Belarus has been rocked by mass demonstrations, and violent state crackdowns, since the disputed August presidential election that saw Alexander Lukashenko returned to power. In this blog, Joanna Kazana-Wisniowiecki, the UN Resident Coordinator in Belarus, explains what the unrest means for the Organization.
For the UN, as for all international partners of Belarus, the scale of protests and the level of repressions were a big surprise. This is the first time that the country, which has been very stable and where people are generally quite reserved in terms of expressing their political views, is seeing an election contested to this degree.
What is also unprecedented is the intensity of repressions against demonstrators and journalists. About 13,000 people were arrested over the last eight weeks, most of the detentions taking place in the first week after elections. This will go down in the history books as something that never happened before in Belarus.
Another unexpected phenomenon was the social mobilization and the use of technology that allows people to communicate and coordinate their protests in real time. Social media and mobile internet are changing the way political activism happens. More and more people are expressing themselves and organizing online.
Promoting human rights
The role of the UN is to promote international norms and standards, and advocate for the respect of universal human rights. The UN reacted immediately, to remind the state authorities of their international obligations: torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment are absolutely prohibited and can never be justified.
From the beginning of the crisis, the UN Secretary General, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and myself as the UN representative in the country, have issued a number of official statements and urged the authorities of Belarus to respect the right to peaceful assembly and expression.
Facing the mass detentions of over 7,000 people in the week following elections, and allegations of torture in prisons, the UN urged the authorities to release everyone who had been detained for exercising their human rights, to stop torture and other forms of ill-treatment of detainees, investigate all cases of human rights violations, and clarify the fate and whereabouts of any individuals reported as missing.
With time, we have been receiving troubling reports and of torture and other ill-treatment. It is important to ensure that these are well documented, also to allow investigation of and future accountability for such acts. Timely medical examinations are crucial in this regard, alongside the important work of human rights organizations gathering information on these cases.
In my capacity as the UN Resident Coordinator and together with the Senior Human rights advisor in my office, Omer Fisher, we conveyed these messages directly to our national counterparts, first and foremost through the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Belarus and to the Ministry of Interior and other state institutions responding to the crisis. We have also raised these issues in writing, especially the question of missing persons. I am encouraged by the fact that the MoI has responded to our letter and that we are gradually receiving more information from the state authorities.
In addition to dialogue with the State, we continue to discuss the current situation with civil society partners. Both human rights NGOs and the leaders of SDG Partnership Group have expressed concern about the violence of the security forces, the lack of action, and delays in the investigation of alleged violations, including torture and other ill-treatment)..
At the UN, we are also receiving complaints directly from the victims and their lawyers: the majority of them do not feel confident that submitting complaints to the authorities will result in proper investigation.
For several years now, the UN in Belarus has been supporting organizations which offer psychological and legal support to victims of violence. The demand for this kind of assistance has increased dramatically and we will continue to provide capacity support to the national partners and non-governmental organizations involved in addressing these problems.
Coping with COVID
Like everywhere in Europe, new cases of COVID-19 in Belarus are on the rise. And of course, mass protests and especially detention of demonstrators in overcrowded institutions without proper physical distancing and other prevention measures can lead to further spread of infection.
In the first half of 2020 we adjusted our priorities and the actual content of our work has changed. All together, we provided some $7.5 million to the national response, including supporting the health system, and addressing the socioeconomic impact, namely, helping SMEs to strengthen their entrepreneurial skills.
The UN never closed offices, although many of our staff have been working from home. While the focus has been and remains on COVID-19 response, we continue working on long-term development issues. For example, we provided policy advice and concrete suggestions on what should be included in Belarus’ long-term development strategy up until 2035, which is being developed this year.
‘The only path forward is one of dialogue’
From the UN’s perspective, Belarus should set more ambitious development plans, by prioritizing the needs of young people and the ageing population; strengthening the position of women in the economy; and embracing new technologies and opportunities that will support sustainable economic growth that benefits the poorer and most marginalized segments of the society. This is the vision of cooperation in the next five years of our presence in Belarus.
Amid COVID-19, climate change and political upheaval, Belarus finds itself in an extremely competitive global and regional environment. The only path forward for the country is one of dialogue, ambitious reform and an innovative development agenda, underpinned by true respect for human rights.
There is no sustainable development without human rights. The UN in Belarus will continue to work on addressing these needs even though it is a challenging and stressful time, especially for the Belarusian members of our team.
We are often asked “could the UN do more?”. I would say that we are trying to do our utmost in this complex situation for Belarus, with the tools that are at our disposal. With good will, new energy, a willingness to engage in dialogue, and professional effort on all sides, I am sure Belarus will continue to grow and develop.
Abu Akleh shooting: fatal shot came from Israeli forces
Israeli forces were behind the fatal shooting of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in the West Bank – not indiscriminate Palestinian firing – the UN human rights office, OHCHR, alleged on Friday.
Ms. Akleh – an experienced television journalist familiar with reporting in the Occupied Palestinian Territories – was killed on 11 May, as she attempted to report on an arrest operation by Israeli Security Forces and clashes in Jenin refugee camp in the northern occupied West Bank.
“More than six weeks after the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and injury of her colleague Ali Sammoudi in Jenin on 11 May 2022, it is deeply disturbing that Israeli authorities have not conducted a criminal investigation,” said OHCHR spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani.
Following OHCHR’s own probe into the incident, Ms. Shamdasani added that “this monitoring from our Office is consistent with many findings out there that the shots that killed her came from Israeli Security Forces”.
Rejecting that conclusion, a statement issued by the Israeli mission in Geneva insisted that it was not yet possible to conclude who was responsible, in view of the Palestinian Authority’s “refusal to conduct a joint investigation and hand over the bullet”.
Speaking to journalists in Geneva, Ms. Shamdasani described Ms. Akleh’s final moments, with her colleague, Ali Sammoudi.
“At around half past six in the morning, as four of the journalists turned into the street leading to the camp, wearing bulletproof helmets and flak jackets with ‘PRESS’ markings, several single, seemingly well-aimed bullets were fired towards them from the direction of the Israeli Security Forces. One single bullet injured Ali Sammoudi in the shoulder, and another single bullet hit Abu Akleh in the head and killed her instantly.”
Highlighting how the OHCHR probe had followed the methodology used in many other country situations, Ms. Shamdasani explained that there was no evidence of activity by armed Palestinians close by.
Ms. Akleh and her colleagues “had proceeded slowly in order to make their presence visible to the Israeli forces deployed down the street”, Ms. Shamdasani said. “Our findings indicate that no warnings were issued and no shooting was taking place at that time and at that location.”
She added: “We’ve inspected photo, video, audio material, we’ve visited the scene, we’ve consulted with experts, and we’ve looked at official communications; we’ve interviewed people who were also on the scene when Abu Akleh was killed…Based on this very vigorous monitoring, we find that the shots that killed Abu Akleh came from Israeli Security Forces and not from indiscriminate firing by armed Palestinians.”
After Ms. Abu Akleh was shot, “several further single bullets were fired as an unarmed man attempted to approach her body and another uninjured journalist sheltering behind a tree,” the OHCHR official continued. “Shots continued to be fired as this individual eventually managed to carry away Abu Akleh’s body.”
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has urged the Israeli authorities to open a criminal investigation into the killing of Ms. Abu Akleh and into all other killings and serious injuries by Israeli forces in the West Bank.
Since the beginning of the year, OHCHR said that it had verified that Israeli Security Forces had killed 58 Palestinians in the West Bank, including 13 children.
“International human rights law requires prompt, thorough, transparent, independent and impartial investigation into all use of force resulting in death or serious injury,” said Ms. Shamdasani. “Perpetrators must be held to account.”
Israel has rejected the findings of the OHCHR probe, adding that the Palestinian Authority has not handed over the bullet that killed Ms. Abu Akleh.
EU-UNIDO projects highlight gender equality as key to climate action
Ensuring that women and girls equally lead, participate in and benefit from environmental action are key priorities for the European Union (EU) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). Speaking at an event held in connection with the Stockholm+50 conference, three women who participate in EU-UNIDO projects around the world told their stories.
Opening the event, Gerd Müller, UNIDO Director General, and Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, both underlined that a healthy planet is impossible if gender inequalities persist. Therefore, women’s voices as leaders of circular economy, climate technologies and environmental preservation must be recognized and amplified.
Three projects from the EU-UNIDO cooperation portfolio were highlighted during the event.
Amira Saber, Member of the Egyptian Parliament and Secretary General of the Foreign Relations Committee, participates in the Parliamentary action on climate and energy project, which helps catalyze greater engagement of women MPs in renewable energy, energy access and sustainable transport issues. She said that “voices of women are not well represented in the issue of climate change, neither as negotiators, nor as policymakers. Through my NGO, which was founded to close the gap between civil society organizations and policymakers, we’ve been helping with many trainings to build the capacity of women-led organizations, to train women, to give them data and to help implement their projects on the ground.”
She continued, “I want all the women figures in senior policymaking who are influential in their countries and in their surroundings to understand and to stand very solid on the importance of the critical issues, which we’re talking about: climate change.”
Lep Mary, a Cambodian business owner, is part of the CAPFISH project, which supports the Cambodian government’s efforts to achieve sustainable development, climate resilience and inclusivity of the country’s freshwater and marine fisheries resources. Mary noted that “with the support of the UNIDO-CAPFish project, we are able to address most of our challenges related to food safety compliance while enhancing capacity of our suppliers along the value chain on food safety practices. The support will also help to improve environment plans regarding waste management and the safety of workers.”
The Youth Rising project supports vocational education and training for young people in Liberia. Esther Gheh Isatta Javillie, who is part of the project, said that ”the local carpenter producers are all-male. We have this stereotype in Liberia that technical and vocational education and training (TVET) is really for males”.
The event was organized by UNIDO and the EU in association with the Stockholm+50 conference, which commemorates the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment and celebrates 50 years of global environmental action. It was moderated by Cecilia Ugaz Estrada, Director of UNIDO’s Office for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women.
New Project Will Support Improved Mobility and Accessibility in Indonesia’s Bandung
The World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors has approved the $224 million Indonesia Mass Transit (MASTRAN) Project on May 20, 2022. The project will support improved urban mobility and accessibility in key cities while strengthening the country’s institutional capacity for mass transit development.
The project, which is aimed at improving transportation efficiency for Indonesia’s fast-growing urban populations and provide public transportation alternatives to cars and motorbikes, will finance development of bus rapid transit (BRT) systems in the metropolitan areas of Medan, North Sumatra, and Bandung, West Java.
“With the active participation and cooperation of the local government, we will create an environmentally friendly urban mass transportation system by lowering the usage of private vehicles in order to promote community mobility and access to new possibilities that are in accordance with the National Medium-Term Development Plan’s goals via the implementation of MASTRAN project,” said Budi Karya Sumadi, Minister of Transport of the Republic of Indonesia at the National Public Transportation Movement event.
The metropolitan areas of Medan and Bandung were selected as pilot cities under the project based on readiness and viability. Greater Bandung is the third largest urban agglomeration in Indonesia and Bandung City was ranked as the second most congested of 38 Indonesian cities in a recent World Bank study. The Mebidang area, which covers Medan, the capital of North Sumatra Province, the city of Binjai, and the district of Deli Serdang, is the largest metropolitan area outside of Java, and the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country. It ranked third most congested among Indonesian cities in the World Bank study.
The success of the project will be evaluated based on reduced travel times for users of public transportation, increased numbers of riders, greater satisfaction regarding safety and security, and a higher percentage of women employed in BRT system operations. The project is also intended to support the establishment of national and sub-national agencies that are able to plan, develop, and manage mass transit systems in Indonesia. The project will facilitate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions through avenues such as a shift to more fuel-efficient vehicles, shift from personal modes to public transport, reduced congestion, and expected electrification of the BRT fleet, and transit-oriented-development impacts over the longer term.
“Almost 60 percent of Indonesia’s GDP comes from urban areas, so mobility in cities is crucial to ensuring economic competitiveness,” said Satu Kahkonen, Country Director for World Bank in Indonesia and Timor-Leste. “This project will strengthen the collaboration between Indonesia’s central and local governments and improve the technical expertise needed to plan and operate urban transport systems. By upgrading the quality of public transportation, the project will offer alternatives to motorcycles and cars and rein in pollution and congestion.”
In addition to support from the World Bank, the project will receive financial support from the Indonesian government, Agence française de développement (AFD), and the private sector, bringing the total financing to US$364 million.
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