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UN chief takes to radio waves of Central African Republic to appeal for peaceful polls

INTERNATIONAL – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took to the radio waves of the Central African Republic (CAR) to appeal to voters for a massive turn-out in tomorrow’s presidential poll, a major step in efforts to stabilize the country amid conflict between Muslims and Christians.

“The upcoming elections are a historical moment for your country,” he said in French about the first round of presidential and legislative elections.

“Never before have so many Central Africans registered to vote. I call on every one of you to use your right to vote without letting others prevent you from expressing yourselves peacefully. The United Nations will stand by you during this critical time.”

The UN has played a major role in seeking to restore peace after fighting between the mainly Muslim Séléka and mainly Christian anti-Balaka groups erupted in early 2013, in which thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands more forced from their homes.

After nine months of improved stability earlier this year a new wave of inter-communal violence erupted in September, killing at least 130 people, injuring 430 others, and triggering an 18 per cent increase in internally displaced persons to 447,500.

The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in CAR (MINUSCA), set up in April 2014 to help restore stability after a breakdown of governmental authority, reports that the situation in Bangui remained calm yesterday as the campaign period came to an end.

Meanwhile, the National Electoral Authority issued a directive yesterday on the modalities and conditions for voting to address concerns over allegations of voter card trafficking and fake voter registration receipts.

MINUSCA continues to deliver sensitive electoral material to polling centres and has deployed additional troops to Ndélé, Birao and Sibut.

Furthermore, the Mission in partnership with the National Electoral Authority facilitated today a meeting of the 30 presidential candidates to discuss security planning for Election Day, transmission of results and voting and counting procedures. The Mission has also facilitated a meeting with key stakeholders from the predominantly Muslim PK5 neighbourhood and the anti-Balaka stronghold in Boeing on the outskirts of Bangui.

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People of African descent must be fully included in decisions, UN experts urge

INTERNATIONAL – People of African descent, often the poorest and most marginalized in society, are among those set to be most adversely affected by climate change, yet they barely figured in the recent Paris climate summit, a United Nations expert group warned today, calling for their full inclusion.

“Implementation of the Paris climate change agreement and future climate talks should focus on the needs and views of those most at risk, including people of African descent, and not be based on market forces,” the Chairperson of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, Mireille Fanon Mendes-France, said in a statement in Geneva.

Despite advances in tackling racism and racial discrimination, both direct and indirect, people of African descent are often among the poorest and most marginalized groups in society, often living in communities disproportionately affected for decades by environmental degradation such as air pollution and toxic waste.

“They are now bearing, and are set to further bear, a disproportionately high burden of the consequences of climate change,” Ms. Mendes-France added.

“Given this, discussions on climate change must be framed in the light of environmental inequalities and take into account people of African descent and Africans living in all regions of the world, many of whom remain trapped in structural and institutional invisibility.”

The International Decade for People of African Descent, which runs from 2015 to 2024, aims to highlight the contribution of people of African descent to societies, as well as strengthen national, regional and international cooperation in relation to the full enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights by people of African descent, yet these rights that are set to be affected to a greater or lesser degree by climate change, she noted.

“World leaders can make the Paris agreement process truly historic by ensuring that the participation of marginalized communities, including people of African descent, in efforts to deal with climate change is no longer overlooked or sidelined, but made central to the debate about the future of our common planet,” she concluded.

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Recent unusual weather worldwide calls for urgent preventive action, UN official warns

INTERNATIONAL – Extreme tornadoes in the United States over Christmas, abnormal snowfalls in Mexico, and heavy flooding in South America and the United Kingdom show that governments must take more preventive action to reduce human and economic losses from weather-related disasters, a senior United Nations official warned today.

“Prevention measures including upgrading early warning systems to deal with the new climate variability, revising building codes to ensure more resilience of critical infrastructure such as schools, hospital and roads, and more investment in flood defences are critical to protect more people against disaster impacts,” said Margareta Wahlström, head of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).

