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‘Invisible’ stateless people could miss out on COVID-19 jabs, UNHCR warns

INTERNATIONAL, 22 June 2021, Migrants and Refugees - Millions of stateless people around the world could miss out on COVID-19 vaccinations because they lack identity papers and are essentially “invisible to the authorities”.

That’s the warning from UN refugee agency, UNHCR, which on Tuesday published a report showing that the “great majority” of national immunization plans in 157 countries lacked “clarity” on anticipated coverage for people who have no legal proof of their identity,  “regardless of whether their age, health status or role in society would otherwise place them in a priority group”.

Although it is relatively common for governments not to identify stateless people in their vaccination plans – and only two have barred stateless people specifically - UNHCR said that there were many reasons why those without identification papers could be left unprotected during the pandemic.

“In many contexts, stateless people were barred from accessing testing and treatment due to lack of legal status and were excluded from social services, notwithstanding the fact that they faced especially severe socio-economic impacts” during the first year of the pandemic, UNHCR said.

Its report maintained that the trend predates the pandemic and that those who do not have identity documents will be excluded from vaccination “unless States make particular efforts to reach them”.

Typically, stateless people “do not appear in civil registers or national population registers; their lack of legal identity documents has effectively made them invisible to the authorities”, the UN agency explained.

ID obstacle

There are at least 4.2 million people without a nationality, in 94 countries, according to UNHCR, whose mandate is to prevent and reduce statelessness, and to protect stateless people who are among the minorities hardest-hit by the new coronavirus.

To ensure that national vaccination plans are as inclusive as possible, UNHCR has urged authorities in host countries to accept alternative forms of proof of identity than nationality or identity cards.

“Given that many stateless people already face widespread exclusion and marginalization, barriers to access must be addressed and special consideration given to their situation,” said UNHCR’s International Protection chief, Gillian Triggs.

The UN agency said that since the pandemic began, many stateless people have been too afraid of being arrested or deported to seek health care and access social services.

A Shona woman is one of an estimated 18,500 stateless people currently living in Kenya.
© UNHCR/Anthony Karumba
A Shona woman is one of an estimated 18,500 stateless people currently living in Kenya.

The potentially high cost of medical attention and vaccinations “can also be prohibitive for stateless people”, UNHCR noted, as they are usually not covered by public healthcare schemes in the 212 countries and locations where COVID-19 immunisation has begun.

Despite these obstacles, the agency pointed out that the UN-partnered equitable vaccination access programme COVAX was set up to provide jabs to all 190 participating countries or territories which could then immunise their most vulnerable members of society.

UNHCR also reiterated World Health Organization (WHOguidance that vaccinations should be prioritised for “disadvantaged ethnic, racial, gender, and religious groups, vulnerable migrants in irregular situations, nomadic populations and hard-to-reach populations”, which include stateless communities. 

Birth registrations jam

A formerly stateless man who was born in Kyrgyzstan has become an Uzbek citizen.
A formerly stateless man who was born in Kyrgyzstan has become an Uzbek citizen., by © UNHCR/Elyor Nematov

UNHCR also warned that the suspension of birth registrations in a number of countries will likely increase statelessness globally. “Countries where birth registration services were partially or fully suspended are now reporting lower birth registration rates as well as substantial backlogs,” the agency said, adding that birth registry campaigns for hard-to-reach populations at risk of statelessness “have also been suspended in many contexts”.

Highlighting the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on minorities which make up 75 per cent of the world’s known stateless people, UNHCR explained that their loss of livelihoods and limited access to education and other social services “have worsened existing inequalities in ways likely to extend beyond the end of the pandemic”.

Good practices

A number of countries now offer universal COVID-19 vaccination strategies including Spain, Portugal, Turkmenistan, Lebanon, Kuwait and Jordan.

In the United Kingdom, undocumented migrants, including stateless people, will be able to receive the vaccine “and their data will not be shared with the police”.

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Grave violations against children in conflict ‘alarmingly high’, latest UN report reveals

INTERNATIONAL, 21 June 2021, Peace and Security - More than 19,300 boys and girls affected by war last year were victims of grave violations such as recruitment or rape, and the COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult for experts to reach them, the UN said in its annual report on Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC), published on Monday. 

Grave violations against children remained “alarmingly high” at nearly 26,500, while the pandemic increased their vulnerability to abduction, recruitment and sexual violence, as well as attacks on schools and hospitals. 

