The downtrodden of the Arab world ‘will not be ignored,’ UNGA president tells Arab News

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Updated 18 September 2023

The downtrodden of the Arab world ‘will not be ignored,’ UNGA president tells Arab News

  • In one-on-one interview, Dennis Francis says his focus will be on mobilizing the world body “to deliver for people and for planet”
  • Urges leaders attending 78th session to maintain and strengthen their support for UN, “a proud organization with a brilliant record”

NEW YORK CITY: When the president of the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly took his oath of office and was handed the gavel, he wished “my parents were still alive to witness this.”

At the same time, he reflected on “the burden of responsibility that I have taken on as president of the General Assembly, the burden that has been created by the legitimate expectation of people everywhere in the world, that the United Nations can deliver for them. And that will be my focus throughout the presidency: How best we can mobilize the General Assembly to deliver for people and for planet.”

Dennis Francis’ stewardship of UNGA comes at a deeply challenging moment for the multilateral system. Since it was established a century ago, multilateralism has provided the global framework for peace and stability, but in a world of conflicts and climate chaos, escalating poverty, hunger and inequality, mistrust and division, there are growing concerns that multilateralism is declining or losing relevance.

Dennis Francis, president of the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, giving an interview with Arab News. (AN photo)

Meanwhile, the difficulty governments are facing in reaching global agreements on trade, climate change and other issues has led many to question whether the multilateral model is still fit for purpose in an era of renewed great power rivalries, nationalism, populism and political economy tensions.

Ahead of the high-level week of the UNGA session, Arab News sat with Francis in his new office at the UN headquarters in New York City, where, in a wide-ranging interview, he outlined his priorities for the year to come.

Francis has spent years working closely with multilateral agencies. He offered a nuanced perspective when asked about the state of multilateralism.

Israeli soldiers clash with Palestinians protesting Israeli settlers who set up tents on lands in Halhoul village north of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, on August 1, 2023. (AFP)

While acknowledging that multilateralism faces challenges, he was emphatic that it is not entirely dysfunctional. The conclusion of the BBNJ Treaty, an important addition to the international architecture on the Law of the Sea, and the inclusion of loss and damage in the COP27 agreement. which aims to provide financial assistance to poorer nations as they deal with the negative consequences that arise from the risks of climate change, are two examples of success that demonstrate that multilateralism can indeed deliver results.

“It might not deliver uniformly, but it does and can deliver,” said Francis.

“What we need to do now is to really focus on strengthening that, and that has to do with a process of recommitting and of building trust and confidence among the membership that we have the capacity and the strength. Sometimes it takes strength to make difficult decisions. But difficult decisions we cannot avoid in the interest of serving humanity.”


UNGA President Dennis Francis has spent almost 40 years in the diplomatic service of Trinidad and Tobago.

He said willingness of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to share the lessons of their success is highly valued by the international community.

Countries in the Gulf region, Francis said, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, have a track record of successful development. He said their willingness to share their knowledge and engage is highly valued by the international community, contributing to multilateral efforts.

“(Gulf states) have a unique history and they have pursued development with great success in many cases. So, there are lessons that they can share with the international community. And I’m happy to say that much of that sharing is already taking place.

“Saudi Arabia, Qatar the UAE are playing important roles by sharing their knowledge, their know-how, in big ways and small.

A feeling of despair looks obvious on residents of the Libyan city of Derna in the aftermath of the massive flashlood that hit parts of the city on Sept. 10, 2023. (AFP)

“On Saturday, for example, I attended a very relaxed evening for newly arrived permanent representatives. Coming to New York, to the UN, can be very daunting when you first arrive. And I discovered in conversation with my colleague, the ambassador of Saudi Arabia, that the idea to do this was in fact invented, proposed, by one of his predecessors as a way of welcoming the new ones, introducing them in a seamless way to the dynamics of the UN, and helping and supporting them to understand how the processes work and how the organization works.

“I’m very grateful for the support and engagement, the key level of engagement that (Gulf states) have shown and continue to show in all of the processes. They have been willing to share it. And I think the international community very much values that disposition.”

Hailing from the small Caribbean country of Trinidad and Tobago, Francis brings to the General Assembly “a critical perspective,” in the words of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who also said that “so many of the issues we address (at the General Assembly) hit small island developing states like (Trinidad and Tobago) the hardest.

