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New UN high-profile panel set to take on noncommunicable diseases, cause of seven in 10 deaths globally

INTERNATIONAL, 16 February 2018 - Bold, innovative solutions are now on the table to accelerate the prevention and control of deadly noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) – such as heart and lung disease, cancers and diabetes – as a new United Nations health agency high-level commission gets set to begin its work.

“NCDs are the world’s leading avoidable killers, but the world is not doing enough to prevent and control them,” said Tabaré Vázquez, President of Uruguay and co-chair of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Independent Global High-level Commission on NCDs.

“We have to ask ourselves if we want to condemn future generations from dying too young, and living lives of ill health and lost opportunity. The answer clearly is ‘no.’ But there is so much we can do to safeguard and care for people, from protecting everyone from tobacco, harmful use of alcohol, and unhealthy foods and sugary drinks, to giving people the health services they need to stop NCDs in their tracks,” he added.

The NCD Commission is also co-chaired by President Maithripala Sirisena of Sri Lanka; President Sauli Niinistö of Finland; Veronika Skvortsova, Minister of Healthcare of the Russian Federation; and Sania Nishtar, former Federal Minister of Pakistan.

Each year, seven in 10 deaths globally are from NCDs, mostly from tobacco and alcohol use, unhealthy diets and physical inactivity.

More than 15 million people between 30 and 70 years old die annually from NCDs. Low- and lower-middle income countries are increasingly affected – with half of premature deaths from NCDs occurring in those countries.

“For the first time in history, more people are dying of noncommunicable diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, than infectious diseases. This loss of human life spares no one –rich or poor, young or old – and it imposes heavy economic costs on nations,” said Michael R. Bloomberg, WHO Global Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases and Commission member.

Many lives can be saved from NCDs through early diagnosis and improved access to quality and affordable treatment, as well as a whole-of-government approach to reduce the main risk factors.

“The more public support we can build for government policies that are proven to save lives – as this Commission will work to do – the more progress we'll be able to make around the world,” Mr. Bloomberg added.

The Commission was established by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and runs until October 2019. It will contribute actionable recommendations to the Third UN General Assembly High-level Meeting on NCDs scheduled for later this year.

“Everybody deserves the right to a healthy life,” Mr. Tedros stressed. “We can beat the drivers of the NCD epidemic, which are among the world’s main obstacles to health.”

Dr. Nishtar argued that while there have been improvements in some countries and regions, the overall rate of progress has been unacceptably slow, “resulting in too many people suffering and dying needlessly from NCDs, and leaving families, communities and governments to bear the human and economic costs.”

“This year, governments will be held to account on progress they have made in protecting their citizens from NCDs,” she underscored.

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Efficient national tax systems critical for sustainable development and inclusive growth, urge UN, partners

INTERNATIONAL, 16 February 2018 - Countries need to strengthen the effectiveness of their tax regimes to unleash much-needed domestic resources to ensure the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as the promotion of inclusive economic growth, United Nations and as key international economic and financial organizations have urged.

At a three-day conference, from 14-16 February, held at UN Headquarters, in New York, under the theme of taxation and SDGs, the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also urged support for developing countries to address tax transparency and base erosion and profit shifting, including on treaties.

“I call upon the international community to establish effective mechanisms to combat tax evasion, money laundering and illicit financial flows, so that developing countries could better mobilize their own resources,” the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, said at the opening of the forum

In the same vein, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde underscored that funding the global development goals is an economic and ethical imperative and that it has major implications for taxation.

“Countries themselves need to raise more revenue in an equitable way. And the entire international community needs to eradicate tax evasion and tax avoidance,” she noted.

Domestic resource mobilization presents a challenge for developing countries, who need to raise tax revenue of at least 15 per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) to be able to provide basic services, such as infrastructure, health care and public safety.

Presently, in almost 30 of the 75 poorest countries, tax revenues are below this threshold.

At the same time, more advanced economies need to pay greater attention to spillovers from their tax policies and step up their support for stronger tax systems in developing countries.

All countries and stakeholders need to continue working together on establishing a fair and efficient system of international taxation, including efforts to fight tax avoidance and tax evasion, the organizations urged.

At the same time, good governance is also critical.

According to Jim Kim, the President of the World Bank Group, fair and efficient tax systems, “combined with good service delivery and public accountability, build citizens’ trust in government and help societies prosper.”

“Effective taxation is essential to promote a more inclusive and sustainable growth. It is fundamental to making globalisation work for all,” added Secretary-General of the OECD, Ángel Gurría, noting that this is crucial for achieving the global development goals.

