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First Person: Vietnamese man finds ‘true voice’ in gay community

Nguyen Trong Hung opened a café in Son La in northwestern Viet Nam to serve as a meeting place for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and to offer HIV testing.

While in middle school, realizing that I was gay, the only thing I could do was to torment and blame myself. My father left, my mum passed away, I was transferred from one relative’s house to another and suffered from both physical and mental harassment. This pattern repeated as I grew up. I wandered a lot as a way to avoid my family and all the memories that come with them.

One time when I returned home, I noted down everything about my daily life in a diary. I pretended to have forgotten it and left it on purpose in a place where I hoped a family member could find it read my story. Perhaps everybody read it, but no one said a thing. I was walking in limbo for a while, deciding whether to come out or not.

UNFPA/Vo Ngoc Dung
Nguyen Trong Hung’ s café provides a rapid HIV test to customers.

In 2013, a friend invited me to work in a coffee shop in Son La. For the very first time, I discovered my true voice and a community that I belonged to. I do not have to run away anymore! 

Later, I opened my own coffee shop and turned it into a gathering place in Son La for the LGBT community, and for men who have sex with men. We even have a quick HIV testing service there. I want to help to change people’s behaviors, and to give people with HIV access to treatment.

Before coming out, I felt that my life was drenched in sorrow and pressure. With all the pressure taken off my shoulders, my life has now become an open book.

If I had a second chance, I would not have intentionally ‘forgotten’ the diary, hoping that somebody would read it. With all the knowledge that I have now, I would proudly come out to my family as gay.

Reducing stigma

  • The United Nations in Viet Nam supports work aimed at reducing stigma and discrimination of the LGBT community.
  • Recent interventions include a project launched this year by UNICEF, UN Women, and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) to help government and civil society organizations to address violence against women and children.
  • UNICEF and UN Women also teamed up to help protect women and children in COVID-19 quarantine centres.

Guinea-Bissau: UN chief commits to continued support as peacebuilding office closes

In a statement, Mr. Guterres noted the closure of the Office, which has completed its mandate in keeping with Security Council resolution 2512, and extended his appreciation to the Government and the people of Guinea-Bissau for their strong partnership with UNIOGBIS and the broader United Nations system.

The UN chief went on to commend all regional and international partners for their unwavering commitment and contribution to peace and stability in Guinea-Bissau, as well as for their solid partnership with UNIOGBIS.

He also expressed his deep gratitude to the leadership and staff of the Office for their tireless efforts and dedication in implementing the Mission’s mandate, despite the challenging political environment.

International engagement needed

Mr. Guterres declared that the UN will continue to accompany the people and Government of Guinea-Bissau in their efforts to achieve sustainable peace and development in the country, and to fully implement urgent reforms.

The closure of UNIOGBIS has taken place amidst calls for ongoing international engagement in the country, with reforms outlined in the Conakry Agreement, a four-year-old accord that has yet to be implemented.

Rosine Sori-Coulibaly, Special Representative and Head of UNIOGBIS, warned the Security Council in August that entrenched political divisions in the country pose a serious threat to stability.

Ms. Sori-Coulibaly also announced plans to establish a high-level platform that would bring together relevant international partners and national authorities to discuss, sustain momentum and accompany the country’s reform efforts under the continued leadership of the Resident Coordinator following the closure of the Office.

United Nations, African Union reiterate commitment to Sudan, as joint mission ends operations

In a joint statement on Thursday, Secretary-General António Guterres and Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat also called on all Sudanese actors to ensure the safe and orderly drawdown of African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) over the next six months and the ensuing period of liquidation. 

“The establishment of this unique hybrid mission was a historic undertaking, through which both organizations and a number of troop and police contributing countries and donors have been engaged in collective efforts to protect civilians and help build peace in Darfur,” the statement said. 

“The Chairperson and the Secretary-General reiterate their commitment to continue assisting the Government and people of the Sudan in consolidating the gains made in the peace process and implementing the National Plan of Action on Civilian Protection,” it added. 

Establishment and mandate 

UNAMID was established by the Security Council in July 2007, following a bitter in the conflict the region. Its mandate, was to protect civilians, without prejudice to the responsibility of the Government of Sudan; and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance and ensure the safety of humanitarian personnel. 

