REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
30 November 2012
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 Spokespersons for the High Commissioner for Refugees, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the Secretariat to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, the World Food Programme, the International Organization for Migration and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.
Melissa Fleming for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said a UNHCR Syria team returned to Damascus last night after a two-day assessment mission to Homs, where they reported thousands of displaced people were living in unheated communal shelters.
Half of the city’s hospitals were not functional and there were severe shortages of basic supplies ranging from medicine to blankets, winter clothes and children’s shoes. The team also reported that UNHCR’s partner, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), had so far registered 250,000 displaced people in and around the city. UNHCR, which had more than 350 staff in five locations across Syria, had been present in the city since mid-November, where it had been provided assistance through SARC since June.
The team also visited two communal buildings, one housing 70 families (400 individuals) and another one with over 400 families (2,300 individuals), the largest such shelter in Homs. Local solidarity networks had been formed and were providing very organized help to local residents, but the needs were acute.
Many children had not been to school for the last 18 months. Some city hospitals had been converted into communal shelters and 60 per cent of Homs doctors had left, along with other medical personnel. There were serious shortages of medicine and medical equipment.
With cold weather having arrived, UNHCR plastic sheeting was being used to cover open doorways and missing windows in collective centres, as well as to partition rooms. None of the buildings were heated, and there was a shortage of blankets, winter clothes and shoes for children.
During the mission, nine UNHCR trucks carrying urgent winter assistance arrived in Homs with 6,000 quilts, 12,000 sleeping mats, 13,000 winter blankets, 1,000 mattresses and 6,000 boxes of sanitary napkins. More aid supplies were scheduled for delivery in the coming days.
In Lebanon, renovations on a variety of unfinished buildings and collective shelters to house refugees were also continuing as large numbers of people continued to arrive.
In Jordan, UNHCR was receiving ongoing reports from Syrian refugees arriving in Jordan who say they were targeted en route to the border. UNHCR called on all sides to ensure that civilians had access to safe passage.
Refugees were citing generalized violence, targeted threats against individuals and their families, and a breakdown of basic services as the reasons they fled their country. Jordanian hospitals had received injured refugees on a daily basis.
This perilous journey was particularly tough for women and children, who UNHCR staff reported were often visibly traumatized. Women still recovering from childbirth were making the journey and some had reported that they were inducing the birth of their babies early, in advance of their flight. Many families were opting to sedate their children during the journey to keep them calm and quiet.
Also in Jordan, UNHCR had seen recent media reports of underage marriages involving Syrian refugee girls. UNHCR was aware of this phenomenon and had been working with partners to increase awareness among refugee families, religious leaders and others. While UNHCR knew there had been such marriages, numbers were unclear.
She further clarified that Jordanian law prohibited marriage for those who were 18 or younger. UNHCR was currently producing a series of service announcements which UNHCR hoped were to soon appear on Jordanian national television covering the issue of early marriage.
Going to the statistics she said refugee numbers now exceeded 465,000 and continued to grow.
Answering questions she reiterated that UNHCR was calling on countries to allow safe passage of civilians and could give no specific insight into who may have been targeting civilians; she also drew attention to the fact that some places in the country were still inaccessible and that was of great concern; refugee numbers in North Africa were currently at 9,700, mostly in Egypt, however these figures relied on people coming forward and asking for registration, which was not common.
Rupert Colville for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was expressing alarm at the current violent unrest in the Tunisian town of Siliana and urged the Government to ensure that security forces stopped using excessive force against demonstrators. The High Commissioner also stressed that demonstrators should at all times avoid resorting to violence.
The protests over unemployment and imbalances in development began on Tuesday and led to violent confrontations between demonstrators and the security forces. More than 220 people were believed to have been injured on Tuesday and Wednesday, and sporadic violence, house-to-house searches and arrests were reported to have taken place in Siliana yesterday. A team from the OHCHR office in Tunisia arrived in the town earlier this morning.
Some of the demonstrators suffered serious injuries caused by the use of bird shot, reportedly fired without warning. On Thursday, staff visited victims who had been taken to hospitals in the capital Tunis, and had documented cases of shotgun wounds to the head, back, and face, as well as eye injuries which could in some cases lead to blindness. Some demonstrators were also suffering from broken bones. It was understood that a number of police officers had also been injured and staff in Tunis were to visit them in hospital today.
