REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
2 May 2014
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was also attended by Spokespersons for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Health Organization, the International Organization for Migration, World Food Programme, United Nations Children’s Fund, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the World Trade Organization.
Navi Pillay/South Sudan
Rupert Colville of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said High Commissioner Navi Pillay, after visiting South Sudan and then proceeding to Addis Ababa for further talks at the regional level, then went on to New York and this afternoon she would brief the Security Council at its request in a public session on her mission to South Sudan. Available at the back of the room was some extra information in addition to her statement on Wednesday; the important statement of the Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide; and a transcript of the question and answer part of the press conference. South Sudan would remain in the news, with a whole series of very high-level visits going on there, indicating the increasing grave concern of the international community on the deteriorating situation there.
Freedom of Expression in Ethiopia
Rupert Colville of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed concern about the increasing restrictions placed on freedom of opinion and expression in Ethiopia, following the recent arrest and detention of six bloggers and three journalists. The High Commissioner was deeply concerned by this recent wave of arrests and the increasing climate of intimidation against journalists and bloggers prevailing in Ethiopia. On 25 and 26 April, six members of the blogging collective Zone Nine and three journalists were arrested by police in Addis Ababa. They were later taken to the Maekelawi federal police station, where they remained in custody. On 27 April 2014, they appeared before the Arada Court of First Instance in Addis Ababa. Although the exact charges against each of them remain unclear, the United Nations Human Rights Office had received information that they were arrested for “working with foreign human rights organizations and inciting violence through social media to create instability in the country.” The nine detainees were reportedly being held incommunicado and some of their family members who tried to bring them food over the weekend were denied access. Since January 2012, a succession of journalists had been convicted under the Anti-terrorism Proclamation to sentences ranging from five years to life imprisonment. Two journalists arrested in July 2012 and January 2013 under the same law were currently in detention, awaiting their trial. The High Commissioner said the fight against terrorism could not serve as an excuse to intimidate and silence journalists, bloggers, human rights activists and members of civil society organizations and working with foreign human rights organizations could not be considered a crime. Over the past few years, the space for dissenting voices had been shrinking dramatically in Ethiopia, the High Commissioner added. There were more details in the statement just issued on a number of problematic laws that had been used in these cases.
Asked about how many journalists were currently imprisoned, what the general length of their imprisonment was, and whether they had access to lawyers and had a fair trial, Mr. Colville said they were aware of at least 10 cases of journalists who had been convicted under the Anti-terrorism Proclamation since January 2012. Three of them were currently serving long sentences, including one who was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment in July 2012; and two others sentenced each to 14 years imprisonment in January 2012. Five exiled journalists had been charged under the same law and convicted and sentenced in absentia to sentences of life imprisonment for one, 15 years imprisonment for two, and 8 years imprisonment for another two. There were two other journalists currently in detention charged under the same law and waiting for their trial. In terms of the conduct of the trials, he did not have specific information, but in the press release, there was a brief analysis of the laws that were being used, laws which OHCHR found to be deeply problematic.
United States/Death Penalty
Mr. Colville of OHCHR said the suffering of Clayton Lockett at his execution in Oklahoma on Tuesday, 29 April may amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment according to international human rights law. It also appeared to run counter to the eighth amendment of the United States Constitution which stated that “no cruel and unusual punishment shall be inflicted”. OHCHR noted that the execution of a second man in Oklahoma, scheduled for later on Tuesday, was stayed by the Governor, and he believed that stay had been extended now. The Governor had also ordered a review of execution procedures and protocols. The prolonged death of Clayton Lockett was the second case of apparent extreme suffering caused by malfunctioning lethal injections reported this year alone in the United States. The other was the case of Dennis McGuire, who was executed by the state of Ohio on 16 January with an allegedly untested combination of drugs.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Committee against Torture had both previously called on the United States to review its execution methods in order to prevent severe pain and suffering. Most recently, in March 2014, the Human Rights Committee recommended that the United States ensure that lethal drugs used for executions originated from legal, regulated sources and were approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration. The apparent cruelty involved in these recent executions simply reinforced the argument that authorities across the United States should impose an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty and work for abolition of this cruel and inhuman practise. Thirty-two out of 50 states in the United States still had the death penalty in their laws, in addition to the United States Government and military, i.e. it was present at the Federal level and at the State level in 32 states. Eighteen states had abolished the death penalty, most recently Maryland in 2013 and Connecticut in 2012. The United Nations opposed the use of the death penalty in all circumstances.
In response to a number of questions, including the possibility that an improper injection, rather than the combination of drugs themselves, had caused the suffering Mr. Colville said he was not a medical expert and could not comment. Maybe that would come out in the investigation. The investigation that was being set up by the head of Oklahoma’s Department on Public Safety was being characterized as an independent inquiry.
A journalist said there were doctors present at the execution and asked whether this violated their oath. Mr. Colville said he did not believe OHCHR had a specific stance on that, probably this was a question for the World Health Organization. The bottom line for OHCHR was that firstly they believed that there should not be executions, and secondly, under international law, such executions should only take place in response to very serious crimes and that was interpreted to mean murder or other forms of intentional killing. There was a whole body of international laws and standards to back that up, particularly from the Human Rights Committee but also from the Committee against Torture.
Asked whether OHCHR considered what had happened to Mr. Lockett to be torture, Mr. Colville said that the precise details of exactly what happened were not clear so OHCHR would have to look at the results of the investigation; this would also be something for the Committee against Torture and the Special Rapporteur on torture, who had been active on this issue in the United States.
A journalist noted that Texas had also used this kind of drugs. Mr. Colville said the whole issue of the use of drugs or unauthorized drugs or combinations which had not been tested was a very big issue in the United States at the moment. Texas had executed more people than any other state in the United States, and one would imagine that what had happened in Oklahoma should have ramifications for executions using drugs in other states.
OHCHR Palestine/Thailand and Southeast Asia
Mr. Colville said on 2 April 2014, the State of Palestine deposited with the Secretary-General its instruments of accession to a number of international treaties. These included seven of the nine core human rights treaties plus one of the substantive protocols, as follows: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. Five of these treaties were set to enter into force today (namely CAT, CERD, CEDAW, CRPD and CRC); the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child would enter into force on 7 May; and the two Covenants would come into force on 2 July. As of these dates, the State of Palestine would be formally bound by these treaties under international law. This accession to seven core human rights treaties and a key protocol, without any reservations whatsoever, was a significant step towards enhancing the promotion and protection of human rights in Palestine. He believed, but was checking this, that Palestine would be the only country in the whole of the Middle East and North Africa not to make a single reservation on any of the treaties it had ratified. The High Commissioner for Human Rights commended the commitment of the State of Palestine to be bound by the international human rights standards contained in these treaties and to engage with the associated human rights treaty bodies which monitored their implementation. OHCHR stood ready to assist the State of Palestine, at its request, to support implementation of its treaty obligations. There was more on that in the briefing notes.
Asked how this would change the situation for Palestinians, especially in the occupied territories, Mr. Colville said Palestine was now bound by the provisions of five treaties, and by July 2, the two International Covenants which covered many, many issues. Palestine, like other States, would now be carefully scrutinized on how they implemented those treaties. This gave a lot of extra ammunition to civil society organizations, the media, the United Nations and many others, to help Palestine ensure the human rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories, in the West Bank and Gaza, were upheld. Obviously there would be practical difficulties. This was a lot of treaties to ratify in one go. But in the end this was really a cause for celebration, and for a State to ratify so many treaties in one go was really commendable.
Mr. Colville said OHCHR was concerned about the lack of progress with an investigation into the disappearance of a prominent human rights defender in Thailand. Mr. Pholachi Rakcharoen (known as “Billy”), had been working to promote the land rights of indigenous people in Thailand. He was last seen on 17 April 2014 after he met with community representatives to discuss an upcoming lawsuit related to the burning of the homes and properties of Karen villagers by Kaengkrachan National Park officials Petchaburi Province in central Thailand in 2010 and 2011. The chief of the park had said that he had arrested and interrogated Billy on 17 April for possessing “illegal wild honey”, and that he had later released him, but he had not been seen since. This case illustrated a disturbing pattern of killings and disappearances of environmental activists in South East Asia. In recent years, several environmental activists well known for campaigning against large-scale mining projects were killed in the Philippines, including Mr. Marcelo Monterona, Ms. Juvy Campion and Mr. Jimmy Liguyon. In the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Mr. Sombath Somphone, a prominent civil society leader and advocate against land grabbing, disappeared on 15 December 2012 and his whereabouts remain unknown. The same year, Mr. Chut Wutty, an environmental activist well known for exposing illegal logging and corruption in Cambodia was shot dead. OHCHR urged the relevant authorities in each of these countries to conduct thorough and independent investigations into these cases and to take measures to protect all human rights defenders, including those working on human rights relating to the environment, land and natural resources management.