Its responsibilities also included mediating between the Government of Sudan and non-signatory armed movements on the basis of the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur; and supporting the mediation of community conflict, including through measures to address its root causes. 

The authorized strength of the mission included 4,050 military personnel and 2,500 police advisers and formed police units.  

Its current deployment, according to UNAMID, is 4,005 military personnel, 480 police advisers, 1,631 formed police unit officers, 483 international civilian staff, 64 UN volunteers, and 945 national civilian staff. 

The mission suffered 288 fatalities among its civilian and uniformed personnel, of which 73 were the result of malicious acts. 

Iran execution of child offender breaks international law: UN rights office

In a statement released on Thursday, OHCHR spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani pointed out that the execution of Mohammad Hassan Rezaiee was the fourth confirmed for a child offender this year and urged Iran to end the “appalling practice”.

Despite the fact that the execution of child offenders is categorically prohibited under international law, Mr. Rezaiee’s execution took place in Iran in the early morning.

The statement noted that UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet strongly condemned the execution and expressed dismay that it was carried out in spite of interventions and OHCHR engagement with the Government of Iran on the issue.

Allegations of torture

Ms. Shamdasani added that amidst deeply troubling allegations that Mr. Reziee’s confessions were forced and extracted through torture, there were numerous other serious concerns about violations of his fair trial rights.

The statement also pointed out that authorities failed to pursue available legal avenues under the Iranian Penal Code to grant Mr. Rezaiee a retrial.

Several other capital punishment sentences have been carried out Iran in recent days: between 19 and 26 December, at least eight individuals were executed in different prisons across the country.

And unconfirmed reports suggest that at least eight other individuals are at risk of imminent execution.

Despite repeated UN calls for Iran to end the execution of child offenders, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights understands that at least 80 remain on death row.

The High Commissioner urges Iranian authorities to halt all executions of child offenders and immediately review their cases in line with international human rights law.

Argentina: ‘Ground-breaking’ new abortion law crucial to ending gender discrimination – UN experts

“This law is a historic step in Argentina’s fulfilment of its international human rights obligations and becomes a model for the whole region and beyond”, said the experts, after Argentina’s Upper House, or Senate, adopted yesterday the bill that had already been passed by the lower house, known as the Chamber of Deputies. 

Safer abortions 

Until now, the mostly Catholic country permitted abortions only in cases of rape or when the woman’s health was at risk, although, the experts pointed out, in practice they were often not available even on those grounds. 

“We welcome this law that should make abortion safer”, they said. “Criminalizing abortion had done little to stop termination of pregnancies, but simply drove women to illegal, unsafe abortions, and many women died as a result.” 

The existing law also discriminated against women and girls living in poverty who could not afford to travel abroad or pay for a safe procedure. Moreover, it contributed to forced continuation of pregnancy, even in cases where the pregnancy resulted from rape. 

Women and girls have rights to equality, physical and mental integrity and privacy, which require that they must enjoy the right to make autonomous decisions about their pregnancies, said the experts.  

And according to World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, countries in which women have access to information, contraception and the right to terminate pregnancies have the lowest rate of actual terminations.  

A hard-won battle 

Against the backdrop of several unsuccessful attempts to get the law through Argentina’s Congress in recent years, the experts applauded “the extraordinary mobilization of all activists in the country who contributed to the adoption of this law”. 

At the same time, they cautioned that “much remains to be done to ensure women’s and girls’ rights to equality and highest standard of sexual and reproductive health”. 

“It’s now important that the law be applied in the whole country and not be usurped by a political agenda or religious dogma”, the experts underscored.  

News media reported that after a marathon debate that lasted through the night, the vote that yielded the decision was held at 4:00 am – registering 38 in favour, 29 against and one abstention.  

‘Time is of the essence’ 

The UN experts however, raised their concern over a conscientious objection clause that allows health professionals not to perform abortions should they violate their personal beliefs.  

Conscientious objection can only be allowed where there is a clear duty and an effective possibility to refer the pregnant person to a competent and willing provider without any delay to the procedure, the UN experts said. 

