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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
18 October 2013
REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the Joint Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the United Nations Children’s Fund, World Food Programme, Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs, World Health Organization, International Organization for Migration, International Labour Organization, Human Rights Council, World Trade Organization and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.    


Syria – Geneva II

Khawla Mattar, Spokesperson of the Joint Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, announced that Mr. Brahimi would tomorrow start his anticipated regional tour of the Middle East.  Mr. Brahimi would first visit Cairo, Egypt and was due to meet with the Foreign Minister of Egypt tomorrow.  He would be in Cairo until Sunday.  Ms. Mattar said they could not yet confirm on which dates Mr. Brahimi would be visiting which countries, and they would announce the details over the coming days. 

Regarding the Geneva II peace conference on Syria, Ms. Mattar said that the dates would be announced by the Secretary-General, who would convene the conference and would issue invitations in due course.  In response to questions, Ms. Mattar said that the holding of Geneva II was not in doubt.  The only question was when, and that would be announced by the Secretary-General, who had said it would be in the second half of November.  All parties were determined that the conference would take place, as emphasized by the Secretary-General, Mr. Brahimi and others.

A journalist asked Ms. Mattar if they knew which party from the Syrian opposition would attend Geneva II.  Ms. Mattar replied that the opposition had said it was holding a meeting in Istanbul on 24 October, and would take a decision then.  Responding to a question about whether Iran would take part in the talks, Ms. Mattar said that it was under discussion.  Ms. Mattar also confirmed that Mr. Brahimi had not met this week with the United States and Russian delegations on the side of the Iran nuclear talks. 

Regarding preparations for Geneva II, a journalist asked about the tripartite meeting planned for the beginning of November between the United States, Russia and Mr. Brahimi.  Ms. Mattar said that the details of that meeting were still being arranged, but she thought it would be to finalize the preparations for Geneva II. 

A journalist asked whether a Humanitarian Forum would precede Geneva II and whether the United Nations thought that the political and humanitarian aspects of the Syria crisis should be dealt with separately.  Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) responded by saying that indeed the political track was completely separate from the humanitarian aspects. 

Syria - Refugees

Melissa Fleming for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), said as the violence continued unabated in Syria, growing numbers of Syria were seeking safety in Europe and United Nations High Commission for Refugees was concerned about severe difficulties they faced during their passage and at borders.  That includes shocking cases of hundreds of Syrians drowning at sea and incidents where Syrians had been dangerously hindered in their journeys or in accessing a European border. 

UNHCR was deeply saddened that only 200 people survived a boat carrying between 400 and 500 Syrians and Palestinians from Syria when it sank in the Mediterranean on 11 October.  It was most disturbed that the cause of the tragedy could be attributed to shots that were fired after the boat left Libya, injuring four passengers and damaging the hull, which caused panic and eventually the boat to capsize. 

UNHCR had also noted a new trend of growing numbers of Syrians crossing the Mediterranean from Egypt to Italy, citing increasing anxiety over their security in Egypt as well as incidents of physical assault, verbal threat, detention and deportation.  The Egyptian Government estimated that there were 250,000 to 300,000 Syrians currently reside in Egypt, of whom 122,774 were registered with UNHCR.  UNHCR commended Egypt’s generous hosting of so many Syrian refugees.

Between January and 30 September, 7,557 Syrians and Palestinians arrived along the coast of Italy, with a huge upsurge in numbers since early August - 6,233 in that period.  Most of the Syrian refugees that reached Italy continued on to other countries in Europe to seek asylum.  Of particular concern was the increasing number of unaccompanied children making the voyage.  As the cost of travel could range from $2,000 to $5,000 per person, some families opted to send their children alone, or with relatives or friends.

Ms. Fleming highlighted another incident of lives lost at sea.  On 11 October, a boat that had set out from Alexandria with an estimated 112 passengers, 40 of whom were Syrian, sunk before it reached the open sea.  Twelve bodies were recovered, including five children.  The survivors were being held in detention facilities in two police stations. 

