REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
10 September 2013
Alessandra Vellucci, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by the Spokespersons for the United Nations Children’s Fund, United Nations Refugee Agency, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Human Rights Council, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, International Organization for Migration and International Parliamentary Union.
Syria - Children
Marixie Mercado, for the United Nations Children’s Programme (UNICEF) said that 30 months into the conflict UNICEF was warning that prolonged exposure to violence and stress, multiple displacement, loss of friends and family members, and a severe deterioration in living conditions was leaving the children of Syria with lasting scars. At least four million children were directly affected by the crisis in Syria.
Parents reported that their children were experiencing frequent nightmares and exhibiting reckless and aggressive behaviours. Their drawings were often violent and angry with images of bloodshed, explosions and destruction.
A UNICEF Child Protection Expert working with children in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, said: “Children who have undergone profound stress can lose the ability to connect emotionally to others and to themselves. Basic feelings can stop and children find themselves unable to think ahead or remember recent events.” She also said that the way children described what was happening inside Syria now was changing. The language they were using was changing; they spoke about a different kind of war, they spoke about different weapons but without a true understanding of what they meant.
It also appeared that the adults that children listened to were so profoundly stressed themselves, and had been for such a long time, that they were no longer able to monitor what they said in front of children.
Whether inside Syria or in the neighbouring countries, in shelters for displaced persons, refugee camps or host communities, UNICEF had been working with partners and families to help nearly 470,000 Syrian children regain a sense of security, give them opportunities to express themselves, and help them develop constructive ways to cope with the conflict. That was done in child-friendly spaces where children could play and engage in recreational and sports activities. It also included training teachers and school counsellors to provide support and refer children in need to more specialized care.
Inside Syria, UNICEF and partners had been able to keep centres open and functional even in areas where conflict had been most intense like Homs, Dera’a and Aleppo, providing vital support to children experiencing some of the conflict’s most intense violence. That support was essential as many children began their return to learning in schools, where it was possible for them to do so, both in camps and host communities.
Since the beginning of the year, nearly 470,000 Syrian children have received emotional support in more than 220 child-friendly spaces, as well as in alternative learning environments like school clubs. The numbers include, inter alia, 250,000 children in Syria; 128,000 in Lebanon; 80,000 in Jordan; 5,500 in Iraq and 5,000 in Turkey. Ms. Mercado stressed that much more needed to be done, given that there were an estimated 4 million Syrian children affected by the conflict.
In response to a question, Ms. Mercado said that those children had been living under so much stress and witnessed so much violence over the past two years that if we did not make it possible for children to re-attach back to themselves, they would not be able to have a healthy relationship with their families and communities. That placed an entire generation of extremely resilient Syrian children at risk.
Syria - Refugees
Melissa Fleming, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that 107 highly vulnerable Syrian refugees were due to leave Lebanon under a temporary Humanitarian Admissions Programme that was announced by Germany in March of this year. The group was heading for Hannover, and was the first group to be assisted by UNHCR in the process.
On arrival the refugees were being transferred to an accommodation centre in Friedland in Lower Saxony where they would stay for fourteen days. The refugees would be offered cultural orientation courses – basic language training and basic information on Germany, including the school and health systems, as well as help in interacting with the local authorities.
At the end of the two-week period, the refugees would leave for locations across Germany. They would be accommodated in small centres or apartments and would have full access to medical, educational and other social services. During their stay the refugees had the right to work. The residence permit issued for those refugees was for two years, with the option to extend if the situation in Syria remained unchanged or worsened.
Germany’s Humanitarian Assistance Programme provided for up to 5,000 places for Syrian refugees, and as such was the biggest relocation programme currently in existence for the Syria crisis. UNHCR teams in the Syria region were currently preparing additional referrals for the programme, which they expected to be fully subscribed by the end of 2013. The International Organization for Migration was involved with UNHCR in organizing travel, pre-medical checks, and other support.
Ms. Fleming said that, as had been said many times before, the neighbouring countries of Syria had taken in two million Syrian refugees. Their economies, societies and infrastructures were under extreme strain. There were towns and villages that had more Syrian refugees than local residents. Therefore Germany’s programme set an important example and UNHCR hoped that more countries in Europe and around the world would come forward with similar schemes. UNHCR picked the most vulnerable people to take part in the scheme, which was a life-saving tool for many of them. They included women and girls at risk, people with very serious medical conditions that could not be treated in the current host country. It included survivors of torture, or others with special needs. It included groups who had not only escaped Syria but were struggling to cope in the host countries.
Austria recently offered a similar scheme with 500 places, which was welcomed. UNHCR was continuing to urge States to come forward with further offers of resettlement or relocation, whether formal resettlement or expedited relocation – as was the case with Germany’s Humanitarian Admissions Programme. In particular, and because of the growing size of the Syria refugee population in neighbouring countries, UNHCR hoped to see countries offering places outside their current annual quotas and allowing for expedited processing. That would help meet the needs of highly vulnerable Syrians, and it would ensure that resettlement opportunities remained available for highly vulnerable refugees from other countries.
Asked whether Russia, China or any Latin American countries had offered to provide resettlement for some Syrian refugees, Ms. Fleming responded that only the countries that she had mentioned, namely Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, had come forward so far, while UNHCR was discussing with and encouraging other states to do the same. She emphasized the need that the global community and different countries share the heavy burden which was currently placed on Syria’s neighbours. UNHCR was calling on all European countries to which Syrian refugees were seeking asylum, to grant them asylum. It believed that more of the burden needed to be shared, that wealthier countries with capability could do more. UNHCR hoped that by the end of 2013, some 10,000 Syrian refugees would be resettled to third countries.
Asked where the 107 refugees selected for resettlement in Germany were at the moment, Ms. Fleming said that they were all in Lebanon, while the others would be selected from among Syrians displaced in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Asked whether there was any discussion with the United States to take in some refugees, Ms. Fleming responded affirmatively and informed that the United States would take in an unspecified number of Syrians, but the exact criteria for their acceptance which the United States would put forward was still not known. She emphasized that for UNHCR the main criterion for resettlement had always been vulnerability. Also for the refugees to be resettled to Germany, the criteria were those recommended by UNHCR – vulnerability, people in need of medical treatments, those in fear of persecution, victims of torture. Ms. Fleming said that Germany was considering in particular those refugees who already had families or acquaintances in Germany.
Asked whether UNHCR would reduce its funding for refugees in Lebanon, Ms. Fleming stressed the need for more funding for UNHCR activities on the ground and for the neighbouring countries, explaining that if the needed funding did not come through, UNHCR would have to target and decrease its assistance. Its activities would need to be prioritized based on funds available at the time being.
Regarding the number of Syrian refugees in Europe, Ms. Fleming read out figures that showed that in 2012, some 24,000 Syrian citizens had requested asylum in Europe, but in just the first half of 2013, that number was more than 20,000.
Regarding the status of babies born to Syrian refugees living in neighbouring countries, Ms. Fleming stressed the need to have the babies registered, because otherwise they would be stateless. Asked whether it was true that most refugees would want to return home, Ms. Fleming explained that while no comprehensive polling had been conducted, anecdotal evidence showed that the majority of Syrian refugees would like to return once conditions for that were in place.
The High Commissioner continued to appeal to decision-makers to do everything in their power to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, for the sake of the victims.
Ms. Vellucci, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, drew attention to the statements on a political solution to the crisis by the United Nations Secretary-General and by the United Nations and Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria, following their attendance at the G20 conference in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Human Rights Council
Rolando Gomez, for the Human Rights Council (HRC) gave an overview of the Human Rights Council’s activities. The HRC at 10 a.m. today was continuing its general debate on yesterday’s update by High Commissioner. At 10.45 a.m. the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Ms. Leila Zerrougui, would present her report to the Council then engage in an interactive dialogue with States and non-governmental organizations, which would continue after lunch at 3 p.m. At 3.30 p.m. the Working Group on mercenaries would present its report, which included details of trips to Honduras and Somalia, followed by the presentation of the report of the Independent Expert on democratic and equitable international order, Mr. Alfred de Zayas. From 4 to 6 p.m. the Council would hold an interactive dialogue with the Working Group on mercenaries and the Independent Expert on democratic and equitable international order.
Mr. Gomez highlighted the change in time of today’s press conference with the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, which would be confirmed to journalists as soon as possible (details below).
Turning to Syria, Mr. Gomez said that at 10 a.m. tomorrow, he would share with journalists by email and online the latest report from the United Nations Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry on Syria, accompanied by a media advisory and a statement from the Commission. Mr. Gomez noted that the report was not under embargo. He confirmed that the Commission would present the report, which covered the period from mid May to mid July 2013, as well as an oral update which covered the period therafter (mid-July to the present date), on Monday 16 September, most likely in the late morning. The Commission would hold a press conference at 1.30 p.m. on 16 September in Press Room III (see below).
Mr. Gomez said there was a chance that the presentation of the report by the United Nations Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry into the human rights situation in Democratic People's Republic of Korea would be pushed from Monday 16 September to Tuesday 17 September, and he would confirm in due course.
Tomorrow, 11 September, the Council would have a panel discussion on the human rights of children whose parents had been sentenced to death, the first of three panel discussions this session. The Deputy High Commissioner would deliver opening remarks, and a concept paper was available online. In the afternoon the Council would hear from the Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances and waste, and from the Special Rapporteur on water and sanitation. The Council would also be addressed by the Foreign Minister of Georgia, Ms. Maia Panjikidze, at 3 p.m.
Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), answered a question from a journalist asking whether the High Commissioner had a comment about yesterday’s press statement from the Permanent Mission of Israel to United Nations Office at Geneva describing her opening speech at the Human Rights Council yesterday as “the theatre of the absurd”. Mr. Colville said that they had seen the statement and one element OHCHR would strongly dispute was that the statement claimed the High Commissioner had failed to call for investigations into grave atrocities in the Middle East and North Africa: as everyone here knew, the High Commissioner had repeatedly called for such investigations. Mr. Colville said that a further extraordinary element in the Israeli Mission statement was that it said the High Commissioner, in her speech, had overlooked some of the most striking human rights atrocities being committed by other actors in the region. In her speech yesterday the High Commissioner actually mentioned six other situations apart from Israel: Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, Palestine and Tunisia. It seemed to be a very strange assertion to make.
Ms. Vellucci replied to a question about press access to the Human Rights Council. She said that, following consultations with the UN Security and Rolando Gomez, on days of particular press interest when queues were foreseen, the press would be able to enter the Council room from the side door, and avoid the queue. Those days were foreseen to be the 16, 17 and 25 of September. The arrangement would be adjusted in light of any programme changes.
Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that journalists may recall that in September last year, Venezuela announced its withdrawal from the American Human Rights Convention. Regrettably, that withdrawal became effective today. OHCHR wanted to repeat its concern that that decision may have a very negative impact on human rights in the country and beyond.
OHCHR would like to encourage the Venezuelan Government, and all other States in the Americas, to continue to cooperate with regional and international human rights mechanisms, and urge them not to take any measures that would weaken human rights protection – withdrawing from a regional system was one such measure.
Regional human rights bodies, such as the Court and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, played a crucial role in the promotion and protection of human rights in the region, and also reinforced international universal human rights standards and treaties.
Answering a question on whether OHCHR expected that other countries would leave the American Convention on Human Rights as Venezuela had, Mr. Colville said that they were sincerely hoping that no other country would follow the suit. He stressed that the inter-American human rights system was one of the oldest such setups in the world, and it had proved its effectiveness over the years, particularly during the era of South American dictatorships.
Answering a question about Kenya’s expressed intention to leave the International Criminal Court, Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR had not made a reaction although it obviously supported the International Criminal Court as a very important instrument in the international system to combat impunity.
On the question on what happened to those persons in Sri Lanka who had cooperated with OHCHR during the High Commissioner’s recent mission there, Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), responded that some of those persons had been interrogated both during and after the OHCHR team’s visit. He pointed out that both the Catholic Church and BBC local service informed that their affiliates had been questioned. OHCHR would look into these issues closely.
Myanmar/Kachin Aid Envoy
Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that the first aid convoy since December 2011 to the eastern town of Laiza in Kachin state in Myanmar had succeeded in delivering humanitarian aid to displaced communities in the Woi Chyai camp. The convoy set out from the Kachin state capital of Myitkyina on Saturday and was returning today.
Some 4,300 displaced people in the target area - which was not controlled by the Government - had over the past few days received critical relief including food, medicines and education material from UN agencies and NGO partners. That aid supplemented the assistance delivered on a regular basis by local NGOs and other partners.
That was the first time a cross-line mission into Laiza had been permitted by the Government in more than 20 months. There was a total of 53,000 people in need in areas not controlled by the Government. The UN and humanitarian partners in Myanmar said that it was essential that the convoy should be the first of many to assist the displaced.
In the Government-controlled areas assistance continued on a regular basis to over 38,000 people, but it was important that all displaced people had access to humanitarian aid. Many had been displaced for over two years and that had also put a strain on the local communities hosting the displaced.
International Democracy Day
Jemini Pandya, for the International Parliamentary Union (IPU) outlined IPU’s concerns as it marked International Day of Democracy on Sunday 15 September. Its message was that countries across world were too often stifling political opposition instead of embracing it as a tangible sign of a healthy democracy. Be it through political parties, mass public dissent, or other means, a vibrant political opposition able to make its voice heard was a core pillar of democracy. But too often, it was seen as a threat that had to be stamped out, usually with tragic results.
Teaming up with the UN, the theme of the International Day of Democracy was strengthening voices for democracy. It was a particularly pertinent message given the events in the past few years and in many countries now.
The enormous human catastrophe of the Syrian conflict, and the violence and breakdown in Egypt that had also cost so many lives, illustrated clearly what happened when people were denied a political voice and shut out from political decision-making. Those were only two although highly visible examples, but there were many more.
Despite generalized voter apathy and public disillusionment with politics and the political status quo around the world, public anger over exclusion from political decisions and processes had led to large numbers of people taking to the streets recently. Responses to those demonstrations had not always been as they should. The right to peaceful assembly was a fundamental right and often the only way an electorate could make its voice heard outside of the ballot box.
IPU was also concerned about official political opposition. It urged governments to genuinely commit to protecting MPs as they did their work, regardless of their political affiliation. Large numbers of MPs around the world were being targeted, intimidated, killed for speaking out, defending the rights of those that have elected them or simply for having a different political opinion.
On average each year, IPU’s Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians was working on cases involving close to 300 MPs. More than 75 per cent of those MPs were from official opposition. Last year, more than 13 per cent of the human rights cases IPU worked on involved the killing of MPs, 48 per cent on the arbitrary arrest and detention of MPs. Those numbers did not represent a complete picture by far. The true scale of persecution and intimidation of political opponents had not been mapped out.
Upholding freedom of expression was another fundamental right marking a functioning democracy. IPU called for greater effort to be made for those freedoms to be protected and practiced if countries were genuine about democracy. Inclusive politics based on a healthy respect for differences was the solution to many of the conflicts and crises. It ensured peace, an essential requirement for democracy.
Citizens and politicians around the world had to be confident that they could assemble, and speak out, without fear of reprisals. Ms. Pandya said that the situation in Syria would not be such a huge crisis with such enormous ramifications if there had been political diversity and political respect for human rights in the first place.
Ms. Pandya said the press release was at the back of the room and would be sent out on Thursday. If any journalists would like to have interviews with the IPU Secretary-General or with their human rights team on the trends in persecution of MPs, then they should get in touch with her.
Ms. Vellucci, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the Conference on Disarmament ended its 2013 session Friday. Its plenary session this morning was devoted primarily to the completion of its annual report to the General Assembly.
The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities today had a meeting with States parties, and should not schedule further public meeting before the end of its session on Friday 13 September.
The Committee on Migrant Workers yesterday began a one-week session with the consideration of the report of Burkina Faso, which it completed today. The Committee would examine the report of Morocco this afternoon and tomorrow morning. The session would then continue in private until its close on Friday 13 September.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child will hold its next session from 16 September to 4 October.
OHCHR Open House Day
Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), announced that for the second time since its creation 20 years ago, the United Nations Human Rights Office would open the doors of Palais Wilson to the public on Saturday 14 September from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The event was supported by the Swiss government and the City and Canton of Geneva as part of the commemorations of the 20th Anniversary of the United Nations Human Rights Office.
Activities would include guided tours of the historical building – which was the original home of the League of Nations - and exhibitions of artistic works from around the world donated to the Office. There would also be film screenings on human rights issues, musical performances, children's activities including a puppet show and educational computer games about human rights, as well as two panel discussions on women human rights defenders and reprisals against people who cooperate with the United Nations. Furthermore, Palais Wilson was being lit by a special light show every night until 22 September.
Mr. Colville noted that visitors would be requested to present an identification document at the gate. More information was available on the website: ohchr.org/openhouseday.
Rolando Gomez, for the Human Rights Council (HRC) announced that the press conference by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, initially announced for 9.45 a.m. had been postponed, and the new time would be communicated to journalists as soon as it was confirmed [later on, the press conference was confirmed for 4.30 p.m.]. At the press conference Ms. Zerrougui would brief the press on her presentation to the Human Rights Council, during which she provided an update on her work. Topics included how children's rights to education had been affected by conflict, as well as situations of concern such as Syria, Central African Republic and Mali.
Mr Gomez also announced that the United Nations Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry on Syria would hold a press conference at 1.30 p.m. on 16 September in Press Room III, on its latest report which it would present to the Council that morning. The new report covered the period from mid May to mid July, and was accompanied by an oral update which covered the period thereafter, mid-July to the present date.
Gaëlle Sévenier for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) announced that a press conference would take place straight after today’s briefing, at 11.30 a.m. in Press Room III, to launch IOM’s World Migration Report, which was under strict embargo until noon on 13 September 2013. The subject of the report was “World Migration Report 2013: Migrant Well-Being and Development”. Speaking at the event would be Gervais Appave, Special Advisor to the Director General and Frank Laczko, Head of Research at IOM.
Ms. Vellucci reminded journalists that, in advance of the General Assembly High-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development, the United Nations Population Division would also present new data on international migration at a press conference at UN Headquarters on 11 September at 10:30 am New York time, which would be available by webcast. She noted that that material, which was made available to the journalists by email, was embargoed until 11 September at 10:30 am NY time.
Ms. Vellucci announced that a press conference to present the European Project: South East Transport Axis (SETA), about regional development in South East Europe, would take place today at 2.15 p.m. in Press Room 1; this was a part of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Working Party on Transport Trends and Economics, in session from 10 to 12 September 2013. Ms. Debora Serracchiani, President of the Region of Friuli Venezia Giulia and Ms. Silvia Altran, Mayor of Monfalcone (Gorizia, Italy) would speak at the event.
Catherine Sibut, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), reminded journalists that the UNCTAD Trade and Development Report would be launched on Thursday 12 September in a press conference at 10 a.m. in Press Room 1. The report, issued every year for the annual session of the Trade and Development Board, analysed current economic trends and major policy issues of international concern, and made suggestions for addressing those issues at various levels. The new Secretary-General of UNCTAD, Mukhisa Kituyi, and Alfredo Calcagno, UNCTAD Director of the Division on Globalization and Development Strategies, would be speaking at the event. The report was under embargo until 12 September at 5 p.m. Geneva time, 7 p.m. GMT.
Ms. Vellucci also announced that a joint press conference by the World Bank Group and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation marking the European launch and signing of the Global Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD) would take place on Wednesday, September 11 from 2:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. at the International Labour Organization, and a press release with more details, was available at the back of room.
In the room but not briefing was the spokesperson for the World Health Organization, World Food Programme and International Labour Organization.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://webtv.un.org