REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
1 October 2013
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by the Spokespersons for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations Environment Programme, United Nations Refugee Agency Interparliamentary Union, United Nations Children’s Fund, World Health Organization, World Food Programme and the International Organization for Migration.
Ms. Momal-Vanian welcomed a group of 11 journalists, who were participants of the annual Reham Al-Farra Memorial Fellowship Programme.
Central African Republic
Marixie Mercado, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), informed that UNICEF teams were providing emergency assistance to around 5,500 families newly displaced by recent violence in the northwest Central African Republic. The majority of the displaced were women and children now living in deplorable conditions with no access to safe water, nor shelter from the elements.
The most recent UN assessments showed that there were close to 400,000 people displaced by the fighting, including around 170,000 who had been uprooted in the violence of recent weeks. Many were hiding in the bush out of fear. Over 60,000 had fled to neighboring countries.
In the northwest, UNICEF teams were providing basic but critical supplies – safe water, tarpaulins, blankets, sleeping mats, mosquito nets, jerry cans, and soap. UNICEF had also provided emergency supplies partners working in health and nutrition, and more supplies were en route.
Ms. Mercado stated that the previous nine months of lawlessness and insecurity had been disastrous for children in the Central African Republic. Measles outbreaks were reported almost everywhere in the country, at least 250,000 children had lost out on the previous school year, forced marriages and sexual violence against young girls were reportedly on the rise, and UNICEF estimated that there were some 3,500 children associated with armed groups, up from around 2,000 prior to the conflict.
With partners, UNICEF was working in very difficult conditions to continue providing life-saving support. Mobile teams had been in the interior of the country since late July, helping re-start services in health facilities that had been closed or non-operational for months. A nationwide measles vaccination campaign with the goal of reaching all districts had been launched the previous day. Partners were repairing water points wherever access was possible.
Funding remained an acute constraint. UNICEF’s 2013 emergency appeal of USD 11.5 million, issued before the military takeover of the country, had since tripled to USD 31.9. UNICEF had received about USD 11 million, leaving a funding gap of USD 21 million through the end of the year.
Asked to provide further details about the UNICEF campaign, Ms. Mercado said that the vaccination campaign would get underway on 4 October and last for seven days. The launch on 30 September had marked the beginning of the ‘sensitisation’ period, where communities would be informed about the campaign. The target group was some 550,000 children between six and 59 months old. The national target was 740,000 children, out of whom 190,000 had already been reached in Bangui and other areas. Ms. Mercado specified that UNICEF’s campaign would take place wherever UNICEF could access children.
Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that a UN-led humanitarian mission to the north-west of the Central African Republic on 19-21 September had been the first since March 2013. The mission had found out that 170,000 people had been newly displaced by recent fighting between former Séléka rebels and various armed groups.
The Head of OCHA in the country, Amy Martin, who had been on the mission, had said that “civilians are caught in the middle of the fighting and are at the mercy of anyone with a gun.” She had also said that the clashes had “instilled a deeply rooted fear and mistrust among the population, and there are violent incidents every day.”
Insecurity in the Central African Republic was pervasive and in September 2013 two aid workers from the NGO ACTED had been killed. The UN had spoken out repeatedly against the violence against civilians and aid workers.
The funding situation for the humanitarian response in the Central African Republic was bleak. The humanitarian appeal covering 2013, asking for USD 195 million, was only 39 per cent funded three-quarters into the year. The funding received had also been skewed: Emergency Shelter was funded at only 7.5 per cent, Water, Sanitation and Health 15.5 per cent and Protection 17 per cent. Additional funding through the appeal was urgently needed.
Muhannad Hadi, World Food Programme’s (WFP) Emergency Regional Coordinator for Syria, stressed that a major challenge was to make sure that the humanitarian part of the Syrian crisis would get the attention it deserved. In the field, WFP was concerned with the ever-increasing number of displaced people and the fact that all sectors of the economy were collapsing. People who may have had income could not purchase food due to high inflation. Syria had also experienced the worst harvest in years. Of particular concern were Syrian women, mothers who could not be reached by WFP delivery convoys, and who could not feed their children.
