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UNGA77: 5 key things to know about the upcoming General Assembly session

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SDGs signs displayed at UNHQ in New York. UN News/Abdelmonem Makki

With just a few weeks to go until the opening of the 77th session of the UN General Assembly, the UN diplomatic community, as well as residents of New York City, are bracing for the annual arrival of Heads of State and Government from around the world, after two years of disruption wrought by COVID-19. Many details are still to be confirmed, but here are five things to look out for between 12 and 27 September.

A Hungarian President takes the gavel

A new session means a new President of the General Assembly. The current PGA – as the UN acronym goes – Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives, will bow out, and Csaba Kőrösi of Hungary will take on the mantle for the next twelve months.

The handover will take place on Monday, 12 September; Mr. Shahid will close the 76th session of the GA in the morning, and the 77th session will be officially opened at 3pm the same day (site goes live at that time).

Mr. Kőrösi’s has held several roles within his country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, his most recent post being Director of Environmental Sustainability at the Office of the President of Hungary. He has been involved with the UN for several years, and the Presidency probably won’t involve too much of a learning curve: Mr. Kőrösi  served as Vice-President of the General Assembly during the 67th session in 2011-2012.

Transforming Education Summit

As usual, international attention (as well as large numbers of police, and complaints about traffic jams from New York residents) will be centred around the High-Level Debate week, which begins on Tuesday 20 September.

However, the Transforming Education Summit, which takes place the week before at UN Headquarters – on Friday 16, Saturday 17 and Monday 19 September – is billed as a major event by the organization.

Friday is “Mobilization Day”, which will be youth-led and youth-organized, bringing young people’s concerns over their education to decision and policymakers, and will focus on mobilizing the global public, youth, teachers, civil society and others, to support the transformation of education across the world.

The second day is all about solutions, and is designed to be a platform for initiatives that will contribute to transforming education. The day is grouped around five themes (“Thematic Action Tracks”): inclusive, equitable, safe and healthy schools; learning and skills for life; work and sustainable development; teachers, teaching and the teaching profession; digital learning and transformation; and financing of education.

The third day, on Monday 19 September, is Leaders Day, capitalizing on the fact that so many Heads of State and Government will be descending on New York that week. Expect a host of National Statements of Commitment from these leaders.

The day will also feature the presentation of the Summit Youth Declaration and the Secretary-General’s Vision Statement for Transforming Education.

SDG Moment

This year’s SDG Moment, which will take place between 08:30 and 10:00 on Monday 19 September, immediately before Leader’s Day of the Transforming Education Summit, will be an opportunity to refocus attention on the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN’s 2030 Agenda, a blueprint for a fairer future for people and the planet.

Speaking at the High-Level Political Forum – a key annual development forum – in July, Amina Mohammed, the Deputy Secretary-General, said that transitions in renewable energy, food systems and digital connectivity along with “investments in human capital, financing the opportunities”, are needed in order to turn multiple crises into opportunities.

Ms. Mohammed said that this year’s Moment will be “an opportunity to focus on these deep transitions, and on the work needed to get us back on track. It will also be an important milestone on the way to the 2023 SDG Summit.”

Last year’s Moment was notable for the involvement of Korean megastars BTS, who reflected on the huge disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and challenged the notion that they are part of a “lost COVID generation”.

The rights of minorities

On 18 December 1992, UN Member States adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious, and Linguistic Minorities (UN Declaration on Minority Rights for short), described by the UN as a key instrument to address the political and civil, economic, social, and cultural rights of persons belonging to minorities.

On Wednesday 21 September, in the Trusteeship Council Chamber, a High-Level Meeting will take place, as part of the year-long commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Declaration.

Speaking in June, Paolo David, Head of UN Human Rights’ Indigenous Peoples and Minorities Section, said that, while the adoption of the Declaration brought hope three decades ago, this feeling was quickly lost due to the armed conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Mr. David noted that minorities continue to be instrumentalised in many conflicts, including in Ukraine, Ethiopia, Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

Today, minorities face unprecedented barriers and challenges, according to the UN. In many countries they deal with modern threats such as online hate speech and are being stripped of citizenship rights.

The event is billed as a chance to take stock of constraints and achievements, share examples of best practice, and set priorities for the future.

Global Goals Week

The General Debate will overlap with Global Goals Week which, despite the name, is actually a nine-day programme of virtual and in-person events taking place between 16 and 25 September, involving more than 170 partners across civil society, business, academia, and the UN system, to accelerate action on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

There are too many events to list in full here, but they include NYC Climate Week, covering a wide range of climate-related challenges; the UN Private Sector Forum, run by UN Global Compact, which brings together business, the UN and civil society, to address global crises; and the launch of the 2002 Climate Action Project from Take Action Global, which brings classrooms from over 140 countries together, for a series of live interviews, school visits and social media takeovers.

There will be plenty of SDG Media Zone videos to watch during Global Goals Week, with dozens of interesting speakers, including  content creators, influencers, activists and media partners, taking part in panel discussions that will highlight actions and solutions in support of the Sustainable Development Goals.

