Friday’s Daily Brief: Syria, Yemen airstrikes, Anti-torture panel, Gay rights, Climate change, #Vesak Day

On Friday, we cover: Fighting in Syria’s Idlib province; UN condemnation of airstrikes in Yemen; UK’s forced-return policy; LGBTI rights; the UN chief’s climate action trip to Tuvalu; and Vesak Day.

Risk of ‘catastrophic humanitarian fallout’ grows in Syria’s Idlib

The UN’s Political and Humanitarian Affairs chiefs on Friday called on the Security Council to unite in support of an immediate de-escalation of fighting around Syria’s Idlib province, and work towards an enduring political solution on behalf of the Syrian people.

The UN’s head of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo told members that “we have been here before: in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and Raqqa” where civilian casualties mounted along with an all-out offensive by the Syrian Government and its allies.

“If the escalation continues, and the offensive pushes forward, we risk catastrophic humanitarian fallout and threats to international peace and security”, she said, giving a cautious welcome to the announcement on Wednesday of a new Turkish-Russian working group, convened to try and salvage the military buffer-zone deal reached between the two nations last September over Idlib. Read our full coverage here.

UN agencies condemn deadly Yemen airstrikes in capital Sana’a

Airstrikes that hit the Yemeni capital of Sana’a on Thursday drew strong condemnation from United Nations agencies, warning of the “brutal toll” that more than four years of conflict has taken on civilians.

Amidst scant details of the attacks, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that several people were killed, and dozens of others injured.

“Preliminary reports we have last night indicate that five children had died and 16 more were wounded, including healthworkers”, OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke told journalists in Geneva.  Click here for more on the story.

UK’s forced returns policy highlighted by UN anti-torture panel

The UN Committee Against Torture has expressed concern over the United Kingdom’s policy of forcibly returning asylum-seekers to places where they face a risk of abuse – highlighting 43 enforced returns to Sri Lanka last year, and 50 more to Afghanistan.

UK Home Office caseworkers “arbitrarily reject credible evidence of past torture”, the independent experts maintained, which led to torture victims’ asylum claims being denied.

While noting that “a large proportion” of denied asylum claims were ultimately overturned on appeal, the Committee called for more training for caseworkers so that they could identify the risks the claimants faced.

In meetings with the UN panel, the UK delegation earlier said that the country did not seek to return anyone who demanded protection, if there was a risk of torture or persecution.

Justice still hangs in the balance for LGBTI people, UN says on International day

Everyone has a right to fair treatment and protection from abuse, regardless of who they are and who they love, is the message of this year’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

On the day that Taiwan became the first Asian nation to legalized same-sex marriage, reports circulated that thousands of demonstrators welcomed the move outside parliament by waving rainbow flags.

According to the UN Free & Equal campaign, more than one-third of the world’s countries criminalize same-sex relationships, reinforcing prejudice and putting millions of people at risk of blackmail, arrest and imprisonment.

Moreover, it warns that homosexuality is still a crime in 70 countries and punishable by death in seven of them.

For its part, UN Women issued a statement of solidarity saying: “Human rights are universal and apply to everyone. No cultural, moral or religious belief justifies violation of anyone’s human rights”.

Climate change ‘striking Tuvalu’ more dramatically than ‘anywhere else in the world’

Winding down his trip to the South Pacific, Secretary-General António Guterres told journalists in Tuvalu that the small island State was “on the frontline of the war on climate change” because it is “striking Tuvalu in a more dramatic way than anywhere else in the world”.

He professed his “enormous admiration” that the nation has “decided to resist” and is implementing “a programme of adaptation and resilience that is something that the whole world should admire and support”.

Find our full story here.

Buddha’s message of non-violence rings true on Vesak Day

A sacred occasion to millions, Friday marked the Day of Vesak, when Buddhists the world over commemorate the birth, enlightenment and passing of the Buddha – and everyone globally can reflect on his life and “draw inspiration from his teachings”, according to the United Nations chief.

In his message for the day, Secretary-General António Guterres extended his “best wishes to all celebrating Vesak”.

“In a time of growing intolerance and inequality, the Buddha’s message of non-violence and service to others is more relevant than ever”, stressed Mr. Guterres.

“On the Day of Vesak, let us renew our commitment to building a world of peace and dignity for all”, he added.

The General Assembly recognized internationally the Day in 1999 to acknowledge the contribution that Buddhism, one of the oldest religions in the world, has made for over two and a half millennia and continues to make to the spirituality of humanity.

