REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
24 June 2014
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was also attended by Spokespersons for the Human Rights Council, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Refugee Agency, World Food Programme, World Health Organization and World Meteorological Organization.
Human Rights violations in Iraq
Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) human rights team was continuing its efforts to verify the numerous alleged human rights violations that had been taking place in Iraq, since the recent advance of the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) and its local allies began in early June.
According to UNAMI, at least 757 civilians were killed and 599 injured in Nineveh, Diyala and Salah al-Din Provinces between 5 and 22 June, said Mr. Colville. That figure – which should be viewed very much as a minimum, he said – included a number of verified summary executions and extra-judicial killings of civilians, police, and soldiers who were hors combat.
At least another 318 people were killed, and a further 590 injured during the same period in Baghdad and areas in the south, many of them as a result of at least six separate vehicle-borne bombs, said Mr. Colville.
Abductions continued to be reported in the northern provinces and in Baghdad, he said. Those included a number of cases of foreigners, such as the 48 Turkish citizens abducted from Turkey’s consulate when ISIL captured Mosul. In addition, according to the Indian Foreign Ministry, on 18 June, around 40 Indian nationals working for an Iraqi construction company were also kidnapped.
On a more positive note, said Mr. Colville, the 16 Georgians whom OHCHR mentioned 10 days ago had been released, and a group of 44 other foreign workers of various nationalities who had been abducted by ISIL when they captured Al-Door district to the north of Tikrit were released on 19 June, with the help of local tribal leaders who assisted in negotiations between the Iraqi army (ISF) and ISIL. The group of 44 had arrived in Kirkuk and were reported to be in good health.
Tragically some of those who have been abducted had been subsequently found dead, and summary executions also apparently continued to take place, Mr. Colville said.
ISIL had broadcast dozens of videos showing cruel treatment and beheadings and shootings of hors combat soldiers, police officers, as well as people apparently targeted because of their religion or ethnicity, including Shia and minority groups such as Turcomans, Shabak, Christians, and Yezidis, said Mr. Colville.
In addition to those summary executions and extrajudicial killings OHCHR had highlighted previously, Mr. Colville said he had specific new examples of such killings by known or unknown perpetrators.
Giving details of summary executions and extrajudicial killings, Mr. Colville said three civilians of the Shabak minority captured by ISIL in the Jazeer district of Mosul on 18 June - the bodies of two of them were found the following day. OHCHR had also been informed that 15 Shia civilians abducted during an attack by ISIL in a village called Pirwajli, in Tuz Khurmatu district in Salah al-Din Province, whose bodies were later reportedly found by the ISF. A further 20 civilians were reportedly killed during fighting in Pirwajli and neighbouring villages. The bodies of 45 unidentified people were reportedly found on the banks of the Tigris nearby.
The bodies of five unidentified men, all of whom had been shot in the back of the head, found by fishermen in a river in Southern Tikrit, continued Mr. Colville. Four men were found dead by police from gunshot wounds in the Abu Dsheer district of Baghdad on 19 June. Another two men were found on 21 June in Zafaraniya town, who had also been shot in the back of the head. Abductions of individuals were also being reported in Baghdad, including five men in two separate incidents in the Zayouna district of the city, said Mr. Colville.
At least two summary executions of prisoners by the Iraqi army, ISF, had also been reported, one of which, at the al-Qalaa police station in Tal Afar, allegedly involved the killing of 31 detainees on 15 June, and was still not fully verified. UNAMI continued to investigate that case.
UNAMI human rights officers had however confirmed another reported summary execution of prisoners by ISF personnel as they withdrew from the Nineveh Operations Command in Mosul. In that case, grenades were reportedly thrown into rooms filled with detainees, killing at least ten and injuring another 14.
OHCHR urged the Iraqi authorities to swiftly carry out their obligation to thoroughly investigate those, and any other, reported summary executions and all other violations by their personnel, and to make a concerted effort to bring all perpetrators to justice.
Mr. Colville, answering questions from journalists on accountability, said that OHCHR continued to gather evidence, as it had been doing now for several years in Syria, against whoever was committing the crimes in the hope that one day there would be some accountability. The Government of Iraq was obliged to look into the very serious allegations of crimes against military officials, Mr. Colville added.
Answering a question about whether the acts allegedly committed by ISIL could be considered either war crimes or crimes against humanity, Mr. Colville said it was hard to generalize but in her recent press release the High Commissioner said there was a likelihood that war crimes had been committed. However it was even harder to generalize on crimes against humanity, since the burden of proof for crimes against humanity was very high indeed. A single killing could be considered a war crime, but crimes against humanity were usually on a larger scale, he said.
Pakistan/displacement in North Waziristan
Dan McNorton, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said the number of people displaced by the current offensive conducted by Pakistan’s military against Taliban militants in North Waziristan Agency continued to rise.