‘A stolen childhood’ 

Measures to curtail coronavirus spread, also complicated the work of UN child protection monitors and experts, according to the report which is entitled A Stolen Childhood and a Future to Repair: Vulnerability of Girls & Boys in Armed Conflict Exacerbated by COVID-19 Pandemic.  

“The wars of adults have taken away the childhood of millions of boys and girls again in 2020. This is completely devastating for them, but also for the entire communities they live in, and destroys chances for a sustainable peace”, said Virginia Gamba, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on CAAC. 

Recruitment and use, as well as killing and maiming of children, were the most prevalent violations in 2020, followed by denial of humanitarian access and abduction, the report said. 

Abductions, attacks on girls’ education 

More than 8,400 youngsters were killed or maimed in ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia, while nearly 7,000 more were recruited and used in fighting, mainly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Syria and Myanmar. 

Researchers reported “exponential growth” in abductions, which rose by a staggering 90 per cent last year.  Rape and other forms of sexual violence also shot up by 70 per cent.  

Meanwhile, attacks on schools and hospitals “remained excessively high”, which included serious attacks perpetrated against girls’ education and against health facilities and personnel. There was also an increase in the military use of schools, as the temporary closure of schools during the pandemic made them easy targets for military occupation and use.  

The report further revealed that girls made up a quarter of all child victims of grave violations. They also were mostly affected by rape and other forms of sexual violence, comprising 98 per cent of victims, followed by killing and maiming. 

 “If boys and girls experience conflict differently and require interventions to better address their specific needs, what the data also showed is that conflict doesn’t differentiate based on gender,” Ms. Gamba stated. 

Progress and commitments 

Despite the sobering statistics, the report also details tangible progress in dialogues with warring parties in Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Sudan and Syria.   

Some 35 new commitments or other engagement were reached last year to better protect children, including two new action plans signed in Myanmar and South Sudan. 

Additionally, armed groups and forces freed more than 12,643 children from their ranks following UN engagement, and many more boys and girls were spared from recruitment due to age screening processes in situations where the UN has action plans with governments to stop child recruitment and use. 

The report stated, however, that progress has taken place as child protection capacities on the ground are both overstretched and underfunded.   

Promote peace, child rights and democracy 

Ms. Gamba praised teams working in the field throughout the pandemic, and in challenging environments.  

She underlined the need to secure resources for child protection at a time of extreme suffering for children, given the many setbacks in democratic processes at the beginning of this year, and the rise in violence between warring sides. 

“This is an opportunity to stop and reflect on the suffering we are causing our children, who are our future,” the senior UN official said. 

“We need to give children an alternative to violence and abuse: we need peace, respect for child rights and democracy. We need hope in good governance. We need to act to build a future where peace prevails. Please, give children that alternative.”

 

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‘His words set a standard and will long endure’: UN mourns passing of Edward Mortimer

INTERNATIONAL, 21 June 2021, UN Affairs - Friends and former colleagues have been mourning the passing over the weekend of Edward Mortimer, the Chief Speechwriter for former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. 

His time in office between 1998 and 2006, marked a crucial post-Cold War period for the UN, dominated by the Iraq War, and the fallout from the bombing of the UN Headquarters in the country’s capital, Baghdad, in 2003.

‘A gangle of limbs, a torrent of words’

Edward Mortimer, speechwriter, policy advisor and Director of Communications to former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Photo: Video screen capture
Edward Mortimer, Director of Communications to former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Photo: Video screen capture

“I vividly recall Edward’s arrival -- a jumble of gangly limbs, a tangle of unruly hair and, most of all, a torrent of words", recalled Richard Amdur, now Director of Speechwriting at the UN. “He was part of a crew of lively minds surrounding the Secretary-General, given license to think and experiment at a time when, still in the early years of the post-Cold-War period, the future of the United Nations was being written anew and was still full of hope.”

“He was warm, funny, incisive and loyal.  He embraced the United Nations, jousted with the talking heads on television to defend us, and was utterly devoted to Kofi.  To have his voice now silenced is a terrible loss, but his words set a standard then and will long endure.”

At the daily briefing on Monday for UN correspondents in New York, Stéphane Dujarric, the UN Spokesperson, described Mr. Mortimer as a “trusted adviser of the Secretary-General and ardent defender of the United Nations who made an imprint on many of Mr. Annan’s signature achievements and initiatives.”

“As colleagues, we were fortunate to work alongside someone who had a brilliant mind, a way with words and a ready sense of humour, and who was always collegial and warm.”  

