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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Shortsighted and 'stupid mistake' not to support affordable COVID vaccine for all, says Guterres

INTERNATIONAL, 15 September 2020, Health - The march of COVID-19 which has “put us on our knees”, should be a lesson in humility for world leaders, and a lack of solidarity on the part of some richer nations towards developing countries, means we will all pay a heavy price, the UN chief has told UN News, in an exclusive interview ahead of the new General Assembly session. 

“We need an affordable vaccine for everybody everywhere, because we will only be safe if everybody’s safe”, warned António Guterres. “To think that we can preserve the rich people, and let the poor people suffer, is a stupid mistake.” 

In a wide ranging-interview, just ahead of the unprecedented and mostly virtual UNGA75, Mr. Guterres outlines his priorities for the year ahead, with the unpredictable threat of the coronavirus that is still spreading, together with the opportunities that he sees to radically change course for the long-term benefit of all. 

The UN chief reiterates the imperative of silencing the guns through a global ceasefire so the world can truly unite against the virus; building true solidarity through the “global public good” of a vaccine for all, available to all; and making sure the world keeps global warming below 1.5 degrees and achieves carbon neutrality through climate action, by 2050.  

He outlines the importance of women taking power for themselves, ending inequalities through a sea change in attitudes over discrimination, gender, disabilities and equal rights. 

You can find a partially-edited transcript of the interview below, as well as our Lid is On podcast featuring the interview, and UN video capturing some of the highlights – all featured on this page. 

UN News: COVID-19 has hit the world hard and changed many things. We’ve seen amazing acts of solidarity, but there are still some struggles ahead. How do you assess where we are now with this pandemic? 

UN Secretary-General António Guterres: I’m very worried. The pandemic has shown us the enormous fragility of the world. Not only in relation to COVID-19, but also in relation to climate change, to the lawlessness in cyberspace, the risks of nuclear proliferation, to the impacts of inequality in the cohesion of societies. 

A microscopic virus brought us to our knees. This should lead to a lot of humility in world leaders, and solidarity in the fight against COVID-19.

A microscopic virus has put us on our knees. This should lead to a lot of humility in world leaders, and to unity and solidarity in the fight against COVID-19. But we know that there has been no unity. Each country has adopted its own strategy, and we see the results: the virus has progressed everywhere. 

In developing countries, people are suffering so much from this lack of solidarity. This is negative for everybody, because if we are not able to properly address COVID-19 in these countries, the virus goes back and forth and we will all pay a heavy price, even in the richest countries in the world. 

UN News: What would you hope governments and community do to overcome it and emerge stronger? 

SG: We need everyone to work together in cooperation.  It is absolutely essential that a vaccine be considered a global public good, a people’s vaccine. And that we won't have a competition of countries trying to get as many vaccines as possible for themselves, and forgetting about those that have less resources. 

We need an affordable vaccine for everybody, everywhere, because we will only be safe if everybody’s safe. To think that we can preserve the rich people and let the poor people suffer, is a stupid mistake. 

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services
Firefighters in Queensland, Australia, tackle a blaze which is threatening local communities.

UN News: COVID-19 may have diverted attention and resources away from the urgent need for climate action. What are three key things that must be done immediately for the world to shift gear on this issue?  

SG: Our objective has been defined by the scientific community. We absolutely must limit the growth in temperature to 1.5 degrees, by the end of the century. For that, we need to have carbon neutrality by 2050. And for that, we need to have a reduction of about 45 per cent of emissions in the next decade. 

So, the objectives are clear. How can we reach them? We need a total commitment, especially of the big emitters, to all the transformational actions in energy, in agriculture in industry, in transportation, in all areas of our life, we need transformation actions that make it possible to reach those objectives. 

We absolutely must limit the growth in temperature to 1.5 degrees, by the end of the century. For that, we need to have carbon neutrality by 2050.

And it’s very simple. We should stop spending taxpayers’ money in subsidies to fossil fuels. We should massively invest in renewable energy because it’s cheaper, it’s most profitable. It’s not only the right thing to do, it is the best economic thing to do.  

We need to stop the construction of coal power plants. We need to invest in new forms of mobility, namely through electric cars; we need to invest in hydrogen. That is the fuel of the future.  

And at the same time, we need to conduct protection of biodiversity, protection of forests, transformation in our agriculture. In all these aspects, we need to work together with a common strategy and with a clear objective, we need to be carbon neutral in 2050. 

UN News: The 2030 deadline set for the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals is really not too far away. How should world leaders re-focus efforts, to achieve the SDGs? After all they are our blueprint for a more sustainable and equitable planet. 

SG: Well, because of COVID-19 and the need to recover our economies, we are spending trillions of dollars at the present moment. So, if you are spending thousands of dollars, let’s do it in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Let’s do it in line with the 2030 Agenda. Let’s rebuild our economies better with more equity fighting inequality, with more sustainability fighting climate change, and addressing all the other aspects that are relevant in the Sustainable Development Goals – be it the reduction of poverty, be it the protection of the oceans, be it things related to education, to health, to governance.