The conference, organized by the Platform for Collaboration on Tax (PCT), also provided a unique opportunity to address topics related to eradication of poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring prosperity for all.

It also provided an avenue to discuss the social dimensions of taxation, such as income and gender inequality and human development, as well as capacity development and international tax cooperation.

In a statement issued at the end of the conference, the four organizations announced the establishment of the Platform for Collaboration on Tax.

Subject to resource availability, the Platform intends to undertake or continue work in a range of areas, including strengthening international tax cooperation, building Institutions through medium term revenue strategies, and promoting partnerships and stakeholder engagement.

They also announced a list of immediate and concrete actions in these three areas, including the launch of a multi-year tax and SDGs programme, that will include components on taxation and health, education, gender, inequality, environment, and infrastructure; as well as establish a regular dialogue between the Platform and stakeholders – including, most importantly, the developing country.

• Read the full conference statement here.

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In crisis-torn eastern DR Congo, UN food relief agency expands operations to stem hunger

INTERNATIONAL, 16 February 2018 - Escalating violence, daunting logistical challenges and insufficient funding have prompted the United Nations food relief agency to broaden its emergency operation in the war-ravaged Kasai region in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

To prevent famine in the Kasai region, the World Food Programme (WFP) is stepping-up cash distributions to the most vulnerable, and specialist support to check acute malnutrition in women and young children.

“The nutrition and cash programmes are life-saving, and must quickly expand,” Claude Jibidar, WFP’s Representative in DRC, said Friday.

Since last week’s cash initiative launch – a cost-efficient alternative to in-kind support that allows beneficiaries to buy what they want in recovering local markets – 38,000 people have each received the equivalent of $15 for a month, enough to meet their basic food needs with the intention to more than double that reach in the coming weeks.

“We’re not doing nearly as much as we could in Kasai because the obstacles are huge,” Mr. Jibidar continued, “but unless we collectively rise to the challenges, many more people, including the weakest women and children, will die.”

Plumpy’Sup, a micronutrient-rich ready-to-use supplementary food, has been airlifted from France to enable a significant scale-up of WFP’s nutrition interventions in Kasai. Up from 21,000 in the final quarter of last year, 56,000 malnourished children were reached there in January with the expectation of a 20,000 a month increase to 140,000 by June.

Following the eruption of brutal political and ethnic violence in mid-2016, which claimed countless lives, razed entire villages and forced hundreds of thousands of families from their homes, WFP launched its assistance programme.

Assessments showed that 3.2 million people, a quarter of the region’s population of mostly subsistence farmers, were desperately short of food.

AUDIO CLIP: Claude Jibidar, WFP Country Director for Democratic Republic of Congo, by UN News - Audio

With no prior presence in Kasai, between September and December WFP achieved a tenfold increase in the number of people receiving food rations – to 400,000. However, lagging donations forced cereal, beans, vegetable oil and salt rations to be halfed in November.

Continued funding constraints, an upsurge in fighting between pro- and anti-Government forces and a rapid, rainy season deterioration of the already poor road network saw the number receiving half-rations drop to 130,000 in January.

“That reversal has to be corrected, and quickly,” continued Mr. Jibidar.

Limited funding is also a major challenge in the eastern DRC provinces of Tanganyika and South Kivu, where WFP is scaling up to meet the needs of growing conflict-displaced populations as part of a broad push by UN agencies and non-governmental organizations.   

“We’ve shown we have capacity to deliver, but to reach sufficient scale we need the fighting to stop and donors to step up,” he concluded.

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Service and Sacrifice: Honouring Nigeria’s contribution to UN peacekeeping

INTERNATIONAL, 16 February 2018 - Since the 1960s, Nigeria has been a major contributor of troops and police to United Nations peace operations, having served in dozens of missions. Most recently, Nigerian troops were the military backbone of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), from 2003-2018, helping to restore security throughout a country that had undergone a brutal civil war.

In January 2018, Liberians and the international community watched the first democratic transfer of power in the country in decades – thanks in no small part to Nigeria and other troop and police contributing countries.

Liberia’s new President, George Weah, recently commended UNMIL for its longstanding support to peace and stability, saying: “The Liberian people will forever remain grateful to you for your bravery and service to our great nation… Remember Liberia is your home.”

Nigeria was one of the first countries to provide troops in Liberia in 2003, and was among the last to leave, its final troops flying out just last week.

Below is a snapshot of Nigeria’s active participation in UN peacekeeping around the world over the years.

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UN rights chief urges Iran to halt executions of juveniles on death row

INTERNATIONAL, 16 February 2018 - Expressing concern over a “surge” in the number of juvenile offenders being executed in Iran, the United Nations top human rights official called on the country to abide by its obligations under international law and immediately halt all executions of people sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were under the age of eighteen.

“The execution of juvenile offenders is unequivocally prohibited under international law, regardless of the circumstances and nature of the crime committed,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said in a news release Friday.

“The imposition of the death penalty on people who committed crimes when they were under 18 is in clear violation of Iran’s obligations under two international treaties that is has ratified and is obliged to uphold – namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in January, three people – two male and one female – were executed for crimes they committed when they were 15 or 16 years old. A fourth juvenile offender, who was believed to be on the point of being executed on Wednesday, has reportedly received a temporary reprieve of two months.

In addition, a number of other juvenile offenders are also believed to be in danger of imminent execution, with a total of some 80 such individuals reported to be currently on death row, after being sentenced to death for crimes they committed when they were under eighteen.

“I am sad to say that Iran violates this absolute prohibition under international human rights law far more often than any other State,” expressed the UN rights chief, stressing that no other State “comes even remotely close” to the total number of juveniles who have been executed in Iran over the past couple of decades.

Mr. Zeid also said that Iran assigns criminal responsibility to girls as young as nine years old, whereas boys are not considered criminally responsible until they reach the age of 15.

This discrepancy between the two genders is “wholly unjustifiable on every level,” he stressed, adding that the application of the death penalty to any person, female or male, under 18 is “illegal and unacceptable.”

Some partial improvements in application of death penalty in drugs crime

Also in the release, the High Commissioner noted that there had been some “partial” improvements in relation to other aspects of the application of the death penalty in Iran, most notably a bill amending the drug-trafficking law that was approved by the Guardian Council in October 2017.

As a result of the amendment, some drug offences that were previously punishable by the death penalty are now subject to a prison term, although the mandatory death sentence is retained for a wide range of drug-related offences.

According to OHCHR, the amendment provides for retroactive applicability, which means that all people currently on death row for drug-related offences which are no longer punishable by the death penalty should see their sentence commuted.

In this context, Mr. Zeid urged Iran to swiftly establish the modalities for the review of all individual cases sentenced to death under the drug-trafficking law, following the principles of transparency, due process and to ensure effective legal representation of all those sentenced.

At present, there are about 5,300 inmates on death row for drugs crimes in the country.

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UN chief expresses ‘profound sadness’ at Florida gun massacre

INTERNATIONAL, 15 February 2018 - Secretary-General António Guterres has expressed his profound sadness at the horrific gun massacre in Florida in a message he wrote to the Governor and to the United States’ Ambassador to the United Nations, UN spokesman said Thursday. 

“It is wrenching to see so many young lives cut short – in a place where students should feel safe – as well as so many families torn apart, and yet another community thrown into shock,” Mr. Guterres wrote to Governor Rick Scott and US Permanent Representative to the UN, Nikki Haley.

“At this time of profound sorrow, we at the United Nations wish to say that our thoughts are with all those who have been touched by this tragedy,” Mr. Guterres added, according to his Spokesman Stéphane Dujarric.

News organizations reported that 17 people were killed and another 14 were wounded in the shooting that took place Wednesday at a high school in Parkland.

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Mali: $263 million sought to assist most vulnerable with humanitarian support, says UN relief official

INTERNATIONAL, 15 February 2018 - Aid agencies in Mali have launched the 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP ), asking for $263 million to provide humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable people, a senior United Nations aid official in the country said

“Today, with this joint plan, the humanitarian actors renew their commitment alongside the Malian people,” Mbaranga Gasarabwe, Humanitarian Coordinator for Mali, said Wednesday.

The humanitarian community is focusing on food security and nutrition; protection; health services’ water; hygiene and sanitation; and education.

About 5.1 million people, or more than 27 per cent of the total population, live in areas affected by a security crisis – with food uncertainty affecting more than one-in-five people.

Between 2017 and 2018, the number of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition jumped more than 10 per cent, from 142,000 to an alarming 165,000 – weakening their immune systems and increasing their chances of death by nine-fold should they fall ill.

Four million of these in the northern regions will not be self-sufficient enough to meet their basic needs – in Mopti and Macina and Niono cercles in Segou.

Moreover, in recent months schools have continued to close at a steady, significant rate, from 297 in 2016 to 500 at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year.

The HRP aims to provide humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable by strengthening access to basic social services, improving livelihoods and resilience, and strengthening emergency preparedness.

It focuses on emergency response, while encouraging the adoption of sustainable solutions in connection with development actors – taking into account the changing political and security context and the ability of actors to intervene on the ground.

"The world must stop observing the crisis only through a purely security prism,” warned Ms. Gasarabwe.”

