REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
11 February 2014
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was also attended by Spokespersons for the International Trade Centre, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization, the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Refugee Agency, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said the Conference on Disarmament was holding its regular public plenary this morning.
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was this morning concluding its consideration of the report of Poland, and would start its review of the report of Uzbekistan this afternoon. The Committee would also be considering the reports of Kazakhstan and Luxembourg this week. The report of Switzerland, the last to be considered by the Committee during this session, would be considered on Friday, 14 February in the afternoon and Monday, 17 February in the morning.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women started yesterday a three-week session. It was considering the reports of Bahrain today, Cameroon tomorrow, Qatar on Thursday and Kazakhstan on Friday.
Rupert Colville of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said at the back of the room there was a media advisory on the Commission of Inquiry on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which was releasing its report next Monday, 17 February, and there would be a press conference at 2 p.m. on that day by the Chair of the Commission of Inquiry. There were more details in the media advisory.
Jarle Hetland of the International Trade Centre (ITC) said ITC, in cooperation with UNDP, would on Sunday be launching a joint project on enhancing opportunities for women in Palestine. The launch would be held in Ramallah and would be attended by the Heads of both agencies. The project for ITC formed part of the women and trade programme and sought to increase opportunities for women and improve the livelihoods of women business owners in Palestine dealing with textiles, clothing and interior design. The process had already started, there had already been buyer and seller meetings and they had managed to bring companies on board that had pledged to buy from there women in Palestine.
Jens Laerke of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) provided an update of the ongoing operation in Homs as of this morning. The humanitarian pause was extended yesterday for a further three days. OCHA welcomed this as it allowed them to evacuate more people and hopefully bring more supplies into the old city of Homs. Yesterday, there were no reports of serious security incidents and the humanitarian pause and the ceasefire were upheld, contrary to what had been seen over the weekend. By last night, a total of 447 additional people had been evacuated, including many sick and injured. This brought the total number of people evacuated from the old city in the past four days to 1,132. OCHA hoped that the negotiations would allow the sustained delivery of aid to the 250,000 people in besieged communities in Syria and all those who were in desperate need across the country.
Marixie Mercado of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said 400 children and women were evacuated from Homs during the first three days of the humanitarian pause, including 190 children below 15 years old who all immediately received multiple immunizations including for polio. They were also provided with nutritional supplies. Staff also saw about 20 pregnant women. The children all looked frail, emaciated and scared, according to UNICEF colleagues on the ground. The actual number of people who remained in the old city was unclear, but all the evacuees said the same things about the conditions that they had left: extreme cold, hunger, dirty water and constant selling. UNICEF and other UN workers were on hand at the reception centre to provide psycho-social support and also reassurance by their presence.
Elisabeth Byrs of the World Food Programme (WFP) said in January, WFP dispatched enough food for 3.7 million people, leaving half a million people without any food assistance due to the deteriorating security situation. WFP needed to raise about $40 million every week to meet the food needs of people affected by the conflict in Syria. It cost WFP one dollar a day to feed a displaced Syrian. WFP had serious funding shortfalls and needed to raise an immediate amount of $273 million to cover the food needs of Syrians until the end of March. This was a hand-to-mouth operation which required immediate contribution to allow enough time to have food move inside Syria. On the operation in the old city of Homs, during the three day humanitarian pause from 7 to 9 February, United Nations staff , WFP and Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers delivered many family rations – enough to feed 1,550 people for one month – and 1.5 metric tons of wheat flour into the besieged area. WFP also gave all the evacuees, more than 1,100 people, ready-to-eat food rations, enough for five days, including canned food, chick pea paste, halwa (a sesame paste-based sweet), bread sticks, olive oil and fruit juice. Children also got nutritious bars and snacks as soon as they left the city. As of 10 February, WFP teams in Homs and other teams were still working on evacuation of more civilians and moving in food. Despite the difficulty of access, WFP had been successfully delivering food in other parts of the Homs governorate and last month, it dispatched food for nearly 687,000 people in Homs governorate.
Fadela Chaib of the World Health Organization (WHO) said, based on notes received this morning from the WHO office in Damascus, that WHO medical supplies were part of the convoy that entered old Homs on Saturday. Medicines to treat chronic and infectious diseases to cover almost 2,000 people for three months were delivered, as well as vaccines for polio and others diseases to cover 1,000 children. So far, 1,000 people had been evacuated and WHO had been coordinating with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent for the provision of medical resources at the reception area and the provision of ambulance services to nearby health facilities. So far, 380 children under 15 were vaccinated at the reception point for routine and polio immunization. It was to be noted that children under the age of two had never been vaccinated in Homs. Many people were suffering from diseases, including skin diseases for lack of water and sanitation. Five women had been in late pregnancy and one of them gave birthday after being transported to a nearby hospital. Many patients with injuries had received incomplete care inside old Homs as there was only one field hospital there with very limited capacities. WHO had had a sub-office in Homs since April 2013 and had delivered medical supplies for almost 1 million people in Homs in both government controlled and contested areas.
Ms. Chaib also said that a press release was issued by the WHO Regional Office for the East Mediterranean website late last night about another region in Syria called el-Hassaka governorate. WHO had been trying for three years to provide medical assistance to this governorate and this weekend, they managed to deliver medicines, vaccines and medical supplies to this governorate which was in the northeast of Syria by chartered flights from Damascus. The first plane with 40 tons of medical supplies landed on Saturday, and an additional 80 tons were expected to arrive in coming days. WHO was providing medical supplies to more than 300,000 people in this governorate. The medicines were for chronic and infectious diseases, including skin diseases, as well as medical supplies to treat people with injuries. These life-saving supplies were foreseen also to reach el-Sada, an area that had not received medical supplies for two years. There had been an alarming decrease in the production of local medicine since 2011. There were more details in the press release.
Christiane Berthiaume of the International Migration Organization said IOM had evacuated since the start of the ceasefire 1,149 persons from Homs, including 124 elderly persons, 308 children under the age of 10, 464 men between the ages of 18 and 50 and 250 women. The evacuees had been in bad shape after spending 600 days without food. The evacuees were helped to go wherever they wanted. The evacuations started last Friday and were completed with 10 trucks. IOM had distributed winter clothes and the trucks had contained 1,000 winter kits that the staff was ready to distribute to families as soon as the situation allowed. The situation was still really tense.
These persons have been taken to where they had asked to go, in Homs and in other areas. They were staying with family members of with friends. IOM staffs accompanied the evacuees in order to make sure the places they had been evacuated to were safe and secure. IOM would watch the situation and provide assistance if necessary. Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, IOM had distributed non-alimentary assistance to about 1 million people and had helped repair 88 shelter centres. It continued to work all over the country.
In response to a question on whether there was any follow-up concerning those evacuated from Homs concerning their security, as there had been some reports of detentions by the Syrian government after they were evacuated, Melissa Fleming of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said there was an agreement under the humanitarian pause, with the two parties, that the ages of those being evacuated would be over 55 and under 15. During the evacuation, out of 1,151 persons who were evacuated, 336 men who were either above the age of 15 or below the age of 55 were questioned by the authorities in the presence of UNHCR and UNICEF in a school on the outskirts of Homs. Today, 41 of them were released and were being transported to a neighbouring suburb where many of the evacuees were temporarily settling. The others remained in this school and were being monitored by protection teams from UNCHR and UNICEF. There would be follow-up with this group of evacuees and with every evacuee from Homs to the extent that they knew where they were going. UNHCR was able to provide evacuees with some assistance, what they could carry collectively as a UN team, and would be following up with the heavier stuff that they needed like mattresses and blankets and shelter equipment. UNHCR was trying to make sure that all civilians who wanted to get out of Homs could leave, and they were doing their very best under the most complicated and dangerous circumstances imaginable to ensure that as many lives could be saved as possible. They were working under an agreement that was reached between two parties. Anything that fell outside of that agreement was sensitive. They were doing their best to be on the scene and to monitor and to provide that neutral, impartial, United Nations humanitarian presence and monitoring. They were not aware of any of the detained men being taken away to any detention centre.
In response to who was questioning the detained men, Ms. Fleming said they were being questioned by the Syrian authorities, with the general monitoring presence of United Nations protection who were present in the school. The United Nations was not present in the room when an evacuee was questioned, but they spoke to them individually afterwards. Many of the men had left with their families, not wanting to be separated from them.
In response to another question on which was the next area after Homs that needed evacuation, Mr. Laerke said they did not have a prioritized list of where the places that needed aid the most were. They had said that there were about a quarter of a million people across Syria who were in a situation where they were under siege, they could not leave or could not get in, so obviously all of them were the highest priority. In response to a question on whether there were ongoing talks about another area in Syria, Mr. Laerke said that as far as he knew, there were no concrete negotiations for the moment.
Asked if there was any evidence on who attacked the convoy last weekend and the 11 killed, Mr. Laerke said they did not know who attacked the convoy, this had not been established. As for the 11 killed, they were civilians inside old Homs. There were no casualties among United Nations staff. There was one Syrian Arab Red Crescent staff who was injured.
In response to another question, Mr. Laerke said that the longer that this humanitarian pause could be extended the better. An additional three days was very welcome. The humanitarian pause as such was in effect from 6 a.m. in the morning to 6 p.m. at night for an additional three days. At night, basically the humanitarian pause was not in effect. The pause was an extension of the original agreement and did not include any extension or expansion of the area where it was in effect, it was only the old city of Homs.
In response to a question on whether there were starving people coming out of Homs, Ms. Byrs said that the evacuees were very weak when they came out, with obvious signs of malnutrition. One man said he had survived for one week on one spoon of boulgour. They said they ate, leaves, grass, olives, and sometimes wheat flour appeared and they mixed it with water to make a kind of bread. They said there were small amounts of boulgour still remaining in Homs, but it was infested by insects. The evacuees when they came out asked for food and medicine.
Asked if there was news about the people who according to the Government were being held by the opposition in a church as human shields, Mr. Laerke said they were aware of these reports but knew nothing about this particular group of people.
Rupert Colville of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said OHCHR welcomed reports that the parties to the conflict in Syria had agreed to extend the humanitarian pause in Old Homs for three more days. The delivery of long-awaited and much-needed humanitarian aid to Old Homs was a very welcome development, as was the fact that hundreds of beleaguered, traumatized, sick and injured civilians had finally been allowed to leave the conflict zone. It was, however, disgraceful that United Nations and Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid workers delivering food and medical aid on Sunday were clearly targeted when the previous agreement to halt the fighting during the humanitarian operations was breached. It was a war crime to deliberately fire on those carrying out humanitarian operations. OHCHR was also deeply concerned to learn that a number of boys and men and their families were seized by the authorities as they left the besieged area. It was essential that they did not come to any harm, and along with their colleagues in other United Nations organizations, OHCHR would continue to press for their proper treatment according to the international humanitarian and human rights law. Those not engaged in hostilities must be free to move to safe areas. Evacuations must be voluntary and should not amount to forced displacement or evictions. It was important that all parties to the conflict respected international humanitarian law and international human rights law, including the prohibition on indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.
Mr. Colville said the protections contained in Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, as a minimum must be respected. These included the absolute prohibition of a number of acts against persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who had laid down their arms, and those placed ' hors de combat ' by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause. The prohibited acts were violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; taking of hostages; and outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment. There must not be an assumption that those who remained in Old Homs and other besieged areas were all combatants. In addition, attacks against individuals who were hors de combat due to sickness, injury, capture or surrender, were prohibited by international humanitarian law. The High Commissioner and other United Nations and humanitarian partners had, for many months, been urging safe passage for civilians and humanitarian access to all besieged areas of Syria. At least 240,000 people were estimated to be in areas under siege in the country, and OHCHR planned to issue a wider analysis of this situation in the coming days. OHCHR renewed its calls for unimpeded, continued and safe access to all the besieged areas of the country. Under international human rights law, notably the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, States were bound by core obligations to ensure minimum essential food which was sufficient, nutritionally adequate and safe, to ensure freedom from hunger; essential primary health care, including essential medicine; essential basic shelter and housing, including sanitation; access to the minimum essential amount of water, that was sufficient and safe for personal and domestic uses to prevent disease. Almost none of these obligations had been met in Old Homs, and various other besieged areas in recent months, and it was important that the small breakthrough they were seeing in Homs was rapidly expanded, so that more people are delivered from the atrocious suffering , deprivation and constant risk of injury and death they were currently facing in many locations across Syria.
In response to a question on what the obligations of the Syrian Government were under international humanitarian law regarding access to humanitarian aid, Mr. Colville urged the journalist to contact the International Committee of the Red Cross. He read out some elements from customary international law relating to humanitarian relief: respect for and protection of humanitarian relief personnel was a corollary of the prohibition of starvation as well as the rule of the wounded and sick must be collected and cared for. Specifically in relation to non-international armed conflicts, it was stated that under the statutes of the International Criminal Court and of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, intentionally directing attacks against personnel involved in a humanitarian assistance mission in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, was considered a war crime in non-international armed conflicts. The Security Council had also repeatedly urged parties to armed conflicts to respect and protect humanitarian relief personnel.
Asked if the evacuees really had left voluntarily, Mr. Colville said it was very hard to see, but international law said it must be voluntary. He could not make a judgement at this point on whether or not it was voluntary. On the question on the human rights situation in Syria, the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria had been keeping very detailed and very consistent views on what was going on in Syria for two and a half years now.
Melissa Fleming of the United Nations Refugee Agency said as the violence was getting worse in northern Syria, UNHCR was seeing a big upsurge in the number of refugees, more than 20,000, who had arrived since the start of the year in Turkey. Over recent days, they were seeing anywhere from 500 people to 1,000 to 2,000 arriving daily at official crossing points. Turkey had a big and long border with Syria, so there were indications that many Syrians also unofficially entered Turkey. This was spurred by an upsurge of fighting in Aleppo and a conflict among the opposition groups who were fighting each other in the northern part of Syria. Turkey right now had an estimated 700,000 Syrians on its soil as refugees, and of those, a little over 200,000 were in camps and the rest were in urban areas.
Central African Republic
Rupert Colville of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the security situation in Bangui continued to deteriorate, with targeted assassinations, increased violence and criminality on the streets. There were reports that anti-Balaka militants were extorting money from small businesses and individuals. On Sunday, a member of the National Transitional Council, Jean-Emmanuel Ndjaroua, was assassinated in front of his residence in broad daylight, weeks after two of his children were killed. Houses of former Séléka ministers, including that of the former Minister of Justice, had been looted. Two magistrates were attacked, with one wounded and taken to hospital while another managed to escape. Also on Sunday, the Rwandan component of MISCA, the African Union peacekeeping mission, intervened to stop a mob from killing a Muslim man accused of attacking a woman. United Nations human rights staff in the Central African Republic also conducted a mission to Boda, a town about 100 kilometres west of Bangui, where 92 people were reportedly killed between 30 January and 5 February in tit-for-tat attacks on religious grounds. Upon the departure of ex-Séléka from the town on 29 January, anti-Balaka launched an offensive against the Muslim population of Boda. Young Muslims from the town then retaliated in a killing spree and by burning down businesses. The human rights team found houses scorched and the population displaced, split along religious lines.
Mr. Colville said particularly worrying was the climate of complete impunity in the country, illustrated most glaringly by public statements from anti-Balaka elements claiming responsibility for the crimes and murders they had committed. Such brazen admissions were furthering the culture of impunity and encouraging more people to resort to violence. OHCHR was also concerned that some members of the National Transitional Council itself had made public statements within parliament which could instigate inter-communal violence. A number of parliamentarians for example reportedly stated that the brutal lynching of a man on 5 February, during which his body was dismembered and burnt by the armed forces of the Central African Republic, was justified, which clearly it was not. OHCHR was working with various parties to try to re-start the judicial process in Bangui towards combating the pervasive impunity in the country. They also welcomed the preliminary examination by the International Criminal Court into the crimes committed in recent months in the Central African Republic.
Jens Laerke of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said concerning the funding situation, as the rainy season (March and April) approached, they had already seen some heavy rains at the beginning of this month which had a dramatic impact on the camps for internally displaced persons at the airport. They urgently needed additional funding for the Central African Republic. There was a pledging conference in Brussels last month, where donors generously pledged quite a large amount, $ 207 million, but to date, only 26 per cent of that had been committed and the remaining $ 153 million was urgently needed now to save the Central Africans.
Likewise, Elizabeth Byrs of the World Food Programme said WFP needed urgently and immediately $ 89 million to preposition food stocks and to distribute food, as the roads would soon become impassable because of the rainy season. Twenty-three trucks transporting 622 tons of food, rice and maize, had arrived in Bangui, 8 February. This was enough to feed 50,000 persons for one month. They had been escorted by MISCA from the border with Cameroon. The week before, another convoy carrying WFP food was also escorted to Bangui, and it too three days to cover 600 kilometres, due to checkpoints among other things. There were another 27 commercial trucks carrying 675 tons of rice and maize still waiting at the border with Cameroon. Despite the MISCA escort, they were afraid of being attacked. As for the plan to airlift food, WFP was planning to start airlifting food from Cameroon probably on Wednesday. There were more details in the notes.
Christiane Berthiaume of the International Organization for Migration said she deeply regretted to announce the end of the IOM’s operations in the Central African Republic because of lack of funding. The lack of funds meant the IOM had to stop its airlift evacuation to neighbouring countries. The two last flights took place over the weekend, and the next ones were suspended because IOM only had $ 250,000 left, which would be used to buy seats in commercial flights for a few migrants. She recalled that the IOM had appealed for $ 17.5 million, but it had only received $ 2.8 million and had already spent $ 4.4 million from its emergency funds. The two last flights transported 609 Chadians to N’Djamena. There were many children and sick people on these flights.
She recalled that 2,000 people were still staying at the transit centre of the military airport, including many who had asked to be transferred to neighbouring countries. Ms. Berthiaume explained that the IOM would try to identify the most vulnerable and help them evacuate the country through commercial flights. On top of it, the IOM had received numerous demands from neighbouring countries’ embassies to evacuate their nationals. Over the week, the IOM would compile all the information about these neighbouring countries’ nationals, in order to determine how many needed to be evacuated and how the IOM could help them.
Asked if what was happening in the Central African Republic was ethnic cleansing, Mr. Colville said he did not know if he would characterize it as such, but clearly a situation that was not along religious lines initially was becoming very much so. In recent days, the Muslim population had begun fleeing in considerable numbers. There were reports of people being pulled off lorries and killed, and gangs of men hunting people from the other religion. It was extremely bad and getting worse. The situation in the town of Boda was particularly alarming as it was now basically split into a Muslim part and a Christian part. The levels of hatred were reported to be quite extraordinary.
Melissa Fleming of the High Commissioner for Refugees said that High Commissioner Guterres was arriving in Bangui today. There would be a statement on the result of his visit tomorrow.
Melissa Fleming of the High Commissioner for Refugees said there was continuing violence in Iraq in the Anbar province. Over the last weeks, 300,000 Iraqis had been displaced due to insecurity in the Anbar province, with the conflict continuing. UNHCR was continuing to receive reports of civilian casualties and sustained hardship in communities impacted by the fighting, and also by the communities receiving these internally displace persons.
Ms. Fleming said UNHCR was welcoming a decision by the Mexican Senate that approved a Presidential initiative to withdraw reservations that Mexico had made at the time of becoming party to the 1951 Refugees Convention and the 1954 Stateless Convention. Mexico reservations were related to the State’s powers to expel foreigners – including asylum seekers, refugees and stateless people. This removed a lot of insecurity that those people had been feeling.
Ms. Fleming said that concerning Afghanistan, UNHCR very much welcomed a new national policy on the rights of internally displaced people. This would help find solutions for the many displaced who were affected by conflict and natural disasters and gave them far more rights than they had before. There were 630,000 internally displaced persons inside Afghanistan, 55 per cent living in urban areas. It was believed that this new policy would significantly improve their conditions.
* * * * *
The representatives of the International Labour Organization and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development also attended the briefing but did not speak.
* * * * *
The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/1eNjeCy