Ten Countries Infected by Polio Virus as WHO Declare Emergency

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

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

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


Syrian Government Not Complying With UNSC Humanitarian Resolution

ICRC Visit to Syrian displaced people in Sahnaya, Rural Damascus. (photo/ICRC)

March 26 – The Syrian government continues to impede the delivery of lifesaving medicines despite a Feb. 19 Security Council resolution demanding that it not hinder the delivery of humanitarian supplies.

Resolution 2139 demanded that the government and non-state armed groups respect the principle of medical neutrality but a report by Ban Ki-moon one month after the adoption of the resolution says that the regime continues to delay urgent medical supplies.

“On 24 February, a World Health Organization shipment of medicines and 
medical supplies destined for Ar-Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor governorates was held up at the government-controlled Sukhnah checkpoint in Palmyra,” the report states. “The shipment destined for Ar-Raqqa governorate was released on 5 March and reached its destination on 8 March.”

Ban’s report says that armed opposition groups are also violating the resolution.

“On 3 March, volunteers from the Aleppo branch of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent were beaten and harassed by armed opposition groups.”

One bright spot in the report is that 2.8 million children under 5 years of age have received polio vaccines.

The Syrian government continues to impose restrictive administrative hurdles, such as demanding a 72-hour advance request for humanitarian convoys, and is delaying the issuing of visas for humanitarian workers.

“One month since the adoption of Security Council resolution 2139 (2014), humanitarian access in the Syrian Arab Republic remains extremely challenging for humanitarian organizations,” Ban’s report concludes. “Delivering lifesaving items, in particular medicines, remains difficult. The assistance reaching people continues to fall far short of what is required to cover even their basic needs.”

The report also says that in addition to the well more than 100,000 people who have been killed since March 2011, at least 600,000 more have been injured.

The full report is here.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Growing List of War Crimes in Syria

Paulo Pinheiro, Chairman of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria

Paulo Pinheiro, Chairman of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria

March 18, 2014 –  Summary executions, torture, starvation, sexual violence and the use of hospitals as headquarters are among the growing list of violations carried out by government and non-government forces in Syria, according to an update by the the Independent Commission of Inquiry (CoI) established by the UN Human Rights Council.

The update, presented to the Geneva-based Council on Tuesday, says that fighters belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria (ISIS) carried out summary executions of detainees in January and that ISIS, one of hundreds of non-state armed groups operating in the country, is using the Children’s Hospital in Aleppo as headquarters.

The report says that torture continues in government prisons and that there is a lack of food, causing death by starvation in some instances.

In a Military Intelligence branch in Damascus, detainees were harshly beaten, hung from the ceiling and walls, beaten with electric cables and subjected to psychological torture,” the report says. “One female detainee was locked in a room with dead bodies for three days.”

“Women were forced to strip and male officers performed intimate body searches,” the report states. “In Adra Central Prison, Damascus, pregnant detainees are suffering miscarriages, premature births and deaths of new-borns as a result of insanitary conditions and denial of medical treatment.”

The chair of the COI, Brazilian Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, said the Commission has a list of perpetrators responsible for the crimes but lack a mechanism to bring those responsible to justice.

“We do not lack information on crimes or on perpetrators. What we lack is a means by which to achieve justice and accountability,” he said. “It is for the Security Council to make this pursuit of justice possible.”

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Security Council Unite on Syria Humanitarian Aid Resolution

Feb. 22, 2014 –  The Security Council on Saturday voted unanimously to adopt Resolution 2139 which demands unhindered access for humanitarian relief operations in Syria.

It specifically demands that the Syrian government allow aid delivery across international borders, a move which Australia’s UN envoy, Gary Quinlan, a co-sponsor of the resolution, said will allow humanitarian agencies to urgently provide assistance to more than one million people.

Luxembourg’s UN ambassador, Sylvie Lucas, another co-sponsor, said the implementation of the resolution will be “closely monitored by the Council.”

“We will see the first report from the secretary-general in 30 days and then every 30 days thereafter. This means that individuals and entities who are obstructing will be able to be held accountable. It also means that in the case of non-compliance there will be a trigger for further Council action.”

Najib Ghadbian, the opposition Syrian Coalition representative to the UN, said the Council must be ready to back up its threat of further action if the Syrian government does not comply.

