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UN chief’s Youth Day message: People of all ages need to ‘join forces’ for a better world

INTERNATIONAL, 12 August 2022, Culture and Education - International Youth Day celebrates “the power of partnerships across generations,” the UN chief said in his message for the day.

Commemorated annually on 12 August, Secretary-General António Guterres noted that this year’s theme – “Intergenerational Solidarity: Creating a World for All Ages” – reminds us of “a basic truth” that “we need people of all ages, young and old alike, to join forces to build a better world for all”.

Intergenerational Solidarity

Too often, ageism, bias and discrimination prevent this essential collaboration, the top UN official observed.

“When young people are shut out of the decisions being made about their lives, or when older people are denied a chance to be heard, we all lose,” he spelled out.

Mr. Guterres upheld that as the world faces a series of challenges threatening our collective future, “solidarity and collaboration are more essential than ever”.

From COVID-19 to climate change and conflicts to poverty, inequality and discrimination, “we need all hands on deck” to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and build the better, more peaceful future that everyone seeks.

Bolster youth

We need to support young people with massive investments in education and skills-building — “including through next month’s Transforming Education Summit,” said the Secretary-General.

“We also need to support gender equality and expanded opportunities for young people to participate in civic and political life”.

The UN chief maintained that it is not enough to just listen to young people, “we need to integrate them into decision-making mechanisms at the local, national and international levels”.

This is at the heart of the UN’s proposal to establish a new Youth Office at the Organization.

 Joining hands

At the same time, he pointed to the importance of ensuring that older generations have access to social protection and opportunities to give back to their communities as well as the ability to share the decades of accumulated experience that they have lived.  

“On this important day, let’s join hands across generations to break down barriers, and work as one to achieve a more equitable, just and inclusive world for all people,” concluded the Secretary-General.

'Youthful drive' needed

Meanwhile, in his lecture to the students of Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid reflected on the importance of intergenerational collaboration, conceding that “it is often young people who hold us accountable when we fall short on any issue, whether it be conservation, peace, or human rights”.

As we face a full-fledged planetary crisis with countries locking themselves into “unreasonable positions” during negotiations, he reminded, “it is the young that are stepping up through their activism”.

“It is young people that kept the 1.5-degree goal alive”, he said. “It is young people who refuse our excuses when we, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, delay and dither on taking action to curb emissions and protect the environment”.

Mr. Shahid confirmed that the world needs “that youthful drive and energy” today.

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United States: Concrete actions needed to ‘lay the scourge of racism to rest’ – UN expert

INTERNATIONAL, 12 August 2022, Human Rights - UN-appointed independent human rights experts commended the United States on Friday for adopting the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, but asked about measures being taken to address gun violence in the country.

After the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) reviewed the US’ racial justice record, the UN human rights office issued a statement in which CERD Expert and Country Rapporteur Faith Dikeledi Pansy Tlakula recounted her observation that the country’s firearm homicide rate had increased, especially amongst black men and in impoverished communities. 

While acknowledging the measures that had been taken to address gun violence, Ms. Tlakula had wondered what was being done to address its “disparate impact” on racial and ethnic minorities as well as indigenous peoples.

Anti-racism protesters in Brooklyn, New York, demonstrate demanding justice for the killing of African American, George Floyd.
UN News/Shirin Yaseen
Anti-racism protesters in Brooklyn, New York, demonstrate demanding justice for the killing of African American, George Floyd.

Lacking federal coordination

Amidst a significant rise in hate crimes against ethnic minorities, the Committee had welcomed recent US legislation, such as the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, but questioned why the country has yet to institutionalize a coordinating mechanism, like a national human rights institution.

Ms. Tlakula said that the Committee had repeatedly expressed concern over its lack of such a mechanism, and asked what measures had been adopted to create a permanent and effective coordinating mechanism at the federal level.

The Committee had noted that the US was aware of its recommendations on establishing a national human rights institute and that it would take them under consideration to the extent that they could be enforced under the presidency of Joe Biden.

Police reform

The Committee had also pointed out that the country was ensuring accountability surrounding the use of force, noting that the Department of Homeland Security had enforced strict standards of conduct for police officers. 

Moreover, a department-wide use of force policy, which stressed respect for human life, was released in 2018, and updated in 2021. 

And police training has been provided in de-escalation, use of force, and border fence patrols. 

People march against racial discrimination in North Carolina, USA.
© UNSPLASH/Clay Banks

The US Office of Civil Rights and Liberties also investigated cases of excessive use of force and tracked these through an online dashboard, with over 600 such incidents logged so far this year. 

Recommendation implementation

In her concluding remarks, Ms. Tlakula had told the Committee that uncomfortable conversations and concrete measures and actions were necessary “to lay the scourge of racism to rest”. 

She had also expressed hope that the country would continue to hold consultations with civil society, maintaining that they would lead to progress in implementing the Committee’s recommendations.

US delegation responds

The US Ambassador to the Human Rights Council and head of the delegation, Michèle Taylor, had acknowledged that the US needed to do better on eliminating racial discrimination, and was “deeply committed” to using all levers at its disposal to do so. 

