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Right to adequate housing in India a matter of ‘urgency’ – UN expert

INTERNATIONAL – Expressing grave concern over a number of issues regarding the right to housing in India, an independent United Nations human rights expert today called on the Government for immediate attention and implementation of the right to ensure adequate housing for the most disadvantaged.

“I am extremely concerned for the millions of people who experience exclusion, discrimination, evictions, insecure tenure, homelessness and who lack hope of accessing affordable and adequate housing in their lifetimes,” Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, warned at the end of her two-week official visit to the country.

Discrimination and social exclusion, urban homelessness, and evictions are among some most complex housing issues, according to the UN rights expert.

“I have been told that evictions are most often carried out against the most vulnerable populations, most of whom are living below the poverty line,” said Ms. Farha, adding that “forced evictions are often implemented without any consultation with residents, without sufficient or any notice, and commonly result in homelessness.”

While recognizing India’s efforts to address disparities and the living conditions in slums throughout the country, as well as ensuring water, sanitation and electricity in some rehabilitation and redevelopment sites, Ms. Farha stressed that much more needs to be done to improve mounting inequality in urban areas.

“A two-track policy response is urgently needed, one that addresses the backlog of housing shortage, and the other that prepares India for upcoming housing needs,” she said.

The UN expert further urged the Government to adopt national housing legislation based in both its national and international human rights commitments.

A moratorium on evictions, immediate obligations to adequately address homelessness, and that is in line with some of its most progressive state plans for in situ rehabilitation for slum dwellers are of great urgency and priority, Ms. Farha noted.

Independent experts or special rapporteurs are appointed by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.

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Two thirds of unimmunized children live in conflict-affected countries – UNICEF

INTERNATIONAL – Almost two thirds of children who have not been immunized with basic vaccines live in countries that are either partially or entirely affected by conflict, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said today, ahead of World Immunization Week.

Of countries in conflict, South Sudan has the highest percentage of unimmunized children, with 61 per cent not receiving the most basic childhood vaccines, followed by Somalia (58 per cent) and Syria (57 per cent), UNICEF said in a press release.

“Conflict creates an ideal environment for disease outbreaks,” said UNICEF Chief of Immunization Robin Nandy. “Children miss out on basic immunizations because of the breakdown – and sometimes deliberate destruction – of vital health services. Even when medical services are available, insecurity in the area often prevents them from reaching children.”

The major causes of childhood illness and death include measles, diarrhoea, respiratory infections and malnutrition, which can worsen in conflict and emergencies, according to UNICEF.

When children contract measles in non-conflict settings, less than one per cent of them die. In areas where crowding and malnutrition are rife, such as refugee camps, child deaths from measles can increase to up to 30 per cent of cases. Overcrowding and lack of basic necessities like food, water and shelter make children even more vulnerable to disease, the agency noted.

Children in areas in conflict also see the killing of health workers and the destruction of medical facilities, supplies and equipment, all of which have a disastrous effect on their health.

Conflict-affected areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan are the last remaining strongholds of poliovirus, which has otherwise been eliminated from the rest of the world, UNICEF said.

In Syria, immunization levels have decreased from more than 80 per cent in 2010, prior to the conflict, to 43 per cent in 2014. Polio resurfaced in the country in 2013, after 14 years with no cases.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, more than 2,000 suspected cases of measles have already been reported in 2016, with 17 deaths, most of them among children under five years old.

UNICEF said vaccination – particularly against highly contagious measles – is a high priority in humanitarian emergencies and is a central part of its response to protect children’s health in such settings.

In Syria, a vaccination campaign planned to start on Sunday will target young children who have missed out on routine vaccination, especially those in besieged and hard-to-reach areas. Many of these children, born since the conflict began, have never been vaccinated, UNICEF said.

The agency said that during 2014-2015, it supported emergency immunization campaigns against measles for more than 23 million children in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

In emergencies and conflicts, UNICEF works with partners to restart the cold chain for vaccines and other essential medical supplies; put health teams back in place; and train health workers to provide immunization, nutrition screening, vitamin A supplements and medical treatment for women and children.

Immunization in conflict helps to revive other badly needed health services. For example, in conflict-affected areas of Iraq, Syria and Yemen, health workers also offer health and nutrition services, as well as care for childhood illnesses, to populations that come forward in response to immunization campaigns.

