(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.)
WHO Casts Doubt on “Immunity Passports”
Leading up to this week’s three-month mark since it declared the spread of the coronavirus a “public health emergency of international concern,” the World Health Organization (WHO) released a scientific brief on the much-discussed prospect of “immunity passports” for individuals who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, but who have recovered or never experienced symptoms. The April 24 brief cautioned that, as of that point, “no study has evaluated whether the presence of antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 confers immunity to subsequent infection by this virus in humans.” Consequently, WHO’s position is that currently, “there is not enough evidence about the effectiveness of antibody-mediated immunity to guarantee the accuracy of an ‘immunity passport’ or ‘risk-free certificate.’”
New War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity in Myanmar, Special Rapporteur Warns
U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee called for an investigation into new allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Myanmar’s Rakhine and Chin States. In an April 29 statement, Lee said, “While the world is occupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Myanmar military continues to escalate its assault in Rakhine State, targeting the civilian population.”
Myanmar’s already powerful military, the Tatmadaw, has been further “emboldened” to commit atrocities after being given additional powers “in the name of enforcing or preventing the spread of the pandemic,” Lee told CNN.
UNICEF Raises Concerns of Reduced Immunization and a “Hunger Catastrophe” for Children Due to Pandemic
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) voiced concerns that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic puts the health of millions of vulnerable children at greater risk by disrupting vaccination campaigns throughout the world. Even before the pandemic, vaccinations for diseases such as measles and polio were unavailable to approximately 20 million children under the age of one each year worldwide, UNICEF said. Now, many more “children are in danger of missing life-saving vaccines against measles, diphtheria and polio due to disruptions in immunization services. At last count, most countries had suspended mass polio campaigns and 25 countries had postponed mass measles campaigns.” UNICEF Principal Adviser and Chief of Immunization Robin Nandy stated that, due to these “disruptions in immunization services … the fates of millions of young lives hang in the balance.”
UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP) on April 29 called on governments to act immediately to avert a “hunger catastrophe” due to COVID-19-related school closures for the estimated 370 million children worldwide who rely on school meals.
“For millions of children around the world, the meal they get at school is the only meal they get in a day,” WFP Executive Director David Beasley said. “Without it, they go hungry, they risk falling sick, dropping out of school and losing their best chance of escaping poverty. We must act now to prevent the health pandemic from becoming a hunger catastrophe.”
UNICEF also announced April 30 that the Danish NGO Human Act and climate activist Greta Thunberg have launched a fundraising campaign to support UNICEF’s COVID-19 emergency programs. Proceeds will go toward expenses such as the provision of soap, masks, protective equipment and other support to healthcare systems. “Like the climate crisis, the coronavirus pandemic is a child-rights crisis,” Thunberg said. “It will affect all children, now and in the long-term, but vulnerable groups will be impacted the most.”
Human Rights Commissioner Issues Guidance on Emergency Measures and Criticizes “Toxic Lockdown Culture”
In conjunction with the release of a policy guidance document on emergency powers and COVID-19 repression efforts, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a statement on April 27 cautioning that “exceptional measures” taken in efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus “should not be cover for human rights abuses and violations.” She referenced reports of excessive force in policing public-health lockdowns, detention as penalties for violating curfews or other restrictions, and overzealous efforts to curb misinformation that instead undermine freedom of expression.
Bachelet reminded States that any limitations on rights, even to curb the spread of the coronavirus, “need to be necessary, proportionate, and non-discriminatory … [as well as] limited in duration and key safeguards against excesses must be put in place.” She also raised the possibility that overzealous efforts to contain the virus could lead to more serious future harms. “If the rule of law is not upheld, then the public health emergency risks becoming a human rights disaster, with negative effects that will long outlast the pandemic itself,” she said.
(Readers might be interested in a new Just Security series of country-specific articles outlining the scale and scope of emergency powers governments have exercised in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The first article examines the situation in Hungary. The second examines the situation in Brazil, with more to come.)
Population Fund Warns of “Millions” of Unintended Pregnancies, Spike in Gender-Based Violence
An interim note on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on family planning, gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, and child marriage released by the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) on April 28 warns that the ongoing pandemic could have a “calamitous impact on women’s health,” including “millions” of unintended pregnancies.”
