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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

14 March 2017

Alessandra Vellucci, Director, United Nations Information Service, chaired the briefing attended by the spokespersons for the Human Rights Council, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Health Organization, the International Organization for Migration, and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

Human Rights Council 34th session

Rolando Gomez, for the Human Rights Council (HRC), said that the Council was currently engaged in a panel discussion on the situation of human rights in the Syrian Arab Republic.  The panel had a specific focus on enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention, as well as the need for accountability.  The Council had heard opening statements from the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as the Chair of the Commission of Inquiry, Pablo Pinheiro, as well as Kevin Kennedy, the UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syrian crisis.  Panellists were now engaged in a discussion with States and NGOs, and were sharing their stories of abduction, enforced disappearances, torture and other forms of abuse, as well as their thoughts and dreams for a peaceful Syria.   As one panellist had said, “Justice is our right.  The right of our children and of our society.  Justice would bring peace, reassurance and hope, would end extremism and would be a call for refugees to return home.”

That panel would continue until 12 p.m.  Thereafter, the Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic would present its report on Aleppo at 12 p.m., which had already been made public.  The COI would also present their oral update on the overall situation of human rights in Syria over the last seven months.  The conference paper complementing the oral update had been shared with the press this morning.  Following this the Council would hear from the concerned country, and there would be an interactive discussion.    

At 3 p.m. the Council would hear the presentation of a report from the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, by the Chair of the Commission, Yasmin Sooka, followed by the concerned country statement and an interactive discussion.  Through the report, which had been issued last week, the Commission provided an overview of the situation of human rights in South Sudan from July 2016 to February 2017.  Among other things, the Commission recommended the immediate establishment of an international, independent investigation under the auspices of the UN into the most serious crimes committed in South Sudan since December 2013.

At approximately 5 p.m. today the Council would begin its general debate on country situations, which would spill over to 15 March.

The Commission of Inquiry on Syria would also hold a press stakeout at 3.30 p.m. today
behind Room XX, with the three Commissioners, Paulo Pinheiro, Carla Del Ponte and Karen Abuzayd.

Asked whether any members of the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria had been invited to the panel, Mr. Gomez said that he would check, and confirmed that no members of the OSE team were present on the panel.  In response to a question about criticism of the OSE expressed by the panellists, Mr. Gomez replied that it was the prerogative of panellists to criticize or praise actions taken by the United Nations.

Libya

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that since the outbreak of hostilities in the oil crescent area in eastern Libya on 3 March 2017, OHCHR had been receiving numerous reports of serious violations and abuses of international human rights and international humanitarian law committed by the parties to the conflict.  Credible reports suggested that unlawful killings, including summary executions, hostage-taking, arbitrary detentions, torture, as well as widespread raids of civilian homes had been occurring, particularly in the towns of Ajdabiya, Benghazi, Brega and Beishir.

The two main armed groups fighting for control of the eastern oil crescent at the moment were the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the Benghazi Defence Brigade (BDB).  On 3 March, the BDB and its supporters had attacked the oil crescent area and had taken it over from the LNA. The LNA had responded with repeated airstrikes in the area.

OHCHR had received serious allegations that two LNA fighters had been summarily executed in the Ras Lanuf medical centre on 3 March.  This had been followed by the widespread raids by the LNA of homes of presumed BDB supporters or fighters and the detention of their family members.  Reportedly, more than 100 men and boys had been detained during LNA raids.  LNA fighters had beaten and insulted men and women and had stolen money and other property from the houses. They had detained boys as young as 13 years old, and men in their 70s.  In one case, the LNA had detained a 13-year-old boy who was held in order to force the family to hand over his older brother, suspected of being a fighter aligned with the BDB.  Those detained were being held incommunicado, and many families had said they had no information on the whereabouts of male relatives who had been detained.  OHCHR had received reports that those detained had been subjected to torture and threats.

OHCHR was deeply alarmed that the fighting and air strikes by the LNA may continue to escalate in the coming days, leading to further human rights abuses against civilians.  OHCHR urged all parties to the conflict to fully respect international human rights and humanitarian law and to take all possible precautions to ensure civilians were not harmed and to treat all detainees humanely.  OHCHR also urged all those with influence to work to de-escalate the situation.

Turkey

In response to a question regarding decisions of the Netherlands regarding denial of access to a Turkish Minister, Ms. Vellucci said that the UN would not comment on these decisions.

Syria

Tarik Jasarevic, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that a polio vaccination campaign had started in Syria on 12 March.  The campaign was planned and organized by the central and local health authorities with the support of WHO and UNICEF.  It was taking place in 12 out of 14 governorates.  It was the first polio vaccination campaign in 2017, the previous one having taken place in November 2016.  The goal was to vaccinate more than 2.7 million children under the age of five.  The two governorates not covered were Al Raqqa, which remained inaccessible, and Idleb, where a polio vaccination campaign had taken place in February 2017 led by partners based in Gaziantep.

The particular focus of the campaign would be on more than half a million children living in hard-to-reach and besieged areas.  More than 7,000 health workers were involved in the campaign and 30 per cent of them would try to work in those areas, like Madaya or Douma.  The vaccines were brought in by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, and then local health workers were conducting the vaccination campaign.  WHO was supporting the campaign with the training health workers, covering the operational costs and ensuring that more than 800 vehicles were rented for the operation.

Syria had been re-infected with polio in 2013, with 36 cases, and following a swift and rapid response and a number of campaigns across the region the outbreak had been brought to a close and there had been no new cases since January 2014.  There had been 21 campaigns since 2013 on a national and sub-national level, and the current campaign was the sixth mass polio vaccination campaign since October 2015.

Polio had been reduced by 99 per cent worldwide with only three endemic countries remaining.  Such campaigns were very important in places where routine immunization was not strong enough, in countries like Syria.

In response to questions, Mr. Jasarevic reiterated that SARC would bring in vaccines and that local health workers who were in those hard-to-reach and besieged areas would then conduct the vaccination itself.  In areas where there were no qualified health workers, SARC teams could come in and vaccinate children themselves.  He also said that when it came to delivery of humanitarian aid, including medical supplies, via inter-agency convoys, that was a separate issue from this polio vaccination campaign in support of central and local health authorities.  WHO was working on getting permits necessary for SARC colleagues to bring vaccines in and to enable local health workers to vaccinate children.

Asked about why vaccines were not being brought in to Al Raqqa, Mr. Jasarevic clarified that WHO had a number of focal points in non-Government controlled areas, but he did not remember WHO being able to bring any supplies into Al Raqqa governorate.  He would check on that and would get back to the press.

In response to a final question, Mr. Jasarevic said that there were pressing humanitarian needs in many countries and that he had just come back from Yemen, where health workers had not received salaries for more than six months, there was no central budget to run health facilities, and there were shortages of medicine as well as an issue of malnutrition.  WHO and partners were trying to fill gaps as best they could with the resources they had.  National public health experts and health workers were usually trying to deal with the situation as best they could, and WHO was there to help them.

He added that WHO and all the other UN agencies had always been vocal to get access to all besieged and hard-to-reach areas in Syria.  WHO had consistently voiced the concern about surgical equipment being removed from convoys that were going in. 

Asked about events underway in Al-Waer, Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that the press could pursue a statement from IOM on the matter this afternoon.

Following several questions received by UNIS, Ms. Vellucci said that today the Service would send out the note to correspondents about accreditation for the next round of intra-Syrian talks, which would start in Geneva on 23 March.  Permanently accredited journalists did not require any supplementary accreditation.  Those who were not permanently accredited to the UN in Geneva and had attended the previous round would have to re-register through Indico and represent a letter of accreditation.

Afghanistan

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that IOM was launching a four-year, 18 million euro project signed today, with funding from the European Commission Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development (DG DEVCO), to support returnees and host communities across Afghanistan.  Many people were returning to Afghanistan, from the region and from Europe, either because of changes of conditions in the country or because of failed asylum attempts, or the conditions in Pakistan.  There were 1.3 million Afghans registered as refugees in Pakistan, the largest refugee community in the world, and another 700,000 undocumented Afghans staying in Pakistan.  IOM was expecting a large number of those to return and require assistance.

Additionally, 800,000 Afghans were in the EU Member States, and IOM had already seen a real uptick in its Assisted Voluntary Repatriation and Reintegration (AVRR) work.  IOM had had 1,400 Afghan AVRR beneficiaries in 2015 and 7,000 in 2016.  In 2017, even more were anticipated.  That was why Europe was eager to help IOM with funding AVRR for Afghans. 

Mr. Millman pointed out that AVRR was not a deportation process.  IOM had been doing this work since 1979 and had helped 1.4 million people to be repatriated to 90 countries.

Iraq

Mr. Millman said that Mosul displacement today was estimated at 238,236 individuals.  Since 9 January 2017 that number had jumped by 100,000 people.  Hundreds of families had been arriving over the past 24 hours, but quite a number of people were leaving emergency sites operated by IOM as conditions were stabilizing in their villages and neighborhoods, which was encouraging. 

Democratic Republic of the Congo

In response to a question regarding the kidnapping of two UN experts in the DRC, Ms. Vellucci said that those two persons were reported missing and that MONUSCO was actively searching for them since 13 March, but they had not been found yet.  Those persons had disappeared close to the locality of Moyo Muswila in the Kasai region. 

United States

In response to a question about potential cuts to US funding to the UN, Ms. Vellucci said that those questions were recurring since the arrival of the new US administration.  Reports on cuts were in the media but there was no official information yet, so no comment could be made at this point.  Of course, when the UN’s largest donor was thinking about re-examining its position regarding funding, the UN was looking into the situation, but nothing was defined yet.  The Secretary-General had already said that it was very important to work with the new US administration.

Geneva Events and Announcements

Ms. Vellucci said that the Conference on Disarmament was holding this morning a public meeting, starting at 10 a.m.

Ms. Vellucci announced that the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, which was currently holding its 12th session at the Palais Wilson, would meet in private until the end of its session on 17 March, following which it would publish its concluding observations on the reports of the three countries examined during the session, those of Cuba, Senegal and Ecuador. 

The Human Rights Committee, which was currently holding its 119th session (running until 29 March at the Palais Wilson) would finish this morning its review of the report of Thailand, started on 13 March in the afternoon, before starting this afternoon its review of the report of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Ms. Vellucci announced a press conference by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations, on 15 March at 10 a.m. in Press Room 1, on the topic of “Unaccompanied children on the move: preserving their dignity and their rights.”  The speakers would be the Reverend Father Fabio Baggio, Co-Undersecretary, Migrant and Refugee Section, Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development of the Holy See, the Reverend Father Michael Czerny, Co-Undersecretary, Migrant and Refugee Section, Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development of the Holy See, and Monsignor Robert J. Vitillo, Secretary General of International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC).

Edward Harris, for the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) announced a press conference on 15 March at 11 a.m. in Press Room 1, on the International Patent System in 2016 and  International Trademark and Design Systems in 2016.  The speakers would be Francis Gurry, WIPO Director-General, and Carsten Fink, Chief Economist at WIPO.  The new data gave visibility on what individual companies were doing and on what was happening by sector.  All the material would be sent to the press under embargo shortly.

Subsequent to the press conference, there would also be an embargoed press opportunity with Director-General Gurry and the Head of the Arbitration and Mediation Centre, Erik Wilbers about Domain Names/Cybersquatting Trends in 2016, covering cybersquatting cases that had been adjudicated by WIPO in 2016.

Finally, Ms. Vellucci spoke about the annual lecture of the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation taking place on 15 March at 6 p.m. in the Assembly Hall at the Palais des Nations.  The main speaker would be Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).  A Q&A session with Angelina Jolie and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, moderated by Lyse Doucet, would follow, as well as a piano concert in memory of Sergio Vieira de Mello.  In response to questions which she had received, Ms. Vellucci said that this was not a private event, but an event which required registration.  The space reserved for the press was the balcony under the interpreters’ booths.  There were more than 100 places, but the press had to register with François Richer.  Those who registered would receive a special badge for the event.  The deadline for registration was tonight.  The event would be webcast by UNTV.  The UNHCR photographer and UNTV would be covering from the floor.  UNIS would work with UNHCR to make sure the pictures would be available as soon as possible. 

In response to further questions, Ms. Vellucci specified that the room would be very full and it would not be possible to have cameras in the floor of the Assembly Hall.  Footage, photos and the webcast would be guaranteed by UNHCR and UNTV.  She clarified that international photographers were admitted in the gallery.  The Q&A session would take place mainly with the students from the Graduate Institute, a partner of the annual Sergio Vieira de Mello lecture.  This was not a UN event, but UNOG hosted it.

Ms. Vellucci acknowledged comments from the press regarding their dissatisfaction with the level of access for the audiovisual press to the event.  She reiterated that UNIS would be facilitating access to good quality footage and pictures for the press.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog140317