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World News in Brief: Fresh Ukraine attacks condemned, Gaza healthcare, DR Congo needs escalating

INTERNATIONAL, 23 February 2024, Peace and Security - The top UN aid official in Ukraine deplored new attacks on the cities of Odesa and Dnipro on Friday, as the full-scale Russian invasion of the country enters a third year. 

The latest strikes in the centre and south occurred on the eve of the solemn commemoration marking two years of war and one day after deadly attacks in the Donestsk region, located in the east.

‘Grim reality’ unchanged

Denise Brown, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Ukraine, took to social media to voice her condemnation.

“Today’s attacks on Ukraine are yet another blatant example of the Russian Federation’s disregard for their obligations under international humanitarian law, a grim reality that remains unchanged since the escalation of the war two years ago,” she said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

Ukrainian authorities reported that grain stocks and civilian infrastructure, including a power plant, were hit during the strikes.

Meanwhile, the UN humanitarian affairs office, OCHA, said aid organizations continue to do all they can to help people affected by ongoing attacks.

On Friday, they mobilized to provide first aid and critical assistance to people in Odesa and Dnipro, distributing hot drinks and meals as well as repair materials to residents whose homes were damaged. 

Lack of functioning UNRWA health centres in Gaza 

The UN agency that assists Palestine refugees, UNRWA, said just seven of its 23 health centres in Gaza are operational, with only one still functioning in the north.

That information comes from UN humanitarian affairs office, OCHA, which reported that nearly 600 UNRWA staff continue to work in these facilities, where they provided more than 11,000 medical consultations this past Monday.

More than 8,000 additional medical consultations also were carried out by staff at shelters and at newly established medical points in Mawasi area, where people displaced from Khan Younis have been flocking.

Meanwhile, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) continues to support pregnant and breastfeeding women in Gaza, where some 5,500 women are expected to give birth in the coming month, with little to no access to medical support. 

UNFPA has been distributing critical medicine and equipment to health facilities, where access allows, including the Al-Helal Al-Emirati Hospital in Rafah. Items include supplies for maternity, postpartum and reproductive health as well as dignity kits. 

Concern for families caught in DR Congo violence 

UN agencies continue to sound the alarm over the escalating violence and worsening humanitarian needs in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where government troops have been battling M23 rebels.

Since the resurgence of fighting around the town of Sake in North Kivu province earlier this month, some 144,000 people have been forced to flee the outskirts of the provincial capital, Goma. 

Other non-State armed groups have also launched a spate of targeted attacks against civilians this week in the city of Beni and in the Irumu territory in neighbouring Ituri province.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCRsaid on Friday that its protection monitoring teams have received reports of killings, kidnappings and the burning of homes. 

Separately, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) alongside the World Food Programme (WFP) called for immediate action to protect children and families. 

They said the increase in violence and displacement is straining their resources to mount a comprehensive response that includes food, clean water, good sanitation, safe shelter, basic health care and protective services for women and children.

The DRC has become one of the most significant internal displacement crises in Africa, with nearly seven million people displaced, primarily due to conflict in the east. The UN migration agency, IOM, estimates that 1.6 million people have been displaced in the past year alone.

This week, the DRC Government and humanitarian partners launched a $2.6 billion appeal to provide lifesaving assistance and protection to 8.7 million people in need. 

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Sudan: UN struggles to cope with thousands of daily arrivals in South Sudan transit camps

INTERNATIONAL, 23 February 2024, Migrants and Refugees - South Sudan, one of the world’s poorest countries, is dealing with the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from its northern neighbour, Sudan, which has been in the grip of a major conflict between the government and the Rapid Support Forces since April of last year.
Since the outbreak of fighting, the influx of people fleeing Sudan has increased sharply at multiple border points, and more than half a million individuals have crossed the South Sudan border, according to UN estimates.

At the UN-run transit centres in Renk, staff are helping exhausted individuals to travel onwards to their final destinations in the hope of avoiding large numbers staying in this extremely remote, poorly resourced part of the country.

Yvonne Ndege, a spokesperson with the UN migration agency, IOM, travelled to Renk to assess the conditions in the camp. 

She described the scene to Ben Malor from UN News.

Yvonne Ndege: This is one of the most remote parts of South Sudan. There’s hardly any water, food, sanitation, security or shelter. Many of the thousands of people who have crossed the border from Sudan are vulnerable and traumatized. They fled terrible violence and have spent weeks, in some cases months, trying to cross into South Sudan to reach safety.

Yvonne Ndege: Hundreds of thousands of people have been assisted by the UN migration agency to continue moving to other destinations. This assistance is critical because what IOM and other UN agencies don’t want is for refugee camps to spring up in this location as it is so remote. There is no infrastructure, no medical facilities or resources of any kind for those vulnerable arrivals.

This has involved IOM putting on over 1,200 flights away from Renk to Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state. It has also involved sea transportation, and we have helped over 100,000 to take boats to Malakal, which is a three-day journey overnight on the River Nile.

