Category Archives: United Nations

Science is a Human Right – Sarion Bowers.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations.

The idea that we should benefit from scientific advancement is something we may never have thought of as human right, yet the Universal Declaration of Human Rights firmly makes the case that it is everyone’s right, regardless of education, wealth or background.

It’s not news that Brexit represents a threat to UK science. From the inability to attract international talent, to the loss of funding and the problems getting imports into the country and exports out, UK science is in danger. Loss of science in the UK is not the loss of a luxury item. It is not a vanity project we can live without. UK science underpins the economy, from development of clean energy to the coordination of international clinical trials, the UK leads and we in the UK benefit. Failure to support UK science will leave all of us materially poorer. It will leave us with a less innovative health care system, with dirty air, and expensive food.

And after all of that we may also be deprived of a fundamental human right.

70 years ago, on Dec 10 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was approved by the United Nations. This Declaration laid out a manifesto of fundamental rights for all persons, of all nations. The Declaration is binding for all United Nations Member states, but many of the basic rights and dignities to be afforded to every person have since found their way into national and international laws around the world. For many people these rights fundamentally underpin their political outlook, whether left or right.

Despite near universal awareness of the existence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, many people probably do not know what all the rights are, or how far they extend into their society.

. . . Sanger Institute


Somali citizens count cost of surge in US airstrikes under Trump – Jason Burke.

The Guardian has investigated scores of reports of US-led strikes targeting al-Shabaab, which have risen to unprecedented levels.

Dozens of civilians have been killed and wounded in Somalia as US-led airstrikes against Islamist militants increase to unprecedented levels, a Guardian investigation has found, raising fears that Washington’s actions could bolster support for extremists.

The escalation in strikes is part of the Trump administration’s broader foreign policy strategy in Africa and the Middle East. There have been 34 US airstrikes in Somalia in the last six months – at least twice the total for the whole of 2016.
Regional allies active in the campaign against Islamic extremists in the east African country have conducted many missions too. These appear to be the most lethal for civilians.

Almost all the strikes target al-Shabaab, the al-Qaida affiliated extremist movement fighting to establish an Islamic state in Somalia for more than a decade.

The Guardian collected and investigated scores of reports of airstrikes over the last 12 months, checking claims in local media with western and local officials, medical staff, witnesses and relatives of victims.

In five attacks since July, more than 50 civilians appear to have been killed or injured. At least two involved US aircraft.
Further casualties are likely to have been caused by other strikes but have gone unreported.
Five civilians were killed and two wounded in an airstrike on a village on 6 December, witnesses and hospital staff said.

In another incident, in October, residents and medics reported up to eight civilians being injured in an airstrike during fierce fighting in Lower Shabelle province.
The previous month, four herders were injured when a water hole near the border with Kenya was bombed.

In August, seven members of a family including small children died in a strike in southern Jubaland, relatives said. Officials said all those killed were extremists.
A month earlier, four people, including three children, were killed and eight wounded in an airstrike on a village near the southern port city of Kismayo, relatives and witnesses said.

The strikes have also killed large numbers of livestock and caused extensive damage done to agricultural infrastructure.

Though the intensity of the recent strikes is unprecedented, the use of air power in Somalia has been steadily increasing since before Donald Trump became US president.

A recent UN analysis described 74 airstrikes between January 2016 and October 2017, resulting in 57 civilian casualties. Only 14 of these strikes were “US supported”, and the report blamed Kenyan forces in Somalia for 42 of those casualties.

Kenya contributes troops and three attack helicopters to Amisom, the 22,000-strong African Union military and policing mission in Somalia. Kenyan forces are also believed to have conducted their own strikes in border areas, though Nairobi denies this.

Most airstrikes hit deep into the territory held by Islamist militants and confirmation of claims of civilian casualties, even when made by relatives of those hurt or killed, is difficult.

Some of the dead or injured may be fighters with armed tribal militias who are technically civilians, though sometimes align with the militants.

Al-Shabaab also routinely exaggerate the number of civilian casualties, and communities are sometimes tempted by the prospect of compensation to support such claims.

