"To Save Us From Hell" + Global Dispatches
To Save Us From Hell
What Russia's New Pact with North Korea Means for the United Nations | Plus, Progress on Gaza and Sudan at the Security Council, and Who Should Replace UN Humanitarian Chief Martin Griffiths?

What Russia's New Pact with North Korea Means for the United Nations | Plus, Progress on Gaza and Sudan at the Security Council, and Who Should Replace UN Humanitarian Chief Martin Griffiths?

The debut episode of our new podcast about the United Nations

What a great debut episode!

As we sat down to record the episode on Wednesday afternoon, Vladimir Putin was being feted in Pyongyang by Kim Jong Un and his cadres. The two had just signed a security pact revived from the Cold War era, signaling an ever-closer alliance and marking the death knell of nearly 20 years of North Korea nuclear diplomacy at the Security Council. (Russia, after all, is violating the very Security Council sanctions on North Korea that it once supported!) We discuss the implications of North Korea no longer being on the Security Council’s agenda, and what rising geopolitical tensions suggest about about the Council’s role in managing global crises.

Meanwhile, over the last ten days we’ve seen the first meaningful progress at the Security Council on the two worst crises in the world today: Gaza and Sudan. We discuss what lead to a near-unanimous Security Council resolutions on a Gaza ceasefire proposal and a Sudan resolution aimed at stopping an attack on a major city in Darfur. We discuss whether or not these resolutions can push the warring parties to a cessation of hostilities and what to make of a rather awkward (and heated!) encounter between the Sudanese and Emirati ambassadors to the UN.

We wrap up with conversation about Martin Griffiths, the top UN humanitarian official who is leaving his post at the end of the month. We discuss why the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs is arguably the second most important position at the UN behind the Secretary-General, who might replace him—and why this position has always gone to a British diplomat in recent years. The last non-Brit to hold this post, Jan Egeland, joins us to offer his advice for the incoming top UN humanitarian official.

Also discussed:

  • Why a new UN report on children and armed conflict has exacerbated already deteriorating relations between Antonio Guterres and the Israeli ambassador the UN.

  • Why Malta’s UN ambassador Vanessa Frazier’s stock is rising around the UN.

  • Is Jan Egeland the ultimate United Nations Superhero Man?

Have questions or want to react to anything you heard on the show? We have an open chat for listeners to share their thoughts and pose questions. A transcript of this episode will be available soon.

To Save Us From Hell is available across all podcast listening platforms, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

"To Save Us From Hell” is entirely supported through your paid subscription. These first few episodes are available in their entirety, but future episodes may be paywalled.

Transcript edited for clarity

Mark Leon Goldberg: Welcome to To Save Us From Hell, our new podcast about the United Nations. I’m Mark Leon Goldberg, an international affairs journalist, the Editor-in-Chief of UN Dispatch, and I run Global Dispatches.

Anjali Dayal: I’m Anjali Dayal. I’m an international relations scholar and an author at Fordham University in New York.

Mark Leon Goldberg: I am really excited for the debut of this weekly podcast in which Anjali and I will discuss news and happenings around the United Nations and the entire UN system, and it’s going to be a good one. Welcome to our new show.

Anjali Dayal: I’m really excited to be able to contribute to the conversation about the UN, which could not be more timely.

Mark Leon Goldberg: This is a project of Global Dispatches. To support our work, please follow the link in the show notes of this episode where you can buy a subscription to Global Dispatches, which will get you full access to all episodes of To Save Us From Hell. Each week we are going to discuss some timely and important issues around the world as they relate to the United Nations, and, of course, the latest news and events and happenings around the UN itself. And our debut is timely. As we speak, Vladimir Putin is being feted in North Korea by Kim Jong-un. They have revived a Cold War-era Security Pact, which has very big ramifications for the United Nations.

Anjali Dayal: And in the last 10 days, we’ve seen action in the Security Council on the two worst crises in the world — Gaza and Sudan — including a rather heated confrontation on Tuesday between representatives of Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, who were pretty awkwardly sitting right next to each other the whole time.

Mark Leon Goldberg: And we’ll discuss who should replace Martin Griffiths, the outgoing Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, who is leaving his post at the end of the month. Jan Egeland, who previously served in that role, joins the show to offer his advice for the next top UN humanitarian official.

Jan Egeland: So my successes were all good, but the principle of having hegemony for certain posts is wrong.

Mark Leon Goldberg: So, Anjali, you and I are sitting in our respective offices. Vladimir Putin is in Pyongyang, getting feted by Kim Jong-un… rolled out the red carpet. You saw like rapturous applause at every gathering for which Putin attended. They are all in in this new partnership between Russia and North Korea. And this actually has very big implications for the United Nations, in general, and the Security Council in particular. Just a little bit of a background here. This new alliance between Russia and North Korea is one of convenience. North Korea wants Russian advanced technological know-how as it develops its weaponry. Russia wants North Korea’s decidedly very old and somewhat antiquated stockpiles of Soviet era artillery that it can use on the battlefield in Ukraine.

And indeed, a few months ago we saw, really for the first time, North Korean artillery ending up on Ukrainian battlefields. And that followed a previous trip by Kim Jong-un to Russia. But here we are now, Putin in North Korea. This is a big deal for the UN. 

Anjali Dayal: It is a big deal for the UN in part because, as we know, Russia is one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. It has a veto in the chamber. And it also is, in theory, one of the key enforcers of United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea. And so this puts us in a really complicated position vis-à-vis North Korea, vis-à-vis the legitimacy of UN Security Council action, and vis-à-vis the sort of possibility of UN Security Council action.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Like, let’s be clear — Russia voted for a series of sanctions against North Korea over the last nearly 20 years ever since North Korea first detonated or tested a nuclear weapon in 2006. And since then, the Security Council had been the forum for applying pressure to North Korea to ramp down its nuclear activities, behave more responsibly on the international stage. And you saw, over the last couple decades, just a series of increasingly forceful sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear program. And as you noted, Russia voted for each of these sanctions regimes, or at least didn’t block them. And now Russia is very directly violating the very UN Security sanctions that it has imposed on North Korea. This is like a problem.

