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UN rights chief warns of possible war crimes in Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

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The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has warned of possible war crimes in the ongoing fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone. 

Michelle Bachelet on Monday expressed alarm at continuing indiscriminate attacks in populated areas in and around the border region, in contravention of international humanitarian law, despite a recent agreement by the two sides. 

“Since the conflict reignited in September with the terrible consequences we are now seeing, there have been repeated calls, including by myself, for the parties to take all feasible steps to avoid, or at the very least minimize, the loss of civilian life and damage to civilian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals – as well as to distinguish civilians from combatants, and civilian objects from military objectives,” she said. 

“International humanitarian law cannot be clearer. Attacks carried out in violation of the principle of distinction or the principle of proportionality may amount to war crimes, and the parties to the conflict are obliged to effectively, promptly, thoroughly and impartially investigate such violations and to prosecute those alleged to have committed them.”  

Artillery strikes reported 

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has persisted for more than three decades. The region has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces since the parties fought a war as the Soviet Union was dissolving. 

The UN rights chief said despite an agreement reached on Friday by Armenia and Azerbaijan, which called for refraining from deliberately targeting civilian populations, artillery strikes against populated areas were reported over the weekend. 

The Azerbaijani Government reported that since fighting resumed in September, at least 91 civilians have been killed in areas under its control, while the Armenian Government said 45 people have been killed in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict zone, and two within its borders. The UN Human Rights Office,  OHCHR, which Ms. Bachelet heads, has not been able to independently verify these figures. 

Against cluster munitions 

The UN rights chief also noted that the biggest loss of life occurred on 28 October, when some 21 people were reportedly killed, and 70 others injured, in a rocket attack on the Azerbaijani town of Barda, roughly 30 km from the area of active hostilities. 

The rockets, allegedly fired by Armenian forces from Nagorno-Karabakh, reportedly carried cluster munitions. 

“Amid deeply troubling reports that cluster munitions have been used by both parties, I call once again on Armenia and Azerbaijan to stop using them, and to join the more than 100 States that have ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions which comprehensively bans their use,” the High Commissioner said. 

The conflict has also caused widespread displacement, and Ms. Bachelet urged the parties to “depoliticize the issue of providing human rights and humanitarian access” to affected areas, including by UN teams. 

Concern over videos 

The High Commissioner also expressed serious concern over videos which appear to show war crimes being committed. 

Although she said fake images have been circulated on social media, in-depth investigations by media organizations have uncovered “compelling and deeply disturbing information” surrounding videos what appeared to show Azerbaijani troops summarily executing two captured Armenians in military uniforms. 

The wilfiul killing of protected persons represents a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, the international treaty which established the standards for humanitarian treatment during war time. 

Ms. Bachelet explained that while such an incident would constitute a war crime, only a competent court can determine and rule on this. 

COVID-19 fears 

With the fighting taking place amid rising cases of COVID-19, the UN rights chief underscored the direct threat to public health, adding that “the fighting is also strikingly in opposition to the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire amid the pandemic.”  

Ms. Bachelet reiterated her call for all parties to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, abiding by the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution, and avoiding the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. 

“As the loss of life continues and the suffering of civilians deepens, I appeal again for an immediate halt in the fighting and urge all parties to abide by a humanitarian ceasefire and engage in negotiations to find a peaceful and durable solution to this conflict that has wrought so much destruction in the region,” she said. 

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Human Rights

Avoid starvation: ‘Immediate priority’ for 3.5 million Afghans

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Food and blankets are handed out to people in need in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, by © WFP/Arete

Amidst “truly unprecedented levels” of hunger in Afghanistan, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Friday that as winter arrives, avoiding widespread starvation “is an immediate priority”.  

Launching a global fundraising winter campaign to help forcibly displaced families in Afghanistan and elsewhere to cope with the most life-threatening months of the year, UNHCR Spokesperson Babar Baloch described it as “a crisis of hunger and starvation”.

People don’t have enough to eat, and it’s very visible”. 

Displaced lack proper shelter 

Following his recent return from Kabul, Mr. Baloch said in Geneva that a lack of insulated shelters, warm clothes, insufficient food, fuel for heating, and medical supplies are just some of the deprivations confronting people who have been forcibly displaced. 

With temperatures “expected to drop to -25C, many displaced families lack proper shelter – a primary requirement if they are to survive the bitter cold”, he warned. 

3.5 million in need 

UNHCR is appealing for increased support for 3.5 million people displaced by conflict inside Afghanistan, including 700,000 from 2021 alone. 

According to Mr. Baloch, nearly 23 million people, or 55 per cent of the population, are facing extreme levels of hunger – nearly nine million of whom are at risk of famine.  

This year, UNHCR has assisted some 700,000 displaced people across the country, the majority since mid-August.  

The UN agency is helping nearly 60,000 people every week.  

“But as we reach thousands of people, we find thousands more people who are in need of humanitarian assistance”, Mr. Baloch explained, before appealing for “further resources for the most vulnerable”.  

He identified “single mothers with no shelter or food for their children”, displaced older persons left to care for orphaned grandchildren, and people taking care of loved ones with special needs.  

Appeal for more support over winter 

The UNHCR spokesperson noted that the agency’s teams have delivered relief supplies via road through Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries and humanitarian flights.  