The sudden increase in the use of air power in Somalia by the US come after the relaxation of guidelines intended to prevent civilian casualties and a decision by the Tump administration to give local military commanders greater authority in ordering attacks.

A huge bomb that killed 500 people in Mogadishu in October – the latest in a series to target the Somali capital – has added extra impetus to the new US efforts.

Senior humanitarian figures have expressed growing concerns about the potential humanitarian cost of the offensive.

Michael Keating, the UN special representative in Somalia, said: “All those who are using military means in one way or another [in Somalia] claim that they have standards when it comes to the protection of civilians but are not translating their principles into practice. All actors could do more to protect civilians.”

In a phone interview, Ibrahim Mohamed Abdullahi, a resident of Illimey village, which is about 80 miles (130km) south-west of Mogadishu, said a projectile killed five people and injured two others on 6 December.

“Farmers had gathered at a tea shop … when the drone begun to fly over … Some of the victims were passing on the road while some were inside drinking their afternoon tea. Five died on the spot. They are not killing al-Shabaab. They are killing civilians,” he said.

Hospital officials in Mogadishu confirmed two casualties – an 18-month-old girl and a 23-year-old man – had been brought with shrapnel injuries because a clinic nearer Illimey was without electricity.

A five-year-old girl, a 17-year-old girl and three men were killed.

A US spokesperson said there were no US airstrikes in Somalia on 6 December.

The strikes in October in Lower Shabelle took place during fierce fighting between government forces and al-Shabaab. A number of militants were killed, but eight civilians in the village of Awdhegle were also injured, locals said.

Muse Xirey, an elder, said three women, a child and four men were transported to Daru al-Shifa hospital in Mogadishu when their house was hit.

“They were herders and farmers, not al-Shabaab ,” the 56-year-old said.

A doctor at the hospital said two men and a woman injured in “an airstrike between Awdhegle and Barire” were treated.

US officials say a single strike was carried out, 35 miles south-west of Mogadishu.

A third incident took place at the village of Talaka near the border with Kenya after Kenyan troops withdrew. Al-Shabaab fighters moved in shortly afterwards and were bombed, witnesses said. A watering hole some distance away was also attacked. Twenty camels were killed and four herders injured.

Kenyan forces have been blamed for the strike, but deny responsibility.

Between 16 and 17 August, the US conducted three “precision airstrikes against al-Shabaab militants, killing seven fighters” in the Middle Juba region, where there has been heavy fighting between government forces and militants, officials said.

Residents, local media and al-Shabaab-linked outlets reported seven civilians killed by explosions in Ahmed Yare village, about 15 miles outside the town of Jilib, an al-Shabaab stronghold.

In a phone interview from Kismayo, Halima Sheikh Yare said her cousin Sheikh Mohamed, a “renowned cleric”, was killed along with his wife and five male relatives.

The 47-year said her cousin was a farmer as well as religious teacher and local imam, and not, a Somalia officials claim, a local leader of al-Shabaab.

“ Al-Shabaab members are armed, but these were family members who stayed in their house and were not armed,” she said.

Hassan Muhumed, 31, a resident of Jilib who visited Ahmed Yare to check on relatives shortly after the drone strike, said al-Shabaab fighters had visited to address locals a day before the attack but had left shortly afterwards.

“All those killed were civilians,” Muhumed said.

A spokesperson for the US military said an internal investigation had found allegations of civilian casualties near Jilib at this time were “not credible”.

The final incident investigated by the Guardian occurred during the evening of 18 July, in the village of Qabri Sharif, west of Kismayo.

Residents describe “a huge bomb [that] hit several houses”, killing three children and a man. Eight injured adults were transferred to Kismayo hospital, they said.

Muhumed Kuusow, a local elder, said the children were playing inside their house when hit by shrapnel.

“They all died on the spot. The bomb was huge and the whole place was like a deep cave in the ground,” he said.

Dr Hassan Sheikh Ali, who was director of Kismayo hospital at the time, said four casualties – all herders – were brought in.

“They told us there was an airstrike on the village on 18 July, killing several people and many animals,” he said.

Abdinur Mohamed, the provincial information minister, said officials in Kismayo were aware of civilian casualties in the strike, which he said was carried out by Kenyan planes.

