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UN: 1 in 4 children live in country of conflict or disaster

July 10, 2018

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — A quarter of the world’s children — about 535 million — are living in a country affected by conflict or disaster, the head of the U.N. children’s agency said Monday. Henrietta Fore told a Security Council meeting on children and armed conflict that it is “almost beyond comprehension” that one of every four young people are caught in that situation.

She pointed to children and young people whose lives are being shattered by conflicts, including in Yemen, Mali and South Sudan. She also cited youngsters recruited to fight, killed by a land mine or an attack on their school, and “losing hope not only in their futures, but in the futures of their countries.”

Sweden, which holds the Security Council presidency this month, organized the open meeting on the theme “Protecting Children Today Prevents Conflict Tomorrow” and sponsored a resolution unanimously adopted by the 15 members to strengthen U.N. actions to ensure the care and safety of youngsters.

“We are not doing nearly enough to protect our children,” Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, who presided at the meeting, said, stressing that “350 million children are affected by armed conflict today.”

The resolution states for the first time that children recruited or caught up in armed conflict should be treated primarily as victims, he said. It urges all countries “to consider non-judicial measures as alternatives to prosecution and detention that focus on the rehabilitation and reintegration for children formerly associated with armed forces and armed groups.”

Lofven said the resolution also for the first time makes the point that the needs and vulnerabilities of girls and boys are different and stresses that access for all youngsters to education and physical and mental health care is essential.

It also sets out a framework to reintegrate children associated with armed groups or armed forces into society, which “places children as part of the solution, not part of the problem,” he said. U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley told the council that “more than 60 percent of people in conflict-affected countries are under the age of 25.” In countries like Afghanistan, an entire generation has never lived in peace, she said.

She stressed the importance of education as “a way to recover from conflict and prevent it in the future,” warning that children who grow up uneducated, unskilled and resentful “will be prime targets for recruitment by extremists and armed groups.”

Virginia Gamba, the U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict, said she is “profoundly shocked” by the more than 21,000 violations of children’s rights in 2017 recently reported by the U.N., a significant increase from 2016.

“The majority of these despicable acts were perpetrated by armed groups although government forces and unknown armed actors played an important part,” she said. “Each and every one of them led to unspeakable suffering for children, families and entire communities.”

Gamba said the level and severity of the latest violations demonstrate the need for united action “to change the tide of history,” including by focusing on prevention and reintegration “to break cycles of violence” against children.

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UN chief visits Rohingya in Bangladesh refugee camps

July 02, 2018

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh (AP) — U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said Monday that the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh to escape violence have been victims of one of the “most tragic stories” of the violation of human rights.

Guterres was visiting the sprawling refugee camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district to meet some of the Rohingya who have taken shelter there since last August. He said at a news conference that the refugees had to live under terrible conditions in the camps because of massive violations of their human rights in Myanmar. He praised Bangladesh’s government for being generous toward the refugees.

“It is impossible to visit these camps without breaking our hearts with the suffering of the Rohingya people,” Guterres said. “First of all, listening to the terrible stories of massive violence — of killings, of rape, of torture, of house or villages burnt — it is probably one of the most tragic stories in relation to the systematic violation of human rights.”

He said the solidarity the international community was demonstrating toward the crisis was not necessarily being translated into reality when it comes to funding. Guterres said he was particularly worried about the potential threats of flooding and mudslides because of monsoon rains and urged the international community to step up with funding.

“When I see the young boys and girls, I remember my own granddaughters and I imagine what it would be see my granddaughters living in these conditions,” he said. On Sunday, Guterres met Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and assured her of the U.N.’s continuing support for the Rohingya.

World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi also visited the camps. “I am extremely humbled and moved by the courage of the Rohingya,” Kim said. “We cannot turn our heads away. We stand in solidarity. … Today we are all Rohingya.”

