As we count down the final days until 2014, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on everything the United Nations accomplished this year.
Here’s a little hint: It was a big year for the UN.
From Syria to Iran, it made major progress in making the world a more peaceful and prosperous place for all. And considering the United States was right at the UN’s side in all of these major events of 2013, it’s a good reminder of how critical a strong U.S.-UN relationship is to global health and security.
I’m excited to continue working on strengthening our commitment to the UN in 2014 and beyond, but for now, let’s take a look back at 2013.
Dealing with Rogue Regimes
Following the sarin gas attack that killed 1,400 people in rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, and the consequent threat of a U.S. retaliatory strike against the Assad regime, the U.S. and Russia crafted an agreement requiring the complete destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities by June 30, 2014. In September, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution making this agreement legally-binding on Syria, authorizing the establishment of a joint mission by the UN and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to monitor and verify implementation.
The joint OPCW-UN mission – awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize – has made swift progress:
• Just one month later on October 31, the mission announced the destruction of critical equipment at all of declared Syrian chemical weapons production and mixing/filling plants, rendering facilities inoperable.
• On December 17, OPCW submitted a final plan for the destruction of Syria’s chemical stockpiles. It called for the most toxic chemicals to be destroyed at sea aboard a U.S. ship by the end of March 2014, and all other chemicals to be destroyed by the end of June. (Note: Deadlines subject to modification in light of Syria’s ongoing violence).
• On December 6, the OPCW-UN mission verified that Syrian personnel had destroyed all stockpiles of unfilled chemical munitions, including missile warheads and aerial bombs.
On November 24, 2013, members of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany) and Iran reached a historic interim agreement that curbs various critical aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in return for modest relief from international sanctions. The deal—in place for six months to allow negotiators to reach a more comprehensive accord—requires Iran to halt all production of 20-percent enriched uranium and refrain from installing new centrifuges, among other limits.
Inspectors from the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be critical to ensuring that Iran upholds its end of the bargain and doesn’t resume halted activities, and will have unprecedented access to chemical facilities and uranium mines and mills.
Responding to Humanitarian Crisis
In addition to its work on the chemical weapons issue, UN humanitarian agencies are providing essential lifesaving aid to more than 3 million people every month inside Syria and more than 1 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries by:
• Providing shelter, hygiene supplies, clothing, mattresses, fuel, and other essential supplies;
• Ensuring access to safe drinking water for nearly 10 million Syrians; and
• Providing educational support and essential vaccinations to millions of Syrian children.
While these activities face serious logistical and financial constraints, they are nevertheless saving lives and are critical to ameliorating what has been called “the worst humanitarian disaster since the end of the Cold War.”
2. The Philippines
On November 8, 2013, large areas of the Philippines were hit by Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most intense tropical cyclones on record. It left a path of devastation in its wake: more than 5,000 people were killed and 13 million were affected, including nearly 3.5 million who lost their homes. UN humanitarian agencies, spearheaded by OCHA (the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), have been working around the clock to scale-up their operations and reach people in desperate need of food, water, medicine, shelter, and other essentials. For example:
• The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) and its partners are providing nourishment to more than 2.5 million people in the disaster zone over the next six months;
• The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) airlifted shelter materials and other emergency supplies to affected regions of the Philippines;
• The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is providing clean water, sanitation kits, and educational and psychosocial support to children and families;
• The World Health Organization (WHO) is distributing much needed medical supplies to meet basic health needs; and
• The UN Development Programme (UNDP) is rolling out a “cash-for-work” program to help repair the region’s shattered economy, providing temporary employment to over 200,000 people.
The UN on the Frontlines
In 2012, the West African nation of Mali was plunged into chaos after a Tuareg rebellion in the country’s north and subsequent military coup created a security vacuum, allowing a collection of well-armed radical Islamist groups, including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to seize control of nearly two-thirds of its territory. In January 2013, at the request of Malian authorities, French and African troops launched a military intervention that quickly routed these militant groups, largely driving them out of northern Mali’s population centers and into the surrounding desert. Despite these gains, however, groups like AQIM remain a serious threat to security both in Mali and the wider region. These dangers were underscored in February when terrorists under the command of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian militant based in northern Mali, carried out an attack on a natural gas field in Algeria, killing 37 hostages, including three Americans.
As a result, the work of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali (known as MINUSMA), which began deploying in July after receiving strong support from the U.S. in the Security Council, is critical to our national security interests.
MINUSMA is currently working to:
• Re-establish democracy: In August UN peacekeepers facilitated landmark presidential elections, which ushered in a democratically-elected government for the first time since the coup;
• Secure northern Mali and help re-establish state authority over this area; and
• Reform the country’s security sector, supporting peace talks between the Malian government and Tuareg separatists.
These activities are vital to improving the security situation in Mali over the long-term, as well as to denying groups like AQIM a safe haven from which they can plot and carry out attacks.
2. Democratic Republic of Congo
The M23 rebel movement — which has terrorized eastern Congo as one of the largest armed groups in the war-torn region — was defeated in early November by the UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO and the Congolese army. Such a success was made largely possible by the UN’s first-ever “Intervention Brigade,” a 3,000-strong body authorized through the UN Security Council to:
• Carry out targeted offensive operations;
• Neutralize armed groups in the region; and
• Reduce the threat they pose to civilians. The Intervention Brigade successfully supported Congolese efforts to track down and drive out M23 fighters and is now working to go on the offensive against other rebel groups operating in the area. The defeat of M23 has been welcomed as an important milestone in wider efforts by the international community to end more than two decades of persistent violence, instability, and humanitarian crisis in the region.
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