“The current politico-security crisis comes in particular juxtapose with a chronic vulnerability inherent in natural hazards. Thus, the effects of climate change are perceptible with the rarefaction and irregularity of the rains, the early declines in the interior delta of Niger and the silting up of cultivable land. These factors promote food and nutritional insecurity and cause forced displacement of populations with the risk of community tensions and the deschooling of children," she added.

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Alarming gaps in reliable data leave 28 million uprooted children unprotected – UN

INTERNATIONAL, 15 February 2018 - There are “alarming holes” in the availability, reliability, timeliness and accessibility of the data and evidence essential for understanding how children and their families are impacted by migration and forced displacement, United Nations agencies and their partners warned on Thursday.

There are “alarming holes” in the availability, reliability, timeliness and accessibility of the data and evidence essential for understanding how children and their families are impacted by migration and forced displacement, United Nations agencies and their partners warned on Thursday.

With A call to action: Protecting children on the move starts with better data, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Eurostat and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showed how crucial data are to understanding the patterns of global migration and developing policies to support vulnerable groups like children.

“Information gaps fundamentally undermine our ability to help children ,” said Laurence Chandy, UNICEF Director for the Division of Data, Research and Policy.

The report confirms that massive gaps in data covering refugees, asylum seekers, migrants and internally displaced populations are endangering millions of children on the move.

“Migrant children, particularly those who migrate alone, are often easy targets for those who would do them harm,” he continued, adding “We can’t keep children safe and provide them with lifesaving services, both in transit and at their destination, if we don’t know who they are, where they are or what they need.”

While an estimated 28 million children were living in forced displacement in 2016, the true figure is likely much higher.

In many countries, available national data do not include information on migrants’ and refugees’ age, sex and origin, or if they travel unaccompanied or with their families.

Moreover, nearly a quarter of countries and territories do not have age disaggregated data on migrants, including 43 per cent of countries and territories in Africa and just 56 per cent of the refugee population under UNHCR’s mandate has age information on record.

“Many refugee children have experienced or witnessed appalling violence and suffering in their countries of origin and sometimes also during their flight in search of protection and security,” said Volker Türk, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection.

“They need and deserve care and protection but in order to provide this, we need data on their identity and needs. In no area is coordination on data and strengthening capacity more important than for children, especially the most vulnerable” he added.

The report underlines that differing criteria for age categories and for recoding data make disaggregation extremely challenging – particularly in estimating accurately how many children are on the move worldwide as well as those moving undocumented across borders, displaced or migrating internally, or left behind by migrant parents.

“We need reliable and better data on child migrants to protect them and guarantee their best interests,” stressed IOM Director General William Lacy Swing.

“Data disaggregation by age, sex and origin can inform policymakers of the real needs of child migrants. This will ensure that no child is left behind and that they are not exploited. All migrant children are entitled to care and protection regardless of their migratory status,” he affirmed.

The need for better data collection and analysis are key features of the related but distinct Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and the Global Compact on Refugees currently being developed for adoption in 2018.

While there are ongoing efforts to strengthen data collection and analysis at both the global and country levels, far more needs to be done. If these gaps are not addressed, it will be impossible to implement and monitor the Compacts and the impact they could have for children on the move.

“We urge Member States to fill these gaps with reliable disaggregated data and to improve cooperation so that data is shared and comparable,” concluded Mr. Chandy.

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New guidelines on global care standards during childbirth issued by UN health agency

INTERNATIONAL, 15 February 2018 - The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) has issued new guidelines on global care standards throughout labour and immediately after childbirth aimed at reducing the use of needless and potentially harmful routine clinical and medical interventions.

“We want women to give birth in a safe environment with skilled birth attendants in well-equipped facilities. However, the increasing medicalization of normal childbirth processes are undermining a woman’s own capability to give birth and negatively impacting her birth experience,” said Princess Nothemba Simelela, the Assistant Director-General at the UN World Health Organization (WHO) for Family, Women, Children and Adolescents.

Worldwide, an estimated 140 million births take place every year and most of these occur without complications for women and their babies.

However, according to WHO, over the past 20 years, health practitioners have increased the use of interventions that were previously only used to avoid risks or treat complications, such as oxytocin infusion to speed up labour or caesarean sections. Studies show that a substantial proportion of healthy pregnant women undergo at least one clinical intervention during labour and birth.

“If labour is progressing normally, and the woman and her baby are in good condition, they do not need to receive additional interventions to accelerate labour,” added Dr. Simelela.

Based on 56 evidence-based recommendations, the new guidelines include having a companion of choice during labour and childbirth; ensuring respectful care and good communication between women and health providers; maintaining privacy and confidentiality; and allowing women to make decisions about their pain management, labour and birth positions and natural urge to push, among others.

If labour is progressing normally, and the woman and her baby are in good condition, they do not need to receive additional interventions to accelerate labour — Dr. Simelela, WHO Assistant Director-General

Every labour is unique and progresses at different rates

Recognizing that every labour and childbirth is unique and that the duration of the active first stage of labour varies from one woman to another, the guidelines state that the previous benchmark for cervical dilation rate at 1 cm/hr during the active first stage of labour (as assessed by a partograph or chart used to document the course of a normal labour) may be “unrealistic” for some women and is inaccurate in identifying women at risk of adverse birth outcomes.

The guidelines emphasize that a slower cervical dilation rate alone should not be a routine indication for intervention to accelerate labour or expedite birth.

Furthermore, while most women want a natural labour and birth, they also acknowledge that birth can be an unpredictable and risky event and that close monitoring and sometimes medical interventions may be necessary.

When a medical intervention is wanted or needed, “the inclusion of women in making decisions about the care they receive is important to ensure that they meet their goal of a positive childbirth experience,” said Ian Askew, the head of WHO Department of Reproductive Health and Research.

High quality and dignified care for all women

The UN agency also noted that with more women give birth in health facilities with skilled health professionals and timely referrals, they deserve better quality of care.

Estimates show that about 830 women die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related complications around the world every day – the majority of which can be prevented with high-quality care.

Additionally, disrespectful and non-dignified care is prevalent in many health facilities, violating human rights and preventing women from accessing care services during childbirth. In many parts of the world, the health provider controls the birthing process, further exposing healthy pregnant women to unnecessary medical interventions that interfere with the natural childbirth process.

“Achieving the best possible physical, emotional, and psychological outcomes for the woman and her baby requires a model of care in which health systems empower all women to access care that focuses on the mother and child,” underscored WHO.

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UN says more than 10,000 civilians killed or injured in Afghanistan conflict last year

INTERNATIONAL, 15 February 2018 - More than 10,000 civilians were killed or wounded in the Afghanistan conflict during 2017, a nine per cent drop over 2016, according to a United Nations report out Thursday which also revealed rising casualties caused by suicide bombings and attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

“The chilling statistics in this report provide credible data about the war’s impact, but the figures alone cannot capture the appalling human suffering inflicted on ordinary people, especially women and children,” said Tadamichi Yamamoto, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan.

A total of 10,453 civilian casualties – 3,438 people killed and 7,015 injured – were documented in the 2017 Annual Report released Thursday by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

Although this figure represents a decrease of nine per cent compared with 2016, the report highlights the high number of casualties caused by suicide bombings and other attacks using IEDs. 

“I am particularly appalled by the continued indiscriminate and unlawful use of IEDs such as suicide bombs and pressure-plate devices in civilian populated areas. This is shameful,” said Mr. Yamamoto, who also heads UNAMA.

The second leading cause of civilian casualties in 2017 was ground engagements between anti-government elements and pro-government forces, although there was a decrease of 19 per cent from the record levels seen in 2016.

The report attributes close to two-thirds or 65 per cent of all casualties to anti-government elements: 42 per cent to the Taliban, 10 per cent to Da’esh/Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIL-KP), and 13 per cent to undetermined and other anti-government elements. 

Pro-Government forces caused a fifth of civilian casualties: 16 per cent were attributed to the Afghan national security forces, two per cent to international military forces, one per cent each to pro-Government armed groups and undetermined pro-Government forces.

Unattributed cross-fire during ground engagements between anti-government elements and pro-government forces caused 11 per cent of civilian casualties.

Women and children remained heavily affected by conflict-related violence. UNAMA documented that 359 women were killed, up five per cent, and 865 injured in 2017. Child casualties – 861 killed and 2,318 injured – decreased by 10 per cent compared with 2016.

“Afghan civilians have been killed going about their daily lives – travelling on a bus, praying in a mosque, simply walking past a building that was targeted,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.

“Such attacks are prohibited under international humanitarian law and are likely, in most cases, to constitute war crimes. The perpetrators must be identified and held accountable,” he added.

The report attributes 1,000 civilian casualties – 399 deaths and 601 injured – and the abduction of 119 civilians to Da’esh/ISIL-KP.

“The group mainly targeted civilians in 2017 but also conducted indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks against security forces in civilian areas,” the report states.

Among its recommendations, the report urges parties to the conflict to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians and civilian installations. It calls on anti-government elements to cease the deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian objects and the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of all IEDs.

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