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Upcoming UN General Assembly Promises a Whiff of History

Fourth Woman President in 73 years – 18-year-old Female Activist to Speak at High Level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament

By Santo D. Banerjee

NEW YORK (IDN) – The 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly opening on September 18 promises to be historic. Not only because its President, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, the Foreign Minister of Ecuador, is the fourth woman on the top in the history of the UN’s main deliberative and policy-making body.

But also because on September 26, the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, 18-year-old environmental and children's rights activist Kehkashan Basu will address the General Assembly. Espinosa has selected her to speak as one of the two representatives of global civil society.

She has called the forthcoming High-Level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament to underscore the need for a nuclear-weapons-free world. The first time the General Assembly organized such a meeting was in 2013.

Espinosa has had only three previous women as General Assembly Presidents or PGAs as they are known. In 1953, India’s Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was elected as the first woman President – only six years after the country achieved independence from the British. The Korean War was coming to an end. The process of decolonization of Africa had been kicked off.

Liberia’s Angie Brooks became the second female PGA in 1969. The process of decolonization had significantly advanced. The Group of 77 – at the United Nations a coalition of developing nations – had been established in 1964. It was designed to promote its members' collective economic interests and create an enhanced joint negotiating capacity in the world body.

Brooks died in 2007, but her memory lives on in the Angie Brooks International Centre established in the Liberian capital Monrovia to promote women’s empowerment, leadership development, international peace and security.

Haya Rashed Al Khalifa of Bahrain became the third woman PGA in the 61st session of the General Assembly in 2006.

Espinosa was elected by the 193 Member States of the UN ahead of the only other candidate, Mary Flores Flake of Honduras. Speaking to delegates, she dedicated her election to "all women in the world of politics" who face attacks by the media and other politicians, "marked by discrimination and machismo."

While the General Assembly has elected a woman for the fourth time as its President, the United Nations has yet to recommend the first female Secretary-General to the Security Council who would find favour with all the veto wielding five permanent members – USA, Russia, China, Britain and France.

On September 24, the General Assembly will hold a high-level plenary meeting on global peace in honor of the centenary of the birth of Nelson Mandela, known as the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit. The plenary will adopt a political declaration negotiated by Member States. In May 2018 the Permanent Representatives of South Africa and Ireland, serving as co-facilitators, began consulting with governments on the content of the declaration.

September 25 will be the first day of the Assembly's high-level General Debate that is scheduled to last for nine working days. Espinosa announced in July 2018 after her election as PGA that the theme of the general debate will be: Making the United Nations Relevant to All People: Global Leadership and Shared Responsibilities for Peaceful, Equitable and Sustainable Societies.

On September 26, the Assembly will hold the High-Level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament that also marks the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, which has been observed every year since 2014 to underline the compelling need to usher in a world free of all nuclear weapons.

The General Assembly held its first-ever High-Level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament in 2013, and through its resolution 68/32, declared that September 26 will be the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

Pursuant to resolution 67/56, the Assembly also convened an open-ended working group on taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations.

It was however not before 2016 that the General Assembly, in agreement with resolution 70/33, convened a second open-ended working group – again with a view to taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations.

By resolution 71/258, the General Assembly decided to convene in 2017 a UN conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination. Over 120 countries attended negotiations; however, all nine nuclear weapons possessing states along with some allies of the U.S. boycotted the conference.

On July 7, 2017 the conference adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which is the first multilateral legally binding instrument for nuclear disarmament to have been negotiated in 20 years.

On September 20, 2017, the Secretary-General, as depositary of the Treaty convened the signing ceremony. Ecuador was one of the first countries to sign the Treaty on that day. Meanwhile 60 countries have signed and 14 ratified so far. The Treaty will enter into force 90 days after 50 countries have ratified.

To keep the ball rolling, UN Secretary-General António Guterres launched Securing Our Common Future: An Agenda for Disarmament in May 2018. The Agenda addresses the elimination of nuclear weapons in the framework of "disarmament to save humanity".

