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Fighting drug trafficking in the Golden Triangle: a UN Resident Coordinator blog

INTERNATIONAL, 20 September 2020, Law and Crime Prevention - Drug trafficking has long been a problem in the Golden Triangle, the region where Thailand’s Chiang Rai province meets Myanmar and Laos. In this blog, Gita Sabharwal, UN Resident Coordinator in Thailand, and Jeremy Douglas, who represents the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, explain how the United Nations and the Thai government are working together to tackle the issue.

“Thailand has made considerable progress in combating the opium trade over recent decades and represents global good practices. UNODC has a long-term partnership with the Thai government and other stakeholders to combat drug trafficking in the Golden Triangle and, from the military base at Doi Chang Mub overlooking Myanmar, joint patrols are conducted on a regular basis to counter trafficking.

However, as the opium trade has declined, the cross-border movement of synthetic drugs, and particularly methamphetamine, has grown substantially.

UN Thailand
Women from a village in the Chang Rai area weigh out bamboo shoots for sale which they collected from local forests.

Link between development and fighting the drugs trade

In our meetings on a recent trip to the province, we were impressed with local efforts to develop the region in a sustainable way. It really struck home how integrally linked development and improving people’s livelihoods are to fighting the drugs trade, and tackling the corrosive effects drug abuse and criminality have on individuals and communities. While there are considerable challenges, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, we were also inspired by the community resilience and commitment to improve the welfare of all.

The border regions between Thailand and its neighbours, along the Mekong River, have experienced a continuous expansion of drug production, trafficking and use, particularly of synthetic drugs, for the better part of a decade.

In 2019, seizures of harmful methamphetamine in East and Southeast Asia reached 140 tons, with the vast majority produced in Myanmar’s Shan State, just across the border from Thailand. With the rise of production in Myanmar, its borders with Thailand and Laos have become one of the most significant drug trafficking points in the world.

Billions in illicit profits

It is estimated that drug production and trafficking in the region last year generated profits of at least $71 billion, with methamphetamine accounting for $61 billion, four times what it was six years ago.Today, the production and trafficking of methamphetamine is the financial backbone of transnational organized crime and the ethnic armed groups that they partner with for control of autonomous territories in Myanmar, fuelling conflict and insecurity in the country, and along its borders including with Thailand.

In addition, despite record amounts of methamphetamine seizures, the supply has surged and the price of the drug has recently dropped to its lowest point in a decade. One methamphetamine tablet, known as “yaba” in Thailand and the Mekong region, currently costs only about 50 baht ($1.60) in the northern area of Thailand, making the drug much more accessible to drug users or potential users.

In part, as a result of the low street price and affordability, Thailand has seen a significant increase in use, particularly among youth. Considering 80 per cent of the Thai prison population is incarcerated due to methamphetamine-related charges of one form or another, it is very evident that increased trafficking and decreased prices of the drug have accelerated and exacerbated challenges to the criminal justice system and related human rights in the country.

© UNODC
Gita Sabharwal, UN Resident Coordinator in Thailand (right), and UNODC's Jeremy Douglas (centre) receive a briefing at the Customs house in Mae Sai in the north of the country.

Coordination and education

Border Liaison Offices supported by UNODC have been an important component in border management and control in the region, as well as a practical way to improve cross-border cooperation between authorities. Coordination efforts between police, customs, army, navy and border patrol police in the region have gathered and exchanged intelligence to take on organized criminal groups.

Employing new technologies including X-ray devices, from hand-held to lorry-sized machines, Thai authorities have new tools to be used against illicit trafficking, including of drugs and precursor chemicals – vital to countering the destructive trade.

The number of border checkpoints has been increased in response to COVID-19, reducing the transit of drugs through the province. However, criminal networks have very quickly adapted; traffickers have changed their routes to circumvent Chiang Rai and go through other provinces or via Laos and back into Thailand, with marginal increased costs and inconvenience affecting the trade.

Innovating for a sustainable future

Chiang Rai’s economy will probably remain largely based on agriculture, tourism and cross-border trade for the foreseeable future. In the agriculture and tourism sectors, innovative approaches are providing examples for a sustainable future. The Mayor of Chiang Rai City, for example, is promoting an approach that supports sustainable and chemical-free agriculture, connecting Chiang Rai’s farmers with schools, hospitals and export markets.

Hill tribe villages have been encouraged, through civil society and social entrepreneurs, including the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, to move to alternative cash crops. More innovative support of this kind will help affected communities in Thailand, neighbouring countries and beyond, to move away from the drugs trade, towards sustainable livelihoods. There is a stark need for more alternative livelihoods, and crops, in agriculture-dependent communities, if they are to be a part of sustainable development.

We are fortunate to engage with so many partners working towards sustainable development in Chiang Rai and look forward to providing more support as we collectively build back better from the pandemic."

The UN Resident Coordinator

The UN Resident Coordinator, sometimes called the RC, is the highest-ranking representative of the UN development system at the country level. In this occasional series, UN News is inviting RCs to blog on issues important to the United Nations and the country where they serve.
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Survival of wildlife reserves under threat in Namibia

INTERNATIONAL, 19 September 2020, Economic Development - After six months of lockdown, the Namibian government ended travel restrictions and curfews on Friday, in light of a drop in new COVID-19 cases. But Namibia’s economy, which depends heavily on wildlife tourism, has taken a major hit during the period, and the future of the country’s wildlife reserves, otherwise known as conservancies, is far from certain.

