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Countries urged to act against COVID-19 ‘infodemic’

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The UN and partners have urged countries to take urgent action to address what they have described as the “infodemic” that has surfaced in tandem with the COVID-19 pandemic, both in the real world and online. 

The pandemic is the first in history in which technology and social media are being used to both inform people and keep them connected, but also to undermine global response to the crisis and jeopardize measures to contain the disease, they explained. 

“Misinformation costs lives. Without the appropriate trust and correct information, diagnostic tests go unused, immunization campaigns (or campaigns to promote effective vaccines) will not meet their targets, and the virus will continue to thrive”, the partners said in a statement issued on Wednesday. 

“We call on Member States to develop and implement action plans to manage the infodemic by promoting the timely dissemination of accurate information, based on science and evidence, to all communities, and in particular high-risk groups; and preventing the spread, and combating, mis- and disinformation while respecting freedom of expression.” 

Authorities also were urged to empower communities to develop solutions and resilience against the infodemic. 

Stakeholders such as the media and social media platforms were called on to collaborate with the UN system, and each other, “to further strengthen their actions to disseminate accurate information and prevent the spread of mis- and disinformation.” 

Communications emergency 

The statement signed by the United Nations, eight of its entities, and the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), followed a virtual meeting organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. 

In a video message for the event, UN Secretary-General António Guterres  underlined how the COVID-19 pandemic is also a communications emergency. 

“As soon as the virus spread across the globe, inaccurate and even dangerous messages proliferated wildly over social media, leaving people confused, misled and ill-advised”, he recalled. 

 “The antidote lies in making sure that science-backed facts and health guidance circulate even faster, and reach people wherever they access information.” 

Science, solutions, solidarity 

Throughout the pandemic, the UN chief has highlighted the need to fight the tide of harmful health advice, hate speech and wild conspiracy theories that has surfaced alongside COVID-19. 

In May, the UN launched the Verified initiative, encouraging people everywhere to serve as “digital first responders”, who share trusted, accurate information on their social media platforms. 

“Working with media partners, individuals, influencers and social media platforms, the content we spread promotes science, offers solutions and inspires solidarity,” he said. 

As Mr. Guterres told the meeting, fighting misinformation will be critical as the UN and partners work to build public confidence in the safety and efficacy of any COVID-19 vaccines being developed. 

Catching up on routine vaccinations 

That message was echoed later on Wednesday at another WHO virtual meeting to galvanize governments and humanitarians to safeguard immunization campaigns during the pandemic, and to ensure infrastructure is in place for the future equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.  

Although the UN estimates some 80 million children worldwide have not received routine immunizations due to the pandemic, services are resuming with the goal of “catching up to build better”, according to Kate O’Brien, Director of WHO’s Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals. 

She said partners are also working “closer than ever”, and with greater integration;  principles that will be applicable for the future delivery of any COVID-19 vaccines. 

“Our goal is to ensure fair and equitable access to vaccines against COVID-19 for all countries, harnessing the partnerships to work together to bring safe and effective and affordable vaccines…and do it because nobody is safe until everybody is safe”, said Ms. O’Brien. 

A ‘global insurance policy’ 

WHO along with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) spearhead a global initiative that has pledged to put COVID-19 vaccines in the hands of anyone, anywhere who needs them. 

GAVI chief Dr. Seth Berkley described the COVAX Global Vaccines Facility as a “global insurance policy”, committed to ensuring no one is left behind.  The goal is to produce two billion vaccine doses by the end of 2021. 

Dr. Berkley reported that more than 160 countries either have committed to the Facility, or are eligible to receive vaccines, with others expected to join this week. 

“Gavi right now helps vaccinate half the world’s children. But the global delivery of COVID vaccines will be the single largest and most rapid deployment the world has ever seen”, he said. 

“Also, with the levels of rumours and false information, we will need to work with communities everywhere to provide accurate information.” 

The COVAX Facility is part of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator which aims to speed up the development and production of tests, medicines and vaccines that will be available to all countries.  

The ACT Accelerator was launched in April and has so far received around $2.7 billion.  The UN Secretary-General recently appealed for a “quantum leap in funding” to meet the $35 billion still needed.   

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Environment

Landmark decision gives legal teeth to protect environmental defenders

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A 46-strong group of countries across the wider European region has agreed to establish a new legally binding mechanism that would protect environmental defenders, the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) said on Friday.

“I remain deeply concerned by the targeting of environmental activists”, said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, welcoming the rapid response mechanism as “an important contribution to help advance my Call to Action for Human Rights”. 

The agreement will delegate setting up the new mechanism to the United Nations, or another international body.

