António Guterres, the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations, took office on January 01, 2017.
Having witnessed the suffering of the most vulnerable people on earth, in refugee camps and in war zones, the Secretary-General is determined to make human dignity the core of his work, and to serve as a peace broker, a bridge-builder and a promoter of reform and innovation.
On January 1, 2016, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — adopted by world leaders in September 2015 at an historic UN Summit — officially came into force. Over the next fifteen years, with these new Goals that universally apply to all, countries will mobilize efforts to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change, while ensuring that no one is left behind.
With demonstrations expected to take place in various Guatemalan cities on Monday and Tuesday, the UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, is urging the Guatemalan Government to guarantee freedom of expression and opinion, and the right to peaceful assembly and association.
“Freedom of expression, without fear of reprisals and intimidation, is the backbone of democracy,” Ms. Bachelet said. “A culture of human rights and peace is strengthened when diverse social groups can express themselves in the public space and freely exercise their rights.”
The demonstrations have been organized by various civil society groups to highlight several issues, including the Government’s unilateral decision on 7 January to terminate the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN anti-corruption body set up 11 years ago in conjunction with the Guatemalan Government. CICIG’s mandate was initially due to run through 3 September this year.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also expressed great concern about the ongoing erosion of various State institutions, including recent attacks on the independence of the Constitutional Court.
“I would also like to stress that it is essential to guarantee the rule of law, judicial independence and impartiality and respect for democratic institutions, particularly the Constitutional Court, the judiciary, the National Human Rights Institution, the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Electoral Tribunal,” Ms. Bachelet said.
Noting the crucial role played by these institutions in respecting and guaranteeing human rights, the rule of law and democracy, she explained that “the proper exercise of their functions is fundamental in the current context and for the general elections to be held in the coming months”.
She added that “respect for their safety and their physical integrity, as well as that of their families, must be guaranteed by the State of Guatemala in compliance with its international human rights obligations.”
Ms. Bachelet said she and her Guatemala office stand ready to continue to support the State authorities in fulfilling their international human rights obligations and commitments.
Half a capital city destroyed, 220,000 reported dead and 1 million residents displaced. This was the toll of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, which struck on 12 January, nine years ago.
Staff at the UN Mission in Haiti were also affected, and there were 102 UN casualties, including the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, Hédi Annabi and his deputy, Luiz Carlos da Costa. It was the “biggest single loss of life in the history of UN Peacekeeping,” the then-President of the UN Staff Union, Stephen Kisambira, said at the time.
One of the survivors was Sophie Boutaud de la Combe, today the head of communications for the UN Mission for Justice in Haiti (MINUJUSTH), who was seven months pregnant at the time and just a few days away from home leave. She had been in the headquarters of MINUJUSTH’s predecessor, the UN Stabilisitation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), when the quake hit.
The building completely collapsed, but Ms. Boutaud de la Combe managed to escape through a collapsed wall. For many hours, she and her surviving colleagues searched through the rubble, looking for anyone still trapped under the building. Two days later, she reluctantly left Haiti, a situation she describes as “a trauma,” her instinct being to help the UN and the people of Haiti. She eventually returned to the country in 2013, happy to be able to play a part in the rebuilding of the country, and honour her lost colleagues with her work.
Some nine years after the earthquake, the situation in Haiti is very different. The government, says Ms. Boutaud de la Combe, is now much better prepared for similar natural disasters. “A few months ago there was an earthquake in the north of the country. The state was prepared and they sent their people to support those affected, without MINUJUSTH involvement. It was not a major earthquake, but now the population knows how to react. And most importantly, we hear regularly how important it is to build better, to build strongly in case an earthquake would hit, not to endanger the people.”
Increasing hostilities in the oil-rich city of Derna are becoming an increasing source of concern said the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Libya on Friday, following an intensification in fighting which has resulted in “substantial civilian casualties”.
“I am deeply concerned by the escalation of hostilities in the eastern city of Derna and the consequent further deterioration of the humanitarian situation in parts of the city”, said Maria Ribeiro.
ISIL, or Da’esh, terrorist fighters took over Derna in 2014, leading to a succession of battles for control of the city, involving the Shura Council of Mujahideen, a coalition of pro-sharia law Islamist militants, the Libyan national army and local militias.
In addition to substantial civilian casualties, Ms. Ribeiro said that recent intense fighting has reportedly resulted in deteriorating infrastructures and services, leaving some civilians without basic food, water and urgent lifesaving medical care for families and the wounded.