Risk grows of ‘catastrophic humanitarian fallout’ in Syria’s Idlib, where 3 million are trapped: top UN officials urge unity in Security Council

The UN’s Political and Humanitarian Affairs chiefs on Friday called on the Security Council to unite in support of an immediate de-escalation of fighting around Syria’s Idlib province, and work towards an enduring political solution on behalf of the Syrian people.

The UN’s head of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo told members that “we have been here before: in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and Raqqa” where civilian casualties mounted along with an all-out offensive by the Syrian Government and its allies.

“If the escalation continues, and the offensive pushes forward, we risk catastrophic humanitarian fallout and threats to international peace and security”, she said, giving a cautious welcome to the announcement on Wednesday of a new Turkish-Russian working group, convened to try and salvage the military buffer-zone deal reached between the two nations last September over Idlib.

The top former United States diplomat said the UN had followed the intensifying violence which has reportedly killed more than 100 civilians, and displaced around 180,000 already displaced civilians, “with great concern”.

UN Photo/Loey Felipe
Rosemary DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, briefs the Security Council on the situation in Syria. (17 May 2019)

Fighting terrorists, can’t trump international legal obligations

She noted the presence of the terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which reportedly now holds sway in much of Idlib, saying that “the international community agrees” that it’s presence “must be addressed. But with three million civilians in close quarters, combatting terrorism cannot be allowed to supercede obligations under international law.”

Ms. DiCarlo said the UN-facilitated political track needed to be revitalized, adding that if the Council can work together in support of Russia and Turkey’s ceasefire commitment “then we can work towards restoring a nationwide ceasefire and consensus” in line with previous Resolutions.

“International cooperation and support of the Geneva process is critical if Special Envoy (Geir) Pedersen is to realize his mandate” she said, adding that “the conflict is Syria is complex but there is a path forward.”

“Let us unite today for the first step – to support an immediate de-escalation of the violence in greater Idlib and work towards a political solution that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people”, she concluded.

‘Our worst fears are now coming true’ – UN relief chief Lowcock

Despite repeated warnings from the UN Secretary-General and others, the decision by the Syrian Government and allies – which include Security Council permament-member Russia – to intensify a military offensive on Idlib in recent weeks, means that “our worst fears are now coming true”, said Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock.

He reminded Council members that “the innocent civilians of course hugely out-number the men with guns” across Idlib. While many of the 180,000 newly-displaced have moved to camps in the past three weeks, “more than 80,000 people have found themselves with nowhere to go, so they are simply parked in open fields or sheltering under trees.”

At least three IDP camps had been attacked with resulting deaths and injuries, and 17 schools damaged and destroyed, with more than 400,000 unable to sit for important exams. The UN humanitarian response would be completely overwhelmed if a full military incursion takes place, he added.

The escalation in attacks on medical facilities inside the escalation zone, was the biggest cause for concern he said, noting the World Health Organization (WHO) had confirmed 20 attacks on 18 different facilities – or one per day, in the past three weeks.

‘What is the point of the Security Council passing resolutions like that if States are not going to comply with them?’

He ended his briefing with a chilling list of factual responses to some key questions put to his office in recent weeks, by Member States, NGOs, doctors and families affected by fighting in the Idlib zone. Here is the full transcript of his  closing remarks:

“Who is bombing all these hospitals?
I can’t say. But at least some of these attacks are clearly organized by people with access to sophisticated weapons including a modern air force and so called smart or precision weapons.
Are hospitals being deliberately targeted?
I don’t know. The people who do, are the ones dropping the bombs. What I can tell you is that there are a lot of attacks on these health facilities.
Is it true that you provide details of where hospitals are, in order to protect them?
Yes. The obligation to protect civilian objects – including hospitals – comes from international humanitarian law. We give details of some hospital locations to the parties to the conflict, so they can comply with those obligations.
Is the information being provided about the locations of hospitals in fact being used not to protect hospitals but to target them?
I don’t know. Again, the people who can answer that question are the ones dropping the bombs. Many deconflicted sites which are not hospitals, have not been attacked.
Has this kind of thing happened before during the Syria conflict?
Yes. The then Special Envoy, Staffan de Mistura and I, last year raised concerns about similar attacks in eastern Ghouta with Council Members who we thought might have relevant information and who we thought could prevent a recurrence.
Did you get satisfactory answers at that time?
We have yet to receive full answers to the questions we raised last year.
If I were an NGO running a hospital, why would I want to give you give you details of my location if that information is simply being used to target the hospital?
That is a good question. We are thinking about what conclusions to draw from recent events in respect of the deconfliction system in so far as it covers health facilities.
What is your advice to parents of children who live in the de-escalation zone – should they take their children to the hospital in the case of an illness or injury?
That is a very difficult question. I am deeply concerned about the impact on the health of children, and their safety, when so many medical facilities are being attacked.
What would you do if you were the parent of a child needing hospital care in the so-called de-escalation zone in Idlib right now?
I am sorry to say that I just don’t know. I feel desperately sorry for parents in that horrible position.
Hasn’t the Security Council passed a resolution reinforcing that countries shouldn’t bomb hospitals?
Yes. Security Council Resolution 2286, passed in 2016, specifically covered that.
Finally, I am asked: What is the point of the Security Council passing resolutions like that if States are not going to comply with them?
That, Mr President, is also a very good question. It is, of course, not really addressed to me.”

