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COVID ‘vaccine hoarding’ putting Africa at risk: WHO

INTERNATIONAL, 21 January 2021, Health - Africa is in danger of being left behind in the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines as countries in other regions strike bilateral deals, thus driving up prices, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Thursday. 

Although vaccines have been administered in 50 wealthier nations, Guinea is the sole low-income country on the continent to receive doses, with only 25 people being inoculated so far.  Meanwhile, Seychelles is the only African country to start a national vaccination campaign. 

‘We first, not me first’ 

“We first, not me first, is the only way to end the pandemic. Vaccine hoarding will only prolong the ordeal and delay Africa's recovery. It is deeply unjust that the most vulnerable Africans are forced to wait for vaccines while lower-risk groups in rich countries are made safe”, said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. 

“Health workers and vulnerable people in Africa need urgent access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines.” 

An international coalition known as the COVAX Facility was established to ensure all countries will have equal access to any vaccines against the new coronavirus disease. 

It is co-led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and WHO. 

The COVAX Facility has secured two billion doses of vaccine from five producers, with options for over one billion more.  Delivery is set to begin soon, according to Thabani Maphosa, Managing Director, Country Programmes at GAVI. 

“This massive international undertaking has been made possible thanks to donations, work towards dose-sharing deals and deals with manufacturers that have brought us to almost two billion doses secured. We look forward to rollout in the coming weeks”, he said. 

Vaccination commitment  

COVAX has committed to vaccinating at least 20 per cent of the population in Africa by the end of this year. 

Priority will be given to health workers and other vulnerable groups, such as older persons and those with pre-existing health conditions. 

An initial 30 million vaccine doses are expected to begin arriving in countries by March.  Overall, a maximum of 600 million doses will be disbursed, based on two doses per person. 

WHO said timelines and quantities could change, for example if vaccines fail to meet regulatory approval or due to challenges related to production, delivery and funding.

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Central African Republic: UN mission chief appeals for more peacekeepers

INTERNATIONAL, 21 January 2021, Peace and Security - The top UN official in the Central African Republic (CAR) appealed to the Security Council on Thursday for more peacekeepers and equipment amid escalating violence surrounding elections last month.

Mankeur Ndiaye, head of the UN mission in the country, MINUSCA, said this “new security situation” is testing its ability to ensure civilians are protected. 

An alliance of armed groups, known as the Coalition of Patriots for Change (CPC), launched attacks ahead of the 27 December vote, which saw incumbent President, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, returned to power.   

Assaults and ambushes have continued, including against UN peacekeepers, seven of whom have been killed in recent weeks.  

“We need an increase in our capacity in order to respond to this new threat which is destabilizing the country even further”, Mr. Ndiaye told the virtual meeting. 

Speaking through an interpreter, he warned that MINUSCA will be tested even more than ever, at a time when it must protect civilians and ensure delivery of humanitarian aid.   

“To this end, we need a strategy to manage the mandate; a substantial increase of uniformed troops in the mission”, he said. 

Support from next door 

Ahead of the elections, peacekeepers from the UN mission in neighbouring South Sudan were deployed to the Central African Republic: a move that boosted both capacity and morale, Mr. Ndiaye told ambassadors. 

He said this inter-mission cooperation will need to be prolonged for several months. 

“If our requests are not heard, the response of the mission, and most particularly that of the forces, is going to be to do whatever it can. But troops are currently deployed over extremely large areas and as a result, the force only has limited response ability, and we cannot cover the entire territory because of the size of the country”, he said.  

“This critical capacity - drones, attack helicopters and the ability to bolster special forces - are missing, and this affects our capacity for action and for rapid reaction.” 

Protect borders, re-start economy 

The mission chief also pointed to the need for MINUSCA to support the security forces, including in efforts to protect the country’s borders against transnational organized crime. 

Supporting the restoration of State authority over the mining sector also would be an “ideal tool” for re-starting the economy, he added, which would help to reduce poverty and the threat of armed groups. 

Recalling the resilience of the Central African people, Mr. Ndiaye urged the international community to support the country on its path to reconciliation, reconstruction and dialogue. 

 “This is certainly a difficult path, but it is certainly one that can bring the country towards lasting peace”, he said. “I therefore call upon the Council to examine the most appropriate measures to guarantee that MINUSCA can adapt to the new security situation.”

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Fauci announces US intention to resume major role in global health

INTERNATIONAL, 21 January 2021, Health - The United States’ top medical official said on Thursday that the US will now join the World Health Organization’s global initiative to help poorer nations overcome COVID-19, in addition to a raft of new measures in support of access to universal healthcare, such as abortion services. 