We have also assisted people with some road transportation to try to reach their communities of origin, but when you look at the volume of people arriving, this assistance is not enough, and the funds to continue to provide this onward transport assistance are dwindling and running out fast.

Sudanese refugees in the UN-run transit centre in Renk, South Sudan.
© IOM/Elijah Elaigwu
Sudanese refugees in the UN-run transit centre in Renk, South Sudan.

UN News: What have the displaced people been telling you about their experiences?

Yvonne Ndege: The conditions that they describe are completely horrific. Some say they fled violence and bullets, spending several days in the bush trying to reach the border. Others say they experienced sexual violence along the journey. We spoke to one family, a mother with her two daughters and her own mother, who travelled all the way from the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, to reach this border and cross into safety. She was very traumatized and upset. We spoke to another man, who said that his whole family, he and his sons, were being forced to actually join the fighting and take part in the violence. They didn’t want to, so they spent weeks trying to get here.

UN News: How serious are the risks of disease or hunger?

Yvonne Ndege: IOM staff have been providing medical checks and vaccinations to those arriving before they are transported to the main town of Renk for further assistance and care, but there are massive concerns about the risk of disease, hunger and further violence. There’s hardly any infrastructure in this remote area, no internet or mobile network of any kind and no food or water supplies. So, the risks are real.

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Rights violations ripple across war-torn Sudan

INTERNATIONAL, 23 February 2024, Peace and Security - The armed conflict in Sudan has resulted in thousands of civilians killed, millions displaced, property looted and children conscripted, as fighting has spread to more regions of the country since the conflict began last April, according to a wide-ranging report from the UN Human Rights Office released on Friday.
“For nearly a year now, accounts coming out of Sudan have been of death, suffering and despair, as the senseless conflict and human rights violations and abuses have persisted with no end in sight,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk.

The report details multiple indiscriminate attacks by both the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in densely populated areas between April and December 2023, including sites sheltering internally displaced people, particularly in the capital Khartoum, Kordorfan and Darfur.

By mid-December, more than 6.7 million people had been displaced by the conflict, both within Sudan and into neighbouring countries. This number has since increased to more than eight million.

“This report underlines once more the dire need to end the fighting and to break the cycle of impunity that gave rise to this conflict in the first place,” the UN rights chief said.

Silence the guns

Based on interviews with 303 victims and witnesses, including dozens conducted in Ethiopia and eastern Chad, and analysis of photographs, videos, and satellite imagery and other open source information, findings show a pattern of ethnic-based attacks as well as the use of heavy, sophisticated weaponry.

Both parties to the conflict used explosive weapons with wide-area effects, such as missiles fired from fighter jets, unmanned aerial vehicles, anti-aircraft weapons and artillery shells in densely populated areas.

This week, the UN Human Rights Office reviewed credible video evidence showing several students travelling by road in North Kordofan state may have been beheaded by men in SAF uniform in El-Obeid City – the victims were seen as being RSF supporters based on their perceived ethnicity.

The footage was posted on social media on 15 February showing troops parading with decapitated heads in the street while chanting ethnic slurs, the Office said.

“The guns must be silenced, and civilians must be protected,” Mr. Türk said.

Women waiting for aid distribution in Wad Madani, Sudan.
© UNOCHA/Ala Kheir
Women waiting for aid distribution in Wad Madani, Sudan.

Death toll reaches into the thousands

The report highlights more examples, including two separate incidents in April in Khartoum, where eight missiles fired by the SAF killed at least 45 civilians. In Omdurman, two artillery shells fired by the RSF hit a market in June, killing at least 15 civilians, and 10 civilians died when RSF shells exploded in a bus station in September.

Between May and November 2023, the report found, the RSF and its allied Arab militia carried out at least 10 attacks against civilians in El-Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, killing thousands, most from the African Masalit ethnic community. There were also killings by the RSF and its allies in the town of Morni and in Ardamata, where at least 87 bodies were buried in a mass grave.

Sexual violence, gang rape

The report reveals that by 15 December 2023, at least 118 people had been subjected to sexual violence, including rape, gang rape and attempted rape, among them 19 children.

Many of these crimes were committed by RSF members, in homes and on the streets, according to the report, which stated that one woman had been held in a building and repeatedly gang raped over a period of 35 days.

The report also found that both parties were actively recruiting across the country. The RSF was recruiting children from Arab tribes in Darfur and Kordofan, and a pro-SAF entity, People’s Authority to Support the Sudanese Armed Forces, stated that it had “armed 255,000 young men in camps across Sudan”

African ethnic communities, including the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa, also reportedly responded to recruitment campaigns by the SAF, according to the report.

Warning of war crimes

“Some of these violations would amount to war crimes,” said Mr. Türk.

“There must be prompt, thorough, effective, transparent, independent and impartial investigations into all allegations of violations and abuses of international human rights and violations of international humanitarian law and those responsible must be brought to justice.”

The High Commissioner called on both parties to the conflict to ensure rapid and unimpeded access to humanitarian aid in all areas under their respective control.