“I firmly call for unconditional, unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access to the affected civilians in the old city”, she underscored, urging all conflict parties to respect and protect civilians and civilian facilities, and to “strictly adhere to their obligations under International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law.”
Since armed conflict erupted in Libya in 2011, during the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, some 200,000 people have been internally displaced.
Back in December, a trauma hospital in Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city, was hit and before that media reports said that Da’esh had claimed responsibility for attacking the Foreign Ministry in the capital, Tripoli.
In November, fighting between armed militia damaged a Tripoli hospital for Women and Childbirth, resulting in a doctor being shot and a three-day halt to non-emergency medical services.
Meanwhile, migrants and refugees are being subjected to “unimaginable horrors” from the moment they enter Libya in what Ghassan Salamé, the head of the UN political mission there (UNSMIL), told the Security Council last month was a “hidden human calamity”.
With millions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) demonstrating “their commitment to the political process”, the days ahead are “critical” to what has been an “historic election process”, the top UN official in the country told the Security Council on Friday.
Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative and head of the UN Stabilization Mission (MONUSCO), said that Congolese voters had shown “impressive maturity” and patience during the presidential poll, which finally took place on 30 December, two years later than originally planned.
“We must, therefore, show our collective solidarity with them, as the electoral process is finalized, and as the Democratic Republic of the Congo prepares to undertake the first peaceful transfer of power in the country’s history”, Ms. Zerrougui said via video conference.
The provisional election result declared Felix Tshisekedi the winner on Wednesday, but another leading opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu – who heads the Lamuka coalition – has now formally challenged the vote in court, accusing the authorities of electoral fraud. This opposition to the vote, said Ms. Zerrougi, had the potential “to provoke disorder throughout the country”.
According to Ms. Zerrougui, all national and international observation missions, as well as MONUSCO teams deployed on the ground, reported that despite technical, logistical and security problems, citizens had not been hindered in exercising their right to vote, adding that the delayed publication of results, had not led to any breakdown in public order.
She told the Council that reactions to CENI’s announcement had been “swift and varied”, and welcomed Mr. Tshisekedi, who vowed to be a president “for all Congolese”.
‘Supreme sense of responsibility’ must prevail
Ms. Zerrougui told Council members there had been some “serious security incidents”, including violent protests in Kwilu province that have reportedly left at least twelve dead. She said that MONUSCO teams were being deployed there to determine the facts and “engage with a view to de-escalating tension”.
Injuries, arrests and unverified deaths were also reported in Kisangani, the country’s third largest city, and several locations in Kasai province. Meanwhile a “tense situation” also prevails in several Kinshasa communes.
“I deplore all such acts of violence, and appeal to the Congolese people and security forces alike to exercise calm and restraint in this critical period”, she underscored.
With the final results expected to be announced within a week, she said she would “continue to discharge my good offices, engaging with all Congolese stakeholders, to reinforce the need for calm and recourse to established judicial proceedures and to emphasize that a supreme sense of responsibility must prevail through the days ahead.”
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
Leila Zerrougui (on screen-left), Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), briefs the Security Council on 11 January 2019.
‘Overriding goals’ reached by Congolese people: CENI
Also via video link, Corneille Nangaa, President of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), spoke at length of the tremendous difficulties throw up by the long process towards polling day and beyond, adding that “there was not a single decision that was not challenged”.
Notwithstanding the significant snags, 40 million voters were successfully registered, and the election took place amid relative calm.
He underscored that “three overriding goals” had been achieved by the Congolese people: a refusal to accept changes to the constitution; resisting the desire for a third term the current Head of State, Joseph Kabila, who has ruled for 18 years; and that for the first time in nearly 60 years, there would now be a transfer of power at the highest level.
Mr. Nangaa paid tribute to 32 CENI staff who gave their lives in service to the democratic process, concluding that CENI “has done what it was able to do.”
Speaking in the chamber on behalf of the African Union (AU), Fatima Kyari Mohammed informed the Council that while there had been as many as 75,000 polling stations and the AU was only able to dispatch an election mission to a limited number, reports from there had been positive.
She elaborated that the polls opened on time; all materials were available; polls were carried out in a calm and peaceful atmosphere; candidate representatives were present; and the election was conducted within the legal framework.
Joseph Malanji, Foreign Minister of Zambia, enumerated some of the “historical challenges” that the election process had thrown up, including a warehouse fire just days before the poll that destroyed thousands of voting machines, an Ebola outbreak in the east, and continuing violence.
