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Keep Turkey’s Hagia Sophia ‘a space for meeting of cultures’, UN rights experts urge

The Human Rights Council-appointed experts are urging authorities to preserve the “outstanding universal value” which resulted in the 1,500-year-old basilica, World Heritage Status, according to a press release.

Avoid division

“It would be an historic mistake at this difficult global moment to take actions which divide religious and cultural groups in Turkey and beyond, rather than uniting them”, said Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur for cultural rights, and Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. “As someone said, ‘the dome of the Hagia Sophia should be big enough to include everyone’.”

Initially constructed as one of the finest examples of Byzantine Christian architecture in the world, the Hagia Sophia became a mosque for the first time, in 1453 under the Ottoman Empire, and following Turkey’s secularization in the 20th Century, became a museum in 1934.

It would be an historic mistake at this difficult global moment to take actions which divide religious and cultural groups in Turkey and beyond, rather than uniting them – UN  human rights experts

The site has been used by people of all faiths, including Christians and Muslims, and non–religious people, and widely celebrated down the decades, as an example of inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue.

The experts expressed concern that the Turkish government’s decision on 10 July to change the status of the building, and the “hasty implementation of this decision”, may violate Turkey’s obligations under rules derived from the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention, said the experts.

‘Global importance’

“We share UNESCO’s concern that the transformation of a site of outstanding universal value requires prior notice and consultation with all stakeholders to ensure that the human rights of all are respected”, they said.  “The Hagia Sophia is Turkey’s most visited attraction, and is a monument of global importance.”

The experts also stressed the importance of appropriate arrangements for the care of the site, following conflicting reports regarding the measures put in place. “We urge the Government of Turkey to clarify the arrangements, and ensure that cultural heritage experts continue to be responsible for the conservation of this monument. International and technical standards must be fully respected”, the independent experts added.

Language referencing conquest used in the debate about the site, has heightened the experts’ concerns, together with the display of a sword, that could be construed as a symbol of conquest, by the head of the State Religious Affairs Agency during a high-level prayer service to mark the site’s change in status, last Friday, said the UN experts – an event that was also attended by Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. (File) Photo: UNESCO

Danger of ‘supremacist view’ emerging

“In light of such developments, the experts fear that the change of status of the Hagia Sophia to a monolithic site could reflect a supremacist view of history”, said the press release, raising up a single cultural narrative, “rather than the meeting of cultures – the spirit which resulted in its World Heritage status – and could prevent access to the site on an equal footing for people of all faiths”, and none.

“We are gravely concerned about the rights of everyone to access and enjoy cultural heritage, about inter-faith co-existence and secular spaces, and about the equality and safety of religious minorities, including Christians”, the experts said. 

Likewise, they called for tolerance overall, in the hope that opposition to the mosque designation elsewhere in the world, will reflect universal values and non-discrimination, rather than offering a competing monolithic vision which fosters hatred against Muslims.  “It is essential to refrain from instrumentalizing cultural heritage and instead to engage with heritage in its diversity in such a way as to allow cultural rights to flourish for all.”

Engage in inclusive dialogue

“We encourage the Turkish Government to engage in dialogue with all stakeholders.  This is essential to guarantee that the Hagia Sophia continues to be a space for the enjoyment of cultural rights by all, reflecting its diverse Christian, Muslim and secular heritages, and that it continues to be a symbol which brings all people in Turkey together”, said the experts.

Special Rapporteurs are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization, and serve the UN human rights system, in their individual capacity.

Five things you should know about disposable masks and plastic pollution

1) Pollution driven by huge increase in mask sales

The promotion of mask wearing as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19 has led to an extraordinary increase in the production of disposable masks: the UN trade body, UNCTAD, estimates that global sales will total some $166 billion this year, up from around $800 million in 2019.

Recent media reports, showing videos and photos of divers picking up masks and gloves, littering the waters around the French Riviera, were a wake-up call for many, refocusing minds on the plastic pollution issue, and a reminder that politicians, leaders and individuals need to address the problem of plastic pollution. 

2) A toxic problem

Manta rays in Bali, Indonesia navigate through plastic pollution., by UN World Oceans Day/Joerg Blessing

If historical data is a reliable indicator, it can be expected that around 75 per cent of the used masks, as well as other pandemic-related waste, will end up in landfills, or floating in the seas. Aside from the environmental damage, the financial cost, in areas such as tourism and fisheries, is estimated by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) at around $40 billion.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has warned that, if the large increase in medical waste, much of it made from environmentally harmful single-use plastics, is not managed soundly, uncontrolled dumping could result. 

