(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.)

UN Human Rights Experts Warn Certain US States Using Pandemic as Pretext for Restricting Access to Abortion and Reproductive Healthcare

The United Nations Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls warned “that some US states appear to be manipulating the COVID-19 crisis to curb access to essential abortion care,” in a statement May 27. Vice-Chair Elizabeth Broderick noted, “We regret that [Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Iowa, Ohio, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Tennessee], with a long history of restrictive practices against abortion, appear to be manipulating the crisis to severely restrict women’s reproductive rights.” The statement noted these U.S. states have used COVID-19 emergency orders suspending medical procedures not deemed immediately necessary to restrict access to abortion services. This statement follows a letter from Acting Administrator of USAID John Barsa to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres on May 18, which requested that the U.N. remove references to “sexual and reproductive health” from its “Global Humanitarian Response Plan” document outlining best practices in addressing the spread of the novel coronavirus (April original here, May update here). UN News reported that “the Working Group was also extremely concerned by the US insistence to remove [these] references.”

WHO Declares South America “New Epicentre” for COVID-19 Pandemic

Executive Director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Emergencies Programme Dr. Michael Ryan said that “[i]n a sense South America has become a new epicentre” for the COVID-19 pandemic at a May 22 press conference. He noted that WHO has “seen many South American countries with increasing numbers of cases and clearly there’s a concern across many of those countries but certainly the most affected is Brazil at this point.” Brazil has the second most coronavirus cases in the world, with more than 400,000 infections and nearly 26,000 deaths, placing it behind only the United States.

(Editor’s Note: Readers interested in the COVID-19 situation in Brazil may also be interested in this recent Just Security article by Jocelyn Getgen Kestenbaum.)

US and China Clash at UN over Hong Kong National Security Legislation

The United States requested that the U.N. Security Council convene to discuss China’s planned national security law for Hong Kong on May 27, according to recent reporting. China opposed the request, arguing that the law constituted an internal matter and was thus outside the Security Council’s mandate. Each nation accused the other of violating its commitments under international law. Relatedly, also on May 27, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress that Hong Kong no longer qualifies for special status under U.S. law, a change that could impair the territory’s status as a financial hub according to recent news.

UN Rights Commissioner Condemns Police Killing of George Floyd, Broader US Failure to Address Pervasive Racial Discrimination

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a statement on May 28 commenting on the most recent killing of an unarmed African American by the police or private citizens. The statement refers to the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. Floyd was killed by an officer kneeling on his neck for seven minutes while he lay prostrate on the ground handcuffed. Referring to Floyd’s death as “the latest in a long line of killings of unarmed African Americans by US police officers and members of the public,” Bachelet said “[t]he US authorities must take serious action to stop such killings.” While she “welcome[d] the fact that the Federal authorities have announced that an investigation will be prioritized,” Bachelet further stated that “[t]he role that entrenched and pervasive racial discrimination plays in such deaths must also be fully examined, properly recognized and dealt with.”

UN Food Agency Warns Yemen’s Humanitarian Aid Projects near “Breaking Point”

Elisabeth Byrs, U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) Senior Spokesperson, warned that the coronavirus pandemic could “push many more children in Yemen into acute malnutrition” at a recent remote press conference, according to a May 26 UN News article. The article further states that WFP needs $870 million in aid to continue “life-saving assistance to millions of vulnerable people for the next six months.” According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees “around 80 percent of the Yemeni population need humanitarian assistance,” and “the aid situation in Yemen threatens to spin out of control.” A U.N. pledging conference for Yemen will be held June 2.

(Editor’s Note: Readers interested in the interplay between the conflict in Yemen, COVID-19, and humanitarian concerns may also be interested in recent Just Security articles by Abdulrasheed Al-Faqih and Kristine Beckerle, Charlotte Kamin, Asli Ozcelik Olcay, and Catriona Murdoch and Niriksha Sanghvi.)

