U.N. Negotiates for Humanitarian Access in Ethiopia Crisis

On Dec. 2, United Nations (U.N.) spokesperson Stephane Dujarric announced that the Ethiopian government had agreed to allow “unimpeded, sustained and secure” humanitarian access to areas under its control in Tigray. Prior to the agreement, no aid had been allowed into the conflict zone. On Dec. 1, the U.N. had appealed to the Ethiopian government for access to Eritrean refugees in Tigray. The Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front have been fighting in the region for over a month. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory this week after his forces captured Tigray’s capital of Mekelle, but the TPLF has vowed to continue fighting.

43,000 refugees have fled Tigray for neighboring Sudan. On Nov. 27 the U.N. delivered four planes with humanitarian supplies to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. The U.N. anticipates many more refugees will arrive in Sudan. On Nov. 30, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi launched an appeal for $147 million to support Ethiopian refugees in Sudan.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called on the Ethiopian government and the TPLF to resolve the conflict peacefully. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has warned that the rhetoric of both sides was “dangerously provocative and risks placing already vulnerable and frightened civilians in grave danger.”

“Overwhelmed” U.N. Appeals for Record Increase in Humanitarian Funding

U.N. emergency relief head Mark Lowcock launched an appeal for $35 billion in funding to meet humanitarian needs in 2021. He said that 235 million people will need humanitarian next year, a record and nearly 40% more than 2020. Lowcock said the increase is “almost entirely from COVID-19” and also warned that multiple famines are looming. Lowcock underlined the severity of the situation, saying that “the picture we are presenting is the bleakest and darkest perspective on humanitarian needs in the period ahead that we have ever set out. That is a reflection of the fact that the COVID pandemic has wreaked carnage across the whole of the most fragile and vulnerable countries on the planet.”

On Dec. 3, the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) launched its appeal for 2021. UNICEF asked for $6.4 billion, a 35% increase on last year’s funding and a record appeal for a U.N. agency. Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s Executive Director, said UNICEF is facing an “unprecedented” situation and it is the “darkest of times.”

Guterres Calls for End to “War on Nature”

Secretary-General Guterres delivered a passionate speech at Columbia University on Dec. 2, describing the fight against climate change as the top priority for the 21st century. Guterres said, “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always strikes back – and it is already doing so with growing force and fury. Biodiversity is collapsing. One million species are at risk of extinction. Ecosystems are disappearing before our eyes.” Guterres called for the implementation of a price on carbon, redirecting investment away from fossil fuels, and carbon neutrality by 2050.

U.N. Experts Condemn Arrests of Egyptian Activists

On Nov. 27, U.N. experts issued a statement condemning the arrest of activists from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). The activists were arrested soon after meeting with foreign diplomats and they have been charged with terrorism and public security offenses. The experts said that “it is absolutely abhorrent to retaliate against human rights defenders from one of Egypt’s last functioning human rights NGOs, simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression by discussing Egypt’s human rights situation.” According to the experts, the arrests are part of “an escalating campaign against EIPR” and “a broader move to limit civic space and target those who operate within it.” The statement was signed by seven U.N. special rapporteurs and members of the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

On Dec. 3, three of the activists were released on bail – an unusual step that analysts attributed to the unprecedented international pressure – but all three still face terrorism charges. Another activist, who was arrested in February, has not been released.

Conflict over U.N. Human Rights Council Presidency

Bahrain announced its candidacy for the 2021 presidency of the U.N. Human Rights Council this week. The position is typically agreed by consensus, and since Fiji’s U.N. ambassador Nazhat Shameen Khan announced her candidacy several months ago no other country had announced a competitor. The position is set to be filled by a member of the Asia-Pacific bloc of countries. Bahrain is a close ally of Saudi Arabia, whose human rights record has been marred by the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and its intervention in Yemen, and in October Saudi Arabia lost its election for a council seat.

Pacific Island nations have rallied around Fiji and Saudi adversary Qatar has said it will oppose Bahrain’s candidacy. The New York Times reports that diplomats interpret Bahrain’s candidacy as part of an effort from China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia to ensure the presidency goes to a friendly state before the Biden administration takes office.

U.N. Warns Pandemic Fueling Trafficking

More than 50 U.N. independent human rights experts issued a statement warning that the pandemic is fueling sexual exploitation and trafficking. The experts noted that the socio-economic vulnerability produced by the pandemic heightens the risk of exploitation of vulnerable groups, and they called on governments to do more to protect victims. The U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) also warned that the pandemic is exacerbating gender-based violence and trafficking. Ghada Waly, Executive Director of UNODC, said that “in every part of the world, we are seeing that COVID has worsened the plight of at-risk women and girls, while also hindering criminal justice responses and reducing support to victims.”

On Dec. 1, UNHCR noted increased child trafficking in Mali. Forced labor and forced recruitment by armed groups have increased due to the pandemic and violent conflict. A UNHCR study identified 230 cases of child recruitment in Mali in just the first half of 2020, while there had been 215 cases in all of 2019.

U.N. Estimates Yemen Total Death Toll at 233,000 – Majority from Indirect Causes

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) issued an estimate that 233,000 Yemenis had been killed since the start of the civil war in 2015. OCHA estimated that 131,000 of those deaths came from indirect causes such as malnutrition or a lack of access to health care. Last month, Secretary-General Guterres warned that Yemen could face “the worst famine the world has seen for decades.” UNICEF’s humanitarian appeal for Yemen has received just $237 million – less than half – of the $535 million it requires.

U.N. Removes Cannabis from Most Dangerous Drug Category

On Dec. 2, the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs (UNCND) removed cannabis from the most restrictive control schedule under the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Cannabis had been placed in Schedule IV for 59 years, and as a result the U.N. had discouraged its use for even medical purposes. 27 countries voted in favor of the decision, while 25 voted against and one abstained.

U.N. Security Council Unlikely to Take Action on Killing of Iranian Scientist

On Nov. 27 Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, Iran’s top nuclear scientist, was assassinated near Tehran. While Iran has blamed Israel for the attack, no party has claimed responsibility. Shortly after the attack, Iran requested that the U.N. Security Council take action in response to the killing. Any of the Security Council’s fifteen members could request a meeting on the subject, but according to Jerry Matjila, South Africa’s U.N. ambassador and Security Council president for December, no member had requested to discuss Fakhrizadeh’s killing. Secretary-General Guterres has condemned “any assassination or extra-judicial killing.”

Image: Secretary-General Holds “State of the Planet” Lecture at Columbia University, Dec. 2, 2020 (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)