News from The Dog Days of Summer: Why You Really Need To Care

George Somerwill updating his website at UNForAll.com.

George Somerwill updating his website at UNForAll.com.

Summer in North America normally brings with it the media “silly season” when important news dries up and news outlets are reduced to telling shaggy dog stories. But this summer has been dramatically different with yet another shooting war in Gaza, leading to the death of more than a thousand Palestinians, a civilian aircraft carrying 300 people shot out of the sky over Ukraine, the apparent dismemberment of the state of Iraq after dramatically rapid and successful attacks by brutal Islamic extremists.  Add to this the outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever, with no known cure, sweeping out of control through some of the world’s poorest states in West Africa, and this summer is shaping up to be unlike any before it in terms of news.

Why is this important to Canadians as we enjoy family time in the hot weather? Maintaining a smooth functioning democracy in Canada and elsewhere depends upon an informed and involved public. While the phrase “the global village” is a well-worn cliché, the fact is each and every one of us belongs to a larger, complex global reality and directly or indirectly we are affected by events taking place thousands of kilometres away. If you don’t keep up to date with the news, your government might start acting, or making statements on your behalf, with which you totally disagree.  When there is nothing but bad news, business around the world slows down as producers and consumers hunker down and watch to see what will happen next. The human tendency is to throw up our hands in despair and ask “what can we do?”

The rule of law in a country – that body of laws and rules by which a society governs itself – is the central pillar of modern democratic society. If the rule of law comes under threat anywhere in the world – the shooting down of an unarmed civilian airliner over Ukraine, or the continued firing of missiles into Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world – then it becomes that much easier to conveniently “forget” the next time the rule of law is challenged. After all, what can we do when thousands of Iraqi civilians, including minorities, are killed by ISIL Islamic militants? Or how can we react humanely when hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls are abducted and pressed into sexual slavery.

Whenever and wherever in the world such an event happens, thoughtful citizens need to protest loudly and effectively. And they need to engage their leaders, demanding that national and international policies are put in place to safeguard human rights and the Rule of Law around the world. Knowledge is the first safeguard against the erosion of democracy. Knowledge strengthens the civil exchange of opinions and ideas on current and crucial topics in the world. Armed with knowledge and a culture of open debate – thoughtful people can contribute to the policy debate. All over the world, including in North America, the civilized exchange of views and opinions is being undermined by governments and organizations that do not want us to clearly state what “we the people” really want. As individuals, we have to work together to demand that our governments and institutions respect our wishes. To turn our backs and say “what can I do?” is not an option.

The role of educators and teachers in this process is critically important. As adults we far too often tend to forget this important role that educators play, passing on the knowledge, the ideals and values of a civilized society to our children or grandchildren – the next generation. Educators are the critical interface between a society and its young people. In traditional societies all adults, including the elderly, play a role in educating the next generation. In the West, we entrust that important task to to a small and dedicated band of formal educators in our schools. They deserve strong political support for their work and they need the tools and the political space to do the job we trust them to do.

My desire in undertaking the educational outreach work of UN For All is to promote the development of passionate, active, yet thoughtful and compassionate young citizens. And after 15 years working for the United Nations, maybe I can play a role as an occasional alternative resource for Canadian teachers. In keeping with this goal, I began to contribute regular columns to the BC Social Studies Teachers’ Association newsletter called Dimensions in September of 2013. I invite you to visit the BCSSTA website and find the #MYTAKE series which is available in the archives.

My most recent contribution to Dimensions examines why educated girls are game-changers in many poorer nations around the world. As always I try to explain why we need to know about the events we see and hear about in the news  – in this case the kidnapping of 300 Nigerian schoolgirls by Islamic militants in Nigeria.  What can western nations, including Canadians, do about it?

Here is a brief excerpt to get you started…

AN EXTREMIST’S NIGHTMARE: EDUCATED GIRLS

The plight of the missing northern Nigerian schoolgirls, kidnapped in April by the Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram, finally grabbed the world’s attention. And though their story may eventually catch the eye of Hollywood, most western media have been less than enthusiastic to analyze why around 300 educated girls were taken in the first place.

One of the reasons why is that, if you are an extremist from Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq or any other of a number of conflicted states, educated girls are your worst nightmare…

Continue reading in the ‘Current Issue’  Spring 2014  on page 9.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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At a Recent Meeting…

As the incoming Vice President of the Vancouver Branch of the United Nations Association in Canada (UNAC-V), George Somerwill is seen here thanking  Dr. Hani Faris for his address on Syria entitled, “Syria and the Games of Nations“. The Annual General Meeting of UNAC Vancouver was held at the Fairleigh Dickinson University in Vancouver on April 3, 2014. If you are not following George on Twitter yet, check out his Twitter feed @UN4All soon.

