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WHO chief makes last push for countries to join multilateral COVID-19 vaccine effort

INTERNATIONAL, 17 September 2020, Health - Countries which have not signed on to a global mechanism that has pledged to provide fair and timely access to a COVID-19 vaccine, are urged to do so before Friday, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) told a virtual meeting of Member States, held on the eve of the deadline. 

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reminded participants that so far, more than 170 countries have expressed interest in joining the COVAX Global Vaccines Facility

It is co-led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and WHO. 

“I urge those countries that have not yet joined COVAX to do so by tomorrow’s deadline for submitting your commitment agreements to Gavi”, Tedros said on Thursday. 

The COVAX Facility aims to deliver two billion doses by the end of next year. Last month, there were nine vaccines in its portfolio and another nine under evaluation. 

The WHO chief underlined his agency’s support for efforts to develop a vaccine to defeat the coronavirus disease.   

Cases near 30 million 

As of Thursday, there were more than 29.7 million cases worldwide, including more than 937,000 deaths.  

“Vaccines will be a vital tool for bringing the pandemic under control. But we have no guarantee that any one vaccine now in development will work”, Tedros told the meeting. 

“The more shots we have on goal, the higher the chance we will have a very safe and very efficacious vaccine. That is why we are working to foster global solidarity and collaboration in vaccine research.” 

Tests, treatment, vaccines for all 

The COVAX Facility is one of four pillars under the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator which aims to speed up the development and production of tests, medicines and vaccines that will be available to all people, everywhere. 

The ACT-Accelerator was launched in April and so far, has received around $2.7 billion towards meeting the goal of producing the two billion vaccine doses, as well as 245 million treatments and 500 million tests. 

Last week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres appealed for a “quantum leap in funding” to meet the $35 billion still needed.   

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Bolster fragile world to emerge stronger, UN chief urges, marking Peace Day

INTERNATIONAL, 17 September 2020, Peace and Security - A Japanese principle that finds beauty in broken things, should serve as guidance for today’s fractured world as we navigate out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Secretary-General António Guterres said on Thursday during the annual ceremony at UN Headquarters to mark the International Day of Peace on 21 September.

Speaking in front of the Japanese Peace Bell on the grounds of the UN Secretariat, Mr. Guterres outlined how the coronavirus is putting peace at risk, prompting him in March to appeal for a global ceasefire shortly after the pandemic was declared. 

“Beyond war zones, the pandemic is highlighting and exploiting inequalities of all kinds, setting communities and countries against each other,” he stated.  

Prior to ringing the bell, the Secretary-General called for a minute of silence for victims of war and conflict around the world.   

An ‘annual moment of calm’ 

For the UN chief, the Peace Bell Ceremony is “an annual moment of calm” before the high-level segment of the UN General Assembly, which begins next week, in unprecedented circumstances, without the usual teeming corridors and packed conference halls. 

During the largely virtual General Debate, Mr. Guterres will repeat his call for the global ceasefire, stating, “We need to silence the guns and focus on our common enemy: the virus.” 

The pandemic is unfolding in the year the UN turns 75, and Thursday's ceremony also provided a moment to reflect on the Organization’s founding goal of preventing war and promoting peace.  

The Secretary-General described the Peace Bell as a symbol of unity, cast from coins and medals donated by people all over the world.  It was gifted to the UN by Japan in 1954. 

Emerge ‘better than new’ 

Mr. Guterres noted that Japanese culture has a deep appreciation for natural imperfections and flaws, as reflected in an art form known as kintsugi, which takes broken pieces of pottery and fuses them together using golden lacquer.   

“The result is a piece that is not ‘good as new', but ‘better than new’. As we mark the International Day of Peace, let’s apply this principle to our fractured world,” he said. 

“Let’s address the fragilities and inequalities that work against peace, so that we emerge from the crisis stronger than before.   Let’s push for peace wherever conflict is raging and wherever there are diplomatic opportunities to silence the guns.  Let’s prioritize peace and build a safer future for all.”   

