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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
22 February 2013

Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the High Commissioner for Refugees, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Economic Commission on Europe, the Human Rights Council, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Trade Organization and the International Organization for Migration.

Human Rights Council

Rolando Gomez for the Human Rights Council (HRC) said the 22nd session of the HRC began on Monday with opening statements from the President of the General Assembly, followed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, the President of the HRC and then the Swiss Foreign Minister. These statements served as the opening for the high-level segment, he explained, for which over 90 dignitaries were now inscribed.

In the afternoon on Monday was a panel discussion marking 20 years since the signing of the Vienna Declaration and its Programme of Action. This would look at human rights achievements already completed and future challenges ahead. This session was to include a video message from the United Nations Secretary-General.

All statements from the four-week session would be made available on the Extranet, he added, and he would send a reminder on how to access these. Reports issued in the last few days included country reports on Guatemala and Columbia. Reports were shortly expected on Myanmar, two on Iran and one on counter-terrorism.

He also mentioned a side event on Monday, titled, “Death penalty: why and how to abolish” from midday to 4 p.m. in Room XXIV.

Mali

Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said OCHA was deeply concerned about the plight of more than 1.2 million people in northern Mali who had been affected by armed operations and limited humanitarian access. There were, however, signs of improving access to central Mali, and to a lesser extent to the north, through the reopened Douentza-Gao road which runs from central towards north-eastern Mali, he said.

The situation remained highly volatile and the latest update as of 20 February estimated that 16,000 people were newly displaced within Mali and tens of thousands had crossed borders into neighbouring countries (Mauretania, Burkina Faso and Niger) since the beginning of the year.

From the north, there were horrifying reports of human rights violations, recruitment of children and rising sexual violence. Protection of civilians was an urgent humanitarian priority not least in terms of the risk of explosive remnants of war and mines, he explained. Mine risk education programmes were ongoing and humanitarian partners were working on a systematic collection and analysis of data on the presence of mines and explosive remnants of war.

OCHA Operations Director John Ging was currently on mission in Mali to see first-hand the humanitarian situation following the latest round of fighting and to review the scale-up of the humanitarian response. Talking to local reporters following a field visit to Timbuktu yesterday, Ging concentrated on the urgent needs in health, education and livelihoods and said he was struck by the dignity and courage of people who have suffered so much in Mali.

The humanitarian appeal for Mali had requested $373 million and was as of today four per cent funded, with $15.6 million received.

Answering questions, he said John Ging was to give a press conference in Bamako later in the day when a fuller update could be given. He further explained that the reporting date on the figures mentioned was 10 February. UNICEF, UNMAS (United Nations Mine Action Service) and the national authorities, were undertaking the data collection and analysis of ordinance he said.

[The following information was subsequently received from UNMAS:

UNMAS has had a presence in Mali for the last 6 months, working with UNICEF and Handicap International in support of Malian authorities on risk education related to mines, explosive weapons and unexploded ordnance (uxo).

In the last 2 weeks, UNMAS has also started an assessment of the situation in Northern Mali to identify the threat from mines and uxos. Once this assessment is completed and safe access can be secured, teams will be deployed (possibly under military escort initially) to undertake humanitarian tasks including disposal of explosives and risk education. UNMAS is working at the moment with three NGOs (Handicap International, Norwegian People's Aid and Danish Church Aid) to do non-technical survey and to prepare the teams which will be deployed for this purpose.

There have been reports of the presence of mines and mine-related injuries, which UNMAS is in the process of verifying. UNICEF reported that more than 50 people have been killed or injured as a result of landmines/Explosive Remnants of War (ERW), between March and mid-December 2012, though it is very likely that this figure is actually much higher and additional victims resulted from the fighting in the last weeks.]

Marixie Mercado for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said the UNICEF-led education cluster and the Ministry of Education in Mali were today releasing figures on the impact the conflict and crisis had had on the education system.

Schooling had been disrupted for 700,000 children, including 200,000 children who were previously enrolled in school and now had no access to education. This was on top of about a million children who were already out of school prior to the conflict and crisis. In the north, just one in three schools were functioning. In Kidal, all schools were closed. In Timbuktoo, five per cent had re-opened, and in Gao, 28 per cent of teachers were reporting to work. Since January 2012, at least 115 schools in the north had been damaged, looted, or occupied.

These numbers reflected a crisis that had been underway since early last year and in the north, there had been a child protection emergency for many months, made even more acute by the recent escalation in fighting. UNICEF was also deeply concerned about hundreds of thousands of children who were vulnerable to displacement, disease, and whose futures were jeopardised because they cannot go to school.

Since early last year, UNICEF had provided thousands of children with emergency learning materials, and trained almost 2000 teachers on mine risk awareness and on how to provide psychosocial support for children.

UNICEF had an ambitious program of support to the Ministry of Education in 2013, but as of today, the $18.8 million appeal for the education sector had received absolutely no funds.

Answering questions she said that the crisis had been underway in Mali for over a year and there had been evidence of violence, child recruitment to armed groups and sexual abuse. She added that humanitarian assistance to the north of the country had always continued even when UNICEF itself had problems with access.