The High Commissioner condemned the excessive and disproportionate use of force by members of the security forces against the protesters whose demonstration was announced in advance. In particular, she was urging the authorities to immediately halt the use of shotguns against protesters. The rights to freedom of expression and opinion, and peaceful assembly were fundamental human rights which had to be protected and respected, he said.
The High Commissioner also welcomed the announcement yesterday by the Government of an independent Commission of Inquiry into these events and urged them to take appropriate measures to guarantee accountability and prevent such abuses from occurring in future; in particular there needed to be further efforts to ensure security forces abide by the UN Basic Principles on the use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials – the key international document on handling demonstrations.
She also called on all parties to engage in a positive and constructive dialogue, and urged the government of Tunisia to take the necessary measures to ensure equitable development that will permit all Tunisians to enjoy their economic and social rights. The economy in the Siliana region had been in decline for years, and this appeared to be the root cause of the unrest seen over the past few days.
Answering questions he said that co-operation with the Tunisian authorities was good and further updates from the mission were possible.
Rupert Colville for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the High Commissioner had urged the President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, to reconsider the Constitutional Declaration issued last week, saying a number of measures contained in it were incompatible with international human rights law. She had also warned that approving a constitution in these circumstances could be a deeply divisive move.
The High Commissioner welcomed the efforts to reach out to the judiciary and political parties, but believed they were not yet sufficient to prevent Egypt reneging on binding principles laid down in the two overarching international human rights treaties – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights - which Egypt ratified in 1982.
In a letter addressed to the Egyptian President she noted that “the three slogans of the Egyptian Revolution, were liberty, freedom and social justice.” She pointed out that these same principles underlie all international human rights law, including both Covenants. In order for them to be achieved, there needed to be prompt, effective and impartial investigations, truth-seeking processes, judicial accountability mechanisms, and reparation programmes, as well as a strengthening of institutional reform and guaranteeing of non-recurrence of the violations that were rampant during the Mubarak era.
She also outlined the areas where the Constitutional Declaration opened the door to violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in particular the right to effective remedy, access to justice as well as the guarantees for the independence of the judiciary, he explained.
The High Commissioner also commented on concerns about the composition of the Constituent Assembly, noting that “Any proper constitution-making process must include adequate representation of the full political spectrum, men and women, minorities, and civil society, which was not seen to be the case with this Constituent Assembly.”
She expressed concerns about the unfolding events in Egypt and warned against taking divisive measures such as adopting a Constitution that may lead to further escalation and tension.
In her letter to the President, the High Commissioner stressed that she fully understood the difficult challenges the Egyptian President was facing, but urged him to reconsider the Declaration so that the various problems it was designed to address can be confronted by measures that were “in conformity with international human rights principles.”
He also added that she had written that it was within the legal prerogatives and political responsibility of President Morsi to address these concerns in conformity with international human rights principles.
Answering questions he said no reply to the letter had been received, though discussions had been had with the Ambassador in Geneva. He further clarified that the statement referred to the Presidential Declaration issued last week, as more time was needed to study the draft constitution itself.
Vote on Palestinian status at the United Nations
Answering a question Rupert Colville for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the vote was warmly welcomed and his office wholeheartedly shared the sentiments of the Secretary-General in his statement to the General Assembly yesterday.
Marixie Mercado for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said preliminary findings of a survey on psychosocial distress following the eight days of hostilities in Gaza earlier this month showed severe trauma among children.
The survey interviewed 545 children, roughly half of them male and half of them female, in the areas most affected by the violence. The key findings were that more than 90 per cent of children said they were afraid of loud sounds, 67.1 per cent of children below 12 years old said they were having nightmares, as were over three-quarters of 13 to 17 year olds. Just under half of the children below 12 years old said they had incidents of bed-wetting, as did 18.3 per cent of adolescents 13 to 17 years old.
Additionally 62.2 per cent of children below 12 years old reported feelings of anger; 88 per cent said they were afraid; and 64.8 per cent said they had difficulty concentrating. The survey also showed that adolescents were even more prone to feelings of anger, fear and difficulty concentrating.
Of the $7.6 million UNICEF was requesting for Gaza, $3 million was budgeted for the child protection and psychosocial support response. This was to be delivered through 21 family spaces which allowed children to take part in recreational activities such as sports, drama, music, drama. The rest of the funding covered drugs and medical supplies, repairs to over 100 schools, repairs and other support to water and sanitation networks.
The survey took place on 24 and 25 November. Of the 545 children: 146 children were below seven years old; 230 were between seven and 12 years old; and 169 children were between 13 and 17 years old.
Answering questions she said that to give some context to the data, the normal incidence of bed-wetting was around five per cent.
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said more than 3.5 million people living in Malawi, Zimbabwe and Lesotho required food assistance for the next four months.
Erratic rainfall across southern Africa had led to localized food shortages in all three countries, and needs were particularly high during the so-called “hunger season” between the planting of crops in October/November, and their harvesting next year (March/April in Malawi and Zimbabwe, and May/June in Lesotho). WFP was working with national governments and donors to move food to areas of need.
In Malawi almost 1.9 million people required food assistance through to March 2013, more than 12 per cent of the population. In response WFP was distributing food to more than 1.8 million, mostly in the south of the country, which was the worst affected. This was more than nine times as many people requiring food assistance as earlier this year.
The Malawi government had already donated 25,000 metric tons of maize from its Strategic Grain Reserve, and had announced plans to fund a further 47,500 metric tons. In addition, WFP had launched a mobile cash transfer programme for more than 100,000 people that will provide them with funds to purchase food on local markets. Beneficiaries were to be provided with low cost mobile phones and each month receive a text message that will allow them to collect cash from agents running a mobile banking system.
Explaining the deterioration of the situation she said maize prices in Malawi had risen by nearly 80 per cent since this time last year. In addition to this, the devaluation of the national currency, the Kwacha, by 49 per cent, coupled with high inflation and an increase in fuel prices of around 30 per cent had all contributed to rising costs for basic goods and services.
As a result WFP assessments had shown that needs were rising in urban areas due to the high price of food on the markets. More than 12 percent of urban households surveyed between July and August this year were shown to be severely food insecure. WFP was not yet distributing in urban areas, but was actively looking at the feasibility of a programme, depending on the level of donor support.
The current shortfall for WFP’s Malawi drought relief operation was US$14 million.
In Zimbabwe, 1.6 million people were to require food assistance from January to March 2013, a 60 per cent increase from the one million people assisted last year.
National cereal production was 33 per cent less than last year, and in some areas, livestock was being sold off at very reduced prices to generate cash to cover food needs.
Approximately 300,000 people were to receive cash transfers to purchase cereals on local markets, while WFP continued to provide them with pulses and cooking oil.
The government of Zimbabwe had allocated 35,000 metric tons of grain from its Strategic Grain Reserve to support the humanitarian response. WFP was providing the logistical support to transport the grain to where it was needed most.
In Lesotho, WFP was providing food assistance to some 230,000 vulnerable people, mostly in the drought-affected southern and highlands of the country. Overall, as many as 725,000 people were “at serious risk of food insecurity” in the country.
The current shortfall for WFP’s Lesotho emergency operation was $4 million
Central African Republic
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said the UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS), run by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in the Central African Republic (CAR), was facing a critical shortfall in funding and was going to have to cut back services by half if no resources were received in the next few weeks. The service needed $ 1.8 million to continue until the end of the year.
She explained that more than 40 humanitarian organizations depended on UNHAS to transport aid workers to the deep field and it presently operated two aircraft, but this was likely to be cut to one if no further funding for 2012 was received, and that ultimately the service could face closure.
Given poor roads, many of which become impassable during rainy season, armed conflicts and banditry, air transport was indispensable to deliver humanitarian assistance to refugees, internally displaced people and other vulnerable groups.
UNHAS also provided a vital service in CAR, bringing doctors to remote areas to treat sick children, nutritionists to help pregnant women remain strong, and water engineers to help communities improve their land.
Since the beginning of 2012, UNHAS in CAR had transported an average of 600 humanitarian staff monthly to 23 destinations across the country.
Melissa Fleming for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that in the last week UNHCR had begun distribution of winter assistance to nearly a quarter of a million people (40,000 families) in remote and inaccessible areas of Afghanistan, as well as in Kabul.
Winter temperatures in Afghanistan can fall to around -26 C and for this reason it was important that people were protected from the cold. The recipients were recent returnees from Pakistan and Iran, internally displaced people – including people displaced by conflict – and others at risk in the cold weather.
