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WHO: 2022 can mark the end of COVID's acute stage

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus reminded that it was two years ago, as people gathered for New Year’s Eve celebrations, that a new global threat emerged. 

Since then, 1.8 million deaths were recorded in 2020 and 3.5 million in 2021, but the actual number is much higher. There are also millions of people dealing with long-term consequences from the virus.  

‘Tsunami of cases’  

Right now, Delta and Omicron are driving up cases to record numbers, leading to spikes in hospitalizations and deaths. 

Tedros is “highly concerned” that the more transmissible Omicron, circulating at the same time as Delta, is leading to “a tsunami of cases.” 

Earlier in the year, during meetings of the world’s biggest economies – the G7 and G20 – WHO challenged leaders to vaccinate 40 per cent of their populations by the end of 2021 and 70 per cent by the middle of 2022. 

With only a couple of days left in the year, 92 out of 194 Member States missed the target. 

Tedros attributed this to low-income countries receiving a limited supply for most of the year and then subsequent vaccines arriving close to expiry, without key parts, like syringes.  

New goals 

Forty per cent was doable. It’s not only a moral shame, it cost lives and provided the virus with opportunities to circulate unchecked and mutate”, he said.  

The WHO chief warned that boosters in rich countries could cause low-income countries to again fall short and called on leaders of wealthy countries and manufacturers to work together to reach the 70 per cent goal by July. 

“This is the time to rise above short-term nationalism and protect populations and economies against future variants by ending global vaccine inequity”, he said.  

“We have 185 days to the finish line of achieving 70 per cent by the start of July 2022. And the clock starts now”. 


Early on, Tedros acknowledged that beating the new health threat would require science, solutions, and solidarity. 

A nurse dispenses hand sanitizer to a visitor at a hospital in Masaka, Uganda.
A nurse dispenses hand sanitizer to a visitor at a hospital in Masaka, Uganda., by © UNICEF/Kalungi Kab

While elaborating on some successes, such as the development of new vaccines, which he said “represent a scientific masterclass”, the WHO official lamented that politics too often triumphed over solidarity.  

“Populism, narrow nationalism and hoarding of health tools, including masks, therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines, by a small number of countries undermined equity, and created the ideal conditions for the emergence of new variants”, Tedros said.  

Moreover, misinformation and disinformation, have also been “a constant distraction, undermining science and trust in lifesaving health tools”. 

He highlighted as a case in point that huge waves of infections have swept Europe and many other countries causing the unvaccinated to die disproportionally. 

The unvaccinated are many times more at risk of dying from either variant. 


As the pandemic drags on, new variants could become fully resistant to current vaccines or past infection, necessitating vaccine adaptations.    

For Tedros, as any new vaccine update could mean a new supply shortage, it is important to build up local manufacturing supply.  

One way to increase production of lifesaving tools, he said, is to pool technology, as in the new WHO Bio Hub System, a mechanism to voluntarily share novel biological materials. 

Tedros also pointed to the new WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence, based in Berlin. 

Finally, the WHO chief called for the development of a new accord between nations, saying it would be “a key pillar” of a world better prepared to deal with the next disease.  

“I hope to see negotiations move swiftly and leaders to act with ambition”, he said.  

Former ISIL prison transformed to bring joy and support to youth

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Iraq Ministry of Youth and Sports and the Governorate of Anbar re-opened on 25 December, the Ramadi Youth Safe Space –in what some saw as a timely Christmas gift.

Before ISIL confiscated it in 2014, the building was a House of Youth under the Ministry. During the war it underwent severe damage.

Ceremonial opening

The reconversion and reopening of a space that used to recall sorrow and pain has been transformed into one of hope and strength.

Speaking at an event kicking off a new beginning for the revamped building, Ali Farhan Al-Dulaimi, Governor of Anbar, thanked UNFPA for its continuous support and investment in the governate’s young people. 

Rita Columbia, the UNFPA Representative in Iraq, highlighted the importance of empowering youth and engaging them in community life.

“I am very proud of the young volunteers who had a dream and made it a reality”, she said.

“Thanks to their determination and the support they received from UNFPA, Canada, the Anbar Directorate of Youth and Sports, the Governor of Anbar, the Ministry of Youth and Sports, this centre became a welcoming and truly youth-friendly space”.