“Failing that, we urge responsible nations to work with humanitarian agencies to deliver aid directly across Syria’s borders even without the consent of the regime,” he said in a statement. “The overwhelming humanitarian need and the strong international consensus to alleviate it provide all the legal justification that is required.”

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

(Image courtesy of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent)


UNSC Draft Syria Resolution Demands Unhindered Humanitarian Access

Destruction in Homs (source: wikimedia)

Destruction in Homs (source: wikimedia)

Feb. 21, 2014 – The draft UN Security Council resolution to be voted on Saturday morning calls for a lifting of the sieges on the Old City of Homs, Yarmouk, Eastern Ghouta and Darayya.

It also demands that all parties allow unhindered access to humanitarian agencies “including across conflict lines and across borders.”

It demands that all parties respect the principle of medical neutrality and calls for the immediate demilitarization of medical facilities.

The draft asks Ban Ki-moon to report to the Council 30 days after the resolution is adopted and “expresses its intent to take further steps in the case of non-compliance.”

Russia is understood to be sympathetic to the draft but it is not clear if Moscow will abstain or vote for the text.

The United States, United Kingdom, South Korea and Lithuania have expressed their intention to join Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg as co-sponsors of the draft, according to a Council diplomat. Other states will likely follow before tomorrow morning.

A copy of the draft resolution is below.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Syria Humanitarian Draft Resolution

US Envoy Power Skeptical of Reported Homs Deal

Perm rep of the USA speaking to the press regarding the situation in Syria
Feb. 6, 2014 – Samantha Power on Thursday cast doubt on whether the reported deal to allow aid into, and civilians out of, Homs would result in an easing of the humanitarian situation in the besieged old part of the central Syrian city.

Earlier on Thursday, the UN issued a statement welcoming reports that a humanitarian pause had been agreed in Homs by parties to the conflict.

“Valerie Amos, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, welcomed the news of the humanitarian pause agreed in Homs, which will allow civilians to leave and the delivery of essential, life-saving supplies for about 2,500 people,” the UN statement said. “She will continue to follow developments closely.”

Speaking to reporters outside the Security Council, US envoy Power said: ” I note regime statements this morning describing a willingness to evacuate ‘innocents.’ Given that the regime, up to this point, has described just about anybody living in opposition territory as a terrorist – and has attacked them as such – you know, we have reason on the basis of history to be very skeptical and, frankly, very concerned about anybody who falls into regime hands who comes from a part of the country that has been under opposition control.”

A similar deal was announced during the first round of Geneva II talks last month but failed to come to fruition.

There is further skepticism that Thursday’s announcement of a humanitarian pause in Homs is aimed at creating an appearance of progress ahead of the second round of Geneva II talks next week as well as responding to a draft UN Security Council resolution circulated among council members today that calls for unhindered humanitarian access in Syria.

Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin on Tuesday said Moscow would not support a humanitarian resolution.

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

photo/UN Photo

Homs Aid Convoy Still Stalled as Geneva Talks Stumble On

Jan. 28, 2014 – A humanitarian aid convoy waiting to enter Homs remains stalled at the perimeter of the besieged Syrian city.

Lakhdar Brahimi announced on Sunday that armed groups had given assurances that the convoy would not be attacked if it entered Homs. However, government approval is holding up its entry

“The convoy is ready and still waiting to enter. The authorization has not been given yet,” Brahimi said at a press conference in Geneva on Tuesday.  “We haven’t given up on that.”.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has not had access to the city since late 2012.

There is also no progress on evacuating civilians trapped in Old Homs. On Sunday, Brahimi said the Syrian government would allow women and children to immediately leave but concern for their male kin as well as a desire for aid to enter before they leave is reportedly holding up their departure from the city.

Meanwhile, negotiations for a political solution between representatives of the Syrian government and opposition  – their first face to face talks – have produced no tangible outcome so far. Brahimi, the UN-Arab League special representative mediating, acknowledged the difficulty of his task as the talks in the Swiss city enter the final three days.

“You know, I think I will repeat again that these are not easy negotiations and they haven’t been easy today, they haven’t been easy these past days and they will probably not be easy in the coming few days,” he said. “But, I am glad that you have been told by representatives of the two sides that they intend to stay and continue these discussions until Friday, as originally planned.”

– Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

Photo: Homs, April 2012/Wikimedia