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Europe: COVID must spark rethink to prioritize ‘human lives’ over economic policies 

Speaking ahead of the EU Porto Social Summit on May 7, Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, pointed out that with over 90 million people and almost 20 million children at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the Union, plans to address it are “insufficiently ambitious”. 

The European Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan, commits to reducing that number by 15 million and 5 million, respectively, by 2030. 

“It doesn’t come near the pledge of ‘no poverty’ made in Sustainable Development Goal 1 (SDG1)”, he said. 

Moreover, there are no consequences for missing the target or government accountability mechanisms to enforce commitments.  

“The EU must demand that Member States develop realistic, transparent, and accountable national plans to meet these and other targets”, underscored Mr. De Schutter. 

‘Truly strengthen’ resilience  

The EU reacted swiftly to the COVID-19 pandemic, including lifting budgetary rules for Member States to spend above legal maximum levels, providing billions in loans and grants, and making proposals to ensure children’s rights and gender equality. 

But, the UN expert stressed, more is needed to “truly strengthen social resilience.” 

He noted that some 700,000 people sleep on the streets each night, and painted a picture of poverty and social exclusion in the EU faced by 30.1 per cent of people with disabilities, nearly 21 per cent of the general population and 22.5 per cent of the bloc’s children. 

Calling these numbers “unacceptable,” the Special Rapporteur urged for measures to alleviate poverty in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic that are “not superseded by blind economic policies” favouring social and tax competition and imposing stringent deficit controls. 

Institutionalized pullbacks 

Despite being employed, nine million workers remain in poverty because of expanded non-standard forms of employment and low wages, said Mr. De Schutter, calling it an “institutionalized race to the bottom” among Member States, which “in the name of competitiveness” is leading to lower wages and worker protections.  

“The EU must address this harmful competition as part of its efforts to fight poverty and protect social rights”, he said. 

And since 2009, the bloc’s members had decreased social protection, health and education investments, which left them ill-prepared for the pandemic.  

Until very recently the EU itself had recommended many of these budget cuts to ensure compliance with its own budgetary rules, he added.  

EU must use the COVID-19 crisis to rethink its fundamental economic rules — UN expert

Stand up for social rights 

Although these rules have now been relaxed, the UN expert expressed concern that countries that utilize a new EU recovery fund to increase social investments may, in effect, be punished once the Union’s rules on maximum deficits are reinstated.  

“This would be a defeat for social rights”, he said. “The EU must use the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to rethink its fundamental economic rules”.  

Mr. De Schutter hoped that the upcoming summit would generate “a broad consensus for an EU-wide anti-poverty strategy that strengthens public services, combats homelessness, addresses in-work poverty, and ensures greater progressivity in taxation”. 

Appointed as by the UN Human Rights Council on 1st May 2020, Mr. De Schutter and all other human rights experts are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work.

Middle East coordinator calls for new and timely Palestinian election date 

UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Tor Wennesland, said that he understood the “disappointment of the many Palestinians” who had gone nearly 16 years without being able to cast their vote.  

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced the postponement of the planned parliamentary elections, amidst a dispute over voting rights in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, according to news reports. 

Israel governs voting conditions in the city, and Palestinians are reportedly insisting that all 150,000 eligible voters be allowed to cast their ballots – far more than under a previous agreement with Israeli authorities. 

“Facing this difficult situation, we decided to postpone the date of holding legislative elections until the participation of Jerusalem and its people is guaranteed”, Mr. Abbas said, on Palestinian television. 

The last Palestine-wide ballot in 2006 fuelled a factional split, with extremist group Hamas gaining control over the Gaza Strip, while Mr. Abbas’s Fatah party won a majority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. 

Democratic path 

Encouraging Palestinians “to continue on the democratic path”, Mr. Wennesland underscored the “widespread international support” for transparent and inclusive elections throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in East Jerusalem.  

Giving people the chance to vote would renew the “legitimacy and credibility” of Palestinian institutions and help to re-establish Palestinian national unity, he said.   

