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COVID-19: WHO expresses hope worst of Omicron wave is over

INTERNATIONAL, 18 January 2022, Health - Omicron continues to sweep the world, but cases seem to have peaked in some countries, which gives the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) hope that the worst of this latest wave of COVID-19 is over. 

Briefing journalists in Geneva, Tedros Ghebreyesus said that more than 18 million cases were reported last week, and the pandemic itself is far from over, so no country is out of the woods yet.

The number of deaths remains stable, but the agency is concerned about the impact the variant is having on already exhausted health workers and overburdened health systems.

“I remain particularly concerned about many countries that have low vaccination rates, as people are many times more at risk of severe illness and death if they’re unvaccinated”, Tedros said. 

Omicron may be less severe, but for the WHO chief “the narrative that it is mild disease is misleading, hurts the overall response and costs more lives.”

Tedros noted that the virus is circulating “far too intensely with many still vulnerable” and argued that, for many countries, the next few weeks remain critical.

COVAX

Over the weekend, the UN-backed COVAX facility delivered its one-billionth dose of vaccine. 

Tedros said he was proud of the milestone, but believes it’s essential to keep forging ahead with distributing shots fairly, across the world. 

Vaccines may be less effective at preventing infection and transmission of Omicron than they were for previous variants, but they still are exceptionally good at preventing serious disease and death”, he explained. 

For him, immunization continues to be “key to protecting hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.”

Tracking the virus

The WHO chief also highlighted the importance of tracking new variants, like Omicron, in real time.

Tedros believes that the pandemic is “nowhere near over” and, with the incredible growth of Omicron, new variants are likely to emerge

So far, more than 7 million whole genome sequences from 180 countries have been submitted to GISAID, a global mechanism that provides open access to genomic data and was initially set up to track flu.

Using all that data, new formulations of vaccines are being developed and assessed for how they perform against different strains. 

Despite those efforts, Tedros is concerned that the world will enter “a second and even more destructive phase of vaccine inequity”, if it doesn’t change course. 

New treatments 

Last Friday, WHO recommended two new COVID-19 treatmentsto fight severe illness and death: a rheumatoid arthritis drug called baricitinib and a monoclonal antibody called sotrovimab.

For Tedros, the challenge, once again, is that high prices and limited supply means access is limited.

WHO is currently working with its partners in ACT-Accelerator to negotiate lower prices with manufacturers and ensure supply will be available for low- and middle-income countries.

Meeting

Next week, the WHO Executive Board, which is made up of 34 Member States, will meet to discuss the world’s health challenges.

The pandemic will remain at the forefront, but Member States will also be discussing the devastating impact of the pandemic on other health issues, and how the backsliding can be stopped. 

According to the WHO chief, the agency willbe working to accelerate progress on negotiations around a global pandemic accord.

Cervical Cancer Awareness

On a final note, Tedros noted that January is Cervical Cancer Awareness month.

In 2020, an estimated 604,000 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer worldwide and about 342, 000 women died from the disease.

The main cause of the disease is infection with high-risk types of human papillomavirus (HPV), an extremely common family of viruses that are transmitted through sexual contact.

There are, however, vaccines that protect against high-risk HPV types, which means it should be one of the most preventable and treatable forms of cancer.

On Monday, Serbia announced that this year,it will introduce a vaccination programme against HPV, joining the 116 nationswho already do it. 

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UN celebrates 25 years of mandate to protect children caught in conflict

INTERNATIONAL, 18 January 2022, Peace and Security - Although international action over the past 25 years has led to the release of more than 170,000 boys and girls recruited to fight, more remains to be done, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Tuesday. 

Mr. Guterres was among senior officials, ambassadors and other members of the international community marking the 25th anniversary of the UN mandate on Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC). 

In harm’s way 

Besides the thousands of children freed by armed groups and forces during this time, hundreds of life-saving commitments and action plans have been signed and implemented by warring parties. 

“But, much more is needed,” Mr. Guterres said in a video message for the online commemoration. “Children are still in harm’s way.  Peace is in short supply.  Cycles of violence and despair won’t stop automatically.”  

The Secretary-General urged countries to continue supporting the UN Office on Children and Armed Conflict, and keep the promise made more than two decades ago. 