“Children affected by conflict are pushed into a downward spiral of deprivation that robs them of their health and, by extension, their futures. Vaccination can help to break this vicious cycle,” said Mr. Nandy. “Immunization is a vital service that deserves and requires protection from all parties to a conflict.”

World Immunization Week is marked annually at the end of April to promote the use of life-saving vaccines for all children – particularly those who are consistently excluded. The event is observed by UNICEF, immunization partners, governments and civil society organizations around the world. World Immunization Week 2016 runs from 24 to 30 April.

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‘We are in a race against time,’ says Ban, as leaders sign landmark Paris climate accord

INTERNATIONAL – As world leaders gathered at United Nations Headquarters in New York this morning to officially sign the Paris Agreement on climate change – the landmark accord that sets outs a global action plan to put the world on track to avoid dangerous global warming –Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Member States to move quickly to join the accord at the national level so that it can enter into force as early as possible.

“Let us never forget – climate action is not a burden; indeed, it offers many benefits,” the UN chief said as he opened the High Level Signature Ceremony for the Paris Agreement in the General Assembly Hall.

The era of consumption without consequences is over. We must intensify efforts to decarbonize our economies. And we must support developing countries in making this transition. The poor and most vulnerable must not suffer further from a problem they did not create.

“It can help us eradicate poverty, create green jobs, defeat hunger, prevent instability and improve the lives of girls and women,” he added.

The ceremony was opened by a brass quintet from the Juilliard School in New York, which played Spring from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

Mr. Ban then introduced Getrude Clement, 16-year-old radio reporter from Tanzania and a UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) youth climate mapper, who focused on why climate action is crucial for children. They, she said, would feel its effects most acutely. “We expect action, action on a big scale, and we expect action today, not tomorrow,” she emphasized. “The future is ours, and the future is bright.”

In his remarks, Mr. Ban also underscored that while it is good news that States are breaking records at the UN – records are also being broken outside.

“Record global temperatures. Record ice loss. Record carbon levels in the atmosphere. We are in a race against time,” Mr. Ban stressed.

Indeed, he emphasized that the window for keeping global temperate rise well below two degrees Celsius – let alone 1.5 degrees – is “rapidly closing.”

“The era of consumption without consequences is over. We must intensify efforts to decarbonize our economies. And we must support developing countries in making this transition. The poor and most vulnerable must not suffer further from a problem they did not create,” the Secretary-General said.

In that vein, the UN chief highlighted that climate action is essential to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

“Today is a day that I have worked toward since day one as Secretary-General of the United Nations and declared climate change to be my top priority. Today you are signing a new covenant with the future,” he said.

The covenant must amount to “more than promises,” Mr. Ban stressed, and find expression in actions taken today on behalf of the current generation and all future generations.

“It must find expression in actions we take today on behalf of this generation and all future generations – actions that reduce climate risk and protect communities, and actions that place us on a safer, smarter path,” the Secretary-General said.

Mr. Ban highlighted that participants would be joined at the morning’s events by 197 children, representing the Parties that have adopted the Paris Agreement.

“Of course, they represent more than this. These young people are our future. Our covenant is with them,” he said.

“Today is a day for our children and grandchildren and all generations to come. Together, let us turn the aspirations of Paris into action. As you show by the very act of signing today, the power to build a better world is in your hands,” Mr. Ban concluded.

Also speaking at the opening ceremony was General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft, who congratulated Member States, civil society and business leaders for “keeping the pressure on” and taking initiatives to “keep the momentum going.”

“This is a moment of great hope,” Mr. Lykketoft stressed.

“We must raise the level of ambition even further. We must take urgent and bold steps to make this transformation happen,” he added.

Today’s event coincides with International Mother Earth Day, and in his message on the Day, Mr. Ban said that the Paris accord, in conjunction with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, holds the power to transform our world.

The Paris Agreement was adopted by all 196 Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris on 12 December 2015, widely known as COP 21. In the Agreement, all countries agreed to work to limit global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and to strive for 1.5 degrees Celsius.

François Hollande, President of France, host of COP 21, recalled the spirit of solidarity expressed at the conference and stressed that the terrorist attacks on Paris had been the backdrop to the Agreement. World leaders had nevertheless demonstrated their ability to come together with a sense of partnership and responsibility to ensure that an agreement would be the fruit of the Paris meeting, as a symbolic act for the rest of the world.

