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‘Brand new words’ needed to describe Gaza devastation, UN humanitarian says

“No matter where you look, no matter where you go, there’s destruction, there’s devastation, there’s loss,” said Yasmina Guerda, who recently returned to Gaza for a second deployment with the UN humanitarian affairs office, OCHA.

She spoke to UN News from Rafah, previously a refuge for more than a million Palestinians fleeing hostilities in other parts of Gaza. The start of Israeli military operations there has uprooted more than 600,000 people in just over a week.

Ms. Guerda frankly discussed the immense suffering and insecurity in Gaza, the critical lack of aid and basic services, and the difficulties facing humanitarians working amidst “the constant soundtrack of war”.

The mother of two young boys also urged people worldwide, who are upset over the conflict, to ask themselves “What can I do today at my level to help end this nightmare?”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Yasmina Guerda: We would need to invent brand new words to adequately describe the situation that Palestinians in Gaza find themselves in today. No matter where you look, no matter where you go, there’s destruction, there’s devastation, there’s loss. There’s a lack of everything. There’s pain. There’s just incredible suffering. People are living on top of the rubble and the waste that used to be their lives. They’re hungry. Everything has become absolutely unaffordable. I heard the other day that some eggs were being sold for $3 each, which is unthinkable for someone who has no salary and has lost all access to their bank accounts.

Access to clean water is a daily battle. Many people haven’t been able to change clothes in seven months because they just had to flee with whatever they were wearing. They were given 10 minutes notice and they had to run away. Many have been displaced six, seven, eight times, or more.

One of the things that I find absolutely striking is the people’s determination to keep moving forward, to keep looking up no matter what.

I was walking through a camp recently and there were several families who had dug their own makeshift septic tank with spoons in the sand, grabbing pipes and toilet tanks from destroyed buildings so that they can have something that resembles a restroom, because the situation here for water and sanitation is extremely dire. Humanitarians are not allowed to import the supplies to build latrines in displacement sites, so every family has to find their own creative way to solve that. I have been around several humanitarian crises, and you don’t encounter this kind of grit everywhere.

Forced displacement and military operations in Rafah are worsening an already catastrophic situation.
© UNRWA

Forced displacement and military operations in Rafah are worsening an already catastrophic situation.

UN News: You’re in Rafah. What is the level of destruction there and how close is the fighting? 

Yasmina Guerda: We are currently based in the western side of Rafah and the fighting is mostly in the east, and we hear the destruction that is happening. We go for reconnaissance missions which is, of course, extremely dangerous. Two of our colleagues went on a “recce” mission earlier this week and, unfortunately, one of them didn’t come out of it alive and the other had to be medically evacuated. So, the destruction in Rafah is happening. I haven’t personally seen it with my own eyes yet.

We have been able to see what has happened in the other areas that the Israelis have been attacking, so Khan Younis, Deir al Balah, and the northern parts of Gaza. What I can tell you is that there is rubble everywhere. The level of destruction is unimaginable, and the exception is to find buildings that are still standing. You’ll see a sea of rubble, and then every so often you’ll find a building that is still standing.

UN News: What are the challenges faced by humanitarian agencies in getting aid to civilians in need, particularly while civilians are on the move?

Yasmina Guerda: This is my second deployment to Gaza. I was here four weeks ago, and in four weeks everything has changed, including how you get in and out of Gaza and how you bring in supplies. Most of the population used to be in Rafah because that was the safer area back then. But now, of course, 630,000 people in 10 days have packed up whatever they had and gone north or towards the coastal areas.

The situation is constantly shifting because of the fighting that is so intense. One of the challenges for the response is that the minute you put something in place, the minute you think you know something, you have to change everything and start from zero. So that is extremely challenging, and it is slowing down the response a lot.

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The second issue is that honestly, it’s extremely dangerous to be here and that is really putting the response on its knees. There are no safe places left in Gaza.

On the last week of my deployment, seven humanitarian colleagues, who also happened to be friends, were killed by Israeli airstrikes. And the day that I arrived for my second deployment, two humanitarians were again struck. We constantly have to be careful with every move. We have to notify the warring parties of every movement. We spend hours submitting paperwork, we spend hours waiting at checkpoints, and so often it is for nothing because many of the missions that we planned are not facilitated, so we can’t carry them out.

Then there’s all the other stuff that you can imagine. The very poor phone and Internet connectivity is making it very, very hard to coordinate amongst humanitarian actors. Living conditions are stressful due to the constant soundtrack of war – the drones, the airstrikes – and in some areas there are bodies in the streets that we have to remove to ensure that they get a dignified burial.