‘A privilege and honour’

Jaya Dayal, Chief of Staff to the head of the UN Department of Global Communications, worked closely with Mr. Mortimer as his Special Assistant between 2002 and 2006. She described the period as a “privilege”, adding that "Edward showed us how in our work, as well as in our daily lives, we can respect the dignity of each human being in a painfully imperfect world. Our work together was lightened by his great cheer and the generosity he showed to each of us, and that made us feel special in our mission.”

A former journalist for the Times, and Financial Times, newspapers, and an author of well-regarded books on Islam and the French Communist party, Mr. Mortimer, joined Mr. Annan’s senior staff mainly out of curiosity, as he explained in a 2014 interview with UN News.

Edward Mortimer, head speechwriter for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, monitors a video recording by Mr. Annan.
UN Photo/Stephenie Hollyman
Edward Mortimer, head speechwriter for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, monitors a video recording by Mr. Annan.

New vantage point

“I wanted to see what the world looked like from this particular vantage point. I was obviously very pleased to be offered the job, but I felt that they should take me as they find me. I said what I thought, particularly in internal meetings. And I think that, generally speaking, that was appreciated as being useful.”

Coming from a relatively academic background, and with a focus on print journalism, some doubted if Mr. Mortimer would be the right person to write for the voice of the former UN chief, but he quickly adapted: “I had to simplify my style and pare it down somewhat – long sentences with subordinate clauses don’t work well in speeches. I think one of [Kofi Annan’s] virtues, is that he likes to express things in a reasonably simple way. So, it was important to write short sentences and not too many long words.”

‘The world needs to find the best person to do that job’

In his 2014 interview with UN News, Mr. Mortimer was critical of the process by which the Secretary-General is selected, and called for a more transparent and inclusive method to be introduced.

“I think there’s something for everybody to do here to change this process and ensure that we really look for the best person – whatever their gender, whatever their nationality – who will do the best job for the world. This is a unique job and it’s an enormous responsibility. And the world needs to find the best person to do that job.”

“I think there’s a lot to be said for, instead of having a renewable five-year term, a non-renewable seven-year term so that the Secretary-General can then get on with the job without the constant suspicion that he’s currying favour with the great powers in order to try to ensure his re-election.”

After leaving the UN, Mr. Mortimer joined the Salzburg Global Seminar, an independent non-profit organization based in the Austrian city, as senior vice-president and chief programme officer. He was also the principal author for a Council of Europe report on the integration of immigrant communities into Europe and North America. 

He leaves behind his wife, Elizabeth, four children, and seven grandchildren.

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Pandemic ‘rolled back’ sustainable development funding for weak economies: UNCTAD

INTERNATIONAL, 21 June 2021, SDGs - Financial assistance to the world’s 83 weakest economies fell by 15 per cent in 2020, to $35 billion as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, UN trade and development experts UNCTAD said on Monday.

According to UNCTAD’s World Investment Report 2021, total foreign direct investment also dropped by more than a third globally, to $1 trillion (from $1.5 trillion in 2019), threatening progress on sustainable development.

This level was last seen in 2005 and it is an urgent problem because foreign direct investment is vital to promoting sustainable development in the world’s poorest regions, said Isabelle Durant, Acting Secretary-General of UNCTAD.

“The (COVID-19) crisis has had an immense negative impact on the most productive types of investment, namely, greenfield investment in industrial and infrastructure projects”, she said. “This means that international production, an engine of global economic growth and development, has been seriously affected.”

European fiscal woes

Regionally, Europe saw foreign direct investment fall 80 per cent last year, while flows to North America fell by 42 per cent, which was attributed to a fall in reinvested earnings.

Other developed economies saw an average drop of 20 per cent, UNCTAD said, while the African continent saw a 16 per cent fall in foreign direct investment - to $40 billion – a level last seen 15 years ago.

Significantly, greenfield project announcements in Africa also tumbled 62 per cent, hurting industrialization prospects, and commodity-exporters were the worst-hit.

Resilient Asia

By contrast, foreign direct investment to developing Asia resisted the worst impacts of the pandemic, driven by China, where capital inflows increased by six per cent, to $149 billion.

Southeast Asia saw a 25 per cent decline but investment to India increased, driven in part by mergers and acquisitions.

Sinking investment in Latin America

This contrasts with Latin America and the Caribbean, where foreign direct investment “plummeted” last year, falling by 45 per cent to $88 billion.

“Many economies on the continent, among the worst affected by the pandemic, are dependent on investment in natural resources and tourism, both of which collapsed”, UNCTAD said.

Development shock

Although foreign investment between wealthier nations fell most in 2020 – by 58 per cent – developing nations have borne the brunt of last year’s overall investment downturn, UNCTAD said.

