Category: International Cooperation

Countries call on drug companies to share vaccine know-how

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In an industrial neighborhood on the outskirts of Bangladesh’s largest city lies a factory with gleaming new equipment imported from Germany, its immaculate hallways lined with hermetically sealed rooms. It is operating at just a quarter of its capacity. It is one of three factories that The Associated Press found on three continents whose owners say they could start producing hundreds of millions of COVID-19 vaccines on short notice if only they had the blueprints and technical know-how.

But that knowledge belongs to the large pharmaceutical companies who produce the first three vaccines authorized by countries including Britain, the European Union and the U.S.—Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca.

Across Africa and Southeast Asia, governments and aid groups, as well as the WHO, are calling on pharmaceutical companies to share this patent information more broadly to meet a yawning global shortfall in a pandemic that already has claimed nearly 2.5 million lives. Pharmaceutical companies that took taxpayer money from the U.S. or Europe to develop inoculations at unprecedented speed say they are negotiating contracts and exclusive licensing deals with producers on a case-by-case basis because they need to protect their intellectual property and ensure safety.

Critics say this piecemeal approach is just too slow at a time of urgent need to stop the virus before it mutates into even deadlier forms.

[Associated Press]

US seeks return to UN human rights body

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The United States will seek election to the U.N. Human Rights Council later this year, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday, marking the Biden administration’s latest international re-engagement.

Under former President Donald Trump’s more isolationist approach, Washington quit the council in 2018 but the Biden government has already returned as an observer.

“I’m pleased to announce the United States will seek election to the Human Rights Council for the 2022-24 term,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the council by video. “We humbly ask for the support of all U.N. member states in our bid to return to a seat in this body.”

Blinken, addressing the council by recorded video, also said that President Joseph Biden’s administration would work to eliminate what he called the Geneva forum’s “disproportionate focus” on U.S. ally Israel. The council, set up in 2006, has a stand-alone item on the Palestinian territories on its agenda every session, the only issue with such treatment, which both Democratic and Republican administrations have opposed. It routinely adopts resolutions condemning alleged violations by Israel in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

[Reuters]

Global vaccine inequality

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As the coronavirus pandemic rages, WTO representatives have periodically gathered around a virtual table and clashed over how to more equitably increase global access to vaccines.

On one side are the United States and other mainly wealthy Western democracies, where the major pharmaceutical companies developing key vaccines and related medical technologies are based. They want to maintain the status quo, in which the trade secrets of their vaccines—i.e. intellectual property—remain in their hands to preserve profits and the incentive for future development.

On the other side are South Africa and India, leading the charge on behalf of the vast number of countries without any—or a limited supply of—vaccine doses and other equipment for fighting the virus. They argue that the rest of the world cannot keep waiting for the lifesaving shots, which Western countries have monopolized by buying up existing supplies and pre-purchasing future rounds.

Given the gravity of the global public health crisis, the latter camp wants to resort to an emergency waiver mechanism, whereby the intellectual property rights for making vaccines and related medical supplies would be temporarily suspended, which would lead to production and distribution ramping up more equitably in factories worldwide.

[Washington Post]

U.S. to resettle more child refugees fleeing violence

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As part of its overhaul of U.S. refugee policy, the Biden administration is planning to offer humanitarian refuge to more children fleeing violence around the world, according to a government report. “Given European countries’ limited resettlement slots, the United States will be a key-partner to increase resettlement for URMs,” the report said, using the acronym for unaccompanied refugee minors.

The commitment is part of the Biden administration’s efforts to rebuild the country’s long-standing refugee program, which was gutted under former President Donald Trump. The Biden administration’s report to Congress noted that this pause in the resettlement of unaccompanied refugee minors comes “just as the global need increases,” noting the plight of minors from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other African countries plagued by conflict and political instability.

Founded in the 1980s, the U.S. Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program has been a relatively small initiative, but it remains the only one in the world designed specifically for refugee children who can’t be resettled with their parents. More than 13,000 children have been resettled under the program, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The program places refugee children in foster homes across the U.S., connects them with social workers and provides them financial support, as well as educational, legal and recreational services. All refugees receive medical and health examinations before being resettled in the U.S. 

Advocates welcomed the Biden administration’s plan, saying refugee children around the world are facing life and death situations. “These children are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable,” Ashley Feasley, the director of policy at the Migration Refugee Services branch of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CBS News. “These are children in refugee camps or in urban refugee situations who don’t have parents or guardians or even extended family who can suitably care for them.”

Feasley’s group and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service are calling on the Biden administration to allocate 1% of all refugee spots to unaccompanied children. This would translate to 625 spots if the administration follows through on its proposal to institute a 62,500-person ceiling for the current fiscal year, and 1,250 spots during fiscal year 2022, when Mr. Biden has pledged to set a goal of resettling up to 125,000 refugees.