Vulnerable suffering most 

The Peace Bell ceremony was beamed globally via live feed, with the UN chief and the new UN General Assembly President, Volkan Bozkir of Turkey, standing at appropriately distanced podiums, in line with COVID-19 measures. 

Mr. Bozkir said the pandemic has threatened health, security and the way of life of people everywhere.  

“Today we stand separated and masked. The pandemic has brought unexpected levels of misery and hardship to many. But it is the most vulnerable who suffer most, and are still suffering, both in conflict, and at the hands of this disease”, he said. 

Youth commemoration 

Under normal conditions, UN Messengers of Peace, such as the renowned American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, would travel to New York to take part in the Peace Bell ceremony. 

Mr. Ma participated virtually in this year's commemoration, as did Jane Goodall, the British primatologist famous for her pioneering research on chimpanzees. 

Prior to the official ceremony, the two UN Messengers of Peace participated in a student observance of the International Day,  held online. Their colleagues -- violinist Midori, conductor Daniel Barenboim, and Paulo Coelho, author of ‘The Alchemist’ -- provided inspirational video messages. 

Ms. Goodall was adamant that the world will get through the pandemic. “But when we get through it, we must get together as a human family,” she advised. “We must set aside differences between nations, religions, cultures, to tackle a far greater threat, which is the climate crisis.” 

Mr. Ma spoke of the need to build trust between the various generations as a means to achieve peace. 

“Intergenerational exchange is incredibly important,” he told the young audience.  “It’s your world, and we need to hand you over as best a world as we can, and trust that you are going to be the great stewards over the next half century.” 

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Human rights violations continue in Burundi under new Government: UN report

INTERNATIONAL, 17 September 2020, Human Rights - UN-appointed investigators have issued fresh warnings about ongoing rights violations and impunity in Burundi, since the death of former President Pierre Nkurunziza, who ran for a third term in 2015, in a move deemed by opposition to be unconstitutional.

In a new report requested by the Human Rights Council, the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi said that there had been “little” in the way of “positive changes” since President Evariste Ndayishimiye “assumed office” in June.

Election violence

Commission of Inquiry member Francoise Hampson described evidence of serious human rights violations during this year’s elections, including summary executions, torture and sexual violence.

“In recent weeks there have continued to be killings, there have continued to be arbitrary detentions and there have continued to be disappearances,” she said. “So it’s slightly surprising that it is continuing as it was even though elections have finished. And that is a matter of very grave concern.”

In a virtual press conference, Commission of Inquiry chairperson Doudou Diene warned that policy shifts, appointments, and public statements by the new Government showed “more cause for concern and warning, than promise”.

This was because key positions in the new Government included individuals who had been identified as having committed rights violations in previous administrations, who face international sanctions.

Military appointments

In addition, the majority of new appointments were from the military, Mr Diene added, while there continued to be no way to bring violators to account inside the country.

Additional findings by the Commission indicated that the country’s human rights situation remains at risk of deteriorating, even after the 2020 elections were held.

This conclusion is supported by numerous recent security incidents and the “continued domination of the public sphere by the Imbonerakure”, the youth wing of the ruling party in Government.

They act as “de facto security agents” in many rural areas, the investigators explained, while also highlighting the “proliferation of hate speech” during the election.

This included using inflammatory rhetoric “with an ethnic dimension”, which remained a tool that could be used by the authorities whenever it was deemed politically expedient, the Commissioners said.

Children targeted

In their fourth and final report before their mandate comes to an end during the current Council session, the investigators also focused on serious violations committed on youngsters under 18, who make up over half of Burundi’s population.

“Sometimes children and adolescents were specifically targeted,” the commissioners said. “They are forcibly recruited into the ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure, other times they were harmed when other family members are the real targets.”

“We very much fear the consequences of the 2015 crisis for Burundi’s future, not least because of the long-term impact it will have on the children”, said Commissioner Lucy Asuagbor.