Never in the history of the United Nations had it been possible to bring together 170 countries to sign an agreement, all together, on one day, he noted, emphasizing that there is no turning back now. The world must accelerate action to implement low-carbon policies.

Noting that some $100 billion is needed between now and 2020, he said every country must set an example, particularly developed countries, by stepping up contributions for combating climate change. “It is not just a question of States taking action, the entire world must come together,” he stressed. “Everyone must feel that they have a stake in this.”

Also addressing the ceremony, Academy Award-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio said that as a UN Messenger of Peace, he had been travelling all over the world for the last two years, documenting how this crisis is changing the natural balance of our planet. He has seen cities like Beijing choked by industrial pollution; ancient boreal forests in Canada that have been clearcut; rainforests in Indonesia that have been incinerated; and unprecedented droughts in California.

“All that I have seen and learned on this journey has terrified me […] I do not need to throw statistics at you. You know them better than I do, and more importantly, you know what will happen if this scourge is left unchecked,” he told the delegates, adding: “Now think about the shame that each of us will carry when our children and grandchildren look back and realize that we had the means of stopping this devastation, but simply lacked the political will to do so.”

Indeed, Mr. DiCaprio continued, the historic signing of the Paris Agreement is reason for hope, but evidence shows that will not be enough. “Our planet cannot be saved unless we leave fossil fuels in the ground where they belong. An upheaval and massive change is required now – one that leads to a new collective consciousness. A new collective evolution of the human race inspired and enabled by a sense of urgency from all of you,” he said.

So, after 21 years of debates and conferences “it is time to declare no more talk. No more excuses. No more 10-year studies. No more allowing the fossil fuel companies to manipulate and dictate the science and policies that affect our future. This is the only body that can do what is needed. You, sitting in this very hall. The world is now watching. You will either be lauded by future generations, or vilified by them.”

Among the UN officials reacting to today’s events, Oh Joon, President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) said: "With today's historic signing of the Paris agreement, there is no going back on our commitment to combat climate change. Now is the time for taking action to shape a sustainable future for all."

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Immunization ‘game-changers’ should be the norm worldwide, says UN health agency

INTERNATIONAL – The UN World Health Organization (WHO) announced that during World Immunization Week 2016, which begins Sunday, it will be highlighting recent gains in immunization coverage, and outlining further steps countries can take to meet global vaccination targets by 2020.

“Last year immunization led to some notable wins in the fight against polio, rubella and maternal and neonatal tetanus,” says Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, in a press release.

“But they were isolated wins. Polio was eliminated in one country, tetanus in three, and rubella in one geographical region. The challenge now is to make gains like this the norm,” she added.

According to WHO, immunization averts two to three million deaths annually; however, an additional 1.5 million deaths could be avoided if global vaccination coverage improves. Today, an estimated 18.7 million infants – nearly one in five children worldwide – are still missing routine immunizations for preventable diseases, such as diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus.

In 2012, the World Health Assembly endorsed the Global Vaccine Action Plan (GVAP), a commitment to ensure that no one misses out on vital immunizations. Despite gains in vaccination coverage in some regions and countries the past year, global vaccination targets remain off track.

WHO noted that only one out of six targets is on track – the introduction of new or underutilized vaccines in low- and middle-income countries. During the past five years, 86 low- and middle-income countries have made 128 introductions of the following vaccines: Hib-containing vaccine, pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV), rotavirus vaccine, human papillomavirus vaccine (HPV), rubella and inactivated polio vaccine.

The target is to introduce one or more new or underutilized vaccines in at least 90 low- and middle-income countries by 2015.

Game-changers in immunization

Last year reportedly saw some major breakthroughs.

India joined Cambodia, Madagascar and Mauritania in eliminating maternal and neonatal tetanus. It also improved coverage of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis-containing vaccines (DTP3) to 83 per cent.

Despite challenges imposed by Ebola, including for routine immunization coverage, the African Region became one-step closer to being certified polio-free with the removal of Nigeria from the list of polio-endemic countries. As recently as 2012, the country accounted for more than half of all polio cases worldwide. Now, only two countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan – remain polio endemic.

The Region of the Americas became the first to eliminate rubella, a contagious viral disease that can cause multiple birth defects as well as foetal death when contracted by women during pregnancy. Additionally, five years after the introduction of an affordable conjugate meningitis A vaccine, immunization of more than 230 million people has led to the control and near elimination of deadly meningitis A disease in the African “meningitis belt” that stretches from Senegal to Ethiopia.