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Ireland: Rights experts call for redress for 50 years of systemic racism in childcare institutions

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UN-appointed independent human rights experts on Friday called on Irish authorities to provide adequate redress for victims of racial discrimination and system racism in Irish childcare institutions, stretching over more than 50 years.

Citing information received, 10 experts issued a joint statement saying that systemic racism in childcare institutions between the 1940s and 1990s, has “resulted in the higher institutionalization rate of children of African and Irish descent”.

During their prolonged time there, children were exposed to heightened risk of corporal punishment, sexual, physical and verbal abuse, with lifelong consequences, including infringing their right to enjoy the highest standard of physical and mental health. Some of them were also subjected to vaccine trials.

Exchanging letters

Despite welcoming the Irish Government’s Action Plan to provide tangible benefits for survivors and former residents of mother and baby and county home institutions, the experts sent them a letter containing their allegations of racial discrimination in April.

In it, they raised the alarm that children of African and Irish descent were “subjected to differential treatment because of their race, colour and/or descent, leading to further violations of their human rights”.

In response, the Irish Government referred to the official State apology offered on 13 January 2021 in which the country recognized the “additional impact which a lack of knowledge and understanding had on the treatment and outcomes of mothers and children with different racial and cultural heritage”.

It continued, acknowledging that such “discriminatory attitudes exacerbated the shame and stigma felt by some of our most vulnerable citizens, especially where opportunities for non-institutional placement of children were restricted by an unjust belief that they were unsuitable for placement with families”.

Stolen childhoods

Although the State apology is an important element of the restorative justice process, the experts said it was “not enough”.

Because of the systemic racial discrimination that prevailed in the childcare institutions at the time, the experts underscored that they had, in effect, had their “childhood stolen” from them.

“We are seriously concerned over the severe and continuing effects that racial discrimination and systematic racism have had on the lives of the adults who are currently seeking redress,” the statement read.

Restorative justice

Under international law, States have an obligation to ensure accountability for past human rights violations and provide full reparation to the victims, when these violations still have an impact.

The independent experts called on the Irish Government to “take further action to provide those who were subjected to differential treatment in childcare institutions with effective remedies”.

A future scheme to address rights violations, “must recognize and provide redress for all the human rights violations perpetrated against children during the entire duration of their stay in Irish institutions, including mother and baby homes, industrial schools, reformatories, Magdalen Laundries and analogous institutions, as well as life-long impacts”, the statement continued.

In conclusion, they noted that a proposed “Bill Payment Scheme” provides an avenue of redress “for the harms caused due to racial discrimination and systemic racism to which children of African and Irish descent were subjected”.

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UN experts strongly condemn death of Mahsa Amini

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A girl wearing her hijab in Iran (File). UNICEF/Aslan Arfa

UN independent human rights experts on Thursday strongly condemned the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody following her arrest for allegedly failing to comply with Iran’s strict rules on women’s dress, by wearing what authorities said was “an improper hijab”.

“We are shocked and deeply saddened by the death of Ms Amini,” they said in a statement.

“She is another victim of Iran’s sustained repression and systematic discrimination against women and the imposition of discriminatory dress codes that deprive women of bodily autonomy and the freedoms of opinion, expression and belief”, the experts added.

Stop lethal force

The experts also denounced violence by Iranian security forces directed against peaceful protesters and human rights defenders in cities across the country, who have been marching and demanding accountability for Ms. Amini’s death.

They urged the Iranian authorities to avoid further unnecessary violence and to immediately stop the use of lethal force in policing peaceful assemblies.

Arrest by ‘morality police’

Ms. Amini was arrested by Iran’s morality police on 13 September, and according to news reports, was badly beaten while being taken into custody, which Iranian authorities have denied, claiming instead, that she died of a heart attack.

She reportedly fell into a coma at the Vozara Detention Centre and died in hospital on Friday, 16 September.

“We strongly condemn the use of physical violence against women and the denial of fundamental human dignity when enforcing compulsory hijab policies ordained by State authorities,” the experts said.

“We call on the Iranian authorities to hold an independent, impartial, and prompt investigation into Ms Amini’s death, make the findings of the investigation public and hold all perpetrators accountable”.

Uniting for women

Since Friday, thousands have taken to the streets in cities throughout Iran – including Tehran, Ilam, Isfahan, Kermanshah, Mahabad, Saqez, Sanandaj, Sari and Tabriz – to demand accountability for the young woman’s death and demanding an end to violence and discrimination against women in Iran, particularly their compulsory veiling.

The peaceful protests have been met with excessive use of force, including birdshot and other metal pellets fired by Iranian security forces, the experts said.

According to news reports, at least eight people, including a woman and a 16-year-old, have been killed during the protests, with dozens more injured and multiple arrests by security forces.

Authorities cut power

Since Monday, prolonged internet disruptions have been reported in Tehran, Kurdistan provinces, and other parts of Iran – the third widespread internet shutdown recorded there over the past 12 months.