The note, drafted with assistance from Avenir Health, Johns Hopkins University, and Australia’s Victoria University, projects that “47 million women in 114 low-and middle-income countries are projected to be unable to use modern contraceptives if the average lockdown, or COVID-19-related disruption, continues for 6 months.” In addition, “[f]or every 3 months the lockdown continues … up to 2 million additional women may be unable to use modern contraceptives” and “[i]f the lockdown continues for 6 months … an additional 7 million unintended pregnancies are expected to occur.”
In terms of gender-based violence, the Fund projects that the pandemic will wipe out one third of the progress that had been made toward ending gender-based violence by 2030. Each three-month period of pandemic-related lockdowns will produce approximately 15 million additional instances of sexual and gender-based violence globally, the Fund projects.
Furthermore, pandemic-related disruptions to efforts to curb female genital mutilation are likely to result in 2 million additional instances of mutilation over the next decade that would otherwise have been averted.
Finally, in terms of forced marriage, the Population Fund forecasts that pandemic-produced disruptions to planned efforts to end child marriage, along with the economic fallout of COVID-19 will “result in an additional total 13 million child marriages taking place that otherwise would not have occurred between 2020 and 2030.”
Livelihoods May Be “Destroyed” for Half of Global Workforce
Approximately 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy, representing nearly half of the global workforce, “stand in immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed” by the economic repercussions of the pandemic, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). Additionally, while the percentage of global workers living in countries with required or recommended closures has dropped since April 7 from 81 percent to 68 percent, this change was primarily due to the easing of restrictions in China, and workplace closures have increased elsewhere, the ILO reported in its April 29 edition of its monitor, “COVID-19 and the World of Work.”
The ILO called for “urgent, targeted and flexible measures to support workers and businesses, particularly smaller enterprises, those in the informal economy and others who are vulnerable.” ILO Director-General Guy Ryder said, as the pandemic spreads, “the need to protect the most vulnerable becomes even more urgent,” further noting that “[f]or millions of workers, no income means no food, no security and no future.”
Special Envoy for Yemen Expresses Concern over Separatists’ Self-Rule Declaration
U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths issued a statement on April 27 expressing concern for the humanitarian situation in the country in the wake of an April 25 declaration by the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC). The STC had “declared a state of emergency and said it would ‘self-govern’ the key southern port city of Aden and other southern provinces.” Griffiths was especially concerned the declaration would escalate violence, given that the country’s southern region has yet to recover from recent flooding and faces a probable coronavirus outbreak as the virus spreads into the region.
Secretary-General António Guterres “urges all relevant stakeholders to exercise maximum restraint and refrain from any actions that would further escalate the situation,” spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. He added that Guterres also called on all parties to the conflict to engage in “dialogue to resolve their differences and address the legitimate concerns of all Yemenis, including those of southern groups.” They also should “implement the Riyadh Agreement as well as concentrate efforts on countering the spread of COVID-19 and responding to the flooding that has affected tens of thousands of Yemenis.”
(For further analysis of relevant humanitarian law requirements in Yemen within the context of the country’s food insecurity and the coronavirus pandemic, see this recent Just Security article by experts at Global Rights Compliance.)
Special Envoy to Syria Reiterates Imperative for Ceasefire due to Pandemic Threat
One day after a bomb attack killed more than 40 people in the Syrian city of Afrin, U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen joined Secretary-General Guterres in condemning the attack and reiterated the critical need for a general ceasefire in the country in order for it to address the looming threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pedersen reported that a “significant calm” continued to hold in much of the country, including in the northwest, where Russia and Turkey have agreed to joint patrols, and in the southeast, where Russia, Turkey, and the United States have agreed to a ceasefire that has held thus far.
On Sudan-South Sudan Border, Potential Delays in Deploying Police Peacekeeping Units
U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix informed the Security Council on April 28 that efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus in Sudan have delayed the deployment of fresh peacekeepers to areas along the Sudan-South Sudan border and the disputed Abyei region.
