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UN Daily News For 12 December, 2008

UN Daily News For 12 December, 2008

From The United Nations News Service


BAN URGES UN RIGHTS COUNCIL TO RISE ABOVE ‘PARTISAN POSTURING’ AND REVIEW ALL STATES

The United Nations Human Rights Council marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a special session today, with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calling on it to rise above “partisan posturing and regional divides” and review the record of every State.

“We have come a long way since the Declaration’s adoption. But the reality is that we have not lived up to its vision – at least not yet,” Mr. Ban told the Council in Geneva. “Abject poverty, shameful discrimination and horrific violence continue to plague millions of people. As we mark this milestone, we must also acknowledge the savage inhumanity that too many people in our world must endure. There is no time to rest.

“This Council can have a tremendous impact. But you, its members, must rise above partisan posturing and regional divides. One way to do this is with continued vigilance in carrying out the Universal Periodic Review, which assesses the human rights records of all States. The Council must address human rights abuses wherever they occur.”

With children reading out articles of the Declaration in their national languages, Council President Martin Ihoeghian Uhomoibhi said 60 years on, the text continued to be a living and relevant document for all, carrying its fundamental message to people everywhere in the world.

Noting that the Declaration was born following the utter devastation of the Second World War, Mr. Ban stressed that the General Assembly was still adding to the human rights edifice with such texts as the recently adopted Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the treaty against enforced disappearances and the covenant enshrining the rights of the disabled.

“The world did not adopt such an impressive list of human rights instruments just to put them on a shelf somewhere at the United Nations,” he said. “These should be living documents that can be wielded by experts who scrutinize country reports or assess individual complaints.”

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay also stressed that the Declaration gave impulse to a wide and growing legal architecture as well as advocacy vehicles. Today, the principles it embodied had found an echo in the constitutions and laws of more than 90 countries, and dedicated international, regional and national mechanisms, including her Office and the Council, she said.

Mr. Ban praised the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the media in helping to uphold human rights. “Courageous journalists have risked and lost their lives to report on threats against others. This anniversary is a milestone for them, too – a day on which to stress again the need for media to be free to do their job, and free of harassment, intimidation and worse,” he added.

Speaking to the press later, Mr. Ban said that it is necessary and desirable that the United States takes part as a member of the Human Rights Council. “I would expect and hope that the next Administration will seriously and positively consider my call on this matter.”

He also noted his recent conversations with President-elect Barack Obama and other US officials, saying that he expects the new Administration to be much more actively engaged with the UN on climate change, the anti-poverty targets with a 2015 deadline known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and other issues on the world body’s agenda.

In his message to the commemorative meeting, UN International Labour Organization (ILO) Director-General Juan Somavia said the Declaration placed respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms squarely in the context of the fight against poverty and the promotion of social progress.

But its goals and aspirations still remained distant and unrealized for millions of working women and men worldwide, he stressed. The current economic turmoil required all the more a focus on ensuring respect for human rights.

In another message to the session, the Commissioner-General of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) said fatality figures for the occupied Palestinian territory had surely to make the world question its commitment to upholding the right to life, the most fundamental of all rights. More than 500 Palestinians had been killed this year as a result of the conflict and 11 Israelis had lost their lives this year, she noted.

The right to freedom of movement enshrined in the Universal Declaration also remained a distant hope for many Palestinians. With an estimated 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, the declaration that everyone had the right to liberty and security of person and that no one should be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment had a sad resonance today, she added.

In Gaza, more than half of the population now lived below the deep poverty line. This was a humanitarian crisis, but one that was deliberately imposed by political actors. Overarching all these rights was the right of self-determination, a right of which Palestinians had been deprived through 60 years of exile and dispossessions, she declared. The chasm between word and deed was a matter of puzzlement to many Palestinians.

“But this can be reversed and protection is the place to start,” she said. “Let us make the protection of Palestinian rights the byword of all our interventions. Let us make the vision of the signatories of the Universal Declaration a reality; continued failure to do so is to our universal shame.”

In New York renowned pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, a UN Messenger of Peace who will perform in a commemorative concert in the General Assembly on Monday with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra composed of Arab and Israeli youth, told a news conference that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could only be solved when each side accepted the rights of the other.

“And our very modest project of the West-Eastern Divan is precisely that. It is not a political project, it is a human project that brings together people that already have something in common,” he said, noting that the performers would be Egyptian, Iranian, Israeli and Syrian.


* * *

ZIMBABWE’S CHOLERA EPIDEMIC IS NOT OVER, STRESSES SECRETARY-GENERAL

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stressed today that the worst cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe’s history, contrary to remarks by the country’s President, is far from over, as United Nations agencies appealed for more funds to tackle the crisis and the effects of collapsing social services.

Media reports have quoted Robert Mugabe as saying that the outbreak, which the UN World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed has led to nearly 800 deaths, is under control.

“I cannot agree that the cholera epidemic is over,” Mr. Ban told a news conference in Geneva.

“The reports I have been receiving .. are alarming,” he said. “There are still many people who are suffering from this epidemic.”

WHO said today that the current cholera outbreak – an acute intestinal infection caused by contaminated food or water – is the most serious ever registered in Zimbabwe, with some 16,700 cases so far.

“I don’t believe the cholera outbreak is under control as of now,” WHO’s Fadéla Chaib told reporters in Geneva.

The agency is seeking $6 million to control the outbreak, which has also spread to neighbouring South Africa and, to a lesser extent, to Botswana and Mozambique. There are about 750 cases and 11 deaths so far in South Africa.

