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Focus on future, prioritize reconciliation for the region, UN envoy urges Western Balkans

INTERNATIONAL, 12 February 2018 - Concluding a twelve-day visit to Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide called for concerted and sustained efforts to prioritize reconciliation and prevention.

The renewed focus of the Western Balkan States to achieve European Union membership, provides a new opportunity for prioritizing the reconciliation agenda, Special Adviser Adama Dieng said on Monday. 

Mr. Dieng met with high-level government officials; religious leaders; civil society organizations; and members of the diplomatic community – along with representatives of the UN Country Teams in the region and the UN Office in Belgrade – exploring both reconciliation challenges along with opportunities to overcome them.

Mr. Dieng was concerned over a number of divisive factors that, without serious and concerted efforts, could make matters worse, including political polarization across identity lines and politicization of past events, such as glorifying war criminals and contesting court decisions.

Special Adviser Dieng called on political leaders to take active steps to overcome divisions and maximize common ground, encouraging them to focus on the future and prioritize reconciliation as a fundamental regional policy objective.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, he placed a special focus on the October general elections, noting the increase in political tensions when he met government officials at State and entity levels in Sarajevo and in Banja Luka. He also met members of the Speakers Collegium of both parliamentary chambers. Mr. Dieng paid tribute to the victims of past atrocity crimes with visits to memorial sites in Srebrenica and in Donja Gradina and visited the Partisan Memorial Cemetery in Mostar.

He appealed for recognition of the suffering of all victims irrespective of their ethnic or religious origin, including through joint participation by political leaders in memorialization events.

He also underlined the important role of religious leaders and actors in promoting reconciliation, as well as the importance of empowering the youth with sustained efforts to promote inclusive education.

Additionally, the Special Adviser encouraged further strengthening joint agendas in fields where cooperation already exists, including prosecuting war crimes and regionalizing the joint UN and Bosnia and Herzegovina Presidency Dialogue for the Future initiative.

He also pointed to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, particularly Sustainable Development Goal 16, as a key instrument for prevention as it addresses drivers and root causes of instability and conflict.

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For Valentine’s Day, UN environment wing is urging everyone to ‘break up’ with single-use plastic

INTERNATIONAL, 12 February 2018 - As many countries prepare to mark Valentine’s Day, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is calling on people to end their “toxic relationship” with single-use plastic and find “new love,” with more environmentally sustainable options.

In It’s not me, it’s you, a short video for its #CleanSeas campaign, the UN environment wing takes a lighter look at the very serious problem of marine litter and urges everyone to give up the use of single-use plastic products such as disposable cutlery, water-bottles, food containers and shopping bags.

These environmentally unfriendly products ultimately end up in seas and oceans where they endanger fish, birds, turtles and other creatures who mistake it for food or become entangled.

Plastic waste has also entered the human food chain with health consequences that are not yet fully understood.

In addition to the impact on human and animal health, such pollution also hurt local businesses such as tourism, not only in areas where the pollutants originated but in far-away places, carried by ocean currents, and washing up on tiny Pacific islands and Arctic and Antarctic regions.

The UNEP’s #CleanSeas campaign aims to “turn the tide on plastic” by inspiring action from governments, businesses and individuals on ocean pollution.

A simple, conscious, switch to glass or metal tumblers or cups, or carrying a reusable shopping bag can have a lasting impact on ridding the planet from the menace.

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Around four million Iraqi children in need says UNICEF, ahead of investment conference in Kuwait

INTERNATIONAL, 12 February 2018 - Nearly a quarter of all Iraqi children are living in poverty, and in the wake of more than four years of violence, families are being pushed to “extreme measures” in order to survive, said the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on Monday, as a major conference on rebuilding the country was set to open tomorrow in neighbouring Kuwait.

“Children are Iraq’s future,” said Geert Cappaelaere, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, adding that “the Kuwait Conference for Iraq this week is an opportunity for world leaders to show that we are willing to invest in children – and through investing in children, that we are willing to invest in rebuilding a stable Iraq.”

The joint UNICEF and The UN Human Settlements Programme (UN–Habitat) assessment entitled Committing to Change – Securing the Future, which is being presented at the conference, concludes that without investment to restore infrastructure and services in war-ravaged cities such as Mosul, the “hard-won gains to end conflict in Iraq are in jeopardy.”

The Government-led battle to liberate swathes of Iraq last year occupied by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) terrorists since 2014, led to widespread destruction of homes, schools, hospitals and recreational spaces.

Since 2014, the UN verified 150 attacks on educational facilities, and around 50 attacks on health centres and their staff. Half of Iraq’s schools are in need of repair, and more than three million children have suffered disruption to their time in the classroom.

As displaced families try to return, the poorest often have little choice but to live in the ruins of their homes, in conditions that are hazardous to children. More than 21,400 homes have been destroyed or damaged in Mosul alone, according to UN figures.

The report indicates that some of the neediest families simply took their children out of school to work, and “many children were forced to fight.”

“Children are hardest hit in times of conflict and urban crisis recovery and reconstruction should be prioritized, adequately supported and quickly implemented,” said Zena Ali Ahmad, Arab Region Director for UN-Habitat.

The UN agencies are appealing at the conference – which runs 13 to 14 February – for commitments to restore basic infrastructure and services for children, including psycho-social support.

A UN Spokesman announced Monday that Secretary-General António Guterres will attend the Conference and is expected to urge the international community to support the reconstruction of Iraq.

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More than 5,000 child soldiers released in 2017, but tens of thousands still being used in conflict – UN

INTERNATIONAL, 12 February 2018 – The global commitment to end the use of children in armed conflict led to the release and reintegration of more than 5,000 children in 2017, but tens of thousands of boys and girls are still being recruited, kidnapped, and forced to fight or work for military groups or armed forces at “alarming rates,” according to the United Nations.

“Children can only be freed from armed groups and forces through a comprehensive reintegration process, including medical and psycho-social support, as well as educational programmes and trainings,” the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba, said Monday, on the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers.

“Without a strong political and financial commitment to the reintegration process, re-recruitment is unfortunately likely to happen in many conflict situations,” Ms. Gamba added.

Despite progress, boys and girls continue to be recruited, kidnapped, forced to fight or work for military groups or armed forces. The recruitment and use of children happened in all 20 country situations covered by the mandate entrusted to Ms. Gambia and her office.

Sixty-one parties to conflict out of 63 are listed for this grave violation in the 2016 Annual Report of the Secretary-General on the issue, making it by far the most widely-spread violation.

“It is our responsibility to show these children that there is hope outside of conflicts, that they can live in peace and security and be allowed to live their dreams,” Ms. Gamba, reminded.

The International Day was initiated in 2002 when the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict entered into force on February 12, 2002. This protocol, which sets the minimum age for recruitment into armed forces in conflict at 18, has been ratified by 167 States.

Is the international approach fit-for-purpose?

Meanwhile, the United Nations University (UNU) has been collaborating with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Luxembourg and Switzerland, to examine whether the international community’s approach to this scourge is effective, or requires adjustments.

The goal is to use the empirical findings of the research to inform programmatic guidance for actors in the field and to effectively disengage children from armed groups.

In their report, titled Cradled by Conflict: Child Involvement with Armed Groups in Contemporary Conflict, researchers suggest that most children do not so much “opt” into conflict as “grow” into it.

According to the report, conflict structures the information they see and the choices they make. It pulls and pushes them in many directions. Conflict erodes their relationships. It exacerbates their needs and exposes them to untold risks. Conflict shapes their identity and heightens their need to find meaning in their lives.

Ultimately, the forces of conflict narrow the paths available to children, and tragically, for many, lead to exploitation, violence, and trauma.

These findings undermine the conventional wisdom that “violent extremism” or ideology is predominantly responsible for driving children into armed groups.

The report proposes five principles for more effective international efforts to prevent and respond to child recruitment and use by armed groups: avoid programmes focused primarily on ideological factors; only incorporate ideological components where individually necessary and where they can be embedded into larger, holistic efforts to address the needs and risks of children; ensure all interventions are empirically based; rigorously assess interventions over the long term; and engage children not just as beneficiaries, but as partners.

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Civilians in war-torn Yemen ‘under fire on all sides’ – UN rights chief

INTERNATIONAL, 12 February 2018 – Raising alarm over continuing civilian casualties in the midst of increased hostilities in war-ravaged Yemen, the United Nations human rights chief underscored that all parties to the conflict are obliged under international humanitarian law to ensure that civilians are not harmed.

The situation in Taizz governorate – located in south-west Yemen – is of particular concern.

“Civilians are under fire on all sides, as Houthi and affiliated forces carry out sniper attacks and indiscriminate shelling, and the Saudi-led Coalition continues to conduct airstrikes,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said in a news releaseMonday.

“For the civilians in the city of Taizz, the conflict is not just escalating but inescapable.”

Between 1 and 8 February, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) verified that 27 people were killed and 76 injured in Yemen – more than double the number of civilian casualties confirmed during the previous week.

The actual number could be higher.

Among those killed were three children who lost their lives in shelling by Houthi forces in Al Qahirah district (northern Taizz) on 6 February; and a woman working as field monitor for the Yemen National Commission of Inquiry in Salh district on 8 Ferbruary.

Elsewhere in the country, eight civilians – including a woman and a child – were killed and 32 injured on 4 February when three airstrikes hit a Ministry of the Interior building in Bani Al Harith district, in Amanat Al Asimah Governorate.

OHCHR officials who visited the scene said that there did not appear to be any military objects near the building, which had previously been hit in January 2016.

Also in the first eight days of February, OHCHR document sniping and indiscriminate shelling by Houthi forces in frontline areas in Hudaydah and Hajja governorates, and airstrikes by the Coalition on areas under the control of the Houthi forces, including in Sana’a, Sa’ada, Hudaydah and Amran Governorates.

Underscoring the obligation on all parties to the conflict to ensure that civilian populations are not harmed, the UN human rights chief reiterated that “any intentional, direct attack against civilians or civilian objects is considered a serious violation of international humanitarian law.”

Since March 2015 and as of 8 February, OHCHR has documented 15,467 civilian casualties, with 5,974 killed and 9,493 injured.

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World loses a 'human rights giant,' says UN chief on death of rights expert Asma Jahangir

INTERNATIONAL, 11 February 2018 – United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on Sunday expressed his sorrow at the demise of prominent human rights defender and UN Special Rapporteur Asma Jahangir, who passed away at the age of 66.

“We have lost a human rights giant,” said Mr. Guterres in a statement.

“Asma was brilliant, deeply principled, courageous and kind […] She will not be forgotten,” he added, expressing his condolences to Ms. Jahangir's family, friends and colleagues, including in the UN and civil society.

She reportedly suffered a cardiac arrest and was taken to hospital, where she passed away.

Ms. Jahangir was the current UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, having assumed the position on 1 November 2016. Earlier, from 1998 to July 2004, she was the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and from August 2004 to July 2010, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.

A national of Pakistan, Ms. Jahangir, was recognized both nationally and internationally for her contribution to human rights and was the recipient of major human rights awards. She worked extensively in the field of women's rights, protection of religious minorities and in eliminating bonded labour.

She was also elected as the President of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan and as Chairperson of the country's Human Rights Commission.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which supports Special Rapporteurs and independent experts in the discharge of their mandate, also expressed its sadness at Ms. Jahangir's passing.

“She was a legendary human rights defender: pioneering, determined, calm, courageous – and a lovely human being,” the office said in a tweet posted on its official account.

UN Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council – the highest UN intergovernmental body on all matters related to human rights – to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation.

The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.

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UN chief deeply saddened by tragic plane accident in Russia

INTERNATIONAL, 11 February 2018 – United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on Sunday expressed deep sadness at the plane accident in the Moscow region, Russia, in which all passengers and crew are reported to have died.

In a statement attributable to his spokesperson, the Secretary-General conveyed “his heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims and to the people and Government of Russian Federation.”

According to reports, the aircraft lost contact shortly after take-off from an airport in Moscow and crashed near a village about 80 kilometres (50 miles) south-east of the city.

There were 65 passengers and six crew on board the airplane.

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Urgent international action needed to stop soaring violence in war-torn Syria, stresses UN rights chief

INTERNATIONAL, 10 February 2018 – The United Nations human rights chief on Saturday called for urgent international action to protect civilians caught up in the Syrian conflict, which, he said, saw one of its bloodiest periods with hundreds of lives lost in “wave after wave” of deadly airstrikes.

“The no-holds-barred nature of this assault is evidenced by reports that at least nine medical facilities, six of them in Idlib and three in eastern Ghouta, were hit by airstrikes,” said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, in a news release issued by his office (OHCHR).

“Even by Syria's atrocious standards, these are exceptionally deplorable developments – and a cruel irony given that both have been declared 'de-escalation areas',” he added.

According to OHCHR, between 4 and 9 February, at least 277 civilians are reported to have been killed, with 230 among them in airstrikes by the Syrian Government and its allies. A further 812 civilians are reported to have been injured.

In one of the worst incidents, a “rolling series of airstrikes” on residential areas of Duma (near the capital, Damascus) on 6 February reportedly killed at least 31 civilians, including 12 women and four children, and injured more than 100 others, including 37 children.

In the news release, the UN human rights wing also noted that numerous rockets and mortars continue to be fired from opposition-held areas into populated areas of Government-held capital Damascus and surrounding suburbs, with at least seven civilians reported killed and 18 others injured in various locations between 6 and 9 February.

Even by Syria's atrocious standards, these are exceptionally deplorable developments – and a cruel irony given that both have been declared 'de-escalation areas'High Commissioner Zeid

Elsewhere in the war-ravaged country, fighting continues to take its toll with a number of civilians, including children, reportedly killed and injured in Afrin district in north-western Syria.

In the east of the country, civilian casualties are reported in airstrikes and ground-based strikes in areas still under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da'esh) – primarily in Deir-ez-Zor governorate. However, the greatest threats now faced by civilians in such areas are improvised explosive devices, unexploded ordinance and other explosive remnants of war.

Violations of international law continue on a daily basis – UN rights chief

In the news release, Mr. Zeid also said that the various Governments and some armed opposition groups professing to adhere to international humanitarian law and international human rights law, violations “continue on a daily basis, despite the creation of so-called 'de-escalation areas' in 2017.”

“The term 'de-escalation area' is becoming all too reminiscent of the so-called “safe areas” in Bosnia, which proved anything but safe, as we were starkly reminded during the recent trials of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic,” he added, underscoring that the situation in Syria is “crying out” to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC), as well as for a much more concerted effort by UN Member States to bring peace.

“The conduct and management of this war has been utterly shameful from the outset, and the failure to end it marks an epic failure of global diplomacy,” the High Commissioner stressed.

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Yemen: Raging violence displaces more than 85,000 civilians, says UN refugee agency

INTERNATIONAL, 9 February 2018 – Surging violence across Yemen has resulted in the displacement of more than 85,000 people in just the last 10 weeks, the United Nations refugee agency reported Friday.

Yemen is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis with more than 22 million in need, fuelled by ongoing conflict, a breakdown in public services and a collapsing economy.

“We are particularly concerned for those that remain in areas close to hostilities in Taiz and Hudaydah governorates,” said Cécile Pouilly, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told reporters in Geneva, Switzerland.

“As a result of prolonged fighting in those two governorates, conditions continue to deteriorate, exposing people to violence and disease without access to basic services,” she added, noting that the agency was “alarmed” as hundreds of people are forced to flee their homes each day, due to increasing military operations, particularly on the west coast.

Most of those displaced in these two governorates are trapped inside their homes or in caves as ground clashes, aerial bombardment and sniper fire rage around them.

In addition to new displacements from those fleeing the coast, UNHCR is also observing a spike from other frontline areas, including Yemen’s border governorates.

Meanwhile, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has launched an appeal for $96.2 million to fund its 2018 response for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

“Three years of conflict have inflicted suffering on millions, affecting every Yemeni – man, woman or child,” said William Lacy Swing, the UN migration agency’s Director General, from its headquarters in Geneva.

“With armed conflict ongoing, a stalled peace process and an economic blockade, Yemen is in the grips of a devastating protracted humanitarian and developmental crisis,” he added.

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Olympic message of peace is universal, UN chief says ahead Pyeongchang Games

INTERNATIONAL, 9 February 2018 – As the world comes together for the Winter Olympics, which kicked off Friday in Pyeongchang, Republic of Korea, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called on everyone to recognize and promote the Games’ universal message of peace and tolerance.

“The Olympic spirit allows people to be together, from all over the world, to respect each other, to assert the values of tolerance, of mutual understanding that are the basic elements for peace to be possible,” Mr. Guterres told journalists in Pyeongchang.

Obviously, in the present context, he said, there is a lot of attention for this message of peace in relation to the Korean Peninsula, but the Olympic message of peace is not local.

“It is universal. It’s for the world. It is valued in Korea as it is valued everywhere where we struggle to try to address the many complex conflicts that we are facing,” he said.

The UN chief also extended his appreciation and pride to be at the Winter Olympics and highlighted the cooperation between UN and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), as well as the values for which the IOC and its sister organization, the International Paralympic Committee, stand.

The Winter Olympics opened earlier today (local time) with cultural and artistic performances as well as the customary parade of athletes, which was the delegations from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea under one flag, carried together by a sportsperson from each team.

Olympic torch ‘a symbol of hope’ – UN General Assembly President

Also today, the opening ceremony saw the conclusion of the long journey of the Olympic Torch that started in November 2017.

In the last leg of its journey, the flame was carried, among others, by Miroslav Lajčák, the President of the UN General Assembly and Thomas Bach, the President of the IOC.

Outlining the commonalities between sport and diplomacy – both about peace and bringing people together – Mr. Lajčák highlighted that the Olympic torch is “probably the best symbol in our times in our world.”

“[It] is a symbol of peace, a symbol of youth, a symbol of sport, communication, a symbol of tradition, a symbol of hope.” he said.

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