When radio host Tashia Kalondo visited a conservancy in Namibia, she didn’t realize just how close she would get to the wildlife. Ms. Kalondo had travelled widely and seen wildlife before, but when the camp staff said they’d have to camouflage the gate to their campsite with shrubs to prevent elephants from coming in overnight, she found it hard to believe. “I laughed because, what a joke, right?” she recalls. “Wrong!”

African elephants (file)

The next morning, she found tracks made by elephants, which, during the night, had loped silently in, just a stone’s throw from where Kalondo was sleeping. “My mind was blown,” she remembers.

Conservation and sustainable development

Namibia has 86 communal conservancies, which are run by the local residents, and are highly appreciated by tourists. Their desert landscapes of ochre sand, black rock, shining blue skies are stunning, and an array of wildlife species, including black rhinos, lions, cheetahs, hyenas, and zebras, roam the land.

Communal conservancies play an important role in sustainable development. People who live on conservancy land are granted rights to utilize wildlife sustainably, which include the harvesting of meat and the sale of trophy hunting rights, both based upon regulation and quotas. This way they benefit from wildlife management and tourism, and have less incentive to trade illegally in animal parts.

The conservancies protect and even recover wildlife, building back the population of animals lost to poachers. In 2019, poaching in Namibian conservancies decreased by more than 60% over the preceding year, thanks to greater intelligence and law enforcement operations — supported by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) — and tougher sentences and fines.

Zero tourists

This success now risks being undermined by COVID-19. Compared to other countries, the health toll of the virus has been relatively low, thanks largely to a ban on international arrivals put in place by the Namibian government in March. However, the impact on the economy, and tourism in particular, has been devastating: Namibia’s Ministry of Tourism is expecting zero tourist arrivals for the entirety of 2020.

Tashia Kalondo (centre) is a popular radio host in Namibia, by UN Namibia

Tashia Kalondo is from Namibia, where she’s a popular radio personality, but most tourists come from Europe, the US, China, and neighbouring African countries. In 2019, there were 1.7 million foreign visitors — that’s in a country of 2.5 million people. The conservancies alone bring in $3.2 million in income, not to mention $3.5 million in annual staff salaries. That’s a lot of money in a country that falls in the bottom third of the Human Development Index: nearly a third of Namibians are poor.

Due to the pandemic, tens of thousands of conservancy jobs are in jeopardy. With many people more desperate for food and income than before, poaching is expected to increase, yielding valuable products such as elephant tusks, rhino horns, or simply meat for local consumption. 

“Namibia is facing three challenges at once,” explains Alka Bhatia, UNDP Namibia Resident Representative. “There’s the pandemic. There’s the economic crisis. And then there’s the threat of increased poaching, which strikes a blow to the tourist industry and the economy.”

‘Conservancies must survive’

In response, UNDP  and the World Health Organization (WHO) are supporting the government by procuring medical supplies. UNDP also collaborated with the United Nations Information Centre (UNIC) in the capital, Windhoek, and WHO on health education initiatives, to slow the spread of the coronavirus

The conservancies are one of the biggest tent poles holding up the national economy. If they fall, then a lot more will collapse around them. Alka Bhatia, Namibia Resident Representative, UNDP

In addition, UNDP partnered with a local online shop to launch an e-commerce platform to help informal traders regain some of their lost income. And the agency made a grant to conservancies to stay afloat, covering their salaries and anti-poaching work. That’s just the latest move in years of support that UNDP has provided to the conservancies, including training and equipment to fight fires, and help with fire and land management policy.

“For the long-term health of the Namibian economy, the communal conservancies must survive,” says Ms. Bhatia. “The conservancies are one of the biggest tent poles holding up the national economy. If they fall, then a lot more will collapse around them.” 

It’s not just the economy that will be affected. The loss of natural areas, as well as the poaching and consumption of wildlife, increase the chance that viruses will jump from animals to humans. That means more zoonotic infectious diseases — such as Ebola or HIV/AIDS that pass from animals to humans — which leads to more economic crises, more poverty, more hunger. By protecting flora and fauna, conservancies act as a natural buffer against disease.

“The human-wildlife relationship is an intricate one,” says Ms. Kalondo, reflecting on her conservancy visit. “Besides admiring the wildlife, I spent time with some community members, including a Himba tribe settlement. I saw first-hand people and wildlife living together.” Her experience points to one of the greatest values of the conservancies. 

“Conservancies create jobs. They provide jaw-dropping experiences of wildlife,” says Ms. Bhatia. “But they also give us something else. They provide a lesson on how to coexist with the natural world. It’s a lesson we should all be mindful of.”

