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Afghanistan conference draws donor pledges and calls for lasting ceasefire

INTERNATIONAL, 24 November 2020, Peace and Security - International donors pledged financial and political support for Afghanistan’s peace process at the 2020 Afghanistan Conference in Geneva on Tuesday, anticipating a sustainable ceasefire that will help the country rebuild and heal after decades of conflict. 

“Today, I believe, is a good day for Afghanistan, and for the people of Afghanistan”, Deborah Lyons, head of the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA), told a news conference. 

She said the world had come together to give an emphatic message to the people of Afghanistan.  

“What is the message? We stand with you.” 

Violence ongoing 

Violence has continued in Afghanistan despite peace talks that began in September. Twin explosions in the central Afghan city of Bamiyan on Tuesday killed at least 14 people, injuring 45 or more, media reports said.  

According to a press release from UNAMA, donors pledged at least US$ 3.3 billion for the first year of the upcoming four year period, "with annual commitments expected to stay at the same level year-on-year."

. But the money was not free, Ms. Lyons said: donors expected it would be well spent and the Government would be held accountable for how it was distributed, with an expectation that the country would hold on to the gains made in the past and keep strengthening institutions of governance and the protection of human rights.  

Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs Pekka Haavisto, whose Government co-hosted the event together with Afghanistan and the United Nations, said 66 governments and more than 30 international organisations had taken part in the conference, mostly online, because of COVID-19.  

“All eyes in Afghanistan are towards Geneva”, said Afghan Deputy Minister of Finance Abdul Habib Zadran. “They are expecting a lot from the international community.” 

Guterres: unconditional ceasefire call 

Earlier, UN Secretary-General António Guterres addressed the conference in a video message, saying the Afghan people had suffered for far too long, and Afghan women had paid a high price in the conflict, many suffering extreme violence and the loss of homes, loved ones and communities. It was absolutely essential that women played a meaningful and equal role in determining the outcome of the peace process, he said.  

He called for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire to save lives and prevent the further spread of COVID-19 in the country.  

“Progress toward peace will contribute to the development of the entire region and is a vital step towards the safe, orderly and dignified return of millions of displaced Afghans. The United Nations stands with the people of Afghanistan on the path toward peace, development and self-reliance.” 

Mr. Guterres’ remarks were followed by a keynote speech from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, delivered via video link. 

A demand for peace – President Ghani 

Speaking via video-link, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told the conference that his government faced the challenges of corruption, the pandemic, poverty, uncertainty and insecurity, and he also wanted an immediate ceasefire.  

“What is the main priority of the Afghan people? A demand for peace. Today, we the Afghan people, government, and international community, share a vision of a sovereign, unified, democratic Afghanistan at peace with itself, the region and the world, capable of preserving and expanding the gains of the past two decades”, he said.  

“We must bring an end to the violence that is haunting our lives and robbing our children of the joys of childhood”, President Ghani said.  

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Protect civilians uphold human rights, UN tells warring parties in Ethiopia

INTERNATIONAL, 24 November 2020, Peace and Security - The UN's top human rights official has called on the parties to the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region to give “clear and unambiguous orders” to their forces not to target civilians, and protect them from assault. 

In a statement on Tuesday, Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, voiced concern that rhetoric on both sides ahead of what it is feared will be a major battle for the regional capital, Mekelle, “is dangerously provocative and risks placing already vulnerable and frightened civilians in grave danger”. 

“I fear such rhetoric will lead to further violations of international humanitarian law”, she warned. 

“Such rhetoric suggests possible breaches of the cardinal principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution in the conduct of hostilities that are designed to ensure the civilian population is protected.” 

There are reports of a heavy build up of tanks and artillery around Mekelle, following the Ethiopian Government’s 72-hour ultimatum to the forces loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to surrender. The deadline will be reached in a matter of hours.  

Guterres - 'deeply concerned'

Later in the day, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement he was "deeply concerned over the unfolding situation in the Tigray region", and urged "the leaders of Ethiopia to do everything possible to protect civilians, uphold human rights and ensure humanitarian access for the provision of much-needed assistance. He also calls for the free and safe movement of people searching for safety and assistance, regardless of their ethnic identity, across both national and international borders."

Protection of civilians ‘paramount’ 

The UN human rights chief’s statement was made in response to reports that TPLF fighters were stationing themselves among the civilian population. 

However, this does not give the Ethiopian Government “carte blanche to respond with the use of artillery in densely populated areas” as it seeks to take control of the region, she added, stressing that under international law, parties to a conflict should take all possible measures to protect civilians. 

“I remind all parties to the conflict that the obligation to respect international law is not conditional on the other party’s behaviour. All parties to the conflict are bound to respect international humanitarian law and human rights law as applicable. The protection of civilians is paramount,” she said. 

Refugees swell beyond 40,000 

Meanwhile, Ethiopian refugees continue to stream into Sudan, with the number surpassing 40,000 since the crisis began, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has reported, adding that humanitarian needs are outpacing the response capacity. 

“[We] have been able to deliver and distribute life-saving aid, including food, to more people. But the humanitarian response continues to face logistical challenges and remains overstretched. There is not enough shelter capacity to meet the growing needs”, Babar Baloch, UNHCR spokesperson, told journalists at a media briefing in Geneva. 

Mr. Baloch also voiced concern over the situation of civilians, including displaced persons and aid workers in the Tigray region. 

He reiterated the call on all parties to enable the free and safe movement of affected people in search of safety and assistance, including across international and within national borders, regardless of their ethnic background. 

Free, safe access ‘urgently needed’ 

According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), around half a million people, including about 200 humanitarian workers remain in Mekelle. 

At the same briefing, OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke, said that UN and partners in Ethiopia remain ready to provide assistance to people affected by the conflict, adding that “free, safe and unhindered humanitarian access is urgently needed” to allow that to happen. 

He also said that OCHA has finalized a humanitarian preparedness plan intended to help 2 million people with assistance in Tigray, Afar and Amhara regions, which includes existing humanitarian caseloads and an additional 1.1 million people expected to be in need of assistance as a result of the conflict. 

“To support this plan, about $76 million will still be needed to finance it”, added Mr. Laerke. 

The Secretary-General said in his statement that he was giving "the full support of the United Nations to the initiative of the Chairperson of the African Union, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, to facilitate peaceful solutions. He urges all parties to seize this opportunity to de-escalate tensions."

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Iraq: Continued international support vital amid ‘multiple storms’

INTERNATIONAL, 24 November 2020, Peace and Security - As authorities in Iraq continue to operate “in the eye of multiple storms”, international support remains essential for resolving ongoing political, security, economic and social crises, as well as the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Security Council heard on Tuesday. 

UN Special Representative in Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert briefed ambassadors, at what she called “this critical juncture” in the country’s modern history. 

“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that local problems hardly ever remain local, and that domestic trouble rapidly translates into trouble abroad”, she told the virtual meeting. “In other words: Your continued support is vital, and much appreciated.”  

Reforming the economy 

Ms. Hennis-Plasschaert said Iraq’s economic woes have only worsened in the pandemic.  The economy is projected to contract by nearly 10 per cent this year, while oil prices continue their downward slide. 

She reported that the Government issued a white paper last month which outlined structural imbalances in the economy and much-needed reforms. 

The measures are necessary to diversify the economy and to advance sustainable development, but also to meet the aspirations of scores of Iraqis who took to the streets last year to denounce corruption, high unemployment and other pressing concerns. 

‘Step up to the plate’ 

However, implementation is another question, according to the UN envoy. 

“One thing is clear: without broad political consensus to transform the  white paper into reality, it risks remaining just ‘words’ on a page”, she warned. 

“But let me emphasize: serious, resolute measures to address the ongoing financial and economic crisis cannot wait, not for a day.  Government, parliament, political parties and others will have to step up to the plate collectively.” 

A role for improved governance 

With Iraq on track to hold elections in June, Ms. Hennis-Plasschaert hoped reforms “will not be swept under the carpet”, which would only worsen the economic situation and thus potentially fuel unrest. 

In the interim, the Government has resorted to borrowing to meet its obligations through the end of the year, including payment of civil servants’ salaries. 

The top UN official noted that related legislation initially had funding for economic reforms as an objective.   

“However, the law, as actually amended and adopted by Parliament, significantly limits the government’s room for manoeuvre. One therefore must ask whether the ends justify the means”, she said. 

The UN envoy recalled the fundamental importance of fighting corruption, stating “any effort to reform Iraq’s economy must be accompanied by improved governance and transparency.” 

Elections on the horizon 

Turning to the upcoming vote, Ms. Hennis-Plasschaert reported that the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), which she heads, has begun ramping up technical assistance ahead of the process.  

She underlined that the elections will be Iraqi owned and led, while reaffirming that all phases of the preparations must be free from political interference. 

“Indeed, the responsibility for credible elections lies not only with the Iraqi authorities, but with all Iraqi electoral stakeholders, with all political actors and with all Iraqi citizens - who are called upon to play a greater role in the public sphere”, she stressed. 

Ms. Hennis-Plasschaert urged Iraqis, particularly women and young people, to “seize this opportunity to make their voices heard”, whether as voters or as candidates.

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DR Congo: War crimes conviction ‘an important victory’ for justice – UN envoy

INTERNATIONAL, 24 November 2020, Law and Crime Prevention - Two senior UN officials welcomed on Tuesday the war crimes conviction and life sentencing of an armed combatant in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). 

Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, and her counterpart on Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba, lauded the Cour Militaire Opérationnelle of North Kivu for the conviction and sentencing of Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka – part of the Nduma Defence of Congo armed group (NDC-Sheka) – on charges that included rape, sexual slavery and the recruitment of children.  

Ms. Gamba called the verdict “an important victory for those who seek justice for grave violations against children” in the DRC and elsewhere.  

“It is a formidable example showing that no individual, no matter how powerful, is immune from being held accountable for those violations”, she added. 

Appalling crimes 

He and co-conspirators, including Séraphin Nzitonda Habimana, also known as Lionceau, of the so-called Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), were tried for mass crimes committed between 2010 and 2017. 

Among the violations were attacks in 2010 against civilians in Walikale territory in which the UN Joint Human Rights Office said that at least 387 civilians suffered sexual violence. The Security Council condemned the assaults in the strongest terms and called for the perpetrators to be held accountable and prosecuted.  

Thereafter, Mr. Sheka was added to the Security Council sanctions list for the DRC. Following a two-year trial that began in 2018, both defendants were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. 

“My mandate has pursued justice for Messrs. Sheka and Lionceau’s crimes with a coalition of national and international partners, for the sexual violence they have committed for over a decade”, explained Ms. Patten. “The verdict sends a strong signal that impunity for sexual violence in Congo will not be tolerated”. 

Verdict sends ‘clear message’ 

Both UN envoys praised the brave victims who came forward to testify, their attorneys and the Congolese prosecutors who pursued the case with diligence.  

They highlighted the broad coalition of national and international actors who worked together to ensure that justice was done, which they maintained stands as a model for the future. 

Moreover, the Special Representatives welcomed the UN’s technical support, particularly that of its Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) as well as the military justice authorities that contributed to the outcome. 

“North Kivu is still subject to insecurity and sexual violence, but this verdict is a clear message to perpetrators that you will be brought to justice no matter how long it takes”, said Ms. Patten. 

‘Justice will prevail’ 

Ms. Gamba added, that “through this verdict, once again parties to conflict are reminded that violations against children cannot be overlooked, and that sooner or later justice will prevail”.  

The Special Representatives also called upon the DRC Government to provide reparations and support to victims of Mr. Sheka’s crimes who still suffer long after the violations.

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'Deplorable' killing of Afro-Brazilian man shows need to address racism, discrimination

INTERNATIONAL, 24 November 2020, Human Rights - The killing of an Afro-Brazilian man, and the widespread outrage it has sparked, underscores the urgent need for the Government to tackle racism and racial discrimination in South America’s largest country, the UN human rights office, OHCHR, said on Tuesday. 

João Alberto Silveira Freitas was beaten to death by two private security guards outside a Carrefour supermarket in the southern city of Porto Alegre last Thursday, the eve of Black Consciousness Day in Brazil. 

Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesperson with OHCHR in Geneva, described the attack as a “deplorable act” which should be condemned by everyone. 

Structural racism and discrimination 

Ms. Shamdasani said the incident was “an extreme but sadly all too common example of the violence suffered by Black people in Brazil”, and  “offers a stark illustration of the persistent structural discrimination and racism” faced by citizens of African descent.  

“The structural racism, discrimination and violence that people of African descent face in Brazil is documented by official data, which indicates that the number of Afro-Brazilian victims of homicide is disproportionately higher than other groups”, she added. 

“Data also shows that Afro-Brazilians, including women, are over-represented in the prison population in the country.” 

