‘You can and should do more’ to include people with disabilities, wheelchair-bound Syrian advocate tells Security Council in searing speech

The UN Security Council was told on Wednesday that people with disabilities “can’t wait any longer” for more of a say in how the world’s top diplomatic forum for peace and security, factors their needs into its work. 

UN Photo/Loey FelipeNujeen Mustafa, wheelchair-bound Syrian refugee and advocate for refugee youth, addresses the Security Council meeting on the situation in Syria.

The polite but passionate plea came from 20-year-old wheelchair-bound Syrian refugee, Nujeen Mustafa, who briefed members in a soft but commanding voice, on the acute vulnerabilities of people with disabilities in conflict, describing how once war began in her home city of Aleppo, she lived with the intense fear that she would be responsible for her own family dying in an airstrike. 

“Every day, buildings in our neighbourhood were bombed, leaving people trapped beneath the ruins. Every day, I feared that I could be the reason my family was one or two seconds late. My brother called us the walking dead”, she said to the hushed chamber. 

You can and should do more, to ensure that people with disabilities, are included in all aspects of your work – Nujeen Mustafa to Security Council

Even fleeing the country, she had to be carried out of the country by her siblings, as she had no wheelchair at the time. “The structure of supports that people with disabilities rely on, is broken down during conflict, leaving us at higher risk of violence and with more difficulties in getting assistance – especially for women”, said the cerebral palsy sufferer.  

Praising Council members for giving her time to tell her story, she said she had three key insights to deliver. Firstly, the crisis in Syria has a “disproportionately high impact” on people like her. Secondly, she said that people with disabilities “like women and girls, seem to be an afterthought”. Finally, she noted that people with disabilities should always be treated as “a resource, not a burden”. 

“Count us, because we count too”, said Ms. Mustafa, urging better data collection on how they cope in conflict. “This should not be just another meeting where we make grand statements and then move on…You can and should do more, to ensure that people with disabilities, are included in all aspects of your work – we can’t wait any longer”, she Council members, with a clear, calm, but firm delivery. 

‘Litany of horrors’ continues for Syrians, says UN deputy relief chief 

Briefing members on the latest humanitarian situation across Syria, deputy UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Ursula Mueller, said that over eight years, civilians had endured a “litany of horrors” with those in the northeast and northwest, living in fear “of yet another humanitarian catastrophe unfolding”.  More than eight in 10 live below the poverty lin and nearly 12 million Syrians depend on assistance. 

She said an escalation of fighting around Idleb, the last rebel redoubt, had left well over 200 civilians dead since February, including three children in a school just last Monday. 

She described the overcrowded Al Hol camp for more than 73,000 – mostly displaced by ISIL terrorists’ last stand in the north east – as being nearly two-thirds children under the age of 12. She said all children, including those of suspected terrorists, were ‘entitled to special care and protection under international humanitarian law…They must be treated first and foremost, as victims.” 

Solutions for the 15 per cent of camp inhabitants who are foreign nationals “need to be urgently found” she said, calling on Governments to “take all measures necessary to ensure that their nationals are repatriated”. 

Ms. Mueller also described rising UN concerns for displaced civilians trying to escape the isolated Rukban camp on Syria’s southern border with Jordan, many returning to Government held areas with concern over their fate. 

“Colleagues in Damascus have reiterated the UN’s willingness to be directly involved to ensure that core protection standards are met and movements conducted in a voluntary, safe, well-informed and dignified manner”, she said. 

Introducing Ms. Mustafa to the Council, the deputy relief chief said that persons with disabilities were “often excluded and highly vulnerable”.  

“We must do our utmost to support and protect persons with disabilities and to ensure that their specific and diverse needs are addressed”. She said her own agency OCHA, had an important role, but every entity within the UN needed to make sure that persons with disabilities can “take an active part at every step of planning and decision-making processes.” 

Protect women’s rights ‘before, during and after conflict’ UN chief tells high-level Security Council debate

Over the course of the past decade, there has been “a paradigm shift” in understanding the devastating impact of sexual violence in conflict on international peace and security, UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the Security Council during a high-level debate on Tuesday.

UNMISS/Isaac BillyA South Sudanese rape victim narrates her ordeal at an undisclosed location near Bentiu town.

“Local civil society organizations, many of them women’s organizations, are on the frontlines of our efforts to prevent and provide redress for this crime, and they deserve our strong and consistent support” he said at the meeting marking the 10th anniversary of the adoption of resolution 1888, which created the mandate of the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.

