REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
8 November 2013
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by the Spokespersons for the World Trade Organization, Economic Commission for Europe, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, World Health Organization, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Refugee Agency, United Nations Children’s Fund, International Organization for Migration, World Food Programme, and World Meteorological Organization.
Central African Republic
Rupert Colville, for the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), informed that the High Commissioner Navi Pillay had warned that a deteriorating cycle of violent attacks and reprisals in the Central African Republic risked plunging the country into a new conflict.
On 26 October, self-defence militias, known as anti-Balaka, had attacked and occupied Bouar, a town in the west of the country, on the main road to neighbouring Cameroon. That had led to clashes with ex-Séléka forces, and resulted in the death of at least 20 civilians. One teacher had been repeatedly run over by ex-Séléka forces because of his perceived support of the anti-Balaka militias. At least 10,000 people had been displaced as a result of the fighting in and around Bouar.
“I am deeply shocked by the killings and human rights violations that are being committed in the Central African Republic,” Pillay said. “The latest clashes between ex-Séléka forces and various self-defence groups, are extremely worrying. Such violent incidents have heightened tensions among communities, caused splits along religious and sectarian lines and could lead to further destabilization in the country.”
“For decades, diverse ethnic and religious communities have lived together in this country. This escalation of violence and hatred must be halted before it spins completely out of control,” the High Commissioner said.
Pillay had said that recent reports of a massacre of mostly women and children in a village near Bouar on 26 October illustrated the level of violence prevailing in the Central African Republic and the absolute disregard for human life shown by fighters – in thatparticular case, alleged ex-Séléka forces. The youngest victim was reportedly only two weeks old.
Fighting and violations were also taking place in other parts of the country. In Bossangoa, also in western CAR, clashes between the two groups had resulted in an unknown number of casualties since September 2013 and had led to a large-scale displacement of population.
A UN human rights team which had recently visited Bossangoa received reports of widespread human rights violations committed by both groups, including summary executions, sexual violence, arrests and arbitrary detentions. Several hundred civilians, including two humanitarian workers from the non-governmental organisation Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED) were reported to have lost their lives during the first two weeks of September.
As a result of the fighting, most Christians had taken refuge in Bossangoa’s Catholic mission, which had turned into a camp for at least 30,000 displaced people. Civilians, especially men, were afraid to leave the mission, fearing detention, beatings or murder by ex-Séléka forces. Muslim civilians had also been displaced and many had taken refuge in the Sub-Préfecture (sous-préfecture) and the Liberty school premises.
At least 20 villages surrounding Bossangoa had also been affected by clashes, which had forced villagers to flee and hide in the bush in precarious conditions and in constant fear for their lives. Entire villages had been burned to the ground and widespread lootings continued to take place, including poaching of cattle.
The High Commissioner had also expressed concern about reports of illegal arrests, detentions and torture in secret detention centres in the Central African Republic capital, Bangui. According to information received by the UN Human Rights Office, ex-Séléka forces working for the CEDAD (Comité extraordinaire pour la défense des acquis démocratiques), a committee set up after the last ministerial reshuffle, are allegedly responsible for illegal arrests and human rights abuses. The CEDAD building appeared to have been used as a private and illegal detention centre where torture was reportedly used extensively. The CEDAD was not legally mandated to detain individuals or investigate criminal offences.
Unless immediate action was taken both by the authorities and by the international community, there was a clear risk that the situation would degenerate rapidly and inexorably into a full-blown conflict. That would take a terrible toll on the people of the Central African Republic, and could also reverberate across the region.
Asked if the Government exerted any kind of control or was capable of doing anything, and if the rebel movements were under central control, Mr Colville said it was difficult to know with certainty what had happened. There were clashes happening in all parts of the country. Ex-Séléka had taken control of the country and were under obligation to act as authorities now. The previous army had collapsed effectively; some elements of them had been absorbed by the current army, while some were fighting as other rebels. There was an effective vacuum of power, and some who had power were abusing it. It was a very alarming situation, and it was not always clear who was doing what. There was a religious element, but it was not the whole story. Attacks on churches, for example, may have had criminal motives.
Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), stated that the conflict in Central African Republic (CAR) would have dramatic food consequences. Around 1.1 million people were at risk of going hungry if there was no help very fast. WFP warned the situation could worsen because of the increase of violence.
