Tag Archives: un

UNICEF calls for end to dire situation in Aleppo

UNICEF’s representative in Syria called Saturday for an end to the violence that has beset northern Aleppo, causing dire humanitarian and psychological impacts on both sides of the divided city.

U.N. agencies are on “standby” to deliver needed assistance, Hanaa Singer of the U.N.’s children agency told The Associated Press.

With the key powers deeply divided, the U.N. Security Council on Saturday once again failed to agree on the course of action in war-ravaged Aleppo, and Syria in general. Russia vetoed a resolution drafted by France demanding an immediate halt to the bombing of Aleppo. A resolution put forward by Russia that called for a separation of moderate and extremist forces in Syria but making no mention of a bombing halt in Aleppo failed to get the minimum nine “yes” votes required for passage.

Also on Saturday, Syrian state media and a Syria monitoring group said pro-government troops advanced in a northern district of eastern Aleppo, wrestling control from rebel fighters in their latest push into the besieged area.

Singer said conditions in besieged Aleppo are “terribly dire,” with hospitals hit, doctors overwhelmed, and over 100 children killed in bombings since Sept. 19. Conditions for thousands of displaced in the government-held part of the city are also deteriorating, with some of them being displaced for up to six times in the last three years, she said.

Singer returned earlier this week from a week-long trip to the government-held part of Aleppo where she was visiting thousands of displaced Syrians. Most are crammed in makeshift shelters, mosques, parks and churches after recently fleeing clashes on the frontline between rebels and pro-government forces. In one case, a mother so desperate from the continuous displacement, stabbed her baby girl thinking she will save her the misery of living on handouts and without a home, Singer said.

Describing the dramatic situation for thousands of families living in shelters in government-controlled Aleppo, Singer said: “These (are) the horrors in western Aleppo. God knows what is happening, (in the case of) mental health or the psychological situation on the eastern (rebel-held) side.”

Western Aleppo, controlled by the government, is separated from eastern rebel-held Aleppo by a few meters, sometimes by a single plastic sheet or pockmarked building. An estimated 275,000 people are living in the rebel-held part of Aleppo, with no international aid reaching the area since the first week of July. Besides the scarce assistance, it is also difficult to assess the needs with the ever-evolving violent situation, and lack of access for international aid groups, she said.

“I think we all agree, and especially if you have been so close in the area there and seeing the dire situation in the west, hearing about the horrible situation in the east, all we need now is (for) the violence to stop,” Singer said. “The violence has to stop and once the violence stops, the U.N., we absolutely stand ready. We are ready. We are actually on standby.”

Singer says U.N. plans are in place for government-held Aleppo to accommodate residents that may evacuate the besieged part of the city if a cease-fire takes effect.

According to medical charity Doctors Without borders, hospitals in the eastern side of Syria’s Aleppo have been attacked 23 times since July, damaging all eight facilities that have not yet been shuttered or destroyed. Since the U.S-Russian cease-fire broke down on Sept. 19, the situation in besieged Aleppo has immensely deteriorated under a relentless bombardment campaign. Water stations and civil defense centers have also been hit, while over 320 people have been killed in eastern Aleppo in nearly three weeks of violence.

“In eastern Aleppo, the situation is terribly dire. Lots of schools and of hospitals have been hit we understand that there are only 30 doctors there. We have information that at least over 100 children have been killed. We hear that because of the lack of services and lack of health facilities that some children, that doctors can’t cope with all the cases, and some children in dire situation are left to die,” Singer said.

On Saturday, amid intensive air raids, pro-government forces seized the al-Awijeh district in northeastern rebel-controlled Aleppo, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Observatory also reported clashes on the southern edge of the rebel-held area. There was no immediate word on casualties.

Syrian State TV reported that government and allied troops took control of al-Awijeh, moving toward the Jandoul roundabout and getting closer to crowded residential areas in Aleppo’s rebel-controlled eastern districts.

UN: 2016 on track to be hottest year on record

The first six months of this year have continued to shatter global heat records, putting 2016 on track to be the Earth’s hottest year on record, the World Meteorological Organization said this week.

The United Nations-linked body said in a report that June 2016 was the 14th consecutive month of record heat around the planet and the 378th consecutive month with temperatures above the 20th Century average.