To highlight this, the UN body pointed to the 42 per cent fall in the number of new greenfield projects among fragile economies and a 14 per cent fall in international project finance deals; the latter are significant because they drive infrastructure growth.

By comparison, developed economies saw a 19 per cent decline in greenfield investment and an eight per cent increase in international project finance, UNCTAD said.

Mixed recovery

Looking ahead, Ms. Durant insisted that although governments were rightly focusing on shaking off the impacts of the pandemic, the real challenge is “not only about reigniting the economy, it is about making the recovery more sustainable and more resilient to future shocks”.

UNCTAD director of investment and enterprise, James Zhan, echoed that message, noting that the coronavirus pandemic had amplified the fragilities of structurally weak economies.

“Investment in various sectors relevant for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially in food, agriculture, health and education, has been falling”, he said. “SDG-related investment needs to be scaled up in the post-pandemic period.”

According to UNCTAD’s latest report, investment to least developed countries, landlocked developing countries, and small island developing states, accounted for only 3.5 per cent of total foreign direct investment in 2020.

Foreign direct investment inflows, global and by group of economies, 2007–2020 (Billions of dollars and per cent).
Source: UNCTAD
Foreign direct investment inflows, global and by group of economies, 2007–2020 (Billions of dollars and per cent).

It noted that the impact of the pandemic on global foreign direct investment was strongest in the first half of 2020, and that in the second half of the year, “cross-border mergers and acquisitions and international project finance deals largely recovered”.

However, greenfield investment – which UNCTAD insisted is more important for developing countries – “continued its negative trend throughout 2020 and into the first quarter of 2021”.

Looking ahead, UNCTAD said that global foreign direct investment flows were expected to bottom out in 2021 and recover some lost ground, with an increase of about 10 to 15 per cent. But this would still leave levels “some 25 per cent below the 2019 level”.

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COVID-19: First mRNA vaccine tech transfer hub a ‘great step forward’

INTERNATIONAL, 21 June 2021, Health - The World Health Organization (WHO) is supporting a South African consortium in establishing the first COVID-19 mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub, the UN agency announced on Monday. 

The facility will allow manufacturers from developing countries to receive training in how to produce vaccines, and the relevant licenses to do so, as part of global efforts to scale-up access to lifesaving treatments. 

The development follows WHO’s call in April for public and private companies to express their interest in creating technology transfer hubs so that low and middle-income countries could meet their urgent need for vaccines, amid critical shortages. 

‘A key moment’ 

“Today’s announcement is a great step forward for South Africa, and for the world. I hope this will be a key moment for increasing production capacity in Africa for COVID-19 vaccines, but also for future vaccines”, said WHO chief Tedros Adhamon Ghebreyesus, speaking during his bi-weekly media briefing from Geneva. 

Messenger RNA, or mRNA technology, instructs cells to make a protein that generates an immune response in the body, thus producing the antibodies that provide protection against a disease. 

It is the basis for the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines being used by governments worldwide, and in the UN-supported COVAX global vaccine solidarity initiative. 

"It’s potentially easier to scale than other vaccine technologies and could be faster and easier to adapt to variants of concern", Tedros said.

The South African consortium involves a biotech company called Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, which will act as the hub by manufacturing mRNA vaccines and providing training to another manufacturer called Biovac.   

WHO’s role includes establishing the criteria for the technology transfer, assessing applications and developing standards, while the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, will provide guidance through the Partnership for African Vaccines Manufacturing. 

Changing the narrative  

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa underlined the importance of the hub for the continent. 

“The ability to manufacture vaccines, medicines and other health-related commodities will help put Africa on a path to self-determination”, he said, speaking via video link.  

“Through this initiative and others, we will change the narrative of an Africa that is a centre of disease and poor development. We will create a narrative that celebrates our successes in reducing the burden of disease, in advancing self-reliance, and also advancing sustainable development.” 

Highs and lows 

The announcement of the hub, with others in the pipeline, comes as COVID-19 cases worldwide decline for an eighth week in a row, and as deaths have dropped over the past seven weeks, consecutively. 

While welcoming the good news, Tedros said new infections and deaths remain high globally, with more than 2.5 million cases and 64,000 deaths reported last week. 

The rate of decline has slowed in most regions, and every region has countries that are witnessing a rapid increase in caseloads and deaths.  In Africa, cases and deaths increased by almost 40 per cent in the past week, while some countries have seen their numbers tripled or quadrupled. 