The US State Department’s Special Representative for Racial Equity and Justice and delegation co-leader, Desirée Cormier Smith, had said that the country shared the Committee’s vision for sustained efforts to eliminate racial discrimination. She also expressed sadness that ethnic and racial minority groups still needed to fight for the freedoms enjoyed by the white population.

Administrative points

The Committee will issue its concluding observations on the report of the United States after the session concludes on 30 August. 

Summaries of the public meetings of the Committee can be found here, and webcasts here

Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not paid for their work.

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Vessel to collect first humanitarian wheat shipment under Ukraine grain deal

INTERNATIONAL, 12 August 2022, Humanitarian Aid - A UN-chartered vessel should soon arrive at the Ukrainian port of Yuzhny, also known as Pivdennyi, to collect wheat that will help feed millions of hungry people in the Horn of Africa, the World Food Programme (WFP) reported on Friday.

This will be the first shipment of humanitarian food assistance under the Black Sea Grain Initiative signed last month by Ukraine, Russia and Türkiye. 

WFP said the development marks “another important step in efforts to reintegrate Ukrainian food into global markets and get it to countries worst affected by the global food crisis through both commercial and humanitarian avenues.” 

The MV Brave Commander is expected to berth shortly at Yuzhny, located on the Black Sea. 

Supporting drought response 

The ship departed the Turkish capital, Istanbul, on Wednesday after clearing inspection by the Joint Coordination Centre (JCC), the mechanism that supports implementation of the UN-brokered agreement on resuming grain exports from Ukraine. 

The JCC will monitor the movement of commercial vessels transporting grain, foodstuffs and fertilizer from Yuzhny and two other key Ukrainian ports: Odesa and Chornomorsk.    

WFP has purchased the wheat for its operations in Ethiopia, supporting drought response in the Horn of Africa where the threat of famine looms.     

The UN agency recently warned of the dire food security situation across the region, following four consecutive failed rainy seasons. 

The Horn of Africa is just one of many areas around the world where the near complete halt of Ukrainian grain and food on the global market has made life even harder for the families already struggling with rising hunger.     

A record 345 million people in 82 countries are now facing acute food insecurity, WFP said. Up to 50 million in 45 countries are at risk of being pushed into famine without humanitarian support. 

The M/V Fulmar S, the first commercial emtpy grain vessel from Istanbul to Ukraine under the Black Sea Grain Initiative, awaits  JCC authorized movement, pending inspection.
UNOCHA/Levent Kulu
The M/V Fulmar S, the first commercial emtpy grain vessel from Istanbul to Ukraine under the Black Sea Grain Initiative, awaits JCC authorized movement, pending inspection.

Off to a good start

The Brave Commander will discharge the wheat in Djibouti after clearing the JCC protocols in Istanbul on the outbound trip. 

The Black Sea Grain Initiative was signed on 22 July and so far, 12 vessels have been authorized to depart the Ukrainian ports, the senior UN official at the JCC told journalists this week. 

Frederick Kenney, UN Interim Coordinator, said while there is still much work ahead, “we are off with a very good start”. 

UN Coordinator appointed

On Friday,  Secretary-General António Guterres announced the appointment of Amir Mahmoud Abdulla as the UN Coordinator for the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

Mr. Abdulla is the former Deputy Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of WFP, overseeing its humanitarian operations around the world.  

He succeeds Mr. Kenney, who was on loan from the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

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Bangladesh and Cambodia slated for official UN human rights visits

INTERNATIONAL, 12 August 2022, Human Rights - The UN human rights office, OHCHR, announced on Friday that the High Commissioner will travel over the weekend to Bangladesh.

At the invitation of the Government, Michelle Bachelet will visit Bangladesh from Sunday, 14 August, in the first-ever official trip by a UN Human Rights chief to the country.

There, she will visit camps housing Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, as well as high-level officials, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed and other ministers, and the National Human Rights Commission along with representatives of civil society organizations.

Lives ‘hanging in the balance’

Back in 2017, violent attacks in Myanmar triggered an estimated 745,000 Rohingya, including more than 400,000 children, to flee to Bangladesh.

In June, Ms. Bachelet pointed out that the military continues to “use hostile and derogatory language to threaten and marginalize” the mostly-Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine state – hundreds of thousands of whom were forced to flee – “and to implement strict discriminatory limitations on their movement”.

The lives and future of Myanmar’s people are “hanging in the balance,” she said, adding that it was “disappointing” that international efforts to rein in the military’s recklessly violent approach, have been largely ineffective”.

UN expert to visit Cambodia 

Meanwhile, on Monday, UN-appointed human rights expert, Vitit Muntarbhorn, will make his first official visit to Cambodia.

Over the course of two weeks, he will assess the human rights situation in the country along with the government’s efforts toward creating an environment for all to enjoy them – including political and civil rights and economic, social and cultural rights following the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I look forward to meeting a wide range of stakeholders, including government representatives, human rights defenders and other relevant stakeholders,” he said.

Press freedom increasingly under threat

The UN Special Rapporteur’s visit comes amidst growing restrictions on civic space and press freedoms in the country.

According to a report by the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), journalists are being increasingly subjected to various forms of harassment, pressure, and violence.

In it, OHCHR in Cambodia outlined the country’s increasing lack of freedoms, including for the press and of expression by examining the legal framework; the state of media ownership; and specific challenges faced by women media workers.