WHO Pauses Hydroxychloroquine Use in Its Solidarity Clinical Trials Pending Safety Review

WHO announced it was halting the use of hydroxychloroquine in its solidarity clinical trials “while the safety data is reviewed by the Data Safety Monitoring Board” in an update about the trials issued May 27. The “Solidarity” trials, launched by WHO and partners, are an international collaborative effort to find an effective COVID-19 treatment. This announcement follows a study, published in The Lancet, linking hydroxychloroquine to higher mortality rates among patients with COVID-19. The update states that the review will examine available data to “adequately evaluate the potential benefits and harms from hydroxychloroquine.”

(Editor’s Note: Readers interested in the debate around the use of hydroxychloroquine as a method of preventing the contraction of or treating the symptoms of the novel coronavirus may also be interested in this recent Just Security article by Sidney Blumenthal.)

UN Secretary-General Warns COVID-19 Threatens Civilians Caught in Violence

Guterres warned that civilians caught in armed conflicts are particularly at risk due to the coronavirus pandemic during remarks to the Security Council on May 27. Guterres noted that “it has become even more difficult to protect the most vulnerable. This is particularly true in conflict zones, where civilians were already exposed to significant risks.” In these remarks, Guterres also addressed the response to his call, during a March 23 press conference, for a global ceasefire:

I am encouraged by expressions of support. However, this support has not been translated into concrete action. In some cases, the pandemic may even create incentives for warring parties to press their advantage, or to strike hard while international attention is focused elsewhere.

Activists Urge UN Not to Replace Peacekeepers in South Sudan with a “Political Mission”

Almost 100 civil society groups signed a petition opposing the U.N. plan to withdraw its 26,000 peacekeepers from Darfur this year, according to reporting. The Security Council is expected to agree on plans that will remove these peacekeepers in October and replace them with a “UN Political Mission.” The mission will assist the transitional South Sudanese Government, which will end in 2022, with holding elections and drafting a constitution. Activists warn that the move could put the lives of Darfur citizens at risk.

OHCHR in Iraq Releases Human Rights Special Report on Recent Demonstrations

The Human Rights Office of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq released a special report on May 23 detailing potential human rights violations committed against abducted Iraqi demonstrators. The report warns that “[a] general absence of accountability for these acts continues to contribute to a pervasive environment of impunity in relation to reported violations and abuses linked to the demonstrations.” The report also noted that “Government acknowledgement of the abductions and disappearances, as well as efforts to prevent foreseeable acts of abduction or hold accountable those responsible, appear limited, raising concerns about Iraq’s adherence to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.” It concluded by recommending that the new government of Iraq “[m]ake immediate efforts to ensure compliance with its obligations” under these three instruments.

Trudeau Calls for Global Coordination During Coronavirus Pandemic Recovery

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, co-hosting a meeting with Secretary-General Guterres and Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness, said that “for the global economy to recover, and for our domestic economies to bounce back, we need a global, coordinated plan.” The meeting comes as Canada is hoping to secure a non-permanent seat on the Security Council with a platform centered around rebuilding the world following the COVID-19 pandemic, according to recent reporting. Canada faces competition from Ireland and Norway for this Council seat. As European countries are expected to support these nations’ bids, Trudeau has focused on garnering African, Asian, and Caribbean support.

UNAMA Welcomes Unexpected Taliban Ceasefire

U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) Deborah Lyons tweeted on May 23 that a recent ceasefire is a “reason to hope.” The Taliban announced a three-day ceasefire May 24-26, which the Afghan government welcomed and stated it would also observe, to allow the celebration of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr. U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric issued a statement on behalf of the secretary-general welcoming the ceasefire and “urg[ing] all parties concerned to seize this opportunity and embrace an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.” With the ceasefire having concluded, the Taliban are thought to have launched an attack against Afghan forces on May 28, according to recent reporting.

(Editor’s Note: Readers interested in the interplay between COVID-19 and ceasefires, including in Afghanistan, may also be interested in this recent Just Security article by Asli Ozcelik Olcay.)