Displaced Yemenis receive essential aid provided by the Norwegian Council to support those affected by flooding, in the northern Abs district of the Hajjah governorate on September 16, 2023. Flooding and lightning strikes in Yemen have exacerbated the crises in Yemen, underscoring the threat of extreme weather in the war-ravaged country. (AFP) 

This includes the disastrous impacts of climate change and the effects of a deeply unjust global financial system that routinely denies developing countries the debt relief and restructuring — as well as financing — they need to invest in their people.

Francis put it this way: “Trinidad and Tobago is a small developing country, the most southerly of the Caribbean islands. We are only seven miles off the coast of South America but one of the most cosmopolitan countries in the world.

“Our history has made us a very diverse population, multicultural, multi-religious, multiethnic. Democracy is very alive and well. We’ve never changed our governments in any other way but by the ballot box.

“And, so, we have a proud tradition of democratic development and of human rights.

Druze residents demonstrate for the third straight week on Sept. 15, 2023, in the southern city of Sweida, Syria, in protests initially driven by surging inflation and the war-torn country's spiraling economy. The protests have later widened to calls for the fall of the Assad government. (Suwayda24 via AP)

“Because we are such a small country — geographically the country is only 1,864 square miles — we have found a formula to coexist, to get along in a relatively small space. It is not that we do not have, from time to time, family squabbles. But Trinidad and Tobago has never had social strife because we found mechanisms of consultation.

“For example, one of the one of the techniques used very early on in government was to establish something called the IRO, the Inter Religious Organization, comprising the major representative belief systems in the country. A significant proportion of government policy goes through the IRO for consideration before they are taken to the parliament, so that you get the input of the religious groups and other groups in society, making it possible, therefore, to maintain a holistic approach to governance. And this has worked enormously well for us in Trinidad and Tobago.

“So, we are very proud of the fact that we are a diverse population, but we get along. Not only is there tolerance; there is integration in the population. It is totally mixed. We have a very rich culture that derives from Africa, India, Europe, Latin America, native peoples, China, Lebanon and others. It’s quite a rich and engaging mix. And it accounts for the diversity and dynamism of the population of Trinidad and Tobago.”

Refugees from war-torn Sudan hold a sit-in seeking support in front of the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in Tripoli, Libya, on July 15, 2023. (AFP)

As the premier event of the UNGA high-level week, Francis believes the SDG summit is a crucial moment for heads of state or government to demonstrate their commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals and contribute to global development funding.

The SDG summit will set the tone for other General Assembly processes, Francis said, emphasizing the need for all delegations to recommit to energizing the SDG process and achieving these life-changing goals by 2030.

It is recognized that instability, insecurity and war hinder economic and social development, depriving people of basic necessities and security. To achieve lasting peace, it is essential to address issues like inequality, discrimination, poverty, hunger, and poor health effectively and sustainably “to the satisfaction of the downtrodden.”

That is especially relevant to the Arab world, which has been grappling with a multitude of crises. From Syria and Yemen to Palestine and Sudan, political upheavals, armed conflicts, displacement, economic and humanitarian crises have for decades been the cause of untold human suffering. According to the UN, 116 million people across 10 Arab countries, or 41 percent of the total population, are poor, while another 25 percent are vulnerable to poverty.

Protesters throw glass bottles at the Lebanese Central Bank building amid the deepening financial crisis in Beirut. Four years after Lebanon's historic meltdown began, the small nation is still facing "enormous economic challenges," with a collapsed banking sector, eroding public services, deteriorating infrastructure, and worsening poverty, the International Monetary Fund warned on Sept. 15, 2023. (AP Photo/File)

“My message for (the downtrodden of the Arab world) is that they are not forgotten. And they will not be ignored,” Francis said.

“The focus of the SDGs is on lifting people up, on ensuring that all people enjoy their rights and entitlements, that they share the benefits of society and that development leaves no one behind. This is the thrust of the 78th session of the General Assembly. It is extremely important for promoting peace, prosperity sustainability and growth and that is where we will place our focus: very people-centered, very rights-based.”

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development marked a significant milestone as the first ever fully negotiated, all-encompassing global development strategy formally embraced by both the Global South and the developed world. It was widely celebrated as the dawn of a new era in development collaboration.

Despite significant development gains globally, which have raised many millions of people out of absolute poverty, the UN says that inequality between the world’s richest and poorest countries is widening. This anomaly will also be spotlighted at UNGA this year.

Francis, in his vision statement, called on both to figure out the problematique. Once that is done, then it should not be insurmountable to implement the prescribed solutions.

“(The Global South and the Global North) do come at issues from diametrically opposed positions. But that is not a surprise. It’s a negotiation. If conceptually, both sides accept reality in the same way then there is no basis for negotiation.