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Uncertain future for migrant workers, in a post-pandemic world

INTERNATIONAL, 19 September 2020, Migrants and Refugees - The COVID-19 pandemic has largely put a freeze on migration. But will the movement of people recover once the current crisis is over? In an interview with UN News, Gary Rynhart, a senior official at the UN labour agency, ILO, explains why a return to “normal” is unlikely, and migrants will probably face a very different job market.
Gary Ryhhart, Senior Specialist on Employers' Activities, ILO, by Gary Ryhnart

Gary Rynhart: When COVID-19 spread around the world, many migrants were shipped home unceremoniously or left to fend for themselves. Migrants have also – because of the sectors they work in, and the poor conditions in which many lower skilled migrants live and work – been vectors for spreading the virus. Examples we’ve seen include workers in meat factories in Germany, and construction workers in the United Arab Emirates and Singapore. 

UN News: are migrants more likely to have lost work, due to the economic crisis?

Gary Rynhart: Job losses have often hit migrant workers hardest, because they are more likely to work in informal jobs which can lack safety nets, in case of job loss or illness. This is particularly the case for migrants in developing countries, and temporary migrants, such as seasonal workers, where social protection tends, at best, to be limited to work injury compensation or health benefits.

Over thirty countries in the world get more than 10 per cent of their GDP from remittances. This money sent home by around one billion workers overseas or internally to their families is collectively higher than either foreign direct investment or official development assistance. It was almost three-quarters of a billion dollars last year. The World Bank estimates a drop of 20% this year. Families across the developing world are being impacting, creating ripple effects throughout their economies.

IOM/Thierry Falise
Burmese migrants work in fishing boats and coastal communities in Phang Nga, Southern Thailand.

UN News: will migrants be able to find jobs, once the global economy recovers?

Gary Rynhart: The disruption to supply chains and closed borders resulting from the pandemic will probably lead to more firms turning to technology, automation and Artificial Intelligence. In a recent survey by accounting firm EY, around half of company bosses surveyed, in 45 countries, said that they are speeding up plans to automate their businesses, and some 41 per cent said they were investing in accelerating automation, as businesses prepared for a post-crisis world.

This is potentially bad news for migrants. Southeast Asia is a case in point: take the garment factories in the region, which is mostly filled with internal migrants, or the shrimp peeling industry in Thailand, which is done by Myanmar migrants.

Technology to reduce, or eliminate, the need for human workers in these industries already exists.

Even call centres in the Philippines, which benefited from outsourcing that began in the 1990s, are affected. It’s estimated that up to 90 per cent of these ‘new’ jobs are under high threat from automation. That’s one million jobs, accounting for around seven per cent of the country’s GDP.

UN RWANDA
Stephen Rodriques, (2nd left) UNDP Rwanda Resident Representative pose for a group photo with Rwanda government officials as well representative of Zorabots, after handing over the robots in Kigali.

Manufacturing, retail, health care and hospitality will be significantly impacted sectors.  In the Japanese healthcare sector robotic care workers, or ‘carebots’ are increasingly deployed to, quite literally, do the ‘heavy lifting’. This does away with many of the physically demanding orderly positions traditionally filled by migrants. 

The retail sector has typically relied on migrant workers, but the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a dramatic growth in online shopping. In the hospitality sector, automated experiments include robots that provide bartending services on cruise ships and in airports, and that deliver food to hotel guests’ rooms. More hotels are offering automated check-in via app or even, in China, via facial recognition. Alexa-enabled speakers in hotel rooms let guests ask for sightseeing tips and order toothbrushes without talking to staff.

Using GPS technology, robots can be used in precision agriculture for weed control and harvesting. The pandemic may also have given another nudge to technology for Driverless cars which could soon see taxi driving, another job many migrants do, fall by the wayside.

ILO Photo/Marcel Crozet
A school teacher in France connects with her students remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What the last few months have shown is that an awful lot of processes and meetings (e.g. doctors’ appointments, visa renewals) can be done online.  There has been a surge in telemedicine, and, as video technology improves, diagnostics such as measuring temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure may also be done via a webcam. Certain elements of teaching can be done through digital platforms, and there is currently a big increase in internet-based education services.

Improvements in virtual reality, augmented reality, hologram technology, and collaboration tools will make all of that even easier. Many administrative functions can be carried out remotely:

There are many new employment opportunities here, which could reduce the need for migration, and remote working could open the door for women to access opportunities commensurate with their talent by going elsewhere virtually, without moving physically. This is especially important in regions where there are cultural biases against women actively searching for jobs: platforms have been found to help women find work, and remote working can offer them an important veil of anonymity.

UN News: has the pandemic affected attitudes towards migrants?

Gary Rynhart: There has been an increase in discrimination, in particular anti-Asian discrimination specifically related to COVID 19, and some populist political parties have sought to scapegoat migrants (we’ve seen this in Italy, Spain, Greece, France, and Germany, amongst others).

Hassan Akkad, a BAFTA-winning filmmaker and health worker from Syria, now living in the United Kingdom., by © Hassan Akkad

But the post-pandemic world is not necessarily all bad news, and there are signs that it may bring about new opportunities for migrants, and even improved perceptions.