The organization said that global warming causing carbon dioxide concentrations, so far this year, have surpassed the symbolic milestone of 400 parts per million in the atmosphere.

“Another month, another record. And another. And another. Decades-long trends of climate change are reaching new climaxes, fuelled by the strong 2015/2016 El Nino,” said World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in a statement.

“This underlines more starkly than ever the need to approve and implement the Paris Agreement on climate change.”

The report found that heat has resulted in very early onset of seasonal melting of major ice sheets with Arctic Sea ice now covering about 40 percent less area during the summer melt season than it did in the 1970s.

The heat conditions played havoc with weather conditions with many regions including the United States experiencing drier than normal conditions, while China, central Europe and much of Australia experienced wetter than usual weather.

The increased heat also resulted in widespread bleaching of coral reefs around world, threatening marine ecosystems, the report said.

According to NASA figures cited in the report, the first half of 2016 was on average 2.4 degrees (1.3 C) warmer than in the late 19th Century, prior to industrialization.

On Wednesday, Segolene Royal, who headed the global climate negotiations, said she wants nations to ratify the Paris climate agreement by the time parties to the global climate talks meet again in Morocco in early November.

The agreement will enter into force once 55 countries have ratified it, so far only 19 have done so.

Wisconsin poverty rate up from 2007, median income down

Nearly a quarter of a million Wisconsin children lived below the poverty line in 2014, according to new census data released in September.

The state poverty rate was 10.8 percent in 2007, but rose to 13.2 percent last year. About 738,000 people in the state were living in poverty in 2014, 150,000 more than in 2007.

Other numbers indicate the economic recovery since the recession has boosted incomes for wealthier Wisconsinites but the rest have not seen much increase in incomes — if any — since before 2007. The median income for Wisconsin households in 2014 was $56,622, more than $5,000 less than in 2007.

Taking race into consideration, the income disparities are extreme. The poverty rate for people who identified as black or African-American was 37.7 percent in 2014 compared to 9.6 among white non-Hispanic Wisconsinites. The poverty rate for black children was 49.4 percent, four times the rate of white non-Hispanic children.

And the median income for African-American households was $26,100 in 2014, less than half the $56,100 earned by white non-Hispanic households, according to an analysis of the census data by the nonprofit Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.

“Wisconsin simply can’t accept three quarters of a million Wisconsinites living in poverty as the ‘new normal,’” said Ken Taylor, executive director of the WCCF. “The economy isn’t working for everyone, resulting in too many families not making ends meet. We need to make sure everyone has the opportunity to climb the economic ladder and build a secure future.”

WCCF’s recommendations to decrease the poverty rate include a hike in the minimum wage along with cost-of-living adjustments, reversal of the 2011 cuts to the state earned income tax credit for low-income families and an expansion of BadgerCare to cover all adults up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. “No policymaker who claims to care about Wisconsin’s future can justify ignoring poverty,” Taylor said in a news statement. “We’re all in this together. If Wisconsin is going to thrive, everyone needs a shot at opportunity.”

The new data showed the national poverty rate at 15.5 percent in 2014, down slightly from 15.8 percent in 2013.

The census bureau released the information about two weeks before the U.S. visit of Pope Francis, who has prioritized addressing poverty and income inequality.

Francis, who met with President Barack Obama at the White House and delivered a speech before a joint session of Congress, addressed the U.N. General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 25. 

He referred frequently to the poor and linked extreme poverty to the overconsumption and waste that is wrecking the planet. “Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment,” Francis said. “The poorest are those who suffer most from such offenses, for three serious reasons: they are cast off by society, forced to live off what is discarded and suffer unjustly from the abuse of the environment. They are part of today’s widespread and quietly growing culture of waste.”

Two days later, in his address to the General Assembly, President Barack Obama committed the United States to the U.N.’s new goals for eliminating poverty and hunger by 2030. 

Commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals, Obama said, is “not charity but instead is one of the smartest investments we can make in our own future.”

The goals include eradicating extreme poverty, expanding peace and good governance, combating inequality and discrimination, raising living standards and quelling climate change.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said “further progress will require an unswerving political will and collective, long-term effort. We need to tackle root causes and do more to integrate the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.”

