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PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
23 August 2013

Alessandra Vellucci, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the International Labour Organization, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization and the International Organization for Migration, as well as the Spokesperson for the Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States for Syria.

Syria

Ms. Vellucci introduced Khawla Mattar, Spokesperson for the Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi. Ms. Mattar explained that the Joint Special Representative had moved his team to Geneva as scheduled to prepare for the Geneva II negotiations, originally planned for September. A transcript and video footage of his statement outlining the reason for moving his team and updating on progress towards the peace negotiations, was to be released by UNTV after the briefing.

Answering questions, she said Mr Brahimi was in constant contact with the Russian and American governments and a tripartite meeting was possible in the future. The recent escalation of attacks should put an urgency on moving forward to Geneva II as there was no military solution to the Syrian crisis.

Ms. Vellucci also reminded that the Secretary-General had asked Angela Kane, High Representative for Disarmament to travel to Syria as soon as possible. The Secretary-General was working hard for a positive response to requests for access to investigate. Further updates would be issued where available.

Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the High Commissioner for Human Rights strongly condemned the reported killing of hundreds of civilians – including many women and children - in the Damascus suburbs on Wednesday.

Allegations that many deaths were the result of the use of chemical weapons must be investigated as a matter of utmost urgency, and the High Commissioner was adding her voice to the calls from Secretary-General and Deputy Secretary-General that Government and opposition forces should allow the UN inspection team on the ground to examine the site of the alleged attacks without any delay.

The use of chemical weapons was prohibited under customary international law and this absolute prohibition applied in all circumstances, including armed conflict. As a norm of customary international law, it was binding on the Government despite it not being party to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. It was also binding on anti-Government armed groups. This Convention was extremely strong and widely ratified.

These allegations were exceptionally grave and needed to be comprehensively proved or disproved as soon as possible. Whether or not chemical weapons were in fact used, it seemed that once again in Syria many civilians had been killed. Human rights staff in the region had managed to contact well-placed sources inside Syria who reported that, in addition to those killed, there were thousands of injured people in desperate need of medical care and humanitarian aid. The reports were extremely alarming and there was little doubt that something very serious indeed had happened.

Answering questions, he said OHCHR was not present in Syria and he therefore could not confirm any specific details. Both the sources they had talked to inside Syria, and talks they had had with partner agencies, reinforced the general perception that many people had indeed been killed. Evidence of chemical weapon use deteriorated quickly and this was the reason for the urgency in getting a team access quickly. No assumption of culpability was made.

It was a desperate situation in Syria and it was a true tragedy that an avoidable crisis had been locked into a downward spiral. The truth of the situation would be established at some point, and there was a widespread recognition by States that these events must be fully investigated. The establishment of the Commission of Inquiry was an example of an occasion where Member States had worked together on Syria, and it showed this was possible.

Ms. Vellucci answered a question saying the Secretary-General was making every effort and working with all parties involved in order to seek a solution to the Syrian crisis. Efforts needed to continue for the benefit of the Syrian population.

Gaëlle Sévenier for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) outlined how IOM’s €1.5 million Italian-funded psychosocial project in Syria, launched in June this year, had so far benefited over 28,000 Syrian men, women and children caught up in the on-going violence in the country.

IOM was currently implementing the first phase of the project, which aimed to provide training in basic psychosocial considerations and care to 1,200 non-specialist professionals and volunteers by December 2013. The trainees were anticipated to reach 260,000 beneficiaries from affected communities.

Syria had been a stable country for decades and the few existing psychosocial professionals were not equipped to deal with the emotional hurt caused by this massive current crisis. Many specialists had also left the country. In order to respond to the needs, it was important to create psychosocial awareness.

Since January 2013, IOM has visited 292 shelters where internally displaced persons (IDPs) are mostly living in cramped conditions, with a lack of privacy, and limited access to water and sanitation. It has provided advice on how to organize shelter spaces, foster participation in decision making, create special routines for the most vulnerable, provide non-discriminatory information, and promote discussion groups.

According to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), some 4.25 million of Syrians were displaced, with 147,000 IDPs living in more than 829 shelters.

Syria / Iraq

Adrian Edwards for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said since last Thursday it was thought that 42,000 Syrians had swept across the border with Iraq. Since this influx began UNHCR had provided additional emergency shelter, food and water for the refugees arriving exhausted in 45c degree heat.

People were arriving from a wide swathe of Syria and those with special needs were being identified to receive further assistance and onward travel. Local charities were providing assistance and there were currently enough supplies. The Kurdistan authorities were checking the papers of heads of household. New arrivals were talking of a lack of services and attacks by armed groups.

A transit site had been established and persons were living in schools, mosques, a library and a warehouse. It was thought that 23,000 people were staying with friends. A large logistical operation was underway to support this. Conditions at the transit centre were difficult due to a lack of water and sanitation, with mobile latrines currently on their way to the site.

Answering questions, he said Syria remained a serious crisis and called on all States to provide aid and assistance. The peak number of arrivals crossing the border was last weekend and had dropped since then. This trend was expected to continue though this depended on the situation in Northern Syria. The pattern was that people gathered at the border point each morning so it was difficult to ascertain beyond that point how many people were planning to cross. UNHCR was advocating for all persons seeking refuge to be able to access it.

Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said it had so far distributed food in 1,000 tents at Kawargosk transit camp and further distribution was on-going.

In Bahrka, WFP was distributing food to some 2,500 refugees accommodated in Bahrka warehouse in Erbil. Some refugees sought shelter in public buildings in Kawa and Sulaymaniyah, where WFP was mobilizing additional food for distribution to these sites.

In Lattakia, WFP last week dispatched 2,000 emergency ready-to-eat food rations (food that does not need to be cooked), enough for 10,000 people. WFP would also dispatch food for an additional 63,000 people as part of the regular monthly food allocation in the area. Colleagues on the ground said the current wait for bread was between six and seven hours.

WFP has also dispatched 1,500 extra ready-to-eat rations in Homs for emergency response in case people in the old city of Homs were able to flee, and to cover the immediate needs of any new IDPs fleeing from other hotspots. In Aleppo city, where fighting, disruption to the food supply chain and the dramatic increase in food prices are leading to localized food shortages, WFP planned in August to dispatch enough food to feed almost 355,000 people for one month.

Answering questions she said the aid operation was the largest and most complex run by the WFP and was to help 6.5 million people by the end of this year. This was an enormous operation which had logistical and financial constraints.

Gaëlle Sévenier for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said since the influx of Syrian refugees into Iraq began on 15 August, IOM had transported some 32,000 Syrian refugees from two Iraqi border crossings at Sahela and Peshkhabour to six different camps and two transit sites in Kurdistan.

This influx of Syrian refugees into Iraq was the biggest since the uprising in Syria began. All borders between Syria and Iraq had been closed since May 2013, with the exception of Sahela. Yesterday (22 August) some 1,300 refugees crossed the border. Today the borders were closed.

Since mid-August, IOM had made over 1,000 rotations to transport refugees from the border to camps and temporary transit sites. This made an average of 140 trips per day. An estimated 39,000 to 40,000 Syrian refugees had so far fled into Iraqi Kurdistan since the borders were opened on 15 August 2013. The total number of the Syrian refugees in Iraq was now estimated to be 195,000.

Today, IOM, together with UNHCR, was starting to erect 200 tents in Basrima temporary camp in Harir in Erbil to accommodate some 1,000 refugees. IOM and UNHCR were also responsible for distributing water to refugees in reception areas, as temperatures during the day reach highs of 38-40 degrees Celsius.

Some refugees were transporting their belongings on donkeys or carts, but most were arriving on foot with only what they could carry. The majority of people crossing were exhausted from lack of food and water, the heat and the distances they had had to travel to reach the border. Some of the families IOM had spoken to had spent as many as five days at the border.

Refugees told IOM staff that thousands more remained behind waiting to cross into Iraq. They said that conditions in the places that they were coming from - Aleppo, Hasskahes, Qamishli and Efrin - had deteriorated quickly in the past few months as fighting had intensified, with shortages of food and a surge in the cost of basic commodities.

IOM’s transport assistance to Syrian refugees fleeing into Iraq was currently funded by the US Department of the State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. But as the influx of refugees grows, IOM Iraq was urgently seeking $10 million from other international donors to continue its operations.

South Sudan

Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said WFP still needed $84 million to assist over 2.8 million people in need in South Sudan.

WFP launched an emergency response operation for Jonglei State, including the use of helicopters, in late July. So far WFP had provided food assistance to more than 30,000 people, and intended to provide food for up to 60,000 people by the end of the year.

Across South Sudan, WFP was currently assisting around 1.7 million people but still needed $84 million to be able to extend this assistance to the estimated 2.85 million people in need, and to avoid disrupting ongoing assistance programmes. Assistance was needed in Pibor due to the rainy season making areas inaccessible. WFP had hired three helicopters for distributions. However, more helicopters were needed to assist the estimated 60,000 people in need of food supplies. Further funding was necessary to secure this vital resource.

Global acute malnutrition among children under 5 years was to be at 11 per cent. However, the levels in Jonglei, Lakes, Unity and Warrap states were significantly higher, with general acute malnutrition rates ranging from 14 to 21 per cent.

Maldives

Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the OHCHR welcomed the annulment on Wednesday by the Maldives High Court of the fornication conviction and flogging sentence passed against a 15 year-old girl in February of this year. Tragically, the girl was also a victim of long-term sexual abuse within her family.

The charge should never have been brought against this child victim. Moreover, a sentence of flogging, irrespective of offence, violated the country's commitments under the UN Convention against Torture, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

He called for all Maldivians to seize this opportunity to push for much needed changes to the system of protection for victims of violence and sexual abuse, particularly children. The OHCHR welcomed efforts to this end, such as the establishment by the President of a high-level committee to review child protection in the country.

He then further called on Maldivians to promote the adoption of key laws, such as the Draft Penal code, ensuring their full conformity with human rights treaties ratified by the Maldives.

Answering questions he said he believed the persons that had abused the girl had been given long prison sentences.

Fukishima

Glenn Thomas for the World Health Organization (WHO) said no further investigation would take place following a recent leak at the Fukishima site in Japan, as this seemed to be within the 20km exclusion zone and so did not pose a health risk.
MERS-Coronavirus

Glenn Thomas for the World Health Organization (WHO) said further research was needed on the discovery of the virus on a single bat to ascertain the method of transmission, if any.

Geneva activities

Ms. Vellucci said the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination this morning finished reviewing the report of Sweden. The last report on the programme of the session, that of Cyprus, would be discussed throughout the day on Monday. The session would end next Friday. The reports already examined were those of Chile, Venezuela, Chad, Burkina Faso, Belarus and Jamaica.

The Conference on Disarmament was to hold its next plenary session on Tuesday. Since there were only three weeks left before the end of its 2013 session, attention was to focus on the preparation of its annual report to the General Assembly.

She added that today at 12.30 p.m. in Room III UNHCR and UNICEF were to hold a press conference on the announcement that there were now one million Syrian refugee children. Speakers were António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Yoka Brandt, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director.

Hans von Rohland for the International Labour Organization (ILO) said the Director-General of the ILO was to hold a breakfast event with ACANU on 29 August at 9.30 a.m. This was on the occasion of the G20 in St. Petersbourg. The next summit was to have a focus on employment, which Russia had put as a priority on the agenda.

In the room but not briefing were the spokespersons for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the United Nations Children's Fund and the World Meteorological Organization.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/1ayjYZO