Protests and investigation 

Protests have erupted across Brazil in the wake of the killing and an investigation is currently underway.  

The UN human rights office stressed that the probe should be prompt, thorough, independent, impartial and transparent.  Whether racial bias was a factor should also be examined, which in turn should be a consideration in efforts to ensure justice, truth, as well as redress. 

“We also call on the authorities to investigate any allegations of unnecessary and disproportionate use of force against people protesting peacefully following Silveira Freitas’s death and hold those responsible to account”, said Ms. Shamdasani.  

“This case and the widespread outrage that it has sparked highlight the urgent need for the Brazilian authorities to tackle racism and racial discrimination in close coordination with all groups of society, especially those who are most affected.”   

UN Photo/Violaine Martin
Ravina Shamdasani, Spokesperson for the UN human rights office, OHCHR (file photo).

Legacy of slavery 

Like many countries in the Americas, Brazil was part of the Transatlantic slave trade, which lasted for more than 400 years. 

The UN’s Remember Slavery programme called it “one of the darkest chapters in human history”, with more than 15 million people forcibly transferred from Africa. 

The legacy of the past is still present in Brazilian society as in other countries, Ms. Shamdasani told journalists. 

“Black Brazilians endure structural and institutional racism, exclusion, marginalization and violence, with – in many cases – lethal consequences.  Afro-Brazilians are excluded and almost invisible from decision-making structures and institutions,” she stated. 

Legal reform, corporate action 

The UN human rights office underlined that Government officials in Brazil have a particular responsibility to acknowledge the persisting racism in the country, calling this the “first essential step” towards resolving the problem. 

OHCHR has recommended urgent reforms of laws, institutions and policies, including affirmative action, while deeply engrained racial stereotypes –  including among officials in the police and the judiciary – must be tackled.  

Additionally, the Brazilian authorities must also intensify human rights education to promote better understanding of the root causes of racism, the UN rights office advises. They also must take greater action to encourage respect for diversity and multiculturalism, which in turn will promote deeper knowledge of Afro-Brazilian culture, history and contributions to society.  

Meanwhile, Brazil’s business community has a responsibility to respect human rights throughout the economic system. 

OHCHR pointed out that Carrefour is a member of the UN Global Compact, a network of companies committed to supporting UN goals, and has reportedly terminated its agreement with the private security company.  

“Carrefour should explain if, and how, it had assessed human rights risks associated with contracting the company and what steps it had taken to mitigate such risks with a view to preventing a tragedy like this,” said Ms. Shamdasani.

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‘Foundational and necessary change’ needed to heal post-COVID world

INTERNATIONAL, 24 November 2020, Economic Development - With the COVID-19 pandemic precipitating one of the world’s worst health, socioeconomic and humanitarian crises in over a century, the UN chief told a high-level discussion on Tuesday to seize the opportunity “to make real, foundational, and necessary change”. 

“We need global solidarity and coordination”, Secretary-General António Guterres said at the event headlined, ‘Rebirthing the Global Economy to Deliver Sustainable Development for All’.   

He painted a grim picture of the havoc sparked by the pandemic, including more than one million deaths, 100 million pushed into extreme poverty and growing inequalities as hunger doubles and famine looms. 

“The gender equality gap is widening, and women’s labour force participation – a key driver for inclusive growth – has been set back decades”, he bemoaned. “We face an urgent need for climate action and building a sustainable and circular economy”. 

And amidst these ominous challenges, developing countries have been put “on the precipice of financial ruin”.  

Vaccines for all 

Noting his push for a rescue package equivalent to 10 per cent of the global economy and his call last weekend at the G20 Summit of richest nations, to help developing countries, Mr. Guterres acknowledged that the first line of business should be ending the pandemic. 

“Vaccines, tests and treatments must be global public goods, available and affordable for all”, he spelled out. 

“But we still have a gap – a gap in the COVAX facility, a gap of $28 billion and until the end of the year, a gap of $4.2 billion in order to make, indeed, this new vaccine a global public good, a people’s vaccine able to be affordable and available to all”, he continued.   

‘A quantum leap’ 

The UN chief stressed the importance of financing to “build forward and put economies on a sustainable path”, including by strengthening the IMF’s “firepower” to support the developing world. 

Moreover, he maintained the value of enhancing debt transparency and sustainability on a global level and aligning recovery efforts with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.  

