Proposed amendments to the Human Rights Act to disadvantage UK war crimes victims

by Alexandra Fowler (first published on Oxford Human Rights Hub)

On 18 March 2020, the UK Minister for Defence introduced into the UK Parliament his promised package of new legislation designed to ‘protect veterans’. Entitled the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, the proposed laws would amend the UK’s Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) in ways that impact on its human rights obligations, including under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Civil Claims by Victims in UK Courts

Civil claims for compensation in UK courts for death, abuse and other mistreatment amounting to war crimes can be brought in two ways; the first is an action in UK common law for the tort of assault and/or battery.  The second avenue is that under the Human Rights Act 1998, which was enacted to give effect to the UK’s obligations under the ECHR. Importantly for victims, Article 13 of the ECHR (see HRA ss6-8) requires a member State to grant an effective remedy (often monetary compensation) for violations of protected rights. The HRA/ECHR regime applies in whichever territory the UK exercises sufficient authority and control (jurisdiction), and this can occur outside EU territory (Al-Skeini). While time limitations may operate to refuse civil redress in tort, an HRA claim can still be upheld, such as in Alseran (2017).

Against this background, the Bill’s Section 11 proposes to insert a new provision (s7A) in the HRA which imposes a maximum of six years’ time limit (or 12 months from the date that the victim knew or ought to have known that the alleged violation was committed by UK troops) for bringing civil claims under the HRA in connection with overseas operations. Although this appears to bring things in line with the time period for personal injury claims under the Limitation Act 1980, the provision is troublesome because in recent conflicts in which the UK has been involved war crimes victims already face substantial difficulties in making claims. As in Alseran, many if not most victims have been prevented by both the local law and by logistics from making claims until long after the alleged abuse took place, often significantly more than six years. The existing HRA requires courts to take such factors into account in deciding whether the claim has been improperly delayed.  The new Bill will take this discretion away, resulting in most, if not all, of the remaining claims from Iraq and Afghanistan being time barred, and future claims running the risk of being so too.

US_Troops_Afghanistan

Is a Time Bar consistent with UK Obligations under the ECHR?

Is the time bar restriction in the new Bill consistent with the right to a remedy stipulated in Article 13 of the ECHR? Much of the European Court’s caseload deals with unreasonable delays in obtaining a remedy, and the Committee of Ministers has accepted that deadlines within national systems to accelerate or conclude investigations and/or the judicial process are legitimate (see Rec(2004)6 on the improvement of domestic remedies). Given the provisions in the Bill, many alleged victims will probably find that a judicial remedy is not available by the time they finally lodge a claim, but it is true that on the face of the law an opportunity has been given for a remedy in the courts.

Of course, remedies need not be judicial. The UK operated an extensive system of administrative remedies over the years of its involvement in Iraq, and its Ministry of Defence paid nearly 1500 claims totalling almost £22 million in compensation for war crimes over the period 2003/4 – 2016/7.  In addition, over 4500 claims from Afghan civilians had been made, up until 2015, resulting in out-of-court payments of estimated £5.3 million.

If this Bill is enacted, the operation of a credible administrative compensation mechanism will be essential to avoid potential liability for breaches of ECHR Article 13. Even so, it sends a very detrimental signal to the world about the UK’s commitment to justice and human rights.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexandra_fowlerDr Alexandra Fowler is a specialist in public international law at the University of Westminster, London. She holds a Doctor of Juridical Studies from the University of Sydney, and has taught international law and constitutional law at a number of Australian universities.  Her research interests include victim compensation in international humanitarian law, international human rights and international criminal law, and transitional justice;

International Human Rights News: A focus on some positive stories amid the coronavirus crisis

by Pauline Canham, Bethany Webb-Strong, Julia Kedziorek, Lauren Ng, Amita Dhiman, Alana Meier

Covid-19 has swept across nations, emptying cities and transforming life as we know it. Although its impact has been devastating, coronavirus has also provoked a community response which has seen even the most unlikely of allies join together in solidarity.  This week, we bring you a collection of positive stories across the globe to celebrate individual kindnesses, community projects, and the generosity of government support provided in certain countries. These are the silver linings that give us all hope during these challenging times.

 

Europe

Nurse_mosaicThe isolation of government lockdowns has caused people to join together to connect in new and creative ways. A five-year-old girl in England has found a pen pal in her elderly neighbour, writing to remind him he is not alone during the lockdown.

In the UK, the NHS is experiencing overwhelming support, with a volunteer army 750 000 strong preparing to provide vital services.  Those at home are filling the streets with applause across Europe with the ‘clap for carers’ and a BAFTA winning film maker who came to the UK from Syria has signed up as an NHS cleaner.  Hasan Akkad said he was “honoured to join an army of cleaners disinfecting Covid wards [at] our local hospital after receiving training”.

Charities are also finding innovative ways to support those in isolation: Goodgym, a UK charity which facilitates runners completing ‘fix-it’ jobs in the community have employed their volunteers for food and pharmacy deliveries. The restaurant industry has come together to raise over £1000 as part of a FeedNHS campaign to provide healthy meals to NHS workers on the front line.  Barikama, a farming cooperative run by African migrants in Italy have started a drive to feed isolated families.

This Easter weekend, with places of worship closed to stop the spread of the virus, the portable priest has been travelling the streets of London to bring his sermons to the community of Notting Hill.  For those unable to get outdoors, nature and mental health organisations have joined together to launch #Vitamin N campaign to inspire new ways to connect with nature from home, including garden scavenger hunts and nature yoga.

Despite the great suffering caused by the pandemic, the world is fighting back and rediscovering community, solidarity and generosity: ‘a world recast through virtual networks’.

 

Australasia

LufthansaAn Australian charity, ‘Where There’s A Will’, began an initiative called “adopt an oldie” that connects people with the elderly, single mothers and other vulnerable individuals to help them get essentials like medications or groceries.

Facebook groups have proved a useful platform for communities wishing to help neighbours and frontline workers.  One Facebook group joined by thousands of Australians called “Adopt A Healthcare Worker” offers practical help and emotional support to key workers who do not have enough time or energy to get essential shopping.   Another Facebook group called ‘4069 Helping Hands’ supports people in Queensland.  For elderly residents without social media, they drop leaflets in letterboxes offering contact details for help with emergency supplies and medication.  Meanwhile, in Sydney’s Newtown, a community created a cupboard filled with food saying “Take what you need, leave what you can”.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern added the Easter Bunny to the list of essential workers last weekend and encouraged children to draw eggs and tape them to their front windows in order to respect social distancing while spreading some happiness to the lives of the little ones.  The Easter Bunny was also the only passenger on a Lufthansa rescue flight from Germany to New Zealand, sent to bring Germans stuck in New Zealand back home.

Meanwhile couples around the world who had planned to celebrate their happiest day with family and friends are having to re-think after gatherings including wedding parties are restricted to prevent the spread of COVID-19.   One couple from Indonesia live streamed their wedding for 500 guests who watched the ceremony from their living rooms , with the bride’s cousin holding up a sign saying “STAY HOME”.

 

Africa

Shofco_AfricaAt  the end of March, when Africa had only 640 cases, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Ghebreyesus, warned Africa to wake up to the threat of the virus that has the potential to overwhelm the continent.  Sadly, the number of cases of Coronavirus has now risen to over 15,000 and currently affects 52 countries in Africa, with only two remaining with no reported cases.  Different organisations and policies have been mobilised to minimise the impact of coronavirus in Africa.

In Kenya, a grassroots organisation, ‘Shining Hope for Communities’ (SHOFCO), has started initiatives to bring the community together in the face of the pandemic.  The organisation was established in 2004 by Kennedy Odede, at the age of 15, who had grown up in the slum of Kiberia, to empower urban communities faced with poverty.  Through Shofco, community leaders have set up handwashing stations, arranged door-to-door campaigns to raise awareness, and distributed essentials supplies, such as handmade soap, hand sanitizer and bleach.  These community-led initiatives are believed to increase the compliance of the local population, as compared to top-down government messages.

In South Africa, the number of daily cases had been increasing up to the end of March when the number of cases suddenly dropped, prompting thoughts that the South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa’s, rapid response might have averted a worse crisis.  It is too early to read anything into the apparent lull in daily figures but it appears that a three-week lockdown, along with 5,000 coronavirus tests a day may be seeing results.  So far, around 60,000 tests have been conducted and they continue to ramp up efforts to improve this number.

 

North America

America_positiveDespite the very different approaches of regional neighbours to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, governments in both Canada and the United States have implemented coronavirus relief bills that address the heightened needs at this time.

Aided by social media, exceptional acts of kindness and care are being shown within communities. Movements like Hearts in the Window and A World of Hearts are encouraging people to spread love instead of fear during the pandemic. ‘Caremongering’ is another organised movement that has spread across Canada. With altruism being arranged online using the hashtags #iso (in search of) and #offer, founder Valentina Harper says the goal is to create ‘a contagion of kindness’ that fights anxiety, isolation and lack of hope.  Last weekend, a mom in Atlanta, Georgia used Facebook to launch a creative window Easter egg hunt in her neighbourhood.

Companies are also doing their share to help where they can. Canada’s auto parts manufacturers announced their goal to help make 10,000 ventilators, the hockey equipment producer, Bauer, is using its expertise to produce medical face shields, companies in the marijuana industry have donated their protective equipment, and alcohol distilleries across the United States have started making hand sanitizers amidst the national shortage.

Another silver lining is that, like in China and Italy, as American cities close-up and promote social isolation, they are also seeing pollution plummet.  Environmental scientists estimate the improved air quality could prevent a collective 75,000 people from dying prematurely.

 

Asia

Coronavirus_AsiaIn India, while the government is working towards implementing new measures, the acts of ordinary citizens have brightened these dark and desolate times.  In Karnataka, Mahita Nagaraj,  is helping the elderly, disabled and chronically ill by leading the initiative ‘Caremongers India’ which was initially a Canadian trend.  Elsewhere, the Delhi Sikh management committee has made one of its Gurudwara (place of worship) a quarantine facility for people and is also providing free meals to the poor and destitute at this hour of need.

In Mumbai, an animal rights activist, Lynette D’Souza, has come forward to help the daily wage earners by providing them with free groceries. Meanwhile, in the north-eastern state of Mizoram, seven-year-old Rommel Lalmuansanga has given his entire pocket money, a total of 333 rupees ($5 approx.), to the COVID-19 task force in his village.  Also, in India, the world’s largest postal service is stepping in to help deliver lifesaving medicines during a countrywide lockdown.

In China, with the government easing restrictions due to a fall in positive coronavirus cases, people have shown kindness towards each other in different ways and Jack Ma, co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, donated millions of face masks and test kits to 54 countries in Africa to combat the outbreak.

 

Other stories making the news around the world

International

Africa

Asia

East Asia

South and South-east Asia

Australasia & Oceania

Europe

Middle East

North America

Latin America

 

International Human Rights News: Focus on the impact of Coronavirus on vulnerable groups

by Pauline Canham, Lauren Ng, Bethany Webb-Strong,  Julia Kedziorek, Alana Meier, Amita Dhiman

As the world goes into lockdown to tackle COVID-19, some sectors of society are particularly at risk, not only to contracting the virus but to the very measures being put in place to protect us all.  This week we look at how the most vulnerable are being impacted by this unprecedented crisis.

The Homeless in the UK

Homeless“Stay at home.”

This plea, now an instruction, permeates through the coronavirus crisis and echoes around the United Kingdom.  But where does it leave those who do not have a home, or at least a safe home, to go back to?

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, published a report in 2019 outlining that despite being the world’s fifth largest economy, 14 million people in the UK live in poverty, with the number of rough sleepers and homeless persons having increased throughout the period of austerity.

This group is particularly vulnerable in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic.  They are more likely to suffer from poor nutrition, have unaddressed health complications and no safe place to self-isolate from other people.  With the hoarding of toilet paper, food, sanitary gels and essential medicines, they are unlikely to be able to access these essential items to protect them from the virus.  Furthermore, the closure of stores, and organisations such as gyms and public bathrooms, has led to significant disruption in support systems, and the ability to maintain hygiene standards.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has written to local councils advising that housing must be found for all rough sleepers in order to prevent further spread of the virus.  However, the lack of clarity has resulted in many remaining without a home.  Hotels and offices are also being used to house rough sleepers, although figures of how many have been accommodated across the country have yet to emerge.

 

Those in detention

DetentionLife has ground to a global halt as many countries subject their nations to strict lockdown.  Prison settings are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus and preventative measures are inadequate in overcrowded prisons without adequate handwashing facilities.  The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that prisons are unprepared and must act immediately to avoid ‘huge mortality rates’.

Without increased testing, the virus is likely to spread rapidly amongst inmates.  Those deprived of their liberty are more vulnerable to the psychological impact of severe isolation measures.  Lockdown in prisons in England and Wales bans family visits leaving inmates confined to cells for 23 hours a day.

In the United Kingdom, immigration detainees with underlying health conditions face the prospect of 3 months in solitary confinement. Detention may only be imposed where there is a realistic prospect of removal from the UK, yet many individuals cannot be returned because their countries have been devastated by the pandemic.  Legal action in the UK which argued that the Home Office has failed to protect immigration detainees led to the release of almost 300 people from detention centres earlier in March.

The psychological impact of quarantine upon children is raising concerns in the United States. Judge Dolly M Gee of the US District Court has called for the release of detained migrant children after four children tested positive in a shelter in New York.

Dr Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director in Europe, has called for ‘the boldest of actions’ in response: ‘we must not leave anyone behind in this fight’.

 

Indigenous people around the world

IndigenousThe CODIV-19 pandemic has proved the inadequacy of delivering equity to indigenous people, denying them access to health care.  Indigenous people are one of the most vulnerable groups because of their natural immunological vulnerability caused by civilisation diseases and poor access to clean water, suitable housing and healthcare.  Many communities in Australia receive additional soap and sanitisers supplies, but sadly this is a drop in the ocean.  The healthcare system in aboriginal communities is not equipped to cope with the pandemic and suspending non-essential medical treatments only exacerbates the situation.

In Brazil, since one medical worker from the Kokoma tribe tested positive for coronavirus, doctors became increasingly concerned about indigenous communities, because respiratory infections tend to spread quickly through tribes.  Many children suffer from anaemia, malnutrition and have lung conditions because of constant forest fires, which makes them particularly vulnerable.

Older generations also face a greater risk of death from COVID-19.  Therefore, if village elders pass away, their wisdom and social organisation will not be passed onto younger generations which may lead to the disappearance of their culture.

Many indigenous people have decided to isolate themselves either within their communities, or out in nature.  Once again, this vulnerable group cannot expect any sufficient external support because as Marlene Poitras, Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief for Alberta, states; they have never been a priority.

 

Women

female_nurseAs the COVID-19 pandemic continues, both highlighting and deepening pre-existing social and economic inequalities, it is important to acknowledge the disproportionate burdens that are being placed upon women.  As Maria Holsberg, humanitarian and disaster risk advisor at the UN Women Asia and Pacific stated, “Crisis always exacerbates gender inequality.”

Foremost, women are a large majority of those working on the front lines of the COVID response. According to the World Health Organization, 70% of workers in the health and social sector are women.  Women also comprise the majority in sectors being hit the hardest economically including precarious work and jobs within the service sector.  For example, a quarter of women across the EU fill roles that go unpaid if they don’t work.

women_health_workers

Boniol et al. (2019)

Additionally, with school closures impacting 91% of the world’s students, childcare is moving from the paid economy of schools and nurseries to the unpaid one.  Older relatives ‘social-distancing’ also are now in need of additional care and support.  This shines light on the ‘care crisis’ as these types of unpaid care will fall most heavily on women, thus limiting their work and economic opportunities.  Some countries like Australia are compensating for this by making childcare services ‘fee-free’ for families, despite potentially disastrous impacts for care centres.

Policies and public health responses must account for the sex and gendered effects and experiences of the outbreak.  A gender analysis approach is needed to address coronavirus concerns – an approach that includes sex-disaggregated data, recognising the crucial role that woman must play in the decision-making process.

Finally, the toll of the lockdown on women suffering from domestic abuse came to light this week after a survey of organisations that help domestic abuse victims revealed a dramatic increase in cases.  The UN Chief, Antonio Guterres is calling for urgent action to address the surge.

https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1061052

 

Children

ChildrenThe WHO has established that only a very small proportion of children have contracted coronavirus but the crisis is impacting children in a variety of other ways.  In an effort to ‘flatten the curve’, some states have imposed severe restrictions on some vulnerable groups, including children.

In the Philippines, authorities have resorted to barbaric acts such as confining children inside coffins and cages if found in violation of the covid-19 regulations. In some cases, mothers have been arrested for violating the regulations.  Human Rights Watch officials said the locking up of children would increase the transmission of the disease and the government must prioritize the right to health, while respecting the human rights of all their citizens.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the government imposed a blanket ban on children and the elderly from leaving their houses, issuing fines for violations.  An exception was made only for children with disabilities, who are allowed to take a walk with their parents within 50 to 100 metres of the house. Activists said that though restrictions on some rights during the Covid-19 pandemic are justified, they need to be backed with proper evidence and be non-discriminatory in nature.

Due to the closure of schools, UNESCO has recommended that states  ‘adopt a variety of hi-tech, low-tech and no tech solutions to assure the continuity of learning’. Governments must adopt measures for the challenges faced due to this sudden loss of schooling.

 

 

Other stories making the news around the world

International

Africa

Asia

South and South-east Asia

Australasia

Europe

Middle East

North America

Latin America

Indigenous land battles in Nicaragua’s UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve

Indigenous tribes and their land are under threat across the South American continent.  Brazil, in particular hit the headlines in recent months as President Bolsonaro announced plans to legalise the commercial exploitation of natural resources in Indigenous territories.  But the countries of Central America too are facing similar struggles with attacks on Indigenous communities and pressure from farmers and loggers.  The following article by Karthik Subramaniam looks at the escalation of attacks on indigenous groups and their lands in Nicaragua.

On 30th January 2020, six indigenous people belonging to the indigenous Mayagna tribe were killed and ten others were kidnapped in a reported attack by armed men.  This incident occurred in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve in the northern part of Nicaragua.  The attack on this indigenous tribe is not an isolated one.  There have been heightened conflicts in the region between the indigenous tribes and the new settlers over forest land that is the territory of the indigenous tribes.  On 5th January 2020, Mark Rivas, an indigenous leader who had publicly denounced the grabbing of land by the logging industry, was shot to death.

The Bosawás Biosphere Reserve, along with three other neighbouring protected areas, forms the “Heart of the Mesoamerican Biocorridor”.  Declared by the United Nations Education, Science, and Culture Organisation (UNESCO) as a World Biosphere Reserve in 1997, it serves as the home for around 22 different indigenous communities who contribute to its protection.  The tribes that live in these areas depend on the forests for their subsistence.  However, over the last few years, there has been what some indigenous tribes have termed an “invasion” by “colonists,” that has led to the massive deforestation of these forests.  The invasion of these settlers, lured in by the promise of gold, the abundance of timber, and the plentiful maritime assets of the reserve, has led to them grabbing the ancestral lands of the indigenous population.  These settlers include peasants, small- and large-scale farmers, wood smugglers, loggers, and ranchers.

The International Labour Organisation’s “Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (N. 169)” (ILO 169) adopted in 1989 (which has been ratified by Nicaragua) was followed by up with the near unanimous adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).  Together, they greatly improved the rights of property of indigenous population, while also protecting them from the interference of the state.  For instance, Article 8.2(b) of the UNDRIP mentions that States shall provide indigenous populations with effective mechanisms for the prevention of, and redress for, “Any action that has the aim of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources.”

nicaragua-80756_1280

Article 89 of the Constitution of Nicaragua describes that the State recognises the communal forms of land ownership among the ethnic population and provides recognition to the use and enjoyment of the waters and forests on these communal lands.  Article 180 guarantees these communities the benefits of their natural resources, the effectiveness of their forms of communal property and the free election of their authorities and representatives.  Law No. 14 amended the Agrarian Reform Law in 1986, which established in Article 31 that the state would provide the ethnic communities of Nicaragua with necessary lands so as to improve their standard of living.

The presence of these laws in Nicaragua that aim at protecting the property rights of the native population of the country clearly show that there exist intentions of the government to protect the rights of the ethnic population of the country.  However, the mere intention of protecting the rights of these people is not enough.

 

In 2001, in a decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the Case of the Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni Community v. Nicaragua, the government was found to be guilty of violating the right to property of the indigenous Awas Tingni population over their customary land by giving concessions to loggers within the traditional lands of these tribes.   The legally binding nature of the decision bestowed on it by Article 68 of the American Convention of Human Rights (ACHR), of which the Republic of Nicaragua is a party to, implied that the government had to comply with the decision.  Following this, it was only in 2008 that the government of Nicaragua granted the Tingi people title to around 74,000 hectares of forested land. Based on the 2001 decision, Law 445, or the Communal Land Law, was passed in 2003 which formally recognised the rights of the indigenous populations and ethnic communities to their historic territories and set up an institutional framework for the demarcation and titling of territories either as a single community or as a group of communities.

However, out of the 1,604,683 hectares of broadleaf forest the Bosawas Reserve had in 1987, only 1,039,945 were left by 2010.  This implies that more than around 564,000 hectares of pristine forest were lost due to deforestation for the purposes of ranching and agriculture.  The intense internal migration of people from the coastal and the central regions of the country looking for fertile land have been identified to be one of the primary contributors to this deforestation.  While the human conflict is definitely problematic with respect to the rights of the indigenous population, many scientists are also concerned about the detrimental effect this is having on the region’s biodiversity.

For the preservation of the territories of the indigenous population that depend on these forests for sustenance, as well as for the conservation of the delicate ecosystem of the reserve, the government needs to take necessary steps.  It is crucial for the authorities to take immediate action to prevent further violence and protect the land and resources of the indigenous population of Nicaragua.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

KarthikKarthik Subramaniam is an undergraduate student at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, India. His main research interests lie in areas of alternate dispute redressal, including mediation and negotiation. He also dabbles in areas of international human rights and sports law.

International Human Rights News: Focus on Coronavirus in Conflict Zones

by Amita Dhiman, Lauren Ng, Julia KedziorekPauline CanhamBethany Webb-Strong, Alana Meier

As we all struggle to adjust to a new way of life that includes loss of freedoms, loss of income, food insecurity, healthcare systems under strain, and daily briefings from leaders using the language of lockdowns and death tolls, unknown during peacetime, there are those for whom this, and much worse, is a never-ending daily reality.   An estimated 2 billion people live in areas of conflict and fragility around the world and the ICRC is calling for an immediate response by humanitarian organisations before the virus takes hold in countries ravaged by war.  The UN Secretary General has called for a ‘global ceasefire’  across the world to support efforts in combating the threat of Covid-19.

Our news update this week focuses on five countries most devastated by conflict and least able to confront a new enemy that even the wealthiest of states are struggling with.

Afghanistan

Afghan_healthcentreFollowing decades of war, Afghanistan is not well-placed to contend with an outbreak of covid-19. Many Afghans who had fled to Iran, during the conflict have returned back to their country, creating a burden on the already fragile health care system.  Out of some 200,000 returnees, only 600 had been tested as of March 27 due to inadequate medical staff and equipment.  Afghanistan’s Public Health Ministry have estimated that 25 million could become infected, adding that 100,000 could die, and on 28th March, Kabul, a city of 6 million, went into lockdown.

The UN Deputy Special Representative for the country is urging warring parties to come together to “prioritize national interests”, following in-fighting causing delays in the measures agreed back in February, on American troop withdrawals and Taliban anti-terrorism guarantees.   Human Rights Watch suggested that “The two sides need to work together with the UN and humanitarian agencies to ensure that aid reaches the whole country, or a dire situation will become catastrophic.”

In a country with a 50 percent poverty rate and a resilience that has become a way of life, ordinary Afghans are helping each other by making masks, delivering food and landlords waiving rents to ease the burden on the most vulnerable.

Gaza

GazaLast week saw the first two cases of coronavirus in Gaza.  Its delay has predominantly been attributed to the pre-existing border restrictions placed on the movement of people in Gaza.  The two individuals diagnosed had recently returned from Pakistan and have since moved to isolation.  Hamas, the militant organisation governing Gaza, has since closed its street markets and wedding halls, and urged citizens to practice social distancing in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Yet with an overstretched healthcare system following the Israel-Egyptian blockade and decades of cross-border conflicts between Israel and Palestine, an impending outbreak carries a high level of concern in Gaza.  In one of the most densely populated areas in the world, the virus could easily rapidly spread.  Combined with the overcrowded conditions, the chronic shortage of medicines, regular power cuts, scarce resources, and lack of adequate medical care has the potential to lead to a “nightmare scenario” in the event of an outbreak.

Despite these concerns, repression from Israeli authorities has persisted, with raids on Palestinian communities continuing, pleas to release 5,000 Palestinians (including children) currently held in jail being refused following positive Covid-19 tests, and a persistent siege on the Gaza strip with no end in sight.

 

Libya

Libya_fightingWar-torn Libya is one of the latest victims of the international coronavirus pandemic with its first case confirmed on 24th March. While to date, only 8 people have tested positive for COVID-19, testing is limited and the failing health care system will struggle to cope if the virus spreads.

With the country split between two rival governments, there will be issues in implementing safety measures to protect citizens from the deadly virus. Since the civil war erupted in 2011, there has been an ongoing shortage of doctors and lack of central authority responsible for the national healthcare system. All borders have now been closed and foreign nationals are prohibited from entering the country. Schools and cafes are closed and prayers are suspended until further notice.

Despite a humanitarian pause being announced, the UN was “alarmed that hostilities have continued around Tripoli”.  Despite January’s truce, the fighting has killed over 1,000 and displaced 150,000 since April 2019. To relieve pressure on the already strained prison system, The Government of National Acord, the internationally recognised government, has freed just over 450 detainees from overpopulated correctional facilities.

Detainees and people in shelters are at paramount risk of infection, which Human Rights Watch predicts could lead to a humanitarian disaster for the country if the virus spreads.

 

Syria

Syria_hospitalOn Sunday, Syria reported its first COVID 19 fatality, heightening fears of the devastation the virus could wreak.  Ten years of conflict in Syria has led to the displacement of over half the population, 6 million of whom remain internally displaced in camps which are unprepared to respond to the pandemic.

Given the extent to which COVID 19 has overwhelmed western healthcare systems, the potential catastrophic risk it poses to Syria is almost unfathomable. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has warned that access to healthcare is extremely poor in Syria given bombing of civilian areas and destruction of over 50% of hospitals. The London School of Economics released a research paper on Syria’s healthcare capacity last week stating that the maximum number of cases that can be ‘adequately treated’ is 6,500.

The World Health Organisation has mobilised an urgent response, delivering tests and protective gear.  However, aid agencies have been unable to deliver supplies given closure of the border with Iraq.  Human Rights Watch has reported that Turkish authorities are failing to supply water to north eastern areas of Syria, hindering the ability of agencies to protect against an outbreak of the virus.

Mr Pederson, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, has called for a nationwide ceasefire to allow for a ‘common effort’ against COVID 19. This has sparked hopes that a coordinated fight against the new coronavirus could unite forces and encourage a political settlement to end the conflict.   However, the situation remains dire as the already vulnerable population of war-torn Syria faces the new threat of a COVID 19 crisis.

 

Yemen

Yemen_Hospital_facemask_2How can Yemen, a country described already as experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, possibly cope with the looming threat of coronavirus?   80 percent of the population is at risk of hunger and disease, 17.8 million are without safe water and sanitation, 19.7 million are without adequate health care and the country has suffered the worst cholera epidemic ever recorded, at 2.3 million infected since 2015.

Last week, Yemen entered a 6th year of war, and with fighting continuing to rage, the UN Secretary General’s call for a ceasefire, to focus on the fight against coronavirus, appears to have fallen on deaf ears.  Despite lulls in the fighting during 2019, recent weeks have seen an alarming re-escalation in the conflict between Houthi rebels and the Saudi led coalition, which includes the US and UK.  A group of UN regional experts have called for warring parties to release political prisoners on both sides, to mitigate the risks of the spread of Covid-19 due to the overcrowded and squalid conditions in detention centres.

Yemen is the only country in the Middle East yet to record a case of coronavirus, due largely to having been placed under siege since the start of the war, with airports closed to commercial airlines and movement in and out of the country severely restricted.  However, the healthcare system in Yemen is already close to total collapse, and with news this week that the US is intending to cut aid funding for the poorest country in the Middle East, officials are warning of disastrous consequences, should an outbreak take hold.

 

Other stories making the news around the world

International

Africa

Asia

South and South-east Asia

Australasia

Europe

Middle East

North America

Latin America