Three Women, One Man in Race for Top UN Refugee Post

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Oct. 23, 2015 – Among the candidates to take over from Portugal’s Antonio Guterres as the next high commissioner for refugees is Sania Nishtar, a cardiologist, former government minister and founder of a healthcare NGO in her native Pakistan.

Sania Nishtar UNHCR candidate
Nishtar is the only non-European of the four candidates who have applied for the job and agreed to answer five questions posed by the International Council for Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), a global network of NGO’s with a long history of work on forced displacement issues.

She told ICVA that while candidates for top UN posts typically come from donor countries, selecting a candidate from the world’s top refugee hosting country would send a signal that all stakeholders matter and it would be empower the most affected countries to contribute.

Nishtar said her first refugee experience was in 1979 when relatives from Afghanistan arrived to stay with her family in Peshawar.

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The CEO of Save the Children International, Jasmine Whitbread, who holds dual UK and Swiss nationality, told ICVA that with many donor countries facing an influx of refugees for the first time, there is an “unparalleled opportunity to re-frame the issue for good.”

“I believe that the very difficulties of the situation we are facing may prove the galvanising force for change we need,” Whitbread said. “UNHCR is well placed to help catalyse this movement, and I would aim to bring all my experience and skills to bear to ensure we do not miss this opportunity.”

She also said UNHCR must throw its full weight behind breaking down the artficial divide between humanitarian and development work.

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Former Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, told ICVA that if she gets the post she would continue the good work started by Guterres on supporting stateless people. She noted that while much of the attention of UNHCR’s work is on refugees and the internally displaced, there are some 10 million people without citizenship.

Thorning-Schmidt also said she was concerned that even though thee are twice as many internally displaced people as refugees, they are not afforded the same protection.

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Filippo Grandi, the former head of the UN Relief and Works Agency, noted that his humanitarian experience dates back to the early 1990s including in Iraq, DRC and Afghanistan.

The Italian, who as head of UNRWA was responsible for the welfare of five million Palestinian refugees, also told ICVA that the high commissioner, as a senior adviser to the secretary-general, is “an important participant in the global discussions on conflict prevention and resolution, sustainable development, human rights and climate change.”

He noted that funding will continue to be a challenge for the refugee agency with only 12 governments providing over 80 percent of UNHCR’s funding.

– Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

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Proper Handwashing Facilities Still a Rarity in Poorer Countries

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Oct. 15, 2015 –  Diarrheal diseases are one of the leading causes of child deaths globally, responsible for an estimated 2.2. million deaths annually, more than from Malaria, HIV and Aids, and measles combined yet most homes in poorer countries lack handwashing facilities with soap and water.

Proper handwashing is key to reducing diarrheal diseases but according to a joint report from the World Health Organization and UNICEF less than 10 percent of homes in many low-income countries do not have soap and water.

The report, released ahead of World Handwashing Day, which is marked on Oct. 15th, showed that 1 percent of the population in Liberia, 2 percent in Rwanda and 3 percent in Malawi have a facility at home with soap and water.

The report was compiled from household surveys and analyzed results from 54 low and middle-income countries, mostly in Asia and Africa.

In Afghanistan, 39 percent of homes have a facility with soap and water while in Pakistan, the figure is 54 percent.

Of the African countries surveyed, Tunisia, 78 percent, and Namibia, 47 percent, had the highest rates of homes with soap and water facilities.

Other countries with low rates include Haiti, 22 percent, Central African Republic, 14 percent, Uganda, 8 percent and Sierra Leone, 7 percent.

UN Should Focus More on Preventing War, Not Making War Safer for Women

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Oct. 14, 2015 –  In the fifteen years since the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 on women, peace & security, the world has become far more violent and the impact of armed conflict on women is far greater than when the landmark text was adopted.

The Global Study on Resolution 1325, released on Tuesday, notes that peacekeeping, with a $9 billion annual budget, could now be considered the core mandate of the United Nations, whereas back in 2000, the UN “was primarily seen as a development organization.”

It is against this backdrop of increasing militarization since 2001 – which includes the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Syrian conflict, the rise of groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram, alarming reports of sexual violence in South Sudan and Darfur, attacks on school girls, girls schools and female teachers in Afghanistan and the shift of resources away from development to peace operations – that the United Nations is taking stock of its women, peace and security agenda.

The 1325 resolution consists of three pillars – protection of women, participation of women in peace processes, and conflict prevention – and it is the latter that is an increasing focus of civil society advocates. A recent paper from Oxfam notes that Resolution 2122, adopted in 2013, “helped close a gap in interpretation [of Res 1325] that previously focused entirely on the prevention of gender-based violence in conflict, rather than the prevention of conflict itself.” The goal should not be making war safer for women but preventing war.