“We need to strengthen our support of released children so they can reintegrate into their communities.  We need to place the needs and rights of children first in peace negotiations.  And we need to honour their bravery and resilience by giving them a full and active voice in their countries’ futures,” he said. 

In conjunction with the anniversary, the UN Office on Children and Armed Conflict has issued a report that takes stock of challenges, gaps, successes and opportunities since its establishment. 

A way forward 

War can impact young lives in numerous ways.  In addition to recruitment, children are killed and maimed by explosive remnants of war and active shooting incidents, abducted on the way to school, or raped while fetching wood and water. 

Virginia Gamba, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, said the study also charts a way forward to further strengthen protection, and galvanize support at the international, national and local levels.  

“The CAAC mandate requires us to be proactive, and not solely reactive, to break the cycles of violence that continue to harm children daily. It obliges us to also work towards preventing these violations before they occur,” she said

As the mandate “was always meant to be one of collaboration”, she underlined the critical role for governments, international and regional organizations, civil society and communities both in preventing and addressing violations and in responding to the needs of survivors. 

Collaboration has brought results, she added, pointing to examples from countries such as the Central African Republic, the Philippines, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Colombia. 

Virginia Gamba, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, displays the signed roadmap to strengthen the protection of children in armed conflict during a meeting with Somali Federal Government Ministries and commissioner of police in Mogadishu, Somalia on 28 October 2019.
UN Photo / Omar Abdisalan
Virginia Gamba, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, displays the signed roadmap to strengthen the protection of children in armed conflict during a meeting with Somali Federal Government Ministries and commissioner of police in Mogadishu, Somalia on 28 October 2019.

Prioritize the mandate 

Ms. Gamba also stressed the need to “seize the momentum” to do more, stating that securing the release of child recruits and reintegrating them back into their communities should be everyone’s priority. 

Together with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), her office co-chairs the Global Coalition for Reintegration of Child Soldiers

Henrietta Fore, the UNICEF Executive Director, urged countries to keep speaking out on behalf of the many children who still require help. 

“The UN should continue to prioritize this precious and unique mandate,” she said.  

“We should seize all opportunities to increase visibility and awareness of the terrible impact of conflict on children. We should be courageous in taking steps to end impunity and advance accountability for children in situations of armed conflict.” 

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UNRWA seeks $1.6 billion to support Palestinian refugees in 2022

INTERNATIONAL, 18 January 2022, Migrants and Refugees - The UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, on Tuesday appealed for $1.6 billion to support its lifesaving work this year amid acute regional crises and chronic funding shortfalls. 

UNRWA provides services and programmes, including education, health and food assistance, to more than five million Palestinians across the Middle East. 

The 2022 budget proposal includes additional emergency funding to address humanitarian needs arising from crises in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon. 

‘Indispensable’ to stability 

Philippe Lazzarini, the agency’s Commissioner-General, said budget shortfalls pose a serious threat to its ability to maintain operations. 

“The international community recognizes the lifesaving role of UNRWA and its indispensable contribution to stability in the Middle East. It also recognizes how cost-efficient and agile UNRWA is. In 2022, that recognition must be supported by the adequate level of funding to meet this critical moment for Palestine refugees,” he said

The budget proposal comes as UNRWA confronts chronic funding gaps as needs keep rising. 

Distress and despair 

It is estimated that 2.3 million Palestinian refugees are living in poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten health and livelihoods. 

Distress and despair have become the norm among Palestinian refugees, according to UNRWA.  Many, particularly in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon, report that they are ready to use any means to try to migrate outside of the region. 

Breaking the cycle 

UNRWA has committed to investing in comprehensive programmatic reform and modernization to meet needs in an even more cost-effective and efficient manner.  

The agency said that being fully-funded across its full range of services, will assist its efforts towards breaking the cycle of despair among Palestinian refugees through measures such as providing some $31.2 million in microfinance loans and carrying out vital structural improvements to refugee camps. 

 “The amount that UNRWA is requesting for 2022 will directly contribute to the wellbeing of Palestine refugees, to efforts to combat and contain COVID-19 and to regional stability,” said Mr. Lazzarini. urging donors to step up. 

“The international community must give UNRWA sufficient and predictable funding so we may continue to provide Palestine refugees with a sense of security and normality they deserve.” 