GS_Twitter

 

An International Career: via Podcast

Andrew Koltun of the Academic Council on the United Nations System (ACUNS) interviewed George Somerwill  in the summer of 2013 regarding his extensive and varied career with the United Nations and other international organizations.

Guided by his host, George weaves together for his listeners the fabric of his forty year career, skillfully intertwined with strands of danger, frustration and accomplishment. His story is intriguing, in particular when considering how different a life he has lived from the average Canadian.

 Listen to or download the podcast at this link. Then, engage him on twitter with your questions and feedback – @UN4All.

Keynote: An Innocent at Large

Recently, George Somerwill was asked to provide the keynote presentation for the event entitled, Sudan and South Sudan: Contributing to Conflict Prevention and Post-conflict Stabilization. Both the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Laurier University, located in Waterloo, Ontario, in addition to the Academic Council on the United Nations System and the Department of National Defence, sponsored the two-day public event.

George offered a personal narrative of his work within both the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea and the United Nations Mission in Sudan, including moments from his time spent as BBC and CBC journalist and humanitarian worker. His analysis touched upon the involvement of Canada in the UN in addition to the insight he has developed over the years regarding Africa, Canada and the UN.

What follows is an excerpt of his keynote presentation called, An Innocent at Large. With the UN in the Horn of Africa. One Canadian’s Story.

KEYNOTE EXCERPT by George Somerwill

SONY DSCI would like to say a few words about Canada’s past and present role within the United Nations, and specifically within UN peacekeeping. As I mentioned earlier, Canada has a storied past in peacekeeping. Lester Pearson’s original concept during the1956 Suez crisis – when Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt – of having a ‘thin blue line’ of UN blue helmeted troops standing between combatants has not changed, although operationally it has moved into the 21st century of course!

We all know that Pearson’s original concept called for Canadian troops to make up the thin blue line, but the Egyptians led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, rejected that, and thus the idea of a multinational peacekeeping force was born. Canadians subsequently participated in UNEF, UNDOF (Syria) UMOGIP (India and Pakistan), UNFICYP (Cyprus) and so on, right on through the decades up to and including UNMEE (Ethiopia and Eritrea)and more recently and in a limited way, in Sudan.

Many people ask me why Canadians are less involved now than ever before in peacekeeping. In spite of what the media will tell you about the political reasons, there is a very simple financial reason.

The main donors, called Troop Contributing Countries or Police Contributing Countries (TCC/PCC), to the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations  (UN-DPKO) now are Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nigeria and increasingly, China. Each one of those countries is known to have a huge standing army and police force. The UN pays each TCC/PCC a flat rate per Force member or police officer who participates in a Peacekeeping (PK) Mission. This amount is in turn based on what the donor government pays its military or police officers. And in most cases, when troops or police go to the UN, each government makes a “profit”. In other words – sending troops to a UN PK Force helps to finance its standing army or police force. (more…)

Innocent at Large: With the UN in the Horn of Africa – One Canadian’s Story

United Nations vehicle traveling in Kassala, North Sudan, near the Eritrea Border. Photo: Rosio Godomar

United Nations vehicle traveling in Kassala, North Sudan, near the Eritrea Border. Photo: Rosio Godomar

The crisis in Syria has diverted the public’s attention away from two countries, Sudan and South Sudan, where conflict is still ongoing despite the self-determination of the south and efforts of the United Nations and the African Union. (more…)

The United Nations and Canada’s Role

Recently, George Somerwill was invited to give the keynote address to the Canadian Future Model United Nations on behalf of the Vancouver Branch of the United Nations Association in Canada. The following is an excerpt from this March 8th address.

In the more-than-six decades since the founding of the United Nations (UN), Canada has had a long history of supporting the organization.  The UN needed Canada and was very happy for our support.  And I would certainly add that given the pace of change in the world and the issues the world faces  – Canada and individual Canadians need the UN.

Over the years since the UN was founded in 1946, Canada and Canadians  have played an important role in the organization. The UN Charter was partly drafted by a Canadian academic and Human Rights lawyer – John Peters Humphrey.  Dr. Humphrey headed the very first UN Human Rights body in 1947. (more…)

Ongoing Events in Algeria and Mali

The situation in the north-west part of Africa is still far from its end-game. 

Three years ago Canadian diplomat and former Canadian Permanent Representative to the UN, Robert Fowler was taken hostage in Niger, and later held captive in Mali before his negotiated release. Since then, Ambassador Fowler and others familiar with the region, have warned that a huge swathe of North Africa from the Mediterranean coastlines of Algeria and Libya through Mali and Niger, was being destabilized by insurgents. With the exception of Libya, those countries were former French colonies, but the overthrow of Muammar Ghadafi in that country and the formation of a weak government, have played into the hands of those with their own agendas in north-west Africa .  Undoubtedly French intelligence was also aware of what was going on in their backyard, but Western governments and media, with very few exceptions almost completely ignored the story.