“A credible re-start of inclusive talks to restore civilian-led government is desperately needed to open a path forward,” the UN rights chief said.

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Ukraine: Bucha and Irpin rise from the ashes of Russian military occupation

INTERNATIONAL, 23 February 2024, Economic Development - When the Russian occupation of Bucha in the early days of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine ended in March 2022, widespread destruction was revealed, and a UN commission concluded that war crimes had been committed against the civilian population. Two years on, life is returning to the town on Kyiv’s outskirts and nearby Irpin, which have been restored with UN support.
"They were flying by helicopter from the direction of the cargo airport in Hostomel [north of Bucha]. Then they marched with tanks along Vokzalna Street, crossed the railway and moved in the direction of Kyiv," said Mykhaylina Skoryk-Shkarivska, founder of the Institute for Sustainable Development of Communities in Bucha and deputy of the Irpin City Council, recalling the first days of the full-scale Russian invasion.

The occupation by Russian troops lasted almost a month and, when the city was liberated on 31 March 2022, evidence of murders, torture and other crimes committed by the Russian military as well as widespread destruction was revealed.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, visiting the city in December 2022, said that it was hard for him to think about what the population of Bucha had to go through: "You hear about soldiers coming to your village or your town, and then you see those soldiers, you see them start killing people in the streets, then sniper shots, shooting, mass killings, summary executions."

The report of the UN Monitoring Mission in Ukraine refers to documented killings of local residents. The Russian military, according to the authors of the report, often carried out summary executions at checkpoints; a text message on a phone, an item of military uniform or a certificate of military service in the past could lead to fatal consequences. 

In September 2022, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal CourtKarim Khan, spoke to the members of the UN Security Council about the consequences of the occupation. "In the city of Bucha, I visited the Church of St. Andrew, where I saw bodies hidden behind a building. This is not a sham. As I walked through the streets of Borodyanka, I saw destroyed schools and houses. This is real destruction; I saw it," he said at the time. It has been estimated that thousands of buildings in Bucha were damaged, and more than 100 were completely destroyed. 

Vokzalnaya Street in Bucha today. The private housing sector, which had been severely destroyed, has been comprehensively restored.
UN News/Anna Radomska
Vokzalnaya Street in Bucha today. The private housing sector, which had been severely destroyed, has been comprehensively restored.

Bringing Bucha back to life

Today, around two years on from the occupation, there are striking signs of a revival. The UN has worked closely with the local authorities, the Government and international partners, to ensure the city could come back to life as quickly as possible. "In the Nova Bucha quarter, everything was destroyed during the occupation. Now, it has been almost completely rebuilt,” said Ms. Skoryk-Shkarivska.

"All the damaged apartment buildings are being repaired in a comprehensive manner: the roofs are completely replaced, thermal insulation is installed, and the façade is improved, so that the building will retain heat better. It is hard to imagine that two years ago there was a convoy of heavy Russian military equipment here, and most of the houses were smashed or burned,” she said.

"Sometimes I hear discussions about whether it is necessary to rebuild,” she continued. “But, the Kyiv region is not under such massive Russian fire as, for example, the border areas of the Kharkiv region. People are coming back; they need to live and work. The city lives, there is business, there are a lot of new restaurants. A living city needs to be rebuilt, and then even more people will come. After all, the western regions of Ukraine, where everyone fled at first, are overcrowded. There is nothing for many citizens to do there. Here in Kyiv, there is more work, more opportunities." 

Shelter in a school in Irpin, renovated by UNICEF.
UN News/Anna Radomska
Shelter in a school in Irpin, renovated by UNICEF.

The rehabilitation of the housing stock is being supported and financed by international partners, including UN agencies, which are also engaged in clearing rubble and demining in the Kyiv region, particularly in Bucha. A school in Irpin, that was at the centre of fierce fighting in 2022, has now been completely restored by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and is today one of the most modern educational institutions in the city, with a well-equipped shelter and an inclusive space. 

"As soon as Bucha and Irpin in the Kyiv region returned to government control, UNICEF began rehabilitation initiatives and providing comprehensive support,” explained Munir Mammadzadeh, UNICEF Representative in Ukraine.

More than 5,000 children in Bucha and Irpin are studying in rebuilt schools, including the Irpin school, which was 70 per cent destroyed and whose restoration was funded by the European Union. Now, this school is fully operational and provides 1,700 students, including children of internally displaced people, with full-time education, he said. 

"For many children, both in Ukraine and abroad, the war has taken away two years of school, time to play with friends and the opportunity to communicate with loved ones," he added. "It deprived them of education, happiness and a normal childhood. It has had a devastating impact on their mental health. We need to minimize educational losses. Kindergarten teachers, who are now trained to provide psychosocial and psychological assistance to children, are better able to support them during such a difficult period." 