“This will also set the path toward meaningful negotiations to end the occupation and realize a two-State solution based on UN resolutions, international law and previous agreements”, added the UN official. 

Moreover, setting a new and timely date for elections would be ‘an important step” in reassuring the Palestinian people that “their voices will be heard”. 

‘Fragile situation’ 

Noting that the UN reaffirmed its support to strengthening the Palestinian national institutions, the Special Coordinator stressed that a prolonged period of uncertainty risks “exacerbating the fragile situation”. 

He called on all parties to maintain calm, show restraint and refrain from violence and encouraged leaders on all sides to “reduce tensions and create the conditions for a resumption of the electoral process”.

Address inequalities to end AIDS by 2030, UN chief says in new report

Despite action and progress against HIV in some places and population groups, HIV epidemics continue to expand in others, the report revealed. It was launched just weeks ahead of a major UN General Assembly meeting on AIDS. 

“It is imperative to break out of an increasingly costly and unsustainable cycle of achieving some progress against HIV but ultimately not enough to bring about an end to the pandemic”, the Secretary-General said in the report. 

“Inequalities are the key reason why the 2020 global targets were missed. By ending inequalities, transformative outcomes can be achieved for people living with HIV, communities and countries.” 

New infections triple 

In 2016, the UN General Assembly set the target of having fewer than 500,000 new HIV infections by 2020.  Last year, the figure was 1.7 million, or three times the target.  Similarly, the 690,000 AIDS-related deaths in 2019 far exceed the goal of less than 500,000 deaths a year. 

“Ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030 is still within reach—many countries are showing that rapid progress against HIV is possible when evidence-informed strategies and human rights-based approaches are adopted”, said Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS, which is leading the global fight against the disease.  

“But it requires bold political leadership to challenge and address the social injustices and inequalities that continue to make certain groups of people and entire communities highly vulnerable to HIV infection.” 

Address inequalities, prioritize prevention 

The report underscores that addressing social and structural factors that perpetuate inequalities is key.  

For example, gender inequality, anchored by harmful gender norms, restricts women’s use of HIV services, and sexual and reproductive health services. This can impact decision-making, including the ability to refuse unwanted sex or to negotiate safer sex. 

Vulnerable, marginalized and criminalized communities also remain at higher risk of HIV infection because they are not receiving essential information and HIV services, whether for prevention or care.  These groups include gay men and other men who have sex with men, people who use drugs, sex workers, transgender people, prisoners and migrants. 

Get back on track 

The 10 recommendations for putting the world back on the path to ending AIDS cover issues such as addressing inequalities and reaching all people at risk of HIV infection.   

The goal is to keep new infections to under 370,000, and AIDS-related deaths to under 250,000, by 2025. 

They call for closing gaps in HIV testing and treatment, and putting “gender equality and the human rights of women and girls in all their diversity” at the centre of efforts to mitigate risk. 

Other steps call for prioritizing HIV prevention to ensure that 95 per cent of people at risk have prevention options by 2025, and eliminating new infections among children. 

Lessons in preparedness 

The report also outlined how the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed social inequalities and health system weaknesses.  

The Secretary-General said the world should leverage experience from responding to the AIDS crisis to strengthen health systems and improve pandemic preparedness.  

He also appealed for more global solidarity, including to increase annual HIV investments in low and middle-income countries to $29 billion by 2025.

Myanmar approaching point of economic collapse: UN report

That level of impoverishment has not been seen in the country since 2005, and the economy is facing significant risks of a collapse, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) said in its report, COVID-19, Coup d’état and Poverty: Compounding Negative Shocks and their Impact on Human Development in Myanmar.

“In the space of 12 years, from 2005 to 2017, Myanmar managed to nearly halve the number of people living in poverty. However, the challenges of the past 12 months have put all of these hard-won development gains at risk,” Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator, said.

“Without functioning democratic institutions, Myanmar faces a tragic and avoidable backslide towards levels of poverty not seen in a generation.”

The study also noted that as economic, health and political crises affect people and communities differently, vulnerable groups are more likely to suffer, a fact particularly relevant for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and ethnic minorities, in particular, the Rohingya community.

