Paging from New York: on UNGA76 and President Bio “Traveling for Sierra Leone”

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The United Nations General Assembly has concluded its historic first hybrid high-level week in its over 75 years of existence in this 76th session of the Assembly (UNGA76), with the great majority of member States participating in-person, and the rest joining virtually in the critical annual meeting of the Heads of State and Government to debate the most pressing issues affecting the global community and holding critical bilateral engagements in the margins. For UNGA76 the global leaders gathered to share perspectives and proffer solutions to the continuing urgent need to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and to plan to build back better and sustainably, prioritising vaccine access and equity, tackling poverty and inequality, addressing the impact of climate change, promoting gender equality, human rights protection and promotion.

For Sierra Leone, UNGA76 could best be described as the “most defining” yet in the country’s post-conflict era, giving clear indications of Sierra Leone’s global leadership, which was last exhibited in the early part of its admission to the UN 60 years ago, having spurned the shackles of undesirable adjectives which had characterizedthe country in the recent past.  This change in the narrative was best described by the Head of the Sierra Leone delegation, His Excellency President Julius Maada Bio, in the General Debate when he declared unequivocally that:

Throughout the COVID-19 period, we have done more to improve human capital development, support the most vulnerable of our citizens and communities, build strong institutions, create more inclusive democratic spaces, build infrastructure, and ensure public service delivery. To our mind, resilience is not to be hoped for; it is to be worked for, and diligently and purposefully so.

We no longer wish to be perceived as a nation that is saddled with the tragedies and failures of the past. We no longer wish to be seen and spoken about as a nation recovering from civil strife to Ebola and from bad governance and economic gridlock to food and climate insecurity. We are a nation striving ever harder to fulfil our enormous potential.

Sierra Leone in UNGA76 demonstrated leadership on issues of recovering from COVID-19 (through proactive State interventions), vaccine equity, access to finance, social safety programmes (to bridge inequalities), gender action and urging for a fair global system with a reformed Security Council and the completion of the decolonization process for the 17 non-self-governing territories.These issues were highlighted in the acclaimed national address delivered by President Bio in the General Debate under the theme: “Building resilience through hope to recover from COVID-19, rebuild sustainably, respond to the needs of the planet, respect the rights of people, and revitalise the United Nations”.

On COVID-19, President Bio noted that the global “aspiration for a safe, equitable, and prosperous future has been challenged over the last two years. As the world wrestles with the tragedy, trauma, and adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic”.In supporting the UN organs policy initiatives “that advance multilateral cooperation on fighting the pandemic and implementing measures to mitigate its long-term effects on lives and livelihoods”, Sierra Leone also took critical steps in interrupting transmission chains, curtailing infections, minimizing deaths, and mitigating the effects of the corona virus diseasethrough a structured science and data based health preparedness plan; building fiscal resilience by investing in agriculture, human capital development, and expanding productivity through economic diversification, with great emphasis on increased private sector investments, international trade, and development financing in growth sectors for a sustainable post COVID-19 recovery.

In making the strong case for vaccine equity, and access to finance including cancellation of sovereign debts and continuation of sovereign debt servicing suspension, Sierra Leone, through President Bio, expressed the belief that the global “collective commitment through multilateral partnerships will see our world through the throes of [the COVID-19] pandemic, build resilience, and recover sustainably”.  President Bio gave renewed hope to foster resilience by spotlighting the resilient spirit of Sierra Leone as he noted that “amidst premature pessimism that the familiar world order has unravelled, Sierra Leone sees the possibility for renewed optimism and new growth”.

President Bio outlined Sierra Leone’s policy on gender equality to deliver on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 on gender equality and women’s empowerment, as rebuilding sustainably for Sierra Leone equates to empowering 52% of the population. The President announced to the global community that Sierra Leone, therefore, “associates with international efforts to protect the rights of women, get more women workforce ready, expand access to resources, and promote gender empowerment and equity”.

The President further demonstrated global leadership on the important issue of ending sexual and gender-based violence by urging global solidarity, and the UN General Assembly to take action on access to justice and remedies for survivors of sexual violence. With the Mission of Sierra Leone to the UN successfully adding the issue as an item in the agenda of the General Assemblybased on the directive of the President, the Assembly was further urged to act decisively this session, and “Let this be the year that the United Nations will give all survivors of sexual violence the remedy they deserve”.

On democratic governance and human capital development,President Bio proudly let out the open-secret that the peaceful democracy in Sierra Leone has matured. “Predictable, regular, and peaceful elections are the norm. Civil society actors are partners at all levels of governance and public service delivery”. As a key component on SDG 16 delivery, he further informed that the Independent National Commission for Peace and National Cohesion has been established “to foster social cohesion and strengthen peace in Sierra Leone”. In entrenching the liberal progressive ideals of the State, account was given of the continuous work to remove threats to democratic freedoms and human rights’, including the repeal of a“half-a-century old seditious libel law. No politician or rights activist is in prison for expressing his or her beliefs. No journalist is in prison for the practice of journalism”, and the death penalty has been abolished in Sierra Leone.

