REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
8 July 2014
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the Spokespersons for the World Health Organization, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, the World Meteorological Organization, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Refugee Agency, and the World Food Programme.
Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said a very large and strong typhoon Neoguri was currently hitting Japan. The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) had issued an emergency warning for Okinawa’s main island. This was the first time it had activated the emergency warning system for a typhoon and since the system was launched back in August of last year, which would alert people to the significant likelihood of catastrophes in association with natural phenomena of extraordinary magnitude. The impact of the typhoon was not to be underestimated. The emergency warning system was a new system and it was the first time it was being activated for a typhoon and it was a very serious threat. Typhoon Neoguri currently had a central pressure of 945 hectopascal. There had been questions about whether it could be compared with typhoon Haiyan which impacted the Philippines last year. It was not as strong as Haiyan as Haiyan had a central pressure of less than 900 hectopascal at its peak. (The lower the value the stronger the typhoon was). Wind speeds of Neoguri were nevertheless currently about 160km per hour. The forecast had been downgraded slightly since yesterday but the typhoon was expected to remain of strong intensity for the next three days at least.
In response to a question on whether another big typhoon should be expected throughout the course of the year, Ms. Nullis said that it was difficult to predict in advance. There had been some speculation as to whether the anticipated formation of El Niño would impact on the number and intensity of tropical cyclones in that basin. The relationship between El Niño and cyclones in that particular basin was not actually as clear cut as that. There were other influencing factors. Individual typhoons could not be linked to climate change but because warmer atmosphere held more moisture it was expected that individual typhoons would mean heavier precipitation, as seen last year with Haiyan. Again, very heavy precipitation was expected for this particular typhoon. It also had to be borne in mind that you could have major typhoons but if they did not impact on heavily populated areas they did not have such a big socio-economic impact.
Central African Republic
Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), speaking on the deteriorating situation in the Central African Republic, said that the violence had resumed, threatening humanitarian assistance and making things very difficult for humanitarian workers in the field and creating additional population displacement. Despite this, in June the WFP had provided food assistance to 400,000 persons. Half of this assistance went to food emergency situation areas at Phase 4, one of the worst. Another worry was precipitation, extremely low in the North West of the country and would result in yet another decrease in agricultural production. Furthermore, a lack of fuel for airplanes was hampering operations. The United Nations air service had had to reduce its destinations to one flight by week, for all destinations.
In June, the WFP had also provided school meals to 65,000 million children, notably in Bangui, Bouar, Bossangoa, Paoua and Kanga-Bandoro. The security situation remained volatile and hampered humanitarian aid.
In response to a question enquiring about the reasons of lack of fuel for places, and only one flight per week, Ms. Byrs said that there had been a reduction of flights to one flight per week, for each destination. When there was more fuel there were more flights to each destination. The problem was a logistical one. Fuel would soon be brought by truck from Douala. On 6 July, 300 barrels of fuel had been received by plane from Nairobi, equivalent to 600,000 litres of fuel, to continue to maintain operations. A further 300 barrels of fuel were being awaited for, which would come from Douala. This was indeed a problem and a logistical one.
Australian return of 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers
Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said the Office was deeply disturbed that Australian authorities on Sunday returned to Sri Lanka 41 people seeking asylum, apparently without adequate screening of their protection claims and needs. International law required that each and every case be properly and individually examined on its own merits. This should not be done hurriedly, remotely, or on the high seas, without procedural safeguards and due process guarantees for those involved. Any returns, even from the high seas on in the territorial seas of States, had to be carried out in accordance with international law, under which refoulement and collective expulsions were strictly prohibited. It was unclear whether the Australian Government had been given any assurances that returnees would not face ill-treatment upon their return to Sri Lanka, nor was it clear how the Australian Government planned to monitor their treatment. While Sri Lankans of Tamil origin had a particular risk profile, given the past history of conflict, individual Sinhalese may also have fears of persecution. For instance human rights defenders or journalists that had spoken out against the Government faced reprisals and attacks.
The High Court of Australia’s issuance of an interim injunction against the return of 153 other Sri Lankan asylum seekers, reportedly including 37 children, intercepted by Australian authorities was welcomed. It was understood that since their interception more than a week ago, the individuals on that vessel had not been able to make contact with family members or refugee organizations. It was hoped that the matter would be subject to a full judicial review in light of Australia’s obligations under international law, including the principle of non-refoulement under the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Convention Against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in response to a question as to whether there were any sanctions against a Government that violated the 1951 Convention or whether it was just a matter of international shame, said that technically there was nothing in the Convention with regards to sanctions. Coming back to this case, it was thought that the priority right now had to be the people concerned. The High Court of Australia had, it was understood, issued a further injunction against returns at the moment. The full circumstances of the process carried out to determine whether people had valid claims for asylum or not were not known and so UNHCR was not currently in a position itself to say whether it was done within or outside of international law.
Responding to questions on whether UNHCR had been in touch with the Australian Government with regards to the issue and what, under normal circumstances, should be done if boat people were intercepted in the high seas, and whether the Government of Australia was in breach of the 1951 Convention, Mr. Edwards said that UNHCR was indeed in touch with the Australian Government on this. When boats presumed to be carrying asylum seekers were intercepted UNHCR’s position was that request for international protection should be considered within the territory of the intercepting State, consistent with fundamental international refugee protection principles. UNHCR was not able to say at the moment whether what had happened in terms of the processes carried out to determine refugee status were within international law, as per its statement yesterday.
Ms. Shamdasani, responding to a question, said that there was no information as to whether the 41 asylum seekers that were returned included human rights defenders, journalists, among others, and what follow-up had occurred since OHCHR’s observation in the past that Australia was in breach of international law on its treatment of asylum seekers. The press statement issued by the Immigration Minister yesterday had indicated that the group consisted mostly of Sinhalese and some Tamils. What the Office was stressing was that just because they were not Tamil did not mean that they may not face a well-founded fear of persecution if they returned to Sri Lanka. There were individual Sinhalese who may also have fear of persecution, for instance human rights defenders, journalists who had spoke out against the Government. The High Commissioner had repeatedly raised with Australia, the use of administrative detention, the regional settlement agreements and the Office continued to engage with the Government on this.
Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that a Syrian mother and her two children were among the latest people to have perished whilst attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Libya. The Libyan coastguard informed UNHCR on Monday that it had recovered 12 bodies from a boat accident believed to have occurred on Sunday, including three Syrians, three Eritrean nationals and six others whose nationalities had not been determined. The boat, which had a capacity of about 200 passengers and may have been carrying many more people, was reported to have capsized off the Tripoli coast. Search and rescue operations were on-going. The fate of others that may have been aboard the vessel was unknown. Some 217 people were believed to have drowned off the Libyan coast so far in 2014, while trying to cross the Mediterranean, this was in addition to at least 290 people confirmed dead or missing from boat accidents in the waters off Italy, Turkey and Greece, bringing the death toll in the Mediterranean so far this year to around 500 people. UNHCR applauded the search and rescue operations being run by Government authorities but asked that such operations be further strengthened particularly in areas with high concentrations of boat crossings. States worldwide were being urged to look at providing legal alternatives to dangerous sea journeys, which may include family reunification, rapid resettlement and humanitarian admissions. Governments were additionally encouraged to resist punitive or deterrent measures including detention for people seeking safety. Currently, about 37,000 asylum seekers and refugees were registered with UNHCR’s Tripoli and Benghazi offices, with Syrian making up the largest group. However, not all asylum seekers in Libya were registered and many lived in precarious conditions such as overcrowded accommodation, with little access to employment. They had also been affected, as with others in Libya, by the current unrest.
Responding to a question about the boat itself and the smugglers, any information on them and the bodies found floating without a boat around, Mr. Edwards said that there was limited information from the Libyan coast-guard but the fate of others that may have been aboard the boat was not known at this stage. This was quite a big worry and the Agency was in contact with the Libyan authorities to try to see what more was heard of that. At the moment there was confirmation only of the small number of people that had perished in this incident.
In response to a question, Mr. Edwards said it could not be foreseen whether the refugees and asylum seekers currently registered in Libya might also be trying to cross the Mediterranean. The two were not necessarily related to each other but yes, an overall larger flow of people across the Mediterranean coming through Libya was seen. This had really been happening since the end of last year. People were still being seen coming from the Horn of Africa, Eritreans, Somalis, and Syrians too. In addition, there were large numbers of people on the migrant side coming from areas of West Africa but obviously there could also be persons with protection needs amongst those too. The number of asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean this year was at about 60,000 as of the end of June. That certainly was significantly up from where it was last year. It was hoped that full half yearly data could be obtained in the next week or two.
Thailand deports high-profile refugee
Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said the Agency was dismayed by the deportation by Thailand of a refugee recognized by the Agency to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, where he could face harsh treatment amounting to persecution. According to information confirmed this week by the Thai authorities, the deportation of this former Lao Hmong leader took place on 13 June. UNHCR had urged the Royal Thai Government not to send him back since his detention in March 2013. Given his high profile, the Agency had serious concerns over the risks to him now that he had been returned to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The deportation went against the principle of non-refoulement, enshrined in international customary law. The principle was binding on all States and precluded them from sending a refugee to a country where his or her life or freedom would be threatened. Returning an individual to a country where he or she would face a risk of torture was also prohibited under the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which Thailand was party. The Agency appealed to the Thai authorities to uphold their responsibilities under international law to ensure full respect for the rights of people in need of international protection. Thailand continued to host more that 128,000 refugees and asylum seekers, the vast majority living in nine temporary shelters along camps along the border with Myanmar.
Expulsion of Democratic Republic of Congo persons from the Republic of Congo and Angola
Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in response to a question on the Democratic Republic of Congo and the reaction of the High Commissioner concerning the expulsion of Democratic Republic of Congo nationals a couple of months ago from the Republic of Congo, Ms. Shamdasani said she had no updated information on this. The situation was being followed very closely and colleagues in Kinshasa had been interviewing a few victims as well and were continuing to monitor the situation. Ms. Shamdasani would come back with more information, soon.
Fadéla Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding a question on Ebola and whether the situation was still of concern, Ms. Chaib said that there would be an update in the course of the day about the new numbers for the three countries concerned. Following the Ghana conference, there was now awareness that it was not a country but regional problem, and there were means to control it. If surveillance was strengthened and if there was better work with the local to explain what Ebola was, as there was still a lot of resistance by the local population to cooperate with health workers and report to health clinics to get treatment. This could be understood because it was a scary disease that brought with it a lot of anxiety and fear. WHO and the international community would deploy more and more experts to the three countries and the region should really work together to share information. It had been very interesting to hear experiences from countries that had had Ebola in the past while for West Africa it was the first time, countries like Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda had had numerous Ebola outbreaks and they shared experiences with participants on how to control it. There was a need to really work together on different fronts to control it and it was possible to do so. Guinea, since a few days had not reported any new cases but there were new cases in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Ms. Chaib did not have the final numbers but would have the in the course of the day. They were still being checked and would be sent as soon as they were received.
International Conference on HIV and report on HIV marginalized populations
Ms. Momal-Vanian said the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) would be releasing a new report on HIV ahead of an international AIDS conference that would take place Melbourne from 20 to 25 July. The report was expected to be released on 16 of July. The Executive Director would launch the report at a press conference in Room III on 16 of July at 11 a.m.
Fadéla Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that ahead of the Melbourne Conference, the WHO would publish a report concerning certain marginalized populations, sometimes stigmatized and even criminalized, such as sex workers, men that had sexual relations with other men, transgender persons, and persons that used drugs, and prisoners that often, very often, too often, did not have access to treatment for HIV. While globally the cases of HIV were less and less frequent, amid these populations this was not the case. The WHO would present the report under embargo as it would also be launched in Melbourne, this Thursday at 10.30 a.m. in Press Room I, with several experts including Dr. Gottfried Hirnschall. The embargo would be lifted on Friday, 11 July, at 9 a.m.
In response to a question regarding the content of the report on HIV and marginalized persons, Ms. Chaib said that the report was about pointing out the fact that certain populations such as sex workers, prisoners, transgender persons and drug users were often stigmatized in their country and did not have access, as did the general population, to treatment for HIV. There was a dichotomy between generally declining HIV, and increasing HIV amongst these populations. The WHO would make an appeal to the Conference in Melbourne to no longer marginalize these populations, to take into account their specific needs, and especially to fight against stigmatization and criminalization that generally accompanied treatment of these populations. How to render programmes accessible to key populations, how health services could be made available to these populations and to which they had a right, would be addressed.
Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), also on the Conference on HIV, said the WFP would present directives on nutrition. The WFP was working with UNAIDS and brought food assistance to 1,300,000 persons suffering from HIV. Persons could not be allowed to take medication if they did not have food. This was essential and part of the treatment and something that was being increasingly taken into account. It was hoped that an expert from Rome would be able to come and speak on the subject.
High-level meeting on non-communicable diseases
Fadéla Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said a high-level meeting would be held in New York, on 10 July, with a view to assessing progress made by countries in controlling non-communicable diseases. Some 100 countries would be present and the WHO would be represented by Dr. Margaret Chan. The meeting would assess progress made since 2011 in communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and pulmonary diseases. The WHO would launch a report entitled ‘Non-Communicable Disease: Country Profile 2014,’ in New York. It would not be a formal press conference, but a panel discussion with several experts including Dr. Chan. Ms. Chaib enquired as to whether there was interest in a press conference with an expert in Geneva, under embargo, to discuss the report. The embargo on the report on non-communicable diseases, as well as the press note on the meeting, would be lifted on 10 July, at 7.15 p.m.
Development of Hyperspectral Imaging System on the International Space Station
Akiko Perona, for the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), said that a press release had been issued to announce the collaboration agreement between UNITAR and the Centre for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which actually managed the United States part of the international space station. The agreement was to collaborate on technology applications and awareness-raising of the benefits of space technologies.
Einar Bjorgo, also for the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), said the agreement was quite significant because for the first time, the United Nations would have direct access to a sensor mounted on the international space station that would be constructed in order to meet the needs of developing countries, of United Nations agencies, and of regional organizations. The specific focus of the applications of this type of hyperspectoral sensor was that it would allow detection of crop failure much in advance. Further to being important for food security, it would be an excellent instrument to monitor details in terms of agriculture growth, also environmental monitoring, for examples deforestation and reforestation, as well as to be used in disaster management. It was a huge step forward and it would be possible to collect 30 times more information in terms of what happening in terms of crops, better water management, and basically 30 times more information derived from this instrument to be mounted on the International Space Station. Furthermore, this was also gotten in near real time, so just a few hours after an image was taken it would be available, processed and sent directly to beneficiaries, which would typically be people working in the public sector in developing countries.
In response to a question regarding the use of images by the United Nations system, who would decide which image would be taken and whether it would be possible, for example, to monitor prison camps in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Mr. Bjorgo said that this was not intended for monitoring of any detailed information, but rather to look at larger areas, so it would definitely not be a sensor applicable for that kind of information. What was available in terms of commercial satellite imagery at half a metre spatial resolution was typically what could be seen on Google Earth. That was commercially available all over the world, but that had nothing to do with this hyperspectoral sensor.
World Health Organization and World Meteorological Organization set up new joint office
Ms. Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said that the World Health Organization (WHO) and WMO had joined forces and set up a new joint office. This was just staffed with one professional level at the moment but was a significant step. The reason this was being done was that increasing demands were being faced from the health sector for reliable advice and information on how to improve disease management and diseases surveillance in the face of natural variations of the climate and climate change. The office was set up under the auspices under the Global Framework for Climate Services, an initiative that had been going for several years now and was now being implemented in several countries. There were a couple of programmes now up and running in Malawi and Tanzania. Currently the health sector in Malawi was not using any weather or climate information. So obviously, if they did not know in advance what the rainy season would be like, it made it much more difficult to predict and to manage cholera, or diarrhea outbreaks and malnutrition, among others. The joint office was set up in response to a very real perceived need and it was hoped that it would be the start of a much bigger, longer-term partnership. Details were on the press release.
Ms. Momal-Vanian, informed that the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women(CEDAW) was considering the report of Georgia today, to be followed by on Lithuania on 9 July, Swaziland on 10 July, and Central African Republic, the last country of the session, on 11 July.
The Human Rights Committee would conclude its consideration of Chile's report today. Soudan would be presenting its report this afternoon. Malawi would follow on Wednesday afternoon, and Georgia on Thursday afternoon.
The representatives of the United Nations Children’s Fund, the International Labour Organization, and the International Organization for Migration also attended the briefing, but did not brief.
The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/1xM2VfI