EU, UN Conduct Brussels V Pledging Conference on Syria Crisis; Secretary of State Blinken Urges Security Council to Increase Humanitarian Access in Syria

On March 29-30, the European Union (E.U.) and United Nations (U.N.) co-hosted the fifth annual Brussels Conference, the main pledging event through which international contributions to the ongoing Syria crisis are announced and through which civil society can engage with donors. Ahead of the conference, U.N. agencies calculated that they would require over $10 billion (or €8.5 billion) to address the urgent humanitarian needs inside Syria and neighboring countries. However, the pledging conference generated only $6.4 billion (€5.3 billion) in pledges, including just over $500 million from the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken chaired a Security Council session on Monday and urged the Council to reopen two Syrian border crossings – access to which has been closed since Russia blocked their reauthorization by the Security Council last year –  to deliver aid to the people. At present, cross-border aid can only be delivered through one crossing. Blinken expressed frustration with the international community’s continued failure to resolve the Syrian crisis.  Addressing the Russian government’s sovereignty-based objections to expanding cross-border aid, Blinken said that “sovereignty was never intended to ensure the right of any government to starve people, deprive them of life-saving medicine, bomb hospitals or commit any other human rights abuse against citizens.”

MINUSMA Investigation Concludes French Airstrike Killed Mali Civilians

An investigation by the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) into a Jan. 3 airstrike by the French military in the Malian village of Bounty concluded that the strike hit a wedding group largely made up of civilians. The group included five armed individuals thought to be members of Katiba Serma, an al-Qaeda affiliated group, three of whom were killed in the strike. However, nineteen civilians were also killed in the attack. The investigation was launched after village residents and human rights observers raised doubts  about French military claims that their fighter planes killed 30 Islamist fighters. MINUSMA recommends that the Malian and French authorities conduct a further investigation into the circumstances of the strike and possible violations of international law.

COVID-19: Vaccination Successes, Calls for an International Treaty, and WHO Report

As of Mar. 26, the U.N. COVAX program had administered over 32 million doses to 61 countries in a month. The first shipment of COVAX vaccines arrived in Yemen on Wednesday, a critical step in protecting some of the most at risk populations.

India donated 200,000 AstraZeneca vaccines to protect U.N. Peacekeepers, an act that received strong support and appreciation from U.N. officials. However, India is also in talks with COVAX to resolve shortages in supplies from Indian vaccine manufacturers as COVID-19 cases increase within the subcontinent.

Johnson & Johnson agreed to provide the African Union (AU) with up to 400 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine beginning in the third quarter. The single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine both offers protection against the dominant variant and is easier to rollout than its counterparts.

On Tuesday March 30, 26 world leaders and the World Health Organization (WHO) signed a letter calling for the creation of an international treaty that would strengthen “national, regional and global capacities and resilience to future pandemics” by improving, for example, “alert systems, data-sharing, research, and local, regional and global production and distribution of medical and public health counter measures, such as vaccines, medicines, diagnostics and personal protective equipment.”

The WHO also published a report on Tuesday examining how COVID-19 spread to humans. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus stated the report was a “very important beginning,” but there was still work to be done. The report concluded that a laboratory origin for the virus was unlikely, and that the most likely source was a mutation of a coronavirus, possibly in bats or pangolin, that infected another intermediary mammal before spreading to humans.

UN Human Rights Experts and Secretary-General Guterres Address Chinese Treatment of Uyghur Muslims

Independent U.N. human rights experts urged companies to consider their supply chains amid allegations implicating a number of global brands using factories that exploit Uyghurs in China. In an interview on Sunday, Secretary-General Guterres said that negotiations between the U.N. and China are underway to allow a visit “without restrictions or limitations,” a mission for which the Chinese government has reportedly voiced support.

Myanmar Military Escalates Violence Despite Calls to from UN to Halt Human Rights Violations

Over the past week, the Myanmar military repeatedly targeted the civilian population. On Saturday alone, the military killed over one hundred individuals, including children, making it the bloodiest day since the start of the coup. On Sunday, Secretary-General António Guterres, Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Alice Wairimu Nderitu, and High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet each strongly condemned the violence. U.N. Special Envoy Christine Burgener raised concerns that the military would continue its violence, warning that a “bloodbath is imminent.”

UN Agencies Increase Aid as Fire Devastates Rohingya Refugee Camp in Bangladesh

A fire in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh killed at least 11, with hundreds missing and many others presumed dead. Satellite imagery reveals that roughly 250 acres have been burned, destroying schools, hospitals, and food and aid distribution centers. The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) made its top priority addressing immediate needs of families, including providing prepared food for those whose access to cooking facilities was destroyed as well as ensuring access to cash aid. The U.N. International Organization for Migration (IOM) and U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) also increased response and supplied mental health teams to the refugees who have now lost everything.

UN Independent Rights Experts Troubled by Close Relationship Between Private Military, Foreign Contractors, and UN Peacekeepers

U.N. independent experts are concerned about the “interconnected roles” of certain private military contractors in the Central African Republic, including Sewa Security Services, Russian-owned Lobaye Invest SARLU, and the Wagner Group, noting reports that attribute grave human rights abuses to these private military personnel and U.N. peacekeepers. The experts have called for governments and international partners to respect their obligations under international law and hold perpetrators accountable.

Eritrean Refugee Camps Destroyed in Tigray

Last week, U.N. aid teams finally reached two Eritrean refugee camps in Tigray for the first time since the start of the fighting in November. They confirmed reports from satellites and refugees stating that the camps have been destroyed and the occupants “scattered.” The UNHCR and the Ethiopian Agency for Refugees and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) will be examining whether and how they can provide aid.

UN Human Rights Experts Express Concern Over Multi-Billion Dollar Indonesian Tourist Project

A group of U.N. human rights experts and Special Rapporteurs signed a statement raising concern over the Indonesian government’s multi-billion-dollar tourism project that has forcibly displaced locals and indigenous people. The experts also criticized the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), private companies and their home nations, and the Indonesian Tourism Development Corporation for not conducting due diligence on mitigating human rights impacts, as per obligations in the U.N. Guiding Principles on business and human rights.

Image: EU High Representative and Foreign Minister Josep Borrell Fontelles addresses the ministerial portion of the Brussels V Conference, March 30, 2021 (Photo credit: Lukasz Kobus/European Commission).