UN Rights Official Cites Progress, Setbacks in Death Penalty Abolition

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March 4, 2015 –  A senior UN human rights official on Wednesday said the number of countries that have abolished the death penalty is at a record high but executing countries are increasing the frequency of its use.

UN assistant secretary-general for human rights, Ivan Simonovic, in an address to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, said that some 160 countries have abolished, either legally or in practice, the use of the death penalty.

“In the last six months, the death penalty was abolished in Chad, Fiji and Madagascar,” he said. “However, despite this progress, there remain challenges: while we are seeing movement towards abolishing the death penalty in some countries, elsewhere, we are seeing moves towards its preservation, or even reintroduction.”

Ivanovic told the Council that despite the record number of abolitionist countries the number of states executing and the number of executions increased from 2012 to 2013.

More than 50 countries still retain the death penalty and it was used by 22 countries in 2013, resulting in a 15 percent rise in the number of people executed from 2012. Indonesia, Kuwait, Nigeria and Viet Nam resumed the death penalty in 2013.

In all, some 778 people were executed in 2013, according to Amnesty International, excluding China where the death penalty is regarded as a state secret and reliable figures are not available.

Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia were responsible for more than three-quarters of reported executions while the US remained the only country in the Americas to use the death penalty, with the majority of executions taking place in Texas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Arizona. Eighteen of the 50 US states have abolished the death penalty.

Ivanovic noted that some countries still retain the death penalty for drug offenses, “with the argument that this harsh punishment is needed for deterrence purposes. However, there is no evidence that the death penalty deters any crime,” he said.

China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Singapore are among the countries that execute persons convicted of drug offenses.

Regionally, Europe and the Americas are tops for death penalty abolition while only eleven of 54 African countries use the death penalty. Sudan is Africa’s leading executioner.

All countries in the Middle East and North Africa retain the death penalty but some countries, such as Algeria, Mauritania and Qatar effectively have a moratorium on its use, while Israel has only ever executed one person, Adolf Eichmann, who was hanged in 1962 for war crimes.

Eight countries have applied the death penalty so far in 2015 with more than 100 of the 192 executions occurring in Iran alone. Of the 192 people executed in the eight countries this year, nine were women.

The other countries where executions have taken place in 2015 are Afghanistan, China, Indonesia, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Report: Afghan National Army Numbers Inflated

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Newly trained Afghan army recruits (Wikimedia Commons)

March 3, 2015 – When Ban Ki-moon last reported Afghan national troop numbers to the Security Council in June last year, he stated that Afghanistan’s army stood at over 185,000 personnel.

But a report released on Tuesday says that the Afghan ministry of defense was reporting incorrect numbers and the actual number of military troops is almost 20,000 less, at a strength of 169,000.

The report, from the U.S. Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, paints a grim picture of the state of the Afghanistan’s security forces who are expected to take the lead security role in the country with the wind down of ISAF.

The United States has spent more than $50 billion in building up, training and paying the salaries of Afghanistan’s military and police forces.

“The military’s inconsistent reporting on ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] strength numbers indicates long-standing and ongoing problems with accountability and personnel tracking. Accurate information is necessary to assess Afghanistan’s ability to maintain security and to determine the pace of U.S. troops withdrawals from the country,” the Inspector General’s report states. “It is also key to ensuring the United States is paying to train, equip, and sustain the ANSF based on accurate troop strength numbers.”

As well as inflated troop numbers, attrition remains an ongoing concern with 40,000 personnel dropped from the rolls of the Afghan army and police from Sept. 2013 to Sept. 2014, according to the report.

It also says that only about 35 percent of Afghan security force members are functionally literate and it further cannot determine how many recruits that received literacy training are still members of the security forces.

The report adds that only 860 women are enlisted in the Afghan National Army, or less than half a percent of the overall total.

The precarious security situation is also taking its toll on the Afghan army with more than 1,300 personnel killed in action last year, and another 6,200 injured.

- Denis Fitzgerald 
On Twitter @denisfitz

Only Two of 15 Security Council Members Have Paid 2015 Dues

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Feb. 25, 2015 – New Zealand and France are the only two members of the Security Council to have paid their 2015 United Nations dues so far this year.

