REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
4 December 2012
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the World Health Organization and the International Organization for Migration.
Adrian Edwards for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Erika Feller, yesterday visited refugees in Jordan’s Za’atri refugee camp and noted that innocent civilians were the prime victims of the on-going conflict in Syria. On her second mission to the region in less than a month, Feller met refugees who had recently made it to safety in Jordan. Many were elderly, including one woman who had recently undergone open-heart surgery. Several were clearly traumatized.
Feller said the conflict was disproportionately affecting civilians – at least 2.5 million of them – and called on both sides to ensure that those who have fled their homes throughout the country were able to reach safety. In some areas, insecurity had reached to the country’s borders, making escape to neighbouring states especially perilous.
As UNHCR’s senior refugee protection official, Feller reviewed reception arrangements at Za’atri, which as of this week had received more than 60,000 Syrian refugees since it opened four months ago. Many of those 60,000 have since moved on, some into the local community and others have returned to Syria. Za’atri currently had about 32,000 residents.
Preparations for winter were well underway in the camp, where overnight temperatures were now dropping to 1 degree Celsius. Tents were being reinforced and better insulated to protect against the weather, including the addition of “porches” where gas heaters were being placed. Some 30,000 high thermal blankets were being distributed, along with winter clothing.
A storm drainage system was being built and a layer of crushed rock spread throughout the camp to channel water away from shelters and prevent mud and standing water. In addition, more than 1,300 prefabricated shelters had been erected and another 1,300 were expected to be in place within three weeks.
As this work continued, UNHCR had recently heard erroneous reports that refugee children died at the camp because of the cold. This was incorrect. Since November 23, UNHCR had seen four infant deaths due to other medical conditions, but not because of the weather. Medical reports indicated that two of the infants had congenital defects – one of the oesophagus, and the other of the heart. Two other infants died as a result of serious diarrhoea. UNHCR extended its deep condolences to the parents, families and the Za'atri community. These cases were absolutely heart-breaking for UNHCR and its partners who were working around the clock in the camp to try to help those who have already suffered far too much.
Answering questions he said people had often arrived at the camp in a difficult condition, though he had no figures to hand of a total number of people that had died. He also clarified there was small reduction in staff due to the worsening security situation but it was hoped that cooperation with partners would limit the impact of this as much as possible.
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) answered questions saying that UN agencies had not suspended humanitarian work, but there had been a reduction of non-essential international staff due to increased insecurity. This meant that critical humanitarian operations continued and trucks of aid were moving out daily where roads were open.
As the regional humanitarian coordinator had explained yesterday, adjustments were being made to plans in order to reach as many people as possible and plans for humanitarian assistance were being reviewed. This was a clear indication that humanitarian agencies were there to stay.
Marixie Mercado for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) added that agencies were working through partnerships across the country and that work continued, for example their eight mobile health teams were still giving help where conditions allowed.
Ms. Momal-Vanian also clarified that each agency would consider which roles were vital to their operations on an evolving basis. Also, there was no particular incident that had triggered this partial pull-back of international staff, it was instead part of the regular evaluations of the need to deliver help versus the threat to staff of doing so.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Adrian Edwards for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said the refugee agency was worried about the security of displaced people and aid workers in camps in eastern Congo after a weekend attack on the Mugunga III camp outside Goma.
There were no deaths or injuries, but at least one person was badly beaten, and people's homes as well as the camp pharmacy were looted. There were six unconfirmed cases of rape. Witnesses said a small group of men from outside the camp were seen monitoring food distribution earlier in the day. A few hours later, the camp was surrounded by a large number of armed men. They told a woman to take them to the camp leader, and then beat her.
The armed men then searched tents, stealing money, mobile phones and two-week food packs that had been handed out earlier by the World Food Programme to some 1,800 families. Looting was also reported among the population living immediately adjacent to the camp. The reports of six rape cases were being investigated. It was also reported that around a dozen internally displaced people were forced to carry looted materials out of the camp.
The few unarmed police in the camp were unable to intervene, while UN peace-keeping troops, also facing capacity constraints, were not in a position to maintain a permanent presence at the site. UNHCR staff who visited the camp yesterday on Monday said people in the camp were still anxious and upset. The incident highlighted the need for security at sites for internally displaced people to be prioritized, along with improved humanitarian access so that such populations can be better cared for, Edwards said.
At least 30,000 people were currently at the Mugunga III camp, while some 75,000 more were staying in other sites under the responsibility of the inter-agency Camp Coordination and Camp Management cluster. The rest were living in spontaneous sites or with host communities.
As well as security difficulties at Mugunga III and elsewhere in North and South Kivu, UNHCR was also contending with shortages of shelters and non-food items. Some 12,000 highly vulnerable families were in urgent need of non-food help (blankets, kitchen sets, tarpaulins, plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, sleeping mats, jerry cans, soap and sanitary napkins). UNCHR also needed to provide shelter for 47,000 highly vulnerable households.
