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UNICEF: Closing schools should be ‘measure of last resort’

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Teachers and students wear face masks and maintain physical distance at a school in Cambodia. © UNICEF/Chansereypich Seng

The head of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) underscored on Tuesday that “no effort should be spared” to keep children in school, as the coronavirus pandemic continues into a second year. 

“Despite overwhelming evidence of the impact of school closures on children, and despite increasing evidence that schools are not drivers of the pandemic, too many countries have opted to keep schools closed, some for nearly a year”, Henrietta Fore said in a statement

A high cost 

The UNICEF chief highlighted that the cost of closing schools has been devastating, with 90 per cent of students globally facing shutdowns at the peak of the COVID disruptions last year, leaving more than a third of schoolchildren with no access to remote education. 

“The number of out-of-school children is set to increase by 24 million, to a level we have not seen in years and have fought so hard to overcome”, she said. 

“Children’s ability to read, write and do basic math has suffered, and the skills they need to thrive in the 21st century economy have diminished”, Ms. Fore added. 

Closure a ‘last resort’ 

Keeping children at home puts their health, development, safety and well-being at risk – with the most vulnerable bearing the heaviest brunt, she said. 

She pointed out that without school meals, children are “left hungry and their nutrition is worsening”; without daily peer interactions and less mobility, they are “losing physical fitness and showing signs of mental distress”; and without the safety net that school often provides, they are “more vulnerable to abuse, child marriage and child labour”. 

“That’s why closing schools must be a measure of last resort, after all other options have been considered”, stressed the top UNICEF official. 

Evaluating local transmission 

Assessing transmission risks at the local level should be “a key determinant” in decisions on school operations, Ms. Fore said. 

She also flagged that nationwide school closures be avoided, whenever possible. 

“Where there are high levels of community transmission, where health systems are under extreme pressure and where closing schools is deemed inevitable, safeguarding measures must be put in place”, maintained the UNICEF chief. 

Moreover, it is important that children who are at risk of violence in their homes, who are reliant upon school meals and whose parents are essential workers, continue their education in classrooms. 

After lockdown restrictions are lifted, she said that schools must be among the first to reopen and catch-up classes should be prioritized to keep children who were unable to learn remotely from being left behind. 

“If children are faced with another year of school closures, the effects will be felt for generations to come”, said Ms. Fore.

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Human Rights

UNSC calls for ‘immediate reversal’ of Turkish and Turkish Cypriot decision on Varosha

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The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) controls the buffer zone between the opposing sides. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The Security Council said in a statement released on Friday that settling any part of the abandoned Cypriot suburb of Varosha, “by people other than its inhabitants, is “inadmissible”. 

The presidential statement approved by all 15 Security Council members, upheld that “no actions should be carried out in relation to Varosha, that are not in accordance with its resolutions”. 

“The Security Council condemns the announcement in Cyprus by Turkish and Turkish Cypriot leaders on 20 July 2021 on the further reopening of part of the fenced-off area of Varosha”, the statement continued. 

‘Deep regret’ 

“The Security Council expresses its deep regret regarding these unilateral actions that run contrary to its previous resolutions and statements.” 

The statement calls for “the immediate reversal of this course of action and the reversal of all steps taken on Varosha since October 2020.” 

The statement followed a closed-door briefing earlier in the day by the outgoing UN Special Representative, Elizabeth Spehar

The Mediterranean island has been divided between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities for 47 years, and a Security Council resolution of 1964 recommended the establishment of a peacekeeping force to maintain law and order and help end inter-communal strife.  

According to news reports, on Wednesday, Greek Cypriot leaders appealed to the Council over plans by Turkish Cypriot authorities to revert a 1.35 square-mile section of Varosha, from military to civilian control, and open it for potential resettlement. 

The self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which is backed by Turkey, made the initial announcement a day earlier, that part of the suburb would come under civilian control.  

Guterres statement 

On Wednesday, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed his deep concern over Wednesday’s announcements by Turkey and Turkish-Cypriot leaders, on re-opening Varosha, and said that the UN’s position “remains unchanged and is guided by the relevant Security Council resolutions”.  

In a statement issued by his Deputy Spokesperson, Farhan Haq, Mr. Guterres called on all sides “to refrain from any unhelpful actions and to engage in dialogue to bring peace and prosperity to the island through a comprehensive settlement”. 

“The Secretary-General has repeatedly called on all parties to refrain from unilateral actions that provoke tensions and may compromise the ongoing efforts to seek common ground between the parties towards a lasting settlement of the Cyprus issue”. 

‘Just settlement’ 

The Security Council statement concluded with a reaffirmation of its commitment “to an enduring, comprehensive and just settlement, in accordance with the wishes of the Cypriot people, and based on a bicommunal, bizonal federation, with political equality”. 

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Myanmar: From political crisis, to ‘multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe’

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What began as a coup by the Myanmar military has ‘rapidly morphed’ into an all-out attack against the civilian population that has become increasingly widespread and systematic, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned on Tuesday.

Speaking at the 47th session of the Human Rights Council, Michelle Bachelet reiterated that the situation in the country has evolved from a political crisis in early February to a “multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe”, repeating a formulation she first used a month ago.

Since the coup, nearly 900 people have been killed while around 200,000 people have been forced to flee their homes because of violent military raids on neighbourhoods and villages.

Downward spiral

“Suffering and violence throughout the country are devastating prospects for sustainable development and raise the possibility of State failure or a broader civil war”, she cautioned.