Notwithstanding these hurdles, he made clear that the elections were managed in a “peaceful and calm atmosphere.”
Bishop urges ‘path of true peace’
In contrast, Bishop Otembi of the Catholic Bishops’ National Episcopal Conference of the Congo (CENCO) said that their analysis of the presidential election did not correspond to the CENI-announced results.
Church authorities, which play a powerful role in Congolese society, deployed around 40,000 monitors for the 30 December vote.
The bishop called for the Security Council to express its solidarity with the Congolese people, and invited the UN body to request the publication of official notes from each polling station, so that the tallies and data could be compared with those of CENI, to remove all doubt.
He urged the Council to invite the parties in the potentially fraught days ahead, to favour “the path of truth and peace”.
The human rights situation in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – DPRK – remains “extremely serious”, and along with international demands for denuclearization, this constitutes a “a critical test” for the year ahead, a senior UN-appointed expert said on Friday.
Tomás Quintana was speaking in his capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in DPRK, commonly known as North Korea; his press conference was held in the South Korean capital, Seoul, as he continued to be denied access to its northern neighbour.
“Of those who left the North recently that I interviewed during this mission, every person gave accounts of ordinary people being subjected to exploitative labour and serious human rights violations such as forced evictions in the name of development,” he said. “Stories were told to me of people, including children, being subjected to long hours of labour where they were forced to work without remuneration…. One person concluded: “the whole country is a prison.”
Mr. Quintana urged the DPRK authorities to engage with his mandate and allow him to visit the country “to hear the voice of the people and the authorities”.
“The whole country is a prison – anonymous statement provided to UN expert Tomás Quintana ”
Many ordinary people ‘being left behind’
He detailed personal testimonies gathered during his five-day mission about “political prison camps” which contain “thousands of people” accused of committing crimes against the State.
Their detention happens without “due process guarantees or fair trial, in a manner that amounts to enforced disappearances with the family not knowing their whereabouts”, the Special Rapporteur explained, before highlighting that people’s “fear” of being imprisoned was “very real and deeply embedded in the consciousness of the ordinary North Korean people”.
Surveillance and close monitoring of ordinary citizens is also a fact of life in DPRK, Mr. Quintana continued, as well as other restrictions on basic freedoms, not least the prohibition on leaving the country.
His comments follow a historic meeting between DPRK leader Kim Jong-Un and US President Donald Trump in Singapore last June, which focused on denuclearization talks.
Humanitarian aid remains ‘vital’
Noting that Kim had stated that “improving people’s standard of living radically” was a priority in his New Year message, Mr. Quintana said that this might represent “recognition” of economic and social hardships for ordinary people.
It “represents an important first step towards taking action to address the challenges,” the UN expert said, before calling on the international community to continue to support the “vital” humanitarian assistance that was being provided by various actors to the people of the DPRK.
“In particular, it is important that humanitarian cooperation is extended without politicization and in full respect of the principles of neutrality and independence,” he said, reiterating a call to the UN Security Council to ensure its sanctions do not have a detrimental impact on the people of the DPRK.
The findings of Mr. Quintana’s latest report will be delivered to the Human Rights Council in Geneva at its next regular session which begins in late February.
North-east Syria is seeing increasing numbers of civilian casualties and large-scale displacement amid intensifying efforts to defeat extremists from ISIL, otherwise known as Da’esh, in Deir-ez-Zor governorate, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said on Friday.
Speaking to journalists in Geneva, spokesperson Andrej Mahecic warned that, in recent months, clashes and airstrikes in the eastern governorate’s Hajin enclave – once part of an ISIL stronghold straddling the Syria and Iraq border – have forced tens of thousands of people to flee northwards in search of safety.
“Over the past six months more than 25,000 people have been displaced in that part of the country, said Mr. Mahecic. ‘We have seen an increase, especially with the escalation that has occurred in the course of December.”
Babies are among the dead, ‘too weak to survive’
Those at risk include “many” women, children and the elderly, the UN official said, adding that many families reaching the safety of Al Hol refugee camp in north-east Syria near the border with Iraq had risked their lives to do so. “The dangerous and difficult journey and the conditions inside the enclave are reported to have led to the deaths of six children – all under 12 months. Most died after arriving at Al Hol, too weak to survive,” the UN spokesperson explained.