“While a handful of countries have high vaccination rates and are now seeing lower numbers of hospitalisations and deaths, other countries in Africa, the Americas and Asia are now facing steep epidemics”, Tedros said, adding that these cases and deaths are largely avoidable. 

Several factors are driving increases, including increased spread of virus variants of concern, more socializing, ineffective use of public health and social measures, and vaccine inequity. 

“The inequitable access to vaccines has demonstrated that in a crisis, low-income countries cannot rely on vaccine-producing countries to supply their needs”, he said. 

WHO continues to push for greater sharing of knowledge, technology and licenses to boost vaccine manufacturing, and for the waiver of related intellectual property rights.

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Slow progress, stubborn cycles of violence, as South Sudan turns 10

INTERNATIONAL, 21 June 2021, Peace and Security - South Sudan, the UN’s youngest Member State, is marking its tenth anniversary of independence amid languishing political progress and a range of humanitarian challenges, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative told Security Council members on Monday.

Nicholas Haysom, who also heads the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan, known as UNMISSrecalled the broad international optimism that surrounded the country’s independence on 9 July 2011. 

A decade later, however, pervasive insecurity – in particular intercommunal violence – continues to obstruct the realization of a durable and sustainable peace.

Political progress

Reporting some notable achievements on the ground since his last briefing to the Council in March, Mr. Haysom said South Sudan’s Government has reconstituted the national legislature and appointed 550 new members. It also established a taskforce to oversee and coordinate transitional justice and other judicial reforms.

Importantly, the Government also launched a “permanent Constitution-making process”, based on an inclusive national conversation that aims to lay the foundation for a new social contract between South Sudan’s citizens.

“Drafting a national Constitution is a quintessential act of sovereignty”, said Mr. Haysom. “It expresses the highest aspirations of a nation and its most cherished values.”

For its part, UNMISS recently deployed the needs assessment mission requested by the Council, for the conduct of free and fair elections. A detailed report will be submitted shortly.

Slow strides

That progress notwithstanding, the overall implementation of South Sudan’s Revitalized Peace Agreement – adopted in 2018 against the backdrop of multiple security and political crises – remains slow.

While the Revitalized Agreement provides a clear roadmap for peace through reform, political transformation, security, development and national reconciliation, many of its requirements have not been met nearly three years later. 

In particular, the constitution of the Council of States and the nomination of the legislative assembly speaker, are pending. Transitional security arrangements remain behind schedule, and pervasive insecurity continues to impede sustainable peace from taking root.

Mr. Haysom told Council members that, so far in 2021, more than 80 per cent of civilian casualties have been attributed to intercommunal violence and community-based militias.

Violence and food shortages

Among many critical tasks, UNMISS continues to support the Government in protecting displaced populations.

However, weak or absent state governance institutions throughout South Sudan have enabled spoilers to “exploit perennial communal and ethnic cleavages”, Mr. Haysom warned.

Entrenched insecurity has also hindered the cultivation of crops and contributed to a vicious cycle of livestock raiding, leaving many communities dangerously short of food. 

Noting that the UN and regional actors all share a deep concern over the resumption of violence between communities in the country’s Greater Pibor district, he underlined the need for the Government to take concrete steps to address root causes of the conflict. 

UNMISS continues to collaborate with local authorities and communities to promote reconciliation, secure the release of abducted women and children, and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Global support critical

In addition, Mr. Haysom sounded alarms about worryingly weakened rule of law institutions and deteriorating economic conditions, which have led to increased criminality and the targeting of humanitarian workers.

In 2021 alone, four humanitarian workers have been killed in South Sudan and millions of dollars of humanitarian supplies have been looted or destroyed.

Pledging that UNMISS will continue to take the lead in promoting and advocating for safe humanitarian aid delivery, Mr. Haysom called for “irreversible progress towards peace”, which will require tangible progress against the benchmarks of the Revitalized Peace Agreement.

Those include elections, a new Constitution and the establishment of democratic institutions, he said, drawing members’ attention to the sense of jubilation across the UN upon South Sudan’s induction into the community of nations in 2011.

“The international pledged its support to South Sudan then,” he said. “This commitment remains as important and as urgent today as the world’s youngest nation strives to deliver peace and security to its citizens.”  

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Human Rights Council urged to support UN chief’s call for a ‘new social contract’ after COVID-19

INTERNATIONAL, 21 June 2021, Human Rights - UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet on Monday urged UN Member States to promote a more inclusive post-pandemic recovery to help the world’s most vulnerable recover from the impact of COVID.

Citing a rise in “extreme poverty, inequalities and injustice” in the last 18 months, Ms. Bachelet also warned that democratic and civic space has been eroded.

