UN Aid Chief Chides Security Council Over Syria Inaction

OCHA Head speaks to the press following Security Council Consultations on the situation in Syria
April, 30 – 2014- Valerie Amos on Wednesday told members of the Security Council behind closed doors that they were failing to uphold the founding values of the UN in their approach to Syria.

Amos, the undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said that only ten percent of the some 250,000 people living in besieged areas received aid in the past month despite a February 19 resolution demanding unimpeded access for humanitarian relief.

“I told the Council that in my reports I have demonstrated time and time again the minimal impact of the approach being taken so far, and that public pressure and private diplomacy has yielded very little,” she said to reporters after briefing the 15-nation body.

“I also told the Council that the UN is a multilateral organization. Its founding values set the framework for the way in which we work. In Syria, those founding values and the responsibility of a state to look after its own people are being violated every day, and I think the onus rests on the Council to not only recognize that reality, but to act on it,” she added.

She spoke a day after a group of legal experts published a letter criticizing Amos and the heads of other UN agencies for “an overly cautious interpretation of international humanitarian law.” They argue that relief agencies do not need permission, which is not forthcoming, from the government in Damascus to deliver life-saving aid to trapped civilians.

February’s resolution on unimpeded aid delivery also states that the Council intends to take further steps in the event of non-compliance which puts pressure on China and Russia, who voted for it, to agree to a tougher follow-up resolution.

However, Russia’s state news agency on Wednesday reported that Moscow’s UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin, said a Chapter 7 resolution being prepared by his Western colleagues was “untimely.”

In his report to to the Council, Ban Ki-moon wrote that “none of the parties to the conflict have adhered to the demands of the Council.”

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

US Declares 4,804 Active Nuclear Weapons

April 29, 2014 –  The United States has reduced its active nuclear arsenal by six percent under President Barack Obama with the number of warheads for delivery now less than 5,000.

At its height in 1967, the US had 31,255 nuclear weapons. The reduction under Obama is still far less than under his predecessor, President George W Bush, who reduced the active arsenal by 25 percent in the first six years of his presidency.

The US had 5,113 active nuclear weapons in 2009.

“Today, I am pleased to announce that as of September 2013, the number of nuclear weapons in the active U.S. arsenal has fallen to 4,804,” US Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller said at an NPT preparatory committee meeting held at UN headquarters on Tuesday. “This newly declassified number represents an 85 percent reduction in the U.S. nuclear stockpile since 1967.”

Gottemoeller hinted that recent divisions with Russia over Syria and Ukraine is hindering further cuts in the nuclear arsenal.

“Recent actions have significantly undermined mutual trust and that trust will take time to rebuild,” she said. “Still, no one should forget that even in the darkest days of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union found it in our mutual interest to work together on reducing the nuclear threat.

Gottemoeller also said the US remains committed to ratifying the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty. The treaty cannot go into force until it has been ratified by the eight remaining countries of the 44 that initially negotiated it – China, Egypt, Iran, Israel, and the US, which have signed the treaty, and North Korea, India, and Pakistan, which have not signed.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image: Wikimedia

Pre-Trial Detention Overcrowding Tunisia’s Prisons

April 28, 2014 – More than half of those detained in Tunisia’s prisons have not yet stood trial and in some instances have been behind bars for up to three years waiting to have their cases heard.

These are among the details in a UN human rights office report released on Monday on the state of prison’s in the North African country where a popular uprising in 2011 overthrew the country’s autocratic regime.

The report says that the high number of pre-trial detainees is causing over crowding and those accused of minor offenses are housed in the same institution as those convicted of serious crimes.

In Manouba Women’s Prison, one dormitory held 60 inmates but only ten of them had been convicted. The report also notes the high number of university students imprisoned for drug offenses and recommends a progressive approach to drug consumption offenses from fines to sentence suspension, then imprisonment.

The full report is here (Arabic).

Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image: Wikimedia

UN Climate Chief Urges Universities to Divest from Fossil Fuel Industry

Framework Convention on Climate Change.
April 22, 2014 – UN climate chief Christina Figueres wants universities to divest from fossil fuel companies.

In a statement delivered at Brown University last week, the Costa Rican diplomat warned that it was harmful to argue that one institution divesting from the fossil fuel industry won’t make a difference.

“The thought that removing investment from coal on the part of one small institution is inconsequential and therefore not to be pursued, is analogous to the dangerous sentiment that in the context of a democratic system one vote is irrelevant because it does not constitute the majority,” she said.

“Or, in the context of an academic institution such as this distinguished one, it is analogous to the unacceptable belief that the education of one student is unimportant because a single student does not effect change,” Figueres added.

There is a growing movement on university campuses demanding endowments divest from the fossil fuel industry including a petition from faculty at Harvard calling on the Ivy League school to re-allocate its almost $33 billion holdings in the the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies to socially-responsible funds.

The latest IPCC report says that the planet is warming even faster than predicted in its previous report and that sea-levels could rise three feet at current rate by century’s end.

The report says increasing emissions, 80 percent of them caused by fossil fuels, are already melting the Arctic, acidifying oceans and harming crops.

Global greenhouse gas emissions—mostly a result of burning coal, oil and natural gas—need to be cut 40 to 70 percent by 2050, the report says, for humankind to face better than 50-50 odds of avoiding the worst effects of global warming.

The World Health Organization predicts that the effects of climate change on health will cost $2-4 billion per year by 2030 with major killers such as diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition, malaria and dengue expected to worsen as the climate changes.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image: UN Photo/Sarah Fretwell

Syria’s UN Ambassador Issues Report on Puerto Rican Self-Determination

Montreux Conference in Geneva
April 21, 2014 – Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja’afari, has prepared a UN report on Puerto Rico’s political relationship with the United States and the various self-determination options available to the island’s citizens.

His report also discusses excessive use of force by Puerto Rican police against political activists, the harsh sentences handed down to members of pro-independence groups, the application of the death penalty against Puerto Ricans, despite its abolition in 1929, and the effect on the health and human rights of the island’s citizens as a result of US military activities in Vieques.

Ja’afari, whose government the UN human rights office last week said had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, including torture and rape of its own citizens, was re-appointed as special rapporteur for the Committee on Decolonization last year.

The committee was formed in 1960 declaring that “the subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights.”

Puerto Rico was removed from the UN’s list of non-self-governing territories in 1953 but a number of countries, including Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, are pushing for the General Assembly to take up the issue of the island’s political status.

Positions in UN bodies are rotated on a regional basis, and regional groups often vote for colleagues in exchange for support later.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image: UN Photo/Violaine Martin

Fiji, Turkey, Venezuela Among the Running for 2015/16 UNSC Seats

Security Council Meeting on the situation in the Central African Republic.
April 16, 2014 – Fiji and Malaysia are competing in the Asia-Pacific group for the non-permanent Security Council seat being vacated by South Korea at the end of the year while New Zealand, Spain and Turkey are vying for the two spots available for the Western Europe and Others Group when Australia and Luxembourg finish their two-year stint on Dec. 31.

To date, those are the only two competitive races for membership of the 15-nation body for 2015/16 with Venezuela set to replace Argentina for the Latin America seat and Angola slated to replace Rwanda for the one available African seat.

Fiji is the only one of the seven candidates to have never previously served on the Council.

The election is set to take place in October with candidates requiring a two-thirds majority vote in the 193-member General Assembly.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Photo/UN Photo

New UN Report Documents Widespread Use of Torture in Syria

April 14, 2014 –  Men, women and children are routinely tortured in Syria by government forces and more recently by armed opposition groups, according to a report released Monday by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The report is based on 38 interviews with victims of torture and says that torture is most common immediately upon arrest and in the first days and weeks of detention and interrogation.

“Upon arrival at a detention facility, detainees are routinely beaten and humiliated for several hours by guards in what has become known as the ‘reception party,'” the report states.