The independent rights expert’s visit is at the invitation of the government. He will hold meetings with national and local government officials and international and local civil society representatives across the country.

Special Rapporteurs are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. Their positions are honorary and the experts are not paid for their work.

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‘Immensely bleak’ future for Afghanistan unless massive human rights reversal, experts warn

INTERNATIONAL, 12 August 2022, Human Rights - The international community must dramatically increase efforts to urge the de facto authorities in Afghanistan to adhere to basic human rights principles, a group of UN independent rights experts said on Friday. 

“The future is immensely bleak for Afghans if more is not done by the international community to ensure the Taliban changes its modus operandi and complies with its human rights obligations,” they said in a statement

The experts recalled that following the Taliban takeover last August, they had appealed for the international community to take “stringent actions” to protect Afghans from violations such as arbitrary detention, summary executions, internal displacement, and unlawful restrictions on their human rights. 

Failure to deliver 

“One year later, we reiterate this call,” they said. “Despite making numerous commitments to uphold human rights, the Taliban have not only failed to deliver on their promises, they have also reversed much of the progress made in the past two decades”. 

Moreover, the humanitarian and economic crisis in Afghanistan, which has already caused immeasurable harm to millions, shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, it is predicted to worsen, they added, partly due to the interruption of international assistance and the freezing of Afghan assets abroad.  

Women receive food rations at a food distribution site in Herat, Afghanistan.
© UNICEF/Sayed Bidel
Women receive food rations at a food distribution site in Herat, Afghanistan.

Attack on women and girls 

The experts said the Taliban have committed a “plethora” of human rights violations, with the virtual erasure of women and girls from society, as well as their systematic oppression, being particularly egregious.  

“Nowhere else in the world has there been as wide-spread, systematic and all-encompassing an attack on the rights of women and girls – every aspect of their lives is being restricted under the guise of morality and through the instrumentalization of religion. Discrimination and violence cannot be justified on any ground”. 

Regrettably, there is little indication that the human rights situation is turning a corner, they said. 

No confidence 

“Indeed, the daily reports of violence – including extra-judicial killings, disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, heightened risks of exploitation faced by women and girls including for the purposes of child and forced marriage, and a breakdown in the rule of law – gives us no confidence that the Taliban has any intention of making good on its pledge to respect human rights."

Citizens now have no means for redress as the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has been abolished, along with other independent oversight mechanism and institutions.  

The administration of justice has also been compromised. The applicable law is unclear, and judges and other officials have been replaced, which has especially affected women. 

Peace prospects dim 

The experts pointed to other violations, such as the curtailing of press freedom, and the rise in attacks on religious and ethnic minorities, some of which were claimed by the ISIL-KP terrorist group. They also and highlighted how journalists, activists, academics and artists have either left the country, quit their work, or gone into hiding.

Furthermore, in the absence of an inclusive and representative government, prospects for long-lasting peace, reconciliation and stability will remain minimal.  

“The de facto authorities seek international recognition and legitimacy. Regrettably, they continue to abuse almost all human rights standards while refusing to offer even a modicum of respect for ordinary Afghans, in particular women and girls,” said the experts. 

Most recently, the Taliban appeared to have been harbouring the leader of Al Qaeda. Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed last week in a US drone strike, which the experts said also raises concerns of a violation of international law.  

“Until it demonstrates significant steps towards respecting human rights, including by immediately reopening girls’ secondary schools and restoring their access to a quality education, they should not be on a path to recognition.” 

A family drinks tea at home in Herat, Afghanistan.
© UNICEF/Sayed Bidel
A family drinks tea at home in Herat, Afghanistan.

Action by the authorities 

In addition to honouring their international obligations, the experts have called for the Taliban to fully implement human rights standards, including respecting the rights of women and girls to education, employment and participation in public life.   

The de facto authorities should immediately open all secondary schools for girls, and lift restrictions on women’s mobility, attire, employment and participation. The rights of minority communities must also be upheld. 

The Taliban are also urged to “respect the general amnesty and immediately stop all reprisals against members of the former government’s security forces, other officials and civil society, especially human rights defenders, including women”. 

Furthermore, human rights monitors and humanitarians should be allowed free, unhindered access throughout the country, including to sensitive locations such as detention facilities.

They also called for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, bar associations, and other relevant unions, to immediately be reinstated and allowed to operate freely and independently. 

International appeal

The experts also outlined steps the international community should take. 

They include insuring civilians have equitable access to humanitarian aid, and supporting ongoing initiatives by Afghan women towards a strategy to promote the rights of women and girls, with clear benchmarks and expectations. 

Countries are also urged to maintain and/or adopt sustained and robust humanitarian exemptions within sanctions regimes to ensure compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law.  

“Such measures should be fit for purpose, ensure that sanctions measures do not interfere with protected humanitarian action under international law, and function to remediate the current humanitarian crises and to prevent sanctions from continuing to exacerbate the humanitarian human rights crises being faced by the Afghan people,” they said. 

Role of UN experts 

The 20 experts who issued the statement were all appointed by the UN Human Rights Council

They include Richard Bennett, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, and other Special Rapporteurs who monitor and report on issues such as the situation of human rights defenders worldwide. 