These were all problems that could be addressed if countries embraced the UN Secretary-General’s call for a New Social Contract, Ms. Bachelet said, on the opening day of the Human Rights Council’s 47th session in Geneva.

The initiative will be supported by a “New Global Deal of solidarity”, which shares “power, resources and opportunities more fairly”, in line with a plan for a UN-wide agenda that António Guterres intends to present to the UN General Assembly in September.

Trust in people, peace, development

“These are bold steps that place unprecedented emphasis on the power of human rights to ensure sound and inclusive development, sustainable peace, and societies grounded in trust”, Ms. Bachelet added.

“Navigating an…inclusive, green, sustainable and resilient future, will be the work of this generation of world leaders – or their downfall”, the High Commissioner for Human Rights maintained, while acknowledging that many countries were facing “collapsing global trade, falling remittances, turmoil in commodities prices and debt burdens”.

Nonetheless, Ms. Bachelet, who is a former two-time President of Chile, also said that it was possible to deliver on economic and social rights by using proven techniques to combat corruption and illicit financial flows, deploying progressive fiscal policies and increasing budget transparency, participation and accountability.

“The evidence is conclusive: countries that had invested in social protection have been better able to weather the crisis,” she said, adding that a New Social Contract would rebuild public trust “through stronger support for fundamental rights”.

It was vital to establish societies in which policymakers looked first to combat inequalities and promote rights to social protection, health, education, and more, the High Commissioner continued.

Outrages continue in Tigray

Displaced people in Adigrat town, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia.
Displaced people in Adigrat town, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia., by © UNICEF/Zerihun Sewunet

As is the tradition on the opening day of a new session of the Council, Ms. Bachelet also used her opening statement to highlight her Office’s concerns in more than a dozen countries, from Afghanistan to the Philippines.

Among them, Ms. Bachelet reiterated her concerns over continuing violence against civilians in Ethiopia’s Tigray region “by all parties to the conflict”, more than six months since fighting began.

The High Commissioner noted reports of serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights violations and abuses, all linked to clashes between central government troops and forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

These included “extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, sexual violence against children as well as adults and forced displacement”.

Eritrean soldiers remain

There were also “credible reports” that Eritrean soldiers were still operating in Tigray “and continue to perpetrate violations of human rights and humanitarian law”, Ms. Bachelet said, adding that the humanitarian situation remained dire and that an estimated 350,000 people faced famine.

The alert follows repeated warnings from humanitarian agencies that their access is regularly blocked and that an unknown number of people are in need and impossible to reach.

In her statement, Ms. Bachelet also told Member States that an investigation into the situation in Tigray had begun on 16 May, in partnership with the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

The investigators’ work should conclude in August when their findings and recommendations will be made public, the High Commissioner said, before warning that “in many other parts of Ethiopia” there had been “alarming incidents of deadly ethnic and inter-communal violence and displacement” – all linked to longstanding grievances.

These complaints should be addressed through a nationwide dialogue, the High Commissioner said, before insisting that the ongoing deployment of military forces was “not a durable solution”. 

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Sustainability solution or climate calamity? The dangers and promise of cryptocurrency technology

INTERNATIONAL, 20 June 2021, Economic Development - The negative environmental impact of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin has been widely covered in the press in recent weeks and months, and their volatility has also been flagged as a cause for concern. Nevertheless, the UN believes that blockchain, the technology lying behind these online currencies, could be of great benefit to those fighting the climate crisis, and help bring about a more sustainable global economy.

A ‘pointless way of using energy’?

The amount of energy needed to power the Bitcoin network is staggering: Tim Berners-Lee, credited as the inventor of the World Wide Web, has gone so far as to describe “Bitcoin mining” as “one of the most fundamentally pointless ways of using energy.”

Bitcoins don’t exist as physical objects, but new coins are “mined”, or brought into circulation, through a process that involves using powerful computers to solve complex mathematical problems. This process requires so much energy, that the Bitcoin network is estimated to consume more energy than several countries, including Kazakhstan and the Netherlands. And, as fossil-fuelled power plants still make up a major portion of the global energy mix, Bitcoin mining can be said to be partly responsible for the production of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change (although, so far, the impact on the climate is far less than that of heavy hitters such as the agriculture, construction, energy, and transport sectors).

Another problem is the amount of energy needed for each transaction, which is enormous in comparison to traditional credit cards: for example, each Mastercard transaction is estimated to use just 0.0006 kWh (kilowatt hours), whilst every Bitcoin transaction consumes 980 kWh, enough to power an average Canadian home for more than three weeks, according to some commentators.

