Ethiopian, Eritrean Troops Behind Possible ‘War Crimes’ In Tigray: UN

People gather to mourn the victims of a massacre allegedly perpetrated by Eritrean Soldiers in the village of Dengolat, North of Mekele, the capital of Tigray on February 26, 2021. 
EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP

 

The UN rights chief said Thursday that her office had corroborated grave violations that could amount to “war crimes and crimes against humanity” in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, including by Eritrean troops.

Michelle Bachelet stressed in a statement the urgent need for an independent investigation into the situation in Tigray, which has been rocked by months of fighting.

Her office had “managed to corroborate information about some of the incidents that occurred in November last year, indicating indiscriminate shelling in Mekelle, Humera and Adigrat towns in Tigray region”.

It had also verified “reports of grave human rights violations and abuses including mass killings in Axum, and in Dengelat in central Tigray by Eritrean armed forces”, it said.

A preliminary analysis of the information indicated that “serious violations of international law, possibly amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, may have been committed by multiple actors in the conflict”, the statement warned.

Those actors included the Ethiopian National Defence Forces, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Eritrean armed forces, and Amhara Regional Forces and affiliated militia, it said.

“With multiple actors in the conflict, blanket denials and finger-pointing, there is a clear need for an objective, independent assessment of these reports,” Bachelet said.

 

Women mourn the victims of a massacre allegedly perpetrated by Eritrean Soldiers in the village of Dengolat, North of Mekele, the capital of Tigray on February 26, 2021.
EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP

– ‘Deeply distressing’ –

She urged the Ethiopian government to grant her office and other United Nations investigators access to Tigray “with a view to establishing the facts and contributing to accountability, regardless of the affiliation of perpetrators”.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights pointed out that her office was continuing to receive information of ongoing fighting in central Tigray in particular.

She lamented “deeply distressing reports of sexual and gender-based violence, extrajudicial killings, widespread destruction and looting of public and private property by all parties”.

“Without prompt, impartial and transparent investigations and holding those responsible accountable, I fear violations will continue to be committed with impunity, and the situation will remain volatile for a long time to come,” she said.

Bachelet also voiced concern at the detentions this week in Tigray of journalists and translators working for local and international media, including AFP.

While they had been released, she pointed to worrying remarks by a government official that those responsible for “misleading international media” would be held responsible.

“Victims and witnesses of human rights violations and abuses must not be hindered from sharing their testimony for fear of reprisals,” she said.

Tigray has been gripped by fighting since early November 2020, when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced military operations against the TPLF, accusing them of attacking federal army camps.

Abiy — who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 — declared victory after pro-government troops took the regional capital Mekele in late November, although the TPLF vowed to fight on, and clashes have persisted in the region.

The presence of Eritrean troops in the Tigray conflict has been widely documented but has been denied by both countries.

-AFP

Boko Haram ‘Directly Targeted’ Aid Facilities In Borno, Says UN

A  file photo of United Nations taken on September 5, 2018,  (Photo by HAZEM BADER / AFP)

 

The United Nations on Tuesday said an attack by Boko Haram insurgents on the northeastern Nigerian town of Dikwa in Borno State had “directly targeted” aid facilities.

“The attack started last night and, as information is still coming through, I am outraged to hear the premises of several aid agencies and a hospital were reportedly set ablaze or sustained damage,” the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Nigeria, Edward Kallon, said in a statement.

“This violent attack will affect the support provided to nearly 100,000 people who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance and protection,” he said.

The Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) group, which split from mainstream Boko Haram in 2016, is suspected to be behind the attack.

The government and the army have yet to comment.

President Muhammadu Buhari reshuffled the military command this year, raising hopes of a shift in strategy to end a 12-year-old conflict that has killed 36,000 people and forced around two million to flee their homes.

Boko Haram insurgents on Tuesday attacked Dikwa Local Government Area of Borno State and abducted at least seven aid workers.

The insurgents during the attack also burnt the offices of the aid workers, destroyed government facilities, and hospitals belonging to NGOs.

An eyewitness told Channels Television that the insurgents stormed the town at 5:30 pm on Monday evening, and have since been in control of the town.

The eyewitness said troops have been battling to dislodge the town throughout the night.

COVID-19: UN Seeks $266million To Feed Refugees In East Africa

In this file photograph taken on September 5, 2018, Palestinian school children raise the victory gesture over a UN flag during a protest at a United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school, financed by US aid, in the Arroub refugee camp near Hebron in the occupied West Bank. – The United Nations said on June 18, 2020, that it was resuming resettlement travel for refugees, which was suspended in March due to the coronavirus crisis, delaying departures for some 10,000 refugees. (Photo by HAZEM BADER / AFP)

 

The United Nations launched an appeal on Tuesday for $266 million (221 million euros) to help feed more than three million refugees and asylum seekers across East Africa, suffering extra hardship because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lockdowns and other measures to contain the contagion have made it more difficult for refugees to get food or earn money said the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in a joint statement.

“We’ve never had such a terrible funding situation for refugees,” said WFP’s regional director for East Africa, Michael Dunford, adding that $266 million was needed for the next six months just to cover refugees’ minimum needs.

The UNHCR estimates almost three-quarters of some 4.7 million refugees living in the 11 countries where it works in the region do not have enough to eat.

“The pandemic has been devastating for everyone, but for refugees even more so,” said UNHCR’s Clementine Nkweta-Salami. “Unless more funds are made available, thousands of refugees including children will not have enough to eat.”

She said refugees faced with food rationing and cash cuts are already turning to “negative coping strategies” including skipping meals, selling assets, child labour and increased domestic violence.

“There is often a desperation and a feeling of no alternative,” she said.

The funding shortfall has led the WFP to slash its monthly assistance for refugees by more than half in Rwanda, and make big cuts in countries including Uganda, Kenya, and South Sudan.

“We are deeply concerned that if cuts continue, (refugees) will be faced with a very difficult decision: stay in the camps where food and nutrition security is deteriorating or consider risking going back when it is unsafe,” Dunford said.

UN Experts Urge Global Probe Of Navalny Poisoning

In this file photo, The United Nations flag is seen during the Climate Action Summit 2019 at the United Nations General Assembly Hall on September 23, 2019, in New York City. Ludovic MARIN / AFP.

 

Two UN human rights experts called Monday for an international investigation into the poisoning of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, and demanded his “immediate release” from a Russian penal colony.

Agnes Callamard, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, and Irene Khan, the top expert on freedom of opinion and expression, stressed the importance of finding the truth about the “sinister poisoning” and ensuring accountability.

President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent was sentenced last month to two-and-a-half years in a penal colony for violating parole terms while in Germany recovering from a poisoning attack.

He spent months recovering from the near fatal poisoning with the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok that he claims was ordered by Putin — a claim the Kremlin has repeatedly denied.

“We believe that poisoning Mr. Navalny with Novichok might have been deliberately carried out to send a clear, sinister warning that this would be the fate of anyone who would criticise and oppose the government,” said the independent UN experts, who are appointed by the UN but do not speak on its behalf.

“Novichok was precisely chosen to cause fear,” they insisted.

The two experts said they had sent a letter to Russian authorities last December, in which they had detailed evidence pointing to “the very likely involvement of government officials in the poisoning, presumably at high level,” but said the Kremlin had yet to respond.

The experts said the attack against Navalny appeared to fall within a wider trend seen over decades of arbitrary killings and attempted killings of government critics.

“This pattern requires an emphatic and persistent response by the international community to protect the fundamental rights to life and freedom of expression at the foundation of international human rights,” they said.

The experts said they and others had for months been demanding that Moscow ensure that a “credible, transparent investigation, respecting international standard, would be conducted,” and that the findings be made public.

They deplored that to date, the government had not seriously investigated the crime.

“Given the inadequate response of the domestic authorities, the use of prohibited chemical weapons, and the apparent pattern of attempted targeted killings, we believe that an international investigation should be carried out as a matter of urgency in order to establish the facts and clarify all the circumstances concerning Mr. Navalny’s poisoning,” they insisted.

“This investigation is especially critical now that Mr. Navalny is being detained by the Russian government and is subject to its control,” they said.

The experts demanded “Navalny’s immediate release,” stressing that the Russian government was responsible for his “care and protection” and would “be held responsible for any harm that may befall him.”

AFP

Investing More In Young People Will Help Fight Insecurity – Amina Mohammed

 

The Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mrs Amina Mohammed has asked the Federal Government to increase investments in young people as a means to tackling insecurity.

