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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

11 August 2015

Ahmad Fawzi, Director a.i. 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 International Organization for Migration and the World Health Organization.

United Nations activities

Wednesday, 12 August was the International Day of Youth, Mr. Fawzi informed the press. In a statement for the day, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: “Emerging threats, violent extremism, shifting political conditions, economic turmoil and social transformations are combining to heighten the challenges facing the world’s young people. No one knows better than them the issues at stake or the best way to respond. That is why I am calling on young people to speak out – and I am urging leaders to listen”. Copies of the Secretary-General’s message for the day were available at the back of the room and online.

Geneva Activities

The Conference on Disarmament this morning began a public plenary at 10 a.m.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was this morning considering
the report of Suriname. This week the Committee would also consider the reports of The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and the Czech Republic. The final two reports scheduled for review this session, of Norway and Netherlands, would be considered next week. A background press release was available here.

The Committee Against Torture would hold a public meeting at 3 p.m. tomorrow, Wednesday 12 August, to discuss follow-up by States of the Committee's concluding observations and recommendations as well as the issue of reprisals against persons who cooperate with the Committee. The session would close on Friday, 14 August, after which the Committee would publish its concluding recommendations for all reports reviewed during the session: Slovakia, Iraq and Switzerland. A background press release was available here.

Mr. Fawzi also alerted the press that the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities would start a new session next Monday, 17 August. It would consider reports from Kenya, Ukraine, Gabon, Mauritius, Brazil, Qatar, and the European Union. A background release would be issued on Thursday.

Libyan Political Dialogue

Ahmad Fawzi, Director a.i. of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said the new round of the Libyan Political Dialogue was scheduled to begin today. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Libya and the Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), Bernardino Leon, would give a press conference in Press Room III later today. The time would be confirmed shortly.

United Nations internships

Mr. Fawzi referred to an article in Swiss newspaper Tribune de Genève today about unpaid United Nations internships. The article was about a young intern who was sleeping in a tent because he could not afford lodging in Geneva.

Mr. Fawzi informed the press that the reason why the United Nations did not pay interns was a General Assembly resolution prohibited it from doing so. The Member States of the United Nations did not allow it to pay interns, although the United Nations would wish to. A General Assembly resolution could only be changed if a Member State submitted a draft, a second Member State (backed) it, and the General Assembly voted to change it, he noted. Mr. Fawzi added that the United Nations agencies were autonomous from the Secretariat. They could make their own rules, and thus some of them had decided to offer paid internships.

Mr. Fawzi appreciated that lodging in Geneva was expensive, but said there were ways of overcoming those costs. The United Nations Office at Geneva, the Secretariat, offered support and advice to interns in finding accommodation either with families in academic institutions or elsewhere.

Information about internships at the United Nations Information Service in Geneva can be found here.

Thailand lèse-majesté cases

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said OHCHR was appalled by the shockingly disproportionate prison terms handed down over the last few months in lèse-majesté cases in Thailand. On 7 August 2015 the Bangkok Military Court sentenced a travel agent to 30 years in prison for violating Section 112 of the Criminal Code, which was also known as the lèse-majesté law. He was convicted for six Facebook posts critical of members of the Royal Family. His sentence was initially 60 years – ten years for each of his Facebook posts – but that was reduced due to his guilty plea. On the same day, the Chiang Mai Military Court handed a 28-year prison term to Sasiwimol Patomwongfa-ngarm, a hotel staff, for posting seven comments on Facebook critical of the monarchy. The sentence was reduced from 56 years because of her guilty plea. Another particularly harsh sentence was handed down in March 2015, when the Bangkok Military Court convicted Thiansutham Suttijitseranee to 25 years in prison for posting five comments criticizing the monarchy on Facebook.

Those were the heaviest sentences OHCHR had recorded since 2006, when we began documenting cases of individuals prosecuted for lèse-majesté offences for exercising the right to freedom of expression, said Ms. Shamsadani. She also noted that there had been a sharp increase in the number of such cases. Since the May 2014 military coup, at least 40 individuals had either been convicted or remain in pre-trial detention for lèse-majesté offences, both under Section 112 and under the 2007 Computer Crimes Act. In early May 2014, prior to the coup, there were five people in prison for lèse-majesté related convictions.

Also among those convicted in recent months were people with psycho-social disabilities. On 6 August, the Chiang Rai military court sentenced Samak Pantae to five years in prison for destroying a portrait of the King while he was intoxicated. Pantae has been diagnosed with psychosis by Chiang Rai Hospital and has been taking medication to battle visual and auditory hallucinations. On 25 June, the Bangkok Criminal Court sentenced Tanet Nontakoat to three years and four months in prison for sending URLs which contained alleged lèse-majesté content to a website administrator. Nontakoat was reportedly suffering from schizophrenia.

OHCHR was also alarmed at the spike in harsh prison terms delivered in such cases by the military courts, which themselves failed to meet international human rights standards, including the right to a fair trial. The public had been barred from entry and in many instances there was no possibility of appeal. International law required that trials of civilians by military courts should be exceptional, and military trials must afford all due process guarantees provided for under international human rights law.

OHCHR called for the immediate release of all those who had been jailed or held in prolonged pre-trial detention for the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression. It also urged the military government to amend the vague and broad lèse-majesté law to bring it in line with international human rights standards. Until the law was amended, such laws should not be used arbitrarily to curb debate on critical issues of public interest, even when it involved criticism of heads of State or Government.