“Disruptions to the internet are usually part of a larger effort to stifle the free expression and association of the Iranian population, and to curtail ongoing protests.

“State mandated internet disruptions cannot be justified under any circumstances,” the experts said, warning against a further escalation of crackdown against civil society, human rights defenders and peaceful protesters.

They pointed out that over the past four decades, “Iranian women have continued to peacefully protest against the compulsory hijab rules and the violations of their fundamental human rights” and urged the authorities to heed their legitimate fundamental human rights demands.

Iran must repeal all legislation and policies that discriminate on the grounds of sex and gender, in line with international human rights standards,” the independent experts underscored.

The experts

Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures.

They 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.

Click here for the names of the experts who signed onto this statement.

‘Tragedy beyond measure’: UN Women

Later on Thursday, the UN gender empowerment agency, UN Women, issued a statement relating to the death of Ms. Amini, saying that “the death of any young person, any young woman, is a tragedy beyond measure. The circumstances surrounding this series of events, are cause for particular concern.”

The agency said that although the precise causes and circumstances of her death were unclear, “What is clear is that she was detained and treated in violation of the most basic human rights. The incident also underscores the abuses experienced by women and girls worldwide.”

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Famine looms in Somalia, but many ‘hunger hotspots’ are in deep trouble

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A one-year-old girl is treated for malnutrition at a WFP-funded clinic in Dolow in Somalia. © WFP/Samantha Reinders

The number of people facing life-threatening levels of hunger worldwide without immediate humanitarian aid, is expected to rise steeply in coming weeks, the UN said on Wednesday, in a new alert about looming famine in the Horn of Africa and beyond.

In Somalia, “hundreds of thousands are already facing starvation today with staggering levels of malnutrition expected among children under five,” warned the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

“Large-scale deaths from hunger” are increasingly likely in the east African nation, the UN agencies continued, noting that unless “adequate” help arrives, analysts expect that by December, “as many as four children or two adults per 10,000 people, will die every day”.

Complex roots

In addition to the emergency already unfolding in Somalia, the UN agencies flagged 18 more deeply concerning “hunger hotspots”, whose problems have been created by conflict, drought, economic uncertainty, the COVID pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Humanitarians are particularly worried for Afghanistan, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen, where a record 970,000 people “are expected to face catastrophic hunger and are starving or projected to starve or at risk of deterioration to catastrophic conditions, if no action is taken”, the UN agencies said.

This is 10 times more than six years ago, when only two countries had populations as badly food insecure, FAO and WFP noted, in a new report.

Urgent humanitarian action is needed and at scale in all of these at-risk countries “to save lives and livelihoods” and prevent famine, the UN agencies insisted.

Harsh winter harvest

According to FAO and WFP, acute food insecurity around the world will worsen from October to January.

In addition to Somalia, they highlighted that the problem was also dire in the wider Horn of Africa, where the longest drought in over 40 years is forecast to continue, pushing people “to the brink of starvation”.

Successive failed rains have destroyed people’s crops and killed their livestock “on which their survival depends”, said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu, who warned that “people in the poorest countries” were most at risk from acute food security that was “rising fast and spreading across the world”.

FAO’s QU calls for massive aid scale-up

Vulnerable communities “have yet to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic are suffering from the ripple effects of ongoing conflicts, in terms of prices, food and fertilizer supplies, as well as the climate emergency,” the FAO chief continued.

He insisted that “without a massively scaled-up humanitarian response” to sustain agriculture, “the situation will likely worsen in many countries in the coming months”.

Echoing that message, WFP Executive Director David Beasley appealed for immediate action to prevent people dying.

We urgently need to get help to those in grave danger of starvation in Somalia and the world’s other hunger hotspots,” he said.

Perfect storm of problems

“This is the third time in 10 years that Somalia has been threatened with a devastating famine,” Mr. Beasley continued.

“The famine in 2011 was caused by two consecutive failed rainy seasons as well as conflict. Today we’re staring at a perfect storm: a likely fifth consecutive failed rainy season that will see drought lasting well into 2023.”

In addition to soaring food prices, those most at risk from acute food insecurity also have “severely limited opportunities” to earn a living because of the pandemic, the WFP chief explained, as relief teams brace for famine in the Somali districts of Baidoa and Burhakaba in Bay region, come October.

Below the “highest alert” countries – identified as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen – the joint FAO-WFP report notes that the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Kenya, the Sahel, the Sudan and Syria are “of very high concern”, in addition to newcomers the Central African Republic and Pakistan.

Guatemala, Honduras and Malawi have also been added to the list of hunger hotspot countries, joining Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

Barriers to aid

Humanitarian assistance is crucial to save lives and prevent starvation, death and the total collapse of livelihoods, FAO and WFP insist, while highlighting chronic access problems caused by “insecurity, administrative and bureaucratic impediments, movement restrictions and physical barriers” in 11 of the 19 hotspot countries.

This includes “all six of the countries where populations are facing or are projected to face starvation…or are at risk of deterioration towards catastrophic conditions”, they said.

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