REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
25 October 2013
Alessandra Vellucci, Chief, Press and External Relations Section of United Nations Information Service, chaired the briefing which was also attended by the Spokespersons for the United Nations Children’s Fund, World Health Organization, World Food Programme, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, International Organization for Migration, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, World Trade Organization, United Nations Population Fund, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Universal Postal Union.
Syria – Polio Vaccination Campaign
Marixie Mercado, for the United Nations Children’s Programme (UNICEF) said as Syria awaited confirmation of suspected polio cases in the east of the country, UNICEF had joined the World Health Organisation and other partners in mounting a large-scale immunisation effort aimed at protecting as many children as possible both in the country and across the region against polio, as well as other vaccine-preventable diseases.
Inside Syria, a campaign led by the Ministry of Health began on October 24 targeting 2.4 million children with vaccines against polio, measles, mumps and rubella.
Around 500,000 children in Syria had not been vaccinated against polio in the past two years due to insecurity and access constraints. Prior to the conflict, immunisation coverage in Syria was about 95 per cent, Ms. Mercado said.
The conflict in Syria had caused immense displacement, with millions of children on the move, either inside the country or across borders into neighbouring countries and beyond. As a result, routine immunisation systems so critical to preventing childhood diseases had been disrupted or broken down. Children were now at far higher risk of diseases such as polio and measles.
UNICEF was mobilising a huge supply operation to make sure that vaccines were in place across the region, and was reaching out to partners across all sectors to help raise community awareness of the importance of vaccinating children. Multiple, supplemental immunisation campaigns against polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases would take place inside Syria and across the region until the end of the year.
Answering a question, Ms. Mercado said UNICEF was also providing vitamin A supplements in order to boost immunity. It was more urgent that ever that the polio vaccination campaign be allowed to take place and reach all children in Syria, Ms. Mercado emphasized. The safety of the people who implemented the campaign was also of paramount importance: all parties had to allow the campaign to take place safely.
Syria – General Health Situation
Tarik Jasarevic, for the World Health Organization (WHO), spoke about the general health situation in Syria in addition to the polio immunisation campaign. Besides the suspected cases of polio, the general epidemiological situation remained stable with no major outbreaks reported. The early-warning and response system put in place by WHO in 2012, that had 290 ‘sentinel sites’ reporting on trends, was reporting that the number of measles cases was decreasing since September, mainly as a result of a vaccination campaign conducted in May by UNICEF, WHO and the Ministry of Health.
According to the health authorities, 58 of 91 public hospitals across Syria had been affected by the crisis, with 22 being damaged and 36 being out of service, Mr. Jasarevic said, adding that 27 of those 36 hospitals were located in opposition-controlled areas. More than 50 per cent of skilled health-workers had left the country, it had been reported to WHO, especially those working in more affected areas. For example, 70 per cent of medical doctors from Homs had left. The Ministry of Health reported that 205 health workers had been killed, injured or kidnapped. Furthermore, substantial damage to pharmaceutical plants meant that the production of medical drugs in Syria had gone down by 70 per cent. Prior to the conflict Syria produced 90 per cent of its medicines. The prices for medicines on the black market were very high, said Mr. Jasarevic, saying that on his recent visit to Syria he found that medicines used to treat mental health illnesses cost 30 times more than before the conflict.
As the suspected polio outbreak showed, there was a risk of infectious diseases, and WHO together with its partners was trying to provide life-saving medicines. In September it delivered more than 60 tonnes of medical supplies to more than 740,000 beneficiaries. The supplies were delivered through a network of 36 national non-governmental organizations that were operating in all areas of the country to reach all those in need with life saving medicines. WHO was providing only life-saving medicines, Mr. Jasarevic confirmed. A press release at the back of the room had more details on what WHO had provided since the beginning of October.
Answering a question about what WHO considered to be ‘life-saving medicine’, Mr. Jasarevic replied that the WHOO drew up a list of those in 2012. For example, cancer drugs, which were very expensive, or ultrasound machinery, may not necessarily be considered to be mainly life-saving medicine. WHO was trying to reach everyone. Responding to a further question, he confirmed that there was not yet any confirmed case of polio in Syria, just reported cases.
A journalist asked whether the shortage of medicines in Syria was due to sanctions, noting that the Ambassador of Syria to the United Nations Office at Geneva had, at the last session of the Human Rights Council, told journalists that due to sanctions on banks the Syrian Government was not allowed to buy medicines abroad.
Mr. Jasarevic replied it was a part of the problem but not the only reason. It was a problem of international procurement, he said, if you could not do an international bank transfer. The problem was also that there was low local production and the black market was driven by high prices. The journalist asked if it was normal, under international rules, that a State could not buy medicines.
Another journalist asked if it was correct that the United Nations Sanction Committee actually prohibited the importation of medicine. Mr. Jasarevic said he did not know the details, and that the problem was more one of banking transactions. The journalists asked UNIS to clarify the issue.
[Note to correspondents: No sanctions on Syria have been established by the United Nations Security Council. Any question on sanctions imposed by national or regional entities should be directed to the relevant authorities.]
Syria - Refugees
Christopher Lom, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said the IOM reported that they had delivered non-food relief items to over half a million displaced and conflict afflicted people in Syria since August last year. Those people were spread across the country in 12 governorates. The International Organization of Migration was working with around 20 local non-governmental organizations and especially with the Syrian Red Crescent. Aid distributions were varied and were based on needs and included everything from items of hygiene to blankets, since many had fled their houses with nothing.
