By: Marla Borkson

I had the opportunity to attend the United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA) Members’ Day at the United Nations Headquarters in New York this past February.

Marla un 3UNA-USA is one of sixteen branches under the Better World Campaign. Both the UNA-USA and the Better World Campaign are overseen by The United Nations Foundation. The UNA-USA is best described as advocates for action to educate and empower US citizens about the United Nations (UN) and its efforts. Over 20,000 people form this network, most from New York and California. Additionally, over 150 association countries do similar work to support the UN abroad. GenUN, the branch of UNA-USA for high school and college students, is a national network of Chapters, youth engagement, advocacy efforts, education programs, and public events. UNA-USA Members’ Day invites students from GenUN, other members, and other advocates alike. Over thirty colleges, twenty high schools, and 700 members were in attendance.

Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General, delivered the conference’s introductory remarks. Ki-Moon remarked on the UN’s 70th birthday this year and explained the priority of the UN is to make the world environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable because everyone is a global citizen. Additionally, he explained the UN’s ambitious 167 targets, which include poverty eradication, gender equality, no children left behind in school, reduction in mother and infant birth mortality, and reduction in preventable, common diseases.

Informative panels with distinguished speakers and field workers educated participants on topics ranging from climate and human rights, to global health, and the Arab Spring. Three panelists on each topic introduced their work, highlighted important facts about the necessity of their jobs, and explained their functions within the UN framework. Discussions included:

  • Timothy Weiskel, Harvard professor and Research Director at the Cambridge Climate Association explained that if you are under 27, you have not experienced the average climate of the 20th century and spoke of the importance of the upcoming December 2015 Climate Negotiations in Paris.
  • Jessica Stern, the Executive Director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, explained the importance of the international community to the international LGBT community; places with anti-LGBT laws, such as, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, and the Philippines, rely on international audiences to make domestic governments listen and take LGBT issues seriously.
  • Sherine Guirguis, Senior Communications Manager for UNICEF, discussed eradicating epidemics like polio with the use of vaccines. As of 2013, India is polio free, leaving only Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria affected by this disease. She mentioned that although political fragmentation and violence are a public health problem, vaccines work and other diseases will soon be eradicated.
  • The Honorable Maureen Quinn, the Director of Programs at the International Peace Institute, discussed the pillars of sovereignty. This includes the responsibility of states to protect their citizens from atrocities such as crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes as well as the international community’s responsibility to help states uphold this obligation.

Marla UNThe Conference also offered attendees insight to some of the UN’s more nuanced work including the Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR). The UPR reviews all human rights records of the 193 UN member states and ensures equal treatment for every country during the review process. The UN explained, the UPR was established by General Assembly Resolution 60/251 on March 15, 2006, the same resolution that established the Human Rights Council itself. A majority of the information is comprised from interviews and reports from members of civil society. The U.S. will have its second review in May 2015 in Geneva, Switzerland. This will result in recommendations for legislatures and may include things such as LGBT rights, safe harbors for trafficked persons, and rights for those with disabilities.

The conference was a unique opportunity to gain insight into the UN and gave attendees access to a diverse set of people and topics. The next UNA-USA event will be held this July 7-9 in Washington DC.