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Despite falling attacks, ISIL terrorists remain ‘global threat’: UN report

By Deepak Arora

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 11: Though attacks were down last year, a new United Nations report to the Security Council on Monday shows that ISIL is still a global threat, despite evolving into a “covert” terrorism network, with countries continuing to face challenges from the growing scourge of violent extremism.

“Despite the more concealed or locally embedded activities of ISIL cells, its central leadership retains an influence and maintains an intent to generate internationally-directed attacks and thereby still plays an important role in advancing the group’s objectives,” explained Vladimir Voronkov, who heads the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT).

“This is exacerbated by the challenge of foreign terrorist fighters who either are leaving conflict zones, or those who are returning or who are about to be released from prison. In this context, radicalization in prison settings, is seen as a particular challenge in Europe and Iraq,” Under-Secretary-General Voronkov added.

He said that so-called “frustrated travelers” were adding to the complexity of the threat, namely fighters who’d failed to reach main battlegrounds, but been diverted instead elsewhere, either by ISIL commanders or of their own volition.

The report notes that the “centre of gravity” of the organization, known in the Arab world as Da’esh, remains in Iraq and Syria, with up to 18,000 remaining in the ranks, including some 3,000 foreign fighters.

“In terms of ISIL’s financial strength, the report notes that despite some loss of revenue due to territorial setbacks, ISIL could sustain its operations through accessible reserves, in cash or investment in businesses, ranging between $50 and $300 million. ISIL cells are also reported to generate revenue through criminal activities”, explained Voronkov.

The document, the eighth report on ISIL – which proclaimed its so-called caliphate across northern Syria and Iraq in 2014 - was prepared on behalf of the UN Secretary-General by the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED) and the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the 1267/1989/2253 ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee, in close collaboration with the UNOCT and other UN entities and international organisations.

After being driven from its city strongholds of Mosul and Raqqa, intense fighting in recent months has left Da’esh defending a small enclave against US-backed fighters in eastern Syria, close to the Iraqi border. According to news reports, around 600 terrorist fighters continue to battle with coalition forces, which have labelled this the “final battle” to crush ISIL.

The UN analysis shows that Member States continue to face tremendous challenges across the world in tackling the threats posed by ISIL, with the threat level continuing to expand. This is especially true in North, West and East Africa as well as in Central Asia. Training camps have been identified in Afghanistan, and in South-East Asia, where women and youth are increasingly mobilized for terrorist operations across the region.

The head of CTED, Michele Coninsx, highlighted three of those major challenges faced by Member States:

The “destructive legacy” left in Syria and Iraq, most noticeable in the high number of families who remain internally-displaced due to the destruction of homes and infrastructure overall: She noted that “reconstruction will take many years and will require significant resources, as will restoring and reconciling communities after so many years of conflict.”

The growth in the number of terrorist suspects and offenders in custody: The risk posed by such prisoners is difficult to assess and manage.

ISIL’s ability to exploit new technologies and find innovative ways to finance itself and find new recruits: Ms. Coninsx noted for example the risks linked to anonymous technologies like blockchain and cryptocurrencies, and other internet-based ways of avoiding detection.

For several years, various parts of the UN have supported Member States in the fields of prosecution, rehabilitation and reintegration (PRR) of former fighters; international judicial cooperation; countering terrorist financing; border management and law enforcement; countering terrorist narratives and engaging communities to prevent violent extremism.

Specifically, explained CTED’s Executive Director Coninsx, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and UNOCT are leading a joint project to provide tailored capacity-building assistance to prison staff.

In the Lake Chad Basin, she said CTED and UNODC are working to provide Member States with technical expertise to develop comprehensive strategies to prosecute, rehabilitate and reintegrate persons associated with the Boko Haram extremist group.

Other initiatives include the development of a practical guide for requesting electronic evidence across borders, and the deployment of a specialized consultant to support Iraq in its efforts to develop a holistic and comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy.

“The Secretary-General has stressed that despite recent successes against ISIL / Da’esh and its affiliates, the threat posed by returning and relocating fighters, as well as from individuals inspired by them, remains high and has a global reach,” stressed Mr. Voronkov. “I would therefore emphasize, the recent ISIL losses should not lead to complacency at any level,” he concluded.