Addressing the WHO’s Executive Board Meeting, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Adviser to the new US President, said that Mr. Biden intended to issue a directive within hours so that the country can become part of the COVAX platform to advance multilateral efforts to distribute coronavirus vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. 

Speaking one year ago “to the day” since the United States confirmed its first case of COVID-19 infection, Dr. Fauci noted that global infections had now surpassed 90 million.

This was a “devastating number that continues to grow”, he said, while paying tribute to the scientists, public health officials and frontline healthcare workers, and community health workers who had worked “heroically” to fight the virus.

They had developed medical countermeasures “at truly phenomenal speed, adapting their responses as more is known about the virus, he said, “courageously treating the millions of people who have been stricken by this historic scourge”. 

‘Committed to transparency’ 

Dr. Fauci noted that responding to COVID-19 and “rebuilding global health and advancing health security” worldwide, “will not be easy.” 

He said the US was “committed to transparency, including those events surrounding the early days of the pandemic. It is imperative that we learn and build upon important lessons about how future pandemic events can be averted”, he added. “The international investigation should be robust and clear, and we look forward to evaluating it”. 

Global health gains 

Addressing the WHO executive, Dr. Fauci also announced US plans to work with other countries “to counter the erosion of major gains in global health”, specifying HIV/AIDS, food security, malaria and epidemic preparedness. 

“It will be our policy to support women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights in the United States, as well as globally”, the US official added.   

In reference to existing US federal policy which blocks funding for organizations that provide counselling on abortion or related services, he explained that President Biden “will be revoking” it “in the coming days”, as part of his broader commitment to protect women’s health and advance gender equality at home and around the world.” 

As a WHO member, the United States would also work “constructively…to strengthen and importantly reform the WHO”, Dr. Fauci said, helping to lead the collective effort to strengthen the international COVID-19 response and address its impacts on people, communities, and health systems everywhere. 

A family of nations: WHO chief Tedros 

Welcoming the US pledge to fully rejoin WHO, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he “looked forward to continuing this partnership, as I know all [WHO] Member States do.” 

Tedros extended his best wishes to Dr. Fauci, President Biden, Vice President Harris, the new administration, and the American people “as you work together to save lives and bring the pandemic under control.” 

“I assure you of WHO’s continued commitment to support you with science, solutions, solidarity and service” he said. 

“WHO is a family of nations. And we are all glad that the United States is staying in the family”, Dr. Tedros added. 

Financial boost 

The head of US delegation, Dr. Fauci also announced that his country will cease the drawdown of US staff seconded to the WHO and will resume regular engagement of US Government personnel directly and through its WHO Collaborating Centres. 

In addition, it intends to fulfil its financial obligations to the organization, he said.

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Colombia: Criminal elements use violence and intimidation to ‘stamp out’ leaders’ voices

INTERNATIONAL, 21 January 2021, Peace and Security - Illegally-armed groups and criminal organizations in Colombia are determined to “drive out State institutions and stamp out the voice of social leaders” through violence and intimidation, the head of the UN mission in the country told the Security Council on Thursday.

“They cannot be allowed to succeed”, Carlos Ruiz Massieu, Special Representative and Head of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia said via videolink, urging authorities to “remain firm” in developing robust institutions.  

He maintained that consolidating institutional practices; strengthening local protection and conflict resolution mechanisms; and providing decent economic opportunities for vulnerable populations are “the strongest bulwark” against armed groups and criminal organizations. 

An agreement for peace  

The UN envoy upheld that Colombia’s historic 2016 peace agreement “represents a threat” to the activities of those who profit from limited State presence. 

He said continued dialogue between Government and former rebels who have now entered mainstream life, were “fundamental” for making the agreement a lasting reality, and urged the sides to “spare no efforts” in working together and with the UN mission, noting the importance of continuing to lay the groundwork for “reconciliation across the country”. 

‘Inspiring’ stories of truth and reconciliation 

Victims of violence, and Colombian society overall, are have high hopes for the work of the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition, according to the mission head. 

Crediting the testimonies from those who were a party to the fighting in past decades, the victims, and strong inter-institutional coordination, the UN envoy gave ambassadors one hopeful example of a Special Unit which had found and reunited a mother and daughter, both declared missing 17 years ago. 

“This inspiring story is one of many examples of the work of the Comprehensive System and illustrates why it is so important for all actors to lend their full support to the system”, he said.  

‘Unequivocal support’ needed 

In closing, the Special Representative stressed that the “firm backing” of the Council and the international community at large remains “one of the key factors” that allow Colombia to be “a source of hope and inspiration” for peaceful conflict resolution worldwide. 

