REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
11 July 2014
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the Spokespersons of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), World Trade Organization, Meteorological Organization (WMO), Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), World Food Programme (WFP), United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), World Health Organization (WHO), and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Sophie Barton-Knott for the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), said that ahead of the 20th international AIDS Conference, being held in Melbourne from the 20 to 25 July, UNAIDS was launching a new report on HIV, with up to the minute data on the current state of the epidemic. The UNAIDS Gap Report included the latest data on people living with HIV, new HIV infections, AIDS related deaths as well as progress on stopping new HIV infections among children. It also contained a special 12 chapter section on populations most at risk of HIV which detailed why some persons were being left behind in the response to HIV and provided solutions as to how everyone could be reached with life-saving HIV services. The report would be launched by the Executive Director at a press conference in Room III at 11 a.m. on Wednesday 16 July.
Ankai Xu for the World Trade Organization (WTO) said that on Monday, Members would continue informal discussions on the next steps following the Bali Ministerial outcomes, including planning for next year’s annual discussion on the latest situation in export subsidies. As of Wednesday, Director-General Roberto Azevêdo would visit Australia to meet Government officials, attend the G20 Trade Ministers meeting, and the B20 meeting. On Wednesday he would also meet with representatives of the Australian business community and a discussion hosted by the Europe-Australian Business Council in Sydney. On Thursday, Mr. Azevêdo would travel to Canberra for meeting with Barnaby Joyce, Australia’s Minster for Agriculture, Julie Bishop, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Warren Truss, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development, and Andrew Robb, Minister for Trade and Investment. He would also address the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, on the topic ‘New Momentum: Can the success in Bali Transform the WTO?’ He would then attend the B20 meeting on Friday in Sydney and take part in a panel session on accelerating global trade. On Saturday, he would attend the G20 Trade Ministers meeting.
Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said that this morning a press release had been sent out in English (now also available in French and Spanish) on a new Atlas of mortality and economic losses from weather, climate and water extremes. It covered the years 1970 to 2012. The Atlas, put together with the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters of the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, was released just ahead of the first session of the Preparatory Committee Meeting of the Third United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction next week in Geneva. It was hoped that the Atlas and facts and figures it would present would provide decision-makers with actionable information on how to better protect life and property. One of the main findings was that there really was a need for standardized disaster information if we were going to be able to understand, measure the impact and try to reduce impact. Much more work was needed to standardize disaster information.
Ms. Nullis also mentioned another major meeting currently held in Montreal with the International Civil Aviation Organization, called the ‘Joint Meteorology Divisional Meeting’, which took place every ten to twelve years. The last one was 2002. What it did was to group the international aviation authority, the meteorological services, the passenger transport organizations, and safety officials, all in one room together to discuss issues of common concern. A press release would be issued on Monday or Tuesday about it. At the same time there was a Commission for Aero Nautical Meteorology that took place on 15 and 16 July. Major challenges were that passenger numbers had doubled and they were expected to double again by 2030. There was a trend towards globalization, single skies, and meteorological services had to make sure that the best services could be provided which were efficient and guaranteed passenger safety.
Jean Rodriguez for the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) recalled the announcement of the nomination by the Secretary-General of Christian Friis Bach as the next Executive Secretary of the Commission. Mr. Friis Bach was expected to assume his functions at the beginning of August.
A press conference would take place on Monday at 11 a.m. in Press Room 1, with the Resident Humanitarian Coordinator in Lebanon, who had visited north-eastern Lebanon to review the conditions of displaced Syrians and Lebanese communities hosting them.
Ms. Momal-Vanian informed that the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) today was considering the report of the Central African Republic. It would meet in private next week to make concluding observations on the eight countries examined throughout the session. The closing of the session would take place Friday 18 July, from 3 p.m.
The Human Rights Committee would conclude this morning its consideration of the report of Georgia. It would meet in private this afternoon, would begin its consideration of the report of Ireland on Monday afternoon, and that of Japan on Tuesday afternoon.
There would be a press conference today at 1 p.m. in Room III, following the CITES Standing Committee, on decisions, trade suspensions, species in danger and next steps, among others. The President of the meeting, Mr Øystein Størkersen, and the Secretary-General, John Scanlon would speak, among others, including the head of the United States delegation, and Zhou Zhihua, Assistant Director-General, CITES Management Authority of China.
