REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
18 July 2014
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was also attended by Spokespersons for the World Health Organization, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Trade Organization, the World Food Programme, the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Responding to questions were Spokespersons from the High Commissioner for Refugees and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Gregory Hartl of the World Health Organization said that it was with deep sadness that WHO had to inform journalists that they lost one of their colleagues on the Malaysian airlines crash yesterday. Glenn Thomas, who worked in the Department of Communications, was travelling to the International Aids Conference in Australia. Glenn had been with WHO for more than a decade. He came to WHO from the BBC and spent many years providing communications support to the Tuberculosis Department. Since 2012, he had been working on the media team in the Department of Communications, regularly hosting press conferences and working with journalists at the Palais des Nations and other journalists to promote the work of WHO. Glenn would be remembered for his ready laugh and his passion for public health. He would be greatly missed by those who had the opportunity to know him and work with him. He left behind his partner Claudio and his twin sister Tracey, who said that Glenn died doing what he loved. WHO’s deepest condolences went to his family, friends and colleagues at this time.
The United Nations Correspondents Association (ACANU) said the terrible news touched them very closely. ACANU expressed its sadness, shock and anger at this terrible act that took so many innocent lives. ACANU sent condolences to WHO and family and friends of Glenn.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said they would observe a minute of silence.
A journalist said there were many other AIDS activists, researchers and officials who also were apparently on that flight. Was the conference expected to go forward? In response, Mr. Hartl confirmed that the conference was going ahead. Any loss of life was a terrible loss, but something like this was just devastating.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was concluding this afternoon its fifty-eighth session after adopting its concluding observations and recommendations on the Central African Republic, Georgia, India, Lithuania, Mauritania, Peru, Swaziland and Syria on how they implement the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
The Human Rights Committee was continuing this morning its second reading of a draft General Comment on the right to liberty and security of person. Next week, the Committee would be meeting mostly in private, except for 22 and 24 July in the morning, when it would continue with the second reading of the draft General Comment. The Committee would conclude its one hundred and eleventh session on Friday, 25 July after adopting its concluding observations and recommendations on the reports of Chili, Sudan, Malawi, Georgia, Ireland, and Japan.
This afternoon at 5 p.m., on the occasion of Nelson Mandela International Day, Ciné-ONU Geneva was holding a special screening of the documentary “One Humanity” in Room XVII at the Palais des Nations. The Acting Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Permanent Representative of South Africa to UNOG would be speaking.
Also this afternoon at 1:15 p.m. in press room 1, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women would give a press conference on the concluding observations and recommendations of their session.
Fadela Chaib of the World Health Organization said an update on Ebola would probably be available today and would be sent to journalists as soon as it was ready. There was also a press conference today at 11:30 a.m. to speak about the new high-level commission established by Dr. Margaret Chan to work on child obesity.
Human Rights in Iraq
Ravina Shamdasani of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said they had issued a press release today, jointly with the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, which documented a litany of serious human rights violations committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and associated armed groups between 5 June and 5 July, including some that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. The report also documented violations committed by Iraqi security forces and associated forces. The report documented in detail the “hardship and suffering” that had been imposed upon the civilian population, “with large-scale killings, injuries and destruction and damage of livelihoods and property.” Where information had been cross-checked and verified, specific incidents were detailed in the report. There was a link in the press release to the full report.
On Cambodia, Ms. Shamdasani said OHCHR was deeply concerned about the violent clashes that erupted last Tuesday (July 15) at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh between district security guards and opposition supporters, during which dozens of people were injured. Members of the main opposition party had gathered there to protest against the barricading of the only designated area for public demonstrations in the capital. OHCHR was particularly alarmed at the ongoing arrests of leaders of the Cambodia National Rescue Party following the violence. OHCHR was concerned about the very serious charges which were brought against them, including "insurrection", given the widely observed efforts by opposition leaders to calm the protesters and stop the violence during the clashes. Any politically motivated charges must be dropped immediately. OHCHR called upon the judicial authorities to strictly abide by human rights standards in the pursuit of these cases, recalling the seriously flawed processes surrounding other recent cases. OHCHR also urged the Cambodian authorities to launch a prompt, effective, impartial and transparent investigation and to ensure that those responsible for these violent incidents were held accountable. OHCHR also called upon all sides to exercise maximum restraint and to resume negotiations in order to end the political deadlock. All restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly must be lifted immediately and these rights must be exercised peacefully by all.
