The top UN official in West Africa and the Sahel updated the Security Council on Wednesday, describing an “unprecedented” rise in terrorist violence across the region.
“The region has experienced a devastating surge in terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets,” Mohamed Ibn Chambas, UN Special Representative and Head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), told the Council in its first formal meeting of the year.
“The humanitarian consequences are alarming”, he spelled out.
In presenting his latest report, Mr. Chambas painted a picture of relentless attacks on civilian and military targets that he said, have “shaken public confidence”.
A surge in casualties
The UNOWAS chief elaborated on terrorist-attack casualties in Burkina Faso Mali and Niger, which have leapt five-fold since 2016 – with more than 4,000 deaths reported in 2019 alone as compared to some 770 three years earlier.
“Most significantly,” he said, “the geographic focus of terrorist attacks has shifted eastwards from Mali to Burkina Faso and is increasingly threatening West African coastal States”.
He also flagged that the number of deaths in Burkina Faso jumped from about 80 in 2016 to over 1,800 last year.
And displacement has grown ten-fold to about half a million, on top of some 25,000 who have sought refuge in other countries.
Mr. Chambas explained that “terrorist attacks are often deliberate efforts by violent extremists” to engage in illicit activities that include capturing weapons and illegal artisanal mining.
Terrorism, organized crime and intercommunal violence are often intertwined, especially in peripheral areas where the State’s presence is weak.
“In those places, extremists provide safety and protection to populations, as well as social services in exchanged for loyalty”, he informed the Council, echoing the Secretary-General in saying that for these reasons, “counter-terrorism responses must focus on gaining the trust and support of local populations”.
The Special Representative outlined that governments, local actors, regional organizations and the international community are mobilizing across the region to respond to these challenges.
On 21 December, the ECOWAS Heads of State summit “adopted a 2020-2024 action plan to eradicate terrorism in the sub-region”, he said.
Calling “now” the time for action, Mr. Chambas drew attention to the importance of supporting regional Governments by prioritizing “a cross-pillar approach at all levels and across all sectors”.
Turning to farmer-herder clashes, which he maintained are “some of the most violent local conflicts in the region”, the UNOWAS chief highlighted that 70 per cent of West Africa’s population depend on agriculture and livestock-rearing for a living, underscoring the importance of peaceful coexistence.
The Special Representative also pointed to climate change, among other factors, as increasingly exacerbating farmer-herder conflicts.
“The impact of climate change on security also spawns a negative relationship between climate change, social cohesion, irregular migration and criminality in some places”, he upheld.
Stemming negative security trends
The UNOWAS chief noted that in the months ahead, Togo, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Niger would be democratically electing their leaders and maintained that “all-too-worrying” security trends must not distract from political developments.
“Unresolved grievance, incomplete national reconciliation processes and sentiments of manipulation of institutions and processes carry risks of tensions and manifestations of political violence”, he warned.
In the months ahead, Mr. Chambas stressed that UNOWAS would continue to work with partners on the national and regional levels to promote consensus and inclusiveness in the elections.
“As UNOWAS’ mandate is renewed, we count on the Council’s continued full support”, concluded the Special Representative.
Foreign fighters: ‘One of the most serious dimensions’ in global counter-terrorism struggle
Over the past few years, ISIL and Al-Qaida terrorist fighters have posed an “unprecedented threat to international peace and security”, the UN counter-terrorism chief said on Wednesday in Vienna, at the close of a joint UN- Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) regional conference on addressing challenges posed by terrorists who have gone to fight overseas.
Under-Secretary-General of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, Vladimir Voronkov, recalled that last week he presented to the Security Council the Secretary-General’s report on the continuing threat posed by ISIL.
“ISIL is resurgent as a covert network in Iraq and Syria”, he said. “Thousands of foreign terrorist fighters remain at large, posing a threat to Iraq, Syria, and the countries they might return or relocate to”.
Mr. Voronkov stressed that all sessions of the conference underlined the need to further strengthen international, regional and bilateral counter-terrorism cooperation – with many participants highlighting the centrality of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.
He highlighted that the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) for implementing the Strategy in Central Asia “could serve as a model for collaboration in other regions”.
“We are also working closely with the Arab Interior Ministers Council to strengthen Arab countries’ measures to effectively counter terrorism”, using JPOA as a model, he said.
According to the Counter-Terrorism chief, participants stressed the urgent need for gender and age-sensitive programmes to assist children linked with terrorist groups.
As thousands of children remain trapped in Syria and Iraq, facing a multitude of challenges, including rejection and life-long stigmatization, Mr. Voronkov stressed that Member States have “the primary responsibility to address the plight of their nationals, including children trapped in conflict zones”.
“Children should always be seen as victims and efforts to address their plight should be based on the best interest of the child”, he spelled out.
Disrupt terrorist travels
The need to prevent, detect and disrupt the travel of foreign terrorist fighters, in accordance with international law, was front and centre during discussions as well, drawing attention to the importance of enhancing Member States’ capacities to do so.
“Both the OSCE and the UN are helping countries adopt and use Advance Passenger Information and Passenger Name Record data systems”, he informed those gathered, calling the UN Countering Terrorist Travel Programme “a flagship demonstration” of how the UN system, together with international policing organization INTERPOL and others, are “working as one” to provide tailored, impactful assistance to Member States.
Noting that “the phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters is one of the most serious dimensions of the terrorist threat”, Mr. Voronkov concluded by urging Member States to continue working together, through the UN and other platforms, “not only to protect people on their own territory, but extend solidarity and assistance beyond their borders”.