These independent experts receive their mandates from the Council and operate in their individual capacity. They are neither UN staff, nor are they paid for their work. 

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From the Field: Young Fijians work with older generation for a sustainable future

INTERNATIONAL, 12 August 2022, Climate and Environment - On the island nation of Fiji, young people are working in solidarity with their elders, benefiting from their knowledge and experience to protect the fragile ecosystem.
"Projects Abroad" youth volunteers conserving Fiji's beaches., by UNDP

One such project involves young people conserving and protecting Fiji’s coral reef and the marine environment around the island.

The programme, backed by the UN, seeks to marry the enthusiasm and drive of young people, with the wisdom and experience of older generations.

Youth are learning age-old sustainable fishing techniques, as well as knowledge about living in harmony with the sea and nature, from their elders.

Find out more here

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140 aid workers killed in 2021 as UN humanitarian funding gap looms larger than ever – OCHA

INTERNATIONAL, 12 August 2022, Humanitarian Aid - The United Nations humanitarian agency (OCHA) warned on Friday that at nearly $34 billion, the funding shortfall for aid operations is the biggest it’s ever been.

The news comes at a time when global needs are at an all-time high, with a record 303 million people in crisis worldwide.

“UN appeals aim to reach 204 million of the most vulnerable. Never before have humanitarians been called to respond to this level of need and they are doing so in ever more dangerous environments,” said OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke.

‘Largest gap’ in funding needs

The cost of UN-coordinated relief projects this year are close to $50 billion dollars.

Although financing pledges have reached their highest level ever– totaling more than $15 billion – needs are outpacing funds.

“This is the largest gap we've ever had. However, it is also the largest amount of donor funding that has ever been committed,” Mr. Laerke pointed out.

“So, the problem is the following: that the needs in the world are rising much, much faster than the donor funding is coming in”.

140 aid workers killed in 2021

According to data from the non-governmental organization Humanitarian Outcomes, with which the UN partners annually to highlight these statistics, more than 140 aid workers were killed in the line of duty last year – the highest number of fatalities since 2013.

All but two of the aid workers who died were national staff, “highlighting the perils that national aid workers often face,” said Mr. Laerke, who added that another 203 aid workers were injured and 117 kidnapped last year.

The OCHA spokesperson explained that “the most violent countries for aid workers continue to be South Sudan, followed by Afghanistan and Syria.” According to Humanitarian Outcomes, 168 aid workers have been attacked so far this year, leading to 44 fatalities. “Most of the over 140 fatalities in 2021 were killed by small weapons and shooting incidents, with the second highest cause of death being airstrikes and shelling, most of them in Syria,” said Mr. Laerke.

World Humanitarian Day

Meanwhile, to mark World Humanitarian Day, commemorated annually on 19 August, Martin Griffiths, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs issued a statement paying tribute to “all humanitarian workers who often work in dangerous conditions to help others in need” while commemorating “those who have lost their lives in the line of duty”.

In the lead-up to the day, OCHA has launched a week-long campaign to honour humanitarian workers under the theme “It takes a village,” which spotlights how aid workers come together in a collective effort to alleviate extreme need.

“Just like the saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ it takes a ‘village’ of humanitarians working with affected communities to bring help and hope to people caught up in crises,” said the OCHA chief.

“This year’s World Humanitarian Day builds on this metaphor of collective endeavour and asks people everywhere to show appreciation for humanitarian work, whoever carries it out”.

The public are invited to follow the #ItTakesAVillage hashtag on social media, to share, like and comment on the posting, to show solidarity with people who need aid and appreciation for those who work to deliver it.

About World Humanitarian Day

The UN General Assembly designated the annual event in 2008 to commemorate the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, which killed 22 aid workers.

The day has evolved to highlight different aspects of humanitarian action and mobilize people globally to advocate for the broader humanitarian cause.

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Lebanese youth learn to stand up to hate speech

INTERNATIONAL, 12 August 2022, Human Rights - Hate speech can have a devastating effect on mental wellbeing and self-confidence. The UN office in Lebanon is helping young people to rise above these attacks, and reject negativity from others.

21-year-old Dima El-Awar stands in front of the camera with confidence and ease. In addition to being a good speaker, a skill that every journalist attempts to master, Dima is keen on promoting positive speech and accurate information. Coming from Falougha, a small village in Mount Lebanon, Ms. El-Awar was hesitant to pursue her dream career in journalism because she thought she was not good enough for the job. 

“As a young girl, I always received hateful comments about my personality and clothing style. Some people told me I was too loud; others said that I did not match the beauty standards of TV personalities and public figures because I did not dress up like other girls. I used to feel bitter for receiving such comments in the past, but today I smile and respond with positivity ,in an attempt to change other people’s attitudes,” Ms. El-Awar says.

Before reconciling with these negative comments, she studied Chinese translation instead of journalism. With time, she recognized that she should not have given up on her dream because of other people’s opinions, so she transferred to studying journalism. “I didn’t want to regret not pursuing my passion when I’m old, so I decided to get over other people’s opinions and to listen to my inner voice,” Ms. El-Awar says with a smile.