Forum on Business and Human Rights
Rupert Colville for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the first annual Forum on Business and Human Rights was taking place at the Palais des Nations next week, an event which was generating a lot of interest.
Lene Wendland, Adviser on Business and Human Rights, Human Rights and Economic and Social Issues Section, Research and Right to Development Division, OHCHR, then explained that the session itself would take place on 4 and 5 December, with side events starting on 3 December. A programme was available at the back of the room and full details, including panellists, were on the OHCHR website. Around one thousand participants were now registered, coming from 85 countries and 151 business enterprises as well as civil society organisations and national delegations. Some of the businesses to be represented included Coca-Cola, Chevron, Microsoft and others.
A high level session began at 10:00 on Tuesday, 4 December, which would be opened by the President of the Council, and would include opening remarks from the Chair of the Forum, the former Special Representative on business and human rights. Among others attending were the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Assistant-Secretary of State of the United States of America and the High Representative on Human Rights from the European Union. A press conference was planned for Tuesday, 4 December, at 14:30.
Answering questions she said a list of participants for the forum was available on request. She added that this was the first of recurring annual meetings on this topic, and although there was no outcome document (only a summary report to the Human Rights Council), it was to be seen as the start of a global platform for multi-stakeholder discussion on human rights. She also explained that the Forum complemented the UN Global Compact, a separate initiative which will have an active participation in the Forum.
In terms of procedure she explained the Forum functioned according to the mandate laid out for it in the Resolution 17/4 of the Human Rights Council, making it open to any interested stakeholder, including businesses, civil society, states, trade unions, and communities affected by business. To this end her office had reached out through business networks and websites on business and human rights and had issued an open invitation for anyone who wanted to contribute to the discussion. Answering a question she confirmed that major trade unions would be represented and had been supportive of the initiative. No individual company had been pursued to attend, she explained.
World Aids Day and HIV
Ms. Vellucci said the message from the Secretary-General on the occasion of World Aids Day, (1 December) was available in English and French at the back of the room.
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said the Executive Director of the WFP had issued a statement underlining the importance of access to adequate and nutritious food for a person living with HIV, which was also available.
Sophie Barton-Knott for the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS reminded correspondents that UNIAIDS’ most recent report showed that despite progress in recent years there was still more than 34 million people living with HIV and 7,000 people were newly infected every day.
The Executive Director of UNAIDS, along with other partners, had issued a statement on the day, copies of which were available at the back of the room. Yesterday he had visited the United States of America for the launch of new blueprint on AIDS and today (30 November) and tomorrow (1 December) he was to visit Haiti to take stock of the situation with regard to people living with HIV since the earthquake in 2010.
Chris Lom for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) added that migrants were disproportionately affected by HIV and AIDS in high-income countries.
He said this year's UNAIDS' Report on the global AIDS epidemic demonstrated that for the first time in the history of AIDS, an end to the epidemic was on the horizon and the rates of new infections in traditionally high-burden countries were going down. But many challenges remained, for example, migrants and mobile populations were at particularly high risk of HIV infection all over the world, as they frequently face marginalization, exclusion and various barriers to accessing health promotion and care.
In addition, there was also a lack of awareness of migrants’ vulnerability to HIV in high-income countries, where migrants – especially those originating from high endemic countries - were disproportionally affected by HIV compared to the general population.
Migrants frequently did not know their HIV status and tended to be diagnosed with the virus at a much later stage than the general population. This was usually caused by stigma, lack of knowledge, marginalization and precarious immigration status.
He also explained that mineworkers were disproportionately affected by TB and HIV due to a number of structural, environmental and individual factors and so IOM was launching a project aimed at addressing health vulnerabilities of 20,000 migrant mine-workers, their families and affected communities in Southern Africa.
The EUR 5 million project was to be funded by the Minister of Foreign Trade and
International Cooperation of the Netherlands and would run for the next two years. The group targeted would be mine worker sending, transit, and destination communities in Mozambique, South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.
Human Rights Day
Answering a question Rupert Colville for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) clarified that Aung San Suu Kyi would not be attending a ceremony in Geneva in person; instead she would be participating through an interactive video facility. The ceremony was planned for 10:00 on 10 December.
