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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
21 December 2012

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 Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Economic Commission on Europe, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization and the International Organization for Migration.

Democratic Republic of Congo

Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the situation in eastern DRC continued to be of serious concern. According to recent UN human rights investigations, at least 126 women, including 24 minors, had been reportedly victims of sexual violence, including rape, between 20 and 30 November, in the town of Minova and surrounding villages, in Kalehe territory, South Kivu province.

So far, two UN Joint Human Rights Office teams had visited the area this month and had interviewed more than 200 people.

The perpetrators allegedly were soldiers of the Congolese Army (FARDC), and the crimes seem to have been committed for the most part as they were retreating from the fighting in Goma and Sake. The teams also documented two cases of arbitrary execution, and other cases of mistreatment and widespread looting. Investigations by judicial authorities into these violations were ongoing, and so far nine FARDC soldiers had been arrested on charges of looting or rape.

Following the fall of Goma to the M23 rebel group on 20 November and Sake on 22 November, UN human rights teams had also documented cases of arbitrary execution, enforced disappearances, degrading treatment and rape against civilians by M23 fighters in Goma and surrounding areas. The looting of dozens of public and private buildings in Goma and of scores of vehicles by M23 was also reported.

UN human rights teams had also received allegations of serious human rights violations, including forced recruitment, mistreatment and arbitrary executions of civilians in areas of Rutshuru territory, stronghold of the M23.

OHCHR was highly concerned by these events, which once again were devastating the lives of civilians in eastern DRC; and the OHCHR was appalled that yet again women and girls were being targeted by a variety of groups, including the national army that was supposed to protect them. OHCHR urged parties to the conflict to ensure strict respect for human rights and international humanitarian law. Further measures should be taken as a matter of priority to identify alleged perpetrators of such violations and to hold them to account.

Polio/Pakistan

Tarik Jasarevic for the World Health Organization (WHO) said nine frontline health workers were killed and a further two were injured in different areas of Pakistan, during the polio subnational immunisation days this week.

Reading from a joint statement with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) he said that any attack on health workers anywhere was unacceptable, the safety of health workers must be respected, and the provision of health services must be kept neutral in any conflict. The children in the affected communities were the ones who would suffer ultimately, with the denial of basic health services and interventions.

He added that the WHO was grateful for the engagement of local leaders, and also to the Government of Pakistan, in their ongoing efforts to try to create an environment where children can be safely reached with essential interventions by frontline health workers. It was important to remember that Pakistan had made tremendous progress over the past 18 months in eradicating polio and cases were down 65 per cent compared to 2011 (173 in 2011, 56 latest).

More children had been reached with polio vaccine than ever before, he said, including in traditional reservoir areas. This progress had to continue so that this devastating disease, which killed and paralysed its victims, could be eradicated.

Ms. Vellucci added that the Secretary-General had also spoken out on the killings saying they were a cruel, senseless and inexcusable acts which he condemned in the strongest terms.

Syria

Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said the WFP was to start providing ready-to-eat food to 125,000 vulnerable Palestinians and displaced Syrians caught up in fighting around Yarmouk camp in Damascus.

The densely populated camp, which was eight kilometres from the centre of Damascus, had been home to the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria since 1957 and had recently housed thousands of displaced Syrians who fled heavy fighting in Damascus and the surrounding areas.

In recent days, Palestinian refugees and thousands of displaced Syrians who had taken refuge in the camp fled due to violence in Yarmouk. Many of them were now in relatives’ homes, mosques, public shelters and schools. They left the camp carrying only their children, with thousands attempting to cross the border to neighbouring Lebanon.

WFP was to provide around 12 kilograms of food for each family per week and the emergency operation needed an additional $1.5 million to immediately procure more than 580 metric tons of food.

She added that the WFP’s meteorologists thought that between today and tomorrow between 25 and 50 centimetres of snow were to fall between Lebanon and Syria. High winds and rain would follow. This would make the passage of refugees to Lebanon very difficult.

Haiti

Jean Philippe Chauzy for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said new figures on the number of displaced persons remaining in camps showed 360,000 Haitians still living in nearly 500 sites throughout the country.

The IOM analysis also confirmed that a staggering 58 per cent still remained unemployed. The majority (57 per cent) of the households in camps were single-headed (34 per cent women and 23 per cent men), a reality which further added to the difficulty of securing an income generating activity.

The Cluster Factsheet also highlighted that approximately 86 per cent of those in camps do not own a home. These 90,000 families represent an absolute target priority for returns in 2013 and 2014. Some 75,000 of these families were still living in emergency shelters.

Since August 2011 and as part of the activities carried out by the Emergency Shelter Cluster, IOM Haiti had provided alternative housing solutions to nearly 12,000 families (48,000 individuals).

Funding would be needed in the next year to continue to deal with the displacement crisis, identify land suitable for building and organise reconstruction projects. The threat of further dramatic climate events also hung over the country, fuelling the need for proper housing.

Senegal

Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the OHCHR welcomed the fact that the Senegalese National Assembly had, on 19 December, adopted laws establishing special chambers within the existing Senegalese court structure to enable criminal proceedings against the former president of Chad, Hissène Habré.

OHCHR had long supported the effort of the African Union to ensure accountability for the gross human rights violations that were allegedly committed during Mr. Habré's rule and was encouraged by the efforts of the current Government of Senegal to achieve progress in the matter.

Laos

Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said OHCHR was concerned by what appeared to be the enforced disappearance of Mr. Sombath Somphone, a prominent human rights defender in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. He said there were concerns for his safety and it was believed that his abduction may be related to his human rights work.

Mr Somphone was last seen at about 18:00 on 15 December 2012 on his way home. Security camera footage reportedly showed that he was stopped at the police post on Thadeua Road in Vientiane, the capital, and was then driven away in a car by men in civilian clothes. His family had been unable to locate him since then, despite repeated calls to the authorities and searches in the local area.

Mr. Somphone was the former director of the Participatory Development Training Centre, an NGO he founded in 1996 to promote education, training and sustainable development. OHCHR welcomed the Government’s recent statement that a serious investigation was underway, and urged the authorities to do everything possible to ensure that Mr. Somphone was found safe and unharmed.

Swaziland

Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said as the festive season approached, the WFP would be celebrating - along with 97,000 orphans and 33,000 other vulnerable children - with the resumption of food distributions to 1,600 Swaziland neighbourhood care points. The service was disrupted earlier this year due to lack of funding.

HIV/AIDS had left some 130,000 children of all ages orphaned and vulnerable in Swaziland. This was more than a third of all children in the country. Many of these children were malnourished; 40 per cent of children under the age of five in Swaziland were stunted.

Food distributions resumed in mid-December thanks to the support of the National Emergency Response Council on HIV/AIDS (NERCHA), which administered funding provided by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria.

Swaziland had the world’s highest HIV prevalence rate with 26 per cent of adults infected.

Myanmar

Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said the Swiss Government had given $547,000 (500,000 Swiss francs) to the emergency programme to provide food aid in Rakhine State, Myanmar.

South Sudan

Catherine Sibut for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development said that a new General Assembly decision had categorised South Sudan as one of the world’s least developed countries, as of 1 January 2013.

Press materials were being prepared that gave details of the country’s situation and characteristics. The country was the 49th to be considered within this range of development.

Mexico

Jean Philippe Chauzy for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said IOM Mexico was to accompany the third Migrant Caravan to Queretaro, this Saturday (22 December.)

According to estimates from the Mexican National Migration Institute, some one million Mexicans returned to their communities of origin in Mexico each December to spend the holidays with their families. They often fell victim to kidnapping, assassinations and other violent crimes during their trip south.

The Caravan to Queretaro was scheduled to depart Laredo, Texas early Saturday morning, and was to make several stops in Mexican cities.

South Korea

Jean Philippe Chauzy for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said a new study of migration in Korea showed the Korean sentiment regarding foreigners had changed and public opinion in the Korean society had softened.

The government of Korea had in recent years amended and introduced new policies to facilitate the integration of migrants into Korean society and this evolving migration landscape and the development of new immigration policies had had a significant impact on Korean society.

Turkmenistan

Jean Rodriguez for the United Nations Economic Commission on Europe (UNECE) announced the launch of the first Environmental Performance Review of Turkmenistan. He said the report looked generally at the situation in the country, factoring in its great economic growth, mostly driven by the energy sector and the export of fuels. In recent years there had been a boom in construction and the population had risen by 10 per cent since the year 2000.

Turkmenistan was currently party to 11 international environmental treaties and was making efforts to bring its legislation in line with its international obligations. For example, he quoted, the recent announcement that Turkmenistan was to become party to the water convention, a problem considered very important in the country. Water quality needed improvement and salt levels were a concern for the agricultural sector.

The loss of biodiversity was also addressed in the report, he said, such as within forest areas and the Caspian Sea. There were 77 recommendations included in the report, covering a variety of environmental aspects, the implementation of which would be considered during a second mission at a later date.

Answering questions he said the report brought to the fore a lot of data that was not readily available previously and the receipt of the invitation to complete the report, as well as Turkmenistan’s readiness to join international treaties were all signs that the country was becoming more open.

Geneva activities

Ms. Vellucci reminded correspondents that the next press briefing was Friday, 4 January 2013 and a list of contacts available during the holiday period had been sent.

Hans von Rohland for the International Labour Organization (ILO) announced the launch of a new report on domestic workers planned for 9 January 2013, with a press conference in Room III at 10:00. A press advisory would be prepared once the details were clearer. The report contained estimated figures of the number of domestic workers employed worldwide, and by region, as well as information about working conditions.

He mentioned that Italy was in the process of ratifying the Convention on Domestic Workers, and Uruguay and the Philippines already had. The report could give details of national legislation.

Answering questions he said estimated figures had been given last year of around 50 million employed domestic workers.