For example, many migrants are filling frontline medical roles or providing essential services like stacking supermarket shelves or cleaning hospitals. Additionally, we have seen some softening of restrictions on foreign-trained and foreign-born health workers in high-income countries to cope with the crisis: refugee doctors without recognized qualifications were called up in Germany, and had recognition of their qualifications fast-tracked in the UK, some US States have allowed foreign-trained doctors to work, and Australia lifted working hour caps on foreign-trained nurses.

In fact, despite recent populist rhetoric, attitudes towards migrants have been steadily, and markedly, improving in recent years. According to a survey of 18 countries published last year, 63 per cent of US citizens felt immigrants were a burden on the country, back in 1994, and only 31 per cent felt they strengthened it.

Fast forward 25 years and the figures are reversed. By a ratio of two to one US citizens are pro-migration.  According to the same survey, majorities in top migrant destination countries, which host half of the world’s migrants, say immigrants strengthen their countries. Majorities in the UK, France, Spain, Australia, Canada, Sweden and Germany all agree with the statement ‘migrants make my country stronger’. 

Maybe one outcome of this crisis will be more inclusivity, and more diversity, in the global workplace, and an improvement in some of the factors that drive people to leave their homes and countries, in search of better livelihoods.

Migrant workers and COVID-19: a snapshot

  • Low-skilled labour migrants in crowded dormitories have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic: over 95 per cent of the confirmed COVID-19 cases in Singapore by 19 June 2020 were migrants.
  • 90 per cent of people around the world rely on remittances sent home by migrant workers. The economic crisis has significantly affected this flow of money.
  • With migrants losing jobs and facing higher risks of being infected, many workers are returning to their countries of origin: India, the country of origin for the largest number of emigrants, had facilitated the return of more than 1.3 million stranded migrants as of 3 September.

Information taken from the International Organization for Migration (IOMData Portal

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Sustainable Development goals are ‘the future’ Malala tells major UN event, urging countries to get on track

INTERNATIONAL, 18 September 2020, SDGs - The Global Goals represent the future for millions of girls who want education, women who fight for equality, and youth fighting for clean air, UN Messenger of Peace Malala Yousafzai said on Friday, at a side event of the General Assembly, challenging Member States, “when are you planning to do the work”? 

“When I last spoke here, I was just about to enter university…optimistic about what was ahead: university life, making new friends and access to an incredible education”, she told the inaugural SDG Moment event, intended to renew the effort to meet the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) over the coming decade. “This June, I graduated in the midst of a reeling world — one many of us could not have predicted”. 

The young Nobel Laureate recalled that five years ago Member States signed on to the SDGs, but, “so far, you have not kept up with your work”, she declared.

While acknowledging that COVID-19 has been “a striking setback to our collective goals” she stressed, “it cannot be an excuse”.
“On education alone, 20 million more girls may never go back to the classroom when this crisis ends [and] the global education funding gap has already increased to 200 billion dollars per year”, she flagged.

Setting new norms

The young advocate signaled that moving forward, things should not return to the way they were. 

“When will you commit the necessary funding to give every child 12 years of quality education? When will you prioritize peace and protect refugees? When will you pass policies to cut carbon emissions?”.

Underlining the need for “a profound commitment to the way the world should be – a place where every girl can learn and lead, a place where we put people and our planet ahead of profits, a place where leaders keep their promises”, Ms. Yousafzai requested that those gathered “set the norms” of a new sustainable, healthy, educated and equitable era. 

Set sights high: Guterres

Meanwhile, Secretary-General António Guterres noted that in embarking on a Decade of Action to deliver the SDGs by 2030, we must “strike out for a world of dignity and opportunity for all on a healthy planet”. 

“We must look beyond the current crisis and set our sights high…to show that transformation is possible and is happening right now”, he said.

A world ‘shaken to the core’

The UN chief painted a vivid picture of a world “shaken to the core” – by the COVID-19 pandemic “pushing us towards the worst recession in decades”, causing widespread disruption, rising hunger, skyrocketing debt, plunging fiscal resources and threatening children’s education. 
Even before the virus, inequalities were growing, he pointed out, noting that globalization benefits had failed to reach “millions upon millions of destitute people” as greenhouse gases soared to record levels.

“We need a path that brings health to all, revives economies, brings people in from the margins of society and builds long-term resilience, sustainability, opportunity and peace”, outlined the UN chief.

The path ahead

He said the pandemic has undercut the very fragilities that the 2030 Agenda was designed to address – to end poverty and leave no one behind.

“The poor have a special claim on our efforts and energies and must be reached first” by expanding social protections, ensuring universal access to essential services, strengthening education, health systems and internet connectivity and placing women at the centre of decision-making, he detailed. 

According to Mr. Guterres, the 2030 Agenda additionally demands transitioning to inclusive, low-carbon, resilient economies that deliver more jobs and a cleaner environment, which will not only reduce the risk of future pandemics but also mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

“In short, the 2030 Agenda provides the guiding light we need to end the pandemic, to respond to its socio-economic impacts and to chart a course for a transformative recovery”, he spelled out.

Three-pronged approach

Underscoring that there is “no time to procrastinate”, the UN chief highlighted the three crucial areas of finance, COVID-19 recovery and greater ambition, moving forward.

