Zika: A multifaceted response

In the last few months the Zika virus has swept from obscurity to the forefront of global discussion. Predominantly present in South American Nations but now seeing reports of cases in the United States and France, it is thought to have infected over 1.5 million people in Brazil alone. 80% of carriers are unlikely to display symptoms, and those that do only experience mild ones such as fever or conjunctivitis. However, despite these seemingly minor effects the World Health Organisation has declared the virus an International Health emergency due to its suspected link with birth defects.

Whilst causal links to these defects are not formally proven, the Brazilian Health Ministry issued a warning in November last year due to a rapid increase in Microcephaly in new-borns from infected mothers. Microcephaly is a birth defect that that leaves new-borns with undersized craniums due to underdevelopment of the brain during pregnancy. Those with the condition face a variety of possible problems for the rest of their life, such as development delay, intellectual disability and physical inabilities. The number of reported cases in Brazil 2015 sky rocketed from an average of 163 cases per year to over 4,000, with many of the mother’s carrying the Zika virus. This circumstantial evidence alone was described ‘worrisome” by the WHO’s Director General and has motivated a global response in anticipation of an estimated global spread to 3-4 million people by January 2017.

Zika’s impact cannot be combatted best only through the lens of a public health approach. Like most outbreaks of this type, its causation and remedy comes from various cross cutting policy areas. Whilst the UN has implemented action across various agencies, the short-term responses of various Latin American governments have failed to tackle the intensified impact the virus has upon women and those under the poverty line.

Governments from various affected countries such as Colombia, Ecuador and Panama have advised women to avoid becoming pregnant for roughly 6- 8 months in an attempt to reduce the number of new-borns affected whilst research on the virus’s risks is still young. El Salvador’s Deputy Health Minister, Eduardo Espinoza, has even urged women to delay pregnancies for a whole two years. These time frames are not only arbitrarily selected, as the virus’ global research leader, the Butantan Institute, has claimed that a Zika vaccine won’t become available for an estimated 3 to 5 years, but the request itself reflects a short-sighted contradiction with national policy.

Many of the nations advising delayed pregnancies fail to provide easy access to contraception, sex education or, in necessary cases, abortion. El Salvador in particular denies access to abortion under any circumstances including rape or danger to the mother or fetus. 95% of abortions carried out in Latin America already take place under unsafe conditions, and the renewed sense of desperation for fear of being unable to provide the necessary care for a child with Microcephaly has caused rights campaigners to speculate that these numbers will only increase. This not only puts the health of scores of women at risk, but sees them possibly face legal consequences. The UN’s own High Commissioner for Human Rights, Cecile Puilly, has criticized this contradiction of policy and advice, saying “it’s not enough for health officials to tell women to postpone pregnancy without also offering them contraceptives and termination as a final solution”.

The advice is also characterised by naïvety. Without providing access to contraceptive methods, the implied expectation of abstinence as the main means of delaying pregnancy is unrealistic. An estimated 56% of pregnancies in Latin America and the Caribbean are already unplanned, and many pregnancies (especially in teens), are a “product of sexual violence and abuse” according to the US-based Center for Reproductive Rights.
Even in countries where there is access to contraception, distribution centres are often physically inaccessible to those living in areas of poverty. Such areas also tend to be at higher risk of Zika infection due to the prevalence of stagnant water pools which the Aedes Albopictus Mosquito (the main carrier of the virus) thrive in. Their prevalence is largely due to lack of infrastructural piping in poorer areas, such as towns in Brazil’s North East. This means not only are many in poverty left without access to contraceptives to prevent pregnancy and Zika’s possible impact, but are also more likely to contract the virus itself in the first place.

The United Nation’s various departments have sought to target not only immediate healthcare provision for those affected but also these more far-reaching issues to curb the spread and impact of Zika. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has placed renewed emphasis onto its existing mandates and is working to increase access to contraceptives and family planning information under the WHO’s ‘Global Zika Strategic Response Framework and Joint Operations plan’ in Latin American and Caribbean Nations. Under this plan the emphasis of education will be on both men and women, shifting the onus of responsibility and opening the narrative about sexual health. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UNFOA) is also targeting vector management by spreading household advice on how to clean and store water containers in high risk areas.

Government’s cannot tell people who are sitting in a sinking boat and can’t swim that the best way to stay safe is to avoid going swimming. The options are to provide them with a life jacket, teach them how to or, better yet, repair the boat. The United Nations and its cross agency response, which targets sexual education, contraception provisions and vector control, has done well to capture this notion. Now, with the Zika outbreak forcing sexual health and abortion policies into the international spotlight, it is time for Latin American Governments to do the same.

by Grace Carroll

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The Paris Agreement- A triumph of multilateral diplomacy?

