REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
1 May 2012
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 International Organization for Migration, the World Food Programme, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Jean-Philippe Chauzy of the International Organization for Migration said that 12-15,000 South Sudanese were currently stranded at the Kosti way station, 200 kilometers south of Khartoum, many of whom had been waiting many months for transport to South Sudan. The IOM was very concerned following an announcement by the Governor of Sudan’s White Nile State that these persons must leave by 5 May. These people were dependent on assistance from the international community for food, health care and other essential services, and it was impossible to provide them with transport within this timeframe. The IOM urged the Government of Sudan to grant more time for the international community to work with Federal and State-level authorities to help the South Sudanese in Kosti, who have clearly manifested their wish to leave Sudan, to move to South Sudan in safety and dignity.
Elisabeth Byrs of the World Food Programme said the WFP was concerned about the impact on nutrition of the fighting in the border region. Many people who were already facing a precarious food situation may now be affected even more strongly. In the past week, therefore, the WFP had assisted around 2,000 refugees arriving at Yida in Unity State, and, since the beginning of April, it has fed almost 20,000 refugees in Yida. The WFP had pre-positioned about 90 per cent of the stocks needed in South Sudan as most roads would soon become impassable due to the rainy season. In the Upper Nile and Unity States the WFP had prepositioned 14,000 metric tons of food, enough for 140,000 people for six months. The WFP had also deployed trucks and two helicopters to deliver not just food but also medical kits, shelter items, fuel and other assistance on behalf of the humanitarian community. In addition, the WFP had recently transported people injured in the fighting to areas where they could access medical assistance. The organization had increased storage capacity in the Border States for food and other items, as well as pre-positioning mobile storage units in strategic locations to further increase the capacity if needed.
Marixie Mercado of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that while famine conditions no longer existed, Somalia remained the world’s most complex humanitarian context. Almost a third of Somalis remained in crisis, unable to meet their essential food and non-food needs, including 325,000 acutely malnourished children. Some 70 per cent of these children lived in South and Central Somalia. The recovery from last year’s drought and famine remained extremely fragile, and additional shocks – poor rains, less access, more displacement and disease outbreaks – could easily tip communities back into disaster. The “Gu” rains had now started, but the most recent FEWSNET forecast in terms of impact on crop production and replenishment of water resources was not optimistic.
Working in parts of Somalia and reaching children remained challenging. A ban on most humanitarian actors was in place, and much of South and Central Somalia was insecure. That said, by the first quarter of this year, UNICEF and partners had treated over 126,000 malnourished children, over 90 per cent of them in the South and Central zones. In the South, UNICEF and partners had also provided blanket supplementary feeding to over 35,000 households, vaccinated 144,000 children, and enabled over 850,000 people to access safe water. UNICEF was working as hard as ever to reach children in need wherever it could.
Last year, an outpouring of financial support following the declaration of famine in Somalia had enabled UNICEF and other humanitarian actors to scale up assistance which continued to save lives today. But Somalia's famine last year had not been a one season crisis, and right now, funding shortfalls constituted perhaps the most significant challenge to sustaining life-saving operations. It was the second quarter of the year, and UNICEF's USD 289 million appeal for 2012 was just 12 per cent funded. If the money was not found urgently, programmes in sectors such as water, health, nutrition, education and protection would have to be cut.
Asked whether the United Nations has expressed any reaction to the situation in Mali and with respect to ECOWAS’ decision to send troops, Ms. Momal-Vanian said that no statement had been issued in recent days. Speaking at the ECOWAS summit in Abidjan on 26 April, Said Djinnit, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for West Africa, had reiterated the support of the United Nations for the actions undertaken by ECOWAS in both Mali and Guinea Bissau. The Geneva press corps would be kept informed.
In terms of numbers, according to a press release issued by OCHA yesterday, a total of 320,000 people had been displaced, including 187,000 refugees who had fled to neighbouring countries, said Ms. Momal-Vanian. The main countries receiving refugees were Mauritania (62,871), followed by Burkina Faso (56,664) and Niger (39,388), Mr. Edwards of UNHCR added.
Mali also had the third highest case load in terms of children affected by malnutrition, said Ms. Mercado, standing at 175,000, which could go up to 220,000 if access and other factors were to deteriorate.
Ms. Byrs said the WFP had launched a general distribution of food supplements to children under the age of 2 years. The objective of this undertaking, which had started on Monday, was to reduce the incidence of malnutrition among children below the age of five who were in a critical situation. The total costs of this operation amounted to 3,610,665,300 FCFA.
Ms. Momal-Vanian added that 16.6 million persons in nine countries of the region faced a situation of severe food insecurity.
Displacement in Eastern DR Congo
Asked about the situation of displacement in Goma, Eastern Congo, following reports of fighting this weekend, Mr. Edwards said the situation there was extremely serious. Before the start of this year there had been about a million displaced people in that region but this year had seen a sharp increase in numbers. In South Kivu, in particular, the numbers were quite high, in the region of 220,000 additional people this year, while North Kivu has also seen displacement during April. The particular problem in the Eastern DR Congo was that the insecurity effectively prevented UNHCR from accessing people in that area.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said that flash floods in the Comoros had affected more than 46,000 people and displaced over 9,000 persons. Since 20 April, the Islands of Comoros had been battered by torrential rains causing heavy floods, prompting the President to declare a state of emergency on 26 April. A seven-member United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination team had been on the ground since yesterday, and OCHA’s Regional Office for Southern Africa was deploying staff to support the Resident Coordinator and to conduct further assessments in affected areas. A note with further information was available at the back of the room.
