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UN audit finds environment chief spent on $500 million on travel expenses, he resigns

NEW YORK, Nov 20: UN environment chief Erik Solheim resigned on Tuesday after an audit questioning his huge travel expenses triggered an outcry, UN officials said.

The former environment minister of Norway had been at the helm of the Nairobi-based UN Environment since June 2016.

A UN audit found that Solheim had spent nearly $500 million on travel and that he claimed unjustified expenses at a time when the world body is struggling with shrinking budgets.

His globe-trotting raised accusations that he showed little regard for the environment and efforts to reduce carbon emissions generated by air travel.

Coral reefs can’t wait for world to take action, urges UN

CAIRO, Nov 14: Sounding the alarm about the urgent need to protect coral reefs from extinction within decades, a new coalition of organizations, including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), was launched on Wednesday in Egypt during the UN Biodiversity Conference, to galvanize global leadership before it is too late.

“It’s clear to anyone who puts their head below the waves that the fate of the world’s coral reefs is hanging in the balance,” said UNEP chief Erik Solheim. “At the moment these undersea explosions of colour and life face an extremely bleak future.”

Coral reefs provide food and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people around the world, support more than a quarter of all marine life, and protect communities and coastlines from natural disasters — and if urgent action is not taken, they could be lost forever.

Eight international organisations have joined forces to advocate for decisive action to protect these natural wonders: UNEP, the International Coral Reef Initiative, the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Vulcan Inc., the Ocean Agency, and the Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

“The expectations for this coalition could not be higher. Coral reef protection must become a global priority. Coral reefs need a better deal,” said Mr. Solheim, who unveiled the new partnership in the Egyptian coastal resort of Sharm El Sheikh. Dozens of ministers whose countries are party to the CBD are gathering there, together with experts and representatives of civil society organisations, to start a two-year process to adopt a global framework for protecting biodiversity, including coral reefs, around the world.

The conference, which opened on Tuesday and will continue until 29 November, is a platform for decision-makers from more than 190 countries to make commitments and step up efforts to halt the biodiversity loss and protect the ecosystems that support health, and food and water security for billions of people worldwide.

In addition, governments, private companies, NGOs and inter-governmental organizations; indigenous peoples and local communities; youth and civil society; are expected to make pledges in support of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020.

The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published in October 2018 warns that, even if we collectively manage to stabilize global surface temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, 70 to 90 per cent of coral reefs will be lost by the middle of this century. Continued failure to take action on climate change will result in even greater losses, the report warns.

However, climate change is not the only major threat that reefs face. Over-fishing, pollution and coastal development have all caused major coral loss over the last 30 years. Reducing those threats can help recover the most resilient reefs after impacts – such as bleaching events, caused by above-average sea water temperatures due to global warming.

“I am delighted to see that the issue of coral reefs is receiving the attention it deserves. We are now approaching the 2020 horizon and need to sharpen the focus on strategies for effective coral reef conservation and to support people who depend on them,” said Prince Albert II of Monaco.

“The International Coral Reef Initiative General Meeting, which I will be hosting in Monaco this December, will be an important step and my wish is that it will lead to the adoption of a practical, effective, ambitious and realistic program of action,” he added.

Artificial Intelligence raises ethical, policy challenges: UN expert

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 16: Digital solutions are transforming lives: Think of robots that help the elderly, a mobile phone app that identifies crop pests, or surgical robots in hospitals. These advances are all due to Artificial Intelligence and an extraordinary new era of machine learning.

While these bring tremendous benefits, AI also raises concerns, ranging from security, to human rights abuses. Speaking in Paris last weekend, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres praised AI but cautioned that “technology should empower not overpower us” and that the world needs to set policies that contain unintended consequences or malicious use of frontier technologies.

So what is AI?

UN News asked Eleonore Pauwels, Research Fellow on Emerging Cybertechnologies at United Nations University (UNU), about AI – what it is, how it works, and what she sees happening in the next few years.

In its current form, called “deep learning”, AI is a growing set of autonomous and self-learning algorithms she told us, capable of performing tasks it was commonly thought could only be done by the human brain. At its core, AI produces powerful predictive reasoning while minimizing the noise from unpredictable and complex human behaviour.

In some invisible and other more visible ways, AI is transforming our lives, from reshaping our intimate and networked interactions, to monitoring our bodies, moods, and emotions.