The elements captured in the theme for UNGA76 – hope, resilience and addressing inequality -framed the debate on COCVID-19. President Bio used his government’s flagship programme, the “Free Quality Education” to inform on how throughout the COVID period, Sierra Leone has promoted the right to education through creative solutions including nationwide distance learning and hybrid education technologies. This led to the addition of 800,000 more learners, and domestic education financing increased to 22%, ensuring learning continued through the period of the pandemic.

[The] policy of radical inclusion grants tuition-free and safe access to quality education to all learners including pregnant girls, parent learners, children from poor and rural areas, and children living with disabilities. Coupled with comprehensive school safety measures, a revamped curriculum, hybrid education technologies, credible transition examinations, school feeding, school health, and other such forward-looking policies, [Sierra Leone is] making steady progress. We seek partnerships to further expand these investments in education, technical training, higher education, and entrepreneurship. Only then can our young[people] seize the opportunity to expand the economy, innovate and take advantage of 4IR technologies, and create new possibilities for our nation.

Resilience in the face of COVID-19 also means battling other disease burdens such as malaria, HIV, and TB, reducing maternal and child mortality across the country, acting on the climate emergency and the conservation of biological diversity. President Bio informed of Sierra Leone’s integration of climate smart polices and projects into our development priorities, including the establishment of a statutory agency to enhance Sierra Leone’s capacity to deal with the full cycle of disaster management. The President called attention to the climate financing gap, which remains a key challenge for the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) on the implementation of mitigation and adaptation measures. Sierra Leone joined other LDCs in calling for a green climate fund to meet the $100 billion target to support the mitigation and adaptation plans of developing countries. This is to ensure Sierra Leone and other LDCs can “create new green jobs especially for youth and women, create sustainable and inclusive communities, and build resilience against climate change shocks”.

On the significant geopolitical question of the reform of the Security Council and the principled issue of decolonization, President Bio seized the opportunity to demonstrate Sierra Leone’s admirable global leadership on both issues. While noting the remarkable progress made by the UN on decolonisation, Sierra Leone, through President Bio, expressed the belief that “colonisation undermines the ideals of the United Nations Charter, and [thus we reaffirmed] our commitment and high priority [attached] to the principle of self-determination and the successful implementation of the declaration on the granting of independence to colonial countries and peoples”.

On the reform of the Security Council, President Bio cautioned that:

A post-COVID world order requires more partnership and more collaboration with input from all nations on all continents across the world. We cannot exclude the voices of 54 nations of the world and 1.2 billion of the world’s population. We cannot justify those exclusions with power structures set 75 years ago.  We must reaffirm our common values and address our shared aspirations as equals.

We can start to redress this gross imbalance by reforming the Security Council to make it more broadly representative, efficient, and transparent, and thus to enhance the legitimacy of its decisions. Sierra Leone recognises the demonstration of the commitment “to instil new life in the discussions on the reform of the Security Council”.

As the Coordinator of the African Union Committee of Ten on the reform of the Security Council, Sierra Leone is pleased to note the progress made during the 75th session of the General Assembly in the acknowledgement of ‘the wide recognition and broad support by Member States for the legitimate aspiration of Africa to play its rightful role on the global stage.’ As asserted in the Common African Common articulated in the Ezulwini Consensus and Sirte Declaration, redressing this historical injustice against Africa is an urgent priority.

Africa demands no less than two permanent seats with all the rights and prerogatives of permanent members — including the right of veto, if retained, — and two additional seats in the non-permanent category of the Security Council. On behalf of African Union Member States, I urge all Member States to demonstrate their renewed commitment towards reforming the Security Council and making it more representative, inclusive, democratic, transparent, and accountable.

It is worth noting that UNGA76 high-level week also featured other high-level meetings and events. On the 20 September, President Bio addressed the Second SDG Moment, a high-level side-event convened by the Secretary-General of the UN for selected member States to highlight inspiring SDG Actions despite the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. President Bio in his address noted that although the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19 have further exposed nations toheightened vulnerabilities and to rethink delivery on the SDGs, “Sierra Leone’s Medium-Term National Development Plan, which is a clearexpression of our nationally owned roadmap to build a society that iscohesive, secure and just is aligned to the African Union Agenda 2063 andthe SDGs. It prioritizes Human Capital Development, as we have identifiedSDG4 (quality education) and SDG16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions)as our accelerator Goals”. These Goals remain highly pivotal to the transformation of the country, and the Government remains fully committed to the implementation of the SDGs with the presentation of our third Voluntary National Review report earlier this year.