Rupert Colville of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that OHCHR was saddened by the news that Mr. Chut Wutty and Mr. In Rattana had been shot and killed last Thursday in south-western Cambodia. Mr. Wutty had been an outspoken environmental activist and human rights defender who worked fearlessly to expose illegal logging and corruption in Cambodia. Mr. Rattana had been a member of the Royal Cambodian Gendarmerie.
The exact circumstances of the shootings, which had occurred in a forest in Koh Kong Province where Mr. Wutty – in the company of two journalists – had been gathering evidence of illegal logging, remained unclear. The OHCHR office in Phnom Penh was investigating the incident, having dispatched a team to the province two hours after the killing had taken place. The team had visited the site of the shooting, interviewed local actors and monitored the post-mortem examination of the bodies.
Despite the current lack of clarity about what exactly happened, OHCHR was very concerned that the killing of Mr. Wutty marked the latest and most lethal in a series of gun attacks on human rights defenders in Cambodia. Since the start of 2012, the OHCHR office in Cambodia had investigated four other cases (in Snoul, Bavet, Borei Keila and Banteay Chhmar) involving the use of live ammunition against communities and human rights defenders which had resulted in a number of injuries.
OHCHR welcomed the fact that the authorities had commenced investigations into Thursday’s shooting, including a military investigation. It urged the Royal Government to ensure that a full civilian judicial investigation proceeded speedily and with the utmost probity and independence. It was imperative that the investigating authorities sought to interview all relevant witnesses, including military personnel and those involved in logging activities in the area at the time of the shooting. OHCHR would continue to monitor the process. It also urged the Government to take concrete and immediate measures to ensure the safety of all witnesses and investigators, as well the families of the deceased men.
Mr. Colville said that OHCHR was alarmed that yet another journalist had been killed in Mexico last weekend. It strongly condemned the murder of Regina Martinez, and was concerned that this disturbing trend of murdering media workers – more than 70 were reported to have been killed since the year 2000 – was damaging the exercise of freedom of expression in the country. OHCHR called for a thorough independent investigation into this and other similar cases, and urged the Government to immediately implement protection measures for journalists.
In that respect, the Office welcomed the passing of two new laws yesterday by the Mexican Congress which were very relevant to this situation and represented a significant step forward in efforts to protect journalists and human rights defenders. These laws are the General Victims Act and the Law for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists.
During her visit to Mexico last year, the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay had emphasised the importance of this legislative agenda, after meeting with victims and relatives of murdered human rights journalists and activists.
In response to a question about the decision to retry Mr. Abdelhadi Al-Khawaja in a civilian court, Mr. Colville said that OHCHR welcomed the fact that the Bahraini authorities had recognised the importance of moving away from military justice for civilians. In the case of Mr. Al-Khawaja there was no reason for him to be held incommunicado. He should be given immediate access to his family, the Danish Ambassador, a doctor and a lawyer of his own choosing. OHCHR had urged the Bahraini authorities to take steps to ensure the release of Mr. Al-Khawaja and his transfer to a civilian hospital.
Rebuilding Parliamentary Democracy in Myanmar
Jemini Pandya of the Inter-Parliamentary Union said that as Aung San Suu Kyi and other newly-elected members of her National League for Democracy party prepared to attend the tail end of an extraordinary session of parliament in Myanmar this week, an IPU mission was in the country to help rebuild an effective and democratic legislative body there. They, and the vast majority of MPs who had been elected to parliament in November 2010, had never been MPs before and had no parliamentary experience as the country had lacked a parliament for several decades. Following a request from the Myanmar authorities, an IPU team had begun a needs assessment of the parliament, in a bid to identify the problems and solutions for it to act as a representative body that oversees government. Following the submission of the findings to the Myanmar parliamentary authorities, IPU would prepare a long-term assistance programme aimed at strengthening the Myanmar parliament’s legislative. The long-term plan would not only assist Myanmar at this critical juncture, but would also provide a unique insight into how to help the country in a tangible way for those who wanted to lend effective support to Myanmar.
Ms. Momal Vanian noted that the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had made a historic address to the Parliament yesterday, the first ever by an outside
Strengthening the secretariat of the Palestinian Legislative Council
Ms. Pandya said that IPU experts had been dispatched to the West Bank town of Ramallah as part of an IPU-UNDP initiative to help the Secretariat of the Palestinian Legislative Council prepare for a future resumption of parliamentary work.
The administrative detention of 23 members (nearly 20 per cent) of the Palestinian Legislative Council by Israel, including the Speaker, and the division between the two main political groups Fatah and Hamas, had paralysed the Palestinian legislative body since 2007. Although the Secretariat of the PLC had remained operational, the absence of a functioning PLC had taken its toll on its own role and capacities. The initiative, part of a broader support programme funded by the European Union, would help the Secretariat to become a neutral and modern parliamentary administration, better able to support the PLC in carrying out its legislative and oversight functions in the future. The IPU experts would, amongst other things, review current structures and help address the issue of divergent legal frameworks in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, controlled by Fatah and Hamas respectively. Another IPU expert would arrive next week to work on developing the research and library capacity of the Secretariat so that MPs had access to better information with which to carry out their critical work. A total of 20 expert missions would be carried out to Ramallah over the next 18 months as part of the programme.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had yesterday opened a three-week session and had this morning started to examine the report of Slovakia. Peru would present its report tomorrow afternoon, to be followed by New Zealand on Friday morning, and Spain and Ethiopia next week.
The Committee against Torture would commence its session next week, during which it was to examine the reports of Albania, Armenia, Canada, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Greece, Rwanda and Syria. A background release would be issued on Thursday.
Gregory Härtl of the World Health Organization said that a press release and the report on premature births had been sent to the Geneva press corps yesterday afternoon, under embargo until 2 May. While the main launch would take place in Washington tomorrow, an expert would also be available to brief the Palais journalists in Geneva tomorrow.