So, COVID-19 is a threat, is a problem, but it is also an opportunity, because as we are to change, we can change in the right direction. As we are mobilizing massive resources to rebuild, we can rebuild in the right direction and our blueprint must be Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals. 

UN Photo/Mark Garten
Secretary-General António Guterres interacts with young people at a UN75 Dialogue with youth on the theme "Youth in the Driving Seat", in January 2020.

UN News: The UN has been around for 75 years, and you’ve called on everyone to participate actively in the UN75 conversations, especially those not often heard, including youth. You have spoken to youth, but also you were often in listening mode. What encouraged you from those conversations with youth? 

SG: A very strong commitment of youth to international corporation. The young generation is much more cosmopolitan than my generation. They feel a universalist approach to problems. They understand that we need to be together.  

We need a stronger multilateralism, but the multilateralism that is also people’s multilateralism, in which they can participate in decision making.

And so they understand that we need a stronger multilateralism, but a multilateralism that is also a people’s multilateralism, in which they can participate in decision making, and this very strong commitment of young people to ideas like Universal Health Coverage; to ideas like climate action; to ideas like more justice and equality in our societies; gender equality (the) fight against racism. All these aspects show very committed young people. That is the biggest hope I have in relation to our common future. 

UN News: Some 25 years ago, the Beijing Declaration was a historic turning point for advancing the rights of women. But millennia of patriarchy have resulted in a male dominated world. What would you like to see men do, to ensure we have gender policy parity and equality? 

SG: Men must understand that it is in the interest of everybody, not only of women, to have gender equality and gender parity, because the world will be better. 

It is true we live in a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture. That is why it is so important in the UN to reach parity. And we have done it at the top level, but we now need to do it everywhere. 

There is essentially a question of power and we need to have – I don’t like to use, ‘empowering women’ – it looks like we are giving power to women. Power is not given, it’s taken, but we need to have women moving, in order to assert their role in society. And we need men understanding that that is a positive thing. 

UN News: Mr. Guterres, you’ve spoken passionately about inequalities and injustice, the cause of many problems in the world today. What are some of the most damaging examples of these, and how can multilateralism be the answer for all humankind to benefit? 

SG: It’s very shocking from the point of view of wealth and income, to see 1 per cent of humankind, having more resources than half of the world population. But I would say the most shocking aspects of inequality are not necessarily linked to money.  

It’s the inequality linked to discriminations in relation to gender, in relation to racism, in relation to religion, in relation to people with disability, in relation to the LGBTQI community. I mean, we need to have a society in which cohesion is our objective. We need to invest in cohesion to make every community - indigenous communities, minorities in societies, every community – feel that their identity is respected, but also that they are part of the society as a whole. 

UN News: Mr. Guterres, the last word is for you. This is a virtual General Assembly, devoid from the usual fanfare, but full of urgency and gravitas and hope. What would you want world leaders and the public to take away from this UNGA75? 

SG: Well, of course, many things, but if I would have to choose, say priorities, I would say, let’s make sure that we have a global ceasefire. Let’s make sure that we’ll have a vaccine that is a global public good, and people’s vaccine. And let’s make sure that when we rebuild our economies, we do so to reach carbon neutrality in 2050. 

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New General Assembly underscores ‘necessity of multilateralism’

INTERNATIONAL, 15 September 2020, UN Affairs - The 75th session of the UN General Assembly opened on Monday with a moment of silence against the unprecedented backdrop of the COVID pandemic, as the new president told delegates that the coronavirus had driven home the value of multilateralism “to address our collective challenges”. 

“The context in which we are working, serves to remind us of the necessity of the multilateralism system”, Volkan Bozkir told delegates sitting distanced apart in the gilded hall at New York Headquarters. 

He expressed that it was a deep honour to be hosting the session, noting the importance of meeting in person, “so long as health conditions allow”, and affirmed his intension to convene face-to-face meetings as much as possible. 

While taking the mitigation measures needed to protect the health and safety of delegates and staff,  the UN official upheld that in the "business of diplomacy, there is no substitute to meeting counterparts face-to-face, to build long-term understanding of each other’s positions and forge compromise”.  

Heads of States converge online 

Mr. Bozkir told the plenary that next week the General Debate would be addressed by more Heads of State than ever before. 

He asserted that two weeks of crucial High-level meetings, “will guide our work for the session” and expressed confidence that their impact “will not be compromised by the circumstances”. 

A full agenda 

The newly minted Assembly president promised to do his “utmost to support and lead” the high-level meetings to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the UN; the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women; a high-level commemoration to promote the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons; and the Biodiversity Summit.  

“During the 75th session, we will hold two General Assembly Special Sessions”, he informed the plenary, “one on COVID-19 – the first Special Session convened to discuss a pandemic – and the second against corruption”.  

Mr. Bozkir also set out a list of priorities for his tenure, which include reviewing the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the World Summit for Social Development, and preparing for the Fifth UN Conference on Least Developed Countries.  

