(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.)
U.N. Inquiry Blames Syria, But Not Russia, for Hospital Strikes
A United Nations Board of Inquiry on April 6 released a summary of a 185-page report investigating six military strikes on hospitals, schools, and refugee camps in northwest Syria since September 2017. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres set up the Board of Inquiry last August to investigate attacks on “deconfliction sites,” which are U.N.-designated humanitarian locations in northwest Syria that Russian, Syrian, Turkish, and U.S. coalition forces had agreed not to target. Despite the deconfliction arrangement, dozens of strikes have hit hospitals and schools in the area. The report concluded that it is “highly probable” the Syrian government carried out at least four of the six strikes that were investigated but refrained from attributing any responsibility to Russia, despite strong evidence reported by the New York Times that Russia was involved in the hospital bombings.
The summary specified that it is “highly probable” that the “Syrian Government and/or allies” used aircraft to strike the Martyr Akram Ali Ibrahim Al-Ahmad Secondary School, the Rakaya Primary Health Care Centre, the Kafr Nool Surgical Hospital, and the Ariha Protection Centre child-care facility last May and July. The board also said it is “plausible” that the government of Syria and/or its allies attacked the Kafr Nabutha Primary Health Care Centre, and it noted that investigators “received no information suggesting that other parties to the conflict had hit the facility.” According to the report, it is “probable” that an attack on the Nayrab Refugee Camp — which killed 11 people, including five children — was carried out by armed opposition groups.
While the report mentions that Russian forces were notified of the coordinates of the humanitarian sites, it never directly attributes any of the incidents to Russian forces or names the “allies” of the Syrian government. The board has faced criticism for its limited mandate to investigate only six attacks on humanitarian sites even though hundreds of such attacks have been reported in Syria since the war began in 2011. Physicians for Human Rights, which documents hospital strikes in Syria, has reported 595 attacks during that time, of which 239 may have involved Russian forces. Diplomats also told the New York Times last November that Russia had lobbied the U.N. not to release the report’s findings. The Syrian government also prevented the U.N. from entering Syria to visit the sites, forcing investigators to rely on witness accounts. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power tweeted, “This is a UN cover-up, and it is shameful.”
The board did not make any legal findings, but customary international law forbids targeting hospitals in wartime. U.N. General Assembly Resolution 2675, adopted in 1970, states that “places or areas designated for the sole protection of civilians, such as hospital zones or similar refuges, should not be the object of military operations.” Article 19 of the Geneva Convention of 1949 states that “fixed establishments and mobile medical units… may in no circumstances be attacked, but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties.” Both Russia and Syria are Parties to the 1949 Geneva Convention.
Coronavirus May Wipe Out Equivalent of 195 Million Jobs
In an updated estimate, the U.N. International Labor Organization (ILO) expects the COVID-19 crisis to wipe out 6.7 percent of working hours globally in the second quarter of 2020 – the equivalent of 195 million full-time jobs. At least 1.25 billion workers globally are at high risk of “drastic and devastating” layoffs or reductions in wages and hours. The ILO’s estimate called the potential losses a “catastrophe” and “the worst global crisis since World War II.”
The analysis breaks down losses by industry and income. Of the 2.7 billion workers affected by workplace closures, the worst losses are expected in upper-middle-income countries with limited access to health and social protections. Accommodation, food, real estate, manufacturing, and retail trade workers are most likely to be affected by the pandemic. Construction, finance, and mining workers face a medium risk, while health-care, education, and public administration workers face the lowest risk of unemployment and wage reductions.
The ILO called on governments to focus policy responses on protecting workers and livelihoods in hard-hit sectors, stating that the long-term economic impact will depend on how quickly labor demand can rebound. Governments are urged to adopt an active fiscal policy, increased lending, and an “accommodative monetary policy,” while also providing increased social protection, employment retention measures, and tax relief for high-risk enterprises. The report ends on an optimistic note, stating that although the outlook remains uncertain, “there has been a rapid and historically large policy response.”
World is 6 Million Short of Nurses to Meet COVID-19 Needs, WHO Says
The World Health Organization (WHO) marked World Health Day on April 7 by announcing that the world has six million fewer nurses than needed to address the COVID-19 pandemic. In the 2020 “State of the World’s Nursing” report, released with the International Council of Nurses, the WHO estimated that 2018 saw a shortage of 5.9 million nurses, an improvement from 2016’s shortage of 6.6 million. The report notes that “the nursing workforce is expanding in size… [but] is insufficient to meet rising demand, and is leaving some populations behind.” The shortage of nurses is most severe in low- and middle-income countries. Eighty percent of nurses are found in countries that constitute just half of the world’s population.
The report recommends that governments invest in “massively accelerating” nursing education in order to meet domestic demand. It also calls on countries to strengthen nurses’ leadership roles in health-care systems. In order to achieve 2030 targets, the number of nursing graduates needs to increase by 8 percent annually.
