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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

ILO calls on Belarus President to respect workers’ rights and freedoms amid protests

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The Director-General of the International Labour Organization, Guy Ryder, has called on the President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, to prevent human rights violations and “ensure full respect for workers’ rights and freedoms” during the wave of protests that have swept the country in recent weeks. 

In his letter to the Belarus President, Ryder urged President Lukashenko to release and drop charges against six trade unionists who have been detained by the authorities after participating in peaceful protests and industrial action.

He reminded the President that it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure a climate free from violence, threats or pressure against peacefully protesting workers and that any such allegations should be rapidly and independently investigated.

“I must urge you to do all in your power to prevent the occurrence of human rights violations and ensure full respect for workers’ rights and freedoms,” Ryder’s letter said.

He expressed his deep concern at reports coming out of Belarus on the arrest, detention, imprisonment and mistreatment of workers’ leaders.

‘No one should be deprived of their freedom or be subject to penal sanctions for the mere fact of organizing or participating in a peaceful strike or protest,’ Ryder wrote.

The letter recalls that the ILO has been working with the Belarus government, and the national workers’ and employers’ organizations, for 16 years, helping to address issues raised by an ILO Commission of Inquiry in 2004  which was set up following serious infringements of trade union rights and freedoms in the country.

Ryder notes that while there has been some progress on these issues, “the Commission’s recommendations are far from being fully implemented.”

The intervention by the ILO Director-General follows a request made by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

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Switzerland: Draft anti-terrorism law sets ‘dangerous precedent’

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A proposed new anti-terrorism law in Switzerland could set a dangerous precedent for the suppression of political dissent worldwide, a group of five independent UN human rights experts warned on Friday. 

The draft legislation, currently before the Swiss Parliament, expands the definition of terrorism and no longer requires the prospect of any crime at all, they said, in a plea for a last-minute reversal by legislators. 

‘Expansive’ definition of terrorism 

Citing international standards, the experts defined terrorism as the intimidation or coercion of populations or governments through violence that causes death or serious injury, or the taking of hostages. 

Under the bill, “terrorist activity” may encompass even lawful acts aimed at influencing or modifying the constitutional order, such as legitimate activities of journalists, civil society and political activists. 

“Expanding the definition of terrorism to any non-violent campaign involving the spreading of fear goes far beyond current Swiss domestic law and violates international standards”, said the experts, all of whom were appointed by the UN Human Rights Council

“This excessively expansive definition sets a dangerous precedent and risks serving as a model for authoritarian governments seeking to suppress political dissent including through torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” 

Other sections of the draft law have also raised concerns, such as those giving the federal police extensive authority to designate “potential terrorists” and to decide preventive measures against them.  

Expertise declined 

The rights experts had earlier written to the Swiss authorities, expressing their concerns about the incompatibility of the bill with human rights and international best practices in counter-terrorism.  However, no changes were implemented. 

 “While we recognize the serious security risks posed by terrorism, we very much regret that the Swiss authorities have declined this opportunity to benefit from our technical assistance and expertise on how to combine effective preventive measures with respect for human rights”, they said. 

 The experts called on Swiss parliamentarians to keep in mind their country’s traditionally strong commitment to human rights, urging them to reject a law which “is bound to become a serious stain on Switzerland’s otherwise strong human rights legacy.” 

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Human Rights

Burkina Faso: Over 535,000 children under five ‘acutely’ malnourished

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Members of family, who fled conflict, at their shelter in the Pissila camp for internally displaced persons in Burkina Faso. WFP/Marwa Awad

New data from UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has revealed worsening nutritional situation for children in Burkina Faso, with more than 535,000 children under the age of five suffering from acute malnutrition – an unprecedented level. 

Among them, some 156,500 children are “severely” malnourished, leaving them nine times more likely to die than well-nourished children, according to UNICEF

“The aggravating factors causing the nutritional situation of children to deteriorate are primarily linked to the displacement of populations due to insecurity, reduced access to livelihoods and reduced access to health care and nutrition,” said James Mugaju, UNICEF Deputy Representative in Burkina Faso.  

“The coronavirus pandemic has had a brutal impact on households and their ability to provide for the basic needs of their children. Children are paying the highest price, facing a triple crisis: security, health and food,” he added. 

Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in west Africa, has over one million internally displaced persons – 60 per cent of whom are children, and 3.3 million suffer from acute food insecurity.  

Worst affected regions 

According to the survey, the town of Gorom-Gorom in the Sahel region and the Barsalogho site for internally displaced persons in the Centre-Nord region are worst affected, where children under five suffering from global acute malnutrition recorded 18.4 per cent and 16.1 per cent, respectively. The figures exceed the World Health Organization (WHO) emergency threshold of 15 per cent.  

Equally alarming is the situation in Dori, Gorgadji, Bourzanga and Fada N’Gourma communes, all of which have a high prevalence of global acute malnutrition, ranging from 12.5 per cent to 13.6 per cent. Children in the Barsalogho, Kongoussi, Ouahigouya, Kaya and Matiacoali communes also have concerning prevalence rates of acute malnutrition, ranging from 8.6 per cent to 9.6 per cent.  

Areas where children are particularly affected by acute malnutrition are also those with the highest number of acutely food-insecure families, said UNICEF, calling for intensified efforts to ensure the continuity of nutrition services to provide an integrated package of prevention and treatment of malnutrition to reach the children in urgent need. 

“This is essential because good nutrition for children, from their first days and months, protects them from disease and infection, and helps them to recover when they fall ill,” said Mr. Mugaju.  

UNICEF response 

UNICEF and its partners have stepped up their response. Community health workers have been mobilized to travel to the most remote areas to screen and treat malnourished children at the community level, where they also provide advice on the best feeding practices for infants and young children, including in emergency situations.  

The UN agency is also supporting health authorities and is strengthening efforts to procure and deliver therapeutic foods, such as milk and ready-to-use therapeutic foods, to treat acute malnutrition. More than 52,600 cartons or about 737 tonnes of therapeutic food have been delivered to healthcare facilities and 51,685 children with severe acute malnutrition have been treated since January 2020. 

UNICEF Deputy Representative James Mugaju highlighted the importance of working together to support children.  

“Well-nourished girls and boys ensure good physical and cognitive development, which will give them equal opportunities to grow up fulfilled and reach their full potential,” he said. 

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