NPT Conference Sparks Calls for New Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons

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May 22, 2015 – The merits of a new treaty banning nuclear weapons have been debated over the past month in UN conference rooms during the five-year review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which ends today in New York.

Among the reasons cited by advocates of a ban are the reluctance of nuclear armed states to meet their disarmament commitments,” as well as pointing out that nuclear weapons are the only weapons of mass destruction not banned by treaty, with chemical and biological weapons covered under separate conventions.

But the biggest reason cited is new information on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. “We’re learning more every day as new documents become declassified and made available,” said Thomas Nash, director of the advocacy group Article 36. In some cases he said the research shows that “sheer luck has prevented the detonation of nuclear warheads.”

The growing information about the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons prompted an international conference in Oslo in 2013 on that very issue and concluded:

It is unlikely that any state or international body could address the immediate humanitarian emergency caused by a nuclear weapon detonation in an adequate manner and provide sufficient assistance to those affected… While political circumstances have changed, the destructive potential of nuclear weapons remains.

A follow-up conference in Vienna lead to what has become known as the Humanitarian Pledge, which calls for “effective measures to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons and we pledge to cooperate with all stakeholders to achieve this goal.”

“What’s happening now is that because of this deeper frustration at the lack of progress and the intransigence of countries with nuclear weapons, I think states are saying we’re not going to wait for you, we’re going to move forward on negotiations for a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons even without the nuclear armed states,” Article 36′s Nash said.

So far, 99 countries* have signed on to the pledge, which, as Nash acknowledges, does not outright call for an international treaty banning nuclear weapons but for “effective measures to fill the legal gap” prohibiting these weapons. He said the greatest pushback against the calls for a treaty for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons have come from the UK who have said that it would be “like a referendum on the NPT and that it would basically undermine the NPT.”

“It only undermines the NPT if you see the NPT as something that legitimizes your position on nuclear weapons and the problem is that that is precisely what countries inside the NPT with nuclear weapons see the NPT as,” Nash said. While the NPT prohibits non-nuclear weapons states from acquiring such weapons it also calls for the recognized nuclear powers to disarm – which is not happening.

“They think it’s a great treaty that allows them to keep their nuclear weapons. It gives them special status,” he said, adding that France, the US and the UK are engaged in revisionism arguing that the NPT is not about disarmament, it’s about non-proliferation – even though disarmament is one of the three pillars of the NPT along with non-proliferation and the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

While it’s not clear if all of the 99 countries* that have so far signed the Austrian Pledge are in favor of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons or some other steps to fill the “legal gap,” what is clear is that the countries absent from the pledge are the nuclear armed states as well as NATO members and other countries that are in a security alliance with nuclear states.

Alyn Ware, a longtime disarmament campaigner and member of the World Future Council, said the calls for a treaty among like-minded countries for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons are understandable as the nuclear weapons states are not yet prepared to abolish nuclear weapons. Under this scenario, non-nuclear countries would negotiate a treaty without waiting for the nuclear armed states and those countries in nuclear-weapons alliances to join.

“Such a treaty could be concluded quite quickly” he said. “However, a problem is that it would only apply to those countries that join. It would not impact on the policies of the nuclear-armed states and their allies. Another problem with the proposal is that there does not appear to be even a majority of the non-nuclear countries in support. When the proposal was discussed in the United Nations Open Ended Working Group on Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations, a number of non-aligned countries indicated that they would not support a treaty like this that placed new obligations on them, but no additional obligations on the nuclear armed states.”

“Another type of ban treaty, one that might have more impact, would be one banning the use of nuclear weapons as a measure leading towards nuclear disarmament. You could probably capture more of the allied countries, maybe even some of the nuclear weapons states, in such a treaty” he said. “India has already put forward a proposal to the United Nations General Assembly on negotiating a convention to prohibit the use of nuclear weapons. It is a much shorter, and more realizable, step from this position to a ban on use, than it is to jump immediately to a ban on possession.”

Ware pointed out that the global ban on chemical weapons started first with a ban on use, followed by negotiations to achieve the Chemical Weapons Convention banning possession.

But campaigners for an outright ban say it is the only credible option, particularly as the draft final document of the NPT review conference, which has yet to be agreed on, reflects the views of the nuclear weapons states and their allies.

While an earlier draft noted the the growing interest in the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, the final draft now refers to a growing interest “among non-nuclear weapons states” in those consequences and raises doubts on other humanitarian concerns.

“It suggests that only non-nuclear-armed states and civil society learned anything about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons over the last three years and argues that it is only the perception of some states that there could be no adequate response to a nuclear weapon detonation,” Ray Acheson of Reaching Critical Will wrote on Friday about the final draft. “States truly committed to disarmament must say ‘enough is enough’ to the nuclear-armed states. As of writing, 99 states* have endorsed the Humanitarian Pledge to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons. The pledge should be the basis for negotiations of a nuclear weapon ban treaty.”

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

*The Pledge has now been signed by 107 countries

Burundi’s Peacekeeping Experience Could Prove Deadly if Army Splits

Burundi chief of armed forces Gen. Prime Niyongabo visiting AMISON troops earlier this year. Photo: AMISOM

Burundi chief of armed forces Gen. Prime Niyongabo visiting AMISON troops earlier this year. Photo: AMISOM

May 14, 2015 – A former force commander with the African Union Mission in Somalia is fighting to prevent troops under his control from abandoning their posts and taking sides with Burundian coup leader Maj. Gen. Godefroid Niyombare.

The chief of staff for Burundi’s armed forces, Gen. Prime Niyongabo, told the BBC on Thursday that the number of soldiers backing the coup had fallen and those that had joined have been given a chance to rejoin the regular army.

Niyongabo was force commander of AMISOM from 2009 – 2010. The UN-backed mission comprises some 21,000 troops with more than 5,000 of those from Burundi.

Burundi also contributes more than 1,200 troops to UN peacekeeping missions with the bulk of its contingent serving with MINUSCA in the Central African Republic.

Burundi was one of 25 African countries selected by the US state department to take part in its ACOTA program which trained more than 250,000 troops for participation in peacekeeping operations.

UN DPKO data on Burundi's troop contributions link

UN DPKO data on Burundi’s troop contributions link


There have been no reports of any former peacekeepers among those siding with coup leader Niyombare but it would not be the first time that former UN troops were involved in a coup.

Former battalion commanders with the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon were all central to the military’s involvement in three successive coups in Fiji in 1987, 2000 and 2006.

Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council says that as a result of its involvement in UN peacekeeping, Burundian troops are far better armed and trained than at any time in the country’s history, and have gained real battle experience. He is warning that if the military splits a conflict could be far worse than any of the country’s previous conflicts.

Meanwhile, on Thursday the UN Security Council condemned the “unrest” in Burundi and those who seek to seize power through “unlawful means.” The council’s statement did not use the word coup.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

 

UN Investigators Find Numerous Flaws With WHO’s Ebola Response

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May 11, 2015 – The World Health Organization is ill prepared to respond to international health emergencies and poorly managed the initial response to last year’s Ebola outbreak in West Africa, an independent team of investigators appointed by the UN has concluded.

The esteemed panel of investigators, in an interim report, said the WHO did not seek support early enough from other United Nations agencies that have experience in emergency response, did not engage with local communities early enough on changing behaviors that spread the disease, and its authoritative status was undermined by a combination of the above as well as fluffed communications including belatedly declaring Ebola a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

“At present, WHO does not have the operational capacity or culture to deliver a full emergency public health response,” the investigators concluded. Among their recommendations are establishing a new agency for emergency health response or reforming WHO.

The latter is preferable, the investigators said, because “establishing a new agency would take time to put in place and substantial new resources would be required to establish its basic administrative systems, and operational response capacity.”

“A new agency would, in any case, have to rely on and coordinate with WHO for public health and technical resources, creating an unnecessary interface,” the report says. “A WHO that is capable of adequately responding to public health emergencies requires deep and substantial organizational change.”

Although WHO leads the health response cluster during humanitarian emergencies, the investigators write that “it is unclear…how a public health emergency fits into the wider humanitarian system and at what point an outbreak becomes a humanitarian emergency that requires a broader United Nations-wide response.”

They add that “one of the difficulties is that the risk assessment of public health emergencies and so-called humanitarian emergencies differs, because of uncertainty in assessing the likelihood of disease spread.”

Among other recommendations are that WHO should have used medical anthropologists for developing communications strategies for changing traditional burial and funeral practices that contributed to the spread of Ebola and that UN member states should increase their contributions to WHO so that it can effectively respond to public health emergencies.

“Now is the historic political moment for world leaders to give WHO new relevance and empower it to lead in global health,” the report concludes. “In response, the (WHO) Secretariat needs to take serious steps to earn this leadership role in relation to outbreaks and emergency response and to regain the trust of the international community.”

Full report is below.

Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

 

Ebola Interim Report on WHO Response

Post-2015 Must Address Plight of Poor Urban Mothers and their Children

Child in slum in Kampala, Uganda next to open sewage -  Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Child in slum in Kampala, Uganda next to open sewage – Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

May 8, 2015 – Save the Children says UN member states must make a commitment to tackling inequality in the post-2015 development agenda and in particular the disparities in urban settings where the poorest kids are twice as likely to die before their fifth birthday as the richest.

The organization’s annual State of the World’s Mothers report examined child death rates in cities. And from Delhi to Washington DC, the data showed that the poorest lack access to pre-natal care, skilled birth attendance and proper nutrition resulting in “alarmingly high risks of death,” according to the report released this week.

“We specifically looked at the urban inequities because more and more families are going to cities to have a better life for their families,” Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles told UN Tribune. But the poor are often confined to slums without access to proper sanitation and clean water supply.

“It really is about inequity and for us it’s about how do you reach those poorest children and more and more of those children are in urban slums,” Miles said.

The report says the post-2015 agenda must set specific targets for improving the wellbeing of urban mothers and children. While generally there has been good progress in reducing child and maternal mortality globally, this is not the case for the urban poor.

Specifically, Save the Children says the post-2015 framework should:

Ensure that all mothers, newborns and children have access to quality essential health services and other basic resources no matter where they live, how wealthy they are, or on the basis of their ethnic identity.

Include an explicit commitment that no target will be considered to have been met unless it has been met for all social and economic groups. This means that the proposed targets for child and newborn mortality should be achieved by all sectors of society within a country, not just at the national level.

Asked what low-cost high-impact interventions work best for tackling hight rates of child mortality in urban settings, Miles explained the work her organization does in community healthcare.

“A big part of what we do in urban settings are these community healthcare programs. They are local people – they could be women or men – who live in those communities and we train them on basic healthcare and we train them on working with mothers during pregnancy and making sure they’re eating the right things as much as possible, they’re going to the clinics for regular checkups, they have a plan for when they give birth for where they’re going to go – they’re not going to have their baby at home – they’re actually going to go to a hospital,” Miles explained.

“Those community health workers are really important and they look after that baby in that first really critical month for newborns,” she added. “You can implement that program for not a lot of money and you can do it in large numbers in urban slums, it’s very effective.”

Besides economic inequities, there are gender inequalities too with more girls than boys dying in their first five years. This is often a result of the prioritizing of boys over girls when it comes to health and nutrition, Miles said.

There are also more poorer women than men living in urban areas due to a number of factors including employment and wage discrimination and an increase in lone-mother households.

It is no surprise then that the report found that countries that come tops for gender equality – the Nordic states – are also the best places to be a mother while countries that rank low on gender equality indexes are at the bottom.

Top Five Countries
1 Norway
2 Finland
3 Iceland
4 Denmark
5 Sweden

Bottom Five Countries
175 Niger
176 Mali
177 Central African Republic
178 Democratic Republic of the Congo
179 Somalia

Source: Save the Children 2015 Mothers’ Index  Rankings

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Natalia Gherman – Could Moldova’s Foreign Minister be the Next UN Secretary-General?

Moldova's Foreign Minister Natalia Gherman addressing the General Assembly, Sept. 2014 (UN Photo)

Moldova’s Foreign Minister Natalia Gherman addressing the UN General Assembly, Sept. 2014 (UN Photo)

April 30, 2015 – The buzz surrounding the election of Ban Ki-moon’s successor continues to gather pace and this week in New York, 32 member states plus the EU spoke at a General Assembly debate on transforming the way the UN appoints its secretary-general.

Twenty-one of the speakers said it was high-time the UN seriously considered appointing its first female secretary-general. Eight men have held the post since the organization’s founding in 1946 and the UN as a whole – the secretariat, member states and the Security Council - has a less than stellar record on promoting gender equality.

There’s also wide agreement inside the United Nations that the next UN chief should come from Eastern Europe, the only UN regional group that has not occupied the position, whereas three secretaries-general have come from the Western group, two each from Asia and Africa, and one from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Among the female candidates mentioned for the post are current UNESCO chief, Irina Bokova and fellow Bulgarian Kristalina Georgieva, the EU’s budget commissioner, as well as Lithuania’s president, Dalia Grybauskaite - who is unlikely to get a pass from veto-wielding Russia.

But there are others.

Of the five female foreign ministers among countries that are members of the Council of Europe, four of them are from Eastern Europe: Croatia’s Vesna Pusic, Georgia’s Maia Pandjikidze, Estonia’s Keit Pentus-Rosimannus and Moldova’s Natalia Gherman.

Pusic has been mentioned as a possible candidate while Pandjikidze and Pentus-Rosimannusis appear to be out of the running as long as Russia holds a veto over the process and, while there are mounting calls for the UN to change the way it elects the secretary-general, at Monday’s debate China, Russia and the US all voiced support for maintaining the status quo.