After President Barack Obama set an ambitious goal in 2016 of admitting 110,000 refugees, President Trump slashed the annual refugee cap every subsequent year, setting a historically low 15,000-person ceiling before leaving office.  Trump also narrowed who could be eligible for resettlement.

[CBS News]

US President Biden set to announce major foreign policy shifts

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President Joe Biden is expected to announce an end to all American support for offensive operations in Yemen, and will appoint an envoy to focus on the long-standing conflict.

The President “will talk about the United States playing a more active and engaged role” in ending the war, according to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

Biden is also expected to announce his intention to increase the number of refugees admitted into the United States after years of historical lows under the Trump administration, and fulfill a campaign promise in doing so, two sources familiar with the plans told CNN.

The President is anticipated to use a speech not only to unveil policy changes, fulfill campaign promises and reverse Trump administration policies, but also to reassert US global leadership and realign foreign policy.

Biden has spoken by phone to more than a half-dozen foreign counterparts since taking office, while his Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been working the phones intensely to do outreach to his counterparts around the world.

A source close to both men has said that they are aware that there is serious repair work to be done after four years of the Trump administration left allies wary and bruised — and uncertain about how reliable an ally the US will be in future.

“There’s a real sense among allies is, ‘How long can we count on them?'” said this source. “We have to address that.”

[CNN]

PlayStation 5 launch gets more coverage than 10 humanitarian crises combined

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Humanitarian crises are largely swept aside by other relatively trivial news:
-The launch of PlayStation 5 received 26 times more news attention than 10 humanitarian crises combined in 2020, according to a Care International report.
-The Eurovision song contest and Kanye West’s bid for the US presidency each received 10 times more online news attention than the humanitarian crises in question, the report also found.

The report points to violence and conflict in Burundi, CAR and Mali; hunger and drought in Madagascar and Zambia, and poverty and climate concerns in Malawi. Only one country in Europe – Ukraine – featured on Care’s list, where about 5 million people needed humanitarian aid last year and women hired out their wombs for money. Food insecurity in Guatemala, conflict in Pakistan and hunger and earthquakes in Papua New Guinea also saw these nations make the ranking.

The lack of media coverage adds to existing burdens for these 10 countries in crisis, including the effects of pandemic restrictions and the growing impact of climate change, said Care’s humanitarian advocacy coordinator and UN representative Delphine Pinault.

“Covid-19 has shown us that humanitarian crises can occur anywhere, but for so many people, especially women and girls, Covid-19 is just another threat on top of what they must face already,” said Pinault. “We must not be silent while the world ignores crises that started long before Covid-19 and yet still have not been addressed.”

An estimated 235 million people globally are expected to need humanitarian aid this year, an increase of 40% from 2020, according to data from the UN.

Care is urging governments to allow journalists better access to report “forgotten crisis” stories, and calling on global media to amplify the voices of women and girls and to partner with smaller, more local organizations to pay attention to news on the ground.

“When a crisis doesn’t make headlines, it often doesn’t receive sufficient humanitarian funding, either,” the report warns. “The publication of Care’s neglected crises report is therefore a call to action to the humanitarian and donor community to not turn a blind eye.”

[The Guardian]

UN warns 2021 shaping up to be a humanitarian catastrophe

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Next year is shaping up to be a humanitarian catastrophe and rich countries must not trample poor countries in a “stampede for vaccines” to combat the coronavirus pandemic, top U.N. officials told the 193-member U.N. General Assembly on Friday. World Food Programme (WFP) chief David Beasley and World Health Organization (WHO) head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus spoke during a special meeting on COVID-19.

The pandemic, measures taken by countries to try to stop its spread and the economic impact have fueled a 40% increase in the number of people needing humanitarian help, the United Nations said earlier this week. It has appealed for $35 billion in aid funding.

“2021 is literally going to be catastrophic based on what we’re seeing at this stage of the game,” said Beasley, adding that for a dozen countries, famine is “knocking on the door.” He said 2021 was likely to be “the worst humanitarian crisis year since the beginning of the United Nations” 75 years ago and “we’re not going to be able to fund everything … so we have to prioritize, as I say, the icebergs in front of the Titanic.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and his top officials have also called for COVID-19 vaccines to be made available to all and for rich countries to help developing countries combat and recover from the pandemic.

“We simply cannot accept a world in which the poor and marginalized are trampled by the rich and powerful in the stampede for vaccines,” Tedros told the General Assembly. “This is a global crisis and the solutions must be shared equitably as global public goods.”

[Reuters]

African asylum seekers in America

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Cameroonian asylum seekers in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have accused the agency’s officers and private prison guards of using torture, violence and threats to force them to sign documents facilitating their deportation. If true, the actions violate state, federal and international laws.

The refugees, as mentioned in a November 5 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SLPC) and Freedom for Immigrants, claim that ICE officers and private prison guards at detainment facilities in Louisiana and Mississippi physically forced their fingerprints as signatures upon documents that they didn’t understand. They further allege that guards and officers used threats of prolonged detainment or abuse and housed them alongside federal prisoners.

“All of the complainants are seeking asylum in the U.S. and face life-threatening consequences if deported to Cameroon,” the SLPC and Freedom for Immigrants wrote of the accusers in their report.

One non-English-speaking refugee said that ICE officials and private guards demanded that he sign an English document that he didn’t understand. He claims that an ICE supervisor seized him by the throat. He alleges that, as he hid under the table, the people present dragged him out, removed his pants and underwear, leaving his genitals exposed, and bent his left arm in a painful position while forcing his right thumbprint onto the documents in the presence of the 10 people present.

“They don’t treat us like immigrants. They treat us like prisoners,” the man is reported to have said in the report. “My country Cameroon is in a civil war,” he continued. “I don’t know why they force us to go back to a country that is not stable right now. People die every day.”

Another 49-year-old detainee said detainees feared for their life after watching this man being physically forced to sign a document. “This is what will happen to you if I don’t sign,” a female guard allegedly told the 49-year-old accuser.

Another detainee said, “The three (guards) pressed me to the wall as I cried. One held my hand, the other pressed against my chest, and the third held onto my other hand and pressed my fingerprint to the paper. She told me that this was my custody review document for deportation. I couldn’t sleep for days because of the pain I was in.” She alleged that guards at the facility strip-searched them and made them squat naked within sight of federal prisoners, to search them for weapons.

The SLPC and Freedom for Immigrants argue that the incidents, if true, violate Louisiana state and federal law, the international Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, which the U.S. has ratified, as well as ICE’s own policies within its 2011 Performance Based National Standards.

The accusers all fled a four-year ongoing conflict in the central African nation of Cameroon, in which over 3,000 people have been killed and half a million displaced, according to the United Nations.

[Newsweek]

Asylum seekers seeking refuge in the United States

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A former Colombian police officer had spent his career fighting rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — also known as FARC — and now that he was retired, they promised to hunt him down.

The first death threat came in the form of a note slipped under the front door. “Now that you’re out of the police we will take care of the pending issues,” read the note. “We are returning to the area.” The paper bore the FARC logo. Over the next few months, FARC would send four more death threats to Edier de Jesus Rodriguez Bedoya.

Bedoya and his family lawfully entered the U.S. in May 2013, and applied for asylum. He told an immigration judge that FARC was systematically targeting retired Colombian police officers who had fought against them. He feared if he returned to Colombia, FARC would make good on its threats. But that wasn’t enough for the U.S. Department of Justice, whose Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) rejected his asylum request.

This week, federal appeals court overturned that decision: “As we have repeatedly explained, a threat of death qualifies as past persecution,” wrote Judge Robert King for the unanimous three-judge panel. Although the written threats never explicitly said they would “kill” the officer, “their meaning is plain and unambiguous,” the court wrote.

It’s a rebuke of the BIA at a time when more and more claims are being denied. An analysis earlier this year by the nonpartisan human rights organization Human Rights First found far fewer people are being granted asylum than in the past. The current grant rate is 40 percent lower than the average during the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations, the group said.

Joe Biden has criticized the Trump Administration’s asylum policies, and has promised to increase the number of asylum officers, to take the burden off overwhelmed immigration courts.

This federal appeals court decision will help others who seek asylum in that jurisdiction, said immigration attorney Jim Hacking. “No aspect of legal immigration has been under greater assault than our asylum system,” he told NPR. “Hopefully, this case represents a solid first step to restoring sanity to the asylum process.”

[NPR]

Alarm over world’s hunger crisis

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U.N. agencies have warned that some 250 million people in 20 countries are threatened with sharply spiking malnutrition or even famine in coming months.

The United Nations humanitarian office this week released $100 million in emergency funding to seven countries most at risk of famine—Yemen, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Congo, and Burkina Faso.

But David Beasley, head of the World Food Program, says billions in new aid are needed. Without it, “we are going to have famines of biblical proportions in 2021,” he said in an Associated Press interview last week.

In multiple countries, the coronavirus pandemic has added a new burden on top of the impact of ongoing wars, pushing more people into poverty, unable to afford food. At the same time, international aid funding has fallen short, weakening a safety net that keeps people alive.

[AP]