We see a lot of very difficult things. It’s very challenging mentally and emotionally, and I would say a lot of aid workers are tired, and it’s also, I think, hurting the response because this is a very challenging response. But the worst of all are the issues and hurdles that we face.

It’s really unprecedented how utterly difficult it is to bring staff and supplies into Gaza. This was always the case since 7 October, but since 7 May, when the main border crossing for aid closed – the Rafah crossing – our storage facilities have been destroyed and looted. There’s almost nothing left to distribute in Gaza. And so as soon as something comes into the Strip – and it’s a trickle – it has to go out for distribution, and of course, it’s nowhere near enough. We have to make very difficult choices every day, and we have to prioritize the most vulnerable. We have to deliver partial rations. And that’s honestly quite heartbreaking on a daily basis.

Two boys gaze out at the ocean at a beach, in Rafah, Gaza, April 2024.
© UNOCHA/Yasmina Guerda

Two boys gaze out at the ocean at a beach, in Rafah, Gaza, April 2024.

UN News: Many people around the world are upset by the conflict and the destruction. What is your message to them? 

Yasmina Guerda: People here don’t understand how the world is allowing this to happen. When I entered Gaza the first time, the Ministry of Health had reported that about 29,000 people had been killed. By the time I left five weeks later, the number had risen to 34,000 reported killed. I calculated that this is about six people killed per hour on average, mostly women and children. We know that. We’re starting to identify bodies, and we’re letting it happen.

I’m lucky. I’m the mother of two little boys, they are two and four, and I’m terrified that one day they’re going to ask me how we couldn’t stop this; how the world didn’t stand in solidarity and voice their outrage loudly, and loudly enough to make it stop?

I don’t have an answer, and I think my message would be that people need to reach out to their decision-makers and demand that international law be respected, that the most basic human rights and the most basic human dignity be respected.

We’re not asking for much, just for the law that already exists to be respected because this war is a stain on us all, and it is everyone’s responsibility to work at all levels to make it stop now. That’s my message: that everyone asks themselves every day, “What can I do today at my level to help end this nightmare?”

 

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India’s LGBTQIA+ community notches legal wins but still faces societal hurdles to acceptance, equal rights

UNAIDS, the main advocate for coordinated global action on the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and the UN Development Progarmme (UNDP) offices in India have been important partners in this effort. 

On this International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOBIT), celebrated annually on 17 May, we reflect on the journey of some members of this community in India and shed light on the challenges they are still faced with.

‘All hell broke loose’

Noyonika* and Ishita*, residents of a small town in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, are a lesbian couple working with an organization advocating for LGBTQIA+ rights.

But despite her advocacy role in the community, Noyonika has been unable to muster the courage to tell her own family that she is gay. “Very few people know this,” she says. “My family is very conservative, and it would be unthinkable for [them] to understand that I am gay.”

Noyonika’s partner, Ishita, is Agender (not identifying with any gender, or having a lack of gender). She says that she realized in childhood that she was different from other girls and was attracted to girls rather than boys. But her family is also very conservative, and she has not told her father about her reality.

Twenty-three-year-old Minal* and 27-year-old Sangeeta* have a similar story. The couple are residents of a small village in the northwestern state of Punjab. They now live in a big city and work for a well-regarded company.

Sangeeta said that although her own parents eventually came to terms with the relationship, Minal’s family was extremely opposed to the point of harassing the couple. “All hell broke loose,” said Minal.

“In 2019, we got permission to live together through a court order,” Sangeeta explained, but after this Minal’s family started threatening her over the phone.

“They used to say that they would kill me and put my family in jail. Even my family members were scared of these threats. After that [Minal’s family] kept stalking and harassing us for two to three years,” she said.

Today, Sangeeta and Minal are still struggling to have their relationship legally recognized.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

A trans* activist from Odisha, Sadhana’s commitmentextends beyond administrative circles to actively engage withthe transgender community.
UN News

Struggles for acceptance

Heart-rending stories like these can be found across India, where societal prejudices and harassment continue to plague lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex communities.

Sadhna Mishra, a transgender activist from Odisha, runs a community organization called Sakha. As a child, she faced oppression because she was seen as not conforming to societal gender norms. In 2015, she underwent gender confirming surgery and her journey towards her authentic self began.