Multiple shocks

According to the report, by the end of 2020, 83 per cent of Myanmar’s households reported that their incomes had been, on average, slashed almost in half due to the pandemic. As a result, the number of people living below the poverty line was estimated to have increased by 11 per cent points.

The situation worsened further with the 1 February military takeover and the ensuing security and human rights crisis, with projections indicating a further 12 per cent point increase in poverty as a result.

In the nearly three months since, over 750 people – including children – are reported to have been killed by security forces in a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests, countless more have been wounded and thousands arrested.

Furthermore, clashes between Myanmar security forces and regional armed groups have resulted in fresh displacements in several parts of the country, as well as forcing many to seek refuge outside its borders.

Prior to the latest crises, nearly a million people in Myanmar (identified at the start of 2021) are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection.

Women, children, small businesses hit hardest

According to the study, women and children are feared to bear the heaviest brunt, with more than half of Myanmar’s children projected to be living in poverty within a year.

Urban poverty is also expected to triple, as worsening security situation continues to effect supply chains and hinder the movement of people, services and commodities. Small businesses, which provide the majority of jobs and incomes for the poorer segments of the urban population, have been hit hard, UNDP said.

It also added that pressures on the country’s currency, the Kyat, has increased the price of imports and energy, while the volume of seaborne trade is estimated to have dropped by between 55 and 64 per cent.

At the same time, the country’s banking system remains paralyzed, resulting in shortages of cash, limiting access to social welfare payments, and preventing much-needed remittances from reaching hard-pressed families.

Corrective actions urgently needed

The report also noted that without rapid corrective actions on economic, social, political and human rights protection policies, Myanmar’s efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030 could be derailed.

As a dire and complex situation unfolds – characterized not only in humanitarian terms but also as a deep crisis in development, democratization, and human rights – and circumstances worsen, international support will play an important role in safeguarding the well-being of the Myanmar population, it added. 

Feeling kind of blue? Holocaust survivor lifts lockdown spirits through jazz

Simon Gronowski spoke to the United Nations ahead of International Jazz Day, which is celebrated annually on 30 April as a force for “peace, unity, dialogue and enhanced cooperation among people”.

© Photo courtesy of Simon Gronowski
Simon Gronowski as a young boy in 1940 with his mother and father walking along Avenue Louise in Brussels, Belgium.

On 17 March 1943, then 11-year-old Simon Gronowski, was taken by the German Nazi regime’s secret police, the Gestapo in Brussels, with his mother Chana and sister, Ita. The young Jewish boy was being deported to the notorious Nazi death camp Auschwitz when, “by a miracle, I jumped from the train and escaped”, he recounts. His mother and sister died in Auschwitz and his father, Leon, left devastated by their deaths, also passed away within months of the end of the war. The young Gronowski was left alone in the world.

Today, nearly 80 years after his escape, Mr. Gronowski, now 89, is a Doctor of Law, with two children and four grandchildren – and a proud jazz pianist.

Music connects

“After the war, jazz helped me to find stability and integrate in society. Music unites people and brings them some joy”, he told the UN in an interview.

During the COVID-19 pandemic and first lockdown in Belgium, Mr. Gronowski played jazz “to give people courage.” He opened the window from his home in Brussels and started playing the jazz classic ‘On The Sunny Side Of The Street’ from his electric piano for neighbours and passers-by.

Simon Gronowski last saw his older sister, Ita, in 1943; she later died in the Auschwitz concentration camp. © Photo courtesy of Simon Gronowski

“I look up, and I see lots of people in front of my house, and people clapping”, recounts Gronowski, who plays music by ear and takes inspiration from jazz artists such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

“I feel good when I play. I feel I am bringing happiness to those around me”.

Peace through justice

It’s not just passers-by who have been treated to his music lately. To mark the 75th anniversary of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague, the Netherlands on 18 April 2021, Mr. Gronowski was invited to participate in a virtual musical event which paid tribute to the work of the Court.

