ACCESSIBILITY AT UNOG A A A A The United Nations in the Heart of Europe

REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

10 January 2014

Alessandra Vellucci, Chief, Press and External Relations of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Children’s Fund, United Nations Refugee Agency, International Labour Organization, World Meteorological Organization, World Health Organization, International Organization for Migration and Inter-Parliamentary Union.

South Sudan

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the situation in South Sudan remained extremely volatile, with sporadic clashes between armed elements still taking place, forcing civilians to seek safety in United Nations facilities, religious establishments and other perceived havens.  The United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) Human Rights Division was investigating allegations of serious human rights violations and abuses that have occurred in Juba and other affected towns.  Around 60,000 displaced people had sought protection and safety in United Nations compounds across the country.  There had been no fighting in Juba itself for close to three weeks now, but sporadic shooting and reportedly other violations continued there and there was much fear and anxiety.

Outside the capital, serious security constraints had at times limited UNMISS access to key locations, including Bor, which had already changed hands three times since fighting began almost three weeks ago, and there had been difficulties operating in Malakal, which has been the scene of repeated fighting between pro-government and anti-government forces.  Fighting continued in Bentiu, in Unity State, which had also changed hands several times and had been the scene of human rights violations.

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General Hilde Johnson said she was shocked and deeply saddened at the scale and viciousness of such atrocities and the apparent total disregard for human life – a sentiment which OHCHR share.

The High Commissioner appealed for restraint from all parties and reminded them of their responsibility to protect civilians and respect innocent lives.  OHCHR welcomed recent high-level commitments to investigate those serious human rights violations and establish who was responsible, as urged by the African Union.  Those investigations needed to be undertaken as soon as possible in accordance with internationally accepted standards and principles of objectivity, transparency and due process.

Answering a question from the press, Mr. Colville said there were clearly ethnic elements to the conflict and UNMISS had said that.  There was also clearly a political dimension as well.  He quoted an UNMISS press release dated 31 December 2013 in which UNMISS said it had seen evidence of the apparent targeting of South Sudanese citizens on ethnic grounds, but also stressed that the struggle was also a political one and took issue with attempts to portray it as a purely ethnic one.  Mr. Colville stressed that the situation should not be over-simplified. 

Mr. Colville also responded to a question about the death toll from the conflict.  He said the last time the United Nations had a confident figure was 26 December 2013, when it said approximately 1,000 people had been killed.  Clearly there had been a great deal more fighting since then, he said.  Hervé Ladsous, the Chief of UN Peacekeeping said that the death toll was clearly very much in excess of 1,000 today, but nobody had a precise figure.  To give an idea of the difficulties in getting any sort of precise figure, Mr. Colville reported that UNMISS had asked for help in the gruesome task of disposing of hundreds of bodies lying in the streets of Bor and Malakal, and had received assistance in that.  Last Friday, just in Malakal alone, UNMISS collected more than 200 bodies, but believed there were many more.  There had of course been a lot of fighting in Bentiu as well.  There were clearly a lot of casualties.  Mr. Colville said there were also reports of extrajudicial killings and summary executions but it was an extremely difficult situation to get clear numbers on. 

Alessandra Vellucci, Chief, Press and External Relations of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that after his briefing to the Security Council yesterday (Thursday 9 January), Hervé Ladsous, Chief of UN Peacekeeping, said that the timeframe for the deployment of UNMISS reinforcements authorized by the Security Council for the protection of civilians – which almost doubled the force to nearly 14,000, including utility and tactical helicopters – was longer than expected. It could take between four and six weeks to get the entire surge operational, but very substantial progress were being made and it was hoped to have a significant number of foreign police units operational on the ground within the next few days. 

Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that more than 231,000 people had fled their homes and were now internally displaced in South Sudan since violence broke out on 15 December.  Nearly 43,000 South Sudanese had been displaced into neighbouring countries, mainly Uganda.  Approximately 60,500 people were sheltering in 10 United Nations bases, seeking protection from the violence and thousands were receiving humanitarian aid, Mr. Laerke confirmed.

