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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
20 December 2013

Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service, chaired the briefing which was also attended by the Spokespersons for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Refugees Agency, the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme and the International Organization for Migration.

South Sudan

Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service Geneva, read extracts from the statement by the Secretary-General issued late the previous night on the situation in South Sudan. In the statement, the Secretary-General expressed deep concern about continued reports of growing violence in many parts of South Sudan, human rights abuses and killings fuelled by ethnic tensions.

The Secretary-General said that the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) was doing everything it could, within its means and in a very fluid situation, to protect civilians, as well as the United Nations and international personnel on the ground. The Secretary-General was appalled to learn of the attack yesterday on an UNMISS base in Akobo, where civilians had taken refuge.

The Secretary-General supported the initiative of the ministers of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development to support dialogue among political opponents. He called on the Government and political opposition to make good use of this opportunity to restore security and the democratic process in South Sudan. Above all, the Secretary-General appealed to the principal leaders concerned to live up to their individual responsibilities to the people of South Sudan.

Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that there was high concern among the international community. The previous day, rapid humanitarian needs assessments had been carried out in eight locations in and around Juba, where people had been affected by recent fighting.

Inter-agency assessment teams had visited two UNMISS bases; Juba Teaching Hospital; and five neighbourhoods around town. The assessments in the neighbourhoods had focused primarily on protection of civilians and found some areas of Juba deserted but with no concentrations of displaced people.

Where internally displaced people were gathered in UNMISS bases, the assessments had showed a need for planning and management of the sites where they were staying, emergency latrines, hygiene promotion, water purification, emergency food, primary health services and nutrition screening. Humanitarian partners had immediately begun responding to the most urgent and life-saving needs. Some 34,000 people were now thought to have taken refuge in UNMISS bases in Juba and Bor.

As the situation of civilians sheltering in UNMISS bases had become protracted, humanitarian partners were providing technical advice and supplies to help UNMISS provide life-saving services including water, shelter and emergency healthcare, in line with the UNMISS protection of civilians mandate. Further assessments were planned for today.

Patrick McCormick, for the United Nations Children’s Programme (UNICEF), said UNICEF was extremely concerned about the children; half of the population in South Sudan was under 18 years of age so many of the displaced were women and children and were extremely vulnerable. UNICEF had started to deliver emergency supplies to those displaced in compounds and elsewhere and would continue to do so. Normal operations in South Sudan did cover the whole country, but some of those operations had now been curtailed in order to focus on the emergency situation.

Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said WFP had moved food to an UNMISS facility for the estimated 20,000 people sheltering in UN compounds in Juba, and was working with humanitarian partners as well as the peacekeepers to organize distribution of that food in the coming days, prioritizing vulnerable women and children.

UNHAS helicopters managed by WFP on 19 December had flown 75 aid workers to Juba from Bor, the capital of Jonglei State, which had been the scene of intense fighting. The people relocated were a mixture of South Sudanese and international staff members from a number of UN agencies and NGOs, who had sought shelter in the UNMISS and WFP compounds amid the unrest.

WFP had taken steps to provide food assistance to the people who were sheltering in the UNMISS compounds in Juba. It had moved 58 tons of super cereal – a specialized nutrition product – and sugar onto an UNMISS base so it was ready to be distributed. That will be used to prepare a nutritious porridge.

Tarik Jasareviæ, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said Juba Teaching Hospital had received 440 patients since 15 December, and half of those patients had severe injuries. WHO provided trauma kits to Juba hospital to address the needs of those patients. WHO was continuing to monitor the situation.

Central African Republic (CAR)

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), stated that the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay had warned that the situation in the Central African Republic remained highly volatile, with ongoing violence, intimidation and a governance vacuum. The reported involvement of armed elements from neighbouring countries heightened the risk of a crisis that, if left unchecked, might become dangerously difficult to control.

A United Nations Human Rights monitoring team in the CAR had been documenting human rights violations committed in recent months, including killings, sexual violence, arbitrary detention, attacks on hospitals, destruction of property and targeting of individuals on the basis of their religion. The team had also received reports of ongoing violations, both by anti-Balaka groups and by ex-Séléka forces in various parts of the country.

In Bangui, individuals who had fled from their homes did not want to return for fear of imminent attacks by anti-Balaka groups, which, according to reports, appeared to be getting more heavily armed and organised by the day. In the west of the country, in Bouar, the team witnessed clear attempts to foment fear and distrust among religious communities, and the reported involvement of armed elements from neighbouring countries. It had also received reports that ex- Séléka forces had been distributing weapons to the Muslim civilian population.

The High Commissioner said those developments were extremely worrying and should ring alarm bells around the world for sustained and urgent efforts to be taken to prevent the Central African Republic from plunging into disaster.

Bouar had been the site of a massacre of civilians by ex- Séléka forces on 26 October 2013, resulting in at least 18 deaths and several injuries. Since then, there had been a number of reports of reprisals by anti-Balaka groups.

The United Nations Human Rights team has also received reports of attacks, reprisals and counter-reprisals in Bohong, 75 km from Bouar in Ouham Pende Prefecture, resulting in numerous deaths. In the previous 10 days, at least 12 Muslims had reportedly been lynched in Bangui. The team was looking into reports of ongoing attacks and abuses in Boganangone, 210 kilometres west of Bangui, by an abusive ex-Séléka Colonel. The team was currently visiting Bossangoa, 400 kilometres northwest of Bangui.

The High Commissioner warned that religious differences were being manipulated by political leaders, with deadly consequences. Too often in history, there had been examples of political manipulation of religious and ethnic differences result in horrific violations and long-term damage to the social fabric of a country. The High Commissioner urged leaders at both national and local levels in the Central African Republic to stop stoking violence on the basis of religion.

The High Commissioner highlighted the laudable efforts of the Archbishop of the Central African Republic Dieudonne Nzapalainga, Pastor Nicolas Guerékoyamé, and the Imam, Omar Kobina Layama, in spreading the message of peace between communities. The Archbishop, the Pastor and the Imam have been showing important leadership at a time when it is so badly needed by their followers, and they have managed, with some success, to defuse tensions between communities, Ms. Pillay said.

OHCHR had seen young Muslims take it upon themselves to protect churches, and churches were serving as safe havens for internally displaced people, regardless of their religious backgrounds. Such developments were extremely encouraging, and the High Commissioner called on all religious and community leaders to redouble their efforts to ensure that entire communities were not vilified in the dangerous cycle of violence and reprisals that we had been witnessing. Christian and Muslim leaders in other towns, including Bouar, had also held joint meetings and are working together to spread messages of tolerance to the civilian population.

The High Commissioner also urged all sides to come together and resolve the situation in the country through dialogue. The only way to prevent large-scale suffering in the country is for all sides to renounce violence and move forward through constructive dialogue, Ms. Pillay said. She said that the international community needed to prioritise the disarmament of all sides and accountability for perpetrators of serious human rights violations. The establishment of a Commission of Inquiry should send a strong message to perpetrators of violations that the international community was committed to holding them accountable, the High Commissioner said.

Patrick McCormick, for the United Nations Children’s Programme (UNICEF), said that, following weeks of violence and insecurity which continued to worsen, as of today one in 40 people in Bangui was displaced, living in over 40 makeshift displacement sites, including churches, schools and the airport. More than 200,000 people were now displaced in total by the violence, and an additional 30,000 were living with host families. Many of those were children. While UNICEF did not yet have a total of child deaths and injuries, it knew that children were being targeted, and said it must stop.

UNICEF also feared a looming nutritional crisis on the horizon. The annual hunger gap was looming in January and the United Nations Children’s Fund was especially worried about children in the interior suffering from severe malnutrition, as well as children in Bangui.

Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that operations in Central African Republic were hugely challenging. The operations had been dangerous for the staff on the ground. WFP had been scaling up to reach more than one million people in 2014 and had been trying to assist people in this crisis even to very little groups of 50 people in orphanage, hospitals, churches and mosques.