There will also be a high-level meeting on water-related goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda  and Oceans Conference, together with revitalizing the work of the Assembly, and discussions over Security Council reform. 

“I will also work with you to successfully implement the various mandates entrusted to me”, he assured. 

A critical year 

After warmly congratulating Mr. Bozkir, Secretary-General António Guterres offered his full support and committed partnership. 

“This year will be a critical one in the life of our Organization”, he said. “We must continue to respond to the immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic by strengthening health systems and supporting the development and equitable distribution of treatments and vaccines”. 

The UN chief highlighted the need to build a strong recovery, based on the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement,  while continuing the Assembly’s work across the full range of global challenges ahead, including peace and security, disarmament, human rights, gender equality, and sustainable development. 

Three-quarters of a century

Marking the 75th anniversary milestone, Mr. Guterres observed that the world has high expectations of the UN as the main multilateral platform in a rules-based international system. 

“The nature of multilateralism is changing, and I have frequently pointed to the need for a more networked and inclusive multilateralism for the 21st century”, he flagged, welcoming the Assembly’s pledge “to work towards consolidating trust and cohesion” among Member States, major groups of countries, and other international organizations.   
  
In closing, the Secretary-General said he looked forward to working closely with the Assembly president during the 75th Session, “to address our shared objectives” and offered the cooperation and support of “the entire Secretariat”. 

“I wish you a very successful mandate”, he concluded.  

‘Great strides’

Outgoing President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande finished off his extraordinary year in office, having to steer the 74th session through the beginning of the pandemic, by paying tribute to former Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuélla, and Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza – both of whom passed away in 2020. 

He thanked the Secretary-General and Deputy Secretary-General for their “unprecedented support” along with Secretariat staff, without whom the “Assembly could not have functioned well”. 

“We started this session guided by the hopes and aspirations of the people we serve”, he said, noting that the Assembly has made “great strides” in  galvanizing multilateral efforts to tackle poverty eradication and zero hunger, quality education, climate action, and inclusion. 

COVID impact

Mr. Muhammad-Bande pointed out that the first High-level Meeting of the Assembly focused on global health, before anyone knew that the year would be defined by a pandemic. 

“The emergence of the novel corona virus (COVID-19) has shown that we have to continue to deepen multilateral cooperation in the health sector”, including scaling up national and global efforts “to build a healthier world for all”, he asserted. 

He expressed gratitude that, at the onset of the pandemic, Member States adopted two decisions that allowed more than 70 resolutions to be passed, and the Chairs of the Main Committees for the 75th session to be elected. 

‘Choose unity over discord’

Underscoring the importance of the Assembly, he recalled that it was “founded upon equality of voice and vote” and its resolutions reflect the “aspirations of humanity”. 

“This is a moment of reckoning for our shared planet and future…a time for action, ambition, equality, inclusion, and partnership”, Mr. Muhammad-Bande said, stressing the need to keep youth engaged in the Organization’s work. 

It is only in doing so can the world be “certain of peace, justice and development”, he endorsed. 

“We must continue to thoughtfully define our actions and uphold our pledge to leave no one behind, even in the face of disagreement”, he said, bowing out of office gracefully. “Indeed, in spite of disagreement, we must practice empathy and choose unity over discord”.

 
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Climate change: Record northern heat, fuels concerns over US wildfire destruction

INTERNATIONAL, 15 September 2020, Climate Change - The northern hemisphere experienced its warmest August ever, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on Tuesday, amid searing conditions that have contributed to devastating wildfires on the west coast of the United States.

“The northern hemisphere just had its hottest summer on record”, said Clare Nullis, WMO spokesperson.

“It also had its hottest August on record; this is according to figures released last night by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).”

Data indicates that from June to August, temperatures were 2.11 degrees Fahrenheit (1.17 degrees Celsius) above average.

Five warmest summers since 2015

This surpasses previous warmest periods in 2016 and 2019, Ms. Nullis said, adding that the five warmest summers for the northern hemisphere have occurred since 2015.

At a global level, August was the second warmest on record, the WMO spokesperson added, citing NOAA data, at 1.69F (0.94C) above the 20th-century average of 60.1F (15.6C).

The past month was the 44th consecutive August and the 428th consecutive month, with temperatures above the 20th century average. “The 10 warmest Augusts on record have all occurred since 1998”, she said.

The 2020 fire season on the west coast of the US has also been record-breaking in its scale, with some 16,0000 firefighters involved in the effort to protect people and towns in California alone.

16,000 firefighters battling blazes

“The heat has contributed to a very, very destructive fire season”, Ms. Nullis said. “As we know, the states of California, Oregon and Washington have been worst-hit, entire neighbourhoods razed to the ground, forcing the evacuation of hundreds and thousands of people and tragically causing casualties.”

In addition to fatalities and destruction, the fires have impacted air quality for millions of people and turned skies orange, the UN agency warned. Satellite images show clouds of smoke billowing over the western Pacific and likely travelling more than 1,300 miles (2,092 kilometres).