Emergency health teams in the camp are tending to “wounds, amputated limbs, injuries and frostbite”, Mr. Mahecic continued, before adding that some of those fleeing the fighting had spent “four nights or more” in the desert, in heavy rain and cold weather, with barely any belongings. “People coming out of the conflict zone do also have wounds that have been inflicted. We also know that many of them tell us that they have been targeted while they were fleeing.”
Urging all parties “and those with influence over them” to ensure freedom of movement and safe passage for displaced families, the UNHCR spokesperson explained that the crisis is far from over.
“This is still going on and people are arriving daily,” Mr. Mahecic said. “Through the desert, trying to move through the different checkpoints and reach safety in the camps and other areas outside the conflict zone.”
Together with its partners, UNHCR teams inside Syria prioritize protection for unaccompanied or separated children, while also identifying and helping those in need of medical assistance. Tents and other essential relief items are provided to new arrivals, while communal facilities are being scaled up to prepare for an expected increase of arrivals from Hajin.
“It’s estimated right now that 2,000 people remain in the conflict-affected area of Hajin,” Mr. Mahecic explained. “Those fleeing report increasingly desperate conditions, with diminishing services and extremely high prices for basic foods. We are worried for civilians who continue to be trapped in ISIL-held areas.”
‘Everyone must be on board’ for peace in Central African Republic: UN’s Lacroix
Jean Pierre Lacroix, USG of UN Peace Operations, and Smail Chergui, AU Commissioner for Peace and Security, (center left and right) during their closing press conference after a two days visit in CAR to relaunch the dialogue between the government of the Central African Republic (CAR) and armed groups under the auspices of the African Union (AU) initiative.
The agreement by the Government and armed groups in the Central African Republic to hold talks later this month (CAR) is “an important step to resolve the country’s crisis”, said the UN peacekeeping chief, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, on Thursday.
“Now there is a path, it is the path of dialogue. There is a date to start this dialogue, it’s 24 January,” said the head of the Department of Peace Operations (DPO), speaking to reporters in the capital Bangui. “There is an organization…which will convene and organize these discussions in Khartoum, it is the African Union,” he added.
Mr. Lacroix has been in the country since Tuesday, alongside the African Union (AU) Commissioner for Peace and Security, Smail Chergui, in a bid to revive a stalled peace process. During his visit, he appealed for all international actors to ensure that 2019 is “the year of peace” for CAR.
Speaking before departing the country, Mr. Lacroix said that all Central Africans needed to be involved, adding that “everyone must be on board and everyone must be mobilized for it to succeed”.
He called for a “period of dialogue and commitment to ensure that the country can turn the page of the violence”, highlighting the importance of the apparent momentum that represents a “chance for the Central African Republic”.
For his part, African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security, Smail Chergui, underlined “everyone’s” commitment to implement the initiative. “This is the moment, it is a historic moment for all, really, to stand together and look to the future of this country,” he added.
CAR has been grappling with violence since fighting between the mostly Christian anti-Balaka militia and the mainly Muslim Séléka rebel coalition broke out in 2012. While a peace agreement was reached in January 2013, rebels seized the capital that March, forcing then President François Bozizé to flee.
Concerned with the security, humanitarian, human rights and political crisis within the country and its implications for the region, the UN Stabilization Mission in CAR, MINUSCA began operating in 2014 under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
With the protection of civilians as its utmost priority, Chapter VII provides for the use of force – meaning, with Security Council authority, peacekeepers may respond to acts of aggression in kind.
After escaping from two years of captivity at the hands of Mai Mai rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Bertine Bahige was relieved to end up in a UN refugee agency (UNHCR) camp, in faraway Mozambique.
He’d been forcibly taken from his family at 13, and thrown into the horrifying world of being a child soldier, before escaping his captors.
In 2004, he was one of the lucky ones to be resettled in Maryland, United States, where he landed a job taking out the trash at a fast-food restaurant. Eventually, his hard work, intelligence and enduring optimism landed him a university scholarship – way out in the Rocky Mountains.
Speaking at the UN last year in support of the Global Compact on Refugees, Mr. Bahige shared the fascinating story of how he went from a child aspiring to become a doctor in the DRC, to an elementary school principal in Wyoming with a wife and two children of his own.
“All refugees are asking for is an opportunity,” he said. Read the story here.
Storm-force winds and snow across Lebanon have worsened the plight for tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who’ve been forced from their homes by nearly eight years of conflict, a top UN humanitarian official said on Thursday.