On finance, he stressed the importance of addressing the immediate, medium and longer-term challenges faced by developing countries and pointed to an upcoming UN financing meeting on 29 September as “an opportunity to get behind the most significant policy options”, such as extending the Debt Service Suspension Initiative to at least the end of 2021.

Turning to COVID-19 recovery, Mr. Guterres asserted that plans must be inclusive and green to help countries transition to a more equitable and sustainable economy, including by using taxpayer’s money for a resilient recovery, ending fossil fuel subsidies and placing women at the centre of building back. 

On the third priority, the UN chief argued that the world needs “ambition and solidarity” to provide the billions of dollars needed to deliver COVID-19 vaccines and treatments to everyone; cut carbon emissions in half; and protect biodiversity, achieve gender equality and fulfil the SDGs’ promises.

“When the public appetite for change is matched with political will and smart policy choices, rapid progress is unstoppable”, the Secretary-General said. “This annual SDG Moment is our opportunity to demonstrate that, as one united family of nations, we have what it takes to eradicate poverty and hunger, tackle climate change, deliver gender equality and achieve all 17 global goals”.

‘Collective priority’

President of the General Assembly Volkan Bozkir, noted that the world needs “collaboration, cooperation and dialogue”, saying this was the kind of crux moment, for which the UN was built.

“Halting the spread of COVID-19 and regaining progress against the SDGs must be our collective priority”, he said, arguing that countries in special situations should be prioritized. 

“It will not be easy, but the SDGs themselves provide us the very blueprint needed to recover, better”. 

At the same time, Deputy Secretary-General Amina J Mohammed stood with the UN chief in affirming that “transformation is happening everywhere and must not leave anyone behind”. 

“Let this 2020 SDG Moment propel us into a transformative Decade of Action”, she said. "Now is the time to demonstrate the value of multilateralism and deliver hope, opportunities and sustainable development for all". 

The head of the UN Development Fund (UNDP), Achim Steiner said that for the first time in 30 years, the march of progress in human development, was expected to go sharply into reverse, maintaining that social protection solutions were key to protect communities worldwide.

“Building people’s resilience against vulnerability, risk and deprivation, and helping them to get on their feet if they falter, defines social protection in the 21st century”, he said. 

Munir Akram, President of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), said that the “global magnitude of the challenge we are facing” as a result of COVID-19, was “the greatest since the creation of the United Nations.”

With nearly a million dead so far, he warned that more than 100 million people will fall back into extreme poverty – a huge challenge for the whole 2030 agenda.

“Therefore, the highest priority, we have is to control the virus”, he said. “We must hope that the vaccine will be available in the very near future and we must commit ourselves to ensure that everyone rich or poor, everywhere, will have equal and affordable access to the vaccine, without discrimination.” 

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Belarus crisis under the spotlight at Human Rights Council

INTERNATIONAL, 18 September 2020, Human Rights - The Belarus Government should end “violent crackdowns” and “increasing repression” against protesters who are still contesting the result of last month's Presidential elections, UN deputy rights chief Nada Al Nashif told the Human Rights Council on Friday.

At the end of a memorable day of back-and-forth discussions between the Council President and delegations - featuring more than a dozen points of order by delegations who questioned the right of some of those addressing the Council to speak and no less than 17 amendments to a European-Union sponsored call for action – the Geneva-based forum finally adopted a resolution on the deteriorating rights situation in Belarus.

It passed by 23 votes for, two against and with 22 abstentions.

Delivering a statement for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, Ms. Al Nashif said that despite violence by state security officers and thousands of arrests, peaceful mass demonstrations have continued.

Arrests, torture, sexual violence

“We witnessed thousands of arrests, hundreds of reports of torture and other ill-treatment, including sexual violence and the reported torture of children. The violent abduction of people in broad daylight by masked individuals, presumably on the basis of their peacefully expressed opinions. Harassment, intimidation, pressure and reported expulsion from Belarus of members of the opposition, including the members of the Coordination Council, should stop.”  

Successive UN Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Belarus had consistently described a deeply oppressive environment for human rights in the country, Ms. Al Nashif noted.

The December 2010 election, had been followed by “a massive crackdown” on political opponents, human rights groups and media, and hundreds of arrests, with allegations of torture and ill-treatment in custody”, the Deputy High Commissioner continued, citing a report by the Office of the High Commissioner, OHCHR, which had made 15 recommendations to the Government.

Few of these were implemented, she maintained, “and almost 10 years after the December 2010 election, we are seeing many of the same patterns recurring. Some are intensifying.”

The opening comments of the Urgent Debate on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus - the sixth to be held by the Geneva forum since its creation in 2006 – also included those by the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus.

Kseniya Halubovich
The violence used by security forces across Belarus against peaceful protesters was strongly criticized by UN human rights experts.

‘Stop escalating violence’

“Mr. Lukashenko’s eagerness to remain in power after the end of his current term appears to be the main cause of a current political deadlock in Belarus,” said Anaïs Marin, via video message. “As demonstrations have spread to all sectors of society – from housewives to factory workers and students - I call on the police to immediately stop escalating violence.”

The Council also heard opening remarks from the European Union delegation, which had led an earlier request for an Urgent Debate, on the grounds that the Presidential election of 9 August 2020 had been held without meaningful international observation and was neither free nor fair.