“We have no time to lose as weather-related disasters continue to increase, affecting millions of people.”

Over the weekend, tornadoes and storms killed more than 20 people in the US states of New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Illinois, and flattened hundreds of buildings and houses.

“More people are at risk due to increased urbanization,” Ms. Wahlström said. “Reducing spatial density of single family housing and increasing the resilience of houses against heavier wind load can reduce tornado impacts.”

Meanwhile, the intense floods in South America are considered the worst in the past 10 years, forcing more than 170,000 people to evacuate in Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

“The abnormal flooding is consistent with the prediction made by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) last November. We cannot ignore science. Their findings need to be better included in long-term policies,” Ms. Wahlström added.

Last month, WMO warned that the majority of international climate outlook models indicated that the 2015-16 El Niño weather phenomenon was set to strengthen before the end of the year, causing more flooding and more droughts, setting it among the three strongest since 1950.

The phenomenon, characterized by a warming of the Pacific Ocean, is also triggering a rise in drought in different parts of the Americas, sparking the worst droughts in decades in Central America and Haiti, and that they will continue into 2016.

In Mexico, snowfall over the weekend blanketed 32 towns in the state of Chihuahua, with some places hit by accumulations of 30 centimetres and temperatures of -18 degrees Celsius.

Further afield, December has seen communities in Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Yorkshire in the UK swamped by rising waters with damages that could exceed £1.5 billion according to financial analysts.

“The repetitive floods in the UK and unusual snowstorms in Mexico are alerting the world about how difficult it is to predict global warming impacts and climate change,” Ms. Wahlström said.

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UN declares end to Ebola virus transmission in Guinea; first time all three host countries free

INTERNATIONAL – The United Nations health agency today declared the end of Ebola virus transmission in Guinea, where the epidemic began two years ago before spreading to neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone and, ultimately by land and air travel to seven other countries, killing over 11,300 people.

But experts called for continued vigilance against any new outbreak stemming from the virus’s lingering in male semen even after the bloodstream has been cleared.

“This is the first time that all three countries – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – have stopped the original chains of transmission that were responsible for starting this devastating outbreak two years ago,” World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said in a news release, of the largest-ever epidemic of the deadly disease.

“I commend the governments, communities and partners for their determination in confronting this epidemic to get to this milestone. As we work towards building resilient health care systems, we need to stay vigilant to ensure that we rapidly stop any new flares that may come up in 2016.”

Forty-two days have now passed since the last person in Guinea confirmed to have Ebola virus disease tested negative for the second time, and the country now enters 90 days of heightened surveillance to ensure that any new cases are identified quickly before they can spread to others.

“WHO and its partners will continue to support Guinea during the next 90 days of heightened surveillance and in its early efforts to restart and strengthen essential health services throughout 2016,” WHO Representative in Guinea Mohamed Belhocine said.

“We must render homage to the Government and people of Guinea who, in adversity, have shown extraordinary leadership in fighting the epidemic.”

Apart from the original chain of transmission, there were 10 new small outbreaks between March and November, apparently due to the re-emergence of a persistent virus from survivors. One challenge is that after recovery and clearing the virus from the bloodstream, the virus may persist in the semen of some male survivors for as long as nine to 12 months.

WHO and its partners are working with the Governments of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to help ensure that survivors have access to medical and psychosocial care, screening for persistent virus, as well as counselling and education to help them reintegrate into family and community life, reduce stigma and minimize the risk of Ebola virus transmission.

“The coming months will be absolutely critical,” WHO Special Representative for Ebola Response Bruce Aylward said. “This is the period when the countries need to be sure that they are fully prepared to prevent, detect and respond to any new cases.

“The time-limited persistence of the virus in survivors which may give rise to new Ebola flares in 2016 makes it imperative that partners continue to support these countries. WHO will maintain surveillance and outbreak response teams in the three countries through 2016.”

At the same time, 2016 will see the three most-affected countries implementing a full health sector recovery agenda to restart and strengthen key public health programmes, especially maternal and child health, while continuing to maintain the capacity to detect, prevent and respond to any flare-up of Ebola.

Welcoming WHO’s declaration, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEFcautioned that thousands of children orphaned by the disease as well as those who survived infection will need continued support, noting that it is almost two years to the day when a toddler became the first victim.

“While we mark this occasion, we must all remember that children were greatly impacted by Ebola. They were more likely to die if infected,” UNICEF Guinea Representative Mohamed Ag Ayoya said.

“Over 22,000 children lost one or both parents in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. They are traumatized and continue to be stigmatized in their neighbourhoods. For thousands of girls and boys, the outbreak does not end today. It will be with them throughout their lives. Let us commit to be with them too.”

In Guinea alone, 6,220 children lost one or both parents or their primary caregiver, while 230 survived infection and 519 were killed by Ebola.

Since the beginning of the outbreak UNICEF has provided much needed supplies, deploying social mobilizers to educate communities, providing water and sanitation, supporting orphans and other affected children and ensuring that all girls and boys could continue their education.

Experience in the three worst-affected countries has demonstrated that, with the proper preparation, children can go to school even during an epidemic.

The outbreak showed just how important it is that communities are at the heart of any emergency response. UNICEF and partners have worked to establish community-based networks to ensure that the people themselves were taking the lead in the response.

In Guinea, where there was no universal mass media outlet to deliver life-saving messages to all of the people in more than 20 languages and dialects, UNICEF built six new community radio stations and rehabilitated 23 existing ones to fill a vacuum where rumours and fear spread easily.

“With generous support of our donors, UNICEF and our implementing partners will continue rebuilding the health system. The long road ahead requires a sustained and robust follow-up to ensure that Ebola can find no safe haven here,” Mr. Ayoya said.

World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim congratulated the Government and people of Guinea on reaching “this important milestone,” but called for continued vigilance to stay at zero cases. The Group has mobilized $1.62 billion for Ebola response and recovery efforts.

“The World Bank Group is committed to supporting Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone as they work to bring this deadly epidemic to an end, rebuild their economies and strengthen their health systems. We will do everything we can to help these countries and the world prevent another deadly pandemic.”

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UN chief welcomes agreement between Japan and Republic of Korea on ‘comfort women’

INTERNATIONAL – Welcoming today’s agreement between Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK) on the issues related to “comfort women,” United Nations Secretary-GeneralBan Ki-moon urged the two countries to look to the future in their relationships while still recognizing history.

“The Secretary-General hopes that the agreement will contribute to improving the bilateral relationship between the two countries,” said a statement issued by his spokesperson, referring to the accord reached at a bilateral Foreign Ministers meeting held in Seoul.

“He appreciates President Park Geun-hye of the Republic of Korea and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan for their leadership and vision for the betterment of the relationship between the two countries as reflected in an earlier agreement at the bilateral summit on 2 November.”

Mr. Ban also stressed the importance of the countries in north-east Asia building “a future- oriented relationship, based on the recognition of history,” the statement added.

In August last year, then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay voiced profound regret that Japan had not provided effective redress to victims of wartime sexual slavery leading back to the end of the Second World War.

She said in a statement that Japan “has failed to pursue a comprehensive, impartial and lasting resolution” to address the rights of so-called “comfort women.”

The agreement reached by the two sides reportedly involves an official apology from Japan and a promised payment of $8.3 million for the victims.

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Syria: UN and partners aid evacuation of injured from four besieged towns

INTERNATIONAL – More than 460 people, including the seriously injured and their family members, were evacuated from four towns under siege in Syria today with the help of the United Nations and its Red Cross and Red Crescent partners following a local agreement between the fighters on the ground.

“The humanitarian community in Syria is keen to see the swift implementation of the next phases of the Four Towns Agreement, including humanitarian access to people in these towns,” said the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in the country, Yacoub El-Hillo.