Ms. Byrs informed that WFP had provided vital food assistance to around 250,000 people in CAR since January 2013. The goal would be to achieve 500,000 by the end of 2013, which was the following month. In order to keep assisting people in CAR, who were among the world’s most vulnerable people, WFP would require an additional USD 20 million from now until April 2014.
The situation had been deteriorating very fast and had been increasingly worrying. WFP had been concerned that with the poor harvest of those months, extreme violence and the halt of the economy, farming families would not be able to feed themselves. Some families and farmers had sold livestock and seeds in order to survive, while others had sold herds for fear of displacement or looting. A vicious circle had begun; instead of keeping food, people had been eating their reserves. By January 2014, there could easily be no food left in the country.
Additionally, the WFP had been managing the aerial service of the UN that carried 8,000 humanitarian passengers per year in 27 points of Central Africa. In order to continue to carry those passengers in 2014, WFP would need USD 9 million. The roads had been impossible to use in some zones, and in order to transport its mobile teams and the food, WFP would need those vital airplanes.
Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), informed that typhoon Haiyan had made landfall in the Philippines, where it was known locally as Yolanda. It was the strongest tropical cyclone in 2013, and one of the most intense on record. WMO’s Regional Specialized Meteorological Centre (RSMC) at Tokyo described it as violent.
The western North Pacific basin had had an active tropical cyclone season, with the total number of named tropical cyclones so far in 2013 being 30, which was above the annual average of 25.6.
Ms. Nullis stated that Haiyan was exceptionally strong. One measure of intensity was pressure. Low pressure meant that more air got sucked into the cyclone and so its winds were more powerful. The RSMC Tokyo said that shortly before landfall the central pressure was 895 HPa, and added that the current pressure was 920 hPa. By comparison, typhoon Bopha (known as Pablo in the Philippines) in 2012 had been 930 hPa at its peak, and the minimum pressure of Hurrican Katrina was 902 hPa.
The Philippines National Meteorological Service was issuing regular bulletins. It said that estimated rainfall amount was from 10 to 20 mm per hour within the 400 km diameter out of the 600 km diameter of the typhoon. Residents in affected low lying and mountainous area were alerted against possible flash floods and landslides and against storm surges, which might reach up to seven-meter wave height.
After passing through the Philippines, Haiyan was expected to weaken slightly on a trajectory towards Viet Nam, but would remain a strong cyclone.
Chris Lom, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that IOM in the Philippines was gearing up to respond to what was being described as the strongest recorded typhoon in history. Some 12 million people were directly in the path of typhoon Haiyan in areas still reeling from last month’s massive earthquake, which had left 200 dead and 350,000 people displaced.
Emergency teams were being readied by IOM for assessment missions to the affected zones. An initial 12,000 tarpaulin sheets would be made available by the Organization to provide temporary shelter for the many thousands who would likely be made homeless.
Haiyan was the third major disaster to hit the country in the previous two months. Some 75,000 people were currently living in displacement centres in the southern port of Zamboanga, while 350,000 people were living in tents and other temporary shelters on Bohol, close to where Haiyan made landfall early on 8 November local time.
Haiyan was expected to travel over Eastern, Central and Western Visayas, Bicol and Southern Tagalog, which had a combined population of 29.4 million people.
Power was off all across the island and the streets were deserted in the regional capital Tagbilaran. Shops were shut and people were being warned to stay inside. It was dark and gloomy, alternating between drizzle and heavy rain. The wind was picking up and all sea and air travel had been suspended. Even though people were scared of aftershocks from the quake, some of them had no choice but to go back into their homes or to go to municipal buildings which had been declared safe. Most of the evacuees from the earthquake were being transferred to other centres. People were listening to the authorities and showing a healthy respect for the elements.
Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), assessed the damage made by this typhoon as worst than last year’s, but the full scope of it would not be known until the storm had passed. UN had been asked for needs assessment, and the UN and its partners in the Philippines were supporting the Government in assessing the damage caused by the typhoon.
A United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination team, collaborating with ASEAN disaster experts, had deployed and would be making its way to the affected area as soon as possible. The team would support the authorities with rapid needs assessment. The Philippine Government had taken preventative steps to save lives by moving people from coastal and low-lying areas known to be prone to flash flooding and landslides.
Ms. Byrs said that WFP estimated that an 2.5 million people would require immediate assistance in the aftermath of the typhoon. WFP would participate in the Government-led needs assessment. WFP resources were currently stretched, as they were already assisting those displaced by the recent earthquake in the Bohol Province, and those who had fled September’s fighting in Zamboanga. WFP would urgently need USD 2 million to meet the initial needs of half a million people. WFP stood ready to assist the Government in coordinating the humanitarian relief effort.
