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Terrorist groups must not be allowed to exploit ‘fragilities’ caused by global health pandemic – UN warns, as High Level Meeting on SDGs implementation opens in New York

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  • Conference to address reducing inequality, by making economies more sustainable and just; and committing to “rapid and sustained” carbon dioxide reductions. The first theme is described as a key strategy to reduce global poverty.
  • Progress towards reduction has slowed in recent years, and it is projected that in 2020 alone, the pandemic could lead to up to 49 million people falling into poverty.
  • “Like the virus, terrorism does not respect national borders. “It affects all nations and can only be defeated collectively” – Guterres
  • We must stay vigilant as terrorists are using innovative tactics and tools to exploit vulnerabilities and conditions conducive to terrorism, many of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.”
  • SDGs are more important than ever, to “guide our recovery efforts and make our countries and communities more inclusive, equal and resilient” –UN
  • Decade of Action – Focus on inequality and climate change As the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) the core UN platform for follow up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
  • The event includes a three-day ministerial meeting 14 July, to 16 July in which participants will debate where the world stands on the SDGs in light of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and reflect on how the international community can accelerate progress over the coming decade. Guterres, in a statement warned that each of the Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, is being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As COVID-19 continues to disrupt the world’s health systems, economies and local communities, the UN Secretary-General on Monday highlighted how the pandemic has laid bare vulnerabilities to “new and emerging forms of terrorism”, such as cyber-attacks, bioterrorism and the misuse of digital technology. While the coronavirus has put the international community in the crosshairs of a crisis like no other since the founding of the United Nations 75 years ago, António Guterres noted that “like the virus, terrorism does not respect national borders”.

“It affects all nations and can only be defeated collectively”, he said, opening the second annual gathering of UN and international experts known as  Counter-terrorism week held virtually this year, with a call to “harness the power of multilateralism to find practical solutions”. Acknowledging that it is “too early to fully assess the implications of COVID-19 on the terrorism landscape” the UN chief told the first of series of virtual interactive discussions on strategic and practical challenges of countering terrorism during a global pandemic that ISIL, Al-Qaida, neo-Nazis and other hate groups “seek to exploit divisions, local conflicts, governance failures, and grievances to advance their objectives”.

Guiding the fight: Mr. Guterres highlighted five areas to guide counter-terrorism, beginning with keeping up the momentum.
“This includes continuing to invest in national, regional and global counter-terrorism capabilities, especially for countries most in need of assistance”, he said. Evolving terrorist threats and trends must also be closely monitored and met with innovative responses that have not only the right technology, tools and concepts to stay ahead of terrorists but that are gender-sensitive and recognize that violent misogyny lies at the heart of many groups. “Full compliance with international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law is essential, the Secretary-General stated, adding, “the fight against terrorism must uphold these values or it will never succeed”. His fourth point flagged the need to tackle the spread of terrorist narratives through pandemic-sensitive, holistic approaches, and he said that non-State actors must not be allowed to exploit the “fissures and fragilities” of rising psycho-social, economic and political stresses, related to the coronavirus.

Throughout the upcoming discussions, victims’ voices will be heard to help prevent violent extremism and build inclusive, resilient societies, said Mr. Guterres.   And finally, he stressed the importance of strengthening information sharing to learn from the experiences and good practices of others in the COVID-19 security landscape, saying that “quality capacity-building assistance to Member States will remain an important pillar” of UN counter-terrorism work.  “We must commit to do more and better”, stated the UN chief.  “As in every other area of our mission, our work should be assessed by the difference we make in people’s lives.

A sustainable future for all depends on the resolve to act together in solidarity In his opening address, Mr. Margaryan acknowledged that the conference programme had been altered, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, “to reflect our realities today”, with a focus on overcoming the human crisis and “recovering better”. Echoing comments made in the latest Secretary-General’s report on progress towards achieving the SDGs – as the basis of HLPF discussions – the ECOSOC deputy chief underlined the importance of collective action to respond effectively to a crisis whose implications run beyond the health sector to impact each of the 17 Goals.

Support for venerable groups: The SDGs, he said, are more important than ever, to “guide our recovery efforts and make our countries and communities more inclusive, equal and resilient”. Mr. Margaryan named six subject areas, identified in the 2019 Global Sustainable Development Report as a basis for discussion on achieving the 2030 Agenda: human well-being and capabilities; sustainable and just economies; food systems and nutrition patterns; energy decarbonization with universal access; urban and peri-urban development; and global environmental commons. In a video message released on Monday, Mr. Guterres warned that the COVID-19 pandemic is laying bare inequalities, such as inadequate health care and gaps in social protection; reversing progress on poverty and hunger; and particularly affecting the vulnerable, such as marginalized groups, women, and children.

The UN, said Mr. Guterres, has called for massive global support for vulnerable groups and countries. The Organization is supporting research into a “people’s vaccine”, that is affordable and accessible for all; and is leading efforts towards creating societies that are more resilient, inclusive and sustainable. “Returning to the frameworks and systems that gave rise to this crisis”, said Mr, Guterres, “is unthinkable”.  The High Level Political Forum  (HLPF), which formally begins on Tuesday, is an annual stock-take of the world’s progress towards achieving the SDGs. This year, senior government figures are meeting virtually, via video-conferencing software, to discuss and debate ways to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges; from poverty, to climate change, peace and security, and gender equality.

