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News & Media

29 May 2012

Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was also attended by Spokespersons for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Refugee Agency, the World Food Programme, the International Labour Organization, the United Nations Environmental Programme, and the International Organization for Migration.

Geneva Activities

Ms. Momal-Vanian said the Committee on the Rights of the Child this morning was opening a three-week session during which it would consider the reports of seven countries. The Committee would take up the report of Cyprus tomorrow, Viet Nam on Thursday, and Turkey on Friday. Next week, the Committee would consider the reports of Nepal, Australia, Greece and Algeria.

The Committee against Torture would be concluding its session at the end of the day on Friday, 1 June. It should also issue its concluding observations and recommendations on the reports of Albania, Greece, Armenia, Czech Republic and Rwanda.

The Conference on Disarmament would hold a plenary meeting at 10 a.m. on Thursday, 31 May, during which it would hold a thematic discussion on the cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament and prevention of nuclear war, including all related matters, with a general focus on the prohibition of the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons and other nuclear explosive devices.

Ms. Momal-Vanian said the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers would be commemorated today. It would start with a wreath-laying and flag-raising ceremony at the United Nations Memorial in the Ariana Park at 3 p.m. At 4 p.m., a panel discussion would be held in Salle III in the presence of the representatives of the International Association of Soldiers for Peace, and the Centre of Instruction of the Swiss Army SwissInt and its special training programme for peacekeeping operations. Staff members who had participated in peacekeeping operations would also speak of their experience. Om 2011, 112 blue helmets lost their lives in the service of peace, and the ceremony would pay tribute to the dedication, courage and high level of professionalism of all the men and women who have served and continue to serve in United Nations peacekeeping operations as well as to honour those who have lost their lives for the cause of peace.

There were a number of press conferences this week. Today at 1.45 p.m. in press room 1, UNHCR would be holding an embargoed press briefing on the launch of the State of the World’s Refugees. The briefing would be given by Volker Turk, Director of the UNHCR Division of International Protection. The report was embargoed until 31 May 2012 at 6 p.m. Geneva time.

There would be a briefing on the food and nutrition crisis in the Sahel by David Gressly, Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, at 2:30 p.m. this afternoon.

There would be a press conference by the World Health Organization on World No Tobacco Day at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 30 May in press room 1. Speaking would be Douglas Bettcher, Director of the Tobacco Free Initiative, WHO; and Armando Peruga, Programme Manager at the Tobacco Free Initiative, WHO.

Director-General’s Activities

Ms. Momal-Vanian said Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, was in Astana representing the Secretary-General in the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. The Director-General would deliver a message on behalf of the Secretary-General on 30 May in the morning. This was the fourth such Congress hosted by President Nazabayev of Kazakhstan and it was focused on the theme “Peace and harmony as the choice of mankind”. The discussions were also expected to consider the role of religious leaders in achieving sustainable growth, as well as religion and multiculturalism, women and youth.


Rupert Colville of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said he hoped journalists got the High Commissioner’s press release which went out late on Sunday on the appalling massacre that took place in El Houleh in Syria. Preliminary United Nations investigations into what happened in El Houleh began on Saturday and continued through the weekend, which was why journalists may have seen evolving figures on the dead and injured. By late Sunday / early Monday, the total believed dead had risen to at least 108 people, including 49 children and 34 women. It was believed that at this point, and he wished to stress that they were at very preliminary stages of working out exactly what happened, that under 20 of the 108 confirmed killings could be attributed to artillery and tank fire. According to local witnesses and survivors who had been interviewed, most of the rest of the victims in Taldaou, one of the areas of El Houleh, were summarily executed in two separate incidents which local people were ascribing to the Shabeeha paramilitary.

Asked where this information was coming from, through the United Nations investigation or from separate sources, and asked if the Shabeeha militia was close to the Government, Mr. Colville said the information was coming from United Nations investigations on the spot and also from other sources, so from a mix of sources. The Shabeeha was a term used for this paramilitary militia organization which sometimes appeared to be acting in consort with the Government forces. The High Commissioner in her press release had called for a full inquiry into what happened in El Houleh. This could be by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, which was set up specifically to look into human rights violations in the country, or by other bodies. Once again, OHCHR urged the Syrian Government to grant the Commissioners immediate and unfettered access to Syria, but obviously if they could not get in, they would continue to do their work, as they had been all along, and other investigations done in other ways could also be carried out. It was extremely important that they got to the bottom of what exactly had happened. What was very clear was that this was an absolutely abominable event that took place in El Houleh, and at least a substantial part of it was summary executions.

Asked if that meant that children were summarily executed, Mr. Colville said that at this point, it looked like entire families were shot in their homes. He stressed that these were very temporary figures. The numbers had evolved from 85 to more than 90 to 108, and there were some higher estimates as well. It was obviously very difficult to fully establish what had happened. Most of the deaths that they were aware of at this point were in one area of El Houleh called Taldaou, but there were reports of more deaths. Obviously it would take time to be absolutely sure how many people were killed, But however many, the precise number was in a sense irrelevant: it was quite atrocious. Almost half of the deaths that they knew of so far were children and a very large number were women. That was totally unpardonable.

In response to a question whether in light of this massacre the Security Council would listen to the demands of the High Commissioner to refer the case to the International Court, Mr. Colville said that they had not so far, but they had issued a very strong condemnation late Sunday. In her press release, the High Commissioner repeated once again her call that the case of Syria be taken up by the International Criminal Court. This was for obvious reasons: it had been said time and time again that these were very serious international crimes, this was the latest and one of the worst examples, but it had been pretty well established by the Commission of Inquiry, by the High Commissioner herself, by many other sources, that at the very least, crimes against humanity had taken place in Syria.

A journalist asked if there were forensic experts on the spot, given that there were none among the United Nations observers, especially as some people had been found in mass graves shot point blank, and if there was a possibility that some forensic experts could be sent if approval was granted by the President of Syria when he met Mr. Annan today. Mr. Colville said he was not sure of the details of what Mr. Annan and the President would be discussing. It was correct that when there were such crimes, ideally there would be forensic investigations. In the current circumstances, this was obviously not going to be that easy. They would have to see how that developed.

Asked if the Shabeeha paramilitary members were from surrounding areas, and if so did this point to a sectarian element, Mr. Colville said some of those interviewed certainly did suggest that the Shabeeha were from the area. He believed that it was a bit early to make definitive comments on that.

A journalist asked whether the number of 108 killed was confirmed, did they have the names of the victims, and for the 49 children, did they know how they died, and how old they were? Mr. Colville said he was not sure of all the details regarding the 49 children, but earlier on when a smaller number of children (32) was cited, they were all said to be under the age of 10. These details would hopefully become clearer in the future. He could say that the first figure the United Nations gave out, 85 victims, these were bodies that were viewed and photographed laid out in a mosque, including the 32 children who were part of that figure.

Ms. Momal-Vanian reminded journalists that Mr. Annan, the Joint United Nations Arab League Special Envoy, would be briefing the press from Damascus at about 6 p.m. Damascus time, which was 5 p.m. in Geneva. Tomorrow, the Security Council would be meeting to discuss Syria in the morning in New York.

Asked if Mr. Annan would be the one briefing the Security Council tomorrow, Ms. Momal-Vanian said she believed it would be his deputy who would brief the Security Council tomorrow by video conference from Geneva. Asked if Mr. Jean-Marie Guéhenno, Mr. Annan’s deputy would talk to the press afterwards, Ms. Momal-Vanian said they were looking into and would tell them as soon as possible.

In response to further questions, she said that the Joint Special Envoy would visit other countries in the region after leaving Syria, including Jordan and Lebanon.


