INTERVIEW: Women and politics at the UN

Ghada Al-Sharkawy , Saturday 13 Jul 2019

President of the UN General Assembly Maria Fernanda Espinosa talks to Ghada Al-Sharkawy about the role of the United Nations in the world today and the role of women

Maria Fernanda Espinosa
President of the UN General Assembly Maria Fernanda Espinosa (Photo: Nader Osama)

President of the UN General Assembly Maria Fernanda Espinosa ended her official visit to Egypt several days ago, which included important meetings with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Coptic Pope Tawadros II.

She visited Al-Azhar in Cairo and witnessed the efforts of the Al-Azhar Observatory to Combat Terrorism. She was also hosted by the National Council for Women in a seminar entitled “Empowering Women: Challenges and Opportunities” and gave a lecture at Cairo University entitled “Multilateralism in a Changing World”.

Espinosa is the first woman from Latin America to become president of the General Assembly of the UN following her election in June 2018 and the fourth woman to lead the UN body in 73 years of its history. The promotion of gender equality is one of the priorities of her work.

During her acceptance speech in June 2018, Espinosa dedicated her victory to women in politics and to women and girls who had been victims of violence and promised to work to strengthen multilateralism and to bring the UN closer to people and people closer to the UN.

She described her work in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.

What were the most important issues raised in your discussions in Egypt?

I had a very intense and interesting agenda in Egypt. I met with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, and we had a very fruitful conversation about the need to strengthen multilateralism, the need to use Egypt’s experience in leadership at the UN, and how to increase the knowledge of ordinary citizens about the work of the UN.

We spoke about the challenges currently facing multilateralism and about the golden opportunity of the upcoming General Assembly in September to bring together leaders of the world to discuss the issues such as climate change and the achievements and challenges of the UN Agenda 2030 on sustainable development.

We also discussed migration and refugees and how much Egypt has done to host about five million migrants in this country from different parts of the world, especially from the neighbouring countries.

You were the first woman to represent Ecuador at the UN in New York 10 years ago. What has changed since then in conflict management and international relations?

While there has been a rise in populism, nationalism and unilateralism, I do see a growing popular awareness right across the world that it is only by coming together on a multilateral basis that we can reverse severe climate change, maintain peace and security, uphold human rights and achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

What I do see in this interconnected world is that as awareness of all these issues is growing stronger, so the demands for change and action grow ever stronger as well. In terms of conflict management, we desperately need a strong United Nations and a Security Council that is always prepared to uphold the UN Charter.

What is the role of the UN in creating effective international cooperation in the fight against terrorism? How do you evaluate Egyptian efforts concerning combating terrorism?

The UN has done, is doing, and will do a lot to fight terrorism in many ways. Since 2006, the UN has been implementing a strategy to combat terrorism. In 2017, the UN established a specific office to counter-terrorism and there is a lot of traction and political commitment from member states.

Unfortunately, terrorism is not happening in one specific place or country, and it is stretching to every region of the world and every country. It can happen anywhere and everywhere. That is why we need a strong multilateral system and strong cooperation to address this critical issue.

I also think that the most powerful deterrent to terrorism is to fight poverty and inequality on the one hand but also wiser preventive measures on the other.

The new peace-building architecture of the UN is precisely oriented at looking at terrorism as a multifaceted issue that needs to be addressed in a holistic manner.

Regarding Egypt, I was very encouraged because I visited the Al-Azhar Observatory, and I saw firsthand the work that they are doing precisely to target and prevent extremism by reinterpreting the peaceful messages of the Quran and identifying potential seeds of extremism in social media.

I saw that they are working and making this effort using 12 different languages reaching every single corner of the world, and I think that the observatory is a very interesting initiative that can be shared with other countries.

I think that Egypt has been taking this issue very seriously, and any effort to combat terrorism and extremism must be welcomed. For an effective strategy to combat terrorism and violent extremism more collaboration is needed, however, as well as a strong multilateral approach and a multifaceted approach and a holistic approach.

No country alone can address this issue by itself. Unfortunately, it is a cross-boundaries issue that is affecting so many communities, so many innocent people, and so many civilians, and I think that our response must be very strong and very wise and rely very much on cooperation, collaboration and solidarity among countries.

How can the UN confront the hate speech that is flourishing in some countries around the world?

I had the privilege to meet and discuss this with Pope Tawadros II. The Coptic Orthodox Church has a very important role in interfaith dialogue in Egypt and worldwide.