Among others, the opening ceremony was attended by Salem Al-Zamanan, Kuwaiti Ambassador to Iraq; representatives of the Ministry of Youth and Sport; the Anbar Directorate of Youth and Sports; and representatives of civil society and young people.

A former prison used by the Islamic States in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) has been transformed into a youth safe space, Anbar Governate, Iraq.

A former prison used by the Islamic States in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) has been transformed into a youth safe space, Anbar Governate, Iraq.

Young people work for youth

The Youth Safe Space serves as a place for girls and boys to receive life and leadership skills, peacebuilding and edutainment activities.

Prior to the war, the building had served as a special place for Anbar youth to build friendships and learn new skills in music, arts, science. 

After the liberation of the territories, young people there decided to bring the building back to its original purpose and reclaim it as a youth-friendly spot.

Young volunteers led the process and made decisions about how to make the place more accessible for all youth in the surrounding communities, including the most vulnerable. 

In 2018, UNFPA first helped the young people to rehabilitate two rooms for peace-building activities. 

And as the demand for youth services grew among communities, UNFPA with support from Canada, the Anbar Governor and United Iraqi Medical Society for Relief and Development (UIMS) completed the rehabilitation of the Youth Safe Space.

Urgent action needed to save Rohingya refugees distressed at sea in Indonesia  

In a statement, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that it was “deeply concerned for the safety and lives of those onboard”. 

The boat was first sighted in the waters off Bireuen, a district in Aceh province, on Sunday.  

Prevent lost lives 

Based on photos and reports from local fishermen, the passengers on the packed boat were overwhelmingly women and children. 

After a seven-month ordeal at sea, a Rohingya refugee is registered at a site in Aceh province, Indonesia.
After a seven-month ordeal at sea, a Rohingya refugee is registered at a site in Aceh province, Indonesia., by © UNHCR/Jiro Ose

The boat, which reportedly is leaking and has a damaged engine, is floating in the open seas in the middle of harsh weather and may be at risk of capsizing.

According to news reports, local officials, supported by the police and navy, have provided food, medicine, a new boat engine and a technician to help repair the Rohingya craft, and will push it back to international waters once it was fixed. 

To prevent a needless loss of life, the agency strongly urges the Indonesian Government to allow the passengers to safely and immediately disembark. 

Since August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled from Buddhist-majority Myanmar to camps in Bangladesh when the Myanmar military launched a clearance operation in response to attacks by a rebel group. Myanmar security forces have been accused of heinous crimes, including mass rapes and burning thousands of homes. 

Humanitarian spirit 

According to UNHCR, the 2016 Presidential Regulation number 125 on refugee protection includes provisions for the Government to rescue refugees on boats in distress near Indonesia and to help them disembark. 

These provisions were implemented in 2018, 2020 and most recently last June, when 81 Rohingya refugees were rescued off the coast of East Aceh. 

For UNHCR, Indonesia has, for many years, set an example for other countries in the region in providing refugee protection.  

The agency hopes to see the same humanitarian spirit again. 

“Rohingya have faced violence, persecution and forced displacement for decades. All those seeking international protection must be allowed safe harbour and granted access to asylum procedures and humanitarian aid”, the statement said.   

Agency staff are currently on the ground, working closely with local authorities to assist the Government and local community provide immediate life-saving assistance for the group. 

UNHCR is also coordinating with humanitarian partners in preparing a comprehensive response, including a quarantine process in line with international standards and public health protocols. 

2021 Year in Review: Refugee, migrant numbers rise, despite travel curbs

By November, more than 84 million people had been forced from their homes, according to UNHCR data. This figure is an increase from 2020 and 2019, both of which were record-breaking years in terms of the numbers forcibly displaced around the world. 

‘A paradox not seen before in human history’

This rise was coupled with a drop in global mobility overall due to stricter travel rules, prompting the Director General of the UN migration agency (IOM), António Vitorino, to declare that the world was “witnessing a paradox not seen before in human history.”

“While billions of people have been effectively grounded by COVID-19, tens of millions of others have been displaced within their own countries,” he said, at the launch of the agency’s latest World Migration Report.

The migration agency also warned that refugees, and migrants who move out of necessity, have been particularly hard-hit by COVID-related travel restrictions, and millions have found themselves stranded away from home, and in danger.

