REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
20 November 2012
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the High Commissioner for Refugees, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs,
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the World Food Programme, the International Organization for Migration and the World Meteorological Organization.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was in Cairo to add his support to efforts to reach an immediate ceasefire. He had called on all sides to exercise utmost restraint.
Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, was acutely concerned about Palestinian and Israeli civilians caught up in the ongoing crisis in Gaza and southern Israel. She was dismayed by the marked surge in the number of Palestinian civilians, including women and children, killed and injured over the past 48 hours as a result of Israeli military action.
According to information gathered by OHCHR monitors on the ground, the civilian death toll had more than doubled during this period. As of this morning, at least 57 civilians, including 18 children, have been killed and hundreds have been injured since 14 November. The High Commissioner deplored attacks such as the bombing of a house in Gaza which killed at least eight members of the Al-Dalou family, including four young children on 18 November.
The High Commissioner appreciated statements made by Israeli officials about the precautions taken to avoid harm to civilians. However, attacks affecting schools and religious sites, as well as the reported targeting of homes and media outlets during the past 48 hours raised serious concerns about Israel's commitment to its obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law.
The High Commissioner therefore called on Israel to scrupulously meet its legal obligations to distinguish at all times between civilians and combatants, and to take precautions and all possible measures to avoid the loss of civilian life and damage to civilian property. The High Commissioner further reiterated her condemnation of the continuing indiscriminate attacks and targeting of civilians in Israel by militants in Gaza which have killed three civilians as well as causing civilian injuries and damage to civilian property.
High Commissioner Pillay strongly supported the Secretary-General's efforts toward a cease fire agreement, and hoped that any such agreement contained commitments by both sides to respect international human rights law and international humanitarian law. The High Commissioner recalled the need to ensure accountability for any violations of international law, including through prompt, impartial, independent and effective investigations into credible allegations of violations.
Answering questions he said that UN human rights staff had received reports that 31 residences had been hit directly as well as two buildings housing media. They had also received reports of damage to some 30 schools, but no direct hits that they were aware of, and reports of damage to ten religious sites, but again with no direct hits. It was very difficult to investigate every incident in the current environment, he said and the current use of imprecise bombardments was a concern and would be investigated.
In response to a question as to whether any of these attacks constituted war crimes, the spokesperson said that would depend on the specific circumstances in each incident, and that the information to make that type of assessment was not yet available.
He noted that in this type of situation, under international humanitarian law, three key principles apply: these were 'distinction' (making every effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians); 'precaution' (taking all possible precautions to avoid civilian casualties); and 'proportionality' (refraining from launching an attack when it was expected to cause excessive loss of civilian life in relation to the anticipated military advantage). This was a highly complex area and would be looked at in the wake of the conflict, he said.
Ms. Momal-Vanian mentioned that most UNRWA health clinics were still open, and it was offering both education through its television service and providing food aid. She said that out of a population of 1.7 million, 1.2 million Gazans relied on UNRWA assistance.
Marixie Mercado of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said partners in Gaza had told UNICEF that children were increasingly showing signs of psychosocial distress. This included an inability to sleep, being afraid to go out in public, clinging to parents, bedwetting, nightmares, withdrawal.
Children were surrounded by images of death and destruction, there were constant funerals, and a lot of chaos and panic in the streets, which draw adolescents in particular. Parents were trying to keep children indoors to protect them but it was difficult because schools were closed and there was little to do at home. It was night time by about 17:00 in Gaza, many homes had extended power cuts and families didn’t know how to keep their children busy.
At night, many children and families were forced to try to sleep in the cold, because their windows had been shattered by explosions, or because they were keeping the windows open, to avoid injury from shards of glass. For children the sounds of war at night were all the more terrifying. In Israel children were terrified of the air raid sirens and being forced to go into bomb shelters. Many children and families in southern Israel have sought shelter in other parts of the country. In Gaza, which had been under closure since 2007, it was nearly impossible for ordinary civilians to flee outside the territory to safety.
Most UNICEF activities were suspended due to insecurity, but five UNICEF-supported emergency psychosocial teams were visiting children and families affected by the violence in their homes or at hospitals whenever conditions permit. UNICEF was also procuring 14 essential drugs listed as seriously depleted or out of stock by Gaza's Ministry of Health. Almost $3 million was required for the immediate response.
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said the regular round of food aid for November/December was to be distributed from six points for 30,000 people. This was in addition to emergency rations for ten days to be given to 350 families. Food stocks were prepositioned and could cover the coming 67 days.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that OCHA and the humanitarian community working in the Kivu provinces in eastern Dem. Rep. of the Congo were extremely concerned about the impact that the escalating fighting was having on the protection of civilians. It was also concerned that humanitarian operations were increasingly difficult to carry out.
Tens of thousands of already internally displaced people (IDP) in North Kivu have been forced into new displacement over the past five days. For example, the Kanyaruchinya camp, some 10 km from the provincial capital Goma, had been emptied of its population of 60,000 people who fled the insecurity in that area.
In response, humanitarian agencies had identified three sites in Goma where they will be able to receive many of the 60,000 people who have been displaced. Their most urgent priorities were protection; water, sanitation and hygiene; health services and food.