The scourge “largely affects women and girls because it is closely linked to broader issues of gender inequality and discrimination”, Mr. Guterres said, adding that “prevention” must be based on “promoting women’s rights and gender equality in all areas, before, during and after conflict”.

“This must include women’s full and effective participation in political, economic and social life and ensuring accessible and responsive justice and security institutions”, he said.

Mr. Guterres also recognized the links between sexual violence in conflict, gender inequality and discrimination, and violent extremism and terrorism.

“Extremists and terrorists often build their ideologies around the subjugation of women and girls and use sexual violence in various ways, from forced marriage to virtual enslavement”, he explained. “Sexual violence continues to fuel conflict and severely impacts the prospects for lasting peace”. 

 “I encourage this Council to include the prevention of conflict-related sexual violence in all your country-specific resolutions, and in the mandates of peace operations”, he said.

Mr. Guterres stressed the need to strengthen justice and accountability, saying that despite a handful of high-profile convictions, “there is widespread impunity for sexual violence in conflict” and that most “are never reported, investigated and much less prosecuted”.

He encouraged the Council to continue working together “to reconcile differences”, as the “global “response to these crimes must ensure punishment of the perpetrators and comprehensive support to survivors with full respect for their human rights”.

“Together, we can and must replace impunity with justice, and indifference with action”, stressed the Secretary-General.

‘Utterly shell-shocked’ communities

Although stigma and other social barriers contribute to the chronic underreporting of sexual violence, the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Pramila Patten, told the Council that “we now understand much more about its many forms, drivers, and impacts, and about the devastating physical, psychological, and social burdens survivors bear”.

And yet, after a decade of concerted attention and action to deal with this crime, she spelled out: “Wars are still being fought on, and over, the bodies of women and girls”.

“Sexual violence fuels conflict and severely impacts the prospects for lasting peace” Ms. Patten stated, adding that it is used “precisely because it is such an effective means to target individuals and devastate entire communities”.

The UN envoy painted a picture of victims targeted because of their ethnic, religious, political or clan affiliation.

Ms. Patten recounted a visit to South Sudan where she was “horrified” by the “sheer brutality of the sexual violence, perpetrated along ethnic lines against women and girls, even children as young as 4 years”.

She described “utterly shell-shocked” communities in the UN Protection of Civilian site in the capital, Juba, who were ganged raped and abducted for sexual slavery.

“Imagine a desperation so raw that parents would marry their daughter off to one stranger to spare her rape by many”, she asserted.

“If we are ever to prevent these crimes from occurring in the first place, we must confront the unacceptable reality that it is still largely cost-free to rape a woman, child or man in armed conflicts around the world”, she said. “To turn the tide, we must increase the cost and consequences for those who commit, command or condone sexual violence in conflict”.

“We must convert a centuries-old culture of impunity into a culture of accountability,” concluded the Special Representative.

Traditional knowledge at ‘core’ of indigenous heritage, and ‘must be protected’, says UN Forum

Traditional knowledge is at the core of indigenous identity, culture and heritage around the world, the chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues said at the annual event’s opening day on Monday, stressing that it “must be protected”.

UN News/Predrag VasićSjisäwishék ‘Keeping the fire strong’, indigenous girls of the Onondaga Nation, Haudenoaunee Confederacy, perform at the eighteenth session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Anne Nuorgam, who is a member of Finland’s Saami Parliament and head of the Saami Council’s Human Rights Unit, described the Forum as an opportunity to share innovations and practices, developed in indigenous communities “over centuries and millennia”.

Indigenous peoples make up less than six per cent of the world’s population, but account for 15 per cent of the poorest on earth, according to the Forum. They live in some 90 countries, represent 5,000 different cultures and speak the overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 6,700 languages.

Noting that 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages, she said that “we have to celebrate our languages, but also take concrete action to preserve them and save those on the verge of extinction”.

Ms. Nuorgam pointed out that in many countries, indigenous children are not taught in their language. Citing Article 14 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) , she recalled that indigenous peoples have the right to provide education in their own languages.

“However, this needs financial and technical support from Member States and the UN System”, she stated.

As studies show that children learn best in their own mother tongue, Ms. Nuorgam encouraged everyone to “make sure our children” are connected to their indigenous communities and cultures, as they are “inextricably linked to their lands, territories and natural resources”.