Photo: 18-year-old environmental and children's rights activist Kehkashan Basu, Youth Ambassador of the World Future Council. Credit: World Future Council.Photo: 18-year-old environmental and children's rights activist Kehkashan Basu, Youth Ambassador of the World Future Council. Credit: World Future Council.

"The United Nations and its member countries should focus more on disarmament for sustainable development," says 18-year-old Basu, Youth Ambassador of the World Future Council who was named on September 6 as one of Canada's Top 25 Women of Influence for 2018.

The winner of the 2016 International Children’s Peace Prize Basu says: "The nuclear arms race, in particular, should be halted and the $100 billion global nuclear weapons budget be redirected towards ending poverty, reversing climate change, protecting the oceans, building a sustainable economy and providing basic education and health care for all of humanity."

"Instead, the nuclear armed States are squandering resources and keeping their nuclear weapons poised to strike. One mistake would cause a humanitarian disaster, robbing children and youth of their health and future, and maybe even ending civilization as we know it," she adds.

Basu was just 12 years old when, in 2012, she started Green Hope Foundation, a youth organisation working on education for sustainable development, children's rights and environmental protection, with the goal of empowering young people to utilize their power to make a difference.

The organisation now has over 1000 members across the Middle East, India, Brazil, USA, Canada, Europe and Southeast Asia. in January 2018, Basu led a team of Green Hope members to Syrian refugee camps on the border of Lebanon and conducted environmental workshops for over 600 refugee children, turning into reality the UN mandate of "leave no one behind".

The significance of Basu's remarks that the UN and its member countries should focus more on disarmament for sustainable development is accentuated by Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

Yet another reason that lends importance to Basu addressing the UN High-Level Meeting on September 26 is that it falls on the anniversary of the incident in 1983 when a nuclear war was almost fought by accident.

As UNFOLD Zero recalls, on that day, an incoming U.S. ballistic missile attack against Moscow was 'detected' by Soviet satellites relaying information to the nuclear early warning centre Serpukhov-15. With only 15 minutes between detection and impact, standard procedure was to confirm the incoming attack to the President of the Soviet Union (at that time Yuri Andropov) who would initiate an immediate 'retaliatory' attack before Moscow was hit.

Stanislav Petrov, duty officer at Serpukhov-15, defied protocol and reported a false alarm. He was right. The satellites were wrong. And his action, which is chronicled in the award winning movie The Man Who Saved the World, prevented a potential nuclear calamity.

"The lesson of the 1983 incident, and the 15-20 other times we have nearly had a nuclear exchange, is that nuclear deterrence could fail – and that failure would mean game over," says Jakob von Uexkull, founder of the World Future Council. "As such, the nuclear armed States have to replace nuclear deterrence with better ways to achieve security, just as the overwhelming majority of other countries have already done," he adds.

As a follow-up to the 2013 high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament, the General Assembly decided to hold a United Nations High-Level International Conference on Nuclear Disarmament from May 14 to 16, 2018 to review progress made on ushering in a nuclear-weapons-free world. However, the Conference was indefinitely postponed and now might be cancelled altogether.

"High Level Conferences and Summits on global issues are vital to build the public attention, media coverage and political traction to make progress," says Alyn Ware, Chair of the World Future Council Disarmament Commission. "The United Nations must not cave in to the pressure from the nuclear armed States to drop the High Level Conference on Nuclear Disarmament," he adds.

"Regardless of what the governments do at the UN, civil society will step up its action for nuclear disarmament," declares Basu. "The most powerful lobby for the nuclear arms race is the nuclear weapons industry."

Nuclear disarmament campaigners will therefore count out from October 24 to 30, in locations around New York, the $1 trillion nuclear weapons budget for the next 10 years and demonstrate how this money can be reallocated from the nuclear weapons industry into the Sustainable Development Goals and other areas of human and environmental need, reports UNFOLD ZERO. This includes direct cuts to nuclear weapons budgets, and divestment from the industry, and is part of the global campaign Move the Nuclear Weapons Money. [IDN-InDepthNews – 16 September 2018]

Top photo: UNGA73 President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés. Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe.

Middle photo: 18-year-old environmental and children's rights activist Kehkashan Basu, Youth Ambassador of the World Future Council. Credit: World Future Council.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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