(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.)

US Opposes UN Pandemic Response Plan for Deeming “Sexual and Reproductive Health Services” Essential Aspects of Healthcare

Acting Administrator of USAID John Barsa sent a letter to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on May 18 asking that the U.N. remove references to “sexual and reproductive health” from its “Global Humanitarian Response Plan” document (April original here, May update here). Referencing the United States’ financial contributions to the U.N.’s efforts to contain and mitigate the pandemic, Barsa accused the U.N. of “us[ing] this crisis as an opportunity to advance access to abortion as an ‘essential service’ … by cynically placing the provision of ‘sexual and reproductive health services’ on the same level of importance as food-insecurity, essential health care, malnutrition, shelter, and sanitation.” The letter has received criticism from human rights groups. The U.N. has denied that it was using the pandemic as an opportunity to “promote” abortion, according to U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric, who further stated, “While we support healthcare that prevents millions of women from dying during pregnancy and childbirth and protects people from sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, we do not seek to override any national laws.”

“Historic” COVID-19 Resolution Passed by World Health Assembly

The World Health Assembly passed a resolution May 19 calling for solidary and outlining steps to be taken in the global effort against the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Notably, the resolution, among other things:

Calls for the universal, timely and equitable access to, and fair distribution of, all quality, safe, efficacious and affordable essential health technologies and products, including their components and precursors, that are required in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic as a global priority, and the urgent removal of unjustified obstacles thereto, consistent with the provisions of relevant international treaties, including the provisions of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) and the flexibilities within the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health.

At a May 20 press briefing World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated that the “historic consensus resolution … sets out a clear roadmap of the critical activities and actions that must be taken to sustain and accelerate the response at the national and international levels.”

UN Launches Effort to Combat Pandemic Misinformation

The U.N. announced the launch of a project and website named “Verified” in an effort to combat the spread of disinformation regarding the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The website allows volunteers, whom Guterres described as “digital first responders” to receive daily updates of information relating to the pandemic that has been vetted and verified by the U.N., with the goal being that these volunteers will then share this trustworthy information with members of their social and familial networks.

Expert Warns of Increased Abuses Against Indigenous Populations During Pandemic

Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples José Francisco Calí Tzay issued a statement expressing strong concern over repeated reports of indigenous populations being abused under the pretext of efforts to address the coronavirus pandemic, stating:

I am receiving more reports every day from all corners of the globe about how indigenous communities are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it deeply worries me to see it is not always about health issues. States of emergency are exacerbating the marginalisation of indigenous communities, and in the most extreme situations, militarisation of their territories is taking place. Indigenous peoples are being denied their freedom of expression and association, while business interests are invading and destroying their lands, territories and resources.

UNICEF Warns of Special Risks to Migrant Children Deported from US amid Pandemic

In a May 21 press release, UNICEF cautioned that the over 1,000 unaccompanied migrant children who have been returned from the United States to Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, face increased risks due to the coronavirus pandemic. The release warns that “acts of violence and discrimination are being perpetrated against returnees perceived to have been infected with the disease and that they face major protection risks during their reintegration.” The release concluded by “calling on all governments to end pushbacks and deportations of unaccompanied or separated children, as well as children with their families without prior adequate protection and health screenings.”

(Editor’s Note – readers interested in the interplay between the conflict in Yemen, COVID-19 and humanitarian concerns may also be interested in this Just Security article by Oona Hathaway)

OCHA Warns Yemen on “Brink” of COVID-19 Humanitarian Disaster

U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) spokesperson Jens Laerke said Yemen was “really on the brink right now” of a major coronavirus outbreak, as medical professionals are now “talking about having to turn people away because they do not have enough oxygen, they do not have enough Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).” While Laerke described confirmed infection numbers as “worrying,” he noted that the U.N. is now “working on the assumption that there is widespread communal transmission going on” in Yemen. Citing a May 16 report, OCHA’s Yemen office announced in a May 18 tweet that “COVID19 cases increased by 325% over a week w/ an alarming fatality rate of 15.9%” in Yemen. To compound the problem, Laerke noted, OCHA is approaching a “fiscal cliff” in terms of its ability to continue vital life-saving programs, including those to combat COVID-19. For additional OCHA reporting on the COVID-19 situation in Yemen, see here, here and here.

(Editor’s Note – readers interested in the interplay between the conflict in Yemen, COVID-19 and humanitarian concerns may also be interested in this Just Security article by Catriona Murdoch and Niriksha Sanghvi)

Somalia Prepares for Historic Election amid Pandemic and Conflict

Reporting to the Security Council May 21, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Somalia and Head of the U.N. Assistance Mission on Somalia (UNSOM) James Swan stated that Somalia still hopes to hold its first direct elections since 1969 this year. He sounded a note of caution, however, as to whether Somalia will be able to logistically carry out the election amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, stating that the country currently “has more than 1,500 recorded [COVID-19] cases although the actual figures are almost certainly much higher.” Swan also reported progress in the fight against militant group al-Shabaab but expressed disappointment that the group has not heeded the U.N.’s repeated calls for a global ceasefire due to the ongoing pandemic.