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UN rights office warns over violent escalation in Yemen and beyond

INTERNATIONAL, 18 January 2022, Human Rights - Escalating conflict in Yemen has seen an alarming number of air and drone strikes already this year, notably against civilians and non-military targets, the UN rights office, OHCHR, said on Tuesday.

“We are deeply concerned by the continuing escalation of the conflict in Yemen. Overnight, air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition on the capital, Sana’a, are reported to have left at least five civilians dead,” said OHCHR spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani.

“According to preliminary information, those killed were five members of the same family, including two women and a child, when a house was hit in Ma’in district of the city at around 9.25pm.”

The air attacks on Yemen’s capital city followed missile and drone strikes on coalition partner the United Arab Emirates targets on Monday. Claimed by Ansar Allah rebel forces – more commonly known as Houthis – the attacks hit Abu Dhabi’s International airport and a nearby industrial area, reportedly leaving three civilians dead.

The Secretary-General António Guterres, issued a statement expressing his concern and deplored the coalition’s airstrikes in Sana’a.

"He reminds all parties of their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians, adhering to the principles of proportionality, distinction and precaution", said the UN Spokesperson's Office.

"The Secretary-General again calls upon all parties to exercise maximum restraint and prevent further escalation and intensification of the conflict. He reiterates his calls on the parties to engage constructively and without preconditions with Special Envoy Grundberg’s mediation efforts to advance the political process to reach a comprehensive negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Yemen."

Expanding war zone

Latest data from OHCHR indicates that the level of violence this month could soon surpass that witnessed in December, judging by the number of airstrikes, drones and rockets employed by all sides to the long-running war.

“Figures collected by our office indicate that, so far in January, there were 839 airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition, compared with 1,074 for the whole of December,” explained Ms. Shamdasani, speaking in Geneva.

“There were some 16 drone strikes, and 12 ballistic missiles and three other projectiles fired by Ansar Allah forces towards Saudi territory in December. To date in January, reports indicate there have been 10 drone strikes towards Saudi Arabia.”

In a statement on Monday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, condemned the violent escalation and stressed that attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure are prohibited by international humanitarian law.

Retaliatory attacks

Ms. Shamdasani explained that the year’s hostilities began with a large counter-offensive by Government forces against Houthis in Shabwah Governorate to the south-west of oil-rich Marib.

The fighting is now pushing further into Marib and Al Baydah Governorates, the OHCHR spokesperson said, with “dozens of airstrikes and artillery strikes launched by the parties with seemingly little regard for civilians” in recent days.

“On 13 January, airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition injured four civilians and partially damaged the emergency and in-patient departments of a hospital in Al Sawad area, Sanhan district, in Sana'a Governorate”, Ms. Shamdasani continued. “It was reported that the airstrikes targeted a military camp, which is located close to the hospital.”

Civilians are not a target

All parties must ensure the protection of civilians and civilian objects, in line with their obligations under international law, the OHCHR spokesperson insisted.

“Parties to the conflict must take all feasible measure to verify that targets are indeed military objectives and suspend an attack if it becomes apparent that the target is not a military objective or that the attack would be disproportionate. Failure to respect the principles of distinction and proportionality could amount to war crimes.”

 

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Tonga volcano eruption: At least 3 dead, amid severe destruction

INTERNATIONAL, 18 January 2022, Humanitarian Aid - At least three people have died in Tonga following the massive volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami wave that hit over the weekend. Homes and other buildings across the archipelago have suffered major damage.

Islands covered in ash, dozens of homes destroyed

According to a Tongan Government press release on Tuesday, the three fatalities are a British national, and two Tongan nationals.

The UN World Health Organization, WHO, has reported that many people are still missing, whilst around 90 people headed to safety in evacuation centres on the island of Eua, and many others fled to the homes of friends and family.

On the main island of Tongatapu, around 100 houses have been damaged, and 50 completely destroyed, according to the UN humanitarian coordination office, OCHA, which updated journalists in Geneva on Tuesday. 

The agency pointed out that it is still in the process of collecting information about the scale of destruction, and it has not been possible to contact any of the islands of the Ha’apai et Vava’u chains.

