New York Times reporter lectures on Ebola and other world crises

Photo Credit: Tiffany Frandsen

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Tiffany Frandsen | News Editor |@tiffany_mf


Somini Sengupta, the United Nations bureau chief for the New York Times, spoke about Ebola, ISIS, the Syrian war and other global crises at Utah Valley University on October 29.

She had been a foreign correspondent in Liberia in 2003 and told the story of the civil war that ended in Charles Taylor being charged with war crimes in the Hague. Just three years after the rebuild began, the next crisis sprang up across the border in Guinea in the form of germs – Ebola. It spread to Sierra Leone and Nigeria. The infection was not given a name until eight years later, in March of 2014.

Photo Credit: Tiffany Frandsen
Photo Credit: Tiffany Frandsen

“The health system was so unprepared that the few clinics that were treating Ebola had to turn away the sick. There were bodies lying in the street. At one point, the gravediggers went on strike,” said Sengupta.

Today, the World Health Organization reported more than 13,000 confirmed cases. 5,000 people are dead in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The world reaction has been slow in recognizing the intensity of the disease, and the pharmaceutical industry did not develop a vaccine because “there simply wasn’t money to be made in it,” said Sengupta. In August, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon pressured the world to respond.

Ebola has been added to the Security Council’s agenda, which is unusual because the council rarely deals with issues of health safety. They passed a resolution in September that called on member states to send doctors and aid to West Africa.

“Usually I am very good at keeping these two worlds partitioned in my brain. There’s the world of guns, germs and diplomacy, which is what I cover at the UN, and there’s the health of my family, but now they couldn’t be partitioned so easily. It was a very vivid illustration – rare, but vivid, of why what happens out there, in the world, can bare so directly on our immediate community,” said Sengupta, when her daughter brought home a letter from school that instructed anyone who had been to the affected countries and had experienced symptoms to see a doctor..

Resolutions are passed by the UN General Assembly, but they are suggestions – with no legal bearing. For example, the General Assembly voted on a resolution for the US to drop their embargo on Cuba. The US voted against the measure, and does not legally have to follow the direction.

“Each country is there to advance its own interests – to help themselves and their friends, and to isolate and embarrass their foes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” said Sengupta. “It’s what makes it effective sometimes, and wholly ineffective at other times.”

The Security Council’s decisions, however, can be legally binding. The council, which is made up of five permanent seats (the P-5 – US, China, Britain, Russia and France), as well as ten other rotating countries, can decide to bomb countries, implement sanctions, and authorize peacekeeping.

Photo  Credit: TIffany Frandsen

Each of the P-5 can veto any resolution they don’t like. Since they end of the Cold War, the US has vetoed 14 draft resolutions (most of them involving the Palestinian-Israel conflict), and Russia has vetoed four Syria-related resolutions. France’s diplomats are trying to get the other four major powers in the council to agree to not use the veto power in matters where mass atrocities are happening.

When the Central African Republic crisis began, France rallied for the Security Council to get involved and the council successfully authorized a UN peacekeeping mission.

“It helped that none of the world powers had much stake in the Central African Republic, because they didn’t have much of a reason to say no,” said Sengupta.

A former French diplomat had once told her that the more involved a power is in a country or conflict, the more they will fight against the council getting involved.

“That leaves, he said, the UN in charge of crises that matter to nobody,” said Sengupta.

She talked about the wars in Syria and Ukraine. Sengupta said the Security Council has reached a new level of dysfunction in regards to how to handle the Syrian conflict.

Peace talks ended in 2012, the death toll is near 200,000, and there have been allegations of the use of chemical weapons. Food and humanitarian aid trucks have been blocked at the border. Starvation is an illegal war tactic (against international rules of war), but the council has been unable to agree on a course of action. The US and Russia cannot agree on which side is to blame, as Russia is allies with Syrian President Bashar al Assad, and the US supports the rebels.

When the Malaysian plane was shot down over Crimea, the US blamed Russia for arming rebels, and Russia blamed Ukraine. The referendum further intensified relations.

The Islamic State (ISIS), has been a crisis on the Security Council’s agenda. They have seized oil fields and weapons that the Pentagon had supplied to Iraqis. It’s difficult to unify the countries on a resolution, since everyone acts in their own national interest – Turkey wants Assad out, Iran wants Assad to stay in, and wants sanctions lifted, as well as a nuclear deal.

The lecture ended with a few questions from the audience.

“Within the international community, there has been a movement to dissolve other nation-states into sub-nation states,” said UVU student Ethan Johnson. “How would you reconcile that tendency with what I perceive as being a need of the UN to be stronger and more comprehensive?”

Sengupta referenced the long peace – there hasn’t been a world war since World War II. There have been civil wars, but she said the world being divided into nation states has led to less violence.

Before covering the UN for the New York Times, Sengupta reported in West Africa, New Delhi and San Francisco.




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