Anjali Dayal: Yeah, it’s a huge problem. As longtime UN Watchers or people who know something about the organization will know, we have this like big post-Cold War thaw, where the former Soviet Union, Russia, right? And the U.S. start to cooperate on things like global sanctions regimes and UN peacekeeping missions in levels that are sort of unprecedented in the history of the organization. But in the last decade or so, basically following the sort of start of the Syrian Civil War and Russia’s use of the Chamber to sort of start protecting the Syrian government, we’ve started to see cooperation at the Security Council grind to more of a halt on some critical issues. Critical issues getting with Syria, but call it carrying all the way through, obviously through the two invasions of Ukraine, through to the war in Gaza today.

And then now with the sort of increased Russian-North Korean cooperation on the horizon, what we’re really seeing is how the portfolio of the Security Council might be shrinking, how the places where the Security Council can be most effective and can agree to be most effective might be occupying a smaller and smaller space on issues of real importance around the world.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Yeah. Like this trip to me is the death knell of the ability of the Security Council to take any meaningful action on North Korea. I mean, it was getting more and more difficult over the years, particularly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while the trends you described have accelerated. But it’s also worth keeping in mind that while the track record is not perfect on North Korea, the fact is North Korea has not tested a nuclear weapon since 2017. This has been seven years now. So, at least in part, I think that’s a consequence of a unified international response to North Korea’s nuclear development that appears to be completely eroding right now. And the idea that the Security Council would do anything about, say, a future North Korea nuclear test seems really much in question now that you’re seeing this closer alliance between Putin and Kim.

Anjali Dayal: Yeah, I think one thing for us to keep watching is what China does in response. Because China, traditionally, has been the key security partner for North Korea. That Russia is stepping up as part of a sort of politically convenient set of moves, I think, makes us sort of pay attention to what China’s going to do with the Security Council because China is a strategically pragmatic actor at the Security Council. It does not want to face Security Council sanctions or it doesn’t want to be sort of subject to the kinds of sanctions that Russia is courting or is under because of these moves. Right? And so taking a look at what that kind of diplomacy can accomplish in the Security Council, I think is going to be an important thing for us to watch.

Mark Leon Goldberg: And most recently on June 12th, China joined Russia in trying to block a Security Council meeting dedicated to human rights in North Korea. Now, like the vote was a procedural vote, so it’s not one in which there’s a veto. So, the meeting happened despite Russia and China’s objections. And I think their objection is more they don’t like when the Security Council focuses on human rights in certain situations. But it was still notable. And also notable was the fact that in March, really in like a harbinger of what is to come and what is really to befall North Korea at the Security Council, Russia blocked the renewal of the mandate of the panel of experts who are monitoring the sanctions on North Korea.

Now, for those who are unaware, when you have the Security Council imposes sanctions on an entity, a country in this case, they will hire like outside experts, independent experts who know things about financial crimes or smuggling routes, and they’ll hire them to monitor the effectiveness of these sanctions. And this group now no longer exists. Their mandate has expired without renewal.

Anjali Dayal: Yeah. This is one of those things that can seem sort of incidental, right? So often the top line story that we read coming out of the UN is what the Security Council did or didn’t do. But one of the revolutionary functions of the UN system is these reporting mechanisms, right? These sort of big bodies that can provide multilaterally credible information reporting about human rights situations, about arms control, about a whole host of issues that every country has an interest in knowing as close to the truth as possible about. So, the fact that we’re seeing sort of Russia being willing to step up and kill that kind of mechanism, that’s not a great sign, right? It’s not a great sign beyond the sort of traditional gridlock of the Security Council, which we expect based on the way that the Security Council is set up.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Yeah, I mean to me, just bottom line here that this is like the debut segment of the debut episode of our new podcast about the United Nations. And this could very well be the last time we talk about North Korea at the Security Council just because I don’t see any meaningful action happening at the Security Council on North Korea now that you have this real almost formal alliance between Russia and North Korea. As you mentioned earlier, this is just emblematic of the Security Council’s ever-shrinking portfolio of issues that it can meaningfully address, which is just like a consequence of rising geopolitical tensions between the West and Russia, and China. It’s part of a trend, but also I think like the most deepest manifestation of that trend that we’ve seen thus far.

Anjali Dayal: We’re in a space where the sort of big global institution that we have for multilateral action is going to have to weather a period of real geopolitical tension. And we’re seeing that on so many fronts. And today North Korea has entered the chat.

Mark Leon Goldberg: This is actually a really good segue into something else I wanted to discuss with you, which is actually meaningful action on Gaza and Sudan that we’ve seen at the Security Council. You know, we’re discussing the Security Council’s shrinking portfolio, but over the last 10 days, we have seen the first meaningful action from the Security Council on the Israel-Gaza crisis and on the Sudan crisis. And both happened within short order of each other. I think maybe let’s first talk about Gaza, and it’s worth, I think, going through like the TikTok of this over the last few days. And surprisingly to me, the timeline kind of starts with Donald Trump’s criminal conviction in the state of New York on May 30th, which was a Thursday.

That was all the talk of all like the international news political punditry. Then the next morning, Biden and the White House like teased the surprise announcement about the Middle East, and that got everyone’s kind of head scratching, like, “Why is Biden going to talk about one of the most divisive issues in American politics and not jump on the Trump as a felon bandwagon?” But he indeed announced a ceasefire deal that he said came from the Israelis, was sent to Hamas that basically included a three-part ceasefire. Phase one was an immediate six-week ceasefire followed by a permanent ceasefire, followed by reconstruction and some broader kind of political resolutions around the Israel-Palestine conflict.

So, as we speak, the status of these negotiations is unclear, but on June 10th, the Security Council took a vote and endorsed this Biden/maybe an Israeli ceasefire proposal, and did so in an overwhelming vote of 14 in favor and one abstention, which was Russia, which we can talk about in a bit. But I am curious to learn from you, Anjali, what is your big takeaway from this Gaza ceasefire vote?

Anjali Dayal: So, the resolution basically calls on Israel and Hamas to accept the US-led plan. It rejects the reduction of Gaza’s territory and demographics and it affirms support for a two-state solution in line with international law and in line with previous UN resolutions. And one way to look at this is to see it as the Biden administration trying to leverage the enormous support at the Security Council already from everyone except the United States, right? In favor of a ceasefire towards building multilateral political pressure on the warring parties after months of mostly gridlock, right? So, this is a tactic that Kofi Annan used to use a lot where he would sometimes announce a deal in advance of clear support from either party in order to build public pressure for the parties to accept that deal.

And I obviously don’t know what the behind-the-scenes are between Biden administration and the Israeli government, for example.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Doesn’t seem great at the moment, to be honest.

Anjali Dayal: Doesn’t seem great, right? And it certainly doesn’t seem great given the response the resolution got from the Israeli delegation to the United Nations, right? But all of that points us towards thinking about a way that the Security Council chamber is being used as a pressure point to try and help build global consensus and pressure for this deal, which is sort of U.S.-led, but globally backed, right? And that’s sort of, I think, a really fascinating way to think about using that chamber, especially in light of having been the key obstruction point to previous ceasefire resolutions.

Mark Leon Goldberg: I totally agree. I think it really does demonstrate the utility of the Security Council in this situation. You give like the partner, not just the partner, but the actual international legitimacy to what is essentially a U.S. ceasefire proposal and deal. And you have like now the entire world supporting ostensibly this deal, and it’s really up to the two warring parties now to withstand whatever pressure the world is applying to them, and the international community is applying to them, as reflected in the fact that this Security Council resolution passed. It just adds political pressure to the warring parties in a situation where that kind of pressure has been, to date, rather muted.

Anjali Dayal: I mean, and I think it also helps us see the limits of Security Council action, right? Because a UN spokesperson said yesterday that more aid actually hasn’t passed into Gaza since Israel agreed to institute the daily humanitarian pauses. And so building legitimacy and consensus towards something like a ceasefire is important. But at the end of the day, nothing but straight repeated political pressure from Israel’s key allies is actually going to make it accept the terms of the ceasefire agreement. I obviously don’t have very much insight on what would make Hamas accept the terms of the ceasefire agreement. But like in terms of what we see at multilateral diplomacy, it seems like we’re seeing both the possibilities and the limits of what the Security Council can do here.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Yeah. Like a Security Council resolution is as good as the piece of paper it’s written on if there’s no political will to enforce it. You know, just like Russia buying arms from North Korea in violation of Security Council resolutions, that just is one demonstration of the fact that these resolutions like don’t enforce themselves. They don’t implement themselves. It requires political will to do so. And that’s like TBD on the Gaza ceasefire deal.

Anjali Dayal: That’s right. And I also think it shows us very clearly, right, both the North Korea situation and the Gaza situation, how dependent the Security Council’s legitimacy and work is on the permanent five members, at least acquiescence, right? When they are the key stumbling blocks to action, we’re not going to see enforcement, right? We’re not going to see the ability to sort of operationalize these resolutions. But I think, in particular, the Gaza ceasefire resolution also shows us the importance of the other members of the Council because elected members to the Security Council did so much groundwork laying those first sort of resolutions for a Gaza ceasefire beginning in the fall, beginning with the sort of first humanitarian resolution that Malta spearheaded. Which was the first one the U.S. didn’t veto, right? Abstained on that one.

We need to see that the Security Council is more than just those five. That the ideas about what can work and what can’t sometimes have to come from members that don’t have the same kind of veto power, but do have expanded ideas about security, about peace, about diplomacy.

Mark Leon Goldberg: And speaking about Malta, the Maltese Ambassador to the United Nations, Vanessa Frazier, has been, I think like the star of this Security Council session. When she speaks, when she addresses the Council, people like stop what they’re doing and actually listen to what she’s saying. She has been just an absolute impressive and dynamic diplomat of the council these days.

Anjali Dayal: Yeah. This is such an unusual feature of the UN system, right? That a small state like Malta can punch so far above its weight in terms of sort of diplomatic prowess, in terms of sort of like effect on humanitarian situations around the world. And it’s a really fascinating thing to watch unfold and a real testimony to how good the diplomats that so many states send to the UN are.

Mark Leon Goldberg: So, there’s another bit of Israel-related news, I think it’s worth mentioning a bit, just because I think it demonstrates this downward spiral we’re seeing at the United Nations between Israel, the Israeli government, and the office of António Guterres and the secretariat in general. So, the background here is that every year, the UN Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict writes a report that kind of discusses broadly how children are faring in armed conflict around the world whether they’re being used as child soldiers or whether they’re being targeted in unseemly ways. It makes for a grim reading, but it’s one of those annual reports. Happens every year. But there is always a bit of trepidation around the UN because, in addition to this report, there is an annex to the report that lists the countries that the Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict believe is violating laws related to protecting children in armed conflict.

This is kind of known around the UN as the list of shame. Countries try their darndest to stay off of it. In fact, there is this anecdote from Ban Ki-moon’s memoir in which he recalls getting a huge amount of pressure by the government of Saudi Arabia to keep its name out of the index for actions in relation to the conflict in Yemen. They’re basically going to like suspend a lot of humanitarian funding, and he admits in his memoir to doing the politically expedient thing and not including Saudi Arabia in that list, fearing that it would harm the overall good of the organization. That’s just like a anecdote that demonstrates how much countries want off this list. Well, needless to say, Israel made the list this year and things turned very sour very quickly.

Anjali Dayal: We had the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations released a video of himself, presumably answering the phone to the Secretary General special advisor and explaining that Israel should not be on that list, according to him, right? And that the real sort of person who should be on this blacklist was Secretary General, António Guterres.

Speaker 5: I’ll have to tell you another thing. The only one who is blacklisted today is the Secretary General whose decisions since the war started, and even before, are rewarding terrorist and incentivizing them to use children for terror acts. And now Hamas will continue even more to use schools and hospitals because this decision, shameful decision of the Secretary General will only give Hamas hope to survive and will only extend the war and extend the suffering. Shame on him.

