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Human rights champions from across the world receive top UN prize

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Secretary-General António Guterres (2nd left) and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet (left) with winners of the UN Prize in the Field of Human Rights UN Photo/Evan Schneider

The “clear and profound” guidelines enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “have made it the world’s most widely translated document”, the UN Secretary-General told the General Assembly on Tuesday at an event to commemorate the Declaration’s 70th Anniversary, marked 10 December.

“Wherever we live, whatever our circumstances or place in society, our race, colour, gender or sexual orientation, language, religion, opinion, nationality or economic status, we are all equal in human rights and dignity,” António Guterres said.

As part of the UN’s activities in observance of Human Rights Day, which coincided with the Declaration’s anniversary, champions in the field from across the world, convened at the General Assembly Hall to be recognized for their outstanding contributions.

Every five years, The United Nations Prize in the Field of Human Rights is awarded to organizations and individuals which embody excellent activism in defending human rights.

The 2018 winners are:

Rebeca Gyumi of Tanzania, for her work with women and girls. She lead a campaign that prompted the repeal of a Tanzanian law in 2016, which once permitted girls as young as 14 to be married off.

Asma Jahangir of Pakistan, a human rights lawyer – whose daughter, Munizae, received the award on her behalf. Mrs. Jahangir, who passed away in February of this year, fought against religious extremism and for the rights of oppressed minorities.

Joênia Wapixana (known also as Joenia Batista de Carvalho) of Brazil, who advocates on behalf of indigenous communities.

Front-Line Defenders, an Irish organization which works on the protection of human rights defenders.

All were announced on 25 October, and celebrated at the ceremonial event today.

The four winners join a small but notable group who have been recognized since The Prize was established by the General Assembly in 1966, including prominent figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, and others.

The work they do is often dangerous, “yet these courageous individuals and groups remain committed to shining a light on the dark corners of the globe”, Mr. Guterres said at the award ceremony.

He emphasized that “their work, and that of other human rights defenders around the world, is essential for our collective efforts to sustain peace and ensure inclusive sustainable development and respect for human rights for all.”

To the human rights defenders carrying out the work on the ground, Mr. Guterres said “I admire their courage and sacrifice,” in a separate set of remarks to the General Assembly, honouring the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by consensus 20 years ago.

Threats to people’s rights have taken on many forms, including “a growth of intolerance and shrinking space for civil society,” he said, but despite the persecution of human rights and defenders, including campaigners, journalists, health workers and lawyers, these individuals remain steadfast in standing for “the principles and values on which our Organization is built.”

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Human Rights

ADB Marks International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia

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The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is marking the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOT) for the first time by hosting two events over 2 days at ADB headquarters in Manila.

“ADB supports LGBT+ inclusion within and outside its organization. We are committed to a diverse and inclusive workforce where everyone is treated with respect regardless of gender, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, physical ability, and thinking style. We recognize that the promotion and strengthening of diversity, inclusion, and equality at ADB is critical to our effectiveness as an organization,” said ADB President Mr. Takehiko Nakao.

On 16 May, IBM Philippines President and Country General Manager Ms. Aileen Judan-Jiao made a presentation on IBM’s programs and initiatives to foster a diverse and inclusive workplace for all employees, including for those from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and related communities (LGBT+).

ADB hosted a panel discussion on 17 May, which brought together ADB experts and civil society representatives to discuss ways to promote the inclusion of LGBT+ communities in ADB operations. The panel members included civil society leaders from APCOM, the Asia Pacific LGBT+ health and rights organization, and Babaylanes, the Philippines LGBT+ student and youth organization. 

The inclusion of vulnerable groups in societies, including LGBT+ people, is critical to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable region, as envisioned in ADB’s Strategy 2030.

IDAHOT promotes inclusion and recognizes efforts to overcome the exclusion, discrimination, and violence that the LGBT+ community continues to experience in many parts of the world, including in Asia and the Pacific. IDAHOT recognizes the significant progress that has been made towards equality in many parts of the world. The date of 17 May was chosen to commemorate the World Health Organization’s decision in 1990 to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder.

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UN: Gaza blockade causes ‘near ten-fold increase’ in food dependency

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More than half the population of Gaza depends on food aid from the international community. (file 2010) ECHO/Fadwa Baroud

At a time when Muslims globally are observing the holy month of Ramadan, more than half the population in Gaza depends on the international community for food aid, the director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) said on Monday, citing a “near ten-fold increase” in need.

According to UNRWA, it must secure an additional $60 million by June to continue providing food to more than one million Palestine refugees in Gaza, including some 620,000 “abject poor” who cannot cover their basic food needs and are surviving on $1.6 per day. The funds are also needed to cover the severely challenged 390,000 “absolute poor”, who survive on about $3.5 per day.

UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions and financial support, which has been outpaced by growing needs.