“Your unanimous and unequivocal support will remain essential as Columbians continue persevering in the full implementation of their landmark peace agreement”, concluded Mr. Ruiz Massieu.

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Iraq: UN chief condemns ‘horrific’ double suicide bombing at Baghdad market

INTERNATIONAL, 21 January 2021, Peace and Security - Perpetrators behind twin deadly suicide bombings at a busy market in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, on Thursday must be prosecuted, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement strongly condemning the attacks. 

At least 32 people died, and more than 100 were injured, in the blasts, which were carried out that morning by two suicide bombers who detonated their vests at the market in Tayaran Square in the capital, Baghdad. 

The last time that the Iraqi capital was hit in a deadly suicide attack, was two years ago, when 35 people were killed, in the same square. No group has yet claimed Thursday’s attack. 

The incident comes just a few days after the Iraqi Government announced that it was postponing the general election from 6 June until 10 October, to give authorities more time to register voters and new political parties, according to news reports. 

Early elections have been a key demand of anti-government protesters who staged months of mass demonstrations beginning in October 2019. 

Reject attempts to ‘spread fear’ 

The UN chief has expressed his deep condolences to the families of the victims, and to the Government and people of Iraq, his spokesperson said in a statement. 

“The Secretary-General appeals to the people of Iraq to reject any attempts to spread fear and violence aimed at undermining peace, stability and unity. He calls on the Government to ensure that those behind these horrific crimes are swiftly identified and brought to justice”, it said

The Secretary-General underscored UN support to Iraqi authorities, and to the country’s people, in their efforts to consolidate peace.

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Senior panel probing violations in Syria, examining new measures to safeguard humanitarians

INTERNATIONAL, 21 January 2021, Peace and Security - The UN chief announced on Thursday that he has set up an independent Senior Advisory Panel on strengthening the mechanism whereby humanitarian workers and sites are better protected from attack in Syria, according to a statement released by his spokesperson. 

As Syria’s warring parties had in some cases failed to abide by obligations to protect civilian facilities on the UN’s so-called deconfliction list – that would exempt them from military targeting because they either involved healthcare or other purely civilian activities, or were supported by the UN –  last April Secretary-General António Guterres submitted a letter to the Security Council transmitting a report by a UN Headquarters Board of Inquiry that he had set up to investigate incidents in northwest Syria since 17 September 2017. 

“The Board has made a series of recommendations, which I am considering carefully”, the Secretary-General wrote to the Council. 

Following recommendations

The UN chief acknowledged that some of the issues raised were complex, such as which parties to a conflict should be given so-called deconfliction information. 

In response to his promise to appoint “a senior independent adviser with expertise and experience in this area”, following consultations, Mr. Guterres selected former senior UN humanitarian official Jan Egeland as Chair of a three-person independent Senior Advisory Panel on deconfliction, serving alongside Erika Feller, a former Assistant High Commissioner of the UN refugees agency and Radhouane Noucier, a past UN regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria.

“The Panel will conduct its work independently and will provide the Secretary-General with advice on how to strengthen the deconfliction mechanism operated by OCHA [the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] in Syria”, according to spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric.

Moreover, it will advise the UN chief on the Board of Inquiry’s recommendations related to the deconfliction mechanism and on lessons that can be learned for the future. 

Mr. Dujarric said that the Panel had begun its work on 11 January and is expected to submit a final report to the Secretary-General by 10 May. 

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Guterres urges world to ‘work together in solidarity’ as US moves to rejoin WHO

INTERNATIONAL, 21 January 2021, Health - The United Nations Secretary-General on Wednesday welcomed the announcement by President Joe Biden that the United States will re-engage with the World Health Organization (WHO) and play a full role in advancing global health and health security. 

In a statement issued by his Spokesperson, Secretary-General António Guterres said that supporting the UN health agency “is absolutely critical” to the world’s effort for a better coordinated response against COVID-19

The UN chief also urged global solidarity to defeat the coronavirus.  

“Now is the time for unity and for the international community to work together in solidarity to stop this virus and its shattering consequences,” the statement added. 

Earlier in the day, in one of his first acts as new US President, Mr. Biden signed an executive order to stop the country’s departure from WHO, reversing the formal July 2020 decision by former president Donald Trump. Mr. Trump’s decision would have taken effect this July, as the formal withdrawal requires a year's notice. 

Mr. Trump had also halted funding for WHO in April last year, prompting global concern over the UN’s health agency’s ability to respond effectively to the coronavirus pandemic.  