The EU bloc tabled a resolution calling on the UN High Commissioner to provide an oral update to the Council “before the end of the year”, and to present a report on the human rights situation during and after 2020 Presidential election in Belarus at the 46th session, followed by an interactive dialogue.

“We are alarmed at the Special Procedure mandate holder’s report of attacks on, and torture and cruel inhuman or degrading treatment of peaceful protesters, as well as intimidation and detention of opposition leaders. Enforced disappearances, abductions, expulsions and arbitrary detentions continue in Belarus,” said Germany’s Ambassador Michael von Ungern-Sternberg. “We call for the immediate release of all those who have been arbitrarily deprived of their liberty. For these reasons, the EU has tabled a resolution requesting the High Commissioner to make an interim oral update with recommendations to this Council before the end of the year and to present a comprehensive written report on the human rights situation during and after 2020 Presidential election in Belarus at the 46th session followed by an interactive dialogue.”

Opposition leader weighs in

Speaking via video link, opposition candidate in the 2020 election, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, appealed to the Belarusian authorities to “immediately cease violence against peaceful citizens. We demand immediate release of all political prisoners. We demand to allow entry and free movements to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in Belarus. Finally, we demand free and fair elections so the citizens of Belarus can freely choose their Government according to the laws of the country.”

She insisted on the Opposition’s’ “willingness to talk with the authorities and look for peaceful rights-based solutions to the crisis” affecting the country.

“Belarus needs fast and resolute decisions”, she said. “It’s very important to recognize that standing up for the democratic principles and human rights is not interfering in internal affairs; it is a universal question of human dignity.”

Another video message from protester Ekaterina Novikava, provided insight into the alleged brutal treatment of people taken into custody.

‘Blood everywhere’

“I saw men with weapons and bullet-proof vests. The yard was covered with men lying on the ground who had been beaten with sticks, with truncheons, being kicked,” she said. “There was blood everywhere, there were men kneeling with their face against the walls, everyone was being beaten. We were asked, ‘Did you vote for Tikhanouskaya? You wanted change,’ they said, ‘We’ll kill you all, that’s how it’s going to end.’”

Rejecting the EU’s call for an oral update on Belarus by the High Commissioner for Human Rights before the end of the year, along with a report and interactive dialogue at the Council’s 46th session, the Belarusian delegation insisted on their country’s sovereignty in its internal affairs.

Belarus Government rejects allegations

“The Government rejects any such unfounded allegations that undermine the validity of the elections which were a reflection of the sovereign right of the people to make their own choice,” ,” said Permanent Representative to the UN Office and other International Organizations in Geneva, Yuri Ambrazevich. “The use of alternative assessments of reality at international fora we see as an intervention in domestic affairs. The supposed serious violation and deterioration of the human rights situation in Belarus is something we do not agree with.”

Confirming that thousands of demonstrators had been arrested because they had broken the law and that not all protests had been non-violent, the ambassador maintained that social media chat platforms had been used by demonstrators to coordinate “tactics”.

“The administrators of this Telegram channels continue to call for actions and protests in the streets and are coordinating their tactics through the social network,” he said. “Thousands of people have been detained because they violated the law. Despite claims of the opposite, between 12 and 19 of August not all of the protests were peaceful; very often, stones, sticks, cars and so-forth were used or indeed Molotov cocktails that were prepared in advance.”

Views clash

Questioning the Council’s involvement in the affairs of Belarus, the Russian delegation echoed the stance of other Member States by insisting that “not interfering in the affairs of another State is the basis of international law”.

Gennady Gatilov, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva, added that the challenges before Belarus were “domestic. The initiators of today’s debate on the supposed violations of human rights in Belarus are nothing other than an attempt through pressure and threats to destabilize the situation in the country and provoke a political crisis, as they already did in the neighbouring country.”

The Indonesian delegation, meanwhile, recalled the UN Charter, highlighting “the time-honoured principle” of “respect of the integrity, sovereignty and the political independence of all States” that “should continue to be upheld by this Council.  Furthermore, as stipulated in the resolution that established the Council, all States have the obligation and the obligation and responsibility to protect their own people including to ensure the protection and the promotion of human rights.

“In this connection, Indonesia is confident that the Government of Belarus should take all necessary steps to de-escalate the situation and to refrain from using unnecessary and excessive use of force against civilian demonstrators and protesters.”

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UN and partners promote sport as a tool to prevent violent extremism

INTERNATIONAL, 18 September 2020, Peace and Security - Ambassadors, senior UN officials, representatives of global sports organizations, and managers of some of the world’s top athletes met virtually on Friday to underline the role that sport can play in combating violent extremism and radicalization. 

Sport is synonymous with values such as tolerance, respect and team work, and aligns with the UN’s founding goal of creating a better world for all, the head of the Organization’s Office of Counter-Terrorism, Vladimir Voronkov, told participants. 

This explains why terrorist groups seek to hijack sporting events, with incidents such as the March 2009 attack against Sri Lanka’s cricket team, and the Boston Marathon bombing in the United States some four years later, serving as stark reminders. 

