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Human Rights

Steps taken to end Saudi ‘guardianship’ system for women, ‘encouraging’ start

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Women attending an event organized by Saudi Arabia at the UN in Rome, Italy. (2019) ©FAO/Alessandra Benedetti

Allowing Saudi women to apply for passports and travel without their guardians’ permission is “an encouraging move” towards the “complete abolition of the ‘guardianship’ system,” independent United Nations rights experts said on Thursday, but more action is needed to fully dismantle these restrictions.

“Any progress will remain very frail unless accompanied by wider reforms and by measures to ensure that rights are reflected and enshrined in the constitution of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and not solely through royal decrees,” the six experts said in a joint statement.

Saudi Arabia loosened some social restrictions on women in 2017. And now, by Royal decree, Saudi women will be able to apply for passports. Those over 21 will be allowed to travel independently – without permission from their so-called guardians – by the end of this month.

According to news reports, while human rights advocates have welcomed the move, they have also noted that women still require the permission of a male relative to marry, or leave women’s shelters, and some rights activists remain on trial or in detention for campaigning to change the system.

“We should not forget that these positive developments are the result of years of relentless advocacy and effort of many human rights and women’s rights defenders in Saudi Arabia”, underscored the independent UN experts, calling “for their immediate release”.

Men thwarting progress

Women “continue to face numerous restrictions” under a guardianship system that “negates their fundamental human rights and their dignity as autonomous human beings”, according to the experts.

Giving men arbitrary authority over their female relatives results in discrimination against women.

“It severely impairs women’s equal participation and decision-making in political, economic and social affairs and the enjoyment of their human rights including the rights to freedom of movement, education, work, access to justice, privacy and family life,” they stressed.

The Special Rapporteur on Privacy, Joseph Cannataci, expressed his grave concern over the technological tools and apps that extend male guardians’ control over women through the digital sphere.

“I am particularly concerned about the use of the Absher mobile phone app that allows male ‘guardians’ to monitor, restrict and control women’s whereabouts and freedom of movement in ways that are incompatible with their human right to privacy,” he said. “I expect that this type of functionality will be immediately abolished in order to be compliant with both the spirit and the letter of the new law.”

While acknowledging this welcoming initiative, the experts urged the government to fulfil without any further delay its pledge to fully abolish the male ‘guardianship’ system as promised at the UN Human Rights Council in March 2019.

The UN experts are Joseph Cannataci, the first Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy and the UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, comprised of Meskerem Geset Techane, Elizabeth Broderick, Ivana Radačić, Alda Facio and Melissa Upreti.

UN 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 UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.

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Human Rights

55 journalists killed in 2021, impunity ‘alarmingly widespread’

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Journalists covering a terrorist attack in Kenya. ©UNESCO/ Enos Teche

Fifty-five journalists and media professionals were killed last year, latest UN data showed on Thursday, with nearly nine in 10 killings since 2006 still unresolved. 

Impunity is “alarmingly widespread”, said the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 

“Once again in 2021, far too many journalists paid the ultimate price to bring truth to light”, said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.  

“Right now, the world needs independent, factual information more than ever. We must do more to ensure that those who work tirelessly to provide this can do so without fear.” 

Although the number of victims stands at its lowest for a decade, UNESCO underlined the many dangers that reporters face in trying to cover stories and expose wrongdoing.  

In 2021, as in previous years, journalists faced high rates of imprisonment, physical attack, intimidation and harassment, including when reporting on protests. 

No distinction 

Women journalists continue to be particularly at risk as they are subjected to “a shocking prevalence of harassment online”, UNESCO said, citing data which showed that nearly three-quarters of female media professionals surveyed had experienced online violence linked to their work. 

According to the UNESCO Observatory of Killed Journalists, two-thirds of victims in 2021 died in countries where there is no armed conflict.  

This marks a complete reversal of the situation in 2013, when two-thirds of killings took place in countries experiencing conflict. 

Regional dangers  

Most deaths in 2021 occurred in just two regions, Asia-Pacific – with 23 killings, and Latin America and the Caribbean – with 14. 

On Wednesday, Ms. Azoulay condemned the killing of Myanmar journalist Sai Win Aung. 

Mr. Aung – also known as A Sai K – died on 25 December while covering the plight of refugees in the southeastern state of Kayin. 

During his assignment for the Federal News Journal, he was shot in an artillery attack by the Myanmar armed forces, UNESCO said citing reports, making him the second journalist to be killed in Myanmar last month. 

Bold platform  

UNESCO has a global mandate to ensure freedom of expression and the safety of journalists worldwide.  

Every time a journalist or media professional is killed, the agency systematically urges authorities to conduct a full investigation. 

The agency also coordinates the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, which marks its 10-year anniversary in 2022.  