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How to develop ‘ethical AI’ and avoid potential dangers

INTERNATIONAL, 23 February 2024, Human Rights - After a year of hype surrounding the latest version of ChatGPT and other new AI tools, governments are starting to make concerted efforts to bring in effective regulations on the use of this powerful technology, with the support of the UN science agency, UNESCO. 
UNESCO first developed its Recommendations on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence back in 2021, when much of the world was preoccupied by another international threat, the COVID-19 pandemic. The Recommendations, which were adopted by the 194 UNESCO Member States, contain concrete guidance on how public and private money can be channelled to programmes that benefit society.

Since then, a great deal of work has been done to put this guidance into practice, with legislators, experts and civil society representatives meeting at UNESCO forums to share information and report on progress.

Shortly after the 2024 forum, which took place in Slovenia in early February, Conor Lennon from UN News spoke to some of the participants: Aisen Etcheverry, Minister of Science and Technology in the Chilean Government; Irakli Khodeli, Head of the AI Ethics Unit at UNESCO; and Mary Snapp, Vice-President of Strategic AI Initiatives at Microsoft.

Aisen Etcheverry: We were one of the first countries to not only adopt the Recommendations, but also to implement them, with a model that ensures AI is being used ethically and responsibly. So, when ChatGPT came on to the market, and we saw all the questions it raised, we already had expert research centres in place and capabilities within the government. Our companies were already working with AI, and we had basically all the pieces of the puzzle to tackle a discussion that is complicated on the regulation side. 

Over the last year, things have evolved, and we’ve seen an increase in the use of AI by government and agencies, so we launched something similar to an executive order, basically instructions on how to use AI responsibly. 

One great example is at the agency charged with providing social benefits. They generated a model that allows them to predict which people are least likely to ask for the benefits that they’re entitled to. Then they send people to go and visit those who have been identified to inform them of their entitlements. I think it's a beautiful example of how technology can enhance the public sector, without removing the human interaction that is so important, in the way governments and citizens interact. 

Aisen Etcheverry: The UNESCO Recommendations really helped us to develop critical thinking about AI and regulations. We have been having public consultations with experts, and we hope that we can present a bill to Congress in March.

We have also been thinking about how we can train people, not necessarily in programming, but to empower those who are using and designing AI so that they are more responsible for the outcome from a more social perspective. 

On a related subject, we need to remember that there is a digital divide; many people do not have access to digital tools. We need regional and international cooperation to ensure that they benefit from this technology.

Irakli Khodeli: Tackling the digital divide is a big part of the UNESCO Recommendations. One of the fundamental ideas on which the agency is based is that science and the fruits of scientific progress should be equitably divided amongst all peoples. That rings true for artificial intelligence because it holds so much promise for assisting humans in achieving our socioeconomic and developmental goals.

That’s why it’s important that when we talk about the ethical use and development of AI, we don’t just focus on the technologically advanced part of the world, where the companies are actually wielding these tools, but we also reach out to the Global South countries that are in different stages of development to involve them in this conversation about the global governance of AI. 

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres (right) attends the AI Safety Summit in London, UK.
UN Photo/Alba García Ruiz
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres (right) attends the AI Safety Summit in London, UK.

Mary Snapp: Technology is a tool that can enhance human experience or it can be used as a weapon. That's been true since the printing press, and it’s true now. So, it’s very important for us, as an industry, to ensure that there are safety breaks, that we know what computers can do and what technology can do and what it should not do. 

Frankly, in the case of social media, perhaps we didn't address the issues earlier on. This is an opportunity to really work together early on to attempt to mitigate what could be some more negative effects while still recognizing the tremendous promise of the technology. 

UN News: At the UNESCO meeting in Slovenia, Microsoft signed up to an agreement to develop AI on ethical lines. What does that mean in practice?

Mary Snapp:  In 2019, we created an office of responsible AI that sits within [Microsoft President] Brad Smith's organization. This office has a team of experts, not only technology experts, but also humanities academics, sociologists and anthropologists. We do things like “red teaming” [using ethical hackers to emulate real attacks on technology], encouraging the AI to do harmful things so that we can mitigate that. 

We don’t necessarily share exactly how the technology will work, but we want to ensure that we are sharing the same principles with our competitors. Working side by side with UNESCO is absolutely critical to doing this work right for humanity. 

This discussion is taken from the latest episode of the UN’s flagship news podcast, The Lid Is On, which covers the various ways that the UN is involved in global efforts to make AI and other forms of online technology safer.

You can listen to (and now watch!) The Lid Is On, on all major podcast platforms. 

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UNRWA at ‘breaking point’ warns agency chief

INTERNATIONAL, 22 February 2024, Humanitarian Aid - The UN agency serving Palestine refugees (UNRWA) has reached breaking point due to Israeli calls for its abolition and the associated funding freeze, just when it is needed most, said UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini.
In a letter addressed to the President of the UN General Assembly, which provides the agency with its mandate, he said the agency’s ability to fulfil that mandate “is now seriously threatened”. 

“In just over four months in Gaza there have been more children, more journalists more medical personnel and more UN staff killed than anywhere in the world during a conflict”, he said.