The smoke led to a hazy morning on the opposition coast, as the sun battled to shine through an unusual layer of smog in New York City.

Citing “red flag” conditions in northeastern California for much of this week, Ms. Nullis explained that this was the most dangerous threat level and that it is characterised by a combination of strong winds and tinder-dry conditions.

Of 41,599 fires recorded in the US so far this year, 36,383 were caused by human activity, the WMO spokesperson continued, with more than 2.5 million acres scorched across the United States.

California saw most individual blazes, with 7,072 human-caused fires reported, according to the US National Interagency Fire Center.

Tropical cyclone threat

Ms. Nullis also warned that the US National Hurricane Center issued advisories for “no less than five” tropical cyclones over the Atlantic basin – tying with the record for the highest number of tropical cyclones there at one time.

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season is so active that it is expected to exhaust the regular list of storm names, the WMO spokesperson said. “If this happens, the Greek alphabet will be used for only the second time on record,” she added.

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Famine threat returns to Yemen, amid upsurge in fighting

INTERNATIONAL, 15 September 2020, Peace and Security - The spectre of famine has returned to Yemen as donor countries fail to make good on their 2020 pledges, amidst an upsurge in fighting, fresh hurdles for aid deliveries, and ongoing efforts to nail down a nationwide ceasefire, the Security Council heard on Tuesday.

Increased funding was the main reason that famine was prevented two years ago, but this year only 30 per cent of promised donations have come through, said Mark Lowcock, the UN’s top humanitarian official.

Choosing not to help

“Unfortunately, those who are in a position to help – and who have a particular responsibility to do so – are mostly choosing not to,” he said, emphasizing that more than 9 million people have been affected by deep cuts to aid programmes.

Several donors – including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, who have a particular responsibility – have, unlike recent years, given nothing so far to the $2.41 billion United Nations humanitarian response plan.

Those three countries are members of the Western and Saudi-backed coalition that is supporting the Government of Yemen, led by Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, against the partially Iranian-backed group Ansar Allah, as the Houthis are formally known.

The UN ranks Yemen as the world’s most serious humanitarian crisis, the result of five years of conflict, disease, economic collapse and a breakdown of public institutions and services - leaving a staggering 80 per cent of its population of 30.5 million, dependent on aid.

Death sentence for families

“Continuing to hold back money from the humanitarian response now will be a death sentence for many families,” relief chief Lowcock said, calling on all donors to pay their pledges and increase their funding.

Painting a grim picture, he said that the Houthis’ closure of the Sana’a international airport to UN and other humanitarian flights – blamed on fuel shortages – are having “severe humanitarian consequences”.

Some 100 metric tonnes of humanitarian cargo were due to fly into Sana’a in the coming weeks, including essential vaccines and medical supplies, he said, adding that a rapid solution is essential to keep aid efforts up to scale.

Slipping off the road to peace: Griffiths

Martin Griffiths, the UN’s Special Envoy for Yemen, updating the Council on political developments, said that increased fighting – particularly around the northern city of Ma’rib – alongside greater humanitarian needs and the COVID-19 pandemic, mean that Yemen is slipping away from the road to peace.

A displaced family in Marib, Yemen, carries a winter aid package back to their shelter., by IOM

“That doesn’t mean that together we cannot turn the corner and move back towards finding a solution to this conflict, but it requires the parties to choose”, said Mr. Griffiths, who last week sent the two sides a fresh draft of a joint declaration that would call for a nationwide ceasefire, economic and humanitarian confidence-building measures, and the resumption of peace talks.

Outline agreement over stricken tanker

Both briefers also discussed the saga of the oil storage tanker FSO Safer, the subject of a special Council meeting in July, which is threatening to spill more than 1 million barrels of light crude into the Red Sea, triggering a massive environmental disaster.

The Houthis have agreed in principle to UN technical experts to board the delipidated former supertanker, take stock of its condition and make essential repairs, but they have yet to issue the required permits.

Mr. Lowcock reported that the UN team has submitted a revised proposal for the Safer, moored off the Houthi-controlled port of Ras Issa, and held several rounds of constructive technical discussions with the de facto authorities.

“Frustrating as the endless delays have been, we are not giving up and we hope the new proposal will be quickly approved so work can start,” he said.

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Syria: Bombshell report reveals ‘no clean hands’ as horrific rights violations continue

INTERNATIONAL, 15 September 2020, Human Rights - Despite a reduction in largescale hostilities since a ceasefire in March, the UN Syrian Commission of Inquiry reported on Monday that armed actors continue to subject civilians to horrific and increasingly targeted abuse.

The Commission’s 25-page report documented continuing violations by nearly every fighting force controlling territory across the country. 
It also highlighted an increase in patterns of targeted abuse, such as assassinations, sexual and gender-based violence, and looting or appropriation of private property.  

And civilian suffering has remained a constant feature of the crisis. 