Reporting on the work of the U.N. Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA), tasked with peacekeeping in the area, Lacroix told the Council that skirmishes have occurred in the area, including some involving UNISFA officers. He expressed doubt that an agreement could be arrived at between Sudan and South Sudan on the disputed border area, because both governments are dealing with other priorities, including the initial spread of the coronavirus into each nation.
Assistance Mission in Afghanistan Issues Latest Civilian Casualties Report
The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released its First Quarter Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict for 2020 on April 27. According to the report (summarized here by UNAMA), between Jan. 1 and March 31 of this year, “UNAMA documented 1,293 civilian casualties (533 killed and 760 injured), highlighting that the conflict in Afghanistan continues to be one of the deadliest in the world for civilians, at a time when the potential impact of COVID-19 poses a threat to all individuals in Afghanistan.”
In an accompanying press release, UNAMA expressed particular concern regarding “the escalation in violence during March and increasing civilian casualties … [a] trend [made] all the more striking as it followed a 22 to 28 February ‘reduction in violence’ period between Pro-Government Forces and the Taliban, as well as the 29 February agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban.”
In light of this “disturbing increase in violence” and the rising threat of COVID-19 in the country, UNAMA head Deborah Lyons “call[ed] on all parties to seize the opportunity offered by the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire to focus collective efforts on fighting a common enemy, the COVID-19 pandemic.”
(Readers may be interested in Just Security’s recent efforts to obtain information concerning U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and in this analysis of UNAMA’s annual report on civilian casualties for 2019.)
Secretary-General Compares Extreme Actions Necessary to Curb Pandemic to Similar Urgency on Global Warming
In remarks delivered to participants in the 11th Petersburg Climate Dialogue, conducted via video conference on April 28, Secretary-General Guterres said the “only answer” to both the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change is “brave, visionary and collaborative leadership.” He proposed six climate-related actions as part of post-pandemic recovery efforts:
- Delivery of “new jobs and businesses through a clean, green and just transition.”
- Funneling of taxpayer money for rescuing businesses to “creating green jobs and sustainable and inclusive growth” rather than “bailing out outdated, polluting, carbon-intensive industries.”
- Shifting “economies from grey to green, making societies and people more resilient through a transition that is fair to all and leaves no one behind.”
- Ensuring that public funds are solely used to “invest in the future, by flowing to sustainable sectors and projects that help the environment and climate,” while ending fossil fuel subsidies and making polluters “pay for their pollution.”
- Requiring that the “global financial system, when it shapes policy and infrastructure, must take risks and opportunities related to climate into account,” rather than continuing to “ignore the price our planet pays for unsustainable growth.”
- Working together multilaterally “as an international community.”
“Solidarity, unity and hope” are needed for humanity to overcome the ongoing pandemic, Guterres said further in an April 30 press conference, noting that global deaths caused by COVID-19 had exceeded 200,000 lives. In his statement, Guterres reiterated the need for a global ceasefire, re-emphasized the special risks the pandemic poses to the world’s most vulnerable populations, and stated that all recovery efforts should be sustainable and take into account climate change. Guterres also singled out South Korea as an example the rest of the world should seek to emulate in combatting the spread of the virus.
Loss of Access to Education, Employment Risks “a Lost Generation of Youth”
Secretary-General Guterres delivered his first report on Security Council Resolution 2250 on youth, peace and security, passed in 2005. In his April 27 remarks, Guterres expressed concerns about the special impacts the pandemic is having on youth, especially in relation to access to education and employment.
“The world cannot afford a lost generation of youth, their lives set back by COVID-19 and their voices stifled by a lack of participation,” he said. He also noted that youth could be important actors in addressing the pandemic, urging institutions to “do far more to tap their talents.” He issued a four-point “call to action on youth, peace and security”:
First, we must do more to address these challenges, guided by the findings of the Independent Progress Study on Youth Peace and Security. Second, we must invest in young people’s participation, organizations and initiatives. … Third, we must strengthen human rights protections and protect the civic space on which youth participation depends. And fourth, we must emerge from the COVID-19 crisis with a determination to recover better – massively increasing our investment in young people’s capacities as we deliver the Sustainable Development Goals.