Polio in the Middle East
Sona Bari, for the World Health Organization (WHO), presented a consolidated report on the polio outbreak. The largest-ever consolidated immunization response in the Middle East was under way to stop a polio outbreak, aiming to vaccinate over 20 million children in seven countries and territories repeatedly (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, Syria, and Turkey)
Emergency immunization campaigns in and around Syria to prevent transmission of polio and other preventable diseases had vaccinated more than 650,000 children in Syria, including 116,000 in the highly-contested north-east Deir-ez-Zor province where the polio outbreak had been confirmed a week earlier.
In a region that had not seen polio for nearly a decade, in the last 12 months poliovirus had been detected in sewage samples from Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The outbreak of paralytic polio among children in Syria had catalysed the current mass response. The first polio outbreak in the country since 1999, it had so far left 10 children paralyzed, and posed a risk of paralysis to hundreds of thousands of children across the region. Preliminary evidence indicated that the poliovirus was of Pakistani origin and was similar to the strain detected in Egypt, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
UNICEF had procured 1.35 billion doses of oral polio vaccine (OPV) to date in 2013 and by the end of the year would have procured up to 1.7 billion doses to meet increased demand. Global supply of OPV had already been under constraint with vaccine manufacturers producing at full capacity. The new outbreak in Syria was adding further pressure to the supply but WHO, UNICEF and manufacturers were working to secure sufficient quantities to reach all children.
The unprecedented response to polio virus circulation in the region included plans for a six-month sustained effort of intense immunization activity. Equally important was heightened disease surveillance until the global eradication of polio, to find cases which might have been missed in an environment which had until recently been polio-free. Syria’s immunization rates had plummeted from more than 90% before the conflict to currently 68%.
Ms. Bari stated that multiple mass immunization efforts were aimed at protecting as many children as possible. Inside Syria, the campaign was targeting 1.6 million children with vaccines against polio, measles, mumps and rubella. In Jordan, over 18,800 children under the age of five had been vaccinated against polio in a campaign in the previous few days targeting all children at Za’atari camp, and a nationwide campaign was currently underway to reach 3.5 million people with polio, measles and rubella. In Iraq, a vaccination campaign had started in the west of the country, with another campaign planned in the Kurdistan Region in the coming days. Lebanon’s nationwide campaign would begin later in the week and Turkey and Egypt by mid-November.
Asked if there were any other suspect cases in the Deir ez-Zor area where the disease had broken out, Ms. Bari said that there were no other hot, suspicious clusters in the region.
On the question whether the virus had perhaps arrived to Syria with Pakistani fighters, Ms. Bari responded that said it was almost impossible to know its exact origin. What was known was that it had a Pakistani origin, it was present in other countries of the region and had been around for a while. On whether the virus could be controlled thanks to the ongoing campaign, Ms. Bari said that if enough children could be vaccinated, the spread of the virus would be limited and eventually stopped. There would certainly be more cases, and it would require a long-term, intense, high-level effort.
Answering a question on how polio virus could be spread, Ms. Bari stated that the virus could travel in many ways. Adults could bring it, but that was highly unlikely because adults were normally immunized. The virus could be brought in by families travelling, planes, migrant workers from Asia, etc.
Marixie Mercado, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that, inside Syria, the biggest challenge that UNICEF and partners were facing was to reach children who had not been vaccinated over the previous two years due to the conflict. Those children were in “hard to reach” areas where violence was taking place and where there was limited or no access. UNICEF’s priority in the following weeks was to reach the maximum number of children in such areas.
A small breakthrough had occurred on 6 November, when UNICEF had successfully negotiated on behalf of other UN agencies access to reach “Bludan” in Zabadini- rural Damascus, an area that had been inaccessible for months. Bludan now had an estimated population of 60,000 people, most of whom were internally displaced. Before the crisis, Bludan had had a population of 4,000 people.
Ms. Mercado stated that UNICEF had reached that area with WHO, SARC, and Department of Health Rural Damascus, with support from UNDSS. The team had had to cross eight checkpoints to reach the area. The mission had delivered vaccines, syringes, safety boxes, and vaccination cards, nutrition items including micronutrients, high energy biscuits, and therapeutic foods. The mission had mobilized local support for the vaccination campaign and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent’s mobile clinic had been able to reach a large number of children during the mission.
