we do/don’t?
I sat down on the European Parliament’s podium, with the women who’ve been either leading the UN on the front lines, working to change the system from the inside or those navigating its complexities while dealing with the consequences of its often inept, or sometimes adequate approach. Here’s what they said was needed immediately to help the system work for the people it was set up for:
Olha Vasylevska-Smahliuk is the MP for Bucha in Ukraine. She was, in another life, an investigative journalist famous for uncovering corruption and illegal acts of Ukraine’s political elite. Driven to politics to make a difference, her words reflected the scars of the unspeakable atrocities in Bucha and laid bare the breakdown of trust in the international system with the continued failure to act on civilian abductions in Ukraine.
“Humanitarian diplomacy is a very nice idea but in my opinion ICRC or the United Nations organisations and others does not work. If we can’t push ICRC or other humanitarian organisations, we can close them!” She added, “The veto in the UN Security Council should be abolished. Because that doesn’t work. The system in which all states are not equal, in which there are privilege and hierarchy has shown its inability to respond adequately to the crisis. So, enough! Abolish the veto in the United Nations and that’s all!
Maria Rachel Arenas is the Chair of the foreign affairs committee of the Philippines, who is currently sitting on a tinderbox as she and her new government and President navigate the mine-filled dance of diplomacy in the South China Sea and domestic crises.
On what lessons the Philippines could share with the international system she said -, “While the rules are not without flaws, it remains an essential framework for promoting peace, cooperation and protection of human rights. We strive for striking a balance between state sovereignty and responsibility of other states.” And added, as a clear strategy, “We undertake exclusive and transparent processes inclusive of diverse stakeholders.”
Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, MEP from Germany has the herculean task of keeping the bridges between the EU and Africa open, strong and stable even as the war in Ukraine distracts Europe’s attention, with migrants becoming a punching bag for cost-of-living beleaguered European politicians - All of course even as the continent of Africa makes its own decisions on which relationships it wants to maintain.
Her take, “No peace without justice. No one wants war, no one wants an uncomfortable way of life.” Pierrette hammered home the point that colonized countries didn’t even have freedom at the time the UN Charter was signed, let alone the monetary power to demand a seat at the table. That no longer holds true. How they are given a voice is key to determining the future of the international rules-based order. What is key to remember for those in the security council she added is, “Everyone wants to promote social progress and development, usually and this social progress and development is possible if we try to have much more solidarity,” and to not ‘other’ the people in crisis.
Safak Pavey, Sr Advisor UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, Turkey’s first female and disabled Member of Parliament (MP) & one of the world’s most prolific activists for people with disabilities hit home with her key point: That agility is key for the UN to keep its charter alive and stay relevant.
She said, “What we need to have is an agile fund somewhere in the UN which people can look at, but with the wisdom that they can speak — With the wisdom of their socio-political and cultural context. She drove home the point of decision making on international issues - “You need to know your context. Peacemakers cannot be assigned from another planet. That doesn’t bring any conclusion, because you are looking at it like a shot from space. Those cultural values and differences, regionally existing needs also regionally wise voices, and particularly women who need to have a seat at that table.”
Abla Amawi the fiery and powerful senator from Jordan, Secretary General of the Higher Population Council, and the winner of the prestigious ‘Distinguished Arab Woman Award’ succinctly and clearly laid it out for the decision makers at the UN: As we look at the world today - “Always be the voice of justice and apply the stick of right or wrong.”
Abla added, “Whatever conflict you see, rather than take sides, always say if I uphold international rules of right or wrong - who would be on the wrong side and who is on the right side? Wherever you see there are marginalisation, injustice, abuse, lack of inclusion, lack of diversity then say - this should be my yard stick.” She continued adding, “We apply different yard sticks. If it’s a neighbouring country we like, we assume its ok, their actions of aggression, and if its someone we don’t like - they’re aggressors. We have to use the yardstick of right or wrong she insisted - “We do it not for religion, not for going to heaven but because it’s right, for goodness’ sake!”
These powerful women have been around the block. Their experience is a lived one. What they suggest is simple, transparent, inclusive yet powerful. And has the capacity to lead to the restoration of trust in the institutions that are meant to protect and lead us all. But the unfortunate question we have to ask is, are their counterparts at decision making tables around the world listening?
You can listen to the full discussion at the WPL Summit 2023 (if you have the time!) The conversation on the UN Charter starts from the time code 5:33:32.
If you do have the time to watch more, I’d strongly recommend catching as many of the conversations as you can!
You’ll get gems like:
Sahle-Work Zewde, President of Ethiopia sharing her views and experiences of overseeing peace and the return of conflict in her country, leading diplomatic and crisis negotiations as a UN official and the importance of listening to different points of view and different perspectives.
Obiageli Ezekwesili, Chair of the WPL Board and former Nigerian Minister of Education, and former Vice President for the World Bank saying, the data backs the fact that representation leads to better economic stability and resilience but yet somehow the needle still doesn’t move.
Lindiwe Dlamini, President of the Senate of Eswatini saying that the women leaders in this room are also women who’ve birthed the many leaders in this world who don’t believe women deserve a place at the table where decisions are made.
Ismat Jahan, Ambassador and Permanent Observer, Permanent Observer Mission of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to the EU saying she has a problem with autocratic despots being described as ‘strongmen’! She thinks the language we should be using is along the lines of a weak man desperately holding on to power.
Natalia Gavrilița, Prime Minister of Moldova insisting that we need to think about the legacy we want to leave for our children. That the perpetrators who break international law must be sanctioned and held accountable.
Roberta Metsola, President of the European Parliament reiterating that representation matters, and her advice to young women thinking about a career in politics - “Being in politics is not easy, being a woman in politics doesn’t make it any easier. But I was fortunate to grow up with the mantra - if you work hard enough, if you want it enough, if you are ready to climb that mountain, then nothing can hold you back!”
I’ll be profiling some of the other amazing women I met from around the world, who are not just demanding seats at the decision table but becoming the voices of their regions and nations in the newsletters to come!
The CB mantra stands true - If you don’t know her, you probably should. She is changing the world!
Housekeeping note: Going forward the Chief Brief will be sent out on Saturday mornings! What’s better than having a full weekend to read about the news and newsmakers, making the ‘female’ tag obsolete!