Deadly Yemen airstrikes that claim children’s lives in capital Sana’a, strongly condemned by UN

Thursday’s airstrikes on Yemen’s capital Sana’a that reportedly killed five children and injured dozens more, have been strongly condemned by UN agencies, which have warned of the “brutal toll” on civilians of more than four years of conflict.

“Several people were killed and dozens were injured when airstrikes hit Sana’a city,” said Jens Laerke, Spokesperson for the humanitarian affairs coordination office (OCHA).

Echoing a statement on the atrocity by Lise Grande, UN Resident Coordinator in Yemen, Mr Laerke noted that “preliminary reports we have last night indicate that five children had died and 16 more were wounded. Additional casualties including healthworkers have been recorded.”
© UNHCR/Shadi Abusneida
Faiza Ali, a mother of five, says her family were displaced by fighting in Sa’ada and now the family live in a tent. (16 April 2019)

Details of the attacks on Sana’a remain scant, Mr. Laerke added, in an update to journalists in Geneva on Friday. “I have no indication yet of the exact locations where they hit,” he said, adding that several locations suffered damage.

The OCHA Spokesperson’s comments follow an appeal by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to the UN Security Council on Wednesday to save the lives of 15 million children across the war-torn country.

More than four years of fighting have left at least 7,300 children killed or seriously injured, Henrietta Fore, head of the UN Children’s Fund, told the Council’s 15 members, noting that as these were officially verified figures, the true numbers “are no doubt higher”.

Every day, as a Yemeni Government coalition fights for control of the country against Houthi opposition forces, “another eight children will be killed, injured or recruited”, she said, with a child dying from a preventable cause, every 10 minutes.

Refugees among the victims: UNHCR

Also in Geneva, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, appealed for combatants to respect the protection of civilians and respect their obligations under international humanitarian law.

“Refugees are known to be among those injured and affected”, said spokesperson Andrej Mahecic. “A Somali refugee woman and her daughter are among those now receiving critical treatment in a hospital”, he explained, adding that there are more than 275,000 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in the country, and more than nine in 10 are from the Horn of Africa state.

Amid ongoing insecurity in Yemen, millions remain on the brink of starvation, as access problems hinder the work of humanitarians to deliver food, fuel and medicines.

The majority of these supplies are imported via the country’s embattled Red Sea ports of Hudaydah, Saleef and Ras Issa, from where Houthi opposition militia – also referred to as Ansar Allah – redeployed earlier this week under the UN-led agreement sealed last December, UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths told the Security Council on Wednesday.

“This progress will allow the United Nations to play the leading role given to it in supporting the Yemen Red Sea Ports Corporation in management and inspections at the ports, including enhanced monitoring by the UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism,” Mr. Griffiths said.

Underscoring the UN’s willingness to help with the running of Hudaydah port, the Special Envoy noted that a UN Development Programme (UNDP) team was heading to the port to install lights to help ships berth safely, to repair facilities and provide support for 4,000 people in the city carrying out public works.

Key grain silo repairs near completion

Providing an update on the status of Hudaydah’s damaged Red Sea Mills, where millions of tonnes of wheat have been inaccessible until recently owing to the fighting, spokesperson Herve Verhoosel from the World Food Programme (WFP) said that repairs to silos and machinery were nearing completion.

“We need more access because we need to come with additional trucks and machinery to the mills,” he said. “We have taken another route this time to access the mills than the time before to avoid the frontline; that was easier to come from the other side. That is potentially what we will do for the future access also.”

As long as WFP’s operations are able to proceed unimpeded, “we hope in the near future we will be able to start milling the wheat and then begin transporting it to the people who need it most”, Mr. Verhoosel added, in an appeal for “continued, sustained safe passage” for the UN staff.

‘The time for action is now’ senior UN peacekeeping official says, urging support for regional force combating Sahel terrorism

The five-year-old force working to stabilize Africa’s Sahel has shown great potential, but needs more support from the international community to reach full operational capacity, a top UN peacekeeping official said on Thursday, calling for enhanced political and economic solutions to help tackle the strife-torn region’s myriad challenges.