Among the Commissioners’ recommendations, they urged the Government to free rights defenders immediately, along with journalists and political prisoners.

Multidimensional poverty

They also highlighted that amid systemic economic mismanagement, no less than 74 per cent of the population “lives in multidimensional poverty”.

“The level of corruption appears to be so widespread that every organization, company, or individual bringing funds to Burundi should be exercising the utmost due diligence,” said Mrs Hampson.

The report will be formally presented to the Human Rights Council on Wednesday 23 September

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Reversing land degradation can ‘pre-empt and manage’ conflicts

INTERNATIONAL, 17 September 2020, Peace and Security - To help prevent conflicts and at the same time protect the planet, “we all must tackle environmental degradation”, a top UN official told the Security Council on Thursday.

In a virtual briefing on the humanitarian impact of continued degradation, peace and security, the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), Ibrahim Thiaw, reminded the Council that environmental protection was vital for “our health, our wealth and our wellbeing”. 

“If we, in a coordinated way, avoid, reduce and reverse land degradation we can better prevent and preempt and manage many conflicts in the world”, he maintained. 

Shifting threats

The UNCCD chief outlined that today’s threats have shifted from conflict between States to violence predominantly at the hands of non-State actors.

“An assessment of the root-causes of these conflicts shows that a large proportion have a link to the environment”, he stated, pointing to the abundance of natural resources that can be monetized, such as oil, minerals and wildlife or “the scarcity of land, water and vegetation”.

He noted that in arid lands, such as Africa’s Sahel region, violence often erupts over competition for land.

Conflict causes

Ecosystem degradation, resource competition or inequitable distribution of benefits also increase vulnerability and raises the risk of conflict, according to Mr. Thiaw.

However, he attested, environmental cooperation can “increase capacity to conflict management, prevention and recovery”.  

He said security concerns were not limited to violent conflict but also includes “sustainable livelihoods, health and wellbeing”.

The UNCCD chief asserted that rural-urban migration due to drought and desertification was additionally responsible for different types of violence. 

“Grievances against government might rise when agricultural outcomes are depressed by drought and its induced-out migration”, he said, as an example. 

Risks outpacing solutions

Against the backdrop that the world relies on ecosystems rooted in soil, Mr. Thiaw said that the economy is influenced by the land’s health, which “catalyzes the impact of environmental degradation on peace, security and stability”.

And he explained that the world’s capacity to address security risks driven by climate change and environmental degradation are not keeping pace with the changing landscape of threats.

Moving forward

Reducing environmental security risks should focus on “maintaining the earth’s life-support ecosystem generating water, food and clean air” and on improving “resource governance and social resilience to natural resource shocks and stresses”, he said.

He pointed out that protecting land could trigger a broad peace, stability and ecosystem recovery cycle, that yields “a constructive feedback loop extending far beyond an initial choice to protect the environment”.

WFP/Rein Skullerud
A World Food Programme project to build a dam in Niger provides local people with income for their work and enhances resilience to future droughts.

Tightrope of survival

In his briefing to the Council, Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), spelled out that “from the Sahel and Lake Chad region to warzones around the globe, millions are suffering on the front lines of environmental degradation, climate change and conflict”.

He underscored that peace and security would not be established by focusing only on military and security measures to curb conflict and violence.

“We must ensure, those most at risk are urgent priorities”, said the top ICRC official, adding that building and protecting resilient communities from violence is “critical”.

Voice of youth

Also addressing the meeting, Inna Modja, Earth Ambassador and activist, said forced migration was increasing, causing many to flee the vast Sahel region, which stretches from west to east across Africa.

She encouraged the Council to invest in the region’s “youth and women” as major “agents of change”.

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COVID pushes millions more children deeper into poverty, new study finds

INTERNATIONAL, 17 September 2020, Health - The coronavirus pandemic has pushed an additional 150 million children into multidimensional poverty – deprived of education, health, housing, nutrition, sanitation or water – a new UN study has found. 