Relief Coordinator Calls for Aid Route into Syria to Remain Open amid US-China Security Council Tensions, Special Envoy Expresses Optimism that Peace Achievable

In a May 19 briefing to the Security Council, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock underscored the extreme importance that aid routes into northwestern Syria from Turkey remain open in order to prevent a humanitarian disaster. Lowcock reported that the findings of a recent review of needs in the area are “clear: meeting the enormous humanitarian needs in the north-west requires a renewal of the cross-border authorization for the Bab al Salaam and Bab Al Hawa border crossings for an additional 12 months” beyond the July expiration of the current agreement. Lowcock’s plea reportedly stoked simmering tensions between the United States in China concerning the pandemic.

U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen reported to the Security Council that he believes there are “elements to build on” in efforts to secure an end to the conflict in Syria. Pedersen reported that despite continuing challenges:

With some calm, with the common threats of COVID and ISIS, and with the Syrian people continuing to suffer, I want to stress that renewed and meaningful international cooperation, building trust and confidence between international stakeholders and with Syrians, including through reciprocal measures, is essential — and could unlock progress.

(Editor’s Note – readers interested in the interplay between the conflict in Syria, COVID-19 and humanitarian access may also be interested in this Just Security article by Rebecca Blumenthal and Catriona Murdoch)

Libya Special Representative Expresses Concern over Military Build-Up

In a May 19 briefing to the Security Council, Acting Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Libya Stephanie Williams warned of “an alarming military build-up as a result of the uninterrupted dispatch by the foreign backers of increasingly sophisticated and lethal weapons, not to mention the recruitment of more mercenaries to both sides of the conflict” in the country.

Secretary-General’s Latest Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Posted

On May 20, the most recent (May 6) report of the Secretary-General on the protection of civilians in armed conflict was posted on the U.N. humanitarian information website ReliefWeb. The was delivered by the Secretary-General against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the report refers to as the “greatest test that the world has faced since the establishment of the United Nations, and which has had a severe impact on the protection of civilians, particularly in conflict contexts.”

(Editor’s Note – readers interested in civilian safety during armed conflict may also be interested in recent Just Security articles on civilian casualties in Afghanistan (Mayesha Alam), Yemen (Abdulrasheed Al-Faqih and Kristine Beckerle), the African continent (AFRICOM) (Daniel R. Mahanty), Somalia (Luke Hartig) and also Somalia (Daphne Eviatar), assessing the DoD’s annual civilian casualties report (Daniel R. Mahanty and Rita Siemion and also by Daphne Eviatar))

Additional Items

Addressing recent reports of an Israeli plan to annex further West Bank territories as soon as July 1, U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov warned against any unilateral action in disputed areas in a report to the Security Council May 20. Mladenov stated that “The continuing threat of annexation by Israel of parts of the West Bank would constitute a most serious violation of international law, deal a devastating blow to the two-State solution, close the door to a renewal of negotiations, and threaten efforts to advance regional peace and our broader efforts to maintain international peace and security.”

OCHA issued a series of humanitarian updates tracking conditions in Bangladesh following the landfall of Cyclone Amphan on May 20. As of May 22, OCHA reported that while only “17 people lost their lives … [a]n estimated 10 million vulnerable people in 19 districts were impacted” and remain at risk. Additional U.N. News reporting on the Cyclone here.

In a May 20 video report to the Security Council, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo warned of the continuing strife in Venezuela, repeating calls for a negotiated settlement among Venezuelans and expressing “heightened concern” for stability there.

(Editor’s Note – readers interested in the human rights situation in Venezuela may also be interested in this Just Security article by Gissou Nia and Rodrigo Diamanti)

The U.N. International Organization for Migration (IOM) put out an urgent appeal for $7 million in additional funding to help “ease the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on migrant communities in … Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan … until the end of 2020.” The IOM’s analysis and plan for addressing the pandemic in Russia and Central Asia is available here.

The same day Rwandan Genocide suspect Félicien Kabuga was arrested in France (May 16), Guterres released a statement welcoming the arrest and stating that “Mr. Kabuga’s apprehension sends a powerful message that those who are alleged to have committed such crimes cannot evade justice and will eventually be held accountable, even more than a quarter of a century later.”

(Editor’s Note – readers interested in Kabuga’s arrest may also be interested in this article by Just Security Executive Editor Beth Van Schaack)

U.N. leaders, including Guterres, marked the International Day for Biological Diversity (May 22), by reiterating the U.N.’s call for an emphasis on sustainable development and addressing climate change as guiding principles in post-COVID-19 rebuilding efforts.

Image – Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), holds a virtual briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic on 22 May 2020. United Nations, New York. Source: U.N. Photo # 841708