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Syria: UN-backed task force seeks aid access to besieged areas ‘without delay’

A boy drinks the remaining water in his jerrycan while waiting with other children in a queue for safe water in the town of Douma in the East Ghouta area of Rural Damascus, Syria. Photo: UNICEF/Bassam Khabieh

12 February 2016 – Following agreement late yesterday by diplomats meeting in Munich as part of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) to work with Syrian parties to implement a nationwide cessation of hostilities, a United Nations-backed task force met today on quickly delivering aid to besieged towns and war-weary civilians in hard to reach areas across the country.

The task force held its initial meeting at the UN headquarters in Geneva less than 24 hours after it was by the ISSG, the group that has been working since November to secure a broader ceasefire and Syrian political negotiations and is comprised of the Arab League, the European Union, the United Nations, and 17 countries, including the United States and Russia. Late yesterday, it agreed on two key steps forward: a cessation of hostilities in Syria and establishing a humanitarian task force.

According to the ISSG agreement, “to accelerate the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid, sustained delivery of assistance shall begin this week” in seven besieged areas inside Syria, including the town of Madaya, which drew worldwide attention recently after UN and Red Cross relief workers reported people starving to death or being killed trying to flee.

Today, chairing the regular bi-weekly press briefing in Geneva, Ahmed Fawzi, interim Director of the UN Information Service in the Swiss city, said the first meeting of the task force on humanitarian access in Syria would take place today and would include the ISSG co-Chairs, relevant UN entities, and members of the ISSG with influence on the parties to the conflict.

The UN system, particularly the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), would be organizing and the meeting, and representatives of the UN system in Damascus would participate through video-conference, he explained.

“The UN system has been geared to deliver this aid all along, especially to besieged areas, and that’s precisely what’s going to be discussed today: how to start, and when to start,” said Mr. Fawzi, responding to questions, adding: “We hope to start as early as tomorrow, immediately after the meeting, decisions will be taken to roll the aid in, especially to besieged areas that need it.”

Later in the day, a statement issued by a spokesperson for Steffan de Mistura, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, said the meeting had been chaired by his Senior Advisor Jan Egeland. The purpose of this initial meeting was to agree on how the task force and its members could ensure that immediate access is granted to the civilian populations in besieged and hard to reach areas in line with the agreement reached by the ISSG at Munich.

The statement said that in order to accelerate the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid, sustained delivery of assistance is expected to begin this week to besieged areas where civilians are in desperate need of assistance. Humanitarian access to these most urgent areas will be a first step toward full, sustained, and unimpeded access throughout the country.

“Once we get clearance by concerned parties, the UN and its humanitarian partners will be able to reach the civilians in need within the coming days,” Mr. de Mistura said. “Next week, we plan to have a second meeting of this task force, in order to assess the progress made, and maintain the pressure for incremental and unimpeded aid deliveries,” he explained.

According to the statement, Mr. Egeland, who is the Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council and formerly head of UN OCHA, said that humanitarian actors had already submitted requests for access to the parties surrounding besieged areas. “We expect to get such access without delay. Finally, the civilians who have been deprived of their basic right of humanitarian access for so long, will have hope,” he added. “Let us not fail them.”

Separately, Stephen O’Brien, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, statement welcomed news that the members of the ISSG agreed to a cessation of hostilities in Syria and he urged the parties to the conflict to ensure full, sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access, including to besieged and hard-to-reach areas, in accordance with their obligations under international humanitarian law.

“The people of Syria – in Aleppo, Madaya, Foah and Kefraya, Deir ez-Zor and elsewhere – need an end to the brutal violence and bombing, the sieges, denial of free movement, food and medical care,” he said, emphasizing that the United Nations and its partners need safe, sustained access for humanitarian workers throughout the country.

He went on to stress that the UN remains committed and ready to deliver aid and protection for civilians in desperate need, whoever and wherever they are. “Above all we need to see meaningful action on the ground, so that Syrians and their neighbours can start to rebuild their lives and their country,” he concluded.

Afghan casualties hit record high 11,000 in 2015 – UN report

The Taliban has taken territory in Khanabad district in the Afghanistan province of Kunduz on the other side of a bridge pictured here in August 2015. Photo: Bethany Matta/IRIN

14 February 2016 – The United Nations reported today that Afghan hostilities in 2015 left more than 3,500 civilians dead, including an unprecedented number of children – one in four casualties over the past year was a child – and nearly 7,500 others wounded, making this the highest number of civilian casualties recorded.

“This report records yet another rise in the number of civilians hurt or killed. The harm done to civilians is totally unacceptable,” said Nicholas Haysom, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and head of the UN Assistance Mission in the country (UNAMA), in a press release.

The annual report, produced by the UNAMA in coordination with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Office (OHCHR), shows that increased ground fighting in and around populated areas, along with suicide and other attacks in major cities, were the main causes of conflict-related civilian deaths and injuries in 2015.

“We call on those inflicting this pain on the people of Afghanistan to take concrete action to protect civilians and put a stop to the killing and maiming of civilians in 2016,” stressed Mr. Haysom.

UNAMA documented 11,002 civilian casualties (3,545 deaths and 7,457 injured) in 2015, exceeding the previous record levels of civilian casualties that occurred in 2014. The latest figures show an overall increase of four per cent during 2015 in total civilian casualties from the previous year. UNAMA began its systematic documentation of civilian casualties in 2009.

At a press conference today in Kabul, Mr. Haysom told reporters that while the figures in themselves are “awful,” the statistics and percentages contained in the report do not really reflect the real horror of the phenomenon.