Responding to a question about the involvement of the monarchy and the military, Ms. Shamdasani said that from five people to 40 people in just the last year and three months so clearly there had been a hike in the number of people held in pre-trial detention and being convicted, as well as an increase in the length of sentences. People were being held for a prolonged period and a lot of pressure was being applied upon them to make a guilty plea, which meant they could not be released on bail. The only option then was a pardon by the King. Military trials were usually not open to the public, to any scrutiny, and were held in camera leaving little transparency and recourse to appeal – they usually did not meet international standards, said Ms. Shamdasani in response to another question.

Mali

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said OHCHR was deeply concerned about the reported release of detainees suspected of involvement in, or already formally charged with serious crimes, including war crimes, terrorist acts and gross human rights violations. OHCHR understood that a number of those released on 16 July 2015 were implicated in such crimes and were concerned that further releases may be imminent. Any measure which would de facto amount to an amnesty would be contrary to international law, and in violation of the commitment by the parties to the Peace and Reconciliation Agreement.

OHCHR emphasized the critical importance of the fight against impunity and the need to investigate and prosecute all gross violations of human rights to ensure accountability. Amnesties that prevent the prosecution of individuals who may be legally responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and gross violations of human rights are inconsistent with States’ obligations under various sources of international law.

OHCHR urged the Government to ensure that any releases made in the context of confidence building measures were in full conformity with international law, and to take all measures to ensure the investigation and prosecution of all serious crimes under international law. The judicial authorities in Mali should pursue the investigation and prosecution of all alleged perpetrators of war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and other gross violations of human rights, and ensure that the rights of victims to an effective remedy were promoted and protected.

Finally, Ms. Shamsadani said OHCHR condemned the atrocious attacks on civilians in the Byblos hotel in Sevaré in Central Mali between Friday and Saturday last week. Such attacks, which appear designed to provoke a state of terror and intimidate, were in violation of national and international law. OHCHR called on the international community and neighbouring states to give all possible assistance to Mali in its ongoing efforts to restore peace, security and the full respect for human rights.

Haiti – Dominican Republic border monitoring

Joel Millman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said IOM was continuing to monitor migrant flows on the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The monitoring started on 17 June 2015, following the expiration of the registration component of the National Plan for the Regularization of Foreigners (PNRE in Spanish) in the Dominican Republic.

On 6 August Dominican authorities reported that over 66,000 Haitian migrants had spontaneously returned to their country of origin; many used free transportation provided by the Dominican authorities, said Mr. Millman.

Between 16 June and 6 August 2015, IOM field teams interviewed 1,659 families (4,628 individuals), who reported having recently crossed the border from the Dominican Republic into Haiti. Some 81.2 per cent said they had spontaneously returned to Haiti, while 18.8 per cent said that they had been forcibly returned by the authorities. Some 82.0 per cent did not have any type of documentation.

There were more details in the briefing note, Mr. Millman added.

South Sudan

Joel Millman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said IOM was responding to a rapid influx of internally displaced persons at the United Nations protection of civilians site in Malakal, Upper Nile State, South Sudan.

Since mid-July, over 16,000 new arrivals had sought protection at the site, leading to severe congestion and stretching the capacity of aid agencies to provide humanitarian services, said Mr. Millman. Relief agencies were racing to cope with the influx as the rainy season created increasingly desperate living conditions.

There were more details in the briefing note, Mr. Millman added.

Yemen

Tarik Jašareviæ, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said the health system in Yemen was continuing to shut down, leaving civilians without access to critical, life-saving health care.

Almost 23 per cent of all health facilities in Yemen were currently non-functional or partially functional as a direct result of on-going violence, and additional facilities continue to close down week by week. WHO had asked for US$151 million to meet the health needs of internally displaced people until the end of 2015 and had received US$23 million, resulting in a funding gap of 85 per cent. Without the funds, many critical healthcare services would be forced to shut down, he said.

Between 19 March and 5 August 2015 the number of casualties in Yemen amounted to 4,345 deaths and 22,110 injured people, as reported by healthcare facilities, said Mr. Jašareviæ. He also informed the press that a total of 15.2 million people, including 1.2 million internally displaced persons, were in need of health services and life-saving assistance in Yemen, especially in Aden, Abian, Taiz and Sa’ada governorates.

Mr. Jašareviæ said the renal dialysis centre in Haradh Governorate had been forced to close due to increased violence and insecurity in the area. Prior to its closure, WHO was supporting the centre with fuel and safe water on a daily basis. The centre was treating between 42 to 57 chronic renal failure cases per month and its closure could have catastrophic consequences for chronic renal failure patients who were dependent on its life-saving support.

Mr. Jašareviæ also spoke about how the departure of health professionals fleeing the violence had led to gaps in the provision of primary healthcare, trauma and surgical care, as well as obstetric care. Power and fuel shortages, which had resulted in the closure of intensive care units and operation rooms in almost all hospitals across the country, were further exacerbating the situation.

So far, WHO had supported the Ministry of Health and partners with over 181 tonnes of medicines and medical supplies for more than three million people, including trauma care, non-communicable diseases and laboratory and blood banks, said Mr. Jašareviæ. It had also trained and deployed over 50 mobile medical teams and 20 fixed medical teams in 11 governorates and provided fuel to support operation of 72 health facilities. Mr. Jašareviæ noted that there was more information in the Yemen situation report available online.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog110815