Two events of the past few days have combined to shake western governments out of their complacency. While details are sketchy, on a remote part of the Algeria/Libya border, a group of insurgents attacked an Algerian gas processing plant staffed by both foreign and Algerian nationals and took a large number of foreigners hostage.  Predictably the Algerian government responded with a heavy hand, and dozens of the hostages as well as many of their captors, appear to have died.  In press interviews last week Ambassador Fowler indicated that the group which held him hostage in Mali, led by a one-eyed insurgent calling himself Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and the group who organized the attack on the Algerian gas plant, appear to be the same.  Even more interestingly some analysts have suggested that although Belmokhtar may have originally called himself an Islamist – at least when it suited him – he was in fact making his fortune through ransom money and by smuggling cigarettes and other goods.

Algeria_Map

Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The second event to appear on the international radar last week (although it has been building for months – see my blog on international events to watch during 2013) was the launching of a French military assault designed to support the weak Malian government in its attempts to reclaim the northern part of its huge territory held by – according to the West – Islamic insurgents. (more…)

Middle East, Asia, United States: More International Stories to Watch For in 2013

THE MIDDLE EAST

The issue of Syria will eventually play itself out with the departure of Bashar Al-Assad. This will happen in the short-term. Nevertheless the diplomatic anger and ill-will generated within and outside the UN by the failure of the Security Council to reach agreement to end the Syrian conflict will continue to cause long-term problems for the organization. Even if the Syrian opposition is more united at the moment than it was before, victory by the Syrian opposition may well trigger internal Sunni-Shia splits which could hamper recovery within Syria or, at worst, start another round of conflict. The split between Sunnis and Shias will remain a serious cause of internal conflict within Iraq.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the situation within Iran is another serious destabilizing factor which will be felt through 2013.  Setting aside the presence of nuclear technology within that country, an ever present threat to Israel, the fact that a majority of the Iranian population does not support the current government, means that there will always be a high level of human rights oppression.

Continued Israeli expansion within the disputed areas of Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories will remain a source of tension and conflict. To quote an un-named US diplomat, the two state solution “remains on life support but is not officially dead.”

ASIA

In Asia, the main concerns will continue to be the political posturing in the China Sea between China, Japan and Taiwan over various uninhabited islands. There is every reason to believe that each of the squabbling nations has enough at stake, economically and politically, that they will not take wild risks. However, no nation having political and economic interests in the area (that is, most of the world’s major players) can fail to miss the point that China will eventually become the dominant military power in the region. This will not happen overnight but will certainly develop in coming years. (more…)

Some International Stories to Watch For in 2013

All views expressed are entirely my own.

The past year has been a rollercoaster of international stories, some of them with long-term serious implications. Others, which have grabbed media headlines around the world, may turn out to be much less important, at least in the long-term.

What international issues and stories can we expect to see developing as the new year unfolds?

CANADA AND THE WORLD

Don’t expect to see any major changes in 2013 for Canada in the international arena.  In recent years Canada has lost some international prestige, particularly within the UN, as we were always considered to be scrupulously fair in our dealings with  international issues and political players. We distanced ourselves just enough from the US and UK to show that we were not going to blindly follow everyone else’s hardline policy (e.g. invading Iraq). At the same time we championed issues where we could show our political balance (e.g. the Palestinian issue) or where we could make a difference for large numbers of people (e.g. the anti-personnel mine ban).

Current Canadian policies are currently viewed with some suspicion by many who would like to see more of our traditional fairness.  While it would be great to be proven wrong, Canada will likely continue to distance itself from the UN through 2013.

AFRICA

The big stories in Africa will be those which have so far, only gained minimum media coverage, at least in North America. The complete takeover of the northern half of the massive territory of Mali by a pro-Al-Qaeda Islamist group over the last year is a serious cause for concern which could eventually have consequences for western nations. While the numbers of rebels in northern Mali is relatively small, the huge geographic area, and the almost non-existence of the central government means that there is no resistance.

Another serious rebellion has quietly been occurring, ignored by the mainstream media, in the Central African Republic. Negotiations between anti-government rebels who feel they are being ignored, and the central government, are taking place, brokered by the African Union (AU). These negotiations are on-going but short to medium term future economic development in the CAR, as well as human rights and good governance are seriously under threat.

In Mali, the former colonial power, France is working with the regional power, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to put together an army which might be able to wrest back control of Northern Mali. While all NATO nations, including Canada, have denied that they will participate in any way in this action, it is unlikely that any ECOWAS force could succeed without outside support. US support to ECOWAS could come from outside the NATO umbrella through AFRICOM (Africa Command) and through the provision of intelligence from unmanned drones.

Check my next post for commentary on the Middle East, Asia and the United States.