According to UN figures, 130,000 people have been newly displaced by the recent instability in and around Goma. This was on top of the estimated 841,000 people who were already displaced before this latest wave of insecurity. In South Kivu, some 878,000 people were displaced by the end of October 2012. The overwhelming majority of them (more than 96 per cent) were living in host communities.
The fighting around Sake in North Kivu forced an estimated 18,500 people into South Kivu, mostly around Minova. He added that UNHCR emphasized that these figures were preliminary only, as they do not take into account the fact that some people may have been displaced multiple times (and so could be counted twice) or the recent returns.
Marixie Mercado for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said a rapid assessment by UNICEF partners on 28 and 29 October among internally displaced families in Goma and along the Sake axis found extremely high vulnerability rates with respect to basic, non-food needs.
These vulnerability rates were between 4.1 and 4.2 out of 5, with 5 indicating that families had no jerry cans, mosquito nets, sleeping materials, cooking utensils, or extra clothes. However, despite these acute needs, plans for a massive, blanket distribution of a basic non-food item kit to an estimated 30,000 families in all the camps had been put on hold due to the risk of systematic and violent looting – similar to that seen in Mungunga III camp.
She continued saying she had figures of at least 12 sexual assault survivors from the Mungunga III camp incident, including three girls, who were provided with treatment and care by UNICEF partner Hope in Action. Minova Hospital has now recorded 72 cases of rape. UNICEF has provided 200 doses of post-exposure prophylaxes.
Additionally, over 650 unaccompanied minors had been identified through seven listening posts. The numbers fluctuate, and tracing was especially difficult because families are constantly on the move. So far, 14 children had been reunited with their families. Unaccompanied children were placed with host families while child protection partners work to trace relatives.
At least two cases of measles have been confirmed among IDPs from Lac Vert and there was concern over an increase in the number of cholera cases reported. A measles and polio vaccination programme in the camps was planned.
Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (OHCHR) said the High Commissioner for Human Rights was extremely concerned about Nasrin Sotoudeh, an internationally recognised lawyer and human rights activist, whose health was reportedly deteriorating.
Ms. Sotoudeh had been on hunger strike since 17 October as a protest against her prison conditions as well as a travel ban imposed on members of her family. She spent almost three weeks in solitary confinement and was deprived of family visits for several weeks after she began her hunger strike.
Ms. Sotoudeh, the winner of this year’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, was arrested on 4 September 2010, and was currently serving a six-year sentence in Tehran’s Evin Prison. She had also been banned from her profession for 10 years on charges that were believed to be linked to her work as a human rights defender. Since her arrest, her husband and 12-year-old daughter had been subjected to restrictions including the travel ban.
The Iranian authorities claimed that Ms. Sotoudeh was in a good health. However her husband, who was recently allowed to visit her, says her health had reached a critical stage. The High Commissioner urged the Government of Iran to urgently address Ms. Sotoudeh’s situation by lifting the travel ban and other sanctions on her family, which cannot be justified under international law.
The UN human rights mechanisms viewed the imprisonment of Ms. Sotoudeh as arbitrary, and in violation of various provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the Islamic Republic of Iran was a State party and the High Commissioner was concerned that family members of human rights activists and lawyers were often targeted by the Iranian authorities.
On 20 November 2012, a Revolutionary Court in Tehran sentenced Ms. Massumeh Dehghan, the wife of jailed lawyer and human rights defender Mr. Abdolfattah Soltani, to one year in prison, suspended for five years, coupled with a five-year travel ban. She was charged with propaganda against the system for travelling abroad and receiving the Nuremberg human rights prize given to her husband.
The prosecution and imposition of sanctions and other limitations on human rights activists and their family members reflected a disturbing trend apparently aimed at curbing the freedoms of expression, opinion and association.
On another note, he said the execution rate in Iran had accelerated to an alarming pace in recent weeks. There were credible reports, in many cases corroborated by the government itself that the number of executions carried out between 7 and 20 November was at least 32, with some sources indicating the figure as high as 81. This increase was a concern and the High Commissioner in her opening statement to the 21 session of the Human Rights Council raised her concerns about an increase in drug-related executions and executions in public in Iran.
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said a three-year Humanitarian Appeal for Somalia was launched today in Mogadishu.
This was the first time the launch had taken place in Somalia and it was to be presented by the acting Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Mr. Stefano Porretti, and representatives of the Government of Somalia. The appeal had a three-year life span from 2013 to 2015 and targeted the immediate humanitarian needs of the Somali people, aimed to enhance resilience and ultimately address the protracted nature of the humanitarian crisis in Somalia.
The appeal for 2013, the first year of the three-year strategy, was US$1.3 billion for 369 humanitarian projects targeting 3.8 million Somalis in need. The strategy was to be implemented by 177 national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and UN agencies operating in Somalia.
Jumbe Omari Jumbe for the International Organization for Migration said IOM was working closely with the Philippine government and the humanitarian community to assess the damage brought about by Typhoon Bopha ("Pablo") as it battered Mindanao in southern Philippines.
