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Wartime sexual violence a ‘psychological weapon’, sets back cause of peace

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Angelina Jolie, UNHCR Special Envoy, briefs the Security Council meeting on sexual violence in conflict on 17 July, 2020. UN Photo/Nabil Midani

“This is a crime that shreds the very fabric that binds communities together, leaving social cohesion and safety nets threadbare,” said Pramila Patten, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict.

Wartime sexual violence is a biological weapon, a psychological weapon, an expression of male dominance over women, she said, “a crime that sets back the cause of gender equality and the cause of peace.”

Updating the Council on the Secretary-General’s report, she said it documents almost 3,000 UN-verified cases committed over the course of a single year, the vast majority of them (89 per cent) targeting women and girls.

Accordingly, it emphasizes the imperative of a survivor-centred approach, she said, as articulated by the Council in resolution 2467 (2019), which requires tailored solutions that build resilience, restore voice and choice to survivors, and address the diverse experiences of all affected individuals.

‘Countless’ stories shrouded in silence

“War does not speak with just one voice”, she cautioned, pointing to “countless” stories that are shrouded in silence and left off the historical record.  Diverse life experiences must inform policy, operational and funding decisions.  “If these decisions are not gender-based in their design, they will be gender-biased and exclusionary in their effect,” she assured.

Ms. Patten also drew attention to the problem of underreporting, which is often linked with fear of stigmatization and reprisals, lack of access to the justice system and harmful social norms around honour, shame and victim-blame.

She called for decisive action to empower survivors and those at risk, through enhanced resourcing and quality service-provision.  Acting on reports and information received is also important for bringing parties into compliance with international norms.  In addition, greater accountability would serve as a “critical pillar of prevention and deterrence”, ensuring that when parties fail to comply with their commitments, they are duly held to account.

Prevention is the best response, she said.  But the Council has struggled to measure – or even define – progress on the prevention pillar of this agenda.  “We must keep these crimes and their perpetrators in the spotlight of international scrutiny,” she insisted.

Jolie spotlights child survivors

Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, on Sexual violence in conflict, broadly agreed.  “Entrenched discrimination in society and the gendered impact of sexual violence demands that actions are taken for survivors.”

She acknowledged that resolution 2467 (2019) was the first to place survivors and their needs at the centre of all action.  But words are promises. 

“What counts, is if those promises are kept”, she said.  Having met child survivors everywhere, she said there is no country, rich or poor, that should not take a hard look at its own laws, agencies, immediate reporting, treatment of survivors and social attitudes.

Services for Yazidis fall ‘far short’

She drew particular attention to the plight of Yazidi women and children in Iraq, who were abducted, enslaved and tortured by the thousands by ISIL terrorists in 2014.  Many children were murdered.  Nearly 2,000 returned and now suffer from post-traumatic stress.  Many had witnessed the murder of their relatives and the rape of their mothers.

Yet, there are “very few” services available for Yazidi child survivors and children born of rape, she said.  According to a new Amnesty International report, psychosocial services for Yazidi children fall “far short” of meeting their long-term specialist needs. 

“I have heard this replicated in every conflict setting that I have visited for nearly 20 years with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)”, Ms. Jolie said, stressing that the lack of services flows from the international community’s failure to provide the funding or political will.

Chronic under-funding

Sexual and gender-based violence is the most chronically under-funded sector of United Nations humanitarian appeals and receives less than 1 per cent of humanitarian assistance.  “Think of how many lives could be saved if we simply doubled that percentage.”

She described today’s world as one where child survivors live with stigma, gaslighting and fear of retaliation at the hands of powerful perpetrators.  More often than not, including in Syria and Myanmar, not a single perpetrator of alleged systematic conflict-related sexual violence has been held to account.

“These are all choices, choices of the Member States,” she said, pressing countries to “do the hard work” of supporting survivors, changing laws and attitudes, and bringing perpetrators to account.

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Human Rights

Israel: ‘Halt and reverse’ new settlement construction

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A little boy stands on the remains of his family's demolished home in the West Bank. (File) UNRWA/Lara Jonasdottir

Israel’s decision to advance plans for some 800 new settlement units, most of which are located deep inside the occupied West Bank, has sparked the concern of UN Secretary-General António Guterres. 

In a statement issued on Monday by his spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, the UN chief urged the Israeli Government to “halt and reverse such decisions”, calling them “a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution, and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace”. 

‘No legal validity’ 

Mr. Guterres reiterated that Israel’s establishing of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, “has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law”. 

“Settlement expansion increases the risk of confrontation, further undermines the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, and further erodes the possibility of ending the occupation and establishing a contiguous and viable sovereign Palestinian State, based on the pre-1967 lines”, he said. 

Pushing forward 

Israel has given the green light to 780 new homes in West Bank settlements on Sunday in a move widely seen as being influenced by the imminent transfer of power in the United States. 

Breaking with decades of US diplomacy, outgoing President Donald Trump, in 2019 unilaterally declared that the settlements no longer breached international law. 

Against that backdrop, Israel has been increasing construction and either approved or made plans for more than 12,000 homes in 2020, according to news reports.

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Spectre of unrest, violent repression looming over Haiti

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Fire residues and debris at a protest site in Port-au-Prince in July 2018. MINUJUSTH/Leonora Baumann

Increasing political tensions in Haiti coupled with insecurity and structural inequalities could result in protests followed by violent crackdowns by authorities, the United Nations human rights office (OHCHR) warned on Tuesday.

According to the office, criminal activities, such as kidnappings, gang fights and widespread insecurity have increased, with “almost total” impunity. 

Added to the volatile mix is resurging political tensions over the timing and scope of elections and a constitutional referendum proposed by the Government, OHCHR spokesperson Marta Hurtado told journalists at a regular briefing in Geneva. 

“Calls for mass protests have been growing. This in turn raises concerns of renewed human rights violations by security forces during the policing of protests as seen during the months-long protests in 2018 and 2019, as well as during demonstrations in October and November of last year.” 

According to an OHCHR report on the unrest, protests started relatively peacefully in July 2018 but became increasingly violent over time, with many violations and abuses of the rights to life, security of the person and effective remedy.  

‘Pattern of violations’ 

The report also documented violations to the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. In 2019 demonstrations, barricades were set up that blocked people’s access to hospitals and passage of ambulances. Health facilities were also attacked, severely impacting the daily lives of the Haitian people, particularly those in a vulnerable situation. 

In addition, protesters and criminal elements imposed “passage fees”, further impeding the movement of people and goods and exacerbating economic hardship. 

“The report shows a pattern of human rights violations and abuses followed by near lack of accountability,” Ms. Hurtado said. 

‘Guarantee accountability’ 

The OHCHR spokesperson called on Haitian authorities to take “immediate action” to avoid repetition of such violations and abuses by ensuring that law enforcement officers abide by international norms and standards regarding the use of force when dealing with protests; as well as ensuring that gangs do not interfere with people’s right to demonstrate peacefully. 

She also urged the Government to guarantee accountability for past violations and abuses, ensuring justice, truth, and reparations. Alongside, Haiti should take steps to address people’s grievances and the root causes that fuelled the protests, she added. 

“OHCHR stands ready to continue supporting State authorities in their fulfilment of human rights international obligations [and] expresses its willingness to continue working towards the establishment of a country office,” Ms. Hurtado said, welcoming commitments made by the Haitian National Police to reform practices documented in the report. 

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Child labour ‘robs children of their future’, scourge must end

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Although child labour has decreased significantly over the last decade, one-in-ten children are still caught up in harmful work, the UN’s labour agency said on Friday, kicking off a year-long bid to eradicate the practice.  

“There is no place for child labour in society”, said Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO). “It robs children of their future and keeps families in poverty.”

Breaking down the stats 

While the number has dropped from 246 million in 2000 to 152 million in 2016, ILO noted uneven progress across regions. 

It pointed to some 72 million children working in Africa, which account for almost half of the world’s total. This is followed by Asia and the Pacific, home to 62 million child labourers.  

ILO highlighted that 70 per cent of these children work in agriculture – mainly in subsistence and commercial farming and livestock herding – and almost half in occupations or situations considered hazardous to their health and lives. 

The COVID factor 

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has considerably exacerbated the situation by rendering everyone more vulnerable to exploitation, compounding poverty within defenseless populations and jeopardizing hard-fought gains in the fight against child labour.  

Furthermore, school closures have pushed millions more children into the labour market, so they can contribute to the family income.  

“With COVID-19 threatening to reverse years of progress, we need to deliver on promises now more than ever”, said the ILO chief. 

A year of action

On a positive note, ILO said that joint and decisive action can reverse this trend. 

In collaboration with the Alliance 8.7 global partnership, ILO launched the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour to encourage legislative and practical actions to eradicate child labour worldwide. 

Adopted by the General Assembly in 2019, the year aims to urge governments to work towards achieving Target 8.7  of the Sustainable Development Goals  (SDGs). 

Target 8.7 calls for immediate measures to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking while also eliminating the worst forms of child labour, including use of child soldiers, and by 2025 ending child labour in all its forms. 

The 12-month campaign will also prepare the ground for the fifth Global Conference on Child Labour (VGC) in 2022, which will welcome additional commitments towards ending child labour in all its forms by 2025, and forced labour, human trafficking and modern slavery by 2030. 

“This International Year is an opportunity for governments to step up and achieve Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals by taking concrete actions to eliminate child labour for good”.  

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