Meeting of the States Parties to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention
Kerry Brinkert from the Secretariat of the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention said that from Monday 3 to Friday 7 December, the Twelfth Meeting of the States Parties (12MSP) to the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, or Ottawa Convention, was to take place in Room XIX of the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
An opening press conference was planned for Monday, 3 December at 9:00 in Room III and was to feature the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland and Slovenia, the President of the ICRC and the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize co-laureate Jody Williams of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Speakers were to share their expectations for the week and Slovenia and Switzerland would highlight their special contributions to the Convention, including through Switzerland’s 2012-2015 Mine Action Strategy and the Slovenian-based International Trust Fund.
The 12MSP was to then officially open at 10:00 with a ceremony involving the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland and Slovenia, the ICRC President of the ICRC and Jody Williams, as well as Cambodian landmine survivor Tun Channareth –who received the Nobel Peace Award with Jody Williams in 1997- and UN Human Rights Chief Navy Pillay.
Poland, the only European Union member that had not yet joined the Convention, was within days of ratifying it. Poland’s Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs was to attend the meeting and would be available to speak on the matter on Wednesday, 5 December.
On Wednesday, in addition to Denmark, Guinea-Bissau, Jordan and Uganda it was expected that Congo (Brazzaville) would declare completion of their mine clearance obligations.
Finland and Somalia were to take the floor for the first time as States Parties. Finland would present its first update on the number of stockpiled landmines it must destroy within the next four years as required by the Convention.
During the course of the meeting, most of the 28 States Parties that were responsible for significant numbers of landmine survivors and most of the 36 States Parties still in the process of clearing mined areas were to provide updates. These States Parties had been asked to highlight additional progress in implementation that was expected in time of the Convention’s Third Review Conference in 2014.
He added that the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Mozambique was to attend the meeting and it was thought his country would offer to host the Review Conference planned or next year. He also mentioned that the Swiss Foreign Minister was to arrive ahead of the press conference at 8:45 through Door VI if journalists wished to take pictures.
Chris Lom for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) gave details of a new programme to protect migrants transiting Mexico en route to the United States of America.
The $ 3.1 million, two-year programme was funded by the UN Trust Fund for Human Security and would be run as a collaboration between the Mexican Government, the UN system and IOM.
Chris Lom for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said IOM was to run a side event at the COP18 to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Doha on how to integrate migration into adaptation strategies and planning on Monday, 3 December, at 20:15.
Clare Nullis for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had released its summary of the Atlantic hurricane season, which officially ended today, 30 November.
It characterized it as a "busy" hurricane season, which included four U.S. land-falling storms (including Sandy and Isaac) and had a total of 19 named storms. Of these 10 became hurricanes and one became a major hurricane.
Ms. Vellucci said the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural this afternoon held the closing session of its three-week programme, during which it had examined the reports of: Tanzania, Ecuador, Mauritania, Bulgaria and Iceland. Concluding observations on these countries were to be available on Monday afternoon. The Committee was also to publish comments on Equatorial Guinea and Congo, who had not submitted reports.
She added that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was to hold a press conference on Monday, 3 December, to coincide with the unveiling of a new report, “Measuring Progress Towards a Green Economy”, in response to the Rio+20 mandate to assist countries with their transition to more resource-efficient, sustainable societies. Speakers were Steven Stone, Chief, UNEP's Economics and Trade Branch and Sheng Fulai, Economist and Head of UNEP's Green Economy Research.
Catherine Sibut for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) announced a press conference on Tuesday, 4 December, at noon in Press Room I on a new policy brief entitled, “Greater income share for labour - the essential catalyst for global economic recovery and employment.” The report discussed the fragility of the economy in developing countries, the risks for the global economy if these countries were not able to maintain their rate of growth and the dangers of short and medium term austerity measures. The speaker was Heiner Flassbeck, Director, of the Division on Globalization and Development Strategies, UNCTAD.
She also mentioned that the press kit for the annual UNCTAD Review of Maritime Transport was now available and would be sent electronically, ahead of the publication of the report on Tuesday, with an embargo of that evening.
Clare Nullis for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced that the press conference planned for Tuesday (4 December) at 9:30 in Geneva to mark the release of WMO report into climate events in the last decade had been cancelled. A press conference in Doha was still scheduled, and a press release would be issued on Monday, 3 December.