Equitable Distribution of Vaccines an “Acid Test”

 On Dec. 16, the President of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Munir Akram said the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines would be an “acid test” for the international community. Akram argued that vaccines must be seen as a “global public good” accessible to everyone. Akram is also Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.N., and he said, “Certainly we as developing countries, as international actors here at the United Nations, we must press for this equity.”

Akram called on countries to support the vaccine sharing platform COVAX, and this week World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus urged countries to close the funding gap for COVAX. He said COVAX had an immediate need of $4.3 billion to support vaccines for needy countries. According to Dr. Tedros, COVAX hopes to deliver two billion doses by the end of 2021, and COVAX has currently secured one billion doses.

Dr. Bruce Aylward, senior advisor to the WHO Director-General and head of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, also urged funding for his initiative. The ACT Accelerator has a broader focus than COVAX, with the coalition overseeing the production, development, and distribution of therapeutics and diagnostics in addition to vaccines. Aylward called for $28 billion in funding. He said, “This is the best deal in town. No question. This will pay itself off within 36 hours, once we get international travel and trade mobility moving again.”

Syria Chemical Weapons Declaration “Cannot be Considered Accurate and Complete”

On Dec. 11, after several fact-finding missions in October and November were unable to make conclusive findings on the status of chemical weapons in Syria, Fernando Arias, Director-General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said that Syria’s declarations on its chemical weapons program and stockpile were insufficient. “Considering the gaps, inconsistencies and discrepancies that remain unresolved, the declaration submitted by Syria still cannot be considered accurate and complete,” he said. OPCW recently conducted Fact-Finding Missions on the alleged use of chemical weapons in Aleppo in 2018 and Saraqib in 2016. The missions said that they were unable to establish whether chemical weapons had been used with the information available to them.

On Dec. 16, U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock told the Security Council that Syrians “remain without respite after almost a decade of conflict.” Lowcock noted high levels of economic distress and food insecurity. 80% of displaced Syrian families say their income does not cover their needs and 37% of displaced mothers are malnourished. Further, while there has been limited COVID testing to assess the virus’s spread in Syria, Lowcock said that hospital beds are full with COVID patients.

Compounding Humanitarian Crises in Lebanon Leave 9 of 10 Refugee Households in Extreme Poverty

On Friday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released the preliminary results of its yearly Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon. The survey found a “sharp increase in the proportion of households living under the extreme poverty line, reaching a staggering 89 per cent in 2020, up from 55 per cent only a year before.” These households live on less than 300,000 LBP per month – at current real exchange rates, the equivalent of less than 40 USD per month. Debt levels among refugees have also increased in the last year, with many using debt to pay for essentials such as food and rent.

UNHCR and the World Bank reported on Thursday that poverty and debt among Lebanese have climbed precipitously over the last year, with the rate of poverty up 33 percent among Lebanese. Steep and unpredictable inflation, ongoing economic crisis, political uncertainty, corruption, COVID-19 infections and lost wages due to associated lockdowns, and the massive Aug. 4 explosion at the Port of Beirut have all contributed to the escalating humanitarian emergency.

Human Rights Lawyering “Effectively Criminalized” in China

U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Mary Lawlor issued a statement on Dec. 16 expressing “shock” at the treatment of human rights defenders and lawyers in China. Lawlor said “the profession of human rights lawyer has been effectively criminalized in China” since 2015, when China began using a law framed as a method of protecting national security to crack down on human rights defenders. Lawlor cited the case of human rights lawyer Chang Weiping, who was forcibly disappeared for ten days in January and whose law license was annulled. In October, he posted a video alleging he was tortured during his detention. He was detained again shortly after the video, and his whereabouts have remained unknown since his detention.

U.N. Rights Experts Express Concern with Charges for U.S. Indigenous Leader

Five U.N. Special Rapporteurs issued a statement on Tuesday expressing concern with the charges faced by Nicholas Tilsen. On July 4, Tilsen and others blocked a road to Mount Rushmore, where President Trump was holding a fireworks celebration. The protesters objected to the holding of the event without the consent of the Great Sioux Nation. A total of 15 protesters were arrested. Tilsen, a member of the Oglala-Lakhota Sioux Nation and president of the NDN Collective, is facing four felonies and three misdemeanors; an initial hearing in the case is scheduled for Dec. 18.

