U.N. blocked from monitoring rights abuses in Belarus, envoy says

VILNIUS (Reuters) – The Belarus government’s crackdown on human rights organizations obstructed the ability of the United Nations to document abuses, the U.N. envoy said on Tuesday.

Belarus was levied with several rounds of international sanctions after a crackdown over mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko, whose opponents say he fraudulently won last year’s presidential election. He denies wrongdoing.

In the latest moves against Lukashenko’s opponents, Belarusian security police searched offices and homes of lawyers and human rights activists on July 14, detaining at least 10 people including the leader of Viasna-96 human rights group.

The curbs on the largest human rights body in the former Soviet country are hindering international monitoring of human rights abuses in Belarus, U.N. Special Rapporteur Anais Marin told reporters in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania.

She is not allowed into the country, and she said contributions from Viasna and its volunteers have been “crucial” in her mission.

“The terrible repression that is currently targeting Viasna has a direct negative impact on our capacity in Geneva to follow up on allegations of human rights violations, to gather testimonies and to properly report on the repression, and this is probably no coincidence”, she said.

Speaking by a video link, the rapporteur called the detention of Viasna’s leadership “arbitrary” and said their prosecution was “politically motivated.” She called for their release and urged that “they would not be subjected to ill-treatment in detention”.

“Last year, I assessed the situation in Belarus as catastrophic. I’m lacking words now to express my interpretation of the situation. I could not imagine it could get so much worse”, Marin said.

On Monday, Maria Kolesnikova, one of the leaders of the mass street protests last year, was sentenced in Belarus to 11 years in prison, leading to an outcry from Western countries.

(Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; editing by Grant McCool)

UN rights boss says she has credible reports of Taliban executions

By Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) -The U.N. human rights chief said on Tuesday that she had received credible reports of serious violations by the Taliban in Afghanistan, including “summary executions” of civilians and Afghan security forces who had surrendered.

Michelle Bachelet gave no details of the killings in her speech to the Human Rights Council, but urged it to set up a mechanism to closely monitor Taliban actions.

Under a resolution agreed later on Tuesday by the Geneva forum, she is to report back at its September-October session on the situation and on any violations committed by the Taliban, and make a fuller written report in March 2022.

The Taliban treatment of women and girls would be “a fundamental red line,” Bachelet told an emergency session of the council, held at the request of Pakistan and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Pakistan’s ambassador Khalil Hashmi said the resolution voiced grave concern over reports of violations and sent a “message of solidarity to the people of Afghanistan.”

Austria’s ambassador, Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, speaking on behalf of the European Union, said it was joining the consensus even though the resolution “falls short.” The bloc had sought to launch an international investigation, she said.

Nasir Ahmad Andisha, a senior Afghan diplomat from the deposed government, called for accountability for Taliban actions, describing an “uncertain and dire” situation where millions of people fear for their lives.

“Monitoring is essential to prevent further atrocities and ensure accountability,” Andisha told the talks.

Independent U.N. human rights experts, in a joint statement, said many people were in hiding as “the Taliban continues to search homes door-to-door” and property seizures and reprisals were being reported.

“The acts of the Taliban over the course of these months and to date may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” they said.

But China’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Chen Xu, said that the U.S. Army and the militaries of other coalition partners, including Britain and Australia, should be held accountable for alleged rights violations by their forces in Afghanistan.

The United States condemned attacks that it said were being carried out against civilians, journalists, activists and minority groups, but did not name the Taliban.

Amnesty International said that its investigation into the massacre of nine ethnic Hazara men in Ghazni province last month was “proof that the Taliban’s capacity for murder and torture has not diminished.”

“The UN Human Rights Council special session has failed to deliver a credible response to the escalating human rights crisis in Afghanistan,” Agnes Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary general, said in a statement.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebahay and Emma Farge; editing by Giles Elgood and Jonathan Oatis)

Taliban take over some U.N. premises, curb movement -U.N. report

By Ned Parker and Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Taliban fighters have taken over some U.N. compounds in Afghanistan, searching and ransacking offices and in one case demanding the guards provide meals for a commander and his men, according to an internal U.N. report seen by Reuters.

“We have also been advised by the Taliban to remain in our compound ‘for our safety’ which equates to ‘ask permission before thinking about leaving’,” the Department for Safety and Security (UNDSS) wrote in the Aug. 21 risk assessment report.

It said the Taliban has been inconsistent in dealing with United Nations staff and that some Afghan personnel had been prevented from entering some U.N. premises.

The Taliban did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on the U.N. security report. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a news conference on Tuesday that the Islamist group wished for good diplomatic relations with other countries and wanted foreign embassies to remain open.