The typhoon lessened in force from category 5 to a category 3 tropical storm and preliminary reports indicated that there were minimal casualties, with two deaths reported so far though damage to property as being seen. However, with up to 55,000 people evacuated to 187 emergency shelters across Mindanao there was huge disruption to the island.
IOM had 15 staff members on the ground that were closely coordinating with government officials and priorities were expected to include blankets and shelter materials. IOM’s support for the Philippine government included an information management system known as the Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) which keeps an accurate track of displaced people who arrive in evacuation shelters and emergency camps. The DTM was viewed as an essential tool for organizing a response to emergencies, especially where there are large displacements of people.
The typhoon, though weakened, was now expected to move into other areas of the country where infrastructure was potentially more fragile.
Glenn Thomas for the World Health Organization (WHO) said an update on the coronavirus had been issued on Friday evening based on the information that was coming out of Jordan. A background document was also available that explained what was currently understood about the virus and how it was being dealt with.
Answering questions he said there was a team on the ground doing research on what went on with the 12 cases reported, only two of which had been officially confirmed.
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos had made her first official visit to Bangladesh, one of the world’s most disaster prone countries.
Speaking on the trip she commended how the Government was aware that it needed to strengthen its disaster preparedness and its initiative to train more than 62,000 community volunteers in urban disaster preparedness.
Human Rights Day
Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (OHCHR) said Human Rights Day, which takes place on December 10 every year, was this year dedicated to ‘Inclusion and the right to participate in public life.’ This was based on article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
He said that for article 25 to be realized other rights also had to be operative including all the rights related to non-discrimination and the rights to freedom of expression and opinion and freedom of assembly and association.
Over the past few years, all these related rights had come very much into focus – not just the people’s right to participate in free elections and to have a real say in the governance of their countries, but also to have more of a say in how the economy was managed, given the catastrophic effect a badly functioning national or global economy can have on the lives of millions of individuals.
This year in Geneva Human Rights Day would be celebrated by a special event taking place in the Palais des Nations, starting at 10:00 next Monday (10 December), a programme of which was available at the back of the room.
In addition to the President of the Human Rights Council and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the event was to feature a video statement by former President of the United States, Mr Jimmy Carter and a live keynote address by satellite link from Myanmar by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. These will be followed by a panel discussion, moderated by the BBC’s Imogen Foulkes, as well as a musical performance.
As usual, people all over the world were to use Human Rights Day to remind us of our rights and to launch specific initiatives. One unusual initiative this year was being carried out by a Spanish hotel chain - Room Mate Hotels - whose President and owner, Kike Sarasola, came up with the idea of placing copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the bedside-table drawers in Room Mate hotels across the world, starting on 10 December.
Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (OHCHR) said today (4 December) at 14:30 in Room III there was a press conference by the Working Group on Business and Human Rights on the opening of the first UN Forum on Business and Human Rights.
Speakers were Mr. Puvan Selvanathan, Chairperson-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Business and Human Rights Professor, John Ruggie, Former Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Human Rights and Business, Chairperson of the first Forum on Business and Human Rights Mr. Daniel Baer, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, US Department of State and Ms. Debbie Stothard, Deputy Secretary-General of FIDH and Coordinator of ALTSEAN-Burma.
Requests for interviews could be given to Rolando Gomez or John Grover. The speech of the High Commissioner to the forum was available at the back of the room.
Answering questions he said no specific outcome document was expected from the Forum. The speakers at the press conference could comprehensively deal with questions arising from the work of the meeting.
Ms. Momal-Vanian also announced a stake out today (4 December) at 13:00 outside Room XX (Building E, third floor, corridor to the left of Room XX) about the same Forum on Business and Human Rights. Present would be the United States Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Michael Posner.
Tomorrow, (5 December) at 11:30 in Press Room I was a background briefing by the World Intellectual Property Organization on negotiations on an international treaty to improve access to copyrighted works for visually impaired or print disabled people The speaker was Geidy Lung, Senior Counsellor, Copyright Law Division.
On Friday (7 December) at 9:30 in Room III the International Labour Organization (ILO) held a press conference on the launch of its Global Wage Report. Speakers were Guy Ryder, Director-General of the ILO, Patrick Belser, Senior Economist and Marcia Poole, Director, Department of Communication.
Catherine Sibut of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) said today (4 December) at noon in Press Room I there was a press conference on the release of a new policy brief. The speaker was Heiner Flassbeck, Director, Division on Globalization and Development Strategies, UNCTAD who would discuss the global economic situation and employment policy.
She also gave details of the launch of the UNCTAD maritime transport study, saying this mode of freight accounted for 80 per cent of the world’s trade by volume. The report, which was under embargo until this evening, analysed the ability of the sector to react to demand, and the impact it had upon the climate. There was no press conference planned though interviews with experts were available on request.
Glenn Thomas for the World Health Organization (WHO) announced today (4 December) was the second and final day of the Forum on Health Data Standardization and Interoperability, which sought to improve and make better use of information and communication technologies to better deliver health care. A call to action was to be issued to try and build consensus among stakeholders and ensure countries have in place effective technologies that can help reduce costs and achieve universal healthcare. Interviews were available on request.