Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Province of All Humankind

The UN's Plan to Save the World
From Hazardous Near-Earth Objects

When I don't have enough other things to worry about, my mind sometimes wanders to the dinosaurs. No, I'm not worried about a Jurassic Park scenario. (That was a great movie, though, wasn't it?). Rather, I'm worried about the type of cataclysmic event that caused the demise of the dinosaurs. Could a similar disaster in the future bring an end to our current enterprise on Earth? A direct hit from a mile-wide asteroid would not be a pretty sight. It could be a ruinous day for our Anthropocene Epoch.

Actually, even a grazing strike from a large meteor would cause damage and panic on a wide scale. Remember the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013? Fifteen hundred people were injured by shattering glass and collapsing structures.

I know enough about astronomy and our solar system to realize that it is only a matter of time before one of those big space rocks will smash into our lovely planet again. It happened before, numerous times. It will happen again.

Despite this depressing certainty, I'm not a fatalist when it comes to asteroid catastrophes. There may be occasions when passive observation is appropriate. But, this is not one of those times. We need action to protect our planet from the doomsday rock with our number on it. We have the knowledge and the capacity to defend our Earth. The time for action is now!

A fireball explodes over Chelyabinsk, Russia,
as captured on a dash cam.
That's not just my opinion. The UN General Assembly agrees.

In December, 2013 -- partly as a result of the meteor strike in Chelyabinsk -- the members of the United Nations adopted a resolution expressing serious concern "about the devastating impact of disasters." (See Resolution A/RES/68/75 on International Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space).

The General Assembly's Resolution went beyond a simple statement of concern. The UN has actually had a committee laboring on this problem for a number of years. So, as part of its Resolution, the General Assembly endorsed an action plan that was proposed by a working group of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

Here's the operative language of Resolution A/RES/68/75:

"The General Assembly...
"8.   Welcomes with satisfaction the recommendations for an international
response to the near-Earth object impact threat, endorsed by the Scientific
and Technical Subcommittee at its fiftieth session and by the Committee at
its fifty-sixth session."

It is a prosaic statement, not like other well-known UN documents which have inspired action on human rights, peacebuilding, disease eradication, and other issues of global concern. In this case, the action of the General Assembly will be remembered for its substance -- not for any flowery language.

Here's a short description of the UN's 3-point plan for saving our planet from near-Earth objects.

(1) Identify and Validate the Threat. The UN will establish an International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN), which will be a clearing house for receiving reports on observations of Near Earth Objects (NEO's) -- basically, any asteroids or comets which could pose a potential threat to Earth.

Bill Nye, the Science Guy, is the CEO of the Planetary Society
-- one of several agencies and groups that are part of the
United Nations Working Group on Near Earth Objects.
The Network will process all NEO observations, deciding which ones should be catalogued for future reference and which should be singled out for notice as a "potentially hazardous object."

(2) Deflect / Mitigate. Under authority of the UN, the space-faring nations of the world will establish a space mission planning advisory group. The group will consider "...the framework, timeline and options for initiating and executing space mission response activities."

Deflecting an incoming NEO will not be an easy task, and it will carry some risks. The advisory group will weigh "the various options for deflection and the implications (technical readiness, political acceptability, cost of development and operation...) of a particular deflection strategy."

If a defensive space mission is not feasible, the IAWN will mobilize existing national and international disaster response agencies to prepare for a potential NEO impact event. "IAWN should... assist Governments in their response to predicted impact consequences. This does not limit the possibility of organizing, in this respect, additional international specialized advisory groups, if necessary."

(3) Promote Continuing International Cooperation in Space.

(The 3-point plan described above is summarized from the "Final Report of the Action Team on Near-Earth Objects," published by the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, 11-22 February, 2013)

With regard to international cooperation in space, it should be noted that this is not a new topic for the United Nations. The UN has been promoting and supporting space exploration for more than 50 years -- dating back to the creation of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in 1959.

For example, the UN has developed a body of Space Law to guide international cooperation among the Earth's spacefaring nations. These agreements include:

• The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which established the principle that, "The exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;"

Mazlan Binti Othman is a Malaysian astrophysicist who
is the director of the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs.
• The Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (the "Rescue Agreement"), in 1968;

• The Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (the "Liability Convention"), 1972;

• The Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (the "Registration Convention"), adopted by the General Assembly in January, 1975; and

• The Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (the "Moon Agreement"), which entered into force in 1984.

It makes sense for the United Nations to take a leadership role in protecting our planet from the hazards of space. It is the largest international organization in the world; its membership encompasses nearly every nation, including all spacefaring nations.

With its long history of leadership on issues of global security and cooperation in space, the UN has the credibility, respect, and organizational legitimacy needed to mobilize the resources of nations, international space agencies, scientific organizations, etc.

When we find a big space rock hurtling toward us, we want our best people to be focused on forming a life-saving solution -- not squabbling about who is in charge.

Knowing all of this, I'm able to sleep a little better at night -- but only a little. I still worry about the unknown hazards lurking in the dark corners of our solar system. There are thousands of asteroids that haven't yet been catalogued, and more are being discovered every day.

Our capacity for detecting these objects is improving, but not fast enough for worry-warts like me. We're really just in the infancy of our efforts to protect our planet from NEO hazards. (I'm especially concerned about the big one that didn't show up when we thought it would).

I support the UN's efforts on the coordination of outer space activities. I just wish they had more resources and could move a little faster.

Bill Bryant
Director of Communications
Greater Oklahoma City Chapter
United Nations Association of the USA

Messages from Space Explorers to Future Generations
In honour of the fiftieth anniversary of human space flight, and to pay tribute to the extraordinary journey of the men and women who have flown into space, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) invited past and present space explorers to provide a message that might inspire future generations.

Here is the message that was shared by Anatoly Ivanishin, who flew on the International Space Station in 2010 and 2011. (See more at the UNOOSA website)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Women In Prison

Female Incarceration is Part of the Reality
We will Explore at our International
Women's Day Luncheon on March 8th

Oklahoma puts more women in prison, per capita, than any country on Earth.

Have you reserved your place for our International Women's Day program / luncheon on Saturday, March 8th? Tickets are just $20, and you can reserve yours now with our online form: 
(Sorry ... our online registration form has now closed)

The program will be:

Saturday, March 8th
The Center
4325 NW 50th Street
Oklahoma City, OK   73112

Check-in is at 11:30am. The program kicks off at 12 Noon.

Our keynote speaker will be Lou Kohlman, Chair of the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women.

As a leader of OCSW, Ms. Kohlman is well-versed in the myriad complex of issues facing Oklahoma women today -- including issues of aging, women's physical and mental health, as well as our state's high rate of female incarceration.

There are about 2,600 women locked up in Oklahoma's prisons -- a rate of incarceration that is about twice the national average.

A Reuter's news article in 2013 defined the problem this way: "The female incarceration rate in Oklahoma stands at 121 per 100,000 population, compared with a national average of 65, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics."

Why does Oklahoma lock up so many women?

Kristin Davis, executive director of the Oklahoma Women's Coalition, addressed this question in a commentary in the Oklahoma Gazette last November. She wrote:

"Many factors contribute to the high female incarceration rate. However, the root cause is one that makes for uncomfortable conversation: the fact that women and girls in our state are not treated well.

"Oklahoma has an inordinate number of girls who suffer abuse and other forms of trauma in childhood and then carry the symptoms of trauma into adulthood.

"The fact that our state ranks among the top five in the U.S. for the rate of child abuse deaths is an obvious indicator of the high rate of child abuse that exists.

"According to the state Department of Corrections, more than 66 percent of incarcerated women report having suffered physical or sexual abuse during childhood. Without resources to provide them with early intervention, treatment or support, these women foundered and made choices, such as self-medication, that led them on a path to prison."

Beyond the social factors -- abuse, poverty, unwed and teen mothers, drug use, etc. -- that influence our crime rates, some observers think Oklahoma's laws are too harsh.

One of these people is Susan Sharp, a University of Oklahoma sociology professor. She has been studying Oklahoma's treatment of female offenders for the past two decades. She is the editor of the book, “The Incarcerated Woman.”

Dr. Sharp thinks Oklahoma has too many “mean” laws and too many politicians who are unconcerned with the rehabilitation of criminal offenders. (Read a news story about her remarks at a recent forum at the United Way of Central Oklahoma).

Her comments are supported by a fact sheet (pdf) from The Sentencing Project showing that incarceration rates for women have been rising over time -- not just in Oklahoma, but nationally as well: 

"The number of women in prison increased by 587% between 1980 and 2011, rising from 15,118 to 111,387."