He noted more than 150 UNRWA premises have been hit by bombardment, killing over 390 and injuring 1,300. 

“According to UN experts, famine in imminent”, he reminded.

Highlighting Israel’s allegations in January against 12 UNRWA staffers accusing them of involvement in the horrific 7 October terror attack, Mr. Lazzarini also reminded that he had immediately dismissed those accused in good faith, yet, “to date, no evidence has been shared by Israel with UNRWA.”

The resulting suspension of aid by 16 donor countries totalling $450 million means that without new funding UNRWA operations across the Middle East will be severely compromised from March.

Deliberate misinformation

Mr. Lazzarini said that in recent weeks there has been “a concerted effort by some Israeli officials to deceptively conflate UNRWA with Hamas, to disrupt UNRWA’s operations and to call for the dismantling of the agency.”

He said these operations have created staff security risks, obstructed its mandate to serve Palestinian civilians and made it impossible to function without host State consent.

“I fear we are on the edge of a monumental disaster with grave implications for regional peace, security and human rights”, he added.

He said it was widely acknowledged that UNRWA is vital to the rights and security of both Palestinians and Israelis as it provides a “stabilizing role” as well as lifesaving humanitarian services.

A fundamental decision

Mr. Lazzarini said Israel’s call for closure were not about concerns over neutrality but rather about “changing the long-standing political parameters for peace in the occupied Palestinian Territory”.

He said the General Assembly “now faces a fundamental decision”. Either allow UNRWA to be swept aside without political consultation and agreement on the part of Palestinians, or chose to make a moment of crisis a “catalyst for peace.”

“In which case I urge the General Assembly to provide the political support necessary to sustain UNRWA”, or to create a path for UNRWA to “transition immediately into a long-overdue political solution that can bring peace to Palestinians and Israelis.”

If General Assembly members chose to sustain the agency, he called for a change in its funding structure which would end the reliance on voluntary contributions “that make it vulnerable to wider political considerations”.

 
 
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Climate and conflict collide on the high seas: UN warns of soaring costs and delays

INTERNATIONAL, 22 February 2024, Economic Development - Attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea coupled with wider geopolitical and climate-related crises, are upending international trade, inflating costs and causing major delays, the UN’s trade and development body said on Thursday.
In a new study, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimated that over the past two months, the volume of trade through the Suez Canal has fallen by a whopping 42 per cent.

“With major players in the shipping industry temporarily suspending Suez transits, weekly container ship transits have fallen by 67 per cent, and container carrying capacity, tanker transits, and gas carriers have experienced significant declines,” it said.

Houthi rebels in Yemen began attacking ships using the vital waterway as an act of solidarity with Gaza and protest over Israel’s offensive. In response, a US-led coalition has launched airstrikes against Houthi targets at sea and on land.  

Panama Canal

But it’s not only geopolitics that’s to blame. At the same time transits through the Panama Canal have plummeted 49 per cent compared to its peak, due to dwindling water levels as a result of a severe, climate-change-induced drought.

A vital artery connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Panama Canal is particularly important for the trade between countries on the west coast of South America, and for links between Asia and the western United States.

Vulnerable populations, especially in landlocked and developing countries could bear the brunt of the impact on the two key trade routes, potentially increasing their living costs and reducing access to essential items.

Environmental cost

Ships avoiding the Suez and the Panama Canals and seeking alternative routes, translating into longer cargo travel distances, rising costs and insurance premiums, and increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

For more than a decade, the shipping industry had adopted reduced speeds to lower fuel costs and their carbon footprint, according to UNCTAD.

However, due to the interplay of conflict and climate shocks, ships have been authorized to speed up - leading to higher fuel consumption and emissions.

For instance, a Singapore-Rotterdam (Netherlands) round trip avoiding the Suez Canal/Red Sea route could result in up to 70 per cent increase in GHG emissions.

Far-reaching implications

UNCTAD underscored the potential far-reaching economic implications of prolonged disruptions in container shipping, threatening global supply chains and potentially delaying deliveries, causing higher costs and inflation.

Energy prices are surging as gas transits are discontinued, directly impacting energy supplies and prices, especially in Europe.

Global food prices are also expected to take a major hit due to higher freight costs.

“Disruptions in grain shipments from Europe, Russia, and Ukraine pose risks to global food security, affecting consumers and lowering prices paid to producers,” UNCTAD warned.

Shifting patterns

The UNCTAD study also noted a shift in transport patterns, such as in the United States, where demand for rail transport services between the coasts has surged in recent weeks.

Major Pacific ports such as Los Angeles and Long Beach in west are now using rail routes vs. more costly and unreliable sea routes.  

Major changes are afoot in the trading of commodities too. For example, grain shipments to Egypt are being sourced from Brazil or the US instead of Ukraine, while Russian oil shipments have becoming increasingly focused on India and China instead of Europe.

