(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 Submits Notice of Withdrawal from WHO

The Trump administration notified the United Nations on July 6 that the United States will withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO). This notice comes following months of threats from president Trump to do so and will be effective July 6, 2021. Trump has repeatedly accused WHO with mismanaging the COVID-19 pandemic. He has also withdrawn from other international agreements, most notably the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran Nuclear Deal. The choice to withdraw from WHO during the ongoing pandemic has drawn criticism from experts such as director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University Lawrence Gostin, who said “President Trump’s official notice of withdrawal from the W.H.O. is among the most ruinous presidential decisions in recent history.” Director of the Harvard Global Health Institute Dr. Ashish Jha said, “it’s an extraordinarily bad decision that will both harm global public health and harm the health of the American people.”

Russia and China Veto Security Council Approval of Turkish Aid to Syria, UN Commission Finds New Evidence of War Crimes

Russia and China blocked the Security Council from approving Turkish aid deliveries to Syria for an additional year on July 7. Turkey’s aid deliveries have been authorized for six years, but this authorization is set to expire on July 10. Russia and China vetoed an earlier proposal in December that would allow crossings from Iraq and Turkey for a full year. The Security Council voted on a Russian text, which would allow just one Turkish crossing to remain open for six months. This proposal, however, failed in the security council, receiving only 4 votes in favor. Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, said access to these crossings for delivering aid is “vital to the wellbeing of the civilians in northwest Syria[.] … Lives depend on it.”

Meanwhile, the most recent report by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, a body created by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2011, found that all sides in the conflict have targeted civilian areas, among other violations of the laws of war. The report, released July 7, also condemned what appear to be recent war crimes. U.N.-designated terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham was found to have shelled densely populated civilian zones, while the Russian air force and Syrian government troops carried out attacks on infrastructure, towns, and villages. The Commission found that these violations, among others found in the report, would amount to war crimes if proven in court. Commission Chair Paulo Pinheiro said that “it is completely abhorrent that, after more than nine years, civilians continue to be indiscriminately attacked, or even targeted, while going about their daily lives.”

(Editor’s Note: Readers interested in the Security Council may want to read this recent Just Security article by Pablo Arrocha Olabuenaga and Ambassador H.E. Juan Ramón de la Fuente. Readers interested in the conflict in Syria may want to read this recent article by Rebecca Barber.)

UN Counterterrorism Chief Reveals Large-Scale Deaths in Syrian Camps for ISIS Families

The U.N. has received information that 700 people have died recently in camps housing 70,000 individuals connected to ISIS fighters, mainly women and children. According to New York Times reporting, Under-Secretary-General of the U.N. Counter-Terrorism Office Vladimir Voronkov revealed that he had received this information at a July 9 news conference. The camps are notorious for their poor conditions, and the victims – including children – died from a “lack of medicine [and] lack of food” among other causes at the al-Hol and Roj camps. The camps are “overseen by Kurdish-led forces allied with the United States who spearheaded the fight against [ISIS].”

(Editor’s Note: Readers interested in the situation of family members of ISIS fighters may want to read this recent Just Security article by Stevan Weine and Heidi Ellis.)

UN Expert Calls Suleimani Killing Unlawful

U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard reported to the U.N. Human Rights Council that the United States has provided “no evidence” that the airstrike that killed Iranian General Qassem Suleimani was in response to any “actual imminent threat to life,” and was hence, unlawful under applicable international law. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the report “spurious” and said that it “gives more cause to distrust U.N. human rights mechanisms,” according to New York Times reporting. Callamard also noted that the information provided by the United States was “remarkably vague and inconsequential as far as a possible imminent threat is concerned,” and hence “[e]ven at the most basic level, the U.S. did not demonstrate that striking Suleimani was ‘necessary.’” Callamard also noted that the retaliatory airstrike against the United States by Iran following the killing was presumptively unlawful.

(Editor’s Note: Readers interested in the legality of the airstrike that killed Suleimani can view Just Security’s coverage of the strike here.) 

WHO Recognizes “Emerging Evidence” of Airborne COVID-19 Spread

WHO acknowledged that there is “emerging evidence” of the airborne spread of COVID-19. WHO previously maintained that the virus mostly spreads through large respiratory droplets. However, a letter signed by 239 scientists and published in Clinical Infectious Diseases called on WHO to address the airborne spread of the virus — airborne spread occurs when people inhale smaller respiratory droplets that may be able to linger in the air significantly longer than the larger droplets WHO previously viewed as the main modality of transmission. The letter urges WHO to update its guidance to acknowledge this potential mode of transmission. In a press conference following the letter’s publication, WHO technical lead for COVID-19 Maria Van Kerkhove said that WHO has “been talking about the possibility of airborne transmission and aerosol transmission as one of the modes of transmission of COVID-19.” WHO is set to release a brief in the near future on how the virus spreads.

Global Temperature Increases Show “Enormous Challenge” of Achieving Climate Goals

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released its Global Annual to Decadal Climate Update on July 9. WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said that the “study shows … the enormous challenge ahead in meeting the Paris Agreement on Climate Change target” of preventing global temperatures from rising by two degrees centigrade. The recent slowdown in global production due to the coronavirus pandemic “is not a substitute for sustained and coordinated climate action” Taalas warned, as “[d]ue to the very long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere, the impact of the drop in emissions this year is not expected to lead to a reduction of CO2 atmospheric concentrations which are driving global temperature increases.” Taalas further stated that because the “[f]ailure to tackle climate change may threaten human well-being, ecosystems and economies for centuries, Governments should use the opportunity to embrace climate action as part of recovery programmes and ensure that we grow back better.”

Additional Items:

WHO discontinued trials for hydroxychloroquine and lapinavir/ritonavir following a recommendation from the Solidarity Trial’s International Steering Committee. Interim trials showed that these drugs “produce little or no reduction in the mortality of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.”

The U.N. Human Rights Office expressed alarm over the arrest of demonstrators in Hong Kong on July 3, following the adoption of a new security law for the region.

(Editor’s Note: Readers interested in the relationship between Hong Kong and China may want to read recent Just Security articles by David KayeAlvin Y.H. Cheung, and Martin Flaherty.)

U.N. research reveals a booming trade of fake or faulty COVID-19 related products. Executive Director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime Ghada Waly said “transnational organized crime groups take advantage of gaps in national regulation and oversight to peddle substandard and falsified medical product[s].”

The U.N.’s refugee agency called for renewed peace efforts on South Sudan’s 9th anniversary. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said “It’s crucial that South Sudan continues on the road to lasting peace. After years of conflict, the South Sudanese people deserve the chance to return to their homes, to live in safety in their communities and to focus on building a bright and prosperous future.”

The U.N. Security Council opened debate on “Peace Operations and Human Rights” on July 7. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “The UN’s peace operations are among the Organization’s most significant achievements, and a powerful tool to protect and promote human rights.”

General view during a press conference of the World Health Organization (WHO) organised by the Geneva Association of United Nations Correspondents (ACANU) amid the COVID-19 outbreak, caused by the novel coronavirus, on July 3, 2020 at the WHO headquarters in Geneva. (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)