Women are more likely to be in prison for drug and property offenses, their report notes, while men are more likely to be in prison for violent offenses. Including women who are on probation and parole, the Sentencing Project estimates that more than a million women across the United States are under the supervision of the criminal justice system.

As noted, the problem of female incarceration is not the only challenge faced by Oklahoma women. But, it is an indicator that helps us to have an informed understanding of the status of Oklahoma women today.

We are fortunate that we will have the perspective of Lou Kohlman to put this condition, as well as others, into a meaningful context for us.

Join us on March 8th -- reserve your seat today!
(Sorry ... our online registration form has now closed)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The UN Connects with Oklahoma Women

 From Eleanor Roosevelt to Lou Kohlman,
A Short History of the Commission on the Status of Women

From the beginning, the UN has been committed to the advancement of the rights of women. It is true now. It was true when the UN Charter was signed in San Francisco in 1945.

Of the 160 original signatories of the UN Charter, only four were women -- Minerva Bernardino (Dominican Republic), Virginia Gildersleeve (United States), Bertha Lutz (Brazil) and Wu Yi-Fang (China) -- but they succeeded in inscribing women’s rights in the founding document of the United Nations, which reaffirms in its preamble “ in fundamental human rights, in the dignity of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of Nations large and small.”

In 1946, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was established as a way to promote, report on, and monitor issues relating to the political, economic, civil, social and educational rights of women.

The Commission on the Status of Women first met at Lake Success, New York, in February, 1947. All of the 15 government representatives were women. During its first session, the Commission declared as one of its guiding principles:

"To raise the status of women, irrespective of nationality, race, language or religion, to equality with men in all fields of human enterprise, and to eliminate all discrimination against women in the provisions of statutory law, in legal maxims or rules, or in interpretation of customary law."

One of the first tasks of the CSW was to assist in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which ultimately emerged from the UN Commission on Human Rights (chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt).

Commission members inserted gender-sensitive language -- arguing against references to “men” as a synonym for humanity and phrases like “men are brothers.” They succeeded in introducing new, inclusive language into the document.

Since the codification of the legal rights of women needed to be supported by data and analysis, the Commission embarked on a global assessment of the status of women. Extensive research produced a detailed, country-by-country picture of their political and legal standing, which over time became a basis for drafting human rights instruments. (See more at the UN Women website)

Eleanor Roosevelt and President John F. Kennedy
On December 14, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10980 creating the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. The Commission was charged with the task of drafting recommendations for overcoming discrimination in government and private employment on the basis of sex as well as recommendations for services to enable women to "continue their role as wives and mothers while making a maximum contribution to the world around them."

To chair this commission, Kennedy appointed Eleanor Roosevelt. She led the commission until her death in 1962.

According to Wikipedia, the creation of the Presidential CSW "...gave the federal government an incentive to again consider women's rights and roles as being a serious issue worthy of political debate and public policy-making."

By 1962, the creation of this national commission encouraged states and cities to begin studying women's status in their own local areas. All fifty states had commissions in operation by 1967.

In Oklahoma, the first Commission on the Status of Women was established by Governor Henry Bellmon in 1965. Members of the commission advised the Governor on the problem of gender bias and key quality of life issues facing Oklahoma women and their families. Succeeding governors followed Mr. Bellmon's example.

In 1994, the Oklahoma Legislature formally recognized the value of the Governor's Commission. The Legislature voted to establish the commission in law and to give it additional duties. Since then, the members of the Commission have been appointed by the Governor, the President Pro Tempore of the State Senate, and the Speaker of the State House of Representatives.

(Read more about the Oklahoma CSW in our article, "A Network of Mutual Support")

Today, the Oklahoma CSW organizes a biennial Women's Summit. It coordinates the activities of the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame. Additionally, it advises state agencies and employees on issues relating to gender bias; it monitors proposed legislation; and it acts as a resource and a clearinghouse for research on issues related to women and gender bias.

On Saturday, March 8th, the members of the Oklahoma City chapter of the United Nations Association will be proud to welcome Lou Kohlman as the keynote speaker at our International Women's Day luncheon.

Ms. Kohlman serves as the current Chair of the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women. She is active in the Oklahoma Academy, the Harvard Club, and the Oklahoma County League of Women Voters.