Unfortunately, we are experiencing hate speech, extremism, and even attacks because of different faiths and religion. So, interfaith dialogue and peaceful dialogue among beliefs and religions are most needed.

Love, understanding and tolerance are principles that the pope has mentioned over and over again in his dialogues with other spiritual authorities from all over the world, and these things are need more than ever now.

We recently launched at the UN an initiative and a system-wide strategy to combat hate speech, and we have been doing our best to bring alive the UN Alliance of Civilisations precisely to establish a strategy to protect places of worship.

Humanity needs to rethink the fundamental principles of peaceful coexistence in order to understand that we are all the same even with our diversity.

This is an issue we also brought up with President Al-Sisi, who is making great efforts to make sure there is peaceful coexistence among the different religions in this country.

What do you expect from Egypt as the current head of the African Union?

Egypt is a very important international player. Egypt has had a brilliant presidency of the Group of 77 and China until very recently and now as the leader of the African Union for 2019.

I am sure that the Egyptian leadership will make a great difference.

What do you think about Egypt’s Vision 2030 to help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

I would like to commend Egypt for its efforts related to the implementation of the SDGs, including its Sustainable Development Strategy (SDS): Egypt Vision 2030, which puts the focus on investing in human capital.

Egypt’s commitment to achieving the SDGs is also expressed through its building of partnership and knowledge-sharing. The Egyptian government promotes successful experiences in sustainable development through partnering with the Egyptian Agency for Partnership for Development (EAPD) and the Cairo Centre for Conflict Resolution and Peacekeeping in Africa (CCCPA) to provide African solutions to African problems.

Aware of the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, Egypt also recognises that despite a strong willingness to achieve the SDGs, fundamental challenges remain.

High birth rates, the brain drain, water scarcity, migration, discrimination against women and girls, a growing informal sector, and instability in neighbouring states (especially Libya and Syria) are only some of the many hindrances to sustainable development in Egypt.

How do you read the current world map, if you were asked to describe the political, economic and security situation in the world, for example?

I am a geographer by training, so I can tell you that you can have different readings of the same map. You can have a pessimistic reading of the world and say we have conflict everywhere, poverty is increasing, insecurity, lack of jobs, a climate crisis, lack of political will of our leaders, and you can go on and on.

The multilateral system has fallen short of resolving and addressing all these problems and crises. This is the pessimistic reading, but then there is also a more balanced, optimistic reading.

In the optimistic reading, it is true that we are facing difficult times, and it is true that multilateralism is being put under question, but it is also true that human society has the means, knowledge, science and technology to address and solve these issues, and for that we need more cooperation, more multilateralism, more UN, more collective action, strong global leadership and burden sharing.

For instance, we have seen a big unleashing of commitments regarding climate change. It is difficult because it is about changing our consumption and production patterns, but there is a willingness and we know how to do it.

We have the technology, so we can act and address seriously the issue of climate change.

If you look at conflict, people say we have to solve conflict A or B or C, and the truth is that some of them are known for being long-lasting conflicts, and sometimes the confluence of visions and interests does not allow us to come up with a solution.

But then we see some conflicts unravel, and we can see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel.

There are examples that it can be done, but it requires strong political will, generosity and vision. However, all these issues depend on human society and leaders, so I would say that I am a stubborn optimist.

How do you evaluate efforts to resolve the Palestinian issue?

I have referred to the Palestinian issue as the “open wound” of the international community. I don’t know how many resolutions we have passed both at the UN Security Council and General Assembly regarding the Palestinian issue.

I think that any effort to build bridges, dialogue and understanding is well received, and of course in any initiative all the parties should be sitting at the table. There is no either or: it all needs to come together, and everybody needs to be sitting at the table.

How do you see the situation in Syria and Yemen?

Any solution in northern Syria would have to respect the country’s unity and territorial integrity. In this regard, I encourage the relevant parties to pursue dialogue towards bringing about a just and lasting peace in Syria, including for the people in northern Syria. We must always allow a political space and encourage cooperation.

In Yemen, I urge the relevant parties to continue working towards attaining a lasting and peaceful solution to the political and humanitarian crisis in the country.

Do you think that a political solution is possible in the Libyan crisis?

I strongly condemn the violence in Libya and the military escalation and fighting in and around Tripoli. I urge all sides to end hostilities and to provide support to humanitarian workers and all civilians. I am deeply concerned about reports of a military build-up in Libya and the attack on a migrant camp in Tripoli last week.

I urge all the parties in Libya to de-escalate the tension and refrain from any acts of provocation and to continue in a national and inclusive dialogue with the objective of bringing peace, stability and security for the Libyan people. There is no military solution.