The interviews, which date from 2011 to 2013, detail gruesome acts of torture including beatings, shackling, suspension, removal of body parts including toe nails and teeth as well as rape of men and women.

One 26-year-old woman described how in 2013, she, along with several other detained women, were called prostitutes and were spat at. “I was hanged against a wall for three days, and frequently beaten with an electric cable. I used to pass out from the pain. They pulled out my teeth and threw water at me.”

“One morning, she and another woman were taken by a security officer to a room where their hands were tied behind their backs and they were raped,” the report says. It adds that on release she was forced to flee after her family rejected her when they learned she was raped.

Armed opposition groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat al Nusra, also run detention centers in areas they control and practice torture on detainees.

ISIS is using the Children’s Hospital in Aleppo as its headquarters and has detained and tortured human rights activists and medical personnel, according to the report.

The full report is here.

Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Image: Torture by Francisco Goya


Little Progress in Prosecuting Rapists in DRC

UN envoy on sexual violence in conflict, Zainab Bangura, briefing the Human RIghts Council in March on continuing challenges in combatting sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

UN envoy on sexual violence in conflict, Zainab Bangura, briefing the Human Rights Council in March on continuing challenges in combatting sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

April 9, 2014 – The national army and police are the main perpetrators of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo and their crimes mostly go unpunished.

A total of 3,635 victims of sexual violence – mostly rape – were registered by the UN Human Rights Office in DRC between January 2010 and December 2013 and the national army, the FARDC, were responsible for 1,281 incidents, according to a joint report released on Wednesday. Members of the police force and other state agents were responsible for several more incidents.

“Most cases of sexual violence are never investigated or prosecuted, and very few are even reported,” the report states.

Of the incidents reported to the UN, 25 percent were committed against children and the age of victims ranged from 2 to 80.

“Despite increased efforts by Congolese authorities to arrest and try alleged perpetrators of crimes of sexual violence, many such cases never reach a court of law,” the report states. “Of particular concern is the impunity enjoyed by a number of high-ranking officers alleged to be responsible for crimes of sexual violence.”

From July 2011 to December 2013,  there were 187 convictions by military courts for sexual violence, mostly for rape. Seventy-three percent of those convicted were members of the army, 17 percent were from the police and 8 percent were other State agents, the report says.

In some cases, there are out-of-court settlements usually involving the head of the perpetrator’s family and the head of the victim’s family and in most cases the victim is left outside the process, the report says. In other cases, marriage is arranged between the perpetrator and victim, adding a further violation to the victim’s fundamental rights.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Samantha Power Says No to Any Palestinian Push to Join UN Agencies

United States Permanent Representative of Briefs Press on Ukraine
April 2, 2014 – Samantha Power on Wednesday told members of the US Congress that she will firmly oppose any Palestinian bid to join UN and other international agencies and treaties.

The US envoy was speaking before the House Subcommittee that authorizes funds for UN activities on the same day that Palestine’s UN envoy, Riyad Mansour, said his country may seek to join more multilateral organizations including possibly acceding to the International Criminal Court.

“We are fighting every day — on numerous fronts — to end the bias against Israel that has long pervaded the UN system,” Power said in her testimony before the House Subcommittee on Appropriations for State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs. “This solemn commitment also extends to our firm opposition to any and all unilateral actions in the international arena, including on Palestinian statehood, that circumvent or prejudge the very outcomes that can only come about through a negotiated settlement.”

On Monday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced he was submitting applications to join 15 international organizations and treaties. He said the decision to do so was because Israel had not released the final batch of prisoners it agreed to release in a deal made nine months ago.

“When they violated that agreement, we were free to do whatever we feel that we need to do and what we did is legal,” Mansour said at UN headquarters in New York on Tuesday.

Palestine joined UNESCO in October 2011 in a move that was supported 107 of the organization’s member states including Security Council permanent members China, France and Russia. The United Kingdom abstained.

The US Congress immediately froze funds to the organization that supports literacy and free expression. As a result of not paying dues to UNESCO for two consecutive years, the US lost its voting rights in November last year.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

photo: UN Photo/Mark Garten