Anjali Dayal: And this is the kind of thing where the UN system has been a pretty clear object of the Israeli government’s ire since October of this year. It also shows us, I think, a little bit about the power of these norms and values even so. The accusation isn’t, “Oh, this list is meaningless,” right? Or, “We don’t agree with these values.” The accusation is, “We shouldn’t be on it because we’re moral.” And that’s an acceptance of the underlying value. And that sort of shows us where the space for diplomatic action might be even though the ultimate conclusion is essentially a bit of a showboating, kind of, “We don’t need to be on this list.”

Mark Leon Goldberg: Just like this incident, though, of the Israeli ambassador filming himself reacting to this and posting it on Twitter, then Steph Dujarric, the UN spokesperson, kind of reacted strongly to that, kind of calling out the Israeli ambassador for posting publicly, at least his half of this conversation. And it just kind of demonstrates this downward spiral of relations between António Guterres and the Israeli government. I mean, the Israeli government, its ambassador has called on Secretary General to step down. Things are not good in their relationship at the moment.

Anjali Dayal: I didn’t realize that was actually a recording of his half of the conversation. I actually thought it was a reenactment.

Mark Leon Goldberg: It looks like a reenactment, but he’s like professing that. It’s like a recording of his half.

Anjali Dayal: Either way, I think it does show us something really interesting. Like just as this is a unique forum for this kind of like high political stuff of countries talking directly to each other. It’s also real political theater at every level. And he would not be the first un diplomat to record a video that didn’t actually happen in real time.

Mark Leon Goldberg: No.

Anjali Dayal: To make a diplomatic point.

Mark Leon Goldberg: So, I’m glad you brought up the opportunity for high politics because we saw some very high politics this week at a Security Council meeting on Sudan. And the meeting that happened on Tuesday, June 18th, was about the humanitarian crisis in Sudan. But that followed a Security Council vote the week prior in which, for the first time, since the outbreak of full-scale civil war in Sudan, in April of 2023, the Security Council passed a resolution calling, in this narrow case, for a cessation of hostilities and for a militant group, the Rapid Support Forces not to attack the last major city Darfur that they have not yet attacked, called Elfasha. It’s a city of 800,000 at least. It’s completely surrounded by this RSF group, which just happens to be the rebranding of the old Janjaweed group that carried out the Darfur genocide 20 years ago.

So, there is like high expectation that if this major city falls to the RSF, you’re going to have a really horrible mass atrocity event. And the Security Council voted last week on the RSF to not go forward with this looming offensive.

Anjali Dayal: Yeah, the resolution was basically calling for member states to stop arming Sudanese armed actors and demanding, as you said, the RSF halt the siege of Elfasha. And it called for an immediate halt to the fighting and a de-escalation in and around the capital city of Darfur. And that vote was 14, zero, one. So, 14 votes in favor, no votes against, one abstention — Russia. And they follow that this week with a sort of really contentious meeting. Part of this meeting today was a real set of arguments between the Sudanese representative to the UN and the United Arab Emirates representative to the UN. They were sitting next to each other. And the back and forth in this chamber was about the United Arab Emirates Army of the RSF.

And the back and forth from Sudanese representative was essentially that the United Arab Emirates was showing up at this meeting despite arming the RSF. The United Emirates counter was essentially the Sudanese government refused to participate in the Jeddah talks that have been ongoing to try and negotiate an end to this conflict with varying degrees of sort of frequency and success in actually assembling the parties. One thing that’s notable about the resolution last week is that it doesn’t call out any member states by name. It doesn’t specifically say, for example, “You, the United Arab Emirates, stop arming the RSF.” It calls on member states to stop arming the factions of this war.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Even though we should note there is ample evidence produced by the UN, corroborated in media outlets, or vice versa in media outlets corroborated by UN panel of experts, that indeed the United Arab Emirates is arming the Rapid Support Forces and backing that half of the Civil War in Sudan. They are a partner in this conflict, not necessarily a partner in peace. And I think that’s why you saw just like this really awkward exchange, frankly, between the UAE representative and the Sudanese representative because the Sudanese representative accused the UAE, rightly so, of fueling this conflict.

The UAE representative shot back and said, didn’t even call him the representative of the government of Sudan, but rather called him the representative of the Sudanese Armed Forces, which is the other belligerent of this civil war. It’s the Sudanese Armed Forces versus the RSF. UAE is backing the RSF. And the UAE representative just called him the representative of the Sudanese Armed Forces implying that indeed he is like a belligerent in this role. And frankly, he’s not incorrect, right? These are two sides of a horrible civil war. But it was just fascinating to see that play out in the Council this week.

Anjali Dayal: Yeah. And usually when you get this kind of back and forth in the Council, it’s back and forth of statements to the sort of president, and then back and forth. And you end up in these strange stilted situations where the president will have to say, “I thank the representative from X state for their thoughts after this screed,” right? But in this particular situation, they were sitting next to each other. So, they were turning to speak to each other, which is an unusual opportunity for these parties to face each other directly, which is at odds with the kind of delicate diplomacy a lot of people around the UN system are doing, where they’re not directly calling out the UAE, despite, as you said, ample evidence.

That the UAE is actively involved in arming the RSF. We saw a little hint of this afterwards, I think during the press pool, a reporter asked the Secretary General special representative about the UAE’s role, and he basically made some noises and walked away. Because it is not the easiest diplomatic thing to engage in that public call out and have the private diplomacy work as well.

Mark Leon Goldberg: And it’s notable that this conflict in Sudan erupted in April 2023, but it’s not till now that we have any actual Security Council action on it. And I think that’s at least a consequence of the fact that up until January 1st of this year, the UAE was a member of the Security Council. And they have very effective diplomats. And frankly, the U.S. needed the UAE and the West needed the UAE to help them on the Gaza portfolio. And Sudan, I think, fell by the wayside. But now UAE is off. The situation in Sudan is deteriorating mightily. And so we saw this resolution penned by the British to essentially call for expanded humanitarian aid. And it should be noted that the government of Sudan or the Sudanese Armed Forces are blocking a key aid route from Chad into Darfur just as their opponents in this horrible civil war are committing all sorts of mass atrocities. There’s no like good guys here.

Anjali Dayal: No.

Mark Leon Goldberg: In terms of going back to this idea that Security Council resolutions don’t enforce themselves, it doesn’t seem clear that the Rapid Support Forces the RSF, are in fact relenting on their assault on this major city of Elfasha.

Anjali Dayal: Yeah, it doesn’t. and you know, in theory, right? Security Council resolutions are binding. When you sign up to the UN system, you agree to enforce the resolutions of the UN Security Council. You treat them as though they have the force of international law. Now, international lawyers tend to yell at me when I say this, right? But it is true that international law, its enforcement depends on the willingness of state parties. So, it only exists in so far as state parties are willing to enforce it. And in that sense, because all international legal obligations are voluntarily adopted, all Security Council resolutions are voluntarily enforced. You have to be willing to step up and actually enforce the resolution that this 15-member council agreed on whether you are a permanent member or whether you are another member of the UN system.

So, in this particular case, the resolution doesn’t enforce itself. It depends, for example, on the United Arab Emirates deciding to stop the flow of arms. The RSF, it depends on the sort of partners of these armed actors pressuring these parties to step up and to protect the civilians of Sudan who are paying the cost for this war overwhelmingly more than any other place. They’re living in situations that are not getting the amount of attention they need commensurate to the humanitarian disaster that they’re facing.

Mark Leon Goldberg: And I suspect that Sudan will be an issue that we revisit often on this new show for the fact that it is a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian crisis on the brink of one of the worst famines the world has seen since Ethiopia in the 1980s. It’s really that bad and it’s getting worse. And on top of it all, the United Nations official, who is most responsible for coordinating humanitarian relief in and around the world, including Sudan, is leaving at the end of the month. Martin Griffiths is stepping down as the undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and the emergency relief coordinator. It’s kind of two titles for the same person. He’s stepping down for health reasons, he said earlier, and it’s been reported that he’s been suffering from long COVID. 

And he, after about three and a half years on the job, is leaving at the end of June. And as part of his departure, this week, Martin Griffiths penned an op-ed in the New York Times, giving a rather grim overview of the state of humanitarian affairs around the world.

Anjali Dayal: Yeah. His op-ed says, in his entire career working on humanitarian affairs, he’s never faced worse situation than he sees around the world today. And his op-ed, it places the blame on leaders for this. And it says the ultimate failure is a failure of leaders to their people. Just to sort of quote a little bit from the piece, he tells us that, “Precisely the situation we see around the world right now with all of these global humanitarian crises,” he says, “this is precisely the situation that the modern global order created in the aftermath of World War II and embodied what the heartfelt ambition in the United Nations Charter was meant to prevent. The suffering of millions of people is clear evidence that we’re failing,” he says. But he says he doesn’t believe this failure at heart lies with the UN because he says the body is only as good as the commitment, effort, and resources that its members put in.

For me, this is a failure of world leaders, he says. They’re failing humanity by breaking the compact between ordinary people and those whom power is vested.

Mark Leon Goldberg: I mean, on the humanitarian front, the UN is only as effective as the resources at its disposal, both financial, humanitarian goods, and also political resources, the ability to cross battle lines or enter certain territories with humanitarian aid. And to me, the departure of Martin Griffiths and speculation over who might replace him is of such consequence at the United Nations. Because, I mean, these days, the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, in my mind, is arguably the second most important person in the United Nations system behind the Secretary General himself. I think it’s just for the fact that the ability of the United Nations to prevent conflicts and to manage conflicts has been muted as geopolitical tensions rise.

So, as a consequence, the UN is being turned to, increasingly, to look after the fallout of these conflicts, which is humanitarian crises and humanitarian disasters. And it is up to the top UN humanitarian official to coordinate responses not only from across the UN system, but across NGOs. Things like Save the Children and Oxfam. They all kind of work with the office of the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs to coordinate the responses to these crises around the world. So, this person, this position is really significant in the UN system.

Anjali Dayal: Yeah, absolutely. We started out talking about how the political space for things like mediation in conflicts shrinks as geopolitical tensions between the P5 rise. But as that geopolitical space shrinks, as the diplomatic space shrinks, it doesn’t shrink the fact that the UN remains the only organization that, at scale, can tackle some of these humanitarian disasters and serve this coordinating function. This is particularly the case because we live in a world where civil wars are lasting longer with fewer negotiated settlements and more cost to civilians. 

That’s something we see international relations scholarship telling us. Volker Türk, yesterday at the opening of the 56th annual session of the UN Human Rights Council, noted that international humanitarian law and human rights norms are in decline worldwide in wars. With around the world, us seeing civilians paying the blood cost for war in ways that are prohibited under international law in ways that are prohibited by the resolutions of the UN Security Council, right? In ways that states sign on to preventing when they sign onto the UN charter. And in the face of that, the UN’s humanitarian work becomes increasingly important. It becomes the organization’s biggest, most visible, and most vital role for people living worldwide.

Mark Leon Goldberg: It’s like the most impactful thing the UN does these days.

Anjali Dayal: Yeah.

Mark Leon Goldberg: And I think that’s why there is so much focus and attention on the race to replace him. 

Anjali Dayal: Yeah. We used to say that peacekeeping was the signature activity of the United Nations system, right?

Mark Leon Goldberg: Mm-Hmm (affirmative).

Anjali Dayal: But we’re now 10 years from the last authorization of a new peacekeeping mission, and we can see in that sort of decline of political resolutions to conflict. And in the face of that, what we see is humanitarian action becoming the signature activity of the UN system.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Yeah. If you were to ask me, 10 years ago, who the second most important figure in the UN system would be, I’d say it’d be the head of what was then called the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. Now no longer. Can you just explain to listeners, and frankly walk me through, what is the actual process or procedure in selecting these top posts?

Anjali Dayal: The selection process is not at all transparent.

Mark Leon Goldberg: So that’s why I don’t know it.

Anjali Dayal: Yeah. It’s maybe not necessarily opaque, but it is opaque. So this position was established in 1991. It’s a comparatively new position on the scale of UN positions, but it is one of the big positions that was traditionally reserved for one of the permanent five members of the Security Council. In a sort of big political grand bargain that characterizes all the different parts of the UN system, the Secretary General is never a member of a P5 nation. But as a tradeoff, each of the P5 gets one of the big offices for one of their own nationals. And in the last couple of cycles, this office has gone to a British national. This idea of the office is being reserved for a member of the P5 is one that has gotten a lot of backlash around the world from countries in the global south, from countries who are the recipients of humanitarian aid.

In part because the overall move of the UN system, especially under António Guterres, has been about thinking about local solutions to problems. And it’s very hard to adopt a local set of solutions to problems. People say if the sort of lead actor on this stage is a British man, he is highlighting a sort of colonial dynamic that can look and be incredibly problematic. The flip side of that, of course, is that it’s a way of investing the P5 in the process of humanitarian aid. And it’s a way of putting in that position someone who can rally the richest governments in the world to try and contribute to the cause. And so there are real trade-offs when we think about what this informal system of reservation for the P5 does and how the lack of transparency, and how this person is selected enables the Secretary General to essentially play up what they think are going to be the most politically and operationally salient features of the job.

Mark Leon Goldberg: So, since 2004 or ‘05, I can’t remember which one, it was right around when I started covering the UN, every lead humanitarian official, every under security general for humanitarian affairs has been British. Not only have they been British, but they’ve kind of been like the same type of Brit. They’ve all kind of been just very competent, skilled diplomats who rose through the ranks of either the British Diplomatic Corps or British government or UN system by dint of their competence and by dint of their ability to get things done. They’ve not been like household names, right? They’ve not been anyone that if you’re outside the bubble you’ve ever heard of in any other context. I just wonder if that’s like part of the problem.

One of the key challenges facing un humanitarian issues, and I put this question to Jan Egeland as well, is the fact that the requirements for paying for humanitarian relief and disaster recovery around the world are astronomical and only getting bigger as climate change takes hold and as conflicts last longer. The money available to pay for all that humanitarian assistance is getting scarcer and scarcer. So I just wonder if instead of like having a very competent, skilled humanitarian operator and skilled diplomat, you need someone whose primary skill set is fundraising and being like a more prominent political face of the UN.

Anjali Dayal: It’s interesting because another way we could think about that is to think about the role that a politically visible person might play for fundraising. So, if we take, for example, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, that person has historically been someone with a little bit more visibility. Or someone who heads of state traditionally recognized as being someone on par with the UN Secretary General. So, Michelle Bachelet is the classic case of this, right?

Mark Leon Goldberg: Yeah.

Anjali Dayal: Former head of state, someone with household recognition around the world.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Mary Robinson as well. Ireland’s former president.

Anjali Dayal: Yeah. Prince Ra’ad, right?

Mark Leon Goldberg: Yeah, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who is a very senior Jordanian diplomat member of the Jordanian Royal family. Everyone knew him. And now, you mentioned him earlier, it’s Volker Türk.

Anjali Dayal: Yeah.

Mark Leon Goldberg: But I’ve never heard of.

Anjali Dayal: Well, so he’s done remarkable work around the UN for years, but he’s not a household name, right?

Mark Leon Goldberg: Yeah, exactly.

Anjali Dayal: And it is the kind of thing where if we’re thinking about what might balance the political role, you know, Martin Griffiths talks at length about, in his op-ed, but also in other interviews he’s given over the years, about the importance of humanitarian mediation. How mediation, this political dimension of humanitarian aid and access is actually key to success. And in that sense, someone with a more visible profile might serve the function of drawing attention to this job. Also, perhaps being able to rally countries to fundraise for it. Because I think the danger in looking for someone who’s just good at fundraising might be that fundraising is a skill that, as organizations everywhere know, is not immediately transferrable from charisma, or from political savviness, or from deep operational knowledge.

And this position needs someone who can do all of these things. In part because we said just a second ago that peacekeeping used to be the signature activity of the UN system. The peacekeeping budget is separate from the UN’s operating budget. It’s a dedicated separate budget that used to be larger than the UN’s general operating budget, right? In some years, it was almost twice the UN’s entire operating budget. It was still enormously small. At the peak, I think they were running 16 operations on one half of one-10th of all global defense spending. So, it’s like a rubber band-level budget still, right?

Mark Leon Goldberg: It’s like what the Pentagon loses in its couch cushions in any given year.

Anjali Dayal: That’s right. Right? Like you sneeze and you lose that at the Pentagon. But that was a dedicated large budget that was separate from the UN’s budget that didn’t rely on sort of circulating the offering bowl every time there was a crisis around the world. And so thinking about how to offset increased humanitarian need in a world of decreased willingness to sort of invest in multilateral organizations, I think, it’s a critical way to think about what kind of skillset this next leader might need to have. It hearkens back to the decision to put a former head of state at the helm of the UN, or a former head of state at the helm of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Mark Leon Goldberg: So, how would you like assess Griffith’s record as Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs? I mean, to me at least, the signature accomplishment in his tenure was the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which permitted the export of Ukrainian grain from the Black sea ports that Ukraine occupied, but a lot of the Ukrainian territorial waters, around which were patrolled by Russian military. So, there was this complex arrangement in which Ukrainian goods and grain would be sent to Turkey where it would be inspected and then sent on to the rest of the world. And if you remember, at the time, this came in the midst of real spiking food costs around the world, and a real deep concern that Ukraine, which was a global bread basket, would be unable to supply food, particularly to the developing south, which relied and required Ukrainian food. So, this worked.

Anjali Dayal: It was a huge accomplishment, and it’s one that really relies on extensive deep quiet diplomacy over many months. The key piece on this is from last year, Colum Lynch had a piece in Devex that went through the deep negotiations that went into the Black Sea Great Initiative. One key connection here was Martin Griffiths’ connection with the Center of Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva, which does a lot of the initial backdoor negotiation. And it’s a dynamic that we should see a lot in situations where the Security Council won’t act because one of the permanent members is a key party to the conflict or a key stumbling block to action, which is that some group of diplomats did a ton of negotiation very quietly outside the umbrella of the UN.

