February 17, 2017, saw the annual Members’ Day gathering of over 700 U.N. advocates at United Nations Headquarters in the historic General Assembly Hall to hear an assortment of panel discussions from an elite list of guest speakers sharing their thoughts on this year’s theme: “The U.S. and the UN: New Leaders, Pressing Challenges.”
Following remarks from UNA’s Executive Director, Chris Whatley, the day officially began with a welcome address from the President of the Better World Campaign and Vice President of Public Policy and Advocacy of the U.N. Foundation, Peter Yeo, who highlighted several important statistics indicating the importance of the U.N.’s role to the American public.
Mr. Yeo cited the 61% favorable rating of the global body; 68% wanting the U.S. to pay our dues – a critical issue at this point in time; 89% of Americans favoring strong engagement with the U.N. These figures belie what is being said publicly by many policymakers today.
The keynote speaker was Jeffrey D. Feltman, Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs and the highest ranking American official serving in the U.N. Secretariat. The official began his address stating that the U.N. and the U.S. are in periods of transition. But he also emphasized that turmoil, created by new forces emerging in the world today, have become part of the global fabric and directly challenge the established order. Mr. Feltman indicated the U.N. and its member states have been asking themselves some difficult questions in recent days with respect to the “peacebuilding architecture” and peacekeeping operations of the U.N. Mr. Feltman cited the following questions: Is the U.N. doing the best it can for states emerging from conflict? Moreover, what more can it do to engage women in the process of peacekeeping?
The U.N. official wanted to highlight the importance of local actors within war zones and the important role they play in seeing an end to conflict. To know why conflict begins, one must understand the root causes of the conflict, Mr. Feltman added. The U.S. contributes the largest percentage of any member to the U.N. peacekeeping budget: 28.57%.
After the morning keynote address, the panel discussions began. An interesting panel was assembled, The Road to 2030: Paving the Way to Transforming Our World. The invited speakers were: Rachel Snow, Chief, Population and Development Branch, U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA); Juan Chebly, United Nations Environment Programme, Lead Adviser, U.N. Environment Management Group; John Romano, Coordinator, Transparency, Accountability and Participation Network (TAP), WFUNA (the umbrella organization of UNAs around the world).
Each of the speakers spoke on a different Sustainable Development Goal based on their area of expertise. Rachel Snow discussed the 5 th SDG, Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. Ms. Snow brought to light some very interesting facts. For example, there are 60 million 10-year-old girls in the world today. They face several challenges, including gender-based violence, extreme poverty and discrimination. John Romano addressed the 16 th SDG, Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions. Mr. Romano highlighted the ‘Leave No One Behind Agenda,’ a key component of the SDGs, which states that ‘no goal should be met unless it is met for everyone.’ There were many college students in attendance and he believed it was important for them to engage their government on these issues. Juan Chebly focused upon the 13 th SDG, Climate Action. He indicated that we are “nowhere we need to be, nowhere we want to be.” With respect to action against climate change, we will not see the money spent to combat the warming of our world become reality until we “put our money where our mouth is.”
The next panel titled, Displaced Humanity: Where Do We Go from Here? saw three interesting participants step to the stage to share their viewpoints. Kamal Amakrane, Director, Office of the President of the 71 st Session of the United Nations General Assembly; Sean Anderson, Exhibit Curator, Museum of Modern Art Exhibit, “Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter,” Hamdia Ahmed, student at the University of Southern Maine and former refugee in Kenya.
Hamdia highlighted the discussion with her moving story about her family’s time living in a refugee camp after fleeing conflict in Somalia. They made their way to Atlanta and eventually Portland, Maine, home to the largest population of Somalis in the U.S. Hamdia enrolled at the University of Southern Maine where she is a second-year student. She indicated that receiving her education is so important to her because she wants to give back and provide opportunities for all little girls who are now residing in refugee camps and wondering what will become of them.
The afternoon agenda featured welcome remarks from Maher Nasser, Director, Outreach Division, Department of Public Information, United Nations along with featured presentations from Kathy Calvin, President and CEO, United Nations Foundation, and Nicol Perez, U.S. Youth Observer to the U.N.
This was followed by a panel and Q&A, Engaging Youth in the U.N. Panelists included Jake Horowitz, Youth Ambassador to the Global Goals; Tori Curbelo, U.S. Fund for UNICEF Community Engagement Fellow; and R. Steven Johnson, Vice-Chair, UNA-USA National Council and Representative to WFUNA Youth.
The theme from each of the panelists was that youth can inject a “fresh perspective,” as Tori Curbelo said, into many of the issues confronting us as global citizens today. Their passion, energy, enthusiasm, and creativity can bring new insights into how to raise greater awareness on issues like climate change.
The day’s final panel, Role of the UN in Conflict Prevention, built upon Jeffrey Feltman’s morning keynote address headlined by Deputy Permanent Representative to the U.N. from the Republic of Egypt, Ambassador Ihab Awad Moustafa and Permanent Representative to the U.N. from Italy, Ambassador Sebastiono Cardi.The moderator, Jeffrey Laurenti, began with noting that 2017 is an important year for centennials: World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Balfour Declaration. The discussion centered upon the conflict in Syria.
Members’ Day never disappoints those in attendance. This year expects to be a very challenging one requiring even greater participation by those who support the work of the U.N.