You can reserve your place at the luncheon right now at our online reservations page ... 
(Sorry ... our online registration form has now closed)

... The cost is $20, with proceeds going to support the good work of the United Nations Association.

The luncheon program will be:

Saturday, March 8th
The Center
4325 NW 50th Street
Oklahoma City, OK   73112

Check-in is at 11:30am. The program kicks off at 12 Noon.

There is limited space available, and advance registration is required -- so reserve your seat today.

You won't find a nicer group of folks than the members and friends of the United Nations Association of the USA!

Who's in the Pictures:

1. Eleanor Roosevelt -- First Lady and first chairwoman of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Mrs. Roosevelt also served on the board of directors of the American Association for the United Nations (later to become UNA-USA, the United Nations Association of the USA).

2. The Pioneer Woman -- A monument honoring the pioneer women of America, this statue is located in Ponca City. When it was dedicated in 1930, an estimated 40,000 people came to hear Will Rogers pay tribute to Oklahoma's pioneering women.

3. Te Ata Fisher -- An actress and member of the Chickasaw Nation, Te Ata (aka, Mary Frances Thompson) was known for telling Native American stories. In the 1930's, she performed as a representative of Native Americans at state dinners before President Franklin Roosevelt. She was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in 1957, and named Oklahoma's first State Treasure in 1987.

4. Malala Yousafzai -- The world's best known activist for the rights of women and girls.

5. Lou Kohlman -- Chair of the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women, she will be the keynote speaker at our Women's Day Luncheon on Saturday, March 8th.

6. Jeane Kirkpatrick -- U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (1981 - 1985), she is the namesake of the advocacy committee of our Oklahoma City chapter of the United Nations Association.

7. Hannah Diggs Atkins -- Inducted into the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame in 1982, Hannah Atkins served the people of Oklahoma as a State Representative, Secretary of State, and Cabinet Secretary for Social Services. From 1979 to 1982, Ms. Atkins was also a U.S. delegate to UNESCO -- the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. After her retirement from public life, Ms. Atkins served in a voluntary capacity as the elected president of our Oklahoma City chapter of UNA-USA. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Efficient, Effective and Proper

An Open Letter to Senator Tom Coburn

Dear Senator Coburn,

Thank you for your timely reply about U.S. funding for the United Nations.

I would like to comment on your concern about "reports of fraud, waste, and abuse at the UN...."

You cite the work of the UN Procurement Task Force, stating that "...more than 40 percent of procurement by the UN is tainted by waste and fraud, which totaled approximately $630 million between 2006 and 2008 alone."

In addition, you write: "Unfortunately, the UN Procurement Task Force was disbanded in 2008, after pressure from a number of UN members, including Russia — who itself was often the subject of UN contract fraud investigations. Since the task force was disbanded, no new comprehensive data regarding UN contract fraud has been compiled, bringing the amount waste, fraud, and abuse, at the UN into further question, ultimately jeopardizing long-term peacekeeping efforts...."

First, I'm glad you shared this concern with me. I am happy to provide additional information which may allay some of your questions.

In 2010, the UN Secretariat procured more than $830 million
in goods and services from U.S. companies. Source:
"The United Nations: Benefiting the U.S. Economy."
With regard to the UN Procurement Task Force, you are correct that it was disbanded in 2008. But, this does not indicate that the United Nations has given up on its efforts to protect the integrity of its contract and procurement systems. It should be noted that the Procurement Task Force was, from the beginning, designed to be a temporary, provisional, ad hoc effort of the UN Secretariat to root out fraud and corruption in various peacekeeping missions and at UN headquarters. It was initially created for a fixed period of six months under authority of the Under-Secretary-General for Internal Oversight Services. The mandate of the Task Force was later extended for an additional 18 months to December 31, 2007.

The initial focus of the Procurement Task Force was the handling of the case of eight officials placed on special leave. Its investigations led to three of the eight officials being cleared of wrongdoing. It also brought to light one serious case, which resulted in a lengthy prison sentence.

During the 18-month period ending June 30, 2007, the Task Force completed 63 investigations and issued 22 reports. As of March 15, 2008, the Task Force had published 25 reports that dealt with more than 40 contracts, and had completed 142 of the cases in its portfolio. 