A US official said there were no US air strikes in Somalia on 18 July.

The recent UN report found that al-Shabaab killed 1,223 civilians and injured nearly 1,500 others between January 2016 and October 2017. This accounted for 60% of the 2,078 documented civilian deaths and 2,507 injuries in the period reviewed.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said civilian casualties caused by regional or international forces, though only a small proportion of civilian deaths, were of utmost concern because they undermined the Somali population’s trust in the government and the international community, and that this helped extremists.

One problem for the US is that its forces are often blamed for air attacks even when not responsible.

Tricia Bacon, a former counterterrorism expert at the US Department of State who is professor at the American University in Washington DC, said airstrikes have a potent “disruptive effect” on militant organisations, but also risked alienating civilian populations “you needed to turn against them”.

A Kenyan military spokesperson referred the Guardian to Amisom when asked about Kenya’s operations in Somalia. Francisco Madeira, the head of Amisom, said the force had “not been responsible for any airstrikes” in ..Somalia in 2017.

A US military spokesperson said its forces complied “with the law of armed conflict” and took “all feasible precautions … to minimise civilian casualties and other collateral damage”.

The Guardian

In an illiberal world order, we need new ways to defend human rights – Alexander Betts.

With the UN toothless, we must all become more versatile, collaborative and technologically adept in tackling abuses around the world.

The UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, recently announced he would not be seeking a second term in office. “To do so, in the current geopolitical context, might involve bending a knee in supplication… lessening the independence and integrity of my voice,” he explained.

His vivid words implied that human rights advocacy has become untenable and this statement of resignation – from a highly respected and effective voice – is a tragic indictment of the current state of play. Consider, for a start, the Trump administration’s record, including attempts to ban Muslim travel and exclude transgender people from the military, and how it highlights a UN system now deprived of an important historical champion. What’s more, faced with rising populist nationalism, European states have largely failed to fill the void and the continent’s treatment of refugees has seriously damaged its moral authority.

Deprived, then, of its traditional liberal democratic allies, the UN system appears increasingly toothless. It effectively operates as a peer network and without strong government leadership, it struggles to bring about change. Instead, for the “west”, arms exports to Saudi Arabia, migration deals with Turkey and trade deals with China have been prioritised over speaking out on human rights. And the consequences of silence and complicity have been manifest – from slaughter and starvation in Yemen to forced repatriation of the Rohingya, impunity in Syria and extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.

However, the mood of resignation is premature and wrongheaded. It is time to fight for human rights – but equally time to reimagine how they are achieved in a changing world. And this requires leadership from within and beyond the UN system. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which heralded a historical period during which a swath of treaties were agreed. These treaties are among the great achievements of the 20th century and must be maintained. But alone they are insufficient to ensure compliance and implementation. Reminding governments that they are breaking the laws they signed up to is no longer working.

The temptation for UN agencies is to try to see out the current impasse and hope for a return of the bygone era. The problem with this strategy, however, is that the current geopolitical climate may not be a blip but instead result from fundamental changes. The rise of “multi-polarity” – where power is widely dispersed among nations – may indefinitely deprive the human rights system its “enforcer of last resort”. Meanwhile, populist nationalism could be a long-term feature of the political landscape. Sustaining a viable human rights system in the new world order will require adaptation and innovation

First, non-traditional players can play a significant role. Last week, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, suggested that the story of 2017 was one of quietly effective resistance. These scattered successes were the result of political mobilisation by small groups of states, filling the void left by others and often working with civil society. For example, the Netherlands led a coalition at the human rights council to investigate Saudi-backed atrocities in Yemen. Iceland led the council to condemn Rodrigo Duterte’s backing for summary executions in the Philippines’ war on drugs.

Second, “constructive engagement” offers hope. Reporting violations and resorting to legal channels, including courts, to assert human rights law can influence state behaviour, but it doesn’t always. In areas such as alternatives to detention for asylum seekers and police reform, working with states to identify “good practices” that better reconcile national interests with human rights can bring more success.

