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Brief ceasefire in Douma only piece of good news for civilians in war-torn Syria, UN envoy says

INTERNATIONAL, 16 March 2018 - The United Nations mediator for the Syrian conflict told the Security Council on Friday that its three-week old demand for a ceasefire across the war-ravaged country was still not being implemented, and while progress had been made in in Douma in Eastern Ghouta, “the bottom line is, too many civilians are still suffering.”

“Let us hope that this ceasefire holds, because it is at least one [piece of] good news among very bad news,” said Staffan de Mistura, Special Envoy for Syria, briefing the Security Council via videoconference from Brussels.

The UN envoy said that Russia and Jaish al-Islam held more meetings in the last few days, on the outskirts of Douma – the northernmost of the three opposition-controlled enclaves in Eastern Ghouta.

“As a result of this engagement, a tenuous, fragile ceasefire between the Government, the Russian military and Jaish al Islam forces has continued to largely hold, for six days now,” he said, noting however that this is only one part of Eastern Ghouta, and it is not being replicated in the rest of that area.

Meanwhile, violence has escalated across other parts of Syria, he said. In Afrin, for example, the Turkish Government forces and their armed allies continued to gain ground rapidly. There had also been clashes in Daraa in southern Syria. On 13 March, 137 civilians had been evacuated, including 10 critical medical cases, and mostly women and children had been taken from Duma to the collective shelter in rural Damascus.  

On 15 March, UN colleagues had delivered a convoy of food assistance for 26,100 people in need in Duma. Those positive efforts were long overdue, but limited, he said. Elsewhere, there had been fresh allegations of the use of incendiary weapons in urban areas, as well as the targeting of medical facilities. There have also been allegations of chlorine use, he said.

He also expressed concern regarding those civilians in Syria who were being displaced and those who were in besieged and hard to reach areas. “Security Council resolution 2401 (2018) demands that all parties lifted sieges in highly populated areas, and that has not been done,” said Mr. de Mistura, also noting that Syria’s women faced threats to their security, including widespread sexual and gender based violence. “Their protection should be at the forefront of our own response,” he underscored.

“We are witnessing developments of substantial gravity on the ground […] that demand action, and the world is worried and watching,” he told the Council, expressing concern that issues including those raised in resolution 2401, as well as regarding detainees and a constitutional committee – need to move faster and with more meaningful impact than has so far proven possible.

“And de-escalation needs to replace what we are watching at the moment – escalation,” he said, pledging to continue working determinedly to seek to facilitate the overall political process.

Find Mr. de Mistura's full briefing here.


Alarmed by plight of Central African refugees in Chad, UN urges funding to scale up humanitarian response

INTERNATIONAL, 16 March 2018 - Thousands of refugees who have fled violence in the Central African Republic (CAR) to Chad are facing food and shelter shortages the United Nations refugee agency said Friday, warning that this is the largest influx in for years into the small landlocked country.

“The worry and real risk is that food shortages for the entire population over the next month may have devastating consequences,” Babar Baloch, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told the regular press briefing in Geneva, where he said that some $149 million is required to meet the urgent needs.

Late last year, clashes between armed groups Mouvement national pour la libération de la Centrafrique (MNLC) and Révolution et Justice (RJ) in north-west CAR forced more than 70,000 people from their homes.

 “Since last December, more than 15 Central Africans refugees have been killed on both sides of the border and at least 67 have suffered sexual and gender based violence while trying to go back to CAR to gather food and their scarce resources in exile,” he said.

UNHCR and partners have been providing life-saving relief such as healthcare, water and sanitation, shelter, food and nutrition assistance to newly arrived refugees since the start of the crisis.

However, without increased food aid, refugees could face prolonged period of food shortage while overwhelm humanitarian agencies’ response ability.

Severe floods have not only affected harvest, but they also posed an urgent need for accommodation.

Therefore, UNHCR is building emergency shelter in the camps and villages that host them, while also working with the authorities, partners and donors on a relocation plan.