The mission followed the visit of UNICEF Executive Director, Mr. Anthony Lake, to Syria the previous week where he had advocated and agreed with high level Syrian officials on facilitating access of humanitarian partners to reach as many children as possible in Syria with vaccination, as well as agreements reached in the Oman meeting between ministers of health from the region.
UNICEF was hoping that that was only the beginning, was thankful for the facilitation of the mission and would continue to advocate and negotiate to reach as many children as we can through similar missions in the following days and weeks.
Asked whether some groups might have cultural objections against polio vaccination, Ms. Mercado said that the process of negotiating access for the campaign was an ongoing one, and UNICEF would speak to anyone who had to be spoken to. Ms. Bari added that there was reportedly a very high demand for vaccines, almost a “rush to vaccinate”.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Mr. Colville said that OHCHR welcomed what appeared to be a comprehensive defeat of the M23 rebels. Emanuel Sultani Makenga, the military leader of M23, who had been arrested in Uganda, should be brought to justice.
Ms. Momal-Vanian informed that United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) had confirmed that the Army now had complete control of the areas previously controlled by M23. She said that the head of the mission, Mr. Kobler, has stressed the importance to find a political settlement through concluding the Kampala process.
Mr. Lom stated that with the end of the rainy season, the worst of the flooding that had affected Cambodia since mid-September appeared to be over. Heavy rains had made the Mekong River overflow, causing flash floods which had affected over 1.7 million people, including 188 deaths, across 20 of the country’s 23 provinces.
Over 31,000 households had been evacuated at the height of the floods, and many families were only now making their way back to their homes. The crucial task was identifying the number of families in urgent need of shelter whose homes had been either severely damaged or completely destroyed.
An emergency cash grant from the UN would allow IOM to provide some 600 shelter kits consisting of zinc roofing, tarpaulins, plastic sheeting and non-food relief items. In the coming weeks, 223 kits would be distributed to households in the Battambang Province, with the remainder going to families in Banteay Meanchey. The response effort would also provide transport and assistance to help affected families get home from distribution sites.
Adrian Edwards, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), informed that in Yemen, UNHCR had recorded more than 62,000 sea arrivals so far in 2013. OHCHR remained concerned about the very high numbers of people who were risking their lives by making this perilous journey from the Horn of Africa.
Yemen had seen six successive years of high arrivals by sea. In 2012, a record 107,532 people had made the crossing, and although the numbers for 2013 were, so far, lower than in 2012 – 62,194 from January through October compared to 88,533 for the same period in 2012 – the Gulf of Aden remained one of the world’s most travelled sea routes for mixed migration - asylum seekers and migrants.
In total, since 2006 when UNHCR had started to collect data, more than half-a-million asylum seekers, refugees and migrants had travelled by sea to Yemen. Most were Ethiopians, citing the difficult economic situation at home and often hoping to travel through Yemen to the Gulf States and beyond. Somalis arriving in Yemen were automatically recognized as refugees by the authorities, while UNHCR helped determine the refugee status of other asylum seekers, including from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and other countries.
The crossing from the Horn of Africa to Yemen was one of several deadly sea routes worldwide that UNHCR was watching closely. Hundreds of people, including Syrian refugees, had died in recent months crossing the Mediterranean to Europe. In Southeast Asia, just the previous weekend, dozens of people had been reported missing after their boat had capsized off the coast of Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal.
Among the steps UNHCR takes to address these trends, UNHCR was encouraging cooperation among countries affected by mixed migration, and was supporting the Yemeni Government to organize a conference the following week on asylum and migration together with the International Organization for Migration. The three-day conference was scheduled to open on 11 November in Sana’a, with participants from governments from the Horn of Africa, Gulf States, donor countries, NGOs, and institutions such as the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat.
The aim of the Yemen conference would be to establish a regional plan to help manage mixed migration between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The objectives of that plan included: saving lives; ensuring better protection systems for asylum seekers and refugees, easing the suffering of migrants and the communities that host them; strengthening law enforcement against smuggling and trafficking networks; increasing funding for assisted-voluntary-returns programmes for stranded migrants; expanding available options for legal migration; and raising awareness of the dangers of irregular migration.
Mr. Lom informed that the IOM had received USD 600,000 from the US State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) with the view of providing immediate relief to victims of sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) in Haitian displacement camps with a high incidence of SGBV cases.
The funding would allow IOM to provide a comprehensive SGBV response in camps through urgent medical assistance, referrals and relocation support. It would also help to raise awareness of the issue among the local population and reinforce the institutional network of response actors.
The IOM Haiti Protection team had been implementing counter-SGBV programming in Haiti since 2010.
Ms. Momal-Vanian informed that the Committee against Torture would finish today the consideration of the report of Portugal, and the following week it would look into the reports of Andorra and Kyrgyzstan.
The Committee on Enforced Disappearances had completed the examination the reports of Argentina and Spain, and had held a meeting with the States parties, non-governmental organizations and civil society the previous day. The rest of the session would be mostly closed, until the end of it on 15 November.
The Committee on economic, social and cultural rights would examine today the report of Bosnia and Herzegovina, while the following week it would look into the reports of Djibouti, Belarus and Egypt.
Ms. Momal Vanian, on the behalf of the International Labour Organization, informed that the press conference on the launch of the study: "Bangladesh: Seeking better employment conditions for better socioeconomic outcomes" would take place on 18 November, instead of 11 November, as originally scheduled.
Ms. Nullis informed that on 13 November, at 10:30 a.m. in Room III, WMO Secretary General would hold a press conference to announce the provisional findings on the state of climate in 2013.
On 11 November, at 12:00 noon, Lauren Landis, Head of WFP Office in Chad, would have a press conference in Press Room I, on the subject of the humanitarian situation prevailing in Chad.
Muriel Scibilia, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), announced the 9th International Debt Management Conference, which would take place between 11 and 13 November. It would be a very technical meeting but would focus on topics of current interest: the issues of national debt, public finances, and external debt. About 250 participants were expected to attend, including a number of ministers; the final conference program and the participants’ list would be finalized and sent out shortly.
Discussions would focus primarily on the impact of economic uncertainty, on borrowing conditions, on the composition and debt sustainability in developing countries, and on the mechanisms of debt restructuring states, so-called “sovereign debt”. After the initiatives that had been taken for the poorest most indebted countries, other subjects would be treated: the debt sustainability and the impact that the current economy may have on these countries.
Ms. Scibilia recalled that UNCTAD had been working on debt issues since the 1970s, mostly through analytical and technical assistance work. The program called Debt Management and Financial Analysis System had been applied in more than 70 countries and hundreds of institutions, with the view of allowing the debt manager to manage it in the best way, particularly in obtaining reliable statistics.
Ms. Mercado announced that UNICEF’s Good Will Ambassador Mia Farrow, who was currently in Central African Republic, would hold a briefing in Geneva at 10 a.m. on 14 November.
Jean Rodriguez, for the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE), announced that the ECE Executive Secretary would have a bilateral meeting with the Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources of Ukraine on 15 November.
World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations would take place in Room XVI on 12-15 November. The meeting was set to approve a Global Technical Regulation on Pole Side Impact (side impact against poles, tress, or other fixed –obstacles), and two new regulations: on retrofitting emission control devices for trucks, non-road machinery, and on recycling of motor vehicles – private cars and small commercial vehicles. Vehicles need to be produced with materials that can be reusable and/or recyclable to a minimum of 85 per cent of their mass.
Working Party on Pollution and Energy (GRPE) would take place from 2:30 until 5:30 p.m. on 14 November. The Working Party on Pollution and Energy (GRPE) considered a range of items proposed to improve regulatory provisions concerning wheeled vehicles and their engines. It should adopt a draft new UN Global Technical Regulation on Worldwide harmonized Light vehicles Test Procedures (WLTP) to be adopted by WP29 in March 2014. WLTP governed estimates of fuel consumption CO2 emissions. The new WLTP aimed at better reflecting real driving conditions.
Melissa Begag, for the World Trade Organization (WTO), informed that WTO Director-General, Mr. Roberto Azevêdo, would be in Paris today, where he would be meeting the French President Francois Hollande. Earlier in the week, Mr. Azevêdo had also met the Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Sir Simon Fraser, and the Indonesian Minister of Trade, Mr Gita Wirjawan. On 11 November, Mr. Azevêdo would meet chairmen of several committees to get an assessment of the current status before the Bali negotiations. On 12 November, he would be directing an informal meeting on the Committee on Trade Negotiation that would be followed by a press briefing; the timings of the meeting had not yet been decided.
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The representative of the International Labour Organization also attended the briefing, but did not speak.
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For technical reasons, there is no webcast for this briefing.