The potential consequences, says UNEP, which has produced a series of factsheets on the subject, include public health risks from infected used masks, and the open burning or uncontrolled incineration of masks, leading to the release of toxins in the environment, and to secondary transmission of diseases to humans.

Because of fears of these potential secondary impacts on health and the environment, UNEP is urging governments to treat the management of waste, including medical and hazardous waste, as an essential public service. The agency argues that the safe handling, and final disposal of this waste is a vital element in an effective emergency response.

“Plastic pollution was already one of the greatest threats to our planet before the coronavirus outbreak,” says Pamela Coke-Hamilton, UNCTAD’s director of international trade. “The sudden boom in the daily use of certain products to keep people safe and stop the disease is making things much worse.”

3) Existing solutions could cut plastics by 80 per cent

© UNICEF/Frank Dejongh
A woman sorts through bags of discarded plastic in Côte d’Ivoire.

However, this state of affairs can be changed for the better, as shown by a recent, wide-ranging, report on plastic waste published by The Pew Charitable Trusts, and sustainability thinktank Systemiq.

The study, “Breaking the Plastic Wave: A Comprehensive Assessment of Pathways Towards Stopping Ocean Plastic Pollution”, which was endorsed by Inger Andersen, head of the UN environment agency UNEP, forecasts that, if no action is taken, the amount of plastics dumped into the ocean will triple by 2040, from 11 to 29 million tonnes per year.

But around 80 per cent of plastic pollution could be eliminated over this same period, simply by replacing inadequate regulation, changing business models and introducing incentives leading to the reduced production of plastics. Other recommended measures include designing products and packaging that can be more easily recycled, and expanding waste collection, particularly in lower income countries.

4) Global cooperation is essential

In its July analysis of plastics, sustainability and development, UNCTAD came to the conclusion that global trade policies also have an important role to play in reducing pollution. 

Many countries have introduced regulations that mention plastics over the last decade, an indicator of growing concern surrounding the issue, but, the UNCTAD analysis points out, for trade policies to be truly effective, coordinated, global rules are needed.

“The way countries have been using trade policy to fight plastic pollution has mostly been uncoordinated, which limits the effectiveness of their efforts, says Ms. Coke-Hamilton. “There are limits to what any country can achieve on its own.”

5) Promote planet and job-friendly alternatives

Whilst implementing these measures would make a huge dent in plastic pollution between now and 2040, the Pew/ Systemiq report acknowledges that, even in its best-case scenario, five million metric tons of plastics would still be leaking into the ocean every year.

 A dramatic increase in innovation and investment, leading to technological advances, the report’s study’s authors conclude, would be necessary to deal comprehensively with the problem.

Furthermore, UNCTAD is urging governments to promote non-toxic, biodegradable or easily recyclable alternatives, such as natural fibres, rice husk, and natural rubber. These products would be more environmentally-friendly and, as developing countries are key suppliers of many plastic substitutes, could provide the added benefit of providing new jobs. Bangladesh, for example, is the world’s leading supplier of jute exports, whilst, between them, Thailand and Côte d’Ivoire account for the bulk of natural rubber exports.

“There’s no single solution to ocean plastic pollution, but through rapid and concerted action we can break the plastic wave,” said Tom Dillon, Pew’s vice president for environment. As the organization’s report shows, “we can invest in a future of reduced waste, better health outcomes, greater job creation, and a cleaner and more resilient environment for both people and nature”.

COVID-19: UN chief outlines path to sustainable, inclusive recovery in Southeast Asia

António Guterres has released his latest policy brief on the crisis, which examines impacts on the 11 countries in the subregion and recommendations for the way forward that put gender equality at the centre of response efforts.

“As in other parts of the world, the health, economic and political impact of COVID-19 has been significant across Southeast Asia – hitting the most vulnerable the hardest”, he said in a video accompanying the launch.

Sustainable development off track

Southeast Asia comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste and Viet Nam.

Prior to the pandemic, countries were lagging behind in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the 2030 deadline.

Despite strong economic growth, the policy brief reveals that the subregion was beset by numerous challenges including high inequality, low social protection, a large informal sector, and a regression in peace, justice and robust institutions.

Furthermore, ecosystem damage, biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions and air quality were at “worrying” levels.

Inequalities revealed, tensions surfacing

“The pandemic has highlighted deep inequalities, shortfalls in governance and the imperative for a sustainable development pathway. And it has revealed new challenges, including to peace and security”, the Secretary-General said.

The current situation is leading to recession and social tensions, while several long-running conflicts have stagnated due to stalled political processes.

“All governments in the subregion have supported my appeal for a global ceasefire – and I count on all countries in Southeast Asia to translate that commitment into meaningful change on the ground”, he added.

Regional cooperation praised

The new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 first emerged in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, and the pandemic was declared in March. Globally, there have been more than 16.5 million cases, with nearly 657,000 deaths, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported on Wednesday.

While the disease arrived in Southeast Asia earlier than in the rest of the globe, the UN chief commended governments for acting swiftly to battle the pandemic.

On average, they took 17 days to declare a state of emergency or lockdown after 50 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed, according to the policy brief.

“Containment measures have spared Southeast Asia the degree of suffering and upheaval seen elsewhere,” said Mr. Guterres, who also praised cooperation among the countries.

Four critical areas for response

The Secretary-General underlined four areas that will be critical to ensuring recovery from the pandemic leads to a more sustainable, resilient and inclusive future for Southeast Asia.

The first – tackling inequality in income, health care and social protection – will require short-term stimulus measures as well as long-term policy changes, he said.

Mr. Guterres also advised countries to bridge the digital divide so that no one is left behind in an ever-more-connected world.

ILO/Marcel Crozet
Factory workers in an assembly line in Cambodia.

Due to the over dependence on coal and other industries of the past, he encouraged “greening” the economy, including to create future jobs.

Upholding human rights, protecting civic space and promoting transparency are all intrinsic to an effective response, he concluded.

Advance gender equality

“Central to these efforts is the need to advance gender equality, address upsurges in gender-based violence, and target women in all aspects of economic recovery and stimulus plans,” the UN chief said.

“This will mitigate the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on women, and is also one of the surest avenues to sustainable, rapid, and inclusive recovery for all.”

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Though the challenge is formidable, the Secretary-General underlined the UN’s strong commitment to helping Southeast Asian countries achieve the SDGs and a peaceful future for all.

Thousands suffer extreme rights abuses journeying to Africa’s Mediterranean coast, say humanitarians

Testimonies published by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, with the DRC’s Mixed Migration Centre (MMC), reveal random killings, torture, forced labour and beatings.

Other people on the move said they had been burnt with hot oil and melted plastic, while others faced electrocution and being tied in stress positions.

Officials complicit

Smugglers and traffickers were key abusers, but so too were State officials, to a surprising extent, Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean, told journalists at the UN in Geneva.

“In 47 per cent of the cases, the victims reported the perpetrators of violence are law enforcement authorities, whereas in the past we believed that it was mainly smugglers and traffickers”, he said. “Yes, they are key perpetrators of violence, but the primary perpetrators of violence are people who are supposed to protect.”

Although accurate data is extremely difficult to gather, data suggests that at least 1,750 people died leaving western or eastern African nations en route to countries including Libya, Egypt or Algeria in 2018 and 2019.

70-plus deaths each month

This represents more than 70 deaths a month, “making it one of the most deadly routes for refugees and migrants in the world”, UNHCR said in a statement.

Almost three in 10 people died as people attempted to cross the Sahara Desert, according to the UN agency. Other lethal hotspots included locations in southern Libya such as Sabha, Kufra and Qatrun, in addition to the “smuggling hub” of Bani Walid southeast of Tripoli and several places along the west African section of the migrant route, including Bamako in Mali and Agadez in Niger.

To date this year, at least 70 people are known to have died, including 30 killed in June by traffickers in Mizdah, southern Libya, whose victims came from Bangladesh and African countries.

In a note accompanying the report, UNHCR noted that overland deaths are in addition to the “thousands who have died or gone missing” in recent years trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, usually in vessels unfit to make the crossing.

More than 70 per cent perish on land

“We can consider that an estimate of 72 per cent minimum died overland even before reaching Libya or Morocco or Egypt, their place of initial destination on their journey,” Mr. Cochetel said. “That’s a low estimate in our view, in the sense that the number of deaths on land is more or less the same than the number of deaths at sea for 2018/2019.”

