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Belarus targets women human rights defenders after disputed August elections

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Protestors at the March of Peace and Independence in Minsk, Belarus. Unsplash/Andrew Keymaster

Independent UN experts criticized Belarus on Tuesday for persecuting women human rights defenders, who have been involved in the mass protests underway in the country since August’s controversial presidential election. 

“Belarus has effectively criminalized human rights work at a time when the work of human rights defenders is more essential than ever”, said Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. 

‘Special courage’ 

As the Government continues to crack down on demonstrators protesting the election, Ms. Lawlor said that “women human rights defenders are being particularly targeted”. 

At least three of them have come under attack simply for doing their job during September and early October: “In Belarus, as in many other countries, it takes special courage for women to stand up for human rights”, upheld the UN expert. 

Lodging charges 

Ms. Lawlor drew attention to the arrest of Maria Rabkova – volunteer coordinator of a human rights centre that documents freedom of assembly and other rights – who is facing between six months and three years in prison on the grounds of educating or preparing people to participate in mass riots. 

“The charge against Maria Rabkova is tantamount to the criminalization of human rights work”, she said. “Belarusian authorities must release her immediately and drop all charges.” 

The UN expert also expressed concern over the prosecution of Irina Sukhiy and Marina Dubina, human rights defenders in the environmental non-governmental organization, Ecohome, who were detained on charges of violating protest procedures. 

She noted that as the case progressed, authorities changed dates, saying that one date was specified when they were arrested, but exchanged for another in court, during sentencing.  

“These apparent irregularities are extremely concerning”, attested Ms. Lawlor.  

“Inconsistencies in the formal accusations brought against these two brave women raise serious questions as to the legal basis for their initial detention and subsequent sentencing”, she added. 

Both women received short sentences of administrative detention. 

Human rights work essential during unrest 

The Special Rapporteur maintained that the work of human rights defenders is more essential than ever in times of unrest. 

“When the risk of human rights violations increases, the documentation work carried out by defenders becomes crucial”, Ms. Lawlor flagged. “They must not be punished for pursuing it”. 

Endorsing the remarks were Anaïs Marin, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus; Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights of peaceful assembly and association; the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention; and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls

Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not paid for their work. 

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Human Rights

Philippines: Investing in Nutrition Can Eradicate the “Silent Pandemic”

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The Philippines needs to invest more in programs tackling childhood undernutrition to eliminate what is long considered a “silent pandemic” afflicting many of the country’s poor and vulnerable population, according to recent study released today by the World Bank.    

Childhood stunting – characterized by prolonged nutritional deficiency among infants and young children– is considered one of the most serious but least-addressed problems in the world and an even more pressing issue in the Philippines, says the report “Undernutrition in the Philippines: Scale, Scope and Opportunities for Nutrition Policy and Programming.”

In the Philippines, around 30 percent of children under 5 years of age are stunted – considered high for its level of income and high compared to most of its neighbors. Other countries with similar levels of income have rates of stunting averaging around 20 percent of children under 5 years of age.

The Philippines’ rate of stunting places it fifth among countries in the East Asia and Pacific region with the highest stunting prevalence, and among the top ten countries globally with the highest number of stunted children.

Ndiamé Diop, World Bank Country Director for Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand said undernutrition is a critical issue hampering the Philippines’ human and economic development.

Healthy children can do well in school and look forward to a prosperous future as productive members of society, while undernourished children tend to be sickly, learn less, more likely to drop out of school and their economic productivity as adults can be clipped by more 10 percent in their lifetime,” said Diop. “Improving the nutrition of all children is key to the country’s goals of investing in people and boosting human capital for a more inclusive pattern of economic growth. To achieve that, we need greater coordination among the local and national government units, as well as participation of the private sector and civil society to address this silent pandemic afflicting many poor and vulnerable families.”

In some regions, the level of stunting exceeds 40 percent of children under five years of age. This is true in Bangsamoro Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), Mimaropa, Bicol, and Western Visayas. In rural areas, children are more likely to be stunted than their urban counterparts.