“The situation with refugees’ health is also critical,” said Mr.  Baloch, stressing that “malnutrition levels are already high, especially with children.”

More mobile clinics are also urgently needed and local health centres must be strengthened to ease the heavy toll taken by respiratory infections, malaria and other diseases.

Southern Chad, including Goré, one of poorest and most underdeveloped parts of the country, is already hosting some 43,000 Central African refugees and 45,000 Chadian returnees from CAR, is struggling to cope with an additional influx of 22,180.


UN appeals for nearly $1 billion to address ‘critical needs’ of Rohingya refugees, Bangladesh host communities

INTERNATIONAL, 16 March 2018 - To meet the urgent needs of nearly 900,000 Rohingya refugees and more than 330,000 vulnerable Bangladeshis in the communities hosting them, United Nations agencies and their humanitarian partners appealed jointly on Friday for $951 million.

“We are talking about truly critical needs here both on the part of the Bangladeshi communities who have so generously opened their doors, and of a Stateless and refugee population that even prior to this crisis was among the world’s most marginalised and at risk,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in Geneva, launching the 2018 Joint Response Plan (JRP) for the rohingya humanitarian crisis.

Over the months since the most recent Rohingya influx began, it has become the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis – with tens of thousands fleeing by land and sea daily from Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state at the peak of the emergency.

The Bangladesh Government and people have responded with extraordinary generosity and hospitality to the 671,000 Rohingya refugees who have arrived since 25 August.

Almost seven months in, refugees continue to arrive and the situation in Cox’s Bazar remains fluid.

The Kutupalong-Balukhali site, where some 600,000 refugees are living, is now the largest and most densely populated refugee settlement in the world.

Precarious conditions and the ongoing emergency response there are about to be further challenged by the approaching monsoon season, placing more than 150,000 Rohingya refugees at risk of landslides and floods, threatening disaster on top of the current emergency.

“The solutions to this crisis lie inside Myanmar, and conditions must be established that will allow refugees to return home,” said Mr. Grandi. “But today we are appealing for help with the immediate needs, and these needs are vast.”

Complementing Bangladesh’s continuing efforts, the 2018 appeal aims to bring together more than 100 UN agencies and national and international non-governmental organizations to ensure that refugees and host communities receive the life-saving assistance, protection and the support they desperately need. It also includes contingency planning for 80,000 more refugees in the coming months.

“The needs and vulnerabilities of the Rohingya refugee population in Bangladesh are immense,” said William Swing, Director General of    the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM).

“Many Governments generously supported the last Rohingya crisis appeal. Given the large scale of the emergency and the amount of humanitarian services needed to ensure lives can be protected with dignity, continued and enhanced support is necessary,” he added.

Fifty-four per cent of the appeal is to ensure food, water and sanitation, shelter and other basic aid, with food alone accounting for 25 per cent of the total.

While acknowledging great appreciation for the generosity with which the response has been funded, Mia Seppo, UN Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh, lauded the Government’s efforts.

“In terms of being the first responders, in terms of providing land, in terms of keeping its borders open, in terms of providing asylum, in terms of building roads, extending electricity networks, providing food, seconding civil servants, providing police and army to keep order in the camp. The biggest donor to this crisis continues to be the people and the Government of Bangladesh.”

The humanitarian response faces immense challenges, including congested conditions, gender-based violence and critical public health concerns, namely measles, diphtheria and diarrhoea.

So far, the emergency response from September 2017 to February 2018 has received $321 million of the $434 million required.


Gaza requires changed political reality, renewed commitment to avoid total collapse

INTERNATIONAL, 16 March 2018 - The lack of a political process to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to be the single largest impediment to Palestinian development, and an escalation in hostilities could completely break down service delivery in Gaza, a United Nations report said Friday.

“The UN and partners will continue to highlight the key concerns and areas for intervention, but the parties need to make the difficult choices and compromises to achieve a long overdue resolution to this conflict,” said the report compiled by the office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO).

