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Thousands of Syrians in ‘life and death’ struggle amid harsh conditions in remote desert camp, UN warns

INTERNATIONAL, 15 January 2019, Humanitarian Aid - Conditions in a makeshift Syrian camp near the border with Jordan are “increasingly desperate” and “have become a matter of life and death”, United Nations officials warned on Tuesday, after at least eight children died there from extreme cold and a lack of medical care.

The development comes as the newly appointed UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pederson, arrived in Damascus, for his first meeting with the Government, since taking over from veteran UN negotiator Staffan de Mistura.

In a message on Twitter, the Norwegian diplomat said he was “looking forward to productive meetings” in the Syrian capital, which has been hit by seven years of fighting that has left hundreds of thousands dead.

Speaking to journalists in Geneva, World Food Programme (WFP) spokesperson Hervé Verhoosel echoed a warning from UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) that children only months old are succumbing to the harsh winter conditions in the Rukban settlement at the south-western border of Syria with Jordan, which last received aid in November.

“The United Nations remains seriously concerned about the increasingly desperate conditions for more than 40,000 people staying at the Rukban site” he said. “The majority are women and children, who have been staying at the site for more than two years in harsh conditions with limited humanitarian assistance, access to medical care and other essential services.”

Amid security concerns, Jordan closed its border with Syria at Rukban as tens of thousands of Syrians arrived at the camp, fleeing expanded Russian and United States-led coalition air strikes against areas held by Islamic State of Iraq and the levant (ISIL) terrorists in central and eastern Syria.

Following the delivery of joint UN-Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid to Rukban in November, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock told the Security Council that “colleagues returned shocked from what they saw on the ground, reporting grave protection issues, increasing food insecurity and no certified medical doctors among the stranded population”.

Mr. Lowcock warned then that “without sustained access, the situation of tens of thousands of Syrians – stranded in the harshest desert conditions – will only further deteriorate as the winter cold sets in”.

Echoing that message today, Mr. Verhoosel reiterated the call by WFP and the UN “for a second inter-agency convoy with critical assistance to take place as soon as possible”, urging “all parties to ensure safe, sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access to people in need, in line with their obligations under international humanitarian law”.

The plight of those stranded in Rukban dates is not new, but the harsh winter and lack of regular supplies have made the situation much worse, according to UNICEF’s Geert Cappelaere, Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“Needs for assistance in Rukban are beyond urgent,” he said in a statement. “They are extremely acute and have become a matter of life and death.”

Mr. Cappelaere stressed: “Once again, UNICEF calls on all sides to urgently facilitate a humanitarian convoy to Rukban, including mobile health clinics, so that lifesaving supplies and services can be delivered.”

In eastern Syria, meanwhile, heavy violence in the Hajin area of Deir-Ez-Zor Governorate has displaced 10,000 people since December, the UNICEF official warned.

“Families seeking safety face difficulties leaving the conflict zone and wait in the cold for days without shelter or basic supplies,” he said. “The dangerous and difficult journey has reportedly killed seven children, most of them under a year old.”

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First aid in six months reaches families in western Yemen, 'timelines' slip over Hudaydah ceasefire talks

INTERNATIONAL, 15 January 2019, Humanitarian Aid - Thousands of families in conflict-affected communities south of the Red Sea port city of Hudaydah in Yemen have received aid for the first time since last July, the World Food Programme (WFP) said on Tuesday.

Spokesperson Hervé Verhoosel confirmed that Tuhayat and Darayhimi had been reached thanks to a partial ceasefire deal agreed at UN-led talks between Government forces and Houthi opposition militia in the west of the country:

“For the first time since the increase in fighting in Hudaydah in June 2018 WFP managed to assist hard-to-reach areas of Tuhayat and Darahimi,” he said. “This can be thanks to an inconsistent de-escalation over recent days following the December peace talks in Stockholm, Sweden.”

Aid was distributed from Hudaydah – a Houthi stronghold – and Aden, which is controlled by the internationally recognized Government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

“So far WFP has dispatched more than 3,334 metric tonnes of food assistance to these areas, and that is simultaneously from both Aden and Hudaydah,” the WFP spokesperson explained, adding that “8,125 households in Al Tuhayat have received enough assistance for two months and 2,662 families in Al Darayhimi, south of Hudaydah, have received food rations. Those are the first humanitarian shipments delivered since July 2018 when a WFP contracted truck was hit in the area.”