But Gherman may well fit the bill. Moldova lies at the crossroads of Slavic and Latin Europe. The tiny republic is a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States and also has aspirations of joining the European Union, signing an association agreement with Brussels last year.

Moldova’s ties to Russia are long and complicated. There are Russian troops in the breakaway region of Transnistria, ostensibly they are there as peacekeepers. Russia is also Moldova’s second biggest individual trading partner – behind Romania – and a major destination for Moldovan migrant labor. Their remittances are vital for Europe’s poorest country.

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Gherman met with Russia’s FM Sergei Lavrov when she was in New York last September. (photo/Moldova MFA)

Russia banned the import of Moldovan wine after it signed the EU association agreement and has threatened to cut off the country’s energy supply. Gherman’s party is decidedly pro-EU and she is at the forefront of pushing for the country’s membership in the bloc but it will likely be years before Chișinău fully meets the accession criteria.

Its relations with Moscow are far more important currently and while a pro-EU party rules, support inside the country for joining the EU is lukewarm. More importantly, unlike most of its Eastern Europe neighbors, Moldova is not a member of NATO nor an aspiring member. Its constitution enshrines permanent neutrality.

While Gherman is far from an ideal candidate from Russia’s point of view, given her strong pro-EU orientation, if she puts her hat into the ring for the secretary-general race, she may well find that Russia is far more sympathetic to a Moldovan candidate than one from a neighboring NATO member state.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Gaza Report Adds to Pressure on Ban to Put IDF on Child Violators List

UNRWA school being used as a shelter, July 2014 source: wikimedia

UNRWA school in northern Gaza being used as a shelter, July 2014. source: wikimedia

April 28, 2015 - Ban Ki-moon will face further calls to include the IDF in his annual list of groups that commit grave violations against children after the release of his public summary of the report of the Board of Inquiry established to investigate death and damage at UN premises during the summer war in Gaza.

Ban’s public summary stated that the board found the Israeli Defence Forces responsible for the deaths of 44 Palestinians as a result of attacks on seven schools sheltering civilians during the July-August 2014 conflict.

Attacks on schools are one of the six grave violations that result in listing in Ban’s annual report on children and armed conflict and such attacks are also a violation of Security Council resolution 1998 adopted unanimously in 2011.

Ban’s summary also stated that Hamas had stored weapons in UN schools, though not in any of the schools that were attacked. The use of schools for military purposes also triggers listing the annual report of grave violators.

Ban’s cover letter to the Security Council and the accompanying public summary of the Board of Inquiry report are below.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Related Story: UN Stonewalling on Listing IDF as Child Violators

Board of Inquiry Gaza

NPT Conference to Open With Little Progress Made Since Last Review

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April 24, 2015 – The five-year review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) opens in New York on Monday but little has been accomplished in advancing the objectives of the treaty since the 2010 conference.

That review ended with agreement on a 64-point action plan on disarmament, non-proliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy as well as agreement to hold a conference in 2012 on the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

A new research publication from Reaching Critical Will states that of the 22 actions related to disarmament in the 2010 Action Plan, only five have seen definite progress as compared to 12 of 23 non-proliferation commitments and 11 of 18 related to nuclear energy.

“It has become clearer than ever during the course of this review cycle that the nuclear-armed states are not willing to fulfill their disarmament obligations or to take on any concrete, time-bound commitments that might assist with meeting their obligations,” the report states.

Meanwhile, the conference on creating a WMD weapons-free-zone in the Middle East, slated to be be held in Finland, never took place due to gaps in the positions of Arab states along with Iran and that of Israel.

Israel remains one of only four countries, along with Pakistan, India and South Sudan, not to have signed the NPT. North Korea was a signatory but has since withdrawn from the treaty. South Africa is the only country to have ever built nuclear weapons and then voluntarily destroyed them, which it did in the early 1990s. Libya abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003.

As a result of the intransigence of nuclear-weapons states with regard to fulfilling their obligations under the NPT, there is now support for negotiating a legally binding instrument prohibiting nuclear weapons.

“The 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—to be marked in August 2015—is widely seen as an ‘appropriate milestone’ by which to launch the diplomatic process to negotiate such a treaty,” Reaching Critical Will say in their report.

As it stands, nuclear-weapons states – Britain, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and the United States – possess approximately a combined 15,650 nuclear weapons and are in the process of modernizing their nuclear arsenal, a sure sign that disarmament is a long way off.