On the migration centres in Libya, I am very concerned about widespread human rights violations and abuses committed in the context of detention and the prolonged arbitrary detention of thousands of men, women and children without due process in Libya.

In the light of the escalating tension between Iran and the United States, what is your vision to resolve the conflict between the two countries over the nuclear agreement and to achieve security in the Gulf region?

I call for maximum restraint and calm. Escalating this situation will not benefit anyone. We need to invest in diplomacy, and we need to keep the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) working. It is time to ease the tensions and promote dialogue and to avoid further escalation.

I believe that the JCPOA represents a major achievement in nuclear non-proliferation and diplomacy and has contributed to regional and international peace and security.

I encourage all the relevant parties to pursue dialogue in addressing this important issue of denuclearisation.

I am against all forms of unilateral economic, commercial and financial sanctions and embargoes that contravene the norms of international law and contradict the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

You are the fourth woman to lead the General Assembly in 73 years of UN history and the first Latin American woman to hold this position. In your acceptance speech you dedicated your victory to women and girls. Gender equality is high on your agenda. How do you evaluate the Egyptian experience in this field?

Well, to be only the fourth woman in the 73 years of history of the UN is not good enough. We need to do more and better, and indeed I am the first Latin American and Caribbean woman to have the honour to preside over the General Assembly.

We need to do more homework in terms of gender parity, empowerment of women and women’s rights.

This was part of our conversation during an extraordinary meeting with the National Council of Women. I had the opportunity to exchange views with women leaders from Egypt and with four ministers working in different areas be they migration, national planning, social protection or investment.

We also have eight women in the cabinet: this is really a big step forward for the country, and it was a privilege to meet such powerful intelligent women in charge of very important parts of the government’s agenda.

It is really very encouraging to see that women are not only taking care of women’s issues, but women are also taking care of national planning, national strategies for migration and planning, and are taking an active part in key decision-making.

We also discussed the increase of the women’s quota in parliament to 25 per cent. I had the opportunity to exchange some views with female parliamentarians who are very young and are bringing to parliament the voice of women.

I think Egypt is on the right track. We will have a golden opportunity next year when we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Programme of Action (the Fourth World Conference on Women and the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action 1995).

I think that this country can be an example and a point of reference for the region and the continent.

How do you evaluate UN efforts regarding combating violence against women?

As you know, women’s right to live free from violence is upheld by international agreements such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), especially through General Recommendations 12 and 19, and the 1993 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women.  

The UN works with governments to develop dedicated national action plans to prevent and address violence against women, strengthening coordination among the diverse actors required for sustained and meaningful action.

UN Women also advocates for the integration of violence in key international, regional and national frameworks, such as the post-2015 Development Agenda. Nevertheless, we must re-double our efforts.

I think that the world needs to do a lot. There is no way that we are going to achieve the SDGs of 2030 if we leave 50 per cent of the population behind. Women’s rights are a cross-cutting element of Agenda 2030; even if there is a specific goal on gender equality, I think it touches on all other 16 goals.

The work is enormous, and there is an area of the work that is of utmost importance, which is to eradicate all forms of violence and discrimination against women.

Women being killed, abused and raped is something that we see north and south and east and west worldwide. So, we must bring together our political power, the legal strategies, and the right public policy choices and above all to change society and societal behaviour regarding women.

Time is critical, but we have to start, and I think education has a strong role to play, especially with boys. People say it is a long-term process, but we need to start somewhere.

Education needs to happen now, but you also need to have in place proper laws, legislation, policy frameworks, and affirmative action responses from societies in order to stop violence against women.

What is your vision to bring the UN closer to people and people closer to the UN, as you said in your acceptance speech?

The UN is doing wonderful work worldwide, but unfortunately we haven’t been able to communicate properly. We haven’t been able to be closer to the people we serve, and we haven’t made the case of how vital the UN is.

Sometimes people do not know what the UN’s work is about. The UN needs to be understood in broad terms. This year, we had to discuss the challenges of creating new jobs and decent jobs many times.

Most of these jobs are for the younger generations, so the creation of jobs is a critical issue. Everybody is worried and concerned about that.

Another issue, that of climate change, is a survival issue; it is not a choice anymore. Either we raise our ambition to decrease our CO2 emissions, or several countries are going to disappear quickly.

The UN is about that: it is about survival, it is about wellbeing, it is about coexistence, and it is about peace.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 11 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Women and politics at the UN

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