According to the latest Government registration figures, more than 435,000 people (114,496 men, 137,301 women and 183,532 children) had left the military operation zones in North Waziristan Agency. The new influx of displaced people was now being registered in Saidgai in the Frontier Region of Bannu, as well as Kurrum and Alizai in the Kurram Agency to the north-east of North Waziristan Agency.
Most of the families had sought refuge in different parts of Bannu, Lakki Marwat, Dera Ismail Khan and Tank districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. There were also reports of families now arriving in Punjab and Balochistan. Almost all internally displaced persons (IDPs) were being absorbed into host communities.
The Government of Pakistan, the United Nations (UN) and humanitarian community partners expected up to half a million people could be displaced by the current military operations, bringing the total number of displaced people from the tribal regions of Pakistan to 1.5 million.
The UN met yesterday with the Government of Pakistan where UNHCR and partners extended their support for humanitarian operations in the area of protection and registration, as well as the provision of emergency relief items. The meeting took place with the Ministry for States and Frontier Regions, which has now made a formal request to the UN for assistance.
A key challenge for the humanitarian community was gaining access to the areas where the displaced were arriving. The UN and partners called for full and unimpeded access to the affected populations to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid.
A journalist asked about displaced persons refusing to go to internally displaced persons camps which had absolutely no facilities. UNHCR had also seen reports of poor conditions in the camps, and was working with the Pakistani authorities to improve the water and sanitation needs in the camps, said Mr. McNorton. The trend in that part of the country, and in fact the world, was that camps were not necessarily something people wanted to stay in; the preference was very much to be hosted within communities and with extended kin, using tribal social networks.
Mr. McNorton added that there was an increase in numbers of displaced persons crossing into the Khost province of Afghanistan, and UNHCR colleagues on the ground there estimated that nearly 50,000 people – or around 7,500 families – had been displaced on the Afghan side of the border, mainly in Khost province. Once again, they were being hosted by the community, but there was also a makeshift camp. UNHCR stood ready to assist, and were providing tents and much-needed items to vulnerable people along with partner agencies. UNHCR was currently working with others to assess needs, particularly water and sanitation. UNHCR was also looking at security issues, in line with its protection mandate, he added.
Asked to clarify the figures, Mr. McNorton said the number of displaced persons into Afghanistan had indeed increased from 7,000 to 50,000, following two airstrikes on Sunday. It was obviously very difficult to get hold of and verify figures, but those were Government of Pakistan statistics, he said. The number of people UNHCR had collectively seen displaced had also risen remarkably, noted Mr. McNorton.
Responding to a further question, Mr. McNorton spoke of growing concerns concerning shelter, food and sanitation. In terms of a long-term crisis, he said the conflict had been ongoing for many years and UNHCR hoped very much it could come to an end soon. In the meantime, UNHCR had to ensure it had humanitarian access to people who needed it, and could support the people who were fleeing. It was one of Pakistan’s biggest displacement seen in recent years.
Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said WFP had begun to distribute food to people displaced by the offensive in North Waziristan. Distributions began Sunday, 22 June, to around 300 families, which was approximately 3,000 people.
WFP was scaling up its operation to reach 1,500 families every day until all registered families were provided with food rations, said Ms. Byrs, adding that WFP was distributing a two-week ration of wheat flour, pulses, oil and salt, as well as high-energy biscuits.
A total of 15 trucks carrying food and non-food items were dispatched to Bannu on Saturday, 21 June. Five trucks carried non-food items included 500 wooden pallets, two generators, two reinforced and two canvas tarpaulins, added Ms. Byrs.
WFP was prepositioning food for 10,000 families in Bannu, and was currently revising its funding requirement according to displacement numbers and needs of the population, concluded Ms. Byrs.
Sona Bari, for the World Health Organization (WHO), briefed on the polio situation in the region, saying that journalists were probably aware that in North Waziristan there had been a ban on the polio vaccination since June 2012. Therefore, as a result there had been an outbreak of polio in Pakistan over the last year, mostly based in North Waziristan.
The outflow of population from North Waziristan was the first opportunity to vaccinate people in two years, she said, noting that over 70 children had been paralysed by polio in Pakistan in the last year. Everybody leaving the agency had been vaccinated, which was upwards of 390,000 people – much of the vaccinations were being done at crossing points, as most people were not going to stay in the camps but with host families, said Ms. Bari.
Regarding polio vaccinations, Ms. Bari replied to a question about the ban on the vaccine, explaining that the ban had been imposed by the religious council leaders of the area, but that now people were leaving they were being vaccinated, with their full permission. There had been no recorded resistance or refusal, she added. The ban was largely felt to be a political gesture by the militants against the Government, continued Ms. Bari, saying that there were anecdotal reports that people had been smuggling the vaccine into the region to vaccinate their own children, especially as the number of paralysis cases rose.
It was a positive thing that there was now an opportunity to vaccinate those people, but the movement of that population did create a health threat to the rest of the country, said Ms. Bari. Luckily, the coverage of polio vaccination had been increasing steadily in the host communities, partly as a result in a ‘sea change’ of local government ownership, and many local governments had stepped up efforts not just for polio vaccination but health services broadly.
Answering a question about whether WHO felt the polio situation could be contained, Ms. Bari replied that Pakistan had had 82 cases of polio this year, compared to 93 cases in all of last year. Most cases were in North Waziristan. There was now a risk that the virus could move out with the population but, as noted, most of the population of Pakistan was well vaccinated. Responding to a follow-up question, Ms. Bari said the national rate of polio refusal in Pakistan was less than one per cent, which was lower than some parts of Western Europe – the communities had not refused the vaccine, rather they were not offered the possibility of refusing, they were simply not being offered the service.
Egypt – Al Jazeera Journalists
Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), answered a question from a journalist on the sentencing of Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt yesterday. He recalled that the High Commissioner had issued a full statement yesterday, in which she made her view on the performance of the judiciary clear.
In her statement, the High Commissioner spoke clearly about ways the Government of Egypt could assist with the situation, such as by dealing with the laws used as the basis for some of the court cases and convictions, which OHCHR considered did not at all meet fair trial procedures. In particular, Mr. Colville mentioned the law adopted last November on protests. He also referred to the terrorism laws which had been used in many cases, including the death penalty cases which the High Commissioner had described as obscene and a travesty of justice. When the situation was that bad, one would hope the authorities would do something to resolve it, he added.
Ms. Momal-Vanian also drew journalists’ attention to the statement of the United Nations Secretary-General issued to the press yesterday in New York.
Polio samples in Brazil
Sona Bari, for the World Health Organization (WHO), spoke about the discovery of a strain of polio virus in Brazil, found during regular sampling of sewage throughout the country. The finding was an isolated incident and caused only an extremely low risk in very highly-vaccinated communities as seen in Brazil. However, because polio was slated for eradication, the finding must be reported internationally to all WHO Member States, said Ms. Bari. Furthermore, after a Member State notified a finding to WHO, it was standard to publicly report it if the region was vulnerable because of a large international event taking place – such as the current Football World Cup, which involved large numbers of international travellers.
The bigger concern was that the finding showed that the virus in Equatorial Guinea was now moving, and countries that, unlike Brazil, did not have high vaccination rates were vulnerable, said Ms. Bari in response to a question. Answering another question as to whether it meant that polio was returning, Ms. Bari said the same went for any disease slated for eradication – if it was not fully eradicated, there was always a danger of it coming back.
Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said although she had not briefed on Mali for a while, the security situation there was still fluid, especially in Kidal and Menaka regions. However in spite of ongoing hostilities and the fact that NGOs were pulling staff from the region, WFP had continued to get food into the hands of vulnerable people in Kidal every month since March of 2013 and continued to do so today.
By 24 May, 81 metric tons of food were distributed at nine different sites in Kidal, for 13,000 people, including 4,000 displaced by fighting. As of 27 May, 202 metric tons of food were delivered by road to Kidal, and the distribution had begun, said Ms. Byrs. With the approach of the lean season, WFP planned to increase distributions in Kidal region, she added, and WFP was now distributing provisions to 31,000 people, compared to 20,000 people in April.
Ms. Byrs said funding was a real problem, as was the case for many other crises. WFP had received only one third of the funding it required, and still needed a further US$140 million to continue its operations in Mali.
Responding to a question on the WFP’s principal sponsor and what would be the consequences if the funding target was not reached by the end of June, Ms. Byrs said that the WFP had real funding problems, for example for its operations in Madagascar and Kenya. WFP called for more funding from its sponsors for the three major crises – Syria, Central African Republic and South Sudan – but without forgetting the others.
Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said OCHA, United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the non-governmental organisation Green Cross International were calling for nominations for the 2015 Green Star Awards. The Awards recognized individuals, organizations, governments and companies that had made remarkable achievements to prevent or respond to environmental emergencies.
Mr. Laerke also highlighted a new policy report published by OCHA called Saving Lives Today and Tomorrow: Managing the Risk of Humanitarian Crises. The report took a ‘big-picture’ view of what was happening in the world in terms of humanitarian crisis, and was launched along with an online advocacy campaign.
The authors of the report found that over the past decade, the number of people affected by humanitarian crises had almost doubled, said Mr. Laerke. Meanwhile, funding requirements had more than trebled to $16.9 billion a year. Humanitarian organizations were being asked to respond in more places, for longer periods of time, and at greater cost than ever before. The current trajectory of the international humanitarian system was completely unsustainable, the report’s authors concluded .
Much more needed to be done in the areas of prevention of preparedness, the report found, as in the past 20 years, less than 0.5 per cent of all international aid went to work in those areas - disaster risk management was not seen as a priority for donors. There was an overwhelming need for enhanced investment in risk mitigation and crisis management.
Ebola virus disease update
Fadéla Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said a more detailed note would be issued after the briefing, but as of 23 June, a total of 599 cases of Ebola virus disease (EVD) and 369 deaths had been reported across three affected countries - Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Ms. Chaib highlighted an important high-level meeting which would take place from 2 to 3 July in Accra, Ghana for the Ministers of Health of concerned countries in the region and neighbouring States, with the objective of raising awareness of the risks of contamination to the entire region and ensuring increased political commitment and cross-border collaboration for Ebola virus disease response activities among the countries in the sub-region.
WHO action had been reoriented towards sending more experts out into the field, thanks to the help of its partner institutions and the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN). In addition, WHO and other partners were also closely supporting the Ministries of Health in deploying additional experts in the various specialities – including in epidemiology, social mobilization, case management, data management, and logistics - to support the Ebola virus disease outbreak response efforts.
A central obstacle was the absence of a vaccination against Ebola, said Ms. Chaib. However, lives could be saved thanks to supportive care for victims. Logisticians and social mobilisation specialists were required as there was often resistance in some communities when it came to cooperating with health services. Many people remained secluded in villages and remote areas, and it was important for them to agree to attend medical centres as well as to respect, even in grief for those who had died from the disease, mandatory precautions so as to prevent any deadly contamination.
WHO was working with a range of partners to contain the outbreak. An outbreak was considered over in a country after 42 days (two incubation periods) had passed without a confirmed case - precisely, 42 days since that last confirmed case was placed in isolation – so that the person could not infect others.
It was a complex outbreak involving multiple locations in three countries with a lot of cross-border movement among the communities, said Ms. Chaib, adding that the Ebola outbreak was not over and new cases appeared daily in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Population movement across borders increased the potential for rapid spread of Ebola to new areas, and therefore there was a need for international coordination and collaboration, she concluded.
Chikungunya in the Americas
Fadéla Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), answered a question on the chikungunya virus in the Americas, including a recent alert by El Salvador. Ms. Chaib replied that chikungunya was indeed a real public health issue in the Americas region. She would send a note with all the combined information on the issue to journalists, including information on Haiti. In addition, Ms. Chaib noted that there was substantial information available on the PAHO website, which was World Health Organization’s Americas branch, with data updated weekly on all countries in the region.
Warmest May on record / WMO news
Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said the WMO Executive Council was holding its annual meeting, focusing mainly on how to improve weather and climate services to protect lives, and specifically how to improve climate services.
WMO was working increasingly closely with the World Health Organization on climate and health related issues. There were many debates going on, including one tomorrow on how to strengthen disaster risk reduction, and focus more on prevention, by improving weather and climate services to get the early warnings when they were needed.
Ms. Nullis also announced that the globe saw the hottest May on record, according to the United States National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration and the Japan Meteorological Agency’s Tokyo Climate Centre, which was one of WMO’s regional climate centres. It also marked the thirty-ninth consecutive May and three hundred and fifty-first consecutive month with a global temperature above the twentieth century average.
Ms. Nullis commented that it was significant that those very warm temperatures had occurred independently of the El Niño event. El Niño did have a warming impact on global temperatures, and WMO’s latest El Niño update would be issued on Thursday 26 June, she added.
Cedric Sapey for the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) said this morning the Human Rights Council had a general debate on the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories, followed by a general debate on the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action.
Later today the Council would hear a presentation by the Special Rapporteur on Racism and Racial Discrimination, including his report on combatting the glorification of Nazism, and his report on his mission to Mauritania. At 3 p.m. the Council would hear from the Independent Expert on the Central African Republic, and at 5 p.m. the Independent Expert on Côte d’Ivoire would give his presentation. Mr. Sapey noted that the interactive discussion on South Sudan which was originally planned for Tuesday would no longer take place.
On Wednesday morning the Council would hold its annual thematic discussion on technical cooperation, to be followed by the presentation of the High Commissioner’s report on the human rights situation in South Sudan. On Thursday and Friday this week, the Council would consider the draft texts and resolutions tabled, before closing the twenty-sixth session on Friday evening.
Ms. Momal-Vanian announced that the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) would hold a press conference on the situation in Sudan on Friday, 27 June 2014, at 9:15 a.m. in Press Room 1. Mr. Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF Representative in Sudan would speak about the impact of the humanitarian situation on children there.
Ms. Momal-Vanian also said the Conference on Disarmament was meeting in public this morning for the last time before it broke for the month of July.
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The spokespersons for International Labour Organization, International Organization of Migration and United Nations Children’s Fund also attended the briefing but did not speak.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/1qGUwsM