A journalist asked about the case of a Mexican boy who was standing on the Mexican side of the border between Mexico and the United States, when he was shot and killed by an agent of the US Border Patrol. The agent was attempting to make a detention near El Paso when a group of teenagers began to throw stones at him. In response, the agent opened fire and killed the boy. The United States did not try this agent and they decided to close the case. Did the High Commissioner for Human Rights have any comment on this because this incident was just one of a trend of similar violations? Could the International Organization for Migration also comment?

Mr. Colville of OHCHR said he believed the journalist was referring to 15-year-old Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca who was fatally shot in the head on 7 June 2010. His body was found on the Mexican side of the border, whereas the shot was apparently fired from the United States side of the border. The Office of the High Commissioner had recently been informed that the United States’ Department of Justice had decided to close the investigation into this incident. The Office had also learned that the civil and civil rights law suits that had been filed by his family before the United States courts were dismissed by a federal district court on the basis that it lacked jurisdiction, because the child died on Mexican soil. In addition to that, a Mexican request for provisional detention for the purposes of an international extradition of the agent who was accused of firing the shot was also denied. OHCHR was indeed concerned that, if all this was indeed the case, there was effectively no possibility now for this crime to be investigated anywhere, or for the family to seek redress for Sergio Adrian’s death. Basically, when there was a killing like this, there was a need for a clear and thorough investigation. It was a violent death, with a bullet to the head. Essentially, States should facilitate any investigation of that type, especially when it was alleged to be carried out by State agents.

On the trend, Mr. Colville said that they had indeed received further allegations of excessive use of force by US Border Patrol agents while enforcing immigration laws. These included the deaths of Mexican nationals Anastacio Hernandez Rojas, who was reportedly beaten to death in June 2010 near the crossing point into California; 17-year-old Ramsés Barrón Torres shot at the border with Arizona in January 2011; and José Alfredo Yanez Reyes, shot at the border between Baja California, Mexico, and California, in June 2011. OHCHR called on the United States Government to facilitate the investigation into all these deaths, and to cooperate with the Mexican authorities in their efforts to investigate these and other allegations of violations to the right to life and physical integrity of migrants. OHCHR also urged the United States authorities to ensure that all the actions of the US Border Patrol were fully ascribed to the international standards applicable to officials responsible for enforcing the law.

A journalist said last week the General Assembly approved the extension of the High Commissioner for a two-year term. Did she only wish to stay for two years, or did she wish to stay for a four-year term. There had been no press release from her office, so he wanted to know why only a half term?

In response, Mr. Colville said that from the perspective of the High Commissioner, two years was perfect. That would mean a total of six years, four years from the first mandate and two additional years, so half a second mandate. This is a very tough job, so he believed that she felt that eight years would be a bit too much. But six years will give her a chance to build momentum on what she had already done in the first four years. He said Ms. Pillay was very happy with the next mandate of two years: it was exactly what she would like.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Melissa Fleming of the United Nations Refugee Agency said there had been continued fighting, resulting this time in more internal displacement and fewer numbers of people crossing the border. This showed that the shift of the fighting had gone away from the border and closer to Goma. They had been able to register 40,000 people, but there was fighting last weekend, so they believed that there were probably many more. UNHCR would start to distribute food and medicine and other aid to these displaced people who were camping out in the usual school buildings, churches, and host families, in very tough conditions. Some of the displaced reported cases of extortion, forced labour, forced recruitment of minors, and beatings by armed men. In Rwanda and Uganda, while the figures had decreased, there was still a steady flow of people crossing the border and UNHCR assistance was being upgraded continuously, all pointing to a sign that this was a very volatile and unstable area where fighting had not stopped between the rebels and the Government forces.

Elizabeth Byrs of the World Food Programme said it was very difficult to count the internally displaced persons because people were constantly on the move. When they heard the gunfire, they fled, taking no food or belongings. That was why it was so important to assist them. WFP was reinforcing its emergency operation and needed as soon as possible $ 36 million to help 500,000 persons until the end of the year. WFP was helping the newly displaced and 70,000 persons in South Kivu, 50,000 in Katanga, and a little less than 20,000 in North Kivu had already received or would be shortly receiving rations before the end of the week. So that meant 140,000 newly displaced persons. WFP was already assisting 485,000 persons in North Kivu and 522,000 in South Kivu.
WFP’s 2012 budget for the Democratic Republic of the Congo requested $ 344 million, but it was only funded by 56 per cent. There were more details in the briefing notes.