In addition, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) today appealed for $17.5 million to enable it to scale up its cholera response, provide incentives for teachers to return to work, procure essential medicines for hospitals and help get social services back on track.

“The situation in Zimbabwe is dire and our response has to match the severity,” said UNICEF Acting Representative Roeland Monasch, “Assistance needs to be taken to scale and it has to happen urgently.

“For this to happen we need resources. The deepening crisis in Zimbabwe comes amidst growing food insecurity, the HIV/AIDS epidemic and poses the worst threat to child survival and development in 20 years.”

UNICEF has been providing intravenous fluids, drips, tents and beds for cholera treatment centres, as well as trucking 470,000 litres of water per day, drilling boreholes, and distributing water purification tools to more than 3.5 million Zimbabweans.


* * *

DR CONGO: UN-MANDATED GROUP FINDS EVIDENCE RWANDA, ARMY AIDING RIVAL REBELS

A group of experts monitoring a United Nations arms embargo on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) reported today that it had found evidence that the Rwandan authorities and the Congolese army have aided opposing rebel groups in the war-ravaged east of the country.

In its final report to the Security Council the Group of Experts, set up in 2004, said that while there is little documentation available to prove Rwandan material support to the rebel National Congress in Defence of the People (CNDP), it had found evidence that Rwandan authorities have been complicit in recruiting soldiers, including children, facilitated the supply of military equipment, and sent their own officers and units to the DRC to support the CNDP.

It based its research on dozens of interviews with eyewitnesses, including former combatants and officers of the mainly Tutsi CNDP, members of the business community, regional intelligence officials and local eyewitnesses, all of them “consistent and credible in describing the involvement” of the Government of Rwanda.

“Given the nature, however, of the conflict in eastern Congo, much of the financial and military support is informal and does not leave a paper trail,” the Group’s Coordinator Jason Stearns told a later news conference.

The Group recommended that the Security Council Sanctions Committee “remind the Government of Rwanda of its obligations” under which it pledged last year to prevent any support to CNDP, entry into and exit from its territory of CNDP members, use of Rwandan telephone networks and banking systems, and holding fund-raising meetings in Rwanda.

With regard to the DRC authorities the Group said it had obtained strong evidence that the Government army, known by its French acronym FARDC, collaborated with the mainly Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), including through the provision of military equipment and in joint operations against CNDP.

FDLR collaborated extensively with FARDC during the December 2007 clashes with CNDP in Masisi and Rutshuru territories and has continued to collaborate with FARDC during fighting that began this August, it added.

An upsurge of fighting since August between the two rebel movements, the army, and various other militias in North Kivu province in eastern DRC has driven 250,000 more civilians from their homes, in addition to the hundreds of thousands uprooted in earlier clashes

The Group interviewed over 30 FDLR ex-combatants, of whom 15 provided first-hand, concrete testimony of FARDC-FDLR collaboration. It also interviewed several former and active FARDC soldiers who corroborated this information.

“The Group has identified at least three Congolese army commanders who are guilty of providing support to the FDLR,” Mr. Stearns said. “While this collaboration is widespread and regular, the Group has not been able to prove to what extent the top leadership of the army is involved in this practise but it’s cleat that they know and have done nothing to bring it to an end.”

The Group has put forward several FARDC commanders for sanctions for supporting FDLR and another group called PARECO, and recommended that the Sanctions Committee request the DRC authorities “to issue clear directives to its troops that collaboration and cohabitation with FDLR and PARECO are prohibited.” Appropriate disciplinary measures should be taken against FARDC soldiers collaborating with these armed groups.

The report noted that the FDLR obtains millions of dollars a year from the minerals trade, mostly through taxation of mines and traders, and that many traders are complicit since they know the gold, cassiterite, coltran and wolframite come from FDLR-controlled zones.

“We believe that the burden should be on the Congolese buying houses as well as on international mineral traders to conduct due diligence into the source of the product,” Mr. Stearns said of one of the planks in enforcing the embargo.

The Group also pointed out that CNDP and FDLR leaders reside or travel through countries in Africa, Europe and North America where they rally support and funds. “The Group believes that such political support is essential for their fund-raising and constitutes a violation of the arms embargo,” Mr. Stearns said.


* * *

PHILIPPINE REBELS AGREE TO STOP FIELDING CHILD SOLDIERS, UN OFFICIAL SAYS

An Islamic rebel group in the Philippines will stop recruiting child soldiers and return to civilian life those already in their ranks, according to an action plan announced by a United Nations official who wrapped up a five-day mission in the country today.

“Children are affected in multiple ways by the conflict in the Philippines,” Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, told a news conference in the capital, Manila, in which she welcomed the agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

During her visit, which was requested by the Security Council, Ms. Coomaraswamy sought the release of children recruited by both the MILF and the Maoist New People’s Army (NPA), raised concern over the alleged abuse of children by members of the Government forces and paramilitary groups, and called for stronger protections for children caught up in the civil conflict.

She also visited camps for displaced persons in the country, where ongoing clashes between Muslim rebels and Government troops in southern areas have forced about 130,000 people to flee their homes.

“All the parties to the conflict, civil society, religious leaders and the Government must consider [children’s] protection as a priority,” she said. Welcoming the decision of the MILF to comply with the Security Council recommendations, she added that: “Possible dialogue with NPA is under consideration in the context of ongoing peace processes.” During her meetings with the Government, Ms. Coomaraswamy also raised concerns regarding alleged involvement of children in the paramilitary Citizens Armed Force Geographical Units (CAFGU) and Community Volunteer Organizations (CVOs) operating in some conflict areas, according to a press release from her office.

