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‘No time to lose’, stop flow of deadly weapons to Myanmar military now, urges UN rights expert

Tom Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in the southeast Asian nation, underscored in a statement, the need to stop the flow of weapons and so called dual-use weapons technology into the hands of forces under the command of the military junta, describing it as “literally a matter of life and death.”

“There is no time to lose … I urge governments who support cutting the flow of weapons to a brutal military junta to consider immediately establishing their own arms embargo against Myanmar while simultaneously encouraging UN Security Council action.”

‘Dual-use’ technology

Mr. Andrews also said that bilateral arms embargoes should encompass both weapons and dual-use technology, including surveillance equipment.

“Together, they will represent an important step forward to literally taking guns out of the hands of those killing innocent men, women and children.”

The Special Rapporteur also applauded a call by over 200 civil society organizations to bring the arms embargo issue to the attention of the 15-member Security Council.

He is currently updating a list of States that have established arms embargoes against Myanmar, Mr. Andrews added, noting that he intended to publish an updated list next month. The independent expert’s report to the Human Rights Council in March identified that nations that had already established arms embargoes.

Month four

Into its fourth month, the political turmoil – marked by near daily pro-democracy protests and a brutal crackdown by security forces – has reportedly claimed at least 750 lives and wounded countless more.

There are also serious concerns over the continuing impact of the crisis, with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) warning of an economic collapse, and the UN human rights chief cautioning that Myanmar could spiral into a “full-blown conflict” similar to the implosion of Syria over the past decade, if the bloodshed does not stop.

UNICEF/Robert Few
As of 31 December 2020, there are about 92,000 Myanmar refugees in Thailand. Pictured here, a refugee camp in northern Thailand. (file photo)

Preparing supplies for refugees, in Thailand

Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has said that it is pre-positioning key relief items and personal protective equipment (PPE) in Thailand, which could potentially be provided to those fleeing violence in Myanmar.

According to a bulletin issued earlier this week, about 2,300 people crossed from Myanmar into Thailand on 27 April due to increased fighting and they are currently hosted in safe zones, managed by the Thai Army.

“UNHCR has advocated for access to the population and offered support to the Thai Government’s efforts to respond to further displacement from Myanmar and address refugees’ protection needs”, it said.

As of 31 December 2020, there are about 92,000 Myanmar refugees in Thailand, who fled previous waves of displacement, in nine temporary shelters, according to UNHCR.

Refugee arrivals in India

Similarly, the agency estimates that between 4,000 to 6,000 refugees from Myanmar have entered into the Indian states of Mizoram and Manipur since March, where local charities and individuals have provided life-saving assistance those arriving.

“Some 190 have moved onward to New Delhi, where UNHCR is assessing their needs and has begun registering and providing them with basic assistance”, the agency added, noting that it has offered its support to the Indian Government in protection, and humanitarian coordination and response to new arrivals from Myanmar.

Nearly 8 years on, ‘gaps, inconsistencies, discrepancies’ remain over Syria chemical weapons declaration

Izumi Nakamitsu, the United Nations High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, updated members on recent developments in the work of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in Syria. Those efforts were first mandated by the Council in resolution 2118 (2013), which explicitly called for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons programme.

As of May 2021, she said, outstanding gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies remain in those efforts, meaning that Syria’s declaration to the OPCW cannot be considered accurate and complete.

New findings

Ms. Nakamitsu outlined several recent findings. One was the detection of a chemical warfare agent – found in samples collected in late 2020 from several large volume containers – whose production had not been previously declared.

According to the OPCW, she said, explanations provided by Syria regarding the contents of the samples “are not sufficient to explain the results”, and the chemical’s presence may imply undeclared production activities.

The OPCW has opened a new outstanding issue on that matter, which will be discussed during the next round of its Declarations Assessment Team’s consultations, in mid-May.

