(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.)
Emergency Committee Advises WHO to Identify Animal Origins of Coronavirus as 80,000 New Cases Reported Daily Worldwide
The committee of experts convened to advise the World Health Organization (WHO) on its response to the coronavirus pandemic advised the WHO to strengthen its efforts to identify the animal origins of the novel coronavirus. In its most recent statement following its third meeting on April 30, the “International Health Regulations Emergency Committee regarding the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)” said it advised the WHO on a number of matters related to addressing the pandemic, including: coordination, planning, and monitoring; coordinating with scientists and relief organizations; supporting the provision of essential health services; engaging in outreach in the form of risk communication and community engagement; using surveillance in the service of public health; and advising on the continuation of travel and trade. In remarks following the issuance of the committee’s statement, WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted that the WHO “accept[s]” the committee’s advice to work towards identifying the origins of the virus.
The committee’s emphasis on identifying the specific animal cause and transmission route to humans is especially significant given that President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have repeatedly asserted their belief that evidence exists the virus is human-made, having originated in a Chinese laboratory, despite the fact that scientists and the broader U.S. intelligence community remain highly skeptical of the theory.
Dr. Tedros also announced on May 6 that, since the beginning of April, an average of 80,000 confirmed new coronavirus cases have been reported to the WHO daily.
WHO Estimates that 83,000-190,000 People May Die in First Year of COVID-19 on African Continent
In a May 7 briefing, WHO Regional Director for Africa Dr. Matshidiso Moeti said that a new WHO study estimates that “[83,000] to 190 000 people in Africa could die of COVID-19 and 29 million to 44 million could get infected in the first year of the pandemic if containment measures fail.” While this figure is based on a projected lower rate of transmission than elsewhere in the world, due to a combination of social and environmental factors, WHO remains concerned that the pandemic could spread over years on the continent. Dr. Moeti stated that, rather than spreading “exponentially” like many other places, transmission of the coronavirus in Africa is likely to “smoulder in transmission hotspots,” making the virus “a fixture in our lives for the next several years unless a proactive approach is taken by many governments in the region. We need to test, trace, isolate and treat.”
OHCHR Expresses Concern for Plight of Imprisoned During Pandemic
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed concern for the wellbeing of detained individuals throughout the world amid the COVID-19 pandemic on May 5. OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville singled out the pervasive poor conditions in prisons in the Americas as particularly worrying, citing a May 5 OHCHR press briefing on the subject of these conditions, and noting recent revolts that left numerous prisoners dead in Venezuela, Peru, and Colombia, along with smaller scale revolts in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and the United States. Prisons the world over have been hot spots for coronavirus outbreaks due to the impossibility of social distancing and preexisting hygiene and healthcare shortcomings.
ICC Prosecutor Reports to Security Council on Situation in Libya
International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced that her office is working to seek new arrest warrants in relation to the situation in Libya in a May 5 statement to the U.N. Security Council. Bensouda expressed “particular concern” regarding the “high numbers of civilian casualties, largely reported to be resulting from airstrikes and shelling operations.” She also highlighted potential crimes related to practices of arbitrary detention and the mistreatment of Libyan civilians, as well as migrants and refugees attempting to transit through Libya; reports of enforced disappearances; and an increase in hate speech.
Report Documents 12 Million Newly Displaced Children in 2019
A report by the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) found that globally, 12 million additional children were displaced within their home countries due to natural disasters and violent conflict in 2019, more than any other year, bringing the total number of internally displaced children in the world to 19 million. The “Lost at Home” report, released May 5, outlines “[t]he risks and challenges for internally displaced children and the urgent actions needed to protect them.” In terms of numbers, the report estimates that currently 46 million people are living in displacement within their home countries, including 33 million new displacements that took place in 2019. Of last year’s new displacements, 25 million were primarily caused by natural disasters, while 8.5 million were primarily caused by violence and armed conflict. Twelve million of new displacements in 2019 were children.
WFP Estimates 43 Million People at Risk of Food Insecurity in West Africa
U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) spokesperson Elisabeth Byrs appealed for continued support from the international community for the people of West African states, up to 43 million of whom may face food shortages in the near future due to the combination of climate change, regional armed conflicts, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
UN Chief Marks World Press Freedom Day by Highlighting Importance of Accurate News Reporting Amid Pandemic
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres twice highlighted the importance of accurate, impartial news reporting and access to information as key aspects of working to end the ongoing coronavirus pandemic this week. In video-recorded remarks on May 1 marking World Press Freedom Day (May 3), Guterres stated that “[a]s the pandemic spreads, it has also given rise to a second pandemic of misinformation,” and that “[t]he press provides the antidote: verified, scientific, fact-based news and analysis.” The Secretary-General repeated this sentiment in a virtual dialogue on promoting press freedom amid the global coronavirus pandemic on May 4. In his remarks, Guterres noted that 57 journalists were killed in 2019 and highlighted the need for a robust free press as an aspect of the public health response to the coronavirus, stating that “[a]long with the pandemic, we are seeing a dangerous outbreak of misinformation, from harmful health advice and hate speech to wild conspiracy theories.” He further noted that “[b]latant lies spread online at a terrifying rate” including through the proliferation of the use of bots to post false reports and rumors relevant to COVID-19, repeating that “[t]he antidote to this pandemic of misinformation is fact-based news and analysis.”