Five more flights carrying winter supplies are scheduled for next week, Mr. Baloch said, reiterating that support to cope with the extreme conditions will continue until February, including core relief items, such as thermal blankets and warm winter clothing.  

Shelters are also being repaired and reinforced, and vulnerable families are receiving cash assistance.  

Mr. Baloch thanked Government and private donors for their support to UNHCR efforts to aid and protect vulnerable families during the winter months.  

However, he added that a further $374.9 million was urgently needed to bolster UNHCR’s response to Afghanistan next year, particularly, over winter. 

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Human Rights

Women and girls at high risk of being pushed into modern slavery

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At an age when children should be in school, millions are engaged in work that is potentially harmful to their health. © UNICEF/Simon Lister

Women and children are at high risk of being pushed into contemporary forms of slavery, UN-appointed independent rights experts said on Wednesday.   

In an alert to coincide with the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on 2 December, they warned that global challenges such as COVID-19, climate change and armed conflict have amplified existing vulnerabilities.  

According to figures released by UNICEF and ILO in June, almost 80 million children aged 5 to 17, are subjected to hazardous work which is classified as a contemporary form of slavery. 

Now, according to the experts, these children may be working longer hours or under worsening conditions as a result of the economic recession and school closures caused by the pandemic.   

Many others may have been forced into the worst forms of child labour, owing to job and income losses among their families.  This includes the forced recruitment of youngsters into armed and criminal groups. 

Women and girls 

According to unofficial estimates cited by the experts, one in every 130 women and girls is subjected to contemporary forms of slavery such as child and forced marriage, domestic servitude, forced labour and debt bondage. 

High levels of exploitation also prevail in global supply chains, which often rely on and reinforce labour exploitation and deepen gender inequality”, the experts said.  

They argue that “gender inequalities lie at the heart of contemporary forms of slavery”, but note that these practices are also fuelled by intersecting forms of discrimination, such as race, social and economic status, age, disability, sexual orientation, and migration status, among others.  

The experts urge Member States to establish safe migration pathways, along with easier access to decent work and more cooperation with the business sector, civil society organisations and trade unions.   

For them, “accountability of perpetrators must be strengthened as a matter of priority, as currently impunity prevails in far too many instances.” 

“Slavery in all its forms needs to end for everyone, including women and children in contexts of armed conflict. Slavery is a disgrace to humanity which in the 21st century cannot be tolerated”, they conclude.  

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the UN Voluntary Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. This year alone, 18,000 victims received vital assistance from organizations supported by the Fund. 

To mark the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, the experts appeal to all Member States to increase their contribution to the Fund, or to make one for the first time. 

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

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Human Rights

Workers with HIV-AIDS continue to face stigma, discrimination

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“Myths and misconceptions” about HIV and AIDS continue to fuel stigma and discrimination in the workplace, the International Labour Organization (ILO) said on Tuesday. 

Despite some improvement in people’s tolerance to the disease in the more than 40 years since the AIDS epidemic began, a survey of 55,000 people in 50 countries found that only one in two people knew that HIV cannot be transmitted by sharing a bathroom. 

“It is shocking that, 40 years into the HIV and AIDS epidemic, myths and misconceptions are still so widespread,” said Chidi King, head of ILO’s Gender, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Branch.

Wake-up call 

A lack of basic facts about how HIV is transmitted is fuelling stigma and discrimination. This survey is a wake-up call to reinvigorate HIV prevention and education programmes; the world of work has a key role to play.” 

Stigma and discrimination in the workplace marginalize people, pushing those with HIV into poverty, Ms. King maintained. 

Working with opinion poll company Gallup, the ILO Global HIV Discrimination in the World of Work Survey reveals that discriminatory attitudes are fuelled by a lack of knowledge about HIV transmission. 

At the end of 2020, approximately 38 million people globally were living with HIV, with 1.5 million newly infected that year, and approximately 680,000 people dying from AIDS- related illnesses, according to the survey. Despite progress made on combating stigma, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the situation. 

Care burdens 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly pushed back some of the efforts, some of the progress that had been made towards eradicating HIV, and there is an even more urgent need now to double those efforts,” Ms. King said. 

“In terms of the impact on people affected by HIV, not only people living with HIV but people who may be looking after somebody with HIV…care burdens have increased during the pandemic due to the non-availability of certain services, therefore seeing a disproportionate impact in relation to women in particular, and in some instances, girls as well.” 

Asia and Pacific in spotlight 

The survey noted that the lowest tolerance for working directly with people with HIV was found in Asia and the Pacific, followed by the Middle East and North Africa. 

The regions with the most positive attitudes were Eastern and Southern Africa, where almost 90 per cent of respondents said they would be comfortable working directly with people with HIV. 

Higher educational levels were also associated with positive attitudes towards working with those living with HIV

The report also offered a number of recommendations, including implementation of HIV programmes to increase awareness of modes of transmission and to improving the legal and policy environment around HIV to protect rights of workers. 

“The workplace has a key role in this education,” Ms. King told journalists in Geneva. “Workers and employers certainly have a role to play. Social dialogue is a key mechanism through which they can craft policies and materials and products in order to raise awareness, ensuring that recruitment policies do not discriminate against people with HIV/AIDS. Governments also have a role to play in terms of broader engagement.” 

Confronting inequalities and ending discrimination is critical to ending AIDS, the report said, particularly during the ongoing COVID pandemic.  

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