Globally, the number of children living in poverty soared to nearly 1.2 billion – a 15 per cent increase since the pandemic hit earlier this year, according to a technical note on impact of COVID-19 on child poverty, issued on Thursday by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the NGO Save the Children. 

Although the analysis paints a dire picture already, UNICEF warns the situation will likely worsen in the months to come. 

COVID-19 and the lockdown measures imposed to prevent its spread have pushed millions of children deeper into poverty,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director.  

“Families on the cusp of escaping poverty have been pulled back in, while others are experiencing levels of deprivation they have never seen before. Most concerningly, we are closer to the beginning of this crisis than its end.” 

Child poverty ‘much more’ than a monetary value 

The study – based on data on access to education, healthcare, housing, nutrition, sanitation and water from more than 70 countries – also finds that around 45 per cent of children were “severely deprived” of at least one of the critical needs in the countries analyzed before the pandemic. 

It notes that child poverty is much more than a monetary value, and while measures of monetary poverty such as household income are important, they provide only a partial view of the plight of children living in poverty.  

To understand the full extent of child poverty, all potential, multidimensional, deprivations must be analyzed directly, the study adds, highlighting the need for social protection, inclusive fiscal policies, investments in social services, and employment and labour market interventions to support families and preventing further devastation. 

“This pandemic has already caused the biggest global education emergency in history, and the increase in poverty will make it very hard for the most vulnerable children and their families to make up for the loss”, said Inger Ashing, CEO of Save the Children.  

“Children who lose out on education are more likely to be forced into child labour or early marriage and be trapped in a cycle of poverty for years to come. We cannot afford to let a whole generation of children become victims of this pandemic. National governments and the international community must step up to soften the blow.” 

Worsening inequalities 

The study also finds that not only are more children experiencing poverty than before, the poorest children are getting poorer as well. Some children may suffer one or more deprivations and others experience none at all, therefore the average number of deprivations suffered per child can be used to assess how poor children are.  

Before the pandemic, the average number of severe deprivations per child was around 0.7. It is now estimated to have increased by 15 per cent to around 0.85, it notes. 

Against this backdrop, governments must prioritize the most marginalized children and their families, underscored Ms. Fore, calling for rapid expansion of social protection systems including cash transfers and child benefits, remote learning opportunities, healthcare services and school feeding.  

“Making these critical investments now can help countries to prepare for future shocks.” 

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Protect health workers to save patients, WHO reiterates on World Patient Safety Day

INTERNATIONAL, 17 September 2020, Health - COVID-19 has reminded the world of the vital role health workers play in relieving suffering and saving lives, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) has said, underlining the need to ensure their safety and protection. 

“No country, hospital or clinic can keep its patients safe unless it keeps its health workers safe,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. 

Towards that end, to ensure health workers have the safe working conditions, training, pay and respect they deserve, the UN health agency released the Health Worker Safety Charter, on Thursday, coinciding with the World Patient Safety Day

The Charter calls on governments and those running health services at local levels to take five actions to better protect health workers.  

The actions include protecting health workers from violence; improving their mental health; protecting them from physical and biological hazards; advancing national programmes for health worker safety; and connecting health worker safety policies to existing patient safety policies. 

► Read the full text of Health Worker Safety Charter

In addition to the Charter, WHO has also outlined specific World Patient Safety Day 2020 goals for health care leaders to invest in, measure, and improve health worker safety over the next year.  

The goals are intended for health care facilities to address five areas: preventing sharps injuries; reducing work-related stress and burnout; improving the use of personal protective equipment; promoting zero tolerance to violence against health workers; and reporting and analyzing serious safety related incidents.   

Health workers at much higher risk of COVID

COVID-19 has not only increased the risk of infection and illness among health workers and their families, it has also exposed them to very high levels of psychological stress. 

Although not representative, data from many countries indicate that COVID-19 infections among health workers are far greater than those in the general population, said WHO. 