President Bio also addressed the UN Food Summit convened by the UN Secretary-General. The Summit provided the opportunity for collective reflections on the challenges and opportunities of the global food system and, more importantly, to find practical solutions to the persistent problem of sustainable access to food. As part of the commitments made by the global community, President Bio outlined the bespoke Sierra Leone pathways to address the strategic challenges on increasing access to food, developed in the national dialogues, as he called for meaningful partnerships and cooperation to deliver on the commitments.

The President of Sierra Leone was one of 4 Heads of State and Government that participated in the high-level panel on the Common Agenda report of the UN Secretary-General toserve as a catalyst for advocates working to achieve a more equal and inclusive world. The event highlighted practical and politically viable solutions and actions to systematically address inequality and exclusion within and between countries, and practical steps that governments have instituted towards inclusive recovery from COVID-19. President Bio used the platform to outline the importance of hisgovernment’s prioritization of human capital development and the use of education as the universal instrument to fight inequality. At the international level, President Bio continued the call for COVID-19 vaccine equity and access to development finance, recognizing the special circumstances of LDCs.

President Bio during the high-level week also held productive bilateral meetings, with his counterparts and Heads of delegations of other friendly member States. He met with the Head of State of DR Congo, current Chair of the African Union; Slovenia, holding the presidency of the European Union Council and Vietnam. President Bio also met with the Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), High-level Representatives of the United Arab Emirates, the Executive Director of UNAIDS and leadership of the Open Society Initiative. Thesemeetings were focused on strengthening bilateral and economic relations, mutual support in the international system, including Sierra Leone’s bid for a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council, capacity building to enhance international trade, health, access to justice and critically the development of the agricultural sector.

The bilateral meeting between President Bio and the UN Secretary-General climaxedUNGA76 for the Sierra Leone Delegation. The President and the Secretary-General “discussed Sierra Leone’s political and socio-economic situation and the country’s efforts towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals”. In an unprecedent affirmation of Sierra Leone’s steady progress under the leadership of President Bio, the “Secretary-General commended Sierra Leone on taking steps to abolish the death penalty. He further praised efforts undertaken to advance gender equality as part of the Government’s commitment to implement the Sustainable Development Goals”.

Madam First Lady, H.E. Mrs. Fatima Maada Bio, also had bilateral meetings with the First Lady of Turkey and the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative (SRSG) on Sexual Violence in Conflicts and currently Acting Executive Director of UN-Women. The SRSG lauded the work of First Lady Mrs Bio as she tweeted: “Happy to meet with the First Lady of Sierra Leone, Fatima Maada Bio to discuss her ‘Hands Off Our Girls’ campaign, centred around the empowerment of the girl child & protection from rape & early, child marriage. Thank you for your dedication to ending gender-based violence.”

The Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Prof. David J. Francis, also assisted with the bilateral engagements, meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister of Ethiopia, and his counterparts from Mali, Kenya, Bahrain, and Belize, which was highlighted by the signing of a communique establishing diplomatic relations with the Caribbean State.  Prof. Francis also met with the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations; and the Secretary-General of the Group of Seven Plus countries (g7+), who mainly thanked Sierra Leone for the leadership in securing an observer status for the intergovernmental organization at the United Nations General Assembly, allowing the organization to take a seat in UNGA76 for the very first time. 

President Bio concluded the New York leg of his official trip in the United States by meeting with the dedicated small staff in the Permanent Mission to the UN. President commended the Mission staff and inspired them to do more for Sierra Leone and for the next generation. He emphasised the need for generational sacrifice to ensure Sierra Leone is counted as one of the world’s developed countries. President Bio in the same meeting was introduced to Sierra Leone’s candidate for re-election to the International Law Commission, Professor Charles Jalloh. Professor Jalloh in expressing his delight to meet President Bio. He thanked the President and the Government for nominating him for re-election to the Commission mandated to assist the General Assembly in the codification and progressive development of international law, and for the support provided to his campaign.

President Bio and delegation are now in Washington DC on the third leg of a trip that has yield reputational, diplomatic, and developmental dividend for Sierra Leone even before its conclusion. With the President meeting with the heads of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fundand the Millennium Challenge Cooperation (MCC) among others, and held a townhall with Sierra Leoneans in North America, the highest contributors of remittances to Sierra Leone, the returns on this official trip framed around UNGA76 and the keynote at Harvard University should dispel questions on the utility the President’s travels. With the returns on changing the image of Sierra Leone built on robust diplomatic engagements, one can only reasonably conclude that indeed President Bio is traveling for Sierra Leone.

About the Author:

Dr.Michael Imran Kanu is Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of the Republic of Sierra Leone to the United Nations. He is Legal Practitioner and a Notary Public and Commissioner for Oaths in Sierra Leone. He is a Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD) and United Nations International Law Fellow.