Speaking during a courtesy visit to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Geoffrey Onyeama, Mrs Mohammed noted that young people and Nigerians, in general, should be given something to look forward to in order to make contributions to the growth of the country.

She added that the investment should be in areas such as skills development, education and services that strengthen governance at the local level.

UN Seeks Better Protection For Digital Platform Workers

 A logo of the United Nations  (Photo by HAZEM BADER / AFP)

 

The United Nations called Tuesday for urgent international regulations ensuring fair conditions for workers paid via digital platforms such as food delivery apps — a form of employment that has rocketed during the pandemic.

The number of online platforms offering work has grown five-fold over the last decade, according to a report released by the International Labour Organization (ILO), a UN agency.

They range from taxi-booking apps to services connecting customers with a plumber or a freelance website developer.

And the shift to finding work via such platforms has accelerated during the pandemic, due to soaring job losses and increasing demand for home deliveries in countries where restaurants and retail have been shut.

“Since the Covid‑19 outbreak, the labour supply on platforms has increased significantly,” the ILO said.

The increased competition was in some cases forcing workers to accept less money per job than before, it added.

And some sectors heavily reliant on online platforms, such as ride-hailing, have seen a drop in business, causing difficulties for drivers not receiving a regular salary.

A survey of taxi drivers in Chile, India, Kenya and Mexico found that nine out of 10 had lost earnings due to Covid, some having to take out loans or defer bill payments to get by.

“Seven out of 10 workers indicated not being able to take paid sick leave, or to receive compensation, in the event they were to test positive for the virus,” the report said.

– More opportunities for women –
The report also highlighted some of the upsides of the rise of digital labour platforms, for companies and workers alike.

The shift has given businesses access to a large flexible workforce with varied skills, while providing new opportunities for some demographics including women, people with disabilities and the young, it said.

These workers however have only limited protections because they are beholden to the platforms’ terms of service agreements — which are often unilaterally determined.

Workers employed via digital platforms frequently faced limits on access to their basic labour rights, ILO director-general Guy Ryder told journalists.

That included “the right to organise, freedom of association, and the right to bargain collectively”, he added.

Working hours can often be long and unpredictable, while workers sometimes have to pay a commission to work for a platform, the report noted.

And part of those working hours go unpaid, said ILO economist Uma Rani Amara — such as the time spent driving around looking for a customer on a ride-hailing app.

Worldwide, the average hourly income for people working via digital labour platforms is no more than $3.40 per hour, according surveys of some 12,000 workers and 85 businesses included in the report.

Half of online workers earn less than $2.10 per hour, it added.

– Common solutions ‘crucial’ –
In recent years, pressure has been growing on online giants to better protect the workers who rely on them to make a living in precarious conditions.

Last week, Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that drivers for US ride-hailing app Uber are entitled to rights such as a minimum wage and paid vacation — a judgement with huge implications for the so-called “gig economy”.

The ILO called for international cooperation to regulate digital labour platforms. National solutions were not enough because the companies operate in multiple jurisdictions, it argued.

“The only way to effectively protect workers and businesses is a coherent and coordinated international effort,” Ryder said.

“Universal labour standards are, and must be, applicable to everybody,” he added, describing common regulation as “crucial”.

Digital labour platforms globally generated revenue of at least $52 billion in 2019, the report said. But the costs and benefits were not evenly distributed around the world.

About 96 percent of the investment in such platforms is concentrated in Asia ($56 billion), North America ($46 billion) and Europe ($12 billion).

And just over 70 percent of the revenues generated were concentrated in just two countries: the United States (49 percent) and China (22 percent). Europe combined accounted for 11 percent.

Hunger Rising In Central America Amid Climate, COVID-19 Shocks – UN

In this file photo, The United Nations flag is seen during the Climate Action Summit 2019 at the United Nations General Assembly Hall on September 23, 2019, in New York City. Ludovic MARIN / AFP.

 

The United Nations warned Tuesday that hunger levels are soaring across much of Central America as countries battle economic crises sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic and extreme climate events.

The UN’s World Food Programme said that levels of hunger had risen nearly four-fold in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, from 2.2 million people affected in 2018 to nearly eight million now.

