27 January 2017
Alessandra Vellucci, Director, United Nations Information Service, chaired the briefing attended by the spokespersons for the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Refugee Agency, and the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Yara Sharif, for the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria (OSE), said that the Astana talks had provided a remarkable contribution for the exerted efforts to push for peace in Syria, whereby the international meeting had resulted in three important outcomes.
- For the first time, representatives of the Syrian Government and of the opposition had sat in the same room and had listened to each other’s respective demands with an emphasis on the cease-fire. That would help to create a supportive environment for engagement between the Syrian parties to jump-start the convening of the formal political negotiating process under UN auspices in Geneva in February.
- A trilateral monitoring mechanism established by Russia, Turkey and Iran as guarantors to ensure full compliance with the cease-fire, which was a concrete step towards further implementation of CSR 2236.
- A joint statement adopted by Iran, the Russian Federation and Turkey at the conclusion of the Astana meeting, which consolidated the cease-fire.
As for the UN’s commitment, the UN stood ready to assist the parties to the trilateral mechanism in further development if needed, and ensuring its strengthening of the cease-fire’s quality. The UN asserted that a comprehensive cease-fire was pivotal for reaching a political solution, which was the only path for achieving peace in Syria, brought about by intra-Syrian negotiations under the aegis of the UN. As part of the intensified preparations ahead of the February negotiations, the UN Special Envoy would head to New York the following week to consult with the Secretary-General and brief the Security Council on the Syrian file’s latest developments.
Responding to a question on the statement by Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov on the postponement of the talks, Ms. Sharif said that the UN Special Envoy was heading to New York the following week to discuss the issue with the Secretary-General, and there would be more clarity when he returns. There was no information as of now that the 8 February talks would be postponed. Talks were also ongoing with the new United States administration.
Ms. Sharif could not comment on the draft constitution, but stressed that the United Nations stood ready to assist the parties with the trilateral mechanism.
A question was also asked about a meeting of the task forces in Geneva the following week, but Ms. Sharif had no information on that for the time being. More detailed information would be provided subsequently via email.
Ms. Vellucci informed about the establishment of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of those Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011. The Secretary-General should announce the head of the mechanism by the end of February. Regarding the new mechanism and its relationship with the Office of the Special Envoy, Ms. Sharif stressed that the UN would always be there to support and assist. The mechanism would be further configured in the upcoming weeks.
On the US participation in the talks in Astana, Ms. Sharif said that the United States had been present as an observer, but no further information was available on its future participation. Ms. Vellucci added that the Special Envoy was discussing the invitations for the Geneva talks, and they had not been finalized yet. Ms. Sharif could not elaborate on the US participation at the moment.
Statement on Holocaust Day
Ms. Vellucci said that today was the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust. She said that in his message, the Secretary-General had said, “Today, we honour the victims of the Holocaust, an incomparable tragedy in human history. The world has a duty to remember that the Holocaust was a systematic attempt to eliminate the Jewish people and so many others.
It would be a dangerous error to think of the Holocaust as simply the result of the insanity of a group of criminal Nazis. On the contrary, the Holocaust was the culmination of millennia of hatred, scapegoating and discrimination targeting the Jews, what we now call anti-Semitism.
Tragically, and contrary to our resolve, anti-Semitism continues to thrive. We are also seeing a deeply troubling rise in extremism, xenophobia, racism and anti-Muslim hatred. Irrationality and intolerance are back.
This is in complete contrast to the universal values enshrined in the United Nations Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
We can never remain silent or indifferent when human beings are suffering.
We must always defend the vulnerable and bring tormentors to justice.
And as the theme of this year’s observance highlights, a better future depends on education.
After the horrors of the 20th century, there should be no room for intolerance in the 21st. I guarantee you that as Secretary-General of the United Nations, I will be in the frontline of the battle against anti-Semitism and all other forms of hatred.
Let us build a future of dignity and equality for all – and thus honour the victims of the Holocaust who we will never allow to be forgotten.”
In response to a question regarding the statement, Ms. Vellucci said that the Secretary-General as well as High Commissioner Zeid had often spoken about the dangers of hatred and xenophobia. She drew the attention of the press to the recent video message from the Secretary-General on anti-Muslim hatred. Everywhere in the world, populism, racism and xenophobia were on the rise, and there was a strong need to fight that trend.
Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein had issued a statement, which had been sent out to the press on 26 January. He emphasized a quote from Primo Levi, which the High Commissioner had cited: “It happened, therefore it can happen again.” Primo Levi had endured and survived the concentration camp at Auschwitz Birkenau.
Mr. Colville also said that he had been struck by an interview he had listened to with a Holocaust survivor, who had described how Germany in the 1930s had been one of the most sophisticated and well-educated countries in the world, yet the Holocaust had happened. Asked whether she thought the Holocaust could happen again, she had said that it could, and that it was very important to be aware of the dangers of propaganda and hatred.
In response to a question about specifics on the rise of anti-Semitism and xenophobia, Mr. Colville said that specifically on anti-Semitism, there were statistics put out by the European Fundamental Rights Agency, which released very detailed annual statistics on anti-Semitism-related attacks as well as other forms of attacks showing ethnic and religious hatred of many sorts, in European Union countries. There were statistics to back up the fact that those types of crimes were continuing and possibly increasing.
In response to questions regarding recent executive orders signed by President Donald Trump, notably on bringing back the use of torture, Mr. Colville said that the United States had some of the most robust, vibrant and well-established civil society organizations on the world, as well as a strong system of checks and balances. There were many important political, religious and community voices speaking out in defense of human rights principles in the US. OHCHR was encouraged by the vigorous defense of human rights in the country. To illustrate this point he quoted recent comments on the issue by Senator John McCain (Rep) and Senator Dianne Feinstein (Dem), who had chaired the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on torture. The new Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, had said during his confirmation process that he was committed to upholding international law, the law of armed conflict, the Geneva Conventions and US law.
Mr. Colville also said that the UN and specifically the High Commissioner for Human Rights, had to pick the right moments to speak out about specific issues. There was a lot of rhetoric, drafts and leaked information, and OHCHR had to be very vigilant and intelligent about ways and timing of speaking out. He said, regarding announced visa restrictions for six countries, that it was not yet clear what the details of the decision were at this point, and whether it had clear human rights ramifications.
Ms. Vellucci also said that in the briefing on 26 January in New York, the UN Spokesperson had said, “We obviously hope that the measure announced and taken regarding refugees is a temporary one, especially at a time when there had never been a greater need for the protection of refugees”.
Asked about the possible rise in hate crimes in the United States, Mr. Colville said that one had to be quite careful about the statistics and analysis of trends. In both the US and the UK, there seemed to have been a spike of hate crimes and abuses after the BREXIT referendum and the US presidential election, but the definitive data for hate crimes in 2016 was not yet available. We needed to be careful with making conclusions too soon, but one could nonetheless notice a worrying relaxation of self-control of people in both the United States and Europe. Racism and xenophobia had never really completely died out in any country, but the social restraints seemed to be slipping quite fast. There were ethnic-based attacks in other countries around the world as well, which was a worrying phenomenon.
Mr. Colville, responding to another question, reiterated the UN’s unambiguous position on the prohibition of torture, a non-derogable norm even in times of war and national emergencies, and referred journalists to the text of the Convention Against Torture, and in particular Article 2. A number of bodies were dealing with torture, he said, illustrating the importance the UN gives to the issue. There were, unfortunately, many torturers around the world who had not been brought to justice yet; they ought to be brought to justice wherever they were.
Asked whether OHCHR had a contact point within the new US administration and whether the UN System was really prepared for what was about to come, Mr. Colville responded that these are still very early days of the new administration in the US. Many appointments, including ambassadors in Geneva, have still to be made. OHCHR naturally spoke to most countries about human rights issues, and its counterparts were primarily Missions in New York and Geneva, as well as Government officials. Everyone had to be patient until the situation was clearer and the interlocutors were appointed. Ms. Vellucci said that the new US Ambassador to the UN in New York had not yet presented her credentials to the Secretary-General. Mr. Colville said that the key was to measure the trends, and that the UN stood ready to be vocal whenever there was a need for it. Human rights statistics was very important in that regard.
Asked whether torture worked, Mr. Colville responded that it was irrelevant because torture was illegal, but also pointed out that it is well-established that people will say whatever they think their interrogators want to hear in order to stop the torture. There had been some encouraging statements by the new CIA Director in this regard, as well as the US Senators and other politicians mentioned earlier.
Another journalist noted that it was expected that OHCHR would speak out on a number of issues, including decisions taken by the new US President on the border wall with Mexico, abortion, etc. Mr. Colville said that OHCHR had the mandate to protect and promote human rights effectively. The Office would monitor how all the current heated debates and proposed policies would play out in reality, and comment as and when it believed the expression of its views would be most effective.
In response to a question regarding possible executive orders to be signed by President Donald Trump and related to refugees, Vannina Maestracci, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that there were many reports circulating and it was important to look at what actual measures would be signed. She said that on principle, UNHCR believed that refugees should be offered assistance, protection, opportunities for resettlement regardless of their race, religion or ethnicity.
On the question on how prepared UNHCR was to speak out forcefully if harmful political decisions were made on refugees, Ms. Maestracci said that the response would come when UNHCR had elements to study and react to. She clarified that resettlement concerned less than 1% of refugees around the world, and aimed to help the most vulnerable refugees, such as children or people with specific medical needs that cannot be met in the first country of asylum. She said resettlement was an important solution and opportunity for those refugees.
On President Trump’s executive order to build a wall between the US and Mexico, Ms. Maestracci referred to the news comment issued Tuesday on that topic Tuesday.
Asked about vetting of refugees in the United States, Ms. Maestracci said that UNHCR shared government’s goals of ensuring safe and secure immigration and resettlement programmes. She explained how resettlement worked: vulnerable cases were identified, after being screened and interviewed, and referred to a number of countries to be considered for resettlement. She added that more than 30 countries were currently resettling refugees around the world. Those people then went through those countries’ specific vetting processes. She said the decision on who would be resettled was made by the United States, that the process could take up to two years and included many layers involving 8 US federal agencies, 6 different security databases and 5 different background checks. She referred to a helpful factsheet on the UNHCR US website on how resettlement worked. She added that refugees coming into the United States to be resettled were some of the most vetted individuals entering the country.
Since the start of the fiscal year, 25,000 refugees had been resettled in the United States, informed Ms. Maestracci. She would subsequently provide information on the resettlement numbers for the previous years.
Death of Sir Nigel Rodley
Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was sharing the sad news that Sir Nigel Rodley, former Chair and member of the UN Human Rights Committee, had passed away on 25 January. Sir Nigel had been a Special Rapporteur on Torture and had worked tirelessly from 1993 to 2001 to combat torture across the world. He had also been a devoted human rights defender and a brilliant academic. He had been a member of the Human Rights Committee for 16 years, as well as one of its most public faces and eloquent voices. For OHCHR, he had been someone who was always willing to pass on his knowledge and experience to the younger generation. He would speak directly and frankly to everyone, including the most powerful, yet he would also treat everyone with great humanity and kindness. He had been a Professor of Law and Chair of the Human Rights Centre at the University of Essex in the UK, where he had taught generations of human rights students. There were many moving tributes to Sir Nigel coming in from all over the world.
Geneva Events and Announcements
Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), announced a press conference on 31 January at 9.30 a.m. in Room III, on the launch of the UNICEF Humanitarian Action for Children 2017. It would highlight the situation of children living in the most challenging circumstances, outline the support required to help them survive and thrive, and show the results UNICEF and its partners have achieved and are working towards. The 2017 appeal also highlighted the “silent threat” of malnutrition. It was projected that an estimated 7.5 million children would be severely malnourished in 2017 across the majority of appeal countries, including almost half a million each in northeast Nigeria and Yemen. The speakers would be Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF Director, Office of Emergency Programmes, and Meritxell Relano, UNICEF Yemen Representative.
Ms. Vellucci said that the Committee on the Rights of the Child, would complete today the review (started on 26 January in the afternoon) of the report presented by Saint Vincent and the Grenadines under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Ms. Vellucci also said that the Conference on Disarmament, which had started this week its 2017 session, would hold its next public plenary on 31 January at 10 a.m.
* * * * *
The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog270117