Advocates are calling for a more holistic approach to the root causes and drivers of conflict which include social and economic inequalities and unequal access to resources and services as well as the structural barriers that are obstacles to women’s participation in conflict prevention, which may include child care, transportation and personal safety.

The Global Study, whose lead author is Radhika Coomoraswamy, former UN envoy for children in armed conflict, states that “prevention and protection through nonviolent means should be emphasized more by the international system, and more resources should be dedicated to this endeavor.”

“If force is used, even for the protection of civilians, there must be clarity and clear, attainable objectives,” it adds. “Conflict prevention and resolution, as practiced today, continues to focus on neutralizing potential spoilers and perpetrators of violence, rather than investing in resources for peace.”

It may be time for the UN to return to making development its core mandate and shifting some of the $9 billion it invests in peacekeeping to investing in preventing conflict.

– Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

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Respecting the Dignity of People Suffering from Mental Illness

Philippe Pinel, often refferred to as "father of modern psychiatry" releasing people from their chains at the Salpêtrière Asylum, Paris, 1795 by Tony Robert-Fleury

Philippe Pinel, often referred to as “father of modern psychiatry” releasing people from their chains at the Salpêtrière Asylum, Paris, 1795, by Tony Robert-Fleury, (Brigdeman Art Library)

Oct. 10, 2015 – Research from post-conflict South Sudan reported that up to half the population met the symptoms for depression while another study found that 15 percent of ex-combatants wished they were dead.

Yet there are only twelve beds for treatment of mental illness in South Sudan and many of those with serious mental illness or disability are instead sent to prison where they are shackled and locked away for years on end.

World Mental Health Day is commemorated on Oct. 10th and the World Health Organization has declared dignity as the this year’s theme, noting that many people suffering from mental health are sent to institutions, deprived of their liberty and subject to inhuman and degrading conditions.

Yet, it is not only post-conflict developing countries where people suffering from mental illness are denied their inherent dignity. In the United States, prisons often serve as the functioning mental health system especially for the homeless, more than a third of whom suffer from a mental illness.

In China, there’s barely one psychiatrist for every 100,000 people, even though more than 17 percent of the adult population have a mental disorder at some stage of their lives.

For countries currently experiencing conflict, the treatment of mental illness is often neglected as over-burdened aid agencies focus on delivering food and trauma care. In Syria, for example, the World Health Organization said there’s a shortage of medication for those suffering from depression – and the number is growing – and other mental illnesses.

On this year’s Mental Health Day, WHO is calling for governments, communities and donors to invest in a holistic approach that respects the rights of those suffering from mental illness, and for treatment to not just focus on managing symptoms but on recovery so that people can achieve their full life’s potential.

– Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

Staff at News Org Linked to UN Corruption Scandal Shocked Over Allegations

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Francis Lorenzo (left) pictured with Ban Ki-moon and Antigua’s prime minister Baldwin Spencer in 2011.

Oct. 7, 2015 – Staff at a UN-accredited news organization that received more than $12 million since its inception in 2009 from the Chinese billionaire at the center of a corruption scandal said they are “disappointed and shocked” over allegations against their president.

South-South News is headed by Francis Lorenzo, the deputy ambassador of the Dominican Republic to the United Nations. Lorenzo was charged in New York on Tuesday for facilitating bribes to the former president of the General Assembly, John Ashe, to get Ashe to use his influence to support the building of a UN conference center in Macau by Chinese billionaire David Ng.

“The South-South News staff is disappointed and shocked to learn about these allegations. If they ultimately prove true, it will be a serious blow to our mission, what we believe as staff members, and what we work for every day,” the staff said in a statement issued Tuesday evening.

“Had knowledge of Lorenzo’s alleged activities been made aware to us, we would have strongly objected and refused to comply where relevant,” the statement added. “It is therefore upsetting to us that our hard work could be associated with the allegations against Lorenzo.”

The charges against Lorenzo state that in 2009 he was made honorary president of a New York-based NGO, understood to be South-South News, that was founded by Ng and that he has received a regular $20,000 monthly salary ever since. Ng has wired more than $12 million to the South-South News bank account in New York, the charge sheet states.

The charges allege that payments were made from the South-South News bank account to John Ashe beginning in 2011 when he was Antigua’s ambassador to the United Nations and that, from January 2011 to December 2014, Ashe’s wife was paid a $2,500 monthly salary to work as a “climate consultant” for South-South News though the charge sheet says there is no evidence that she ever actually did any work for the organization.

The criminal complaint also alleges that Ashe got South-South News to pay for Antigua’s then prime minister, Baldwin Spencer, and six others to fly first-class to New York to attend the South-South News annual gala which was taking place during the same week as the UN’s annual General Debate in September 2011.