Engaging women and girls in science ‘vital’ for Sustainable Development Goals

By Deepak Arora

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 11: Boosting the number of women and girls entering careers involving STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) is vital to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, UN chief António Guterres said on Monday, in a message to mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

However, women and girls remain “woefully under-represented”, said the Secretary-General, for reasons that include gender stereotyping, a lack of visible role models and unsupportive - or even hostile - policies and environments, at a national level.

The Secretary-General called for concerted efforts to overcome these obstacles, tackle misconceptions about girls’ abilities, and promote access to learning opportunities for women and girls, particularly in rural areas.

The International Day was established in 2015, following the adoption of a General Assembly resolution, signalling the international community’s interest in achieving equality and gender-parity in science for sustainable development, and recognizing that full access and participation in STEM subjects is imperative for the empowerment of women and girls.

The 2019 theme of the Day is “Investment in Women and Girls for Inclusive Green Growth,” and a two-day event began on Monday at UN Headquarters in New York, bringing together global experts and leaders to evaluate the economic and social impact of women’s participation in science-based sustainable development programmes.

The event featured a high-level panel focusing on the public-sector financing of science for green growth, investment to attract and retain high calibre women in science, and financing to ensure gender equality in science.

The second day of the event, will discuss the factors that influence whether girls choose STEM subjects, as they transition from school to higher education: UN data shows that only around 30 per cent of female students select STEM-related fields in higher education.

There will also be a panel convened by young change-makers and passionate advocates for girls in science from around the world, which aims to give girls the chance to gain core leadership skills, and the opportunity to present a vision for the use of science, to achieve sustainable development goals.

Organizations and UN agencies across the world, led by UN Women and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), have been commemorating the International Day through various events, articles and videos.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a video on Monday to coincide with the Day, in which eight successful nuclear scientists are asked how their gender has affected their career, highlighting the bias and prejudice that still exists in the industry.

UN ready to rise above political fray and help Venezuelans based ‘on need, and need alone’

By Deepak Arora

GENEVA, Feb 8: The situation for ordinary Venezuelans is increasingly critical but the United Nations remains committed to providing humanitarian support, based on “need, and need alone”, said a senior aid official on Friday.

Speaking to journalists in Geneva, the UN’s aid coordinating branch, OCHA, underlined that it was observing developments at Venezuela’s border with Colombia, where an aid convoy arrived on Thursday.

“On the situation at the border, the UN is monitoring that situation closely,” said Jens Laerke from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). “The ideal scenario is that humanitarian aid is provided, independent of any political or other considerations than the pure humanitarian, and that is based on need and need alone.”

At the border, the World Food Programme (WFP) confirmed that needs are at “crisis”-like levels inside Venezuela, where opposition politician Juan Guaido declared himself interim President last month, amid deepening economic and political uncertainty.

“How can we know if people are starving or not? Just stay at the border with Colombia, and look who is coming into Colombia,” said WFP senior spokesperson Hervé Verhoosel. He said 1.2 million people had come, “starving, in Colombia with no money, no food, no medicine…Yes of course there’s a crisis in the country.”

WFP has been providing emergency food assistance at the Colombian border since early 2018.

From April to December last year, the agency provided emergency food assistance to 290,000 people in the country’s border departments of Arauca, La Guajira, Norte de Santander and Nariño.

Venezuelan migrants, Colombian returnees and host communities have been assisted, Mr Verhoosel explained, adding that the flow of migrants into Colombia is expected to rise.

Several resident UN agencies work inside Venezuela including UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the World Health Organization (WHO) in partnership with the Pan-American health Organization, UNAIDS, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

In a bid to help 3.6m Venezuelans including two million children, OCHA has appealed for nearly $110 million.

The UN has already helped local institutions by providing medical kits for women and children, and aid teams are also delivering 100,000 treatments for severe acute malnutrition. Six temporary shelters have also been set up in the western border states to house 1,600 people and offer them protection and information, as well as family kits containing food and clothing.

“Since November, UN agencies have been scaling up existing activities inside Venezuela to meet urgent health, nutrition and protection needs,” Mr Laerke said. “This highly prioritized plan requires $109.5 million. Up to now we only $49.1 million received against that plan.”

Also in Geneva, the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that it is continuing to work with the authorities through the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), notably to prevent and control communicable and non-communicable diseases.

In 2018, around 50 tons of medicines and supplies were delivered to Venezuela by PAHO, WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said.

Since measles was first reported in July 2017, there have been 6,395 confirmed cases, including 76 deaths as of December 2018.