And once it was clear that that sort of diplomacy would take root, then the UN could attach its political capital and its sort of umbrella of credibility to the negotiations without necessarily paying the political cost upfront for initiating the dialogue. And if at that point that dialogue didn’t work, the UN wouldn’t pay the cost for that. And that’s something we know from watching him for the last couple of years that António Guterres is very sensitive to. He doesn’t like paying political costs for engaging in risky negotiations. And so something that we really see from Martin Griffiths’ particular skill set, I think, is the ability to engage in that kind of quiet humanitarian diplomacy with other kinds of parties and then to attach the sort of credibility of the UN to it.

Mark Leon Goldberg: There’s just like a coda to the Black Sea Grain Initiative that’s worth mentioning which is that it died after a year, Russia pulled out of it. But incidentally, the impact on global food prices of Russia’s decision to pull out of the agreement was not huge for the fact that by the time that Russia pulled out, Ukraine had already secured, militarily through victories, on the ground, a sea corridor for which it could export Ukrainian grain without having to negotiate with Russia. So, Martin Griffiths did buy global food markets enough time in order for that sea corridor to be established.

Anjali Dayal: And I think not every deal is going to be a long-term success, but part of the effort of a humanitarian coordinator is trying to secure deals even when they might fail because the short term gain is worth it for people who are living under crisis.

Next up, Mark interviews, Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Jan Egeland. Thanks so much for joining me.

Jan Egeland: Thank you.

Mark Leon Goldberg: I wanted kick off just by talking about the position of under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs. But before we get there, why do you think that you were the last non-British national to serve in that role?

Jan Egeland: Because there has been a tradition in the United Nations, actually ever since the First Secretary General, which was a Norwegian by the way, in 1946, that the permanent 5 nations in the Security Council would not have the Secretary General, but they would be having at least one Under Secretary General in a key position in the secretariat, so-called, surrounding the Secretary General of the UN. So, it’s been mostly Frenchmen having peacekeeping. The Americans had administration, which is also the person, and limiting the cost. The British had the political Under Secretary General. The Russians often had the directive for all operations in Geneva, and the Chinese had the General Assembly, for example. Then there was a shift on the Ban Ki-moon, and the U.S. wanted another position.

They got the political post, and then the Brits wanted to have the humanitarian post, which had gotten a high profile in my time as a Humanitarian Under Secretary General. And since that time, it’s always been a Brit. I don’t like this tradition of P5 having the unique privilege of having certain posts without the world being able to compete for these posts.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Yeah, I mean, it seems to limit the number of candidates, not to knock any prior Brit who served in the post, but when you’re only choosing amongst our country, the quality of candidates from which you can choose is necessarily limited.

Jan Egeland: And that means you cannot then get perhaps a fresh non-Western view or a fresh southern view on that job. But of course, Britain, thank God, has been an important humanitarian actor, and they do follow humanitarian principles. So, my successes were all good, but the principle of having hegemony for certain posts is wrong.

Mark Leon Goldberg: In your experience, what qualities make for a successful humanitarian affairs coordinator?

Jan Egeland: I think you have to be a courageous diplomat and advocate for people in great need

Mark Leon Goldberg: Well, I remember having covered the United Nations when you were the Under Secretary General for humanitarian affairs. You got in a bit of trouble for your outspokenness following the Indian Ocean tsunami. You sort of dinged the Western world, or the United States in general, for being stingy following that massive disaster. And President Bush himself came down hard on you.

Jan Egeland: I think that was a slight misunderstanding because the Americans interpreted the rich world as the United States, which it would be Norway having a higher per capita income or the Gulf countries or any Western countries.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Oh, so you were really talking about Norway. Ah, I see.

Jan Egeland: But I mean, it just shows that my press conferences at the time were really listened to. I remember the President Bashir of the Sudan, President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, President Gbagbo of Ivory Coast at the time, Museveni in Uganda, they all attacked me for my outspokenness on suffering in their countries. And I was proud to have a Secretary General, Kofi Annan, that defended my right to call a spade a spade. So, I think that using the pulpit of the United Nations on behalf of the betrodden, those who are abused by armed violence and of neglect, that is one important quality. And another one is to really be a leader also for proactive action and immediate action and get a diverse humanitarian system to march in the same direction is important.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Do you see there to be tension between being an active and outspoken advocate on the behalf of the betrodden as you say it, and also, on the other hand, the need to do the kind of quiet humanitarian diplomacy necessary to do things like securing humanitarian corridors in wartime? You don’t necessarily want to call out malicious actors when you as a humanitarian are trying to work with these very malicious actors to get to populations in need.

Jan Egeland: Yeah, I mean, you need to do things that are not counterproductive for the people whom you represent and speak for. But it’s two different things. I mean, the emergency relief coordinator, as the position is called, is not the one sitting down to speak to the colonels in rebel armies or in government armies for that matter. That is the local national representatives of humanitarian organization’s doing. In many cases, it could be the International Red Committee of the Red Cross for that matter. Which means that I think the main importance here of the position is to go to the Security Council, to go to World Media, to go to heads of state and say, “The way it is now, it cannot continue. Your side is killing as many civilians as any on the other side. Stop It really.”

It’s a little bit like in Gaza now. I mean, what Hamas did on the 7th of October had nothing to do with resistance of occupation or anything. It was massacring innocent Israelis, but the totally indiscriminate military campaign that was actually done with indiscriminate American arms on civilians in Gaza is equally condemnable. So, this is the kind of a language Mm-Hmm. I think one has to have in place of the place so that there is no doubt about what’s really happening.

Mark Leon Goldberg: And you have seen Martin Griffiths indeed do that over the course of the last several months, issue very strong condemnatory language. You know, I think of Martin Griffiths, and I think of you, and I think of Mark Lowcock and Valerie Ammos, and all those who have served in this role over the last couple of decades as being high level, very competent diplomats who do the things that you just said, who are able to articulate condemnations, who are able to coordinate the humanitarian provisions throughout the UN system. One thing though that I think has been also, perhaps the downside of the fact that you all have been very competent operators and diplomats, is that there’s been very paltry fundraising compared to the need.