Permanent members Britain, China, Russia and the United States have still to pay along with nine of the ten non-permanent countries on the Council.

Neither France nor New Zealand made their payments by the end of January, the UN’s official dues deadline, with Paris paying its $151 million share and Auckland, $6 million, earlier this month, according to information from the UN Committee on Contributions.

The Dominican Republic was the first country to pay up – it’s assessed at $1.2 million annually, while 43 other countries have also made their payment, including Canada ($80 million), Bhutan ($27,000), and Algeria ($3.7 million).

The United States is the largest contributor to the UN’s regular budget (there is a separate peacekeeping budget). Washington is assessed at 22 percent of the $2.7 billion annual regular budget, or $654 million. It typically makes a large payment in the fourth quarter – the United States government’s fiscal year begins on Oct. 1st – but that payment is not nearly enough to clear its back debt which was some $1 billion as of late last year.

The next biggest contributors, Japan ($293 million), and Germany ($193 million), have also not yet paid their 2015 dues.

Some countries, such as Somalia, Guinea-Bissau and Comoros, are exempt from paying this year as the General Assembly decided that inability to pay is beyond their control.

Other countries, such as Yemen and Grenada, have lost their vote in the General Assembly because of a violation of Article 19 which states that a country will lose its vote if “the amount of its arrears equals or exceeds the amount of the contributions due from it for the preceding two full years.”

The 13 Security Council Members Still to Pay and Their Assessed Dues for 2015:

Permanent Members:
Britain: $140 Million
China: $139 Million
Russia: $66 Million
United States: $654 Million

Non-Permanent Members:
Angola: $271,357
Chad: $54,271
Chile: $9 Million
Jordan: $596,984
Lithuania: $1.9 Million
Malaysia: $7.6 Million
Nigeria: $2.4 Million
Spain: $80 Million
Venezuela: $17 Million

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Related Story:
US, France, UK Tops for UN Secretariat Staff

Yemen’s Saleh Worth $60 Billion Says UN Sanctions Panel



Feb. 24, 2015 – The corrupt practices of Yemen’s former autocratic leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, have netted the strongman up to $60 billion, a UN sanctions panel will report to the Security Council on Tuesday.

The panel’s report says Saleh amassed up to $2 billion a year from 1978 until he was forced to step down in 2012 and that the assets are hidden in at least twenty countries with the help of business associates and front companies.

“The origin of the funds used to generate Ali Abdullah Saleh’s wealth is believed to be partly from his corrupt practices as President of Yemen, particularly relating to gas and oil contracts where he reportedly asked for money in exchange for granting companies exclusive rights to prospect for gas and oil in Yemen,” the report says.

“It is also alleged that Ali Abdullah Saleh, his friends, his family and his associates stole money from the fuel subsidy program, which uses up to 10 per cent of Yemen’s gross domestic product, as well as other ventures involving abuse of power, extortion and embezzlement,” the report adds.

“The result of these illegal activities for private gain is estimated to have amounted to nearly $2 billion a year over the last three decades,” it states.

The report was prepared by a panel of experts appointed by the Council to monitor the asset freezes and travel bans placed on Saleh and other spoilers of Yemen’s political transition last February. The Council is expected to renew those sanctions on Tuesday for another year.

So far, Saleh has evaded the measures with the help “of at least five prominent Yemeni businessmen… assisting the Saleh family to remove funds from banks in Yemen and deposit them overseas.”

“The panel is also conducting investigations into a number of private and publicly listed companies inside and outside Yemen, where it is believed that former President Saleh may be the beneficial owner of investments,” the report says.

It adds that the panel “has received information from a confidential source that Ali Abdullah Saleh has a number of alternative identity passports that have been provided to him by another State” which would further enable him to hide assets under false identities.

The panel’s estimated wealth of Saleh at $60 billion would place him fifth in Forbe’s list of the world’s richest people. Yemen’s GDP for 2014 was estimated at $35 billion by the World Bank.