They represent less than 3 per cent of the population in the large majority of countries and less than 2 per cent in almost all low- and middle-income countries, but around 14 per cent of COVID-19 cases reported to WHO are among health workers, with the proportion as high as 35 per cent in some countries. 

Thousands of health workers infected with COVID-19 have lost their lives. 

However, with limited quantity and quality of data, it is not possible to establish whether health workers were infected in the work place or in community settings, according to the UN health agency.  

Added psychological stress 

In addition to physical risks, the pandemic has placed extraordinary levels of psychological stress on health workers exposed to high-demand settings for long hours, living in constant fear of disease exposure while separated from family and facing social stigmatization.  

Before COVID-19 hit, medical professionals were already at higher risk of suicide in all parts of the world, said WHO, adding that a recent review of health care professionals found one in four reported depression and anxiety, and one in three suffered insomnia during the global health crisis. 

WHO also highlighted an “alarming rise” in reports of verbal harassment, discrimination and physical violence among health workers in the wake of COVID-19. 

They have had to bear with assaults and armed attacks, physical and psychological threats, denial of services, eviction from their homes, and stigma, obstructions and cyber attacks. 

© UNICEF/Samir Karahoda
A little patient, held by two health workers, receives a routine vaccine in Kosovo.

World Patient Safety Day 

Observed annually on 17 September, the World Patient Safety Day recognizes patient safety as a global health priority and underlines the need to ensure the safety of patients while receiving care. 

The Day was established in 2019 by the World Health Assembly, which called for global solidarity and concerted action by all countries and international partners to improve patient safety. The Day also brings together patients, families, caregivers, communities, health workers, health care leaders and policy-makers to show their commitment to patient safety.  

This year, the Day is being commemorated under the theme, “Health Worker Safety: A Priority for Patient Safety.” 

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UN chief: COVID-19 vaccine must be affordable and available to all

INTERNATIONAL, 16 September 2020, Peace and Security - The continuing COVID-19 pandemic continues to top a long list of global concerns, the UN chief told journalists on Wednesday, noting that “the grimmest of milestones” is upon us. 

“The outbreak remains out of control”, Secretary-General António Guterres declared in his press conference ahead of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) High Level Week, noting that soon one million lives will be “lost to the virus”.   

Recognizing that many pin their hopes on a vaccine, he said, “let’s be clear: there is no panacea in a pandemic”.   

“A vaccine alone cannot solve this crisis, certainly not in the near term”, stressed the world’s top diplomat. “We need to massively expand new and existing tools that can respond to new cases and provide vital treatment to suppress transmission and save lives, especially over the next 12 months”. 

‘Global public good’ 

He emphasized that because the virus “respects no borders”, a vaccine must be seen as “a global public good”, affordable and available to all, but it requires “a quantum leap in funding”. 

Moreover, people must be willing to be vaccinated, but a proliferation of misinformation on vaccines is fueling vaccine-hesitancy, and igniting wild conspiracy theories, noted the UN chief.  

He spoke of “alarming reports” that large populations in various countries are reluctant, or outright refusing, to take a new coronavirus vaccine.  

“In the face of this lethal disease, we must do our utmost to halt deadly misinformation”, affirmed the Secretary-General. 

Renewed ceasefire call 

Mr. Guterres called for a global ceasefire back in March, recognizing the coronavirus as “the number one global security threat in our world today”. 

And next Tuesday he flagged that would renew the appeal at the beginning of the General Debate, for the international community “to mobilize all efforts for the global ceasefire to become a reality by the end of the year”. 

The UN chief recapped that “hopeful new steps toward peace” have been taken, from Afghanistan to Sudan, and a slowdown in fighting in Syria, Libya, Ukraine and elsewhere, had created an opportunity for diplomacy.   

In Yemen, “we are pressing for a ceasefire” he said, and even though “distrust is deep” across these and other crises, “we must persevere”.   

“We must seize every opening in the weeks ahead and make a new collective push for peace”, upheld the Secretary-General. 