Kim promised to continue to work with Bangladesh’s government to support the refugees. Prior to Kim’s visit to Bangladesh, the World Bank announced a $480 million grant to Bangladesh to address the needs of Rohingya, including health care, education, water, sanitation and social protection.

Maulana Salamat Ullah, a refugee, told The Associated Press that he talked to Guterres and shared his thoughts of going back home. “I told him we don’t have our country, please help us take back our country. I am requesting the entire world to help get us our country back,” he said.

“What would be our children’s future? How will they get educated? We don’t know what will happen,” he said. The recent spasm of violence in Myanmar began when Rohingya insurgents staged a series of attacks on Aug. 25 on about 30 security outposts and other targets. In a subsequent crackdown described by U.N. and U.S. officials as “ethnic cleansing,” Myanmar security forces have been accused of rape, killing, torture and the burning of Rohingya homes. Thousands are believed to have been killed.

Rohingya are denied citizenship in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar, where they’ve faced persecution for decades. They’re derided as “Bengalis,” and many in Myanmar believe they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

Bangladesh and Myanmar signed an agreement in November to start repatriating the Rohingya in January, but the process has been delayed over safety concerns and a complicated verification process. Global human rights groups and the U.N. said the conditions in Myanmar were not safe for the refugees’ return.

The U.N. refugee agency and Bangladesh finalized a memorandum of understanding this year that said the repatriation process must be “safe, voluntary and dignified in line with international standards.”

US leaving UN’s Human Rights Council, cites anti-Israel bias

June 20, 2018

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States is leaving the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, which Ambassador Nikki Haley called “an organization that is not worthy of its name.” It’s the latest withdrawal by the Trump administration from an international institution.

Haley said Tuesday the U.S. had given the human rights body “opportunity after opportunity” to make changes. She lambasted the council for “its chronic bias against Israel” and lamented the fact that its membership includes accused human rights abusers such as China, Cuba, Venezuela and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“We take this step because our commitment does not allow us to remain a part of a hypocritical and self-serving organization that makes a mockery of human rights,” Haley said. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appearing alongside Haley at the State Department, said there was no doubt that the council once had a “noble vision.”

But today we need to be honest,” Pompeo said. “The Human Rights Council is a poor defender of human rights.” The announcement came just a day after the U.N. human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, denounced the Trump administration for separating migrant children from their parents. But Haley cited longstanding U.S. complaints that the 47-member council is biased against Israel. She had been threatening the pull-out since last year unless the council made changes advocated by the U.S.

“Regrettably, it is now clear that our call for reform was not heeded,” Haley said. Still, she suggested the decision need not be permanent, adding that if the council did adopt reforms, “we would be happy to rejoin it.” She said the withdrawal notwithstanding, the U.S. would continue to defend human rights at the United Nations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office called the U.S. decision “courageous,” calling it “an unequivocal statement that enough is enough.” The move extends a broader Trump administration pattern of stepping back from international agreements and forums under the president’s “America First” policy. Although numerous officials have said repeatedly that “America First does not mean America Alone,” the administration has retreated from multiple multilateral accords and consensuses since it took office.

Since January 2017, it has announced its withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, left the U.N. educational and cultural organization and pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. Other contentious moves have included slapping tariffs on steel and aluminum against key trading partners, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.

Opposition to the decision from human rights advocates was swift. A group of 12 organizations including Save the Children, Freedom House and the United Nations Association-USA said there were “legitimate concerns” about the council’s shortcomings but that none of them warranted a U.S. exit.

“This decision is counterproductive to American national security and foreign policy interests and will make it more difficult to advance human rights priorities and aid victims of abuse around the world,” the organizations said in a joint statement.

Added Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch: “All Trump seems to care about is defending Israel.” On Twitter, al-Hussein, the U.N. human rights chief, said it was “Disappointing, if not really surprising, news. Given the state of #HumanRights in today’s world, the US should be stepping up, not stepping back.”