Asked if OHCHR had any numbers on the people arrested so far, Ms. Shamdasani said apparently six opposition leaders were arrested on the day of the protests, including five Member of Parliaments elect from the opposition party and one party activist. Two more were arrested the day after. OHCHR had been informed by the Phnom Penh court president that there was a list with 25 names of opposition figures, although it was not clear if that included the eight already arrested.
World Trade Organization
Melissa Begag of the World Trade Organization said that next week, Director-General Roberto Azevedo would be launching the WTO Facility to ensure the provision of technical assistance and capacity building to developing countries and least developed countries to support the implementation of the Trade Facilitation Agreement. This would be on Tuesday, 22 July, at 11 a.m., and would be followed by a briefing in Room C at noon. The General Council would be holding its regular July meeting on Thursday, 24 July, and it would include an update from the Director-General on his work as Chairman of the Trade Negotiations Committee, which oversees the Doha Round of Negotiations. It would be followed by a briefing, the time and place would be announced later.
Ms. Begag said the Director-General would be meeting with Guinea’s Minister for Commerce on 22 July and with Panama’s Minister of Commerce on 23 July. Trade and development negotiators would be meeting informally on Monday, 21 July, to discuss special treatment for developing countries. The talks were based on members’ proposals to make special provisions more precise and effective. The Dispute Settlement body would be meeting on 22 July. On 23 July, members would be reviewing Panama’s trade policies and would negotiate Kazakhstan’s accession with a delegation from Astana. Agricultural Negotiators would be meeting informally on 23 July as delegations prepared a work programme for concluding the Doha Round.
Elizabeth Byrs of the World Food Programme said WFP welcomed the Security Council resolution to allow the delivery of aid to more people cut off from humanitarian assistance in Syria. WFP teams on the ground were proceeding immediately, along with United Nations humanitarian partners, to put in place the mechanism mandated in the resolution. As thousands of displaced and suffering families in Syria observed the holy month of Ramadan for the third year since the start of the conflict, WFP reminded all sides to the conflict that it was their obligation to provide free and unhindered access to humanitarian agencies providing basic human needs like food. Updating journalists on the dispatch of food in the June distribution cycle, she said they had reached 3.4 million persons. In May, WFP dispatched food to 3.2 million, so there was a slight increase. But they were still far from their target of 4.2 million persons. WFP hoped to reach 4.2 million persons in July. Due to intensified violence and blocked access, WFP’s ability to reach people in need of food assistance inside Syria was becoming more and more restricted by the day. Ms. Byrs said WFP was extremely concerned about the well-being of needy people in Deir Ezzor. They were unable to deliver critical food supplies to the governorate in June, leaving 300,000 people without food assistance. In Al Hassakeh, WFP was extremely concerned about the alarming deterioration of the humanitarian situation. The violence in the area had prevented all food deliveries from reaching the governorate during the month of June, leaving 227,000 people without food assistance. There were more details in the briefing notes.
Christopher Tidey of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said along with WFP, UNICEF this week had participated in a cross-line mission to Mouadamiyah in Rural Damascus. This was part of a four-day inter-agency mission to the area that began on 14 July. This was a significant breakthrough in improving humanitarian access. This was the first time that they had been able to reach Mouadamiyah, almost 8 kilometres from Damascus, since 2012. The town with a population of about 20,000 had essentially been under siege since August 2013, with staff reporting extremely harsh conditions. There had been reports of death by starvation. UNICEF estimated that there were approximately 9,200 children in desperate need of medical hygiene and nutritious supplies. Updating journalists on education, Mr. Tidey said children in the area had been out of school for the past two years. The primary concern of parents as reported to UNICEF was getting the children back to the classroom. On child protection, UNICEF had anecdotal reports of child recruitment into armed groups, but he could not confirm any numbers at this time. On health, medical supplies were running extremely low in Mouadamiyah. Many families informed UNICEF staff that they had not had any essential medicines for months on end. Mothers were concerned that children were not receiving regular immunizations. Two mobile clinics from the Syrian Red Crescent were permitted to join the convoy, providing approximately 800 people, including several hundred children, with much needed medical treatment. However, UNICEF was disappointed that the Government of Syria missed a significant opportunity to allow UNICEF to take medicine for children on this convoy, including much needed oral rehydration solution. If journalists wanted to speak to any UNICEF staff in the region, he would be happy to set up interviews.
In response to a question concerning estimates for July, Ms. Byrs said it was clear that the target of 4 million that they had for April was already large; she recalled that WFP needed $ 41 million every week for their operation. There were areas inside Syria where access was difficult. WFP welcomed the resolution and would be trying to put in place the mechanism mandated. However, for Al Hassakeh for example, they had had to prepare an air bridge to bring the food for a month because they could not use the border crossing, which meant access by road was not possible. They hoped this would be possible before the end of Ramadan and the Eid Al Fitr. WFP wanted to bring food to as many people as possible but it was a major challenge. She hoped there would be progress.
In response to another question on whether any cross border operation was being planned, Amanda Pitt of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance said she did not have any information on that yet. All she could say was that, as said in the statement put out a couple of days ago with OCHA, WFP and UNICEF, the Heads of agencies and non-governmental organizations were working on how best to implement the resolution as a matter of urgency. She did not have any specific information at this point about precise dates or places for the next convoy. She believed all were still looking at how the implementation of this resolution was going to work. They knew that it needed to be light, flexible and cost-effective. They were clear about what it needed to do, to facilitate transport and delivery of humanitarian relief and staff. They were also clear that once aid crossed borders, it would only be managed by civilian humanitarian staff and it would go to people on the basis of need alone. That was pretty much what they had at the moment. Colleagues in the field were working on this issue daily.
Central African Republic
Christiane Berthiaume of the International Organization for Migration said IOM’s sixth return intention survey of internally displaced people in Bangui, Central African Republic, indicated a continuing decrease in the number of people intending to return home and a continuing struggle to meet daily needs. There were currently 105,300 internally displaced persons at some 43 sites in the city. At the height of the crisis, there had been 390,000 internally displaced persons. Overall internally displaced persons figures countrywide were now estimated at 535,000. But it was those in the sites in Bangui who were the most vulnerable. These people had no intention of going back to where they originally lived. They gave many reasons, first of all, the continuing insecurity; there were also some people who, because they lost their homes, or no longer had the financial means to return home, had tried to stay in these sites. This caused a problem as they wanted to avoid that these people stayed too long in the sites.
Ms. Berthiaume said just over half (56 per cent) indicated an intention to return home within the next four weeks. This figure had been decreasing since the January survey when 74 per cent of IDPs indicated an intention to return within a month. The number of IDPs who wanted to stay at their displacement site increased from 27 per cent in May to 36 per cent in June. This was a significant increase from February, when only 19 per cent wanted to stay at their site. The most frequently cited reason for not returning home was that all their belongings had been stolen (74 per cent). “Lack of authorities” (68 per cent) was the second most frequently cited reason – up from 58 per cent in the May survey. Additional reasons included lack of financial means to return (66 per cent) and not feeling safe in their area of origin (66 per cent). Food continued to be a critical issue: 97 per cent of IDPs reported a reduction in the number of meals consumed per day, 97 per cent a reduction in family members’ food consumption and 89 per cent a reduction in adults’ food consumption to be able to feed children. Some 92 per cent had experienced interruption of livelihood generating activities due to displacement.
This survey was carried out by IOM every month since January. Its results were shared with the humanitarian community to better organize humanitarian aid.
Questions for UNHCR on unaccompanied minors arriving in the United States
A journalist said concerning the thousands of children from Central America that were streaming into the United States, how did UNHCR view these children? Did some of them have a legitimate reason for demanding asylum to the United States? In response, Mr. Edwards said children left Central America for many reasons, and not all of them were refugees, but some likely were refugees. The lives of those children fleeing violence could be at risk and they needed the chance to tell their stories in a meaningful and timely way. Only then could United States officials who interviewed them decide which children needed refugee protection and which could safely be returned home. The refugee status determination was carried out by the United States authorities. The asylum system currently in place for Central American children worked well to identify refugee claims and all children who feared harm in their home countries should have access to asylum.