New vaccines against dengue, Ebola and malaria have the potential to be game-changers in immunization in the near future. For example, through a “ring-vaccination” strategy, the Ebola vaccine is being given to anyone who has come into contact with a person infected with Ebola, as well as contacts of theirs.

And, the new polio vaccination regimen, with the withdrawal of type 2 oral polio vaccine in 155 countries this month, represents a critical step towards a polio-free world.

“Although the world has seen some achievements in immunization, global vaccination coverage has stalled the past few years,” said Dr Flavia Bustreo, WHO Assistant Director-General Family, Women and Children’s Health and Vice-Chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance Board. “Far too many opportunities to reach unvaccinated children and close the immunization gap are still being missed every day.”

Reducing missed opportunities

To improve vaccination coverage, WHO is calling on countries to reach more children missed by routine delivery systems, especially those living in countries, districts or areas where less than 80 per cent of them are receiving vaccines or those living in countries affected by conflicts or emergencies.

More than 60 per cent of children who are unvaccinated live in 10 countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Uganda and South Africa.

Equally, when a child or adult who is unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated visits a health facility for any reason, their vaccination record should be checked by healthcare workers and they should be given all vaccines they are missing.

However, recent field assessments in American and African Regions have shown that between 23 and 96 per cent of eligible children who visited a health facility for vaccination or for medical care, left the health facility without receiving the vaccine doses they needed.

“These children are not what we would consider ‘hard-to-reach’ or underserved populations,” said Dr Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele, Director of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals at WHO. “Children who are already present in health facilities are easy wins in improving vaccination coverage.”

Getting back on track

Many of the successes achieved last year resulted from strengthened leadership and accountability at all levels¬ – national, regional and global.

“When countries and partners establish and enforce clear accountability systems, measure results and take corrective action when results are not achieved, gaps in immunization can be closed,” added Dr Okwo-Bele.

Last year, the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) identified 5 factors to achieving significant results in immunization coverage:

  • quality and use of data
  • community involvement
  • better access to immunization services for marginalized and displaced populations
  • strong health systems
  • access to vaccines in all places at all times

In strengthening the quality and use of data, the World Health Assembly passed a resolution last year on vaccine pricing, which called on countries to provide their vaccine prices to WHO. The agency’s database currently contains 1,600 vaccine price records on almost 50 different types of vaccines from 42 countries, but also from international buyers such as the procurement platform available in the WHO Region of the Americas and from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), making it the largest international vaccine price database.

Because prices paid for vaccines represent a large share of countries’ immunization budgets and the prices of new vaccines are higher than those of traditional vaccines, the agency noted that costs represent a strong barrier to countries introducing new vaccines.

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UN guidelines and new technologies boost efforts to help curb 'ghost fishing'

INTERNATIONAL – International guidelines being developed by a United Nations agency and new technologies are expected to boost efforts to cut down levels of abandoned fish gear, which often continues to carry out the capture process, entangling fish and other marine animals in its nets, a phenomenon known as “ghost fishing.”

What is known as abandoned, lost and otherwise discarded fishing gear makes up a significant portion of all debris in the oceans, accounting for about one-tenth of all marine litter, translating into hundreds of thousands of tonnes annually.

Growing concern over this problem, coupled with the increasing availability of new technologies, has led the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to begin developing international guidelines on the effective tagging of fishing gear as a way to cut down levels of troublesome sea trash.

Guidelines in the works

Past efforts to develop international guidelines have been largely fragmented. There are few systematic requirements by Governments for ownership marking of gear, and no international regulations, guidelines or common practices exist for marine areas outside of national jurisdictions. But that is starting to change, due to growing concerns of congestion in coastal waters, risks to safe navigation and accidental deaths of marine life.

In early April, an initial set of draft guidelines was discussed during a meeting of experts held at FAO's Headquarters in Rome. The results will be presented to FAO's Committee on Fisheries in July for review and direction regarding next steps.

“What we need is a simple and affordable system that permits easy identification of ownership of gear, fishery of origin and position of gear in the water,” said FAO Fishery Industry Officer Petri Suuronen. “The development of internationally recognized standards on marking all fishing gear will help us to better understand the reasons for gear loss and identify appropriate preventive measures.”

New technologies for tracking lost gear

Today, advances in marking technology are offering new possibilities for efficient tracking and recovery of lost gear and are changing the way the problem is being tackled.

“The effective marking of fishing gear in busy multi-user sea areas is key to preventing its loss and protecting marine ecosystems,” Mr. Suuronen said. “Fishers can also benefit from the use of new gear tagging technologies which will allow them to minimize loss of potential catch and expensive equipment, and save time searching for lost gear.”

Coded wire tags (CWTs) are being tested as a potential tool for reducing entanglements of marine mammals, turtles and other large marine animals. The nano-sized, laser-etched CTWs are implanted in fishing ropes with no effect on fishing performance but making them detectable to special sensors.

Satellite buoys with solar power are now commonly used in industrial purse seine operations, providing unlimited range and extra-long operating time. Other sensors, like GPS receivers, can be attached to a radio buoy and used to transmit data.

Acoustic technology, which takes advantage of the sound transmission properties of seawater, also has applications in locating lost gear. Active pingers emit sounds at certain frequencies once in the water, whereas passive sonar reflectors capture and reflect sound energy back to its source.

Lights have long been an integral part of fishing gear markers for the night but today energy-efficient LEDs are being fitted with solar panels, amplifying their effectiveness.

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Ecuador earthquake: UN relief chief calls for more support to vulnerable communities

INTERNATIONAL – The top United Nations relief official wrapped up his two-day mission to Ecuador yesterday, announcing that he is releasing $7 million from the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund to assist people affected by the deadly earthquake that struck on Saturday, while calling for more support to vulnerable communities.

“My thoughts are with the people of Ecuador as they deal with the loss of loved ones, and devastation caused by Saturday’s earthquake and aftershocks,” noted Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien in apress release

“Many people have lost their homes, their livelihoods. But I was struck by their resilient spirit. The actions of the Government of Ecuador and local communities themselves saved many lives,” he added.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) which Mr. O’Brien heads, hundreds have been killed, thousands injured and over 720,000 people are affected. The Government, local emergency responders, the Red Cross and other organizations are working together to provide people with food, drinking water, shelter, emergency medical assistance and other basic services, including restoring electricity.

Visiting the towns of Manta, Canoa, Jama, and Pedernales in the eastern coastal region and Portoviejo inland, the Emergency Relief Coordinator met people who had lost everything in the earthquake.

“I met many people living in the open or sheltering in the remains of their homes, exposed to the weather,” he said. “Medical facilities and items are urgently needed for people who were injured, as well as food, clean water and basic sanitation.”

In Manta, Mr. O'Brien met Rosa, a teenager, rescued after four days, but now in need of immediate and long-term medical and psycho-social support. In Tarqui, he listened to the story of Ernesto, who saw his house collapse from across the street, killing his wife and injuring his children. In Pedernales, he met the head of the Chilean search and rescue team, the first international responders on the scene trying to find survivors in those vital early hours.

During his two-day visit, the Humanitarian Chief met with Foreign Minister, Chancellor Dr. Guillaume Long, Minister of National Defense, Ricardo Patiño and other ministers and senior officials leading the earthquake response, to discuss how best to support the national relief efforts.

OCHA stressed that people urgently need safety, food and water, and basic health care. Children need a place to continue their studies, and families need support to rebuild their lives. The humanitarian community stands ready to support the Government to ensure that critical needs are met, Mr. O’Brien underlined.

“The United Nations and our international partners are supporting the Government by mobilizing international support for immediate and life-saving assistance, to bolster relief, intensify recovery and help people get their lives and livelihoods back on track,” he said. “Today I allocated $7 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund to kick-start vital operations in logistics, shelter, water, sanitation and hygiene, and emergency health.”

The Emergency Relief Coordinator noted that the UN and partners would be launching the full Flash Appeal for the Ecuadorean relief operation tomorrow, to help some 350,000 people with immediate relief and initial recovery assistance within the next three months.

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Nepal: one year after earthquake, UN food relief agency focuses on most vulnerable

INTERNATIONAL – A year after an earthquake in Nepal that killed more than 9,000 people and led to damages and losses estimated at $7 billion, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said today that it is working with the Government so those most vulnerable to food insecurity are not left behind.

“People who were the worst off before the quake are the ones who lost the most,” saidPippa Bradford, WFP Representative and Country Director. “Ensuring that support targets these households is vitally important so that no one gets left further behind.”