WHO / Disease outbreaks / Hand Hygiene Day
Mr. Glenn Thomas of the World Health Organization said they had issued two disease outbreak news alerts last night, one on H7N9, with China notifying WHO of three additional laboratory confirmed infection with H7N9 cases. The details of the cases were in the news alert. The overall risk assessment had not changed in light of these latest cases. There was also a disease outbreak news alert on MERS, the first case report in Egypt of a 27-year old man who had been living in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia for the past four years. More details on that case were in the news alert. Mr. Thomas said a two-day mission started yesterday in Jeddah by a WHO team. The team was looking at some of the possible human-to-human transmission patterns in healthcare facilities in the city’s main hospital.
Mr. Thomas said Hand Hygiene Day was commemorated on 5 May. WHO had issued a report earlier this week on anti-microbal resistance. There was a lot of concern about how infections were transmitted from doctors and nurses to patients through hand-to-hand contact, or hand-to skin contact. He had with him today Professor Benedetta Allegranzi, who was Technical Lead of the WHO Clean Care is Safer Care programme to speak more about what would be highlighted on Monday. A press release with more details was available at the back of the room.
Ms. Allegranzi said Hand Hygiene Day occurred every year on 5 May and encouraged health care workers to practise best hand hygiene measures and practices when caring for patients to protect them from contracting infections in health care. These infections were often resistant to the antibiotics used to treat them. Of every 100 hospitalized patients, at least seven in high-income countries and 10 in low-income countries would acquire a health care associated infection. Most of these cases were due to resistant bacteria. The global report of anti-microbal resistance issued on 30 April by WHO highlighted this and it had been confirmed by an ongoing global survey that WHO had launched, which collected data from laboratories worldwide on some specific bacteria and their resistance patterns. For example, the initial results of this global survey confirmed data also reported by the global report about the devastating bug called MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), which said that MRSA could be as high as 40 per cent in West African countries, 44 per cent in Latin American counties and 38 per cent in Europe on average. Patients affected by MRSA were 64 per cent more likely to die of this infection. Health care workers could play a vital role to protect workers from infections, especially resistant infections, by performing hand hygiene at five key moments during healthcare, preferably using alcohol-based hand rubs because these were more efficient and could be easily used at the points of care. Hand Hygiene Day this year was focusing on anti-microbal resistance with the slogan “no action today, no cure tomorrow, make sure the WHO five moments are part of protecting your patients from resistant germs”. Based upon this global call, more than 1,100 healthcare facilities over the last year joined the WHO hand hygiene campaign called “save lives, clean your hands”, which since its start in 2009 now counted more than 17,000 healthcare facilities participating to demonstrate their commitment to fight infections through good hand hygiene practices.
Chris Lom of the International Organization for Migration said IOM had just produced a new displacement tracking matrix report which showed that following the conflict almost two years ago, people were now beginning to return to the north of the country in response to improved security conditions. That return movement had clearly been accelerating in the past two months. The number of internationally displaced persons had now fallen to about 137,000, down from about 200,000 reported in February. Most of these people were located in Bamako, Koulikoro and Segou in the south, and in Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in the north. The briefing notes included the link to download the report. One of the highlights of the report was the difficult conditions to which these people were actually returning. A survey of villages in Gao, Timbuktu and Mopti showed that 71 per cent of respondents were urgently in need of food aid and another 14 per cent said they urgently needed help with water and sanitation. Of the remaining internally displaced persons, the priority appeared to be food (45 per cent), shelter (18 per cent), jobs (13 per cent), and transport to get back to their villages of origin (7 per cent).
Also available at the back of the room was a quarterly report which outlined some of the work that IOM had been doing over the past quarter in Mali.
Asked if the aid agencies had abandoned the internally displaced persons, Mr. Lom said he believed that the greatest challenge facing all aid agencies working in Mali now was money. There was an acute lack of funding. IOM’s work in Mali had been primarily funded by the United States office of foreign disaster assistance, including the displacement tracking matrix. IOM, like other agencies, desperately needed money if they were to continue monitoring the returns and to assess the needs of both the internally displaced persons and the returnees.
In response to another question, Mr. Lom said that the internally displaced persons who had been interviewed said they were going home mainly because of the improved security situation, so there was a general feeling amongst internally displaced persons that they would be better off in their own homes, on their own land, in their own communities, rather than in camps for internally displaced people.
Asked about the level of cooperation from the Malian Government on transportation for instance, Mr. Lom said that most of the internally displaced persons were living in the communities, particularly around Bamako and some were in spontaneous settlements. Most of the transport of these internally displaced persons was by road, and IOM was actually monitoring at road junctions between Bamaku and Gao and Timbuktu. In terms of the provision of transport, Mr. Lom said he was not aware of aid agencies providing transportation.
