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Scourge of slavery still claims 40 million victims worldwide

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Incidents of modern-day slavery are “only likely to increase” as a result of some of biggest challenges facing the world today, a UN expert outlined in a report for the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday.

The Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Urmila Bhoola, explained that over 40 million people are enslaved around the world, a quarter of them children. Due to problems of environmental degradation, migration and shifting demographics, the scourge of modern-day slavery is expected to grow.

Over 60 percent of those in forced labour work in the private sector, Ms. Bhoola said, with women and girls disproportionately affected. Of the female victims involved in forced labour, 98 percent have experienced sexual violence.

Global estimates from the International Labour Organization (ILO) indicate that 24.9 million people are in forced labour situations worldwide, and 15.4 million live in forced marriages.

This sort of trend, “must serve as a wakeup call,” Ms. Bhoola said, highlighting that the astounding statistics come four years after States committed to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with relevant targets 5.2 and 8.7 aimed at stamping out trafficking, ending violence against women, and eradicating modern slavery.

The problem is exacerbated by the pressing climate conflict of our time. “In wake of climate change, people may lose their livelihoods, young people who don’t have access to decent work may migrate through unsafe channels and changes in the world of work, such as automation, may push already vulnerable people out of their jobs,” all of which could increase people’s vulnerability to slavery, the expert explained.

Even for those who escape, life for survivors is often difficult. Investigations by the NGO Human Rights Watch, highlight how even victims who manage to extricate themselves, can return home to the same desperate circumstances that made them vulnerable to begin with, but now facing stigma or blame.

Beyond these tragic realities for individuals, “slavery leads to increased public health costs, productivity losses, negative environmental externalities and lost income,” Ms. Bhoola added, urging for States and business to “act now.”

 “We cannot afford to stand by while more and people are driven into forced labour, servile marriage or child labour,” she said.  

Looking forward, the UN expert highlighted that for youth approaching working age, the situation is more dire – “By 2030, some 85 percent of the more than 25 million young people entering the labour force globally will be in developing and emerging countries,” she noted. “Their perspectives to access jobs offering decent work will determine their level of vulnerability to exploitation, including slavery.”

To prepare for this, “it is imperative” anti-slavery efforts are “systematic, scientific, strategic, sustainable, survivor-informed, and smart” she maintained.

Current efforts to end slavery are falling short and States and businesses “must take more decisive action to end slavery,” Ms. Bhoola concluded. This must be done “by committing more resources to this effort and by adopting and implementing public policies which address contemporary forms of slavery effectively.”

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Human Rights

UN: India should ‘unlock’ freedom curbs in disputed Kashmir

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Children attend class in open at a government middle school, Rajouri district, Jammu and Kashmir, India. UNICEF/Syed Altaf Ahmad

The people of Indian-administered Kashmir continue to be deprived of numerous basic freedoms, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Tuesday, before urging the Indian authorities “to unlock the situation”.

The appeal over the territory – which both India and Pakistan claim as sovereign – follows months of escalating tensions linked to earlier suicide attacks and the Indian Government’s decision in August to revoke majority-Muslim Kashmir’s special status, which for decades had allowed it partial autonomy.

At the time of the Indian Government decision, five UN-appointed independent rights experts warned that it had led to tighter central Government control, restrictions on peaceful protests and a communications blackout.

Curfew ‘still in place in large parts’ of Kashmir valley

In Geneva on Tuesday, spokesperson for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Rupert Colville acknowledged that an “undeclared curfew” had been lifted from much of Jammu and Ladakh regions within a few days.

But he noted that it was reportedly still in place “in large parts of the Kashmir Valley, preventing the free movement of people, as well as hampering their ability to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and restricting their rights to health, education and freedom of religion and belief.”   

Highlighting several allegations of excessive use of force against protesters that involved the use of “pellet-firing shotguns, tear gas and rubber bullets”, Mr. Colville said that there had also been unconfirmed reports of “at least six civilian killings and scores of serious injuries”, in separate incidents since the Indian Government declaration on 5 August across Jammu and Kashmir.

The Office of the High Commissioner had also received reports that armed groups in Indian-administered Kashmir have threatened some residents trying to work or go to school, the OHCHR spokesperson said.

In addition, “at least another six people have been killed and over a dozen injured in alleged attacks by armed group members, since 5 August”.

Web access blocked, politicians detained

And although restrictions on landline telephones were eventually lifted, and a state-run telecom company allowed to resume partial mobile phone services, all internet services remain blocked in the Kashmir valley, Mr. Colville insisted.

In line with the Indian Government’s decision to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s partial self-rule, two separate federally-administered Union Territories are to be created this Thursday, the OHCHR Spokesperson explained, adding that “hundreds of political and civil society leaders” had been detained “on a preventative basis”.

While some political workers have reportedly been released, most senior leaders – especially those from the Kashmir Valley – remain in detention, he said.

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Why we must urgently close the data gap to end violence against women

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Having the full picture is crucial for effective action to end violence against women. Yet today, efforts to address this critical sustainable development and human rights challenge remain severely hampered by lack of data.

Violence against women is both a cause and a consequence of gender inequality, reflecting and perpetuating deep-rooted patterns of discrimination. Violence and fear of violence permeate social, economic and political interactions between women and men, constraining opportunities, choices and access to resources and so limiting economic growth and hindering the achievement of sustainable development.