Philippe S├ęguin: First President of the Court of Accounts
of France and Chairman of the United Nations Board
of Auditors, Lead Auditor
You mention a figure of $630 million to describe the scope of waste and fraud in UN procurement activities over this multi-year period. To be precise, $630 million is an estimate of the overall value of the contracts in which irregularities had been suspected. But, not all of these contracts (or the activities carried out under the contracts) were found to have been fraudulent or wasteful. The Task Force was only able to identify clear losses of $25 million, of which $20 million related to the same person.

In short, the problems found in the UN's procurement system were determined to be isolated incidents -- occurring mostly as the result of a single person at a single point in time. The efforts of the Procurement Task Force did not expose massive corruption at the United Nations, and there is no indication of widespread fraud, waste or corruption at the present time.

This conclusion can be found in a couple of reports which are available on the UN website. For example, the "Report of the Board of Auditors on the activities of the Procurement Task Force" includes a useful summary of the findings of the Procurement Task Force.

The Board of Auditors reviewed the work of the Procurement Task Force, and their report concludes that the efforts of the Task Force "did not expose widespread corruption at the United Nations...."

Additionally, the UN Department of Public Information has published a report on plans to integrate the functions of the Procurement Task Force into the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services. In fact, these plans were openly debated in a meeting of the UN's budget committee in October, 2008.

The American representative on the committee is quoted as expressing pleasure with the efforts made by the Procurement Task Force to preserve the integrity of the United Nations and its operations.

The report includes this comment:

"CHERITH NORMAN (United States) ...

"While noting that the Board of Auditors had concluded that Procurement Task Force had not exposed widespread corruption at the United Nations, she also agreed that the existence of the Task Force might have served as a deterrent and had been helpful in eliminating undesirable suppliers from the United Nations.... Overall, the United States agreed with the Task Force’s recommendation that companies and individuals needed to be held accountable for financial losses and damages resulting from misconduct.  She thanked the Task Force for its work and urged the Secretary-General to act without delay in implementing its recommendations...."

With regard to your statement about Russia and its opposition to an extension of the mandate of the Task Force, your comment seems to suggest that Russia was somehow seeking to protect Russian companies from legitimate scrutiny.

The report of the Board of Auditors addresses this concern, indirectly, as follows:

"3. Nationality analysis

"43. The nationality analysis of the 29 staff members under investigation by the Procurement Task Force revealed that the three countries with the greatest representation were the United States of America (seven staff members, or 24 per cent of the total), the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and New Zealand (three nationals, or 10 per cent each). Four countries had two nationals each (7 per cent) under investigation. No other country had more than one national under investigation.

"44. As for the vendors under investigation, the most represented countries were: the United States (26 per cent), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (13 per cent), Italy, Canada, the Russian Federation and India (9 per cent in each case)."

There was nothing in the audit report suggesting that the work of the Task Force was cut short because of political pressure by any country.

Rather, the Board of Auditors noted the temporary nature of the Task Force, and it recommended that further oversight of UN operations should be conducted through the UN's regular established Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). 

As you know, the operations of the UN are subject to great scrutiny by every member nation which pays dues to the organization -- not least of all the United States of America.

Ambassador Samantha Power is the U.S.
Permanent Representative to the United Nations
and a member of President Obama’s Cabinet. 
In this regard, the U.S. Mission to the UN maintains an online database of reports from the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). See the Mission's webpage on UN Oversight and Transparency. You'll find report after report on audits and reviews of various aspects of UN agency operations. The latest compilation, from 2013, includes more than three dozen reports.

And, in fact, an entire section of the U.S. Mission is dedicated to UN Management and Reform -- assuring that programs and activities are efficient, effective and properly managed.

In my experience as a program manager, I know that the actions of one or two bad apples can unfairly tarnish the reputation of a good organization. Every modern, forward-thinking enterprise must be vigilant to protect the integrity of its contract and management systems.

In this case, the work of the UN Procurement Task Force demonstrates the professionalism of UN staff and management in responding to a serious instance of fraud and corruption.

Because of continuing oversight by the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services and because of the additional scrutiny of UN member states, you can be confident that American taxpayers are continuing to receive a remarkable bargain through our shared leadership of the United Nations.

If you have any further concerns about UN operations, please remember that your constituents who are members of the United Nations Association are ready and willing to support you.

God bless you, Senator, and thank you for your service to the people of Oklahoma.


Bill Bryant
Director of Communications
Greater Oklahoma City Chapter
United Nations Association of the USA