The Mango and Fonoi islands, which form part of the Ha’apai chain, are a particular cause for concern, said OCHA Spokeperson Jens Laerke, with surveillance flights showing widespread damage to buildings, and images from UN Satellite Centre (UNOSAT) show that, on the small island of Nomuka, one of the closest to the Hunga Tonga Hunga Ha’apai volcano, 41 of 104 visible structures have been damaged, and almost all are covered by ash, although the Centre notes that this assessment remains to be verified by teams on the ground.

WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier, told journalists on Tuesday that Tongatapu is covered by around two centimetres of volcanic dust and ash, raising concerns of air, water and food pollution.

There is some positive news, he added: all health facilities on the main island are fully operational, and clean-up operations have already begun.

Biggest eruption in 3 decades

The volcanic eruption was the largest recorded in thirty years. A huge, 20 km high mushroom cloud of smoke and ash was followed by a tsunami, and the eruption was heard as far away as Australia and New Zealand, causing tsunami warnings across the Pacific.

Waves as high as 1.2 metres hit the capital, Nuku’alofa, whose inhabitants fled to high ground, leaving behinds flooded houses, whilst rocks and ash rained from the sky.

The WHO reports that the Tongan Government reacted quickly to the crisis, deploying a warship to the Ha’api islands, with a team from the WHO-trained Tonga Emergency Medical Assistance Team on board, ready to help the injured.

The Government is advising the Tongan population to stay inside, wear masks if they have to go outside, and drink bottled water to avoid health risks arising from the fallen ash.

An image on the Tonga Islands where the heavy ash fall from the recent volcanic eruption.
© New Zealand Defence Force
An image on the Tonga Islands where the heavy ash fall from the recent volcanic eruption.

The emergency relief effort is being coordinated by the Pacific Humanitarian Team (PHT), which brings together UN agencies, the Red Cross and international NGOs, to organize on the ground and remote support to the Tongan Government.

The priorities for the team are to help re-establish communications, find ways to transport emergency aid, and provide technical advice on matters such as ensuring the safety of drinking water supplies, which have been seriously affected by volcanic ash.

Early estimates of the scale of the crisis have been relayed by the WHO country liaison officer, Dr Yutaro Setoya, whose satellite phone is one of the few sources of information from the island nation.

International phone and internet services are still unreliable, after a key underwater communication cable was severed during the eruption. It is estimated that it will take several weeks for the cable to be repaired.

“Yuta has literally been standing outside from dawn until long into the night for the past few days to ensure that the phone can reach the satellite signal and he can pass along vital information,” said WHO’s Health Cluster Coordinator for the Pacific, Sean Casey. 

“All of us here at WHO, and in the broader UN family, are thinking of Tonga right now and doing what we can to support the government’s response efforts.”

More to come on this developing story later.
 

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Sudan urged to stop unnecessary use of force against protestors

INTERNATIONAL, 18 January 2022, Human Rights - Authorities in Sudan must immediately halt unnecessary and disproportionate use of force against protesters, the UN human rights office, OHCHR, said on Tuesday, calling for those responsible for abuses to be brought to justice. 

Spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said the human rights situation in Sudan continues to be of serious concern, with peaceful protestors killed or injured on a near-daily basis, as well as an intensifying clampdown on critics and independent journalists. 

She cited credible statistics which show 71 people have been killed, and more than 2,200 injured by security forces during protests in the wake of the 25 October military coup, which saw the end of transitional power-sharing with civilian representatives.  

Seventeen of the deaths occurred just since the beginning of this year, while seven people were killed on Monday alone, and dozens injured, when security forces brutally dispersed demonstrators in the capital, Khartoum.   

Duty to investigate 

The OHCHR Office in Sudan has also noted a pattern demonstrating that more than a quarter of those injured were hit directly by teargas canisters, raising concerns that security forces are firing canisters horizontally, and at individuals, in violation of international standards. 

“We repeat our call on the Sudanese authorities to immediately cease the unnecessary and disproportionate use of force – including the use of live ammunition – against peaceful protesters”, said Ms. Shamdasani, speaking in Geneva. 

“The use of live ammunition is only permissible as a measure strictly of last resort in case of an imminent threat to life or of serious injury. There need to be thorough, prompt, independent investigations and the authorities have a duty to ensure that perpetrators of human rights violations are brought to justice.” 