The Government agreed to immediately issue a directive that all local units must strictly adhere to existing national legislation that no one under 18 shall be recruited or used in security forces, Ms. Coomaraswamy said.

The Special Representative also urged the Government to take all necessary measures to investigate and take firm action against those within the Philippines Security Forces allegedly responsible for grave violations against children. She welcomed the Government’s nomination of focal points within the forces to deal with these issues.

At the press conference, Ms. Coomaraswamy complimented the Government on its strong framework of laws and policies on children and armed conflict, but said she felt implementation was lagging in some areas.

She welcomed, in particular, upcoming legal changes that would exclude from prosecution children who are arrested for reasons related to armed conflict, considering them as victims instead of perpetrators, but said that the Government needed to strengthen its ability to return children associated with armed groups to civilian life.

Ms. Coomaraswamy’s visit was organized by the Philippines office of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in collaboration with the rest of the UN Country Team.


* * *

UN OFFICIAL CALLS FOR CALM IN SOUTHERN SUDAN AFTER OUTBREAK OF VIOLENCE

The top United Nation official in Sudan today called for calm following yesterday’s fatal incident involving Sudanese military battalions and police units in the Abyei area, which was beset by conflict earlier this year.

Ashraf Qazi, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Sudan, asked all parties and residents of the area to offer their full support to the Abyei administration in restoring law and order after the incident, which led to one death and several injuries among the units that integrate members of the Sudanese military and the former southern rebels known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

The so-called joint integrated units (JIUs) and joint integrated police unit (JIPUs) were established under the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the country’s decades-long civil war.

Deadly fighting broke out in May in Abyei, an oil-rich area in central Sudan whose status was not fully resolved under the CPA, leading to a peace agreement the following month aimed at restoring stability to the region and spurring civilians who had fled as a result of the violence to start to return.

Mr. Qazi strongly urged the parties to take all necessary measures to avoid any further outbreaks of violence, and to ensure that the incident does not impede the peaceful implementation of the Abyei road map, according to a press release from the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS).


* * *

COOPERATION FROM STATES VITAL FOR UN TRIBUNALS TO FINISH WORK ON TIME, SAY OFFICIALS

Top officials from the United Nations tribunals set up to try those responsible for atrocities committed during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s and the 1994 Rwandan genocide today stressed that cooperation from States, especially in arresting fugitives and accessing evidence, will enable the courts to meet the deadline set for completing their work.

Serge Brammertz, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), told an open meeting of the Security Council that the major development in the last six months was the arrest of two of the four fugitives – Radovan Karadžic and Stojan Zjuplanin.

“Today the arrest of the two remaining fugitives is the highest priority of the Office,” he said, referring to Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadžicrs.

He said that, in order to succeed in completing the trial and appeals programme, there would be heavy reliance on cooperation from the States of the former Yugoslavia and the support of the international community. Cooperation remained critical in the areas of access to archives, access to and protection of witnesses, and the arrest and transfer of the remaining fugitives.

Speaking to reporters later, he noted that there are currently seven ongoing trials in relation to 27 accused. Five trials still have to start next year, which means that the completion strategy deadlines will not be met and the Tribunal will have trial activities ongoing in 2009 and 2010.

Patrick Robinson, President of the ICTY, which is based in The Hague, told the Council that the international community should focus its efforts on securing the immediate arrest of the remaining fugitives as a matter of urgency.

He added that there was cause for deep concern that, as its work drew towards its final stages, the Tribunal should remain sufficiently resourced to discharge its mandate. He appealed to the Council and the international community to give the Tribunal the support it needs to enable it to discharge its “historic role.”

In response to this request, the Security Council today authorized the Secretary-General to appoint, as a temporary measure and within existing resources, additional ad litem, or temporary, judges to the Tribunal, in order to complete existing trials or conduct additional ones.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which is aiming to finish first-instance trials by the end of 2009, is also working to address staffing needs and further develop tools for expediting proceedings, while fully respecting the right of the accused to a fair trial, said its President.

“We want to achieve our goals, and the workload ahead makes it clear that ‘business as usual’ is not an option,” Dennis Byron told the Council.

The Prosecutor of the ICTR, which is based in Arusha, Tanzania, added that the cases of all detainees were being prepared to ensure that their trials proceeded in 2009, in accordance with the trial schedule.

The next six months would be a period of intense trial activity, Hassan B. Jallow said. “We are all committed to concluding the trials of the detainees currently at hand and to making referral a success to enable us deal with the cases of some detainees, as well as the fugitives.”

Out of the close to 100 indictments that have been issued, the ICTR has finished the cases of 37 accused. It is still looking for 13 fugitives who are at large, and has 10 indictees currently in detention awaiting trial. The Tribunal plans to start those trials in January 2009 and finish them by September.

A challenge for the court has been the transfer of cases to national jurisdictions, the Prosecutor noted. “We haven’t had many takers for our cases,” he said, adding that Rwanda has been the court’s main focus for the transferral of cases.

“But there also we’ve had some setback in that the judges so far have declined to refer any case to Rwanda because of fears that the defence may not be able to operate effectively given the possible reluctance of defence witnesses to travel to Rwanda to testify. And also out of concerns for the possible safety of defence witnesses in Rwanda.”

As a result, no transfers have taken place so far to Rwanda, but the Office of the Prosecutor and the Rwandan authorities have agreed to work together to make sure that “we can help them put in place the measures which would satisfy the judges, which would overcome some of these constraints.”

He stressed the importance of making progress in this area because it will ease the workload on the Tribunal and enable it to finish the trial phase of its work by the end of next year.

Mr. Brammertz voiced similar expectations regarding the work of his institution. “We strongly believe that the ultimate success of the ICTY as a tribunal will depend on our ability to transfer remaining case files to the region, and [are] hoping that the region will have the political support and also the logistical and operational support to conduct their own investigations.”


* * *

UN LOANS $30 MILLION TO MICRO-FINANCE SCHEME FOR POOR RURAL INDIAN WOMEN

A new United Nations loan of over $30 million seeks to boost the social and economic power of rural women in India’s largest pocket of poverty.

Women from an estimated 108,000 poor rural households will be targeted by the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) loan, which aims to give women in the Mid-Gangetic Plains of northern India easier access to microfinance and business development services.

The loan agreement was signed yesterday in Rome by Shri Arif Shahid Khan, the Indian Ambassador to Italy, and IFAD President Lennart Båge.

The Women’s Empowerment and Livelihoods Programme, which is expected to mobilize more than 6,000 self-help groups thus producing increased productivity and incomes by creating market-based businesses, will cost around $52 million.

The Indo-Gangetic Plain is a large and fertile area covering most of northern and eastern India and is named after the Indus and Ganges twin river systems that drain it.

Women in the Mid-Gangetic Plains experience deeper deprivation than elsewhere in India because of strong patriarchy and rigid caste divisions. As well as increasing access to financial institutions, the programme will encourage women’s increased participation in local government.


* * *

TOP UN OFFICIAL WELCOMES EUROPEAN UNION CLIMATE CHANGE DEAL

The top United Nations climate change official has welcomed a plan agreed by European Union leaders to fight global warming, which was announced today as international negotiations led by the world body toward a new agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions wrapped up in Poznan, Poland.

“This is a sign of developed countries’ resolve and courage that the world has been waiting for in Poznan,” said Yvo de Boer, the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The Poznan conference marks the half-way point in efforts to reach agreement on a successor pact to the Kyoto Protocol, the legally binding regime for reducing emissions whose first commitment period ends in 2012.

The EU plan, reached in Brussels, reportedly elaborates how the group’s 27 member countries will cut carbon emissions by 20 per cent by 2020.

The deal “shows the world that ambitious emission reduction goals by 2020 are in line with moving economic recovery in a green direction,” Mr. de Boer said, adding that “this will contribute to propelling the world towards a strong, ambitious and ratifiable outcome in Copenhagen in 2009.”

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the Poznan gathering yesterday, calling for renewed global solidarity to tackle the twin challenges of climate change and the financial crisis. He told the high level officials from nearly all UN Member States that the world cannot afford to let economic woes hinder progress on “the defining challenge of our era.”


* * *

HEALTHY MEDIA CRUCIAL FOR BUILDING LASTING PEACE IN POST-CONFLICT STATES – UN OFFICIALS

A strong press and robust broadcasting institutions are critical for achieving a sustainable peace and credible governance in post-conflict countries, senior United Nations officials told delegates attending a conference on peacebuilding today.

The need to recognize the role of media and communications as an essential part of peacebuilding efforts was the focus of a one-day conference organized by the UN Department of Public Information (DPI), in collaboration with the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO), at UN Headquarters in New York.

Delegates heard that media and communications operations are critical in supporting the UN Peacebuilding Commission in its efforts to provide post-conflict countries with the international support they need to get back on their feet.

The Commission, which was set up at the end of 2005, is tasked with helping struggling States avoid the slide back into war or chaos and currently has four countries on its agenda – Burundi, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and Central African Republic (CAR).

The conference brought together ministers from two of the States assisted by the Commission, Burundi and Sierra Leone, with media from the countries undergoing peacebuilding efforts, representatives of the UN system, and other international and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Ambassador Yukio Takasu, Chairperson of the Peacebuilding Commission, told the meeting that the Commission needed the media as a partner at the local, national and international level to generate attention and mobilize support towards countries emerging from conflict.

Mr. Takasu added that the media was vital for promoting credible and transparent governance, saying that “a media environment conducive to independent and accessible media can build public will and hold governments accountable to their citizens.”

Delegates focused discussions on how the media has promoted and strengthened governance and democracy in countries coming out of conflict, reviewing past efforts as well as examining current initiatives and exploring possibilities for future action.

Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, Kiyo Akasaka, underscored the success UN radio broadcasters have had in reaching audiences in post-conflict nations.

“UNTAC radio, for example, in Cambodia in 1992, helped to change that country’s political mood and mobilized an enormous voter turnout with its constant refrain ‘your vote is secret,’” said Mr. Akasaka.

Assistant-Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support Jane Holl Lute echoed the sentiment by stressing the media’s outreach role in informing, motivating and mobilizing populations emerging from conflict.


* * *

RICH COUNTRIES MUST FOCUS ON QUALITY OF EARLY CHILDHOOD CARE – UN REPORT

With almost 80 per cent of three-to-six year-olds in rich countries now spending time away from their parents in some form of early childhood education and care, the quality of such services can make all the difference between great benefit and great harm for almost all aspects of a child’s development, according to a new United Nations report.

“High quality early childhood education and care has a huge potential to enhance children’s cognitive, linguistic, emotional and social development,” the Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Innocenti Research Centre, Marta Santos Pais, said.

“It can help boost educational achievement, limit the early establishment of disadvantage, promote inclusion, be an investment in good citizenship, and advance progress for women.”

But poor quality may result in weak foundations and shaky scaffolding for future learning, and what is true of cognitive and linguistic skills is also true of psychological and emotional development, the Centre stressed, calling for doubling spending on early childhood services in some countries.