“It is the moment to have a quantum leap…a global coalition for net zero greenhouse gas emissions – and act now to integrate the goal of carbon neutrality into all economic and fiscal policies”, he elaborated.  

“We need to implement also necessary measures…for a just transition towards good, new green jobs…[and] to prove that we care for those that will be impacted by the move from the brown to the green economy”.  

New Global Deal  

Vaccines, tests and treatments must be global public goods, available and affordable for all -- UN chief

The UN chief also advocated for a “New Global Deal” in which power, resources and opportunities are shared equally and governance mechanisms that better reflect today’s realities.  

He pointed out that levels of participation in major global institutions, including the Security Council, are pegged too much to “where we were” and not enough to “today’s world”. 

No ‘walk in the park’ 

Christine Lagarde, former Managing Director of the IMF and now European Central Bank president, noted the “good politics and good economics” of shifting focus to the millions of people at the bottom of the economic scale, while acknowledging that transformation would be anything “but a walk in the park”. She upheld the need to respond to current and future shocks, calling it a test of our basic human solidarity. 

Carmen M. Reinhart, Chief Economist of the World Bank Group, observed that many of today’s economic challenges pre-date COVID and stressed the need for “realism and persistence” moving forward if low-income and emerging markets are to survive the current pandemic.  

Journalist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman flagged that the virus will “win the race” if we do not seriously disrupt the transmission chain of the coronavirus, and provide further “economic compensation” for those whose livelihoods have been badly hit by restrictions.

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Fears of Desert Locust resurgence in Horn of Africa

INTERNATIONAL, 24 November 2020, Humanitarian Aid - The Desert Locust crisis which struck the greater Horn of Africa region earlier this year threatening food supplies for millions, could re-escalate as recent strong winds carried mature swarmlets from southern Somalia into eastern and northeastern Kenya, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said on Tuesday.

Although some of the swarmlets that reached Kenya may have already laid eggs before their arrival, there remains a risk of further egg-laying in sandy areas that saw recent rainfalls, according to FAO

“In this case, hatching and hopper band formation can be expected in early December,” said the agency. 

Breeding also continues in central Somalia and eastern Ethiopia where bands of hoppers – non-flying, nymphal stage locust – are present, and a new generation of immature swarms could start forming by the end of November. 

Swarm formation is expected to continue throughout December due to widespread hatching and band formation that occurred mid-November. From the second week of December, several waves of numerous swarms can be expected to move south in Somalia and Ethiopia, reaching northern Kenya, FAO added

A resurgence of the swarms could aggravate food security in the region, where almost 25 million people are already suffering from severe acute food insecurity. Desert Locusts are considered the most destructive migratory pest in the world, devouring large areas of crops and grasses meant for people and livestock. 

Scaling up response 

FAO is supporting authorities in Somalia to scale up anti-locust measures, focusing on areas at high risk.  

“Survey and control operations, by ground and by air, have been scaled-up and are on-going,” said Etienne Peterschmitt, FAO Representative in Somalia.  

“These resources include aircrafts, vehicles, equipment, biopesticides, insect growth regulators and staff that have been strategically been positioned in various parts of the country,” he added. 

In addition to the measures to reduce breeding and swarms, FAO and partners are also supporting farmers in the affected areas. Supplies have been delivered and pre-positioned to assist food-insecure households that are at risk of locust invasion, including planting and replanting packages, supplementary feed and integrated cash assistance and livelihood support. 

Regional situation 

According to FAO, response efforts are also underway in Eritrea, Sudan and southeastern Egypt, as teams continue ground and aerial control operations against groups of hoppers and adults. 

Across the Red Sea, strong southerly winds in mid-November caused immature swarms to move from the interior of Yemen to southwestern Saudi Arabia as well as in the interior north of Riyadh. Some of these swarms may continue further north towards Iraq in the next few days until the southerly winds subside, said FAO. 

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‘Real hope’ surrounding COVID vaccines ‘cannot be overstated’ – WHO chief

INTERNATIONAL, 23 November 2020, Health - Along with other tried and tested public health measures, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) told journalists on Monday that “there is now real hope” that vaccines will play an essential part in helping end the COVID pandemic. 

“With the latest positive news from vaccine trials, the light at the end of this long, dark tunnel is growing brighter”, said Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “The significance of this scientific achievement cannot be overstated”. 

Setting new standards 

Noting that no vaccine in history has been developed as rapidly, the WHO chief remarked that the scientific community had set “a new standard for vaccine development” and now the international community must set “a new standard for access”. 