Last month, WFP scaled up the delivery of food and food vouchers to around nine million people in Yemen, up from seven to eight million in November. 

The aim in coming weeks is to reach 12 million people to help avert famine in the country, which was already one of the poorest countries in the world before conflict escalated in March 2015.

“We will adapt on a daily basis to the security situation on the ground,” Mr Verhoosel said. “We encourage of course all parties to keep negotiating under the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy. The situation is better already, I mean, we are not exactly at the target, but we are not far away from the target.”

UN monitoring team in Hudaydah continues work, but ‘timelines have slipped’

The UN monitoring team which is overseeing the implementation of the Stockholm peace agreement signed by Government and Houthi opposition leaders last month, is continuing it work, but the warring parties have refused to hold face-to-face meetings in recent days.

UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said on Monday that the retired Dutch General, Patrick Cammaert, who is chairing the Redeployment Coordination Committee, has held two joint meetings involving both sides, but “in the last week, due to the inability of the parties to have a joint meeting” he had meet them separately twice, “seeking to find a mutually acceptable way forward for the redeployment of forces from the three ports and critical parts of the city associated with humanitarian facilities, as provided for in phase one in the Stockholm Agreement.”

“While projected timelines have slipped, recent discussions have been constructive”, added Mr Dujarric, briefing reporters at UN Headquarters. 

“The chair continues to encourage the parties to resume the joint meetings in order to finalize a mutually agreed redeployment plan. Currently, plans are being discussed on how to facilitate humanitarian operations.”

Hudaydah carries more than 70 per cent of all humanitarian aid and commercial goods into the war-ravaged nation, and future talks towards a listing peace settlement for Yemen, rely on a ceasefire holding, in line with the agreement made in Sweden.

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UN refugee agency ‘deeply shocked’ at stabbing death of ‘deeply courageous’ Polish mayor

INTERNATIONAL, 14 January 2019, Migrants and Refugees - The Mayor of the historic port city of Gdansk in Poland, has died in hospital after being stabbed at a televised charity event on Sunday, prompting the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, to issue a statement on Monday praising him as “a deeply courageous, moral leader, who showed the way in helping refugees and migrants to integrate”.

Pawel Adamowicz, had been mayor since 1998, and according to Montserrat Feixas Vihe, UNHCR Regional Representative for Central Europe, “he received hate mail for his pro-refugee stance, but did not weaken in his belief that integration - which brings with it new talents, new skills, new colours, new languages, and a new mentality - was a winning proposition for everyone in his city.”

According to news reports, the alleged assailant, is a 27-year-old Gdansk native, with a track record of violence, who was released from prison only last month. 

The UN Refugee Agency, is deeply shocked and saddened to hear that the Mayor of Gdansk, Pawel Adamowicz, has died - UNHCR statement

After attacking Mr. Adamowicz on stage, in front of hundreds of onlookers, he told the crowd that he held a grudge against the mayor’s former political party, after he was imprisoned in 2014 for violent offences. There is no evidence so far, that his attack on the mayor was politically motivated.

There has been an outpouring of grief across Poland following the assassination, with President Andrzej Duda, reportedly describing it as an “evil hard to imagine”. He has declared the day of the mayor’s funeral, a day of national mourning.

The UNHCR statement said that agency staff were “deeply shocked and saddened” at the news of the Mayor’s death.

Mayor Adamowicz launched the Gdansk “Immigrant Integration Model” after meeting Pope Francis in 2016, a model that has inspired other Polish cities, said UNHCR, adding that “our thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues.”

In February last year, UNHCR published this story about Mr. Adamowicz’s efforts to show “a new kind of solidarity” with migrants and refugees, building on the city’s famous legacy as a birthplace of the struggle to throw off Communist dictatorship.

“For me, it is all about the moral arguments,” he told the agency, adding that the integration model, which was subsequently taken up by other cities in Poland, needed to be established.

“Most important are our Christian values, the humanitarian obligation to help people. I felt it was up to us to take a lead,” he said.

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FROM THE FIELD: Liberia boosts efforts to guard against rising seas

INTERNATINOAL, 14 January 2019, SDGs - With rising sea levels due to climate change already affecting coastal communities in Liberia, there are fears that densely populated parts of the capital Monrovia could be submerged, unless action is taken.

It’s projected that a one-metre sea level rise could permanently inundate 95 square kilometres of land in Liberia’s coastal zone, which is already under threat of heavy seasonal rains and continuing erosion.