Saleh stepped down in 2012 in a deal that granted him immunity from prosecution and allowed him stay in the country. The transitional government that succeeded him, headed by Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was toppled last month with Saleh accused by some of using his wealth and connections to play a part in this.

The 54-page report from the panel also says that Houthi rebels, who are now in control in Sanaa, are using child soldiers and that hospitals and schools have been used by warring factions.

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked 154th out of 187 in the UN’s Human Development Index and ranked worst in the world for gender equality. More than half the population are living below the poverty line, according to World Bank figures.

Yemen lost its vote in the UN General Assembly last month because of the country’s inability to pay its dues.

Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image: Wikimedia

UN Panel Of Experts Report on Security Council Sanctions Yemen

Book Review: Failing to Protect – The UN and the Politicization of Human Rights

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Feb. 23, 2015 - Peace and security, development, and human rights comprise the three pillars of the work of the United Nations but anyone who follows the world body will know that when it comes to the latter a significant majority of human rights abusing states escape UN scrutiny.

While it’s no secret that political power, political economy and voting blocs composed of autocratic states and weak democracies shield rights abusers in the UN system, Rosa Freedman’s “Failing to Protect: The UN and the Politicization of Human Rights” (Hurst:2014) is a welcome guide to what’s wrong with the UN’s human rights mechanism and it offers up some suggestions on putting it right.

The book is designed for the general reader and the opening chapters offer concise yet detailed accounts of international law and the UN human rights machinery. A later chapter makes crucial linkages between UN treaties and the codifying in national law of human rights protections.

In between, Freedman gives clear examples of the chicanery at work in protecting rights abusers as well as efforts to keep issues such as LGBT rights off the UN’s agenda, while also looking at some instances where the UN has put intense scrutiny on rights abusing states.

In a chapter titled “Look! We Did Something,” she focuses on Israel and South Africa and the scrutiny the latter receives at the UN (in 65 percent of UNGA resolutions from 1990 to 2013 that criticize a country, Israel is the country) as well as the ultimately successful pressure put on South Africa at the UN to end apartheid.

“No one would suggest that attention ought not to have been devoted to the ending of apartheid or to the occupation of Palestinian land,” she writes, but the real reason for the focus on these two countries is because South Africa during apartheid lacked political allies as is the case with Israel currently (with the notable exception of the United States in the Security Council and a handful of UNGA member states).

On the upside, the cases of Israel and South Africa show that “the UN can do something… [B]ut there is no clear link between the gravity of the situation and the decision to focus attention on that country.” Occupations in Tibet, Kashmir and Northern Cyprus and rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Belarus and Equatorial Guinea, to name just some, are routinely ignored by the UN.

In conclusion, Freedman states that the purpose of her book was to start a conversation “to detail some of the things that are not working with a view to finding a way in which they can be fixed.” More importantly, the conversation is not just for diplomats and governments, she writes: “It is our money; it is our world; it is our problem.”

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

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Afghan Civilian Casualties Hit Record Levels in 2014

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Feb. 19, 2015 – More than 10,000 civilians in Afghanistan were killed or injured last year, a 22 percent increase from 2013 and the worst year for civilians since the United Nations started collecting figures in 2009.

In all, a total of 3,699 civilians were killed and 6,849 were injured in conflict related violence in 2014 with anti-government forces responsible for 72 percent of the casualties; pro-government Afghan forces, 10 percent; and ISAF, 2 percent.

Three percent of casualties were caused by land-mines and other remnants of war that could not be attributed to either side, one percent was caused by cross-border shelling from Pakistan into Afghanistan while the responsibility for the remaining ten percent was due to ground engagements for which the perpetrator could not be determined.

The information is included in the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan’s (UNAMA) annual review which was released on Wednesday.

(source: UNAMA)

(source: UNAMA)

Deaths and injuries to women and children last year were also at record levels with 2,474 casualties of children, including 714 deaths, and 909 casualties among women including 298 deaths.

The use of improvised explosive devices by anti-government forces was the leading cause of civilian casualties last year, resulting in 925 deaths and 2,053 injuries.