Chlorine attack

Ms. Nakamitsu also relayed the findings of an investigation carried out by the OPCW’s Investigation and Identification Team into incidents in the city of Saraqib, on 4 February 2018.

At the time, the OPCW concluded that chlorine released from cylinders “was likely used as a chemical weapon” in Saraqib’s Al Talil neighbourhood.

Providing further information on Wednesday, Ms. Nakamitsu said the OPCW’s recent investigation concluded that “reasonable grounds” exist to believe that a military helicopter belonging to the Syrian Arab Air Force dropped at least one cylinder into the city on that date, releasing toxic chlorine gas.

‘Concerning’ gaps

Describing the number of outstanding issues in the OPCW Syria portfolio as “concerning,” Ms. Nakamitsu reiterated her call on Damascus to fully cooperate with the OPCW.

She warned that all perpetrators must be held accountable, adding that the global community cannot tolerate impunity for those who use weapons outlawed globally for nearly three decades.

“The confidence of the international community in the complete elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons programme depends upon these issues being finalized”, she stressed.

Former LRA leader, ex-child soldier, sentenced to 25 years in prison

Dominic Ongwen, 45, was found guilty of 61 charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including rape, murder and sexual enslavement, committed in Northern Uganda between July 2002 and 31 December. 

In summarizing the decision to sentence him, Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt highlighted the unique nature of the case. 

Victim and perpetrator 

“The Chamber is confronted in the present case with a unique situation. It is confronted with a perpetrator who willfully and lucidly brought tremendous suffering upon his victims”, he said. 

“However, it is also confronted with a perpetrator who himself had previously endured extreme suffering himself at the hands of the group, of which he later became a prominent member and leader.” 

Judge Smith said the Chamber decided to give certain weight in mitigation to the circumstances of Mr Ongwen’s childhood, abduction by the LRA at a very young age, and his early stay with the group. 

The LRA was formed in the 1980s by Joseph Kony, a self-styled prophet who has long been sought for war crimes, and crimes against humanity.  

Children forced to kill 

The group launched its insurgency in northern Uganda, attacking camps hosting internally displaced people, eventually spreading to countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. 

It is estimated that as many as 25,000 children were abducted and forced to fight in the hostilities, or to serve as labourers. 

As an LRA brigade commander, Mr. Ongwen sanctioned the killing of large numbers of civilians, forced marriage, sexual slavery and the recruitment of child soldiers, among other grave crimes. 

He had been detained at the ICC, which is located in The Hague, in the Netherlands, since January 2015, and was found guilty in February. 

The detention period will be deducted from his overall prison sentence. 

The ICC also issued an order for submissions on reparations to his victims. Inputs from parties to the case are due by 6 September of this year, while those from “interested persons or organisations, particularly with local expertise” are due by 7 July 2021.

UN chief pledges to keep ‘memories alive’ of those who died in service during 2020

The memorial ceremony, held online, paid tribute to civilian and uniformed staff who died because of malicious acts, natural disasters and other incidents.   

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its wider impacts, including on healthcare access, the number also included colleagues who passed from the disease or other illness. 

A year like no other 

“The year 2020 was like no other in the history of the United Nations”, Secretary-General António Guterres said. 

“The world faced a merciless pandemic that continues to sow tremendous suffering. Millions of families lost loved ones.  The UN family was no different.” 

The Secretary-General called for a moment of silence to remember the fallen colleagues, whose names were read out loud during the ceremony. 

A diverse ‘family’ 

Representing more than 80 nations, they literally came from every corner of the globe, and reflected the diversity and richness of experience of the UN.  

“They devoted their careers to advancing the vision and the values of the United Nations – securing peace, promoting sustainable development, advancing human rights”, Mr Guterres said. 

Patricia Nemeth, President of the UN Staff Union, added that those who made “the ultimate sacrifice” for the Organization “did so in an effort to defend the freedoms of the most vulnerable, and provide for them the most basic needs that we all enjoy.” 