The humanitarian gaps have always been profound. And I do wonder, as we’re facing this just ever-increasing gap between what is appealed for and what is contributed, if like a different kind of person might ought to be under Secretary for humanitarian affairs, someone who’s just like a prejudice fundraiser instead of a prejudice diplomat.

Jan Egeland: Perhaps. I don’t think one person is going to convince the growing economies in Asia, and for that matter in the Gulf to become as predictable donors as the Scandinavians have been for 40 years. I think that has to be the member states working in between themselves. I’ve been many times going to Gulf countries, I’ve going to Asian countries, I’ve been going to these growing economies and trying to encourage them to be as much in solidarity with Burkina Faso as my own country has been for 40 years. We were giving 1% of our gross national income when we were much poorer than several of the ASEAN countries in the Southeast Asia, for example. But there isn’t that kind of a tradition, and I wonder if there are other mechanisms also to get the private sector more involved in providing funding. In a report from NRC, we pointed to the fact that 5% of the profit of the five largest multilateral private corporations would more than cover all humanitarian needs in the world of neglect.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Yeah. Lastly, at time of recording, we don’t yet know who will replace Martin Griffiths as the next Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs. What advice would you give that person as he or she takes up the new job?

Jan Egeland: My advice would be to listen to a very competent staff that you have around the world, and perhaps say which of the places where we are failing the most today. I did that myself when I took the job in 2003, and I asked, “Which is the place on earth which we’re really failing?” And to my surprise, they said, “Northern Uganda, where the Lord’s Resistance Army, as it was called, created havoc. And I didn’t even know there was this havoc there. So that was one of my first trips, and I called it the biggest forgotten emergency on Earth. And we were able to reboot and strengthen operations there. So, focus on neglect, try to get new donors on board, and be courageous, and don’t have any of the great powers power you because you speak on behalf of people in need.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Well, Jan, thank you again so much for your time.

Jan Egeland: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Anjali Dayal: So, Mark, that was super interesting, and I am really curious to know what you think the possibility of there actually being a non-British humanitarian coordinator is Jan Egeland mentioned.

Mark Leon Goldberg: You know, it’s like, because as you noted, this process is so opaque, it’s really hard to make any sort of educated guess here. I mean, it would seem probably it’ll be a Brit just because it has been, and there is some expectation that will be, but there’s also like a good deal of civil society pressure. And frankly, Guterres, to his credit, has been responsive to civil society pressure over the course of his term against having a Brit. Even from groups like the United Nations Association of the United Kingdom, I mean, they have like this petition out, like, don’t ring fence. The OCHA chief position for a Brit, open it up to everyone.

Anjali Dayal: Yeah. Another really interesting thing I thought he brought up was this idea that under Kofi Anna, he was empowered to call out heads of state as the coordinator.

Mark Leon Goldberg: And he got in trouble. Oh man, he got in trouble with George Bush.

Anjali Dayal: Who didn’t?

Mark Leon Goldberg: Yeah. I mean, like he kind of mentions this in passing, but so like in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami, which people forget now, but it was like a horrible, horrible humanitarian disaster and impacted dozens of countries around the world. You know, he kind of called out or was, in his view, interpreted to call out the Bush administration for its stinginess in response. And George Bush himself mentioned Jan Egeland and kind of dressed him down. And it’s just so odd for the president of the United States to single out like someone of the Jan Egeland level, like the head of the Humanitarian affairs, which is not like the top position. You’d expect maybe he’d dressed down like the Secretary General, but not like the OCHA chief. That was just like a really weird power dynamic that happened at the time.

Anjali Dayal: I love that even now he’s like, “Who said I was talking about him? I was talking about Norway.” Not my fault if you think I’m talking about you when I say rich people are stingy.”

Mark Leon Goldberg: I’ve got to say, I’ve interviewed Jan Egeland a few times now, and he’s like very direct, and I do appreciate that. he’s not like one of those dissembling diplomats. Do you know the Jan Egeland song?

Anjali Dayal: I have heard told of its legend.

Mark Leon Goldberg: So listeners may be aware of this group, I don’t even know how to pronounce their name, Ylvis or Ylvis. It’s basically Elvis with a Y. They are most famous for the viral video, what does the Fox say? Which has like 1.1 billion YouTube views. But they have a lesser-known hint called Jan Egeland about Jan Egeland, or not really about Jan Egeland, about a fictionalized version of Jan Egeland who plays the role of like a 1980s action star defending human rights and supporting the United Nations around the world. The chorus is Jan Egeland, the United Nations superhero man. It’s a brilliant paying to a international civil servant.

Anjali Dayal: There are so few of those that we have to celebrate the ones we have.


Mark Leon Goldberg: Thank you for listening to To Save Us From Hell. The show is co-hosted by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and Anjali Dayal. It is edited and mixed by Levi Sharpe. Our cover art is by Sarah DiMichele. If you’ve not already done so, please subscribe to our show via Substack at globaldispatches.org. We are sustaining this show by selling subscriptions to it via Substack. You can get a discounted subscription by going to globaldispatches.org/saveus. You can follow the link in the show notes as well. And finally, if you’d like to discuss this episode with us, please visit globaldispatches.org and click on ‘chat,’ where we’ll be around to discuss what we discussed in this episode. Thanks and be sure to tell friends and colleagues about To Save Us From Hell a new podcast about the United Nations.

"To Save Us From Hell" + Global Dispatches
To Save Us From Hell
“The United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell,” Dag Hammersjkold told us some 60 years ago. To Save Us From Hell is a podcast that discusses the players and debates raging at the UN to keep us from that fiery furnace.
Each week, UN Dispatch editor-in-chief Mark Leon Goldberg and International Relations Scholar Anjali Dayal give critical analysis of the United Nations, as well as break down the latest news from Turtle Bay. From shenanigans at the Security Council to the UN’s life saving humanitarian work around the world, two veteran UN watchers dissect the key debates driving the agenda at the UN and uncover geopolitical intrigues along the way.
To Save Us from Hell provides in-depth, accessible, and timely takes on the United Nations and its activities around the world. Whether you work for the UN, adjacent to the UN, or are simply curious about how the United Nations operates in this chaotic world our expert co-hosts will keep you up-to-date about all things United Nations.