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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

1 November 2016

Michele Zaccheo, Chief, Radio and Television Section, United Nations Information Service, chaired the briefing attended by the spokespersons for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Health Organization, the Office for Disarmament Affairs, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and the International Labour Organization.

Cyprus Talks

Mr. Zaccheo said that as announced the previous week, the Cyprus talks were scheduled to take place in Mont-Pèlerin, Switzerland (Hotel Le Mirador Resort Mont-Pèlerin), from 7-11 November 2016, under the auspices of the Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on Cyprus, Espen Barth Eide. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon would open the talks on Monday morning, 7 November, by meeting with the Turkish Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akinci, the Greek Cypriot leader, Nicos Anastasiades, and Mr. Eide. He would then hold a press stakeout.

Two media events would be envisaged for that day: a photo opportunity for visual media only, followed by a press stakeout by the UN Secretary-General, open to all accredited media. Journalists already accredited with the UN Geneva could use their badge to access the photo opportunity and press stakeout. Journalists without a UN Geneva press accreditation were asked to submit a request for media accreditation as soon as possible to accreditation-media@unog.ch. They should provide a letter from the news director or editor-in-chief on the media outlet’s official letterhead, as well as a photocopy of their passport and their press badge.

Apart from those media opportunities the location would not be accessible to the press.

In response to questions, Mr. Zaccheo confirmed that the UN expected to carry out video, audio and photo coverage of the stakeout.

Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review Working Group would be reviewing the human rights record of Venezuela this morning. The delegation of Venezuela would be headed by Foreign Minister Darcy Rodriguez. This afternoon, the UPR Working Group would review the human rights record of Iceland.

Syria

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that a statement by Ali Al-Za'atari, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, and Kevin Kennedy, the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the crisis in Syria, released late on 31 October, was available. The statement pertained to Aleppo and what had happened there in recent days. In the last few days, over 40 people had been killed and many more injured due to the high number of rockets indiscriminately launched by non-State armed groups on civilian areas in western Aleppo. At the same time, there were some 275,000 people who remained trapped in eastern Aleppo, under siege, with no aid coming in and no people able to get out. In the statement Mr. Al-Za'atari and Mr. Kennedy condemned a hit on a building in western Aleppo which housed the UN hub in western Aleppo, on 30 October. The top floors had sustained damage. No-one from the UN had been harmed but they had had to immediately seek cover when the building was attacked.

On 29 October, a UN inter-agency convoy had delivered multi-sectorial assistance for some 11,000 people in the besieged area of East Harasta in rural Damascus. That had been the fourth humanitarian delivery to that besieged area in 2016. On 31 October another inter-agency convoy with food, health, nutrition and educational supplies for 30,000 people in need had reached the hard-to-reach area of Qudsaya, also in rural Damascus. That had been the third convoy to that area, which had last been reached in late June 2016. In response to a question, Mr. Laerke said that there were still some food rations stockpiled in western Aleppo. He further clarified during the briefing that in late October it had been reported that there were still food rations in eastern Aleppo and it was estimated that the remaining rations would run out by mid-November.

In response to a question regarding the distribution of WFP supplies, Mr. Laerke referred the press to the WFP. As far as the attack on the UN building in western Aleppo, he said that all the available information was in the statement. Regarding the definition of “besieged” areas, Mr. Laerke clarified that there were specific criteria which applied, and that those were areas inaccessible to the UN and from which it was impossible for people to get out for a certain period of time. Those designations were normally done on a monthly basis when the Secretary-General reported to the Security Council on the implementation of the various resolutions pertaining to the situation in Syria, which is when locations were either added to the besieged list or taken off. Mr. Laerke said that he would share the definition of “besieged area” in writing once again with the press. The rule of three months with no access and no possibility to leave was not rigid as it was contingent on the actual situation for people inside that area. Once an area was designated as besieged it was automatically prioritized in the convoy plans.

In response to another question about the use of chlorine gas in Aleppo, he said that OCHA had not received any independently verifiable information about this and that it was not part of OCHA’s mandate. Mr. Laerke had not seen any information from any independent party capable and competent of making such calls.

Mr. Laerke also said that with the recent flare-up in violence the number of victims needing to be medically evacuated was no doubt going up. There had been no medical evacuations so far, but that did not mean that the UN had abandoned the idea. Discussions were still ongoing but there was no timeline.

In response to another question, Mr. Laerke said that the UN would deliver aid when the conditions for doing so were in place. The UN needed the authorizations from the relevant authorities and security and safety for those delivering and receiving the aid. He referred the press to the Office of the Special Envoy regarding any information on the duration of the pause in airstrikes. He added that humanitarians on the ground, trying to implement a very complicated operation, had to look concretely at what was going on on the ground. There was a constant exchange of information between the Office of the Special Envoy and different parts of the UN system, but operations had to be based on the actual situation on the ground.

In response to a question, Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that WHO would like to see the wounded, the very sick and their families leaving east Aleppo to get the care they needed in western Aleppo or in neighbouring countries. That was not happening but the idea was not being abandoned. At least six hospitals were still functioning and around 30 doctors were still working around the clock in east Aleppo. The lives of the people who were seriously injured, and of those who were severely sick with kidney failure, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease or of women in need of obstetric emergency care, were in danger when they were not getting the care they required. WHO and partners had pre-positioned medical equipment and personnel ready to go into east Aleppo, and access was needed as soon as possible.

In response to another question, Ms. Chaib said that Dr. Elizabeth Hoff, WHO’s Representative in Syria had been in Geneva in the past week for a meeting of several WHO representatives. WHO’s Tarik Jasarevic had shared with the press the list of the persons attending in case there was interest to meet with them. Dr. Chan was regularly in contact with Dr. Hoff and with Dr. Ala Alwan, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean in Cairo. They were regularly exchanging information. The whole UN system needed access and a solution for east Aleppo as well as all other besieged areas in Syria.

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that over the course of the past weekend, there had been reports of intensified shelling by armed opposition groups of civilian-populated areas in Government-controlled western Aleppo. The areas hit by mortars, rockets and other improvised explosive devices (IEDS) had included the neighbourhoods of Salah al-Din, al-Shahbaa, al-Zahraa and al-Hamadaniya.

More than 30 civilians, including at least 10 children, had been reportedly killed and dozens of others injured as a result of the attacks on 29 and 30 October on western Aleppo. OHCHR had also received unconfirmed reports of families fleeing the hostilities towards opposition-held areas of the city.

Such high numbers of civilian casualties suggested that armed opposition groups were failing to adhere to the fundamental prohibition under international humanitarian law on the launching of indiscriminate attacks, and the principles of precaution and proportionality. The reported use of ground-based missiles along with the use of armoured vehicles loaded with explosives used in an area containing more than one million civilian inhabitants was completely unacceptable and may constitute war crimes.

Shelling of opposition-held eastern Aleppo by Government forces and their allies was also reported to be continuing. Among the neighbourhoods particularly affected were al-Ferdous, Sayf al-Dawla, al-Qaterji and al-Mashhad. At least 12 civilians including two children had reportedly been killed as a result of the attacks over 29 and 30 October. Dozens of civilians had also been injured.

While Russian Ministry of Defence representatives were reported to have stated that Syrian and Russian air forces were observing a moratorium on flights closer than 10 kilometres around Aleppo since the launch of the unilateral ceasefire on 18 October, OHCHR had received some reports of airstrikes hitting opposition-controlled eastern Aleppo on 22 and 23 October. While there had not been airstrikes since that time, OHCHR remained concerned about 250,000 civilians at risk in that area should they resume.

All parties in Aleppo were conducting hostilities which were resulting in large numbers of civilian casualties, and creating an atmosphere of terror for those who continued to live in the city. Strikes against hospitals, schools, marketplaces, water facilities and bakeries were now commonplace, and if proven to be intentional, may amount to war crimes.

In response to questions, Ms. Shamdasani said that OHCHR was not able to attribute specific responsibility for the attacks to specific groups. Regarding the number of casualties, she clarified that OHCHR only documented civilian casualties. She also confirmed that OHCHR was suggesting that both sides to the conflict were potentially committing war crimes.

Iraq

Ms. Shamdasani said that OHCHR had reports that in the early hours of 31 October in the morning, around 1 a.m., ISIL had brought dozens of long trucks and mini-buses to Hamam al-Alil City, south of Mosul, in an attempt to forcibly transfer some 25,000 civilians towards locations in and around Mosul. OHCHR understood that most of the trucks had been prevented from proceeding towards Mosul due to coalition flights patrolling the area, and the trucks had been forced to return to Hamam Al-Alil. However some buses had reached Abusaif, 15 kilometres north of Hamam Al-Alil City. OHCHR had grave concerns for the safety of those and the tens of thousands of other civilians who had reportedly been forcibly relocated by ISIL in the past two weeks.

Using civilians as human shields was a war crime. Under article 8(2)(c) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, taking of hostages in a non-international armed conflict was a war crime, and under Article 8(2)(e)(viii), ordering the displacement of civilians for reasons not connected with their security or imperative military reasons was also a war crime.

OHCHR urged parties to the conflict to ensure that international law was strictly observed, in particular the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution in attack. All feasible precautions must be taken to avoid and minimize the loss of civilian life and injury to civilians.

OHCHR also had further reports of mass killings by ISIL. On 29 October, 40 former Iraqi Security Force soldiers had been killed and their bodies thrown in the Tigris River. They had been reportedly among the civilians who had been abducted earlier from al-Shura sub-district of Mosul and from villages surrounding Hamam al-Alil. There were also reports that ISIL had been threatening relatives of people they suspected were supporting the Iraqi Security Forces.

In response to a question, Ms. Shamdasani said that OHCHR had observed a pattern: ISIL was taking people closer and closer to Mosul city, and putting them close to their offices and to military installations which could be targets. That would support the assertion that they were planning to use those people as human shields, and to make sure that the area was heavily populated with civilians to frustrate a military operation against them. ISIL was also killing some people that they were abducting, particularly people having formerly belonged to the Iraqi Security Forces. In response to other questions, Ms. Shamdasani said that OHCHR was calling on the Iraqi Security Forces to be very cautious and had welcomed statements made by the Iraqi Government that civilian protection would be at the heart of their military strategy to retake Mosul. OHCHR had to keep reminding them of this, as given the atrocities that ISIL was committing, the temptation for revenge was certainly there. In spite of the atrocities being committed by ISIL, there was an obligation that under international humanitarian law, civilian protection had to be paramount. ISIL had shown in the past its clear disdain for international humanitarian law, but it was important for OHCHR to publicize the event currently taking place so that all the other forces would be able to take the due precautions required by international humanitarian law. It was also important to document those violations so that the victims in the future could have some hope of remedy and justice. So far, abuses from the Iraqi forces had not been documented, although as Ms. Shamdasani had mentioned in the past week, there had been isolated revenge attacks against ISIL by various parties, but at the same time, tribal leaders had been coming together and saying that they would prioritize justice. There were many opportunities for violations to take place, and the screening process for people emerging from ISIL-occupied areas was a very delicate process. OHCHR was calling on all the authorities to ensure that that process was also carried out in line with IHL and international human rights law.

Ms. Shamdasani also said that OHCHR’s methodology was very strict and required several sources to corroborate information. That is why it sometimes took time to deliver reports to the press. All the information presented here came from reliable sources. However, it was raw information which had not gone through OHCHR’s usual verification processes, including multiple sources and corroboration. The information was indicative and by no means comprehensive, and there may have been more than 40 people killed.

In response to a question on the possibility of international justice, Ms. Shamdasani said that in the middle of an armed conflict it could seem almost naive to expect that there would be justice in the long term, but history showed that there had been and that there could be, and the mechanisms for it existed more now than they ever had before. OHCHR was calling for people not to resort to revenge attacks and for the formal justice process to be used.

In response to another question Ms. Shamdasani said that OHCHR did not have reports of coalition airstrikes having resulted in civilian casualties in the context of the use of human shields or in any other context. She also said that there were spotty reports of some civilians having been prevented from returning to their villages. OHCHR was worried about this, given the precedent of violations committed once Fallujah had been retaken. OHCHR continued to monitor the situation. Regarding the attempt to move civilians into Mosul, the report from 31 October in the morning had said that the trucks had reportedly left Hamam al-Alil towards Tal Afar district. Some of the minibuses had headed towards Mosul and towards Abusaif. The intention was to take the civilians into Mosul city. Regarding the number of people, it was not sure how many had finally been transferred. Some of those civilians were civilians who had already been forcibly relocated from other areas into Hamam al-Alil, and were now being moved closer to Mosul City.

International Criminal Court

In response to a question, Ms. Shamdasani said that OHCHR deeply regretted the decision by a number of African States to withdraw from the ICC. It had taken a lot of efforts and commitment by many States, including South Africa, to set up the ICC, and there had been serious reasons for doing so. OHCHR echoed the call from the Secretary-General to those States to reconsider their withdrawal.

Yemen/Saudi Arabia

Ms. Shamdasani said that OHCHR condemned the firing of a ballistic missile deep into Saudi Arabia by the Houthis and their allies last week. The launching of any weapon indiscriminately into an area filled with civilians was forbidden under international humanitarian law. OHCHR urged all parties to the conflict to exercise restraint and to ensure full respect for international human rights and international humanitarian law.

In response to a question, Ms. Shamdasani said that there had been some uncertainty about the intended target of the missile. In any case, it had been meant to target civilian-populated areas.

Eighth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention

Daniel Feakes, for the Office of Disarmament Affairs (ODA), introduced himself as the Chief of the Implementation Support Unit of the Biological Weapons Convention, a small team of three people working in the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs branch in Geneva. He said that the representatives of the States Parties to the Biological Weapons Convention would be meeting in the Palais des Nations from 7 to 25 November for the eighth of the five-yearly reviews of the Biological Weapons Convention. The Convention totally prohibited the development, production, stockpiling of biological weapons, and it was a key element, along with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention, for the international community to address the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, of which biological weapons were a part.

The Convention had been opened for signature in 1972 and had entered into force in 1975. It had been the first multilateral treaty to ban an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. It currently had 175 members and 21 countries had not yet joined it, but work was underway with many of them to encourage them to join. The eighth Review Conference would be an opportunity for members to review the operation of its provisions since the last review in 2011, to consider inter-sessional work taking place every year since then, and to address relevant developments in science and technology. Since 2011 there had been dramatic discoveries related to, for example, gene editing, synthetic biology, and various other areas of biology and biotechnology. There had also been a growing risk of non-State actors acquiring and using biological weapons as well.

States Parties to the Convention had already tabled any proposals during the preparatory meetings taking place this year, for new activities to take place over the next five years. The President-designate of the Conference was Ambassador György Molnár of Hungary, a disarmament ambassador based in Budapest. The Conference would open in Room XVIII on 7 November at 10 a.m. at the Palais, and would be opened on behalf of the UN Secretary-General by Kim Won-soo, Under Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. There would be a video message from the Secretary-General himself. At the opening, there would be several ministerial or deputy-ministerial level attendees: from the United States, Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken; from Hungary, Minister of State for Security Policy, István Mikola, from Mexico, Vice-Minister for Multi-Lateral Affairs and Human Rights, Miguel Izquierdo, and from Ghana, the Deputy Minister for Science and Technology.

In response to a question, Mr. Feakes said that there was currently no verification system under the Biological Weapons Convention. There had been an effort to create one through an additional protocol to the Convention, and negotiations on that had taken place for many years in the 1990s, and had eventually had failed in 2001. They had not been taken up again since then, but many parties to the Convention saw it as ideal to have a verification system within this Convention in a similar way to the Chemical Weapons Convention. This particular conference was a review conference and not an opportunity to amend the Convention, but those proposals would be discussed and the Conference could decide to set up a body which could restart negotiations. The Review Conference was very much a venue for deciding what would happen for the next five years. Verification was an issue of some contention between some of the Member States. An additional protocol could take many months or even years of diplomatic negotiations, and a forum would have to be established to take that forward. The Review Conference always operated by consensus.

In response to other questions, Mr. Feakes said that because there was no verification there was no monitoring agency, and it was hard to answer the question about any use of biological weapons by non-State actors with any certainty. The last case of use of biological weapons by non-State actors could have been the anthrax letters in the US in 2001. There had been recent reports of plots by non-State actors to acquire biological weapons but no cases of actual use. In terms of illicit trafficking it was also hard to have an idea as there was no monitoring system.

Mr. Feakes referred the press to the unog.ch/BWC website for more information about the Convention and the Review Conference, including official documentation. The list of the 21 countries who had not joined the Convention was also available there. On issues related to the industry, open source publications were available.

Geneva Events and Announcements

The Human Rights Committee would hold its next public plenary on 2 November at 10 a.m., to continue its review of its draft general comment on Article 6 (Right to Life) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It would then meet in private until the conclusion of its 118th session on 4 November, following which it would publish its final observations on the reports the seven States Parties which had been reviewed during the session, those of Slovakia, Poland, Moldova, Jamaica, Colombia, Azerbaijan and Morocco.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women would examine today (morning and afternoon) the report of Argentina. On 1 November, it would review the report of Switzerland. By the end of its session, the Committee had yet to examine the reports of Honduras, Armenia, Bangladesh, Estonia and the Netherlands.

Ms. Chaib said that on 1 and 2 November 2016 there would be a first forum of the candidates for the post of WHO Director-General. They would present their vision for the Organization to the Member States and to the general public, and would answer questions from Member States. The press and the public could watch the six candidates’ presentations live via webstreaming and listen to the questions and answers. The order of passage, which had been shared with the press, was as follows: 1 November after 9.30 a.m., Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia, followed by Prof. Philippe Douste-Blazy of France. In the afternoon of 1 November from 2 to 5 p.m., there would be Dr. Miklós Szócska of Hungary, followed by Dr. David Nabarro of the United Kingdom. On 2 November in the morning, from 9.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. there would be presentations from Dr. Sania Nishtar of Pakistan and Dr. Flavia Bustreo of Italy.

Catherine Huissoud, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), said that on 7 November UNCTAD would publish its annual Review of Maritime Transport. The study would be sent by email to the press with a press release, with no embargo. The angle of maritime transport allowed to study international trade, but also the development capacities of certain States, including small island States which were not connected to major trade routes and required access to maritime circuits through their ports. The topic was connected to climate change and to the need to adapt port structures to rising sea levels, as well as the possibility of welcoming boats that were getting ever larger for cost efficiency reasons.
Hans von Rohland, for the International Labour Organization (ILO), said that on 7 November would take place the re-election of the Director-General of the ILO. There would be a private meeting at 10.30 a.m. followed by the announcement of the result around 11 a.m. It would be a decision on the re-election of the Director-General as were no other candidates. Those interested in photo opportunities should contact Mr. von Rohland. The Director-General’s new term would start on 1 October 2017 and would last five years.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog01116