Among the primary causes of undernutrition are poor infant and young child feeding practices, ill health, low access to diverse, nutritious foods, inadequate access to health services, unhealthy household environment, and poverty. 

According to Nkosinathi Mbuya, World Bank Senior Nutrition Specialist, East Asia and the Pacific Region and lead author of the report, there is only a narrow window of opportunity for adequate nutrition to ensure children’s optimal health and physical and cognitive development. It spans the first 1,000 days of life from the day of conception to the child’s second birthday, he said.

“Any undernutrition occurring during this period can lead to extensive and largely irreversible damage to physical growth, brain development, and, more broadly, human capital formation,” said Mbuya. “Therefore, interventions to improve nutritional outcomes must focus on this age group and women of child-bearing age.”

Critical to tackling undernutrition at scale are better and higher levels of nutrition investments as well as adequate domestic financing for nutrition-related programs for vulnerable populations, says the report. Increased direct government funding to and from local government units (LGUs) to deliver on their multisectoral local nutrition action plans to be a priority.

The report suggests several priority recommendations, which if implemented over the next few years can bring about effective and sustainable progress in the Government’s efforts to tackle the persistent challenge of undernutrition in the country.

These include securing adequate and predictable financing for nutrition-related programs to achieve nutrition goals; implementing at scale, an evidence-based package of nutrition interventions that should be made available to eligible households in high stunting municipalities; addressing the underlying determinants of undernutrition through a multi-sector effort, and; ensuring that nutrition is one of the key priorities in the agendas of both the executive and legislative bodies in municipalities.

Such a comprehensive effort would require high-level government ownership and leadership at all levels which would facilitate a whole-of government approach to achieving nutrition results, according to the report. 

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Human Rights

Child labour rises to 160 million – first increase in two decades

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Child farmers help to level fields in Balkh Province, Afghanistan., by World Bank/Ghullam Abbas Farzami

The number of children in child labour has risen to 160 million worldwide – an increase of 8.4 million children in the last four years – with millions more at risk due to the impacts of COVID-19, according to a new report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF.

Child Labour: Global estimates 2020, trends and the road forward  – released ahead of World Day Against Child Labour on 12th June – warns that progress to end child labour has stalled for the first time in 20 years, reversing the previous downward trend that saw child labour fall by 94 million between 2000 and 2016.

The report points to a significant rise in the number of children aged 5 to 11 years in child labour, who now account for just over half of the total global figure. The number of children aged 5 to 17 years in hazardous work – defined as work that is likely to harm their health, safety or morals – has risen by 6.5 million to 79 million since 2016.

“The new estimates are a wake-up call. We cannot stand by while a new generation of children is put at risk,” said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder. “Inclusive social protection allows families to keep their children in school even in the face of economic hardship. Increased investment in rural development and decent work in agriculture is essential. We are at a pivotal moment and much depends on how we respond. This is a time for renewed commitment and energy, to turn the corner and break the cycle of poverty and child labour.”

In sub-Saharan Africa, population growth, recurrent crises, extreme poverty, and inadequate social protection measures have led to an additional 16.6 million children in child labour over the past four years.

Even in regions where there has been some headway since 2016, such as Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean, COVID-19 is endangering that progress.

The report warns that globally, nine million additional children are at risk of being pushed into child labour by the end of 2022 as a result of the pandemic. A simulation model shows this number could rise to 46 million if they don’t have access to critical social protection coverage.

Additional economic shocks and school closures caused by COVID-19 mean that children already in child labour may be working longer hours or under worsening conditions, while many more may be forced into the worst forms of child labour due to job and income losses among vulnerable families.

“We are losing ground in the fight against child labour, and the last year has not made that fight any easier,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “Now, well into a second year of global lockdowns, school closures, economic disruptions, and shrinking national budgets, families are forced to make heart-breaking choices. We urge governments and international development banks to prioritize investments in programmes that can get children out of the workforce and back into school, and in social protection programmes that can help families avoid making this choice in the first place.”