Countering misinformation through positive speech

In a training session to help youth combat hate speech and misinformation under the “Youth Countering Hate Speech and Misinformation” project, organized by UN Lebanon, through the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Ms. El-Awar listened to other people’s experiences with hate speech and realized that everyone is susceptible to hate. 

During the session, Ms. El-Awar learned about the various forms of hate speech, its impact on people, and ways to became more resilient and skillful in dealing with it. “When I understood that hate speech expresses the other person’s problems rather than mine, I started accepting myself. I also started accepting others for who they are and seeing the beauty in everyone,” she says. 

The training helped her realize that she had taken the right decision by transferring to journalism because “journalism can counter hate speech and misinformation through positive speech and accuracy”. It also helped raising her awareness on the importance of combating hate speech and putting an end to “bullying, destructive criticism, and marginalization of anyone based on their identity.” 

Journalism student Dima El-Awar (2r) at a UN training session on countering hate speech.
May Chidiac Foundation- Media Institute
Journalism student Dima El-Awar (2r) at a UN training session on countering hate speech.

The powerful voice of youth

UN Lebanon trained 15 youth from different regions and universities in Lebanon on media and information literacy, access to information, combatting hate speech, and countering misinformation. Under this project, the young participants produced 12 social media episodes about hate speech and misinformation after they were trained on the technical strategies for producing social media segments.

Ms. El-Awar has always been keen on positively impacting her community and this has been manifested in her volunteering with the Lebanese Red Cross in Falougha as a paramedic and emergency medical services volunteer for the past seven years. “Volunteering allows me to be close to people. Through volunteering, I can show solidarity to people of all ages, gender, and socioeconomic classes,” she says with pride.

As a believer in the importance of giving back to the community, Ms. El-Awar is eager to counter hate speech from her role as a young person and a future journalist. “Young people can play a major role in countering hate speech because they are the future generation. They also have the power to change perspectives, are resilient, and accept diversity,” she says. After she overcame the influence of hate speech, Ms. El-Awar is today more confident to stand in front of the camera, and to highlight the beauty of Lebanon.

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After the storm: what an environmental tragedy can teach us about climate resilience and ecosystem restoration

INTERNATIONAL, 12 August 2022, Climate and Environment - A tiny Caribbean Island known as 'the flower of the ocean' was decimated by Hurricane Iota in 2020. Although the loss of human life was minimal, the impact on precious ecosystems deeply changed the perspective of its inhabitants. Two years later, they’re still working to restore their environmental treasures and preparing for whatever curveballs climate change might throw at them next.

The mountainous Colombian island of Providencia – which lies midway in the extension of the Caribbean Sea that separates Costa Rica and Jamaica – is home to stunning colours of the sea, lush underwater landscapes, extensive mangrove forests, and even tropical dry forests.

The diversity of marine ecosystems and surrounding natural wonders, including the yearly spectacle of thousands of rare black crabs descending from the mountains and heading to the sea to lay their eggs, and one of the world’s largest barrier reefs, which supports a stunning array of marine life, has led to its declaration as part of the Seaflower UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

However, as with all islands in the world, Providencia’s unique natural treasures are highly threatened by climate change and sea level rise, threats that are not ‘theories’ looming on the horizon, but that are instead terrible facts already impacting every facet of life there.

Its 6,000 inhabitants will never forget the night of November 16th, when Iota, the last and strongest hurricane of the 2020 Atlantic storm season— deemed then a Category 5* — decimated their beloved land.

“The most shocking thing was the sound. Our people say that the hurricane came with the devil because the sound was so strange and scary,” recalls Marcela Cano, a biologist and long-time resident who has made it her life’s work to preserve Providencia’s environmental treasures.

But that night, she would spend hours fighting to survive the storm.

She was at her home sleeping when at around midnight, she started hearing strange noises. This turned out to be wind gusts of over 155 miles an hour tearing across the island.

Power and communication were shortly lost.

“I stood up and noticed that my ceiling lights looked as if they were higher than usual. That’s when I realized that part of my roof had flown away,” Ms. Cano recalls now, adding that minutes later she heard two loud bangs from her guestroom and saw water pouring down the walls.

Her immediate reaction was to get out of the house, a decision that looking back now was definitely the best one, she says, because not only the roof but most of the walls of her house collapsed in the darkness under the force of the pounding rains and the wind.

“It was raining very hard; I almost couldn’t make it out of my house because the wind wouldn’t let me open the door. I made it just where I had parked my Mula [her motorized golf cart]. I was completely soaked, and I just sat there.”

She spent over 10 hours sitting in her golf cart hoping that the wall next to it and a big pine tree would hold up.

“Every time I would hear loud bangs, I would point my flashlight towards the tree. If it had broken, that would’ve been it for me.”

It was the longest night Providencia had ever experienced. And even after sunrise, the hurricane let barely any light come through.

“Very strong wind gusts would come and go for hours and hours, and all I could think was ‘please God make it stop, it’s been too long, please stop’.  It felt like the longest time of my life. At about 11 am it finally got a bit better, but it was still raining pretty hard.”

It was then that she saw her neighbours up the road calling her. She gathered the courage to walk up the debris-strewn little hill towards them and realised their house had also been lost.

But for Marcela, the loss was about to become even bigger and more painful.