Remembrance and hope 

The personnel who died in 2020 will never be forgotten, the Secretary-General said.  He also underlined UN commitment to continue reviewing and improving practices related to staff safety and care. 

“They embodied the essence of multilateralism — people around the globe joining forces to build a better world.  In their name, we pledge to continue that work”, he said. 

“As we honour our dear colleagues, let us keep their memories alive through our work to build a life of dignity and hope for all.”

Myanmar: Attacks on healthcare jeopardizing COVID-19 response, UN team says

“At a time when Myanmar needs them the most, health workers fear arrest or detention for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”, the Country Team said in a news release, reiterating its call for health workers, health facilities and patients to be protected.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO)’s global surveillance system, the 158 reported attacks resulted in at least 11 deaths and 51 injuries.

It also listed some 51 health facilities across Myanmar as having been under occupation by security forces, and that at least 31 of those facilities remain currently occupied. The occupied facilities also reported a drop in the number of people seeking medical care.

In addition, at least 139 doctors participating in the civil disobedience movement have reportedly been charged under Section 505 (a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code.

Those detained include highly specialized health personnel whose expertise cannot easily be replaced, which will significantly impact both the quality and quantity of health services available, according to the UNCT.

‘Inviolable nature’

Andrew Kirkwood, UN Resident Coordinator a.i. in Myanmar, said the UN system in the country stands ready to continue its support for the national COVID-19 response.

“But this requires a return to the comprehensive response to the COVID-19 pandemic previously underway, that the inviolable nature of health facilities and health workers and patients is respected, and the immediate release of urgently needed medical and technical personnel detained or arrested while exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”, he added.

Crisis into its fourth month

Into its fourth month, the political turmoil – marked by near daily pro-democracy protests and a brutal crackdown by security forces – has reportedly claimed at least 750 lives and wounded countless more.

There are also serious concerns over the continuing impact of the crisis.

Last week, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) warned of skyrocketing poverty and economic collapse, while the UN human rights chief, in April, cautioned that Myanmar risks spiralling into a “full-blown conflict”, urging States with influence to take immediate and impactful action to halt the bloodshed.

Unsplash/Zinko Hein
People holding a vigil in Yangon, Myanmar (file photo).

Urging protections for healthcare globally

Launched in 2012, WHO’s Attacks on Health Care initiative collects evidence globally to advocate for safeguarding health care from attacks, which it defines as “any verbal or physical act of violence, obstruction or threat that interferes with the availability, access and delivery of such services”.

The data on “attacks on health care” in various settings, including humanitarian emergencies, is collected by the agency’s global surveillance system, available online.

This initiative does not aim at identifying perpetrators of such incidents, WHO said.

UN chief welcomes return to electoral agreement in Somalia

In a statement issued by his spokesperson, Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated his call on all Somali stakeholders to “resume dialogue immediately and forge a consensual agreement on the holding of inclusive elections without further delay”.

“[The Secretary-General] stresses the importance of a broad-based consensus for the country’s stability”, the statement added.

The UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) also welcomed the Lower House’s decision to reinstate the electoral agreement.

The “Special Law on Federal Elections” was adopted by the Lower House in April, allowing for the extension of term of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed for a period of two years, after the term officially ended in February.

The extension prompted fighting between pro-Government and opposition supporters in the capital Mogadishu as well as in other parts of the country, amid worries that extremist group al Shabaab could exploit the divisions, according to media reports.

Reports also said that tens of thousands of people fled their homes fearing for their safety following the violence.

UN condemns deadly attack at guesthouse in Afghanistan

According to media reports, a vehicle laden with explosives detonated near a guesthouse on Friday evening (local time) in Puli-e-Alam, the provincial capital of Logar, about 70 kilometres (43 miles) south of Kabul. A number of students are said to be among the casualties.

The blast, which took place as people were breaking their fast during the holy month of Ramadan, also damaged a number of buildings, including a hospital.

