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Belarus: ‘There is no sustainable development without human rights’

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Women protesters hold hands in solidarity over the disputed presidential election in Belarus. UN Belarus

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. 

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Human Rights

ILO and IOM sign agreement to strengthen collaboration on migration governance

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image source: ILO

The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have signed an Agreement to create a framework for cooperation and collaboration to enhance the benefits of migration for all.

The framework includes joint support for improved migration governance, capacity building and policy coherence at national, regional and global levels. Other areas of work may also be developed.

The Agreement was signed by Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General, and António Vitorino, the IOM Director-General, on Friday 23 October, at the ILO Headquarters in Geneva.

Speaking after the signing ceremony, Ryder said: “This Agreement seals an important alliance between our two organizations. Together, we will be stronger and more effective in both fulfilling our individual mandates and in collaborating on areas that are crucial for reshaping the world of work so that it is more inclusive, equitable and sustainable.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic is having a brutal impact on economies and societies. Vulnerable groups, particularly migrant workers and their families, are being disproportionately hit. There could be no better time to reinforce our partnership and combine our strengths, so that we can help countries and our constituents build back for a better future.”

Vitorino said: “The agreement that we are signing today will help us further solidify our collaboration at the time when joint solutions are so much needed, with a pandemic that is hitting the most vulnerable the hardest. As we move towards post-pandemic recovery, we fully embrace the call to build a better world together, tapping into the added value of each partner. With ILO, we have much to co-create and we look forward to future cooperation within the broader UN family, with our partner governments, private sector and civil society.”

The new ILO-IOM Agreement builds on the agencies’ comparative advantages, expertise, and respective constituencies. By encouraging joint initiatives, the Agreement aims to strengthen international migration governance and boost cooperation, capacity building and joint advocacy to promote migrants’ rights and decent work opportunities.

By encouraging social dialogue, it will allow workers’ and employers’ organizations – who sit equally with governments in the ILO’s tripartite membership structure – to contribute to policy discussions.

A workplan will be developed in the next six months to push forward the collaboration at global, regional and country levels and, more importantly, facilitate the implementation of the Agreement in the field, where both agencies are working directly with affected populations.

It will seek to enhance the agencies joint contribution to their member states, UN country teams, and societies to achieve the goals of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda .

The Agreement will also allow the ILO and IOM to strengthen support for their respective constituencies in implementing the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM), and contribute to other global and regional migration policy fora and debates.

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Rohingya conference pledges to ‘remain steadfast’ in finding solutions to crisis

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A young Rohingya girl holds her brother outside a youth club in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. © UNHCR/Vincent Tremeau

A joint UN-hosted donor conference to rally international support behind Myanmar’s displaced Rohingya minority, ended on Thursday with a promise to continue engaging with concerned countries towards finding a long-term solution to their plight.

“We will continue to work together to maintain international attention on the Rohingya crisis and to shift from short-term critical interventions, to a more sustained and stable support”, said the closing statement from co-hosts the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), the European Union (EU), United Kingdom and United States.

“We are grateful to all who have participated…including those who have announced or pledged funding for the international humanitarian response, those who are supporting members of the Rohingya communities in other ways – not least by hosting them – and most importantly, representatives of Rohingya communities themselves”, the statement continued.

The appeal comes more than three years after the orchestrated violence that erupted in Myanmar, across Rakhine state, which saw hundreds of thousands of mainly-Muslim Rohingya flee their homes, in search of safety across the border in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

There are currently 860,000 Rohingya refugees in and around Cox’s Bazar, and an estimated 600,000 still in Rakhine state, who face ongoing violence and discrimination; and Malaysia, India, Indonesia, and other countries in the region, are together hosting nearly 150,000 Rohingya refugees.

Voluntary, safe, dignified return

“The voluntary, safe, dignified, and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees and others internally displaced to their places of origin or of their own choosing in Myanmar, is the comprehensive solution that we seek along with Rohingya people themselves”, the joint communique stated.

“To that end, we underscore the Secretary General’s call for a global ceasefire and the cessation of fighting to enable safe and unimpeded humanitarian access to all communities in need of assistance.”

The co-chairs urged Myanmar’s Government to resolve the crisis, and “take steps to address the root causes of the violence and displacement”, creating the conditions that would allow for sustainable returns.

“This includes providing a pathway to citizenship and freedom of movement for Rohingya, guided by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State’s recommendations and encouraged and supported by countries in the region. Myanmar must provide justice for the victims of human rights abuses and ensure that those responsible are held accountable”, the statement continued.

Expressing thanks and support to the Government and people of Bangladesh, the co-chairs stressed that increased support for Rohingya, must go hand-in-hand with increased support for host communities.

“While we continue efforts to secure long-term solutions, a focus on more sustainable response planning and financing in Bangladesh, could more effectively support the government’s management of the response and maximize limited resources to benefit both Bangladeshi and refugee communities.”

$600 million pledged

The co-chairs announced new pledges of around $600 million in humanitarian funding, which significantly expands the nearly $636 million in assistance already committed so far in 2020 under the Bangladesh Joint Response Plan and the Myanmar Humanitarian Response Plan.

The crisis is having a “devastating effect on vulnerable members of Rohingya communities, particularly women and children who require gender and age-sensitive interventions” said the co-chairs, leading to vulnerable refugees “desperately attempting to reach other countries in the region.

UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive-Director, Henrietta Fore, said that thanks to Bangladesh and generous donors worldwide, UNICEF and other UN agencies such as UNHCR, migration agency IOM, World Food Programme WFP, and many NGOs, continue to serve and support vulnerable Rohingya children.

In addition to providing vital services such as health, nutrition, and sanitation, education is “critical for young Rohingyas to build better futures. And to one day voluntarily return and reintegrate into Myanmar with the safety and dignity they deserve.”

Support for 170,000 Rohingya children

“We’re giving parents and caregivers the training and tools they need to support their children’s education. More than 170,000 Rohingya children are being supported this way”, she said.

“Join our call to ensure a place for Rohingya children in both countries’ education systems and programmes. They need education where they live”, she told the conference.

Ms. Fore called on donors not to forget the daily struggles of Rohingya children who remain inside Myanmar. “They’re still facing discrimination, horrifying violence and intensifying conflict every day. The fighting needs to stop so children can return to school and play, and so refugees can return home safely if they choose.”

Rohingyas themselves ‘backbone of the response’

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, said it was vital to recognize that the Rohingya refugees themselves have been “the backbone of the response.”

“They volunteer as health workers, they distribute masks and they help protect their communities from the pandemic. And I think we are all need to be very grateful to them and encourage them to take up this kind of responsibility.”

Highlighting again the Rohingya communities that remain in Myanmar, he said 130,000 of them remain displaced in central Rakhine State where they have been since 2012, and another 10,000 have been displaced since 2017 in northern Rakhine.

“Those people continue to have their basic rights denied, they suffer extreme hardships in Rakhine State and elsewhere”, added relief chief Lowcock.

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World Bank-UNICEF: 1 in 6 children lives in extreme poverty

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Children play outside a metal polishing workshop in a slum in Uttar Pradesh, India. © UNICEF/Niklas Halle'n

An estimated 1 in 6 children – or 356 million globally – lived in extreme poverty before the pandemic, and this is set to worsen significantly, according to a new World Bank Group-UNICEF analysis released today.

Global Estimate of Children in Monetary Poverty: An Update notes that Sub-Saharan Africa – with limited social safety nets – accounts for two-thirds of children living in households that struggle to survive on an average of $1.90 a day or less per person – the international measure for extreme poverty. South Asia accounts for nearly a fifth of these children.

The analysis shows that the number of children living in extreme poverty decreased moderately by 29 million between 2013 and 2017. However, UNICEF and the World Bank Group warn that any progress made in recent years is concerningly slow-paced, unequally distributed, and at risk due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“1 in 6 children living in extreme poverty is 1 in 6 children struggling to survive,” said Sanjay Wijesekera, UNICEF Director of Programmes. “These numbers alone should shock anyone. And the scale and depth of what we know about the financial hardships brought on by the pandemic are only set to make matters far worse. Governments urgently need a children’s recovery plan to prevent countless more children and their families from reaching levels of poverty unseen for many, many years.”

Although children make up around a third of the global population, around half of the extreme poor are children. Children are more than twice as likely to be extremely poor as adults (17.5 percent of children vs. 7.9 percent of adults). The youngest children are the worst off – nearly 20 percent of all children below the age of 5 in the developing world live in extremely poor households.

“The fact that one in six children were living in extreme poverty and that 50% of the global extreme poor were children even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic is of grave concern to us all,” said Carolina Sánchez-Páramo, Global Director of Poverty and Equity for the World Bank. “Extreme poverty deprives hundreds of millions of children of the opportunity to reach their potential, in terms of physical and cognitive development, and threatens their ability to get good jobs in adulthood. In the wake of the massive economic disruption caused by the pandemic, it is more crucial than ever that governments support poor households with children now and rebuild their human capital during the recovery.” 

Extreme poverty among children has not fallen as much as it has for adults; a larger share of the global poor were children in 2017, compared with that in 2013. All regions of the world experienced varying levels of decline in extreme poverty among children, apart from Sub-Saharan Africa, which saw a 64 million increase in the absolute number of children struggling to survive on $1.90 a day, from 170 million in 2013 to 234 million in 2017.

Child poverty is more prevalent in fragile and conflict-affected countries, where more than 40 percent of children live in extremely poor households, compared to nearly 15 percent of children in other countries, the analysis says. The analysis also notes that more than 70 percent of children in extreme poverty live in a household where the head of the house works in agriculture.

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis will continue to disproportionately impact children, women and girls, threatening to reverse hard-won gains towards gender equality. Social protection measures have a crucial role to play to mitigate coping mechanisms by the poor and vulnerable in both the immediate COVID-19 response as well as the longer-term recovery.

World Bank and UNICEF data suggest that most countries have responded to the crisis by expanding social protection programs, particularly cash transfers. Cash transfers provide a platform for longer-term investments in human capital. Particularly when combined with other child development measures and coupled with high-quality social service provision, cash transfers have been shown to address both monetary and multidimensional poverty and improve children’s health, nutrition, cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes.

However, many of the responses are short-term and not adequate to respond to the size and expected long-term nature of the recovery. It is more important than ever for governments to scale up and adjust their social protection systems and programs to prepare for future shocks. This includes innovations for financial sustainability, strengthening legal and institutional frameworks, protecting human capital, expanding child and family benefits for the long term as well as investing in family-friendly policies, such as paid parental leave and quality child care for all.

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