Ms. Bachelet explained that the catastrophic developments since February have had a severe and wide-ranging impact on human rights, peace and security, and sustainable development.

“They are generating clear potential for massive insecurity, with fallout for the wider region”.

The UN High Commissioner urged the international community to stand united in pressuring the military to halt its continuing attacks on the people of Myanmar and return the country to democracy, reflecting the ‘clear will of the people’.

The UN must act

She said the UN system must not fail the country a second time”, she added, citing the 2019 review of UN action in the country, by Gert Rosenthal.

She also advised swift action to restore a working democracy before the human rights situation in the country deteriorates further.

“This should be reinforced by Security Council action. I urge all States to act immediately to give effect to the General Assembly’s call to prevent the flow of arms into Myanmar”, Ms. Bachelet said.

Hunger, violence and poverty

Ms. Bachelet said COVID had had a ‘disastrous’ impact on an economy that relied on remittances, the garment industry and other sectors which have been devastated by the resultant global recession.

UN Agencies estimate that over 6 million people are severely in need of food aid and forecast that nearly half the population could fall into poverty by early 2022.

“A void has been opened for the most harmful – and criminal – forms of illicit economy to flourish”, she underscored.

Meanwhile, a countrywide general strike, combined with the widespread dismissal of civil servants – including educators and medical personnel – has cut off many essential services in the country.

Since 1 February, at least 240 attacks on health-care facilities, medical personnel, ambulances and patients have disabled COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccination.

Intense violence and repression

She denounced indiscriminate airstrikes, shelling, civilian killings and mass displacement. Civil voices are also being silenced: over 90 journalists have been arrested and eight major media outlets shuttered.

“We have also received multiple reports of enforced disappearances; brutal torture and deaths in custody; and the arrest of relatives or children in lieu of the person being sought”, she said.

New equation

Despite the repression, the UN High Commissioner indicated that the military leadership has not successfully secured control of Myanmar, nor won the international recognition it seeks.

“On the contrary, its brutal tactics have triggered a national uprising that has changed the political equation”, she said.

She added that people across the country continue peaceful protests despite the massive use of lethal force, including heavy weaponry, and a ‘civil disobedience movement has brought many military-controlled government structures to a standstill’.

Some people, in many parts of Myanmar, have taken up arms and formed self-protection groups. These newly formed groups have launched attacks in several locations, to which the security forces have responded with disproportionate force, she noted.

Consequences

“I am concerned that this escalation in violence could have horrific consequences for civilians. All armed actors must respect and protect human rights and ensure that civilians and civilian structures such as health centres and schools are protected”.

 “Any future democratic government in Myanmar must have the authority to exercise effective civilian control over the military. The international community should build upon the range of international accountability mechanisms already engaged, until transitional justice measures also become genuinely possible at the national level”, the High Commissioner concluded.  

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Human Rights

Amid COVID job losses, ‘high food prices are hunger’s new best friend’

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Job losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic combined with high food prices are making it hard for millions of families to get enough to eat, the World Food Programme (WFP) warned on Thursday. 

WFP estimates that a record 270 million people worldwide are acutely food insecure or at high risk this year, a 40 per cent jump from 2020. 

“High food prices are hunger’s new best friend. We already have conflict, climate and COVID-19 working together to push more people into hunger and misery. Now food prices have joined the deadly trio,” said Arif Husain, Chief Economist at the UN agency. 

Food price inflation 

WFP said countries more likely to experience high food price inflation are those that depend on food imports, or where climatic or conflict shocks could disrupt local food production, or those suffering from macro-economic fragility, with some of the highest price increases found in the Middle East.  

Meanwhile, currency depreciation has further driven up local food prices in many countries, such as Zimbabwe, Syria, Ethiopia and Venezuela. 

WFP’s latest Market Monitor, which provides information on price changes for common staples, reveals that in Lebanon, where economic turmoil has accelerated over the past year, the average price of wheat flour was 50 per cent higher in March through May than in the previous three months. The year-on-year price rise was 219 per cent. 

In war-torn Syria, cooking oil has increased by nearly 60 per cent, and by 440 per cent year-on-year. 

Mozambique, which is confronting a conflict in the north, is among “high food price hotspots” in Africa.  The price of cassava there shot up by 45 per cent in March through May, compared to the previous three months. 

The picture is reflected across international markets, according to the Food Price Index published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).   

After rising for 12 consecutive months, food prices dropped slightly in June, reaching 124.6, which is just below the peak of 136.7 a decade ago. At the same time, the cost of a basic food basket has risen by more than 10 per cent in nine of the more than 80 countries where WFP operates. 

Trouble for families 

WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and its food assistance can make the difference between life or death for millions facing hunger. 

While food price hikes directly impact the people it serves, they have also affected millions of families whose incomes have been decimated by the pandemic.  

The crisis could push as many as 97 million people worldwide into poverty by the end of the year, according to the World Bank. 

“If you’re a family that already spends two thirds of your income on food, hikes in the price of food already spell trouble. Imagine what they mean if you’ve already lost part or all of your income because of COVID-19,” said Mr. Husain. 

WFP explained how high food prices affect its work, first by driving up the number of people who need help.  At the same time, the cost of commodities for food assistance operations is increased, with the agency paying 13 per cent more for wheat during the first four months of the year than it did in 2020. 

WFP is aiming to reach nearly 140 million people worldwide this year, its biggest operation ever.

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