In a statement issued by his spokesperson, UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed his condolences to the families of the victims, and to the Government and people of Afghanistan.

“He hopes that the observation of the holy month of Ramadan, a time for contemplation and compassion, will be an occasion to reflect on those who have been affected by the prolonged conflict in the country and to come together in renewed efforts toward peace”, the statement said.

In a separate message, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said it was “outraged” by the attack. 

“Our thoughts are with the families of the victims”, the Mission added. 

Myanmar approaching point of economic collapse: UN report

That level of impoverishment has not been seen in the country since 2005, and the economy is facing significant risks of a collapse, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) said in its report, COVID-19, Coup d’état and Poverty: Compounding Negative Shocks and their Impact on Human Development in Myanmar.

“In the space of 12 years, from 2005 to 2017, Myanmar managed to nearly halve the number of people living in poverty. However, the challenges of the past 12 months have put all of these hard-won development gains at risk,” Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator, said.

“Without functioning democratic institutions, Myanmar faces a tragic and avoidable backslide towards levels of poverty not seen in a generation.”

The study also noted that as economic, health and political crises affect people and communities differently, vulnerable groups are more likely to suffer, a fact particularly relevant for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and ethnic minorities, in particular, the Rohingya community.

Multiple shocks

According to the report, by the end of 2020, 83 per cent of Myanmar’s households reported that their incomes had been, on average, slashed almost in half due to the pandemic. As a result, the number of people living below the poverty line was estimated to have increased by 11 per cent points.

The situation worsened further with the 1 February military takeover and the ensuing security and human rights crisis, with projections indicating a further 12 per cent point increase in poverty as a result.

In the nearly three months since, over 750 people – including children – are reported to have been killed by security forces in a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests, countless more have been wounded and thousands arrested.

Furthermore, clashes between Myanmar security forces and regional armed groups have resulted in fresh displacements in several parts of the country, as well as forcing many to seek refuge outside its borders.

Prior to the latest crises, nearly a million people in Myanmar (identified at the start of 2021) are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection.

Women, children, small businesses hit hardest

According to the study, women and children are feared to bear the heaviest brunt, with more than half of Myanmar’s children projected to be living in poverty within a year.

Urban poverty is also expected to triple, as worsening security situation continues to effect supply chains and hinder the movement of people, services and commodities. Small businesses, which provide the majority of jobs and incomes for the poorer segments of the urban population, have been hit hard, UNDP said.

It also added that pressures on the country’s currency, the Kyat, has increased the price of imports and energy, while the volume of seaborne trade is estimated to have dropped by between 55 and 64 per cent.

At the same time, the country’s banking system remains paralyzed, resulting in shortages of cash, limiting access to social welfare payments, and preventing much-needed remittances from reaching hard-pressed families.

Corrective actions urgently needed

The report also noted that without rapid corrective actions on economic, social, political and human rights protection policies, Myanmar’s efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 could be derailed.

As a dire and complex situation unfolds – characterized not only in humanitarian terms but also as a deep crisis in development, democratization, and human rights – and circumstances worsen, international support will play an important role in safeguarding the well-being of the Myanmar population, it added. 

Ethiopia: ‘Unpredictable security’ in Tigray, hindering aid delivery

Nearly six months since the conflict between Ethiopian Government security forces and regional forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) began in early November, most rural areas have remained cut off from communications and electricity, impacting access to health services, water supply and vital assistance, said Farhan Haq.  

Meanwhile, he cited the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in saying that the UN and its humanitarian partners “continue to scale up their response, including identification and support to gender-based violence survivors”.  

From Tigray to Sudan  

Violence and conflict in Tigray have continued unabated since the Prime Minister ordered a military offensive following a rebel attack on a federal army base, while militias from the neighbouring Amhara region joined the fighting. 

After returning last week from a visit to the conflict zone in northern Ethiopia, James Elder, spokesperson for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that more than a million people have been displaced. 