This led to the re-launch of the vaccination campaign in August 2018, with coverage rate reaching 95 per cent of children aged up to 15. Reported cases of measles appear to be declining, Mr Jasarevic explained.

Immunization campaigns have also been launched to successfully halt a diphtheria outbreak which began in July 2016 and has claimed 270 lives to date.

Although reported diphtheria cases have been declining among children under 15 years of age, transmission among adults persists, WHO warned.

In addition to food and medical shortages inside the oil-rich country, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) noted that dozens of opposition politicians continue to face ongoing harassment there.

“The most information that we have is on the situation of the speaker of the National Assembly Mr Guaido,” said Rogier Huizenga, Human Rights Manager and Secretary of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians.

“We also know for instance that Ms. Delsa Solorzano, also a prominent member of opposition in Parliament in Venezuela, has been accused of having been involved in some kind of incitement to violence,” he added, “through what appears to be a doctored WhatsApp exchange. So she is accused as a result of that, she had to go into hiding for a couple of days.”

The IPU official explained that its human rights panel had looked at cases of 60 opposition Members of Parliament in Venezuela who are facing “different kinds of intimidation”.

More than 40 MPs had faced physical attacks and six had fled abroad, he said, noting also that the former Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly was still sheltering in the Chilean embassy in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.

Evidence shows ‘brutal’ killing of Saudi journalist ‘planned and perpetrated’ by State officials: UN independent expert

Feb 7: Evidence collected in Turkey shows on initial examination, that former dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi was the victim of “a brutal and premeditated killing, planned and perpetrated by officials of the State of Saudi Arabia,” according to the United Nations expert conducting an independent human rights inquiry into his death.

“The murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the sheer brutality of it has brought irreversible tragedy to his loved ones”, said Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, at the end of her first official visit to the country, from 28 January to 3 February.

“It is also raising a number of international implications, which demand the urgent attention of the international community including the United Nations”, she continued.

The Special Rapporteur travelled to Ankara and Istanbul with British Baroness Helena Kennedy, a forensics expert who sits in the House of Lords, and homicide investigator Paul Johnston.

Though the investigations are ongoing, she will present her final report to the Human Rights Council in June, along with a range of recommendations, including the issue of formal criminal accountability, and how these correspond to international law.

“The human rights inquiry I have committed to undertake is a necessary step, among a number of others, towards crucial truth telling and formal accountability”, she said.

Ms. Callamard noted that Turkey’s efforts to carry out a “thorough, independent and impartial” investigation had “been seriously curtailed and undermined by Saudi Arabia”.

“Woefully inadequate time and access was granted to Turkish investigators to conduct a professional and effective crime-scene examination and search required by international standards for investigation,” she elaborated. He was last seen alive, going in to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, on 2 October last year.

The UN expert flagged that Khashoggi’s murder violated both international law and core rules of international relations, including the requirements for lawful use of diplomatic missions, saying that “the circumstances of the killing and the response by State representatives in its aftermath may be described as ‘immunity for impunity’.”

The Special Rapporteur said that she had heard parts of graphic audio material obtained by the Turkish intelligence agency, but largely due to time constraints, was unable to technically examine or independently authenticate it.

She called Khashoggi’s assassination part of a pattern of killings globally of journalists, human rights defenders, activists and opponents of various regimes.

“Fleeing abroad in search of safety has become less and less a reliable form of protection,” the Special Rapporteur warned. “The international community must take a strong and collective stand against these practices”.

Ms. Callamard thanked Turkey for supporting the visit and called on the relevant authorities to remain engaged and maintain full cooperation with the mission.

“I intend to continue to consider evidence in the weeks to come and would urge anyone who has knowledge or intelligence about what took place before and after Khashoggi’s murder, to share it with us,” the Special Rapporteur asserted.

The team met the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Justice, the Chief of Turkish Intelligence, the Chief Prosecutor of Istanbul and a number of others, including from civil society and media.

Noting that her office had no official representation in the Gulf Kingdom, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet had said earlier that a murder trial in Saudi Arabia, would not meet the requirements of an independent and international probe.

News reports have said that within US intelligence circles, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman either ordered the killing or was at least aware of it, but Riyadh, which denies any knowledge or involvement on the part of the Crown Prince, has formally charged 11 men with the murder – seeking the death penalty for five of them.

 

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