However, humanitarian assessment missions scheduled for yesterday (19 November) were cancelled following renewed fighting around Goma. Also the relocation of some NGO staff members from Walikale and Rutshuru territory meant that aid was increasingly difficult, putting at risk thousands of people who benefit from humanitarian services.
The neighbouring South Kivu province was also affected by the deteriorating security situation, and had led to the suspension or reduction of humanitarian activities in some area. As a consequence, thousands of vulnerable people were not receiving the humanitarian assistance they urgently need.
Since the beginning of the year, aid workers have been targeted in nearly 170 security incidents in the two provinces. The humanitarian community called for unhindered access to people in need and urge the Congolese authorities – which had the primary responsibility for the protection of civilians – to engage more effectively in the protection of civilians and humanitarian workers.
This new escalation in fighting in and around Goma and elsewhere in the Kivus had added to what were already monumental humanitarian needs in the DRC. Over 2.4 million people were internally displaced in the country as a result of violence and conflict, and 4.5 million people country-wide were suffering from food insecurity.
Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, was deeply concerned by the deteriorating situation of civilians in eastern DRC.
The advances made by the M23 rebel group over the past few days have been accompanied by a significant number of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed against civilians, particularly those fleeing the combat zones. These violations include the wounding and abduction of civilians (including women and children), the looting and destruction of properties, and threats to journalists.
In several cases recently documented by UN Human Rights teams, civilians had been targeted by the M23 for resisting recruitment, opposing looting or because of their perceived collaboration with Government forces. In some cases, civilians were injured during crossfire or while trying to flee the conflict zones. In the past few months, the UN Joint Human Rights Office in the DRC had also documented killings of civilians by M23 combatants, mostly in Rutshuru territory.
On 19 November, the UN Human Rights staff reported shooting by members of the M23 in densely populated areas near Goma airport close to UN assets and personnel. Later on the same day, the Human Rights teams had to stop their investigative work and seek refuge in one of MONUSCO’s military bases in the nearby town of Sake due to rising insecurity. The fighting had also complicated the delivery of humanitarian aid to some 60,000 people displaced by the recent fighting. The High Commissioner saluted the courage of UN human rights and humanitarian workers and demanded that they be given full and secure access to populations in need.
The High Commissioner was also concerned about the reported looting and destruction of houses by the retreating Congolese army (FARDC). In several cases, civilians were reportedly injured by FARDC during looting incidents. She was stressing that all human rights violations by all sides, including the FARDC, must be investigated and those found responsible held to account. All parties to the conflict must take all possible precautions to protect the civilian population and civilian objects under their control against the effects of attacks.
The High Commissioner was again drawing attention to the record of serious human rights violations committed by some of the M23 senior commanders, three of whom were listed by the UN Sanctions Committee. These were Sultani Makenga, added to the list on 12 November 2012, Bosco Ntaganda, who was also an ICC indictee, and Innocent Zimurinda. Two further officers were named in a press release on 19 June.
Adrian Edwards for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said the escalation in violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo since November 15th has given added emphasis to a UNHCR advisory issued to governments last week urging them not to forcibly return people to North and South Kivu pending meaningful improvement in the security and human rights situations. This advisory makes the same recommendation for areas neighbouring the Kivus, particularly Katanga province, which is affected by the spill-over of the conflict.
UNHCR considered people fleeing the conflict in the Kivus and nearby affected areas as likely to be needing international refugee protection. UNHCR also cautioned against returning them to safer parts of DRC, unless they had strong and close links there. Fighting over recent months in the Kivus had been particularly intense between government forces and the rebel M23 movement in North Kivu, but also between government forces and other armed groups (Raia Mutomboki, Mai Mai Nyatura) in South Kivu.
Currently, UNHCR was especially concerned by the situation around Goma, where there had been significant new displacement over the last few days. The M23 rebel advance had prompted many people to flee towards Goma and Rwanda, and a major IDP camp at Kanyaruchinya had been virtually emptied. Previously it hosted 60,000 people. Around Goma, women and children were reported to be converging at Mugunga 3 and other spontaneous settlements. Many humanitarian activities had been suspended because of the security situation.
Since the beginning of this year, renewed conflict in these two regions had exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation and uprooted close to 650,000 people. This included 250,000 newly displaced civilians in North Kivu, and 339,000 others in South Kivu since April. Over the same period over 40,000 people had fled to Uganda, and 15,000 to Rwanda. Burundi had been receiving around 1,000 new Congolese arrivals every month since August.
The eastern DRC region has for almost 17 years been plagued by widespread violence and pervasive human rights abuses by parties to the conflict, including mass rape, murder and pillaging during attacks and counter-attacks on villages. Caught between rival groups, civilians were often targeted and abused by fighters for their supposed allegiance to the enemy.
The UNHCR advisory said that exclusion from refugee status may need to be looked into for individuals who may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. The number of DRC refugees in neighbouring countries was currently estimated at some 463,000. These populations are mainly in Uganda, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and United Republic of Tanzania.
Answering questions he said people were mainly fleeing towards Goma itself and also towards Rwanda. At the Kanyaruchinya camp people had chosen to leave as rebels approached on the position, though some vulnerable persons remained and UNHCR was looking at ways to help them. As a spontaneous settlement UNHCR had not had consistent access, he explained.
Ms. Momal-Vanian added that the UN Secretary-General had spoken out saying he strongly condemned the resumption of hostilities by the M23. He calls on them to immediately cease its attacks and any further military advances toward the city of Goma in North Kivu. The Secretary-General underlined that MONUSCO would remain present in Goma and would continue all efforts to robustly implement its mandate to the fullest of its capabilities with regard to the protection of civilians.
Answering questions she said the Security Council was to receive a briefing tomorrow on the situation and review actions going forward. She also confirmed that MONUSCO’s mandate would allow it to use force to protect civilians.
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said UN staff members were sheltering in the WFP buildings and there was no-one in the streets. The situation was evolving and more information would shortly be available. The WFP called on parties to respect the neutrality of humanitarian staff who were preoccupied with the well being of the 60,000 persons that had fled, including one town seven km from Goma where every single inhabitant had left.
The WFP helped 447,000 people in North Kivu and operations had needed to be suspended in some places where violence significantly impaired their ability to act, though it was hoped that these would be put back in place as soon as the situation had calmed. The new population movement was very difficult to quantify and the main priority was to get information on those that were displaced.
Answering a question she said that it was reported that people were moving towards Kibati, north-east of Goma. So far only non-essential staff had been moved and all others would remain in place as long as possible.
Marixie Mercado of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said as many as 5000 households may be sheltering at the Catholic Don Bosco centre in Goma, including significant numbers of unaccompanied children. Other IDPs have moved to pre-existing sites, public spaces and host families and there was a serious risk of a spike in cholera cases due to these population movements.
Cholera was already present in Kanyraruchinya camp and in Goma, and the camps that were receiving displaced people lack water and sanitation facilities. Last week, a sudden power outage in Goma caused serious water shortages, forcing many residents to drink lake water, and heightening the risk of waterborne disease. There were already over 27,000 cholera cases in DRC this year.
Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) were the most urgent humanitarian priorities, along with tarpaulin for shelter, food and nutrition supplies. UNICEF had already delivered over a ton of high energy biscuits and medicines to the Don Bosco centre. Tarpaulins, therapeutic foods, emergency drugs and WASH supplies were en route. Almost $2 million was required for the immediate response.
She added that 60 per cent of IDPs were women and children and across the country one million children under five were expected to suffer from acute malnutrition.
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said the World Food Programme in Madagascar issued an alert today (20 November), warning that it had been unable to pre-position sufficient quantities of relief food in critical cyclone-prone zones ahead of the cyclone season due to a lack of donor funding.
Madagascar had been hit by 45 cyclones in 10 years and WFP had, in past years, stocked 1,000 metric tons of food in vulnerable areas of the country, ahead of the cyclone season, which typically starts in November. However this year, due to funding shortfalls, it had only managed to deliver 544 metric tons, half of the needed amount, enough to feed around 17,000 people for 10 days.
WFP was urging donors for just over US$ 6 million immediately required for advance relief assistance. WFP also needs US$15 million over the next six months for its ongoing programmes that provide assistance to 914,000 people including primary school aged children, orphans and vulnerable children, families affected by natural disasters as well as malnourished people and HIV and TB patients. Lack of donor support in recent months was already hampering WFP's ability to reach several hundred thousand people, including school children.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights today examined the report of Bulgaria and tomorrow, Iceland. The Committee was to consider on Thursday the situation in Equatorial Guinea and on Friday the situation in Congo.
The Committee against Torture now met in private until the end of its session on Friday. It should then make public its findings and recommendations from the reports submitted by nine countries since the opening of the session on October 29.
The office of the Director-General and the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces was hosting a special discussion on the Arab Spring and democratization on Wednesday (21 November) in Room XII with the participation of the Minister of the Interior of Tunisia. To register correspondents were to send their details to firstname.lastname@example.org.
She also announced that the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) was to hold a press conference today (20 November) at 14:00 in Room III to mark the launch of their launch new HIV Results report which included up-to-date facts and figures. Michel Sidibé, Executive Director, UNAIDS was to be the speaker.
Before that, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) planned a press conference at 11:30, also in Room III for the release of the annual WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin. The speaker was to be Michel Jarraud, WMO Secretary-General
Catherine Sibut for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) gave details of a press conference on Friday (23 November) at 11:30 in Press Room 1 to launch the Least Developed Countries Report 2012 - Harnessing Remittances and Diaspora Knowledge to Build Productive Capacities. The theme of the report was how to explore how the competences of migrant workers could be shared with their home countries and was under embargo until the 26 November (Monday) until 18:00 Geneva time.
Clare Nullis for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said the latest El Niño update was to be released on Thursday and interviews with experts by phone were possible. Next Wednesday, (28 November) the WMO Secretary-General was giving a press conference at 12:30 on the provisional annual statement on the climate in 2012. A longer report on decadal temperatures had been postponed until 4 December, where it would be launched in Doha.