A ‘critical shelter’ for youth  

 “In today’s particularly volatile world, sport is a critical shelter for young and vulnerable people.  Sport helps children and teenagers across the globe to build the psychological and emotional strength to be better, more tolerant and respectful citizens. Sport equips them with the right tools to resist terrorist propaganda," said Mr. Voronkov.   

Lessons for life  

Suad Galow from Somalia spoke of the lessons she learned playing basketball, helping her to thrive both on and off the court. 

“Basketball became part of my life and it taught me valuable lifetime skills such as teamwork, discipline, and leadership”, said Ms. Galow, President of the Somali Woman Foundation, and Chairperson of both the national Olympic Committee and Basketball Federation. 

“Basketball gave me a huge opportunity to travel, to diversify, and to meet new people from Africa to the Middle East and beyond.” 

Fans also benefit from sport without breaking a sweat, according to Miguel Ángel Moratinos, High Representative of the UN Alliance of Civilizations. 

“The power of sport rests in its ability to break down the walls between people whether they are players or spectators regardless of their faith, race or culture”, he noted. 

Sports and COVID-19 recovery 

Friday’s online event was held in the framework of a UN initiative, launched in February, that aims to safeguard major sporting events worldwide from terrorism-related threats. It will be followed by a technical-level expert meeting, to be held next week. 

Future developments include a guide for policymakers, and a global campaign featuring renowned athletes and youth which the organizers believe will garner “significant exposure” during upcoming major sports events such as the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo and the World Cup in Qatar the following year. 

Qatar’s Ambassador to the UN, Alya Al-Thani, said the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that support must be given to sports and physical activity now more than ever. 

“Sport must be included in recovery plans post COVID-19 and in national strategies for sustainable development. Sport is key to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on health and well-being and in building back better,” she said, as her nation continues gearing up to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup football tournament. 

The power to be better – Spurs coach 

For the head coach of the Tottenham Hotspur football club, José Mourinho, sports have the power to transform us for the better.  They also teach us that “incredible things” can be achieved by working together. 

“Sport makes it clear that in this world, the languages you speak, the colour of your skin, your societal and economic background, your gender identity, sexual orientation, are totally irrelevant”, he said. 

“What matters in sport is who you are, how motivated you are, how hard you are willing to work to become a better version of yourself.” 

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COVID-19 illustrates ‘woefully under prepared’ world – UN health chief

INTERNATIONAL, 18 September 2020, Health - Despite efforts to break the global cycle of panic and neglect seen throughout multiple disease outbreaks, the UN health agency chief said on Friday that the new coronavirus has shown that the world was “woefully under prepared”.

Although the World Health Organization (WHO) and World Bank set up the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) two years ago to break the cycle, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a media press briefing that “reviews and reports are only as good as the recommendations that are implemented”. 

COVID-19 has shown that collectively, the world was woefully under prepared”, he stated. 

Muscle memory key

Since the turn of the millennium, SARS, MERS, H1N1, Zika and Ebola have all demonstrated the increasing occurrences of viruses making the zoonotic leap from animals to humans – and most recently, COVID-19. 

In a new report, the GPMB lays out critical lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic so far, as well as some concrete actions which can be taken to protect ourselves moving forward. 

Developing “muscle memory”, which is done through repetition, “is key to pandemic response”, according to the WHO chief, who cited how Thailand drew from its experience with SARS and H5N1 to swiftly scale up an effective track and trace system, that has left them among the least affected nations in the world by COVID-19.

“The whole world” must do this to strengthen preparedness.

Unite in solidarity

While acknowledging that there will certainly be future novel viruses and unknown diseases, the WHO chief stressed that “the only way” to confront these global threats is “as a global community, united in solidarity and committed to long-term cooperation”. 

“With the right political and financial commitment and investment now, we can prevent and mitigate future pandemics”, Tedros upheld. 

‘Do it all’

At this critical juncture, WHO is asking leaders to “put targeted measures in place” that will suppress the spread and protect health systems and workers.

And the UN agency is also requesting everyone “continue to do the basics”, including maintaining physical distance, washing hands, wearing masks, avoiding crowds and keeping windows and doors open when outside visits are impossible. 

“Do it all”, the WHO chief concluded.

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FROM THE FIELD: Love in the time of COVID

INTERNATIONAL, 18 September 2020, Health - A young couple who hail from very different backgrounds, has demonstrated that even during a global pandemic, true love always finds a way.

American Faith Blanchard, met South Sudanese refugee and World Food Programme volunteer, Seme Ludanga, while she was working at a camp for displaced people in Uganda two years ago. 

In July this year they tied the knot at a physically distanced ceremony in the East African country.

Speaking after the wedding Faith described Seme as a “sweet gift to me”.

Read more here, about this heartwarming story of love in the time of COVID.

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‘Substantive’ talks on new constitution bring hope of forging path out of Syria’s near decade-long conflict

INTERNATIONAL, 18 September 2020, Peace and Security - While deep distrust persists among warring parties in Syria, a “faint but real ray of hope” emerged with the convening in Geneva of the Constitutional Committee after a nine-month hiatus, the top UN envoy helping chart a path out of the near decade-long conflict, told the Security Council on Friday.