UNHCR noted with concern that over 800 Syrians have been arrested in Egypt since August for attempting to illegally depart and 144, including 44 children, had been deported to third countries.  Although charges had not been laid, approximately 589 Syrians remained in administrative detention, including women and 84 children.  UNHCR was seeking access to the detained in order to properly verify numbers, conditions, and needs, or provide legal assistance.

UNHCR recognized that a number of countries in North Africa, including Egypt, were increasingly affected by the displacement caused by the Syria crisis.  The impact of the crisis was moving outwards from the neighbouring countries.  Given the ongoing and dramatic needs of Syrian refugees, which were likely to continue and grow in the immediate future, reinforcement of capacity to receive them in North African countries was increasingly urgent.  UNHCR was working with governments, the EU and other partners to put in place a comprehensive response to saving lives of refugees and migrants at sea.  

There were warning signs in some hosting countries that showed the potentially destabilizing impact of having so many Syrian refugees on their territory that was aggravating the already severe political, security, and economic repercussions of the Syria conflict.  UNHCR was increasingly calling upon States in Europe and beyond Syria’s immediate region to explore concrete and meaningful ways of helping, in addition to financial aid.   Other measures could be humanitarian admission, resettlement, simplified and expedited family reunion, facilitated visa procedures and the extension of student or employment-related visas.  UNHCR welcomed a number of offers in that regard, many of which had been reported to the media, and urges other States to join the effort.

Answering questions on the 11 October boat sinking, Ms. Fleming said that the incident took place last Friday night, and according to survivors, about two hours after the boat had left Libya another boat pursued them and asked them to turn back.  When they didn’t turn back, shots were fired and four people were injured.  The shots hit the hull, which led to water come into the boat and people to panic.  UNHCR had asked the Libyan Government for an explanation, and the Libyan Prime Minister had made a statement saying that he believed that bandits were responsible for the shooting. 

Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP) said that WFP was extremely concerned that it had had limited or no access to provide food assistance to some people for several months now especially in Aleppo, some parts of Homs, Al Hassakeh and even just outside the capital in Rural Damascus.  Humanitarian access was essential to avoid a situation in which hunger became an additional factor that pushed even more people to flee the country.  Ms. Byrs added that during the September distribution cycle, WFP was unable to reach Aleppo governorate or to dispatch the monthly food rations allocated for the half a million people in Aleppo who depended on food assistance to feed their families.  Six locations in the Hama Governorate had been inaccessible over the past six months and WFP was concerned about the humanitarian situation of people remaining in those areas.

On Sunday 13 October, WFP was able to reach Yabroud in rural Damascus, for the first time since March 2013, dispatching enough food for 7,500 people for one month, Ms. Byrs said.  Yabroud and many areas in rural Damascus had been out of WFP reach due to ongoing fighting.  WFP had dispatched 8100 food rations- enough for over 32,000 people - to Aleppo City so far in October after not being able to distribute any food in September in Aleppo Governorate due to growing insecurities and road closures.  It was working with all parties to increase the scale and geographic scope of support to the governorate and organizing the transport of inter-agency convoys of humanitarian aid.

WFP also successfully reached Talbiseh in Homs after five months of interrupted access in the last week of the September distribution cycle.  Some 1,750 people in care centres for the elderly in Talbiseh have received family food rations delivered by WFP partners.  WFP and its partners were able to negotiate access for a limited number of WFP trucks into Al Hassakeh - for the first time in four months - during the September distribution cycle. Nonetheless, Ms. Byrs said, WFP was extremely concerned about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Hassakeh.
 
WFP reached 2.7 million people inside Syria out of the planned three million people during the September distribution cycle, as deliveries of food rations faced delays due to security risks on the roads, restrictions on access and the constant shift of control lines across the country.          In spite of extremely difficult security conditions, WFP was moving an average of 32,000 metric tons of food a month in Syria, using more than 1,200 trucks that navigate countless armed checkpoints to reach destinations across all 14 Governorates.

Lampedusa Migrants

Gaëlle Sevenier, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that IOM Director-General William Lacy Swing has called for prompt action to save the lives of migrants travelling to Europe by boat.  The Director-General thanked all who took part in the rescue at Lampedusa.  He gave his condolences to the families of the victims and urged urgent action to be taken to ensure that such a tragedy would not happen again.  The International Organization for Migration’s priority was to save lives, the Director-General had said and given its operational framework, deep knowledge of migration and experience in the field, it urged the international community to find a global approach to protect migrants and to guarantee human dignity. 

