The UN has admitted it played a role in an outbreak of cholera in Haiti in 2010 that has since killed about 10,000 people in the country.
According to scientific studies, Nepalese UN troops were the source of the disease – but the UN repeatedly denied responsibility until now.
An internal report seen by the New York Times is said to have led to the shift.
However, the UN still says it is protected by diplomatic immunity from claims for compensation from victims’ families.
On August 18, Farhan Haq, a spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, said that “over the past year the UN has become convinced it needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak and the suffering of those affected by cholera”.
However, Farhan Haq reiterated that the UN’s legal position in on diplomatic immunity and possible compensation “has not changed”.
His comments came after the confidential internal report stated that the epidemic “would not have broken out but for the actions of the United Nations,” according to the New York Times.
The New York Times says the report was sent to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon last week by long-time UN adviser Philip Alston, a New York University law professor who consults the world body on human rights issues.
The cholera outbreak has been blamed on leaking sewage pipes at a UN base.
The US courts have rejected claims for compensation filed by victims’ families.
No cases of the bacterial infection, which causes diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and muscle cramps, had been recorded in Haiti for a century until the outbreak in late 2010.
Cholera is spread through infected faeces. Once it enters the water supply it is difficult to stop – especially in a country like Haiti which has almost no effective sewage disposal systems.
The UN has appealed for a record $16 billion to fund its humanitarian operations in 2015, with almost half the total going to help victims of the Syrian conflict.
It says the money will provide aid for more than 57 million of the most vulnerable people around the world.
The UN humanitarian chief said the level of need was “unprecedented”.
The request comes as aid agencies warn they are running out of cash to fund this year’s operations in Syria.
Last week the World Food Programme announced it would have to cut food rations to Syrian refugees.
The UN is requesting $2.8 billion to help those displaced by the conflict inside Syria.
It is seeking another $4.4 billion to help more than 3,250,000 Syrian refugees registered in neighboring countries.
“The rising scale of need is outpacing our capacity to respond,” said UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos.
“The crises in Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan and Syria will remain top humanitarian priorities next year.”
Valerie Amos said those conflicts accounted for more than 70% of the funding being sought.
Other major crises covered by the appeal include Afghanistan, DR Congo, Myanmar, Palestinian territories, Somalia, Sudan, Ukraine and Yemen.
However, the UN said it did not include nine countries in Africa’s Sahel region, which will be addressed in a separate request in February.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said: “This is not business as usual in the humanitarian world. Today’s needs are at unprecedented levels, and without more support there simply is no way to respond to the humanitarian situations we’re seeing.”
Food and medical supplies for refugees have to be purchased in advance, and field hospitals have to be delivered and built.
The UN has called for the Security Council to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC) over its human rights record.
The human rights committee passed a motion seeking a probe into alleged crimes against humanity committed by the Pyongyang regime.
The motion still needs to be voted on by the General Assembly itself.
A UN report released in February revealed ordinary North Koreans faced “unspeakable atrocities”.
The UN Commission of Inquiry detailed wide-ranging abuses in North Korea after hearing evidence of torture, political repression and other crimes.
It led to Tuesday’s non-binding vote, which was passed with 111 countries in favor and 19 against, with 55 abstentions.
China and Russia, which hold veto power on the Security Council, voted against the motion.
The resolution also condemned North Korea for its poor human rights record, and urged the Security Council to consider targeted sanctions against those responsible for the crimes.
Michael Kirby, who chaired the report, described the move as “an important step in the defense of human rights”.
“One of the only ways in which the International Criminal Court can secure jurisdiction is by referral by the Security Council. That is the step that has been put in train by the big vote in New York,” he said.
The General Assembly is to vote on the motion in coming weeks.
Diplomats say, however, that long-time ally China would probably use its veto to block the Security Council from referring the case to the ICC.
The UN report said North Korea’s human rights situation “exceeds all others in duration, intensity and horror”.
It said those accused of political crimes were “disappeared” to prison camps, where they were subject to “deliberate starvation, forced labor, executions, torture, rape and the denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion and infanticide”.
