REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
6 August 2013
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 Human Rights, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs, the World Food Programme and the International Organization for Migration.
Answering a question on a recent report published by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on its response to the Syrian refugee emergency (http://www.unhcr.org/51f7d9919.html), Melissa Fleming for the UNHCR said UNHCR regularly underwent self-evaluation of its activities. This report into work in Syria raised concerns over issues of child protection in refugee camps, with some having to work and being put in vulnerable situations. There were also cases where some were returning to Syria to fight and girls were being married off at an early age. The report suggested that more could be done to protect children from this kind of vulnerability and UNHCR was working to recognise these situations.
On another point she said that UNHCR was paying 75 per cent of the health costs of refugees in Lebanon, though this situation varied across the region according to the level of provision in the country. UNHCR did not have unlimited funding and some priorities needed to be set, though these were painful decisions. Funding was still available to meet the full health costs of very vulnerable persons.
In terms of the ongoing requirements and capabilities of the Syrian refugees response operation she said that it was only 33 per cent funded, and UNHCR would continue to look at its capacity and appeals for funding. Development actors such as the World Bank were part of discussion about improving infrastructure in host communities under strain.
Cécile Pouilly for the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said OHCHR was concerned that the amnesty bill being discussed this week in Parliament, if adopted, could pardon people involved in serious human rights abuses during the political violence in April and May 2010.
At the time of these incidents, over 90 people died and thousands were injured. On 6 July 2010, the Government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT) that issued a final report containing serious and substantive findings backed by forensic evidence and recommended urgent action to ensure accountability for human rights abuses.
She reiterated the previous call by the High Commissioner for the Government to act on the TRCT’s recommendations and ensure that state officials and others were held to account for their role in serious human rights abuses. This would set an important precedent for Thailand. She then called upon the Government to ensure that any amnesty excluded those who were responsible for human rights violations and to take steps to prosecute perpetrators of such violations.
Answering a question she said she did not have a specific list of persons that should be excluded from such an amnesty. It was important to ensure accountability as without it there could be no social peace. The High Commissioner had previously welcomed the findings of the report and its recommendations to hold public officials accountable.
Cécile Pouilly for the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the OHCHR was concerned about the recommendations made by the National Assembly’s extraordinary session which was recently held to discuss toughening punishments under the 2006 Law on the Protection of Society from Acts of Terrorism.
These recommendations included increasing the detention period or revoking citizenship of anyone found guilty of committing or inciting an act of terrorism. They also provided for banning sit-ins, rallies and gatherings in the capital Manama. On 31 July, a royal decree was issued to amend the above-mentioned law in accordance with these recommendations. While recognizing the responsibility of States to maintain law and order, the OHCHR reminded the authorities that any measure should respect international human rights standards.
It was reiterated that the right to nationality was a fundamental right protected by article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provided that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his or her nationality. Any deprivation of nationality provided for by law must comply with procedural and substantive standards, including the principle of proportionality. It was also of concern that arbitrary deprivation of nationality may also lead to statelessness with serious consequences for the protection of the human rights of the individuals concerned.
Although the recommendation by the Parliament that "basic liberties, particularly freedom of opinion, should not be affected to maintain a balance between law enforcement and human rights protection," was welcome there was concern about the restrictions on public demonstrations and other public gatherings. She then called upon the Government of Bahrain to fully comply with its international human rights commitments, including respect for freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and association – and urged all demonstrators to exercise these rights in a peaceful manner.
In response to a question she later clarified that the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, to Bahrain, which was scheduled to take place from 8 to 15 May, was postponed for the second time in April 2013. He had not been able to visit Bahrain since. Discussions were underway to set up new dates for a future visit.
Flooding in Afghanistan and Pakistan
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said heavy monsoon rains in Pakistan had claimed at least 58 lives and injured 30 people, according to Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority. The rains had also displaced hundreds of people and ravaged thousands of acres of standing crops, and caused huge damage to houses and infrastructure. The rains continued and further monsoon spells were forecast later this month.
Pakistani authorities continued rescue and relief activities in affected areas, particularly Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and Sindh provinces. They had not requested international assistance at this stage. OCHA and humanitarian partners were closely monitoring the situation and stand ready to assist if required.
In Afghanistan, flash floods had affected at least 13 villages in Kabul province in the last few days and dozens were reported to have died. Homes, schools and mosques had been destroyed or badly damaged. No international assistance had been requested, but IOM and international NGOs had been asked to help with needs assessments and other information collection tasks.
UN and humanitarian partners were ready to provide food, basic household items, water, sanitation and emergency health support if required.
Jumbe Omari Jumbe for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said
IOM was to expand its flood victim shelter programme – launched in March 2012 in southern Sindh – to the northern parts of the province. The expansion of the project, which had already provided safe shelter for some 22,900 families in southern Sindh, was made possible by GBP £4 million contribution from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).
Recurrent floods in Pakistan illustrated the urgent need to find durable solutions for more than a million people affected by last year’s floods and to build their resilience to future disasters, he said. The new funding was to be used to construct some 8,650 one-room shelters to help affected populations develop better disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategies and to improve preparedness for this year’s monsoon by pre-positioning shelter and non-food emergency relief items for up to 15,000 families.
The programme helped beneficiaries get back on their feet by providing cash and technical support to rebuild damaged/destroyed houses and to improve their living conditions. It emphasized the use of disaster risk reduction techniques during construction and trained local implementing partners to provide technical support.
In Afghanistan, a joint rapid needs assessment team led by Afghanistan’s National Disaster Management Agency (ANDMA), the Afghan Red Crescent Society and IOM had been deployed to 17 villages in Kabul province’s Surobi district following flash floods triggered by heavy rain.
The IOM assessment released yesterday (5 August) showed that 519 families were affected. Some 30 people were confirmed dead, two injured and 22 were still missing.
This tragedy demonstrated the need to strengthen flood mitigation measures in vulnerable locations. Together with other disaster risk reduction interventions, this was a priority for IOM in Afghanistan and will become an increasingly important part of its work.
Melissa Fleming for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said UNHCR was calling on the Government of Sudan to renew the work permits for all of its international staff based in Darfur so as to enable UNHCR to fully resume protection and assistance to hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians in need.
Of the 37 UNHCR international staff based in Darfur, only 17 currently have valid permits to continue their work. Permits in the other twenty cases have not been renewed, despite extended follow-up by UNHCR with the relevant Government authorities, forcing it to scale down our operations.
This had particularly affected UNHCR’s work in North Darfur. None of the UNHCR international staff based in El Fasher had been granted permits to return, with the last remaining staff having been asked to leave at short notice in early July. The result was that for over a month, UNHCR had been unable to effectively undertake protection and assistance activities for IDPs in North Darfur. The humanitarian situation in Darfur remained critical both for long-term IDPs and for those who have been newly displaced as a result of recent fighting.
Answering questions she said, the displacement into Chad from Darfur had recently stopped, though there was continued fighting and internal displacement. In Darfur alone there were 1.2 million IDPs living in camps. Although the work of the UNHCR was being wound down, because of these new developments, there were partners on the ground, including UNICEF and WFP, that were to continue projects. However, functions related to the identification of vulnerable persons and shelter would be cut as a result of this situation. No reasons had been given for the non-renewal of the permits.
Melissa Fleming for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said the arrival of more than 46,000 refugees and migrants into Yemen had been recorded during the first six months of 2013. The increasingly high numbers of people making the dangerous trip by boat from the Horn of Africa remained a concern.
Yemeni authorities continued to recognize Somali arrivals as refugees automatically. UNHCR determined the refugee status of Ethiopians and other nationals. Though few Ethiopians sought asylum – partly because most want to travel to beyond Yemen or they don’t know how the asylum process works. As a result, most Ethiopians were left extremely vulnerable.
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said WFP and the Government of Nicaragua had dispatched a second shipment of food to assist families affected by rains and floods in 25 communities inhabited mostly by indigenous Miskito, in the Municipality of Prinzapolka.
Bad weather was greatly affecting the poorest and most vulnerable families. Families in Prinzapolka have no food at the moment and also lost their crops. October and November were going to be very hard for them as they would not reap their harvest.
A total of 75 metric tons of rice, beans, corn, vegetable oil, fortified cereal with micronutrients and salt will be distributed in 30-day rations among some 6,079 people living on the banks of the Bambana and Prinzapolka Rivers. Prinzapolka was declared on red alert by national authorities due to flooding from overflowing rivers.
Prinzapolka communities were highly affected because they had suffered two consecutive floods, one in June and another in July. According to local authorities, almost all crops of corn, rice, cassava, banana and plantain were damaged by the floods. She explained that 95 per cent of the municipality's population was rural, who depend on agriculture and fishing.
This food shipment was to travel 380 km by land from Managua to Alamikambang, close to Prinzapolka municipal capital. Then the food was loaded on boats for another journey of 170 km to reach some 25 communities located along the Bambana and Prinzapolka rivers.
Jumbe Omari Jumbe for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said IOM South Africa welcomed the signing into law of the long-awaited Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Bill by President Jacob Zuma.
The signing of this Bill into law was significant as it was the first time South Africa had a single statute which addressed the scourge of trafficking in persons holistically and comprehensively. In the past, South Africa used existing laws like the legislation on sexual offences and the Children’s Act to prosecute perpetrators.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said the Conference on Disarmament held its weekly plenary session this morning. Among other speeches, the Japanese Ambassador was to speak on the commemoration of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination started a three week session next Monday (12 August), and the Advisory Committee was to also begin session on the same date, lasting for a week. She also added that there was a press release from the UPU on the results of their writing competition at the back of room.
In the room but not briefing were the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the International Labour Organization, the World Health Organization and the International Telecommunication Union.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/154hrOx