“This enables us to protect our traditional knowledge”, asserted the chair.

Indigenous issues linked to world development

Recognizing  UNDRIP  as a “watershed moment” in 2007, General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa lamented that it still faced implementation challenges, saying that the world has a “historic debt with the indigenous peoples” and that much more must be done to overcome the implementation gap.

She also drew attention to indigenous women, pointing out that while women are key agents of change for tackling poverty and hunger, they face multiple forms of discrimination and violence. 

In his opening remarks, Valentin Rybakov, Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), explained that the Forum’s expert advice on indigenous peoples’ issues, informs ECOSOC deliberations and decisions.

UN News/Elizabeth Scaffidi | Tadodaho Sid Hill, Chief of the Onondaga Nation, gives a ceremonial welcome to the eighteenth session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

“This is of particular importance in helping us follow up on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, said Mr. Rybakov.

He mentioned key activities in support of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including, in September, the first SDG Summit for State heads since the 2030 Agenda was adopted and the UN High-level Political Forum (HLPF) in July to review six of the SDGs, including on quality education, economic growth and combatting climate change.

“These topics are of central importance to indigenous peoples and the attainment of their human rights”, he said, saying that the Permanent Forum and its follow-up activities “demonstrably contributes” to reaching these goals.

“Along with recognition comes the need to acknowledge the source, ownership and protection of traditional knowledge”, Mr. Rybakov said.

Thriving for ‘millennia’

The Executive Secretary of the Convention on biological Diversity, Cristiana Pasca Palma, credited her Romanian grandparents – who used traditional agricultural methods passed down for centuries, to till the soil – for nurturing her appreciation of biodiversity and related traditional knowledge.

“All of our ancestors have always lived off the land and waters in one form or another”, she said. “And their traditional knowledge, often transmitted especially through women – grandmother to mother, to daughter – have enabled us as a species to thrive for millennia”.

The event also enjoyed a performance by Sjisäwishék, or ‘Keeping the fire strong’ – indigenous girls of the Onondaga Nation, Haudenoasuanee Confederacy, and a ceremonial welcome by the traditional Chief of the Onondaga Nation, Tadodaho Sid Hill.

The session runs from 22 April through 3 May, with regional dialogues to be held during the second week.

Established by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 2000, the Forum provides it with advice and recommendation on indigenous issues. The 16 independent experts of the Forum – eight nominated by UN Member States and others by indigenous organizations globally – work in their personal capacity.

‘Do everything in your power to tackle climate change’ UN chief urges on Mother Earth Day

Marking International Mother Earth Day, the UN on Monday debated how best to build “an equitable and sustainable future” for all, through enhanced education and climate action, on the road to a key international summit on the issue due to take place in September.

UN News/Laura QuiñonesTorres del Paine National Park, Chile.

Billed officially as an Interactive Dialogue on Harmony with Nature, the UN General Assembly session involved Member States and top officials discussing the need to take urgent action against the pace of global warming, in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement, to keep carbon dioxide emissions to well-below two degrees Celsius.

In a tweet to mark Earth Day, UN chief António Guterres said it was vital “every day” to “commit to taking better care of our planet. Please do everything in your power to tackle climate change – the defining issue of our time”, he said.

“Climate change is one of the largest threats to sustainable development globally,” said the concept note prepared for the General Assembly meeting, “and is just one of many imbalances caused by the unsustainable actions of humankind, with direct implications for future generations.”

Only we can prevent ‘irreparable damage’

President of the General Assembly, Maria Fernanda Espinosa, said that taking care of nature was, in essence, “taking care of people”. She also noted the importance of respecting life-cycles of the natural world, and contributing to biological diversity so that the world can “continue and prosper”.

“We are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to the planet and to its inhabitants” she tweeted. “We are at a crossroads; this is the moment in which we decide the path we wish to take, to avoid reaching a point of no return in global warming. We already know the results of inaction.”

Day honours ‘life and sustenance’ earth provides

The international day recognizes a collective responsibility, as called for in the 1992 Rio Declaration, to promote harmony with nature and the Earth to achieve a just balance among the economic, social and environmental needs of present and future generations of humanity.

It also provides an opportunity to raise public awareness around the world to the challenges regarding the well-being of the planet and all the life it supports.

To boost ambition and accelerate actions to implement the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the UN Secretary-General will host the 2019 Climate Action Summit on 23 September, to meet the climate challenge.