A world in flames 

The UN chief then turned to other global fragilities. 

“Even before the pandemic, the world was far off course in efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and losing the battle against climate change”, he said.  

Mr. Guterres recalled that the northern hemisphere was just coming out of the hottest summer on record and that greenhouse gas concentrations in 2020 had reached “new record highs”. 

“The world is burning”, he told the journalists. 

However, Mr. Guterres maintained that the post-pandemic phase offered an opportunity to “get on track and tame the flames”, but that “it must be green” – aligned with the SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement.   

Global solidarity 

Effective multilateralism, gender equality and the voices of youth must also be part of recovery efforts.  

He said that on Monday, Member States would adopt a declaration marking the UN’s 75th anniversary – committing to “a reinvigorated multilateralism”. 

Global solidarity is required to transform the global economy, transition to zero carbon, ensure universal health coverage, move towards a universal basic income, and shift to more open and inclusive decision-making, the UN chief maintained. 

And it rejects “go-it-alone nationalist approaches and divisive populist appeals”, he asserted. 

In this anniversary year, “we face our own 1945 moment”, the Secretary-General said, adding that it must be met with “solidarity and unity like never before” to overcome today’s emergency, get the world moving, working and prospering again while upholding the vision of the Charter.

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Protect lives, mitigate future shocks and recover better: UN-wide COVID-19 response

INTERNATIONAL, 16 September 2020, Health - Over the course of 2020 thus far, the coronavirus has taken hundreds of thousands of lives, infected millions of people, and wreaked socio-economic, humanitarian and human rights havoc, the United Nations said in a new report released on Wednesday.

According to the September update of the UN Comprehensive Response to COVID-19, no country has been spared; no population left unscathed. 

Among other things, the update outlines the steps needed to save lives, protect societies and recover better while pointing the way to addressing future shocks, above all from climate change, and overcoming the universal inequities.

Three-point response

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has often said that the pandemic is a human crisis that has laid bare severe and systemic inequalities.  

“No country has been spared. No population group remains unscathed. Nobody is immune to its impacts”, the report spelled out.

To address this, the UN is pursuing a three-point comprehensive response focused on health, safeguarding lives and livelihoods, and addressing underlying vulnerabilities to rebuild a more resilient, inclusive and sustainable world.

UN report: Saving Lives, Protecting Societies, Recovering Better
United Nations System Comprehensive Three-point Response to Covid-19

Health first

The update revealed that the UN system led the global health response early on, providing life-saving humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable, establishing rapid responses to the socio-economic impact and laying out a broad policy agenda.

Solid science, reliable data, and analysis are critical for policy- and decision-making, especially for the tough choices required during a pandemic, according to the report. 

To help create a knowledge base and provide support to national policymakers, the UN has also issued a series of policy brief that examines the pandemic’s diverse impacts and offers relevant information and advice. 

Containing the virus

The most urgent course of action in dealing with COVID -19 has been to suppress transmission of the virus, through detecting, testing, isolating and caring for those affected. 

This requires physical distancing, fact- and science-based public information, expanded testing, increased health-care facility capacities, supporting health-care workers, and ensuring adequate supplies. 

Some countries can or have already achieved these conditions with their own resources but developing countries continue to need considerable support, the report noted.

Universal access

The update shone a spotlight on the need for the biggest public health effort in human history.

That means a vaccine, diagnostics and treatment for everyone, everywhere. 

At the Global Vaccine Summit in June, the UN chief spelled out, “A COVID-19 vaccine must be seen as a global public good”.

© UNICEF/Dhia Al-Adimi
A volunteer guides and instructs girls in a Yemen slum on the proper way to wash their hands.

Battling twin crises

As climate change is not on hold, recovery from COVID-19 must go hand-in hand with climate action.

And addressing both simultaneously requires a response stronger than any seen before, upheld the report.

It saw recovery as an opportunity to address the fragilities laid bare by the virus, including the climate crisis.