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Independent review group on UNRWA may request Gaza visit

INTERNATIONAL, 22 February 2024, Humanitarian Aid - Researchers have been deployed to the Middle East and requests issued to meet with Israel officials, said the head of an independent team reviewing the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, briefing reporters at UN Headquarters on Thursday.
Appointed by the Secretary-General in early February following Israeli allegations that 12 UNRWA employees were involved in the Hamas-led terror attacks in Israel in October, the group also aims to meet Palestinian Authority officials and may request a visit to Gaza, said its chair, former French former minister Catherine Colonna, who spoke outside the Security Council after meeting with the UN Secretary-General.

“My goal is to deliver a report that is rigorous and evidence based…and to do our best so we can help UNRWA deliver under the mandate given [to it] by the General Assembly,” she said.

The group began its work on 13 February and expects to have an interim report by late March, Ms. Colonna said, noting that its role includes clarifying the process in place at the UN agency to ensure neutrality and how it is implemented.

Operating since 1949, UNRWA now serves almost six million Palestine refugees in the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and in besieged Gaza, where many Palestinians urgently depend on the agency for assistance amid Israel’s continued military offensive in response to the October attacks.

The ongoing war in Gaza has killed almost 30,000 Palestinians, displaced more than one million and has restricted humanitarian aid from entering the enclave, which now faces severe hunger, according to a joint appeal from UN agency chiefs issued on Thursday morning.

Neutrality ‘must be respected’

The goal of this “very sensitive” mission is “to find the ways and means to see that UNRWA does everything it can to ensure neutrality, which is one of the basic principles of the agency and a principle that’s difficult to respect in the circumstances - but must be respected”, Ms. Colonna said.

She said the group intends to issue recommendations in its final report, which is expected on 20 April.

Ms. Colonna is working with a team from three research organizations: the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in Sweden; Chr. Michelsen Institute in Norway; and the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

They are tasked with assessing how its mechanisms and procedures have, or have not, been implemented in practice and whether every practicable effort has been made to apply them to their full potential, considering the particular operational, political and security environment in which the agency works.

A final report will be made public.

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'Shocking, unsustainable and desperate' conditions across Gaza, Security Council hears

INTERNATIONAL, 22 February 2024, Peace and Security - The Security Council is meeting at UN Headquarters in New York on the situation in the Gaza Strip, wracked by months of unrelenting war, and tensions spilling into the wider Middle East region, with no solutions on the horizon to stop the fighting.
Tor Wennesland, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, told ambassadors that “there is still no end in sight” as the war approaches its 140-day mark.

“No end to the trauma of those impacted by the horrors unleashed on 7 October. No end to the suffering and desperation the people in Gaza. No end to the regional turmoil.”

Mr. Wennesland visited Gaza this week and described the humanitarian situation there as shocking, unsustainable and desperate.

Humanitarian situation

Internally displaced Palestinians are facing acute shortages of food, water, shelter and medicine, while communicable diseases are rising sharply unsanitary conditions and there is a “near total breakdown” in law and order.

He added that his Humanitarian Coordinator has a plan to deliver the essentials – food, shelter, medicine and water/sanitation – but the UN’s capacity to deliver depends on coordinated humanitarian movements, effective deconfliction with the parties and Israeli approvals for essential communications equipment and armored vehicles – “all of which provide the minimum conditions for staff to work safely.”

“This must be improved – UN convoys and compounds must not be hit and our equipment needs clearance,” he stressed.

“Keeping Gaza on a drip-feed not only deprives a desperate population of life-saving support, it drives even greater chaos that further impedes humanitarian delivery,” he added.

Dialogue, not violence

Warning that the scale of the emergency could quickly spiral out of control, Mr. Wennesland appealed for a collective, coordinated and comprehensive response to not only address the immediate crisis in the Strip but to help restore a political horizon for Palestinians and Israelis, alike.

“To do this, we urgently need a deal to achieve a humanitarian ceasefire and the release of hostages,” he stressed, adding also the need to create the space for dialogue over violence.

“Ultimately, the only long-term solution for Gaza is political,” said Mr. Wennesland.

“While taking into account Israel’s legitimate security concern, there must be a clear path toward restoring single, effective Palestinian governance across the OPT (occupied Palestinian Territory), including in Gaza,” he added.

Two-State solution

Alongside, international support to strengthening and reforming the Palestinian Authority to improve domestic and international legitimacy will be crucial.

To create these conditions, Mr. Wennesland called for a time bound political framework to end the occupation and negotiate a two-State solution.

“These efforts must coalesce and accelerate if we are to emerge from this nightmare into a trajectory that can provide Palestinians and Israelis with the chance of lasting peace,” he concluded.

Veto is costing lives, warns MSF

Also briefing the Council was Christopher Lockyear, Secretary General, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders.

Fearful of further deadly Israeli attacks, he said he was “appalled” by the United States’ repeated use of its veto power to obstruct efforts to adopt the most evident of resolutions: one demanding an immediate ceasefire.

“We live in fear of a ground invasion” in Rafah, he said.