UNESCO also provides training for journalists and judicial actors, works with Governments to develop supportive policies and laws and raises global awareness through events such as World Press Freedom Day, commemorated annually on 3 May. 

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Human Rights

Harsh winter fuels ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan

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UN humanitarians warned on Tuesday that a harsh winter in Afghanistan is aggravating already severe conditions faced by millions across the country.

In the past 24 hours, heavy snowfall and rain have impacted a number of areas, disrupting flights to and from Kabul Airport, according to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“Further snow and low temperatures are forecast in the coming days”, UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told journalists at the daily briefing for correspondents in New York.

Scaling up

An already dire humanitarian situation in Afghanistan worsened following the takeover by Taliban forces last August, and the subsequent suspension of aid, coupled with freezing of assets by many countries and international organisations.

Late last month, the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution clearing the way for aid to reach Afghans in desperate need of basic support, while preventing funds from falling into the hands of the Taliban, a move welcomed by the head of OCHA as a “milestone” decision that will save lives.

Meanwhile, humanitarian partners are racing against time to deliver aid and supplies – in line with commitments to scale up operations.

“During December, our humanitarian partners have reached seven million people with relief food supplies across the country”, said Mr. Dujarric. 

“Provision of winterization support, including cash and non-food items, is also under way in various parts of the country”. 

In 2021, donors provided $1.5 billion for two humanitarian appeals, including $776 million of the $606 million required for the Flash Appeal launched in September by the Secretary-General, and $730 million of the $869 million sought in the Humanitarian Response Plan.

Raising concerns

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has expressed its continuing concern for the millions of internally-displaced in Afghanistan while the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, is scaling up its response to disseminate timely winterization assistance – particularly to the most vulnerable of displaced families.

UNHCR said that it is providing ongoing multipurpose cash assistance to meet their immediate needs for warmth, and security.

Sustained support is critical”, the agency tweeted.

At the same time, Ezatullah Noori, the national emergency coordinator for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Afghanistan, pointed out that this is the third season of drought in five years.

“If we don’t support the agricultural sector in time, we will lose an essential pillar of the Afghan economy”, he warned.

Aid in numbers

Since 1 September, humanitarian partners in Afghanistan have reached:

  • 9M people with food assistanc.
  • 201K children with treatment for acute malnutrition.
  • 4M people with healthcare.
  • 110K people with winterization assistance.

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Human Rights

People of Myanmar face ‘unprecedented’ crisis in 2022

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COVID and ongoing insecurity in Myanmar are pushing vulnerable people into poverty. © UNICEF/Nyan Zay Htet

The people of Myanmar are facing an unprecedented political, socioeconomic, human rights and humanitarian crisis with needs escalating dramatically since the military takeover and a severe COVID-19 third wave.  

According to a UN Humanitarian Needs Overview published on Friday by OCHA, the turmoil is projected to have driven almost half the population into poverty heading into 2022, wiping out the impressive gains made since 2005. 

The situation has been worsening since the beginning of the year, when the military took over the country, ousting the democratically elected Government. It is now estimated that 14 out of 15 states and regions are within the critical threshold for acute malnutrition. 

For the next year, the analysis projects that 14.4 million people will need aid in some form, approximately a quarter of the population. The number includes 6.9 million men, 7.5 million women, and five million children.  

Reasons 

Price hikes, COVID-19 movement restrictions and ongoing insecurity have forced the most vulnerable people to emergency strategies to buy food and other basic supplies.  

Prices for key household commodities have risen significantly, making some food items unaffordable. At the same time, farming incomes have been affected by lower prices for some crops, higher input prices, and limited access to credit. 

Monsoon floods in July and August have also affected more than 120,000 people, resulting in crop losses and contributing to food insecurity. 

For 2022, the humanitarian affairs office OCHA, says the outlook “remains dire”. 

The political and security situation is “expected to remain volatile” and a fourth wave of COVID-19, due to relatively low vaccination rates and the emergence of new variants, is considered a rising risk. 

Prices are only expected to decrease marginally, while farm gate prices will likely remain low. As a result, consumer prices are projected to be higher, with incomes continuing to decrease. 

Other threats  

According to OCHA, the “unrelenting stress on communities is having an undeniable impact on the physical and mental health of the nation, particularly the psychological well-being of children and young people.” 

The risk and incidence of human trafficking, already on the rise in 2021, is expected to further escalate. 

In areas affected by conflict, entire communities, including children, are being displaced, increasing the risks for girls and boys to be killed, injured, trafficked, recruited and used in armed conflict.   

In 2020 and 2021, learning was disrupted for almost 12 million children, nearly all the school-aged population, and even though schools had began to reopen, the prospect of a full return to classroom education remains slim for many.  

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