At an individual level, AI has already begun to shift our understanding of agency, identity, and privacy. The all-encompassing capture and optimization of our personal information – the quirks that help define who we are and trace the shape of our lives – will increasingly be used for various purposes without our direct knowledge or consent.

How to protect independent human thought in an increasingly algorithm-driven world, goes beyond the philosophical and is now an urgent and pressing dilemma, said Ms. Pauwels.

AI is already ubiquitous, but will affect people differently, depending on where they live, how much they earn, and what they do for a living. Scholars from civil society have started raising concerns about how algorithmic tools could increasingly profile, police, and even punish the poor.

On the global and political stage, where corporations and states interact, AI will influence how these actors set the rules of the game. It will shape how they administer and exert power on our societies’ collective body. These new forms of control raise urgent policy challenges for the international community.

Where are we heading?

The evolution of AI is occurring in parallel with technical advances in other fields, such as genomics, epidemiology, and neuroscience. That means that not only is your coffee maker sending information to cloud computers, but so are wearable sensors like Fitbits; intelligent implants inside and outside our bodies; brain-computer interfaces, and even portable DNA sequencers, points out the UNU Research Fellow.

When optimized using AI, this trove of data can achieve truly life-saving innovations. Consider research studies conducted by Apple and Google: the former’s Heart Study app “uses data from Apple Watch to identify irregular heart rhythms, including those from potentially serious heart conditions such as atrial fibrillation,” while the Google-powered Project Baseline declares: “We’ve mapped the world. Now let’s map human health.” Never before has our species been equipped to monitor and sift through human behaviors and physiology on such a grand scale. We might call this set of networks the “Internet of Bodies.”

What are your fears about AI?

There is great promise born out of the AI revolution, but also great peril, especially when it comes to ownership and control of our most intimate data. When computer codes analyze not only shopping patterns and dating preferences, but our genes, cells, and vital signs, the entire story of you takes its place within an array of fast-growing and increasingly interconnected databases of faces, genomes, biometrics, and behaviors.

The digital representation of your characteristic data could help create the world’s largest precision medicine dataset – or it could render everyone more vulnerable to exploitations and intrusions than ever before.

What might governments seek to do with such information and capabilities? How might large corporations, using their vast computing and machine-learning platforms, try to commodify these streams of information about humans and ecosystems? Indeed, behavioral and biological features are beginning to acquire a new life on the internet, often with uncertain ownership and an uncertain future.

Equally troubling, rising tech platforms are often our last line of defense to ensure the security of the massive, precious datasets that fuel our e-commerce, and soon, our smart cities and much more. That is, the same multinationals that reign over data and its liquidity are also charged with cybersecurity – creating potential conflicts of interest on a global scale.

That tension, of course, comes with the fact that the private tech sector is also enabling most of the positive benefits that AI can and will usher in, for individuals and societies, from helping to predict natural disasters to finding new warning signs for disease outbreaks. Thinking about how to ensure data liquidity and security will become ever more important as governments aim to reap such benefits.

What can be done?

The above reflections exhibit an entanglement of ethical and policy challenges that needs to be mapped, unveiled, and analysed to nurture an inclusive foresight discussion on the global governance of AI.

There are some innovative ways in which the UN can help build the kind of collaborative, transparent networks that may foster strategic foresight dialogues.

Spurred on by a mandate given to UNU in the Secretary-General’s Strategy on New Technologies, The Centre for Policy Research at the United Nations University has created this AI and Global Governance Platform as an inclusive space for researchers, policy actors, corporate and thought leaders to explore the global policy challenges raised by artificial intelligence.

From global submissions by leaders in the field, the Platform aims to foster unique cross-disciplinary insights to inform existing debates through the lens of multilateralism, coupled with examples on the ground. These insights will support UN Member States, multilateral agencies, funds, programmes and other stakeholders as they consider both their own and their collective roles in shaping the governance of AI.

‘Terror and panic’ among Rohingya who may be forced to return to Myanmar: UN rights chief

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 13: There is “terror and panic” among Rohingya refugees in southern Bangladesh, who are at imminent risk of being returned to Myanmar against their will, the United Nations top human rights official has said, warning that the returns would seriously endanger the lives of those sent back.

According to the UN human rights office, OHCHR, some of the refugees have threatened suicide if they are forced to return, and two elderly men in Cox’s Bazar have already attempted suicide.

Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, underlined that with “complete lack of accountability” and ongoing violations in Myanmar, repatriations effectively means “throwing back” the refugees into the same cycle of human rights violations that they “have been suffering for decades.”

There are plans for the repatriation of more than 2,200 Rohingya refugees to Myanmar. However, refugees have stated repeatedly that they do not wish to return under current conditions, OHCHR added. In addition, several families apparently listed for return are headed by women or children, placing them at heightened risk.

Ms. Bachelet also stressed that forcibly expelling or returning refugees is a “clear violation of the core legal principle of non-refoulment,” which forbids repatriation where there are threats of persecution or serious risks to the life, physical integrity or liberty.

Any returns must take place in line with international standards of voluntariness, safety and dignity, with full transparency, and only when the conditions are right, added Ms. Bachelet.

The UN human rights chief also called on the Government of Myanmar to show its seriousness in creating the conditions for return by addressing the root causes of the crisis in Rakhine state.

Since late August 2017, widespread and systematic violence against Myanmar’s mainly-Muslim minority Rohingya, has forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes in Rakhine state and seek refuge across the country’s border, in Bangladesh. Prior to that, well over 200,000 Rohingya refugees were sheltering in Bangladesh due to earlier displacements.

“The history of the Rohingya in Myanmar is one filled with repeated episodes of violence, flight and return,” said Ms. Bachelet, calling on the international community “to speak with one voice to stop this cycle from repeating itself yet again.”

According to estimates, there are some 925,000 Rohingya refugees sheltering in Bangladesh, most of them in the district of Cox’s Bazar, once an idyllic coastal town, transformed into the largest refugee settlement in the world, in just a matter of months.

Rare but devastating tsunamis underscore need for better preparation: UN chief

By Deepak Arora

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 5: United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has called for greater preparedness to offset the disastrous impact of tsunamis, which are causing increasing human, economic and development losses, illustrated most recently by the destruction across the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

“Tsunamis are rare but devastating,” said the Secretary-General in a message on World Tsunami Awareness Day, adding that he saw the impact “first-hand” during his recent visit to Sulawesi.

According to the UN coordination office for humanitarian affairs (OCHA), the disaster claimed 2,077 lives, with more than 1,000 still missing. In all, over 1.5 million people were affected, including 211,000 displaced, and the disaster resulted in estimated $910 million in damages.

Globally, the scale of losses to tsunamis is staggering: between 1998-2017, over 250,000 people died and $280 billion was lost as a result of tsunami events, according to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), with countries along the Indian and Pacific Oceans worst hit.

Better preparation for likely disasters is therefore vital, added the Secretary-General, noting also that such efforts are required to implement the targets under the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction as well as for eradicating extreme poverty.

“World Tsunami Awareness Day is an opportunity to emphasize again the importance of disaster prevention and preparedness,” he said, “including early warning, public education, science to better understand and predict tsunamis, and development that takes account of risk in seismic zones and exposed coastal areas.”

We must prevent lives and livelihoods from being ‘washed away’ – UN Assembly President
María Fernanda Espinosa, the President of the 73rd session of the General Assembly, also highlighted the need for robust preparedness and prevention.

Speaking at a commemorative event at the UN Headquarters, in New York, Ms. Espinosa said that the destructive force of tsunamis can quite literally “wash away” cities, villages, lives and livelihoods.

“For countries and regions at risk, avoiding such risk requires investing in risk-informed development,” she said, adding that on the human side, strengthening public awareness and preparedness “must be pursed with every effort at our disposal.”

Efforts addressing disaster risk and in recovering from hazards also offer “one of the strongest spaces for multilateralism,” the Assembly President continued, citing examples of countries working together in response to the 2017 hurricanes in the Caribbean, the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal, and the recent tsunami in Indonesia.

Lastly, she also called for programmes to focus on women, the elderly, and persons with disabilities, given that these groups are disproportionately impacted by disasters.

In December 2015, the UN General Assembly designated 5 November as World Tsunami Awareness Day, calling on all countries, international bodies and civil society to observe the day, to raise tsunami awareness and share innovative approaches to saving lives.

This year, the World Day focuses on Target “C” of the Sendai Framework, which aims at reducing economic losses due to tsunamis.

 

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