Three Rights Experts Highlight Ongoing Humanitarian Crisis in Venezuela, Call for U.S. to End Sanctions
Three U.N. Special Rapporteurs issued a joint statement on May 6 demanding that Venezuela “detail plans to tackle the devastating impact of the country’s economic crisis on human rights.” The experts — Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation Léo Heller, and Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education Kombou Boly Barry — also “urged the United States to immediately lift sanctions that compound suffering.”
Kanni Wignaraja, head of the U.N. Development Programme’s Asia-Pacific bureau, said the ongoing global pandemic amid continually increasing inequality underscores the need for a worldwide universal basic income in remarks to the U.N. News Service.
The U.N. warned on May 2 that the coronavirus could have an especially disastrous impact on residents of Malawi, due to the weakness of the country’s healthcare sector and the large number of Malawians living with preexisting health conditions such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis A, malaria, rabies, schistosomiasis (a disease carried by freshwater snails), and typhoid. U.N. Resident Coordinator in Malawi Maria Jose Torres stated that “[e]ven a fairly low number of cases could overwhelm the health system, cause food shortages, and reverse the path of progress the country has been on in recent years.”
U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Contemporary Forms of Slavery Tomoya Obokata urged states to take extra steps to protect especially vulnerable populations from abuse, including potential enslavement, as more and more people are “drifting into exploitative jobs” due to the social and economic ravages of the coronavirus pandemic, especially on the informal labor sector.
On May 1, the U.N. released a policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 on older persons. In a statement accompanying the release of the brief, Secretary-General Guterres said aside from greater mortality rates, “the pandemic is putting older people at greater risk of poverty, discrimination and isolation[, and] is likely to have a particularly devastating impact on older people in developing countries.”
On May 6, the U.N. released a policy brief entitled “A Disability-Inclusive Response to COVID-19.” In announcing the brief, Secretary-General Guterres warned that the coronavirus pandemic is “intensifying” the inequalities people living with disabilities worldwide already face.
(Editor’s Note: Readers interested in the rights of persons with disabilities amid the ongoing pandemic may be interested in this Just Security article by Samuel Bagenstos.)
WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described a pledge by world leaders of 7.4 billion Euros to support research and development for medicines to fight COVID-19 as “a powerful and inspiring demonstration of global solidarity” in his May 4 remarks to the press. Tedros also underscored the importance of handwashing in stemming the global spread of the coronavirus in advance of international Hand Hygiene Day (May 5).
In online remarks to an EU Pledging Conference on May 4, Secretary-General Guterres welcomed contributions toward an initial goal of 7.5 billion Euros by EU nations to fund global responses to COVID-19, though he reminded attendees that five times that amount would likely ultimately be needed and that “[i]n an interconnected world, none of us is safe until all of us are safe” from the virus.
In remarks to the U.N. News Service on May 3, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed expressed concerns that the coronavirus pandemic is having, and will continue to have, a disproportionately harmful impact on global inequality, people already living in extreme poverty, and women. She did, however, express optimism that, if responded to appropriately, the pandemic could serve as a “catalyst” for achieving sustainable development goals and responding to climate change.
U.N. High Representative to Bosnia-Herzegovina Valentin Inzko delivered remarks on the current situation in that country to the Security Council and his most recent report on the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords on May 6.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM), the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) highlighted the plight of migrants adrift in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea in a joint statement. The agencies called on South-East Asian governments to show “compassion” to boats full of vulnerable people. Those at sea include hundreds of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.
On May 6, France and Tunisia urged the Security Council to adopt a resolution demanding a comprehensive global ceasefire to help address the coronavirus pandemic. Previous attempts to pass such a resolution have failed.
(Editor’s Note – Readers interested in issues of ceasefires amidst the ongoing pandemic may be interested in this Just Security article by Asli Ozcelik Olcay.)
The U.N. on May 7 released its most recent monthly update to its Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19. In a press release accompanying the update, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) cautioned that while underdeveloped and conflict-affected states are at special risk of high coronavirus infection and mortality rates, “[t]he peak of the disease in the world’s poorest countries is not expected until some point over the next three to six months.”
Secretary-General Guterres, in remarks on May 7, expressed concern that the coronavirus pandemic has led to a marked increase in hate speech globally. He said the pandemic has unleashed a “tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering,” and called for increased efforts “to end hate speech globally.”