Of that figure, some 1.7 million people are considered to be in the “emergency” category of food insecurity, meaning they need urgent food assistance, WFP said, urging more international support.

The UN agency said the region, where years of drought and erratic weather had already disrupted food production, had been especially hard-hit by the record 2020 Atlantic hurricane season.

“Hurricanes Eta and Iota, that struck Central America in November 2020, upended the lives of 6.8 million people who lost their homes and livelihoods,” WFP pointed out.

The hurricanes came as the pandemic was already taking a devastating toll, and dealt a severe blow to millions who had previously been relatively untouched by hunger, including people working in the service economy and the tourism sector.

The hurricanes destroyed more than 200,000 hectares of vital crops across the four countries and more than 10,000 hectares of coffee farmland in Honduras and Nicaragua.

“Considering the level of destruction and setbacks faced by those affected, we expect this to be a long and slow recovery,” said WFP regional chief for Latin America and the Caribbean Miguel Barreto.

– ‘Rock bottom’ –

Before those hurricanes hit, Covid-19 was already taking a devastating toll, as an overwhelming majority of households in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador reported income losses or unemployment.

WFP surveys showed that the number of households in Guatemala reporting they did not have enough to eat had almost doubled compared to pre-pandemic figures, while the numbers in Honduras rose by more than 50 percent.

“Urban and rural communities in Central America have hit rock bottom,” Barreto warned.

“The Covid-19-induced economic crisis had already put food on the market shelves out of reach for the most vulnerable people when the twin hurricanes Eta and Iota battered them further,” he said.

“Many now have nowhere to live and are staying in temporary shelters, surviving on next to nothing.”

With so many homes and farms destroyed, food stocks running out and few opportunities to find work, nearly 15 percent of people surveyed by WFP in January said they were laying concrete plans to migrate.

That marks a significant jump from the eight percent who said they were doing so in a WFP post-drought assessment in 2018.

WFP appealed to international donors to step up support, saying it needed more than $47 million to help 2.6 million people across the four countries over the next six months alone.

Pandemic Used As ‘Pretext’ To Crush Dissent – UN Chief

UN Council Must Prevent Syria 'Spiralling Out Of Control' - Guterres
File photo: United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres Stephanie Keith/Getty Images/AFP

 

UN chief Antonio Guterres on Monday criticised countries that are using the pandemic to justify cracking down on dissent, reining in the media and suppressing criticism.

Speaking at the opening of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s main annual session, Antonio Guterres charged that authorities in a number of nations were using restrictions meant to halt the spread of Covid-19 to weaken their political opposition.

“Using the pandemic as a pretext, authorities in some countries have deployed heavy-handed security responses and emergency measures to crush dissent, criminalise basic freedoms, silence independent reporting and curtail the activities of non-governmental organisations,” he said, without naming the countries.

“Human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, political activists, and even medical professionals are being detained, prosecuted and subjected to intimidation and surveillance for criticising government pandemic responses — or the lack thereof,” he added.

In some countries, he warned, “pandemic-related restrictions are being used to subvert electoral processes, weaken opposition voices and suppress criticism.”

Speaking in a pre-recorded video message to the largely virtual meeting of the Geneva-based body, the UN chief also decried widespread misinformation around the world about the coronavirus and the pandemic.

In a number of cases, he said, “access to life-saving Covid-19 information has been concealed, while deadly misinformation has been amplified, including by those in power.”

Guterres dedicated much of his annual speech before the UN’s top rights body to the wide-ranging effects of the pandemic, which “hit the world without mercy.”

“Covid-19 has deepened pre-existing divides, vulnerabilities and inequalities, as well as opened up new fractures, including fault-lines in human rights,” he said.

– ‘Moral outrage’ –

He pointed to the hundreds of millions of families who have seen their lives “turned upside down” due to job losses and soaring debt.

At the same time, he said, “the disease has taken a disproportionate toll on women, minorities, persons with disabilities, older persons, refugees, migrants and indigenous peoples.”

As a result, he warned, “progress on gender equality has been set back years (and) extreme poverty is rising for the first time in decades.”

In addition to inequalities within countries, the UN chief slammed inequalities between nations when it comes to accessing the Covid-19 vaccines coming to market as a “moral outrage”.

A full 75 percent of all vaccine doses have been administered in just 10 countries, he pointed out, while more than 130 countries have yet to receive a single dose.

“Vaccine equity is ultimately about human rights,” Guterres said. “Vaccine nationalism denies it.”

Beyond the pandemic, Guterres also highlighted the need for more action globally against systemic racism and ideas of white supremacy.

“The rot of racism eats away at institutions, social structures and everyday life, sometimes invisibly and insidiously,” he said.

He welcomed the “new awakening in the global fight for racial justice.”

“We must also step up the fight against resurgent neo-Nazism, white supremacy and racially- and ethnically-motivated terrorism,” Guterres said.

“The danger of these hate-driven movements is growing by the day,” he said, warning that they were “more than domestic terror threats.”

“They are becoming a transnational threat.”

Millions Of Children At Risk In DR Congo Violence – UN

A DR Congo flag.

 

Several million children are at risk in DR Congo regions that have been destabilised by armed groups, the UN’s children’s agency said on Friday.

“The lives and futures of more than three million displaced children are at risk in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) while the world is looking the other way,” UNICEF said in a statement.

According to UN figures, 5.2 million people in the DRC have been forced from their homes because of conflict — “more than in any country except Syria,” UNICEF said.

Of these, half have been displaced in the past 12 months, it said.

“Displaced families live in crowded settlements that lack safe water, health care and other basic services, it said.

“Others are accommodated by impoverished local communities. In the most violence-afflicted provinces of Ituri, North Kivu, South Kivu and Tanganyika, more than eight million people are acutely food insecure.”

Children are at risk from sexual abuse and recruitment as child soldiers by armed groups, UNICEF said. Documented violations of this kind rose 16 per cent in the first six months of 2020 compared to the previous year.

A vast country the size of continental western Europe, the DRC is grappling with numerous conflicts, especially in its remote east.

Scores of militias roam the four eastern provinces, many of them a legacy of wars in the 1990s that sucked in countries around central-southern Africa and claimed millions of lives.

The most notorious of these groups, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), has been blamed for hundreds of deaths since the DRC’s army opened an offensive against it in October 2019.

The UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, said on Tuesday that more than 2,000 civilians were killed in North and South Kivu and Ituri last year.

UNICEF appealed for a greater effort to meet aid targets to prevent disease and malnourishment among children in the DRC.

It has so far received only 11 per cent of the $384.4 million it is seeking for humanitarian operations in the DRC in 2021.

Environmental Degradation Poses Triple Threat To Humans – UN

File: (Photo by Angela Weiss / AFP)

 

Climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution pose a triple threat to human health and prosperity that may be averted only by transforming how we power our economies and feed ourselves, the United Nations said Thursday.

A scientific assessment by the UN Environment Programme found that galloping economic growth has come at a devastating cost to the planet and urged governments, businesses and people around the world to act to reverse the damage before it is too late.

Drawing on findings from other major assessments on climate and biodiversity from expert international panels, the report titled “Making Peace With Nature” said a rapid shift to renewable energy and eliminating habitat loss are essential to preventing “unacceptable risk” for future generations.

“For too long, we have been waging a senseless and suicidal war on nature,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

“The result is three interlinked environmental crises: Climate disruption, biodiversity loss and pollution threaten our viability as a species.”

Lead report author Robert Watson told AFP that the three crises threatened far more than nature.

READ ALSO: EU Tells Five Countries To Codify Anti-Racism Law

“They undermine food security, water security and human health,” he said.

The report found that the global economy had grown nearly fivefold in the last 50 years fuelled by a tripling in extraction of natural resources and energy.

Yet amid such prolific growth, the burden of the environmental fallout is borne by the poorest and most vulnerable, it said.

Although average prosperity has doubled over the last five decades, around 1.3 billion people are classed as poor and 700 million go to bed hungry each night.

The assessment said that environmental degradation was undermining progress on ending poverty and hunger and warned that pandemics such as Covid-19 were increasingly likely in future as we continue to strip away species’ natural habitats.

“This is not the first pandemic caused by animal to human infection, so we really have to think how we can prevent the next one,” said Watson, a veteran climate and biodiversity researcher.

“By cutting down vegetation, we humans go into areas we didn’t used to go into and therefore we interact with wild animals.”

– ‘Low-hanging fruit’ –

Despite a record drop in emissions last year as the pandemic curbed international travel, the world is on track to be at least three degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100.

That is a far cry from the aims of the Paris climate deal, in which nations promised to limit warming to “well below” 2C and to a safer cap of 1.5C if possible.

None of the goals the world set itself a decade ago for halting nature loss has been met, with one million species of plants and animals currently threatened with extinction.

The assessment recommended that protected areas be expanded to allow for more space for wild species, as well as addressing the drivers of forest loss, such as unsustainable farming and food waste.

It also found that governments pay out a staggering $5-7 trillion in subsidies to fossil fuel and large-scale farming operations.

These contribute to air pollution that kills an estimated eight million people each year.

Co-author Ivar Baste said that reducing fossil fuel subsidies — which after all most benefit richer, high-polluting firms — should be considered “low-hanging fruit” in the fight against climate change.

“We have to do the obvious,” he told AFP, while noting that “vested interests” are pushing for continued fossil fuel use.

With 2021 set to see two major UN summits on biodiversity loss and climate change, the authors said “piecemeal and uncoordinated” responses would fall well short of what the planet needs.

“While I applaud all the countries in the world that have set zero net carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, the real issue is what will countries do between now and 2030,” Watson said.

“Action really is needed in the short term, not just aspirational goals for the middle of the century.”

UN Urges Global COVID-19 Vaccine Plan, Warns Of Dangerous Inequity

In this file photo, The United Nations flag is seen during the Climate Action Summit 2019 at the United Nations General Assembly Hall on September 23, 2019, in New York City. Ludovic MARIN / AFP.

 

The United Nations on Wednesday led calls for a coordinated global effort to vaccinate against Covid-19, warning that gaping inequities in initial efforts put the whole planet at risk.

Foreign ministers met virtually for a first-ever UN Security Council session on vaccinations called by current chair Britain, which said the world had a “moral duty” to act together against the pandemic that has killed more than 2.4 million people.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres voiced alarm that just 10 nations have administered 75 percent of doses so far — and 130 countries have had none at all.

“The world urgently needs a global vaccination plan to bring together all those with the required power, scientific expertise and production and financial capacities,” Guterres said.

He said the Group of 20 major economies was in the best position to set up a task force on financing and implementation of global vaccinations and offered full support of the United Nations.

READ ALSO: EU Tells Five Countries To Codify Anti-Racism Law

“If the virus is allowed to spread like wildfire in the Global South, it will mutate again and again. New variants could become more transmissible, more deadly and, potentially, threaten the effectiveness of current vaccines and diagnostics,” Guterres said.

“This can prolong the pandemic significantly, enabling the virus to come back to plague the Global North.”

Henrietta Fore, head of the UN children’s agency UNICEF, said: “The only way out of this pandemic for any of us is to ensure vaccinations are available for all of us.”

– Gaps in efforts –

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard denounced the “injustice” of what he called a “deepening gap” as wealthy countries “monopolize the vaccines.”

There is already a plan to help developing nations — Covax is an initiative funded by donors and governments that aims to procure two billion vaccine doses in 2021 with options for a further billion.

Covax will soon be able to start delivery of vaccines after the World Health Organization approved the shot developed by AstraZeneca, on which the initiative is almost entirely reliant in its first wave.

But aid groups say that many people still risk being left out due to a shortfall in Covax funding to arrange the administration and delicate transportation of vaccines as well as conflicts that make inoculation efforts impossible.

Britain, one of the largest contributors to Covax with a commitment of £548 million ($760 million), reiterated a UN call for temporary ceasefires to allow vaccinations, estimating that more than 160 million people were at risk in conflict zones.

“We have a moral duty to act, and a strategic necessity to come together to defeat this virus,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said.

In his first Security Council appearance, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed that President Joe Biden’s administration would take a leadership role after reversing Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the World Health Organization.

Blinken said the United States would pay up its more than $200 million in obligations to the UN body by the end of the month and make a “significant” contribution to Covax.

“The United States will work as a partner to address global challenges,” Blinken said.

– Pressure on China –

But Blinken vowed to press for improvements in the WHO, which Trump, under fire for his own handling of the pandemic, accused of being beholden to China and not stopping the deadly virus.

