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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

23 August 2016

Alessandra Vellucci, Director, United Nations Information Service, chaired the briefing attended by spokespersons for the United Nations Refugee Agency, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the International Organization for Migration, the World Food Programme and the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria.

Yellow fever vaccination campaign

Tarik Jasarevic, for the World Health Organization (WHO), gave an update on the latest yellow fever vaccination campaign in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Angola. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the turnout had been good and no incidents had been reported since the vaccination campaign had started in Kinshasa on 16 August. So far, in Kinshasa city more than 5.3 million people had been vaccinated, which was over 70 per cent of the target population in the city. The campaign had spun across 32 health zones in the city of Kinshasa since 16 August. The campaign had been broadened to other areas and was currently ongoing in all six provinces of Kinshasa and Kongo Central. In Kwango, Lualaba and Kasaï today was the fourth day of the campaign, whereas Kasaï-Central had launched the campaign on 22 August.

In Angola, a vaccination campaign was underway in the border areas. So far, more than 1.9 million people had been vaccinated as part of the current vaccination campaign, which was more than two-thirds of the target population in the country.

In response to a question, Mr. Jasarevic said that the Emergency Committee regarding yellow fever would meet on 31 August. He said that at its last meeting on 19 May, the Committee had stated that the yellow fever epidemic was not a global public health emergency, but that it was a serious threat which required a response. As long as a situation was not being declared a public health emergency, there was no obligation for the Committee to meet every three months. However, in the case of other diseases such as MERS for example, the Emergency Committee had met four or five times without ever declaring MERS a global public health emergency. At the end of its last meeting on 19 May, the Emergency Committee regarding yellow fever had stated that it was ready to meet again and discuss the evolution of the situation. The WHO Director-General had asked the Committee to meet in order to analyse the situation and the response that had been provided so far.

In response to another question, Mr. Jasarevic said that the fractional doses, or emergency doses, of the yellow fever vaccine were being used in Kinshasa only.

Iraq

Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that in Iraq, displacement might be about to dramatically worsen with the focus of military action turning towards Mosul. Already, in recent months, some 213,000 people had fled their homes in different parts of the country.

Mosul was Iraq’s second largest city, and the humanitarian impact of a military offensive there was expected to be enormous. Up to 1.2 million people could be affected. UNHCR was doing what it could amid enormous challenges to build more camps to accommodate people and mitigate suffering, but additional land for camps and funding was still needed.

Iraq was already one of the world’s biggest internal displacement situations. Some 3.38 million people had fled their homes since January 2014, among them families who had been displaced multiple times.

UNHCR continued to advocate, in a volatile, fast-evolving and complex conflict, for freedom of movement of civilian populations. This was especially critical when it came to people fleeing combat zones. Everything possible should be done to ensure the safety and dignity of people affected.

UNHCR was providing humanitarian support, including shelter, emergency relief kits and protection services, such as legal aid for displaced families. With the impending situation in Mosul, UNHCR was now expanding its efforts to be able to assist hundreds of thousands more people.

Contingency plans had been drawn up to provide shelter assistance for up to 120,000 people fleeing conflict in Mosul and surrounding areas, as part of an inter-agency response to the crisis. Across the region, a series of camps were in the process of being expanded or established while other shelter options were being prepared.

Altogether, UNHCR was looking to set up camps in up to six locations across northern Iraq although progress depended on both the availability of land and of funding. UNHCR’s overall appeal for $584m for displaced people including Iraqi refugees in the region had been only 38 per cent funded as of 2 August.

Finding available land for the new camps had become a critical issue. Land was identified and provided by the local authorities and assessed by UNHCR, other UN agencies and humanitarian partners for suitability. However, the issue was fraught with problems. Many private landowners were unwilling to lease land; other land might be unsuitable due to its topography, its proximity to the frontline or military operations and the risk of contamination by UXOs or landmines. UNHCR was leading the protection, shelter and non-food items and camp coordination and management response. The agency currently had contingency stocks of tents and other relief items for 20,000 households country-wide.

In response to questions, Mr. Edwards said that at present, humanitarian agencies did not have direct access to Mosul, and that had been the case since June 2014. It was thus very difficult to say with certainty how many people were inside the city. In the rural areas around Mosul, there may be up to 800,000 people, but within the city estimates varied widely. According to the best estimations available, up to 400,000 people could be displaced south of Mosul along the Tigris river, up to 250,000 to the east of Mosul and up to 100,000 further north.