Moreover, it outlined the steps needed to move forward, such as decarbonizing transport, buildings and energy sectors; transitioning away from fossil fuels; and creating jobs to build resilient and sustainable infrastructures. 

Sustaining the response

As the world is still in the acute phase of the pandemic, the UN update maintained the importance of sustained political leadership, unprecedented levels of funding, and extraordinary solidarity between and within countries to recover. 

The Organization will continue to consult with Member States and all partners on how best to support these efforts over the long term.

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Syria COVID spread may be much higher than figures suggest, Lowcock tells Security Council

INTERNATIONAL, 16 September 2020, Humanitarian Aid - Reports from inside Syria are pointing to a much broader spread of COVID-19 than the number of confirmed cases – currently 3,618 – suggests, the UN’s top humanitarian official says. 

Mark Lowcock told the Security Council on Wednesday that it won’t be possible to grasp the extent of the coronavirus outbreak in Syria until laboratory testing is stepped up. 

Transmission ‘widespread’ 

“We do know that community transmission is widespread, as almost 90 per cent of newly confirmed cases cannot be traced to a known source”, he said, adding that COVID-19 infection rates among health workers are also on the rise. 

Presenting the Council with his monthly update on the humanitarian crisis in Syria, he said that a shortage of health workers and medical supplies, combined with temporary shutdowns, are putting more pressure on Syria’s decimated health system. 

Citing an analysis by his Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), he said that in low-income countries, healthcare disruptions resulting from the pandemic could trigger more deaths from preventable illnesses that from COVID-19 itself. 

Economic crisis 

Mr. Lowcock also emphasized the economic impact of the pandemic in Syria, citing recent data that shows that 45 per cent of businesses have temporarily shut down, 25 per cent running at reduced levels and 15 per cent permanently closed. 

In northwest Syria, where 45 per cent of households depend on day labour for their income, more than 70 per cent of households reported that their income is not enough to cover their needs – a 10 per cent jump since January, he said. 

On the question of humanitarian access, the subject of deep rifts among Council members, he said that the United Nations is adjusting its cross-border operations into the northwest to meet the needs of the millions of people who depend on aid shipments to survive. 

Sole crossing for aid 

All UN humanitarian convoys, including those going to Aleppo, now travel from Turkey into Syria via Bab al-Hawa after the Council, through resolution 2533 (2020), closed a second crossing point with more direct access to the north-east. 

Mr. Lowcock said that the distribution of medical supplies from the last World Health Organization (WHO) overland shipment to reach north-east Syria in July is still ongoing.  Recipients so far include 17 hospitals, including 12 previously supplied through the cross-border mechanism. 

On “cross-line” humanitarian deliveries within Syria, he called on all parties to redouble efforts to hammer out details for extending aid to the north-west, an area that includes Aleppo. 

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Venezuela abuses amounted to crimes against humanity: UN-appointed panel

INTERNATIONAL, 16 September 2020, Human Rights - Grave rights violations against anti-government protesters in Venezuela, “amounted to crimes against humanity”, UN-appointed rights investigators said in their first report on abuses inside the Latin American nation.

In their findings published on Wednesday, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela cited evidence of unlawful executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture in the country since 2014.

Senior military and ministerial figures were likely aware of the crimes, said the investigators, who were appointed by the Human Rights Council in Geneva in September last year.

Orders given

“They gave orders, coordinated activities and supplied resources in furtherance of the plans and policies under which the crimes were committed,” the report stated.

President Nicolas Maduro also likely “side-tracked the chain of command”, to ensure the commission of crimes, including the head of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) the report’s authors maintained.

“We have reasonable grounds to believe that the President Maduro did give orders to the director of SEBIN as to who to target”, said investigator Francisco Cox. “After that, these people were surveilled, information was gathered, their communications were intercepted and finally they would be detained without judicial order, just because there was such an order by the President.”