Ms. Byrs informed that the previous night there had been shots again in Bangui. WFP was reaching out to the most vulnerable wherever it found them. It had distributed food to individual groups of people as small as 50. WFP was distributing wherever it could, including hospitals, orphanages, churches and mosques. In total, WFP and its partners had distributed nearly 506 tons of food including rice, split peas and oil to over 118,000 people in Bangui so far in December. On 19 December in Bangui, WFP had distributed nearly 18 tons of food to 3,900 people at Eglise de Frère in the neighbourhood of Castor. They would also distribute 5,5 tons of food to 1,200 beneficiaries at Lycée ABC.

Regarding the situation at the airport, specifically internal displaced persons who were one kilometre away from the airport, distribution had started again on 18 December, but unfortunately after four tons of food had been distributed, the process had been interrupted. Ms. Byrs emphasized that it was very difficult to make the roads to the airport secure.

Mr. Jasareviæ, for the World Health Organization (WHO), stated that the hospitals continued to be targeted by unidentified armed groups. A hospital in Begua situated in the outskirts of Bangui had been looted during the night between 17 and 18 December by unknown militias. The situation remained difficult. WHO staff on the ground confirmed there was still shootings in Bangui and that it made the movement of WHO teams to visit hospital and medical centres much more difficult. The crisis cell implemented by WHO and its partners met daily to resolve problems, in particular issues regarding the identification and deployment of ambulances.

A device had been set up with the Doctors without Borders to make four ambulances available for transporting wounded people. WHO had also created a provisional number to coordinate the movements of ambulances. The Doctors without Borders provided 227 blood bags and 400 reactive blood transfusion to the blood transfusion centre of Bangui.

Mr. Jasareviæ also announced that there was an upsurge in the number of cases of Malaria. WHO was trying to find a solution by bringing the anti-malarial medicine provided by the World Fund from Douala, Cameroun. Another issue was the gratuity of health care. In the CAR, the system was based on costs recovery, but WHO was currently negotiating with several ministries to shift to free health care and treatment.

In ensuing questions, journalists asked about the timeframe for the Commission of Inquiry established following the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2127 on the Central African Republic. Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the Security Council had asked the United Nations Secretary-General to establish the Commission of Inquiry rapidly for an initial period of one year, and the Secretary-General was to report to the Council six months after the adoption of the resolution and again in one year. Ms. Shamdasani added that the members of the Commission were currently being selected.

Ms. Shamdasani also said that it was likely the United Nations Human Rights Council would hold a Special Session on the human rights situation in Central African Republic in January.

Adrian Edwards for the United Nations Refugees Agency (UNHCR) answered question about the latest figures of displaced persons. He said the current figure of displaced persons in Bangui alone was around 210,000 and around 700,000 people were displaced internally in the country. Relatively small numbers of people – around 40,000 – were fleeing into neighbouring countries, such as Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Syria - polio

Mr. Jasreviæ spoke about the polio immunisation campaign. First, no new polio cases had been reported nor confirmed in Syria and the WHO immunisation surveillance team was closely monitoring the situation. The first of six polio national immunisation rounds had been launched on 8 December as part of the WHO and UNICEF strategy to immunise all children under five against polio, and was supposed to reach 2.2 million children in Syria. The most recent report showed that the campaign had now reached more than 1.9 million children. In rural Damascus, where one case of polio had been confirmed, 225,000 children had been vaccinated, whereas in Deir ez-Zorr, 270,000 had been vaccinated.

The campaign was being conducted in both government and opposition-controlled areas and was part of a wider immunisation campaign in the Middle East aiming to vaccinate 23 million children against polio. WHO was working with UNICEF, other UN agencies, the Syrian-Arab Red Crescent and their local volunteers, international and national NGOs and other groups providing humanitarian assistance and to Syrians affected by the conflict to make sure that every child is vaccinated. Mr. Jasareviæ noted that UNICEF was procuring 15 million doses of the oral polio vaccine and is supporting the cultural and social mobilisation effort.

In 2013, WHO had reached 3.4 million direct beneficiaries through their distribution of medicines, equipment and healthcare delivery.

International Conference on Syria

Ms. Momal-Vanian confirmed that the trilateral discussion between Mr. Brahimi, and delegations from Russia and the United States had started at the Palais des Nations in the morning. The discussion would break for lunch then resume in a different format afterwards, with representatives of the five Permanent Members of the Security Council, and later with neighbouring countries as well as representatives of the European Union and the League of Arab States.

Mr. Brahimi was expected to brief the press around 5 p.m. today, Ms. Momal-Vanian noted.

Saudi Arabia – Freedom of Expression

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR),
said OHCHR was deeply concerned about the intimidation and sometimes prosecution of individuals in Saudi Arabia for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

In the most recent case, a 23-year-old man had been reportedly sentenced to four years in prison and 300 lashes. Omar bin Mohammed Al-Saeed (Omar Al-Saeed) had also been reportedly banned from travelling for a further four years after his release from jail.
Charges against him included defaming the King, preparing, storing and transmitting material prejudicial to the public order, and disseminating defamatory information on the Internet, apparently in relation to a tweet in which he had reportedly advocated for a constitutional monarchy. He had also been charged with membership of an unregistered organisation.

The sentencing had taken place in a closed session on 12 December in the city of Buraidah, without the presence of his lawyer. According to reports, at an earlier hearing, Mr. Al-Saeed had appeared in court handcuffed and leg-cuffed. It appeared that Mr. Al-Saeed had been targeted in relation to his work on civil and political rights with a Saudi non-governmental organization known as HASEM. OHCHR had received reports that several other members of HASEM and other activists have already been jailed in similar circumstances or were under investigation by the national security agency, Mabahith.

Ms. Shamdasani stressed that OHCHR called on the Saudi authorities to immediately release all those imprisoned for exercise of their fundamental human rights. The reported treatment of Mr. Al-Saeed suggested that his due process rights might not have been respected. The use of corporal punishment amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and can even amount to torture under international human rights law.

Saudi Arabia - Migrants

Christiane Berthiaume, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), spoke
about new figures of Ethiopian migrants expelled from Saudi Arabia. She said that
140,357 migrants had been repatriated to Ethiopia, 36 days after the start of deportations from Saudi Arabia. IOM had received a lot of alarming testimonies coming from the deported. Some women had complained about rapes and sexual abuses.

Lampedusa

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), responded to a question about a recent video of migrants at Lampedusa. She said that OHCHR was deeply shocked by the video footage which had recently emerged and showed asylum seekers treated in a degrading manner. OHCHR was deeply concerned about such degrading treatment of migrants, including women, at Lampedusa and stressed that the human rights and dignity of migrants, who were already particularly vulnerable, must be fully respected.

OHCHR welcomed the reaction of several senior officials of the Italian Government who had expressed their shock, including the Prime Minister, and welcomed the announcement by the Government that it would launch an in-depth inquiry. OHCHR urged the Government to investigate it promptly, to hold accountable those who were responsible and to take measures to prevent such degrading treatment of migrants in compliance with international standards.

Egypt

Ms. Shamdasani said that the raiding of a human rights NGO and the arrest of six of its members in Cairo on Wednesday night had marked a worrying escalation in the harassment and intimidation of civil society in Egypt.

At least 50 armed men in civilian clothes, who had been later identified as police and security officers, had raided the office of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights late on Wednesday night. Six people who were working at the centre at the time were arrested and allegedly beaten, and three laptops, files and documents were seized. Two of the laptops had later been returned.

Five of the individuals arrested had been released after some nine hours in custody, during which time they had been reportedly mistreated. One prominent human rights defender, Mohamed Adel Fahmi, a member of the April 6 movement, had remained in detention, his whereabouts unknown.

OHCHR called on Egyptian authorities to immediately release all individuals who had been detained in relation to their work as human rights defenders. Intimidation of political opponents, activists and human rights defenders for peaceful exercise of their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and association had to be halted. An independent and impartial investigation needed to be conducted into the raid on the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights.

Geneva Activities

Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service Geneva, reminded journalists that today was the last regular press briefing this year. The next regular press briefing would take place on Friday, 3 January 2014.

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The representatives of the International Labour Organization and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development also attended the briefing but did not speak.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/1bVyLZB