The Centre’s latest Report Card – The Childcare Transition – showed that for the under threes, the proportion of those in some form of early childhood education and care is 25 per cent, rising to more than 50 per cent in individual members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) group of 30 top industrialized countries.

In part, these changes reflect new opportunities for women’s employment outside the home. But they also reflect new necessities. And the poorer the family, the greater is the pressure to return to work as soon as possible after a birth – often to unskilled, low-paid jobs

At the same time as this change is advancing across the economically developed world, progress in the scientific understanding of early brain development is confirming that the quality of care and interaction in the earliest months and years of a child’s life are critical for almost all aspects of a child’s development.

“Taken together, says the report, these two developments mean that the child care transition carries with it the potential both for great benefit and great harm,” UNICEF said.

Some OECD members have engaged closely with the childcare issue, pursuing policies designed to realize the potential benefits, but in others out-of-home child care is proceeding in an ad hoc way with less assurance of quality.

The Centre proposes 10 benchmarks to monitor progress in early childhood education and care across the OECD. “The proposed benchmarks should be regarded as a first step towards establishing a set of minimum standards to facilitate good early childhood outcomes,” Ms. Santos Pais said.

At present, only Sweden meets all 10 benchmarks, followed by Iceland with nine, and Denmark, Finland, France, and Norway with eight each. These are the same six countries that top the table of government expenditures on early childhood services. Many other OECD countries will need to at least double current levels of expenditure on early childhood services, concludes the report, if minimum acceptable standards are to be met.


* * *

‘REAL PROGRESS’ MADE IN IVORIAN ELECTION PROCESS – UN PEACEKEEPING OFFICIAL

Genuine progress has been made in identifying the population and registering voters for the long-delayed elections in Cote d’Ivoire, a key element in resolving a political crisis that in 2002 divided the West African country into a rebel-held north and Government-controlled south, a top United Nations official said today.

Wrapping up a visit to the country, Edmund Mulet, the Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, also listed among the signs of tangible progress the disappearance of the so-called zone of confidence separating north and south.

He noted in addition that the two former warring forces are now working together on security issues along with the UN peacekeeping mission in the country (UNOCI) and French Licorne forces, according to a UN spokesperson.

“Even so, much remains to be done,” the spokesperson added, saying that Mr. Mulet requested donors to continue to provide support to the peace process and to streamline their efforts in the maintenance of peace in Cote d’Ivoire.

UNOCI is helping to pave the way for the polls, which were scheduled for 30 November but have been delayed for the third time.

Elections are one of the key benchmarks of last year’s Ouagadougou Agreement, the political accord reached in neighbouring Burkina Faso that aims to reconcile Côte d’Ivoire’s Government and the rebel Forces Nouvelles.


* * *

HAITIANS CONTINUE DESPERATE STRUGGLE THREE MONTHS AFTER SUCCESSIVE STORMS – UN REPORT

Almost half of the families uprooted by what the United Nations emergency relief chief had called the “worst disaster in the last 100 years” to strike Haiti are still unable to return to their homes, a UN spokesperson told reporters today.

Haiti remains in desperate need of support three months after four back-to-back tropical storms – Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike – battered the country, killing nearly 800 people and affecting an estimated 1 million people.

In Gonaïves alone – one of the worst hit areas in the impoverished Caribbean nation – over 2,000 families are still living in temporary or collective shelters, which include tents. Those living in the makeshift accommodations continue to receive assistance, including some 5,000 kits which enable families to build transitional shelter.

But until now, only 48 per cent of the $105 million flash appeal launched in September, aimed at assisting the emergency relief effort, has been pledged, according to a situation report published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The UN also reported that a joint humanitarian fact-finding mission is in the western region of Cazale, where conditions are said to be dismal.


* * *

BAN TO HOST MEETING OF DIPLOMATIC QUARTET ON ISRAEL-PALESTINIAN PEACE NEXT WEEK

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will host a meeting in New York on Monday of his top diplomatic partners engaged in the search for a solution to the Middle East conflict based on the principle of two States, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace.

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and European Union (EU) High Representative Javier Solana and European Commissioner for External Relations Bettina Ferrero-Waldner will join Mr. Ban at UN Headquarters, while French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner representing the EU Presidency and Quartet envoy Tony Blair are scheduled to participate by video-link.

The Quartet – UN, EU, Russia and US – has been trying to help the parties attain the two-State peace settlement for several years. The process received new impetus from a meeting of the principal actors last year in the US city of Annapolis, with the projected aim of achieving an agreement by the end of this year.

Mr. Ban has voiced regret that this goal no longer seems possible but has said he is encouraged by the fact that the two sides have succeeded in creating trust and a framework for negotiations where none had existed two years ago.

In a message yesterday to the UN Latin American and Caribbean Meeting in Support of Israeli-Palestinian peace, held in the Chilean capital, Santiago, Mr. Ban said the international community recognizes the urgent need to continue supporting the parties in their efforts to reach a comprehensive agreement on all permanent status issues.

“The goal of such an agreement is clear: an end to the occupation that began in 1967, and the establishment of a Palestinian State living side by side in peace and security with Israel,” the message added.

Meanwhile, 54 truckloads of goods, including 11 containing humanitarian supplies, were allowed into Gaza from Israel today, but the fuel pipelines remained closed, the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) reported.

UN officials, including Mr. Ban, have repeatedly called on Israel to urgently permit the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza’s 1.5 million civilians. At the same time, Mr. Ban has reiterated his condemnation of rocket attacks by Palestinian militants in Gaza against Israeli civilian targets, which Israel has cited as a reason for the closures.


