In a rare public defense of a process normally shrouded in secrecy, four of the Nobel jury's five judges spoke out this week about the selection of US President Barack Obama as the Nobel Peace Prize laureate. They said it was both merited and unanimous. To those who say a Nobel is too much too soon in Obama's young presidency, "We simply disagree … He got the prize for what he has done," committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland told The Associated Press by telephone from Strasbourg, France, where he was attending meetings of the Council of Europe. Jagland singled out Obama's efforts to heal the divide between the West and the Muslim world and scale down a Bush-era proposal for an anti-missile shield in Europe. The committee attached "special importance to Obama's vision and work for a world without nuclear weapons" and said he had created "a new climate in international politics." "Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world's attention and given its people hope for a better future," it said.

Declining aid and investment in agriculture has been steadily increasing the number of undernourished people for more than a decade, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a report Oct. 14. After gains in the fight against hunger in the 1980s and early 1990s, the number of undernourished people started climbing in 1995, reaching 1.02 billion this year under the combined effect of high food prices and the global financial meltdown, the FAO said. The figure topped the 1 billion mark in June, and was 963 million a year ago. The blame for the long-term trend rests largely on the reduced share of aid and private investments earmarked for agriculture over recent years, the FAO said in its State of Food Insecurity report for 2009.

UNCIEF sounded the alarm on the worsening humanitarian situation in the Horn of Africa Oct. 14, noting that nearly five million children under the age of five in the region are now hungry. This marks an increase of 1 million since May, while the number of people in need of emergency assistance in the region has also risen, climbing from 20 million earlier this year to 24 million, the UN agency said. During 2009, some 500,000 under-five children will suffer from life-threatening severe acute malnutrition.The food insecurity has been in large part triggered by prolonged drought resulting in less than half the normal rainfall, which has lead to enormous losses in livestock and surging food prices.

Afghan leader Hamid Karzai is likely to face a second round run-off in early November in the country's disputed presidential election, a former diplomat close to the US regional envoy said Oct. 14. Almost two months after polling day, the UN-backed election watchdog is still sifting through piles of allegedly suspicious ballots to determine if Karzai is the outright winner or must face a second vote against his runner-up, Reuters reported. Peter Galbraith, a senior US diplomat who was fired last month from his UN position in Afghanistan in a row over election fraud, said the second round looked inevitable."I expect that by the end of this week the Election Complaints Commission will have announced its review," Galbraith, known to be close to the US envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, told the BBC's Hard Talk program.

The UN Human Rights Council will hold an extraordinary meeting this week on the occupied Palestinian territories, providing another chance for Israel's critics to discuss a Gaza war crimes report. "The holding of the special session is at the request of Palestine," the United Nations said in a statement circulated on Oct. 13 in Geneva, Reuters reported. The Human Rights Council did not vote during its last three-week session, ending October 2, on a resolution condemning Israel's failure to cooperate with the Gaza inquiry, led by South African jurist Richard Goldstone. The report, issued in September, concluded that both the Israeli armed forces and Hamas militants committed war crimes in the December-January war. But it was more critical of Israel.

Expanding aid and education for women is essential to reducing hunger in the world's most impoverished regions, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Countries that scored worst on the group's Global Hunger Index tend to have the greatest gender inequality, the institute said today as it released this year's rankings. With women responsible for up to 80 percent of African food production, gender equality equals food security, the institute said. "Knowing that hunger and gender inequality go hand-in- hand, an important step to ending world hunger is empowering women and eradicating gender disparities in education, health, economic participation and political opportunities," director general Joachim von Braun said, as cited by Bloomberg.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Iran's appeal courts Oct. 13 to carefully review death sentences handed down for three people over street unrest following the disputed election in June. International law stipulates that the death penalty can only be applied when strict conditions are met, specifically when defendants charged with the most serious crimes are subjected to "scrupulously fair trials," Navi Pillay said in a statement. In the view of most UN human rights bodies, imposing the death penalty for crimes that did not result in loss of life violates an international treaty on civil and political rights which was ratified by Iran, Pillay said.

Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and other countries hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 220,000 people Oct. 14 tested a UN-backed warning system. The test tried to simulate conditions almost five years ago when a magnitude-9.1 earthquake off northern Sumatra generated deadly waves that hit countries including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, UNESCO said. Mock bulletins were issued by the Japan Meteorological Agency in Tokyo and the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center as the simulated tsunami spreads across the Indian Ocean, taking about 12 hours to travel from Indonesia to the coast of South Africa. The drill comes after a tsunami killed more than 100 people in Samoa last month, "providing a sober reminder that coastal communities everywhere need to be aware and prepared for such events," UNESCO said.

A new international pact is needed to ban trafficking in human organs, tissues and cells, protect victims and punish offenders, says a report issued on Oct. 13 by the United Nations and Council of Europe. Selling body parts was not just unethical, it also led to greater health risks for both donor and recipient than free, voluntary transplants, the 98-page report said. "We affirm as a primary principle no financial gain should be coincident with obtaining organs and tissues for transplant," said University of Pennsylvania academic Arthur Caplan, one of the report's authors, as cited by Reuters. The report highlighted what it called "transplant tourism," in which people from rich countries in Western Europe, North America and parts of Asia went to poorer ones in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and South America to obtain organs.

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