The NPT was opened for signatory in 1968 and came into force in 1970. A review conference is held every five years to assess progress. This year’s review conference will run from April 27 – May 22.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

UN Urges Action on Prison Overcrowding

San Quentin prison in California. source: creative commons/California Dept. of Corrections

San Quentin prison in California. source: creative commons/California Dept. of Corrections

April 22, 2015 - The prisoner population exceeds prison capacity in 77 countries by at least twenty percent and the United Nations is asking member states to examine sentencing laws as a means to reducing the number of inmates.

Some 10 million people are behind bars globally, ranging from a high of 2.2 million in the United States to just two in San Marino, according to the International Center for Prison Studies.

The declaration adopted last week at the UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice calls on states to examine “penal policies” and “to enhance the use of non-custodial sanctions” to reduce prison overcrowding, which leads to increased violence, suicide and the spread of infectious disease.

The highest rates of overcrowding regionally are in Benin (363%), El Salvador (320%), Philippines (316%) and Serbia (158%).

By far, the single biggest cause of prison overcrowding are custodial sentences for people convicted of low-level drug offenses. About 25 percent of all prisoners worldwide have been convicted of the sale or possession of drugs, says a new study from the Penal Reform Institute. In US federal prisons, that rate rises to 49 percent.

The call from the UN crime congress is timely as delegates will gather next month at UN headquarters to discuss plans for the 2016 UN General Assembly special session on the World Drug Problem.

The meeting was called for by the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico in 2012, countries at the forefront of the drugs problem that has lead to spiraling rates of violence.

Advocacy groups are hoping that the meeting will lead to a re-examination of policies that are causing overcrowding of prisons and a rethink on the criminalization of drugs. The facts support such calls. For example, while women globally represent about ten percent of all prisoners, most are imprisoned for minor drug offences and many of these have existing addiction issues, which are not treated in prisons.

The General Assembly session in preparation of the 2016 high-level meeting will take place on May 7th.

Top Ten Prison Populations Globally

1 United States of America 2 217 000
2 China 1 657 812
3 Russian Federation 673 818
4 Brazil 581 507
5 India 411 992
6 Thailand 330 923
7 Mexico 255 638
8 Iran 225 624
9 Indonesia 167 163
10 Turkey 165 033

Top Ten Countries Where Prison Population Exceeds 100 Percent of Prison Capacity

1 Benin 363.6
2 Comoros 343.3
3 El Salvador 325.3
4 Philippines 316.0
5 Zambia 279.3
6 Guatemala 270.6
7 Venezuela 269.8
8 Bolivia 256.9
9 Sudan 255.3
10 Uganda 254.6

Source: International Center for Prison Studies

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

UN Unable to Reach 420,000 Besieged in Syria

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OCHA map of besieged areas in Syria. Click for larger image.

April 22, 2015 - United Nations aid agencies delivered food to only 18,200 people in besieged areas of Syria last month while health assistance reached a mere 1,198, according to new report from Ban Ki-moon to the Security Council.

Ban wrote that 440,000 people remain besieged in Syria including 167,500 by government forces in eastern Ghouta and Darayya, a further 26,500 by unnamed non-State armed groups in Nubul and Zahra while 228,000 are besieged by ISIS in Deir ez-Zor city as well as 18,000 in Yarmouk.

“The parties to the conflict continued to restrict access to besieged areas during March,” Ban wrote. “United Nations agencies reached a total of 18,000 people (4 per cent) with food assistance and 1,198 people (0.3 per cent) with health assistance. No core relief items were dispatched during the reporting period.”

The UN defines a besieged area as “an area surrounded by armed actors with the sustained effect that humanitarian assistance cannot regularly enter, and civilians, the sick and wounded cannot regularly exit.”

The secretary-general’s report stated that with the exception of a supply of water for 300 people last month, no aid has been delivered to eastern Ghouta since March. In the government-controlled western neighborhoods of Deir ez-Zor city, 228,000 people are besieged by ISIL and no United Nations aid has reached them since May 2014, the report said. ISIL has also deactivated a power plant in Deir-az-Zor, severely restricting the water supply for besieged residents.

The report also details continuing summary execution and torture by government forces and ISIS.

The full report is below.

Secretary-General Report on Syria, April 2015

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Podcast, Episode 1, Humanitarian Crisis in Syria

April 20, 2015 – Interviews with UN officials on the sidelines of the recent Kuwait III pledging conference, including WHO director-general Margaret Chan who provides an overview of the health crisis inside Syria; WHO Syria coordinator Elizabeth Hoff on specific health challenges, including prostheses and mental health; and the World Food Program’s Dina El Kassaby, recently returned from Syria, on what she saw and the challenges of delivering food aid.