Cécile Pouilly, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the High Commissioner was deeply dismayed at the execution on 21 August of 36 people in Iraq in relation to the 2014 Camp Speicher massacre, during which some 1,700 cadets had been killed by ISIL fighters, particularly given the serious due process concerns and fair trial shortcomings in those cases.

As the High Commissioner had said in the aftermath of the killings at Camp Speicher, the “magnitude and brutality of the Camp Speicher massacre was exceptional” and it was important to respond to the plight of the survivors and families of the victims. He had urged the authorities to ensure that any trials conducted in connection with the massacre respected due process and international fair trial rather than be fuelled by vengeance. Unfortunately, this had not been the case.

OHCHR was concerned that the individuals who had been executed had been convicted only on the basis of information provided by secret informants or by confessions allegedly extracted under duress. The claims of 19 defendants that they had been tortured to induce confessions had never been investigated. The defendants had been represented by a Court-appointed lawyer who had not intervened during the proceedings, making only a three-minute statement before the verdicts had been delivered.

An estimated 1,200 individuals remained on death row in Iraq. OHCHR urged the authorities to halt all imminent executions and to urgently conduct a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system in the country.

The Gambia

Ms. Pouilly said that OHCHR deplored the reported death in custody of Ebrima Solo Kurumah, a member of the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP), on 20 August.

According to information OHCHR had received, Mr. Kurumah had passed away after he had been taken to hospital for a surgical operation. He had allegedly been denied medical help on several occasions while in detention.

Mr. Kurumah had been among the 30 members of the main opposition party sentenced to three years' imprisonment in July 2016, following their participation in peaceful demonstrations to call for electoral reform and to protest against the death in State custody of the Chairman of the UDP youth wing, Solo Sandeng. Other detainees had also reportedly been denied medical care in recent months.

OHCHR urged the authorities to investigate the death in State custody of Mr. Sandeng and Mr. Kuruma, as well as allegations that detainees were denied access to medical care.

Israel

Ms. Pouilly said that OHCHR was deeply concerned at the deteriorating health of Bilal Kayed, a 35-year-old Palestinian man, who had been on hunger strike in Israel since 15 June 2016 to protest against his administrative detention. After 70 days of hunger strike, Mr. Kayed was reported to be in a critical condition. Mr. Kayed was one of the at least 700 Palestinians believed to be held in administrative detention in Israel Prison Service facilities. This was the highest number of administrative detainees at a given time since early 2008.

Mr. Kayed had been arrested in December 2001 and sentenced to 14 years and six months' imprisonment. He had been held in solitary confinement during his last nine months of imprisonment. On 13 June 2016, the day of his scheduled release, a six-month administrative detention order had been issued against him on unspecified security grounds and relying on secret evidence.

OHCHR was also worried at the situation of some 100 Palestinian detainees who were on hunger strike in solidarity with Mr. Kayed or to protest their own administrative detention or placement in isolation. One of them, Ayyad Jamal Al-Hreini, had also been re-arrested and held in administrative detention on 23 December 2015, ten days after having completed a three-year sentence. He had been on hunger strike since mid-July.

OHCHR, once again, urged the Israeli authorities to end their practice of administrative detention and to either release immediately or promptly charge and prosecute all administrative detainees, with all the judicial guarantees required by international human rights law and standards.

Ms. Vellucci added that three days previous Robert Piper, UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance and Development Aid for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, had issued a statement on Israel’s continued practice of administrative detention. He had also expressed deep concern about the deteriorating health of Bilal Kayed. He had said that the number of administrative detainees was at an eight-year high, and had reiterated the UN’s long-standing position that all administrative detainees, Palestinian or Israeli, should be charged or released without delay.

Mauritania

Ms. Pouilly said that OHCHR was concerned at the sentencing on 18 August of 23 people, including 13 members of a prominent NGO that campaigned against slavery, to prison terms ranging from three to 15 years for their alleged role in a riot in June.

The 23 individuals had been found guilty by a court in Nouakchott of rebellion, physical assault of police officers, armed assembly and membership of an unrecognized organization.

On 20 June 2016, violent clashes with police forces had taken place during the eviction of some 400 families from a slum in Nouakchott, many of whom were themselves former slaves. Dozens of people, including 19 police officers, had been injured.