The Director-General had also said he hoped the joint IOM and UNHCR call for greater attention and for urgent intervention in Italy would lead to greater engagement in the Mediterranean region and the rest of Europe of the issue of migrants arriving in European waters.  Public discourse about migration needed to be modified, in order to strengthen cooperation and recognize that migration was a process that should be managed instead of a problem that had to be solved.


Central African Republic

Marixie Mercado, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that a new survey on education in the Central African Republic had found that seven out of 10 primary school students had not returned to school since the conflict started in December 2012.  About 65 per cent of schools surveyed had been looted, occupied or damaged by bullets or shells.  Almost half of the schools remained closed and students had lost an average of six months of schooling.  Four out of five people said that fear of violence was the main reason that students were reluctant to return to school.  Absent teachers and lack of supplies were the two other main reasons. 

Those numbers were a telling indicator of need.  They showed that there was sufficient generalized insecurity and fear; that teachers and pupils were afraid to go to school and that understandably parents did not want to let their children out of sight.  In a country where enrolment was already low those numbers reflected what happened with the children who were going to school, the children who represented the future of the country, and for much of 2013 that future was in limbo. 

Press releases in English and French were available at the back of the room, including quotes from the United Nations Children’s Fund representative in the Central African Republic.   

Responding to a question about the data she had spoken about, Ms. Mercado said the survey was conducted in 176 out of 1,933 schools in Central African Republic and covered 11 of the districts, including Bangui, but did not attempt to be representative of what was happening in the country.  There had been significant damage across the board to the educational system.  For example, at one school in the capital city Bangui every desk was looted. 

Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that Emergency Directors from seven United Nations agencies and two non-governmental organizations began a three-day mission in the Central African Republic (CAR) yesterday and had meetings with the authorities and humanitarian partners in the capital Bangui. Today they were in the field in the north, in Bossangoa and Kaga Bandoro.

Overall some 1.6 million people in the Central African Republic were in urgent need of food, protection, health care, water, proper sanitation and shelter.  The current crisis which began in December 2012 had forced more than 394,000 people from their homes.  They were today internally displaced.  An additional 64,000 people had sought refuge in neighbouring countries.  Persistent insecurity, the absence of the rule of law and attacks against humanitarian personnel and assets continued to prevent life-saving assistance from reaching people in need.

However, United Nations humanitarian staff had been redeployed to five locations outside the capital Bangui and mobile humanitarian teams were also on the ground and providing aid in Bossangoa in the north-east, where there had been a recent flare-up in fighting between various armed groups.  Humanitarian partners had reached nearly 180,000 people with food assistance and nutrition programmes; 573,000 people had benefited from water and sanitation programmes; and more than 200,000 had received health support.

Mr. Laerke noted that after the mission to the Central African Republic, the delegation of Emergency Directors would travel on to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and would next week go to the eastern Kivu provinces which host 1.7 million of the country's 2.7 million internally displaced people.

A journalist asked Mr. Laerke about the aim of the mission.  Mr. Laerke replied that the two missions were unrelated but put together for logistical reasons.  The purpose of the mission was for the Emergency Directors to see for themselves what was happening on the ground and see how they could better support the humanitarian teams in doing their work.  The mission also aimed to raise awareness and help meet the 39 per cent funded humanitarian appeal of US$195 million. 

Human Rights Council - Universal Periodic Review

Rolando Gomez, for the Human Rights Council (HRC) said that the seventeenth session of the Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group will be held in Geneva from 21 October to 1 November during which 15 States are scheduled to have their human rights records examined under this mechanism.  The group of States to be reviewed by the Universal Periodic Review Working Group during this session were (in order of scheduled review): Saudi Arabia, Senegal, China, Nigeria, Mexico, Mauritius, Jordan, Malaysia, the Central African Republic, Monaco, Belize, Chad, Israel, the Congo and Malta.

The meeting would take place in Room XX, and be webcast, and daily media summaries would also be available on the extranet.  A background press release had been sent out, and details of the parallel side events would be distributed, Mr. Gomez said. 

Human Rights Council - Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Rolando Gomez, for the Human Rights Council (HRC) announced that the United Nations-mandated commission investigating the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would next week begin a series of public hearings in London, New York and Washington D.C. aimed at gathering information from witnesses on rights violations.  The three-member Commission of Inquiry, led by Judge Michael Kirby, would hold public hearings in London on 23 October and in Washington D.C. on 30 and 31 October.  The hearings provided an important opportunity for witnesses to share information aimed at raising international awareness about the human rights situation in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, whose Government has so far declined access into the country to the Commissioners.  A press release with more details had been circulated.

Trafficking in persons

Gaëlle Sevenier for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said the IOM was today joining with the European Union and other European countries and partners throughout the region to mark the Seventh EU Anti-Trafficking Day.  Human trafficking was one of the world's most serious transnational crimes and one of the most complex human rights challenges of our time, Ms. Sevenier said.  While the global scale of human trafficking was difficult to quantify, as many as 800,000 people may be trafficked across international borders each year, with many more being trafficked inside their own countries.  Organized criminal groups were known to be earning billions of dollars in profits from exploiting their victims.

United Nations statistics report that in Central and Eastern Europe alone there had been 22,000 cases of trafficking between 2007 and 2010.  Switzerland was not an exception, and last year alone 78 cases were registered, and Swiss Federal Counsellor Simonetta Sommaruga said that number was just the tip of an iceberg.  During the week of 18-25 October 2013, various events would be organized throughout Switzerland to mark the country’s first annual week against trafficking in persons.  The week was organized by a group of governmental, social, and civil society stakeholders brought together by the International Organization for Migration office in Bern and the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.
Today a one-day event was taking place in Geneva to mark European Anti-Trafficking Day and to launch Switzerland’s week against trafficking in persons.  The event, organized in partnership with the International Organization for Migration, International Labour Organization, United Nations Refugee Agency and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the International Conference Centre of Geneva.  At 2.30 p.m. there would be a high-level section featuring Ms. Sommaruga and the Director General of International Organization for Migration, to be followed by a press conference at 3.15 p.m. 

Iran

Cécile Pouilly for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) answered a question about the case of an Iranian man sentenced to death for drug trafficking, who survived an execution by hanging and but was to be hung a second time.  Ms. Pouilly said that the OHCHR constantly called for the abolition of the death penalty, but she did not have detailed information on that person and the reason why he had been sentenced to death.  She would revert with a more detailed answer. 

World Health Organization

Glenn Thomas, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that today the World Health Organization had announced a new case of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and would be issuing a press advisory today.  The case was found in a 61 year old man from Qatar who had tested positive for MERS and was confirmed by the Reference Laboratory of Public Health in England yesterday.  Preliminary investigations revealed that the patient had not travelled outside of Qatar in the two weeks prior to becoming ill but owned a farm,  and has had significant contact with the animals, including camels, sheep and hens.  Some of the animals were tested and found negative for MERS.  That meant that globally there were now a total of 139 laboratory confirmed cases of MERS and a total of 60 deaths. 

Mr. Thomas also drew journalists attention to the lead poisoning week of action which would run from 20 to 26 October, with the theme ‘lead-free kids for a healthy future’. 
A note had been sent to the media. 

A journalist asked about some 150 cases of cholera in Mexico.  Mr. Thomas confirmed that the World Health Organization was aware of the cases and was providing support to the Mexican Government on the issue.  His colleagues may be able to give more information. 

Bangladesh

Hans von Rohland for the International Labour Organization (ILO) said that this 24 October would mark six months since the collapse of the building in Bangladesh which led to the deaths of over 400 people.  He announced that on that date the ILO would launch a new programme to improve working conditions and security in the textile sector of Bangladesh.  The project would last three and a half years and would focus on improving the condition and security of factory buildings and strengthening worker’s rights. 

The project would be inaugurated in Dhaka on Tuesday, 22 October at 3 p.m. local time by the Assistant Director-General of the ILO, Mr.  Gilbert Houngbo.  The Director of the Dhaka office would also be present, as well as Ministers of the Government of Bangladesh, Ambassadors from financing countries and other officials.  A press release would be issued.  A journalist asked Mr. Rohland whether it would be possible for ILO Experts to give a technical briefing on the new project and Mr. Rohland replied that he would look into it.

Air Pollution

Jean Rodriguez, for the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), said that following the WHO announcement yesterday on air pollution and cancer, UNECE would like to recall that UNECE’s Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (CLRTAP) had a 30 year track record in effectively reducing air pollution.  The CLRTAP covered 51 countries in North America, Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia, including high income, middle income and low income countries.  It therefore had a breadth of knowledge and expertise that could be shared with countries outside the region, since air pollution was a worldwide concern.   In May 2012 CLRTAP included national emission reduction commitments for main air pollutants to be achieved in 2020 and beyond,  including — for the first time —fine particulate matter, which was now identified specifically by WHO as carcinogenic.  Mr. Rodriguez announced that Professor Martin Williams, of Kings College in London would be present on Monday at the Palais for a meeting, and would make himself available to the media for questions on the Convention and on atmospheric pollution and thin particles.

Geneva activities

In answer to a question, Ms. Momal Vanian confirmed that the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva had announced that he would leave his post at the end of the month.

Ms. Momal-Vanian announced that the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women would close its session this afternoon, after which it would issue concluding observations on the countries reviewed during the course of the session: Moldova, Colombia, Benin, Andorra, Cambodia, Tajikistan and Seychelles.

Ms. Momal-Vanian also announced that the Human Rights Committee this week reviewed the reports of Djibouti and Bolivia, and worked on a general comment on arbitrary detention and arrest.  Next week the Committee would review the reports of Mauritania, Mozambique and Uruguay.

Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) announced that a press briefing with the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel, Robert Piper, would take place on Tuesday 22 October at 11.30 a.m. in Press Room 3, Palais des Nations Geneva, directly after the regular briefing.  He would take questions on the humanitarian crises in the Sahel countries.

Glenn Thomas, for the World Health Organization (WHO), announced that next Wednesday 23 October there would be a press briefing in Press Room I to launch the World Health Organization Global TB Control Report.  Speaking would be Dr. Hiroki Nakatani, Assistant Director-General for HIV, TB, Malaria and neglected tropical diseases, and Dr. Karen Were, the coordinator for Laboratories, Diagnostics and Drug-Resistance in the global TV programme.  The report would look at the Millennium Development Goal on eradication of TB. 

Marixie Mercado, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that Ted Chaiban, Director of Emergencies for the United Nations Children’s Fund, would be in Geneva on 25 October to give a lunchtime press briefing on the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo missions. 

Melissa Begag for the World Trade Organization (WTO) announced a press briefing would take place on Friday, 18 October in Press Room 1 at 2 p.m.  Speaker Peter Ungphakorn would brief on the SPS Committee meeting.

Melissa Begag for the World Trade Organization (WTO) also announced the Director-General’s schedule for the coming week.  On Saturday 19 October he would meet in Geneva with Mr Kim Won-soo, Special Advisor to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.  On Thursday 24 October the Director-General would attend the Conference of African Ministers of Trade (CAMoT) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Jean Rodriguez, for the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), announced that next week UNECE would host a visit by the executive director of the European Agency for the Environment, Professor Hans Bruyninckx, who was coming to take part in the annual meeting of the Committee of the Environmental Politics of the ECE.  Mr. Bruyninckx would give a presentation on his agency’s work on the Shared Environmental Information System (SEIS) project, an online database to bring together all the information available on all environmental topics, on 25 October from 1 p.m. until 3 p.m. in Room 12 of the Palais des Nations. 

Mr. Rodriguez also announced that UNECE Executive Secretary, Mr. Alkalaj would attend the Switzerland High-level Symposium "Development cooperation in a post-2015 era: sustainable development for all" in Montreux, at which he would give the welcome address on the 24th

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The representative of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also attended the briefing but did not speak.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: webtv.un.org/media.