The report also documents the Taliban’s imposition of punishment for perceived infractions of Sharia law including summary executions, beheadings, amputations of body parts, beatings, lashings and illegal detention as well as house burnings of those who expressed opposition to the group.

In addition, UNAMA says that the number of internally displaced last year increased by 156,193, an eight percent increase from 2013 with the total number of IDPs now at 805,409.

Children continue to be recruited by both pro- and anti-government forces, the report says, and it also documents incidents of sexual violence against children committed by both sides.

The drawdown of international military forces in the country has negatively impacted the safety of civilians, the report says, “in particular the reduction of combat air support to Afghan forces ground troops, provided the Taliban and other anti-Government armed groups with more opportunities to launch large-scale ground operations in some areas.”

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

New York City Expected to Adopt CEDAW Legislation in June

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Feb. 17, 2015 – As the sixtieth session of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women opens in Geneva, the treaty is expected to get a boost in coming months when mayors from several US cities are expected to sign legislation to implement CEDAW at the municipal level.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was one of 100 mayors that signed on to a resolution at the US conference of mayors last year to enforce CEDAW at the municipal level and he is expected to implement the resolution in June.

The US is one of seven UN member states that have not ratified the 1979 convention, one of nine core human rights treaties, with both Republican and Democrat-majority senates rejecting the convention in part because of what they view as its pro-abortion agenda.

The convention makes no mention of abortion and countries that restrict or prohibit abortion, such as Chile, Ireland and Portugal, have ratified the treaty.

To circumvent the senate’s unwillingness to ratify CEDAW (the US signed the treaty in 1980), the Cites for CEDAW campaign was launched to push cities to pass laws to eliminate discrimination based on gender.

San Francisco and Los Angeles are currently the only two US cities to have passed ordinance to comply with CEDAW, which has been described as an international bill of rights for women.

During its sessions, the CEDAW committee, made up of 23 elected members, receive and review reports from states that have ratified the treaty and then issue recommendations. Some statements by the committee have caused controversy such as one in its 2000 review of Belarus when it said that, “The Committee is concerned by the continuing prevalence of sex-role stereotypes and by the reintroduction of such symbols as a Mothers’ Day and a Mothers’ Award, which it sees as encouraging women’s traditional roles.”

Besides the US, the other UN member states that have not ratified CEDAW are Iran, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Tonga. The Holy See, a non-member observer state also has not ratified the treaty while Palestine, also a non-member observer state, became the last country to ratify the treaty in April 2014.

Of the nine core human rights treaties, the US has ratified three: the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

- Denis Fitzgerald 
On Twitter @denisfitz

US, France, UK Tops for UN Secretariat Staff

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Feb. 10, 2015 – Ban Ki-moon’s imminent announcement of a replacement for Valerie Amos as head of OCHA has put UN hiring in the spotlight with the United Nations chief under pressure to make the appointment based on merit.

In reality, the UN Secretariat is a political battleground where, as described in Thant Myint-U and Amy Scott’s definitive The UN Secretariat: A Brief History (1945-2006), “the UN’s member states compete for power and influence and attempt to diminish the power and influence of others.”

The most recent Composition of the Secretariat report illustrates how political power and financial contributions impact hiring with just three of the 193 UN member states – the United States (2,611), France (1,484) and the UK (931) – accounting for almost 15 percent of the 41,426 Secretariat staff .

The Secretariat, which the UN Charter says “shall be comprised of a Secretary-General and such staff as the organization may require” essentially implements the resolutions of the General Assembly and Security Council, including managing peacekeeping operations, and also includes OCHA and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It does not include specialized agencies such as UNICEF, UNDP and WHO.

Although US nationals contribute the most Secretariat staff, the Composition of the Secretariat report, which covers July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2014, says that it is under-represented in staff numbers but France and the UK are over-represented.

The US is the largest contributor to the UN’s regular budget, accounting for 22 percent, or $655 million annually, whereas France provides 5.5 percent, $151 million, making it the fourth biggest contributor, while the UK, at 5.1 percent, or $140 million, is fifth.