Rights groups want special prosecutor to investigate torture

The American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch on Dec. 22 asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the crimes detailed in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s torture program.

The organizations point to information detailed in the report that they say leaves no doubt that crimes were committed as part of the government’s rendition, detention and interrogation program and that the United States is obligated by both domestic and international law to prosecute such crimes.

“Even though our organizations have dedicated tens of thousands of staff hours to researching, litigating, and advocating on concerns related to torture and other ill-treatment in the RDI program, the depravity of the tactics and immensity of the enterprise still astound us,” the letter to Holder stated. “There is no need to repeat the details in this letter to you, but we believe it is fair to say that many of these crimes would be horrific even if committed by an individual acting alone; but when done as part of a deliberate, coordinated government program, the crimes are more shocking and far more corrosive to U.S. democracy.

The letter was sent to Holder the same day that The New York Times editorial board called for a full and independent criminal investigation.

Others seeking a criminal investigation include:

• Juan Mendez, the UN special rapporteur on torture.

• Ben Emmerson, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism.

• Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

• The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. 

Harold Koh, a former legal advisor to the U.S. Department of State said there is “more than enough to reopen investigations at the Justice Department to see whether prosecutions are warranted.”

Record number of UN countries call for moratorium on executions

A record number of countries this week backed a key United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty globally.

Amnesty International said 117 of the UN’s 193 member states voted in favor of the resolution at the UNGA plenary session in New York, while 38 voted against and 34 abstained. This was the fifth time a resolution on the issue was voted on by the UNGA. At the last vote in December 2012, 111 states voted in favor, 41 against and 34 abstained. 

“The record vote in favor is yet another indication that global support for the death penalty is becoming a thing of the past. This vote sends an important signal that more and more countries are willing to take steps to end the use of the death penalty once and for all,” said Chiara Sangiorgio, death penalty expert at Amnesty International. 

“The strong cross-regional support evident in today’s vote shows that ending the use of capital punishment is a truly global goal issue. The international community recognizes the death penalty as a human rights issue, and has opened up space for new dialogues on the abolition of the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.” 

Since 2007 there have been five resolutions calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty at the UNGA, with support increasing each time. Six more countries supported this week’s resolution compared to last time a similar vote took place in 2012. 

New votes in favor came from Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Fiji, Niger and Suriname. Also, Bahrain, Myanmar, Tonga and Uganda moved from opposition to abstention. Papua New Guinea went from abstention to a vote against the resolution. 

Although UNGA resolutions are not legally binding, they carry significant moral and political weight. 

“This result is also a wake-up call for those 38 countries that still voted against the resolution. They are increasingly isolated in their support for this horrendous punishment.  The death penalty does not serve any legitimate purpose and is a stain on their human rights records,” said Chiara Sangiorgio. 

Amnesty International, in a news release this week, urged all countries that still retain the death penalty — the United States is one — to immediately establish a moratorium on executions, commute all death sentences and abolish the death penalty for all crimes. 

Some background 

When the UN was founded in 1945 only eight of the then 51 UN member states had abolished the death penalty. Today, 95 of the UN’s 193 member states have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, and, in total, 137 have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. 

The UNGA resolution was first adopted as a draft by the Third Committee of the UNGA on Nov. 21 November, with 114 votes in favor, 36 against and 34 abstentions. The adoption of five resolutions since 2007 on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty has generated momentum to renew the commitment to the abolition of the death penalty. 

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception, regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime; guilt, innocence or other characteristics of the individual; or the method used by the state to carry out the execution.

UN climate change expert: Keep hoping for agreement

A top U.N. climate change expert this week urged world governments not to be overcome by hopelessness as they negotiate a new agreement to fight global warming.

Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said despite the IPCC’s own warnings that time is running out, the panel has also suggested actions needed to keep climate change in check.

The IPCC is meeting in Copenhagen this week to adopt the final report in its gigantic assessment of climate change. A leaked draft uses starker language than three previous reports, warning of “severe, pervasive and irreversible” climate impacts if the world doesn’t rein in its emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

“The synthesis report will provide the roadmap by which policymakers will hopefully find their way to a global agreement to finally reverse course on climate change,” Pachauri said.