Asked about the situation in Gaza, Ms. Momal-Vanian referred to the Secretary-General’s statement issued late last night where he expressed serious alarm at the escalation of the violence and disappointment that the humanitarian pause did not achieve a lasting ceasefire.
Amanda Pitt of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that according to the latest information she had from Gaza, as of 17 July, at least 219 Palestinians, including 168 civilians, were reported to have been killed during the air, naval and ground strikes in Gaza, including at least 48 children and 29 women. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, some 1,585 Palestinians had been injured, including 435 children and 282 women. Apparently, some 1,600 homes had been destroyed or severely damaged, displacing nearly 10,000 people. There were currently more than 22,000 people sheltering in 24 UNRWA installations. Supplies were being delivered daily, including mattresses, food, water and hygiene kits. Journalists could contact UNRWA directly for more information. OHCA was also concerned about the water supply in Gaza, about half the population was without water at this time.
Ms. Byrs said WFP had moved rapidly to take advantage of the humanitarian pause the day before and provided urgent food assistance to hospitals, shelters and households hosting displaced persons. WFP was pushing out food distributions to families early so that they had sufficient food stocks during this urgent time, focusing on northern Gaza. In the next few days, WFP hoped to reach 85,000 people with food distribution. It was also providing additional emergency electronic food vouchers to newly displaced persons so that they could purchase food in local shops. WFP had moved food stocks into position around the Gaza Strip and was taking part in an inter-agency mission to assess food needs.
Asked how many people WFP was providing with food, Ms. Byrs said they were already providing monthly food assistance to over 600,000 persons, among the most vulnerable people in Palestine, including 285,000 in Gaza, 319,000 in the West Bank. Together, WFP and UNRWA provided food assistance to approximately 67 per cent of the total population of the Gaza Strip. WFP had distributed emergency food rations and vouchers to more than 20,000 displaced persons since the conflict erupted.
Ms. Chaib, in response to a question, said that they knew that in Gaza, there were a lot of power shortages. The fact that there was no water in hospitals was also a big problem. For years, Gaza hospitals had been suffering from power cuts. In the current offensive, several health facilities had been damaged, including the Gaza European Hospital with 250 beds, and El Wafa Medical Rehabilitation Hospital, which had caused the temporary evacuation of patients. Four ambulances had also been damaged, one while on route and the other three when they were parked in an ambulance centre. The situation was difficult. WHO had made an urgent appeal for $ 60 million to support the Ministry of Health in meeting the chronic medical needs for chronic diseases and to help women during their pregnancy or delivery and to provide medical and emergency supplies for the injured.
Asked if children were already at risk, Ms. Chaib said WHO was worried about the outbreak of diseases, especially diarrheal diseases, if there was no access to potable water and if the sanitation system was not in order. For an infant or a young child, diarrhoea could be a fatal disease, so it was very important to have access to water and the pre-position treatment to treat children.
Mr. Tidey said further on the water systems, with respect to infants, UNICEF was procuring essential paediatric drugs. In terms of the infrastructure itself, UNICEF reports said that air strike related damages to water lines, wells, sewage pumping stations and treatment plants had further exacerbated the overloaded water and sanitation system in Gaza. It was estimated that only 50 per cent of the sewage pumping and waste water treatment systems were operational. There were 900,000 people currently without water supplies due to the inability to repair and operate infrastructure. Apparently some water technicians were killed in the strikes. Another 800,000 people were impacted by the potential for sewage contamination of the water system through damage to sewage pipes. UNICEF was already scaling up water tankers into communities whose water had been completely cut off, and providing bottled water and hygiene materials. At this stage, they did not have any reports of water-borne diseases.
Ms. Momal-Vanian recalled what UNRWA underlined last Tuesday that the present conflict was only exacerbating a situation that was already very bad. The UNRWA Commissioner said on 14 July that Gaza’s aquifer would be entirely contaminated in the next three to four years, making the Gaza Strip essentially unliveable. So the current fighting was just exacerbating a situation that was already unbearable.
* * * * *
The representative of the International Labour Organization also attended the briefing, but did not brief.
* * * * *
The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/1rmwB2q