WFP provided food assistance to 2 million people within six weeks of the earthquake, and has been using food assistance to support early recovery work by paying people with food or cash to rebuild community infrastructure.

In the past year, irrigation systems were built or repaired on 546 hectares of agricultural land, 729 kilometres of feeder roads were repaired, and 1,714 kilometres of mountain trails were fixed, the agency said.

Despite improvements in food security in quake-affected areas, due in part to humanitarian assistance, WFP noted that significant pockets of vulnerability remain. One quarter of the population in Nepal lives on less than $1.25 a day and, on average, spends 60 per cent of their income on food, making it hard for them to cope with shocks such as disasters and soaring food prices.

WFP said it just launched a three-year development programme focusing on vulnerable groups including female-headed households and ethnic minorities. The agency said its work will support the Government's livelihood recovery strategy in the sectors of community infrastructure, food security and agriculture, nutrition and disaster risk reduction.

The agency also plans to expand its emergency preparedness measures. One month before the earthquake, WFP established a Humanitarian Staging Area next to Kathmandu airport, which became the hub for emergency aid in the early response.

WFP said it is estimated that this facility enabled survivors to receive emergency supplies weeks faster than would otherwise have been possible, and so it plans to continue developing the facility in Nepal.

“We cannot afford not to invest in emergency preparedness,” said Ms. Bradford. “Disaster can strike Nepal at any time, and we need to be ready.”

As lead of the logistics cluster, during the emergency response WFP coordinated the transportation of relief materials for more than 160 organizations, from entry into the country through to delivery by foot or mule to the most remote areas.

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Milestone events at UN to kick-start action on new sustainability goals, climate pact

INTERNATIONAL – In a watershed moment for international cooperation, global political, business and civil society leaders are headed to New York where they will pledge fast action on the new United Nations sustainable development agenda and the landmark Paris climate agreement, to build on momentum from 2015 to create a better future for people and the planet.

“From a historical perspective, this will be a great day for the United Nations,” Selwin Hart, the Director of the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Change Support Team, recently said in reference to this coming Friday, when leaders from more than 160 countries are expected at UN Headquarters to sign the Paris Agreement, adopted last December at the UN climate change conference (COP21).

The event is being preceded on Thursday by a High Level Thematic Debate on Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 global goals to wipe out poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change over the next 15 years. These are the basis of the2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by UN Member States last September.

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, David Nabarro, the Secretary-General's Special Adviser on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Climate Change, told reporters that the signing of the Paris Agreement is crucial because achieving progress in relation to climate change is central to the broader effort of achieving the SDGs.

“Most people who looked at the global situation say that if we don’t succeed in maintaining the world under a 2 degrees Celsius rise, then it’s going to be incredibly difficult to realize the Sustainable Development Goals,” he warned. “And so implementing the Paris agreement is important for promoting prosperity, improving people’s wellbeing, and protecting the environment.”

The universal agreement’s main aim is to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius and to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The agreement will enter into force 30 days after at least 55 countries, accounting for 55 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, deposit their instruments of ratification or acceptance with the Secretary-General.

Also speaking at the press conference, Selwin Hart announced that approximately ten countries, mostly Small Island Developing States, will both sign and ratify the document. Turning to key greenhouse gas emitters, the UN official said China and India intend to ratify it in 2016, an announcement recently made in a joint presidential statement.

“So [we are] gathering momentum for an early entrance into force of the Agreement,” he underlined, noting that generating this momentum is one the UN chief’s key objective at the event, followed by wanting to demonstrate that all segments and sectors of society and the “real economy” are mobilizing in support of ambitious action.

Meanwhile, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – the UN entity leading climate negotiations – today highlighted the record number of countries set to sign the Agreement, calling it “a critical juncture in a global effort to ensure lasting hopes for secure and peaceful, human development.”

“More carbon in the atmosphere equals more poverty,” said Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of UNFCCC. “We cannot deliver sustainable development without tackling climate change, and we cannot tackle climate change without addressing the root causes of poverty, inequality and unsustainable development patterns.”

According to UN records, the largest ever number of countries to sign an international agreement in one day was in 1982, when 119 countries signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Paris Agreement is expected to break a record in this respect, and ensure as soon as possible that a massive global transformation can begin towards a sustainable future for people everywhere.

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UN health agency launches global strategy to end leprosy

INTERNATIONAL – The United Nations health agency today launched a new global strategy for a world free of leprosy, calling for stronger commitments and accelerated efforts to stop disease transmission and end associated discrimination and stigma.

The strategy aims to, by 2020, reduce to zero the number of children diagnosed with leprosy and related physical deformities; reduce the rate of newly-diagnosed leprosy patients with visible deformities to less than one per million; and ensure that all legislation that allows for discrimination on the basis of leprosy is overturned.

“A strategy can only be as good as its implementation,” Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) South-east Asia, said in New Delhi at the launch of the global strategy for 2016-2020 ‘Accelerating towards a leprosy-free-world.’

“The new global strategy is guided by the principles of initiating action, ensuring accountability and promoting inclusivity. These principles must be embedded in all aspects of leprosy control efforts,” she said.

Leprosy was eliminated globally in the year 2000 with the disease prevalence rate dropping to below one per 10,000 population. Though all countries have achieved this rate at the national level, at the sub-national level, it remains an unfinished agenda.

Of the 213,899 new cases in 2014, 94 per cent were reported from 13 countries – Bangladesh, Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Tanzania. India, Brazil and Indonesia account for 81 per cent of the newly diagnosed and reported cases globally.

Main challenges

The main and continuing challenges to leprosy control have been the delay in detection of new patients and persisting discrimination against people affected by leprosy which has ensured continued transmission of the disease. Several leprosy-affected countries still have legislation in place that allows discrimination against people suffering from leprosy.

Social stigma impedes early detection of the disease, particularly in children, and increases disabilities. Stigma also facilitates transmission among vulnerable groups, including migrant populations, displaced communities, the ultra-poor and hard-to-reach population. Combatting stigma and ensuring early diagnosis through active case-finding, which the new strategy emphasizes, is critical to making progress.

Key interventions

The key interventions include; detecting cases early before visible disabilities occur, with a special focus on children as a way to reduce disabilities and reduce transmission; targeting detection among higher risk groups through campaigns in highly endemic areas or communities; and improving health care coverage and access for marginalized population.

Screening all close contacts of leprosy affected persons, promoting a shorter and uniform treatment regime and incorporating specific interventions against stigma and discrimination are the other strategic interventions that endemic countries need to include in their national plans to meet the new targets.

The new strategy builds on the success of previous leprosy control strategies. It has been developed in consultation with national leprosy programs, technical agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), as well as patients and communities affected by leprosy. The strategy focuses on equity and universal health coverage which will contribute to reaching the Sustainable Development Goal on health.

 
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UN refugee agency says up to 500 lives lost after boat sinks in Mediterranean

INTERNATIONAL – The United Nations refugee agency said today that as many as 500 people may have lost their lives this past week when an overcrowded boat carrying refugees and migrants sank in the Mediterranean Sea at an unknown location between Libya and Italy.

The 41 survivors of the incident – which, if confirmed, could be one of the worst involving refugees and migrants in the past 12 months – include 37 men, 3 women and a 3-year-old child who were rescued by a merchant ship and taken to Kalamata, in the Peloponnese peninsula of Greece, on 16 April, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a press release.

Those rescued include 23 Somalis, 11 Ethiopians, 6 Egyptians and a Sudanese.

The survivors told UNHCR staff that they had been part of a group of between 100 and 200 people who departed last week from a locality near Tobruk in Libya on a 30-metre-long boat.

“After several hours at sea, the smugglers in charge of the boat attempted to transfer the passengers to a larger ship carrying hundreds of people in terribly overcrowded conditions,” UNHCR said. “At one point during the transfer, the larger boat capsized and sank.”

The survivors include people who had not yet boarded the larger vessel, as well as some who managed to swim back to the smaller boat. They drifted at sea possibly for three days before being spotted and rescued, the agency said.

UNHCR visited the survivors at the local stadium of Kalamata, where they have been temporarily housed by local authorities while they undergo police procedures.

Thus far this year, 179,552 refugees and migrants have reached Europe by sea across the Mediterranean and Aegean. At least 761 have died or gone missing attempting the journey, UNHCR said.

The agency reiterated a call for increased regular pathways for the admission of refugees and asylum-seekers to Europe, including resettlement and humanitarian admission programmes, family reunification, private sponsorship and student and work visas for refugees.

“These will all serve to reduce the demand for people smuggling and dangerous irregular sea journeys,” UNHCR said.

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