Some 25 years after the beginning of the Oslo process, this prolonged period of conflict management and of transition without end will not lead to a solution that meets the needs and aspirations of Palestinians and Israelis.

The report notes that Gaza – an occupied Palestinian enclave – continues to present the greatest risk of escalation alongside an acute humanitarian crisis with the potential for a complete breakdown in service delivery.

To properly address the issues facing Gaza, the report suggests:

First, the humanitarian crisis must be addressed to ensure hospitals and health clinics function, essential drugs are available, sewage and water treatment is provided, and the electricity situation is immediately improved.

Second, increased efforts are needed to finalize the reconstruction of physical damages from the 2014 conflict, and simultaneously to revive Gaza’s moribund economy, and revitalize its productive sectors.

Third, investment in longer-term infrastructure projects is needed to ensure Gaza remains livable.

The report also stresses the need for a changed political reality on the ground, including the resumption by the Palestinian Authority of its full responsibilities for the people, governance and infrastructure of Gaza.

Hamas, a Palestinian faction, must cease its military build-up, including the construction of tunnels and the firing of rockets towards Israel, while Israel’s closure regime must fundamentally change to allow for the recovery and development of the Strip through movement and access of people and goods.


UN refugee agency scaling up support as ‘horrific’ violence in DR Congo drives thousands into Uganda

INTERNATIONAL, 16 March 2018 - In the span of just three days – between 10 and 13 March – more than 4,000 people, mostly terrified women and children, have crossed into Uganda from crisis-gripped eastern provinces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the United Nations refugee agency said Friday.

Babar Baloch spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told reporters at the regular news briefing in Geneva that the agency is working with partner organizations in western Uganda to support the influx, many who are exhausted, hunger and deeply traumatized by “horrific inter-ethnic violence and sexual abuse” they have reportedly endured. 

Since the year began, an overwhelming 77.5 per cent of more than 57,000 refugees displaced by the violence in eastern DRC are women and children, according to the ageny.

 “These numbers are on a larger scale still than in 2017, when some 44,000 fled over the course of the entire year,” he continued. “UNHCR fears thousands more could arrive in Uganda if the security situation inside the DRC does not immediately improve.”

Mr. Baloch said that the majority continue to cross into Uganda via Lake Albert in rickety and unsafe boats from Ituri (province), “a journey that has already cost the lives of several refugees.”

“The situation has been even more dangerous in recent days because of bad weather,” he noted.

Although the lack of access means it is difficult to offer a detailed picture of the situation, UNHCR has received chilling accounts of violence – rape, murder and separation from family members.

“These are linked to the deteriorating security situation, internal conflicts and inter-communal tensions,” the spokesperson maintained, saying that armed men are reported to be attacking villages, looting and burning houses, indiscriminately killing civilians and kidnapping young men and boys.

A growing number of reports indicate that the violence is taking on ethnic dimensions as tribal groups engage in retaliatory attacks.

Dozens of refugees have recounted to UNHCR staff in Uganda, stories of the sexual violence and assaults they have endured – the vast majority of whom are women and girls, as well as some men and boys.

“These alarming reports have led the UN refugee agency and partners to strengthen the systems in place to identify and support survivors of sexual and gender based violence,” stressed Mr. Baloch.

UNHCR has deployed significant additional staff and resources to identify victims and strengthen support, including medical screening at Lake Albert landing sites, sexual and gender-based violence screening at the reception centres and making gender segregation spaces available.

“Working with partners, we have deployed additional staff specifically trained in psychosocial care to increase support to [sexual and gender based violence] refugee survivors and have conducted further outreach with community leaders and networks to ensure refugees are aware of what services are available to them,” he stated.

“We are also working with our humanitarian partners to save lives after a Cholera outbreak killed at least 32 refugees,” Mr. Baloch said, informing that the number of reported cases have significantly dropped from 668 to 160 since the February outbreak.  

He pointed out that the nearly $180 million refugee response funding appeal for Uganda remains poorly funded, “severely restricting capacities of humanitarian organizations to deliver vital aid and assistance.”

