UN Geneva round-up: Covid outbreak in North Korea, Mexico hits 100,000 disappeared, health assembly

Logo of the World Health Organisation (Credit: United States Mission to Geneva | Flickr)

A summary of the most critical issues being discussed at the United Nations in Geneva this week.

Covid-19 outbreak in North Korea. As of 16 May, 56 Covid-19 related deaths, including six children, have been reported by the state’s news agency. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed her concerns about the likely human rights impacts of the outbreak and the subsequent lock down in the country.

North Korea closed borders in January 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, and has limited internal freedom of movement. The latest restrictions have worsened the situation. “Children, lactating mothers, older people, the homeless, and those living in more isolated rural and border areas are especially vulnerable,” she said.

North Korea’s limited health infrastructure and unvaccinated population is a concern for new variants. “We will be speaking with the authorities in the coming days, and have offered a package of technical information and supplies, including vaccines,” a World Health Organisation spokesperson told the press.

Mexico crosses 100,000 disappearances mark. As the numbers of enforced or involuntary disappearances grow, the high commissioner called on Mexican authorities to step up efforts to ensure the “victim’s rights to truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition”.

The national registry in Mexico has been compiling disappearances dating from 1964, however only 35 of 100,000 recorded cases have led to the conviction of the perpetrators. According to the database, more than 90 per cent of the disappearances have occurred since December 2006, when Mexico militarised public security.

Read also: ​​In Mexico, families lead the search for their disappeared loved ones

Mexico has taken significant steps in the past decades such as adopting the General Law on Disappearances, creating search committees and a National Centre for Human Identification as well as recognising the competence of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances to examine individual complaints. s

Bachelet also called on Mexico to centre their efforts around the families of those who have disappeared.

Imminent execution in Iran. The high commissioner of human rights also called authorities to halt the execution and revoke the death sentence of Swedish-Iranian doctor and academic Ahmedreza Djalali. Djalali was arrested in 2016 on a visit to Iran to attend workshops on disaster medicine. He was charged with espionage, and convicted and sentenced based on a confession reportedly extracted under torture.

International human rights law restricts death penalties for the most serious of crimes, which does not include espionage. Djalali’s confession and trial also does not meet international standards, said Throssel, adding that  “in the current circumstances, the execution would therefore constitute an arbitrary deprivation of life.”

Pandemics treaty to tackle health infrastructure. One of the major topics of discussion at the World Health Assembly later this month will be a global accord on pandemic prevention and preparedness.

Covid-19 has revealed a lot of challenges to global health infrastructure, including a lack of information sharing, biological and medical materials and technologies sharing between countries. These weaknesses have hampered crisis response in the past two years and have cost lives.

Nearly 200 countries, which will meet in Geneva from 22 to 28 May to take further steps to hammer out  a global agreement that will address these challenges, the WHO told a media briefing on Tuesday.

Another main discussion will be around challenges to the International Health Regulations (IHR). There is a significant number of targeted amendments offered by the United States for the Assembly’s consideration — particularly, efforts to streamline the process of amending the IHR, which now requires an extended period of consideration. Work to shorten the period will make IHR a more effective and agile international legal instrument, said WHO representative.

WHO director general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also emphasised the health agency’s activities to be “public, open and transparent”, recalling his support for the universal right to health. He stated the international cooperation on health infrastructure “does not usurp national sovereignty, but strengthens it”.

Rising cases of monkeypox and unknown hepatitis. Several thousands of cases of monkeypox have been detected endemic in countries such as Nigeria, Congo and the Central African Republic since 2020. As of 15 May, 429 cases of unknown hepatitis have been reported in 22 countries as well.

The lack of information on the origin and the spread of both these diseases highlight the need for common health investigation tools to allow for international comparisons.