National plans in the spotlight countries will have the opportunity to present their updated plans for making the 17 Goals a reality (known as Voluntary National Reviews), and several UN, and other intergovernmental bodies will also provide input to the discussions. The extent to which the COVID-19  pandemic has affected so many aspects of society, and the economy, is reflected in the 2020 programme: the theme of “building back better” after the pandemic is the background to many of the sessions over the major 10-day conference, covering such areas as poverty reduction, financing for developing countries, protecting the planet, and access to sustainable energy.

A decade of action The Secretary-General’s latest report on progress towards the SDGs, which will form the basis of discussions, notes that 2020 marks the beginning of a “decade of action and delivery for sustainable development”, during which the pace and scale at which the goals are achieved will be ramped up. The report notes that the global crisis resulting from the spread of COVID-19, has had a major effect on these targets, with health systems overwhelmed, businesses shut down, and 1.6 billion students kept out of school; the poor and vulnerable have borne the brunt of the pandemic, and tens of millions are expected to experience extreme hunger and poverty.

Focus on inequality and climate change: The discussions held during the forum will also be informed by a second report from the Secretary-General, which focuses on how to deliver the SDGs, in light of the pandemic. In it, the UN chief outlines two overarching themes: reducing inequality, by making economies more sustainable and just; and committing to “rapid and sustained” carbon dioxide reductions. The first theme is described as a key strategy to reduce global poverty. Progress towards reduction has slowed in recent years, and it is projected that in 2020 alone, the pandemic could lead to up to 49 million people falling into poverty.

Improving income distribution, says the report, can make a major impact, not only in keeping people above the poverty line, but also in contributing to faster economic growth, as the poorest in society gain greater spending power. Reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases is essential if the international community’s goal of keeping an overall global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels is to be met. Policies and strategies currently in place, warns the report, do not go far enough, and there is a real risk of significantly overshooting the target.

The Secretary-General declares, in the report, that ambitious and immediate climate action is the only viable pathway that limits climate change, whilst protecting people, livelihoods and natural ecosystems. Such action would also see a tangible net economic benefit, saving the global economy tens of trillions of dollars.  The UN chief’s progress report highlights the importance of international cooperation and solidarity in recovering from the crisis, a “large-scale, coordinated and comprehensive multilateral response”, amounting to at least 10 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP). Mr. Guterres raises the prospect of a post-pandemic global economy that “builds back better”, with measures in place that reduce the risk of future crises and bring the world closer to achieving the 2030 Agenda.

 Restoring dignity to victims of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN personnel

Projects supported by a United trust fund for victims of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN personnel, are helping victims to regain their dignity, learn new skills, and improve their livelihoods. Details of the projects, and the ways which they are having a positive effect on the lives of victims and children born as a result of sexual exploitation and abuse, are contained within the trust fund’s latest annual report which was released on Monday.  Over the past year, six projects were launched in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and, in Liberia, an education and vocational training project supported training of project leaders, and community meetings.  A video released to coincide with the publication of the report, shows the effect a community project has had on the life of one of the victims, a young woman in eastern DRC, who has now learned to read and write, and to become self-sufficient by weaving, and selling, baskets.

Building bridges

The fund also supports community-based complaint networks in DRC, made up of representatives of women’s and youth associations, religious leaders, local chiefs and the police.  These networks educate the community on the risks associated with sexual exploitation and abuse and how to report it, develop projects which support victims, and act as a bridge between communities of vulnerable people and the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country.

Introducing the annual report, Catherine Pollard, the UN Under Secretary-General for Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance, noted that, as well as contributions from 21 countries, the fund is financed by payments withheld from personnel, as a result of substantiated cases of sexual exploitation and abuse. The funding, she said, is “essential for the Trust Fund to continue to help restore the dignity of victims, break stigma, and facilitate their reintegration within their communities”.

COVID-19 pandemic hampers communication

The onset of the COVID-19  pandemic has had an effect on many of the projects: restrictions on movements have made communication with victims more difficult, and some community gatherings have been suspended.  UN Conduct and Discipline Teams, and Field Victims’ Rights Advocates, are providing support through interim measures, until restrictions are lifted, and projects can restart. Ms. Pollard emphasized that the projects supported by the fund must take into account the feedback from victims, and their ideas for the future: “they are at the heart of our response, and will always underpin the implementation of the Trust Fund. I hope that we will be able to continue this important work.”

Her words were echoed by Jane Connors, the UN Victims’ Rights Advocate, who works globally to ensure victim assistance, and advocates for their rights.  “When you hear from these people, you understand what they want”, she said. “You have to listen to them, you need to project their wishes and desires so that they can have, as much as possible, a trajectory which is positive.”

Speaking to journalists in March, Ms. Connors accepted that, whilst UN-led projects to support victims are proving effective, there is still much more that needs to be done.  “We need to appreciate what these wrongs do to victims and their communities; what these wrongs do to the very purpose of the United Nations’ work, because these wrongs do indeed fracture trust”, she said.