MINUSMA/Harandane Dicko
A G5 headquarters in Mopti in central Mali. (file 2017)

Dubbed the ‘G-5 Sahel’ after the group of countries that comprise it (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) the Joint Force, proposed by the African Union and backed by the UN Security Council, aims to bolster coordination to “neutralize” armed groups in the region and strengthen Cooperation on economic development and security.

“The G-5 Sahel has taken additional steps to operationalize the joint force following the devastating terrorist attack on its headquarters in June,” Bintou Keita, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Africa, told the Security Council today.

She said she was particularly encouraged by the resumption of joint force operations in January, noting that the force has carried out four operations since the beginning of the year.

Ms. Keïta considered it essential to continue this momentum.

“I call on the G-5 Sahel Member States to urgently accelerate the full operationalization of the joint force so that it can finally reach its full operational capability,” she said during a briefing alongside the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Yury Fedotov, Burkina Faso’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alpha Barry, the High Representative of the African Union for Mali and the Sahel, Pierre Buyoya, and European Union Special Representative for the Sahel, Angel Losada Fernandez.

The situation in Mali and in the wider Sahel remained extremely worrying, said Ms. Keïta, cautioning that while the region faces serious problems – from growing insecurity to the spread of violent extremism across borders – the solution to many of the Sahel’s challenges such as the impact of climate change and drugs and people-smuggling, cannot be solely military.

She said that effective G-5 Sahel operations “will send a strong signal to terrorist groups: their encroachment on the life of the population will no longer be tolerated and will be rejected by the collective determination of the Member States of the region.”

But at the same time, Ms. Keïta said, “a security-driven approach alone will not be sufficient to combat violence in the region in a sustainable manner. It must go hand-in-hand with our collective and coordinated efforts and a broader strategy encompassing poverty reduction, good governance, development and humanitarian assistance and security interventions.”

The UN Integrated Strategy for the Sahel “remains a valid framework for coordinated action and I call on all partners to support its operationalization, in particular for climate adaptation, women and youth empowerment and cross border initiatives for peace,” she said, referring to the 2013 plan endorsed by the Security Council that prioritizes life-saving activities that meet immediate needs, while building the resilience of people and communities as part of a long-term development agenda.

“The time for action is now,” Ms. Keïta said, calling more support from the African Union, the European Union and the Council, and adding that “we all have a shared responsibility for the Sahel and we must each deliver on our part of a promise to help provide much-needed relief and empowerment to the populations [across the region] who need it most.”

For his part, Mr. Fedotov said the G-5 Sahel countries have achieved some notable results with UNODC support, addressing regional judicial cooperation and mutual legal assistance; firearms marking; investigation of terrorism financing; illicit trafficking at airports; and the resolution of backlogged cases involving terrorism suspects in overdue pre-trial detention.

UN Photo/Loey Felipe
Yury Fedotov, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (centre) alongside other officials from the African Union and European Union, addressing Security Council meeting on peace and Security in Africa.

These results were made possible thanks to support from the governments of Germany, Japan, the United States, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, France and the EU.

“Our G-5 Sahel partners deserve a great deal of credit for their commitment to advance efforts through the Joint Force in a fragile security environment,” but nonetheless, “we must be clear: many daunting challenges remain.”

There are three areas which UNODC said urgently required Member State support to implement the Police Component of the Joint Force: In the field of forensics, where equipment and training for law enforcement officers on crime scene investigation must be provided; support to further promote integrity measures within the Joint Force and national justice systems; and increased support to integrate women in the security structures of the G-5 Member States.

Meanwhile, Mr. Losada said cooperation btw UN and European Union “is excellent” and that the EU fully supports the work being done by MINUSMA, the UN integrated mission in Mali.

“The EU and its member States are determined to continue to build this partnership with the G-5 Sahel countries, it is vital for the security and development of the region. The EU is prepared to maintain its support through 2019 and 2020, upon the condition of greater involvement by the G5 Sahel States in achieving the objectives on the ground,” he said.

“It is also important to remobilize political and financial support of other international partners…This joint effort must be shared and must be based on open and effective dialogue with the G-5 Sahel, and tangible progress on the ground.”

Such momentum, stressed Mr. Losada must be maintained “if we wish the effort to be continued and stepped up. We are counting upon the support of the Security Council, which is indispensable to continuing these efforts, both in political terms, and in terms of the logistical and financial support to the G-5 Sahel and its Joint Force.”