REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
31 January 2014
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was also attended by the Spokespersons for Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, World Health Organization, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the World Food Programme.
Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), provided an update, appealing on behalf of WFP to all parties to the conflict to grant unimpeded access to all civilians throughout the country. WFP needed continuous and sustainable access to affected people in order to provide life-saving food assistance and to monitor and assess ongoing needs.
Ms. Byrs informed that the WFP had dispatched food to an unprecedented 3.8 million people inside Syria in December, and had ramped up logistics and operational capacity to feed 4.25 million people in January. Major road closures were a challenge in delivering food throughout the country.
Since 25 January, fighting had broken out on the Damascus–Daraa highway forcing the closure of that route and restricting access to WFP main warehouses. That development had significantly affected food dispatches to Damascus and surrounding governorates over the previous three days. A continuation of hostilities might prevent the completion of the January dispatch cycle.
Ms. Byrs informed that the WFP had airlifted urgently needed food aid from Erbil, Iraq, to Qamishly in northeast Syria for displaced families using a WFP-chartered plane in December. WFP was planning another round of airlifts to get food into Al Hassakeh to meet the urgent food needs of vulnerable displaced families.
Asked whether the warehouse in Damascus was the principal WFP warehouse in Syria, and what type of activities were impeached, Ms. Byrs insisted on the fact that the warehouses had been affected but that the food dispatches were not totally paralyzed. They were the principal warehouses and they were therefore very important for the WFP. The route problems were slowing down and affecting the food distribution process.
Ms. Byrs added that the WFP was concerned about the food security situation and assessments that showed that up to 6.5 million people inside Syria might be severely food insecure and would require external food assistance. Ms. Byrs stated that even before the conflict some parts of the North Eastern governorate had been already showing high malnutrition rates because of draught and several other factors. WFP was particularly concerned about the besieged areas where the food situation had worsened.
Asked on airlifts and whether airdrops could be organized, Ms. Byrs reminded that the WFP had airlifted 400 tons of food and that numerous people had benefited of the food distribution. It was just a matter of efficiency and logistics since it was faster than by roads. It was more expensive, but they were planning on doing another round. Regarding the food drops, Ms. Byrs said that they were used under very precise conditions.
On food security, Ms. Byrs said that the WFP was able to conduct evaluations in the light of the areas they had access to. Ms. Byrs emphasized the fact that the evaluation said that more than 6.5 million people could be in severe food insecurity conditions.
Responding to questions, Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that the United Nations intra-agency convoy outside of Homs was not moving, and the access had not yet been granted. It was up to the negotiating Syrian parties to reach an agreement for the entry of the convoy to Homs and to make it safe both for those delivering and receiving the aid. The aid included food and non-food items, winterization items, medicines and vaccines.
Asked for further details and clarifications regarding the access of humanitarian aid to Homs, Mr. Laerke reiterated that the bottom line was that the parties on the ground had not yet reached modalities for providing safe conditions for an aid delivery. On whether the rebels were the ones who were impeding access, Mr. Laerke said that OCHA was not blaming either side in the negotiations and was instead waiting for the conditions to be created for aid to be delivered. The UN Country Team was trying to facilitate the talks between the Government and the opposition which would create modalities for a safe delivery.
On the number of trucks in the intra-agency convoy waiting to enter Homs, Mr. Laerke said that the number of trucks and the amount of aid were a matter of the ongoing negotiations, and he could not provide the specifics. It was for the parties to ensure that the delivery could take place safely, and the aid was aimed for civilians. Mr. Laerke stressed that there were still 2.5 million people in dire need of help.
Central African Republic (CAR)
Ms. Byrs informed that the WFP had provided food assistance to 220,000 displaced people since the start of the year in the capital Bangui and the towns of Bouar and Bossangoa, despite ongoing violence, and had started to reach vulnerable people in rural areas outside Bossangoa.
WFP had received only 14 per cent of the USD 107 million appeal for the emergency operation in CAR from January to August 2014. WFP urgently needed USD 95 million to immediately distribute life-saving food assistance and to pre-position food stocks before the rains started in April and roads became impassable.
Ms. Byrs said that the WFP welcomed pledges of USD 200 million from international donors for immediate humanitarian needs in CAR on 20 January in Brussels. WFP had activated all internal mechanisms to cover food shortfalls in January and part of February, but current funding was simply not enough to cover the growing needs. Additional commitments had to be secured now or more people would go hungry.
Asked to specify what exactly the implications of such a shortage would be, Ms. Byrs said that the WFP would not be able to go on with the distribution. So far, WFP had provided food assistance to 220 000 people in Bangui, Boar and Bossangoa despite violence. WFP had to prepare and pre-position before the rainy season. Ms. Byrs emphasized that it was a red light, as the preparations for the rainy season were time-consuming. Internal mechanisms were being activated to help out with the supply.
On the question whether the WFP saw any difference in terms of their ability to access certain areas following the election of a new interim President, Ms. Byrs responded that the WFP monitored the security situation on a daily basis and used mobile teams to distribute as soon as they found a slot to distribute, which depended on the security situation. Ms. Byrs expressed hopes that the situation would improve in the near future.
Mr. Laerke specified that the humanitarian appeal for the Central African Republic was USD 551 million, out of which only 11 per cent had been received so far, which was an alarming fact. At least 76 humanitarian organizations with over 4000 staff were operating in the country, while the troops of the African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic were often providing escort. Funding was a big issue, and because of the developments on the ground, the initial appeal had been doubled. Mr. Laerke estimated that about half of the population was still in the urgent need of basic aid. The lack of proper transport infrastructure presented a major obstacle. UN considered CAR as a crisis of the highest priority, along with Syria and the Philippines in the aftermath of the typhoon.
Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was extremely concerned about the increasingly severe clampdown and physical attacks on media in Egypt, which was hampering their ability to operate freely.
In recent months, there had been numerous reports of harassment, detention and prosecution of national and international journalists as well as violent attacks, including several that had led to injuries to reporters trying to cover the previous weekend’s third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. Unconfirmed reports suggested that several journalists had been wounded by live fire as well as rubber bullets the previous Saturday, some of which may have been fired by opponents of the government as well as by police and other government forces. That accentuated the difficult and increasingly dangerous environment for journalists trying to carry out their work in the country.
Mr. Colville said that a significant number of other journalists covering events related to the anniversary had been detained by the authorities, although most were reported to have now been released.
The announcement earlier in the week that the Egyptian Prosecutor-General intended to bring to trial 16 local and 4 foreign journalists alleged to have worked for the international broadcaster Al Jazeera, on vague charges including “aiding a terrorist group” and “harming the national interest”, was also of great concern. Mr. Colville stressed that it had not only placed a sharp focus on the systematic targeting of Al Jazeera staff – five of whom were actually in custody -- since the fall of the previous government in July 2013, but had also led to increased fears among the media in general, both national and international, which was clearly deeply detrimental to freedom of expression and opinion.
Journalists working for other media organizations had reported being attacked by government supporters after being accused of working for Al Jazeera. A video had also emerged which appeared to show a police officer threatening a camera crew working for another TV station that, if they did not stop filming, he would tell bystanders that they worked for Al Jazeera so that they would be attacked. If confirmed, that would led credence to allegations that the anti-Al Jazeera campaign in Egypt was, on occasion, amounting to incitement to violence.
Mr. Colville said that OHCHR had also received numerous reports of intimidation of journalists, who had had their equipment seized, and in some cases of local journalists who had been sacked for reporting on sensitive issues. There were also reports of journalists in detention being subjected to ill-treatment or being held in conditions that were not in line with international human rights standards.
OHCHR urged the Egyptian authorities to promptly release all journalists imprisoned for carrying out legitimate news reporting activities in exercise of their fundamental human rights. It was the State’s obligation to ensure that the right to freedom of expression was respected, and that journalists were able to report on diverse views and issues surrounding the current situation in Egypt.
Mr. Colville emphasized that all reports of violence against journalists, including the attacks on 25 January, had to be independently and transparently investigated.
Asked about the number of imprisoned journalists and their nationalities, Mr. Colville said it was difficult to provide figures, especially since some journalists were often detained just for several hours. OHCHR would continue trying to establish the facts. Freedom of expression was being seriously undermined, which had inevitably led to a degree of self-censorship. Those were all alarming developments.
On the perceived absence of a significant international outcry, Mr. Colville said that there were indications that the tide was changing and foreign governments were becoming increasingly critical of breaches of media freedoms in Egypt.
Answering a question on the trend of attacks against journalists around the world, Mr. Colville said that the Security Council had adopted a resolution, for the first time ever, on the protection of journalists. UNESCO had also been vocal on that issue, and the issue had to be continuously highlighted. Problems were continuing everywhere, not only in Egypt. Mr. Colville said that the media themselves were perhaps a bit reserved on reporting on what was happening to other media, and encouraged them to take a more proactive role.
On whether there had been an official exchange with the Egyptian authorities, Mr. Colville said that OHCHR had regularly raised media and other human rights issues with the authorities in Cairo over the past three years. OHCHR would continue to have the dialogue with the Egyptian authorities, and the High Commissioner for Human Rights would shortly meet the new Egyptian Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva.
Mr. Colville said that OHCHR welcomed the beginning of the dialogue between the President and the opposition. OHCHR called for that dialogue to be sustainable, inclusive and grounded on the full respect of international human rights treaties ratified by Ukraine and political commitments made through the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, in March 2013.
OHCHR also welcomed the abolition by the Ukrainian Parliament earlier in the week of the laws passed on 16 January, which had unnecessarily restricted the exercise of the rights to freedom of assembly, association and speech, as well as the operation of NGOs. OHCHR called upon the President of Ukraine to sign the new law abolishing the legislative package of 16 January.
Mr. Colville stated that OHCHR was appalled by the deaths reported in recent days in Kiev, which should be promptly, thoroughly and independently investigated. OHCHR was also calling for an investigation into reports of kidnappings and torture.
OHCHR was reiterating its call to the Government and protesters to exercise restraint and create conditions for dialogue and reconciliation. International human rights norms and Ukraine's compliance with those standards and its obligations pertaining to human rights had to be at the centre of any future solutions and reconciliation processes.
Glenn Thomas, for the World Health Organization (WHO), announced the issuing of a Disease Outbreak News Alert later in the day following the notification of six additional cases of H7N9, including one death. All six cases were males between two and 63-years-old. Four of the cases were currently in critical or serious conditions. Four of the cases had also reported having exposure to poultry or live poultry market. Mr. Thomas explained that, in total, 265 cases had been reported, including 57 deaths.
Asked what the increasing numbers of bird flu cases should tell us, Mr. Thomas answered that there was a health risk assessment report in the alerts that they had issued. The two graphs compare situations in 2013 and 2014 were very similar, in a way that there was an excepted curve in the turnaround of cases. More cases were expected in the winter period.
On a question regarding guidelines and directives for selling poultry, Mr. Thomas replied that the WHO had issued guidelines for people to avoid live bird markets and exposure to poultry, for example in farms, particularly if one was vulnerable and sick. The WHO had also issued guidelines about food hygiene and how to handle food.
Asked whether the government authorities in the provinces and capital were following through on those guidelines, and how strict the hygiene regulations were in the markets, Mr. Thomas answered that several markets had been closed temporarily for cleaning; better hygiene could be noticed in some markets following the guidelines which the WHO had issued to the Chinese Government.
Ms. Momal-Vanian informed that the Committee on the Rights of the Child was completing its 65th session today, when it would adopt its concluding remarks on the report of six countries which had been examined during the session: Congo, Yemen, Holy See, Portugal, Russian Federation and Germany.
The Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination would commence its 84th session on 3 February. During the session, the Committee would consider the reports of Honduras, Montenegro, Belgium, Poland, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Luxembourg and Switzerland. At the beginning of the session, the Committee would elect its new bureau, including a Chairperson, three Vice-Chairpersons and a Rapporteur.
The Conference on Disarmament would hold its next plenary session on 4 February at 10 a.m. The current Chairperson of the Conference was Ambassador Eviatar Manor of Israel.
The Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review sessions would continue the following week. This morning, the human right situation in the Comoros was under consideration, while in the afternoon, the working group was scheduled to adopt the reports for New Zealand, Afghanistan, Chile, Cambodia, Uruguay and Yemen, whose reviews had taken place earlier in the week. Those reports would be sent to the media shortly. On 4 February, Slovakia and Eritrea would be considered.
Mr. Laerke informed that on 3 February at 12:30 a press conference would take place in Rome, with a direct video link to Geneva. The topic would be the launch of a humanitarian appeal for the Sahel region, for nine countries, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal. Speakers would include Valerie Amos, head of OCHA, Jose Graziano Da Silva, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization, and Kristalina Georgieva, European Commissioner responsible for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response. More details would be sent out shortly.
On 4 February, at 11:30, a press conference would take place in Press Room I on the humanitarian situation in Yemen. The speaker would be Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, Resident Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen.
On 6 February, at 12:30, another press conference would take place in Press Room I, on the humanitarian situation in Mali. The speaker would be David Gressly, Resident Humanitarian Coordinator for Mali.
Mr. Thomas announced the launch of the World Cancer Report on 3 February, which would be under embargo until 11:00 GMT on that day. The International Agency for Research and Cancer in Lyon would be issuing a press release which would highlight the report analysing trends and incidence mortality from cancer from around 40 countries. There would be a press conference at the Royal Society Library in London on 3 February at 11:00 a.m. Some of the speakers would be available for telephone interviews on that day.
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The representatives of the International Labour Organization, United Nations Children’s Fund and the United Nations Refugee Agency also attended the briefing, but did not brief.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: … http://bit.ly/1nuUm4C