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Human Rights

Gaza children living in ‘hell on earth’

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Homes have been shelled in Gaza as hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians continue. UNOCHA

The past ten days have witnessed a “dangerous and horrific” surge in deadly violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), particularly Gaza, and in Israel, the UN chief told the General Assembly on Thursday. 

“If there is a hell on earth, it is the lives of children in Gaza” ,Secretary-General António Guterres said, expressing deep shock at the continued air and artillery bombardment by the Israeli Defence Forces in Gaza that has so far claimed the lives of more than 200 Palestinians, including 60 children, and injured thousands more.

He also called “unacceptable”, the indiscriminate rocket fire towards Israel by Hamas – which controls the enclave – and other militant groups that has resulted in at least 12 deaths. 

Sombre situation 

Appealing to all parties to “cease hostilities”, the UN chief underscored: “The fighting must stop immediately”. 

He painted a grim picture of damaged civilian infrastructure in Gaza, closed crossings, power shortages affecting water supplies, hundreds of buildings and homes destroyed, hospitals impaired and thousands of Palestinians homeless. 

“The fighting has…forced over fifty thousand people to leave their homes and seek shelter in UNRWA (the UN relief agency for Palestine refugees) schools, mosques, and other places with little access to water, food, hygiene or health services”, lamented the top UN official.  

He said he was “deeply distressed” by damage to UN facilities, upholding that “humanitarian installations” are “inviolable”, including during armed conflict.   

Humanitarian needs 

Mr. Guterres said he was working on releasing cash from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), and the UN’s relief chief intends to release $14 million from the Humanitarian Fund for the Occupied Palestinian Territories. 

“Access for humanitarian goods is paramount. Attacks by militant groups on areas surrounding crossing points are unacceptable”, added the Secretary-General. 

He also stressed that “rapid and unhindered access for humanitarian aid” must be allowed into Gaza. 

Laws of war 

Rules of war preserve “first and foremost” the protection of civilians, said Mr. Guterres, urging Israel to abide by those governing armed conflict and to “exercise maximum restraint” in its military operations.  

He also appealed to Hamas and other militant groups to stop indiscriminately launching rockets into Israeli’s civilian population – a clear violation of international humanitarian law.  

“There is no justification…for the abdication by the parties to the conflict of their obligations”, said the UN chief.  

Concerned over violent clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians across the occupied West Bank, Mr Guterres urged Israel to “cease demolitions and evictions” in the OPT, including East Jerusalem. 

“All settlement activities…are illegal under international law”, he reminded, and also stressed that the status quo at Holy Sites must be “upheld and respected”. 

Diplomatic efforts 

The UN chief warned that if the violence spreads beyond Israel and the OPT, it could create an environment “ripe for exploitation by radicals and extremists”, which should be prevented “at all costs”.  

He told the Ambassadors that he and other UN officials are undertaking “extensive diplomatic efforts within the region” to encourage all sides to halt the violence. 

Mr. Guterres called on the international community to do everything in its power to enable the parties to “step back from the brink” and on the parties themselves to allow mediation efforts to intensify to “bring the fighting to an end”.  

Reminding that today’s “horrific events” must be viewed in the context of “decades of military occupation, political deadlock, grievances and hopelessness, and a failure to address the core issues at the heart of the conflict”, the UN chief called a revitalized peace process “the only route to a just and lasting solution”. 

The Secretary-General encouraged the parties to replace “anger and disillusionment with hope for a future in which both Palestinians and Israelis live side by side, in peace and security”.  

Step away from the brink: Assembly President 

General Assembly President Volkan Bozkir echoed the calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza urging the parties to “step away from the brink”. 

Noting that the “Question of Palestine” is the longest standing issue on the UN peace and security agenda, he said that the occupation, compounded by political impasse and lack of negotiations, is “the main underlying source of instability and perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. 

To move forward, he reminded that the UN’s institutional record prescribes a swift return to negotiations with the goal of ending the occupation; addressing all status issues, including that of Jerusalem; and achieving two independent, sovereign, viable States: “Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace, security and mutual recognition”. 

Plea to Security Council 

Mr. Bozkir called for the Security Council to speak with “a unified voice”. 

“The Security Council must shoulder its responsibilities and overcome yet again its paralysis on the longest-standing item”, he spelled out, warning that its inaction hinders, the UN’s “ability and credibility” on other peace and security matters.  

While commemorating the Organization’s 75th anniversary, Member States had recommitted to upholding international peace and security. 

“Yet when it comes to Israel and Palestine we are clearly failing”, said the Assembly President. “I call on both sides and the international community to take real steps to stop the vicious cycle of violence and to end the occupation. To defend human rights”.

Human Rights

Urgent action needed to protect Vietnamese workers trafficked to Serbia

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Urgent action is required to assist and protect some 400 Vietnamese migrant workers who were allegedly trafficked to Serbia, experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council said on Friday. 

Eight companies, including Vietnamese labour recruitment agencies and Chinese construction firms registered in Serbia, have reportedly been implicated in serious human rights abuses, they said, citing information received.  

The experts have written to the businesses and are also in contact with authorities in the three countries.  

Appalling conditions 

“We are deeply concerned that these migrant workers may have been trafficked for purposes of forced labour, and have been living and working in appalling conditions in Serbia, at serious risk to their lives and health,” they said in a statement. 

They were also disturbed by allegations that civil society groups wanting to assist the workers have not been allowed access to them. 

The experts urged the Governments of Serbia, Viet Nam and China to ensure that businesses based in their territory, or operating under their jurisdiction, respect the human rights of all workers. 

“This includes not only the businesses who rely on migrant labour but also labour recruitment agencies,” they said. 

Duty to protect 

Regulation and monitoring of labour recruitment agencies is also critical to effectively prevent trafficking for the purposes of forced labour, they added. 

The experts reminded governments of their duty to protect against business-related human rights abuses. 

Countries must also take appropriate steps to ensure victims have access to justice and effective remedies, and to ensure ongoing assistance and protection, including against forced return. 

They also highlighted the obligations of businesses to exercise due diligence in ensuring that the rights of all workers are protected, without discrimination, recognising the particular needs and rights of migrant workers. 

Independent experts 

The eight human rights experts who issued the statement receive their mandates from the UN Human Rights Council, located in Geneva. 

They monitor and report on specific issues of global concern, which include trafficking in persons, contemporary forms of slavery, the human rights of migrants, and implementation of UN principles on business and human rights. 

The experts operate in their individual capacity and are neither UN staff nor are they paid for their work. 

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Human Rights

UNRWA condemns demolition of Palestinian home in East Jerusalem

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The Salhiyya family's personal belongings after the demolition of their home in East Jerusalem. © UNRWA

The UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, on Thursday urged Israeli to immediately halt all evictions and demolitions in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, after an entire family was forced out of their long-term home the previous day.  

Israeli police evicted the Salhiyya family from their two adjacent houses, according to news reports, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem early on Wednesday, and later tore down the structures – a move which UNRWA’s West Bank field office has condemned. 

Staff who visited the scene on Thursday morning observed the total destruction of the property, with school bags, clothes and family photos still partially visible beneath the rubble. 

Against international law 

“Under international humanitarian law, the forcible transfer of protected persons, as well as the destruction of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons by Israel, as the occupying power, is strictly forbidden, except where such measures would be rendered absolutely necessary by imperative military reasons, or for the security of the population under occupation,” the agency said. 

The 15-member Salhiyya family, who include an older woman and young child, had been living in Sheikh Jarrah for nearly 40 years, according to UNRWA.   

The neigbourhood and tensions surrounding evictions, and attempted evictions, was at the heart of brutal fighting that erupted last year in Gaza, between Israel and the militant group, Hamas. 

Arrests and injuries 

Israeli forces raided the two Salhiyya houses on the property, at 3am on Wednesday, while the family was sleeping.   

In a matter of hours the homes, as well as their possessions, were destroyed, UNRWA said, adding that Israeli forces injured several family members during the eviction operations. 

