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COVID-19 crisis putting human trafficking victims at risk of further exploitation

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Lockdowns, travel restrictions, resource cutbacks and other measures to curb the spread of the new coronavirus are putting victims of human trafficking at risk of further exploitation, while organized crime networks could further profit from the pandemic, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

New analysis from the agency shows that the crisis is having an impact on the lives of trafficking victims before, during and even after their ordeal.

“With COVID-19 restricting movement, diverting law enforcement resources, and reducing social and public services, human trafficking victims have even less chance of escape and finding help”, said Ghada Fathi Waly, the UNODC Executive Director.

As countries have closed their borders due to the pandemic, some victims are unable to return home. Others face delays in legal proceedings, as well as a reduction in the support and protection they rely on. Some are also in danger of further abuse or neglect by their captors.

“Human trafficking is the result of the failure of our societies and economies to protect the most vulnerable”, said Ilias Chatzis, chief of the UNODC section that works to combat this crime.

“They should not be additionally ‘punished’ during times of crisis.”

Children in danger of new forms of abuse

UNODC said its partners report that due to the pandemic, more children are being forced onto the streets to search for food and money, thus increasing their risk of exploitation.

School closures have not only blocked access to education but also a source of shelter and food for millions of children. The UN recently reported that some 370 million students worldwide are now missing out on school meals, often their only reliable source of nutrition.

Meanwhile, a UN independent human rights expert has underlined the urgent need for child protection services during the pandemic.

Mama Fatima Singhateh, fears the reported surge in violence against children, coupled with new forms of sexual exploitation and abuse, will have “devastating” lifelong implications for millions of youngsters worldwide.

Even before the crisis, as many as 66 million children were already living in “a precarious socio-economic situation”, according to Ms. Singhateh, who is the Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

‘Drive-thru’ services for child sexual exploitation

Ms. Singhateh said travel restrictions have spawned new ways to sexually exploit and abuse children, such as attempts to establish “delivery” or “drive-thru” services. There has also been a spike in people trying to access illegal websites featuring child pornography.

“Producing and accessing child sexual abuse material and live-stream child sexual abuse online has now become an easy alternative to groom and lure children into sexual activities and to trade images in online communities”, said Ms. Singhateh. In common with all the UN’s independent rights experts, she is not a UN staff member nor does she receive a salary from the Organization.

Organized crime could benefit

UNODC warned that the pandemic has also created new opportunities for organized crime to profit.

“Traffickers may become more active and prey on people who are even more vulnerable than before, because they have lost their source of income due to measures to control the virus”, said Mr. Chatzis, chief of the agency’s Human Trafficking Section.

Some countries have diverted resources meant for fighting crime to the battle to defeat COVID-19. At the same time, services to assist trafficking victims are being reduced or even shut down.

“We know that people in a vulnerable situation are more exposed to contracting the virus, and they have less access to healthcare if they get sick,” said Mr. Chatzis.

“So it’s alarming to hear that, in some places, trafficking victims no longer have access to shelters, some refuges have even closed down due to the virus and others lack protective equipment – putting both victims and staff at risk.”

UNODC steps up support

As the pandemic deepens, UNODC is constantly monitoring the situation through its network of field offices and global partners.

It is also ramping up support, such as helping anti-trafficking units to get protective equipment, and assisting countries in evaluating the impact of the crisis on resources for victims, law enforcement and justice systems.

“As we work together to overcome the global pandemic, countries need to keep shelters and hotlines open, safeguard access to justice and prevent more vulnerable people from falling into the hands of organized crime”, said Ms. Waly, the agency’s chief.

UNODC further recommends that governments act to ensure that while current restrictions on travel and freedom of movement are respected, access to essential services for victims of human trafficking is guaranteed without discrimination.

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Human Rights

Russia responsible for Navalny poisoning, rights experts say

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A demonstration in support of Aleksei Navalny takes place in London, UK in early 2021. Unsplash/Liza Pooor

Russia is responsible for the poisoning and attempted killing of jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny, two independent UN rights experts said on Monday, issuing an “open call” for an international investigation into the incident. 

Special Rapporteurs Agnès Callamard and Irene Khan believe the politician was poisoned to send a “clear, sinister warning” to anyone wanting to criticize the Government. 

Mr. Navalny fell violently ill on a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow last August. He was later flown to Germany where toxicology reports determined he had been poisoned with Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent. On returning to Moscow last month, he was imprisoned for violating a sentence for alleged embezzlement. 

“It is our conclusion that Russia is responsible for the attempted arbitrary killing of Mr. Navalny”, said Ms. Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, speaking during a press conference in Geneva. 

Part of a larger trend 

The independent experts were appointed by the UN Human Rights Council and are not UN staff nor are they paid by the Orgnaization. 

They conducted a four-month investigation into the Navalny case and wrote to the Russian authorities last December but never received a response. Their letter was made public on Monday, in line with Council provisions. 

They said only Russia is known to have developed, stored and used Novichok.  A novel version was used against Mr. Navalny, suggesting further development of the toxin.  It was also “very unlikely” that non-State actors would have the capacity to develop or use the nerve agent, or that private buyers would have the expertise to properly handle it. 

“It is also the findings of our work that the poisoning and attempted killing of Mr. Navalny, along with the lack of investigation and the denying narratives, are part of a larger trend, ongoing over several decades, of arbitrary killings and attempted killings, including through poisoning, by the Russian authorities of journalists, critics and dissidents and are therefore consistent with an overall pattern of modus operandi”, Ms. Callamard added. 

Sowing fear in opponents 

Mr. Navalny has long been a staunch critic of the Kremlin who repeatedly denounced corruption, said Ms. Khan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.    

He had suffered two previous chemical attacks prior to the Novichok poisoning, as well as physical attacks, threats, harassment, surveillance and criminal sanctions. 

“The motive of the poisoning, preceded by a long history of attacks, harassment and trumped up charges, was both to violate the human rights of an individual but also to knock out a political opponent”, she said. 

“And we believe that there might be a broader purpose to the poisoning. Novichok was chosen precisely to cause fear. And we believe that the poisoning of Mr. Navalny might have been carried out deliberately to send a clear, sinister warning that this would be the fate of anyone else who might criticize and oppose the Government.” 

US report on Kashoggi killing ‘important’ 

The independent experts also welcomed a United States report on the October 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi, which was issued on Friday. 

The report found Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman complicit in the murder of Mr. Kashoggi, a US permanent resident, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.    

The Biden administration said it will impose visa bans against some 76 Saudi individuals in response. 

“The fact that the report named the quasi head of a State, Mohammed bin Salman, as being responsible for the operation that killed Mr. Jamal Kashoggi is an important demonstration as well on the part of the United States to be transparent”, said Ms. Callamard, who has long called for an investigation. 

However, she was disappointed that the report contains “nothing new” factually, as it only provides an analysis of circumstantial evidence, and that the US authorities have not so far announced any action regarding liability and responsibility on the part of the Crown Prince. 

“It is extremely, in my view, problematic if not dangerous to acknowledge someone’s capability and then to tell that someone ‘But we won’t do anything. Please proceed as if we had said nothing’”, she said, referring to President Joseph Biden’s campaign promise to protect press freedom. 

Elaborating further, Ms. Khan reported that only 12 per cent of journalist killings are investigated and prosecuted. 

“I am pleased that the report has been published but very disappointed, very disappointed indeed, that on the issue of accountability, the US has not seen fit to take stronger action at this stage,” she said.

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Pandemic pushing people ‘even further behind’

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Street scene in India, August 2020. © UNICEF/Vinay Panjwani

As the COVID-19 pandemic gathers pace, people worldwide are “being left behind – or pushed even further behind”, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned on Friday. 

Delivering a global update to the Human Rights Council, Michelle Bachelet said people everywhere were being excluded from not only development, but also opportunities.  

At the same time, civil society activists were being denied the right to voice opposition to government. 

“This makes us all weaker”, she told the virtual meeting. “It heightens grievances that are destabilizing. It means we miss perspectives and expertise that could inform and strengthen our initiatives. It shields corruption and abuses, by silencing feedback.” 

Engage the public 

While acknowledging the major health and financial challenges facing governments in the pandemic, the rights chief underlined that “a country’s people are its leader’s finest and most important resource” and must be involved in policy making. 

“Participation is a right – and it is also a means that ensures better, more effective policy,” she said.  “To help heal harms, bridge deep fractures, and lead change that meets expectations, every society, and every leader, needs to engage the public’s participation, fully and meaningfully.” 

The High Commissioner’s speech addressed human rights issues in some 50 countries. 

Improve social protection 

She welcomed the cessation of hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, announced in November by the leaders of Azerbaijan, Armenia and the Russian Federation, and called for investigations into all alleged violations that occurred during fighting there. 

Moving to Asia and the Pacific, Ms. Bachelet encouraged governments to improve social protection systems as the pandemic has shown their value. On average, countries devote less than two per cent of GDP to social protection, compared with the global average of 11 per cent, she said.  

The UN rights chief addressed the “serious concentration” in civic space across Southeast Asia, including what she described as “the alarming situation” in Myanmar, where the military seized power at the beginning of the month. 

Turning to India, she said ongoing protests by thousands of farmers in India highlight the importance of having laws and policies based on consultations with concerned parties. 

“Charges of sedition against journalists and activists for reporting or commenting on the protests, and attempts to curb freedom of expression on social media, are disturbing departures from essential human rights principles”, she added. 

Tackle remaining issues 

In the Americas, Ms. Bachelet welcomed “broad new measures” to tackle structural inequalities and racism in the United States, which include action to redress racially discriminatory federal housing policies.  

“We also welcome new steps to end several migration policies that violated the human rights of migrants and refugees, including executive orders to end the family separation policy. I encourage further measures to tackle remaining issues, such as the massive detention of migrants, through the implementation of alternatives to detention”, she added. 

A decade on from the “Arab Spring”, many countries in the Middle East and North Africa continue to suffer very serious inequalities, as repressive policies have been strengthened in some cases.  

“Despite these setbacks, I remain optimistic that justice and human rights can be realized across the Middle East and North Africa – and that progress in this direction will ensure deep and lasting progress for development and peace,” Ms. Bachelet said. 

Syria’s ‘grim anniversary’ 

Next month will mark 10 years since the start of the Syrian crisis, which the High Commissioner called a “grim anniversary”. She expressed hope that the Constitutional Committee will realize “tangible progress” and that the international community will work to bridge divides while also putting the needs of Syrians first.   

Ms. Bachelet underscored that humanitarians and human rights workers must have immediate access to the Tigray region of Ethiopia, where government and regional forces have been clashing since November. She said credible investigations into allegations of violations such as mass killings, extrajudicial executions and other attacks on civilians are critical. 

The human rights chief warned that the conflict in Tigray, coupled with rising insecurity in other parts of Ethiopia, could have serious impact on regional stability and human rights, underlining the need for a peaceful solution.

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UN Security Council demands COVID-19 vaccine ceasefires

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(file photo) World Bank/Vincent Tremeau

The UN Security Council on Friday unanimously passed a resolution calling on all Member States to support a “sustained humanitarian pause” to local conflicts, in order to allow for COVID-19 vaccinations. Briefing journalists afterwards, World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus argued that more could be done. 

While welcoming the historic resolution and upholding the importance of vaccine equity, he said that “concrete steps should be taken” to waive intellectual property rights to increase vaccine production “and get rid of this virus as soon as possible”. 

“The virus has taken the whole world hostage”, Tedros said. “The UN Security Council can do it, if there is political will”. 

The Council resolution calls for review of specific cases raised by the UN, where access to vaccinations is being hampered and to “consider what further measures may be necessary to ensure such impediments are removed and hostilities paused.” 

Vaccine deliveries 

Tedros noted that Côte d’Ivoire had received its first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine with more to be shipped to other countries in the days and weeks ahead – with the goal of getting vaccination underway in all countries within the first 100 days of the year. 

Crediting the UN-led vaccine initiative COVAX, he said that fragile progress has been made, but that vaccine supplies and distributions must be accelerated. 

However, he warned against bilateral deals with manufacturers producing vaccines that COVAX is counting on. 

“I understand full well that all governments have an obligation to protect their own people. But the best way to do that is by suppressing the virus everywhere at the same time”, underscored the WHO chief. 

“Now is the time to use every tool to scale up production, including licensing and technology transfer, and where necessary, intellectual property waivers. If not now, then when?”, he added. 

Yemen: ‘Opportunity for peace’ 

In a bid for more funding, the WHO chief said that Yemen remained the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with more than 20 million people desperately needing assistance. Some five million are at risk of famine, while half a million children under-five risk death without urgent treatment and the continuing spectre of COVID-19. 

This current crisis comes at a time, after years of conflict, when there is now a real opportunity for peace in Yemen. We have to act on it”, he said, urging donors to generously support the 2021 Response Plan for $3.85 billion during a High-Level Pledging Event next Monday. 

Strategic Preparedness  

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, WHO officially launched its Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan (SPRP) for 2021.  

It builds on achievements, focuses on new challenges, such as mitigating risks related to new variants, and considers the road towards the safe, equitable and effective delivery of diagnostics and vaccines as part of the overall strategy to successfully tackle the pandemic, according to the WHO chief. 

“The 2021 SPRP outlines how WHO will support countries in meeting these objectives, and the resources we need to do it”, he said.   

Proud son of Ethiopia  

During a separate ceremony, Tedros said he was “deeply humbled” to receive the African Person of the Year award.  

“I do not accept this award only on my own behalf, but on behalf of my colleagues at WHO, who work every day, sometimes in difficult and dangerous situations, to protect and promote the health of Africa’s people, and the world’s”, he said.

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