“For nearly a decade all calls to protect women, men, boys and girls have been ignored”, said Commission of Inquiry Chair Paulo Pinheiro. “There are no clean hands in this conflict but the status quo cannot endure”.

No ‘scintilla of evidence’

With a focus on violations taking place away from large-scale hostilities, the report found that enforced disappearances and deprivation of civil liberties continued throughout the first half of the year, to instill fear and suppress dissent among civilians or for financial extortion. 
It documented a multitude of detention-related violations by Government forces, the Syrian National Army (SNA), Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), extremist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, and other parties to the conflict. 

“All parties in Syria detain civilians without a scintilla of evidence or due process”, Commissioner Hanny Megally declared.

The report concluded that not only do recent cases of enforced disappearances, torture, sexual violence and deaths in the custody of Government forces, amount to crimes against humanity, but they also serve to exacerbate tensions with southern governorates – leading to further clashes.

“All those arbitrarily deprived of their liberty must be released”, he continued, adding, “the international community can and must do more, particularly regarding the camps in the northeast where they can have immediate impact if they have the political will to act”.

Army transgressions

The SNA may have committed war crimes in Afrin and surrounding areas in the north – including hostage-taking, torture and rape – along with killing and maiming scores of civilians through the use of improvised explosive devices, as well as during shelling and rocket attacks, according to the report. 

Additionally, army pillaging and appropriation of private land was rife, particularly in Kurdish areas, and satellite imagery revealed the looting and destruction of priceless UNESCO heritage sites.

Relentless suffering 

Nearly a decade into the conflict, the deepening economic crisis, impact of sanctions and the COVID-19 pandemic, have further diminished prospects of Syrians attainting an adequate standard of living, the report notes. 

Moreover, living conditions across the country remain deplorable and barriers are omnipresent in large swathes of Government-controlled areas.

“The dramatic increase in those suffering from food insecurity in Syria in the first half of 2020 is deeply concerning”, said Commissioner Karen Koning AbuZayd. “All barriers to the provision of humanitarian aid must be removed”.

Repatriation required

While recognizing the complexities of the situation, the Commission found that the SDF’s long-term internment of allegedly ISIL-associates in the northeast, amounts to unlawful deprivation of liberty in inhumane conditions, that cannot continue in perpetuity. 

The Commission called upon Member States to take back from Syria their nationals who are allegedly associated with ISIL, particularly children and their mothers.

Going forward

The report concluded with several recommendations, chiefly a call for all parties to pursue a long-lasting, nationwide ceasefire – in line with Security Council resolution 2254 (2015). 

To save lives, the Commission called for immediate and large-scale prisoner releases, given that overcrowded prisons across the world, have proved to be breeding grounds for COVID-19.  

The Commission also urged the Government to take urgent, comprehensive steps to reveal the fates of those detained or disappeared. 
“I urge all parties to the conflict to heed these recommendations, in particularly regarding achieving a sustainable peace”, upheld Commission of Inquiry Chair.

The penholders

The UN Human Rights Council has mandated the Independent International Commission of Inquiry – Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Karen Koning AbuZayd and Hanny Megally – to investigate and record violations of international law in Syria since March 2011. 

© UNICEF/Khalil Ashawi
To escape conflict in Idlib, Syrians fled to Afrin, where the UN Syrian Commission of Inquiry reported that armed actors are inflicting horrific and targeted abuse.
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UN report highlights links between ‘unprecedented biodiversity loss’ and spread of disease

INTERNATIONAL, 15 September 2020, Health - The continued degradation of the environment is increasing the likelihood of diseases spreading from animals to humans, warns a UN report on biodiversity, released on Tuesday.

The fifth edition of the UN’s Global Biodiversity Outlook report, published by the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), provides an authoritative overview of the state of nature worldwide. 

The report notes the importance of biodiversity in addressing climate change, and long-term food security, and concludes that action to protect biodiversity is essential to prevent future pandemics. 

Wake-up call

The study acts as a wake-up call, and an encouragement to consider the dangers involved in mankind’s current relationship with nature: continued biodiversity loss, and the ongoing degradation of ecosystems, are having profound consequences of human wellbeing and survival.

“As nature degrades,” said Elizabeth Mrema, Executive Director of the Convention on Biological Diversity, “new opportunities emerge for the spread to humans and animals of devastating diseases like this year’s coronavirus. The window of time available is short, but the pandemic has also demonstrated that transformative changes are possible when they must be made.”

the Tikki Hywood Foundation
Some believe that pangolins were involved in COVID-19 transferring from animals to humans (file)

Ten-year targets missed

This year’s study is considered to be particularly significant, because it serves as a “final report card” for the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, a series of 20 objectives set out in 2010, at the beginning of the UN’s Decade on Biodiversity, most of which were supposed to be reached by the end of this year.

However, none of the targets – which concern the safeguarding of ecosystems, and the promotion of sustainability – have been fully met, and only six are deemed to have been “partially achieved”. 

“Earth’s living systems as a whole are being compromised”, said Ms. Mrema, “and the more humanity exploits nature in unsustainable ways and undermines its contributions to people, the more we undermine our own well-being, security and prosperity.”