* * *

BAN HOPES DIFFERENCES ON KOREAN DENUCLEARIZATION WILL BE RESOLVED SOON

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today expressed hope that critical differences on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula will be overcome after they were left unresolved by Six-Party Talks that ended yesterday, despite what he called “serious discussions.”

“The Secretary-General strongly supports the goal of verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner,” his spokesperson said in a statement issued after the latest round of talks between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and China, the Republic of Korea, the United States, the Russian Federation and Japan.

“In this regard, he appreciates that the Parties have reaffirmed this goal and unanimously agreed to advance the Six-Party Talks,” the spokesperson added on the results of the meeting, which began on 8 December. Verification of nuclear activities was among the issues over which the parties remained at odds in the talks, according to the statement.


* * *

SECRETARY-GENERAL LOWERS NUMBER OF PROPOSED UN CHAD FORCE BY 1,000

A highly mobile peacekeeping force of at least 4,900, about 1,000 less than previously proposed, backed by 18 helicopters, will be needed to replace European troops next year in strife-torn areas of Chad and Central African Republic (CAR), where hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced people are seeking shelter, according to a United Nations report released today.

“Eastern Chad continues to face an acute humanitarian challenge,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon writes in his latest report on the nascent UN Mission in CAR and Chad (MINURCAT).

“Over 290,000 Sudanese refugees, more than 180,000 internally displaced persons and a further 700,000 individuals among the host communities are in need of food, water and health care. At present, an estimated 500,000 persons are receiving assistance,” he adds of the region that has suffered from a spill-over from the war in Sudan’s Darfur region, rebel activity and banditry.

In his last report in September, Mr. Ban had proposed that the Council consider sending 6,000 UN troops to replace the 3,300-strong European Union force (EUFOR) when its mandate expires on 15 March. However, he now says that refinements to the plan would provide for some 4,900 troops covering a larger operational area and additional responsibilities than EUFOR.

In addition to air transports for troop-carrying, military engineering and communications resources would be required. Unlike EUFOR, it is anticipated that the UN force would continue over the next year and beyond, thus requiring enduring logistical support, in particular accommodation, sanitation and water.

Despite the complex causes of insecurity in the area, Mr. Ban cites attacks by heavily armed bandits as posing the most immediate and constant threat to the civilian population and humanitarian operations on a day-to-day basis.

“The threat is criminal in nature,” he writes, noting that bandit attacks on humanitarian workers continued to seriously undermine their capacity to reach people in need. “It manifests itself, predominately, through the use of military firepower, including heavy weapons. Countering this threat requires more than policing and calls for military deterrence. In cases where this does not succeed, military intervention is required.”

The extreme challenges posed by geography, climate and the fluid security situation demand a highly mobile and responsive force that projects deterrence through visibility and presence both on land and in the air, entailing 24 security patrols daily, supported by a battalion-size mobile reserve force able to provide a surge capacity in response to an emerging threat, he adds.

“Reports of ongoing recruitment of child soldiers and the existence of arms and armed men in refugee camps and internally displaced person sites in the region are particularly disturbing,” he says.

For CAR, he lays out three options: a small military liaison team of some 15 officers based in Chad that will liaise with local authorities and key actors in the Birao airfield area; a 500-strong detachment to protect one consolidated site, project limited longer range patrols, maintain a quick reaction force and undertake airfield maintenance; and 1,000 troops for deterrent and reconnaissance patrols.

In light of the technical assessment of prevailing risks, reinforced by EUFOR’s current tasks, he recommends the first option, but if a sustained presence is required or the threat changes the second option is seen as providing the best balance of operational presence, situational awareness and resource allocation.

To date 16 countries have indicated a willingness to positively consider contributing to MINURCAT and one indicated the possibility of contributing to the helicopter requirement. A number of other potential contributors have indicated that, while they could provide troops, specific commitments would depend on prior confirmation that the key enablers have been secured.

Presenting the report in an open meeting of the Security Council, the UN envoy for CAR and Chad, Victor Angelo, said that in order to ensure the smoothest possible transition, commitments from EUFOR contributors to “re-hat” even for a transitional period need to be confirmed in the coming days.

“Beyond the ‘re-hatting’ of troops already on the ground, MINURCAT will require strong support from Member States with regard to force generation, including equipment and enablers. Given the fluid security situation, challenging geography and climate, the UN force must be highly mobile,” he added.


* * *

UN CHIEF DEPLORES LATEST TERRORIST ATTACK IN IRAQ

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today strongly condemned the “heinous bomb attack” in northern Iraq which killed scores of people and wounded more than 90 civilians in a crowed restaurant yesterday.

The suicide bomber struck a popular restaurant in an the ethnically mixed area 25 miles from the city of Kirkuk while hundreds of families were celebrating the last day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

“No cause can justify such inhumane and indiscriminate violence,” according to a statement issued by Mr. Ban’s spokesperson.

According to media reports, the blast killed 55 people while the restaurant was packed with lunchtime diners, including children, and local Kurdish and Arab leaders who were trying to settle their differences concerning the oil-rich area.

“This terrorist attack was particularly troubling because it targeted a meeting to promote dialogue and reconciliation between different communities in the region,” the statement added.

Mr. Ban called on the Iraqi people and their leaders “not to be deterred by such acts of provocation and to continue to work together in a spirit of national reconciliation in order to ensure a peaceful atmosphere for the holding of next month’s provincial elections.”