The United Nations had some 300 international staff and 3,000 Afghan staff when the Taliban seized power on Aug. 15. The world body has started moving about 100 of them to Kazakhstan to continue working.

Liam McDowall, spokesman for the U.N. political mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), declined to comment on “alleged leaked documents,” especially those tied to staff safety and security.

He said U.N. premises have not been occupied by the Taliban, but acknowledged that some U.N. buildings – where no staff were present – “have been broken in to and looted, with security personnel subjected to unacceptable intimidation, but no harm.”

The UNDSS report said that the U.N.’s Afghan staff were often reporting house searches by the Taliban and “they are terrified and left alone in dealing with this new reality.”

McDowall said that “no U.N. staff member has reported a single house search, detention or other serious incident involving the Taliban,” but the U.N. remains “mindful” of staff fears and that “the security situation may further deteriorate.”

He said “extensive security arrangements” were in place.

The Taliban spokesman on Tuesday denied reports that the group were conducting house searches to find targets for reprisals, saying: “We have forgotten everything in the past.”

‘NO COHERENT COMMAND, CONTROL’

The UNDSS report rated the present security risk as “very high” that any U.N. security convoy will be deliberately “targeted by gunfire” and U.N. staff will be killed or injured. It rated the risk as “very high” that Taliban will enter a U.N. compound and kill, injure or abduct U.N. personnel.

The UNDSS states that now the Taliban is the ad-hoc Afghan authority it is “the governing element responsible for the security of our personnel and premises.”

“However, at present, there is no coherent command and control with which we can liaise to discuss security requirements or problems. Neither is there a competent force that can or will provide security response in the event of a problem,” the UNDSS warned.

It did note that “in some instances, staff have been politely treated and our facilities and compounds respected and secured” by the Taliban.

Three Afghans who work for the United Nations told Reuters they were concerned the world body was not doing enough to help national staff – who have approval to travel to another country – to get to Kabul airport.

The speed with which the Taliban retook the country, as foreign forces withdrew after a 20-year war, has led to chaotic scenes at the airport as diplomats and Afghans try to leave.

McDowall said the United Nations is trying its best despite “very real limitations right now on what can be done regarding access to Kabul Airport.”

“The U.N. in Afghanistan is an entirely civilian, and unarmed, entity,” he said, adding that the United Nations was in contact with certain member states to urge them to provide visas or support the temporary relocation of Afghan staff.

(Reporting by Ned Parker and Michelle Nichols; Additional reporting by Rupam Jain; editing by Grant McCool)

Myanmar junta leader aims to solidify grip on power -U.N

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The U.N. special envoy on Myanmar said on Tuesday the country’s military leader appears determined to solidify his grip on power following a February coup and ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party could soon be disbanded.

Christine Schraner Burgener cited military ruler Min Aung Hlaing’s announcement this month that he was now prime minister in a newly formed caretaker government and also a formal annulment of the results of a November election, which was won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

“I fear that we will soon hear also that the NLD party could be disbanded. This is an attempt to promote legitimacy against lack of international action taken,” Schraner Burgener told reporters. “I have to make clear that the U.N. does not recognize governments, so it’s up to the member states.”

She said unless U.N. member states act, Myanmar’s U.N. Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun – an opponent of the junta – remains the country’s legitimate envoy at the world body in New York and Suu Kyi and Myanmar President Win Myint are the country’s leaders.

The junta, which argues that it is not a military government and came about through a constitutional transfer of power, has said it wants to appoint Aung Thurein – a member of Myanmar’s military from 1995 to 2021 – to be the U.N. ambassador.

U.N. credentials are initially considered by a nine-member committee appointed at the beginning of each annual session of the 193-member General Assembly, which starts in September.

Schraner Burgener stressed that it was up to member states to decide who should represent Myanmar, but she described it as a “crucial moment”.

“I’m still convinced that this was a coup, which was not yet successfully completed,” she said. “It was an unlawful act and we have still a legitimate government from the NLD.”

The United Nations has previously had to address competing claims for representation, some culminating with a vote in the General Assembly. The credentials committee is also able to defer a decision and leave a seat empty.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Philippa Fletcher)

U.S., Mexico to discuss border reopening, agree on more vaccines

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) -Senior U.S. and Mexican officials will meet on Tuesday to discuss plans to reopen their shared border, and Washington has agreed to send Mexico up to 8.5 million more coronavirus vaccine doses, Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said.

Ebrard told reporters U.S. Homeland Security chief Alejandro Mayorkas and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will meet in Mexico City for talks with their Mexican counterparts as part of a drive to get cross-border activities back to normal.