At least 30,000 migrants are stranded at borders in West Africa according to the UN.

IOM/Monica Chiriac
At least 30,000 migrants are stranded at borders in West Africa according to the UN.

Fleeing violence and armed attacks

Conflict is one of the main reasons that people leave their homes in search of a better life, and there was, sadly, a great deal of violence to escape throughout the year, particularly in Africa, where huge numbers were displaced, either within their own borders, or to neighbouring States.

Many African countries were affected: in the Central African Republic, presidential elections were followed by fighting; the Darfur region of Sudan was hit by inter-communal violence; atrocities were committed by armed groups in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo; and in Burkina Faso there was a rise in violent jihadist attacks. Several hundred thousand people were displaced as a result.

The rising conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region in 2021 caused widespread concern and massive displacement, with UNHCR reporting desperate people crossing into Sudan with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Meanwhile, Eritreans who had come to Ethiopia, escaping violence in their own country, soon found themselves caught up in the Tigray fighting: in March, satellite images showed that camps housing thousands of Eritrean refugees had been burned to the ground.

UN humanitarian workers weren’t able to get access to the refugees until August, when they delivered urgently needed aid supplies.

Displaced people wait in line at a distribution site in Kabul, Afghanistan.

© UNHCR/Tony Aseh
Displaced people wait in line at a distribution site in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Millions displaced in Afghanistan

Even before the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August, the worsening security situation in the country meant that more than a quarter of a million people had been forced from their homes by July, bringing the total number of internally displaced persons to 3.5 million.

After the takeover – the speed of which took many observers by surprise – the UN committed to staying in the country to help those affected by the deepening, ongoing, humanitarian crisis.

The IOM chief, António Vitorino, warned in November that ongoing conflict, grinding poverty and climate-related emergencies, have pushed the country to the brink of collapse.

Yulis Rivas draws a picture of her parents in the Friendly Space in Cucuta, Colombia, where UNICEF provides learning activities for migrant children and parents from Venezuela.

Yulis Rivas draws a picture of her parents in the Friendly Space in Cucuta, Colombia, where UNICEF provides learning activities for migrant children and parents from Venezuela.

Unprecedented, forced migration in Central America

The amount of displacement in Mexico and Central America this year was described as “unprecedented” by UNHCR. Nearly one million people in the region left their homes due to a lack of opportunities, gangs, organized crime, the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, and climate change.

The incoming US administration signalled that it would adopt a compassionate attitude towards undocumented migrants and refugees entering across the southern border, but public health-related asylum restrictions remained in place, closing off ports of entry, and the US expelled hundreds of thousands of people to Mexico and other countries of origin.

Mexico itself has become a country of destination, as well as a nation of transit to the US, with around 100,000 asylum claims in 2021, a new record. In December, a horrific tragedy brought home the need for controlled, safe migration: when a crowded truck overturned in Chiapas, at least 54 reportedly Central American migrants died and more than 100 were injured – the single deadliest incident for migrants in Mexico since at least 2014, when IOM began documenting deaths.

Further south, Venezuela’s continuing socio-economic collapse was the source of the one of the largest displacement crises in the world. More than six million people have so far left their homes, and the needs of refugees and migrants from the country have been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In December, UNHCR and IOM launched a joint appeal for $1.79 billion, to fund a regional plan to support the increasing needs of the refugees and migrants from Venezuela, and their host communities across 17 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

See our companion piece, ‘2021 Year in Review: UN support for countries in conflict’, here. 

Since 2014, 166 migrants have been recorded dead or missing in the English Channel

IOM/Hussein Ben Mosa
Since 2014, 166 migrants have been recorded dead or missing in the English Channel

The deadly waters of the Mediterranean

The Mediterranean Sea has, for many years, been a favoured route for migrants and refugees attempting to reach what they regard as a safe haven in Europe. However, the hazardous crossing became even more deadly this year, as European countries stepped up expulsions and pushbacks at land and sea borders.

In the first six months of the year, at least 1,140 died attempting to reach Europe by boat. Hundreds more died in the second half of the year, whilst trying to reach Europe from northern African States or Turkey. 

In just one incident in November, at least 27 people drowned in the English Channel, the largest single loss of life in the English Channel ever recorded by the IOM. According to the French authorities, well over 31,000 people attempted the dangerous crossing between France and the UK in 2021, and 7,800 were rescued at sea.