Within that appeal, only three per cent of UNHCR’s $118.3 million requirement is funded.


Syria: Children, families killed by airstrikes, shelling in Afrin – UN

INTERNATIONAL, 16 March 2018 - Dozens of children have been killed since fighting began in the north-western Syrian town of Afrin, where people are under bombardment, hospitals have been shut down and water supplies cut off, the United Nations has reported.

Along with Eastern Ghouta, the Kurdish-held town is now among the worsening flashpoints, as the conflict in Syria enters its eighth year.

“We have been receiving deeply alarming reports from Afrin in Syria about civilian deaths and injuries due to airstrikes and ground-based strikes,” Ravina Shamdasani, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights(OHCHR), told reporters in Geneva on Friday.

She said that the humanitarian situation is reportedly worsening, with Afrin Hospital, the only medical facility equipped for major operations, being inundated by the influx of injured people.

We have been receiving deeply alarming reports from Afrin in Syria about civilian deaths and injuries due to airstrikes and ground-based strikes – OHCHR Spokesperson

“There is also a severe water shortage due to the reported destruction of a pumping station as well as the control of other water resources by Turkish-led forces,” Ms. Shamdasani said.

She also said that reports indicate that only those civilians who have contacts within the Kurdish authority or the Kurdish armed forces have been able to leave the town.

Civilians are at risk of being killed, injured, besieged, used as human shields or displaced as a result of the fighting, she warned, reminding all parties to the conflict that they must permit civilians wishing to leave combat areas to do so in safety, and to ensure the protection of those who remain.

In New York, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that “reports from inside Afrin indicate that dozens of children have been killed and many more injured since the start of hostilities in the district” and “for the last 10 days, children and families have suffered severe water shortages as the source of water for Afrin city has reportedly been cut off.”

“Families are relying on untreated water and boreholes, potentially increasing the risk of waterborne diseases for about 250,000 people,” said UNICEF Communications Specialist Joe English. 

Reports from inside Afrin indicate that dozens of children have been killed – UNICEF

He said that there is no official displacement tracking mechanism but local sources estimate around 50,000 displaced people in the city. Families are being hosted by relatives and friends, in shops, government buildings and schools.

Also on Friday, UN Secretary-General António Guterresissued a statement expressing his deep concern over “the desperation shown by the people fleeing in a massive exodus from Eastern Ghouta and Afrin.”

He said he “profoundly” regrets that the countrywide ceasefire demanded by the Security Council has not been implemented.

UN Photo/Mark Garten (file)
Secretary-General António Guterres.

“The reality on the ground across Syria demands swift action to protect civilians, alleviate suffering, prevent further instability, address the root causes of the conflict and forge, at long last, a durable political solution,” he said.


Major reports on biodiversity, ecosystem services to be launched at UN-backed meeting in Medellin

INTERNATIONAL, 15 March 2018 - With our planet’s flora and fauna facing unprecedented threats, science and policy experts are set to gather next week in Medellin, Colombia, for a United Nations-backed meeting to consider five landmark reports aiming to inform better decisions by Governments, businesses and even individuals on biodiversity, and issues of land degradation and restoration.

“Literally, all Governments around the world should be looking at [the reports] to see what are we saying,” Sir Robert Watson, Chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) told UN News ahead of the body’s sixth plenary session which will run in Colombia’s second largest city from 18-24 March.

“That will be the basis for informed decisions,” said the IPBES Chair.

Established in 2012, IPBES is the global science-policy platform tasked with providing the best-available evidence to inform better decisions affecting nature — by everyone from Governments and industry to non-governmental organization (NGOs) and the general public — towards strengthening services for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human well-being and sustainable development.

The IPBES assessment reports are intended to provide decision makers with comprehensive, credible, evidence-based policy options to help reverse the unsustainable use of irreplaceable natural resources.

Prepared by more than 550 leading international experts and peer-reviewed by experts from both government and academia, the reports took three years to develop at a cost of more than $6 million. IPBES will present the reports to representatives of its 128 member States for approval at the upcoming plenary.