The meeting comes after Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador spoke to U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday, discussing migration, the fight against COVID-19, and the need to strengthen Central American economies.

During their phone call, the United States agreed to send Mexico 3.5 million doses of drugmaker Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine and up to 5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, Ebrard told a regular morning news conference.

The vaccines would likely arrive in August, he said.

Ebrard added that he did not expect the U.S.-Mexico land border to reopen by Aug. 21, and that more time would be needed to resume transit for so-called nonessential trips, including for those who cross the border to work or attend school.

Speaking at the same news conference, Lopez Obrador added that Harris agreed with him on the need to reopen their shared land border, but did not provide a specific timetable.

Ebrard said Lopez Obrador and Harris had also discussed plans to revive, in early September, a forum for bilateral talks known as the high-level economic dialogue, which is aimed at improving economic integration and boosting growth.

When asked what such discussions could encompass, Ebrard noted that North America was gearing up for technological changes, such as the transition to electric cars, underlining the importance of companies like Tesla Inc in the industry.

“Obviously we’re interested in being a part of that,” he said.

(Reporting by David Alire Garcia and Raul Cortes Fernandez; Editing by Dave Graham and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. Senate passes bill to help Taiwan regain WHO status

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate passed a bill late on Thursday calling on the State Department to submit a plan to help Taiwan regain its observer status at the World Health Organization, one of several U.S. bids to boost Taiwan as it faces pressure from Beijing.

Taiwan is excluded from most global organizations such as the WHO, the U.N. health agency, because of the objections of China, which considers the island one of its provinces and not a separate country.

The legislation, passed by unanimous consent, was sponsored by Senators Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The two are also co-chairmen of the Senate Taiwan Caucus.

“The U.S. must continue to stand by Taiwan, and do more to reaffirm our support for our ally’s international engagement,” Menendez said in a statement on Friday.

The measure directs the Secretary of State to establish a strategy for obtaining observer status at the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the WHO.

The House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee approved a similar bill earlier this year, but there has been no word on when the measure might come up for a vote in the full House.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Former UN rights boss to head probe into Israel, Hamas alleged crimes

GENEVA (Reuters) – Former United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay will head an international commission of inquiry into alleged crimes committed during the latest conflict between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council said in a statement on Thursday.

The council agreed in late May to launch the investigation with a broad mandate to probe all alleged violations, not just in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, but also in Israel during hostilities that were halted by a May 21 ceasefire.

At least 250 Palestinians and 13 people in Israel were killed in the fierce fighting, which saw Gaza militants fire rockets towards Israeli cities and Israel carry out air strikes across the coastal enclave.

Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the council at the time that deadly Israeli strikes on Gaza might constitute war crimes and that Hamas had violated international humanitarian law by firing rockets into Israel.

Israel rejected the resolution adopted by the Geneva forum at an emergency special session and said it would not cooperate.

Pillay, a former South African judge who served as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2008-2014, will lead the three-person panel also composed of Indian expert Miloon Kothari and Australian expert Chris Sidoti, said the statement issued by the Human Rights Council. The investigators, who have been tasked with trying to identify those responsible for violations with a view to ensure they are held accountable, are due to present their first report in June 2022.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Russia allows U.N. Syria aid access from Turkey for 12 months

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -The U.N. Security Council agreed on Friday to extend a cross-border aid operation into Syria from Turkey after Russia agreed to a compromise in last minute talks with the United States that ensures U.N. aid access to millions of Syrians for 12 months.

“Parents can sleep tonight knowing that for the next 12 months their children will be fed. The humanitarian agreement we’ve reached here will literally save lives,” said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

The council mandate for the long-running aid operation was due to expire on Saturday. After not engaging in weeks of discussion on a resolution drafted by Ireland and Norway, Syrian ally Russia on Thursday proposed a six month renewal.

Following negotiations between Thomas-Greenfield and Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia on Friday morning, the 15-member council unanimously adopted a compromise resolution that asks for a U.N. report on Syria aid access in six months, but that diplomats said does not require another vote in January to again extend the cross-border operation.

Nebenzia described the vote on the resolution, presented by both the United States and Russia, as a “historical moment” that he hoped could “become a turning point that not only Syria will win from … but the Middle Eastern region as a whole.”

U.S. President Joe Biden had raised the importance of the cross-border aid operation with Russian President Vladimir Putin in June. The Biden administration warned at the time that any future cooperation with Russia over Syria would be at risk if the cross-border aid deliveries were shut down.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed to the Security Council to renew the cross-border aid operation for another year, warning that a failure to do so would be devastating for millions of people.