* * *

UN OBSERVER FORCE IN GOLAN HEIGHTS EXTENDED FOR ANOTHER SIX MONTHS

The Security Council today extended the United Nations force observing the ceasefire between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights for a further six months, until 30 June 2009.

The 15-member body voted unanimously to renew the mandate of the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which was established in May 1974, as recommended by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his latest report on the mission.

“The situation in the Israel-Syria sector has remained generally quiet,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, the situation in the Middle East is tense and is likely to remain so, unless and until a comprehensive settlement covering all aspects of the Middle East problem can be reached.”

Under the prevailing circumstances, he considered the continued presence of UNDOF in the area to be “essential.”

The Secretary-General also drew attention to $23.7 million shortfall in the funding of the Force, as at 30 September. In addition, as at 31 October, $2.4 million was owed to the troop contributors to UNDOF.

“The outstanding contributions impede the ability of the Secretariat to support the operations of the Force and to reimburse Member States contributing troops to the Force,” noted Mr. Ban.


* * *

DR CONGO: CONCERN FOR DISPLACED GROWS AS GIRLS SHOT, WOMAN RAPED NEAR UN CAMP

Armed militia this morning shot two young girls who were sheltered at a United Nations camp in the conflict-ridden eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), from which the Organization’s refugee agency has been relocating thousands of displaced people due to concerns for their safety.

The five-year-old girl died instantly and the seven-year-old was left critically injured and is fighting for her life in a local hospital.

A woman was also raped by armed men close to the camp in Kibati, north of Goma, the day before the shooting, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Expressing extreme concern for the safety of the Congolese civilians in their two camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kibati, UNHCR have started to voluntarily transfer IDPs to a new camp west of Goma, the capital of North Kivu.

Fighting between Government forces (FARDC) and rebel troops (CNDP) – led by renegade general Laurent Nkunda – in North Kivu intensified at the end of 2006, forcing more than 800,000 people to flee the violence.

In August the conflict flared up again displacing some 250,000 civilians, many of whom were already uprooted from their homes. Other armed groups, including the Mayi Mayi, have also been involved in deadly clashes, some of which have been along ethnic lines.

“We have so far moved 616 families, or 1,780 IDPs, to sites in the Mugunga area,” UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva today.

“The number of persons at Kibati willing to relocate to the new Mugunga III appears to be increasing as the first two convoys scheduled for this morning will take over 400 displaced persons,” he added.

Despite the obvious risks, many of the IDPs in Kibati camps are reluctant to move because they mostly come from villages north of Goma and the former makeshift Kibumba site, which had sheltered some 25,000 people. The relative calm of recent weeks has also convinced many to stay as close to the area as possible.

UNHCR reported that transfers to the newly expanded Mugunga III camp, which can now accommodate some 60,000 people, have involved families in the most urgent need of assistance who had previously been packed into six portable warehouses that each held 1,500 individuals.

On arrival in Mugunga III, the families are handed their luggage, plastic sheeting, sticks for constructing huts and are allocated a plot of land to build shelter. According to the agency, two 24-hour water reservoirs have been completed in time to meet the needs of the initial 6,000 people arriving at the site.

A health centre and police post been set up in the Mugunga III camp, and a total of 250 latrines have also been built, while 750 more will have been constructed by the end of the week.

“Meanwhile, we continue to bring in additional aid for the displaced population in North Kivu province,” Mr. Redmond said, adding “some 2,500 kitchen sets, 23,100 blankets and 1,364 rolls of plastic sheeting arrived from the UNHCR emergency stockpile in Ngara, Tanzania, this week.”

In related news, an investigation into the alleged massacre of civilians in the town of Kiwanja in North Kivu is being conducted by the human rights arm of the UN peacekeeping mission the DRC, known as MONUC, a spokesperson for the world body told reporters today.

MONUC is compiling evidence as well as collecting testimony from hundreds of individuals who witnessed the violent clashes between the CNDP rebels and pro-government PARECO/Mayi Mayi militia in early November and expects to complete the probe in a few weeks.

Along with blue helmets, MONUC has also dispatched mobile multidisciplinary teams – including human rights, civil affairs and child protection officers – to Kiwanja. They have been in place for most of the past four weeks, facilitating relations between MONUC military personnel and the civilian population.


* * *

TIMOR-LESTE ISSUES UN-BACKED HUMAN RIGHTS GUIDE FOR ARMED FORCES

A booklet that aims to build human rights awareness among the members of the armed forces of the young nation of Timor-Leste was released today and immediately welcomed by the United Nations mission in the country, known as UNMIT.

“This initiative by the Government is a sign of its commitment to human rights as expressed by Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão,” the Chief of the Human Rights and Transitional Justice Section of UNMIT, Louis Gentile, said, pointing out that the Prime Minister has repeatedly stressed the importance of human rights as a key element to strengthen the professionalism of the armed forces.

Described by UNMIT as a user-friendly, portable guide for the forces’ 700 soldiers, the booklet was developed by the Ministry of Defense with the assistance of UNMIT and is available in Tetun, Portuguese and English.

It provides an introduction to basic human rights concepts and addresses such issues as the role of armed forces in a democratic state and accountability of individuals for their actions, UNMIT said.

The publication was formally presented to President José Ramos-Horta, in his capacity as Supreme Commander of the Defence Force, at the opening of the Security Sector Reform and Development Seminar held at the Presidents Palace, Lahane, Dili, today.

An UNMIT report in August said that Timor-Leste was making progress in key human rights areas, including adherence to the rule of law, strengthening the judicial system and addressing past violations.