The US is the largest donors to the agency, contributing almost $893 million for its programmes in 2018-2019.  

Joining international vaccine push 

Alongside, the new administration announced US’s participation in the COVAX facility, a global effort co-led by WHO that aims to provide low income nations with COVID-19 vaccines. 

Mr. Guterres hailed the step, stressing that “with vaccines being a critical tool in the battle against COVID-19, the United States joining and supporting the COVAX facility will give momentum to efforts to ensure equitable access to vaccines for all countries.” 

The vaccines pillar of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-Accelerator), COVAX, is a global mechanism that aims to ensure equitable access for all, regardless of ability to pay.   

Dr. Fauci to lead US delegation to WHO 

Also on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the US President announced that infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci will lead the country’s delegation to the ongoing WHO Executive Board meeting, participating remotely.  

The Biden administration also announced a series of actions to combat coronavirus, including requiring the use of facemasks in all federal buildings, lands, and on certain modes of public transport. 

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Secretary-General welcomes US return to Paris Agreement on Climate Change

INTERNATIONAL, 20 January 2021, Climate Change - Following the inauguration of United States President Joe Biden on Wednesday, the UN Secretary-General said he looks forward to an era of new leadership towards accelerating climate action, with the US back inside the landmark Paris Agreement.  

President Biden signed an executive order at the White House just hours after being sworn in, to reverse the previous administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 accord, which seeks to limit global warming and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

“I warmly welcome President Biden’s steps to re-enter the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and join the growing coalition of governments, cities, states, businesses and people taking ambitious action to confront the climate crisis”, the UN chief said in a statement

The US was among 194 countries that signed the Agreement in December 2015 under then President, Barack Obama.   

His successor, Donald Trump, announced three years later that the country would withdraw from the treaty, a decision which became effective last November. 

Long road to carbon neutrality 

The Paris Agreement requires governments to commit to increasingly ambitious climate action through plans known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). 

The Secretary-General recalled that countries producing half of all global carbon pollution committed to carbon neutrality, or net-zero emissions, following a summit held last month.  

“Today’s commitment by President Biden brings that figure to two-thirds. But there is a very long way to go”, he said. 

“The climate crisis continues to worsen, and time is running out to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and build more climate-resilient societies that help to protect the most vulnerable.” 

Climate crisis and COVID-19 

The Secretary-General underlined his commitment to work with the new US President and other world leaders to address the climate crisis and COVID-19 recovery. 

Last year, the UN was forced to postpone its latest global climate change conference, known as COP26, due to the pandemic.   

“We look forward to the leadership of United States in accelerating global efforts towards net zero, including by bringing forward a new nationally determined contribution with ambitious 2030 targets and climate finance in advance of COP26 in Glasgow later this year”, the statement said. 

In his inauguration speech, President Biden made it clear that addressing “a climate in crisis” was a priority, noting that “a cry for survival comes from planet itself”. 

Senior officials from across the UN system have congratulated the new administration in Washington. 

Inger Andersen, head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), tweeted that her agency looks forward to working closely with President Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris to strengthen climate action, “to address a planet in crisis, and to build a just and green transition for all.”

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UN welcomes Biden administration commitment to refugee protection

INTERNATIONAL, 20 January 2021, Migrants and Refugees - The UN Secretary-General on Wednesday welcomed the "positive steps" announced by the new US adminstration towards migrants and refugees, while the head of UN refugee agency (UNHCR) congratulated the new President and Vice President on taking office, pledging to work with them to strengthen global support for refugees. 

“Long a strong advocate for refugees, Mr. Biden has made important commitments to restoring the US refugee resettlement programme and ensuring that human rights and humanitarian values are at the centre of the US asylum system”, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said in a statement.

Looking forward

"The Secretary-General looks forward to working with the new US administration to strengthen multilateral cooperation" to support migrants and refugees, said the statement issued on behalf of  António Guterres. "He also hopes to see the United States join the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration."

He noted that US support to address the needs of migrants and refugees has been strong and steadfast. "This partnership is needed now more than ever as we seek to provide assistance, protection and sustainable solutions to the displacement of record numbers of people who have been forced to flee their homes as a result of conflict, violence or disaster, or are migrating in the hopes of finding a better life for themselves and their families."

70 years of support

For more than seventy years, UNHCR has enjoyed robust and steadfast support from the Government and people of the United States, said Mr. Grandi.  

While the Trump administration had severely reduced the number of refugees admitted through the resettlement programme, as part of an anti-immigration stance that included a travel ban on citizens travelling from a group of mainly Muslim-majority countries, President Biden has signalled that he will restore it. 

According to news reports, the Obama administration had planned in 2016 to admit 110,000 refugees, but the Trump White House moved to reduce that number each year, culminating in a cap of just 15,000 for this year – the lowest refugee admission figure on record. 

The new President has reportedly pledged to raise the annual refugee admissions ceiling to 125,000. 

‘Strong and trusted partnership’ 

Mr. Grandi said that UNHCR had enjoyed “robust and steadfast support” from US governments for most of its 70 year history.  

“That support and partnership are as important as ever as we seek to provide protection and aid to the more than 80 million people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes, and find solutions to their displacement”, said Mr. Grandi. 

 “We look forward to deepening the strong and trusted partnership with the United States, and to working with the new administration and Congress to address the many challenges of forced displacement around the world”, said the top UN refugee official.

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Decade of conflict triggering ‘slow tsunami’ across Syria, Security Council hears

INTERNATIONAL, 20 January 2021, Peace and Security - After a decade of conflict, economic collapse compounded by COVID-19, corruption and mismanagement, the UN Syrian envoy told the Security Council on Wednesday that “a slow tsunami” is now “crashing across Syria”. 

“Today, millions inside the country and the millions of refugees outside, are grappling with deep trauma, grinding poverty, personal insecurity, and lack of hope for the future”, Special Envoy Geir Pedersen said via video link.  

Ten years of death, displacement, destruction and destitution “on a massive scale”, have left millions of Syrians grappling with “deep trauma, grinding poverty, personal insecurity and lack of hope for the future”, he added.  

Syrians are suffering -- UN  Special Envoy

‘A perfect storm’ 

The UN envoy painted a grim picture of what lies ahead in 2021. 

He cited the UN humanitarian office, OCHA, in saying that more than eight in 10 people are living in poverty, and the World Food Programme (WFP) has assessed that 9.3 million are food insecure. 

And with rising inflation and fuel shortages, he expects that the authorities will be unable to provide basic services and goods. The pandemic is also continuing to take its toll.  

“Syrians are suffering”, the UN official said, speaking out against economic sanctions that would worsen the plight of Syrians. “A torn society faces further unraveling of its social fabric, sowing the seeds for more suffering and even more instability”, he warned.  

Common building blocks 

Civilians continue to be killed in crossfire and IED attacks while facing dangers ranging “from instability, arbitrary detention and abduction, to criminality and the activities of UN-listed terrorist groups”, said the UN envoy.  

“The political process is not as yet delivering real changes in Syrian’s lives nor a real vision for the future”, he said, pointing to the need for confidence-building steps, such as unhindered humanitarian access; information on and access to detainees; and a nationwide ceasefire.  

Moreover, free and fair elections, as envisaged in Security Council resolution 2254, “seem far into the future”, he added. 

He called for “more serious and cooperative international diplomacy” and urged States to build on common interests, including stability, counter-terrorism and preventing further conflict that “could unlock genuine progress and could chart a safe and secure path out of this crisis for all Syrians”. 

Mr. Pedersen flagged that, depending on COVID, the Syrian-led, Syrian-owned, UN-facilitated Constitutional Committee will convene in Geneva next week.  

“We need to ensure that the Committee begins to move from ‘preparing’ a constitutional reform to ‘drafting’ one, as it is mandated to do”, he spelled out.  

A country of crises 

UN Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Lowcock, spoke of “historically high levels” of food prices and the “drastically” declining value of Syria’s currency that have together driven food insecurity.  

“As a result of decreased purchasing power, over 80 per cent of households report relying on negative coping mechanisms to afford food”, he told ambassadors.  

Also of grave concern is the continuing economic crisis that has created fuel shortages and power cuts during winter, and a rising dependency on child labor. 

Furthermore, harsh weather has sparked widespread flooding, forcing Syrians to “spend entire nights standing up in their tents due to rising flood waters”, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator said.  

As the COVID pandemic compounds the economic crisis, he said that amidst limited testing, “there are indications that Syria may be experiencing a renewed wave of infections”. 

Assisting those in need 

Turning to desperate conditions at the notorious Al Hol refugee camp, the UN official stressed that security must be provided without endangering residents, violating their rights or restricting humanitarian access. 

He reminded that most of the 62,000 people there are younger than 12, and “growing up in unacceptable conditions”. 

Stressing the UN’s focus on life-saving humanitarian needs, Mr. Lowcock said the Organization was committed to assisting but required “adequate funding, improved access, and an end to the violence that has tormented Syrians for nearly a decade”.

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