UNHCR is providing emergency aid to vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees affected by government security operations in Tripoli, Libya.

© UNHCR/Mohamed Alalem
UNHCR is providing emergency aid to vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees affected by government security operations in Tripoli, Libya.

Heavy-handed treatment in Libya

Many of those who attempt the crossing left from Libya, whose coast was the scene of fatal shipwrecks, including a January wreck in which 43 people died, and an April disaster which claimed the lives of 130 people, prompting the UN’s migration and refugee agencies to reiterate calls for the reactivation of search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

Despite an improved peace and security situation, the country itself continued to pose dangers for refugees and migrants. The UN complained that they faced increasingly heavy-handed treatment from targeted security operations, resulting in at least one death and a steep increase in detentions.

In October, the UN refugee agency declared that the Libyan government must immediately address the dire situation of asylum-seekers and refugees in a humane manner, consistent with international human rights law.

Migrants stranded in harsh conditions on the Belarus-Poland border.

UNHCR Belarus
Migrants stranded in harsh conditions on the Belarus-Poland border.

Belarus border crisis

In September a crisis loomed on the border between Belarus and Poland. The EU reportedly accused Belarus of deliberately assisting migrants to cross the border into Poland illegally – a charge which Belarus denied – in reprisal against sanctions imposed by the bloc on the basis of alleged human rights violations amid huge protests following on from the disputed presidential election of 2020. 

A state of emergency took effect in areas of eastern Poland the same month, after thousands of migrants from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere tried to illegally cross into the country from Belarus.

In November, the UN called for an immediate de-escalation, following weeks of rising tension, and TV news footage showing migrants on the border between Belarus and Poland attempting to dodge teargas and make their way through razor wire.

As temperatures dropped, and several deaths were reported amongst the asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants stranded for weeks in increasingly dire conditions, the UN rights office urged both countries to resolve the crisis and respect human rights.

Refugees in Minawao, in northeastern Cameroon, plant trees in a region which has been deforested due to climate change and human activity.

© UNHCR/Xavier Bourgois
Refugees in Minawao, in northeastern Cameroon, plant trees in a region which has been deforested due to climate change and human activity.

The rising importance of the climate crisis

Whilst conflict looks set to continue to be a key driver of voluntary and forced displacement in the coming years, the changing climate is likely to play an increasingly important role. 

In fact, UNHCR data shows that, over the last decade, Weather-related crises have triggered more than twice as much displacement as conflict and violence: Since 2010, extreme weather has forced around 21.5 million people a year to move, on average.

And whilst Afghanistan’s conflict has been the focus of much attention, the country’s citizens also have to face numerous natural disasters: the country is one of the most disaster-prone in the world, with nearly all of its 34 provinces hit by at least one disaster in the past three decades.

Myanmar: Attack leaves 35 dead, including 4 children 

The UN agency was “shocked and saddened” by the reported killing and burning of victims on 24 December, during a time when many prepared to celebrate Christmas.  

Credible reports suggested that four children were killed, including two 17-year-old boys, a teenage girl and a child approximately five of age, whose gender was not mentioned. 

The two humanitarians worked for the non-governmental organization (NGO) Save the Children, which confirmed their deaths.  

They were killed while returning to NGO’s Loikaw office after responding to humanitarian needs in a nearby community. 

Urgent action 

In a statement, the UNICEF Regional Director for East Asia and the Pacific, Debora Comini, condemned the attack.  

She reminded that the protection of civilians – particularly children and humanitarian workers – must be treated as a priority during times of conflict, in accordance with international humanitarian law and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Myanmar is a signatory. 

“UNICEF calls for urgent action to investigate this deplorable incident and to hold those responsible to account”, she said.  

“We offer our deepest condolences to the families of the victims and to our colleagues at Save the Children”. 

Three separate shipwrecks leave dozens dead and more missing 

According to the UN agency, between 21 and 24 December more than 160 people were rescued by Greece’s Hellenic Coast Guard – with support from the navy and air force, as well as merchant and private vessels.  

Commending those efforts, Maria-Clara Martin, UNHCR’s representative in Greece, said “it is heart-rending that, out of despair and in the absence of safe pathways, refugees and migrants feel compelled to entrust their lives to ruthless smuggler”. 

“More resolute action is needed to curb people smuggling and stop those who exploit human misery and despair. It is disheartening to see preventable tragedies like these repeating themselves. We should not get used to seeing bodies being recovered from the sea”, she added.  

Series of accidents  

The first shipwreck took place off Folegandros island on 21 December, with 13 people rescued and three male bodies recovered. 

One survivor told the Hellenic Coast Guard that as many as 50 people may have been onboard the boat that carried them without any safety equipment. 

The second shipwreck, north of Antikythera island, resulted in the loss of 11 lives, while 88 people were rescued. 

And on Christmas Eve, a boat carrying at least 80 passengers capsized off the island of Paros, claiming the lives of 17 people, including a baby. 

Sixty-three survivors were rescued and brought to Paros, where local authorities and island residents rushed to assist them with blankets, food and clothes. 

UNHCR estimates that from January until the end of November this year, more than 2,500 people have died or gone missing at sea in their attempt to reach Europe, through the Mediterranean and the northwestern African maritime route. 

UN chief urges that recovery be ‘our resolution for 2022’

“The world welcomes 2022 with our hopes for the future being tested by deepening poverty and worsening inequality…an unequal distribution of COVID vaccines…climate commitments that fall short, and by ongoing conflict, division, and misinformation”, Secretary-General António Guterres lamented.

He added that these are “not just policy tests”, but “moral and real-life tests”.

However, these are exams that all of humanity can pass “if we commit to making 2022 a year of recovery for everyone”, upheld the top UN official.

A resolution for action

Mr. Guterres went on to detail how best the recovery should be done on each front.

The pandemic requires “a bold plan to vaccinate every person, everywhere”, he said.

And for an economic rescue, the UN chief flagged that wealthier countries must support the developing world with “financing, investment and debt relief”.

Meanwhile, to heal from mistrust and division, he affirmed that a new emphasis must be placed “on science, facts and reason”.

At the same time, recovery from conflicts calls for “a renewed spirit of dialogue, compromise and reconciliation” while restoring our planet takes “climate commitments that match the scale and urgency of the crisis”, said Mr. Guterres.

Uniting as one

The Organization Head also acknowledged that “moments of great difficulty are also moments of great opportunity to come together in solidarity”.

This is because they offer the chance “to unite behind solutions that can benefit all people. And to move forward together, with hope in what our human family can accomplish”.

Together, let’s make recovery our resolution for 2022”, concluded the Secretary-General. “I wish you all a happy and peaceful New Year”.  

Escalation in Yemen ‘worst in years’ – UN top envoy 

According to his statement, airstrikes on Sana’a have resulted in the loss of civilian lives, and damage to noncombatant infrastructure and residential areas. 

A continued offensive on Ma’rib, where at least 35,000 people have been forced to flee since September, and unabated missile attacks on the governorate are causing civilian casualties, damage to civilian objects and mass displacement.  

‘Flagrant violation’ 

UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, speaks at a press conference in Taiz, Yemen. (08-11-2021)
UN Special Envoy to Yemen, Hans Grundberg, speaks at a press conference in Taiz, Yemen. (08-11-2021), by OSESGY

The Special Envoy also raised his concern over sustained attacks against Saudi Arabia, which have yielded civilian casualties and destroyed infrastructure.  

“Any targeting of civilians and civilian objects as well as indiscriminate attacks by any actor is a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law and must stop immediately”, he said.   

‘A tragic note’ 

For Mr. Grundberg, the escalation undermines the prospects of a sustainable political settlement.  

He emphasized that violations of international humanitarian and human rights law cannot continue with impunity. 

The UN envoy also pointed to the grim impact on an already deteriorating humanitarian situation saying, “2021 is ending on a tragic note for Yemenis, millions of whom are struggling with poverty, hunger and severe restrictions on their freedom of movement”.  

He reiterated the United Nations’ call for opening Sana’a airport and removing obstacles hindering the ability of Yemenis to move within or between governorates. 

Mr. Grundberg attested that he stands ready to work with the parties to find immediate solutions, address urgent humanitarian needs, and enable a political process.  

Detained staff members  

In parallel coverage, the Director General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed their deep concern for the well-being of two staff members who were detained in Sana’a early last month. 

In a statement, Audrey Azoulay and Michelle Bachelet confirmed that no communication has been possible with the staff members since that time. 

While the two UN agency staff members remain in custody, the Organization has not received any information on the grounds or legal basis for their detention, or their current status. 

The situation continues, despite earlier assurances by Ansar Allah, also called the Houthis, that the UN staff would be released immediately.  

In the statement, OHCHR and UNESCO recalled that privileges and immunities were accorded to staff of the UN system under international law when they are essential to complete official functions.  

Ms. Azoulay and Ms. Bachelet called again for the staff members’ immediate release without any further delays. 

2021 Year in Review: UN support for countries in conflict

In Al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, more than 60,000 displaced people, most of them women and children, live in often dire conditions.

© UNICEF/Delil Souleiman
In Al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, more than 60,000 displaced people, most of them women and children, live in often dire conditions.

Syria: peace denied by a ‘gulf of mistrust’

The grim ten-year milestone of the Syrian conflict, which has killed more than 350,000 people, saw the UN Special Envoy for the country, Geir Pedersen, work tirelessly to advance the peace process, amid what he called the “slow tsunami” of crises, with economic collapse compounded by COVID-19, corruption and mismanagement.

Several times throughout the year, Mr. Pedersen delivered his realistic assessment of the humanitarian and security situation in the country, characterised by what he called a “gulf of mistrust” between warring parties, and frequent attacks on civilians.

Attempts to find agreement on a new constitution for Syria began in October, but these efforts proved fruitless, at least for now. Mr. Pedersen acknowledged that the outcome was a disappointment but urged the members of the Constitutional Committee to continue their work.

Devastation caused by protracted conflict in Yemen.

UNDP Yemen
Devastation caused by protracted conflict in Yemen.

Yemen: ‘knocking on the door of famine’

The desperate people of Yemen faced the highest levels of acute malnutrition since the beginning of the conflict there in 2015, with over half the population facing severe food shortages. UN food relief agency chief David Beasley warned in March that millions were “knocking on the door of famine”.

Spring saw a dramatic deterioration in the conflict, with fighting expanding on several fronts, and the UN confirmed that the country remained the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

A new UN envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, was appointed in September, with no illusions about the difficulty of bringing peace and stability to the country, as a UNICEF report showed that some 10,000 children had been killed or maimed since the beginning of the fighting.

Is there real hope for an end to the fighting? Yes, says the UN Development Programme (UNDP), which released a report in November showing that, if the warring parties can agree to stop fighting, extreme poverty could be eradicated within a generation.

Internally displaced children in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

UNOCHA/Fariba Housaini
Internally displaced children in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

Afghanistan: Taliban takeover

International attention turned to Afghanistan following the shockingly swift military victory by the Taliban, who swept into the capital, Kabul, in August following the withdrawal of most international troops by June.

The Taliban’s takeover had been preceded by a marked increase in violence: Particularly horrific were the bombing of a girl’s school in Kabul in May, which killed at least 60, including several schoolgirls.

The following month, 10 deminers from the HALO trust were killed in the northern region, in an attack described by the Security Council as “atrocious and cowardly”, and a report released in July revealed that more women and children were killed and wounded in Afghanistan in the first half of 2021 than in the first six months of any year since records began in 2009.

As it became clear that the Taliban had become the de facto rulers of Afghanistan, the UN focus shifted to ensuring that humanitarian support remained as strong as possible: millions faced starvation with the onset of winter, and aid flights to Kabul resumed in September. In December, the World Food Programme (WFP) urged countries to put politics aside and step up support to avert a potential catastrophe.

The UN is providing $20 million in CERF to mitigate the loss of livelihoods and declines in food consumption after erratic rainfall in parts of Ethiopia depleted water supplies.

FAO/Michael Tewelde
The UN is providing $20 million in CERF to mitigate the loss of livelihoods and declines in food consumption after erratic rainfall in parts of Ethiopia depleted water supplies.

‘Grave uncertainty’ in Ethiopia

The northern Tigray region has been the epicentre of fighting in Ethiopia, between Government troops and the regional forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

The unrest exacerbated humanitarian concerns: in February, people displaced by the violence were reportedly reduced to eating leaves to survive. By June, the WFP estimated that some 350,000 people were at risk of famine.

There were persistent reports of human rights violations in Tigray, including disturbing news of abuse of civilians, and aid workers being targeted. Three employees of the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) agency were killed in June, and in July senior UN officials appealed for immediate and unrestricted humanitarian access to Tigray, and for an end to the deadly attacks on aid workers.

However, violence continued to escalate, and the country was under a state of emergency by November, when the UN rights office shared reports of people of Tigrayan origin being rounded up and arrested in the capital, Addis Ababa and elsewhere.

The UN political chief, Rosemary Di Carlo, told the Security Council that the future of the country was now shrouded in “grave uncertainty”, and was affecting the stability of the entire Horn of Africa region.

A displaced child in Kachin State, Myanmar.

OCHA/P. Peron
A displaced child in Kachin State, Myanmar.

Myanmar: a challenge to regional stability

The decision of Myanmar’s military to detain the country’s top political leaders and government officials in a coup, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint, was roundly condemned by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in February.

The detentions were followed by a state of emergency, and a violent, widespread crackdown on dissent. Nevertheless, demonstrations against the takeover grew in February, leading to the killing of several protestors.

The UN Special Envoy for Myanmar Christine Schraner Burgener, warned that the situation in the country was a challenge to the stability of the region.

During the months that followed, protests continued, violence against demonstrators escalated, and senior UN officials condemned the actions of the military. A UN report in April raised fears that the coup, coupled with the impact of COVID-19, could result in up to 25 million people – nearly half of the country’s population – living in poverty by early 2022.

The UN called for an urgent international response to prevent the crisis becoming a catastrophe for the whole of Southeast Asia but, by September, the power of the military seemed to have become entrenched. In December, the UN rights office warned that the country’s human rights situation was deteriorating at an unprecedented rate.

A UN peacekeeper patrols a village in Bandiagara in Mopti, Mali.

MINUSMA/Gema Cortes
A UN peacekeeper patrols a village in Bandiagara in Mopti, Mali.

Mali: a peacekeeping danger zone

UN-backed attempts to broker peace in Mali, following 2020’s military coup, could not prevent a deteriorating security crisis in 2021.

The country, in Africa’s Sahel region, retained its status as the world’s most dangerous posting for UN peacekeepers and, sadly, more of them were to pay the ultimate price whilst serving their duty.

The first deadly attacks on the UN blue helmets took place on 14 January, when four were killed and five wounded, and another attack left a further peacekeeper dead just two days later.

The following month, a temporary operating base of the UN Integrated Stabilization Mission for Mali (MINUSMA) in Kerena, near Douentza in Central Mali was attacked, resulting in the death of one peacekeeper and the wounding of 27 others. 

In April, the UN peacekeeping chief, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, warned that ‘blue helmets’, and the Malian Defence and Security Forces, continue to suffer repeated attacks and significant losses, while some large towns live under constant threat from armed groups. 

The death toll continued to rise: attacks in October and November left two peacekeepers dead whilst, in December, seven were killed and three seriously injured, when their vehicle hit an improvised explosive device in the Bandiagara region. To date, more than 200 peacekeepers have been killed in Mali.

Their presence in the country, however, remains essential: some 400,000 people have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict, and around 4.7 million are reliant on some form of humanitarian aid.

Hotspots of tension

UN News followed events in many other countries hit by outbreaks of violence and conflict in 2021.

  • Visiting Burkina Faso in December, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet lamented the fact that the West African nation faces “a multitude of challenges with severe impacts on a wide range of human rights of its people”. One attack in a rural part of the country in June left at least 132 dead, whilst another in August led to the death of around 80.
  • Cameroon remained beset by tension throughout the year, with separatists in the English-speaking regions of the country fighting to create their own state. The UN revealed in December that over 700,000 children have been impacted by school closures due to insecurity and violence.
  • The Central African Republic was hit by a wave of violence following presidential elections in late December, 2020, targeting civilians and UN peacekeepers. Hundreds of thousands were forced from their homes by the violence, and the senior UN official warned the Security Council in June of an “unprecedented humanitarian crisis”. 
    The Democratic Republic of the Congo suffered yet another year of violent attacks against civilians, with incidents reported on UN News practically every month, from a series of village killings in January, to the condemnation of mass human rights abuses in July, and the thousands fleeing fighting in November. Throughout the year, aid workers and UN peacekeepers also came under attack.
  • Haiti was already in a drawn-out political, security, and humanitarian crisis, long before the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July. By October, the senior UN official in the country was warning that Haiti was undergoing “one of the most fraught periods of its recent history”.
  • Iraq was the scene of deadly bomb attacks, including a suicide bombing at a busy Baghdad market in January, and another in the capital just before the Eid al-Adha holiday in July. In November, the UN Mission in the country condemned an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, when his house was hit by a drone attack.
  • Niger underwent a deadly Spring, during which hundreds of civilians were killed in terror attacks. In January, around 100 died in the west of the country as a result of armed violence, and some 200 civilians were killed in the Tahoua region in March, including around 30 children.
  • In Nigeria, Mass kidnappings continued to be a threat to schoolchildren: UN chief António Guterres called for the unconditional release of around 30 students abducted from a school in the northwest of the country in March, and many schoolchildren remain missing following earlier kidnappings.
  • Unrest in Palestine and Israel escalated in May, with at least 60 youngsters killed in the occupied Palestinian enclave of Gaza and another 444 injured over a fraught 10-day period. After 11 days of rocket and air attacks, a ceasefire was reached between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas, by which time some 240 were reportedly killed, and thousands injured, the majority in Gaza.
  • In Somalia, following months of escalating tensions and violence, the UN welcomed summit talks in Spring, which were followed in August by an electoral agreement between the Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble, and the heads of Somalia’s federal member states.
  • People in most parts of South Sudan are coping with extreme violence and attacks, a UN-appointed investigation found in February. The UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, warned that, a decade after the country achieved independence, more children are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance than ever before.
  • Sudan’s experiment in joint power-sharing between the military and civilian leaders, following the ousting of long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir in 2019, was derailed in October by a military coup. With the Prime Minister later restored to his office, the UN Envoy, Volker Perthes, told the Security Council in December that, whilst discussions on the way forward are underway, restoring trust will be a challenge.

Rights experts hear how ‘racialized gatekeeping’ impacts development in France

Dominique Day, chairperson of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, was speaking in the wake of its visit to Paris from 13 to 16 December. 

Focus on development 

Country visits by UN rights experts take place at the invitation of the host government and focus on fact-finding, diagnosis and recommendations. 

However, the Working Group’s mission was different, as members examined opportunities and obstacles to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) specific to people of African descent. 

These issues include invisibility or disregard of present-day experiences that may stem from the legacies of colonialism and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. 

“Despite a narrative of meritocracy, people of African descent at varied stages of their educational and professional development, including those with significant success, reported that benediction by institutional gatekeepers was indispensable to access and recognition, even in the presence of significant skill and talent,” said Dominique Day, the Working Group’s chairperson. 

“A racialized gatekeeping is contrary to human rights, imposes severe development costs to people of African descent individually and as a whole, and deprives France of a proven economic driver in multiple fields,” she added.  

Welcoming efforts 

During the mission, the Working Group engaged with human rights institutions, the UN educational and cultural agency, UNESCO, and a wide range of civil society representatives familiar with the development context. 

“The delegation welcomed ongoing efforts in some areas to shed light on key barriers and to build networks to ensure people of African descent may access the formal and informal mechanisms necessary to their hiring and professional development,” the statement said. 

The visit was also an opportunity to offer specific “drivers of development” that the French authorities could use to promote improvements, and the mission was guided by the Working Group’s Operational Guidelines on inclusion of people of African descent in the 2030 Agenda. 

Ms. Day said UNESCO’s Slave Route Project was a key source of knowledge for the experts, as it helped to highlight the historical and legacy issues driving current experiences reported by people of African descent. 

“Although the Working Group did not meet at this stage representatives of the French Government, it will share its observations gathered during this visit to initiate a dialogue based on the human rights commitments of the country. France should consider the economic and development benefits of partnership with people of African descent,” she said. 

The Working Group will share its preliminary observations with the French Government and propose the start of dialogue in the framework of an official country visit. 

Independent voices 

Independent experts, Special Rapporteurs and members of Working Groups are appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor and report on specific country situations or thematic issues. 

These persons serve in their individual capacity and are not UN staff, nor are they paid by the UN. 

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