Although the lack of success in meeting the targets is a cause for concern, the authors of the Outlook are at pains to stress that virtually all countries are now taking some steps to protect biodiversity, without which the state of the world’s biodiversity would be considerably worse. 

The bright spots include falling rates of deforestation, the eradication of invasive alien species from more islands, and raised awareness of biodiversity and its importance overall.

However, this encouraging progress can’t mask the fact that the natural world is suffering badly, and that the situation is getting worse. Financing is a case in point: funding for actions linked to biodiversity has been estimated at between $78 - $91 billion per year, way below the hundreds of billions needed. 

And this figure is dwarfed by the amount of money spent on activities that are harmful to biodiversity, including some $500 billion for fossil fuels, and other subsidies that cause environmental degradation.

UN Environment Programme
Coral Reefs restoration at the coast of Banaire in the Caribbean.

Transitions to a healthier planet

Contained within the report are several recommendations, or “transitions”, which map out a scenario for a world in which “business as usual” is halted, and environmental devastation is reversed.

Under the proposals, ecosystems would be restored and conserved; food systems would be redesigned to enhance productivity, whilst minimizing their negative effects; and the oceans would be managed sustainably.

The design of cities also comes under the spotlight, with calls for a reduced environmental footprint in urban areas, and “green infrastructure”, making space for nature within built landscapes.

The report amplifies the UN’s support for nature-based solutions, hailed as one of the most effective ways of combatting climate change. Alongside a rapid phase-out of fossil fuel use, they can provide positive benefits for biodiversity and other sustainability goals.

And, in relation to health concerns, and the spread of diseases from animals to humans, the report calls for a “One Health” transition, in which agriculture, the urban environment and wildlife are managed in a way that promotes healthy ecosystems and healthy people.

Reacting to the report, UN chief António Guterres said that the transitions represent an unprecedented opportunity to “build back better”, as the world emerges from the immediate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic: 

“Part of this new agenda must be to tackle the twin global challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss in a more coordinated manner, understanding both that climate change threatens to undermine all other efforts to conserve biodiversity; and that nature itself offers some of the most effective solutions to avoid the worst impacts of a warming planet.”

Biodiversity at UNGA 75

The findings of the Global Biodiversity Outlook will be taken up by Heads of State at the UN Summit on Biodiversity, to be held on 30 September, under the auspices of the General Assembly.
The Summit will highlight the crisis facing humanity from the degradation of biodiversity, and the urgent need to accelerate action on biodiversity for sustainable development. Due to measures designed to restrict the further spread of COVID-19, the meeting will be held virtually.
A new set of targets, for the period between 2021 and 2030, is currently under negotiation, and is set to be considered at the 15th Conference of Parties of the Convention of Biological Diversity, which is scheduled to be held in Kunming, China, in May 2021.
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UN urges a more equal, inclusive world, marking International Day of Democracy

INTERNATIONAL, 15 September 2020, Human Rights - The United Nations marked the annual International Day of Democracy, on Tuesday, calling on world leaders to build a more equal, inclusive and sustainable world, with full respect for human rights. 

Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, UN Secretary-General António Guterres underlined the importance of democracy for ensuring free flow of information, participation in decision-making and accountability for the response to COVID-19

“Yet since the beginning of the crisis, we have seen the emergency used in a range of countries to restrict democratic processes and civic space,” Mr. Guterres said in a message marking International Day of Democracy

“This is especially dangerous in places where democracy’s roots are shallow and institutional checks and balances are weak,” he added. 

The UN chief also highlighted that the crisis brought to the fore, and aggravated, long-neglected injustices – from inadequate health systems to social protection gaps, digital divides and unequal access to education; from environmental degradation to racial discrimination and violence against women.  

“Along with the profound human toll, these inequalities are themselves threats to democracy,” he said. 

Well before the pandemic, frustration was rising, and trust in public authorities was declining, and lack of opportunities was driving economic unease and social unrest, continued the Secretary-General, adding that Governments must do more to listen to people demanding change, open new channels for dialogue and respect freedom of peaceful assembly. 

“On this International Day of Democracy, let us seize this pivotal moment to build a more equal, inclusive and sustainable world, with full respect for human rights,” he urged. 

The International Day 

Commemorated annually on 15 September, the International Day of Democracy provides an opportunity to review the state of democracy in the world.  

The International Day was established in 2007 by the UN General Assembly, which reaffirmed that democracy was a universal value based on the freely-expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems, and their full participation in all aspects of life. 

The Assembly also encouraged Governments to strengthen national programmes devoted to promoting and consolidating democracy, including through increased bilateral, regional and international cooperation.   

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Rise to the occasion to tackle injustice, Bachelet urges Human Rights Council

INTERNATIONAL, 14 September 2020, Human Rights - UN Member States gathered in person in Geneva on Monday for a new session of the Human Rights Council, where UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet urged countries to “rise to the occasion” to tackle injustice everywhere.