Calling Washington’s new proposed draft resolution “misleading at best”, he said the Council should reject any resolution “that further hampers humanitarian efforts on the ground and leads this Council to tacitly endorse the continued violence and mass atrocities in Gaza”.

Constants attacks against healthcare

“Attacks on healthcare is an attack against humanity,” he said, noting that while Israel claims Hamas is operating in hospitals, “we have seen no independently verified evidence of this.”

Not 48 hours ago, Israeli shelling and gunfire killed and injured MSF staff and their families in Khan Younis, despite notification to the warring parties of the location, which was marked with an MSF flag, he said, recalling that some were trapped in the burning building, which active shooting delayed ambulances from reaching them in what has become an “all too familiar” pattern of Israeli forces raiding hospitals, bulldozing MSF vehicles and attacking its convoys.

“This pattern of attacks is either intentional or indicative of reckless incompetence,” he said, adding that his colleagues in Gaza are fearful that as he speaks to the Council today, they will be punished tomorrow.

“The laws and the principles we collectively depend on to enable humanitarian assistance are now eroded to the point of becoming meaningless,” he said.

Humanitarian response is ‘an illusion’

In the face of killings and maiming of aid workers, “the humanitarian response in Gaza today is an illusion,” he said, adding that efforts to provide aid are “haphazard, opportunistic, and entirely inadequate”.

“How can we deliver lifesaving aid in an environment where the distinction between civilians and combatants is disregarded?” he asked, adding that his teams are exhausted. “Calls for more humanitarian assistance have echoed across this Chamber, yet in Gaza we have less and less each day – less space, less medicine, less food, less water, less safety.”

Since 7 October, MSF has been forced to evacuate nine health facilities, and medical teams have added a new acronym to their vocabulary – “W.C.N.S.F., Wounded Child, No Surviving Family”, he said.

Citing a new draft resolution being negotiated by the US he said that Gazans "need a ceasefire not when ‘practicable’, but now". “They need a sustained ceasefire, not a ‘temporary period of calm’. Anything short of this is gross negligence.”

Israeli offensive into Rafah should not proceed: US

Deputy Permanent Representative Robert A. Wood of the United States addresses the UN Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question.
UN Photo/Manuel Elías

Following the briefings, Robert Wood, Deputy Permanent Representative of the United States to the UN said that the best way to advance an enduring peace and Israel’s security is to support the creation of an independent Palestinian State side by side with Israel.

“The realization of this vision, however, continues to face numerous obstacles,” he said.

“These obstacles include Hamas and other groups’ continued holding of 134 hostages. I said it before, and I say it again – there can be no sustainable ceasefire in Gaza without the hostages being released.”

He told ambassadors that the pace of hostage talks can be frustrating and complicated, and that negotiations at “such high stakes” do not always yield immediate results.

Qatar talks

“For this reason, we are working day in and day out with our partners in Egypt and Qatar to achieve a positive result that will bring the hostages home and result in a six weeklong cessation in fighting,” he said, adding that he shared the “profound concerns” for the wellbeing of over one million Palestinian civilians in Rafah.

US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken “made clear to Israel”, that under current circumstances, a major ground offensive into Rafah would result in civilian harm and displacement, including potentially spillover into Egypt, with serious implications for regional peace and security.

“As such, we have underscored that such a major ground offensive should not proceed under current circumstances,” he said.

“These statements are a clear signal Israel should not proceed with an operation that, we know, will create more suffering and worsen the humanitarian crisis in the absence of a viable plan to protect civilians.”

Russia: Hostage release hinges on ceasefire

Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia of the Russian Federation addresses the Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question.
UN Photo/Loey Felipe

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said aggressive Israeli bombardment has killed more than 29,000 Palestinians, with 80 per cent of Gaza’s population displaced, and the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Rafah threatening to cross the Egyptian border.

“It is clear that real leverage over Israel is something Washington does not have,” he said, adding that that path to peace is being blocked by the US. “The release of hostages cannot take place without a ceasefire.”

By giving the “green light” to a ground operation in Rafah, the Council’s impasse has resulted in the spillover of the conflict in the region, he said, adding that Western nations’ use of force against Iraq, Syria and Yemen undermines the central role of the UN as well as international law.

Turning to Israel’s accusations against UNRWA, he said the collective punishment of Palestinians is no more than “donor blackmail”, condemning attempts to smear the UN agency.

The only way to resolve the conflict is through diplomatic means through a two-State formula, along with the release of all hostages.

China: Spectre of wider war looms

Ambassador Zhang Jun of China addresses the Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question.
UN Photo/Manuel Elías
Ambassador Zhang Jun of China addresses the Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question.

Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jun, regretting to note the US veto of Algeria's draft resolution on Gaza this week, saying only an immediate ceasefire in Gaza will save lives and prevent a wider war. The US has tabled a new draft, which he hoped would respond positively to the Council’s ovewhelming support for a ceasefire.

“At this point, the Council needs to demonstrate a strong result,” he said. “It is the duty of this Council to slam on the breaks to avoid greater calamity. Incursions into Rafah would cause irreparable damage to regional peace.”