The Situation in Gaza
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that the Office was extremely concerned about the growing humanitarian emergency in Gaza, after Israel’s launch of the military operation, called ‘Protective Edge’, on 7 July. It was recalled that the stated objective of the operation was to stop Palestinian rockets being fired at southern Israel. The consolidated report from Gaza was from mid afternoon local time yesterday. It said that since the operation began, 58 Palestinian civilians had been killed in Gaza, this included 32 women and children. In addition 570 Palestinians had been injured. At the same time five health facilities in Gaza had suffered damages because of air strikes carried out near to them. This included the Gaza European hospital, where a nurse was injured. The intensive care unit and the pediatric ward had been evacuated. Israeli forces had carried out hundreds of aerial and navy bombardments over the past days. In most cases before the attacks residents had been warned either by telephone or warning missiles to leave the targeted buildings. More than 340 housing units in Gaza had been severely damaged or completely destroyed. As a result, more than 2,000 people had been displaced or were now sheltering with neighbours, friends or family, most of them urgently needed basic household items such as blankets and mattresses because their homes had been destroyed.
Aid workers on the ground reported that people in Gaza were gripped by fear, the streets were empty and the shops closed. Agencies that worked to provide psychosocial reports had been able to carry out some limited assessments and reported that an initial 675 children required urgent, specialized psychosocial support to be able to cope with the situation. The work of humanitarian organizations had clearly been hampered by the ongoing military operation. An emergency operation centre managed by OCHA had been set up at the United Nations Development Programme compound in Gaza to coordinate the humanitarian response by agencies on the ground there. Meanwhile, from inside Gaza, Palestinian armed groups had likewise fired hundreds of missiles against southern Israel including against urban areas. However, most had fallen in open areas or been intercepted by Israeli defense systems. But the civilian population there was living in fear, humanitarian staff had reported, especially women and children, with dozens having been treated for shock. Humanitarian partners, particularly those working on protection of civilians were calling for immediate respect of international humanitarian law, including prohibition from targeting civilians and civilian objects, and against indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.
Ms. Momal-Vanian added that the briefing by the Secretary-General to the Security Council yesterday, describing the situation, renewed the call for a de-escalation and a return to calm and a ceasefire understanding, was available for those that had not already seen it. In response to a question on whether there was any information as to whether the Security Council would act and if so, how, Ms. Momal-Vanian said that this was entirely in the hands of Member States. The Secretary-General in any case had clearly described the situation and called for urgent action by the international community. Responding to a question on whether there was a discrepancy in the language of the Secretary-General, requiring restraint from Israel whilst reiterating condemnation the rocket attacks, Ms. Momal-Vanian drew attention to the entirety of the declaration made, which clearly stated “The excessive use of force and endangering of civilian lives are intolerable and it is unacceptable for citizens on both sides to permanently live in fear of the next aerial attack.” The Secretary-General had also said that he was “also concerned at the many Palestinian deaths and injuries as a result of Israeli operations” and “continued to condemn the rising number of civilian lives lost in Gaza”. The statement spoke for itself.
With regards to a question on when new figures would be obtained, Mr. Laerke said that the report was a consolidated one, from all sources on the ground and there was obviously a process of consolidating figures and a cut off time, at 3 p.m. local time yesterday. This was a rapidly developing emergency. Another report was expected today but it was not known at what time. In response to a question as to what sort of contingency plan had been drawn if there was a ground assault, Mr. Laerke said that for now, humanitarian agencies were operating within the strategic response plan for the area, which was currently 42 per cent funded. It was asking USD 390 million. Obviously this plan was drawn before recent events and would probably be revised.
Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the High Commissioner today had expressed alarm at the Israeli military operations resulting in the killing of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, as well as the indiscriminate firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel. The High Commissioner appealed to all sides to abide by their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law. As the Secretary-General reported yesterday, at least 88 Palestinians including at least 21 children and 11 eleven women had been killed in Gaza as a result of Israeli strikes since the beginning of its operation ‘Protective Edge’ on Tuesday night. Reports also suggested that hundreds more had been injured and Israeli media reported that over 800 strikes had taken place since the operation began, with 60 on the morning of 10 July alone. Reports also indicated that from the start of the operation until midday yesterday Palestinian armed groups had fired a total of 809 rockets and 61 mortars. Media reports indicated that as of midday yesterday, 9 Israeli civilians had sustained injuries while fleeing to shelters. The High Commissioner warned Israel, Hamas and Palestinian armed groups in Gaza that they had been down this road before and it had only led to death, destruction, distrust and a painful prolongation of the conflict. This time around, once again, civilians were bearing the brunt of the conflict. All sides were urged to steadfastly respect their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law, to protect civilians. In particular, attacks must not be directed against civilians or civilian objects, nor should military assets be located in densely populated areas or attacks launched from such areas. For its part, the Government of Israel had to take all possible measures to ensure full respect for the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack during the conduct of hostilities, as required by international humanitarian law. In all circumstances, targeting of civilians had to be avoided. However, deeply disturbing reports had been received that many of the civilian casualties, including children, occurred as a result of strikes on homes. Such reports raised doubts about whether the Israeli air strikes had been in accordance with international humanitarian law and international human rights law. The targeting of civilian homes was a violation of international humanitarian law, unless these homes were being used for military purposes. In case of doubt, buildings ordinarily used for civilian purposes, such as homes, were presumed to not be legitimate military targets. Even if a home was identified as being used for military purposes, any attack must be proportionate, offer a prevailing military advantage in the prevailing circumstances at the time, and precautions had to be taken.
The High Commissioner urged all sides to ensure that every alleged breach of international law was promptly, independently, thoroughly and effectively investigated with a view to ensuring justice and reparation for victims. She expressed deep concern about the prospect of a ground offensive and strongly echoed the Secretary-General’s call for a ceasefire. It was high time that the leaders on all sides abandoned their poisonous rhetoric and deadly ‘tit-for-tat’ behaviour in favour of a peaceful resolution to this impasse. The High Commissioner had been to Gaza and Sderot herself, and seen how traumatic these air strikes and rocket attacks were on civilians, especially children. They had to stop.
In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the situation remained tense. The High Commissioner reiterated her call on all parties to address recent violations, including excessive use of force, arbitrary arrest and detention, destruction and damage to property, incitement to violence, and to ensure accountability for the crimes.
Ms. Momal-Vanian, responding to a question as to where the Liaison United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was based, clarified that it was based in Brussels. Perhaps it would be possible to organize a teleconference.
On Yemen and the situation in Amran, in the West of the country, preliminary estimates indicated that more than 35,000 persons in Amran Governorate had fled their homes because of the recent fighting. More than half a million had been affected since April. Thousands of people were reported trapped inside the conflict zone, unable to flee the fighting. More than 200 civilians including women and children had been reportedly been killed in recent days. Humanitarian agencies were providing food, water, sanitation, shelter and emergency health care to displaced people whenever and wherever they could be accessed. However, humanitarian access was constrained by the ongoing fighting and numerous road blocks.
Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), on the situation of Nigerian refugees fleeing Nigeria to reach the border with Cameroon or the extreme North of the Cameroon, at the border with Nigeria, said the WFP was particularly worried by their situation. They fled burned villages, to first and foremost save their lives. Near 8,000 persons had fled Nigeria since May to those border areas. It was the first time that the WFP operated in those northern areas of Cameroon and so close to Nigeria, where the security situation was extremely fluid and volatile. These 8,000 persons found refuge in village communities but the resources of these communities were beginning to dwindle. Faster action would be required. If this flux continued, it was expected that about 50, 000 would be assisted by the end of the year. There was particular concern about high levels of malnutrition identified, notably in children. There had been an evaluation at the end of June on nutrition and in the district of Waza, extremely high levels of acute malnutrition in children that had arrived had been found, as high as 25 per cent. Ms. Byrs reminded that the emergency threshold was of 15 per cent. The WFP provided food but also stocked clinics and health centres with specialized nutritional products for malnutrition of children, especially under the age of five. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, around 650,000 persons had been displaced in Adama, Yobe, and Borno.
On the situation in Waziristan, the WFP was currently providing food assistance and had set up seven humanitarian hubs that received and distributed assistance in Bannu, Dera, Ismail Khan, Lakki Marwat, Tank and in Bannu Camp. Some 452,000 persons had so far received a total of 3,000 tons of food assistance. Each package consists of a two-week ration of 80 kg wheat flour, 8 kg pulses, 4 kg fortified vegetable oil and 1 kg salt, as well as high-energy biscuits. The Government of Pakistan had provided an additional contribution of 60,000 tons of cereals that would allow to sustain efforts of the WFP. This contribution amounted to a total value of USD 23 million. The WFP still needed USD 49 million for its relief assistance before the end of the year.
Syrian refugees in Europe
Melissa Fleming for the United Nations Refugee Agency said that today the Agency had issued a report on the situation for Syrians in Europe. Because of the findings in the report, the Agency was calling on European countries to strengthen their response to the Syrian crisis and to do more for Syrian refugees arriving in Europe. States were being urged to ensure access to their territory, to ensure a fair and efficient asylum procedure when Syrian refugees arrived, and to provide adequate reception conditions, and to adopt other measures that would provide protection and safety for refugees fleeing this terrible conflict in Syria. Increasing numbers of Syrians were seeking access beyond the immediate region and to do so were embarking on long and dangerous journeys to reach safety. In many cases, they had family members in Europe and were just trying to reunite with those family members. Since the conflict began 123,600 Syrians had sought asylum in Europe, 112,170 of these in the European Union, including in addition Norway and Switzerland. Relative to the 2.9 million refugees in countries immediately surrounding Syria, these numbers were small. In fact they were minuscule and represented only four per cent of Syrian refugees. To put this into perspective, Europe had a population of 670 million people. Contrasting that to Lebanon which had a population of 4.4 million people, and had received 1.1 million refugees, this meant Lebanon had received ten times as many refugees as all of Europe.
In the European Union, Syrian asylum seekers were mostly also concentrated in just a few States. Most were concentrated in Sweden and Germany, which received 56 per cent of all Syrian applications. In the top five countries in addition, were also Bulgaria, Switzerland and the Netherlands, all together 70 per cent. Also the numbers arriving by sea had significantly increased. Syrians had become one of the top nationalities of those rescued in a heroic effort by the Italian navy in the Mediterranean Sea. In 2013 alone over 11,000 Syrians had been rescued and it was recalled that in 2013 there was a terrible boat tragedy in which over 200 Syrians perished, Syrian families including many children. In 2014, of the 60,000 rescued so far, 16 per cent of those were Syrians. About 10,000 Syrians had arrived in Italy so far this year. As it was probably known, many of those arrived on the borders of Europe had no intention of staying in those countries they arrived in. There were many reasons for this. They moved onwards to other destinations because of issues such as inadequate reception conditions in many of these countries, such as difficulties accessing adequate asylum procedures and because they may have family links in other countries. They also believed perhaps they had a better chance of refugee status in other countries and this may be real or may be only perceived.
Today in the report, countries across Europe were urged to implement a comprehensive response based on their responsibilities under regional and international law and to clearly demonstrate solidarity with countries in the region. The Agency was asking countries, because people were taking such dangerous and perilous journeys and having to flee through countries where the systems were not adequate, to enhance other legal ways for refugees to reach Europe, such as family reunification, and student visas. There were very positive practices to point out in some European States, including in most a de facto moratorium on any returns to Syria, access to asylum procedures, and high protection rates being afforded and granted to Syrians. But the report also highlighted some disturbing gaps and practices that were of concern to the Agency and which it would like to see addressed. These included push-backs at land and sea borders. These had been reported in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Spain, Albania, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia and Ukraine. These included also slow access to effective asylum procedures causing some Syrians to remain in terrible reception conditions for months on end without any process, as well as barriers to family reunification and lack of mechanisms to identify and assist asylum seekers and also disturbingly, the use of detention which the Agency was advocating against.
All countries were being encouraged to look at all options and to increase resettlement and admission programmes based on humanitarian needs, to think of other mechanisms such as private sponsorships, among others. The United Nations Refugee Agency was encouraged by the number of countries (17 countries) that had come forward this year and offered resettlement spaces or humanitarian admission. Countries in the world were being called upon to, in the years 2015 and 2016, step this up to a number of 100,000 resettlement spaces for vulnerable Syrians living in the neighbouring countries.
Responding to a question on the release date of the report, Ms. Fleming clarified that it had been released today. Answering a question regarding the case being reported in Switzerland of a Syrian that arrived at its borders and the death of her baby, Ms. Fleming said the Agency was very disturbed by the news of this case, of a women reportedly seven months pregnant and in a very concerning condition. It was encouraging that there was investigation into this case but as highlighted in the report, UNHCR did call on counties to welcome Syrians at their borders, to look into their circumstances, inside their territory, and in a case where someone was in a critical medical state, to offer them immediate treatment.
On the recommendation for European countries to take 100,000 Syrians, why this figure was so unambitious and why it could not be ramped up a bit, Ms. Fleming said that Europe was being asked to accept many more Syrians than that. Beyond those seeking asylum, other forms of protection were being asked for, which included family reunification, extending student visas, offering scholarships, all kinds of different mechanisms that could allow for the admission of more Syrians. Resettlement/humanitarian admission was one mechanism used to help Syrians that were in countries surrounding Syria and were already refugees, and identified by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to be really struggling; for example women that were alone or people with terrible medical conditions, victims of torture; that was what those 100,000 spaces were reserved for and the others were for asylum seekers who could make their way to Europe. That was why the Agency was asking that if they arrived at the door-step of Europe, that they be afforded decent reception conditions and asylum.
Answering a question about push-backs, Ms. Fleming said that the Agency was disturbed by a number of cases of closed borders. Bulgaria was one, Spain was another where hundreds of Syrians were not able to access the country. It was also disturbed by cases and claims of survivors of push-backs at sea, in Greece. There was one case in which survivors claimed that their boat was turned around by an official boat and in the process of being turned around capsized and many of the passengers had died. This was unacceptable. The Agency was calling for all countries to allow Syrians access to territory, their countries, and for the case to be heard. On lack of burden sharing, Europe had been very generous in contributing funding to the Agency and its partners for humanitarian action in countries neighbouring Syria. However, much more needed to be done.
Melissa Fleming for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that a revised funding appeal was being drawn at the Palais des Nations today, to boost funding for a worsening situation in South Sudan. USD 658 million were being asked also on behalf of partners, as the number of anticipated refugees had doubled, to over 715,000. A much smaller number had been anticipated during the original appeal in March. Ethiopia had received the biggest surge. Some 11,000 had crossed in a 72 hour period in just one peak in May. Now there were 1,000 crossing every day and very disturbingly, they were arriving in a terrible state. They were absolutely exhausted, traumatized and had had very difficult journey and were in very poor health. One in four children were malnourished, a very high number. An appeal for these funds was being made as a priority to help these people in neighbouring countries and also to address the high number of unaccompanied and separated children, 14,000 of them. It had to be noted that to date some contributions had been received but there was only 24 per cent funding. If this amount did not increase urgently, the consequences could be drastic. They could and would include food shortages, worsening sanitary conditions, heightened risk of disease and cuts to education programmes, which obviously exacerbated hardships faced by refugees.
Fadéla Chaib for the World Health Organization (WHO) said that the Codex Alimentarius Commission would be meeting for its 37th session from 14 to 18 July, at the Geneva International Conference Centre. A note had been circulated with details of the meeting.
Tom Heilandt, of the Codex secretariat, said that food safety and food quality were a joint responsibility from the producer down to the consumer. The situation today was that international trade in food was about USD 1.3 trillion per year and many more countries entered the international food trade. It was thus more than ever needed that there be international, harmonized rules, because food safety should not be different for different countries and different people. It was to this extent that the Codex Alimentarius Commission had been working over the last 50 years to establish harmonized standards to protect the health of consumers and also promote fair practices in the food trade. This year, a very big Commission was being expected, with about 700 people and 150 countries.
Angelika Tritscher, also for WHO, said that the purpose of internationally harmonized standards was to ensure that food that was bought was safe and of high quality. The standards being discussed at the meeting related to safety respects, to limit the maximum amount of contamination in the food supply, for example, lowering the limit of lead in infant formula, limit for arsenic in rice, and the limiting of a toxin produced by certain moulds. Also to be discussed was limiting of number of pesticides in food, but also recommendations on maximum use levels of additives in food. Another important aspect regarded recommendations that would be given to prevent the residues of certain veterinary drugs that were of concern, used to produce food like meat, milk and eggs.
Another area of work of Codex was to give guidance on safe production. One example that would be discussed was a code of hygienic practices for the production of spices and dried aromatic herbs. It would give guidance on safe production from growing in the field, processing steps, storage and transportation up to the consumer. These elements were all related to safety but an important aspect was also the quality of food and there were examples to define the standards. There would be updates during the session through Twitter with links to additional information on the website.
Fadéla Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that, in Guinea, the epidemic tended to show minimal activity, with only one new case reported in seven days. However, there was a need to remain vigilant and to follow the situation in the communities and villages that resisted cooperation with health experts. On Liberia and Sierra Leone, the situation remained precarious with new figures and persons infected, as well as deaths. The areas with intense Ebola activity had been identified.
One of the results of the Accra meeting last week was the opening of a sub-regional centre in Guinea, to follow the situation in the three countries and to work with neighbouring countries. As of 8 July, the cumulative number of cases in the three countries stood at 888, including 539 deaths.
The representatives of the United Nations Children’s Fund, the International Labour Organization and the International Organization for Migration but did not brief.
The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/TX4CaQ