According to news reports, over 62,000 have fled across the border into Sudan, with humanitarian agencies continually looking to expand assistance to meet the increasing needs for the internally displaced and refugees in both Ethiopia and Sudan. 

Awash with need 

At the same time, “food insecurity remains dire with an estimated 4.5 million people need food assistance across Tigray”, said Mr. Haq. 

Since the end of March, the World Food Programme (WFP) has distributed nearly 9,000 metric tonnes of food, reaching nearly 529,000 people in the North Western and Southern Zones, he said. 

WFP have also distributed food to nearly 34,000 people in the towns of Edgahamus and Atsibi and “more than 700,000 people were reached with water trucking services last week”, he continued. “So far, UN partners have reached 285,000 displaced people with shelter and non-food items – only 10 per cent of the targeted population”.  

Meanwhile, the preparation of a displacement site in Mekelle with capacity for more than 19,000 people is ongoing, including building shelters, access roads and latrines. 

However, the UN Deputy Spokesperson echoed OCHA’s warning that “the response remains inadequate to the needs”.  

“Additional capacity, funds, as well as unimpeded and safe access, are needed to scale up to the level needed to respond across Tigray”, he stated.

UN chief pledges to fight for all Cypriots, as impasse remains

“The truth is that in the end of our efforts we have not yet found enough common ground to allow for the resumption of formal negotiations in relation to the settlement of the Cyprus problem”, he told journalists in Geneva, where the talks took place. 

Striking a note of optimism, Mr. Guterres added that there had been agreement over another meeting “in the near future…again with the objective to move in the direction of reaching common ground to allow for formal negotiations to start”.   

The development represents the latest UN-led effort to resolve decades of tensions in Cyprus between the Turkish Cypriot north and the Greek Cypriot south, whose communities have been split since 1974.  

Elusive deal  

Four years ago, Mr. Guterres attempted to bring the two sides to a deal at the Swiss Alpine resort of Crans-Montana, where detailed talks ultimately broke down. 

Six main issues were on the table, including security and guarantees, new territorial boundaries, and power-sharing.  

Ahead of this latest push to solve the Cyprus situation, Mr. Guterres was said to “realistic” about the chances of making progress, according to his spokesperson. 

But he explained that the position officially outlined 24 hours earlier by the Turkish Cypriot delegation – led by recently-elected Ersin Tatar – “was that the many efforts made to solve the Cyprus issue over the years have failed, including the most recent attempt made in Crans-Montana. They believe that efforts to negotiate the bi-zonal, bi-communal federation have been exhausted.”   

Set against this, the Greek Cypriot position – reiterated by leader Nicos Anastasiades – was “that negotiations should resume from where they left off in Crans-Montana (that should) aim to achieve a settlement based on a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation”, Mr. Guterres said, after bilateral meetings with the leaders of the Turkish Cypriot and Turkish Greek communities, and with the Foreign Ministers of “guarantor” powers Turkey, Greece and the UK. 

No giving up 

“I do not give up”, the UN chief insisted, adding that his agenda was very simple: “strictly to fight for the security and wellbeing for every Cypriot, of the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots that deserve to live in peace and prosperity together.” 

The UN push for a solution to the Cyprus impasse follows consultations conducted in recent months on his behalf by Under Secretary-General Jane Holl Lute.  

I do not give up — UN chief

Security role 

One of the UN’s longest-running peacekeeping missions helps to maintain peace on the island. 

The UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) was established in 1964 to prevent further fighting between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities and bring about a return to normal conditions. 

Its Force Commander is Major General Ingrid Gjerde of Norway. 

The mission’s responsibilities expanded in 1974, following a coup d’etat by elements favouring union with Greece and subsequent military intervention by Turkey, whose troops established control over the northern part of the island. 

Since a de facto ceasefire in August 1974, UNFICYP has supervised ceasefire lines, provided humanitarian assistance and maintained a buffer zone between the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot forces in the north and the Greek Cypriot forces in the south.

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