Waste-pickers scavenge through municipal landfills in Zambia.
UNDP Zambia
Waste-pickers scavenge through municipal landfills in Zambia.

An important driver of sustainable development?

Despite these issues, UN experts believe that cryptocurrencies and the technology that powers them (blockchain) can play an important role in sustainable development, and actually improving our stewardship of the environment.

One of the most useful aspects of cryptocurrencies, as far as the UN is concerned, is transparency.

Because the technology is resistant to tampering and fraud, it can provide a trusted and transparent record of transactions. This is particularly important in regions with weak institutions and high levels of corruption.

The World Food Programme (WFP), the largest UN agency delivering humanitarian cash, has found that blockchain can help to ensure that cash gets to those who need it most.

pilot programme in Pakistan showed that it was possible for WFP to get cash directly to beneficiaries, securely and quickly, without the need to go through a local bank. The project, Building Blocks, has also been successfully trialled at refugee camps in Jordan, ensuring that WFP could create a reliable online record of every single transaction.

If this can work for refugees, it can also work for other disadvantaged, vulnerable groups. The authors of a report by the UN environment agency, UNEP, suggest that the technology could improve the livelihoods of waste pickers, who eke out a living in the informal economy.

A transparent monitoring system, says the report, could accurately track where and how the recovered waste is used, as well as identifying who picked it, ensuring that the right people are rewarded for their efforts.

Air pollution is damaging our health, but there is often a lack of local data made available to identify solutions.
Unsplash/Chris LeBoutillier
Air pollution is damaging our health, but there is often a lack of local data made available to identify solutions.

Blocking environmental degradation

The potential of blockchain in protecting the environment has been tested in a number of other projects, by the UN and other organisations. These range from a tool to eliminate illegal fishing in the tuna industry, developed for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), to a platform (CarbonX) that turns reductions in greenhouse gas emissions into a cryptocurrency that can be bought and sold, providing manufacturers and consumers with a financial incentive to make more sustainable choices.

For UNEP’s DTU Partnership (a collaboration between UNEP, the Technical University of Denmark, and the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs), there are three main areas where blockchain can accelerate climate action: in transparency, climate finance, and clean energy markets.

Data on harmful greenhouse gas emissions in many countries, says the Partnership, is incomplete and unreliable. Blockchain solutions could provide a transparent, trustworthy way to show how nations are taking action to reduce their impact on the climate.

Climate financing – investments that contribute to slowing the rate of climate change – could be boosted, if carbon markets are scaled up, allowing businesses and industries to transition to low carbon technologies.

And blockchain could be an important part of accelerating the take up of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. As these sources are, by their nature, intermittent and decentralized, new forms of energy markets are needed.

Tools using blockchain technology can help create these markets, and end our dependence on fossil fuels.

Finding low-energy solutions

Despite all of these potential benefits, the huge energy consumption associated with the technology is one of the main hurdles that needs to be overcome, and many players in the industry are working on ways to address the issue.

For example, the Ethereum Foundation, the organization behind the Ethereum cryptocurrency, is working on a new way to verify transactions. By switching to a different method (called Proof of Stake, or PoS), the Foundation says that the energy cost of each transaction could be cut by 99.95 per cent.

At the same time, many players in the industry want to ensure that any energy consumed by the industry is entirely carbon-free.

In April 2021, three important organizations (the Energy Web Foundation, Rocky Mountain Institute, and the Alliance for Innovative Regulations), formed the Crypto Climate Accord, which is supported by organizations spanning the climate, finance, NGO and energy sectors.

The aim of the Accord is to “decarbonize the industry in record time”, and achieve net-zero emissions in the global crypto industry by 2030.

Gold has always played an important role in the international monetary system.
Unsplash/Jingming Pan
Gold has always played an important role in the international monetary system.

The ups and downs of cryptocurrency

Cryptocurrencies are still in their infancy, and there are still many technical and political challenges to be overcome, as seen by the volatile nature of some of the best-known versions.

A single Tweet from tech billionaire Elon Musk, can cause the value of Bitcoin to surge or fall; El Salvador announced plans to make Bitcoin legal tender in June, a month after Beijing announced a crackdown on Bitcoin mining; whilst another crypto currency, Dogecoin, has also been extensively traded, with huge, widely reported jumps and dips in its value (again, partly thanks to pronouncements from Mr. Musk), despite the fact that it was created as a joke.

