Ethiopia’s Forces Fire On, Detain U.N. Personnel; UNHCR Voices Alarm 

Ethiopia’s security forces shot at and detained U.N. staffers as they tried to reach part of the embattled Tigray region on Sunday. The U.N. staffers were assessing civilian infrastructure, an essential step before aid convoys are sent in. Ethiopia’s government has confirmed that federal troops fired at U.N. staff: a spokesman for Ethiopia’s task force in Tigray stated Tuesday that the U.N. workers were attempting to gain access to areas “they were not supposed to go” adding that, “they indulged themselves in a kind of adventurous expedition.” The staffers have since been released.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric called the government’s statements “alarming” and said U.N. officials “are engaging at the highest level with the federal government to express our concerns and avoid any such incidents in the future.” The incident comes in the midst of ongoing conflict, which began with a November 4 ground and air offensive against the People’s Liberation Front in the Tigray region. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s office has pledged to work with the U.N. to expand humanitarian access under “a well-coordinated framework led by the federal government.”

On Dec. 11, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi issued a statement of alarm about the situation of refugees and displaced people in the Tigray region – particularly Eritrean refugees who have been caught in the crossfire.  He stated, “Over the last month we have received an overwhelming number of disturbing reports of Eritrean refugees in Tigray being killed, abducted and forcibly returned to Eritrea. If confirmed, these actions would constitute a major violation of international law.”

U.N Experts Concerned by Terrorism Trial of Al-Hathloul, Call for Her Release

The Chair and Vice Chair of the U.N. Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls called for the immediate release of human rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul, whose trial before Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Terrorism Court began on Thursday. Al-Hathloul is an influential human rights activist advocating for the expansion of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, including the right to drive and to be free of male guardianship laws. She was arrested in 2018 and accused of breaching cybercrime restrictions, charges which many – including the U.N. experts in their statement Thursday – have described as “spurious.” The transfer of her case to the terrorism court in November raised alarm, given the nature of the charges and the court’s reputation for “issuing lengthy prison sentences following seriously flawed trials,” according to Amnesty International.

During her detention for the last two years, Al-Hathloul has not been allowed regular access to counsel or contact with her family, and has been subjected to abusive conditions of detention, according to the U.N. statement. In October 2020, she began a hunger strike to protest these conditions, but was forced to suspend the strike due to intense pressure – including sustained sleep deprivation – from authorities.

The U.N. Special Rapporteurs on the situation of Human Rights Defenders, on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association joined the Chair’s statement.

See further statement of the Special Rapporteurs on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism and on the situation of Human Rights Defenders on Just Security, here.

Sudan at “Critical Juncture” in Democratic Transition

U.N. political affairs chief Rosemary DiCarlo told a virtual meeting of the Security Council on Tuesday that “Sudan is at a critical juncture … It is incumbent on all of us to support Sudan in its efforts to achieve democratic governance, economic prosperity and an inclusive society for all Sudanese.”

It has been nearly two years since the start of the Sudanese Revolution, which led to the overthrow of long-time leader, Omar Al-Bashir, in April 2019. A military-civilian body has ruled the country since then, pending elections. DiCarlo expressed concern over the growing impact of COVID-19 which has “further aggravated the humanitarian needs” which she noted were exacerbated by “severe flooding, intercommunal violence and prolonged displacement.” DiCarlo concluded her statements by noting the additional strain being put on Sudanese authorities due to the Tigray conflict which has resulted in over 48,000 people fleeing Ethiopia to Sudan.

Planet Heading for Global Temperature Rise Exceeding 3 Degrees C

The United Nation’s Environment Programme (UNEP)’s Emissions Gap Report 2020, released on Wednesday, urges investment in climate action as part of the COVID-19 recovery. Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director commented on Wednesday that a green recovery from COVID-19 can take “a huge slice out of greenhouse gas emissions.” The report urged Member States to take measures such as supporting zero-emissions technologies and infrastructure, reducing fossil fuel subsidies, stopping new coal plants, and promoting nature-based solutions – including large-scale landscape restoration and reforestation.

Secretary-General Highlights the Warnings Signs of Atrocities, Genocide

Guterres noted that victims of genocide and atrocities are often “early targets of hate speech, discrimination, [and] violence.” He called on social media platforms, technology companies, and social leaders to combat these warning signs, and urged governments to “guarantee civic space for human rights institutions and defenders…” and to protect the rights of the most vulnerable. The prevention of genocide is “foundational to the United Nations,” he added, noting that “victims have rights to truth, justice, reparation, and a comprehensive package of guarantees of non-recurrence.”

See further Just Security coverage of warnings signs of atrocity here.

U.N. Celebrates Human Rights Day

On Dec. 10, the United Nations (U.N.) marked the anniversary of the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the U.N. General Assembly. The theme for 2020’s Human Rights Day is “Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights,” and U.N. officials used the occasion to call for a focus on human rights as the world battles and eventually recovers from COVID-19. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for “universal, rights-based frameworks like health coverage for all, to beat this pandemic and protect us for the future.”

Image: Ethiopian refugees who fled the Tigray conflict, wait to fill their jerrycans with water at Um Raquba reception camp in Sudan’s eastern Gedaref state on December 3, 2020. – More than 45,000 people have escaped from northern Ethiopia since November 4, after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered military operations against leaders of Tigray’s ruling party in response to its alleged attacks on federal army camps.  (Photo by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)