Global initiative launched to keep top sports events safe from terrorism
Representatives from international sporting federations and the private sector joined with ambassadors at UN Headquarters in New York on Monday to launch a global programme aimed at safeguarding major sporting events from terrorism-related threats.
The multi-year initiative looks to harness the positive values that sports promote to help crackdown on the spread of violent extremism, particularly among young people.
“Sport pushes people to be better, to aim higher and further. It promotes tolerance and gender equality. It strengthens communities, builds resilience and channels natural competitive instincts in a harmonious way”, said Vladimir Voronkov, head of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT).
“Sport is a fundamental and true human value: a strong vaccine against any kind of criminal disease. We have a moral obligation to protect and promote sport.”
Sharing best practices and information
Despite being a unifying force, sporting events have been marred by deadly terrorist attacks.
The 1972 and 1996 Olympic Games, and, more recently, marathons in Sri Lanka and the United States, are some of the tragic examples.
The global programme will develop guidelines to enhance international cooperation, and public-private partnerships, to make sporting events safer for athletes and the public. The launch will be followed by a two-day expert meeting. Another meeting focusing on youth will be held in April.
Participants attending the launch included representatives from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), various national Olympic committees, the international football association, FIFA, and private companies.
“Protecting major sporting events entails multilevel cooperation and coordination, as well as complex security and policy arrangements. including securing locations, cyber security, crisis planning and management, (and) strategic communications” said Mr. Voronkov.
“Through our joint programme, we will focus on the exchange of information and best practices, and on sharing resources and facilitating partnerships.”
It is essential to advance the consolidation of sport in development and peace strategies , according to the official at the helm of a UN platform which fosters intercultural dialogue, understanding and cooperation.
“Indeed, sports unites and heals,” Miguel Moratinos, High Representative of the UN Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), told the gathering.
“It is also a universal language that both, fans and players understand. So, let’s all capitalize on the full potential of sport , with youth in its heart, as a driver for peace and social change .”
Key support from Qatar
Qatar, host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, is a key supporter of the initiative, alongside China and the Republic of Korea.
The country and the UN counter-terrorism office signed an agreement last year to establish the world’s first hub for studying the behavioural roots of violent extremism conducive to terrorism.
Qatar is taking measures at the local and global level to ensure security at “the region’s first sporting mega event”, according to the Secretary-Genera of the World Cup preparatory committee.
“We are working hand-in-hand with our allies and partners around the world on exchanging best practice, information sharing, personnel sharing, and in assisting in maintaining the security of Qatar ahead of and during 2022”, Hassan al-Thawadi said in a video message.
New Report Proposes Global DNA Synthesis Screening System to Counter Biotech Terror
Rapid advancements in commercially available DNA synthesis technologies – used for example to artificially create gene sequences for clinical diagnosis and treatment – pose growing risks, with the potential to cause a catastrophic biological security threat if accidentally or deliberately misused.
A new World Economic Forum and Nuclear Threat Initiative report, “Biosecurity Innovation and Risk Reduction: A global Framework for Accessible, Safe and Secure DNA Synthesis,” gathers opinion from a group of global public- and private-sector experts who propose standardized screening practices to counter the threat.
Since scientists demonstrated the means to create a full viral genome in 2002, DNA synthesis technologies have become increasingly available and frequently used by scientists and engineers around the world. These technologies support myriad advancements in synthetic biology, enhancing the efficiency and sustainability of industries including energy, food, agriculture, health and manufacturing. Further advances in technology hold great promise for sustainable development and a safer and more secure society.
At the same time, new approaches to DNA editing and synthesis have made it easier to manipulate biological agents and systems, increasing the risk of a catastrophic accidental or deliberate biological event. These technologies make it possible to create pathogen or toxin DNA that could be misused. For example, in 2018 researchers published work detailing the synthesis of horsepox virus, an extinct virus related to smallpox, using synthetic DNA fragments purchased from a commercial provider. This demonstrated the potential for creating other viruses via commercially available technologies.
Although many DNA providers practice screening procedures, this approach is voluntary and is becoming increasingly expensive. As access expands and the cost of DNA synthesis declines, more DNA is likely to reach the market via additional providers, significantly expanding the user base. In the next two to three years, a new generation of benchtop DNA synthesis machines, enabled by enzymatic DNA synthesis methods, could become available without guidance or norms to prevent misuse.
This report, endorsed by an international expert Working Group, recommends a global system for synthetic DNA screening practices by developing an international, cost-effective, and sustainable mechanism to prevent illicit practices and misuse. The new framework improves the existing voluntary guidelines because it standardizes screening processes, is accessible to new players in the market, and provides valuable feedback data to evaluate the screening – all at lower cost.
“Biotechnology is at the centre of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. To deliver on the promise of the biotechnology revolution, we must seize opportunities to develop and deliver life-advancing innovations while simultaneously and urgently addressing potential risks associated with a growing and democratized bio-economy,” said Arnaud Bernaert, Head of Shaping the Future of Health and Health Care at the World Economic Forum.
The report also proposes that companies, international organizations and governments should explore options for the sustainable oversight and the maintenance of this proposed DNA sequence screening mechanism. DNA synthesis capabilities, in addition to other emerging technologies, can benefit from a larger system of common global life-science norms overseen by a globally recognized entity.
“Global DNA synthesis screening can be a critical tool to reduce the risk that life-science technologies could be deliberately misused to carry out biological attacks or accidentally result in a high-consequence or catastrophic biological event. The time is now,” said Ernest J. Moniz, Co-Chair and Chief Executive Officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
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