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Russia responsible for Navalny poisoning, rights experts say

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A demonstration in support of Aleksei Navalny takes place in London, UK in early 2021. Unsplash/Liza Pooor

Russia is responsible for the poisoning and attempted killing of jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny, two independent UN rights experts said on Monday, issuing an “open call” for an international investigation into the incident. 

Special Rapporteurs Agnès Callamard and Irene Khan believe the politician was poisoned to send a “clear, sinister warning” to anyone wanting to criticize the Government. 

Mr. Navalny fell violently ill on a domestic flight from Siberia to Moscow last August. He was later flown to Germany where toxicology reports determined he had been poisoned with Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent. On returning to Moscow last month, he was imprisoned for violating a sentence for alleged embezzlement. 

“It is our conclusion that Russia is responsible for the attempted arbitrary killing of Mr. Navalny”, said Ms. Callamard, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, speaking during a press conference in Geneva. 

Part of a larger trend 

The independent experts were appointed by the UN Human Rights Council and are not UN staff nor are they paid by the Orgnaization. 

They conducted a four-month investigation into the Navalny case and wrote to the Russian authorities last December but never received a response. Their letter was made public on Monday, in line with Council provisions. 

They said only Russia is known to have developed, stored and used Novichok.  A novel version was used against Mr. Navalny, suggesting further development of the toxin.  It was also “very unlikely” that non-State actors would have the capacity to develop or use the nerve agent, or that private buyers would have the expertise to properly handle it. 

“It is also the findings of our work that the poisoning and attempted killing of Mr. Navalny, along with the lack of investigation and the denying narratives, are part of a larger trend, ongoing over several decades, of arbitrary killings and attempted killings, including through poisoning, by the Russian authorities of journalists, critics and dissidents and are therefore consistent with an overall pattern of modus operandi”, Ms. Callamard added. 

Sowing fear in opponents 

Mr. Navalny has long been a staunch critic of the Kremlin who repeatedly denounced corruption, said Ms. Khan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.    

He had suffered two previous chemical attacks prior to the Novichok poisoning, as well as physical attacks, threats, harassment, surveillance and criminal sanctions. 

“The motive of the poisoning, preceded by a long history of attacks, harassment and trumped up charges, was both to violate the human rights of an individual but also to knock out a political opponent”, she said. 

“And we believe that there might be a broader purpose to the poisoning. Novichok was chosen precisely to cause fear. And we believe that the poisoning of Mr. Navalny might have been carried out deliberately to send a clear, sinister warning that this would be the fate of anyone else who might criticize and oppose the Government.” 

US report on Kashoggi killing ‘important’ 

The independent experts also welcomed a United States report on the October 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi, which was issued on Friday. 

The report found Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman complicit in the murder of Mr. Kashoggi, a US permanent resident, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.    

The Biden administration said it will impose visa bans against some 76 Saudi individuals in response. 

“The fact that the report named the quasi head of a State, Mohammed bin Salman, as being responsible for the operation that killed Mr. Jamal Kashoggi is an important demonstration as well on the part of the United States to be transparent”, said Ms. Callamard, who has long called for an investigation. 

However, she was disappointed that the report contains “nothing new” factually, as it only provides an analysis of circumstantial evidence, and that the US authorities have not so far announced any action regarding liability and responsibility on the part of the Crown Prince. 

“It is extremely, in my view, problematic if not dangerous to acknowledge someone’s capability and then to tell that someone ‘But we won’t do anything. Please proceed as if we had said nothing’”, she said, referring to President Joseph Biden’s campaign promise to protect press freedom. 

Elaborating further, Ms. Khan reported that only 12 per cent of journalist killings are investigated and prosecuted. 

“I am pleased that the report has been published but very disappointed, very disappointed indeed, that on the issue of accountability, the US has not seen fit to take stronger action at this stage,” she said.

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Human Rights

55 journalists killed in 2021, impunity ‘alarmingly widespread’

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Journalists covering a terrorist attack in Kenya. ©UNESCO/ Enos Teche

Fifty-five journalists and media professionals were killed last year, latest UN data showed on Thursday, with nearly nine in 10 killings since 2006 still unresolved. 

Impunity is “alarmingly widespread”, said the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). 

“Once again in 2021, far too many journalists paid the ultimate price to bring truth to light”, said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.  

“Right now, the world needs independent, factual information more than ever. We must do more to ensure that those who work tirelessly to provide this can do so without fear.” 

Although the number of victims stands at its lowest for a decade, UNESCO underlined the many dangers that reporters face in trying to cover stories and expose wrongdoing.  

In 2021, as in previous years, journalists faced high rates of imprisonment, physical attack, intimidation and harassment, including when reporting on protests. 

No distinction 

Women journalists continue to be particularly at risk as they are subjected to “a shocking prevalence of harassment online”, UNESCO said, citing data which showed that nearly three-quarters of female media professionals surveyed had experienced online violence linked to their work. 

According to the UNESCO Observatory of Killed Journalists, two-thirds of victims in 2021 died in countries where there is no armed conflict.  

This marks a complete reversal of the situation in 2013, when two-thirds of killings took place in countries experiencing conflict. 

Regional dangers  

Most deaths in 2021 occurred in just two regions, Asia-Pacific – with 23 killings, and Latin America and the Caribbean – with 14. 

On Wednesday, Ms. Azoulay condemned the killing of Myanmar journalist Sai Win Aung. 

Mr. Aung – also known as A Sai K – died on 25 December while covering the plight of refugees in the southeastern state of Kayin. 

During his assignment for the Federal News Journal, he was shot in an artillery attack by the Myanmar armed forces, UNESCO said citing reports, making him the second journalist to be killed in Myanmar last month. 

Bold platform  

UNESCO has a global mandate to ensure freedom of expression and the safety of journalists worldwide.  

Every time a journalist or media professional is killed, the agency systematically urges authorities to conduct a full investigation. 

The agency also coordinates the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, which marks its 10-year anniversary in 2022.  

UNESCO also provides training for journalists and judicial actors, works with Governments to develop supportive policies and laws and raises global awareness through events such as World Press Freedom Day, commemorated annually on 3 May. 

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Human Rights

Harsh winter fuels ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan

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UN humanitarians warned on Tuesday that a harsh winter in Afghanistan is aggravating already severe conditions faced by millions across the country.

In the past 24 hours, heavy snowfall and rain have impacted a number of areas, disrupting flights to and from Kabul Airport, according to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“Further snow and low temperatures are forecast in the coming days”, UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told journalists at the daily briefing for correspondents in New York.

Scaling up

An already dire humanitarian situation in Afghanistan worsened following the takeover by Taliban forces last August, and the subsequent suspension of aid, coupled with freezing of assets by many countries and international organisations.

Late last month, the Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution clearing the way for aid to reach Afghans in desperate need of basic support, while preventing funds from falling into the hands of the Taliban, a move welcomed by the head of OCHA as a “milestone” decision that will save lives.

Meanwhile, humanitarian partners are racing against time to deliver aid and supplies – in line with commitments to scale up operations.

“During December, our humanitarian partners have reached seven million people with relief food supplies across the country”, said Mr. Dujarric. 

“Provision of winterization support, including cash and non-food items, is also under way in various parts of the country”. 

In 2021, donors provided $1.5 billion for two humanitarian appeals, including $776 million of the $606 million required for the Flash Appeal launched in September by the Secretary-General, and $730 million of the $869 million sought in the Humanitarian Response Plan.

Raising concerns

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has expressed its continuing concern for the millions of internally-displaced in Afghanistan while the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, is scaling up its response to disseminate timely winterization assistance – particularly to the most vulnerable of displaced families.

UNHCR said that it is providing ongoing multipurpose cash assistance to meet their immediate needs for warmth, and security.

Sustained support is critical”, the agency tweeted.

At the same time, Ezatullah Noori, the national emergency coordinator for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Afghanistan, pointed out that this is the third season of drought in five years.

“If we don’t support the agricultural sector in time, we will lose an essential pillar of the Afghan economy”, he warned.

Aid in numbers

Since 1 September, humanitarian partners in Afghanistan have reached:

  • 9M people with food assistanc.
  • 201K children with treatment for acute malnutrition.
  • 4M people with healthcare.
  • 110K people with winterization assistance.

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Human Rights

People of Myanmar face ‘unprecedented’ crisis in 2022

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COVID and ongoing insecurity in Myanmar are pushing vulnerable people into poverty. © UNICEF/Nyan Zay Htet

The people of Myanmar are facing an unprecedented political, socioeconomic, human rights and humanitarian crisis with needs escalating dramatically since the military takeover and a severe COVID-19 third wave.  

According to a UN Humanitarian Needs Overview published on Friday by OCHA, the turmoil is projected to have driven almost half the population into poverty heading into 2022, wiping out the impressive gains made since 2005. 

The situation has been worsening since the beginning of the year, when the military took over the country, ousting the democratically elected Government. It is now estimated that 14 out of 15 states and regions are within the critical threshold for acute malnutrition. 

For the next year, the analysis projects that 14.4 million people will need aid in some form, approximately a quarter of the population. The number includes 6.9 million men, 7.5 million women, and five million children.  

Reasons 

Price hikes, COVID-19 movement restrictions and ongoing insecurity have forced the most vulnerable people to emergency strategies to buy food and other basic supplies.  

Prices for key household commodities have risen significantly, making some food items unaffordable. At the same time, farming incomes have been affected by lower prices for some crops, higher input prices, and limited access to credit. 

Monsoon floods in July and August have also affected more than 120,000 people, resulting in crop losses and contributing to food insecurity. 

For 2022, the humanitarian affairs office OCHA, says the outlook “remains dire”. 

The political and security situation is “expected to remain volatile” and a fourth wave of COVID-19, due to relatively low vaccination rates and the emergence of new variants, is considered a rising risk. 

Prices are only expected to decrease marginally, while farm gate prices will likely remain low. As a result, consumer prices are projected to be higher, with incomes continuing to decrease. 

Other threats  

According to OCHA, the “unrelenting stress on communities is having an undeniable impact on the physical and mental health of the nation, particularly the psychological well-being of children and young people.” 

The risk and incidence of human trafficking, already on the rise in 2021, is expected to further escalate. 

In areas affected by conflict, entire communities, including children, are being displaced, increasing the risks for girls and boys to be killed, injured, trafficked, recruited and used in armed conflict.   

In 2020 and 2021, learning was disrupted for almost 12 million children, nearly all the school-aged population, and even though schools had began to reopen, the prospect of a full return to classroom education remains slim for many.  

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