The reports to be presented comprise four regional assessments of biodiversity in Africa; the Americas; Asia and the Pacific; and Europe and Central Asia; as well as an assessment of land degradation and restoration, both regionally and globally.

Each regional assessment will evaluate the status of biodiversity in its respective region and subregions, identifying progress, drivers of change and threats, as well as the policy-relevant issues affecting them.

In addition, the regional assessments will present lessons learned and progress (or lack thereof) on the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and its Biodiversity Targets, agreed by States parties to the UN Convention on Biodiversity at their meeting in Aichi, Japan.

The assessments will also describe the implications regarding biodiversity in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and fulfilling the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The assessment on land degradation and restoration will identify threats to land-based ecosystems, offering evidence from around the world and a range of best-available solutions to reduce the environmental, social and economic risks and impacts of land degradation.

The findings of the five IPBES reports will also be key inputs to a new comprehensive IPBES global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services, due for release in 2019. IPBES has previously issued a large-scale thematic assessment on global and regional pollination.

IPBES meets annually at a date and venue decided at the prior session. The Platform is placed under the auspices of four United Nations entities — the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) — and administered by UNEP.


Guterres urges donors to generously support UN agency for Palestine refugees, ‘as a matter of human solidarity’

INTERNATIONAL, 15 March 2018 - Secretary-General António Guterres on Thursday called on the international community to generously support the activities of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which is facing “the worst financial crisis in its history.”  

Addressing the Extraordinary Ministerial Conference Preserving Dignity and Sharing Responsibility: Mobilizing Collective Action for UNRWA, Mr. Guterres noted that the Agency is facing a $446 million shortfall in 2018, asking donors to respond to the Palestinian people’s plight and “translate their dreams into tangible improvements in their lives.”

“That is precisely what UNRWA does every day with such steadfastness, not only in Gaza but in the camps, communities and countries across the region that host Palestinian refugees,” he stressed, emphasizing the urgency to support and protect the vulnerable.

He warned that if the response is not met, “critical services could be reduced or eliminated entirely – from schools to sanitation, from medicine to microfinance to food security for some 1.7 million refugees in abject poverty or affected by conflict.,”

The UN chief pointed out that until a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is achieved, the work of UNRWA remains “just as crucial as it was sixty-eight years ago.”

Mr. Guterres painted a detailed picture of UNRWA providing life-saving humanitarian relief and health care; building the future of Palestinian society through education; and ensuring human security, rights and dignity for over five million Palestine refugees.

“By keeping half a million children in school and millions of people healthy and nourished,” he said, “UNRWA is contributing to stability in the occupied Palestinian territory, as well as in Jordan and Lebanon – and has  undertaken extraordinary efforts to support Palestinians who have suffered as a result of the tragedy in Syria.”

“UNRWA is an asset to the international community that we must protect and support,” he told the donors.

FAO/Pier Paolo Cito
Secretary-General António Guterres (centre) addresses the Extraordinary Ministerial Conference Preserving Dignity and Sharing Responsibility: Mobilizing Collective Action for UNRWA.

Without a collective solution Mr. Guterres affirmed that UNRWA would soon run out of money. He argued against this, drawing attention to then need for high-level action in the form of cash.

“It is far more grave, and threatens to cut programmes far more savagely,” he said, adding that this could push the suffering in disastrous and unpredictable directions.

Mr. Guterres appealed for increased support now and in the years ahead to ensure schooling, health care and food assistance. 

“Such spending is an investment with wide-ranging dividends – in the human development of the Palestinian people, in stability today and in a peaceful future in and beyond Palestine,” he explained, adding that it could also address some of the despair and other factors that lead to radicalization.
Moreover, according to the UN chief, meeting the appeal would send a strong message to Palestine refugees that the international community is committed to their rights, their well-being, and meeting their daily needs.

“To those who may question the expense, let me echo UNRWA’s fundraising campaign: Dignity is priceless,” he pressed.

