538 MERS Cases in 18 Countries

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May 12, 2014 – Lebanon has recorded its first case of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) as the US Center for Disease Control announced on Monday that it is investigating a second case in Florida.

The amount of new infections has more than doubled in the past month with the majority of new cases in Saudi Arabia where 290 new infections have been diagnosed since late March.

MERS can cause severe respiratory illness and has a fatality rate of about 30 percent.

It originated in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since spread to Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Yemen in the Middle East; Egypt and Tunisia in Africa; France, Germany, Greece, Italy and the UK in Europe; Malaysia and the Philippines in Asia; and the United States in North America.

All cases outside of the Middle East are among individuals who recently travelled to the region. Camels are suspected as the primary source of infection for humans with the World Health Organization reporting that the case from Yemen had no recent history of travel outside of Yemen, but had made weekly visits to a camel farm where he reported drinking fresh camel milk.

The majority of cases are in men, 65 percent, and the median age for infection is 49.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

New Books

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Charlotte Mires’ Capital of the World is an entertaining account of the race to host the UN’s headquarters in the mid-1940s. New York City won the privilege in the end but Mires takes us through the twists and turns of the origins of the ‘world capital’ including plans from South Dakota, Michigan, St. Louis and Westchester County and she tells us the story of Prescott Bush’s opposition to building the headquarters in Greenwich, Connecticut which was the UN’s first choice.

Anne Hammerstad’s The Rise and Decline of a Global Security Actor tracks the UN Refugee Agency’s rise in the 1990s as a major actor in the global security arena and its post-9/11 return to a more independent role as its major donors fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with both these countries soon becoming the top source countries for refugees.

Providing Peacekeepers examines the challenges and demands of generating some 120,000 troops to serve in UN peacekeeping missions. The book has sections on the permanent five members of the Security Council, traditional troop contributor countries and emerging troop contributor countries.

We The Peoples: A UN for the 21st Century is a collection of Kofi Annan’s speeches arranged thematically and regionally covering such topics as human rights, peace and security, the Middle East, Africa, and development. The book is edited by Annan’s former speechwriter, Edward Mortimer.

UN Urges Qatar to Tackle Migrant Rights, Women’s Rights

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May 7, 2014 – Qatar should abolish its kafala system which ties a migrant worker to their employer and the Gulf country must take action to end discrimination against women.

Those were the main recommendations of UN bodies to the energy-rich emirate during its universal periodic review in Geneva on Wednesday.

In its submission, the UN Committee Against Torture said it “was deeply concerned about reports of widespread torture or ill-treatment and abuse of migrant workers, in particular under the sponsorship system, and about constraints faced by such workers on lodging complaints against their employers.”

Under the kalifa, or sponsorship, system a migrant worker essentially becomes the property of his or her employer. The sponsor monitors and controls all aspects of the worker’s life and it’s common practice for sponsors to confiscate the worker’s passport.

Of Qatar’s population of about 1.8 million, only 280,000 of these are citizens as the vast majority are foreign workers, mostly from South Asia.

The Committee to End Racial Discrimination called on Qatar to revise its law on nationality which bans Qatari women from passing on citizenship to their children if their husband is foreign.

The Gulf country was also urged to allow for equal representation in parliament as currently only men are authorized to be nominated to the Shura council, the legislative branch.

UNESCO raised concerns about Qatar’s blasphemy law which imposes seven-year prison sentences for “insulting the Supreme Being in letter and spirit,
in writing, drawing, gesturing or in any other way” while human rights commissioner Navi Pillay called for the immediate release of a poet who was sentenced to 15 years for allegedly encouraging the overthrow of the ruling system in Qatar and insulting the “nation’s symbols.”

Qatar was also urged to abolish the death penalty. The country’s representative at the review, Sheikh Mohammed Al-Thani, noted that no executions had taken place since 2003.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Ten Countries Infected by Polio Virus as WHO Declare Emergency

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May 5, 2014 –  Cameroon, Pakistan and Syria pose the greatest risk for exporting the polio virus that was on the verge of eradication a couple of years ago.

The vaccine-preventable disease has already spread across the borders of these three countries with neighboring Equatorial Guinea, Afghanistan and Iraq also infected.

Declaring the situation a public health emergency of international concern, the World Health Organization on Monday said “the consequences of further international spread are particularly acute today given the large number of polio-free but conflict-torn and fragile States” where vaccination programs have been interrupted because of fighting.

Ethiopia, Israel, Somalia as well as Nigeria have also recorded cases of polio in the past year whereas prior to 2013 only three countries – Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan – were considered endemic countries. The number of cases had decreased from some 350,000 in 1988 to 223 in 2012 as it seemed that the virus would join smallpox and rinderpest as the only diseases ever eradicated.

There were 417 polio cases last year, according to the Global Eradication Initiative.

Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and Lebanon are at high risk of becoming infected countries due to their proximity to currently infected countries and the risk of conflict interrupting vaccination campaigns there.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

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

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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

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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