In the flashpoint Bentiu, intense fighting yesterday triggered displacement out of the city.  OCHA did not currently have any exact figures.  The situation in Bentiu this morning was relatively calm and humanitarian agencies were trying to access emergency stocks in the town in order to move it to those in need at the UNMISS Peacekeepers' base.  In Mingkaman and surrounding areas of Awerial County, Lakes State, about 85,000 people had been displaced.  Relief organizations were stepping up assistance with food distribution underway.  A water treatment system and latrines were also being provided.

Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos yesterday announced the allocation of US$15 million to enable UN humanitarian agencies meet the needs of people desperately seeking shelter and safety, said Mr. Laerke.  UN agencies would use the funds to improve the living conditions of tens of thousands of people in overcrowded camps.  The allocation would also contribute to air support for medical evacuations and to enable relief workers to reach people in need in places that were inaccessible or too insecure to get to by road.

Mr. Laerke said that in total, 167,000 people had been reached with humanitarian aid so far.  Overall, 628,000 people were estimated to be in immediate need of humanitarian relief.  Agencies were requesting US$166 million to be able to provide assistance between January and March.

Marixie Mercado, for the United Nations Children’s Programme (UNICEF) said that UNICEF was increasingly concerned about the safety of children and women as the number of civilians who had fled their homes in South Sudan continued to rise.  Conditions at the camps in Juba were dire, but UNICEF was especially concerned about conditions at camps where they had much less access because of the intense fighting – and that includes all the camps outside Juba.  Displaced populations, the majority of whom were women and children, faced desperate shortages of food, water and safe sanitation facilities.

Seven clinical cases of measles had been reported at IDP camps in Juba, and three other cases at Bentiu camp.  Diarrhoeal disease constituted a majority – over 20 per cent of clinic consultations in Juba, Awerial and Bentiu camps.  Malnutrition screening in Awerial showed 7 per cent severe acute malnutrition rates and 14 per cent moderate acute malnutrition rates.
 
UNICEF was working with partners to reach displaced populations with emergency water, sanitation and hygiene.  A vaccination campaign together with the Ministry of Health, WHO and other partners had reached some 30,000 children under 15 years old at IDP camps in Juba with measles and polio vaccination, plus vitamin A and deworming medication.  Another 37,000 children were targeted for vaccinations in Awerial county and Bentiu.  Many children had been separated from their parents, some in the dash to the safety of the compound, and some amid the confusion of the crowded camp.  Family tracing was under way – so far over 170 children with absolutely no adult care giver had been identified at Tomping Compound in Juba, of whom 17 had been reunited with their families.
 
Together with partners, UNICEF had also identified over 340 students at the camps in Juba who were scheduled to take their 8th grade graduation exams in December – exams that were delayed due to the conflict.  A large network of humanitarian partners were working together to find safe spaces and resources, while community elders and teachers were supporting parents in preparing children so that starting Monday, those children could take their exams.
 
Ms. Mercado provided journalists with some basic indicators.  She said that under-five mortality was 121 per 1,000 live births (15th highest globally); maternal mortality was the highest in the world at 2,054 per 100,000 live births; global acute malnutrition ranged from 5.4 per cent to 35.6 per cent; 68.7 per cent of the population had access to improved water sources, but only 7.4 per cent had access to sanitation facilities; just 42 per cent of boys and 36 per cent of girls went to school; and the prevalence of child marriage, gender-based violence, and recruitment into armed forces and groups remained constant challenges.

Responding to a question about reports of recruitment of children as soldiers, Ms. Mercado said UNICEF had no verified reports of child soldiers at the moment but all interagency assessments highlighted the needs of children separated from their care-givers.  She said there were concerns that the current mobilization and recruitment to national armed and anti-government forces would attract children under the age of 18 years.  There were also reports that some communities were setting up community defence mechanisms that had a high likelihood of involving children being mobilized or mobilizing themselves. 

Chris Lom for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said IOM had begun to airlift some 600 South Sudanese returnees out of Malakal, Upper Nile State, where they had become stranded on their way home due to recent fighting.  The returnees from Sudan had been living in transit sites in the border town of Renk for several months without any means to continue their journey, and had boarded an IOM barge to reach their final destinations when they became stranded due to the conflict.  They left the Renk barge on 15 December, heading towards various destinations, including the Upper Nile, Unity and Jonglei states, and the Greater Equatorial and Bahr el Ghazal regions.

On 15 December armed conflict broke out in the South Sudanese capital Juba and subsequently spread throughout the country.  The fighting forced the barge to stop in Malakal, where the group took shelter at a returnee way station.  Between 24 December and 3 January, Malakal saw heavy fighting between opposing force.  Several returnees who were sheltering at the way-station were shot, killing three people and injuring four. 

Mr. Lom said that as transportation by barge was no longer a safe option, IOM, with the support of the United States Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), initiated an airlift to relocate the returnees on 8 January.  The operation would consist of 17 flights over a period of nine days, and would transport people to Juba, Wao and Aweil.

On 8 and 9 January, 154 returnees were flown to Juba.  They were taken to the Juba way station, where basic services including food, water, sanitation and hygiene support, healthcare, shelter and protection assistance were provided in collaboration with IOM partners.  Mr. Lom said that a total of 366 individuals would be transported to Juba, many of whom would remain in the way station until security conditions improve to allow them to continue their journey to various parts of the Greater Equatorial region.  The remaining caseload would be flown either to Wau or Aweil, where IOM would organize buses to transport them to their final destination.

Answering questions about the latest figures, Mr. Lom said the information that IOM had was based on United Nations figures.  Approximately 935,000 persons were displaced countrywide.  It was believed that 513,000 were displaced in Bangui, alone, which was about two thirds of the population.  IOM had been focusing on evacuation operations for third-country nationals and on providing support to people at their airport. The evacuations were being carried out with support from the embassies of the relevant countries.  The three flights scheduled for this weekend could cost USD$365,000.

South Sudan and Central African Republic

Adrian Edwards for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR was appealing today for US$99 million to help the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the worsening humanitarian crises in South Sudan and the Central African Republic.  The money was both for the South Sudanese and Central Africans who had fled their countries as well as for those who were displaced internally.

The $99 million comprised $59 million for the South Sudan situation and $40.2 million for the Central African Republic crisis, both for the period until the end of March.  It followed a joint appeal on 31 December by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for $209 million for South Sudan and a 24 December 100 Day Plan for Central African Republic covering $152.2 million in immediate support needs.  Today’s appeals reflected the worsening situations in both cases, with hundreds of thousands of people now affected.

In South Sudan, the situation had continued to deteriorate, said Mr. Edwards.  Fighting had spread to seven of the country’s 10 states.  The number of South Sudanese fleeing to neighbouring countries had quickly increased, and now totalled some 43,000 people.  As of Wednesday, 32,443 South Sudanese had arrived in Uganda, 4,754 in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp, some 6,000 in Ethiopia and at least several hundred in Sudan, with unconfirmed reports of thousands having fled there.  Uganda was now seeing between 4,000 and 5,000 South Sudanese arriving every day.

Inside South Sudan some 232,000 people had been forced to flee their homes and were now displaced internally.  That includes 60,500 people sheltering at 10 United Nations bases.  UNHCR’s appeal was based on existing numbers of forcibly displaced and projections of additional displacement between now and April.  It anticipated that refugee numbers could rise to 125,000 and that the number of people displaced within South Sudan could reach 400,000.

Mr. Edwards said that today’s supplementary budget appeal of $40.2 million for the Central Africa Republic crisis was designed to support more than one million (1,044,400) people.  They included 86,400 refugees in Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo who fled Central African Republic in 2013, and 958,000 people who were displaced by the fighting in Central African Republic, among them 8,000 refugees in Bangui - mainly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan.

In the situations of both South Sudan and Central African Republic, UNHCR was extremely concerned about the safety of refugees and displaced people, particularly with access being affected by the fighting and insecurity.  In South Sudan for example, UNHCR continued to support an existing refugee population of more than 230,000 Sudanese in 10 camps.  However, the crises had displaced tens of thousands more people in both countries, and insecurity made assisting them more expensive, having to resort to airlifts for example when roads are not safe.

UNHCR emergency operations included registering, sheltering and protecting refugees.  They included providing supplies to displaced people, designing and managing camps for them as well as protecting the most vulnerable among them.

Central African Republic

Chris Lom for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that tomorrow (Saturday 11 January) IOM would begin an airlift to evacuate stranded foreign nationals from the Central African Republic, following appeals from neighbouring African countries.

The first three IOM charter flights this weekend would repatriate some 800 Chadians from the war torn capital of Bangui to the Chadian capital N’Djamena.  The 800 people were part of a group of some 2,500 Chadians sheltering in a transit camp adjacent to Bangui airport, who had been living in terrible conditions at the over-crowded and insanitary site.

The conflict in the country had displaced close to 1 million people, including some 513,000 – about half of the population – in Bangui alone, said Mr. Lom.  Thousands of homes had been damaged or looted.  Many displaced families were thought to be seeking shelter in churches and schools, as well as in the airport camp.

IOM had received requests for assistance from Chad, Niger, Mali, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to evacuate thousands of their most vulnerable, stranded nationals.  The organization was also working with Senegal, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Cameroon to provide post arrival re-integration assistance to migrants evacuated by their governments.  A total of over 60,000 migrants from neighbouring countries had already asked for assistance from their embassies in the Central African Republic.  Nearly 27,000 had already been evacuated by their governments, leaving at least 33,000 in urgent need of help.

Many Chadian migrants trying to return home on their own were increasingly finding themselves stranded in dangerous border areas.  As of Tuesday, 7,600 Chadians, most of them women and children, had arrived destitute in the border areas of Gore and Sido in southern Chad.  Many others may attempt the same route, unless they could be evacuated in an orderly operation with international assistance.

IOM had deployed 15 operations and medical staff in Bangui to organize airlifts of the kind used to repatriate tens of thousands of migrants following the 2011 Libyan crisis. 
The first three evacuation flights between Bangui and N’Djamena will be funded by IOM’s revolving Migration Emergency Funding Mechanism (MEFM). 

Mr. Lom announced that today IOM was launching a new appeal for US$17.5 million to evacuate up to 10,000 African migrants from the Central African Republic and help 50,000 resettle after they returned home.  IOM would receive returnees at return ports of entry, assist with onward transportation to final destinations, provide support packages on arrival and help people to cope with reintegration challenges.

Alessandra Vellucci, Chief, Press and External Relations of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, noted that yesterday Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon sent a message to the Extraordinary Summit of the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) in which he expressed his extreme concern of the danger of further upheaval along religious lines which he said was real and posed a long-term danger to the country. 

Adrian Edwards for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), responded to a question saying that UNHCR was certainly trying to get out to as many people as it could.  Access was a major problem.  It had been assisting where possible at the airport.  It was also trying to help people who were crossing into neighbouring countries.

Syria - Humanitarian

Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) announced details of the Second Pledging Conference for Syria, 15 January, Kuwait.  He said that next week, the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos would travel to Kuwait for the second Pledging Conference for Syria, taking place on Wednesday 15 January.  The conference was a one-day event and Kuwait had invited some 120 Members States, regional organisations, United Nations entities and non-governmental organizations.

The conference was once again being hosted by the Emir of Kuwait.  At the first pledging conference for Syria in January 2013, US$1.5 billion for humanitarian action was pledged as a result.  The leadership of Kuwait in that effort was highly appreciated. 

The conference was a very important humanitarian pledging event, said Mr. Laerke.  The humanitarian situation in Syria was extremely critical - and continued to deteriorate.  Today 9.3 million Syrians now needed assistance and 6.5 million of them were displaced inside their own country.  In addition, 2.3 million people had fled to neighbouring countries and North Africa since January 2012.  Half of those affected were children.  The UN and partners' response plans for the Syria crisis requested a combined $6.5 billion. 

The sum of US$6.5 billion was the largest amount ever requested for humanitarian response to a single crisis, emphasized Mr. Laerke. 

Syria - Women’s Conference

Answering several questions, Alessandra Vellucci, Chief, Press and External Relations of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, spoke about the conference “Promoting Syrian Women’s Engagement in the Syrian Political Process”. Ms. Vellucci said it would take place in Geneva (not in the Palais des Nations) from 11 to 13 January.  It was a two-day meeting with a preparation day on Saturday 11 January.  

The conference was being organized jointly by UN Women and the Government of the Netherlands.  It was part of long-term efforts by the UN to support Syrian women and Syrian civil society’s contributions to the peace efforts.  It was an ongoing process to add to the many voices that Mr. Brahimi and the United Nations were taking into account ahead of the Geneva Conference on Syria in Montreux.  It was very important that women could input to the peace process. 

A press conference would be held at the Palais des Nations on 13 January, but had not yet been announced until further details were available.  Journalists were advised to contact the organizers of the conference at UN Women directly for further information, and Ms. Vellucci would send out the details of the press officer after today’s briefing.

Israel

Adrian Edwards for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR had raised concerns this week with the Government of Israel over a recent Amendment to Israel’s Anti-infiltration law that was passed by the Knesset in mid-December and further limited the rights of asylum-seekers.

Under the latest Amendment, new asylum-seekers arriving in an irregular manner would automatically be detained for at least a year, as would people whose conditional release visas had expired.  Difficulties in renewing visas that asylum seekers required were meanwhile growing, with renewal possible in only four cities and for a few hours each week.  Long queues had been reported in some of those locations, Mr. Edwards said. 

UNHCR was concerned that one of the provisions of the new Amendment required asylum-seekers to reside in the so-called open residence facility located in the desert of Negev with serious restrictions on their freedom of movement with mandatory residence, a three-times-per-day reporting requirement and other discipline measures.  Since this facility was housing people who could not be returned to their countries of origin for reasons of non-refoulement, the organization was concerned that that facility could, in effect, result in indefinite detention, with no release grounds.
UNHCR understood the challenges faced by Israel in managing the reception of migrants and asylum-seekers.  However, it was important that the treatment of asylum-seekers be in line with international refugee and human rights law.  Mr. Edwards emphasized that all asylum-seekers should have access to fair and efficient asylum procedures, as well as efficient means to renew their existing visas. 

Australia

Adrian Edwards for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR was seeking details from the Australian authorities about recent media reports of the Australian navy forcing boats, presumed to be carrying asylum-seekers on their way to Australia, back to Indonesian territorial waters, as well as reports of plans to buy and provide vessels for future push-backs.

UNHCR would be concerned by any policy or practice that involved pushing asylum-seeker boats back at sea without a proper consideration of individual needs for protection.  Any such approach would raise significant issues and potentially place Australia in breach of its obligations under the Refugee Convention and other international law obligations.

As past experience had shown, such practices were also operationally difficult and potentially dangerous for all concerned, Mr. Edwards said.

Instead of a policy of push-backs, UNHCR continued to recommend that efforts be made to strengthen regional cooperation on the basis of solidarity and responsibility-sharing which build on national asylum systems.  UNHCR supported investment in a regional cooperation framework in South East Asia, and recognizes the work of the Bali Process States in addressing protection and humanitarian needs in mixed migration flows in the Asia-Pacific region.

Ethiopian Migrants

Chris Lom for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that two months after Saudi Arabia started its crackdown on irregular migration, the operation to repatriate Ethiopian irregular migrants from Saudi Arabia continued, with over 151,000 nationals already been returned home.  Since the outset IOM had provided the returnees, over a third of whom were women and children, with emergency medical assistance, food, essential items for those in dire need, and reintegration allowances to help people return to their areas of origin.

Some 339 unaccompanied minors had been reunited with their families by IOM, in collaboration with UNICEF and the Ministry of Women, Children and Youth Affairs.  Some 60 unaccompanied minors were still awaiting family reunification at an IOM transit centre.
IOM’s health team, together with Government and other partners were providing post-arrival health assistance, including psychological first aid, treatment and referrals both at the airport and in the transit centre.

IOM had appealed for US$20.15 million to pay for post-arrival assistance to the returnees. While many donors had come forward to assist, the operation still faced a funding shortfall of US$12.35 million. 

Malaysia

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said OHCHR was concerned about the recent decision of Malaysia’s Ministry of Home Affairs to declare COMANGO – a coalition comprising of 54 Malaysian civil society organizations – illegal. 

On 8 January 2014, the Ministry of Home Affairs declared in a press statement that COMANGO, which consisted mainly of non-Islamic organizations, promoted rights which were not in line with Islam and was therefore illegal.  The statement also noted that only 15 of the 54 organisations were registered under the Societies Act 1966.

The COMANGO coalition submitted joint reports to both the 2009 and 2013 Universal Periodic Reviews of Malaysia.  Since its submission to the second cycle of the Universal Periodic Review, which took place on 24 October 2013, the coalition had reportedly been subjected to a series of harassment and threats, allegedly by both State and non-state actors.  The coalition had been accused of attacking Islam and of spreading beliefs that did not conform to Islamic teachings.   

OHCHR was concerned at what appeared to be an act of reprisal against COMANGO for its engagement with international human rights mechanism, notably the Universal Periodic Review.  The Secretary-General, the Human Rights Council and the High Commissioner Navi Pillay had persistently called for the protection of individuals and members of groups that cooperated with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights from acts of intimidation or reprisal.   

OHCHR called upon the Government of Malaysia to amend the Societies Act 1966, maximise the space for human rights activists and organisations to operate freely, and ensure that they could conduct their legitimate activities without intimidation or harassment.

Myanmar

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said OHCHR warmly welcomed the Myanmar Government's Presidential Order of 2 January 2014 declaring that all death sentences previously imposed by the courts would be commuted to life imprisonment.  Myanmar had not in fact carried out the death penalty since 1989, and OHCHR hoped that new initiative would lead to the full abolition of the death penalty in the country.  That was a very significant step as Myanmar assumed the chair of ASEAN, and sets a positive example for other ASEAN member states and other States in the region and beyond.

Polar Vortex and Abnormal Weather

Clare Nullis for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) briefed on the abnormal temperatures in the United States, Europe and Australia.  The United States had been gripped by a cold wave earlier this week.  Europe was seeing exceptionally mild weather.  Australia witnessed a heat wave in early January and had another forecast for the coming weekend.  A severe tropical cyclone was forecast to hit Tonga.  Furthermore, we were in the midst of a solar storm.

Weather: United States
 
On 7 January the United States National Weather Service said that every state in the lower 48 (not including Hawaii or Alaska) had a location that was below freezing.  Even Northern Florida, the Gulf Coast, and Texas had several temperatures in the 20s Fahrenheit or lower.  A big problem in the United States was that the wind chill factor made it feel even colder than that.

The “Polar vortex” has become a buzz word on Twitter, said Ms. Nullis; the term had actually been around for decades before suddenly becoming popular this week.  The Polar vortex caused the outbreak of cold in the United States.  Ms. Nullis explained that in the winter a deep reservoir of cold air became established through the atmosphere over the Arctic because of the lack of sunlight.  Normally that was held above the Arctic by the jet stream.  What happened this week was that the jet stream weakened and rather than running in a straight line, had a massive curve to the south, which meant that much of America experienced those exceptionally cold weather conditions.

WMO said, however, that they were not the coldest temperatures it had ever seen.  The lowest temperature ever recorded was -89.2°C (-128.5°F) in Vostok, Antarctica, in 1983. The lowest temperature ever recorded in North America was -63.0 °C (-81.4°F) in Yukoon Territory in Canada in 1947.

Ms. Nullis quoted Dr. John Holdren, President Obama’s Science and Technology Advisor, who said: “If you’ve been hearing that extreme cold spells disprove global warming, don’t believe it.  No single weather episode can prove or disprove global climate change. Climate is the pattern of weather geographically and over seasons.  A growing body of evidence suggests that the kind of extreme cold experienced by the United States is a pattern we can expect to see with increasing frequency as global warming continues”.

Ms. Nullis drew to journalists’ attention a White House-organized Google+ Hangout called “We the Geeks” taking place this evening (8p.m. CET), which would involve weather and climate experts answering questions on the Polar vortex and extreme weather conditions. 

Weather: Europe

Much of Europe, including Switzerland, had experienced exceptionally mild weather so far this year, as well as in the latter part of December, said Ms. Nullis.  For instance, Météo-France said on Wednesday that the maximum daily temperatures were five to nine degrees above average January norms.  On Thursday morning, the maximum temperature recorded at 7 a.m. were 17.9°c in Biarritz and 19.2°c in Bustince, which were temperatures more normally felt in summer.  Météo-France expects temperatures to fall to more normal levels over the weekend.

The United Kingdom had been hit by very wet and warm weather.   Coastal areas of Poland and Spain had been on high alert this week due to very high winds and heavy rain.  Russia also witnessed temperatures that were far above average, reaching over 9°C during the week of 29 December.  The weather in Scandinavia had also been very mild.

What was happening was part of the natural variation of our climate, said Ms. Nullis.  So-called planetary waves were one of the reasons why, when it was exceptionally cold in the United States, it might be warm in Europe.  There were lots of factors at play, she added.

Weather: southern hemisphere

Concerning the southern hemisphere, Ms. Nullis said that Australia experienced its hottest year on record last year and January was continuing that trend.  The second heat wave of the year was expected this weekend.  Argentina had also witnessed its worst heat wave on record.

Regarding Severe Tropical Cyclone Ian, WMO’s Regional Specialized Meteorological Centre in Fiji was issuing regular advisories which forecast the cyclone would impact on some islands of Tonga.  The Va’Vau and Ha’Apai group of islands faced very destructive, hurricane-force winds with an average speed of 90 knots and risk of flooding of low lying coastal areas and damaging heavy swells.

Weather: Space
 
Turning to weather in Space, Ms. Nullis said an intense solar flare observed Wednesday evening was expected to cause strong geomagnetic storming Thursday into Friday.  The weather had caused some spectacular auroras and there were many amazing photos being circulated on social media this week.  However, the storm had a modest start with no substantial storming occurring so far.  Geomagnetic storms on Earth could impede the operation of electrical grids, temporarily disturb radio-communications, satellite navigation systems (such as GPS) and were a matter of concern for trans-polar flights.  WMO and its members were stepping up activities and research into so-called ‘Space Weather’ and it was an area of close international cooperation, especially between the United Kingdom, United States and China. 

Responding to a question from a journalist, Ms. Nullis said that there did seem to be a growing scientific consensus that because of global warming the jet stream would become more erratic leading to more extreme weather situations as seen this week.  She noted that the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the global average.

H5N1 and H7N9 disease outbreak alerts

Glenn Thomas, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said seven new cases of H7N9 had been listed this week, and WHO aimed to issue a further disease outbreak news alert on the two new cases later today.  The new cases were located in China and Hong Kong. 

Regarding H5N1, Mr. Thomas said investigations were ongoing into the case in Canada.  He noted that the infected person had visited China, before returning to Canada where he died in hospital.

Human Rights of Parliamentarians

Jemini Pandya for the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), said that next week from 13 to 17 January, the IPU Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians would be meeting in Geneva for its one hundredth and forty-third session.  The meeting in January would be the only time of the year that the Committee would examine all of the cases that it had on its books.  Next week IPU would be looking at cases involving 265 members of parliament (MPs).  It would also examine potential new cases evolving assassination, arbitrary arrest and infringement of freedom of expression and assembly from Iraq, Oman and Yemen.  The highest number of cases before the Committee would come from Africa (113 MPs), closely followed by Asia (96 MPs).  The Americas would be next with 39 cases involving MPs and finally 16 cases from Europe.

Approximately 200 MPs of the 265 were members of opposition parties.  Those numbers showed the balance where the most violations were taking place.  However 55 MPs with Human Rights violations against them were members of majority parties.

During the week-long session, the Committee also planned a hearing concerning the case of 11 Eritrean MPs, the famous “G11” case.  IPU previously had a briefing on this case at its last session in Geneva in October 2013.  The “G11” were 11 Eritrean MPs who were arrested without charge in September 2001, for writing an open letter calling for democratic reform in their country.  Since then, they had completely disappeared from the surface of the earth.  They had been held incommunicado and their fate was unknown in a country heavily criticized on human rights violations.

The IPU was deeply concerned that out of the 11 MPs, only two might still be alive.  Originally 15 MPs were arrested but four of them managed to escape.  One of the four was abroad for medical treatment and so avoided arrest, and IPU hoped that he would be able to attend next week’s hearing.  If it went ahead a press briefing would be held on Thursday 16 January, at 2 p.m. in Press Room I.  Next Tuesday, IPU would confirm whether the press briefing would take place.

Geneva activities

Ms. Vellucci announced that the Committee on the Rights of the Child would hold its sixty-fifth session at Palais Wilson in Geneva from 13 to 31 January.  Reports of the following countries will be reviewed (in chronological order) Congo, Yemen, the Holy See, Portugal, the Russian Federation and Germany.  A background press release has been circulated. Only the backgrounder and a round-up would be published. 

Hans von Rohland for the International Labour Organization (ILO) announced a press conference scheduled for Monday 20 January at 10 a.m. in Room III to launch the Global Employment Trends 2014.   The annual report was a survey that provided regional and global information, as well as prospects concerning the labour market, employment, unemployment, information on low-paid workers and insecure jobs.  The report would also make political recommendations for the following year.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: webtv.un.org/media.