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Why tomorrow is the first World Humanitarian Day

By Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. This item is cross-posted at Huffington Post

August 19 is a date that is etched deep in the consciousness of the United Nations and the memories of those involved in humanitarian and human rights work around the world: the day in 2003 when 22 people, mostly UN staff, were killed in cold blood by a single bomb at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad.

It was by no means the first time that humanitarian aid workers, human rights defenders, peacekeepers and others working to improve the lot of the disadvantaged had been deliberately targeted by ruthless forces determined to create instability or subvert the basic laws and norms on which civilized society depends. My own organization, the Office of the United Nations High Ccommissioner for Human Rights, experienced its first loss of staff on 4 February 1997, when five members of the Human Rights Field Operations were killed in Rwanda.

And sadly, since 19 August 2003, there have been numerous other assassinations of individuals and further bombs – most notably the one in Algiers on 11 December 2007 which took the lives of a further 17 UN staff members – targeting UN and NGO staff. And I have just learned that two more UN staff are among those killed on Tuesday by a suicide bomber in Kabul. I would like to offer my deepest condolences to their families and colleagues.

In the case of the Baghdad and Algiers bombs, the perpetrators of these crimes were terrorist organizations. However, in other cases, the killers have sometimes acted on behalf of a government, or for organs meant to be under the control of governments.

Killing those who are trying to help others is a particularly despicable crime, and one which all governments should join forces to prevent, and – when prevention fails – to punish. It is therefore appropriate – as a first step – that last December the global forum for all the world’s governments, the UN General Assembly, agreed to designate 19 August as World Humanitarian Day.

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Another attack on UN personnel

That it occurred in Somalia, which has seen far too many deaths of UN workers, should come as no surprise. But this time, the UN fought back.

Suspected Islamist insurgents stormed a United Nations compound overnight in southern Somalia, witnesses said on Monday, but UN guards fought back and killed three of the attackers in a gun battle.

One UN official in Wajid, 70km northwest of Baidoa, said about 10 heavily armed men attacked them overnight. The compound is used for storing humanitarian aid.

"After several minutes shooting our security guards repulsed the attackers and killed three of them," the UN official told Reuters.

While it was very fortunate that no UN personnel were killed (one guard was injured), it must be said that this success should not be taken as a policy blueprint. UN guards are not meant to defend against bands of militants, and it's only a matter of time until an incident like this goes much, much worse.

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Global warming and an Arctic scramble

Canada, never known as being much of an agressor, is launching military exercises in its far North. They’ll involve land, air, and sea operations in Canada’s portion of the Arctic. This is one more consequence of global warming. Canada’s territory extends into the Arctic, and as ice sheets melt that territory will get more navigable. Canada, pretty clearly, wants to get in there first and claim anything interesting that opens up.

One thing that might open up is an easily navigated Northwest Passage. It’s a sea route through the Arctic Ocean, first pursued by Henry Hudson (-->) in 1610. Right now it’s mostly blocked by ice pack, but global warming might change that.

Looks like Canada wants to be ready, and stake its claim now. Canada’s not the only country that wants a piece of a newly thawed Arctic. Russia, Denmark, the US, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland, are all claiming some level of sovereignty over any hypothetical passage. Resolving this is going to be messy. 

One potential loser in this scramble, though, may be the United States.  So long as the United States remains outside the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it remains exceedingly difficult for the United States to challenge claims made by other Artic countries. 

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If environmental NGOs wrote the Climate Treaty…

...This is what it would look like.    The World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, IndyACT – the League of Independent Activists, Germanwatch, David Suzuki Foundation, National Ecological Centre of Ukraine and "expert individuals from around the world" contributed to the report. 

I'm glad these NGOs offered this up.  It presents something of an idealized form of a climate change treaty that observers can weigh against the actual outcome document.  Some highlights include:

* The annual global carbon budget in 2020 from all sources of greenhouse gases (not counting those controlled by the Montréal Protocol) would be no higher than 36.1 Gt CO2e, bringing emissions down to roughly1990 levels and would need to be reduced to 7.2 Gt CO2e in 2050, in other words by 80 % below 1990 levels.

* A design proposal for a new institution – the Copenhagen Climate Facility - to manage the processes for emissions cuts, adaptation and forest protection under the new global treaty.

* A recipe for long-term action plans for both developed countries (Zero Carbon Action Plans, ZCAPs) and developing countries (Low Carbon Action Plans, LCAPs).

* Binding targets for Newly Industrialized Countries (NICs) like Singapore, South Korea and Saudi Arabia in line with the Convention principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.

 Check out the whole thing, in all 160 pages of legal text glory. 

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Dear Greece and Macedonia, get over it

Few topics spark as intense debate among a cadre of readers of this blog than the dispute over the proper name of the country to the immediate north of Greece, south of Serbia, east from Albania and west from Bulgaria.  The capital of this country is Skopje. 

This country is known formally as the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," FYROM for short.  The government of this country wants it simply to be called "The Republic of Macedonia." However, Greece objects to this appelation because it shares the name of the adjacent Greek province called "Macedonia."  So, since independence, the two countries have been in constant dispute. 

Enter the United Nations. Specifically, mediator Matthew Nimitz, who has tried to broker a compromise. He is meeting with both sides this week and according to this regional paper the newest innovation on the negotiating table is "Republic of Northern Macedonia."  

We'll see how far that goes.  In the meantime, I think it's useful to remind folks on both sides of the dispute that this kind of nationalism is just stupid. It can also turn dangerous.  And if you want to know how this all looks from the outside, the answer is really, really petty. 

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Two UN staff killed in Kabul bombing

Yet another attack against the United Nations in Afghanistan.  From the UN News Center.

Two United Nations staff members were among those killed in today’s suicide bombing in Kabul, which reportedly killed at least seven people, just two days ahead of the country’s presidential and provincial council elections.

 “I am shocked and greatly saddened to have learned that two of my staff members were among those killed in today’s suicide bombing,” the top UN envoy in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, said in a statement. “I condemn completely those responsible.”

 Mr. Eide added that the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which he heads, is in the process of contacting the families of the deceased.

 The two staffers killed in the attack, the second incident in three days, were Afghan nationals, as is a third colleague who was wounded and is currently being treated for his injuries.

The New York Times has more on the upsurge of violence in Afghanistan, apparently tied to national elections later this week. 

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Fears grow about the Afghanistan presidential elections

I’m worried about the upcoming Afghanistan presidential elections, and I'm not the only one. Scheduled for August 20, they have been a cause of concern for analysts and Afghanistan experts for quite a while. The candidate choices are worrying, there’s widespread fear of violence during the elections, and ordinary Afghans remain unconvinced that the elections will be free or fair. Two recent examples:

Abdul Rahim Wardak, Afghanistan’s Minister of Defense is quoted in the Financial Times as saying “There is no doubt that the security forces of the International Security Assistance Forces and those of Afghanistan are not enough to secure this much area.” That is a very frightening thing to see in print. I think that Mr. Wardak was trying to say that the security forces are facing a big job, and no one can defend 100% against an enemy as ruthless and committed to self-sacrifice as the Taliban, but I still don’t want to see that in print. It sounds like he’s making excuses for failure in advance.

The Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan is skeptical of American aims in Afghanistan and reported accordingly. They quote students at Herat University, one saying “Everybody knows the United States will choose the next president of Afghanistan. We should not participate in sham elections,” and another stating “I will never vote as long as foreign countries decide everything in Afghanistan.”

That combination - threats of violence, and lack of faith in the electoral process - could well be toxic for these elections.

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We Must Disarm

The United Nations launched a new campaign in advance of the international day of peace on September 21.  This date, incidentally, comes just a few days before President Obama will chair a Security Council meeting on nuclear non-proliferation. 

There are a number of ways to join the movement. You can follow updates on twitter, which offer daily reasons why "we must disarm."  Sample entry: "because nuke weapons have made 104 million m³ of radioactive waste - US Dept of Energy." 

Join the facebook cause and sign the petition.  

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World Bank and UN reclaim funds from Haitian Kleptocrat

A Swiss court last week ordered some $6 million of assets allegedly plundered by former Haitian President Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier be directed toward  development efforts in Haiti. 

The decision was achieved through the efforts of a joint World Bank and UN Office on Drugs and Crime program called the Stolen Assets Recovery initiative.   Duvalier's family has time to appeal, but this decision clearly gives notice to would-be kleptocrats that their stolen assets are not beyond the reach of international law.   

So, who else should look out? Here is a list of top kleptocrats from the initiative's action plan: