Shortly after Kieran Dwyer, the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, gave a presentation about U.N. peacekeeping missions (watch video below), he said that the mission also receives “bad press” for some of its work in Africa. The phrase jumped out at me. Bad press is what happens when a Hollywood movie flops. In Africa, UN peacekeeping operations have too often been described with words like “inept,” “outgunned” and “unprepared.” In the Q & A session of the presentation, I brought up a 2010 report in the New York Times which stated that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, despite peacekeepers based a block away from where women were raped, they failed to fulfill its mandate at that juncture in time. A mandate to protect civilians. Somewhat defensive, Dwyer did answer my question by assuring me and the audience that the UN would do its best to fix its problems and is open to constructive criticism.
In conflict ridden places the blue helmets are now empowered “to use all necessary means” to protect civilians in the countries they are assigned to serve. The mandate in Mali is a recent example to point out but how this will play out is yet to be determined. I do not wish to diminish the threat peacekeepers face in hostile environments. Evident to that is the UN mission in Somalia this week which was attacked by militants in a hideous bombing that claimed 15 lives and wounded others.
The presentation by Dwyer was an educational eye-opener for members who attended an event hosted by the UNA-USA annual meeting held between June 2 to 4 in Washington, D.C. I joined the Tampa Bay Chapter of the United Nations Association of the United States and attended the meeting with more than 120 members nationwide. Participants were looking for opportunities to network, receive relevant training for their chapters and to be recognized for their work in their respective communities among other things. For its part, the Tampa Bay Chapter was awarded a membership growth award for increasing its membership in 2012 by a whopping 280%.
I went with the team not just to be a cheerleader, but also to ask tough questions. It was a unique experience to see people working on the other side, since I have most of the time been on the receiving end of the UN’s activities in the Horn of Africa. I have experienced first hand the brunt of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea and UN’s involvement in the two countries. The peacekeeping mission in the region has been criticized for many reasons one of the main being the ineptitude to enforce the demarcation process between the two countries after a final ruling had passed. It also did some incredibly important work demining the countryside and holding the peace in a fragile demilitarized zone between the two countries. Here is also a short clip to have a broader understanding of the UN mission in Ethiopia & Eritrea.
UNA Tampa Bay Chapter Goes To Capitol Hill
The highlight of the trip was joining board members of the Tampa Bay chapter during its “Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill,” in which members had an opportunity to have a one-on-one discussion with their elected officials to inform them about United Nation’s work worldwide. The advocacy team of Tampa Bay Chapter was not only there to talk about United Nation’s work in general terms but underline how international issues affect communities locally. For this reason, the team picked two topics which would resonate with elected officials who are, of course, primarily concerned with issues that affect their communities. The two issues picked by the team for advocacy day include topics close to home for Floridians: human trafficking and clean energy.
Tampa Bay’s Chapter roamed the halls of Capitol Hill going to Florida representatives offices explaining specific issues. We went to the office of representatives Ted Yoho, Vern Buchanan, C.W. Bill Young, Frederica Wilson, Ron DeSantis and Kathy Castor. Although we were faced with criticism from some representatives who questioned how funding is allocated to different missions of the United Nations, strong support from representatives such as Kathy Castor stood out. We were encouraged to follow-up and host events so that one of the mentioned representatives might come and speak at future events hosted by the Tampa Bay Chapter.
Why I Demand For the U.S. and the UN to Prioritize Human Trafficking
I have been called an activist for my journalism work in the past but if there is a topic that I don’t mind being called an activist for, it is the issue of human trafficking. And that is why I applaud the state of Florida for signing two bills into law allowing victims to petition the court system to expunge crimes related to human trafficking from their records so that they might move on with their lives. These crimes include selling of drugs, shoplifting and in some cases, prostitution, and other related crimes. The law also permits underage victims up to 16-years-old to file an out-of-court statement instead of testifying in-court and in-person. I believe that this is a model most states could emulate to help victims pick up the pieces of their lives and start all over again. This was constantly brought up during Tampa Bay’s advocacy day and also during meetings throughout conference.
Human Trafficking has broader meaning for people who are exploited due to their desperation to escape horrible circumstances. Wesley Reisser, Foreign Affairs Officer, Office of Human Rights & Humanitarian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State discussed human rights challenges during the event. I specifically asked what it takes for policy makers to act before it’s too late on the issue of human trafficking and smuggling in Egypt’s Sinai Desert. These problems are not localized to one specific area. They spill across continent and are affecting families within the U.S.
Reisser explained the U.S. position on the specific issue and said that an official statement is available on the U.S. Mission Geneva website. Here is what he had to say:
The Tampa Bay Chapter has plans to follow-up on this issue and plans an event to raise awareness and most importantly push policy-makers to act before it is too late. Stay tuned for more on Africa-Talks.com.
Additional video from the event: What’s Next? Post-2015 Development Goals. Mike Beard, of the UN Foundation, and Brooke Loughrin, the U.S. Youth Observer at the UN, speak on a panel at the 2013 UNA-USA Annual Meeting in Washington D.C.