OHCHR was deeply troubled by allegations that the trial had been marred by irregularities and that some of those found guilty had not even been present at the June protests. OHCHR urged the Mauritanian authorities to quickly review this case and to investigate allegations that some of the defendants had been subject to ill-treatment or torture during their pre-trial detention.

Philippines

In response to a question regarding a suggestion by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte that his country might leave the UN, Ms. Pouilly noted that the Foreign Minister of the Philippines had said on 22 August that his country was committed to the UN. OHCHR encouraged dialogue and cooperation with the UN on human rights issues.

Refugee and migrant children in Central America

Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that UNICEF was issuing today a child alert on the frightening journey of children from Central America to the United States, and seeking to highlight the risks that they were taking to escape gang violence and poverty. Every month, thousands of children from Central America risked being kidnapped, trafficked, raped, or killed as they made their way to the United States to seek refuge from brutal gangs and poverty, and there was no sign this trend was letting up. In 2016, until June, 26,000 unaccompanied children had been apprehended at the US border, more than during the same period in 2015. A further 16,000 children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras had been apprehended in Mexico in the first six months of 2016. Data showed that unaccompanied children who did not have an attorney in US immigration hearings – 40 per cent – were more likely to be deported than those who did. Those vulnerable children, many of whom were travelling without an adult, needed protection every step of the way: in their home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – which had some of the world’s highest murder rates – as they crossed Mexico, and when they arrived in the United States.
In the first six months of 2016, almost 26,000 unaccompanied children and close to 29,700 people travelling as a family, mostly mothers and young children, had been apprehended at the US border with Mexico. Thousands more had never made it to the border – apprehended, kidnapped, trafficked, murdered, or fallen victim of the harsh environment along the way.

Unaccompanied children apprehended in the United States were guaranteed an immigration court hearing, but were not entitled to a court-appointed attorney. Those who were deported faced the risk of being attacked or killed by the gangs they had sought to escape.

UNICEF believed that detention of children on the basis of their migration status should be prevented. Children also should have full access to healthcare and other services and should be allowed to live with their families whenever possible.

It was also critical to address the causes of migration. Together with its partners, UNICEF was supporting the efforts of Governments to improve children’s lives and address communal and criminal violence in countries of origin. UNICEF also worked to strengthen services that reduced the vulnerability of children to violence, with a strong focus on education and health. It also advocated for the protection of children’s rights throughout their journey, and for governments to provide assistance to returnee children. Mr. Boulierac said that whatever their migration status, children were first and foremost children, and the countries who had signed and ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child had an obligation to keep them safe.

In response to a question, Mr. Boulierac said that UNICEF was disturbed by reports of children being abused and denied their rights in the United States, while it appreciated at the same time that the United States had a well-established set of institutions and policies to protect migrants children. Only 40 per cent of the children had an attorney in US immigration hearings. Mexican children crossing the US border and children from non-contiguous countries in the region did not have the same rights in practical terms. Unaccompanied children from Mexico could be immediately expelled by border authorities without any immigration court involvement, whereas those from non-contiguous countries were guaranteed a court hearing. Mr. Boulierac reiterated that all decisions should be guided by the best interest of the child, as stipulated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Detention of children on the basis of their migration status should be prevented, given the negative impact detention has on a child's development and because children were particularly vulnerable to physical and psychological violence. There was a critical need for each country to seek alternatives to detention.

In response to another question, Mr. Boulierac said that Mexico had recently approved a law to establish a comprehensive and integral child protection system across the country. UNICEF believed that implementing such a system would go a long way in protecting effectively children in Mexico. UNICEF was working with the Mexican Government and with other actors to make that system a reality.

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that IOM was releasing today a data briefing titled “Dangerous Journeys”, with a long section on Central America and the increase in violence there, which was spurring migration. He said that the nature of the violence in Central America and Mexico had become extremely serious. In the past month, three children from Central America had been found drowned at a crossing, but the topic was not getting enough media attention. He said that such cases were happening daily, and in 2016 there had been over 200 deaths through the end of June on the route linking Panama to the US/Mexico border. Out of the 161 deaths on the US/Mexico border in 2016, a total of 74 bodies had been so degraded that it was not sure whether they had been male or female. Very high summer temperatures were contributing to daily fatalities along that stretch. More details were available in the report.