Answering questions, Elizabeth Byrs of the World Food Programme said the WFP operations were still ongoing in Mali. Ms. Byrs said that distribution plan for May for WFP intended to reach 773,000 beneficiaries in the locations covered by WFP. In Timbuktu and Gao, WFP was currently distributing plumpy nut, a specialized nutriment for children, and it was reaching almost 20,000 children with this nutriment. Jens Laerke of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said the global appeal for Mali this year was $568 million, and it was currently funded at 17 per cent. This explained why agencies were struggling with implementing their programmes.
Christophe Boulierac of the United Nations Children’s Fund said he had some updated information about the situation of children in South Sudan. Access to water in the United Nations base in Bentu had improved in the past 10 days from two litres per person to 7.5 litres per person. The reason for this was that they had finished digging a second well to provide water for the internally displaced persons. On the situation of latrines, this was still alarming. In Bentu, an average of 317 persons had been sharing a single latrine in the camp. This figure had improved slightly to 129 persons per latrine, which was still too high. On the participation children in armed groups, UNICEF had received reports from reliable sources indicating that around 9,000 children had been recruited by the army and the armed groups in South Sudan. This estimate was based on eye witness reports. The security situation did not allow UNICEF to check this figure. The first phase of the immunization campaign against polio and measles, along with a supplement of vitamin A, had been launched on 23 April in South Sudan by the Ministry of Health of South Sudan, UNICEF and the World Health Organization in seven states. The date of the two other phases had not been decided yet. In total, the aim was to vaccinate 2.4 million children in South Sudan.
Central African Republic
Ms. Byrs from WFP said that as the unprecedented crisis in the Central African Republic continued, WFP was accelerating its operations and had increased by 60 per cent its distribution of food in April, compared to March. This was the highest figure so far this year. As of 29 April, almost 200,000 beneficiaries had been assisted with food, among whom 24,700 children had benefited from special nutrients. A targeted supplementary feeding supported 3,000 malnourished children between the ages of six months to five years and 2,500 children hospitalized in paediatric units. WFP also started the food by prescription programme this month, assisting 3,000 malnourished patients with HIV because the treatment could not be realized for those who had no food to eat. Around the world, WFP provided food assistance to 1.3 million HIV and tuberculosis patients. WFP also had the school restaurant programme to nearly 32,000 children.
Ms. Byrs said that WFP was expanding its operations geographically inside the Central African Republic. In December, it had provided food assistance in four urban centres or cities, but in March, it was providing assistance in 21 locations, which had increased to 35 in April. WFP was also increasing its assistance in Bangui and outside it, delivering aid to places up to 2,000 kilometres from Bangui. WFP also recently deployed mobile storage units in two locations in the extreme north of the Central African Republic to increase the warehousing capacity and to support the seed protection campaign by the Food and Agriculture Organization. WFP was enhancing its transportation fleet. WFP food was shipped to the port of Douala in Cameroon, then was transported by road to Bangui and another city, where the food was pre-positioned in warehouses. It was from the two basic warehouse that WFP distributed food to other small and mobile warehouses in the rest of the country. It took 16 days for trucks to transport foods to Bangui and 11 days to the other city, which showed the difficulties and the importance of the transport with plane. WFP were trying to resolve the problem of obtaining fuel to transport food by plane.
Asked a question relating to how many the persons needed food aid in the Central African Republic, Ms. Byrs said 1.6 million people were directly affected by the current situation and needed food assistance. This number was twice as much as the number of people needing food assistance a year ago. There were also 700,000 internally displaced persons.
Answering another question relating to what the WFP did for the refugees from the Central African Republic who were in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ms. Byrs said that there were refugees from the Central African Republic in Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon and Republic of Congo. The refugees in camps in the Democratic Republic of the Congo received WFP assistance, as did the refugees being hosted by families; the families also received food aid. WFP also provided food assistance to internally displaced persons in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. WFP needed $ 17 million for humanitarian assistance for the refugees in the camps, including food assistance and the food for work programme.
In the Republic of Congo, WFP had a three-month-programme and had requested $ 2.7 million for assistance to the country in the next month. For all the programmes, WFP had the financial problems and needed funding.
Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs / Chad / Afghanistan
Mr. Laerke of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said he had put a media advisory at the end of the room concerning the visit by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, to Chad on 5 and 6 May. She would be accompanied by Robert Piper, Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel. They planned to look at two issues of humanitarian concern in Chad, people who had fled from the Central African Republic, there was almost 100,000 of them at the moment in Chad; and malnutrition and food insecurity in the Sahel region of Chad. Ms. Amos and Mr. Piper would meet with the President of Chad and representatives of the humanitarian community, and would go into the field to meet with affected people. Journalists who wished to contact them during their visit could do so via telephone numbers listed in the release.
Mr. Laerke said in Afghanistan, rains on 30 April had resulted in more flash-flooding in 14 districts in the north, and the estimated number of people affected and killed by the floods in late April had gone up. Now, over 67,000 people were flood-affected and 150 people had been killed, according to new assessment data. That was an increase since three days ago when authorities reported that 132 people had died and some 39,000 had been affected. Assessments were still ongoing so these figures might go up further. Humanitarian operations were now fully focused in the three worst affected provinces of Jawzjan, Faryab and Sar-e-pul. With nearly 3,500 houses reported damaged or destroyed, shelter especially was a priority concern. The response, which was led by the Government with United Nations support, had so far been successful and reports from the field said that there were sufficient supplies in terms of for example food and health kits in the affected region, not least because of pre-positioned stocks, since these were recurrent floods. In many areas the water had receded but there was no evidence of people beginning to return home yet. Humanitarian actors were considering plans for more durable solutions in terms of shelter to the displaced, as well as rehabilitation of infrastructure, water sources and health facilities. The people in northern Afghanistan were mainly poor subsistence farmers with few resources of their own to recover from such crises.
Joint Special Envoy for Syria
Asked about what was happening with Lakhdar Brahimi, the Joint Special Envoy for Syria, and reports about his resignation, Ms. Momal-Vanian said he was in New York and would be meeting with the Secretary-General today. Mr. Brahimi would also be briefing the Security Council; probably on 13 May.
Asked about reports that he would resign and would be replaced by the Tunisian Foreign Minister, Kamel Morjane, Ms. Momal-Vanian said Mr. Brahimi remained the Joint Special Envoy for Syria. If he had anything to announce, he would do so publicly.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said a press conference would be held at 11:30 a.m. on Monday, 5 May in Room III by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement on the situation in the Philippines six months after Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) hit the Philippines in November 2013.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was today reviewing the report of Monaco. Next week, the Committee would consider the reports of Lithuania, Armenia, Czech Republic and China, including Hong Kong and Macao. The Committee against Torture was this afternoon hearing the response of Sierra Leone on the questions of the Committee Experts which were raised on its report yesterday. Next week, the Committee would be considering the situation in the Holy See, Guinea, Cyprus and Montenegro.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said the nineteenth session of the Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review Working Group was reviewing Brunei Darussalam this morning and was then scheduled to adopt the first batch of reports for this session this afternoon, relating to Norway, Albania, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Portugal and Bhutan. The reports would be shared with journalists beforehand. On Monday, 5 May, the Working Group would review Costa Rica and Equatorial Guinea.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said World Press Freedom Day was being commemorated on Saturday, 3 May this year. The Secretary-General’s message on the occasion of the day was available at the back of the room in French and in English.
Mr. Thomas for WHO said there were two press conferences coming up next week. On Tuesday, 6 May, at 11:30 a.m. in Room III, WHO and its partners would be launching new estimates on maternal deaths and a WHO study on the causes of these deaths. The study provided new information on the causes of maternal death which would be announced by two officers from WHO. On Wednesday, 7 May at 11 a.m. in Room III, WHO would be launching an updated air quality global data base. It covered almost 1,600 cities from 91 countries and would highlight air pollution levels and trends. The data base showed where air pollution and related health risks were the highest, and there would be three WHO officers attending that press conference. He would send media advisories on the press conferences.
Melissa Begag of the World Trade Organization said on Wednesday, 7 May, there would be a WTO book launch: “WTO Domestic Regulation and Services Trade: Putting Principles into Practice”. The event would start at 12:30 at Room D, WTO. The Committee on Trade in Financial Services would be meeting on Tuesday, 6 May and Thursday, 8 May. As for the schedule of Director-General Roberto Azevêdo, he would take part in a debate at the Organization for Economic and Cooperation for Development (OECD) Forum on “the future of trade” in Paris on Tuesday, 6 May. On Wednesday, 7 May, he would participate in a meeting at the OECD Ministerial Council Meeting on "strengthening the multilateral trade system – global value chains" in Paris. Also Wednesday, he would attend the Informal Ministerial Meeting hosted by Australia in Paris. Mr. Azevêdo would then head for Rome, Italy where he would meet with the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination on Thursday, 8 May.
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Spokespersons from the International Labour Organization and the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees were present in the room but did not brief journalists.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/1pWiyk1