Editor’s Note: This is the latest in Just Security’s weekly series keeping readers up to date on developments at the United Nations at the intersection of national security, human rights, and the rule of law.
World Health Organization Projects Cautious Optimism on Ability to Contain Coronavirus amid Reports of Underfunding and Corruption
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday that there have been 92 cases of human-to-human transmission of COVID-19—the official name for the disease commonly referred to as the coronavirus—in 12 countries outside of China. Over 75,000 cases have been identified globally with over 2,000 people dying from the virus. All but five reported deaths have occurred within mainland China. Russia suspended entry of Chinese citizens to its territory on Thursday. Within the region, Australia, Indonesia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, and Taiwan have already issued travel bans against visitors from Chinese territory.
Dr. Tedros stressed that the confirmed instances of transmission still do not qualify as “sustained local transmission,” which is required to declare a global pandemic. He struck a hopeful tone, stating: “We still have a chance of preventing a broader global crisis.” However, Dr. Tedros also said that WHO experts do not have enough data to fully understand the disease’s severity or fatality rate. In a Tuesday interview with the Associated Press, United Nations (U.N.) Secretary General António Guterres struck a similar tone, saying the outbreak poses “a very dangerous situation” but “is not out of control.” International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva added in a blog post on Wednesday that coronavirus is “the most pressing uncertainty” facing the global economy, and its effects will depend on how quickly the virus is contained.
According to reports by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, leaked WHO audits in 2018 and 2019 show financing for the organization’s Emergencies Program scored the highest risk rating because of lack of adequate financing and a failure to implement recommendations by its internal auditors. The leaked audits also revealed a surge in complaints of corruption and fraud within the organization, listing over 75 reported cases of procurement fraud.
U.N. Expresses Alarm over Heightened Hostilities in Northwest Syria
Secretary-General Guterres issued a statement on Tuesday expressing alarm at the “rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation” in northwest Syria, calling for an immediate ceasefire while noting that the conflict has displaced almost 900,000 civilians since Dec. 1, 2019. U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock described the violence as “indiscriminate,” noting that it has reached a “horrifying new level.” U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen urged the Security Council on Wednesday to “put their weight firmly behind the search for a political way forward.” He especially called on Turkey and Russia, as sponsors of the Idlib de-escalation arrangements, “to play a key role in finding a way to deescalate the situation now.”
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has confirmed that 298 civilians have been killed in Idlib and Aleppo alone since January 1, with about 93 percent of these victims killed by government forces and their allies. According to U.N. estimates, more than 900,000 people, of whom about 80 percent are women and children, have been displaced since December 1, 2019. This represents 100,000 more people than previously recorded and the largest displacement of people since the conflict began in 2011.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi highlighted the ongoing humanitarian crisis, with over two million internally displaced persons in northwest Syria, approximately 80 percent of whom are women and children, and raised concerns regarding harsh winter conditions. Grandi appealed to neighboring countries “to broaden admissions, so that those most in danger can reach safety—even knowing that capacities and public support are already strained.” He also called on the international community to “step up” support for these neighboring countries.
Backed by heavy Russian air strikes, the Syrian army announced on Friday that it had captured the final stretch of the strategic Damascus to Aleppo highway and on Monday it had taken full control of dozens of towns in Aleppo’s northwestern countryside. Government forces have been fighting since the start of the year to recapture the Aleppo countryside and parts of neighboring Idlib province where anti-Assad insurgents have their last strongholds. As a symbolic display of this consolidated control, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government re-opened the Aleppo airport, landing a commercial flight from Damascus on Wednesday.
The U.N. and Pakistan Urge Continuation of Afghanistan Peace Process amid Pause in Hostilities and Disputed Election Results
During an international refugee conference in Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad on Monday, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan reiterated their mutual support for a peace process in Afghanistan. Guterres remarked that “we do not have the right to miss this opportunity” and urged the international community to aid Afghan refugees. Prime Minister Khan said the Pakistani government and security forces “are on the same page” that “it is not in the interest of Pakistan for there to be any strife in Afghanistan.”
These statements came three days after American and Taliban officials announced their intention to sign an agreement for a seven-day reduction in violence as a prelude to a long-term peace agreement. This followed one of the conflict’s most violent years, with almost seven civilian deaths per day in 2019. Further complicating matters, on Tuesday, the Afghan Independent Election Commission announced results of Afghanistan’s September 2019 elections, which were marred by accusations of fraud. Both President Ashraf Ghani and the primary opposition leader Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah publicly declared victory after the commission reported Ghani winning 50.64 percent of the votes and Abdullah securing 39.52 percent of the votes.
The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) issued a statement on Wednesday stressing that any challenge to the election results be made “consistent with the regulations of the country and conducted in the interest of stability and cohesion.” UNAMA also noted its technical support to Afghanistan’s electoral authorities and plans to continue its “impartial and expert advice” to the electoral management bodies to “address the candidates’ understandable desire to have clarify on decisions taken related to audits and recounts.”
During Secretary General Guterres’ visit to Islamabad, Prime Minister Khan also called for the U.N. to mediate between India and Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir. The Secretary General said the U.N. has offered its “good offices” from the beginning, but both sides must accept. Guterres also called on all parties to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.
U.N. Envoy Raises Concerns about Recent Uptick in Violence in Yemen as Parties Agree to Prisoner Swap
U.N. Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen Martin Griffiths raised concerns during a briefing to the Security Council on Tuesday that the military situation in Yemen is “increasingly dire,” especially following a recent escalation of fighting in three governorates: Marib, Al-Jawfi, and Sana’a, which had been relatively free from violence over the past year. These new hostilities have displaced more than 35,000 people since mid-January, according to Under-Secretary-General Lowcock. Griffiths added that both government and Ansar Allah leaders “have announced expansive military goals and exchanged fierce rhetoric.” This escalation in hostilities and rhetoric, he argued, threatens the progress secured by a 2018 agreement to allow humanitarian aid and commercial goods into the country through the port in the city of Hudaydah.
This development came three days after airstrikes killed as many as 31 civilians on Saturday, according to a statement issued by Lise Grande, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen. “So many people are being killed in Yemen—it’s a tragedy and it’s unjustified,” Grande remarked. She continued, “Under international humanitarian law parties which resort to force are obligated to protect civilians. Five years into this conflict and belligerents are still failing to uphold this responsibility. It’s shocking.”
Houthi rebels blamed the Saudi-led coalition for the deadly airstrikes; however, Saudi state news only acknowledged that a Saudi Tornado jet had crashed in Al-Jawf with the possibility of “collateral damage” to civilians. (For additional analysis at Just Security of airstrikes in Yemen, see here.)
Despite the uptick in hostilities, on Sunday the U.N. announced an agreement for a prisoner swap following seven days of negotiations between Houthi and Saudi-led coalition representatives in Amman, Jordan. The negotiations were co-chaired by Griffith’s Office of the Special Envoy and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Although the U.N. did not announce details of the agreement, Houthi representative to the peace talks Mohamed Abdel Salam said in a tweet that the first phase of the deal includes the release of more than 1,400 prisoners from the two sides. Griffith noted the swap would be the “first official large-scale” exchange of its kind since the start of the conflict. Franz Rauchenstein, head of the ICRC’s delegation to Yemen said it was “very encouraging” that the parties “have found common humanitarian ground” despite ongoing clashes.
U.N. Human Rights Experts Fear Violence in Myanmar Following Internet Shutdown
A group of independent U.N. human rights experts issued a joint statement on Tuesday expressing “grave concern” over the killing and displacement of civilians in northwest Myanmar. Fighting escalated between the Myanmar military and an armed group, the Arakan Army, after the government suspended mobile internet service for three months starting February 3 in parts of Rakhine and Chin States, citing “security requirements and public interest.” The experts reported that the recent spate of violence has displaced up to 1,100 people and killed at least seven civilians since February 8.
The experts remarked, “We are gravely concerned that children are being killed and injured, and that reports suggest weapons are being used indiscriminately, and precautions are not being taken to protect civilians and civilian objects such as schools and monasteries, in violation of international humanitarian law.” They called on the government to follow the International Court of Justice’s recent ruling to take provisional measures to protect the country’s Rohingya minority.
Trump Budget Proposes Significant Cuts to U.N. and Global Health Funding
President Trump’s proposed 2021 budget allocates $44 billion for foreign aid spending in 2021, a 21 percent cut from the $55 billion Congress earmarked in 2020. This includes cutting the United States’ annual contribution to the U.N. by $508 million and additional funding for peacekeeping efforts by $447 million. While the budget does allocate an additional $15 million the plan provides for USAID’s Global Health Security Program and $25 million for an Emergency Reserve Fund to fight the coronavirus, this is significantly outweighed by a proposed $3 billion cut to global health spending, including half of the United States’ annual funding to the WHO.
Congress has ignored the president’s previous budget proposals and continued to earmark funding for foreign aid. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel released a statement saying that “proposing such reckless cuts to our critical foreign policy tools isn’t a serious proposal.”