Evidence of crimes

Protesters in La Castellana, a neighborhood in eastern Caracas, Venezuela., by a href=http://bit.ly/2vkFd1n>Helena Carpio/IRIN

Mr. Cox added: “We have involvement on contribution to the crime by Mr. Maduro, either directly through the chain of command”, or sometimes bypassing commanders, “and giving the direct order.”

The panel’s work, which was carried out without the cooperation of the Venezuelan Government, despite official requests, is contained in a 411-page report covering more than 220 cases.

Coordinated violations

Thousands more files were also reviewed which identified “patterns of violations …that were highly coordinated” by the authorities.

These included crime-fighting operations by the State, “politically motivated detention and torture” by State intelligence agencies, and the “increasingly violent response” to mass opposition protests including last year.

Alleged violations included the killing of 36 protesters, as well as torture in detention, including beatings and humiliation, sexual and gender-based violence and mock executions.

State authorities had also failed to intervene in several cases where protesters were killed by armed civilian groups known as “colectivos”, the report’s authors noted, amid an increased State “reliance on military-civilian coordination to maintain public order in recent years”.

International probe call

These crimes were “part of a widespread and systematic course of conduct, thus amounting to crimes against humanity”, the authors maintained, in a call for further action by the International Criminal Court (ICC), along with justice and reparations for the victims and their families.

Although the report notes that “in some limited cases” there have been domestic judicial investigations that have resulted in convictions inside Venezuela for crimes committed, “the vast majority of unlawful killings by security forces have not resulted in prosecutions” the investigators said in a statement.

Few held accountable

“There is as far as we can see no record of any serious investigation into those with a higher level of responsibility in terms of organising crime and instigating these kinds of crimes that have been committed”, said report co-author Paul Seils.

The ICC had “already indicated that it is examining their position”, he added, “and therefore one can assume that it stands ready to make a decision on whether or not to open an investigation”.

Even conservative estimates suggest that Venezuela has one of Latin America’s highest rates of killings by State agents, the report noted.

As part of their work, the investigators examined 16 police, military or joint operations that resulted in 53 extrajudicial executions.

They also reviewed 2,552 more incidents involving 5,094 killings by security forces, not all of which were arbitrary.

Executed at point-blank range

Highlighting the work of Operations for People’s Liberation (OLP), which was established to fight crime, the UN-appointed experts investigated or reviewed 140 operations which resulted in “413 people being killed, sometimes shot at point-blank range”.

The OLP “typically” sent hundreds of armed officers into an area, sometimes using armoured vehicles and helicopters.

In the Santa Rosa de Agua area of Maracaibo, Zulia State, in September 2015, an operation left five men dead and more than 60 detained.

“Most of them (were) fishermen returning from work; women were mistreated and household items looted,” the report explained.

Although the OLP was reformed as the Operations for People’s Humane Liberation (OLHP) before being phased out mid-2017, “extrajudicial executions continued”, the report explained.

“Two security forces – the CICPC and the Special Action Forces (FAES) of the National Bolivarian Police (PNB) – were responsible for 59 per cent of all killings by security forces in the period under review, and were the perpetrators of the extrajudicial executions documented in the report.”

‘Green light to kill’

Citing PNB/FAES officials, the report’s authors said that it was “common practice” to cover up killings.

This was done by planting weapons to simulate “confrontations”, while a source in the report confirmed that superiors could grant officers a “green light to kill”.

Underlining the level of alleged State involvement in such operations – and repeated praise from the authorities for them - investigator Marta Valinas added that these extrajudicial executions were not the result of rogue elements within the security forces.

“High-ranking officials had effective command and control over the perpetrators and knowledge of their actions but failed to prevent or repress the violations”, she said. “The killings appear part of a policy to eliminate unwanted members of society under the cover of combating crime.”

She added: “Most of the victims were young men, who were targeted due to the real or perceived involvement in criminal activities.”

The Mission’s report is due to be presented to the Human Rights Council on Wednesday 23 September.

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