What’s more, eroding infrastructure is causing massive repercussions for housing, education and livelihoods, with fishing chief among them.

But the UN Development Programme (UNDP) has taken “28,000 steps in the right direction” during the second phase of its Coastal Defense Project to reduce vulnerabilities and build resilience. Here’sthe full story.

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Ahead of street protests, UN rights chief urges Guatemalan Government to respect democratic freedoms

INTERNATIONAL, 14 January 2019, Human Rights - With demonstrations expected to take place in various Guatemalan cities on Monday and Tuesday, the UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, is urging the Guatemalan Government to guarantee freedom of expression and opinion, and the right to peaceful assembly and association.

"Freedom of expression, without fear of reprisals and intimidation, is the backbone of democracy," Ms. Bachelet said. "A culture of human rights and peace is strengthened when diverse social groups can express themselves in the public space and freely exercise their rights."

The demonstrations have been organized by various civil society groups to highlight several issues, including the Government's unilateral decision on 7 January to terminate the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN anti-corruption body set up 11 years ago in conjunction with the Guatemalan Government. CICIG’s mandate was initially due to run through 3 September this year.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also expressed great concern about the ongoing erosion of various State institutions, including recent attacks on the independence of the Constitutional Court.

Freedom of expression, without fear of reprisals and intimidation, is the backbone of democracy - UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet

"I would also like to stress that it is essential to guarantee the rule of law, judicial independence and impartiality and respect for democratic institutions, particularly the Constitutional Court, the judiciary, the National Human Rights Institution, the Public Prosecutor's Office and the Electoral Tribunal," Ms. Bachelet said.

Noting the crucial role played by these institutions in respecting and guaranteeing human rights, the rule of law and democracy, she explained that “the proper exercise of their functions is fundamental in the current context and for the general elections to be held in the coming months”.

She added that “respect for their safety and their physical integrity, as well as that of their families, must be guaranteed by the State of Guatemala in compliance with its international human rights obligations." 

Ms. Bachelet said she and her Guatemala office stand ready to continue to support the State authorities in fulfilling their international human rights obligations and commitments.

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World ‘not yet on track’ to ensure children a better future: UN rights chief

INTERNATIONAL, 14 January 2019, Human Rights - Some Member States have fallen short of offering a better future to children who continue to die prematurely or fall victim to poverty, trafficking and slavery, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Monday.

In her opening address to the 80th Session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, in Geneva – which reviews the records of Member States according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child - the High Commissioner noted that 2019 marked the pact’s 30th anniversary, and that it was “by far the most widely ratified human rights treaty”.

Despite this almost universal recognition, and the fact that it had “driven significant progress in many countries” with laws passed to protect youngsters in “virtually every State party”, Ms Bachelet insisted that “not all States Parties ensure, to the maximum extent, the survival and development of all children everywhere”.

And in an appeal to listen to youngsters’ “ideas, innovations and solutions”, she insisted: “In almost every context, children are still viewed as passive recipients of care, their voices dismissed or ignored.”

This week, the UN panel of 18 independent experts is set to review the reports of Bahrain, Belgium, Guinea, Italy, Japan and Syria, in exchanges with representatives from the countries involved.

Tragically, there is still much to be done before we realise the four core principles of the Convention: non-discrimination, the child's best interests; right to life, survival and development and right to be heard - Michelle Bachelet, UN Rights Chief

Turning to another powerful human rights platform – the 2030 Agenda, with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which world leaders adopted in September 2015 - “we are not yet on track” to deliver on its promises, the High Commissioner insisted.

“Based on current trends, more than 60 countries will miss the SDG neo-natal mortality target,” Ms. Bachelet said, citing a UN Children’s Fund(UNICEF) estimate that 60 million children under five, will die between 2017 and 2030 from preventable causes.

On trafficking and slavery, the High Commissioner explained that children were “particularly vulnerable” to its worst manifestations: forced labour – involving some 5.5 million youngsters - domestic slavery, sexual slavery and forced marriage.

Testimonies collected by the staff and other UN bodies “clearly indicate that child migrants and internally displaced children, in every region, are at heightened risk”, she said, “and as you know, these populations are growing sharply”.

Quoting from a recent study by a UN Special Rapporteur – or independent rights expert - Ms Bachelet noted that the share of children trafficked for the purpose of forced labour “is increasing, and the share of children involved in forced labour is particularly high”.

The High Commissioner also cited data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), indicating that one in three detected victims of trafficking was a child.

Victims included almost double the number of girls than boys, she continued, while the trafficking of children for sexual exploitation “greatly facilitated by digital technologies, which create new marketplaces and streamline the organisation of trafficking networks”.
And on the “millions of girls” who become mothers while they are still children, Ms Bachelet underlined that the practice damaged their health and entrenched a destructive cycle of poverty.

© UNICEF/Shafiqui Alam Kiron
13 years old Sonamoni feeds her 11 months old daughter in Ashkarpur, Satkhira, Bangladesh. Sonamoni was married at the age of 8 years and 6 months to her husband who is now 29 years old. (file)

Armed conflict had also “traumatized and harmed millions more, she continued, adding that in 2016, UN monitors had verified more than 20,000 boys and girls who had been forcibly recruited by armed groups “as fighters or, in effect, as slaves”. 

“These numbers are a calamity,” the UN rights chief said. “Each of them stands for a precious individual, whose hopes and dreams are being dashed. Tragically, there is still much to be done before we realise the four core principles of the Convention: non-discrimination, the child's best interests; right to life, survival and development and right to be heard.”

The number of ratifications of the Convention on the Rights of the Child remains unchanged at 196, although South Sudan recently ratified the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict, bringing the total number of ratifications to 168. 

South Sudan also ratified the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, which now has 175 States parties. 

Recalling a special event at the UN in Geneva in December to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Ms Bachelet noted the appeal by 16-year-old Nayeli Quiroz, from Ecuador, who said more youngsters should be able to participate in decisions that directly affect them.

“We need the power, the clarity, the foresight and the good sense of these children and adolescents to help us overturn many current trends”, the High Commissioner said. “Empowering them, respecting their dignity and upholding their rights benefits everyone.”

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UN welcomes progress in former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia naming dispute

INTERNATIONAL, 13 January 2019, Peace and Security - The Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for the naming dispute between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Matthew Nimetz, has welcomed the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia parliament’s decision to ratify an agreement on a new name for the latter country, following a dispute that has lasted some 28 years.

In a statement released on Friday, Mr. Nimetz congratulated the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia parliament and the country’s citizens – who approved the name change in a referendum held in September 2018 – for the move, and the democratic manner in which the process was undertaken: “this historic Agreement between two neighbours opens the door to a new relationship between them and to a firmer basis for peace and security in the Balkans. I look forward to completion of the process as outlined in the Agreement,” said Mr. Nimetz, adding that the United Nations remains “committed to working with the two Parties in finally resolving the difference between them.”

However, in order for the country to be renamed the Republic of North Macedonia, the Greek parliament must also vote to ratify the deal. On Sunday, it was reported that the issue has led to a Greek government crisis, with the governing coalition split over the name change: Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is reportedly planning to call a confidence vote, which is expected to be held on Wednesday.

The dispute stretches back to 1991, when the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, and announced its intention to be named “Macedonia.” Neighbouring Greece refused to recognise the name, insisting that only the northern Greek region of the same name should be called Macedonia, and arguing that the former Yugoslav Republic’s use of the name was a challenge to Greek sovereignty.

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UN anti-corruption body in Guatemala rebuts government’s reasons for expulsion order

INTERNATIONAL, 12 January 2019, Law and Crime Prevention - In a letter addressed to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Iván Velásquez, the senior UN official in charge of the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) in Guatemela, has responded to the accusations made by the Government to justify its decision to expel the Commission from the country.

"Since its establishment in 2007, the CICIG has worked resolutely – in accordance with its mandate, accompanying national institutions – for the identification and dismantling of illegal organizations and clandestine security apparatuses, as well as promoting legal and institutional reforms to prevent their reappearance," wrote Mr. Velásquez.

As a result of its work, the Commission has supported more than one hundred cases before the national courts, identified more than 60 complex criminal structures, obtained more than 300 convictions and promoted more than 34 legal reforms.

Thanking Guterres for consistently supporting the work of the CICIG in strengthening the rule of law and democracy, Mr. Velásquez pointed out that, despite this work, "smear campaigns, defamation and threats have increased” since the presentation of cases involving high-powered political and economic actors. "This is foreseeable with respect to an entity whose purpose is to attack structures that co-opt the State to profit, and refuse to lose privileges obtained illegally and illegitimately," the letter reads.