Despite all of the increasing challenges, WFP was expanding its operations and was hoping to reach 3 million in October, and as many as four million in November. The situation was very difficult, mostly because of the ongoing fighting, check points from all sides of the conflict, besieged areas, as a result of which many people could not be reached. WFP was addressing that issue with all sides, but the situation was nonetheless becoming worse every day. Until a political solution was hopefully reached, humanitarian response remained the only solution. Challenges in the neighboring countries were clear and WFP was doing its best to meet the needs outside of Syria as well. While in Syria, food was distributed in almost ready-to-eat meals, in the neighboring countries, food vouchers were given to be used in supermarkets, which also served to boost local economies.
WFP was working in 14 Governorates, which were both Government and rebel controlled areas, but there were areas that had been out of reach for months, or even since the beginning of the crisis. A number of WFP convoys were frequently returned.
Asked whether WFP had knowledge of what was happening in the areas which were out of reach, Mr. Hadi said that WFP wished it knew more about the situation in the cut off areas. Most TV or YouTube reports could not be fully verified. It should be assumed that the situation was going from bad to worse. Main challenges were related to the fighting on the ground, with ever more armed groups now active in Syria. Some groups did not respect WFP’s mandate, which at times made the situation very difficult.
On the question about the situation in Lebanon, and a statement by the Lebanese Minister of Social Affairs said that Lebanon was risking an implosion due to the influx of Syrians, Mr. Hadi stated that the situation in Lebanon was extremely worrying, with 25% of the total population being refugees. That was why it was important that there be continued support for the refugees.
Answering which groups were not granting WFP access, Mr. Hadi said that WFP staff knew well the routes, but not what to expect on these routes. Often times, those blocking roads would not declare who they were, roadblocks would be rapidly erected, and a wide array of flags and symbols would often be displayed. Having unrestricted access was the critical precondition, because it meant the ability to go, reach people and deliver the much needed food aid. WFP could only hope that a solution would be found soon.
Gaëlle Sévenier, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), stated that with over 4.25 million people displaced within Syria thus far, most IDPs and affected populations were dependent on their community, local charities, and humanitarian partners for food, non-food relief items and shelter assistance. This number would increase with the upcoming winter and with the prolongation of the conflict.
Over the previous two weeks, IOM had trained 106 staff from local Syrian NGOs, municipal relief workers and staff from the Ministries of Social Affairs and Local Administration on principles of shelter management and humanitarian assistance.
The training had covered basic principles of humanitarian assistance, shelter management, needs assessment practices, risk management, and coordination with partners.
Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), informed about the issuance of a report about torture and ill-treatment in some cases leading to death, of detainees in Libya. OHCHR recommended swift action to transfer detainees held by armed brigades to effective State control and renewed efforts to build the capacity of the criminal justice system.
Issued jointly by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and OHCHR, the report indicated that torture was widespread and most frequent immediately after arrest and during the first days of interrogation to extract confessions and other information. Detainees were usually held without access to lawyers and with only occasional, if any, access to families. The vast majority of the estimated 8,000 conflict-related detainees were also being held without due process.
Ms. Shamdasani informed that the report had recorded 27 cases of death in custody, where significant information suggested that torture had been the cause of death, since late 2011. The UN had also received information on several other such cases during this period but was not able to fully document them. Eleven deaths in custody detailed in the report took place in 2013 in detention centres that were under the nominal authority of the Government, but, in effect, were run by armed brigades which emerged during the 2011 revolution. In some cases, members of the armed brigades had freely admitted, and even tried to justify, the physical abuse of detainees.