Meanwhile, a campaign of arbitrary arrest and detention against protesters and journalists continues amid the state of emergency. 

Arrests in hospitals 

OHCHR said security forces have been breaking into activists’ homes, and even entering hospitals to arrest wounded protesters. Assaults against healthcare workers and facilities have also been reported. 

The clampdown on freedom of opinion and expression also appears to be increasing through arrests of journalists, home and office raids and searches, ill treatment of journalists, and suspension of licences.  

Respect freedom of expression 

“We call on the Sudanese authorities to stop targeting journalists, to ensure that the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are fully respected, that peaceful protests are facilitated rather than met with unnecessary and disproportionate force,” said Ms. Shamdasani. 

She listed several recent incidents targeting the press, noting that this past Saturday, the authorities revoked the broadcasting licence of Aljazeera Live, the Arabic-language news and events channel that is part of the Aljazeera Media Network. 

Sudanese armed forces also reportedly entered the office of Al Araby Television in Khartoum on 13 January and arbitrarily arrested four staff while they were covering a protest from the rooftop of the building. 

Police and security forces also stormed the offices of two television channels in the capital on 30 December while they were covering protest marches in the city.  Staff were beaten and harassed, and some office property was also damaged. 

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UN chief: ‘Global solidarity is missing in action’

INTERNATIONAL, 17 January 2022, Economic Development - Addressing the virtual World Economic Forum, on Monday, the United Nations’ Secretary-General, António Guterres, told world and business leaders that “global solidarity is missing in action”.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, for the second year in a row, the Forum scrapped its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, for a series of online plenaries and discussions over the year ahead, under the banner of The Davos Agenda. 

Speaking from New York, Mr. Guterres said that this year’s event takes place “in the shadow of an enormously difficult period for economies, people and our planet.”

According to the UN’s flagship economic forecast released last week, the world is emerging from the depths of a paralyzing economic crisis, but recovery remains fragile and uneven. 

With persistent labour market challenges, supply-chain disruptions, rising inflation and looming debt traps, the recovery is now slowing down drastically.

“The last two years have demonstrated a simple but brutal truth - if we leave anyone behind, we leave everyone behind”, the UN chief said. 

Vaccine equity

The Secretary-General then urged all participants in the Forum to focus on three urgent areas. 

The first one, he explained, is to confront the pandemic with equity and fairness. 

Reminding of the World Health Organization (WHO) goal to vaccinate 40 per cent of people in all countries by the end of last year, and 70 per cent by the middle of this year, Mr. Guterres said the world was nowhere even close. 

In fact, he added,vaccination rates in high-income countries are “shamefully” seven times higher than in African countries.

Besides a focus on vaccine equity, he argued that the world must prepare for the next pandemic with investments in monitoring, early detection and rapid response plans in every country. 

WHO’s authority should also be strengthened, he said. 

This year, the gathering in Davos was replaced by a series of online events
This year, the gathering in Davos was replaced by a series of online events , by WEF/Benedikt von Loebell

Global financial overhaul

The second area in need of urgent action is the global financial system.

We need to reform the global financial system, so it works for all countries”, Mr Guterres explained. “At this critical moment, we are setting in stone a lopsided recovery.”

With more than eight out of ten recovery dollars being spent in developed countries, the UN chief believes low-income countries are at a huge disadvantage. 

“They’re experiencing their slowest growth in a generation - and trying to dig themselves out with woefully insufficient national budgets”, he said. 

Mr. Guterres pointed to record inflation, shrinking fiscal space, high interest rates and soaring energy and food prices, saying that they are hitting every corner of the world, especially low and middle-income countries. 

For him, “the global financial system has failed them when they need it most.”

Fit for purpose

He believes these nations are “shackled by mounting debt and extortionate interest rates”and ineligible for debt relief, despite surging poverty, unemployment and development losses. 

Stressing the need for a system that is fit for purpose, the UN chief asked for urgent debt restructuring, reforms of the long-term debt architecture, and an expansion of the Common Framework for Debt Treatment to middle-income countries.