Among the report’s findings is clear evidence that Libya is by no means the only place where migrants and refugees face life-threatening dangers.

Abuse begins early

“Abuse actually is along the route and even sometimes it starts within the country of origin and follows people as they move”, said Othman Belbeisi, IOM Senior Regional Advisor to the Director General on Middle East and North Africa.

“Especially as they are moving at the hands of those smugglers and traffickers. People do not know their locations and they do not have communications, so even if people die or go missing, it’s very difficult to verify or to know where those people get missed.”

Describing the report’s findings as “unacceptable” and calling for action to help vulnerable people on the move, Mr. Cochetel noted that internationally agreed measures to target business and individuals involved in people smuggling had shown limited success.

“We have had no new names of traffickers listed for the last two years, we have not had one single arrest of a UN-sanctioned trafficker over the last two years”, he said. “So why can’t States do like they do with trafficking of weapons, terrorism or drug trafficking; why don’t we follow the money-flows, why don’t we seriously go after those people and try to combat impunity.”

Most stay in first country of arrival

Around 85 per cent of refugees usually stay in the first country where they arrive, the UNHCR Special Envoy insisted, before underscoring the need for investment in countries of origin, to provide desperate people with an alternative to having to put their lives in the hands of traffickers.

“Access to education is difficult, socio-economic inclusion is inexistent in many countries,” Mr. Cochetel said. “Access to medical care is not available, we’ve seen it during COVID-19 in many of those transit countries for migrants or for refugees, so there is a lot to be done under this umbrella of inclusion.”

Highlighting the fact that Libya is not safe for refugees and migrants returned from dangerous sea crossing attempts by the Libyan coast guard, IOM’s Othman Belbeisi called for solutions beyond the war-ravaged nation.

“The situation is not only in one country, (the) other side of the Mediterranean has also a big responsibility”, he said.

Asia-Pacific: ‘Call to action’ highlights role of family farmers amidst COVID-19 pandemic

Creating greater understanding of the importance of these workers in ensuring regional food security is the goal of a new FAO-backed campaign launched on Wednesday.

Described as “a call to action that everyone needs to hear”, it also aims to give voice to family farmers’ organizations and reach out to rural communities through the use of community radio across 15 countries in the region.

“The campaign is calling on all people to value the role of family farmers to achieve food security in this region, especially during the pandemic. Family farmers are the frontline to provide nutritious food for us all. We believe a more resilient family farmer is representing a more resilient world”, said Maria Stella Tirol of ComDev Asia, a communication for development initiative supported by FAO.

Other partners include the Asian Farmers’ Association, the UPLB College of Development Communication, the Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, Digital Green, and the Self-Employed Women’s Association.

Pandemic exposing fragilities

Globally, there are some 500 million family farmers who produce more than 80 per cent of the world’s food, thus contributing to national and even global food security.

In Asia-Pacific, smallholder farmers own and operate the majority of farmland, but they hold less than five hectares per farm. Most of what they produce, or 75 per cent, is sold on to markets, while the remainder is consumed by household members.

FAO explained that food, trade, health and climate are interdependent, and the pandemic has revealed the fragility of these linkages.

The crisis has threatened progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which promise to bring about a better world for all people by 2030.

Asia is home to some 350 million undernourished people, more than any other region, and FAO feared the pandemic could jeopardize decades of gains in reducing poverty and ending hunger.

Still feeding us all

Smallholder family farmers already earned low average incomes prior to the pandemic and are now enduring worsening conditions, such as a weakening in their purchasing power. Disruptions of food chains have also caused increasing food loss and falling prices.

Despite risks to their health, they continue to play a fundamental role in feeding people everywhere.

“This campaign to advocate for Asia-Pacific’s family farmers, fishers, herders and others is needed now more than ever”, said Allan Dow, FAO’s Asia-Pacific Communication Officer.

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“Safeguarding the food security and livelihoods of the most vulnerable people in our vast region is an absolute priority – and with the added impact of this global pandemic a call to action must be loud and clear.”

FAO has created a family farming knowledge platform, with extensive information about COVID-19 impacts on food systems.

The partners in the campaign will also use the platform to reach out to various stakeholders and development partners.



Spread of hepatitis B in children under five, lowest in decades: WHO

The advance marks the achievement of a critical target in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):  to reduce the transmission of hepatitis B in children under age five to under one per cent by this year.