Ending violence against women and girls is a crucial part of both the Beijing Platform for Action – progress on which will be in focus at the Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting (29-30 October) – and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Beijing Platform calls for the prevention and elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls—physical, sexual and psychological. The Sustainable Development Goals reiterate this, with two indicators designed to track changes in violence by intimate partners and by other perpetrators.

Yet tracking such changes is hard.

Reliable and comparable data on the incidence of violence against women are rare. The Beijing Platform for Action, back in 1995, recognized that the absence of adequate sex-disaggregated data makes it difficult to create and assess programmes designed to bring about change.

Administrative data such as crime records only cover incidents that are reported, and so are likely to underestimate massively the actual occurrence of violence, which often goes unreported due to fear of recurrence or reprisal, shame or perceptions of ‘honour’ within families. Trends in reported gender-based violence can also be influenced by changes in awareness and public perceptions, making victims more or less likely to perceive an act of violence as a crime or affecting their willingness to report it to authorities.

A clearer picture of the true scale of violence against women—and its impacts on their lives– must come from surveys designed specifically for this purpose. UNECE’s survey module, developed in 2011, provides a standardized tool for countries to produce indicators of physical, sexual and intimate partner violence. To date, few countries in the UNECE region have conducted targeted surveys to measure violence against women, and where they have been conducted they are one-off surveys offering no possibility to see trends over time.

An EU-wide survey conducted in 2014 by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency and an OSCE-led survey conducted in 2018 in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe take us a step closer towards the goals of international comparability.

However, until such surveys are conducted regularly the data gap will remain a major impediment to progress.

Violence against women – key trends in the UNECE region

Available data in the UNECE Statistical Database shows significant variations in patterns of violence against women across the UNECE region, as detailed in the Beijing+25 regional key trends paper. 

Female homicides

The most serious manifestation of violence, homicide, is less likely than other forms of violence to go unreported and is less subject to variations of definition and classification between countries. Trends in homicides among countries can therefore more reliably be compared than other forms of violence.

Although two-thirds of the UNECE countries analyzed show low and unchanging levels of homicide of women, there are exceptions where high levels and/or large increases are seen in the past five years.

Among the 32 countries with available data, Azerbaijan had by far the highest female homicide rate in 2017, at 6.8 per 100,000, slightly down from 7.3 in 2012. Latvia and Lithuania also had high rates in 2017 (3.7 and 3.2 respectively). Fourteen countries had rates of less than 1 per 100,000 with very little change since 2012.

Homicides of women by partners and relatives

A large proportion of homicides of women occur at the hands of current or former partners or relatives.

In 2017, over 70 per cent of homicides of women were perpetrated by a relative in Albania (79 per cent), Croatia (74 per cent), Italy (72 per cent) and Slovenia (71 per cent). In all these countries, this percentage increased since 2012. The increase was particularly significant in Albania, where the percentage doubled in five years. Between 2012 and 2017 the percentage of homicides of women in a family context also increased significantly in Belarus (from 30 to 44 per cent), the Republic of Moldova (from 39 to 50 per cent), Tajikistan (44 to 53 per cent) and Georgia (from 15 to 23 per cent).

Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting for the UNECE Region

Progress in combating violence against women will be one of the areas in focus at next week’s Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting for the UNECE region.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995 (Beijing Platform for Action) is the most ambitious road map for the empowerment of women and girls everywhere. In 2020, it will be 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action outlined how to overcome the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life.

The Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting (29-30 October 2019) will take stock of where the UNECE region stands on keeping the promises of the Beijing Platform for Action. Bringing together government representatives and key stakeholders from the UNECE region, the meeting will tackle a number of obstacles that keep girls and women from realizing their full potential. UNECE is joining forces with the UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia to deliver a two-day multi-stakeholder meeting to exchange concrete policies to accelerate the realization of gender equality. The outcomes of the meeting will feed into the global review of the Beijing Platform for Action taking place at the sixty-fourth session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York from 9 to 20 March 2020.

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Decisive international action needed to end Israeli occupation

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The international community has a responsibility and legal obligation to compel Israel to end its 52 year-long “occu-annexation” of Palestinian territory and remove barriers preventing Palestinian self-determination, a UN independent human rights expert told the General Assembly on Wednesday.

Michael Lynk made the call in his latest report on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian Territory: the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.

“The status quo of Israel’s ‘occu-annexation’ is endlessly sustainable without decisive international intervention because of the grossly asymmetrical balance of power on the ground,” said Mr. Lynk, a Special Rapporteur who advises the UN Human Rights Council on the issue.

“Accountability is the key to opening the titanium cage that is the permanent occupation. The international community has issued countless resolutions and declarations critical of the never-ending Israeli occupation. The time has long past to match these criticisms with effective consequences.”

To remedy this, Mr. Lynk recommended that the international community should devise a list of effective countermeasures which would be “appropriate and proportional” to the circumstances.

His report outlines some modern examples of applying pressure, such as diplomatic public statements, trade sanctions, flight bans, travel restrictions and reduction or suspension of aid.

“Should Israel remain unmoved, (the international community) should apply and escalate the range of its targeted countermeasures until compliance had been achieved,” he said.

Mr. Lynk said the occupation is the longest in the modern world. It has been characterized by what he described as “a strong sense of impunity” by Israel.

“This occupation will not die of old age,” he stated.

“Palestinians, along with Israelis of conscience, have been asking repeatedly for the international community to act decisively in support of international law to compel Israel to end the occupation and enable Palestinian self-determination. We can’t afford to ignore their call.”

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. They work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

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