Geir O. Pedersen, Special Envoy for Syria, said the third round of discussions, held in August, were mostly substantive and parties had agreed an outline agenda.  The co-chairs expressed the sense that common ground was emerging, in some areas.

Real differences persist

There were also “very real” differences on substance, even at the general level, he said, and the co-chairs were not able to agree while in Geneva, on an agenda for the next session.  “We need to finalize the agenda without further delay if we are to meet in early October as we had hoped”, he assured.

Recalling that Committee delegations are nominated by the Government and the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission, he said their mandate is to prepare and draft a constitutional reform. 

The Committee may review and amend Syria’s 2012 Constitution – or draft a new one.  The draft must embody the 12 living principles which emerged from the Geneva process and were approved in negotiations in the Russian city of Sochi.

“If we can finalize an agenda and move forward in this way, I remain hopeful that we can deepen this process with a fourth session soon,” he said.

Syrians acutely vulnerable, food prices soar

More broadly, he said the COVID-19 pandemic is emerging as a major challenge to Syrians who are already acutely vulnerable after nearly 10 years of conflict, facing food insecurity and deprivation amid an unprecedented an economic collapse. 

Monitoring by the World Food Programme (WFP) found that the price of a standard reference food basket increased by over 250 per cent on last year.

A call for releases of detainees, abductees

Appealing for the Council’s support in securing the resources and humanitarian access required to reach those in need, he also called for large-scale and unilateral releases of detainees and abductees, and for more meaningful actions on missing persons. 

On the security front, he described Syria as a highly internationalized environment, with five foreign armies on its territory and its sovereignty compromised.  However, existing arrangements continue to sustain broad calm across the country, relative to the intense violence of recent years, and a military status quo appears to be emerging.

He urged all relevant actors to contain any violent incidents, build on the relative calm, and as resolution 2254 (2015) calls for, establish a nationwide ceasefire.

Steps beget steps

“I believe there is a growing acknowledgement among many key actors that there truly is no military solution,” he said, “and that the only way forward is a negotiation and a political settlement, however difficult that may be.”

He described a readiness for “steps to beget steps” and to move slowly but steadily along a “2254-path” out of the conflict.  The Constitutional Committee – a Syrian-led, Syrian-owned process - can act as a door opener.

Beyond the Constitutional Committee, he said it is too early to say whether the shared assessments of the realities will turn into common diplomatic pathways for implementation of resolution 2254 (2015). 

While he will seek to nurture that potential, the immediate priority is for the co-chairs to agree an agenda, he said, with mutually reinforcing steps among Syrian and international players to forge a wider political process.

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UN rights chief calls for Turkey to probe violations in northern Syria

INTERNATIONAL, 18 September 2020, Human Rights - The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged Turkey to launch an immediate independent investigation into violations and abuses committed in parts of north, northwest and northeast Syria, which are under the control of its forces and affiliated armed groups. 

Michelle Bachelet warned that the human rights situation in places such as Afrin, Ras al-Ain and Tel Abyad, is grim, with violence and criminality rife.   

An alarming pattern of grave violations has been documented in these areas in recent months, such as increased killings, kidnappings, and unlawful transfers of people, as well as seizures of land and properties, her Office, OHCHR, has reported. 

Victims include those perceived to be allied with opposing parties, or critical of Turkish-affiliated armed groups, or rich enough to pay ransoms.  

“People living in these areas whose rights have been violated are entitled to protection and a remedy. In this regard, I urge Turkey to immediately launch an impartial, transparent and independent investigation into the incidents we have verified, account for the fate of those detained and abducted by the affiliated armed groups, and hold accountable those responsible for what may, in some instances, amount to crimes under international law, including war crimes”, said Ms. Bachelet.   

 “This is all the more vital given that we have received disturbing reports that some detainees and abductees have allegedly been transferred to Turkey following their detention in Syria by affiliated armed groups.” 

Civilian deaths, unknown fates 

OHCHR has verified that since January, at least 116 civilians were killed in these areas, and some 463 injured, by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and explosive remnants of war (ERW).  Those killed included 15 women, 20 boys and two girls. 

Staff have also documented the abduction and disappearance of civilians, including women and children. The fate of some of them remains unknown. 

Meanwhile, a rise in infighting among the groups over power-sharing has also put civilian lives and civilian infrastructure at risk. 

Turkish-affiliated armed groups have also seized and looted homes, land and other properties without any apparent military necessity, and have occupied many of them with their own families. 

Water as a weapon of war 

Ms. Bachelet remains concerned that warring parties in Syria are using water, electricity and other essential services as a weapon. 

She cited the example of Turkish-affiliated armed groups disrupting water supply in Ras al-Ain, affecting access for up to one million people, including displaced people living in camps. 

Similarly, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which controls al-Hassakeh, has been accused of hindering electricity supplies for the pumping station. 

  “As we have previously warned, impeding access to water, sanitation and electricity, endangers the lives of large numbers of people, a danger rendered all the more acute amid fighting a global pandemic”, said Ms. Bachelet.   

She urged all parties to the conflict to ensure protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure.  

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