The head of the family, Mahmoud Salhiyya, along with other relatives, was also arrested.  Mr. Salhiyya had threatened to set himself on fire two days ago after Israeli forces demolished his business, located next door. 

Other families at risk 

UNRWA stated that sadly, cases like the Salhiyya’s are not unique as scores of Palestine refugee families in different areas of Sheikh Jarrah alone – over 200 persons, many of them children – currently face imminent threat of eviction.  

Across East Jerusalem, an estimated 218 Palestinian households are at risk of displacement by the Israeli authorities, the agency said, citing 2020 data from the UN humanitarian affairs office, OCHA

These households comprise some 970 people, including 424 children. 

UNRWA called on the Israeli authorities to abide by international law and, as the occupying power, to ensure the protection of Palestine refugees and civilians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.  

“All individuals have a right to safe and secure housing and to live in peace and dignity,” said the agency. 

Agencies call for release of seriously ill child 

In another development in the region, UNRWA and two other UN agencies are calling for the immediate release of a seriously ill Palestinian child detained in Israel. 

Amal Nakhleh, now 18, has been held without charge for more than a year, a measure known as administrative detention.  He has a rare neuromuscular disorder, according to media reports. 

Israel has extended his detention until 18 May, according to a statement issued on Thursday by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UNRWA, and the UN human rights office, OHCHR

“Neither Amal nor his lawyers or family have been informed of the reasons for his arrest and detention. Amal suffers from a severe autoimmune disease that requires continuous medical treatment and monitoring,” they said. 

Not an isolated case 

The UN agencies called for his “immediate and unconditional release”, in line with international human rights law. 

This is not an isolated case, they added, as currently at least three Palestinians are in administrative detention who were under age 18 when they were first detained. 

“We echo the calls of the UN Secretary-General who in his Report on Children and Armed Conflict has, every year since 2015, urges Israel to end the administrative detention of children. This practice deprives children of their liberty and must immediately end.” 

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Human Rights

UNRWA seeks $1.6 billion to support Palestinian refugees in 2022

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A young girl takes part in UNRWA's Keeping Kids Cool summer activities in Gaza. © UNRWA 2021/Mohamed Hinnawi

The UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, on Tuesday appealed for $1.6 billion to support its lifesaving work this year amid acute regional crises and chronic funding shortfalls. 

UNRWA provides services and programmes, including education, health and food assistance, to more than five million Palestinians across the Middle East. 

The 2022 budget proposal includes additional emergency funding to address humanitarian needs arising from crises in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon. 

‘Indispensable’ to stability 

Philippe Lazzarini, the agency’s Commissioner-General, said budget shortfalls pose a serious threat to its ability to maintain operations. 

“The international community recognizes the lifesaving role of UNRWA and its indispensable contribution to stability in the Middle East. It also recognizes how cost-efficient and agile UNRWA is. In 2022, that recognition must be supported by the adequate level of funding to meet this critical moment for Palestine refugees,” he said

The budget proposal comes as UNRWA confronts chronic funding gaps as needs keep rising. 

Distress and despair 

It is estimated that 2.3 million Palestinian refugees are living in poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten health and livelihoods. 

Distress and despair have become the norm among Palestinian refugees, according to UNRWA.  Many, particularly in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon, report that they are ready to use any means to try to migrate outside of the region. 

Breaking the cycle 

UNRWA has committed to investing in comprehensive programmatic reform and modernization to meet needs in an even more cost-effective and efficient manner.  

The agency said that being fully-funded across its full range of services, will assist its efforts towards breaking the cycle of despair among Palestinian refugees through measures such as providing some $31.2 million in microfinance loans and carrying out vital structural improvements to refugee camps. 

 “The amount that UNRWA is requesting for 2022 will directly contribute to the wellbeing of Palestine refugees, to efforts to combat and contain COVID-19 and to regional stability,” said Mr. Lazzarini. urging donors to step up. 

“The international community must give UNRWA sufficient and predictable funding so we may continue to provide Palestine refugees with a sense of security and normality they deserve.” 

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