Visit of the Secretary-General

Ms Momal-Vanian announced that the Secretary-General was to attend a High-level Panel Discussion on Human Rights Mainstreaming at the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Friday and then give a press conference at 4.15 p.m., in the Council Chamber. Following this he was to deliver the Annual Sergio Vieira de Mello Lecture at 17:00 at CICG.

Bay of Bengal

Andrej Mahecic for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said UNHCR was concerned about a rising numbers of deaths in the Indian Ocean involving people fleeing their countries for safety and better lives elsewhere. This included many Rohingya from Myanmar.

Already in 2013, several thousand people were believed to have boarded smuggler’s boats in the Bay of Bengal, among them Rohingya from Rakhine state or from Bangladesh’s refugee camps and makeshift sites. Most were men, but there were also increasing reports of women and children on these often-rickety boats making the journey southwards. It was estimated that of the 13,000 people who left on smugglers’ boats in 2012, close to 500 died at sea when their boats broke down or capsized. While UNHCR was still gathering data from 2012 on deaths at sea, it was clear that the Indian Ocean had become one of the deadliest stretches of water in the world for people fleeing their countries.

In the latest incident, only a week ago, some 90 people – believed to be Rohingya – were said to have died of dehydration and starvation during a journey that lasted almost two months. More than 30 survivors were rescued from this vessel last weekend by the Sri Lankan navy off Sri Lanka’s east coast. Earlier in February, around 130 people reportedly originating from Myanmar and Bangladesh were also rescued at sea by the Sri Lankan navy. UNHCR was seeking independent access to the survivors to assess their situation and needs.

He added that UNHCR was greatly saddened by this latest terrible ordeal, and commended the quick action of the Sri Lankan navy in rescuing this group and providing immediate medical attention. UNHCR was ready to support the Sri Lankan authorities in assisting any among them who were in need of international protection.

Violence in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state erupted last June between different communities there. Since then some 115,000 people, the majority of them Rohingya, had been uprooted. Most continued to be internally displaced within Rakhine state, but others have resorted to smugglers to flee their country.

About 1,700 people had arrived in recent months on the southern coast of Thailand, where the Royal Thai Government had granted them six months of temporary protection until solutions can be found. UNHCR teams were talking to the men, who were held in detention facilities, and to the women and children who were in government-run shelters, to assess their situations.

In addition to those who have landed in Thailand, an estimated 1,800 people have arrived in Malaysia since the start of the year. When notified, UNHCR intervened to secure their release from detention and sought access to assess their protection needs.

UNHCR recognized the regional dimension of the irregular movements of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants by sea, he added. Genuine cooperative regional approaches that promote sharing of burdens and responsibility could offer asylum seekers and refugees an alternative to dangerous and exploitative boat journeys. UNHCR was offering its expertise and good offices to play a constructive role in this process.

Repeated tragedies at sea also demonstrated the need for a coordinated regional response to distress and rescue at sea. He therefore urged States to agree protocols for the safe and quick disembarkation of rescued passengers and the provision of urgent humanitarian assistance. Mechanisms must be in place to assess the needs of and solutions for different groups, including access to UNHCR for those in need of international protection.

To help move this process forward, UNHCR was facilitating discussions between interested governments and international organizations at a regional meeting on irregular movements by sea to be held in Jakarta in March.

Amid continuing news reports of boats being pushed back to sea by some countries, UNHCR also urged States in the region to keep their borders open to people in need of international protection, to uphold the principle of non-refoulement and to offer them temporary assistance and protection until durable solutions can be found.

In parallel, UNHCR had been advocating with the Myanmar government to urgently address the root causes of the outflow. The Rohingya were not recognized as citizens of Myanmar and face many restrictions in their daily lives in Rakhine state. To resolve the problem, UNHCR encouraged the government to commit to promoting reconciliation and peaceful co-existence as well as economic development in Rakhine state, pursue practical measures to ensure basic rights so that the Rohingya can lead normal lives where they were, and eventually grant them access to citizenship.

Answering questions he said dialogue with the Myanmar Government of the situation of the Rohingya was ongoing and would be pursued, as it was UNHCR’s position was that citizenship for the group would solve many of the issues at hand. He also said that reports of pushbacks of boats containing displaced persons had been heard from Thailand. The important issue, he added, was to ensure swift disembarkation, data collection and medical assistance for these people.

Asked about access he said it was easier in areas where people were living on Government organised sites, though there were many other more makeshift arrangements and security was a concern.

IOM activities

Chris Lom for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said the most recent situation report from Syria said that that there remained an extraordinary number of people crossing into Jordan, in the last week 17,000. The total number that had asked IOM for transport from the border was now nearly 164,000 and there was no indication that this was to decrease soon.

Refugee resettlement had resumed, he added, with 26 Iraqi refugees recently taken to Canada and this would continue providing the route remained open. Answering questions on the Iraqi refugees mentioned he said the resettlement programme for refugees in Syria had been erratic of late because of security considerations.

He also said the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO) had contributed EUR 1.2 million towards IOM’s efforts to promote sustainable reintegration for the most vulnerable of some 34,000 former Burundian refugees from Tanzania who recently returned home.

The cash would go towards planning their reintegration, profiling returning families, identifying land that was accessible to them and ground work to assess what their needs were going to be in the next year.

On a third topic he said that IOM this week organized a three-day seminar on harnessing diaspora engagement for the development of South Sudan’s health sector. According to WHO figures access to health care was available to less than 20 per cent of the population, and the country currently had approximately 1.5 doctors and 2 nurses/midwives for every 100,000 people. The WHO recommended 250 health workers for every 100,000 people.

Finally, he announced that IOM Guatemala had delivered aid including shelter kits and kitchen sets to 900 families affected by an earthquake three months ago. Also, IOM Colombia was strengthening the capacity of mayors, governors, and other local authorities to provide assistance to 150,000 victims of the armed conflict. He added that on the IOM Egypt website were details of a study into the contributions of the Arab expatriate communities and the potential implications of these in light of the Arab Spring.



Geneva activities

Ms Momal-Vanian said that the Conference on Disarmament would hold three public meetings next week to hear dignitaries from more than a dozen countries. The morning sessions were currently scheduled for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. A list of speakers was to be issued.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women examined yesterday the last country in this session, which ends next Friday (29 February).
Until then, it will meet in private to adopt its concluding observations on the reports of the seven countries examined: Pakistan, Austria, Hungary, Cyprus, Greece, Angola and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. A press conference was planned for 1 March at 14:00 to discuss the findings.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination this morning finished reviewing the report of New Zealand and from this afternoon until Monday lunchtime was to examine that of the Dominican Republic, the last country in the programme of the session, which also ended next Friday.

She also explained that the press briefing on Tuesday (26 February) would not be held in Hall XIV due to another event, instead Room XII had been booked.

The event in question was an initiative by the Group of Women Ambassadors to the United Nations in Geneva and was entitled, “The Power of Empowered Women,” she explained. It was scheduled to run between 12.30 p.m. and 3.15 p.m. The opening remarks were to be delivered by Mr. Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Director-General of the United Nations Office in Geneva.

Jean Rodriguez for the Economic Commission on Europe (ECE) said that this week the ECE welcomed Bosnia as a member of the Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents. With the accession of Bosnia and Herzegovina, all States in South-Eastern Europe now benefit from the Convention's legal framework. Bosnia and Herzegovina will become the forty-first Party to the Convention as of 21 May 2013.

He also detailed the upcoming meetings of UNECE Executive-Secretary, Sven Alkalaj, saying he was to meet the Ministers of Trade & Energy of the Eurasian Economic Commission next week, as well as representatives of the same organization in the area of transport and infrastructure. He was also to meet the Ambassador of Kazakhstan and the Deputy Prime Minister of Tajikistan, responsible in the area of water.

He then added that next week’s agenda included the 75th Meeting of the Inland Transport Committee, with a conference on Monday debating both the financing of motorways and railway transportation. A study was also to be presented on how Europe and Asia can be better connected by road and train through Central-Asia. On Tuesday was a Ministerial segment where the attendees were invited to sign a joint declaration on the Euro-Asian transport linkages as well as a joint declaration on activities towards a unified railway law. Following this came the opening of an exhibition of photos related to transport.

On a final point, he announced a consultation planned for 27 and 28 February in Room XII on water in the post-2015 development agenda. The objective for the meeting was to allow for more profound technical and political debate and synthesize the discussions of two of the three streams of the water consultation that had been happening online for the last five weeks.

Ankai Xu for the World Trade Organization (WTO) said today (22 February) there was an informal meeting of the Trade Negotiation Committee meeting, followed by a briefing at 1 p.m. in Room S3. On Monday (25 February), there was a meeting of the General Council and on Wednesday, (27 February) one of the Dispute Settlement Body.

Meanwhile, on Monday WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy was on Tuesday, (26 February) in Lausanne to speak at the EPFL Forum Rolex on "Made in the World", a New Cartography of International Trade. On Thursday (28 February), he was back in Geneva to meets with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Mr. Simon Reddy, Executive Director at C40 Climate Leadership Group.

Catherine Sibut for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) said UNCTAD was to launch its database on Global Value Chains on Wednesday (27 Feb). This was the first dataset for value added trade and investment with complete coverage of all countries, including developing economies. The UNCTAD Secretary-General, Dr Supachai, planned a press conference on Tuesday (26 February) afternoon. The full details were to be confirmed.

She later clarified that the UNCTAD Deputy Secretary-General Petko Draganov was to meet with the Minister of Trade from the Eurasian Economic Commission (EurAsEC), Mr. Andrev Slepnev on 25 February at 11:30 a.m. to discuss a memorandum of understanding between UNCTAD and EurAsEC.

The spokespersons for the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) also attended the briefing but did not speak.

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Webcasts of the regular press briefings will not be available for the next few weeks due to renovation work in the Palais des Nations.