Mr. Guterres also asked governments and institutions to go beyond Gross Domestic Product to measure for investment risks, to address corruption and illicit financial flows, and to ensure that tax systems are “fair and designed in a way that truly reduces inequalities.”

For the Secretary-General, the first priority must be a targeted phase-out of coal
For the Secretary-General, the first priority must be a targeted phase-out of coal, by Unsplash/Markus Spiske

Real climate action

The third, and last, area highlighted by the Secretary-General was climate action in developing countries. 

Even if all developed countries keep their promises to drastically reduce emissions by 2030, global emissions will still be too high to keep the 1.5 degree goal within reach. 

According to UN-backed research, the world needs a 45 per cent reduction in global emissions this decade, but they are set to increase by 14 per cent by 2030. 

Mr. Guterres argued that 1.2 degrees of warming has “already brought devastating consequences and soaring price tags measured in dollars and despair.”

Over the last two decades, the economic toll from climate-related disasters skyrocketed by 82 per cent. Just last year, extreme weather caused $120 billion in insured losses, and killed 10,000 people. 

In 2020, climate shocks forced 30 million people to flee their homes, three times more than those displaced by war and violence. And one billion children are at an extremely high risk of suffering the impacts of climate change. 

“Turning this ship around will take immense willpower and ingenuity from governments and businesses alike, in every major-emitting nation”, Mr. Guterres said. 

Priorities

For the Secretary-General, the first priority must be a targeted phase-out of coal. No new coal plants should be built. 

The Governments of Indonesia and Vietnam just announced their intention to get out of coal and transition to renewable energy. South Africa now has in place a just energy transition partnership to move beyond coal. 

Last week, the UN chief took part in a meeting of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, a group that has mobilized more than $130 trillion around the net-zero goal. 

For him, the alliance “has set the gold standard”, and “the entire the financial system should follow their lead.”

Across all three of these areas, Mr. Guterres argued, the international community needs the support, ideas, financing and voice of the global business community. 

According to him, the world “cannot afford to replicate the inequalities and injustices that continue condemning tens of millions of people to lives of want, poverty and poor health.”

“We cannot continue building walls between the haves and have-nots”, he concluded. 

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Concrete action essential to fulfill Darfur promise: ICC Prosecutor

INTERNATIONAL, 17 January 2022, Peace and Security - Nearly 20 years after the UN Security Council referred the Darfur situation in Sudan to the International Criminal Court (ICC), victims and survivors of atrocities are still seeking justice and accountability, Prosecutor Karim Khan told ambassadors on Tuesday. 

Delivering the ICC’s 34th report on Darfur to the Council, he emphasized the critical need for cooperation and concrete action, both by the authorities in Khartoum and the international community. 

Mr. Khan travelled to the Sudanese capital last August, just two months after taking up his appointment, where he met with Darfur survivors, civil society and the government. 

We must do better 

“I share the frustrations, the impatience, and the hopes of those survivors that that singular moment - the first referral by the Council to the International Criminal Court - will reap dividends,” he said. 

“But it is important, as I said in my interactions with Sudanese government members, that this referral cannot be a never-ending story,” he added.  “We need collectively to do better - my Office, of course, but also this Council - to make sure the promise and the purpose of the referral is wedded with concrete action.” 

The Darfur conflict began in 2003 between Sudanese Government forces, backed by allied militia known as Janjaweed, and Darfur rebel movements. Hundreds of thousands were killed, while scores more were displaced. 

In 2005, the Council referred the case to the ICC, which is investigating allegations of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. 

Outstanding arrest warrants 

Mr. Khan reported on progress, notably the start in April of a trial against a “notorious” Janjaweed leader, Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman, known as “Ali Kushayb”.  

Four arrest warrants remain outstanding, including for Sudan’s former President, Omar Al-Bashir, who was deposed in April 2019.  

The other warrants are for the former Interior Minister, Abdel Raheem Muhammad Hussein; the former governor of South Kordofan state, Ahmed Harun, and Abdallah Banda, former commander of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). 

Mr. Khan stressed that the cases before the ICC “are not against Sudan” but “against individuals for whom the evidence discloses their responsibility in relation to crimes within the jurisdiction of the court.” 

Increasing effectiveness 

As with all cases referred to the ICC by the Security Council, Sudan is a priority for Mr. Khan. 

Several factors, including non-cooperation by previous regimes, prevented investigators from undertaking field visits to the country over the past 17 years. 

As a result, evidence against Mr. Al-Bashir and Mr. Hussein needs strengthening, he said, which requires cooperation and collaboration from the Sudanese authorities, but also the Council and UN Member States. 

Mr. Khan spoke about steps he has taken towards greater effectiveness, such as allocating additional investigators, personnel and resources.  He has also appointed renowned human rights lawyer Amal Clooney as a pro bono special adviser. 

His visit to Khartoum last August also resulted in the signing of a memorandum of understanding with the government on all four arrest warrant cases, marking a first.  

The Sudanese authorities had also committed to work more closely with his Office, and to sign the Rome Statute, the 1998 treaty that established the ICC. Agreement had also been reached to ensure a permanent field presence of the Office of the Prosecutor in Khartoum. 

A changed ‘landscape’ 

However, the “landscape” in Sudan changed just two months later after the military, which had been sharing power in a transitional government, dissolved civilian rule. 

“The hiatus from the 25th of October has meant we have lost focal points. We are trying to catch up,” said Mr. Khan.  “We have had to suspend active investigations, so this was a very troublesome, concerning turn of events.” 

There has been an “upside”, he reported, following an ICC team visit to Khartoum in December.  General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who led the coup, has reassured that the memorandum of understanding was still valid, and that he was looking at cooperating. 

“And he said - on more than one occasion to me directly, and to the team in December - that it was essential to have justice for the victims in Darfur,” Mr. Khan told ambassadors. 

“The challenge now collectively for all of us is to make sure those assurances are translated into concrete, tangible partnerships and accountability.” 

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Experts decry measures to ‘steadily erase’ Afghan women and girls from public life

INTERNATIONAL, 17 January 2022, Women - Taliban leaders in Afghanistan are institutionalizing large scale and systematic gender-based discrimination and violence against women and girls, independent UN human rights experts warned on Monday.

The group of around three dozen Human Rights Council-appointed experts highlighted a “wave of measures” such as barring women from returning to their jobs, requiring a male relative to accompany them in public spaces, prohibiting women from using public transport on their own, as well as imposing a strict dress code on women and girls.

“Taken together, these policies constitute a collective punishment of women and girls, grounded on gender-based bias and harmful practices,” the experts said.

These policies have also affected the ability of women to work and to make a living, pushing them further into poverty.

“Women heads of households are especially hard hit, with their suffering compounded by the devastating consequences of the humanitarian crisis in the country”, they explained. 

The experts also noted the increased risk of exploitation of women and girls, including of trafficking for the purposes of child and forced marriage, as well as sexual exploitation and forced labour.

Education

The Taliban, who became de facto rulers of Afghanistan after taking the capital Kabul last August, also continue to deny the fundamental right to secondary and tertiary education, arguing that women and men must be segregated and that female students have to abide by a specific dress code.

As a result, most girls’ secondary schools remain closed. The vast majority of girls who should be attending grades 7-12 are being denied access to school, based solely on their gender.

The experts denounce an “attempt to steadily erase women and girls from public life”, pointing out the closure of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the occupation of the premises of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

According to them, various service providers supporting survivors of gender-based violence have shut down for fear of retribution. The same happened with many women’s shelters. 

Specialized courts and prosecution units – responsible for enforcing the 2009 Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women – have also been discontinued, and many women and and social workers are being prevented from working.

At risk groups

The experts have particular concerns for women human rights defenders, civil society activists and leaders, judges and prosecutors, security forces, former government employees, and journalists. 

According to them, all these women are being exposed to harassment, threats of violence and actual bodily harm, and their civic space has been severely eroded. Many have been forced to leave the country as a result.

The experts are also “deeply troubled” by reports of peaceful protesters having often been beaten, ill-treated, threatened, and in confirmed instances, detained arbitrarily. 

These concerns are exacerbated in the cases of women from ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities such as the Hazara, Tajik, Hindu and other communities, whose differences or visibility make them even more vulnerable.