As the first ever internationally-agreed tool to safeguard environmental defenders, it marks an important step in upholding the universal right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment – as recognized by the Human Rights Council earlier this month

“Twenty years ago, the Aarhus Convention entered into force, bridging the gap between human and environmental rights.

Today, as the devastating effects of climate change continue to ravage the world, the Convention’s core purpose – of allowing people to protect their wellbeing and that of future generations – has never been more critical”, spelled out the UN chief. 

A protective eye

The agreement to establish the mechanism was adopted on Thursday by the Meeting of the Parties to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, known as the Aarhus Convention. 

“This landmark decision is a clear signal to environmental defenders that they will not be left unprotected”, said UNECE chief Olga Algayerova.

“It demonstrates a new level of commitment to upholding the public’s rights under the Aarhus Convention, as well as Parties’ willingness to respond effectively to grave and real-time challenges seen in the Convention’s implementation on the ground”.   

Vital defence

Whether it is groups protesting the construction of a dangerous dam or individuals speaking out against harmful agricultural practices in their local community, these activists are vital to environmental preservation across the globe, said the UNECE.

The Aarhus Convention ensures that those exercising their rights in conformity with the provisions of the Convention shall not be penalized, persecuted or harassed in any way for their involvement.

As such, the mechanism will establish a Special Rapporteur – or independent rights expert – who will quickly respond to alleged violations and take measures to protect those experiencing or under imminent threat of penalization, persecution, or harassment for seeking to exercise their rights under the Convention.  

As time is of the essence to buttress the safety of environmental defenders, any member of the public, secretariat or Party to the Aarhus Convention, will be able to submit a confidential complaint to the Special Rapporteur, even before other legal remedies have been exhausted.   

Defenders targeted

Although it is crucial for environmental defenders to confidently exercise their rights, cases have been reported in which instead, they face being fired, heavy fines, criminalization, detention, violence, and even death. 

Moreover, incidents of harassment and violence against environmental defenders are far from uncommon

A report to the Human Rights Council by Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, found that one-in-two human rights defenders who were killed in 2019 had been working with communities around issues of land, environment, impacts of business activities, poverty and rights of indigenous peoples, Afrodescendants and other minorities.  

Since January 2017, among the Parties to the Aarhus Convention, incidents of persecution, penalization and harassment of environmental defenders have been reported in 16 countries

In contrast to current existing initiatives, which mainly rely on applying political pressure through the media, the Aarhus Convention’s rapid response mechanism will be built on a binding legal framework, giving it much greater powers to act.

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Plastic pollution on course to double by 2030

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Plastic pollution in oceans and other bodies of water continues to grow sharply and could more than double by 2030, according to an assessment released on Thursday by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). 

The report highlights dire consequences for health, the economy, biodiversity and the climate. It also says a drastic reduction in unnecessary, avoidable and problematic plastic, is crucial to addressing the global pollution crisis overall.  

To help reduce plastic waste at the needed scale, it proposes an accelerated transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, the removal of subsidies and a shift towards more circular approaches towards reduction. 

Titled From Pollution to Solution: a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution, the report shows that there is a growing threat, across all ecosystems, from source to sea. 

Solutions to hand 

But it also shows that there is the know-how to reverse the mounting crisis, provided the political will is there, and urgent action is taken. 

The document is being released 10 days ahead of the start of the crucial UN Climate Conference, COP26, stressing that plastics are a climate problem as well.  

For example, in 2015, greenhouse gas emissions from plastics were 1.7 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent; by 2050, they’re projected to increase to approximately 6.5 gigatonnes. That number represents 15 per cent of the whole global carbon budget – the​​ amount of greenhouse gas that can be emitted, while still keeping warming within the Paris Agreement goals. 

Recycling not enough 

Addressing solutions to the problem, the authors pour cold water on the chances of recycling our way out of the plastic pollution crisis. 

They also warn against damaging alternatives, such as bio-based or biodegradable plastics, which currently pose a threat similar to conventional plastics. 

The report looks at critical market failures, such as the low price of virgin fossil fuel feedstocks (any renewable biological material that can be used directly as a fuel) compared to recycled materials, disjointed efforts in informal and formal plastic waste management, and the lack of consensus on global solutions. 

Instead, the assessment calls for the immediate reduction in plastic production and consumption, and encourages a transformation across the whole value chain. 

It also asks for investments in far more robust and effective monitoring systems to identify the sources, scale and fate of plastic. Ultimately, a shift to circular approaches and more alternatives are necessary.  