Addressing the Council on the opening day of the session, Ms. Bachelet also appealed for global solidarity to confront COVID-19, just as the World Health Organization (WHO) announced more than half a million new cases of coronavirus infection, including more than 307,000 on Saturday alone, a record daily figure.

No country spared pandemic

“The world has rarely experienced a simultaneous, global shock as complex as COVID-19,” she said. “No country has been spared, yet the pandemic's medical, social and economic consequences vary widely. I am convinced that for countries across the income spectrum, human rights-based policies can help to shift these impacts from devastating, to manageable; and contribute to a recovery with better protection and greater resilience.”

The pandemic had collided with “entrenched, political, social and economic crises around the world”, the High Commissioner maintained, adding that these “underlying fractures which have made us more vulnerable to this virus – and create entry points for its harms – result primarily from political processes that exclude people's voices and gaps in human rights protection.”

'Profound inequalities'

Turning specifically to the Americas – ahead of separate updates on the situations in Nicaragua and Venezuela - Ms. Bachelet said the severe socio-economic impact of COVID-19 in the region should motivate action on tackling “profound inequalities in development”.

She warned that given the presence of some “fragile” democratic systems, “it may also be a warning of potentially high risks of social unrest”.

The only way to counter this was through a sustainable recovery which would address the root causes of inequalities, exclusion and discrimination.

“It will also be crucial to strengthen democracy and safeguard human rights in response to increasing levels of violence across the region”, she said.

Belarus, Greece, Poland and more in spotlight

Condemning “sharply escalating suffering and turmoil” globally, Ms. Bachelet insisted that human rights principles and actions offered “resilience” against shocks and despair by preventing social, economic and political instability.

As is customary on the opening day of each Council session, the UN rights chief also highlighted a long list of countries where ongoing violations should be addressed.

These included Belarus – where there are continuing “alarming reports” of ongoing violent repression of peaceful demonstrations, “notably women”, Ms. Bachelet said, adding that re-establishing social peace in Belarus would require “far-reaching dialogue, reforms, and accountability for grave human rights violations”.

Of well over two dozen countries mentioned in the High Commissioner’s statement, Poland’s “LGBTI-free zones” were identified with concern, along with Tanzania’s “increasing repression of the democratic and civic space”, ahead of elections next month.

Ms. Bachelet also focused on the need for European Union Member States to alleviate the plight of thousands of migrants and refugees, following last week's fire at a large shelter in Lesvos, Greece, one of five across the Greek islands, before warning ongoing killings and attacks on rights activists by armed groups in Iraq – without accountability, and “deliberate bombings” of health facilities in Syria, where 9.3 million people are food insecure.

Urgent debate call

Echoing the High Commissioner’s concern over Belarus, the EU delegation led a call for a rare Urgent Debate on developments on the country, which Council Members agreed to hold this coming Friday, by a vote of 25 in favour, two against and 20 abstentions.

The initiative was necessary because of the “steep deterioration of the human rights situation” in the eastern European nation, before and after the disputed presidential election in August, said Germany’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Michael von Ungern-Sternberg, head of the EU delegation.

The development followed condemnation of violence used against peaceful demonstrators in Belarus by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who on Friday also expressed concern about the detention of people “exercising their legitimate democratic rights”.

The delegation for Belarus rejected the proposed debate, citing outside interference.

The Human Rights Council meets at least three times a year. Its current 45th session is due to sit until 6 October.

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Countries must ‘get their hands dirty’ to stem COVID and prevent future pandemics

INTERNATIONAL, 14 September 2020, Health - The COVID-19 pandemic has upended a world embroiled in chaos, unleashing catastrophic health, social and economic consequences along with irreparable harm to humanity, according to UN-backed report published on Monday.

A World in Disorder, issued by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB), an independent monitoring and accountability body which prepares for global health crises, (GPMB), notes that the coronavirus has killed close to a million people, impacting health systems, food supplies and economies.

“We can no longer wring our hands and say something must be done”, said Tedros Adhanom, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO).

“It’s time for countries to get their hands dirty and build the public health systems to ensure a pandemic of this magnitude and severity never happens again”, he added.

‘A collective failure’

According to A World in Disorder, it would take 500 years to spend as much on preparedness to equal what COVID-19 is costing the world, which GPMB says will be in the trillions.Last year, the Board warned that the world was unprepared for a deadly pandemic and called for urgent action to break the cycle of panic and neglect that has characterized past responses to global health crises.

The new report provides a harsh assessment of the global COVID-19 response, calling it “a collective failure to take pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response seriously and prioritize it accordingly”.

According to GPMB “the world cannot afford this”.

Accountability is crucial

In many countries, leaders have struggled to take early decisive action based on science, evidence and best practices, leading to a profound and deepening deficit in trust that is hampering response efforts, GPMB highlighted.

“Transparency and accountability are essential in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic”, said GPMB co-Chair Elhadj As Sy. “Trust is the foundation of Government-community relationships for better health but that trust dissipates when governments and leaders do not deliver on their commitments.”