From fewer than 80,000 Palestine refugees in Gaza receiving social assistance in 2000, today over one million people need urgent food aid to get through their day.

“This is a near ten-fold increase caused by the blockade that led to the closure of Gaza and its disastrous impact on the local economy, the successive conflicts that razed entire neighborhoods and public infrastructure to the ground, and the ongoing internal Palestinian political crisis that started in 2007 with the arrival of Hamas to power in Gaza,” said Matthias Schmale, Director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza.

UNRWA is also confronted with an increased demand for services resulting from a growing number of registered Palestine refugees.

Moreover, the tragic death of 195 Palestinians – including 14 UNRWA students and the long-lasting physical and psychological injuries of 29,000 people during year-long demonstrations, known as the ‘Great March of Return’ – come after three devastating conflicts since 2009 that, combined, left at least 3,790 dead and more than 17,000 injured.

A 2017 UN report predicted that by 2020, Gaza would be unlivable. 

Today, with over 53 per cent of Gazans unemployed and more than one million dependent upon quarterly UNRWA food handouts, UN agencies and remittances from abroad are all that stand between Gaza and total collapse.

“For the first time in my year-and-a-half there,” Mr. Schmale elaborated, “I had three people talking to me separately about noticeably increasing drug abuse, increasing suicide attempts and prostitution and they put this down to the place is collapsing socially, in socio-economic terms and one can see it and of course against a background like that escalation is possible at any time”.

By continuing to deliver upon its mandate, UNRWA remains a critical lifeline for most of Gaza’s 1.9 million inhabitants, dispensing services in health and education and defending rights and dignity. Most urgent though, is the food assistance to more than one million Palestine refugees.

Operating with large financial shortfalls, as one of the few stabilizing elements in a very complex environment UNRWA is encouraging all Member States to work collectively to fund its programme budget as well as its emergency programmes, which are financed through separate funding portals.

UNRWA is tasked to help Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank – including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip – to achieve their full human development potential.

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UN: Sahel crisis reaching unprecedented levels

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Drought has affected residents of the Mbera refugee camp, Mauritania, in the Sahel region of Africa. Photo: WFP/Justin Smith

Repeated and increasingly sophisticated armed attacks in the Sahel and food shortages linked to last year’s severe drought, have reached unprecedented levels, putting the future of a “whole generation” at stake, three top UN humanitarian officials said on Wednesday

In an appeal for increased funding to support millions of people affected by spreading violence in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinators for the three countries warned that the instability risked spilling over into other West African countries. 

Needs are growing, they maintained, amid a five-fold rise in displacement in the last 12 months which has seen more than 330,000 people leave their homes, in addition to 100,000 refugees. 

“Many of those affected by the violence now were already facing dire hardship; for them, it’s double devastation,” said Mbaranga Gasarabwe, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Mali. 

Citing “recurrent” violent attacks by armed groups that are up to four times more common now than in 2012 at the start of Mali’s security crisis – when the north and centre were briefly under the total control of extremists – Ms. Gasarabwe told journalists in Geneva that these had severely hampered the delivery of basic social services to communities, such as education, health, water sector and shelter. 

In Mali “more than 1,800 schools have closed and over 80 health centres are either shut or only partially operational”, the UN official said, echoing concerns by her colleagues about service and governance gaps that extremists can be quick to fill. 

“We must act now and fast,” added UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Niger, Bintou Djibo. “Sustained relief efforts, economic and social development are key. In the Sahel, violence is also rooted in a sentiment of marginalisation and disenfranchisement.” 

According to latest UN figures, some 5.1 million people need humanitarian assistance in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger’s western Tahoua and Tillaberi regions. 

Aid organizations have appealed for $600 million to assist 3.7 million of those most in need, but funding is at around 19 per cent only, for all three countries. 

“We cannot stress enough the urgency of the situation. The future of a whole generation is at stake,” said Metsi Makhetha, UN Resident Coordinator for Burkina Faso, referring to attacks by “ISIS-inspired” armed groups, which threatened to destabilize longstanding traditional methods of community-based conflict resolution. “The UN, partner humanitarian organizations and Governments have stepped up operations. But we must do more.” 

Amid indications that explosive devices now being used in the Sahel resemble those being used in the Syria conflict, the UN officials insisted that the urgent action was needed to help vulnerable communities. 

“The attacks are increasing, the methods are getting sophisticated; we are seeing more and more targeting of civilians,” said Ms. Makhetha “We need even a concerted effort so that we can really create conditions that will enable the communities to strengthen their traditional community links.” 

Community tension “is something that we can ill-afford”, Ms. Makhetha explained, “and we have to do everything to make sure that the communities are supported because when we don’t it is also very fertile terrain for recruitment and it is very fertile terrain for increased grievances.” 

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