Ban Wet Markets, Says U.N. Biodiversity Chief
Elizabeth Maurma Mrema, the acting executive secretary of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, told The Guardian that countries should ban “wet markets” to prevent future pandemics. China has come under criticism for allowing “wet” markets, which sell live fish, meat, wild animals, and other foodstuffs. One such market is believed by some experts to be the origination point where the novel coronavirus made the jump from animals to humans.
“The message we are getting is if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us,” Mrema said. However, she also noted that a total ban on wildlife markets could entail unintended consequences, as “low-income rural areas, particularly in Africa, [are] dependent on wild animals to sustain the livelihoods of millions of people.” Additionally, she noted that a complete ban could simply push the wildlife trade underground.
U.S. officials and other public figures have criticized the so-called “wet markets” – called that in part to distinguish them from places that mainly sell dry goods. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told “Fox & Friends” that the COVID-19 pandemic was a “direct result” of unsanitary markets. Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, called for “the abolition everywhere of dangerous wet markets” in a Washington Post op-ed, while Senator Lindsey Graham urged the closure of wet markets in China. On Feb. 24, the Chinese government banned wildlife trade and consumption, though it has yet to officially add the ban to its Wildlife Protection Law.
More than 150 countries have signed onto the Convention on Biological Diversity. Delegates met in February to create a 20-point preliminary agreement before a summit in Kunming, China, in October, slated to be a “Paris Agreement” for wildlife diversity. The summit has been indefinitely postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Libya Envoy Calls for Ceasefire to Fight Pandemic
Yacoub El Hillo, the U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Libya, called for a cessation of hostilities in order to focus efforts on combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, Libya has 18 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and one death, according to the WHO.
However, on April 6, a hospital in Tripoli came under heavy shelling, damaging the 400-bed facility. “At a time when people in Libya needed nothing more than a safe home and functioning medical facilities, we received the news of yet another attack on a hospital,” a U.N. statement read. El Hillo said that “if Libya is to have any chance against COVID-19, the ongoing conflict must come to an immediate halt.”
The entreaty follows the Secretary-General’s call two weeks ago for a global ceasefire to combat the coronavirus pandemic, and last week’s urging from U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen for a “sustained period of calm” in that conflict zone.
U.N. Suspends Peacekeeping Deployments
The U.N. suspended the deployment and rotation of U.N. peacekeepers until June 30 amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to a CBS News report. The U.N. has 13 ongoing peacekeeping missions, seven of which are in Africa and four in Syria. Last month, the U.N. asked some countries to delay rotations of troops for UN peacekeeping missions to minimize the risk of coronavirus transmissions.
WHO Fires Back Against Criticism
At an April 8 press conference, the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged world leaders not to use the COVID-19 pandemic for political gains. “Please don’t politicize this virus,” Dr. Tedros said, “if you want to have many more body bags, then you [politicize the virus].” In separate remarks, Secretary-General António Guterres said the WHO is “absolutely critical” in overcoming the pandemic and emphasized that “now is the time for unity.”
Tedros, who assumed the WHO position in 2017 after serving as Ethiopia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, also addressed death threats, racist insults, and criticism at the press conference. “I can tell you personal attacks that have been going on for more than two, three months…I don’t give a damn,” said Tedros, “I’m proud of being black, proud of being Negro.” He also called out Taiwan specifically for starting many of the insults, which Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called “irresponsible.”
The remarks came after a White House press briefing the previous day, in which President Donald Trump lambasted the WHO and threatened to withhold funding from the organization. While the WHO declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on Jan. 30, the organization has drawn criticism for waiting until March 13 to declare the coronavirus a “pandemic” and has been accused of parroting false claims from the Chinese government.
“We’re going to put a hold on money spent to the WHO. We’re going to put a very powerful hold on it and we’re going to see,” Trump said. “They called it wrong. They call it wrong. They really, they missed the call.” Later in the briefing, a reporter asked whether Trump planned to cut funding in the midst of a pandemic, and he replied, “No, maybe not. I’m not saying I’m going to do it, but we’re going to look at it.”
Trump also took particular aim at the WHO’s guidance on Feb. 29 that cautioned “against the application of travel or trade restrictions to countries experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks.” Trump earlier had restricted travel to the United States from China. The WHO guidance stated, “In general, evidence shows that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions. ” However, the advisory also noted that the measures could “prove temporarily useful” and “may only be justified at the beginning of an outbreak, as they may allow countries to gain time, even if only a few days, to rapidly implement effective preparedness measures.”
The United States typically provides about 15 percent of the WHO’s annual $5 billion budget, making it the organization’s largest contributor. Last year, the U.S. had budgeted to provide $101 million, but gave an extra $400 million, much of which went toward tackling the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Trump’s budget for fiscal year 2021, issued on Feb. 10, proposes slashing WHO funding from $122 million to $58 million, according to The Hill.