“This clause should not become a new barrier to timely access to abortion services”, they underscored. “In these cases, time is of the essence”. 

General Assembly approves $3.2 billion UN budget for 2021

The General Assembly body dealing with UN administrative and budgetary matters (Fifth Committee) had discussed and approved the budget this afternoon before the plenary voted in favour of the financial plan. 

Back in October, the UN chief had proposed a programme budget of $2.99 billion – a net reduction of 2.8 per cent over 2020. 

Secretary-General António Guterres had told the Fifth Committee that despite the pandemic and liquidity crunch, “our new processes and structures have proven instrumental in enabling us to remain open and function effectively…we are running this Organization from thousands of dining tables and home offices”. 

A look back 

“We worked together to build consensus, exercise prudence and flexibility, at a critical time in history”, General Assembly President Volkan Bozkir told the final plenary of the year. 

He reflected on some of the 75 plenary meetings that were convened in the Assembly Hall, including the General Debate, Biodiversity Summit, 31st Special Session in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and high-level meetings on the 25th Anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women. 

Mr. Bozkir observed that the Assembly’s performance throughout this difficult year was a testament to the high caliber of diplomacy practiced in the Hall, which also encompassed efforts to ensure a more gender-inclusive chamber.   

“In 2020, the General Assembly continued to lead on the world stage and fully function, in order to implement its mandates…to meet the needs of the people we serve”, he said. 

New Year’s resolutions 

Discussing resolutions for the new year, the Assembly President urged the Member States to harness multilateralism to end the COVID-19 pandemic and “address the needs of those furthest behind first”. 

He pushed for actions towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), while ‘greening the blue’ and noted that despite the pandemic, “climate change continues to destabilize the world”.   

Because the Assembly Hall is one of the few rooms in UN Headquarters with the capacity to facilitate social distancing, Mr. Bozkir upheld that it would continue to open its doors to UN bodies “to live up to our promise, to create the UN we need for the future we want”. 

And finally, he encouraged the Ambassadors to create a better future by joining him in re-committing to the UN Charter and strengthening multilateralism. 

“Our work here in the General Assembly requires us to recognize the great responsibility placed upon us by the people we serve”, he stated and called it “our solemn duty” to engage in constructive dialogue to pursue the UN’s noble goals of universal peace, human rights and sustainable development. 

This story will be updated later. 

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UN health agency clears COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use  

Regulatory experts convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) from around the world and UN agency’s own teams reviewed the data on the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and found on Thursday that it met WHO’s must-have criteria for safety and efficacy – with its benefits offsetting any potential risks. 

“This is a very positive step towards ensuring global access to COVID-19 vaccines,” said Dr. Mariângela Simão, WHO Assistant-Director General for Access to Medicines and Health Products.  

“But I want to emphasize the need for an even greater global effort to achieve enough vaccine supply to meet the needs of priority populations everywhere”. 

‘Working night and day’  

The move opens the door for countries to expedite their own regulatory approval processes to import and administer the vaccine.  

It also enables UNICEF and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) to procure the vaccine for distribution to countries in need. 

At the same time, WHO is encouraging more developers to come forward for review and assessment to satisfy the critical supply for all countries globally to stem the pandemic. 

“WHO and our partners are working night and day to evaluate other vaccines that have reached safety and efficacy standards”, said Dr. Simão. 

Setting policy 

The vaccine is also under policy review.   

Drawing from WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) population prioritization recommendations for COVID-19 vaccines, which were issued in September, the group will convene on 5 January to formulate vaccine specific policies and recommendations.  

Meanwhile, WHO is working with regional partners to advise national health authorities about the two-dose shot and its anticipated benefits. 

The World Health Organization, with the GAVI Vaccine Alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), are spearheading a global effort called COVAX to secure the equitable distribution of vaccines to all countries and not just to wealthy nations. 

The virus that shut down the world: the path to a vaccine

“I am not completely recovered, and my body is still weak. I have swollen feet and, if I walk for more than 10 minutes, I will find myself sweating, and out of breath. Despite this, I went back to work”.

The words of Hasna Gul, a UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) worker in Pakistan, who caught a severe case of COVID-19 whilst preparing for a polio vaccination campaign, which aims to protect some 800,000 vulnerable children.