Recalling the painful days of her childhood, she said, “Because of my femininity, I became a victim of rape again and again. Whenever I used to cry, my mother would ask why, and I would not be able to say anything. I used to ask why people called me Chhakka and Kinnar [transgender or intersex]. My mother would smile and say that’s because you are different and unique.”

It is because of her mother’s faith in her that Sadhna is now active in fighting for the rights of other transgender persons.

Still, she remembers well the hurdles she has faced, like the early days of trying to get launch her organization and the difficulties she had even finding a place for Sakha’s office. People were reluctant to rent space to a transgender person, so Sadhna was forced to work in public places and parks.

Social prejudices

A lack of understanding and intolerance towards the LGBTQIA+ community are similar, whether in larger cities or in rural areas.

Noyonika says that her organization sees many instances where a man is married to a woman because of societal pressure, without understanding his gender identity. “In villages and towns, you will find many married couples who have children and are forced to live a fake life.”

As for the rural areas of Assam where her organization works, Ishita gave the example of a cultural festival Bhavna being celebrated in Naamghars, or places of worship, where dramas based on mythological stories are presented. 

The female characters in these dramas are played mostly by men with feminine characteristics. During festivals they are widely praised, and their feminine characteristics are applauded, but out of the spotlight, they can become victims of harassment.

“They are intimidated, they are sexually exploited, they are molested,” Ishita explained.

A slow path to progress

In recent years, there have been positive legal and policy decisions acknowledging the LGBTQIA+ community in India. This includes the 2014 NALSA (National Legal Service Authority) decision, in which the court upheld everyone’s right to identify their own gender and legally recognized hijras and kinnar (transgender persons) as a ‘third gender’. 

In 2018, the application of portions of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code to criminalize private consensual sex between men was ruled unconstitutional by India’s Supreme Court. Further, in 2021, a landmark judgment by the Madras High Court directed the state to provide comprehensive welfare services to the LGBTQIA+ communities.

Over the past 40-plus years, the rainbow Pride flag has become a symbol synonymous with the LGBTQ+ community and its fight for equal rights and acceptance across the globe.
Unsplash/Tim Bieler

United Nations advocacy

Communication is an important way to foster dialogue and help create a more tolerant and inclusive society, and gradually, perhaps even change mindsets.

To this end, UN Women, in collaboration with India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development, has recently contributed to the development of a gender-inclusive communication guide.

Meanwhile, the UNAIDS and UNDP offices in India are working to assist the LGBTQIA+ community by running awareness and empowerment campaigns, as well as provide those communities with better health and social protection services.

“UNAIDS supports LGBTQ+ people’s leadership in the HIV response and in advocacy for human rights, and is working to tackle discrimination, and to help build inclusive societies where everyone is protected and respected,” said David Bridger, UNAIDS Country Director for India.

He added: “The HIV response has clearly taught all of us that in order to protect everyone’s health, we have to protect everyone’s rights.”

In line with the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Organization’s broad commitment to ‘leave no one behind’, UNDP, is working with governments and partners to strengthen laws, policies and programmes that address inequalities and seek to ensure respect for the human rights of LGBTQIA+ people. 

Through the “Being LGBTI in the Asia and the Pacific” programme, UNDP has also implemented relevant regional initiatives.

Opportunities and challenges

UNDP India’s National Programme Manager (Health Systems Strengthening Unit), Dr. Chiranjeev Bhattacharjya said, “At UNDP India, we have been working very closely with the LGBTQI community to advance their rights.” 

Indeed, he continued, there are currently multiple opportunities to support the community due to progressive legal landmarks like the NALSA judgement, decriminalization of same sex relationships (377 IPC) and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act of 2019 which has raised awareness regarding their development. 

“However, there are implementation challenges which will need multi-stakeholder collaboration and we will continue to work with the community to address them so that we leave no one behind,” he stated.

Even as the Indian legal landscape has inched towards broader inclusion with the repeal of Section 377, the country’s LGBTQIA+ communities are still awaiting recognition – and justice – when dealing with many areas of their everyday lives and interactions, for example: who can be designated ‘next of kin’ if one partner is hospitalized; can a partner be added to a life insurance policy; or whether legal recognition could be given to gay marriage. 

Gaza: Nearly 800,000 now displaced from Rafah

“Once again, nearly half of the population of Rafah or 800,000 people are on the road,” Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini wrote in post on the social media platform X. formerly Twitter.

He said that following evacuation orders demanding people to flee to so-called safe zones, people mainly went to the middle areas in Gaza and Khan Younis, including to destroyed buildings.

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No safe passage or protection

“When people move, they are exposed, without safe passage or protection,” he said.  “Every time, they have to start from scratch, all over again.”

Mr. Lazzarini said the areas that people have escaped to do not have safe water supplies or sanitation facilities.

He cited the example of Al-Mawassi, describing it as “a sandy 14 square kilometre agricultural land, where people are left out in the open with little to no buildings or roads.”

The town, located on Gaza’s southern coast, “lacks the minimal conditions to provide emergency humanitarian assistance in a safe and dignified manner.”

He said that more than 400,000 lived in Al-Mawassi before the recent escalation, but now it is “crammed and cannot absorb more people”, which is also the same in Deir al Balah.   

‘No place is safe’

“The claim that people in Gaza can move to ‘safe’ or ‘humanitarian’ zones is false. Each time, it puts the lives of civilians at serious risk,” Mr. Lazzarini stated.

“Gaza does not have any safe zones,” he added. “No place is safe.  No one is safe.” 

The situation is again being made far worse by the lack of aid and basic humanitarian supplies, he continued, noting that humanitarians do not have any more supplies to give out, including food and other basic items. 

Meanwhile, key crossings into Gaza remain closed or are unsafe to access as they are located near or in combat zones. Mr. Lazzarini also highlighted the critical need for fuel, which is essential for aid distribution.

Land routes crucial

He said only 33 aid trucks have made it to southern Gaza since 6 May – “a small trickle amid the growing humanitarian needs and mass displacement.”

“While we welcome reports on first shipments arriving at the new floating dock, land routes remain the most viable, effective, efficient and safest aid delivery method,” he said.

Earlier on Saturday, the UN Spokesperson’s Office said the World Food Programme (WFP) confirmed that 10 truckloads of food were transported to its warehouse the previous day via the floating dock, which was installed by the United States military.

“Some of the shipment included high-energy biscuits for WFP to distribute, but there were also commodities for other humanitarian partners to distribute, which included rice, pasta, and lentils,” the note said.

Mr. Lazzarini emphasized that the land crossings into Gaza must re-open and be safe to access. ”Without the re-opening of these routes, the deprivation of assistance and catastrophic humanitarian conditions will persist,” he said.

Ceasefire now

He underlined the obligations of the parties to the conflict, starting with rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for all civilians in need, wherever they are located.  

“The displaced population must have access to basic survival items, including food, water, and shelter, as well as hygiene, health, assistance and above all safety,” he said.

Humanitarian relief teams also need safe and free movement to access people in need, and protection wherever they may be, and the parties are also obligated to protect civilians and civilian objects everywhere.   

“Above all, it is time to agree on a ceasefire,” he concluded.  

“Any further escalation in the fighting will only wreak more havoc on civilians and make it impossible to finally have the peace and stability that Israelis and Palestinians desperately need and deserve.”

 

 

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Gaza: Aid delivery via floating dock welcomed, but land routes ‘more important’

OCHA warned that the maritime corridor cannot replace critical land routes, which are the quickest and most effective way of delivering humanitarian aid in the besieged enclave, where more than two million Palestinians desperately need food, shelter and other assistance. 

“Any and all aid into Gaza is welcome by any route,” spokesperson Jens Laerke told reporters in Geneva. “But, it is an addition, and it doesn’t take away the fact that land crossings will be more important.” 

Additional aid route 

The US military’s Central Command announced that the trucks began rolling at approximately 9am, local time, on Friday, and that no troops went ashore.

The floating dock was anchored to a beach in Gaza the previous day. With most border crossings to the enclave closed or unsafe, it will provide an additional path for aid delivery to the embattled enclave. 

The United Nations welcomes any effort towards ensuring that aid reaches Gaza, said UN deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq, speaking in New York later on Friday.

“As such, we are grateful to the United States, as well as to Cyprus, with the support of other Member States, to sustain the maritime corridor as an additional route for aid to Gaza,” he said.

He explained that “after months of discussions with all relevant authorities, the UN has agreed to support in receiving and arranging for the dispatch of aid into Gaza from the floating dock, as long as it respects the neutrality and independence of humanitarian operations.”

Open all crossings 

Mr. Laerke said UN agencies are finalising their readiness plans for handling the aid once the floating dock is properly functioning, keeping in mind the need to ensure the safety of staff. 

“Community awareness and acceptance is paramount to ensure the safety and security of this operation,” he insisted. 

“However, getting aid to people in need into and across Gaza cannot and should not depend on a floating dock far from where needs are most acute,” he said. 

“Land routes are the most viable, effective and efficient aid delivery method, which is why we need all crossing points to be opened.” 

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Rafah displacement continues

Updating on the situation in Rafah, OCHA reported that nearly 640,000 people have been displaced from the area since the Israeli military offensive began.  Many have fled to overcrowded Deir al Balah governorate in central Gaza, where conditions are dire.

The ongoing influx of displaced people there, and in  Khan Younis, continues to strain humanitarian response, which is already overstretched.

“The situation is constantly shifting because of the fighting that is so intense,” Yasmina Guera, an OCHA Humanitarian Affairs Officer in Rafah, told UN News on Friday.

“One of the challenges for the response is that the minute you put something in place, the minute you think, you know something, you actually have to change everything again and you have to start from zero.”

OCHA said teams working on getting food to people in Gaza report that only five bakeries remain operational across the enclave – four in Gaza city and one in Deir al Balah. Nearly a dozen others have stopped working due to fuel and supply shortages, amid ongoing hostilities.

As a result, aid partners have been forced to conduct small-scale distributions with limited stocks, providing reduced rations and prioritizing Khan Younis and Deir al Balah.

A child walks through the rubble in Rafah.
© UNRWA

A child walks through the rubble in Rafah.

Water and sanitation crisis

The ongoing displacement from Rafah to Khan Younis has exacerbated the water and sanitation crisis, with sewage overflow and solid waste spreading across roads, displacement camps, and the rubble of destroyed homes – with a catastrophic impact on health.

“Our colleagues working on ensuring that people in Gaza have adequate shelter say there are no remaining stocks of shelter materials inside Gaza,” OCHA said.

Fuel shortage

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) stressed that the biggest issue now is fuel. 

Spokesperson Tarik Jašarević reported that only 13 out of 36 hospitals in Gaza are now partially functioning, emphasizing that fuel is required for electricity and to run generators.

He said health partners require between 1.4 million to 1.8 million litres monthly so that hospitals can function, but only 159,000 litres have entered Gaza since the border closure, “and that’s clearly not sufficient”.

 

 

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UN rights office urges Sri Lanka to reveal fate of the disappeared

The call accompanies the launch of a key report by OHCHR, highlighting also the need for the Government to acknowledge the involvement of State security forces and to issue a public apology.

From the 1970s to 2009, Sri Lanka witnessed widespread enforced disappearances, predominantly carried out by the national army and associated paramilitary groups.  

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) also participated in abductions, which, according to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, tantamount to enforced disappearances.

OHCHR noted that despite some formal measures by successive governments, such as ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and establishing the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations, “tangible progress on the ground towards comprehensively resolving individual cases has remained limited.”

Ongoing suffering

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk emphasized the ongoing suffering of families waiting for information about their loved ones.

“This report is yet another reminder that all Sri Lankans who have been subjected to enforced disappearance must never be forgotten … their families and those who care about them have been waiting for so long. They are entitled to know the truth.”x

Nearly 15 years after the end of the civil war, and decades since the first disappearances, Sri Lankan authorities continue to fail in ensuring accountability for these violations.

“Accountability must be addressed. We need to see institutional reform for reconciliation to have a chance to succeed,” said Mr. Türk.

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Harassed and intimidated

The report outlined the extensive psychological, social and economic impact on the families, particularly on women who often become the primary breadwinners in challenging labour environments, including risks of sexual harassment and exploitation.

Many women seeking information about their disappeared loved ones have faced harassment, intimidation and violence from security forces.

One woman recounted threats from the army and police, highlighting the dangers faced by those advocating for the disappeared.

Families still waiting

Under international law, the State has a clear obligation to resolve cases of enforced disappearances, which remain ongoing violations until clarified, according to OHCHR.

However, many families still lack answers. A man testified before a national commission about his disappeared son, saying:

“Two weeks passed, then two months, then two years. Now it has been 32 years, and I am still waiting.”

Israel refutes South Africa’s accusations at UN world court

Linked to South Africa’s ongoing case accusing Israel of violating its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention), the new request, filed on 10 May, asked the ICJ to order Israel to “immediately withdraw and cease its military operations in the Rafah governate”.

Gilad Noam presents Israel’s arguments at the ICJ.

An ‘obscene exploitation’

Appearing before the Court, Gilad Noam, co-agent of Israel, refuted South Africa’s claims, terming it an “obscene exploitation” of the “most sacred” Genocide Convention.

“South Africa presents the Court yet again for the fourth time within the scope of less than five months, with a picture that is completely divorced from the facts and circumstances.”

He stated that Israel is engaged in a “difficult and tragic” armed conflict, a fact essential to “comprehend the situation” but one that is ignored by South Africa.

“It makes a mockery of the heinous charge of genocide … facts matter and truth should matter. Words must retain their meaning. Calling something a genocide again and again does not make it genocide,” he added.

Israel did not start the war

Mr. Noam further stated that it was not Israel that started the war, recalling the “horrific onslaught” on 7 October 2023 by Hamas and other Palestinian groups targeting Israeli civilians and communities, killing over 1,200 and taking 254 women, men and children hostage.

He added that Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza continue to attack Israel, displacing communities and destroying homes and infrastructure. Moreover, Hamas continues to use Palestinian civilians as human shields.

“Rafah, in particular, is a focal point for the ongoing terrorist activity,” he said, accusing Hamas of having “intricate underground tunnel infrastructure” with command-and-control rooms, military equipment, and potentially for smuggling Israeli hostages out of Gaza.

He also noted that even though the ICJ called for the immediate release of the hostages, they remain under captivity.

Co-agent of Israel, Gilad Noam, at the public hearings in the case South Africa v. Israel at the ICJ.
© ICJ/Wendy van Bree

Co-agent of Israel, Gilad Noam, at the public hearings in the case South Africa v. Israel at the ICJ.

Not a large-scale operation

“The reality is that any State put in Israel’s difficult position would do the same. The right of defence against the brutality of the Hamas terrorist organization cannot be in doubt. It is an inherent right afforded to Israel, as it is to any State,” Mr. Noam said.

The Israeli representative stated his country’s commitment to protecting itself, “in accordance with the law, which is why it has worked diligently to enable the protection of civilians, even as Hamas seeks deliberately to endanger them.”

“That is why there has not been a large-scale assault on Rafah, but rather specific, limited and localized operations prefaced with evacuation efforts and support for humanitarian activities,” he added.

Fully and sincerely engaged

Concluding his statement, Mr. Noam cited the Court’s rejection of South Africa’s earlier requests for similar provisional measures, and added that it would be “wholly inappropriate” to grant a provisional measure under such terms.

“South Africa has not given sufficient reason why the Court should now deviate from or essentially duplicate its earlier decisions,” he said, noting that Israel is “engaged fully and sincerely” in the proceedings, “despite the outrageous and libelous claims levelled against it.”

“[Israel] has made clear time and again its unwavering commitment to its obligations under its international law. It has done this while the fighting continues and its citizens are still under attack,” he said.

UN’s rights chief says horrified by Sudan escalation as famine draws nearer

According to the UN human rights office, OHCHR, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, held separate phone calls on Tuesday with Lt-General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, Commander of the Sudanese Armed Forces, and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who leads the rival Rapid Support Forces.

Diplomatic approach

Mr. Türk urged them both to act immediately – and publicly – to de-escalate the situation, said OHCHR spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani, who noted that the UN rights chief had previously approached the rival generals in November 2022.

“He warned both commanders that fighting in El-Fasher, where more than 1.8 million residents and internally displaced people are currently encircled and at imminent risk of famine, would have a catastrophic impact on civilians, and it  would deepen intercommunal conflict with disastrous humanitarian consequences,” Ms. Shamdasani told journalists in Geneva.

“He reminded the commanders of their obligations under international humanitarian law to ensure strict compliance with the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution, and to put an end to any ongoing violations, as well as ensure accountability for violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law committed by their respective forces and allies.”

13 months of heavy fighting

Thirteen months of war in Sudan have left half of the population in need of humanitarian assistance – a staggering 25 million people, including 14 million children. Millions have been repeatedly displaced, becoming more vulnerable each time, and aid teams have warned repeatedly that famine is closing in, with the approach of the rainy season. 

The UN human rights office expressed concerns about the ongoing and lasting impact of conflict across Sudan, while highlighting the dire situation affecting civilians caught up in escalating violence in and around El Fasher in Darfur.

At least 58 civilians are reported to have been killed and 213 others since fighting dramatically escalated in the North Darfur town last week, OHCHR said.

Disease, famine closing in

Echoing concerns about the emergency situation, the UN aid coordination office, OCHA, warned that diseases are closing in and people are “staring famine in the face”.

The UN-partnered response plan aims to reach and support 15 million of the worst-affected people but $2.7 billion is needed urgently to do so.

Today, humanitarians have received only 12 per cent of the total and without an immediate injection of funds, OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke warned that aid teams “won’t be able to scale up in time to stave off famine and prevent further deprivation”.

He added that funding would be used to “bring in more food, health services, shelter, water and sanitation, but also for prevention of sexual and gender-based violence, help to the victims, and support for the re-opening of schools for out-of-school children”.

Crimes against nature: UN agency puts environmental legislation under scrutiny

“Stronger legislation can help deter potential and repeat offenders and expand the range of investigative tools and resources for law enforcement to stop crimes that affect the environment,” said Angela Me, Chief of Research and Analysis at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), presenting the report.

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Launched in Vienna, ‘The Landscape of Criminalization’ is Part One of the first-ever Global Analysis of Crimes that Affect the Environment report. UNODC examines how all 193 UN Member States define crimes against nature and the punishments they set for violating environmental laws.

Serious violations

The study covering nine areas of nature-related offenses – deforestation and logging, noise pollution, fishing, waste management, wildlife protection, and pollution of air, soil, and waste – established that no less than 85 per cent of UN Member States criminalize offenses against wildlife.

At least 45 per cent of countries impose penalties of four or more years in prison for some environmental offenses, categorizing them as “serious” crimes under the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), a universally recognized standard.

“Our review shows progress globally in advancing environmental protection laws,” said Angela Me. However, she noted that legislation and enforcement remain uneven, creating “opportunities for criminal groups to exploit gaps in responses.”

Wildlife and waste are the areas where most countries (164 and 160, respectively) include at least one related criminal offense in their national legislation. In contrast, soil and noise pollution (99 and 97, respectively) are the areas where the fewest countries have criminal provisions.

Regional variations

The level of criminalization and penalties varies by country and region. For example, in Oceania, 43 per cent of countries regard illegal fishing as a serious crime (resulting in four or more years in prison), whereas in Europe, only two per cent of countries classify it as such. Meanwhile, 12 out of 18 countries in Eastern Africa consider wildlife offenses to be serious crimes.

A man fishes on the banks of the Mithi River in western India that has become an open dump for sludge oil and hazardous chemicals.
© UNICEF/Magray

A man fishes on the banks of the Mithi River in western India that has become an open dump for sludge oil and hazardous chemicals.

Africa and Asia have the highest average percentage of Member States with penalties meeting the serious crime definition, indicating that the legislation is not necessarily weak but that there is a lack of enforcement.

Wildlife crime

Of the nine areas surveyed, offenses against wildlife are most frequently covered by criminal legislation, with 164 Member States maintaining such provisions. 

Many countries’ national legislation even exceeds the requirements of CITES, the international convention regulating the transboundary trade in endangered species.

Globally, wildlife crime penalties span from a few days to life in prison, while fines can range from a few US dollars to three million.

Next to wildlife, crimes related to waste are highly criminalized, with 160 countries considering improper waste dumping a crime and including at least one related criminal offense in their legislation.

In contrast, soil and noise pollution are the least protected, with only 99 and 97 countries, respectively, considering these violations serious.

Legislative gaps

The report highlights discrepancies in how laws are applied to individuals versus enterprises, with businesses often getting away with fines, while individuals may face imprisonment. 

The authors suggest that countries could improve legislation to allow for the confiscation of means used to commit environmental crimes or proceeds from these offenses. The current lack of such provisions often leads to the prosecution of minor offenders rather than the large economic players committing environmental crimes.

According to the UNODC experts, there are several areas for improvement in environmental legislation and penalties. Member States could consider increasing penalties and expanding the use of international cooperation tools such as extradition or mutual legal assistance.

There is also a need for more data collection on these crimes, better enforcement of legislation, and more research on the penalties administered and their effectiveness, they said, adding that such information will help in understanding which extents of criminalization are most effective in preventing environmental crimes.

World News in Brief: More Ukraine attacks, rights appeal for jailed Nigerian singer, International Day against Homophobia

“The safety of civilians, homes, schools and hospitals must be ensured. They are not a target,” Denise Brown said in a statement, underscoring that international humanitarian law must be respected. 

Ms. Brown said these latest attacks came a day after she returned from the Kharkiv region in northeastern Ukraine, which has come under relentless shelling in recent days. 

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“I saw the appalling consequences of the intensified attacks by the Russian Federation’s Armed Forces on thousands of people who had to flee for their lives, leaving everything they own behind,” she said.  

“Many are older people who fear they will never be able to go back.” 

She also commended the humanitarians who are “working tirelessly to support people amid this human tragedy”. 

Nigeria urged to free musician facing execution for blasphemy 

Independent UN human rights experts on Thursday called on Nigeria to immediately release a singer who was convicted of blasphemy in 2020. 

Sufi Muslim musician Yahaya Sharif-Aminu was sentenced to death by hanging for writing a song and sharing it on the social messaging service WhatsApp. 

“Although his death sentence was quashed by a court of appeal, we remain deeply concerned that Mr. Sharif-Aminu’s case will be re-prosecuted based on the same legal framework, the Kano State Sharia Penal Code Law, with serious risks that the death sentence will be confirmed,” the experts said

Abolish the death penalty 

Although the Nigerian Supreme Court has taken up the matter, the experts said they remain deeply concerned that Mr. Sharif-Aminu has been in prison for too long for exercising his human rights.  

All people have the right to freedom of expression, and to religion or belief, they said, as well as to take part in cultural life and the development of their society through artistic expression, without fear of imprisonment, reprisals or execution. 

They urged the Supreme Court to consider Mr. Sharif-Aminu’s case as a priority, and recommended that Nigeria establish a moratorium on the death penalty, with a view to completely abolishing it. 

The three Special Rapporteurs who issued the statement were appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, the Organization’s highest body on human rights. They operate in their individual capacity, are not UN staff, and do not draw a salary for their work. 

The rainbow flag waves in the wind at San Francisco's Castro District. Credit: Benson Kua
Credit: Benson Kua

The rainbow flag waves in the wind at San Francisco’s Castro District. Credit: Benson Kua

Respect human rights on International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia 

The UN Secretary-General called for commitment to building a world of respect, dignity and human rights for all in his message to mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, observed on Friday.  

António Guterres applauded the brave work of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+) activists fighting to outlaw discrimination and secure equality before the law. 

“Yet there is a worrying surge in the opposite direction,” he warned.  “New laws are codifying old bigotries, exploiting fears and stoking hate.” 

He said the theme of this year’s observation of the International Day – “No one left behind: equality, freedom and justice for all” – is a reminder of the obligation to respect the human rights and dignity of every person. 

“We need action around the world to make those rights a reality,” the UN chief said, calling for an end to criminalization of same-sex relationships and discrimination and harmful practices against LGBTIQ+ communities.  

Rights expert condemns death of Palestinian doctor in Israeli custody, urges independent inquiry

Dr. Adnan Al Bursh, 50, the head of the orthopaedic department at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, died on April 19, 2024, in Ofer prison, a detention facility in the West Bank. His body has not yet been released by Israeli authorities.

Before his death, he had reportedly been beaten in prison, with his body showing signs of torture.

Dr. Al Bursh had been detained with other doctors and medical personnel by Israeli forces on 18 December 2023, at Al Awda Hospital in North Gaza. At that time, he was generally in good health and was performing his duties normally.

Call for independent probe

Tlaleng Mofokeng, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health, said she was “horrified” by the news.

“He was detained while undertaking his duty to patients and caring for them according to the oath he took as a medical practitioner … he died for trying to protect the rights to life and health of his patients,” she said.

The expert underscored the need for an independent probe.

“Dr. Adnan’s case raises serious concerns that he died following torture at the hands of Israeli authorities. His death demands an independent international investigation,” the Special Rapporteur said.

Concerns of safety of healthworkers

Ms. Mofokeng also raised concerns over the safety of healthcare workers amidst Israel’s relentless military operation in Gaza following the brutal attacks by Hamas and other groups in southern Israel on 7 October.

“I am deeply saddened that I continue to receive reports of doctors being killed in this conflict,” she said.

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The Ministry of Health in Gaza has reported that at least 493 healthcare workers from Gaza have been killed since 7 October 2023. This includes nurses, paramedics, doctors, and other medical personnel. Many more have been injured.

The UN World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that at least 214 healthcare workers have been detained by Israeli forces while on duty.

Doctors should not be killed

“The killing and detention of healthcare workers is not a legitimate method of warfare. They have a legitimate and essential role to care for sick and wounded persons during times of conflict,” Ms. Mofokeng said.

“Healthcare workers should not be killed practicing their profession.”

The Special Rapporteur urged Israel to immediately release all healthcare workers arbitrarily detained in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, and reiterated her call for an immediate ceasefire.

Independent expert

Appointed by the Human Rights Council – the UN’s highest intergovernmental forum on human rights – and forming a part of its Special Procedures, Special Rapporteurs are mandated to monitor and assess the rights situation in certain thematic or country situations.

They work voluntarily – independent of governments and the UN, are not UN staff and do not receive a salary.

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