Japan is the second biggest financial contributor to the regular budget, assessed at 10 percent, or $293 million, yet only 255 Secretariat staff are Japanese. Germany is the third biggest contributor, assessed at 7 percent, $193 million. There are 516 German nationals working for the Secretariat.

China and Russia account for 5 percent and 2.4 percent of the regular budget, contributing $139 million and $66 million respectively, and there are 450 Chinese nationals and 562 Russians working for the Secretariat.

Amos is the first female head of OCHA and Ban is under pressure from civil-society groups to improve the UN’s poor record on appointing women to senior posts. According to the Composition of the Secretariat report, only 19 of the 75 undersecretaries-general and just 16 of the 64 assistant secretaries-general are women.

Related Stories:

Four Insiders Who Could Succeed Valerie Amos as OCHA Head

Replacing Valerie Amos: Political Appointment or Merit-Based?

Security Council Inconsistent on Women, Peace & Security

The UN’s Poor Record on Gender Equality

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image/UN Photo

UN Tourism Conference Held In Cambodia Where Children are Sold to Vacationers

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Feb. 9, 2015 – A first-ever world tourism and culture conference was held in Cambodia last week as that same country’s record on protecting children came under review by the Child Rights Committee in Geneva.

The conference, organized by the UN World Tourism Organization and UNESCO, concluded on Friday – a day after the UN committee released a blistering report on Cambodia’s compliance with the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.

In its report on Thursday, the committee said it “deeply regrets that preventive measures regarding offenses prohibited by the Optional Protocol remain inadequate and fragmentary.”

In particular, the committee said they were concerned about “orphanage tourism, which seems to be a growing phenomenon where children in institutions and orphanages are being exposed to sexual exploitation by foreigners, such as tourists and volunteer workers.”

It also asked the government of Cambodia to revise its laws by “defining and criminalizing all forms of sale of children and child pornography.”

An estimated one-third of prostitutes in Cambodia are under the age of 18 and the country’s laws do not specifically define or prohibit the prostitution of children.

The committee asked Cambodia’s government to push its tourism agencies and travel agents to sign up the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism published by the UNWTO – the same agency that held its inaugural tourism and culture conference in Cambodia last week.

Some 37 percent of the victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation in Cambodia are children, according to UNICEF, and up to 30 percent of boys and girls reported experiencing forced sex in their lifetimes.

The UNWTO/UNESCO tourism conference made no note of child sex tourism in its press release following the conference’s conclusion but on Monday it was announced that Carol Bellamy, a former executive-director of UNICEF and New York City councilwoman, had been appointed as chair of the UNWTO child protection network.

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

US Senators Urge Funding for UNFPA as Republicans Hold Purse Strings

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Feb. 6, 2015 – A group of US senators is urging President Obama to continue funding the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) as the threat of Republican-controlled legislatures pulling funds for the agency looms.

The Republican Party won significant gains in the house and senate in the midterm elections and US funding for UN climate and population programs are under threat. Under President George W. Bush, the US withheld funds for the UNFPA claiming in part that the agency supported Chinese government programs which include forced abortions and coercive sterilizations.

The 22 senators, including Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein and Kirsten Gillibrand, in a Jan. 27 letter, wrote that “U.S. funding for UNFPA supports a range of global activities including the provision of voluntary family planning information, education and services, training and deployment of skilled birth attendants and midwives, and work to help end the harmful practices of female genital mutilation and child marriage.”

We are disappointed that despite UNFPA’s critical work around the world, a number of misperceptions about the organization persist,” the letter added.

On its website, the UNFPA says it “does not promote abortion as a family planning method.”

The US has contributed some $30 million annually to the agency under the Obama administration. From 2001-2008, a total of $244 million in Congressionally approved funding was blocked by the Executive Branch.

The UNFPA receives some $450 million yearly with Sweden ($66M), Norway ($59M), the Netherlands ($49M) and Denmark ($44M) the top donors.

Since the Helms amendment to the foreign aid package in 1973, US foreign aid is prohibited from being used to pay for abortion as a method of family planning “or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.”

The senators conclude their letter by saying, “support for UNFPA is cost-effective, saves lives and supports our broader diplomatic, development and national security priorities.”

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz