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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

19 April 2016

Rhéal LeBlanc, Chief, Press and External Relations Section, United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing attended by spokespersons of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Health Organization, the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

UN Secretary-General

Mr. LeBlanc announced that the Secretary-General would be in Vienna from 26 to 29 April to chair the formal session of the UN Chief Executive Board, on 27 and 28 April.  On 27 April, he would also be participating in a high-level panel commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.  The panellists would discuss the importance of the CTBT and the role the UN had to play in advancing its entry into force. 

On 28 April the Secretary-General would address the Austrian Parliament, and would be meeting in Vienna with senior Austrian officials, including the President and the Chancellor. 

On 29 April the Secretary-General would be in Geneva to attend a ceremony commemorating the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, at which the Olympic Flame would be present at the Palais des Nations.  The UN would be awarded the Olympic Cup by the International Olympic Committee.  The ceremony would also be attended by UNOG Director-General Michael Møller, as well as Wilfried Lemke, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace, Ricardo Leyser, Brazil’s Minister for Sport, Carlos Arthur Nuzman, President of the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee, and Thomas Bach, the President of the International Olympic Committee.  More details would be available in the press note.

Mr. LeBlanc also informed the press that the Secretary-General would be doing a brief stakeout after the ceremony outside of Room XX.  In response to a question, Mr. LeBlanc promised to pass on the request for a press briefing from the Secretary-General in the course of a subsequent visit to Geneva.

Geneva activities

Committees

The Committee against Torture – which opened on 18 April, in Palais Wilson, its 57th session – would begin in the morning of 19 April the review of the report of France.  On 20 April, the Committee would begin the review of the report of Tunisia, before hearing, in the afternoon (3 to 6 p.m.) replies from the French delegation to the questions which would have been put to it today.

On 18 April, at the opening of the session, Danish expert Jens Modvig had been elected (by consensus) President of the Committee.  During the 57th session, which was taking place at the first floor of Palais Wilson until 13 May, the Committee would also review the reports of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Philippines and Israel.

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities would hold today (10 a.m./1 p.m. and 3 p.m./6 p.m.) a full day of general discussion on the right to independent living and to be included in the community.  For the rest of the week, the Committee would meet in private until the closure of its current 15th session, scheduled for 21 April.

Press conferences and other announcements

Mr. LeBlanc announced a press conference on 21 April at 2:30 p.m. in Room III, on the topic “A civil peace by civil society – Tunisian experiences for the future of the region”.  The speakers will be the members of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, Nobel Peace Prize Laureates 2015: Ms. Ouided Bouchamaoui, Mr. Hocine Abassi, Mr. Abessatar Ben Moussa, and Mr. Fadhel Mahfoudh.  They will be accompanied by Dr. Ghassan Salamé, Professor Emeritus of the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), Former Lebanese Minister of Culture.

Mr. LeBlanc also announced a press briefing on the signing ceremony of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, with David Nabarro, Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Climate Change, and Selwin Hart, Director of the Secretary-General’s Climate Change support team, broadcast live from UN Headquarters in New York at 7 p.m. Geneva time on webtv.un.org.  More than 150 countries have indicated that they would be signing the agreement.  An opening ceremony in the presence of the Secretary-General would take place on 22 April from 8:30 to 9:50 New York time.  The high-level signature ceremony, under the title “Taking Climate Change to the Next Level: Realizing the Vision of the Paris Agreement”, would take place on the same day from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. New York time.  For more information, please visit http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/climatechange/.

Coinciding with the signing of the Paris Agreement, International Mother Earth Day would also be celebrated on 22 April.  The UN Office at Geneva would be a partner in the City of Geneva's event on Plaine de Plainpalais that day – “Genève fête la Terre”.  Mr. Jan Dusik, Director of the United Nations Environment Programme's regional office for Europe, would represent UNOG Director-General Mr. Michael Møller at the opening ceremony at 5 p.m. on Plainpalais, and he would mention the Paris Accord signing ceremony that day in New York.  The United Nations Information Service would be holding a seminar, part of its Geneva Seminar Series, on access to water as a challenge to human development, at the Palais des Nations.  The last part of the seminar would take place at Plainpalais, and UNIS had partnered with Association pour la sauvegarde du lac Léman to propose two activities on site for children and adults.  More information about the City of Geneva’s event was available here: http://www.ville-geneve.ch/mairie-geneve/manifestations-evenements/geneve-fete-terre/

At the same time, at Plainpalais, an exhibition of 20 posters would showcase the artwork of young Swiss students who had participated in the Fondation Eduki's national contest “Imagine la Suisse de demain: les objectifs de développement durable”, under the patronage of the UNOG Director-General.  Switzerland's priority Sustainable Development Goals, which had been the focus of the contest,  included water, peace, health and equality.  More than 1,500 students aged from 10 to 19 had taken part in the contest.  The awards ceremony for the contest would be held on 22 April in Room XX at the Palais des Nations (more than 600 students, parents and teachers expected) and several pieces of artwork would be displayed at Bar Serpent from today until 29 April.  

Tarik Jasarevic, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that on 20 April there would be a press release from WHO’s European office about malaria in Europe.  Also, there would be a WHO press conference on 21 April at 10:30 a.m. in Press Room 1 on World Immunization Week.  Finally, WHO would hold a press conference on malaria on 22 April at 2 p.m., in the run-up to World Malaria Day on 25 April.

Catherine Huissoud, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), said that the UNCTAD focus on e-commerce would continue until the end of the week.  An expert panel on data protection and regulatory frameworks would start on 19 April.  UNCTAD had published a report titled “Data protection regulations and international data flows: implications for trade and development”.  Conclusions from this report showed that national and regional legal frameworks must be compatible to allow for the development of international online transactions and help developing countries to seize those opportunities for development.  Some 60 developing countries had no data protection regulations, 35 others had bills on the topic, which were yet to be voted on, and only 108 countries had actual legislation on the topic.  The report was online and a press release would be sent.  Experts were available for questions and the presentation of the report would take place at 12:30 p.m. today in Room 23.  On 20 April, there would be a discussion on the experience of a number of countries in regards to national legislations on data protection, including the Republic of Korea, Uganda, Sri Lanka, Brazil and Japan.

Syria

In response to questions, Mr. LeBlanc said that the UN’s Special Envoy, Staffan de Mistura, would be having a number of meetings today, starting at 10 a.m. with the Women’s Advisory Board, then at 12 p.m. with the Moscow-Cairo Group, and at 6 p.m. with the members of the Internal Damascus Platform.  He would also be attending the meeting of the Ceasefire Taskforce at 3 p.m.  There would be stakeouts by the Moscow-Cairo Group and the Internal Damascus Platform.  The Special Envoy would not hold any stakeouts himself.  A note with the details of his agenda would be sent to the press.

In response to a question, Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that he would get back to the press regarding the planning of future humanitarian convoys.

World Humanitarian Summit

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), introduced Hervé Verhoosel, spokesperson for the World Humanitarian Summit, to be held in Istanbul on 23-24 May.  Mr. Verhoosel said that currently, the humanitarian situation in the world was the worst since the end of World War II.  Today, 125 million people around the world were in need of humanitarian support, and that number was increasing day after day.  The UN, together with Member States, the private sector and NGOs, needed to meet at the highest level possible to see what needed to change in the way that humanitarian support was being delivered today.  Mr. Verhoosel thanked the Government of Turkey for hosting this Summit, the very first in the 70-year history of the United Nations.  More than 5,000 participants were expected, including Heads of State, Heads of Government and Ministers.  It was necessary to listen to the people coming from the countries in crisis to hear from them how humanitarian support could be delivered better.

In February 2016, the Secretary-General had released a report, which would be used to guide the agenda of the Summit.  There would be 15 special sessions and seven round tables, including one on the role of journalists and of the media in countries in humanitarian crisis.  The programme was available online.  

After the Summit, ECOSOC would host a special humanitarian segment in July in New York.  The humanitarian situation would also be on the agenda of the General Assembly.

The Summit was destined to be a wake-up call, the beginning of a process seeking to put key players together to reshape the way that humanitarian support was envisioned.  It was not a pledging conference but a summit to discuss ways of working together.  However, commitment from the players would be sought in line with the five core commitments in the Secretary-General’s report.  Mr. Verhoosel also stressed that the Summit was not a public relations exercise.

In response to a question, Mr. Verhoosel said that most of the Summit was being covered by the Turkish Government, and other countries such as Germany were participating financially.  The UN was not the main financing body.  He also reminded the press that media accreditation for the Summit was now open on the DPI website.

Ecuador

Mr. Laerke said that a large-scale national response operation supported by the UN and its humanitarian partners was underway in Ecuador, following a devastating earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale that had hit the north of the country shortly before 7 p.m. local time on 16 April.  It was the strongest earthquake to hit Ecuador since 1979.  The epicentre had been some 27 kilometers from the coastal town of Muisne, in the western province of Esmeraldas.  It had had a depth of 20 kilometers, which was relatively shallow.  The worst damage had been reported in the canton of Pedernales in the Manabi province, which had been declared a disaster zone by the authorities.  Access to Pedernales had been limited due to damage to infrastructure, particularly the roads.  Latest information indicated that 366 people had died, 2,658 had been injured, 231 were still missing, and 640 were in shelters.  Those numbers could still go up.  Thousands of people’s lives had been shattered profoundly by the earthquake.

The quake had also had some 300 aftershocks, causing extensive damage with 805 buildings destroyed and hundreds of other buildings, including schools, damaged.  Ecuador’s Ministry of the Interior was coordinating the response, with the national police, local authorities, and the armed forces.  The top priority remained search and rescue operations, which were a race against time.  International urban search and rescue teams, called USAR teams, from 6 countries, had deployed to Ecuador.  OCHA had sent a UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination team of 15 members, international experts in assessments of critical infrastructure and of population needs, to support coordination and information efforts on the ground.  More staff were being deployed to help coordinate incoming relief, which would be mainly coming through the Manta airport, on the coast.  A coordination centre was being set up in Portoviejo, some 40 kilometres inside the country, as the hub for incoming relief and coordination of international assistance.  The team was working locally on the ground with the Government entities responding to the emergency.   

Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien was expected in Ecuador today, to see for himself the impact of the devastating earthquake and to meet affected communities, as well as local authorities, officials and humanitarian organizations, and to lend his support to the ongoing response.

Tarik Jasarevic, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said the health system was on high alert and there were reports of loss of power and communications services in the affected areas, including in health facilities.  WHO staff had reached the city of Pedernales less than 24 hours after the earthquake, and had confirmed that approximately 70 per cent of the city had been destroyed.  Ecuador had a moderate to good response capacity, and the major cities were operational.  However, support may be required for damage assessment of health facilities, water and sanitation, and information management.  The magnitude of the emergency, and the complexity of the damages may request that support and efforts continue for some time, despite that response capacity.  The Government had informed WHO that, for the time being, they had enough medical teams to respond.  Two members of the WHO country office had been deployed to the province of Manabi to perform a field assessment, and five experts of WHO’s PAHO regional response teams had been sent to Ecuador to support health authorities in areas including emergency coordination, damage and needs assessment, water and sanitation, and coordination of emergency medical teams.  The assessment would take between 24 and 48 hours and would help establish priorities and effective actions to recover all health services as soon as possible.  One of the areas to keep in mind besides the trauma injuries, was Ecuador had reported Zika, dengue and chikungunya circulation.  It was important to work with the authorities on strengthening actions of vector control, especially around shelters. 

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that IOM had approved the release of USD 100,000 from the migration emergency funding mechanism for Ecuador earthquake relief.  IOM had deployed its regional rapid response team formed of experts in shelter and camp coordination and camp management to augment the international humanitarian response, following the Government’s declaration of a state of emergency in six of Ecuador’s 24 provinces, and its request for international assistance.  

Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that according to UNICEF’s initial estimate, at least 150,000 children were affected by the earthquake.  There was a race against time to protect children from disease and other risks.  According to preliminary Government reports, the earthquake had damaged 119 schools, affecting 88,000 children.  Two hospitals had entirely collapsed in Portoviejo and Chone.  Mudslides were causing further damage to infrastructure and hindering access to relief teams.  Some cities were still without full power and only 40 per cent of communication lines were working.

UNICEF was concerned about health, water and sanitation conditions in the coastal areas, already considered hotspots for Zika, malaria, dengue and chikungunya.  UNICEF had teams in Pedernales and Esmeraldas, currently assessing children’s needs and coordinating the response.

In response to a question, Mr. Jasarevic said that in an earthquake, the priority was to take care of those with crash injuries.  It was important to have enough medical teams with surgical capacity to perform necessary surgeries.  If needs were to increase, WHO would coordinate with the Ministry of Health to receive additional foreign medical teams who would be auto sufficient to operate.  In terms of the spread of viruses, special attention to reduce mosquito-breeding sites was necessary to halt transmission.  Mr. Boulierac said that while earthquakes could spur protection problems, as had been the case in Haiti or Nepal, so far there had not been reports to that effect in Ecuador, but UNICEF teams were vigilant in their monitoring of the situation.  It was also important to be well-coordinated with the local authorities in charge of social protection systems. 

In response to another question, Mr. Laerke said that the canton of Pedernales had an estimated 47,000 people.  The Government was setting up shelters, and some 640 people were housed in 14 shelters. 

Mr. LeBlanc added that the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was readying preparations for a major aid airlift in the next 48 hours, while the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) had opened a special donations line to collect international funds for the victims upon request from the Government.  UNDP was also deploying a team of experts to provide support in three areas: rapid assessment of damage and needs, recovery coordination and debris management. 

Ethiopia

Mr. Boulierac said that UNICEF condemned in the strongest possible terms the abduction on 15 April of some 100 children in western Ethiopia during a brutal attack on their community by armed assailants, allegedly cattle raiders from South Sudan.  Unverified reports indicated that children were also among the dead and wounded.  UNICEF staff were assessing the situation of the children affected by that horrific attack, and stood ready to support the community.  Any attack on children for whatever reason and in any context was a violation of human rights and an assault on our common humanity.  As the Ethiopian Government worked to obtain the release of those children, UNICEF called for their swift and unconditional release to their families.

In response to a question, Mr. Boulierac said that UNICEF would send some child protection staff to the affected area and would know more in the coming days.  According to the Ethiopian authorities, cross-border raids in this area were not unusual, however the scale of the latest attack was unprecedented.

Mediterranean arrivals

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that there had been a lot of confusion in the past 24 hours about a report of up to 500 people lost in the Mediterranean.  IOM was as baffled as everyone as to what had happened and whether the numbers were even close to accurate.  There had been reports this morning of 41 survivors in Greece from a pair of boats, potentially following a transfer from a smaller boat to a larger one, where the combined number of people could have been 500.  However, it was not a very reliable statistic at the moment.  IOM had also received reports of eight different shipwrecks of small boats in Libyan waters on 18 April that had resulted in 108 people rescued and six bodies reported lost.  IOM had been told that bodies had been spotted by rescue teams but could not be retrieved before the dingy had sunk. 

Mr. Millman also said that the new IOM report on global trends in migration had been released.  One particularly striking fact was that 2015 had been the deadliest year for migrants because of increased levels of forced displacement globally and record high numbers of people going missing while trying to cross international borders.  The study indicated that 54,000 migrants had died worldwide in 2015, slightly more than 100 a week.  If those were war casualties, that would be a very active war.

Ariane Rummery for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), added that the central port authority of Kalamata in Greece had confirmed the rescue of 41 people from a wooden boat, but had not been able to confirm the link between the rescue and any other shipwreck.  A UNHCR mission was on its way to Kalamata.

Jordan

Ms. Rummery said that UNHCR welcomed a series of recent measures by the Government of Jordan that could significantly ease the way for Syrian refugees to find legal employment, going a long way to help them become more self-sufficient.  The measures could see up to 78,000 Syrians able to work legally in Jordan in the short term and thousands more in the coming years.  

The most recent of those new measures, launched earlier in April, was a 90-day grace-period that allowed employers in the informal sector to freely obtain work permits for Syrian refugees, regularizing their employment.  The measure potentially put Syrian refugees on the same footing as migrant workers who were allowed to work in jobs such as construction, agriculture, the service industry, food and beverages, wholesale and some factories.  The temporary waiver of fees (which ranged between USD 170 to USD 1,270 depending on the sector) was an important reprieve.  Many Syrian refugees had been sinking into poverty as the war at home dragged on, increasing the risk that they would work illegally.  For employers of Syrians, the new grace period also allowed them to legalize workers and avoid steep fines of between USD 280 and USD 2,100 which had been imposed previously and had seen the closure of some 70 businesses to date. 

Since the beginning of March, Jordanian authorities had also allowed Syrian refugees to use UNHCR-issued asylum-seeker cards and Jordanian Ministry of Interior identity cards to obtain work permits, paving the way for thousands more Syrians to be legally employed.  Previously, the only way to do so had been using a passport and proof of legal entry into the country.

UNHCR had long been advocating for more support to Jordan and other key refugee hosting countries, including better access to development funds and low interest loans.   And, a major factor in supporting Jordan’s new measures, was the World Bank’s commitment to provide Jordan with near zero per cent loans of USD 300-500 million tied to indicators like the granting of work permits to Syrian refugees.  

Those efforts to increase livelihood opportunities for Syrian refugees also followed February’s London conference on the Syria crisis, focusing on the need to increase access to work and education opportunities for Syrians, as well as funding.  UNHCR was also playing a part in improving access to labour for refugees, and earlier in April had launched a pilot project to help 2,000 Syrians get jobs in the export garment sector, as a partner of the ‘Better Work Jordan’ programme run by the International Labour Organisation.  UNHCR was also running weekly job fairs for Syrian refugees in community centres close to the relevant industrial zones, including in Irbid and Zarqa.  The first refugees were expected to start work in garment factories in the week of 25 April. 

Responding to questions, Ms. Rummery said that the majority of refugees in Jordan did not live in camps, and that about 85 per cent lived in urban areas.  That was true for the whole refugee situation in the region.  Out of the 4.8 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries, only about 10 per cent lived in camps.  Regarding Jordan, the 85 per cent of refugees outside of camps had been becoming more and more vulnerable.  One of the factors had been the inability to work legally, which had driven them to undertake illegal work and had made them vulnerable to exploitation.  A recent study showed that nine out of 10 Syrians living outside camps lived below the Jordanian poverty line of JOD 68 (USD 87) per capita per month.  People out of camps would be the main beneficiaries of the labour market measures.  The deteriorating situation in host countries had been part of the loss of hope that had fuelled the onward movement of Syrian refugees to Europe.  The incidents of children dropping out of school were tied to the economic situation of their families, so improved access of Syrian refugees to the labor market would have a number of flow-on benefits.

South Sudan

Ms. Rummery indicated that the South Sudan refugee outflow continued and escalated in some areas because of a combination of new fighting in previously peaceful areas, food insecurity in Northern Bahr El Ghazal and Warrap States, and severe humanitarian funding shortages causing a worsening of the situation for many civilians.  Recent fighting between government and opposition forces in Western Bahr al Ghazal had displaced more than 96,000 people to Wau town, in the north-west of the country.  All neighbouring countries were reporting rising refugee inflows.  With the Regional Refugee Response Plan funded at just 8 per cent, many life-saving services were threatened.  UNHCR was extremely concerned. 

An estimated 52,000 South Sudanese had fled into Sudan since late January, exceeding planning projections for 2016.  At present they were mainly in East and South Darfur and West Kordofan.  UNHCR non-food item distributions by truck in East Darfur were expected to begin on 20 April.  Uganda had also seen a sharp increase in refugee arrivals from South Sudan since January, sometimes as many as 800 individuals per day.  In all, 28,000 South Sudanese – 86 per cent of them women and children – had sought refuge in Uganda.  The site where the South Sudanese refugees were sheltered, Maaji III in the north-west of the country, was nearing capacity and basic life-saving services and other services were severely stretched.  Other countries which had seen an increase in refugee arrivals were Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic and Kenya.  Some 2.3 million people had had to flee their homes since violence had broken out in South Sudan in December 2013, 678,000 of those across borders as refugees and 1.69 million displaced inside the country.  Details on the number of refugees fleeing to each country were available in the briefing note.

Responding to questions, Ms. Rummery said that many of the new arrivals in Ethiopia from South Sudan were unaccompanied children.  She added that the only solution to the humanitarian crisis could be a political solution to the conflict.

Myanmar

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the High Commissioner warmly welcomed the release on 17 April of a second wave of 83 prisoners on Myanmar's New Year by presidential amnesty.  Released prisoners included land rights activist Naw Ohn Hla, who had been jailed six times for various peaceful protests; human rights defender Nay Myo Zin; community campaigner Htin Kyaw; five journalists from the Unity newspaper who had been sentenced to seven years in prison in 2014 after the publication of an article; four labour activists convicted for supporting garment workers on strike; and Htin Lin Oo, sentenced in 2015 to two years in prison with hard labour for "insulting religion" after he had delivered a speech criticizing the misuse of religion to incite religious hatred.

That followed the release of 199 political prisoners on 8 April who had had charges dropped against them or had been pardoned, including students who had been facing a prolonged trial following a protest against the National Education Law in March 2015.

The Government had announced that those releases had been part of its commitment to promote national reconciliation.  President U Htin Kyaw had also stated in his New Year address that sustained effort would be made in the future to prevent "those who act legally for political causes or for their own conscience from being imprisoned".  The continued release of political prisoners and the commitment to take preventive measures were important steps in the right direction.  OHCHR encouraged the Government to build upon such human rights gains to ensure that all the people of Myanmar enjoyed their fundamental freedoms.  In doing so, OHCHR encouraged the Government to ensure that all those who had been arbitrarily detained, including in remote areas, were also promptly released.

Among those who remained behind bars were interfaith activists, Pwint Phyu Latt and Zaw Zaw Latt, who had been sentenced in February 2016 to two years' imprisonment with hard labor under the Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act 1947, and U Gambira, also known as Nyi Nyi Lwin, a prominent figure in the 2007 Saffron Revolution, who was currently on trial in Mandalay under the same legislation.

The OHCHR office stood ready to provide its expertise in support of efforts by the Government and Parliament to reform remaining laws that did not conform with international standards and had been used in the past to jail peaceful critics, and to take further strides in promoting and protecting human rights in Myanmar.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog190416