The news coincides with World Hepatitis Day, commemorated annually on 28 July to raise awareness of the disease, a viral infection of the liver that causes a range of health problems, including liver cancer.  The theme for 2020 – “Hepatitis-free future” – has a strong focus on preventing the disease which attacks the liver, one of the five main strains, among mothers and newborns.

“No infant should grow up only to die of hepatitis B because they were not vaccinated”, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.  “Today’s milestone means that we have dramatically reduced the number of cases of liver damage and liver cancer in future generations.”

Preventing mother-to-child transmission essential

Preventing mother-to-child transmission of hepatitis B is the most important strategy for controlling the disease and saving lives, Dr. Tedros said.

WHO is calling for united and intensified efforts to test pregnant women, provide antiviral prophylaxis to women who need it, and expand access to hepatitis B immunization and its all-important birth dose vaccine.

Globally, more than 250 million people live with chronic hepatitis B infection, according to WHO.  Infants are especially vulnerable – and 90 per cent of children infected with hepatitis B in their first year of life become chronic carriers.  Each year, the disease claims nearly 900,000 lives.

Greater access to vaccine ‘birth dose’ needed

Infants can be protected from hepatitis B through a safe and effective vaccine that provides over 95 per cent protection.

WHO recommends that all infants receive a first dose of the hepatitis B vaccine as soon as possible after birth – preferably within 24 hours – followed by at least two additional doses.  Three-dose coverage during childhood, reached 85 per cent worldwide in 2019, up from 30 per cent in 2000.

However, access to the first critical dose within 24 hours of birth remains uneven.  Global coverage is 43 per cent.  Coverage drops to 34 per cent in the eastern Mediterranean region and only 6 per cent in Africa.

“Expanding access to a timely birth dose of the hepatitis B vaccine is the cornerstone of efforts to prevent mother-to-children transmission,” said Meg Doherty, WHO Director of Global HIV, Hepatitis and STI Programmes.  In sub-Saharan Africa, where the birth dose of hepatitis B vaccine has not yet been introduced, “it is a priority to assure that protection as early as possible”.

COVID-19 hampering progress

A new modelling study by Imperial College London and WHO found that disruptions caused by COVID-19 to WHO’s hepatitis B vaccination programme, could have a serious impact on efforts to reach targets in the global strategy.

Under a worst-case scenario, the study projects that 5.3 million additional chronic infections could be seen in children born between 2020 and 2030, and one million additional hepatitis B-related deaths among those children later on. 

Hepatitis C, once deadly, now highly curable

Speaking at a press conference from Geneva, Dr. Tedros said 325 million people live with hepatitis B or C.  Each year, 1.3 million people lose their lives to these diseases.

The first-ever global hepatitis strategy, adopted by countries at the 2016 World Health Assembly, calls for an end to viral hepatitis by 2030, reducing new infections by 90 per cent and mortality by 65 per cent.

“Even talking about hepatitis elimination would have once seemed a fantasy”, Tedros said, “but new drugs have transformed hepatitis C from a life-long deadly disease into one in most cases can be cured in 12 weeks.” 

While medicines remain too expensive for patients in many countries, the UN health chief pointed to cases of “incredible” progress, notably in Egypt, where 60 million people have been tested for Hepatitis C and linked to treatment, free of charge.  There has also been progress in eliminating hepatitis B in Asia, where childhood immunization coverage is high, including the all-important birth dose. 

Asked about the average cost of a 12-week treatment for hepatitis C in high, middle and low-income countries, Dr. Doherty said the price has fallen from $3,000 to $60 today. 

The price is right

“In many ways, we now have prices that will allow us to end hepatitis C,” she said.  “This is essentially a cure.”  The goal now is to find “the missing millions” of people who have not yet been identified as infected – and to test and treat them so they no longer pass on the virus.

COVID-19 has only made this goal more daunting.  With supply chains and services disrupted, resources diverted, and the political focus shifted to containing the pandemic, there is a real risk of losing gains made.

“Like so many diseases, hepatitis is not just a health problem, it is an enormous social and economic burden”, Tedros stressed.

Climate emergency ‘a danger to peace’, UN Security Council hears

“The climate emergency is a danger to peace”, said Miroslav Jenča, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Europe, Central Asia and the Americas, as he called on peace and security actors to play their role and help speed up implementation of the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change.