The report, based on interviews with North Korean defectors, estimated that “hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have perished in these camps over the past five decades”.
It included an account of a woman forced to drown her own baby, children imprisoned from birth and starved, and families tortured for watching a foreign soap opera.
North Korea refused to co-operate with the UN report and rejected its conclusions.
Speaking ahead of the vote, a North Korean foreign ministry official warned the committee of the possibility of further nuclear tests.
Penalizing North Korea over human rights “is compelling us not to refrain any further from conducting nuclear tests”, Choe Myong-nam said.
According to UN officials, more than a million people have left their homes because of the escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine.
In the past three weeks alone, the number of people displaced inside Ukraine itself has doubled to at least 260,000, according to the UN’s Vincent Cochetel in Geneva.
Another 814,000 people have crossed the border into Russia this year, Vincent Cochetel says.
Pro-Russian rebels have been fighting Ukrainian forces since April.
Separatists in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
Since the violence erupted, some 2,600 people have been killed and thousands more wounded.
The city of Luhansk has been under siege by government forces for the past month and is without proper supplies of food and water.
More than a million people have left their homes because of the escalating conflict in eastern Ukraine (RIA Novosti)
But the Ukrainian army has been forced to retreat as pro-Russian rebels gain ground, and said they had withdrawn from the city’s airport after coming under attack from “Russian tanks”.
Military spokesman Andriy Lysenko said sappers had blown up the airport’s runway so that it could not be used by rebel forces.
Rebels have also advanced in Donetsk region, around the city of Donetsk and further south near the port of Mariupol.
In early August, the UN refugee agency said 117,000 people were displaced in Ukraine but it now says that number has climbed dramatically, and could be even higher as many of those affected are unregistered and staying with family and friends.
The UN also says that there has been a decline in the use of humanitarian corridors set up by the Ukrainian authorities because of a series of fatal attacks on civilians.
In the past few days, an estimated 10,000 people have fled the southern port city of Mariupol since pro-Russian rebels captured areas close to the Russian border.
Russia denies Ukrainian and Western accusations that it is providing troops and equipment to the rebels.
It says 814,000 people have arrived from Ukraine this year under a visa-free regime.
Of these, 121,000 have applied for temporary asylum or refugee status. The UN says most Ukrainians in Russia are staying with relatives and friends or finding private accommodation.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres has warned that if the crisis is not stopped quickly “it will have not only devastating humanitarian consequences but it also has the potential to destabilize the whole region”.
The operator of a North Korean ship seized in July 2013 near the Panama Canal with Cuban weapons on board has been blacklisted by the UN Security Council.
The move means Pyongyang-based Ocean Maritime Management is now subject to an international asset freeze and travel ban.
The company operated the Chong Chon Gang, found with Soviet-era weapons and fighter jets hidden under sugar sacks.
UN sanctions ban most arms shipments to North Korea.
Under resolutions adopted after Pyongyang’s nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, the export of all arms and related parts, with the exception of small arms and light weapons, to North Korea is prohibited.
The UN Security Council has blacklisted the operator of the North Korean ship seized in July 2013 (photo Reuters)
The UN’s North Korea sanctions committee said that the company had “played a key role in arranging the shipment of the concealed cargo of arms”.
The move showed “intent to evade UN sanctions, and is consistent with previous attempts by the DPRK (North Korea) to transfer arms and related materiel through similar tactics in contravention of Security Council prohibitions”, the committee said.
The Chong Chon Gang was stopped near Manzanillo, on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal, on July 15, 2013, under suspicion that it was carrying drugs.
It had disappeared from satellite tracking for a few days as it approached the Cuban capital, Havana, having departed from Russia’s eastern coast three months earlier.
On searching the vessel, officials found military hardware including two Soviet-era MiG-21 fighter aircraft, air defense systems, missiles and command and control vehicles.
Cuban authorities said that the ship was carrying 240 tonnes of “obsolete” defensive weapons.
The North Korean government insisted the ageing weapons were simply being transferred to North Korea to be repaired, before returning them.
The US envoy to the UN, Samantha Power, described the episode as a “cynical, outrageous and illegal attempt” by Cuba and North Korea to circumvent UN sanctions.
In February the ship and most of the crew were allowed to leave Panama and a court later ordered the release of the remaining three officers.
In a new resolution, the UN General Assembly has declared the Moscow-backed referendum that led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea as illegal.
The move comes after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed to a loan deal with Ukraine worth $14-18 billion.
The US Congress also passed legislation on Thursday backing a $1 billion loan guarantee for Ukraine.
Tensions are high between Russia and the West after pro-Russian troops annexed Ukraine’s southern peninsula.
The West has widely condemned the move, with President Barack Obama warning on Wednesday of “deeper” EU and US sanctions against Russia if it carried out further incursions in Ukraine.
UN General Assembly has declared the Moscow-backed referendum that led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea as illegal
One hundred countries voted in favor of approving a UN General Assembly resolution declaring the Crimean referendum on March 16 illegal and affirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Eleven nations voted against, with 58 abstentions.
“This support has come from all corners of the world which shows that this (is) not only a regional matter but a global one,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia told reporters after the vote.
Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said “the fact that almost half” of the UN General Assembly members had not supported the resolution was “a very encouraging trend and I think this trend will become stronger and stronger”.
Given that the resolution was non-binding, the vote was largely symbolic.
But Ukraine hopes the resolution will act as a deterrent and dissuade Moscow from making further incursions into its territory.
Barack Obama said the IMF announcement, which would unlock a further $10 billion in loans for Ukraine, was a “major step forward” to help stabilize the country’s economy and meet the long-term needs of its people.
The UN inquiry into rights abuses in North Korea is due to be published, and is expected to urge punishment for systematic violations by the state.
A panel of experts mandated by the UN’s Human Rights Council said North Koreans had suffered “unspeakable atrocities”.
The panel heard evidence of torture, enslavement, sexual violence, severe political repression and other crimes.
It is expected to recommend an inquiry by an international court or tribunal.
Testimony to the panel has included an account of a woman forced to drown her own baby, children imprisoned from birth and starved, and families tortured for watching a foreign soap opera.
The full report is expected to contain hundreds of pages of further evidence of a nationwide policy of control through terror, says our correspondent.
The Associated Press quoted from a leaked version of the panel’s report, which accuses the regime of taking decisions aimed at maintaining its own rule “in full awareness that such decisions would exacerbate starvation and related deaths amongst much of the population”.
For years, North Korean defectors have detailed harrowing accounts of life under the brutally repressive Kim dynasty.
The UN inquiry into rights abuses in North Korea is expected to urge punishment for systematic violations by the state
The regime keeps tens of thousands of political prisoners in camps, and divides the population up in terms of presumed loyalty to the regime.
Civilians live under a system of neighborhood surveillance where they are encouraged to denounce each other, according to defectors.
Although this information has been in the public domain for years, the panel’s inquiry is the highest-profile international attempt to investigate the claims.
North Korea refused to participate and has rejected any claims of rights violations and crimes against humanity.
Jared Genser, an international human rights lawyer who has campaigned to stop crimes against humanity in North Korea, said the findings were both ground-breaking and unremarkable.
“They’re ground-breaking in that it’s the first time that the United Nations as an institution has found that crimes against humanity are being committed against the people of North Korea,” he said.
“Of course, it puts a huge burden on the United Nations to then take the next set of steps.”
“But of course it’s also unremarkable in the sense that those of us who have worked on North Korea human rights for many, many years are aware of the sheer weight of evidence coming out of North Korea over decades now… And so the real question now is, what next?”
According to AP, which has seen an outline of the report’s findings, the document will conclude that the testimony and other information it received “merit a criminal investigation by a competent national or international organ of justice”.
However, China would be likely to block any attempt to refer the North to the International Criminal Court.
And an ad-hoc tribunal like those set up for Rwanda, Sierra Leone or Cambodia would appear unlikely without any co-operation from elements within the country.
The UN panel will formally present its findings in March, when the Human Rights Council will decide which recommendations to support.