“We stand ready to continue providing relief and livelihoods assistance to the millions of people wherever they are in Syria as they bear the brunt of this crisis.”

The UN in Syria, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross carried out coordinated tasks leading to the evacuation of 338 people from Foua and Kafraya, and 125 people from Zabadani and Madaya.

They were simultaneously evacuated by land and air through Turkey and Lebanon to the agreed final destinations where those requiring longer-term medical care will receive it.

The Security Council last week demanded that all parties, particularly the Syrian authorities, immediately open routes across conflict lines and borders to let in vital humanitarian aid.

For his part, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura stressed that the UN’s clear goal is to reach as soon as possible a nationwide ceasefire.

“Meanwhile, initiatives like this one bring relief to besieged or isolated communities and have great value,” he said. “They help the perception that a nationwide ceasefire brokered by the members of the International Syria Support Group is doable and that the UN can and will do its part.”

Across Syria, 4.5 million people in hard-to-reach areas continue with limited access to basic life-saving aid and protection. Almost 400,000 of them live in besieged areas with little or no access to basic supplies or assistance. The UN and its partners continue to urge all parties to the conflict to find a political solution, and to ensure unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access.

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Afghanistan: UN helps humanitarian aid reach war-affected families in Kunduz

INTERNATIONAL – The United Nations and its partners have helped deliver humanitarian aid packages to over 100 families affected by the recent fighting in the Kunduz area of northern Afghanistan, according to the UN mission in the country.

As part of the Afghan Civilian Assistance Programme (ACAP), a countrywide project aiding people affected by conflict, mines and explosive remnants of war, the families receivedvarious food and non-food items, including water containers and bedding materials, from the Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan, which is supported by the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS).

Since the Kunduz fighting this past autumn, over 500 families have received a variety of food and non-food aid via ACAP, with further distributions planned in the province, according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

Between 28 September and 13 October, Kunduz city residents suffered a Taliban attack and temporary occupation, followed by a counter-offensive by pro-Government forces who regained control of the city. There was also fighting elsewhere in Kunduz province.

A report released in December by UNAMA and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) documented civilian deaths and injuries during the period, with a preliminary toll of 289 civilians killed and 559 injured. Other sources point to thousands of people displaced from their homes.

Abdul Matin, who lost one of his legs in the fighting, said he was happy to receive the help. “I’m in contact with the physical rehabilitation people to have a prosthesis leg made for myself,” he added, noting that people are tired of conflict and want the parties to stop the violence.

Parikhal, a mother-of-six who lost her husband in the fighting, said she is grateful to receive an aid package, although she expressed uncertainty as to how she will manage to support her family in the long term.

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As parties meet in Uganda, UN official urges consensual solution to Burundian crisis

INTERNATIONAL – A top United Nations official today called on all actors in Burundi to find a consensual solution to the crisis facing their country, which has been facing an upsurge in violence that has prompted fears of a relapse into the decades of civil war that killed tens of thousands of people.

“Burundi has gone through difficult times before and has a long history of dialogues. There are lessons to be learned from these past experiences,” Jamal Benomar, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser, said at talks convened in Uganda by President Yoweri Museveni, who is also mediator of the East African Community.

“Burundians are the ones who will live with the consequences of the decisions they make. They have the prime responsibility for finding a way forward for the future of their country,” Mr. Benomar added.

“This must be a nationally-led and owned effort which we as the international community stand ready to support.”

Burundi has been in the midst of a political crisis since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a controversial third term earlier this year, since when at least 400 people have been killed, with the toll possibly considerably higher, and 220,000 have fled to neighbouring States with many others internally displaced.

Just over a week ago, the UN Security Council, voicing deep concern at the escalation of violence in Burundi, called for urgent acceleration of mediation efforts by East African States and urged all Burundian stakeholders to fully cooperate with a proposed African Union peacekeeping mission.

The Council stated that only a “genuine and inclusive” dialogue would best enable the Burundian stakeholders to find a consensual solution to the crisis, a point that Mr. Benomar reiterated today.