The report stated that the violations continued despite the Government’s efforts. It added that prolonged detention and interrogation at the hands of armed brigades without experience or training in the handling of detainees or conducting criminal investigations, as well as the lack of effective judicial oversight, were creating an environment conducive to torture or other ill-treatment. On the other hand, when detention facilities were handed over to trained officers of the Judicial Police, there had been marked improvements in the condition and treatment of detainees.
In the report, the UN noted that Libyan authorities were committed, at the highest level, to securing the handover of detainees to the State, to ending torture, and to ensuring the proper functioning of the criminal justice system. Since 2012, the Government had sought to bring armed brigades involved in detentions under the official authority of the State by affiliating them to specific ministries, even though in many cases the armed brigades had retained actual control of the detention centres. In April 2013, Libya had also adopted a law criminalizing torture, enforced disappearances and discrimination, providing for terms of imprisonment ranging from five years to life, and in September 2013 Libya adopted a new law on transitional justice which requires conflict-related detainees to be screened within 90 days.
The UN recommended that Libyan authorities and the armed brigades accelerate the process of handing over detainees to the effective control of State authorities, and in the meantime take measures to protect detainees against torture or other ill-treatment. The UN further recommended that Libyan authorities adopt a strategy to screen and, where appropriate, release or charge and prosecute conflict-related detainees, in implementation of the Law on Transitional Justice. They should also build the capacity of the criminal justice system to safeguard detainees against any form of abuse and end impunity for on-going violations.
The report was based on information gathered first-hand during UNSMIL’s visits to nearly 30 detention centres over two years, including information from detainees, family members, officials and civil society, as well as documentation such as medical reports. UNSMIL had a mandate of assisting Libyans in promoting human rights, including through supporting Libyan efforts against arbitrary detention and torture, by monitoring abuses in detention centres, advocating for remedial action, advising on judicial reform and building the capacity of Libya’s corrections system.
Ms. Shamdasani stressed that OHCHR was extremely concerned that a ruling of the Dominican Republic Constitutional Court might deprive tens of thousands of people, virtually all of them of Haitian descent, of nationality, and could have a very negative impact on their other rights.
The Court had ruled on 26 September that the children of undocumented migrants who had been in the Dominican Republic and registered as Dominicans as far back as 1929, could not have Dominican nationality as their parents were considered to be “in transit”. Until 2010, the Dominican Republic had followed the principle of automatically bestowing citizenship to anyone born on its soil. But in 2010, a new constitution stated that citizenship would be granted only to those born on Dominican soil to at least one parent of Dominican blood or whose foreign parents were legal residents.
The decision, which could not be appealed, gave the Central Electoral Board one year to elaborate a list of people to be excluded from citizenship, and it outlined a number of steps leading to the elaboration of a regularization plan for undocumented migrants. The decision could have disastrous implications for people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic, leading such individuals in a state of constitutional limbo and potentially leaving tens of thousands of them stateless and without access to basic services for which identity documents were required.
OHCHR was urging the Dominican Government to take all necessary measures to ensure that Dominican citizens of Haitian origin were not deprived of their right to nationality in accordance with the country’s international human rights obligations.
Mr. Edwards for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) stated that UNHCR was sharing those concerns and pointed out the case of a Dominican-born woman, mother of four children, whose parents had moved from Haiti to the Dominican Republic decades ago. The 29-year old woman, who had been registered as a Dominican citizen on birth, was now not meeting the criteria for citizenship. UNHCR was concerned that the woman and her four children could become stateless. The most worrying fact was that the Court had requested relevant Government agencies to identify all citizens born to parents who had immigrated from Haiti as early as 1929. This would mean that as many as three generations of Dominicans of Haitian descent could become stateless.
Asked about the number of persons who could be affected by the Court’s decision, Mr. Edwards said that some studies showed that some 210,000 Dominican citizens were of Haitian descent and some 34,000 were born of parents of other nationalitie.
Glenn Thomas and Annemieke Brands, for the World Health Organization (WHO), informed that WHO, the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, Stop TB Partnership, UNICEF, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, United States Agency for International Development and Treatment Action Group were launching the first global roadmap to eliminate deaths from childhood tuberculosis. The launching would take place in Washington, D.C. on 1 October. The focus of the program would be on children with HIV and TB.
The Roadmap would address the historically neglected issues as the children used to be considered as less infectious and less of a public health problem. A huge effort was being made now to reach children, as they were still not covered by national TB programs. The focus was on integration. Manufacturers were being encouraged to create child-friendly formulations and dosages, which were not yet on the market. Efforts were under way to have better estimates on the numbers of children with TB. A projected annual budget was around USD 120 million, which would suffice to reach all children and to avoid 74,000 deaths per year. Some USD 40 million were assigned to cover HIV antiretroviral therapy and preventive therapy for children co-infected with TB and HIV, and another USD 40 million for epidemiology research and development of new vaccines and drugs.
UN High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development
Ms. Sévenier informed that IOM Director General William Lacy Swing was heading the IOM delegation participating in the second UN High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development (HLD), which was taking place this week at UN HQ in New York.
Mr. Swing had said that IOM viewed the 2013 HLD as an important opportunity to review progress since the first HLD and to improve the governance of migration, in particular as regards the protection of the human rights of all migrants; perceptions of migrants and migration; and reflection of migration in national and global development agendas, in a spirit of multilateral cooperation.
As the global lead agency on migration, IOM had been asked by its 151 Member States and by the UN General Assembly to participate in and contribute to the HLD, together with UN partner agencies. IOM was proposing six key areas of action to enhance the development outcomes of migration for migrants, their families, countries of origin and countries of destination. Those six goals were to:
1. Improve public perceptions of migrants.
2. Factor migration into development planning, at national, regional and global levels, including in the post-2015 development agenda.
3. Protect the human rights of all migrants.
4. Manage migration in crisis situations.
5. Enhance the evidence and knowledge base.
6. Promote policy coherence and institutional development.
Ms. Sévenier emphasized that any progress in the migration debate had to be based on a renewed commitment to protect the human rights of all migrants. It had to also recognize the contribution of migrants and migration to all dimensions of sustainable development, through the inclusion of migration in the post-2015 UN development agenda, as part of a new global partnership for development.
Ms. Shamdasani expressed OHCHR’s regret that the Serbian authorities had decided to ban all public gatherings scheduled for 28 September, including the pride parade for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
According to the authorities, the decision to ban the gatherings had been based on security assessments. This was the third time in a row that the pride parade had been banned in Belgrade for the same reason. In 2010, the last time the event had been held, it had been marked with violence and attacks, including by individuals who had thrown bottles and stones at the crowd and committed acts of vandalism.
OHCHR recalled that the LGBT persons should be allowed to exercise their right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, a point emphasised by the High Commissioner during her official mission to Serbia in June 2013.
The State had an obligation to take the necessary security measures to enable people to exercise their rights. Responding to violent attacks against a vulnerable community, such as LGBT, by banning them from peacefully gathering and expressing themselves further violated their fundamental human rights, and rewarded their attackers.
Ms. Shamdasani said that OHCHR would like to remind the authorities that during her visit in June 2013, the High Commissioner had received assurances from the authorities, including President Nikolic, that the Pride Parade would be held this year. OHCHR was urging the Serbian authorities to ensure the adequate protection of the LGBT community so that they were able to exercise their right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly before the end of the year.
Ms. Shamdasani said that OHCHR welcomed the announcement of the democracy package by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. OHCHR regarded it as a positive step that many long-standing issues concerning the use of the Kurdish language were beginning to be addressed. The existing restrictions had been addressed by several international human rights mechanisms, including most recently the Human Rights Committee (2012), which expressed concerns about the Kurds' right to enjoy their own culture and use their own language. It was encouraging that the Government was envisaging the possibility of lowering the 10 per cent electoral threshold, which had long been seen as an obstacle to political participation of the Kurds and other groups.
Treaty on mercury
Isabel Valentiny, for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said that the Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the “Minamata Convention on Mercury” would be held in Minamata and Kumamoto, Japan, from 9 to 11 October 2013 and would be preceded by an open-ended intergovernmental preparatory meeting from 7 to 8 October 2013. That conference was preceded by an intergovernmental agreement reached in Geneva in January 2013 to prepare and adopt a global legally binding instrument on mercury.
Tim Kasten, Head of UNEP Chemicals Branch, said that the diplomatic conference the following week would focus on the adoption of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, also known as the Mercury Treaty. That would be adopted as international law, first such treaty to be adopted in ten years. The mercury issue had been developing for a long time. Mercury was a natural element, which was neither created nor destroyed and had multiple impacts on the environment and the human health. Main impacts neurological and were irreversible. There was no known safe quantity of mercury in human body, which is why there was ripe international interest in its control.
Governments recognized it as a global serious problem, as the mercury was transported across continents, deposited in our bodies through diet and fish. In 2009, there had been a decision to negotiate a treaty. Negotiations had begun in 2010, and came to a conclusion in Geneva in January 2013, when it was agreed that the treaty would be adopted in Japan in October 2013.
The main sources were anthropogenic, coming from gold mines, power plants, mining operations, processes and products using and containing the mercury. The Convention would work to control and limit the release of the mercury, and over time would phase out a number of products containing the mercury by 2020 and have them replaced by those not containing the element. Those products were not causing health damage while being used, but were damaging once thrown away. The conference was taking place in Minamata because that was the site of so-called “Minimatic disease” which had been caused by the mercury discharged in the nearby bay.
There would be more than 1,000 participants, 89 Ministers, which could be an indication of how many would sign the Treaty. Some 130 NGO participants would also be in attendance. A press conference would take place in Japan on 11 October.
Asked how many countries would need to ratify the Treaty for it to enter into force, Mr. Kasten said that the number was 50, which was expected to happen within three years.
Ms. Momal-Vanian informed that the Committee on Rights of the Child would examine the report of Morocco on 1 October. This would be the last report of the session, which was ending on 4 October.
The Committee for Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which started its work the previous day, would examine the report of the Republic of Moldova on 1 October, followed by Colombia the following day, Benin on 3 October and Andorra on 4 October.
Jemini Pandya, for the Interparliamentary Union (IPU), reminded of a breakfast meeting which the IPU Secretary-General, Anders B. Johnsson, would hold with journalists in Press Room I on 3 October. This would give an opportunity to the media to ask Mr. Johnsson questions on a wide array of issues in the world.
129th IPU Assembly would take place in Geneva on 7-9 October and would cover issues predominantly relating to peace and human rights around the world. Nearly 1,200 MPs, parliamentary staff, diplomats and representatives from international organizations from 125 countries would be attending the Assembly to tackle issues such as parliaments’ role in making the world nuclear-weapon free and in implementing non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. At least 45 Parliament Speakers from around the world were attending, and another 38 deputy speakers of parliament, representing a very strong high-level participation. The media were invited to attend and could access the premises with their UN accreditation. At 0930 on 9 October, a press conference would be held at the Palais, focusing on the human rights resolutions, which would be adopted later that morning. The press conference would also involve the presence of Icelandic MP and a former WikiLeaks volunteer Birgitta Jónsdóttir, and a relative of one of the 11 Eritrean MPs who had been imprisoned – and never formally charged - 12 years ago for writing an open letter criticising President Afewerki. The MPs have never been seen or heard of since.
On 10 October, which is the World Day against Death Penalty, an event would be held at CICG. More details were to follow.
Ms. Pandya presented a new colleague at IPU, Fernando Puchol, who would also be dealing with the media.
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The representatives of the International Telecommunications Union, International Labour Organization, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, World Intellectual Property Organization, International Trade Centre and the Human Rights Council were also present, but did not speak.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here http://bit.ly/19et4ur