“The real cost we are talking about in these figures is measured in the maimed bodies of children, the communities who have to live with loss, the grief of colleagues and relatives, the families who have to make do without a breadwinner, the parents who grieve for lost children, the children who grieve for lost parents […] these are the real consequences of the acts described in this report,” he emphasized.

According the report, ground engagements between parties to the conflict caused the highest number of total civilian casualties (fatalities and injuries), followed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide and complex attacks. Ground engagements caused the most fatalities among civilians, followed by targeted and deliberate killings.

“The people of Afghanistan continue to suffer brutal and unprincipled attacks that are forbidden under international law,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in the press release, adding that this is happening with almost complete impunity.

“The perpetrators of the violations, documented by UNAMA and my staff, must be held to account,” Mr. Zeid underscored, adding that the international community should emphasize far more vigorously that the rights of civilians should be protected.

Some of the report’s other key findings highlight that anti-Government elements continued to cause the most harm – 62 per cent of all civilian casualties – despite a 10 per cent reduction from 2014 in the total civilian casualties resulting from their attacks.

Notwithstanding the overall decrease, the report documents anti-Government elements increasing use of some tactics that deliberately or indiscriminately cause civilian harm, including targeted killings of civilians, complex and suicide attacks, as well as indiscriminate and illegal pressure-plate IEDs.

Civilian deaths and injuries caused by pro-Government forces caused 17 per cent of civilian casualties – 14 per cent from Afghan security forces, two per cent from international military forces, and one per cent from pro-Government armed groups. The report documents increased civilian casualties caused by pro-Government forces, including during ground engagements, aerial operations, and the activities of pro-Government armed groups.

In 2015, UNAMA documented a 37 per cent increase in women casualties and a 14 per cent increase in child casualties.

“In 2015, the conflict caused extreme harm to the civilian population, with particularly appalling consequences for children. Unprecedented numbers of children were needlessly killed and injured last year – one in four casualties in 2015 was a child,” said Danielle Bell, UNAMA Director of Human Rights. “Other children suffered the loss of parents, and increasingly their mothers, sisters, and female role models – one in 10 casualties was a woman.”



 

Engagement with communities can help address factors underlying violent extremism – UN chief

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. UN Photo/Mark Garten (file)

 

13 February 2016 – Fully understanding those who might be susceptible to poisonous ideologies – addressing root causes of radicalization and helping individuals and communities before problems escalate – will assist the international community in developing effective, dignified and rights-based responses to “one of the gravest threats our world faces,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today.

“We must understand what motivates those we suspect are vulnerable to narratives promoting violent extremism and deepen our knowledge of the conditions that lead to their vulnerability,” said Mr. Ban in Montréal, Canada, during a visit at the Centre for Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence, which he praised for its “compassionate and effective.”

“The focus on preventing violent extremism is critical. This is one of the gravest threats in our world today – and it demands innovative, effective and dignified responses,” said the UN chief, reiterating his interest in the Centre’s approach, which he said focused on helping individuals and families before the problems escalate.

Noting that he has made the prevention of violent extremism a new priority for the UN, the Secretary-General recalled that he presented a new Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism last month to the General Assembly that stresses the importance of addressing the drivers of violent extremism.

“The Plan proposes an ‘All-of-Government’ and ‘All-of-Society approach,’ he said, emphasizing: “We must break down the silos between the peace and security, sustainable development, human rights and humanitarian actors at all levels – including at the United Nations.”

Mr. Ban also urged engaging all sectors of society – religious leaders, women leaders, youth groups, leaders in the arts, music and sports, as well as the media and private sector.

“Understanding these phenomena is not the same as justifying them – and it allows us to develop effective preventive responses,” he stressed, adding that: “When we engage directly with communities, we can greatly contribute to addressing the underlying causes of violent extremism that can lead to terrorism.”

The UN chief also noted that local initiatives can rebuild trust between governments and communities. “You can help promote human rights and heal broken societies,” he told those gathered at the Centre, underscoring that: “When we put human rights at the centre of our response to violent extremism, we can succeed in opening a safer and more stable future for all.”

“Your local efforts are helping us to forge a global response that tackles the problems we face in a principled, participatory and comprehensive manner. These strong partnerships will generate success,” the Secretary-general concluded.

Ahead of polls, Ban calls on all Central Africans, including candidates, to ensure credible elections

Voters in the Central African Republic (CAR) went to the polls on 30 December 2015. Photo: MINUSCA

13 February 2016 – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on all Central Africans, including the candidates, to ensure that the presidential run-off and the new round of legislative elections, set to take place Sunday are conducted in a peaceful and credible manner.

In a statement issued by his spokesperson in New York, Mr. Ban commended Transitional Authorities of the Central African Republic (CAR) for their efforts to complete the transition process by 31 March 2016.

“Sunday’s polls will bring the country closer to the end of the transition and a return to constitutional order. These are important steps towards political stability and long-term economic recovery,” said the statement.

Recalling the significant support provided by the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the country (MINUSCA) to the electoral process the UN chief reiterated the Mission’s determination to take all necessary measures to prevent any disruption of Sunday’s polls.

“The Secretary-General calls on all stakeholders to maintain an environment conducive to peaceful and credible elections, in keeping with the spirit of the Code of Conduct signed by the candidates and political parties,” said Mr. Ban in the statement, urging all parties to resolve any dispute that may arise from the elections through established legal channels.

“Those who instigate or perpetrate acts of violence will be held accountable,” the statement emphasized.

Mr. Ban went on to reaffirm the unwavering commitment of the United Nations, working closely with the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the African Union (AU) and other members of the international community, to help the people of the CAR advance towards a future of peace, stability and reconciliation.

Source: United Nations

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Karl William

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United Nations Section

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Robert Williams

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