He added that the UN has a wealth of experience in supporting national dialogue processes and is ready “to support you in any possible way,” working in partnership with colleagues in the East African Community and the AU.

“I sincerely hope today’s event will mark the beginning of the path towards a peaceful, stable and prosperous Burundi.”

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UN delivers medicine for 1.2 million people in war-ravaged central Yemen

INTERNATIONAL – The United Nations health agency has delivered more than 100 tonnes of medicines and supplies for 1.2 million people in strife-torn Yemen’s central Taiz governorate, where over 3 million people, almost 400,000 of them internally displaced, are in dire need of humanitarian aid.

“We are calling on all parties to guarantee unrestricted, long-term delivery of humanitarian aid and unconditional movement of health workers,” the World Health Organization (WHO) Representative in Yemen, Dr. Ahmed Shadoul, said of the supplies, delivered last week, following the announcement of a ceasefire, which has only been partially observed.

The aid consists of urgently needed oxygen cylinders, medicines and medical devices, including surgical supplies and equipment for the management of trauma cases, and have been distributed to 13 hospitals and health centres as well as replenishing the local health department’s stocks for future needs.

“The health situation in Taiz has increasingly deteriorated. Shortages in health staff, medicines and fuel, as well as limited access by the humanitarian community due to the insecurity, have caused many health facilities in the governorate to shut down,” Dr. Shadoul said.

The distribution of an additional 22 tonnes of medical aid to five health facilities in Sala, Al-Qahera and Al-Mudhaffar districts of Taiz City is on hold due to access issues. WHO is negotiating with all parties to the conflict and advocating for unconditional access of medicines and supplies to these districts, where 400,000 people are in critical need of humanitarian aid.

“WHO is deeply concerned about the continuous lack of humanitarian access to Taiz City, depriving people from basic health care and violating their essential human rights,” Dr. Shadoul added.

“WHO re-emphasizes the crucial need for uninterrupted delivery of health services and calls upon all concerned parties to respect the basic rights of all Yemenis to access health care services.”

Last week, the UN Security Council expressed “deep concern” over the number of violations of the ceasefire and urged all parties to observe it and exercise maximum restraint following the adjournment of peace talks.

UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed adjourned the talks seeking to end the factional fighting, which has torn the country apart over the past year, until mid-January to allow for bi-lateral in-country and regional consultations to secure full adherence to the ceasefire.

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UN envoy sets 25 January as target date to begin intra-Syrian peace talks

INTERNATIONAL – The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria has set 25 January 2016 as the target date to begin talks between the parties aimed at ending the five-year-old conflict, his spokesperson announced today.

The announcement, issued in Geneva, where the talks are also expected to take place, comes just over a week after the Security Council adopted resolution 2254, giving the world body an enhanced role in shepherding the opposing sides to talks for a political transition, with a timetable for a ceasefire, a new constitution and elections, all under UN auspices.

“In line with the clear parameters outlined in Security Council resolution 2254 (2015), the Special Envoy intends to complete his consultations in early January, with a view to initiating intra-Syrian talks on a target date of 25 January 2016 in Geneva,” said a statement issued by the spokesperson for Staffan de Mistura.

“He counts on full cooperation of all the relevant Syrian parties in this process. Continuing developments on the ground should not be allowed to derail it.”

In its resolution, the 15-member Council called for a Syrian-led political process facilitated by the UN to establish within six months “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance,” setting a schedule for drafting a new constitution, with free and fair elections to be held within 18 months under UN supervision with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to vote.

Among its other provisions, the text acknowledged the close linkage between a ceasefire and a parallel political process, with the former to come into effect as soon as the sides have begun initial steps towards a political transition under UN auspices.

“The people of Syria have suffered enough,” said today's statement. “Their tragedy is now felt throughout the region and beyond. They deserve the full attention and commitment from all their Syrian representatives, who should now show leadership and vision to overcome differences for the sake of Syria.”

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