“Rise for All” Women’s Leadership Group to Tackle Development Emergency Created by COVID-19 Pandemic
On April 27 U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed convened a women-led “global advocacy effort to save lives and protect livelihoods [and] address the human crisis of the pandemic.” The effort, “Rise for All,” involves prominent women leaders including the president of Ethiopia and the prime ministers of Norway and Barbados in supporting the U.N.’s call for an extraordinary scale-up of international support and political commitment to “build back better” and ensure access to essential services and social protection.
Rise for All will press for implementation of the U.N’s Framework for the Immediate Socio-Economic Response to COVID-19, also announced April 27. The campaign emphasizes five key “streams” focused on communities:
- Protecting existing health services and strengthening health systems’ capacity to respond.
- Helping people cope with adversity, through social protection and basic services.
- Protecting jobs and supporting small and medium-sized enterprises and informal-sector workers through economic recovery programs.
- Guiding the necessary surge in fiscal and financial stimulus to make macroeconomic policies work for the most vulnerable, and strengthening multilateral and regional responses.
- Promoting social cohesion and investing in community-led resilience and response systems.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Bachelet highlighted the “double risk” persons with disabilities face during the COVID-19 pandemic. She noted “disturb[ing] … reports that the lives of people with disabilities may be given different weight than others” during the pandemic. The U.N. Human Rights Office published a guidance note on the subject April 29.
An updated Framework for Reopening Schools, issued on April 30 by the Global Education Coalition, addresses reintegrating students into school settings safely. The coalition was launched in March by UNICEF, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), WFP, and the World Bank.
A “potentially devastating” outbreak of COVID-19 could occur in the near future in war-torn northeast Nigeria, the U.N. International Organization for Migration (UN IOM) said on April 30. A decade of conflict there has led to nearly 8 million people being in need of humanitarian assistance. U.N. and partner agencies are working to “decongest” existing displaced persons camps by building “quarantine shelters,” where displaced civilians can receive assistance and live while maintaining social distancing and following proper anti-coronavirus hygiene protocols.
The U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) reported on April 29 that only 66 percent of the nations of the world safeguard people’s data and privacy, according to survey results. “Given the rise in cybercrime, scams and online fraud during the COVID-19 pandemic, the survey results are very worrying”, said Shamika Sirimanne, head of UNCTAD’s technology and logistics division.
Seven U.N. experts issued a statement on April 30 calling on the United States to lift its embargo against Cuba, saying the restriction is “obstructing humanitarian responses”, especially those geared at addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.
A group of 13 independent U.N. experts called on the U.N. to do more for victims of cholera in Haiti on April 30. “Despite initially seeking $400 million over two years, the UN has raised a mere $20.5 million in about three years and has spent a pitiful $3.2 million. This is a deeply disappointing showing following the loss of 10,000 lives,” the experts said.
The WFP completed the first of 350 flights planned per month to deliver medical supplies to developing nations especially vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic. The April 30 flight transported 16 tons of medical supplies from Belgium to Burkina Faso.
Brazil must immediately halt austerity policies and invest in public-health, said U.N. Independent Expert on Human Rights and Foreign Debt Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky and U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty Philip Alston, in an April 29 statement. Endorsed by nine additional U.N. experts, the statement urged Brazilian authorities to protect the rights to life and health of the many millions of Brazilians who are likely to be exposed to the coronavirus in the coming months. (Readers may be interested in Jocelyn Getgen Kestenbaum’s analysis for Just Security of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s failure to prepare the country for the pandemic.)
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and UNICEF expressed concern that refugee children in Greece, whose education the two agencies have been jointly coordinating, are at risk of losing all access to education due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The two agencies, along with the charity “Theirworld” appealed for funding assistance on April 27 to support the provision of distance learning lessons through mobile phones and printed materials. Lucio Melandri, head of UNICEF’s Greece office stated that as the pandemic dissipates, the local “COVID-19 response should not hamper the necessity of providing constructive learning opportunities and a safe space for children to learn, grow and regain a sense of normalcy in their lives.”