“As a matter of human solidarity, and as a matter of smart steps for peace, let us give UNRWA our full and generous support,” concluded the Secretary-General.


Four countries on track to graduate from UN list of least developed countries

INTERNATIONAL, 15 March 2018 - Four countries could soon “graduate” from the ranks of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable nations, a United Nations expert committee announced on Thursday

Bhutan, Kiribati, Sao Tome and Principe and the Solomon Islands have increased national earning power and improved access to health care and education, making them eligible to exit the group of least developed countries (LDCs).

“This is an historic occasion,” said Jose Antonio Ocampo, chair of the Committee for Development Policy (CDP), noting that only five countries have graduated since the UN established the LDC category in 1971.

LDCs are assessed using three criteria: health and education targets; economic vulnerability and gross national income per capita.

Countries must meet two of the three criteria at two consecutive triennial reviews of the CDP to be considered for graduation.

The Committee will send its recommendations to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) for endorsement, which will then refer its decision to the UN General Assembly.

For CDP member Diane Elson, a professor at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, Thursday’s announcement was good news for millions of women in rural areas.

She pointed out that the latest session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), currently under way in New York, is discussing the challenges facing this population.

“The success of the countries that are graduating reflects things like the improvement of the health and the education of the population, which extends to rural women, and the increase in incomes in the country, which extends to rural women,” she said.

However, Ms. Elson stressed that the countries will need continued international support because they remain vulnerable to external shocks, including the impact of climate change.

Mr. Ocampo said this vulnerability is particularly evident in Pacific Island states such as Kiribati.

UN Photo/Mark Garten
José Antonio Ocampo (centre), Chair of the Committee for Development Policy (CDP), along with Committee member Diane Elson (right), briefs journalists as guests at the noon briefing. On the left is Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Globally, there are 47 LDCs, according to the UN Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States.

The majority, 33, are in Africa, while 13 can be found in the Asia-Pacific region, and one is in Latin America.

In the 47 years of the LDC category’s existence, only five countries have graduated (Botswana, Cabo Verde, Equatorial Guinea, Maldives and Samoa)

The CDP said two more countries, Vanuatu and Angola, are scheduled for graduation over the next three years.

Nepal and Timor-Leste also met the criteria but were not recommended for graduation at this time, due to economic and political challenges.

That decision will be deferred to the next CDP triennial review in 2021, according to Mr. Ocampo.

Bangladesh, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Myanmar met the graduation criteria for the first time but would need to do so for a second time to be eligible for consideration.


UN Security Council calls for all Yemen’s ports to remain fully open to all aid imports

INTERNATIONAL, 15 March 2018 - The Security Council has urged warring parties in Yemen to allow humanitarian convoys to safely reach all conflict-affected governorates without hindrance, while also asking that all Yemen’s ports remain fully open to commercial and relief supply imports.

These calls were made in a Presidential Statement issued Thursday by the 15-member body.

Since the uprisings in Yemen broke out in early 2011, the United Nations has been engaged, through the good offices of the Secretary-General, in helping Yemenis to find a peaceful solution.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 20.7 million people in Yemen need some kind of humanitarian or protection support, with some 9.8 million in acute need of assistance.

In the Statement, the Council noted “with great concern” the impact that access restrictions on commercial and aid imports have on the humanitarian situation, and called on the parties to “immediately facilitate access for these essential imports into the country and their distribution throughout in order to reach the entire civilian population.”

“In this regard, the Security Council calls for the full and sustained opening of all Yemen's ports, including Hodeida and Saleef ports, and stresses the importance of keeping these functioning and open to all commercial and humanitarian imports, including food, fuel and medical imports,” the Statement added.

The Council also called for increased access to Sana’s Airport for lifesaving humanitarian supplies and movement of urgent humanitarian cases.

Further, the Council reaffirmed that “denial of humanitarian access can constitute a violation of international humanitarian law,” stressing that the operation of the UN humanitarian air and sea services and related services for staff of relief agencies should proceed unhindered.

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