Today marks Mother Earth day, which celebrates the planet’s bountiful nature and renews emphasis on humanity’s need to protect it. Appropriately, the same day sees the Paris Agreement opening for signatures at a ceremony at the UN’s New York Headquarters. The agreement, created within the framework of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), was settled upon by 195 countries and the European Union at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) on the 12th December 2015 and was championed by UN secretary General Ban Ki Moon as “a resounding success for multilateralism”. Hailed as a landmark by governments, environmental groups and the private sector, it is the first international climate change agreement that involves the world’s largest polluting nations, such as the US, Russia and China.
The signing ceremony will be a grand event to encourage attendance so that states sign as early as possible and maintain the momentum of December’s success. Upon signing, states will commit to avoiding actions that “defeat the object and purpose” of the agreement and to beginning the process of accepting or ratifying domestically. It will be open for signatures for one year and will only enter into force if 55 nations that represent at least 55% of the world’s global carbon emissions sign in that time. This is likely to be achieved very quickly as in March the US and China (who together accounted for over 40% of global Carbon emissions in 2011) announced their intention to sign a joint presidential statement. Various other nations, such as the rapidly industrialising India, have made similar pledges.

The agreement contains a number of ambitious aims, specifically a declared goal to keep the global average temperature “well below 2 °C”, above pre-industrial temperature levels, the temperature at which a number of environmental scientists have speculated would cause catastrophic impact. This explicitly stated, low figure has been celebrated as one of the Agreement’s most notable strengths, as it pressures nations to ensure that carbon emissions reach their peak in the near future, preventing them from constantly delaying implementation under a vague target. Nevertheless, whilst the Paris Agreement was a landmark in terms of consensus and goal setting, as the date of signing approaches and nations prepare themselves to actually implement what was agreed upon, it is important to consider whether this is also a landmark in terms of impact. Whilst the treaty contains some laudable aims and has done well to unite the previously fragmented international landscape where its predecessor the Kyoto Accord failed, the means by which it seeks to achieve these reveals a disconnect between rhetoric and structure.

The greatest weakness of the agreement stems from its self-determined voluntary nature, as it is not a legally bound punitive treaty. Under the agreement each nation determines and submits its own emission reduction targets through plans titled Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), which are ratcheted up in ambition every 5 years. Although a verifying monitoring system has been designed so that nations send proof and updates on their progress to an, as-of-yet, unannounced UN Committee, the targets are all set by states with no floor level for ambition. Although the lack of data from post-2030 makes a clear analysis difficult, a number of studies have already estimated that, based on nation’s intended NDC proposals, global temperature could still see rises of up to 3°C. This discrepancy between stated intent and implemented reality highlights the Paris agreement’s main weakness; it sets a holistic goal whilst not establishing a mechanism to see individual nations’ accountability make it achievable.

Should a state fail in attaining its INDC targets, there is legally no punitive system in place to allow consequent political or economic sanctions. The agreement instead relies on international pressure from other nations, the media and the general public to ensure implementation. This optimistically assumes that the public is united in favour of climate protection, whereas in America (whose inclusion is essential) Republican Candidates for the upcoming Presidential election have mobilised support as a result of their pledge to drop the Paris agreement. Moreover, even in the four months since its agreement there has been evidence to show pressure alone cannot ensure action. In February, the Australian government announced its intention to cut more than 350 scientific jobs relating to climate modelling and monitoring over two years. The decision was met with condemnation from the international scientific and political community, who pointed out in a widely circulated open letter that the cuts “severely curtailed Australia’s capacity to deliver on key promises of the Paris agreement”. However, despite this outcry the cuts are still scheduled to proceed and risk setting a worrying precedent.

The Guardian newspaper branded the Paris Agreement the “world’s biggest diplomatic success”, but can diplomacy really be measured simply by the number of signatories if this comes at the expense of an overarching goal or cooperative justice? Although it is a treaty praised for its multilateral involvement, the final document is contradictorily characterised by a Westphalian opt-in system of self-enforcement. Measures and modifications made to appease polluting developed nations and ensure they remain at the table has largely compromised the agreement’s ability to actually make its signatories accountable to pursuing their stated goals. Consequently, in its effort to get “all hands on deck”, the Paris treaty can best be described as slightly delaying the speed at which the world inevitably careers towards the rocks, rather than actually changing the course.

by Grace Carroll

The Syrian Crisis and Demise of the Yazidi Population

In August 2014, Islamic State fighters captured the city of Sinjar and the villages around it in Iraqi Kurdistan. Thousands of Yazidis fled for their lives.

Yazidis follow their own century-old religion and the Islamic State (“IS”) group considers them as heretics and devil worshippers. As a result, they have captured thousands of Yazidi women, forcing them to be sold as sex slaves in Syria. Over 5,000 Yazidi men were lined up and shot.

The misery and pain that followed for the kidnapped women was unimaginable:

Sabreen and Dilvian, Sabreen’s four-year-old sister, were released after months in captivity. Sabreen “was in the kitchen” when IS first arrived, “they asked to see my father, they took all the men to trucks, we heard a lot of gunfire. The children came in crying, they said all the men are dead.” Their father was never seen again, their mother was sold as a domestic slave to a family in Aleppo, and they were taken to Raqqa, Syria. At Raqqa, they were placed in a three storey house. It was at this house that Sabreen was tortured whilst Dilvian was forced to watch, “they had an electrical machine, they plugged it into the wall. For one hour every day they electrocuted me”. Dilvian noted that she “was crying and begging him to stop but he wouldn’t listen”.

Amnesty International state that hundreds and possibly thousands of girls, some as young as six, have had their lives shattered by sexual violence and sexual slavery in IS captivity. Thousands remain missing. There is still hope that these missing girls will one day be returned to their loved ones.

Kurdish and Iraqi forces are slowly starting to push back IS and re-gain territory once lost. Upon liberation of key towns from IS such as Sinjar, many mass graves have been found. A mass grave of around 80 women was found last year near Sinjar, the women were reported to be aged between 40 to 80. They were slaughtered, deemed by IS to be too old to be used in the sex trade.

I would like to leave you with courageous and inspirational words of Nadia Murad Bassee Taha, a 21-year-old Yazidi girl who survived the massacre of her family and enslavement by IS and addressed the UN Security Council on 16 December 2015:

“It is with great sadness, gratitude and hope that I address the Security Council. As a Yazidi survivor, I am a descendant of one of the world’s oldest religions, which is today threatened with extinction. I am here to talk about the practices against us by what is called the Islamic State/Daesh — trafficking in persons, sexual enslavement of women, recruitment of children in war, displacement and the genocide of our society. I am here to tell the Council my story, of what happened to my society, which has lost hope for life and is now moving into unknown territory. I am also here to tell the Council about the more than 3,400 women and children who have been abducted. I am here to tell the Council about this global terrorist organization, the Islamic State, which is trying to destroy our culture and take away our freedom. I am here to talk about the nightmare that, just overnight, turned the life of an entire community upside-down.

Prior to 3 August 2014, I was living with my family, my brothers and sisters in the pretty, quiet village of Kocho. But then the Islamic State attacked our region, and we found ourselves facing a true genocide. A large number of those forces of evil had come from different States with weapons, equipment and uniforms. Their aim was to eliminate all Yazidi existence under the pretext that — according to them — we were infidels. The Islamic State did not just come to kill us, women and girls, but to take us as war booty and merchandise to be sold in markets for a bit of money, or even for free. Those crimes were not committed without design, they were part of a premeditated policy.

On 15 August, elements from the Islamic State summoned us to the village school. They separated the men from the women and children. I saw them from the second floor of the school as they took away the men and killed them. Six of my brothers were killed, while three survived the mass killing. We, the women and children, were taken by bus from the school to another area. They humiliated us along the way and touched us in a shameful way. They took me to Mosul with more than 150 other Yazidi families. There were thousands of families in a building there, including children who were given away as gifts. One of the men came up to me. He wanted to take me. I looked down at the floor. I was absolutely terrified. When I looked up, I saw a huge man. He was like a monster. I cried out that I was too young and he was huge. He kicked and beat me. A few minutes later, another man came up to me. I was still looking at the floor. I saw that he was a little smaller. I begged for him to take me. I was terribly afraid of the first man. The man who took me asked me to change my religion. I refused. One day, he came and asked me for my hand in what they called “marriage”. I said that I was ill; most women were menstruating because they were so scared. A few days later, this man forced me to get dressed and put on my makeup. Then, on that terrible night, he did it.

He forced me to serve in his military company. He humiliated me daily. He forced me to wear clothes that barely covered my body. I was not able to take any more rape and torture. I decided to flee, but one of the guards stopped me. That night he beat me. He asked me to take my clothes off. He put me in a room with guards, who proceeded to commit their crime until I fainted.

I was finally able to escape three months after my abduction. I currently live in Germany. Thankfully, Germany provided me with the necessary medical attention, for which I thank that country.”

You can find Nadia’s full story on her website and follow her under @NadiaMuradBasee.

by Harry Wright