Governments are aiming to reach such an agreement next year, but the negotiations have been hampered by disputes between rich and poor countries over how to divide the burden of climate action.

“May I humbly suggest that policymakers avoid being overcome by the seeming hopelessness of addressing climate change,” Pachauri said. “Tremendous strides are being made in alternative sources of clean energy. There is much we can do to use energy more efficiently. Reducing and ultimately eliminating deforestation provides additional avenues for action.”

The draft report says the impacts of some current climate changes are already dangerous, citing rising sea levels and extreme weather such as heat waves, flooding and droughts. Governments and scientists are going over the draft report line by line in Copenhagen before the final report is released.

UN releases “Free & Equal’ LGBT rights video

Free & Equal, the United Nations Human Rights Office’s global public education campaign for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, has released “UN Free & Equal: One Billion Rising,” a video highlighting the campaign’s impact to date.

“In the past year, more than a billion people around the world have been exposed to Free & Equal’s message of equality and acceptance. Millions of them have watched and shared campaign videos and read and posted materials online,” said Charles Radcliffe, chief of global Issues at the UN Human Rights Office. “At a time when the rights of LGBT people being challenged in some countries, the campaign has helped to raise awareness of the stigma, discrimination and violence that continues to affect LGBT communities in all parts of the world.”

The campaign was launched in July 2013 at a press conference held in Cape Town, South Africa, and featuring then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and Justice Edwin Cameron of the South African Constitutional Court.

Since then, the campaign has released more than 50 pieces of original content, including dozens of electronic postcards and fact sheets in all UN languages, and two dozen original videos — two of which are the most viewed UN human rights videos to date, and among the top most viewed videos ever produced by the United Nations.

The campaign’s message has reached more than one billion people around the world, and country-level campaigns have been launched in Brazil, Cambodia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, India, Mexico, Paraguay and Peru, with more national launches scheduled for the coming year.

On the Web…

To watch the video, go to https://unfe.org/en/actions/first-year.

UN document promotes equality for women. Took heated debate to get there

After two weeks of heated debate, liberal and conservative countries over the weekend approved a U.N. document to promote equality for women that reaffirms the sexual and reproductive rights of all women and endorses sex education for adolescents.

The 24-page final declaration approved by consensus on March 22 by the 45-member Commission on the Status of Women expresses deep concern that overall progress toward the U.N. goal of gender equality and empowerment of women remains “slow and uneven”

The commission said “the feminization of poverty persists” and reaffirmed that equality for women is essential for sustained economic development.

It called for equality, empowerment and human rights for women to be a major plank in new U.N. development goals expected to be adopted next year.

For more progressive countries, there was relief that there was no back-pedaling on international recognition of women’s reproductive and sexual rights and access to health services in the final document.

It calls for “universally accessible and available quality comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care services, information and education.”

This should include “safe and effective methods of modern contraception, emergency contraception, prevention programs for adolescent pregnancy … (and) safe abortion where such services are permitted by national law,” the document says.

Egyptian minister and women’s rights activist Mervat Tallawy, who led the country’s delegation, said the final document reaffirmed all the gains women made at the 1994 U.N. population conference in Cairo and the 1995 U.N. women’s conference in Beijing.

“We will never give in to the prevailing web of conservatism against women in all regions of the world,” Tallawy said to thunderous applause. “We shall not allow fundamentalists and extreme groups to disarm women from their rights.”

“I am speaking for all the women of the world. We will continue to struggle for our rights,” Tallawy concluded to sustained applause that was finally cut off by the chair.

Delegates said the final vote was delayed because Russia at the last minute tried to insert a reference to sovereignty. It did not succeed.

Conservative countries did succeed in blocking any reference to different forms of the family, or to problems that women face because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The document recognizes the family as a contributor to the development of girls and women.

U.S. representative Terri Robl welcomed the final conclusions and the commission’s “commitment to fighting discrimination and prejudice, which for too long has denied many women and girls the ability to contribute to economic growth and development.”

But she expressed regret that the commission “did not explicitly acknowledge the vulnerabilities confronting women and adolescents as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

On the sensitive issue of sex education, the document calls for the development and implementation of educational programs for human sexuality, “based on full and accurate information, for all adolescents and youth … with the appropriate direction and guidance from parents and legal guardians.”

Among those expressing reservations about sex education after the document was approved were Qatar, Malta, the Holy See and Pakistan.

The commission also called for an end to early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation. Qatar asked for a definition of “early.”

Shannon Kowalski, director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, said: “The commission recognized that sustainable and meaningful development must address the root causes of gender inequality, which deny women and girls an education, the right to make decisions about their bodies and childbearing, to decent employment and equal pay, and to live free of violence.”

“We have achieved what we came to do against great odds and the determined attempts by the Holy See and a few conservative countries to once again turn back the clock on women’s rights,” Kowalski said.

5 things to know about chilly US-Russian relations

The weather is warm at this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, yet U.S.-Russian relations are still in the deep freeze.

Back in 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave Russia’s top diplomat a red button labeled “reset” to symbolize how U.S. relations had thawed — even though it was mistranslated into Russian.

But the outcome was more of a downhill slalom, than a soaring ski jump.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had hoped hosting the Olympics would further seal his nation’s status as a world power. But President Barack Obama is among several western leaders who decided not to show up.

Here are five of the issues where U.S.-Russian relations have run off course.

UKRAINE

Washington and Moscow are in a standoff over Ukraine, which is rocked by anti-government demonstrations over Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of an agreement with the European Union and his acceptance of a $15 billion loan package from Russia instead.

Both the U.S. and Russia accuse the other of meddling in the affairs of the former Soviet satellite nation. And the two tangled after a Russian government aide posted a video online of a bugged phone call between two top U.S. diplomats.

At one point, a voice believed to be Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Victoria Nuland, is heard saying, “Fuck the EU,” in an expression of frustration over the EU’s pace in taking steps to help Ukraine. Nuland later apologized.

The State Department, without directly accusing Russia of recording and posting the audio of the call on YouTube with Russian subtitles, said the incident marked a “new low in Russian tradecraft.”

The Russian government official who posted the link denied any Russian government role, saying he came across the recording while surfing the Web and simply reposted it.

SYRIA

In the bloody war in Syria, Russia is in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s corner and the U.S. supports the opposition.

The Russians made a proposal to place Syrian chemical weapons out of Assad’s control, a proposal embraced by the U.S., U.N. and other nations. Some weapons materials have been destroyed. But peace talks to end the civil war in Syria are not going well.

The talks have been accompanied by a sharp rise in violence. Opposition leaders have called on Russia to pressure the government to prevent the faltering peace negotiations from collapsing. Moreover, Russia says it would veto a Western-proposed U.N. resolution threatening sanctions if Assad’s government does not allow full deliveries of aid to civilians caught in the fighting.

President Barack Obama recently said Moscow was a “holdout” to the passage of the U.N. resolution. Obama said Secretary of State John Kerry and others have delivered a very direct message to the Russians: “That they cannot say that they are concerned about the well-being of the Syrian people when there are starving civilians. … It is not just the Syrians that are responsible; the Russians, as well, if they are blocking this kind of resolution.”

Responding to the latest tit-for-tat, Russia’s foreign ministry accused Washington of a “biased distortion” of the Russian stance on Syria. It said that Russian diplomats were working with Syrian authorities to help humanitarian efforts and challenged the U.S. to use its influence with the rebels to do the same.

U.S. SURVEILLANCE

Tensions with the U.S. and Russia spiked last year after Putin granted temporary asylum to former National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, defying Obama’s demands that the 30-year-old American be returned to the U.S. to face espionage charges.

Snowden, a former NSA contractor who fled the United States with classified information, has leaked thousands of pages of documents that revealed that the NSA has been sweeping up millions of Americans’ phone and Internet records and snooping on U.S. allies abroad, including heads of state.

The controversy surrounding the NSA surveillance programs followed Obama to the Group of 20 economic summit in Russia last fall, but Obama chose to call off his one-on-one meeting with Putin while he was in Russia. The Snowden affair has given Moscow a way to turn the tables on Washington, which often criticizes Russia’s human rights record.

GAY RIGHTS

The Olympics also has been a venue for debate over a Russian law, signed by Putin last June, banning gay “propaganda” from reaching minors. The law has drawn strong international criticism and calls for a boycott of the Sochi Games from gay activists and others.

A coalition of 40 human-rights and gay rights groups from the U.S., Western Europe and Russia wrote a letter to the 10 biggest Olympic sponsors, urging them to denounce the law and run ads promoting equality for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.

The law bans pro-gay “propaganda” that could be accessible to minors — a measure viewed by activists as forbidding almost any public expression of support for gay rights. The law cleared parliament virtually unopposed and has extensive public support in Russia.

Obama, who has criticized the Russian law, named a U.S. delegation to the Olympics that includes several openly gay athletes, including tennis great Billie Jean King and figure skater Brian Boitano.

PUSSY RIOT

Two members of the punk band Pussy Riot have urged politicians attending the Winter Olympics to criticize human rights abuses in Russia.

The two performers, Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, were sentenced in August 2012 to two years in prison for hooliganism after an irreverent performance blasting Putin in Moscow’s main cathedral that was broadcast around the world.

Now out of prison, the two criticized Russia’s law banning pro-homosexual propaganda from reaching minors and the risks — including beatings — that gay people and other minority groups can face in Russia if they speak out.

After meeting the two punk rockers in New York, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power traded jibes on Twitter with Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin. “I asked Pussy Riot if they were afraid of prison. Response: No. In prison we could see the terrible conditions. It’s human rights fieldwork,” Power added.

Asked about it later, Churkin defended the performers’ arrest, re-tweeting sarcastically that perhaps Power would like to invite the band to perform in a world tour at the National Cathedral in Washington, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Mecca in Saudi Arabia “and end up with a gala concert at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.”

Navratilova, Collins speak out against homophobia

Former professional basketball player Jason Collins and tennis great Martina Navratilova this week urged world sports bodies such as the International Olympic Committee and FIFA to take gay rights into consideration when awarding major sporting events.

The two openly gay athletes spoke at a special United Nations event celebrating International Human Rights Day.

They focused in part on the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia, which passed a law this summer banning gay “propaganda.” The law has drawn international condemnation and sparked calls for a boycott, though no nations have threatened to pull their athletes.

Navratilova, who lost lucrative endorsements when she came out in 1981, said she doesn’t support boycotts of any kind. But she said the IOC is “putting its head in the sand” and criticized FIFA, the world soccer body, for awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

“Nobody’s talking about Qatar and the World Cup. You can get a jail term there,” she said of consensual gay sex in the Persian Gulf nation. In six other countries, including Saudi Arabia, simply being gay is punishable by death, she said.

“Gays and lesbians seem to be the last group it’s seen as OK to pick on,” she said.

The two athletes also joked about how times have changed for gay rights in the U.S.

“When Collins came out this year, he got a phone call from President Obama congratulating him,” Navratilova said. “Well, in 1981, Reagan was president. I didn’t get that phone call.”

“It’s funny, right before President Obama, it was Oprah Winfrey,” Collins added. “Like a surreal experience.”

Collins almost shyly thanked Navratilova for being so outspoken.

“I’m sitting next to one of my idols,” he said.

North America’s major pro sports leagues are still awaiting an openly gay athlete on the court or field. Collins, 35, was prepared to become the first when he came out after the NBA regular season had ended. The aging reserve player and free agent has not been signed by another team, though he says he stays in shape and hopes to return to the NBA.

Collins said the league is doing a “great job changing the culture of sport” in regard to gay players.

In a recorded message, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also praised straight athletes who speak out against homophobia. “They understand an abuse against any of us is an affront to all,” he said.

In a related event this week, U.S. ambassador Samantha Power called the Russian law “as outrageous as it is dangerous.”

Power, who was meeting with dozens of gay activists from around the world, said 78 countries still have laws that criminalize consensual sex between adults.

“To deny gays and lesbians the right to live freely … is in fact barbarian,” Power said.

This year was the first time the U.N. held a ministerial meeting on LGBT issues, with Secretary of State John Kerry attending. “That’s progress,” Power said.

Russian journalist and gay right activist Masha Gessen then read part of the Russian law on gay “propaganda” and said, “It actually enshrines second-class citizenship and makes it a crime to talk about equality.”

Zambian activist Juliet Mphande listened to Gessen’s comments and said, “I imagine Russia to be an African country right now.” She said at least six people from her country’s gay community had been arrested this year.