Marcela Cano’s house after the hurricane.
Personal archive
Marcela Cano’s house after the hurricane.

A life protecting nature

Ms. Cano is the Director of Old Providence McBean Lagoon Natural National Park, a unique and highly important protected site on the island and the Seaflower UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.  She has worked for over 30 years to protect it, and with her team, has been a pioneer in ecosystem restoration and ecotourism.

“I looked around and all the vegetation on the island was gone, everything was black, and all the trees no longer had leaves. It was as if everything had been burnt, and the sea was up high. I could see Santa Catalina Island from there; I couldn’t see it before. And I could see how destroyed it was,” she remembers, telling UN News that every time she tells this story she can barely hold back the tears.

That night, she took refuge with 10 families under a concrete ledge that hadn’t given an inch to the winds and the rain. It was actually the second floor of a house under construction.

“We made a common makeshift bed. It was also the middle of a COVID-19 peak in Colombia, but no one could care about that at that moment,” Ms. Cano says.

It was still raining, and the island had been without communication for over eight hours. The whole mainland of Colombia wondered for almost a day if Providencia had survived hurricane Iota or not.

In the following days, as help arrived, other locals described how people were walking around like “zombies” searching for food and shelter. Miraculously, only four people lost their lives that night, but over 98 per cent of the island’s infrastructure was destroyed and 6,000 people were left homeless.

“I went walking to ask about my team at the National Park. We were all fine, but we lost everything we had worked for. Our office, our library, the research data stored in our computers, everything was lost.”

Satellite images show how mangroves and vegetation at Manchineel Bay in Providencia were affected after hurricane Iota.
Invemar
Satellite images show how mangroves and vegetation at Manchineel Bay in Providencia were affected after hurricane Iota.

An environmental tragedy

Sometime later, Ms. Cano was able to return to Providencia after spending time with her family in Bogotá and working to gather household items and basic necessities for some families affected by the storm.

It was then that she was able to evaluate the environmental damage inside the National Park.

“I’ve spent most of my life here in Providencia and to see that all our efforts to maintain the National Park had vanished from one day to the next, was heartbreaking.”

According to Colombia’s National Natural Parks, around 90 per cent of the Park’s mangroves and forests were affected, as well as the coral reefs in shallow waters, many of which had been in nurseries as part of an ongoing restoration effort.  

“We are working to restore vegetation and saline formations. We also carried out rescue and replanting of coral colonies that were uprooted by the hurricane,” Ms. Cano explains while standing in what’s left of the pier of Crab-Cay, once the most visited attraction in Providencia.

Marcela Cano stands over the remnants of the pier that once stood over Crab Cay, McBean Lagoon National Park.
UN News/Laura Quiñones
Marcela Cano stands over the remnants of the pier that once stood over Crab Cay, McBean Lagoon National Park.

The small island rises sharply and dramatically off the coast surrounded by turquoise waters. Tourists used to climb to the top for 360-degree views of the park. Now a new viewing deck and pier are being built, and some vegetation planted last year, has begun to sprout.

Was this here before the hurricane?” she asks her team, pointing to some algae-covered metal debris.

(Left) Crab Cay in June 2022 (right) Crab Cay right after Hurricane Iota.
UN News/Laura Quinones/PNN Colom
(Left) Crab Cay in June 2022 (right) Crab Cay right after Hurricane Iota.

Coral reefs

Thanks to its field work and reef restoration experience over the past decade, McBean Lagoon National Park is currently the largest contributor to the nationwide project One Million Corals for Colombia to restore over 200 hectares of coral reef, with over 55,000 coral fragments in nurseries and over 6,000 transplanted.

UN News visited some of the transplanted colonies and witnessed the miracle of coral fragments fusing together and attracting young fish, bringing life back to the sea currently threatened by warming seas and extreme weather events.

“The water is getting warmer, so algae colonies are getting bigger and fighting coral reef for its resources,” explains young Marine Biologist Violeta Posada, a member of Ms. Cano’s team at the Park.

Marine Biologist Violeta Posada cleans a transplanted coral colony.
UN News/Laura Quiñones
Marine Biologist Violeta Posada cleans a transplanted coral colony.

She underscored that ecosystem restoration work is a daily effort, as the team must constantly clean the colonies of the algae and other dangers that might hinder their growth.

Ms. Posada, born and raised in Providencia, has been able to witness the pay-off of the restoration efforts.

“My dad also worked at this park. These new colonies that you see here were built with fragments that my own father planted in nurseries 12 years ago,” she says, adding that as an islander, caring for the ecosystems is a responsibility.

“They give us food, shelter and protection. They also attract tourists, which this island depends on,” she emphasizes.

Dead mangrove at the shores of Santa Catalina Island.
UN News/Laura Quiñones
Dead mangrove at the shores of Santa Catalina Island.

The mangrove that saved lives

But while corals are starting to thrive again and the dry forest has also seen recovery, the almost 60 hectares of mangroves that are impossible to miss while visiting Providencia represent a bigger trial for the community.

“We have a big challenge specifically with the Red Mangrove, the one that grows by the coast. Over 95 per cent of this species died during the hurricane, and it does not regenerate naturally,” describes Marcela Cano.

According to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), mangroves support rich biodiversity and provide a habitat for fish and shellfish, as well as a landing strip and nesting area for large numbers of birds. Their roots are also a refuge for reptiles and amphibians.

Their ecosystem can capture up to five times more carbon than tropical forests and their soils are highly effective carbon sinks, making them important ‘lungs’ for our heating planet.

Mangroves also act as a natural coastal defence against storm surges, tsunamis, sea level rise and erosion – something the inhabitants of Santa Catalina, a small island connected to the north of Providencia by a bridge, witnessed first-hand.

“The mangroves along the coast of Santa Catalina Island saved the lives of this community during Iota. Without mangroves and their ecosystem services, there is going to be a decrease in fish and biodiversity [affecting livelihoods], and if we don’t restore it, it also won’t be around to protect us again,” Ms. Cano underlines.

Marcela Cano at the mangrove nursery of McBean Lagoon National Natural Park.
UN News/Laura Quiñones
Marcela Cano at the mangrove nursery of McBean Lagoon National Natural Park.

In the same golf cart that saved her life during the hurricane, Marcela Cano drove the UN News team to the Park’s Mangrove Nursery, where over 4,000 seedlings are growing.

“We have red and black mangroves here. We go and find all the seeds we can and put them in water buckets. When they grow roots, we then put them in sandbags. After four to five months, we can transplant them to their natural habitat,” she explains.

The restoration does not come without challenges. Along with the general scarcity of red mangrove seeds, Ms. Cano says that two species of crabs like to eat the young plants, and some iguanas chew their leaves.

“So, we have had to come up with creative ideas to protect them,” she says, mentioning water bottles, and baskets as some of the makeshift solutions.

 The National Park restoration strategy also involves the community, and the Park is teaching young children who live near the mangroves how to grow and care for these ecosystems.

“It is going to take us about 10 years to be able to have the mangroves with the structure and function they had before the hurricane. These are long-term restoration processes, it is important for governments to understand this,” the expert urges.

98 per cent of the infrastructure of the island of Providencia was damaged after hurricane Iota, including impacts on infrastructure, loss of property, belongings and road blockages.
UN News/Laura Quiñones
98 per cent of the infrastructure of the island of Providencia was damaged after hurricane Iota, including impacts on infrastructure, loss of property, belongings and road blockages.

Tourism and local businesses

The local population of the island comprises Raizals, descendants of African Slaves and British Sailors, who speak English Creole, although most speak Spanish as well. There is also a smaller population of “migrants” from the mainland, who call Providencia their home.

The local economy revolves around tourism and traditional fishing and hunting. Due to COVID-19 restrictions and the devastation wrought by the hurricane, the tourism sector has been sluggish for the past two years.

It wasn’t until mid-2022 that the island opened back to the public but, to this date, it still doesn’t have the capacity to receive the average of 3,000 visitors monthly that flocked there in 2019.

A few of the still-standing hotels and businesses have been able to continue functioning thanks to the arrival of Government officials, contractors and volunteers who have been participating in reconstruction efforts.

Juanita Angel, hotel owner in Providencia, is working to restore her family property to its former glory.
UN News/Laura Quiñones
Juanita Angel, hotel owner in Providencia, is working to restore her family property to its former glory.

Juanita Angel, co-owner of the hotel Cabañas de Agua Dulce, saw her family business destroyed by the hurricane.

“At first, I thought, ‘no one is going to put this back together’. We were closed for a year [due to] the pandemic and had put in loan to repair the roofs. Every time I saw a roof tile flying during the hurricane all I could think was ‘there goes our money, and our hope.’”

Ms. Angel says that no one on the island expected Iota to cause such devastation because they had all made it through other hurricanes.

“That is why no one took this seriously, we never thought something like this could happen to us… We are such a small island, a dot in the map, but we need to be prepared for the future,” she adds.

According to experts on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there are many ways in which climate adaptation can be undertaken in small islands, including reducing socioeconomic vulnerabilities, building adaptive capacity, enhancing disaster risk reduction, and building longer-term climate resilience.

Recently, the UN Secretary-General described the Caribbean region as “ground zero for climate emergency,” and called on developed countries to match climate action to the scale and urgency of the crisis.

This would mean providing financial support to small islands so that they can build stronger adaptation capacity, and ultimately, reduce carbon emissions, one of the main culprits heating our planet and driving the climate changes that are making hurricanes more powerful and more frequent.

By June 2022, some structures remained in ruins in Providencia such as this former hotel.
UN News/Laura Quiñones
By June 2022, some structures remained in ruins in Providencia such as this former hotel.

Why go through all this?

One way to build resilience and adaptation is by investing in ecosystem restoration, Marcela Cano underscores.

“A healthy ecosystem is more resilient. We must guarantee this so that when disaster comes the ecosystems can keep offering the environmental goods and services that contribute to a better quality of life for our population,” she explains.

Ms. Cano reminds us as well that one of the most effective strategies to tackle climate change is the declaration of Marine Protected Areas.

These areas provide reduced stress on ecosystems and species, allowing them to carry on the natural processes that mitigate climate impacts, such as carbon storage.

For example, according to UNEP, protecting whales is a nature-based solution against climate change. Whales accumulate carbon in their bodies during their long lives, some of which stretch to 200 years. When they die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking the carbon with them.

“We need more of these protected areas, and we also need more resources to manage them well, always involving and giving value to the knowledge of the local community,” she underscores.

The McBean Lagoon National Park chief underlines that restoring and protecting the ecosystems in Providencia is not only a self-serving task, but it benefits the whole planet.

“We thought that climate change was something that was happening in other places, but this hurricane created a common conscience, and we are working on mechanisms to be more prepared for the future because we know that the risk of extreme weather events is only going to grow.”

Marcela Cano stands on the re-built deck of her house in Providencia.
UN News/Laura Quiñones
Marcela Cano stands on the re-built deck of her house in Providencia.

Standing on the deck of her recently rebuilt house as part of a Government programme that has built back most of the homes in the community, Ms. Cano recalled that before the hurricane, she could not so easily see the ocean.

“All the tall trees were swept away, and now I get this beautiful view, but I am replanting those [trees] too. Just imagine how much we lost.”

She wants to make sure that the world knows that rebuilding houses is just a start.

“We also need to prepare our people for stronger events, and we have to include climate change in the development policy of our island so that we can prepare and adapt for what’s coming.”

McBean Lagoon National Park was awarded a Blue Park Award for its exceptional marine wildlife conservation during the recent UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Portugal.

“Before the hurricane, I was about to retire, but now I can’t. I can’t just leave my post without making sure this Park is strong and ready for future generations,” the biologist highlights, admitting that she once thought she would never spend another November in Providencia, and with the 2022 peak hurricane season looming, the frightening memories of Iota are slipping back.

Ecosystems support all life on Earth. The healthier our ecosystems are, the healthier the planet – and its people. The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration aims to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean. It can help to end poverty, combat climate change and prevent mass extinction. It will only succeed if everyone plays a part.

*Hurricane Iota was initially deemed Category 5 in 2020 as instruments picked up wind speeds of over 160mph. In 2021, Iota was downgraded to Category 4 by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration after a post-storm analysis that determined that its maximum wind speed was 155 mph.

This is Part II in a series of features on ocean restoration efforts in Colombia. Coming up next, we travel to the island of San Andres in the Seaflower UNESCO Biosphere Reserve to explore how women and the community are leading the protection of marine ecosystems. 

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‘Very alarming’ conditions at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, IAEA chief warns

INTERNATIONAL, 11 August 2022, Peace and Security - The situation at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has deteriorated rapidly to the point of becoming “very alarming,” Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Mariano Grossi warned the Security Council on Thursday afternoon.

“These military actions near such a large nuclear facility could lead to very serious consequences,” Mr. Grossi said at the meeting requested by Russia, which was marked by resounding calls to allow the Agency’s technical experts to visit the area amid mounting safety concerns.

IAEA has been in frequent contact with both Ukraine and Russia to ensure that it has the clearest picture possible of the evolving circumstances.

Europe’s largest nuclear plant shelled

Providing an overview, the IAEA chief said that on 5 August, the Zaporizhzhia plant – Europe’s largest – was subjected to shelling, which caused several explosions near the electrical switchboard and a power shutdown. 

One reactor unit was disconnected from the electrical grid, triggering its emergency protection system and setting generators into operation to ensure power supply. 

The senior UN official said that there was also shelling at a nitrogen oxygen station.  While firefighters had extinguished the blaze, repairs must still be examined and evaluated.

No immediate threat

He said that the preliminary assessment of IAEA experts indicate that there is no immediate threat to nuclear safety as a result of the shelling or other military actions. 

However, “this could change at any moment,” Mr. Grossi cautioned.

Overarching goal

He recalled his recent address to the ongoing Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, where he outlined seven indispensable pillars that are critical for nuclear safety and security.

These included aspects dealing with the physical integrity of the plant, off-site power supply, cooling systems, and emergency preparedness measures. 

“All these pillars have been compromised if not entirely violated at one point or another during this crisis,” flagged the IAEA chief. 

“Any nuclear catastrophe would be unacceptable and thus preventing it should be our overarching goal”.

He asked both sides to cooperate with the UN atomic agency. 

“This is a serious hour, a grave hour, and the IAEA must be allowed to conduct its mission in Zaporizhzhia as soon as possible”.

Trading Blame

Presenting his case, the Russian delegate said Ukrainian forces used heavy artillery against Zaporizhzhia on 5 August, shelling the plant during a shift change to intimidate staff – their own citizens. 

He upheld that on 6 August, those forces attacked with cluster munitions, and on 7 August, a power surge occurred, blaming. 

The Russian Ambassador blamed Kyiv for refusing to sign a trilateral document issued by IAEA, stressing that Moscow strictly complies with the IAEA Director General’s seven principles. 

In turn, Ukraine’s representative said that the withdrawal of Russian troops and return of the station to the legitimate control of Ukraine is the only way to remove the nuclear threat at Zaporizhzhia. 

The Ukrainian Ambassador insisted on the need to send a mission to the site and has negotiated modalities with the Agency. 

“Despite their public declarations, the occupiers have resorted to manipulations and unjustified conditions for the site visit,” he said. 

Given the militarization of the site by Russian armed forces, such a mission must include qualified experts in military aspects.

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