Velásquez writes that "the fight against corruption faces opposition in all corners of the planet, but that should not stop global efforts to attack this scourge that prevents the development of countries and democracies."

A ten page document attached to the letter responds in detail to a dozen accusations made by the government of Jimmy Morales against the CICIG. These include a complaint about the alleged interference of the CICIG in the internal affairs of Guatemala by promoting constitutional reforms in the area of ​​strengthening justice, arguing that "the Agreement establishing the Commission expressly includes in its powers the promotion of legal and institutional reforms that prevent the action and reappearance of illegal bodies and clandestine security apparatuses."

The accusation that the CICIG abused the use of force in searches carried out in 2016 at the offices of the Secretariat of Administrative Affairs and Security (SAAS) is also referred to in the document: Commissioner Velásquez recalls that "in accordance with Guatemalan law, searches are requested by the Public Prosecutor's Office and authorized by the competent judge and that the CICIG, in its technical support role, accompanies certain procedural acts and proceedings that the national authorities carry out, including raids.

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Canada grants asylum for Saudi teen who fled family: UNHCR

INTERNATIONAL, 11 January 2019, Human Rights - Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun’s desperate and ultimately successful bid for asylum in the face of alleged death-threats from her own family, provides a “glimpse into the precarious situation of millions of refugees worldwide” said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees on Friday.

In a statement, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said Canada had agreed to give asylum to the 18-year-old Saudi national who fled her family in Kuwait before her passport was taken away at the Bangkok airport on Sunday.

She was offered protection by UNHCR, and taken to a place of safety, while her claim was assessed by the UN agency, which decided that her claim was valid. Thai officials blocked Saudi requests for her to be sent back to Kuwait.

The agency welcomed the decision of the Canadian Government to provide international protection and a new home for the Saudi national there as a resettled refugee.

UNCHR chief Filippo Grandi said in his statement that “refugee protection today is often under threat and cannot always be assured, but in this instance international refugee law and overriding values of humanity have prevailed.”

UNHCR consistently advocates for the principle of non-refoulment, which states that anyone confirmed, or claiming to be in need of international protection, cannot be returned to a territory where their life or freedom are threatened. This principle is recognized as customary international law and is also enshrined in Thailand’s treaty obligations, according to UNHCR, although it is not a party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, defining the status of refugees.

With political sentiment and public attitudes towards refugees having hardened in some countries in recent years, formal resettlement - the mechanism by which Ms al-Qunun has been accepted by Canada - is available only to a fraction of the world’s 25.4 million refugees, typically those at greatest risk, many of whom are women.

The case was dealt with on a fast-track ‘emergency’ basis in light of the urgency of her situation. Ms al-qunun said that she would be killed if sent back home.

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Is Haiti better prepared for disasters, 9 years on from the 2010 earthquake?

INTERNATIONAL, 12 January 2019, Humanitarian Aid - Half a capital city destroyed, 220,000 reported dead and 1 million residents displaced. This was the toll of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which struck on 12 January, 9 years ago.

Staff at the UN Mission in Haiti were also affected, and there were 102 UN casualties, including the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, Hédi Annabi and his deputy, Luiz Carlos da Costa. It was the “biggest single loss of life in the history of UN Peacekeeping,” the then-President of the UN Staff Union, Stephen Kisambira, said at the time.

One of the survivors was Sophie Boutaud de la Combe, today the head of communications for the UN Mission for Justice in Haiti (MINUJUSTH), who was seven months pregnant at the time and just a few days away from home leave. She had been in the headquarters of MINUJUSTH’s predecessor, the UN Stabilisitation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), when the quake hit.

The building completely collapsed, but Ms. Boutaud de la Combe managed to escape through a collapsed wall. For many hours, she and her surviving colleagues searched through the rubble, looking for anyone still trapped under the building. Two days later, she reluctantly left Haiti, a situation she describes as “a trauma,” her instinct being to help the UN and the people of Haiti. She eventually returned to the country in 2013, happy to be able to play a part in the rebuilding of the country, and honour her lost colleagues with her work.

9 years after the earthquake, the situation in Haiti is very different. The government, says Ms. Boutaud de la Combe, is now much better prepared for similar natural disasters. “A few months ago there was an earthquake in the north of the country. The state was prepared and they sent their people to support those affected, without MINUJUSTH involvement. It was not a major earthquake, but now the population knows how to react. And most importantly, we hear regularly how important it is to build better, to build strongly in case an earthquake would hit, not to endanger the people.”

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