Children gather outside their tents at the al-Hol camp in Hasakeh province, Syria, which houses families of Daesh militants. Tens of thousands children and wives of Daesh militants remain in limbo in the camp, unwanted by their countries, making them vulnerable to indoctrination by the extremist group. (AP Photo/File)

“So, there are conceptual differences. There are practical differences. However, in the recent past, what has happened is that there has been an unfortunate deficit of trust. And this has undermined the capacity of the multilateral process to move forward and to create good results and good outcomes.

“So, we need to work on rebuilding that trust, restoring that confidence and building solidarity.

“Some unfortunate things have happened. For example, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the behavior of (certain) states suggested a very individualistic approach to the pandemic, rather than taking a holistic coordinated, cooperative approach as one international community. This was unhelpful for multilateralism. And so those memories linger in the minds of many delegations, because they’re not quite sure if there will be a repeat of the pandemic. And let’s recall that scientists have indicated that there is likely to be another pandemic. They’re not quite sure what will happen. So, we have got some work to do.

“But, bear in mind, building trust is a process, not an event. So, we will invest considerable time and energy in the General Assembly in trying to bring people together to build bridges, to build hope, so that we can get beyond the doctrinaire positions and really begin to listen to each other in goodness. And to react in a way that could probably bring us a point of common ground.”


Spanish politician shot in Madrid points finger at Iran

Updated 57 min 35 sec ago

Spanish politician shot in Madrid points finger at Iran

  • Alejo Vidal-Quadras was shot in the face in broad daylight near his home in the upscale Salamanca neighbourhood on November 9 by a motorcycle passenger
  • "I have no doubt that it was the Iranian regime," the 78-year-old, who was European Parliament vice-president between 2009 and 2014, told a news conference

MADRID: A right-wing Spanish politician who was shot in November in Madrid on Friday accused Iran of being behind his attempted murder during his first public appearance since the attack.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a founder of Spain's far-right Vox party and former head of its centre-right People's Party in Catalonia who has long supported Iran's opposition movement, was shot in the face in broad daylight near his home in the upscale Salamanca neighbourhood on November 9 by a motorcycle passenger.
"I have no doubt that it was the Iranian regime," the 78-year-old, who was European Parliament vice-president between 2009 and 2014, told a news conference in the Spanish capital.
Tehran has "a long tradition, a track record, of extraterritorial terrorist activities" against "dissidents and against foreigners who support then," he added, without offering any proof to back up his claim.
Four people have been arrested as part of the investigation into the shooting, but the suspected gunman -- a French national of Tunisian origin with several previous convictions in France, remains at large.
Police have not commented on a possible motive for the shooting.
Vidal-Quadras, who already pointed the finger at Iran when he was questioned by police after the shooting, said it was a "miracle" that he survived.
"I made a movement of my head that meant that the shot, which was supposed to be fatal, was not," he said.
The bullet entered one side of his jaw and exited the other, and Vidal-Quadras spent time in hospital recovering from a jaw fracture.
"The detonation sounded like a thunderclap in my head, in fact I have a perforated eardrum, and I started bleeding, it caused a puddle on the floor," he said.
Vidal-Quadras said he believes the quick intervention of a passer-by, who stopped the bleeding with a piece of clothing, saved his life.
He said he has suffered from after-effects since the shooting, including "some paralysis of the facial muscles".
Vidal-Quadras, a top member of the International Committee in Search of Justice which supports the "Iranian resistance", has long called for the international community to harden its position towards Iran.

Five migrants die as boat capsizes during rescue off Malta

Updated 23 February 2024

Five migrants die as boat capsizes during rescue off Malta

  • Some 21 migrants were rescued and taken to a migrant center
  • They are believed to be from Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Egypt

VALLETTA, Malta: Five migrants, including a woman, died when their boat capsized as they were being rescued off Malta on Friday, the island’s armed forces said.
Another eight were injured and taken to hospital, including two who swallowed a considerable amount of seawater and fuel.
Armed Forces of Malta deputy commander Col. Edric Zahra told reporters that the incident happened at about midday when the eight-meter (26-ft) boat was four miles (6.5 km) south of Malta.
Some 21 migrants were rescued and taken to a migrant center. They are believed to be from Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Egypt.
Mediterranean sea crossings from North Africa to Italy or Malta are among the most dangerous migration routes in the world. Last year almost 2,500 migrants died or went missing on those routes, the International Organization for Migration says.
The vast majority of migrants head for Italy. Malta’s armed forces rescued 380 migrants at sea last year, Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri said in parliament in January.

