(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.)

UNHRC Committee Defines the Right to Peaceful Protest

The United Nations Human Rights Committee, a “body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR] by its State parties,” released an advanced unedited version of General Comment 37 on the human right to peaceful assembly on July 27 (full text here). The comment, adopted by the Committee on July 23, is notable because, according to its expert authors, assembly rights extend to digital activities; an especially notable interpretation in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Discussing the comment, committee member and rapporteur Christof Heyns stated “Generalised references to public order or public safety, or an unspecified risk of potential violence are not solid grounds for governments to prohibit peaceful assemblies,” adding that “[a]ny restriction on participation in peaceful assemblies should be based on a differentiated or individualized assessment of the conduct of participants. Blanket restrictions on participation in peaceful assemblies are not appropriate.” U.N. Special Rapporteur for the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association Clément Voule welcomed the new interpretation, saying “I am excited by this truly landmark affirmation that protection of the right to peaceful assembly extends to remote participation, including online assemblies.” As the New York Times reports, the comment directly challenges various tactics employed in the United States in efforts to quell protests demanding racial justice following multiple killings of unarmed Black victims by police officers and private citizens.

(Editor’s Note: for Just Security’s extensive coverage of General Comment 37, see here. For a transcribed interview with Christof Heyns discussing the comment, see here.)

WHO Urges Focused Coronavirus Responses to Avoid Further Lockdowns, Reminds That Young People Not Immune

World Health Organization (WHO) Head of Emergencies Dr. Mike Ryan said that to avoid re-imposing lockdowns, governments must adopt a more focused approach to preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus. “It’s very understandable that no country in the world that’s been through a lockdown wants to go back there, [as] there are huge economic and other consequences,” Ryan said. “If you can understand the dynamics of transmission and be very precise in your disease understanding you can [be] very precise in your response,” he added. WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reiterated Ryan’s call for vigilance while noting that six months have passed since WHO declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern. Tedros called on people around the world to “keep [their] distance from others, clean [their] hands, avoid crowded and enclosed areas, and wear a mask where recommended,” noting that, “[w]here these measures are followed, cases go down. Where they’re not, cases go up.”

In a subsequent press briefing on July 30, Tedros cautioned that “young people are not invincible” when it comes to the pandemic, and need to follow recommended precautions to protect both themselves and others.

(Editor’s Note: for a topical index of Just Security’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, see here)

World Bank Report Finds Trade Pact Could Boost Africa’s Income by $450 Billion

The World Bank’s Chief Economist for Africa Albert Zeufack said, while summarizing a new World Bank report, that the agreed-on African Continental Free Trade Area could “expand opportunities for all Africans” and boost regional income by $450 billion if fully implemented. The pact aims to make African countries more economically competitive by creating a single continent-wide economic market, and carries the hopes of lifting 68 million people out of moderate poverty and 30 million people out of extreme poverty by 2035. The agreement, which entered into force in May 2019, was set to be implemented by July 1 of this year, but this schedule has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

UNHCR Urges States to End Unlawful Detention of Migrants

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) called on states to urgently release unlawfully and arbitrarily detained refugees and asylum seekers to ensure they are in compliance with international law amid the COVID-19 pandemic. UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Gillian Triggs said that “[r]efugees fleeing war and persecution should not be punished or criminalized simply for exercising their fundamental human right to seek asylum.” Triggs continued to say that detaining such migrants to contain the spread of the coronavirus is ineffective and “only worsens the misery of people who have already suffered.” UNHCR notes that “some States are using the pandemic as justification to resort to increasingly regressive measures, including detaining refugees and asylum-seekers in greater numbers, for longer or arbitrary periods of time, or without access to due process,” and urges states to take immediate measures to avoid a “catastrophic outbreak of COVID-19 in a detention centre.”

(Editor’s Note: for more on migrant rights, see this Just Security article by Jaya Ramji-Nogales, this article by Lucas Guttentag, this article by Scott Roehm, and this article by Adam Cox and Cristina Rodriguez.)

Additional Items:

The U.N. Security Council extended “its sanctions regime against the Central African Republic [CAR] for one year, including an arms and ammunition embargo with some exemptions, while also renewing the mandate of its related Panel of Experts for 13 months,” according to a press release. Once available, the operative document, resolution 2536 (2020) will be available here. The Council also added six named individuals to its CAR sanctions list, pursuant to resolution 2127 (2013).

The Security Council also “extended the mandate of the [U.N.] peacekeeping force in Cyprus and called on the leaders of the two Cypriot communities to urgently work towards convergence on core issues in resolution 2537 (2020).

WHO warned that the coronavirus, unlike other respiratory diseases, does not appear to be affected by changing seasons. WHO Spokesperson Dr. Margaret Harris said “the season does not seem to be affecting the transmission of this virus … What is affecting the transmission is mass gatherings, it’s people coming together, and people not social distancing, not taking the precautions to ensure they are not in close contact.”

The U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) sounded the alarm of an impending food security crisis in Zimbabwe, estimating that drought and an economic recession largely attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic will raise the number of food insecure people in the country to 8.6 million by the end of 2020.

The U.N.-African Union Mission in Darfur called for the Sudanese Government to arrest the perpetrators of a spike in attacks against protestors, civilians, and displaced peoples. In just the latest such episode of violence, 60 people were killed and 60 injured, according to the U.N. humanitarian affairs office.

Senior U.N. officials warned the Security Council that the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, now compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, has never been worse. Officials issued a new call for an immediate national ceasefire in Yemen and called on all parties to do whatever possible to deescalate violence. Additional reporting here.

(Editor’s Note: for more on Yemen see this recent Just Security article by Scott Paul. For an analysis of Yemen’s special precarity during the pandemic due to conflict and preexisting starvation threats, see here.)

A new UNICEF report found that lead poisoning affects children on a “massive and previously unknown scale.” The report, “The Toxic Truth,” found that one third of children globally suffer from lead poisoning.

A joint U.N.-Danish Refugee Council report found that thousands of African Refugees are dying or suffering extreme human rights abuses traveling to Africa’s Mediterranean coast. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said “This report documents killings and widespread violence of the most brutal nature, perpetrated against desperate people fleeing war, violence and persecution. Strong leadership and concerted action are needed by States in the region, with support from the international community, to end these cruelties.”

German Ambassador to UN says US Demands Blocking Replacement of UNSMIL Leader, according to Reuters reporting. On July 28, Germany U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen stated that US demands to split the role of the U.N.-appointed envoy to Libya, who oversees the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), has prevented the naming of a successor to Ghassan Salame, who resigned the post on March 2, due to stress and his ill-health.

Image: Martin Griffiths (on screen), Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen, briefs the Security Council meeting on the situation in Yemen on July 28, 2020 UN Photo # 844615