Making the case for change 

For the Executive Director of UNEP, Inger Andersen, this assessment “provides the strongest scientific argument to date for the urgency to act, and for collective action to protect and restore our oceans, from source to sea.” 

She said that a major concern is what happens with breakdown products, such as microplastics and chemical additives, which are known to be toxic and hazardous to human and wildlife health and ecosystems. 

“The speed at which ocean plastic pollution is capturing public attention is encouraging. It is vital that we use this momentum to focus on the opportunities for a clean, healthy and resilient ocean”, Ms. Andersen argued.  

Growing problem 

Currently, plastic accounts for 85 per cent of all marine litter. 

By 2040, it will nearly triple, adding 23-37 million metric tons of waste into the ocean per year. This means about 50kg of plastic per meter of coastline. 

Because of this, all marine life, from plankton and shellfish; to birds, turtles and mammals; faces the grave risk of toxification, behavioral disorder, starvation and suffocation. 

The human body is similarly vulnerable. Plastics are ingested through seafood, drinks and even common salt. They also penetrate the skin and are inhaled when suspended in the air. 

In water sources, this type of pollution can cause hormonal changes, developmental disorders, reproductive abnormalities and even cancer. 

Economy 

According to the report, there are also significant consequences for the global economy. 

Globally, when accounting for impacts on tourism, fisheries and aquaculture, together with the price of projects such as clean-ups, the costs were estimated to be six to 19 billion dollars per year, during 2018. 

By 2040, there could be a $100 billion annual financial risk for businesses if governments require them to cover waste management costs. It can also lead to a rise in illegal domestic and international waste disposal. 

The report will inform discussions at the UN Environment Assembly in 2022, where countries will come together to decide a way forward for more global cooperation. 

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Human Rights

No safe harbour: lifting the lid on a misunderstood trafficking crime

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photo © UNICEF/Noorani

The crime of harbouring, in which victims of human trafficking are accommodated or forced to stay in a specific location, is not universally understood by courts around the world. A new UN study aims to address that issue, and improve protection for victims.

A journey of exploitation

Harbouring is one of five actions that constitute an ‘act’ in the internationally recognised definition of human trafficking, and is often used by prosecutors and judges for convictions of this crime.

The act can take place before and during exploitation, or between periods of abuse, encompassing a wide variety of settings, including brothels, private homes, factories, farms, or fishing vessels.

These locations can be dangerous, inhumane and unsanitary, and cn be controlled by criminals involved in the trafficking network.  

In another case, victims who had been brought from Thailand to Australia were harboured during transit and at the place of exploitation: while being transported the victims were accommodated in hotels and accompanied by minders.

Once they were received by the offenders, the victims were either accommodated in the brothel where they were forced to work, or alternatively stayed at the offenders’ house, and were transported to and from the brothel each day.

Trafficking victims can also be subjected to harbouring once they arrive at the place of exploitation. In a case from the Dominican Republic, the offenders, a married couple, recruited a Chinese national to work in their business.

They promised to pay her and provide her with food. Instead, she was not paid, forced into domestic servitude and subjected to abuse.

A misunderstood concept

However, a new publication from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has found that there is neither a uniform understanding of the act of harbouring, nor a consistent approach to this concept during court proceedings.

“Harbouring is one of the most frequent acts when committing human trafficking, but the concept is not interpreted in the same way throughout the world,” says Martin Hemmi, the UNODC expert who led the study. 

“Some countries require the victims to be concealed or moved between locations for harbouring to be considered as an act of human trafficking. Others stipulate a minimum amount of time for the harbouring process,” adds Mr. Hemmi. “It is important to fully understand the concept to get justice for victims of this crime.”

The language barrier

Further findings show there are different meanings of the word ‘harbouring’ in the various language versions of the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol,  which is the world’s primary legal instrument to combat this crime.

In French and Arabic, the word used for harbouring has a positive connotation in the sense of hosting, while in English, Chinese and Russian, it can be perceived as having a negative meaning in the sense of hiding or concealing.

“Due to these discrepancies, the same conduct is considered human trafficking in one country but not necessarily in another,” says Mr. Hemmi.  

“This has wide consequences. For the perpetrator, it can have an effect on the sentence. For the victim, it has an impact on rights and protection measures. For the courts, it can hamper requests for legal assistance and international cooperation.” 

Wherever and however it occurs, harbouring with the intent of exploitation is an act of human trafficking and a violation of the victim’s rights and dignity, says Martin Hemmi.  

“We hope that our new study will be used by investigators, prosecutors and judges to lead to a better understanding of this terrible crime and support measures to effectively protect victims and punish traffickers,” he concludes.

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