Ban Ki-moon greeting John Ashe

Ban Ki-moon greeting John Ashe

The charge sheet adds that in February 2012, after Ashe and his wife had received some $38,000 in payments from South-South News, in addition to other gifts including travel and the construction of a basketball court at Ashe’s Westchester County home, that Ashe sent a letter to Ban Ki-moon, as an official UN document, stating that Antigua’s prime minister and other heads of state had decided to launch a “Global Business Incubator, Permanent Expo and Meeting Center” hosted in Macau and to be built by the Sun Kian Ip group, whose chairman is David Ng.

The charges state that Lorenzo then used this official UN document to imply that the conference center that Ng was seeking to develop was in some fashion supported by the United Nations.

Payments to Ashe from the South-South News bank account continued, and got bigger, with some $100,000 paid to Ashe between January and June 2013, in addition to his wife’s monthly salary as well as a separate $25,000 payment to Ashe in February 2013.

Beginning in 2014, Ashe solicited funds from Ng for his General Assembly presidency, including a $200,000 payment from the South-South News bank account that was deposited to Ashe’s account on June 3, 2014. He was elected unopposed in Sept. 2013 to the rotating regional post as the candidate for the Group of Latin American and Caribbean countries at the UN.

A judge on Tuesday set bail at $1 million for Ashe and he was also ordered to wear an electronic bracelet. In total, he is accused of accepting $1.3 million in bribes and failing to pay adequate taxes.

Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

UN Demands Investigation into Deadly Afghan Hospital Attack

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Oct. 3, 2015 – UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday strongly condemned the attack on a Medecins Sans Frontiers hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan that killed at least 12 aid workers and three children while the United Nations human rights chief said the attack may amount to a war crime.

Hospitals are protected under international humanitarian law while the Security Council lists attacks on hospitals and health facilities as one of the six grave violations against children caught up in armed conflict.

At least 37 more people were injured in the overnight attack, including 19 MSF staff.

In a statement issued by his spokesman in New York, Ban called for “a thorough and impartial investigation into the attack in order to ensure accountability.”

Human Rights High Commissioner Zeid Hussein said the attack on the hospital “is utterly tragic, inexcusable, and possibly even criminal.”

“The seriousness of the incident is underlined by the fact that, if established as deliberate in a court of law, an airstrike on a hospital may amount to a war crime,” he added, according to a statement issued by his office in Geneva.

The attack on Saturday, reportedly a result of U.S. airstrikes, ranks as one of the single deadliest ever attacks on aid workers: 22 United Nations staff were killed when their compound in Iraq was bombed by Al Qaeda in August 2003 while 16 French aid workers were killed in a 2006 attack in Sri Lanka blamed on government security forces.

The UN aid chief, Stephen O’Brien, added his condemnation of the attack in a statement issued late Saturday in New York. “Hospitals and clinics should be sanctuaries where people, including women and children, go for help,” he stated. “Attacking a hospital not only has a devastating immediate impact but denies people the opportunity to access lifesaving healthcare in the future,” and he supported calls “for an urgent and impartial investigation to ensure accountability.”

Afghanistan is by far the most dangerous country for aid workers, with 54 losing their lives last year – most as a result of attacks by Taliban or other anti-government forces.

There were at least 38 attacks on health facilities in Afghanistan last year, according to Ban Ki-moon’s annual report on children and armed conflict.

Somalia Ratifies Child Rights Convention, U.S. Sole Holdout

Oct. 1, 2015  – Somalia on Thursday became the 196th country to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child when it confirmed its commitment to the treaty at U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday.

Mogadishu’s ratification leaves the United States as the sole U.N. member state not to have consented to the convention, which is the most ratified treaty in history.

The text was opened for signature on Nov. 20th 1989 and came into force on Sept. 2nd, 1990, after the required number of ratifications.

UN special representative for children in armed conflict, Leila Zerrougi (4th. fr. left) among invitees for deposit of Somali's ratification.

UN special representative for children in armed conflict, Leila Zerrougi (4th. fr. left), among invitees for deposit of Somali’s ratification.

Somalia announced its ratification in January this year but this was not formalized until it deposited what are known as the instruments of ratification with the United Nations treaty office, which it did on Thursday.

The child rights convention requires states to act in the best interests of children and forbids capital punishment for children. It acknowledges that every child has rights, including a right to life, to his or her own name, and to have a relationship with both parents, even if they are separated.

The United States was instrumental in drafting the convention and signed it in 1996, but has not yet ratified the text because it forbids capital punishment and life imprisonment for children.

The full text of the convention is here and the list of countries that have ratified the treaty is here.

– Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz