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World’s poorest being pushed ‘closer to the abyss’ of famine

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Hunger threatens to soar to devastating levels in 25 countries in the coming months due to the impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the World Food Programme (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are warning.

The greatest concentration of need is in Africa, but countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and Asia – including middle-income nations – are also being ravaged by crippling levels of food insecurity.

The two Rome-based UN agencies sounded the alarm in a joint report published Friday as the WFP announced that it is scaling up food assistance to an unprecedented 138 million people who face desperate levels of hunger as COVID-19 tightens its grip on some the world’s most fragile countries.

Livelihoods evaporating

The cost of the WFP’s response is estimated at $4.9 billion – representing nearly half the updated COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, launched this week – with an additional $500 million special provision to prevent famine in countries most at risk.

“Three months ago at the UN Security Council, I told world leaders that we ran the risk of a famine of biblical proportions”, said WFP Executive Director David Beasley.

“Today, our latest data tell us that, since then, millions of the world’s very poorest families have been forced even closer to the abyss”, Mr. Beasley said.

“Livelihoods are being destroyed at an unprecedented rate and now their lives are in imminent danger from starvation”, he said.

“Make no mistake – if we do not act now to end this pandemic of human suffering, many people will die.”

25 mostly African ‘hotspots’

Most of the 25 “hotspots” named in the report stretch from West Africa and across the Sahel to East Africa, including the Sahel, as well Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

It also identifies, in the Middle East, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen; in Asia, Bangladesh; and in Latin America and the Caribbean, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Citing some examples, it says that COVID-19 is compounding a raft of existing problems in South Sudan, making the prospect of famine loom ever larger in areas where intercommunal fighting makes humanitarian access tough or impossible.

Middle East, Latin America

In the Middle East, the pandemic is exacerbating Lebanon’s worst-ever economic crisis, where food insecurity is growing fast not only among citizens, but also 1.5 million Syrians and other refugees.

Hardest hit in Latin America are more than five million Venezuelan migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers in neighbouring countries, the report says, adding that worsening economic conditions in host countries could well make matters worse.

According to WFP estimates, the number of people living in acute food insecurity in countries affected by conflict, disasters or economic crises could jump from 149 million before the pandemic took hold to 270 million by year’s end if assistance is not provided urgently.

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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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Guterres: Use COVID-19 recovery to make inclusion ‘a reality’

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Building a more inclusive and accessible world that recognizes the contributions of all people, including persons with disabilities must be a “key goal” as countries work to recover from COVID-19 pandemic, United Nations Secretary-General said on Friday, commemorating World Autism Awareness Day. 

“The crisis has created new obstacles and challenges. But efforts to reignite the global economy offer an opportunity to reimagine the workplace to make diversity, inclusion and equity a reality”, Secretary-General António Guterres said

“Recovery is also a chance to rethink our systems of education and training to ensure that persons with autism are afforded opportunities for realizing their potential”, he added. 

Breaking ‘old habits’ crucial 

Mr. Guterres also emphasized that breaking old habits will be crucial. For persons with autism, he added, access to decent work on an equal basis requires creating an enabling environment, along with reasonable accommodations. 

“To truly leave no one behind in pursuit of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, we must realize the rights of all persons with disabilities, including persons with autism, ensuring their full participation in social, cultural and economic life”, he said. 

“Let us work together with all persons with disabilities and their representative organizations to find innovative solutions to recover better and build a better world for all.” 

Inequalities worsened by COVID-19

According to the UN World Health Organization (WHO), one in 160 children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD begins in childhood and tends to persist into adolescence and adulthood. 

Intervention during early childhood is important to promote the optimal development and well-being of persons with an ASD, WHO added, emphasizing the importance of monitoring of child development as part of routine maternal and child health care. 

While some individuals with ASD are able to live independently, others have severe disabilities and require life-long care and support. Persons with an ASD are also often subject to stigma and discrimination, including unjust deprivation of health care, education, protection under law, and opportunities to engage and participate in their communities.

The World Day

The World Autism Awareness Day, to be commemorated annually on 2 April, was established in December 2007 by the UN General Assembly, which affirmed that “ensuring and promoting the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all persons with disabilities is critical to achieving internationally agreed development goals”. 

The General Assembly also highlighted the importance of early diagnosis and appropriate research and interventions for the growth and development of the individual, and called for efforts to raise awareness throughout society, including at the family level, regarding children with autism. 

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Indonesia: UN experts denounce mega tourism project that ‘tramples on human rights’

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A $3 billion tourism project is set to go ahead on Lombok island in Indonesia. Unsplash/Atilla Taskiran

UN rights experts, on Wednesday, raised alarm over forced evictions of locals and indigenous peoples, and threats against human rights defenders, to make way for a $3 billion tourism project on the Indonesian island of Lombok.

In a joint statement led by Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, the experts highlighted expulsions of local communities and destruction of houses, fields, water sources, cultural and religious sites, as the Indonesian Government and the country’s Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) “groomed Mandalika to become a ‘New Bali’.” 

“Credible sources have found that the local residents were subjected to threats and intimidations and forcibly evicted from their land without compensation. Despite these findings, the ITDC has not sought to pay compensation or settle the land disputes”, the experts said. 

The Government’s aim is to create an enormous tourism complex in Mandalika, which is situated in Lombok’s impoverished West Nusa Tenggara Province, with a Grand Prix motorcycle circuit, parks, resorts and hotels, the experts added. 

To date, the project has attracted more than $1 billion in private investment and is being managed by Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a multilateral financial institution. 

Lack of due diligence

The rights experts also criticised a lack of due diligence by the AIIB and private businesses to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for how they address adverse human rights impacts, as set forth in the UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights.

“In light of the dark history of human rights violations and land grabs in the region, the AIIB and businesses cannot look the other way and carry on business as usual”, the experts said.

“Their failure to prevent and address risks of human rights abuses is tantamount to being complicit in such abuses”, they added.

In March 2021, several UN experts voiced their concerns in joint communications to the Indonesian Government, the ITDC and the AIIB, as well as to concerned private companies involved in the project as well as their home States, France, Spain and the United States, the statement noted.

‘Testing’ Indonesia’s commitments

Special Rapporteur De Schutter also highlighted that the Mandalika project puts Indonesia’s “laudable commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and its underlying human rights obligations to the test”.

He added that large-scale tourism development that “tramples on human rights is fundamentally incompatible” with the concept of sustainable development.

Mr. De Schutter insisted that “the time has passed for racing circuits and massive transnational tourism infrastructure projects that benefit a handful of economic actors rather than the population as a whole”. 

Instead, Governments keen to build back better after COVID-19 “should focus on empowering local communities”, enhancing livelihoods and participation in decision-making, he continued, urging investors “not to finance or engage in projects and activities that contribute to human rights violations and abuses.”

In addition to Mr. De Schutter, the UN experts making the call include the special rapporteurs on the rights of indigenous peoples, on the situation of human rights defenders, and on adequate housing; the independent experts on human rights and international solidarity, and on promotion of a democratic and equitable international order; as well as the members of the UN Working Group on business and human rights.

The Special Rapporteurs, Independent Experts and Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. 

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