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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

Six reasons why a healthy environment should be a human right

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At least 155 states recognize their citizens have the right to live in a healthy environment, either through national legislation or international accords, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Despite those protections, the World Health Organization estimates that 23 per cent of all deaths are linked to “environmental risks” like air pollution, water contamination and chemical exposure.

Statistics like that are why the United Nations Human Rights Council recently passed a resolution reaffirming states’ obligations to protect human rights, including by taking stronger actions on environmental challenges.

Here are some of the ways that a compromised planet is now compromising the human right to health.

 1. The destruction of wild spaces facilitates the emergence of zoonotic diseases.

The alteration of land to create space for homes, farms and industries has put humans in increasing contact with wildlife and has created opportunities for pathogens to spill over from wild animals to people.

An estimated 60 per cent of human infections are of animal origin. And there are plenty of other viruses poised to jump from animals to humans. According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, “as many as 1.7 million unidentified viruses of the type known to infect people are believed to still exist in mammals and waterfowl. Any one of these could be the next ‘Disease X’ – potentially even more disruptive and lethal than COVID-19.”

2. Air pollution reduces quality of health and lowers life expectancy.

Across the globe, nine in 10 people are breathing unclean air, harming their health and shortening their life span. Every year, about 7 million people die from diseases and infections related to air pollution, more than five times the number of people who perish in road traffic collisions.

Exposure to pollutants can also affect the brain, causing developmental delays, behavioural problems and even lower IQs in children. In older people, pollutants are associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

3. Biodiversity loss compromises the nutritional value of food.

In the last 50 years alone, human diets have become 37 per cent more similar, with just 12 crops and five animal species providing 75 per cent of the world’s energy intake. Today, nearly one in three people suffer from some form of malnutrition and much of the world’s population is affected by diet-related diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

 4. Biodiversity loss also reduces the scope and efficacy of medicines.

Natural products comprise a large portion of existing pharmaceuticals and have been particularly important in the area of cancer therapy. But estimates suggest that 15,000 medicinal plant species are at risk of extinction and that the Earth loses at least one potential major drug every two years.

 5. Pollution is threatening billions worldwide.

Many health issues spring from pollution and the idea that waste can be thrown “away” when, in fact, much of it remains in ecosystems, affecting both environmental and human health.

Water contaminated by waste, untreated sewage, agricultural runoff and industrial discharge puts 1.8 billion people at risk of contracting cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio. Methylmercury – a substance found in everyday products that contaminate fish – can have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems when consumed by humans. And a growing body of evidence suggests that there is a cause for concern about the impact of microplastics on marine life and the food web.

As well, every year, 25 million people suffer from acute pesticide poisoning. And glyphosate – the world’s most widely-used herbicide– is associated with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other cancers.

Even medicines can have a negative impact as they infiltrate ecosystems. A 2017 UNEP report found that antibiotics have become less effective as medicine because of their widespread use in promoting livestock growth. About 700,000 people die of resistant infections every year.

 6. Climate change introduces additional risks to health and safety.

The last decade was the hottest in human history and we are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, with wildfires, floods and hurricanes becoming regular events that threaten lives, livelihoods and food security. Climate change also affects the survival of microbes, facilitating the spread of viruses. According to an article published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, “pandemics are likely to happen more frequently, spread more rapidly, have greater economic impact and kill more people.”

UNEP

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Human Rights

Migrants left stranded and without assistance by COVID-19 lockdowns

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At least 30,000 migrants are stranded at borders in West Africa according to the UN. IOM/Monica Chiriac

Travel restrictions during the COVID pandemic have been particularly hard on refugees and migrants who move out of necessity, stranding millions from home, the UN migration agency, IOM, said on Thursday. 

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the first year of the pandemic saw more than 111,000 travel restrictions and border closures around the world at their peak in December.  

These measures “have thwarted many people’s ability to pursue migration as a tool to escape conflict, economic collapse, environmental disaster and other crises”, IOM maintained. 

In mid-July, nearly three million people were stranded, sometimes without access to consular assistance, nor the means to meet their basic needs.  

In Panama, the UN agency said that thousands were cut off in the jungle while attempting to travel north to the United States; in Lebanon, migrant workers were affected significantly by the August 2020 explosion in Beirut and the subsequent surge of COVID-19 cases. 

Business as usual 

Border closures also prevented displaced people from seeking refuge, IOM maintained, but not business travellers, who “have continued to move fairly freely”, including through agreed ‘green lanes’, such as the one between Singapore and Malaysia.  

By contrast, those who moved out of necessity – such as migrant workers and refugees – have had to absorb expensive quarantine and self-isolation costs, IOM said, noting that in the first half of 2020, asylum applications fell by one-third, compared to the same period a year earlier.  

Unequal restrictions 

As the COVID crisis continues, this distinction between those who can move and those who cannot, will likely become even more pronounced, IOM said, “between those with the resources and opportunities to move freely, and those whose movement is severely restricted by COVID-19-related or pre-existing travel and visa restrictions and limited resources”. 

This inequality is even more likely if travel is allowed for anyone who has been vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19, or for those with access to digital health records – an impossibility for many migrants. 

Health risks 

Frontier lockdowns also reduced options for those living in overcrowded camps with high coronavirus infection rates in Bangladesh and Greece, IOM’s report indicated.  

In South America, meanwhile, many displaced Venezuelans in Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Brazil, lost their livelihoods and some have sought to return home – including by enlisting the services of smugglers. 

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Human Rights

Clashes in Myanmar displace thousands

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As of the start of 2021, about one million people are in need of humanitarian aid and protection in Myanmar. Pictured here, an IDP camp in Myanmar’s Kachin province. (file photo) UNICEF/Minzayar Oo

Clashes between the Myanmar security forces and regional armed groups, which have involved military airstrikes, have reportedly claimed the lives of at least 17 civilians in several parts of the country, the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Wednesday. 

In a humanitarian update, issued on Tuesday, the Office also noted unconfirmed reports of several thousand people fleeing the hostilities in recent days in the Kayin and Bago regions, in central Myanmar, near Yangon. A medical clinic is also reported to have been damaged in gunfire in a township in Mon state, also in the central part of the country. 

An estimated 7,100 civilians are now internally displaced in the two regions due to indiscriminative attacks by the Myanmar Armed Forces (MAF), and the Karen National Union (KNU), as well as growing insecurity since December 2020, according to the update. 

UNHCR [the UN refugee agency] is engaging with partners on the ground to explore possibilities to deliver critical humanitarian assistance and support to the displaced. A further 3,848 people in Kayin State have crossed the border to Thailand since 27 March, due to fears of further hostilities in the area”, OCHA said. 

The majority are believed to have returned to Myanmar with Thai authorities saying that 1,167  remain in Thailand as of 1 April, the Office added. 

‘Deep concern’ over continued impact of the crisis 

Meanwhile, the wider political crisis across Myanmar continues to hit life hard across the southeast Asian nation. 

The UN human rights office (OHCHR) has received credible reports of at least 568 women, children and men, have been killed since the military coup on 1 February, though there are fears that total is likely much higher. 

Concerns have also been raised over the impact on Myanmar’s health and education systems, as well as the long-term effects of the violence on children

The longer the current situation of widespread violence continuous, the more it will contribute to a continuous state of distress and toxic stress for children, which can have a lifelong impact on their mental and physical health, senior UN officials warned last week. 

Since 1 February, there have been at least 28 attacks against hospitals and health personnel and seven attacks against schools and school personnel, UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told reporters at a press briefing at the UN Headquarters, in New York, on Tuesday. 

“Attacks against health volunteers and against ambulances are preventing life-saving help from reaching civilians wounded by security forces,” he added. 

UN agencies have also reported reported sharp increases in food and fuel prices in many parts of Myanmar, on the back of supply chain and market disruptions. Humanitarians worry that if the price trends continue, they will “severely undermine” the ability of the poorest and most vulnerable to put enough food on the family table.

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