The council first authorized a cross-border aid operation into Syria in 2014 at four points. Last year, it whittled that down to one point from Turkey into a rebel-held area in Syria due to Russian and Chinese opposition over renewing all four.

Russia has said the aid operation is outdated and violates Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In a swipe at the United States and others, Russia and China have also blamed unilateral sanctions for some of Syria’s plight.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols, Editing by William Maclean)

U.N. says 230,000 displaced by Myanmar fighting

(Reuters) – An estimated 230,000 people have been displaced by fighting in Myanmar and need assistance, the United Nations said on Thursday, as a major armed ethnic group expressed concern about military force, civilian deaths and a widening of the conflict.

Myanmar has been in crisis since a Feb. 1 coup ousted an elected government, prompting nationwide anger that has led to protests, killings and bombings, and battles on several fronts between troops and newly formed civilian armies.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said relief operations were ongoing but were being hindered by armed clashes, violence and insecurity in the country.

It said 177,000 people were displaced in Karen state bordering Thailand, 103,000 in the past month, while more than 20,000 people were sheltering at 100 displacement areas after fighting between People’s Defense Forces and the army in Chin State bordering India.

Several thousand people had fled fighting in northern Kachin and Shan States, regions with established ethnic minority armies with a long history of hostilities with the military.

The Karen National Union (KNU), one of Myanmar’s oldest ethnic minority groups, said it was worried about the military’s excessive use of force and the loss of innocent civilian lives as fighting intensifies all over the country.

“The KNU will continue to fight against military dictatorship and provide as much protection as possible to people and unarmed civilians,” it said in a statement.

The military says it seized power to protect democracy because its complaints of fraud in a November election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling party were ignored.

PROTESTS

Anti-junta protests took place in Kachin State, Dawei, Sagaing Region and the commercial capital Yangon on Thursday, with demonstrators carrying banners and making three-finger gestures of defiance.

Some showed support for those resisting military rule in Mandalay, the second-biggest city, where a firefight took place between the army and a newly formed guerrilla group on Tuesday, the first sign of armed clashes in a major urban center since the coup.

The military-owned Myawaddy Television said four members of the militia were arrested on Thursday, describing them as “terrorists”.

At least 877 people have been killed by security forces and more than 6,000 arrested since the coup, according to the Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), an advocacy group which the junta has declared an illegal organization.

A diplomatic effort by Southeast Asian countries to halt the violence and initiate dialogue between all sides has stalled and the generals say they will stick to their plan of restoring order and holding elections in two years.

In its nightly news bulletin, state-run MRTV reported on the visit of junta leader Min Aung Hlaing to Russia, where a military university named him an honorary professor.

Unlike most global powers, Russia has embraced the junta and the country has long been a key source of Myanmar’s weaponry. His visit comes amid international pressure on countries not to sell arms to the military or do business with its vast network of companies.

State media on Thursday carried excerpts from a speech in Russia by Min Aung Hlaing in which he said it was necessary for countries to avoid encroaching on another country’s sovereignty.

“Myanmar is striving for restoring political peace and stability,” it quoted him saying. “The current government is focusing on the reappearance of honesty over democracy.”

(Reporting by Reuters Staff; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Giles Elgood)

More than 8,500 children used as soldiers in 2020: U.N.

NEW YORK (Reuters) – More than 8,500 children were used as soldiers last year in various conflicts across the world and nearly 2,700 others were killed, the United Nations said on Monday.

U.N. chief Antonio Guterres’ annual report to the Security Council on children and armed conflict covers the killing, maiming and sexual abuse of children, abduction or recruitment, denial of aid access and targeting of schools and hospitals.

The report verified that violations had been committed against 19,379 children in 21 conflicts. The most violations in 2020 were committed in Somalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen.

It verified that 8,521 children were used as soldiers last year, while another 2,674 children were killed and 5,748 injured in various conflicts.

The report also includes a blacklist intended to shame parties to conflicts in the hope of pushing them to implement measures to protect children. The list has long been controversial with diplomats saying Saudi Arabia and Israel both exerted pressure in recent years in a bid to stay off the list.

Israel has never been listed, while a Saudi-led military coalition was removed from the list in 2020 several years after it was first named and shamed for killing and injuring children in Yemen.

In an effort to dampen controversy surrounding the report, the blacklist released in 2017 by Guterres was split into two categories. One lists parties that have put in place measures to protect children and the other includes parties that have not.

There were few significant changes to the lists released on Monday. The only state parties named on the first list are Myanmar’s military – for killing, maiming and sexual violence against children – and Syrian government forces – for recruitment of children, killing, maiming and sexual violence against children and attacks on schools and hospitals.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Angus MacSwan)