Her experience of polio means she has no doubts that vaccinations are a benefit to mankind. “I have been aware of the importance of vaccination from an early age”, she said. “I remember my mother telling me and my siblings that we must complete our vaccinations”.

A people’s vaccine

NIH
A digitally enhanced image from a patient sample shows green cells heavily infected with purple-coloured SARS-COV-2 virus particles.

With no cure and few treatments available for people like Ms. Gul earlier this year, it is no wonder that a huge sigh of relief greeted the news that a COVID-19 vaccine, with reportedly high levels of effectiveness, was approved for use first in the United Kingdom and then other countries, in early December.

To think that we can preserve the rich people, and let the poor people suffer, is a stupid mistake UN Secretary-General, António Guterres

However, well before the announcement, UN chief António Guterres was insisting, in June, that vaccines for COVID-19 must be available for all, and not just those from richer countries.

In an exclusive interview with UN News in September, Mr. Guterres used used strong language to rail against the lack of solidarity shown by richer countries in the search for a vaccine that would benefit everyone. “To think that we can preserve the rich people, and let the poor people suffer, is a stupid mistake”, he said.

University of Oxford/John Cairns
The candidate vaccine being developed at Oxford University in the UK is part of the COVAX initiative.

Optimism grew in September, with the unveiling of COVAX, a WHO-backed plan to spread the risks and costs of vaccine development, and providing the populations of participating countries – especially low-income countries – with early access: it is hoped that the plan will provide around two billion doses of vaccine by the end of 2021.

And, in November, the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, unveiled a ‘mammoth operation’ to deliver vaccines to over 92 countries, in collaboration with more than 350 partners, including major airlines, shipping lines and logistics associations from around the world, as soon as they become available.

WHO praised the unprecedented speed at which vaccines have been produced: by December, more than 150 candidates were at various stages of development.

The end in sight?

© UNICEF/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria
A UNICEF staff member watches as several tons of supplies to combat COVID-19 are unloaded at Venezuela’s main airport in Caracas. (August 2020)

Looking ahead to 2021, it is clear that even with the extraordinary potential of the COVAX partnership, many people, particularly in the developing world, will still not have been vaccinated well into the year, and will still be at risk of contracting COVID-19. Nevertheless, the head of the WHO was able to declare in December that the end of the pandemic was in sight.

By mid-2021, COVAX will, hopefully, have delivered enough doses to protect health and social care workers in all 190 participating countries that have asked to get doses in that timeframe. All other participants should get sufficient doses to cover up to 20 per cent of their populations by the end of 2021, and further doses in 2022.

Misinformation

We can expect the misinformation that has been a feature of this pandemic to also continue in 2021, with false information about the dangers of COVID-19 vaccines, a problem that already exists today.

Even before a pandemic had been declared, the UN was also growing increasingly concerned about misinformation, moving to dispel an unfounded rumour that the virus was caught from an infectious cloud and, in May, ramping up its communications efforts in May, with the launch of Verified. This campaign aims to combat lies and distorted messages, with trusted, accurate information surrounding the crisis. The campaign will continue next year, to fight the continued spread of scare-mongering and baseless anti-vaccination rumours.

Avoiding the next pandemic

UN Verified
The UN’s Verified campaign aims to deliver trusted information.

COVID-19 has unleashed untold misery and disruption on millions of people, leading many to look in the history books to the Spanish Flu of 1918, in order to find some kind of comparison, in terms of scale and severity.

There are very real fears, however, that such pandemics are no longer a once-in-a-hundred-year event. In July, a report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) warned that the world should expect many more diseases to pass from animals to humans, citing a growing demand for meat, unsustainable farming practices, and the global climate crisis.

The question that the international community needs to answer is how to limit the spread of such diseases, so that they can longer run rampant across the globe. In October, the UN proposed a raft of recommendations for national governments, notably universal health coverage, the building up of strong public health systems, and emergency preparedness measures.

The message is that there is no easy solution: vaccines are incredibly important, but they are not a silver bullet, and cannot be a substitute for good governance, and effective international cooperation.

