REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
29 April 2014
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director 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 Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Refugee Agency.
Navi Pillay/Egypt Death Sentences
Ravina Shamdasani of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay strongly condemned the shocking imposition of the death penalty on 683 individuals in Egypt yesterday after mass trials that she said clearly breached international human rights law. “It is outrageous that for the second time in two months, the Sixth Chamber of the Criminal Court in Al-Minya has imposed the death sentence on huge groups of defendants after perfunctory trials. In defiance of worldwide pleas for Egypt to respect its human rights obligations after 529 people were sentenced to death in March by the same court, hundreds now face a similar fate at the hands of a judicial system where international fair trial guarantees appear to be increasingly trampled upon. It is high time that Egypt takes its human rights commitments seriously,” Ms. Pillay said, noting in particular that Egypt had ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Responding to a question on the more than 500 others sentenced to death Ms. Shamdasani said of the 529 persons sentenced to death last month, most of them had had their sentences reduced to life imprisonment, which was 25 years, but even that was excessive, given that the trials that were conducted were mass trials without even the most basic due process guaranteed.
In response to another question, Ms. Shamdasani said the trial was clearly not considered to be a fair trial. As the High Commissioner had said, fair trial guarantees appeared to be increasingly trampled upon in Egypt’s judicial system. Most of the defendants were tried in absentia and did not have access to lawyers. The defence apparently did not have an opportunity to cross examine witnesses. These were very basic fair trial guarantees. The High Commissioner also said that the presumption of innocence was fundamental to the protection of human rights in a criminal trial. Here it appeared that this presumption was not upheld.
Ms. Shamdasani, answering other questions, said the information was unclear. OHCHR had heard reports that very few of the 683 defendants were in custody, and when the sentence was handed down, they were not present in the court. Some of them may be at large, others may have left the country. One report suggested that one of the defendants was already dead. The whole issue was mired in confusion, which was unacceptable when they were talking about a death penalty case.
Asked about the 37 defendants whose death penalties had been upheld, Ms. Shamdasani said last month, 529 defendants were sentenced to death. Their trial were completely out of line with what international law required. The charges were related to the killing of one policeman. For 529 individuals to be charged and convicted to death in relation to the killing of one policeman certainly seemed to be excessive. The way that the system worked in Egypt was that after the court passed a sentence of death, it went to the Grand Mufti, a religious leader, for him to give an opinion. This opinion was non-binding and the judge could choose to take it on board or ignore it. It appeared that based on the opinion of the Grand Mufti, most of these cases were commuted to life imprisonment, but 37 convictions were upheld. It was unclear why these 37 were singled out.
A journalist said a number of protestors had been killed by police forces and asked if any of those security forces had been put to trial. Ms. Shamdasani said that as far as they were aware, there had been complete impunity in these cases.
Ms. Corinne Momal-Vanian said United Nations Secretary-Ban Ki-moon also issued a statement last night, which had been sent to journalists. The Secretary-General intended to discuss his concerns and other issues with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Egypt later this week.
Ms. Shamdasani said OHCHR was deeply concerned about a new regulation adopted in the Maldives on the implementation of the death penalty, which effectively overturned a 60-year moratorium on the use of capital punishment in the country. The new regulation, adopted by the Government on Sunday (27 April), provided for the use of the death penalty for the offence of intentional murder, including when committed by individuals under the age of 18. The age of criminal responsibility in the Maldives was 10, but for hadd offences, children as young as 7 years old could be held responsible. The new regulation meant that children as young as 7 could now be sentenced to death. According to the new regulation, minors convicted of intentional murder shall be executed once they turn 18. Similar provisions in the recently ratified Penal Code, allowing for the application of the death penalty for crimes committed when below the age of 18, were also deeply regrettable. Under international law, those who were charged and convicted for offences they had committed under 18 years of age should not be sentenced to death or life imprisonment without possibility of release. International human rights treaties, particularly the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Maldives had ratified, imposed an absolute ban on the death sentence against persons below the age of 18 at the time when the offence was committed. Maldives had observed a moratorium on the death penalty for 60 years, and reaffirmed its commitment to maintain it during its first Universal Periodic Review in 2010. OHCHR urged the Government to retain its moratorium on the use of the death penalty in all circumstances, particularly in cases that involved juvenile offenders and to work towards abolishing the practice altogether. OHCHR equally encouraged the Government to repeal the new regulations and other provisions that provided for the death penalty.
OHCHR/Malaysia/South Sudan/UN Bollywood Video
In Malaysia, Ms. Shamdasani said OHCHR welcomed the decision of the Appeal Court last Friday declaring that section 9(5) of the Peaceful Assembly Act was unconstitutional as it criminalized the peaceful exercise of freedom of assembly. Section 9(5) stated that a "person who contravenes [the 10 days notification before the date of an assembly] commits an offence and shall, on conviction, be liable to a fine not exceeding ten thousand ringgit". On 7 December 2011, a group of UN independent experts warned that the new Peaceful Assembly Act may “arbitrarily and disproportionately restrict the right to assemble peacefully”, and urged the Government of Malaysia to seriously reconsider the adoption of the Act. OHCHR commended the decision of the Appeal Court and further encouraged the Government of Malaysia to review the controversial provisions of the Act in line with the Constitution and international human rights standards.
The High Commissioner was in South Sudan and yesterday she met President Salva Kiir and five Ministers in Juba, including those for foreign affairs, interior, defense, justice and finance . Today, she was heading to Bor. She would hold a press conference in Juba tomorrow (Wednesday) morning around 10h00 Juba time, 9 a.m. Geneva time.
Ms. Shamdasani said OHCHR would tomorrow launch the first ever Bollywood-style United Nations music video at a press conference in Mumbai to promote its Free & Equal campaign for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. More details would follow in a press release tomorrow.
A journalist noted that Brunei had been proposing to adopt legal reforms, including a return to stoning, and wondered whether or not it had been adopted? Ms. Shamdasani said it had not been adopted and it was her understanding that it had been postponed. OHCHR hoped that this would be an opportunity for Brunei to seriously reconsider this.
Jens Laerke of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said he had an update on the flash floods in northern Afghanistan: they had killed at least 132 people and affected more than 39,000, according to Afghan authorities. Search and rescue operations by the national Afghan Army continued, and the death toll may rise as more information became available. The army had up till now evacuated some 14,000 people from the worst flooded areas mainly to open desert areas. The immediate needs were for food, clean water, emergency shelter and non-food items. The Afghan Government’s provincial disaster management authorities were in charge of the response with support from United Nations humanitarian agencies and the Afghan Red Crescent. OCHA staff in-country this morning said that in nine out of ten of the affected provinces the immediate life-saving needs were being met in terms of food, water and shelter. However, in the worst hit province of Jawzjan – where 87 people died – the response was hampered by washed-out roads and infrastructure damage but a humanitarian operational centre had been established there two days ago. The army was working to re-establish transport routes in the province. The floods came after heavy rains on 24 April and had displaced mainly poor subsistence farmers. The floods had destroyed their homes and agricultural lands and gardens and highlighted the need for longer-term development interventions to help them get back on their feet once they returned to their homes. This was expected to happen as soon as the floods receded.
Christophe Boulierac of the United Nations Children’s Fund said that UNICEF’s immediate priority was to contribute to relief efforts in the district of Khwajadukoh, which was in the worst affected Jawzjan province. UNICEF’s priority was to ensure safe water and sanitation and it was also advocating for more attention to the two other districts of the province, Qoshtepa or Darzab districts, where no assessments had been carried out yet. Of course, many assessments were still going on. In terms of education disruption, preliminary data showed that 18 schools had been surrounded by water or slightly damaged. This was a very partial figure since assessments were still going on. UNICEF was distributing blankets, hygiene kits and high energy biscuits for children. The Country Office from Kabul had provided full support in allocating additional funding and mobilizing emergency staff and supply staff based in Kabul for support, and had re-assigned one WASH officer for support in the most affected regions.
Chris Lom of the International Organization for Migration said IOM was working closely with the Afghan National Disaster Management Authority, the Afghan Red Crescent, the United Nations and non-governmental organization partners. They were distributing relief supplies, including blankets, warm clothing, personal hygiene material and kitchen sets for cooking and storing food. To date, IOM had helped some 900 families in Balkh, Faryab, and Samangan provinces, and they were lining up deliveries to another 690 families, nearly 5,000 people, in Faryab and Sar-e-Pul in the course of this week. In addition, 1,800 relief and emergency shelter kits were ready to be distributed to flood-affected families in Jawzjan, the worst hit province. IOM had mobilized stocks from its warehouses in Kabul and Paktia, which were being shipped north to the area and was also using relief items that had been stored in their office in Mazar and elsewhere in the north. One of the things that had come out was that in Sar-e-Pul, Balkh and Takhar provinces, where IOM had been building flood protection walls since 2013 in a project funded by the United States State Department Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance, flood damage had actually been limited. The moral of this story was to encourage greater investment in disaster preparedness and flood protection in a lot of these remote areas as this was money well spent and could save lives.
Central African Republic
Mr. Laerke of OCHA said a statement on behalf of the Humanitarian Coordinator in the Central African Republic, Claire Bourgeois, had just been issued. Ms. Bourgeois condemned in the strongest terms the killing, on 28 April in Dissikou, of two people who were part of a convoy of civilians that had left the PK12 neighbourhood of Bangui the day before. Seven people were also injured in that attack. She said the relocation was carried out on a strictly voluntary basis, at the request of the people. In view of the high risk of further violence, it was conducted as a measure of last resort to save lives, in accordance with the principle of humanitarian imperative. She was appalled by this attack on civilians and urged all armed groups to put an immediate end to the bloodshed. More than 600,000 persons were displaced due to violence in the Central African Republic and some 338,000 had fled to neighbouring countries.
Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba of the High Commissioner for Refugees said this incident underscored the need to provide physical protection to the communities at risk. The incident occurred around noon yesterday. Two people were killed and six injured, all of them displaced persons. In total, the convoy had been made up of 18 trucks carrying 1,300 people on board. These people had reached Kaga Bandoro, where they spent the night, before proceeding today to their final destination. This was the second relocation that the United Nations country team was conducting out of PK 12 neighbourhood of the capital Bangui. The last one was on 20 April when 93 people were relocated.
Mr. Lom of IOM said he would provide some background on this as there had been a lot of press coverage on this convoy. It arose from a complex set of circumstances. There was no universal agreement that these people should have been relocated. There were some details in the IOM press note relating to this relocation. His colleagues had condemned this attack on this convoy, and certainly IOM would reiterate that. IOM was in fact providing the logistics for this operation and organizing it at the request of the United Nations. As Ms. Lejeune-Kaba had said, it was an 18 truck convoy carrying 1,259 civilians from Bangui’s PK12 neighbourhood to Kabo and Moyen-Sido in the northeast of the country. The convoy left Bangui at noon on Sunday with a United Nations escort and it was expected to arrive in Kabo at around 1 p.m. today and in Moyen-Sido this evening. Following the attack, which IOM Director General William Lacy Swing had condemned in the strongest possible terms, an IOM doctor and nurse who were travelling with the convoy had provided medical assistance to the wounded.
Mr. Lom said the United Nations decision to relocate the people trapped in PK12 deserved some explanation because it was not clear from the media coverage why it was necessary to actually move these people. The movement took place from PK12, which was an area of less than 1 square kilometre, to save the lives of the Muslims and ethnic minority people, who were trapped in this area. Since January, over 20 people from that community had been killed in attacks. This was a very distinct population of people. They were of different ethnic origin to the people of Bangui and for many of them, their first language was Arabic, so they were clearly defined as a different group from normal Bangui residents. Prior to this relocation taking place, the community had come to the United Nations and United Nations agencies and told them where they wanted to be relocated. The relocation destinations were not the decision of the United Nations, but the decision of the community. Prior to the relocation the community leaders had been taken to those relocation areas and met with local community leaders to ensure that the host community would welcome these people, and that was the case. The first relocation took place last week, and this second operation to move 1,300 people was actually taking place as they spoke.
In response to a question on whether he considered this to be a situation of ethnic cleansing, Mr. Lom said this was not ethnic cleansing as these people had been moving voluntarily and were moving to places where they felt safer and did not fear risk of attack. They were not normal residents of Bangui.
Asked if there remained people in PK12 that they needed to evacuate, Mr. Lom said these were people who came to the humanitarian agencies and said that they wished to be relocated. There may be others who remained in PK 12, but those were people who wanted to stay.
In a question on Syria, a journalist asked if there had been a response to a letter that appeared in today’s press, saying that the United Nations was being too cautious and should deliberate even without the Government’s permission, Mr. Laerke of OCHA said the United Nations advocated access to reach all people in need wherever they were. Security Council resolution 2139 said that all parties should allow rapid and safe humanitarian access across borders. A few weeks ago, they had indeed had a United Nations convoy go from Turkey into northern Syria. This had not been repeated so far and was something they continued to advocate for. This was the best and fastest way to reach people in need in the north of Syria.
Asked whether there are any comments from Mr. Brahimi about Mr. Al-Assad coming forward as a presidential candidate and whether this would jeopardize the work of Mr. Brahimi, Alessandra Vellucci, Chief of the Press and Public Relations section of the United Nations Information Service, answered that remarks by the Secretary-General and Mr. Brahimi were sent out on this subject.
A journalist asked if they would cross the border without the approval of the Syrian authorities, Mr. Laerke said he could not speculate on this. They were aware that non-governmental organizations had been crossing the border and their comment on that was that if humanitarian aid reached people in humanitarian need, that was fundamentally a good thing.
Ms. Lejeune-Kaba of UNHCR said that with the rainy season imminent in East Africa UNHCR was racing to supply essential relief for many of the more than one million people displaced by the fighting in South Sudan over the last four months. Within South Sudan, UNHCR was concerned about terrified South Sudanese civilians who had been left without basic household items because they had been forced to flee violence, often more than once. This left them exposed to the elements without the ability to keep warm, cook or maintain basic standards of hygiene. In total, 923,000 South Sudanese were displaced within their own country. These people were spread across some 174 spontaneous and organized sites, with the highest increase having been in Upper Nile state. More than 293,000 people had become refugees in neighbouring countries since last December. Some 4.9 million people needed humanitarian assistance. Today, UNHCR was airlifting more relief supplies from Dubai directly to Juba, for some 100,000 displaced people. The blankets, sleeping mats, water buckets and other relief items would be distributed mainly in Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei states. Once the rainy season began in earnest in a few weeks, roads in these areas would become impassable for weeks on end. Within South Sudan, heavy fighting broke out in the northern parts of Upper Nile State on 23 April, especially in Renk County, and unconfirmed reports suggest that as many as 40,000 people may be fleeing fighting and heading towards Melut, close to Maban County. Tension was also high in Bor town in Jonglei State, with more people reported to be moving out of town. Fighting had also caused displacement in Duk and Twic East Counties.
Ms. Lejeune-Kaba said that across the border in Sudan, their priority was to relocate some 23,000 South Sudanese in White Nile State away from the site where they now were staying. The site, called Kilo 10, would become inaccessible very soon. It had already begun raining, but the heaviest rains usually began in May. United Nations agencies, the Sudanese Red Crescent and the government of Sudan last week conducted a one-day assessment mission to two relocation sites proposed by authorities. The sites both appeared suitable, and host communities did not express any objections to having refugees move there. Sudan had taken in more than 65,000 South Sudanese since fighting broke out on 15 December last year. Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, UNHCR and its partners were expanding accommodation for nearly 100,000 refugees who had arrived in the Gambella region in the west of the country. They had finished flying in 4,000 emergency family tents and had already set up 2,000 of them at Leitchuor Camp. Another 1,500 were being sent to Kule Camp. They had also began demarcating and clearing land for a fifth camp near Kule that could take as many as 30,000 people. Also in the Gambella area, UNHCR and its partners were expanding registration and reception. A new registration centre at Burubiey, on the border with South Sudan’s Jonglei State, would cut the time refugees had to travel to get registered by five days if they walked or 15 hours if they took a boat. The centre was run by UNHCR and the Ethiopian government’s Administration of Refugee and Returnee Affairs. At another border point, Pagak, bordering South Sudan’s Upper Nile state, joint registration had also resumed after an interruption of more than two weeks to move some 700 Ethiopian citizens who were trying to register as refugees in order to get aid.
In response to a question, Ms. Lejeune-Kaba said the heavy rainy season was from May to August or September. It was not only the rainy bit, but it caused a lot of flooding across South Sudan that made it hard for trucks to move.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights started its fifty-second session yesterday at the Palais Wilson and was today reviewing the report of Ukraine. The report of Indonesia would be considered tomorrow afternoon and all day Thursday, and the report of Monaco would be considered on Friday.
The Committee against Torture also opened its fifty-second session yesterday and this morning was starting its consideration of the report of Uruguay. The delegation of Uruguay would present its response tomorrow afternoon. The report of Thailand would be reviewed on Wednesday morning and Thursday afternoon and the report of Sierra Leone on Thursday morning and Friday afternoon.
As for upcoming press conferences, the President of the Republic of Guinea, Alpha Conde, would give a press conference tomorrow at 5 p.m. in Room III. Mr. Conde would be accompanied by the Minister of Economy and Finance and the Minister of Human Rights and Public Liberties.
Glenn Thomas of the World Health Organization reminded journalists of the VPC press conference taking place tomorrow afternoon, 4 p.m., at the library meeting room, WHO headquarters. The press conference would announce the launch of the first global report on antibiotic resistance in the world. He had sent out some more information about 30 minutes before on how to access the report and the press release.
A journalist said the Emergency Committee on Polio started meeting yesterday and asked when it was expected to conclude its work. Mr. Thomas said the committee reconvened today, they did not know when it would finish – today or later in the week or early next week - but as soon as there were indications that the discussions had concluded, WHO would send journalists details about a press conference related to the committee’s findings.
Journalists complained that the barrier to the journalists’ parking area remained open, which resulted in non-journalists using it, leaving no space for journalists’ cars.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said there was a new system being developed for the barrier, but she did not know how advanced it was. She would ask the Chief of the Public Relations and Press Section, Alessandra Vellucci, to brief journalists.
Ms Vellucci briefed the journalists on this subject and explained that in order to comply with safety requirements, the barriers giving access to the press parking area need to be changed. The access system would also be changed and access would be limited to accredited journalists. The new system will take a month to be put in place. Responding to further questions, Ms. Vellucci said she had recently had discussions with colleagues in the Security Section about the current situation in the press parking. Security would patrol the parking at the request of the Information Service to make sure that only journalists would park there.
On a related issue, Ms. Vellucci said that a note would be sent to journalists today to remind them that their cars should not be left overnight in the journalists’ parking area.
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The representative of the International Labour Organization also attended the briefing but did not brief.