International Labour Conference

Hans von Rohland of the International Labour Organization said the 101st International Labour Conference would be starting on Wednesday, 30 May at 10 a.m. with a speech by ILO Director-General Juan Somavia. At 11:30 a.m., the President of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla Miranda, would take the floor. Places were reserved for journalists on the sixth floor.

On 31 May, ILO would launch its report on green employment. There was a change of plans, the Director-General would not be able to attend and instead the Executive Director of the Employment Sector at ILO would be briefing the press.

On Friday, 1 June, ILO’s 2012 global estimates on forced labour would be launched. There would be a press conference at 9:30 a.m. in Salle III by Beate Andrees, Chief of the Special Action Programe to Fight Forced Labour at ILO.

On Monday, 4 June, at 11:30 a.m. in Salle III, there would be a press conference on the situation of workers in the Occupied Arab Territories.

Journalists asked Mr. von Rohland to put on the website, besides each round of the votes for the Director-General yesterday, what each candidate received in votes. He was also asked to expand on information made available on the ILO website.


Isabelle Valentiny of the United Nations Environmental Programme said on Wednesday, 6 June, UNEP would be launching the fifth edition of its “Global Environment Outlook”, UNEP’s principal report which analysed the state of the world’s environment. The fifth edition offered an analysis of effective policies which could yield results, whether concerning the reduction of emissions, chemical products, and air pollution etc.

Achim Steiner, the Executive Director of UNEP, would launch UNEP’s global report at Rio on 6 June. There would also be an embargoed European launch in Geneva at 11 a.m. on the same day in press room 1, given by the main author for the European region. The embargo would be until 4 p.m. on the same day. Journalists would be sent a detailed media advisory tomorrow.

Ms. Valentiny said World Environment Day was commemorated on 5 June. There would be numerous commemorations, including in Geneva on Saturday, 2 June with a big festival at the Parc la Grange organized for families, and there would be many activities for children. On Sunday, there would be a similar festival in the centre of Brussels. There would also be activities in Bosnia, Moscow, and Vienna next week. There would be an event on 5 June at the Palais des Nations related to a competition on sustainable development. Also on 5 June, if anyone was eating at the Palais des Nations, there would be a bio menu.

International Organization for Migration and Pakistan/Viet Nam/Republic of Korea

Chris Lom of the International Organization for Migration said the last two wet seasons in Pakistan, which started in June, had resulted to cataclysmic flooding. IOM was now seeking to actually triple the size of its shelter programme launched after the 2011 floods. Those floods had displaced around 5.8 million persons. This was not an emergency response, it was about helping people to re-build their houses. The existing IOM programme was currently targeting 10,500 families, and they wanted to increase that number to 30,000 families.

Mr. Lom said IOM had just opened a migrant resource centre in Viet Nam. There were about 500,000 Vietnamese working in about 40 countries around the world, and this resource centre was making them better informed about migration and its implications and making sure they did it safely, rather than through irregular channels.

In the Republic of Korea, IOM was co-hosting with the Korean National Emergency Management Agency a two-day workshop on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and this reflected the growing interest in disaster preparedness in Asia since the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.


Ms. Flemming of the UN Refugee Agency said that had been intervention to push back Al Shabaab from the Afgooye corridor, which for years had been housing about 400,000 displaced people. What they were seeing now was that many people were moving out of Afgooye into Mogadishu. Humanitarian organizations had been very limited in assisting these people because it was an Al Shabaat stronghold. Now they had a chance to assist them. There were thousands on the move again and in need of help, but this time they probably had better humanitarian access to these persons.