The Special Rapporteurs called on U.S. officials to ensure Tilsen’s due process rights are protected and voiced alarm over allegations of excessive force and intimidation by law enforcement officials in response to the protest. The Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, and the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights all signed the statement.

Guterres Calls for Declaration of Climate Emergency in All Countries

On Dec. 12, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Climate Ambition Summit that all countries should declare a climate emergency. Guterres asked, “Can anybody still deny that we are facing a dramatic emergency?” 38 countries have already declared a climate emergency. Guterres also said it was “unacceptable” that G20 countries have invested more in fossil fuels than in low-carbon energy in their COVID recovery packages.

On Dec. 15, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) issued its annual Human Development Report, declaring that people and the planet are on a “collision course.” The report argues that humans have entered the “Age of the Anthropocene.” According to UNDP administrator Achim Steiner, this means that “we are the first people to live in an age defined by human choice, in which the dominant risk to our survival is ourselves.” The report introduced a new Planetary Pressures-Adjusted Human Development Index to take into account each country’s environmental impacts.

Libyan Ceasefire and Peace Talks Spur Economic Activity

On Dec. 14 and 15, representatives of Libyan civil society, economic institutions, and opposing parties met in Geneva to continue negotiations over a political resolution to the country’s nine-year conflict. The meeting came two months after a ceasefire and amid tentative signs of economic recovery. The head of the U.N. Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Stephanie Williams, noted that “This meeting here in Geneva is taking place in the context of some positive developments on the economic track, including the full resumption of oil production.”  Revenues from oil production will be crucial for rebuilding the country, but reaching consensus on their distribution will present challenges for the negotiating parties.

In another positive sign, the Board of Directors of Libya’s central bank met on Wednesday for the first time in five years and agreed to unify the country’s currency exchange rate, which is expected to help stabilize the currency and reduce opportunities for corruption.

Guterres and UNICEF Call for Release of Children Abducted by Boko Haram

Secretary-General Guterres and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) both called for the immediate release of the Nigerian children recently abducted by Boko Haram. On Dec. 11, gunmen attacked the all-boys Government Science Secondary School in Kankara. More than three hundred children were declared missing. On Dec. 16, the Nigerian government announced that 17 of the children had been rescued but two students were killed in the operation. At least 344 of the abducted children were returned to authorities on Thursday night, to the jubilation and relief of their parents, but the total number of children initially abducted is not known; it is therefore not clear whether all have been returned.

On Dec. 15, the U.N. expressed concern for the safety of refugees and internally displaced people in Niger. Toumour, a town near the Nigerian border hosting 30,000 refugees and displaced people, was attacked by Boko Haram militants on Dec. 12, killing 28 people and burning down much of the town. Many of the refugees and displaced people have fled Toumour for Diffa, a town about 100 kilometers away that is already hosting about 46,000 refugees and displaced people.

Special Rapporteurs Call for Independent Investigation into Killing of Palestinian Child

On Thursday, two Special Rapporteurs issued a statement condemning the killing of a child at a protest in the occupied West Bank: “The killing of Ali Ayman Abu Aliya by the Israeli Defense Forces – in circumstances where there was no threat of death or serious injury to the Israeli Security Forces – is a grave violation of international law.” The 15-year-old child was shot in the stomach by an Israeli soldier on Dec. 4, and died in the hospital. He is the sixth Palestinian child killed by Israeli soldiers in 2020 and among more than 1,000 who have been injured this year, according to the U.N.

The U.N.’s Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) indicated that the protestors had thrown stones at the Israeli forces; the Special Rapporteurs said in their statement that they were “unaware of any claims that the Israeli security forces were in danger at any point of death or serious injury.” Israel has announced that it would launch an investigation into the killing, but the Special Rapporteurs noted that such investigations have rarely yielded charges or discipline: “This low level of legal accountability for the killings of so many children by Israeli security forces is unworthy of a country which proclaims that it lives by the rule of law.” The experts called for either an independent, transparent civilian investigation by Israel or an international investigation.

The statement was attributed to Agnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions; and to Michael Lynk, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967.

Image: On Dec. 16, Security Council members hold a videoconference in connection with the Middle East (Syria). (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)