Nevertheless, many financial experts believe that these teething problems will eventually be ironed out, allowing cryptocurrencies, and other financial tools based on blockchain, to cross over into the mainstream: a number of central banks are planning their own digital currencies, and so-called “stablecoins”, which can be pegged to precious metals such as gold, or national currencies, could become, as the name suggests, stable and reliable investment opportunities.

If the most vulnerable are to benefit from the promise of blockchain technology, and if it is to truly make a positive impact on the climate crisis, more technical research is needed, as well as  more international dialogue, involving experts, scientists and policymakers.

“The UN should continue experimenting in the blockchain space”, says Minang Acharya, one of the authors of a recent UNEP foresight brief on the applications of blockchain. “The more we experiment, the more we learn about the technology. This is likely to improve our UN-wide knowledge on blockchain, our understanding of the environmental and social implications of mining operations, and improve our chances of coping with any problems the technology may bring in the future”.

 

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Refugees disproportionately exposed to COVID impact: Guterres

INTERNATIONAL, 19 June 2021, Migrants and Refugees - Everyone has a duty to help refugees rebuild their lives after a particularly difficult year for so many – that’s the message from UN Secretary-General António Guterres, to mark World Refugee Day on 20 June.

In an appeal for greater empathy for all those who’ve had to flee conflict, climate shocks, and harassment, through no fault of their own, Mr. Guterres, who has just been re-appointed for a second term, said that the pandemic had wiped out refugees’ livelihoods, and led to stigmatization and vilification.

Refugees had also been exposed disproportionately to the virus, the UN chief insisted, adding that once again, they had demonstrated their invaluable contribution to their host communities as essential and frontline workers. “We have a duty to help refugees rebuild their lives”, he said. “COVID-19 has shown us that we can only succeed if we stand together.”

Mr. Guterres, who spent ten years as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, before taking up his current position, called on communities and governments to do more to include refugees, in health care, education and sport, and to move together towards a more inclusive future, free of discrimination.

After a seven-month ordeal at sea, a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar reunites with his sister (centre) in Aceh province, Indonesia.
© UNHCR/Jiro Ose
After a seven-month ordeal at sea, a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar reunites with his sister (centre) in Aceh province, Indonesia.

The Secretary-General expressed his admiration for refugees and displaced persons, for their courage, resilience, and for “what they have taught us all about the power of hope and healing.”

According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, the number of people in need of international protection rose last year to nearly 82.4 million people. This is a four per cent increase on top of the already record-high of 79.5 million, recorded at the end of 2019.

The refugee agency’s flagship Global Trends Report, revealed on Friday that, far from slowing forced displacement around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic may well have been partly responsible for the record levels of people fleeing war, violence, and human rights violations.

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COVID-19: Vaccines donated next year, ‘too late for those who are dying today’

INTERNATIONAL, 18 June 2021, Health - Millions more COVID vaccines need to be donated now to save lives and help the UN health agency reach the key global target of having 70 per cent of all national populations vaccinated, by the middle of 2022. 

That was one of the main messages relayed to reporters on Friday by World Health Organization (WHO) chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said if richer countries and pharmaceutical companies wait to donate and produce more shots until next year, that will be “too late for those who are dying today.”

Lauding Guinea’s expected announcement on Saturday that its latest Ebola virus disease outbreak has been curbed after just four months, he said it showed what could be done on a much larger scale, with the coronavirus.

Global vaccine failure

“And yet even after 18 months, the ineffective use of public health and social measures, increased social mixing and vaccine inequity, continue to give COVID-19 an opportunity to mutate, spread and kill”, said Tedros. “The global failure to share vaccines equitably is fuelling a two-track pandemic that is now taking its toll on some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

Every region has countries that are now facing a steep increase in cases and deaths, he noted, adding that Latin American nations are in dire straits, with cases in Africa, increasing by 52% in just the past week.

“And we expect things to only get worse. Less than one per cent of Africa’s population has been vaccinated. Vaccines donated next year will be far too late for those who are dying today, or being infected today, or at risk today.”

Firm targets

WHO’s global targets are to vaccinate at least 10 per cent of the population of every country by September, at least 40 per cent by the end of 2021, and 70 per cent by the middle of next year.

“These are the critical milestones we must reach together to end the pandemic” said Tedros, comparing the current 20 per cent fully vaccinated rate in more than half of richer nations, with the chilling statistic that the same can be said of only three lower and middle-income countries. 

“We very much appreciate the vaccine donations announced by the G7 and others. And we thank those countries including the United States that have committed to sharing doses in June and July. We urge others to follow suit. We need vaccines to be donated now to save lives”, Tedros added.

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