‘Vicious cycle’

“The failure to consider the growing impacts of climate change will undermine our efforts at conflict prevention, peacemaking and sustaining peace, and risk trapping vulnerable countries in a vicious cycle of climate disaster and conflict”, he said.

Mr. Jenča briefed the Council at the start of an open video-teleconference debate on climate and security, one of the key themes of this month’s German presidency of the 15-member body.

Noting that the consequences of climate change vary from region to region, he said the fragile or conflict-affected situations around the world are more exposed to – and less able to cope with – the effects of a changing climate.

Peacekeeping link

“It is no coincidence that seven of the 10 countries most vulnerable and least prepared to deal with climate change, host a peacekeeping operation or special political mission”, he said.

Differences exists between regions, within regions and within communities, with climate-related security risks impacting women, men, girls and boys in different ways, he said.

In the Pacific, rising sea levels and extreme weather events pose a risk to social cohesion, he said.  In Central Asia, water stress and reduced access to natural resources can contribute to regional tensions.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America, climate-driven population displacement could undermine regional stability.  And in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, the effects of climate change are already deepening grievances and escalating the risk of conflict – providing fodder for extremist groups.

Outlining some actions that Member States can take together, he said that new technologies must be leveraged to strengthen the ability to turn long-term climate foresight, into actionable, near-term analysis.

Mr. Jenča also recommended stronger partnerships that would bring together the efforts already being made by the UN, Member States, regional organizations and others, to identify best practices, strengthen resilience and bolster regional cooperation.

COVID-19: World leaders to stay at home, in first ‘virtual’ UN General Assembly

The new virtual format is largely due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic with many countries continuing to grapple with the health, social and economic fallout from the crisis.

While the number of new cases of COVID-19 in New York has dramatically fallen, since the city was for a while the global epicentre of the pandemic in April, the US as a whole has almost four million reported cases, higher than any other country.

Pre-recorded speeches

In a press briefing on Thursday, Reem Abaza, Spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, said that each Member State, Observer State, and the European Union, was invited to submit a pre-recorded video, delivered by its designated high-level official, which will be played in the General Assembly Hall.

The Hall will not be empty, however: Ms. Abaza explained that the videos will be introduced by a representative of each State, who will be physically present. 

The same procedure will apply for a series of special high-level sessions scheduled to take place, including a commemoration of the landmark 75th anniversary of the United Nations; a summit on biodiversity; and a meeting to commemorate, and promote, the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

Ms. Abaza told correspondents that more details regarding the organization of this year’s events, including logistics, will be released “in due course”.

Side-events, such as New York Climate Week, are unlikely to welcome attendees to New York venues this year, following Mr. Muhammad-Bande’s suggestion that they should be moved online.

‘Silence procedure’

The decision to introduce pre-recorded videos to the High-Level General Debate, which takes place at the beginning of the 75th session of the General Assembly, was made by the UN body on Wednesday, using the novel ‘silence procedure’ method.

Under this method, draft resolutions are circulated by the President of the General Assembly, which gives Member States a deadline of at least 72 hours, to raise objections. If there are no objections, the President circulates a letter, confirming that the resolution has been adopted.

New ECOSOC President outlines focus on pandemic, SDGs and climate action

Ambassador Munir Akram of Pakistan outlined his priorities for the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) as the UN marks its 75th anniversary amid the global economic and health crisis.

Challenging times

“The ECOSOC’s central mandate is to promote ‘better standards of life in larger freedoms’ through international economic cooperation. Never before has the fulfillment of this mandate been more challenging, or more imperative, as it is today,” he told a virtual ceremony.

Mr. Akram said the pandemic and associated global recession will make it difficult to realize the SDGs. The 17 goals provide a roadmap to a better future for all, by 2030.

Meanwhile, global warming is accelerating. He warned that unless countries meet agreed targets on climate change, the planet could become uninhabitable for all living things.

Simultaneous response needed

“The broad policy decisions to address each of these three simultaneous challenges have been taken. Commitments have been made. What is needed now is implementation”, said Mr. Akram.

“This should be the focus of our deliberations. And, since we need to respond simultaneously, there must be synergy between our responses to the health, development and climate challenges.”

Address rising inequality

The new ECOSOC President also wants countries to address rising inequality, both within and between nations.

“The legacy of colonialism, racism and foreign occupation is a major systemic cause of inequality”, he said.

“I will propose to the Council that we convene a special meeting in 2021 – the 20th Anniversary of the Durban Conference against Racism – to address the root causes of global inequality. Similarly, the 10th ECOSOC Youth Forum should be dedicated to promoting a vision of a more equal, peaceful, united and dynamic world order.”

Support developing nations

Mr. Akram also proposed that the Council should promote action on financing for COVID-19, the SDGs and climate action goals.

However, if the world is to “build back better” after the pandemic, he underlined the need for developing countries to have greater access to renewable energy and other sustainable infrastructure, as well as advanced technologies.

“The ECOSOC should help to build a coordinated approach to ensure the required capital flows to developing countries to recover from the current recession and revive the prospects of achieving the SDGs”, he said.

“In preparation for the annual Forum on Financing for Development next April, I intend to convene a few informal meetings and consultations to advance these objectives.”

New ECOSOC Bureau

This is the second time Mr. Akram has assumed the ECOSOC Presidency, having taken the helm in 2005.

Three Vice-Presidents have also been elected to serve alongside him on the ECOSOC Bureau, which proposes the Council’s agenda and devises a programme of work, among other duties.

They are Ambassador Collen Vixen Kelapile of Botswana, Ambassador Pascale Baeriswyl of Switzerland, and Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya of Ukraine.

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‘Be ready to embrace change!’

Mr. Akram praised his predecessor, Mona Juul of Norway, for her leadership of the Council during what he described as “these extraordinary times”.

Ms. Juul in turn offered a few words of advice, having steered the Council through the initial phases of the pandemic, and at a time of global upheaval against racial injustice, the climate crisis and rising inequalities.

“Be ready to embrace change!”, she told Mr. Akram and the new Bureau. “Let us change for the better and make our recovery based upon values, not value. On compassion, courage, and cooperation.”

Although the pandemic is changing the world, Ms. Juul stressed it has not changed global commitment to realizing a better future for all.

She said now is the time to “fix the world’s fragilities”, from access to universal health coverage and quality education, to reversing environmental degradation, and power imbalances that disproportionally affect women and girls.

“To recover better, we must build forward. To a greener, fairer, more inclusive and more resilient tomorrow,” she said. “If we do not change now, then when?”

Harness multilateralism’s power to urgently advance women’s rights amid COVID recovery

“It’s up to us to make sure that we use the power of multilateral investment and commitment to realize the potential gains from radical, positive action to redress long-standing inequalities in multiple areas of women’s lives,” said UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka, during the day-long interactive hearing organized by General Assembly President Tijani Muhammad-Bande.

The virtual event rallied participants around the need for stronger multilateral commitment to implement the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action. Adopted at the watershed Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, it outlines 12 critical areas where action is needed to create gender equality – and ways to bring about change. Together with the Beijing Declaration, it is widely considered the most progressive blueprint for advancing women’s rights.

The interactive hearing more broadly sets the stage for a high-level meeting to be held by the Assembly on “Accelerating the realization of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls”, on 23 September, during its annual general debate.

COVID-19 lays bare gender inequalities

Ms. Mlambo Ngcuka urged Governments – and all other service providers – to plan their COVID-19 response “as they have never done before”, including women in its design and fully taking a gender perspective into account.

COVID-19 has laid bare existing inequalities, she stressed. Across every sphere – from health to the economy, security to social protection – women and girls are disproportionately affected.

Ms. Mlambo Ngcuka – who devoted particular attention to empowering women as Deputy President of South Africa from 2005 to 2008 – said women today, aged 25 to 34, are 25 per cent more likely than men to live in poverty. While women’s political representation has doubled since 1995, men still control more than three quarters of the seats in the single and lower houses of parliaments around the world.

And after years of progress, she said the proportion of peace agreements that included references to women, dropped from 32 per cent between 2011 and 2015 to 7.7 per cent in 2018.

Gender equality ‘everyone’s responsibility’

“We simply cannot allow the coronavirus to threaten the lives and future of women,” said Mr. Muhammad-Bande. Twenty-five years after adopting the Platform for Action, efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 have shut schools, diverted resources to pandemic response, and disproportionately affected women with a significant uptick in unpaid care work.

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The needs of women and girls must be central to both rapid-response and long-term recovery planning, he asserted, with women included in every decision-making forum.

“Gender equality is everybody’s responsibility,” he said. The conversation must move beyond a virtual platform, “to amplify the voice of every girl and facilitate women’s leadership in all arenas”.

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