Women in a waiting room of a clinic in Afghanistan.
Women in a waiting room of a clinic in Afghanistan. , by © UNICEF/Alessio Romenzi

The group is “extremely disturbed” by the reports of extrajudicial killings and forced displacement of ethnic and religious minorities, such as the Hazara, which “would suggest deliberate efforts to target, ban, and even eliminate them from the country.”

International plea

The experts reiterated their call to the international community to step up urgently needed humanitarian assistance and to continue to hold the de facto authorities accountable for continuous violations. 

“Any humanitarian response, recovery or development efforts in the country, are condemned to failure if female staff, women-led organizations, and women in general - particularly those from minority communities - continue to be excluded from full participation in the needs assessments as well as in the decision-making, design, implementation and monitoring of these interventions,” the experts said.

Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary, and the experts are not paid for their work.

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Tonga volcanic eruption: Too soon to assess damage

INTERNATIONAL, 17 January 2022, Humanitarian Aid - Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, is covered in ash and dust following the underwater volcanic eruption at the weekend, but the situation is calm there and first clean-up efforts are underway, UN humanitarians said on Monday.

Further afield in the Pacific archipelago, an update from aid coordinating office OCHA, indicated that there has been significant damage to infrastructure around the main island of Tongatapu, where several resorts have been destroyed or badly affected, in western coastal areas.

There are no confirmed fatalities so far, but two people are still missing, and assessments are still pending, particularly from the outer islands.

Shockwave

According to reports, Saturday’s eruption was heard as far away as Alaska, while the tsunami that emanated from the blast flooded the Japanese and US coastlines, also killing two people in Peru.

So far in Tonga, no official contact has been established with two small low-lying islands Mango and Fonoi, although surveillance flights by New Zealand and Australia have revealed substantial damage along western beaches.

Local telephone lines have been repaired, OCHA said, but restoring international phone connections and internet service, remain complicated after the eruption reportedly severed a key communications cable lying on the seabed.

In addition to receiving help from neighbouring New Zealand and Australia, the Tongan authorities deployed the national maritime force to the Ha’apai Group of islands on Sunday.

Next steps

In this challenging situation, the UN and its partners in the Pacific are urgently planning next steps, including those UN agencies already based in Tonga such as the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

To support the Tongan government, the WFP is exploring how to bring in relief supplies and more staff, and it has also received a request to restore communication lines in Tonga by deploying its Emergency Telecommunications Cluster.

The ETC initiative brings together 29 organizations from the humanitarian, private and government sectors who work to provide shared communications services in emergencies.

Teams from the rapid-response unit can be mobilized within 48 hours of an emergency to work with local partners and reconnect communities, responding to up to 10 crisis situations a year.

Typically, ETC teams help to restore mobile networks and internet connectivity to affected populations, while also setting up security systems or getting radio stations back on air, in recognition of the vital role played by communications in an emergency.

The gas, steam, and ash cloud pouring from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’pai volcano on January 13,  before an eruption.
©NASA
The gas, steam, and ash cloud pouring from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’pai volcano on January 13, before an eruption.

UNICEF at the ready

UNICEF Pacific said in a statement released on Monday that it was ready to work together with the Government and its partners to ensure urgent life-saving support is provided to families and children.

“We are on standby to provide humanitarian support to the Government of Tonga and its people affected by the volcanic eruption and tsunami,” said UNICEF Pacific Representative, Jonathan Veitch. “UNICEF will work with the government, civil society organizations, and other development partners to ensure immediate response efforts on the ground, which includes providing clean water, and emergency health supplies for children and families affected.”

Small islands vulnerable

The President of the UN General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid, is closely monitoring developments in the region, according to his Spokesperson, Paulina Kubiak.

"The President is relieved that there have been so far, no confirmed reports of deaths or major injuries", she said. Mr. Shahid hails from the island archipelago of the Maldives, and he said the eruption in Tonga, once again demonstrates the vulnerability of small island developing States (SIDS) to natural disasters, such as tsunamis.

"The usual response options, when it comes to SIDS are limited. There is limited higher ground. The ground water is easily contaminated and almost all infrastructure is located near the shoreline. What we need is efforts to enhance resilience", Ms. Kubiak continued, "as outlined in the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction, and further specified in the 2030 Agenda."

The disaster is yet another instance where international solidarity is needed, says the General Assembly president, once the Tongan Government identifies the support it requires.

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