EU Foreign Affairs Chief Calls on Security Council Members to “do Their Part” in Revitalizing Multilateral Global Governance System

In a May 28 video address to the Security Council, EU High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell chastised the Council’s “paraly[sis] by vetoes and political infighting” and resultant inability to take necessary action during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The remarks, reported by UN News, were delivered during a Council virtual meeting on cooperation between the U.N. and regional and sub-regional organizations, such as the EU. Borrell further stated that “[t]he world needs a revitalized multilateral system, but this will only happen if we all invest in it. This, the EU is doing. We count on those who sit on the Security Council to do their part.”

WHO Foundation Established to Raise Funds for Pressing Global Health Challenges

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus welcomed the creation of the independent grant-making WHO Foundation in a press conference May 28. Prior to the creation of WHO Foundation, WHO had not received donations from the general public. Donations to WHO Foundation, which is a separate legal entity from WHO, “will facilitate contributions from the general public … to help broaden WHO’s donor base and work towards more sustainable and predictable funding,” according to a WHO news release. Tedros said that the creation of WHO foundation was an important step “towards achieving our mission to promote health, keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable.”

WHO, GAVI, and UNICEF Warn Pandemic’s Disruption of Vaccinations Puts 80 Million Young Children at Risk

In a May 22 news release, WHO, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), and UNICEF warned that COVID-19 related disruptions to regular vaccination and immunization services put millions of children “at risk of diseases like diphtheria, measles and polio.” The release states:

According to data collected by the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Gavi and the Sabin Vaccine Institute, provision of routine immunization services is substantially hindered in at least 68 countries and is likely to affect approximately 80 million children under the age of 1 living in these countries.

One of the reasons for the disruption to these services is that “[m]any countries have temporarily and justifiably suspended preventive mass vaccination campaigns.”

WHO, FIFA, and European Commission Launch Campaign to Support Those at Risk of Domestic Violence during Pandemic

According to a May 26 joint news release, the #SafeHome campaign aims to support women and children at risk due to the spike in domestic violence cases caused by stay-at-home measures designed to combat COVID-19. Tedros said “[j]ust as physical, sexual or psychological violence has no place in football, it has no place in the home.” The campaign includes a video awareness campaign featuring footballers and a factsheet about domestic violence.

Additional Items

The U.N. and World Bank are working with the Mozambique Ministry of Education and Human Development to explore remote learning possibilities for schools in Mozambique, where the closing of “nearly 15,000 schools and universities” since March 23 has affected “more than 8.5 million students,” according to a recent UN News article.

WHO, UNICEF, and the International Baby Food Action Network warned in a report on May 27 that many countries are failing to prevent the “harmful marketing” of breastmilk substitutes. The report concludes that “[l]egislators and policy-makers should recognize their obligations … to promote and protect breastfeeding, and to eliminate inappropriate marketing practices.”

Secretary-General Guterres warned that the COVID-19 pandemic threatens African countries’ progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals and the African Union’s Agenda 2063 development targets, in his Africa Day (May 25) message. Guterres praised armed groups that “responded to the call and declared unilateral ceasefires,” while “implor[ing] other armed movements and governments in Africa to do likewise.”

U.N. refugee and migration agencies welcomed donor pledges amounting to $2.79 billion to support Venezuelan migrants who have fled the crisis in their home country. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and International Organization for Migration Joint Special Representative Eduardo Stein said that “these contributions will make a real difference to the lives of refugees and migrants from Venezuela.”

(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.)

International Labour Organization (ILO) Director-General Guy Ryder warned that “the COVID-19 economic crisis is hitting young people – especially women – harder and faster than any other group,” in a press release May 27. Furthermore, the fourth edition of the ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work, released May 27, “calls for urgent, large-scale and targeted policy responses to support youth.”

Image – Secretary-General António Guterres (left) speaks with Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed ahead of participating in the high-level virtual event on Financing for Development in the Era of COVID-19 and Beyond, May 28, 2020. UN Photo # 842185