The ceremony was an online premiere of the piece “Hymne des Nations”, written in 1913 by Jewish-Dutch composer Charles Grelinger (1873-1942), who died while being transported to Auschwitz. Apart from a one-off performance on The Hague’s city hall bells, the piece had never been played before.

As a lawyer and survivor of the Holocaust, participating in the ceremony was a “great honour” for him, who commends the important work of the ICJ.

“The International Court of Justice is important not only to me but for all of humanity. It fights against barbarism, fascism, racism, and anti-Semitism, of which I was a victim. Thanks to the Court, we can hope that conflicts between states are resolved not through war, but through law.”

Message of hope

For nearly 60 years, Mr. Gronowski hardly ever spoke of his incredible escape. Today, he has written books and his story even inspired composer Howard Moody, to make the opera PUSH based on his life.

He now continues to tell his tale far and wide, particularly in schools, to bring a message of hope and reconciliation to the next generation.


“To defend today’s freedom and democracy, we have to be aware of yesterday’s evils. Life is beautiful, but it is a permanent battle. I tell young people, ‘never forget, long live peace and friendship between men’.”

Ethiopia: ‘Unpredictable security’ in Tigray, hindering aid delivery

Nearly six months since the conflict between Ethiopian Government security forces and regional forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) began in early November, most rural areas have remained cut off from communications and electricity, impacting access to health services, water supply and vital assistance, said Farhan Haq.  

Meanwhile, he cited the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in saying that the UN and its humanitarian partners “continue to scale up their response, including identification and support to gender-based violence survivors”.  

From Tigray to Sudan  

Violence and conflict in Tigray have continued unabated since the Prime Minister ordered a military offensive following a rebel attack on a federal army base, while militias from the neighbouring Amhara region joined the fighting. 

After returning last week from a visit to the conflict zone in northern Ethiopia, James Elder, spokesperson for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that more than a million people have been displaced. 

According to news reports, over 62,000 have fled across the border into Sudan, with humanitarian agencies continually looking to expand assistance to meet the increasing needs for the internally displaced and refugees in both Ethiopia and Sudan. 

Awash with need 

At the same time, “food insecurity remains dire with an estimated 4.5 million people need food assistance across Tigray”, said Mr. Haq. 

Since the end of March, the World Food Programme (WFP) has distributed nearly 9,000 metric tonnes of food, reaching nearly 529,000 people in the North Western and Southern Zones, he said. 

WFP have also distributed food to nearly 34,000 people in the towns of Edgahamus and Atsibi and “more than 700,000 people were reached with water trucking services last week”, he continued. “So far, UN partners have reached 285,000 displaced people with shelter and non-food items – only 10 per cent of the targeted population”.  

Meanwhile, the preparation of a displacement site in Mekelle with capacity for more than 19,000 people is ongoing, including building shelters, access roads and latrines. 

However, the UN Deputy Spokesperson echoed OCHA’s warning that “the response remains inadequate to the needs”.  

“Additional capacity, funds, as well as unimpeded and safe access, are needed to scale up to the level needed to respond across Tigray”, he stated.

Vaccinated Europeans now outnumber those infected by COVID, but ‘threat remains present’

Based on confirmed cases, 5.5 per cent of the entire European population has now had COVID-19, while 7 per cent has completed a full vaccination series.

But WHO Regional Director for Europe, Hans Kluge said in a video message, “the virus still carries the potential to inflict devastating effects”.

“As a matter of fact, close to half of all COVID-19 infections in the Region since January last year were reported to WHO during the first 4 months of this year”, he added.

Shaping the pandemic’s course

Although new cases fell significantly last week, for the first time in two months, infection rates across the region remain “extremely high”, according to Dr. Kluge, who noted that individual and collective public health and social measures in most countries, remain “dominant factors in shaping the pandemic’s course”.

Crucially, national governments in the region are slowly but surely vaccinating those most at risk.

“To date, some 215 million doses of vaccine have been administered”, said the WHO official.

Approximately 16 per cent of the region’s population has had a first vaccine dose, as well as 81 per cent of health workers in 28 countries throughout the region.

Hospital admissions are decreasing and death rates are falling in high-risk groups with the highest vaccination rates.

“Vaccines are saving lives, and they will change the course of this pandemic and eventually help end it”, said Dr. Kluge.

‘Clearest path to normal’

The WHO Regional Director maintained that vaccines alone will not end the pandemic but along with strong public health measures, they offer “the clearest path back to normal”.

He underscored the importance of continuing to share information, engage communities and maintain surveillance, saying otherwise “we can’t identify new variants”.

“And without contact tracing, governments may need to reimpose restrictive measures”, Dr. Kluge warned.

Vital immunizations

Every year during European Immunization Week, WHO highlights that for over 200 years, vaccines have protected against life-threatening diseases.

“Today they help protect against more than 20 diseases, from pneumonia to cervical cancer and now also COVID-19”, said Dr. Kluge.

Vaccines are bringing us closer to ending this pandemic, eradicating polio and eliminating measles, cervical cancer and other vaccine-preventable diseases.

And they are helping to edge populations into a world without the threat of antibiotic resistance.

“The fact that the countries of the European Region on average reached 96% of children scheduled to receive their first dose of measles vaccine in 2019, is testament to the commitment of governments in the Region to eliminate measles”, he said.

“We now need that commitment to vaccinating against the SARS-CoV-2 virus”.

Beyond COVID

To keep an upper hand on vaccine-preventable diseases, health systems must provide essential primary health care, including routine inoculations while controlling the pandemic.

Dr. Kluge recalled that faltering immunization rates in 2019 led to more than 100,000 measles cases, warning that that when routine immunization services are temporarily interrupted – as also witnessed a year ago in European countries hardest hit by the first wave of COVID – infectious disease outbreaks may flare up further down the line.

“Hard-earned success can slip away fast”, he said urging “high immunization coverage with routine vaccines”.

For vaccines to again change the course of history, they must be injected into people’s arms, he added.

“Ultimately, it is us, the people who receive them, who make them work for the good of all”.

Madagascar edges toward famine, UN food agency appeals for assistance

And with acute malnutrition rates continuing to rise, urgent action is required to address this unfolding humanitarian crisis, the World Food Programme (WFP) warned. 

“If we don’t reverse this crisis, if we don’t get food to the people in the south of Madagascar, families will starve and lives will be lost”, Amer Daoudi, WFP’s Senior Director of Operations, said, after visiting one of the worst affected areas, Sihanamaro. 

Evolving catastrophe 

Most districts in the South are in the throes of a nutrition emergency with Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) levels in children under five, nearly doubling over the last four months – touching an alarming 16.5 per cent – the Ministry of Health reported.  

Children with acute malnutrition are four times more likely to die than healthy youngsters. 

And in the worst affected district of Ambovombe, GAM has risen above 27 per cent, putting the lives of many children at risk.  

Meeting needs, saving lives 

Over the next six months, WFP needs $74 million to save lives in the world’s second-largest island State.  

“We have witnessed heart-breaking scenes of severely malnourished children and starving families”, said Mr. Daoudi, appealing for “money and resources…to help the people of Madagascar”. 

After the alarm was raised across Amboasary district, the UN agency has been progressively assisting up to 750,000 people through food and cash distributions each month. 

State of peril 

Consecutive years of drought in the South have left at least 1.35 million people in need of emergency food and nutrition assistance, according to WFP.  

Since last September, the start of the lean season, the situation had turned critical as families had already depleted their food supplies and gone through vital seed stocks, leaving nothing for the November/December 2020 planting season.  

Currently, up to 80 per cent of the population in certain areas in the south are resorting to desperate survival measures, such as eating locusts, raw red cactus fruits or wild leaves. 

Moreover, with a lack of rain during the last planting season, prospects for the 2021 harvest are poor, indicating another longer tougher lean season from October to March 2022.  

WFP said that food production this year is expected to be “less than 40 per cent of the last five-year average”, which only adds to the difficulties faced by communities already on the brink of survival to feed themselves. 

At the same time, semi-arid conditions in southern Madagascar, combined with high levels of soil erosion, deforestation and unprecedented sandstorms, have transformed arable land into wasteland across the region.

UN chief pledges to fight for all Cypriots, as impasse remains

“The truth is that in the end of our efforts we have not yet found enough common ground to allow for the resumption of formal negotiations in relation to the settlement of the Cyprus problem”, he told journalists in Geneva, where the talks took place. 

Striking a note of optimism, Mr. Guterres added that there had been agreement over another meeting “in the near future…again with the objective to move in the direction of reaching common ground to allow for formal negotiations to start”.   

The development represents the latest UN-led effort to resolve decades of tensions in Cyprus between the Turkish Cypriot north and the Greek Cypriot south, whose communities have been split since 1974.  

Elusive deal  

Four years ago, Mr. Guterres attempted to bring the two sides to a deal at the Swiss Alpine resort of Crans-Montana, where detailed talks ultimately broke down. 

Six main issues were on the table, including security and guarantees, new territorial boundaries, and power-sharing.  

Ahead of this latest push to solve the Cyprus situation, Mr. Guterres was said to “realistic” about the chances of making progress, according to his spokesperson. 

But he explained that the position officially outlined 24 hours earlier by the Turkish Cypriot delegation – led by recently-elected Ersin Tatar – “was that the many efforts made to solve the Cyprus issue over the years have failed, including the most recent attempt made in Crans-Montana. They believe that efforts to negotiate the bi-zonal, bi-communal federation have been exhausted.”   

Set against this, the Greek Cypriot position – reiterated by leader Nicos Anastasiades – was “that negotiations should resume from where they left off in Crans-Montana (that should) aim to achieve a settlement based on a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation”, Mr. Guterres said, after bilateral meetings with the leaders of the Turkish Cypriot and Turkish Greek communities, and with the Foreign Ministers of “guarantor” powers Turkey, Greece and the UK. 

No giving up 

“I do not give up”, the UN chief insisted, adding that his agenda was very simple: “strictly to fight for the security and wellbeing for every Cypriot, of the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots that deserve to live in peace and prosperity together.” 

The UN push for a solution to the Cyprus impasse follows consultations conducted in recent months on his behalf by Under Secretary-General Jane Holl Lute.  

I do not give up — UN chief

Security role 

One of the UN’s longest-running peacekeeping missions helps to maintain peace on the island. 

The UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) was established in 1964 to prevent further fighting between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities and bring about a return to normal conditions. 

Its Force Commander is Major General Ingrid Gjerde of Norway. 

The mission’s responsibilities expanded in 1974, following a coup d’etat by elements favouring union with Greece and subsequent military intervention by Turkey, whose troops established control over the northern part of the island. 

Since a de facto ceasefire in August 1974, UNFICYP has supervised ceasefire lines, provided humanitarian assistance and maintained a buffer zone between the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot forces in the north and the Greek Cypriot forces in the south.

Increased cancer risk for petroleum industry workers and people living near plants: New UN study

The findings add to increasing evidence of the health consequences of air pollution from petroleum extraction and refining.

Types of cancer risk

The review identified an increased risk of mesothelioma, skin melanoma, multiple myeloma, and cancers of the prostate and urinary bladder, and conversely, decreased risk of cancers of the oesophagus, stomach, colon, rectum, and pancreas.

Offshore petroleum work was associated with an increased risk of lung cancer and leukaemia.

Living close to petroleum facilities was also associated with an increased risk of childhood leukaemia.

Scientists in the Environment and Lifestyle Epidemiology Branch of the agency carried out 41 cohort studies, 14 case–control studies, and two cross-sectional studies to compile their review.

Their findings have been published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

More research needed

The authors point out that further studies on the effect of exposure to petroleum and its closest derivatives (e.g. benzene) are needed in order to identify how they modify cancer risk.

In particular, there is a need for targeted studies in under-researched areas of high petroleum production with presumably higher exposures.

The scientists argue that the best way forward may be an international consortium to guide new studies in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, in order to harmonize how studies are carried out and how exposure is assessed.

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