Third: transnational action. If traditional intergovernmental mechanisms are failing, let’s find ways to bypass them. States are not the only route to progress. Press investigations, businesses managing their global supply chain, charities tackling modern slavery and environmental standards all have implications for human rights. They respond to consumers and shareholders rather than voters and their choices can influence elite political preferences, even in authoritarian regimes. In 1961, an article published in the Observer led to the creation of Amnesty International.

More recently, the transnational media investigation into slavery in the Thai prawn processing market led to major global retailers being exposed, passing pressure on to their Thai suppliers, which were forced to commit to reform. Thai law changed, arrests were made. Serious questions remain about slavery within the industry, but progress has been made. And yet business is still not a central focus of the human rights system.

There are also new technologies available to empower transnational civil society. Though the extent of tech influence can be debated, the Arab spring revealed the rapidity with which the internet can now mobilise action. And yet there has been too little systematic reflection on how this can change the business model of the human rights system. How, for instance, can a digital world offer greater protection from reprisals and lend voice to human rights defenders? To be effective, human rights defenders need to be technologically ahead of repressive regimes. And this requires a system with technological capacity.

Promoting human rights in a multipolar world of rising nationalism will not be easy. But the core principles developed over the past 70 years are needed now at least as much as at any time in that period. The system requires innovation, not resignation, and innovation. It needs us all to work together to overcome collective indifference.

The reinvigoration of human rights must entail a commitment to justice and inalienable rights at every level of society. But it also requires strategic, entrepreneurial and creative thinking.


Alexander Betts is Leopold Muller Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs and a Fellow of Green-Templeton College at the University of Oxford, where he was previously the Hedley Bull Research Fellow in International Relations. He received his MPhil (in Development Studies, with Distinction) and DPhil (in International Relations) from the University of Oxford.

The Guardian

The UN is failing. We must give its leader real power to act –  Helen Clark. 

The former New Zealand premier and top UN official says the organisation cannot hope to end today’s crises while it is hamstrung by micro-management.

In a world facing many grave challenges across many spheres, people look to the United Nations to play a key role in resolving them.

Yet there is broad appreciation that the UN is failing in vital areas, not least on peace and security. It is at its best in the development and humanitarian domain, where it works with and for people and gets results. But its seeming inability to act to end the protracted crises that have driven untold human misery – including the forced displacement if an unprecedented 65.6 million people – is an indictment of the organisation. It badly needs structures and ways of working that will address this century’s crises, not those of 1945.

Some of its constraints are structural, like the veto power on the security council given to five nations when the charter was written in 1945. That prevents effective action on peace and security – even when an overwhelming majority of the security council and member states wants it. That veto should be removed, and replaced by a qualified voting system that allows, at the least, for decisions to be taken on a near-unanimous basis.

That should be coupled with a move to fairer representation on the security council. It is, in effect, the executive board for the UN on peace and security matters on which Europe is clearly over-represented and other regions are correspondingly under-represented. This is a long-term source of grievance, and it undermines the UN’s legitimacy.

On top of that, the requirement for a range of key agreements to be reached unanimously is holding our world back. If the climate negotiations in Bali in 2007, for example, had been able to forge ahead leaving a minority of dissenters behind, there would be much greater confidence today that we could avoid reaching the tipping point at which irreversible and catastrophic change in the climate ecosystem occurs.

Then there are the many constraints placed on a secretary general’s ability to lead. The secretariat is subjected to micro-management by member states through various committees of the general assembly. There is little appreciation of the need for a clear line to be drawn between management and governance.

I advocate the empowerment of the secretary general to take bold initiatives and run the organisation as an effective leader and chief executive must. International organisations need leaders empowered to act. Yes, there must be systems of accountability, but when they hamper action on everything from courageous diplomacy for peace to streamlining management, as they do now, they become counterproductive. Worse, they can leave a secretary general looking weak, indecisive and hamstrung because of fear of offending member states.

So, member states must ease up, and give the secretary general and his/her managers the space to act decisively. Coupled with that, there should be only one term served by a secretary general, to avoid the over-caution that is inherent in aiming to secure a second mandate from the day the first one begins.

If steps like these aren’t taken, the UN will continue to diminish in relevance. The world needs an effective UN. The current limitations on its capacity to lead and act need to be addressed urgently.

The Guardian