As such, Israel should cancel its plans to invade Rafah, where more than one million Palestinians are sheltering, he said, adding that efforts must swiftly help aid into Gaza. In that regard, he said UNRWA plays a vital, indispensable and irreplaceable role, calling on donors to continue to fund the agency.

“Right now, the Middle East is in turmoil, and the specter of a wider war is looming,” he said, calling on all parties to refrain from attacks and try to break the vicious cycle of conflict.

In this regard, the two-State solution should be given a “new lease on life”, he said. “The historical wrongs against Palestine must be righted.”

More to follow...

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Ukraine: Report reveals war’s long-term impact which will be felt ‘for generations’

INTERNATIONAL, 22 February 2024, Peace and Security - Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, entering its third year, has exacted a “horrific human cost”, inflicting immense suffering on millions of civilians that will be felt “for generations”, UN human rights chief Volker Türk said on Thursday.
“Russia’s full-scale armed attack on Ukraine, which is about to enter its third year with no end in sight, continues to cause serious and widespread human rights violations, destroying lives and livelihoods,” he said in a statement launching a new report.

This month marks not only two years since Moscow’s all out assault, but also 10 years since Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol.

Millions displaced, thousands dead

In its latest report, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has verified 30,457 civilian casualties since 24 February 2022, including 10,582 killed and 19,875 injured, with the actual numbers likely to be significantly higher.

Millions have been displaced, thousands have lost their homes, and hundreds of medical and educational institutions have been damaged or destroyed, significantly impacting people’s rights to health and education.

“The long-term impact of this war in Ukraine will be felt for generations,” Mr. Türk said.

Serious rights violations

Over the past two years, human rights office OHCHR has documented widespread torture, ill-treatment and arbitrary detention of civilians by Russian armed forces. 

Summary executions, enforced disappearances and repression of the right to freedom of expression and assembly have also been documented in occupied territory.

In addition, interviews with over 550 former Ukrainian prisoners of war and civilian detainees by the monitoring mission have indicated the commission of serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law by Russian armed forces, including summary execution and widespread torture.

Since 24 February 2022, the already dire human rights situation in occupied Crimea has worsened, with a crackdown on those criticizing the occupation. The UN Human Rights Office will release a report on the decade-long Russian occupation next week.

“The ongoing Russian assault does not exempt Ukrainian forces from their own obligations to respect international human rights law and international humanitarian law,” the UN rights chief said.

The war in Ukraine has led to severe damage to housing and public infrastructure.
© EU/Oleksandr Rakushnyak
The war in Ukraine has led to severe damage to housing and public infrastructure.

Peace urgently needed

During the past two years, the Office has documented a number of violations committed by Ukrainian military and security forces, albeit a fraction of the scope of those perpetrated by Russian forces, he said, noting that the Office is continuously engaging with Ukrainian authorities to address these issues.

Renewing his call on Russia to cease its continuing armed attack on Ukraine immediately, he emphasized the urgency of achieving a just peace and appealed again to Moscow to allow OHCHR full access.

IOM charts widespread destruction

More than 14.6 million people – 40 per cent of Ukraine’s population – remain in need of some form of humanitarian assistance in 2024 and 2.2 million refugees require assistance in neighbouring countries, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a statement on Thursday.  

“The destruction is widespread, loss of life and suffering continues,” said International Organization for Migration (IOM) Director General Amy Pope. 

Over 14 million people – nearly one third of Ukraine's population – have fled their homes since the full-scale invasion. Families have been separated, children left homeless, and communities destroyed.  

Some 3.7 million people remain displaced within Ukraine, while nearly 6.5 million are refugees globally. Over 4.5 million have returned home to date from either abroad or displacement within the country.

Since the escalation of the war in Ukraine, IOM has supported 6.5 million people in the country and across 11 neighbouring countries, providing critical and life-saving aid to those most in need.

“The needs are enormous, however, so much more needs to be done,”  Ms. Pope said.

End impunity, including for Navalny’s death

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Russia on Thursday called for accountability and solidarity with all the victims of the war, including Russian activists.

The war has devastated millions of Ukrainians and intensified repression of civil and political rights within Russia itself and “unleashed a war against Russians at home”, Mariana Katzarova said in a statement on Thursday.

Following news of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s death in prison last week, she and other UN Special Rapporteurs called on Moscow for an independent investigation and the immediate release of all political prisoners in Russia.

Since last Friday, the Russian authorities have violently and arbitrarily detained hundreds of peaceful citizens for laying flowers in honour of Navalny in more than 39 cities across Russia, she added.

“I call on the international community to stand in solidarity with all the victims of the war against Ukraine, including the brave Russian human rights defenders, journalists and activists who continue to courageously oppose the war despite facing intimidation, persecution, lengthy imprisonment, and even death,” she said.

Special Rapporteurs and other independent rights experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. They are not UN staff, are independent from any government or organization and do not receive a salary for their work.

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