Speaking to journalists in Geneva, Philippe Lazzarini, Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon, said that refugees had been moved from shelters – including in the exposed Bekaa valley where wintery conditions are especially acute – to safer facilities, after Storm Norma hit at the weekend.
“Some of the settlements have been completely flooded, very cold, it’s extremely inclement conditions, and to describe daily life, it’s just miserable,” he said.
Although the number of Syrian refugees officially hosted by Lebanon is more than 900,000, registration ended in 2014, and it is estimated that the real figure is between 1.2 and 1.3 million.
Around 70 per cent live under the poverty line, Mr. Lazzarini said, noting that this was in fact an improvement on 2017, when the number was even higher.
This high ratio of refugees to nationals – around one in four – would be “unthinkable and unacceptable” anywhere else, the UN official said, before playing down “tensions” between host Lebanese communities, 10 to 20 per cent of whom live below the poverty line.
Rejecting suggestions that the refugee situation alone was responsible for discontent within the country, the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator noted that its leaders have been in “deadlock” and unable to agree on a power-sharing arrangement for effective central governance, despite elections last year.
“Today I would say there is an atmosphere of anxiety in the country which is very much related to the political deadlock,” he said. “The inability to put in place a cabinet, the inability to decide and put in place the long-overdue reform, combined with the economic situation, combined with the geo-politics in the region and the refugees.”
International support and solidarity for the Lebanon situation remains strong, Mr. Lazzarini insisted, amounting to up to $1.5 billion per year since 2015.
Nonetheless, he cautioned that eight years into the crisis, humanitarian funding “might have reached a ceiling” and that other longer-term development funding may need to be found, notably for education projects requiring a minimum four-year investment.
For returnees, ‘trust’ paramount
Asked about how many Syrian refugees have chosen to return to their war-scarred country, the UN official explained that only 16,000 to 17,000 registered with authorities in Damascus during 2018 – a slight increase on the previous year, when no more than 13,000 went home.
Suggestions that the UN had prevented people from doing so were incorrect, he insisted, noting that the organization ensured that returnees had all the “necessary documentation” they needed, such as birth and marriage certificates, to avoid difficulties reintegrating back into Syrian life.
“Ultimately people will decide if yes or not, if they are confident enough to return,” he said. “What’s important is, if returns are taking place, it takes place in an environment where people feel confident enough to go back and where you have the necessary trust.”
Latest UN figures indicate that there are more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees outside the war-torn country; Turkey hosts most, at 3.6 million.
Next is Lebanon, at more than 900,000, followed by Jordan (670,000), Iraq (250,000) and Egypt (130,000), while North Africa shelters 35,000.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has appealed for all parties to “refrain from violence” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), following the announcement of the provisional results of the long-delayed presidential election.
The vote – initially scheduled to take place two years ago – if upheld, marks the vast central African nation’s first democratic transfer of power since independence nearly 60 years ago.
According to news reports, the preliminary results announced by the independent electoral commission, known by its French acronym, CENI, which declared opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi the winner of the 30 December election, do not tally with the unofficial figures gathered by independent poll observers.
According to CENI, Mr. Tshisekedi took more than 38 per cent of the votes cast, ahead of rival presidential hopefuls Martin Fayalu and ruling party candidate, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary. Mr. Fayalu immediately rejected the result, said agency reports.
“The Secretary-General calls on all stakeholders to refrain from violence and to channel any eventual electoral disputes through the established institutional mechanisms in line with the DRC’s Constitution and relevant electoral laws,” said Mr. Guterres in a statement released by his Spokesperson, late on Wednesday evening in New York.
In a direct call to CENI, the Constitutional Court, the Government, political parties and civil society, Mr Guterres urged them to “each live up to their responsibility in preserving stability and upholding democratic practices” in the DRC.
And as the country prepares to enter a new era without President Joseph Kabila, who has been in power since the previous incumbent, his father, was assassinated in 2001, the Secretary-General reiterated “the continued support and commitment” of the United Nations.
Together with regional actors and international partners, the UN will work “for the consolidation of peace, stability and development” in the DRC, Mr Guterres insisted, his comments coming amid an acute humanitarian crisis made worse by sporadic conflict involving dozens of armed groups in parts of the huge country.
This is despite the country’s huge natural riches, seen as a source of illicit wealth by armed groups who continue to hamper access for aid teams, which are also tackling endemic cholera – which threatens two million people – combined with a new outbreak of Ebola virus disease in North Kivu and Ituri.