And the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank close to the Trump administration, defended the move, calling the council “notably incurious about the human rights situations in some of the world’s most oppressive countries.” Brett Schaefer, a senior fellow, pointed out that Trump could have withdrawn immediately after taking office but instead gave the council 18 months to make changes.

Haley has been the driving force behind withdrawing from the human rights body, unprecedented in the 12-year history of the council. No country has ever dropped out voluntarily. Libya was kicked out seven years ago.

The move could reinforce the perception that the Trump administration is seeking to advance Israel’s agenda on the world stage, just as it prepares to unveil its long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan despite Palestinian outrage over the embassy relocation. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, is visiting the Middle East this week as the White House works to lay the groundwork for unveiling the plan.

Israel is the only country in the world whose rights record comes up for discussion at every council session, under “Item 7” on the agenda. Item 7 on “Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories” has been part of the council’s regular business almost as long as it has existed.

The United States’ current term on the council ends next year. Although the U.S. could have remained a non-voting observer on the council, a U.S. official said it was a “complete withdrawal” and that the United States was resigning its seat “effective immediately.” The official wasn’t authorized to comment publicly and insisted on anonymity.

That means the council will be left without one of its traditional defenders of human rights. In recent months, the United States has participated in attempts to pinpoint rights violations in places like South Sudan, Congo and Cambodia.

The U.S. pullout was bound to have ripple effects for at least two countries at the council: China and Israel. The U.S., as at other U.N. organizations, is Israel’s biggest defender. At the rights council, the United States has recently been the most unabashed critic of rights abuses in China — whose growing economic and diplomatic clout has chastened some other would-be critics, rights advocates say.

There are 47 countries in the Human Rights Council, elected by the U.N.’s General Assembly with a specific number of seats allocated for each region of the globe. Members serve for three-year terms and can serve only two terms in a row.

The United States has opted to stay out of the Human Rights Council before: The George W. Bush administration opted against seeking membership when the council was created in 2006. The U.S. joined the body only in 2009 under President Barack Obama.

Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Geneva and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.

UN refugee agency: Record 68.5 million displaced in 2017

June 19, 2018

GENEVA (AP) — The U.N. refugee agency reported Tuesday that nearly 69 million people who have fled war, violence and persecution were forcibly displaced last year, a record for the fifth straight year.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said the continued crises in places like South Sudan and Congo, as well as the exodus of Muslim Rohingya from Myanmar that started last year, raised the overall figure of forced displacements in 2017 to 68.5 million.

Of that total, 16.2 million were newly displaced last year — an average of more than 44,000 people per day. Most have been displaced for longer than that, some forced to flee multiple times. “The global figure has gone up again by a couple of million,” said the High Commissioner, Filippo Grandi. “This is because of protracted conflicts and lack of solutions for those conflicts that continue, continuous pressure on civilians in countries of conflict that pushed them to leave their homes and new or aggravating crises, like the Rohingya crisis.”

For the fourth year running, Turkey was again the country with the largest number of refugees — mostly Syrians — at 3.5 million at the end of 2017. The United States received the most new individual applications for asylum last year, at nearly 332,000. Germany was second at more than 198,000.

But UNHCR, Grandi’s agency, said the figures debunked the flawed perception among some that a refugee crisis has affected more developed countries in the “Global North.” It said 85 percent of refugees are in developing countries, many of them “desperately poor.”

“It should be an element dispelling the perception, the notion that is so prevailing in many countries: That the refugee crisis — singular — is a crisis of the rich world,” Grandi said. “It is not. It continues to be a crisis mostly of the poor world.”

Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council who once headed the U.N. humanitarian aid agency, said cooperation between countries and diplomacy for peace were in “deep crisis.” “International responsibility-sharing for displaced people has utterly collapsed. Rich countries are building walls against families fleeing war, at the same time as less money is available for aid to people in conflict areas,” Egeland said. He said leaders in many countries are invoking border closures in Europe to carry out their own exclusion policies.