However, the Mission expressed concern over an increase in the number of cases of ill-treatment by members of the security forces reported during the state of exception that followed the February assassination attempts against President Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Gusmão.


* * *

SOME 50,000 COLOMBIANS IN ECUADOR TO BE REGISTERED UNDER UN-BACKED SCHEME

Nearly 50,000 Colombian refugees are expected to benefit from the Ecuadorian Government’s nationwide registration scheme, which aims to recognize and document refugees who have been in the country for more than a year, the United Nations said today.

Ecuador is home to some 20,000 refugees, but an additional 130,000 people who may be in need of international protection have not been registered, either through lack of information or difficulty of access, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“Like other countries in the region, Ecuador faces a major challenge of refugee documentation,” UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva.

The scheme began this week in two pilot locations in Ecuador’s Amazonian region along the border with Colombia – the small community of Barranca Bermeja and La Bonita. Three mobile teams made up of registration officials, representatives from the Ecuadorian Government and UNHCR observers are taking part in the pilot phase.

“The objective is to speed up the registration process, so that people in need of international protection can be interviewed, assessed and issued with documentation on the same day,” said Mr. Redmond.

According to UNHCR, the majority of refugees come from Colombia, where armed conflict and violence have forced millions of people to flee their homes.

UNHCR in Colombia marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights earlier this week by issuing a new call for solidarity with internally displaced people.

During a celebration in Bogotá on Wednesday night, 5,000 paper lanterns were lit up in support of internally displaced people and other victims of the conflict.

The celebration marked the close of the UNHCR-led Corre por la Vida (Running for Life) campaign to foster solidarity with the displaced and raise understanding of the massive human rights violations that lead to forced displacement.

The UN refugee agency has 12 offices inside Colombia, where it has been working since 1998 to support the South American nation in addressing one of the largest crises of forced internal displacement in the world.

It works from four locations in Ecuador, three of them along the northern border with Colombia. UNHCR also has offices in Venezuela, Brazil, Panama and Costa Rica, all of which have large numbers of Colombian refugees.


* * *

CYPRUS: SECURITY COUNCIL EXTENDS MANDATE OF UN PEACEKEEPING MISSION

The Security Council today extended the mandate of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Cyprus (UNFICYP) by six months, welcoming September’s historic launch of talks between the leaders of the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities aimed at reunifying the Mediterranean island.

The Council voted unanimously to keep the mission, which has been in operation since 1964 after the eruption of intercommunal violence between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities, in place through 15 June 2009.

The negotiations have created “the prospect of a comprehensive and durable settlement,” the resolution said, urging the sides to take full advantage of the opportunity by stepping up the pace of talks and maintaining the existing atmosphere of trust and goodwill

The 15-member body also called on the sides to continue to consult with UNFICYP on the demarcation of the buffer zone.

In his latest report on Cyprus to the Council, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “encouraged” that Greek Cypriot leader Demetris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat had decided to resume formal negotiations towards achieving a bizonal, bicommunal federation.

“It reflected political courage, vision and commitment, which both leaders clearly share,” he wrote.

The latest round of talks took place between the leaders of the two communities last week in the UN Protected Area in Nicosia.


* * *

NEW UN-JAPAN PACT SEEKS TO BOOST USE OF SPACE DATA TO REDUCE DISASTER RISK

A new agreement between the United Nations and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) will enable them to boost their cooperation to use space-based information and services to help reduce the risk of disasters in the Asia-Pacific region.

Under the agreement, JAXA and the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) will promote the use of technology, such as satellite imagery, remote sensing and satellite-based communications, for disaster risk reduction and disaster management.

“Although some of ESCAP’s member countries are advanced in the integration of such satellite information and services into their disaster response systems, other countries – in particular least developed countries – are not equipped to analyse and use the data even if it is available and government officials are aware of the benefits,” Shigeru Mochida, ESCAP’s Deputy Executive Secretary, said today at the signing, which took place in Viet Nam during the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum.

The agreement will enable JAXA and ESCAP to increase assistance to ESCAP’s member countries, including by providing the region’s disaster management authorities and the public with important information that will help them deal with disasters more effectively and plan responses in a timely manner.

The new pact is the latest venture by JAXA and ESCAP, which have been working closely for several years to promote the use of space-based information and services in the region. They have assisted a number of countries through the provision of satellite images to disaster-affected areas and with the monitoring of floods, among other things.

According to the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), Asia and the Pacific is, by far, the region most affected by disasters in terms of human and economic impacts.


* * *

NEW HUMAN RIGHTS INSTRUMENT CLOSES VITAL PROTECTION GAP, SAYS TOP UN OFFICIAL

The United Nations human rights chief has welcomed the General Assembly’s adoption of an important new instrument to strengthen the protection of economic, social and cultural rights, stressing that it gives a voice to victims of violations.

“The approval of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is of singular importance by closing a historic gap,” stated UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.

The Protocol, adopted during the Assembly’s 10 December meeting commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, will enable victims to complain about violations of the rights enshrined in the Covenant at the international level for the first time.

Ms. Pillay stressed that the Protocol provides a voice to victims of human rights violations. It also “makes them better equipped to enlist the international community’s help to address their plight.”

The High Commissioner noted that the Universal Declaration chose not to rank rights. “On the contrary, it recognized the equal status of political and civil rights with economic, social and cultural rights, and underlined that all rights are inextricably linked,” she said. “Violations of a set of rights reverberate on other rights and enfeeble them all.”

The Optional Protocol will now be opened for signature during 2009 and enter into force once it has been ratified by ten States.


* * *

ENDS

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