Answering a question, Mr. Millman said that trains accounted for 67 per cent of the deaths on the route over the past two years, and 30 per cent in 2016. “La Bestia”, the train crossing Mexico, had been under greater scrutiny, and many more migrants were traveling by car, so the number of deadly car accidents had increased. According to some estimates, 9,400 people had been killed in Mexico in the first half of 2016 in inter-community violence, from narco-terrorism to the lynching of village mayors and many other instances. Criminal groups were opposing migrant shelters as those gave more security to migrants and made them less prone to kidnapping. Mr. Millman said that the migrant deaths on the route linking Panama to the US/Mexico border were underreported and the real number was probably considerably more than the 200 reported in 2016 so far.

Nigeria

Mr. Millman said that IOM had issued a press release today pointing out that there were over 2 million internally displaced people in Nigeria related to the Boko Haram conflict that was affecting the entire Lake Chad basin area. IOM Nigeria was in need of significant financial support to provide continued shelter, displacement tracking, biometric registration and address other needs of that displaced population. More information was available in the press release.

Bettina Luescher, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that she had just sent a WFP press release stating that there were 4.5 million people in need of urgent food assistance in north-eastern Nigeria, hit hard by Boko Haram violence. The number comes from a new study carried out in conjunction with the Government, various UN agencies and NGOs. WFP was concerned that the number could rise even by another million. WFP staff on the ground were worried about insufficient access to the affected people. Some 65,000 people could be facing famine-like situations, and with the rains setting in and the lean season, more areas becoming open, more hunger and devastation would become visible. Many people had been uprooted by the fighting, and some were returning to their rural homes and discovering that they could not live there anymore. They were forced to stay in urban areas, and needed external assistance. The spiralling economic crisis was also exacerbating the situation.

Syria

In response to a question, Jessy Chahine, for the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria (OSE), said that the UN was currently working on operational plans related to the ceasefire in Aleppo, in consultation with the co-chairs of the ISSG, who were reaching out to the parties on the ground upon which they had influence. The UN was looking at any proposal to mitigate the suffering of the people of Aleppo, but the proposals needed to be agreed by all parties. It was also vitally important that the ceasefire proposal covered a sufficiently long period of time to allow assistance to reach those in need. Ms. Chahine also said that the Humanitarian Access Taskforce would meet on 25 August in Geneva and there would be a stakeout by the Special Envoy thereafter. She also said that Yacoub El Hillo UN Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative for the Syrian Arab Republic would be in Geneva over the course of the week and would attend that meeting.

Ms. Vellucci added that Stephen O’Brien had briefed the Security Council on 22 August on the situation and that his statement had been sent to the press that night.

Geneva Events and Announcements

The Conference on Disarmament - the third and last part of the annual session of which would run until 16 September – was holding this morning its first public plenary under the Presidency of Ambassador Kim In-chul of the Republic of Korea.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which was holding its ninetieth session at the Palais Wilson, would be holding private meetings until the closing of its session on 26 August, at the conclusion of which it would publish its final observations on the reports presented by eight States Parties which it had reviewed: Greece, the United Kingdom, Paraguay, South Africa, Lebanon, Ukraine, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was currently holding its sixteenth session, would complete this morning its review of the report of Guatemala, started on 22 August in the afternoon. During the session, which would run until 2 September at the Palais Wilson, the Committee would also review the reports of Colombia and Italy.

Ms. Vellucci announced a press conference of the International Labour Organization (ILO) on 24 August at 10.30 a.m. in Press Room 1, to launch the “World Employment and Social Outlook 2016: Trends for Youth” under embargo until 24 August at 10 p.m. Geneva time. The speakers would be Lawrence J. Johnson, Deputy Director, ILO Research Department, and Steven Tobin, ILO Senior Economist. There would be video coverage of the conference. It was possible to obtain a copy of the embargoed report ahead of time by contacting newsroom@ilo.org.

Ms. Vellucci also announced a press conference by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on 25 August at 11 a.m. in Press Room 1, launching an OHCHR report on the situation of human rights in Yemen. The speaker would be Mohammad Ali Alnsour, Chief of the Middle East and North Africa Section, OHCHR.

Tarik Jasarevic, for the World Health Organization (WHO), announced a press conference on 23 August at 2 p.m. in Press Room 1 with Dr Rick Brennan, WHO Director for Emergency Risk Management and Humanitarian Response, who would speak about the health situation in Nigeria.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog230816