Bias, racism and lies: facing up to the unwanted consequences of AI

The phrase “artificial intelligence” can conjure up images of machines that are able to think, and act, just like humans, independent of any oversight from actual, flesh and blood people. Movies versions of AI tend to feature super-intelligent machines attempting to overthrow humanity and conquer the world.

The reality is more prosaic, and tends to describe software that can solve problems, find patterns and, to a certain extent, “learn”. This is particularly useful when huge amounts of data need to be sorted and understood, and AI is already being used in a host of scenarios, particularly in the private sector.

Examples include chatbots able to conduct online correspondence; online shopping sites which learn how to predict what you might want to buy; and AI journalists writing sports and business articles (this story was, I can assure you, written by a human).

©ITU/Rowan Farrell
5G-enabled robot by China Telecom on display during ITU Telecom World 2019.

And, whilst a recent news story from Iran has revived fears about the use of killer robots (Iranian authorities have claimed that a “machine gun with AI” was used to assassinate the country’s most senior nuclear scientist), negative stories connected with AI, which have included exam grades incorrectly downgraded in the UK, an innocent man sent to jail in the USA, and personal data stolen worldwide, are more likely to concern its misuse, and old-fashioned human error.

Ahead of the launch of a UN guide to understanding the ethics of AI, here are five things you should know about the use of AI, its consequences, and how it can be improved.

1) The consequences of misuse can be devastating

Unsplash/Jeswin Thomas
Many students have been unable to sit exams in 2020, due to school closures.

In January, an African American man in the US state of Michigan, was arrested for a shoplifting crime he knew nothing about. He was taken into custody after being handcuffed outside his house in front of his family.

This is believed to be the first wrongful arrest of its kind: the police officers involved had trusted facial recognition AI to catch their man, but the tool hadn’t learned how to recognize the differences between black faces because the images used to train it had mostly been of white faces.

Luckily, it quickly became clear that he looked nothing like the suspect seen in a still taken from store security cameras, and he was released, although he spent several hours in jail.

And, in July, there was uproar in the UK, when the dreams of many students hoping to go to the university of their choice were dashed, when a computer programme was used to assess their grades (traditional exams had been cancelled, because of the COVID-19 pandemic).

To work out what the students would have got if they had sat exams, the programme took their existing grades, and also took into account the track record of their school over time. This ended up penalising bright students from minority and low-income neighbourhoods, who are more likely to go to schools that have, on the whole, lower average grades than schools attended by wealthier students

These examples show that, for AI tools to work properly, well-trained data scientists need to work with high quality data. Unfortunately, much of the data used to teach AI is currently taken from consumers around the world, often without their explicit consent: poorer countries often lack the ability to ensure that personal data are protected, or to protect their societies from the damaging cyber-attacks and misinformation that have grown since the COVID-19 pandemic.

2) Hate, division and lies are good for business

Unsplash/Franki Chamaki
Artificial intelligence is useful to process and analyze large amounts of data.

Many social media companies have come under fire from knowledgeable sceptics for using algorithms, powered by AI, to micro-target users, and send them tailored content that will reinforce their prejudices. The more inflammatory the content, the more chance that it will be consumed and shared.

The reason that these companies are happy to “push” socially divisive, polarizing content to their users, is that it increases the likelihood that they will stay longer on the platform, which keeps their advertisers happy, and boosts their profits.

This has boosted the popularity of extremist, hate-filled postings, spread by groups that would otherwise be little-known fringe outfits. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also led to the dissemination of dangerous misinformation about the virus, potentially leading to more people becoming infected, many experts say.

3) Global inequality is mirrored online

UNICEF/UN0143514/Karel Prinsloo
A student learns with the help of a computer tablet provided by UNICEF at a school in Cameroon (file)

There is strong evidence to suggest that AI is playing a role in making the world more unequal, and is benefiting a small proportion of people. For example, more than three-quarters of all new digital innovation and patents are produced by just 200 firms. Out of the 15 biggest digital platforms we use, 11 are from the US, whilst the rest are Chinese.

This means that AI tools are mainly designed by developers in the West. In fact, these developers are overwhelmingly white men, who also account for the vast majority of authors on AI topics. The case of the wrongful arrest in Michigan is just one example of the dangers posed by a lack of diversity in this highly important field.