Russia says its forces push further west after taking Ukraine’s Avdiivka

Updated 23 February 2024

Russia says its forces push further west after taking Ukraine’s Avdiivka

  • Russian forces had also destroyed a number of Western-provided Ukrainian weapons
  • The frontlines in the war had not shifted substantially since late 2022 before the taking of Avdiivka

MOSCOW: Russian forces have advanced further to the west after taking control of the Ukrainian town of Avdiivka, the defense ministry said on Friday.
It said Russian forces had also destroyed a number of Western-provided Ukrainian weapons in the past week including seven British-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles, a US Patriot anti-aircraft guided missile and launch vehicle, and 42 HIMARS rockets fired by multiple launch systems.
Reuters could not independently verify battlefield reports.
The frontlines in the war, which started two years ago on Saturday, had not shifted substantially since late 2022 before the taking of Avdiivka, and Russia still controls just under a fifth of Ukrainian territory.
The capture of Avdiivka, following months of fighting with heavy casualties on both sides, was Russia’s first significant gain since taking the city of Bakhmut last May.
After taking Avdiivka, units of the “Center” group of Russian forces “continued advancing in a westerly direction,” the defense ministry statement said.
“In cooperation with aviation and artillery, they defeated accumulations of manpower and equipment of the Ukrainian Armed Forces” in six nearby settlements, it said.

UK, EU border agency sign migration pact

Updated 23 February 2024

UK, EU border agency sign migration pact

  • Friday’s agreement provides for the exchange of intelligence between Frontex and the UK Border Force
  • It also agrees to collaborate on the development of new technologies, such as the use of drones to protect borders, the Home Office added

LONDON: The United Kingdom on Friday signed an agreement with the EU border agency Frontex to jointly crack down on irregular immigration, the government in London said.
Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made stopping migrants from crossing the Channel on boats from France a priority before a general election due this year.
Friday’s agreement provides for the exchange of intelligence between Frontex and the UK Border Force to help disrupt people-smuggling gangs, Britain’s interior ministry said in a statement.
It also agrees to collaborate on the development of new technologies, such as the use of drones to protect borders, the Home Office added.
UK Border Force director general Phil Douglas and Frontex executive director Hans Leijtens signed the arrangement in London, witnessed by UK interior minister James Cleverly and the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson.
“Organized immigration crime and people smuggling are global challenges that require shared solutions and ambitions,” Cleverly said.
“Our landmark working arrangement between the UK and Frontex is another crucial step in tackling illegal migration, securing our borders and stopping the boats.”
The UK government says the number of migrants arriving on England’s south coast in rudimentary vessels fell by a third last year from a record high of 45,000 migrants in 2022.
The UK government called the deal “the latest step” in its “plan to tackle illegal migration and criminal gangs,” with the issue set to feature prominently in the general election campaign.

New Delhi calls on Moscow to release Indians on Russian front line

Updated 23 February 2024

New Delhi calls on Moscow to release Indians on Russian front line

  • Testimonies of Indians in Russian army sent shockwaves across the media this week
  • Government urges Indian nationals to ‘stay away’ from Russia’s conflict

New Delhi: India's Ministry of External Affairs said on Friday it was in contact with Moscow regarding the release of Indian nationals, who according to media reports have been deployed in Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Testimonies of Indian men hired as “army security helpers” for Russian troops, their families and an agent involved in their employment sent shockwaves across the Indian media after The Hindu daily broke the news earlier this week.
A few Indians are known to have volunteered to join the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine created to counter Russia’s invasion since February 2022, but until The Hindu’s report, there was no indication of Indian nationals fighting on the Russian side.
Those who spoke to the newspaper said they had been given basic army training and expected to continue as kitchen helpers, but later were sent to the front instead.
Most of the men came from Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, and Jammu and Kashmir, and said they had been told they would not be sent to the battlefield.
The Indian government was “aware that a few Indian nationals have signed up for support jobs with the Russian army,” Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal said in a statement.
“The Indian Embassy has regularly taken up this matter with the relevant Russian authorities for their early discharge. We urge all Indian nationals to exercise due caution and stay away from this conflict.”
The issue has been flagged on social media by lawmaker Asaduddin Owaisi, who had been approached by some of the men’s relatives.
On Wednesday, Owaisi made a plea to Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar in an X post, which has since gone viral.
“Kindly use your good offices to bring these men back home,” he said. “Their lives are at risk & their families are justifiably worried.”