Other key findings in the report include:

  • The agriculture sector accounts for 70 per cent of children in child labour (112 million) followed by 20 per cent in services (31.4 million) and 10 per cent in industry (16.5 million).
  • Nearly 28 per cent of children aged 5 to 11 years and 35 per cent of children aged 12 to 14 years in child labour are out of school.
  • Child labour is more prevalent among boys than girls at every age. When household chores performed for 21 hours or more each week are taken into account, the gender gap in child labour narrows.
  • The prevalence of child labour in rural areas (14 per cent) is close to three times higher than in urban areas (5 per cent).

Children in child labour are at risk of physical and mental harm. Child labour compromises children’s education, restricting their rights and limiting their future opportunities, and leads to vicious inter-generational cycles of poverty and child labour.

To reverse the upward trend in child labour, the ILO and UNICEF are calling for:

  • Adequate social protection for all, including universal child benefits.
  • Increased spending on free and good-quality schooling and getting all children back into school – including children who were out of school before COVID-19.
  • Promotion of decent work for adults, so families don’t have to resort to children helping to generate family income.
  • An end to harmful gender norms and discrimination that influence child labour.
  • Investment in child protection systems, agricultural development, rural public services, infrastructure and livelihoods.

As part of the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour , the global partnership Alliance 8.7 , of which UNICEF and ILO are partners, is encouraging member States, business, trade unions, civil society, and regional and international organizations to redouble their efforts in the global fight against child labour by making concrete action pledges.

During a week of action from 10–17 June, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder and UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore will join other high-level speakers and youth advocates at a high-level event during the International Labour Conference to discuss the release of the new global estimates and the roadmap ahead.

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Human Rights

2021 Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy

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Each year, the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy assembles hundreds of courageous dissidents and human rights activists, diplomats, journalists and student leaders to shine a spotlight on urgent human rights issues.

The Geneva Summit is sponsored by 25 human rights NGOs from around the world. The Geneva Summit has been featured in media around the globe, including CNN, Agence France Presse, AP, The Australian, Radio Free Europe and ANSA.

This year, the 13th  Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy was held on June 7 and 8. The event was free to all the people who made online registration. This year the summit hosted different voices from different parts of the world.

In this year’s summit, the leading Turkish journalist Can Dündar who was arrested, jailed and forced into exile for his reporting on Erdogan’s government was one of the speakers addressing Human Rights and Democracy on the Fragility of Freedom and Democracy panel.

For the full text of the Fragility of Freedom and Democracy panel, click here.

The list of the other speakers is as follows:

Waad Al-Kateab, Syrian refugee and award-winning documentary filmmaker on the conflict in Syria

Rayhan Asat, Uyghur activist, sister of Ekpar Asat who was abducted by Chinese authorities

Nathan Law, Former member of Hong Kong Legislative Council who fled arrest & sudden leader of 2014 Umbrella Movement

András Simonyi, Academic & former Hungarian Ambassador to the U.S.

Prof. Irwin Cotler, Chair of Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, former Minister of Justice & Attorney General of Canada.

Gulalai Ismail, Pakistani women’s rights activist, former political prisoner who escaped the country

Tania Bruguera, Cuban political performance artist repeatedly arrested for her work

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian opposition presidential candidate forced to flee after rigged elections

Jihyun Park, Escapee and survivor of a North Korean forced labor camp

Daria Navalnaya, Daughter of poisoned and jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny

Kylie Moore-Gilbert, Australian-British academic just freed after two years in Iranian prison as a victim of hostage diplomacy

Evan Mawarire, Zimbabwean protest leader, arrested six times and tortured for his human rights work

Yang Jianli, Chinese dissident, former political prisoner, survivor of Tiananmen Square and President of Initiatives for China

Vladimir Kara-Murza, Leading dissident against Putin regime, Chairman of Boris Nemtsov Foundation, survivor of two poisoning attempts

For links to other speakers’ quotes, videos, livestream, and more, click here.

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