It also means that, by 2030, North America and China are expected to get the lion’s share of the economic gains, expected to be worth trillions of dollars, that AI is predicted to generate.

4)The potential benefits are enormous

This is not to say that AI should be used less: innovations using the technology are immensely useful to society, as we have seen during the pandemic.

Governments all around the world have turned to digital solutions to new problems, from contact-tracing apps, to tele-medicine and drugs delivered by drones, and, in order to track the worldwide spread of COVID-19, AI has been employed to trawl through vast stores of data derived from our interactions on social media and online.

The benefits go far beyond the pandemic, though: AI can help in the fight against the climate crisis, powering models that could help restore ecosystems and habitats, and slow biodiversity loss; and save lives by helping humanitarian organizations to better direct their resources where they are most needed.

The problem is that AI tools are being developed so rapidly that neither designers, corporate shareholders nor governments have had time to consider the potential pitfalls of these dazzling new technologies.

5) We need to agree on international AI regulation

Unsplash/David von Diemar
Car companies like Tesla are increasingly using AI to control vehicles.

For these reasons, the UN education, science and culture agency, UNESCO, is consulting a wide range of groups, including representatives from civil society, the private sector, and the general public, in order to set international AI standards, and ensure that the technology has a strong ethical base, which encompasses the rule of law, and the promotion of human rights.

Important areas that need to be considered include the importance of bringing more diversity in the field of data science to reduce bias, and racial and gender stereotyping; the appropriate use of AI in judicial systems to make them fairer as well as more efficient; and finding ways to ensure that the benefits of the technology are spread amongst as many people as possible.

Writing the rules of AI

  • UNESCO’s consultation on AI began in July 2020.
  • A draft legal, global document on the ethics of AI was drawn up by UNESCO experts, taking into account the wide-ranging impacts of AI, including on the environment and the needs of the global south.
  • Drafting international rules governing the use of AI is an important step that will allow us to decide which values need to be enshrined and, crucially, what rules need to be enforced.

 

Questions and answers about the UN mission to the SAFER oil tanker in Yemen

The vessel was converted in 1986 from the single hull oil carrier “Esso Japan”, initially built in 1976, to FSO SAFER. SAFER is legally owned by the national oil company, the Safer Exploration & Production Operation Company (SEPOC). Prior to the escalation of the conflict in 2015, the vessel was used to store and export oil from fields around Ma’rib. The de-facto authorities in Sana’a have controlled the waters where the SAFER is moored since 2015.

2. What would happen if there is a spill or other disaster onboard the SAFER?

The tanker is reportedly holding nearly 1.1 million barrels of oil, which is about four times as much oil as spilled from the Exxon Valdez in 1989. The aging tanker has not undergone regular maintenance since the escalation of the conflict in 2015. SAFER’s structure, equipment and operating systems are deteriorating, leaving the tanker at risk of leaking, exploding or catching fire.

A spill would have catastrophic environmental and humanitarian consequences. Research by independent experts indicates that a major oil spill would severely impact Red Sea ecosystems on which almost 30 million people depend, including at least 1.6 million Yemenis. All the fisheries along the Yemeni west coast would be impacted within days and the livelihoods of the fishing communities would collapse, at a time when 90 per cent of these populations are already dependent on humanitarian aid. The shores of Hudaydah, Hajjah and Taiz will likely be the worst-hit. If fire erupts on SAFER for any reason, more than 8.4 million people could be exposed to harmful levels of pollutants.

A worst-case scenario could lead to the immediate closure of the key port of Hudaydah, which is estimated to cause steep increases in the prices of food and fuel and hinder the delivery of vital humanitarian aid to millions of Yemenis. Yemen, particularly in the north, cannot afford the closure of Hudaydah port. Yemen imports about 90 per cent of its staple food and almost everything else, and so the majority of Yemenis heavily rely on imports to meet their basic needs. A majority of imports enter through Hudaydah. The risk of Hudaydah port closing is even more alarming at a time when Yemen is facing a renewed risk of famine, as confirmed by recent food security assessments. Overall, the economic cost of an oil spill from the SAFER tanker to Yemen fisheries could run to an estimated $1.5 billion over 25 years.

Other Red Sea littoral countries, including Djibouti, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia, are also likely to be impacted. A spill could also debilitate one of the world’s busiest commercial shipping routes through the Red Sea, which accounts for about 10 per cent of global trade.

3. What has the UN been doing to address the issue?

The United Nations has been seeking to deploy an expert mission to assess the condition of the tanker and conduct initial repairs for over two years. In August 2019, the United Nations deployed a team of experts to Djibouti, which was to serve as the staging location for the mission, based on agreement in principle from all parties. That mission was cancelled after the de-facto Houthi authorities withdrew their approval the night before departure.

Negotiations with the de-facto authorities in Sana’a have been ongoing ever since to deploy another mission. These discussions accelerated following reports of a leak of seawater into the SAFER engine room in May 2020. That leak was contained, but it is unclear how long the fix will last.

Since then, the United Nations has been engaging with the de-facto authorities to agree on a detailed Scope of Work for the proposed mission, which has three clear objectives:

  1. To assess the condition of the SAFER oil tanker through analysis of its systems and structure;
  2. To conduct urgent possible initial maintenance that might reduce the risk of an oil leak until a permanent solution is applied;
  3. To formulate evidence-based options on what solutions are possible to permanently remove the threat of an oil spill.

The United Nations received a letter on 21 November 2020 from the de-facto authorities in Sana’a officially signaling their approval of the Scope of Work. In light of this approval, the United Nations is now in a position to commence the logistical preparations for the mission, including by using donor funds to secure the technical experts and procure the necessary equipment. The Government of Yemen has expressed its full support for the proposed technical mission as well.

The deployment of the initial expert mission will not eliminate the threat of an oil spill from SAFER. The mission is designed to produce the needed assessment and generate evidence-based options to permanently address the threat posed by the tanker. The United Nations has no prejudgment as to the outcome of the assessment.

The technical experts will conduct light maintenance tasks in accordance with an agreed Scope of Work document, subject to having practical access, as well as environmental limitations, and other considerations regarding the personal safety of the mission’s staff, upholding the integrity of the vessel and its systems, and other relevant factors.

In addition to working on the deployment of an expert mission, UN entities are also supporting contingency planning efforts aimed at strengthening readiness for assistance and response, should a spill occur.

4. What has changed since 2019?

The situation is now even more urgent than it was in 2019. On 27 May, seawater leaked into the engine room, threatening to destabilize or sink the vessel and to cause a massive oil spill. It took the divers from the SAFER corporation a total of 28 hours under water over five days to contain the relatively small leak through a temporary fix. This was a dangerous and a very difficult task and it remains unclear how long this patch may hold. The next incident might not be something that can be contained. The explosion in the port of Beirut serves as a tragic reminder of the cost of inaction.

The international community has been clearer than ever that it expects progress on this critical issue to be made, including at a special Security Council meeting dedicated to the SAFER on 15 July 2020. The mission will be deploying based on multiple rounds of constructive technical discussions with the de-facto authorities and a detailed, mutually-agreed Scope of Work document.

5. What is the Scope of Work document?

The Scope of Work is a mutually-agreed technical document that outlines in detail the objectives of the mission and the tasks the mission staff will undertake once onboard the SAFER. It has been finalized following weeks of consultations with the de-facto authorities in Sana’a in an effort to ensure clarity and to avoid any misunderstandings that could lead to the mission’s delay or cancellation later.

The Scope of Work was endorsed by the de-facto authorities in a formal letter dated 21 November. This has provided the United Nations with the required confidence to start spending donor money and begin the ongoing procurement process for the specialized equipment needed by the mission. The Scope of Work document can be found at this link

6. What is the timeline for the mission’s deployment?

As of late December 2020, the United Nations estimates the mission team can arrive on site by midFebruary. However, the timing of deployment will depend on a number of factors including the market availability of the needed equipment and staff, shipping times and routes, transit weather conditions and funding availability.

The mission will continue to require facilitation as planning progresses including additional permits and authorizations to enable the mission’s success. As such, the continued cooperation of all stakeholders, particularly the de-facto authorities in Sana’a, will be a crucial factor in the timely deployment of the mission. The United Nations appreciates the commitments received from all stakeholders to continue this facilitation.

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