“The urgency with which vaccines have been developed must be matched by the same urgency to distribute them fairly”, he spelled out, warning of a real risk that the poorest, and most vulnerable will be “trampled in the stampede” to get innoculated. 

ACT Accelerator 

Tedros explained that it was against this backdrop that WHO and its partners had established the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator back in April. 

“The ACT Accelerator has supported the fastest, most coordinated and successful global effort in history to develop vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics”, he attested. 

He said that currently 50 diagnostics are under evaluation; rapid antigen diagnostics are now available for low and middle income countries; while life-saving treatments are being rolled out and new medicines tested. 

Moreover, 187 countries are taking part in the COVAX facility, to collaborate on the procurement and rollout of vaccines, “ensuring the best possible prices, volumes and timing for all countries”, he said. 

Funding needs 

Despite the excellent progress, Tedros said that “only a fundamental change in funding and approach will realize the full promise of the ACT Accelerator”. 

He revealed that $4.3 billion is still needed to support mass procurement and delivery, tests and treatments this year and another $23.8 billion would will be required in 2021. 

“This isn’t charity, it’s the fastest and smartest way to end the pandemic and drive the global economic recovery”, he stressed. 

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), if medical solutions can be made available faster and more widely, they could lead to a cumulative increase in global income of almost $9 trillion by the end of 2025. 

“The real question is not whether the world can afford to share vaccines and other tools; it’s whether it can afford not to”, stated the WHO chief.

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UN ‘extremely concerned’ for safety of Tigray civilians in regional capital, as refugee numbers grow

INTERNATIONAL, 23 November 2020, Peace and Security - The UN on Monday said it was “extremely concerned” over the safety of civilians across Ethiopia’s Tigray region, as fighting between Government troops and those loyal to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) reportedly continued, with the Ethiopian Prime Minister having called on opposition forces to surrender the capital Mekelle, by Wednesday.

Due to a near total communications blackout across Tigray, establishing facts on the ground is proving difficult, but UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told correspondents at UN Headquarters that more than half a million people remain in Mekelle “following information that fighting might move into the city in the coming hours.”

The TPLF was formerly the dominant political party of government in Ethiopia, losing out at the ballot box in 2018, when Abiy Amed won the prime ministership that April, forming a ruling coalition that the TPLF reportedly declined to join.

The TLPF’s leader has reportedly rejected the ultimatum to surrender, and pledged to fight on, denying also that Mekelle was encircled on Monday.

“The UN and its humanitarian partners in Ethiopia are urgently calling on all parties to the conflict to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law and protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, including health facilities, and water systems”, added Mr. Dujarric.

© UNFPA Sudan/Sufian Abdul-Mout
The majority of refugees in Sudan's Um Raquba camp are women and children.

Free and safe movement

Humanitarian colleagues are stressing that it is urgent that all parties to the conflict enable the free and safe movement of civilians fleeing in search of safety and assistance, “including across international and within national borders, regardless of their ethnic identification”, he said.

The UN together with partners in Ethiopia, is on standby to provide humanitarian assistance to people impacted by the conflict. But the UN Spokesperson made it clear that for aid to reach those in need, “free, safe and unhindered humanitarian access is urgently needed.”

Nearly 39,000 people have now fled across the border into neighbouring Sudan, including 17,000 children. The response is scaling up, he added, “but the influx of arrivals is outpacing the capacity on the ground and additional funding is urgently needed.”

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, has begun to relocate refugees from transit centres to a displacement settlement in Um Raquba, where the UN reproductive and maternal health agency UNFPA, is working with partners to provide critical services.

‘Slaughtered in front of my own eyes’

A majority of the relocated refugees are women and children: “I have seen men are slaughtered in front of my own eyes. I cannot forget that”, one young woman told UNFPA officials in the southeast Sudanese camp at Um Raquba, during a needs assessment in the past few days.

“I ran from home when the gunfire was going off. I still don’t know where my father and brothers are.”

Many of the women and girls are fearful for their safety. Vulnerability to gender-based violence often increases during humanitarian crises.

“When I left, I fled with seven children. We travelled for four nights on foot across the bush and forest. During day, we hid”, one 37-year-old refugee told UNFPA. “I have two daughters, 20 and 18 years old. I cannot sleep soundly because I have anxiety over the safety of my daughters.”