“We have to end this race to the bottom, and rather let us be inspired by generous recipient countries like Uganda, where vulnerable refugees are being protected,” he said. The data release comes ahead of World Refugee Day on Wednesday.

Myanmar, UN sign pact on initial steps for Rohingya return

June 06, 2018

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar and U.N. agencies signed an agreement Wednesday that could eventually lead to the return of some of the 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who fled brutal persecution by the country’s security forces and are now crowded into makeshift camps in Bangladesh.

The memorandum of understanding promises to establish a “framework of cooperation” that aims to create conditions for “voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable” repatriation of Rohingya refugees but does not address Myanmar’s denial of citizenship for the minority.

Myanmar’s government said it hoped the pact would hasten repatriation, but rights groups still doubt it will let many Rohingya return or can guarantee the safety of those who do. Myanmar’s statement didn’t mention Rohingya, reflecting the government and the Burmese majority’s insistence there is no such ethnic group in Myanmar. Instead it referred to them as “displaced persons.”

Myanmar’s security forces have been accused of rape, killing, torture and the burning of Rohingya homes in western Rakhine state, where most Rohingya lived. The U.N. and U.S. have described the army crackdown that began in August last year as “ethnic cleansing.”

Predominantly Buddhist Myanmar and Bangladesh agreed in November to begin repatriating Rohingya. But refugees feared their lives would be at risk in Myanmar without international monitoring while Myanmar insisted they have identity documents, which most Rohingya have been denied.

Knut Ostby, U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar, said the agreement is an important first step toward resolving the crisis. “There is a lot of work to be done. This task should not be underestimated,” Ostby said. “We are talking about approximately 700,000 people who don’t only have to return, but the conditions have to be right for them to return: the conditions both in terms of their identity in society, in terms of their safety and also in terms of services, livelihoods, a place to live, infrastructure.”

The U.N. has said the agreement provides for its refugee and development agencies to be given access to Rakhine state. It said that will allow the refugee agency to assess the situation and provide information to refugees about conditions in their areas of origin so that they can better decide whether they want to return.

The Myanmar government statement said assistance from the U.N. agencies would assist the work it has already started toward repatriation. It highlighted that it had cooperated with the U.N. a quarter century earlier in repatriating 230,000 “displaced persons” — Rohingya — who had fled violence in Rakhine to Bangladesh.

Rights groups remain pessimistic that the safe return of Rohingya refugees will ever be possible. They point to a lack of firm commitments from Myanmar and its decades of hostility toward a minority that was denied citizenship by a 1982 law that excluded them from a list of recognized ethnic groups in the majority Buddhist nation.

“How will the Burmese government guarantee these people will not face again persecution?” said Kyaw Win, executive director of Burma Human Rights Network. “It is very politically convenient for the Burmese government to sign this agreement, and also never commit.”

Some 125,000 of the Rohingya who remain in Myanmar are living in camps where their movement is restricted after being forced from their villages in 2012 by a wave of violence led by radical Buddhists and security forces.

“There’s still been no movement to ensure Rohingya have equal access to full citizenship,” said Matthew Smith, the head of advocacy group Fortify Rights. “Discourse around repatriation now unfortunately appears to be attempt by authorities to distract from mass atrocities and crimes taken place.”

UN team, in Bangladesh, vows to work to end Rohingya crisis

April 29, 2018

KUTUPALONG, Bangladesh (AP) — A U.N. Security Council team visiting Bangladesh promised Sunday to work hard to resolve a crisis involving hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled to the country to escape military-led violence in neighboring Myanmar.

The diplomats, who visited the sprawling camps and border points where about 700,000 Rohingya have taken shelter, said their visit was an opportunity to see the situation firsthand. Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyansky, said he and his fellow team members would not look away from the crisis after their visit, though he warned that there are no simple solutions.

“It’s very necessary to come and see everything at place here in Bangladesh and Myanmar. But there is no magic solution, there is no magic stick to solve all these issues,” he said at a news conference at the Kutupalong refugee camp in the coastal town of Cox’s Bazar.