Responsible leadership and good citizenship have been key determinants of COVID-19’s impact, the report notes, underscoring that “systems are only as effective as the people who use them”.

Strengthen WHO

Viruses don’t respect borders -- WHO chief

The report finds that although COVID-19 has demonstrated the deep interconnectedness of the world through economics, trade, information and travel, one of the greatest challenges of the pandemic has been faltering multilateral cooperation.

“Viruses don’t respect borders. The only way out of this devastating pandemic is along the path of collective action, which demands a strong and effective multilateral system”, said GPMB co-Chair Gro Harlem Brundtland, who also served as WHO Director-General from 1998 to 2003. 

“The UN system, which includes the WHO, was created after World War Two and has helped make the world a better place for billions of people”, she continued, adding, “it needs to be defended, strengthened, and revitalized, not attacked and undermined”.

Fragilities abound

The pandemic has not only shone a spotlight on the fragility of the world’s health systems, but on the global economy as well – underscoring the urgency of investing in preparedness to avoid similar tragedies in the future.  

To bring order out of chaos, the report highlights the actions needed to stem the pandemic and avoid the next catastrophe, which calls for responsible leadership, engaged citizenship, strong and agile health security systems, sustained investment, and robust global governance for preparedness.

“This will not be the last pandemic, nor the last global health emergency”, said the WHO chief, “but with the right political and financial investments now, we can prevent and mitigate future pandemics and protect our future and the future of generations to come”.

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UN peacekeeping chief outlines reforms needed to keep operations fit-for-purpose

INTERNATIONAL, 14 September 2020, Peace and Security - Over the next 10 years, the world could well be transformed by potentially lethal new technologies, climate disruptions and disruption caused by expanding cities, the UN peacekeeping chief told the Security Council on Monday, outlining the adaptations required to keep the Organization’s flagship enterprise fit-for-purpose as it confronts daunting new security threats.

“We count on your support, as Council members, as well as that of other peacekeeping partners to strengthen our operations through Action for Peacekeeping (A4P) - and beyond”, said Jean-Pierre Lacroix, Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations, referring to the landmark 2018 initiative to make mandates more streamlined.

Continued engagement

Delivering his annual briefing, he said the Declaration of Shared Commitments – adopted by Member States, the Secretariat and international and regional partners – is the cornerstone of such work.  “Our continued engagement for the implementation of these commitments remains indispensable”, he stressed.

All those involved must build on the progress made and shift into a second phase of A4P implementation, he said.  The Secretariat has begun crafting overarching priorities.  For the next phase - in 2021 and beyond – the Department is drawing on analyses of the persistent challenges and needs facing its operations, pushing to complete tasks pending from the first phase.

It is defining a limited number of global priorities for each A4P thematic area, Mr. Lacroix explained, which will provide strategic direction for reform efforts – for the UN system, as well as for Member States and other partners.

Priority areas

Laying out eight cross-cutting issues, he called first for ensuring that all actions are coherent with – and contribute to – overarching political strategies that advance “positive” peace.

“Aiming for short-term stability is not enough,” he said.  Missions will need to link particular mandate areas – whether protection of civilians or institution-building – back to politics. 

Indeed, the pandemic has laid bare the widespread nature of inequality, he said.  Operations will need more substantive strategic integration with development and peacebuilding actors, on an ongoing basis.  It will likewise be important to deepen integration within operations - among civilian and uniformed components - as well as with the UN country teams.

In addition, focus will be maintained on enhancing Mission and Headquarters performance and accountability, he said, through regular evaluations and policy frameworks. Improving the safety and security of peacekeepers will be essential and the Department will continue the shift towards more agile operations, with improved situational awareness.

Gender perspective not just ‘about numbers’

He also recommended strengthening the Department’s strategic guidance and planning capacities by developing clear objectives that are known to all, deepening efforts to achieve a more robust and agile posture - including by using new technologies – and crucially, applying a gender perspective across all areas of work. 

“Gender is not only about numbers,” he said.  “It is about the meaningful consideration of the gender differentiated impacts of our work and what we hope to achieve.”

Describing broad areas where gains have been made, the peacekeeping chief highlighted political efforts in Sudan, where the initialling of the peace accord between the Transitional Government and Darfur armed groups was facilitated by the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID).

In the area of women, peace and security, he said the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) worked with women’s groups and the Government to develop the first national action plan on resolution 1325 (2000), one of several examples of expanded political space for women’s participation.

And in terms of protection, he said the four large multidimensional missions have conducted major force transformations to shift their posture and presence, strengthening their strategic flexibility and operational adaptation.

International solidarity key to progress

The upcoming 2021 Peacekeeping Ministerial meeting due to take place in Seoul will be another opportunity to contribute, he said.  As the UN celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary, the need to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” remains as imperative as ever.

“It is only through strengthened joint and collective international action and solidarity that we can ensure that progress continues to be made in the right direction”, he stressed.

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