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Global community can still shape ‘new reality’ in Afghanistan

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A screen in an interpreter's booth shows Malala Yousafzai addressing the UN Security Council meeting on Afghanistan, on 9 September, 2021. UN Photo/Manuel Elías

While the choices available in Afghanistan are “not comfortable” ones, continued international engagement and unwavering commitment to the country’s people can help steer the situation to its best possible outcome, the UN’s senior official in Kabul told the Security Council on Thursday.

In particular, Deborah Lyons, UN Special Representative and head of the UN’s assistance mission in Afghanistan, said the world will urgently need to devise a “modus vivendi” to allow billions of dollars in frozen donor funds, to flow into Afghanistan’s fragile economy.

Citing credible reports of reprisal killings, crackdowns on women’s freedoms and other rights violations by the country’s new Taliban-led administration, she added that the UN will also need to decide how to engage with high-level members of the Taliban’s de facto Government – including the newly named prime minister, two deputy prime ministers and foreign minister – who are currently on UN sanctions lists.

Lacking inclusivity

In the new reality that followed the fall of Kabul on 15 August, the world witnessed first scenes of chaos, and then images of protests around Afghanistan.

“These scenes, watched around the world … show that the Taliban have won power, but not yet the confidence of all the Afghan people,” said Ms. Lyons.

As the Council and the global community now ask themselves how to respond, she stressed that there are no “comfortable” answers. 

“Those who hoped for, and urged, inclusivity will be disappointed,” she said, noting that no women, minority representatives or non-Taliban individuals have been named as part of the de facto Government. 

In addition, several high-ranking officials in the new administration – including the man named Prime Minister, Mullah Hasan Akhund, are currently on UN sanctions lists.

Harassment, intimidation

A mixed picture has emerged in the weeks since the Taliban took power. The UN premises has largely been respected, but there have been worrying reports of harassment and intimidation against its national staff.

Ms. Lyons also expressed concern that, despite many Taliban statements granting general amnesties to former members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces and officials of the administration of former President Ashraf Ghani, reports are emerging of house-to-house searches and seizures by Taliban officials.

And while they have provided many assurances of assuring the rights of women, there are new reports that women are being prohibited from working or appearing in public places without male chaperones.

Women and girls

Amidst additional reports that girls’ access to education is once again becoming limited, the Security Council also heard an urgent briefing by Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist, Nobel Prize recipient and founder of the Malala Fund, who reminded delegates what life for women and girls was like under past iterations of Taliban rule.

“I saw my home transformed from a place of peace to a place of fear in just three years,” she said.

Describing her experience of running from gunfire and explosions on the street, she said her childhood 15 years ago was marked by public floggings, schools that closed their doors to girls and banners in shopping malls declaring that women were not allowed.

“This is a story that many Afghan girls may share if we do not act,” she warned, calling on the Council to send a clear and unequivocal message to the Taliban that upholding the rights of women and girls is a precondition of any working relationship.

Shaping the new reality

Emphasizing the UN’s commitment to stay and deliver assistance and support to the people of Afghanistan, Ms. Lyons said that means it must engage with the Taliban, including on ways to allow money to flow into Afghanistan.

A high-level international funding conference is slated for 13 September to help donors meet the country’s rising needs

An additional, looming crisis is the billions of dollars in assets and donor funds that has been frozen by countries in an attempt to deny them to the Taliban.

“The inevitable effect, however, will be a severe economic downturn that could throw millions into poverty and hunger, may generate a massive wave of refugees from Afghanistan, and set Afghanistan back for generations,” the Special Representative warned.

Citing her initial engagement with certain Taliban leaders, she said they clearly stated their need for international assistance, which provides the global community leverage over their actions.

“We can still shape this new reality into a more positive direction,” she stressed.

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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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