The diplomats will conclude their three-day visit to Bangladesh on Monday, when they leave for Myanmar. The recent spasm of violence in Myanmar began when Rohingya insurgents staged a series of attacks on Aug. 25 on about 30 security outposts and other targets. In a subsequent crackdown described by U.N. and U.S. officials as “ethnic cleansing,” Myanmar security forces have been accused of rape, killing, torture and the burning of Rohingya homes. Thousands are believed to have been killed.

The diplomats, comprising representatives from the five permanent Security Council members — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — and 10 non-permanent member states, talked to some 120 refugees, including rape victims.

Peru’s ambassador to the U.N., Gustavo Adolfo Meza Cuadra Velasqez, said he and his fellow team members were ready to “work hard” and were “very concerned” about the crisis. “I think we have witnessed the magnitude of the refugee crisis and very tragic situation of some of the families,” he said.

The refugees are seeking U.N. protection to return home. The U.N. refugee agency and Bangladesh recently finalized a memorandum of understanding that said the repatriation process must be “safe, voluntary and dignified … in line with international standards.”

Karen Pierce, the UK’s ambassador to the United Nations, said that the Security Council would continue to work on enabling the refugees to return to Myanmar, but that the Rohingya must be allowed to return under safe conditions.

“The problem there lies in their expulsion, treatment and the fact that they had to flee to Bangladesh,” she said. Rohingya are denied citizenship in overwhelmingly Buddhist Myanmar, where they’ve faced persecution for decades. They’re derided as “Bengalis,” and many in Myanmar believe they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Most of them live in poverty in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, next to Bangladesh.

Thousands of refugees gathered amid scorching heat at the Kutupalong camp to welcome the visiting delegation. They carried placards, some of which read “We want justice.” “We are not Bengali, we are Rohingya. They have killed my family members, they tortured us, they will kill us again,” said one of the refugees, 29-year-old Mohammed Tayab, standing in front of a tent where he was waiting to meet the U.N. team.

Tayab, who was using crutches, said he was shot by Myanmar troops in his right leg. He said he lost a brother, an uncle and a nephew after Myanmar soldiers shot them dead. “I am here to talk to them, we want justice from them,” he said of the diplomats. “I will tell them my stories. They should listen to us.”

UN officials in Sweden for talks on North Korea, Syria

April 21, 2018

BACKAKRA, Sweden (AP) — The U.N. secretary-general and ambassadors from countries on the Security Council assembled Saturday in Sweden for an informal meeting on weighty international issues, including developments on the Korean Peninsula and in Syria.

The annual joint brainstorming session for the United Nations’ movers and shakers is being hosted this year by the Swedish government on the picturesque farm estate of Dag Hammarskjold in southern Sweden.

Hammarskjold was a Swedish diplomat who served as the second U.N. secretary-general before he died in a plane crash in September 1961. Talking to reporters before the meeting, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres briefly commented on North Korea’s announcement that it has suspended nuclear and long-range missile tests.

He said he was optimistic about North Korea’s decision, saying that “the path is open for the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said Pyongyang’s statement “clearly shows that when you have a unity within the (U.N.) Security Council, you can achieve things.”

However, Lofven remained cautious about the situation. “To speculate what would happen is perhaps a bit too dangerous, but it does look positive, yes,” he said. Meanwhile, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said diplomats were “still deadlocked” over Syria.

The meeting comes just a week after France, Britain and the U.S. launched joint airstrikes at suspected Syrian chemical weapons sites, saying Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government was behind an alleged chemical weapons attack in the town of Douma.

Haley said she and the other diplomats welcomed the working meeting as a chance to get a break from their normal routines “Retreats like this are very important for us to get away from New York sometimes and discuss these things in a way that we can really try and find a solution,” she said.

Guterres is set to stay in Sweden until Monday.

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