“All countries must make available all data from the earliest days of any outbreak,” Blinken said, in a veiled renewal of US criticism that China has not cooperated with a WHO probe into how the virus first emerged in 2019 in Wuhan.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned in his remarks against “attempts to politicize the pandemic” and renewed Beijing’s offer of 10 million doses of its homegrown vaccine to Covax.

“We should come together to reject vaccine nationalism,” he said.

One immediate question for the United Nations is whether its own peacekeepers should have priority in vaccination.

India, a leading exporter of vaccines, announced a donation of 200,000 doses for UN peacekeepers.

“The pharmacy of the world is stepping forward to meet the global vaccines challenge,” Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said.

One discordant voice at the Security Council was Russia, which has been promoting its own vaccine and only put forward its UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, to the UN session.

He said that vaccinations were a matter “for specialized UN agencies” and “exceed the jurisdiction of the Security Council.”

UN Warns Battle For Marib Threatens Millions Of Yemenis

In this file photo, The United Nations flag is seen during the Climate Action Summit 2019 at the United Nations General Assembly Hall on September 23, 2019, in New York City. Ludovic MARIN / AFP.

 

The UN’s humanitarian chief said Tuesday he was “very alarmed” by a Huthi rebel advance on the Yemeni government’s last northern stronghold, saying an assault on Marib could endanger millions of civilians.

The Iran-backed Huthis have this month resumed an offensive to seize oil-rich Marib, some 120 kilometres (75 miles) east of the rebel-held capital Sanaa.

The city’s loss would be a major blow for Yemen’s government, which is backed by a Saudi-led coalition, but also for the civilian population and the hundreds of thousands of displaced people sheltering in desolate camps in the region.

“I’m very alarmed about the military escalation in Marib and its impact on the humanitarian situation,” Mark Lowcock, the UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, said in a tweet.

“An assault on the city would put two million civilians at risk, with hundreds of thousands potentially forced to flee — with unimaginable humanitarian consequences. Now is the time to de-escalate, not to add even more to the misery of the Yemeni people.”

Military officials told AFP that the rebels had advanced towards the city on two fronts overnight after heavy fighting with government forces.

Dozens from both sides have been killed in the past 24 hours alone, they said. The total casualty toll from the battle for Marib is unknown but reports indicate it is now in the hundreds.

“The rebels have advanced north and west of the city after seizing Al-Zor (in Sirwah district) up to the western sides of Marib dam, and tightened their grip on hills overlooking supply lines for several fronts,” one of the officials said.

The military coalition, which entered Yemen’s conflict in 2015, has been pounding rebel positions, and the Huthi-run Al-Masirah television on Tuesday reported 13 airstrikes in several areas in Marib.

– Once a sanctuary –

The fighting is endangering sprawling camps for internally displaced people, many of whom have fled several times before ending up in Marib, the only part of the north not in Huthi hands.

Until early 2020, Marib city was spared the worst of Yemen’s six-year-old conflict, due to its strategic importance with its rich oil and gas reserves, and also because of its location near the border of regional power Saudi Arabia.

It became a sanctuary for many in the early years of the war, taking in those hoping for a new start.

But that relative stability went with fighting last year and — after a lull since October — residents once again risk being in the line of fire as the two sides battle for control.

“If fighting moves towards populated areas or these displacement sites, we will see people flee again and towards locations to the east and south of Marib city with even less resources,” International Organization for Migration spokeswoman Olivia Headon told AFP.

“Much of this is desert area so just think about what any displacement in that direction would mean for families’ access to water.”

Headon said around 650 families had been forced to flee in the recent upsurge of fighting and that another shift in the frontlines would lead to further waves of displacement.

Yemen’s grinding conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced millions, according to international organisations, sparking what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The upsurge in violence comes shortly after Washington decided to remove the rebels from its list of terrorist groups — a move that would come into effect on Tuesday — in order to ensure aid is unimpeded, and to pave the way to restart peace talks.

Observers say the Huthis want to capture Marib as leverage before entering into any negotiations.

The rebels have also escalated attacks against Saudi Arabia.

Its state media said Tuesday that another “booby-trapped drone” launched by the Huthis had been intercepted and destroyed near Abha airport, which earlier this month was struck by an attack that left an aircraft in flames.

AFP