Additionally, refugees lack safe toilets and private shower facilities. Women and girls have resorted to walking some distance from the settlement to relieve themselves in the open, exposing them to potential violence.

UNFPA and partners are stepping in to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. Psychological first aid and trauma counselling are urgently needed, the agency said.

© UNFPA Sudan/Sufian Abdul-Mout
Supplies are brought into Um Raquba settlement in Sudan.

Reproductive health needs unmet

Women’s reproductive health needs are also dangerously unmet. The nearest referral health facility able to provide post-rape treatment or emergency obstetric care is about 40 minutes from Um Raquba.

“One woman lost her baby after nine months of pregnancy due to a lack of services”, said Massimo Diana, UNFPA’s Representative in Sudan. The woman had arrived at the health centre too late to deliver safely.

“No woman should have to go through this, and we are working to ensure services are available to save lives”, he added.

UNFPA estimates that, of the newly arrived refugees in Sudan, more than 700 are likely to be pregnant, and there may be around 150 survivors of gender-based violence in need of assistance. This estimate is based on the Minimum Initial Service Package for Reproductive Health in Crisis calculations, wherein around 2 per cent of women of reproductive age are expected to experience sexual violence.

More than 7,500 refugees are estimated to be women of reproductive age.

“The first day I arrived in this camp, I began menstruating,” one 26-year-old refugee told UNFPA. “One day, I stayed wearing stained, bloody clothes. Then I sold my only valuable - my Android phone - to buy underwear, cotton and soap to deal with menstruation.”

UNFPA responding

UNFPA is working to establish safe spaces for these women and girls, where they can find psychosocial support and referrals to health and other services. With partners, UNFPA is also working to distribute dignity kits, which contain hygiene supplies such as sanitary napkins, clothing, soap, undergarments and other necessities.

UNFPA has provided clean delivery kits containing basic supplies to facilitate a safe childbirth, including antiseptic cream, a razor to cut the umbilical cord, a sterile sheet for a woman to deliver on, and a blanket to warm the baby. More comprehensive emergency reproductive health kits are being provided to health workers and to clinics that are being set up on-site.

“The situation for these women and girls is extremely difficult, and there is widespread trauma. We are working urgently with our partners to provide life-saving sexual and reproductive health services and psychosocial support, and to protect women and girls from harm”, said Dr. Natalia Kanemv, UNFPA Executive Director. 

“With many more people expected to cross the border, additional support will be critical to meet rising needs.”

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UN expert calls for urgent action to end ‘pandemic of femicide and violence against women’

INTERNATIONAL, 23 November 2020, Human Rights - COVID-19 is overshadowing what has become a “pandemic of femicide” and related gender-based violence against women and girls, said independent UN human rights expert Dubravka Šimonović on Monday, calling for the universal establishment of national initiatives to monitor and prevent such killings.  

Ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, marked on 25 November, Ms. Šimonović said the rise in femicides and violence was “taking the lives of women and girls everywhere” around the world, as the coronavirus continues to rage out of control.  

‘Femicide watches’  

The UN Human Rights expert called on “all States and relevant stakeholders worldwide to take urgent steps to prevent the pandemic of femicide or gender related killings of women, and gender-based violence against women, through the establishment of national multidisciplinary prevention bodies or Femicide watches/observatories on violence against women”.  

She said those bodies should be mandated to collect comparable and disaggregated data on femicide or gender-related killings of women; conduct an analysis of femicide cases to determine shortcomings, and recommend measures for the prevention of such cases; and ensure that victims are not forgotten, by holding days of remembrance. 

According to data collected since 2015 though the Femicide Watch initiative, and data available from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “among the victims of all intentional killings involving intimate partners, more than 80% of victims are women”.   

Preventable killings 

During the past five years, a growing number of States have either established anti-femicide initiatives, and in an increasing number of countries, it is independent human rights institutions, civil society organizations, women’s groups, or academic institutions, that have established watches or observatories.  

In his statement to the High-Level Meeting on the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women this past October, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for affirmative action to prevent violence against women, including femicide. 

Data collected by observatories should be comparable from country to country, and disaggregated “under categories of intimate partner and family related femicides, based on age, disability, gender identity, migrant status, internal displacement, racial or ethnic origin and belonging to indigenous communities or to a religious or linguistic minority”, the statement concluded.  

The Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. They work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. 

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