Aid receivers included 35,000 people in public shelters, 320,000 in host communities and 145,000 living in cross-line or conflict areas. Of the 525,000 people assisted, 41 per cent had been under the age of 18, so there had been a very large number of children. The International Organization of Migration had been working with their partners particularly to identify vulnerable people – 65,000 of the group included the elderly, pregnant women and those with physical or mental disabilities. The IOM had expanded their staff in Syria based on available funding and made a point of trying to ensure that IOM staff was present at all distributions, so 91 per cent of those had been done or supervised by IOM staff.
The IOM had also participated in intra-agency assessment missions and worked to renovate and rehabilitate communal shelters which were highly in demand since the number of IDPs increased. There were an estimated 4.25 million people displaced in Syria and a lot of them were relatively inaccessible. The IOM would be continually trying to raise funds to expand the programme and to increase staff present in Syria to help those in need. It was also reported that the International Organization of Migration would continue efforts in working with their partners that had the knowledge on the ground.
Mr. Lom said there were a lot of resources on IOM’s regional response to the Syria humanitarian crisis available at the back of the room and on the website site the latest statistics, including a number of maps of the region showing where IOM had been providing non-food items and transport for refugees leaving the country. There was also a brief summary of the funding situation, including an appeal for US$150m that was 50 per cent funded. There was also a note on operations in Iraq.
Answering questions about the coordination of humanitarian efforts on the ground, Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that at the field level, from Damascus, OCHA, was coordinating with all the agencies who were for instance participating in joint convoys that were sending out aid to disputed areas. That was something that happened on a daily basis, and with a high advocacy effort. Mr. Laerke also drew attention to the United Nations Security Council Presidential Statement of 2 October that reminded all parties in Syria of the need to respect international humanitarian law and give unhindered access to people in need.
Answering questions about when the next humanitarian forum would be, Mr. Laerke said he did not have a date, but today in New York the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos was briefing the Security Council and he recommended journalists follow that briefing.
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) announced that the UN and humanitarian partners in the Philippines were launching an action plan that sought US$46.8 million, to meet the acute needs of the victims of the Bohol Earthquake that happened on 15 October, measuring 7.2 on the Richter Scale.
The plan supported Government priorities including emergency shelter for 344,000 displaced and homeless people, water, sanitation and hygiene, debris removal and coordination, as well as other life-saving interventions.
The Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in the Philippines, Ms Luiza Carvalho stressed the significance of timely and targeted aid for the victims, many of whom had also lost their livelihood. She said the Philippines had experienced successive, multiple and simultaneous disasters recently, and that humanitarian actors currently responding to several calamities were stretched to full capacity and needed support to provide an effective, needs-based intervention to complement the Government’s timely and hands-on response.
Mr. Laerke recalled the impact of recent natural disasters in the Philippines, saying that in the past couple of months, Philippines had seen torrential rains in Luzon which displaced nearly half a million people in and around Manila. In August, heavy rains flooded central Mindanao and displaced nearly a quarter of a million people, while another typhoon displaced over 129,000 people in Luzon. In September, conflict broke out in Zamboanga City and Basilan - an estimated 127,000 people remained displaced in the two areas. And the Bohol earthquake ten days ago killed 201 people and 344,000 people were currently displaced.
Therefore large numbers of displaced people had acute shelter needs as the northeast monsoon continued in the earthquake-affected areas until December, further exposing the population, Mr. Laerke said. People urgently required temporary and transitional shelter, to protect them from the elements. Another critical issue was the damage to water sources: pipelines, pumping stations and the electricity supply, all affecting the availability of drinking water.
Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), highlighted that elections were taking place in Madagascar today and spoke about the food security situation in the country. Ms. Byrs said that some four million people in rural areas of Madagascar faced hunger after that poor and erratic rains, cyclones (whose season was due to start in November) and a plague of locusts had ruined this year’s harvest and caused a deterioration of the situation in the country.
If the next harvest was poor and these obstacles persisted, leading to price increases, there would be an additional 9.6 million people facing food insecurity. The chronic malnutrition rate was 50 per cent, already, the sixth highest in the world. The number of out-of-school children was 1.6 million.
WFP had planned to assist one million people from November until December next year, with Government and partners assisting the rest. But because of a lack of resources, WFP was now concentrating on assisting 400,000 of the most vulnerable in the south of the island.
There had been a 21 per cent decrease in rice production in 2013 compared to 2012. Maize and cassava production had also decreased by 15 and 14 per cent respectively compared with 2012. With 28 per cent of those in rural areas suffering from food insecurity, the coming of the cyclone season, the increase in food prices and the locust outbreak, it was clear that the food security situation in the country could deteriorate, Ms. Byrs said.
WFP emphasized the importance of its programmes to support people in Madagascar including school meals, cash and food for assets, food for TB patients, and supplementary feeding for children under two and for pregnant women and nursing mothers. WFP was providing school meals to pupils in food insecure southern regions of Madagascar. The programme assisted 219,000 students. WFP was also providing food assistance to 28,000 orphans and vulnerable children in poor urban areas to support their access to education.
Ms. Byrs said the total funding shortfall was US$25 million. WFP’s Country Programme was currently facing a shortfall of US$15 million (until December 2014) while the Relief and Recovery Operation was facing a shortfall of US$10 million (until June 2014).
Israel – Human Rights Council
Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) answered in brief a question from journalists about whether Israel would participate in its Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council, which was scheduled to take place on Tuesday 29 October at 2.30 p.m. Ms. Shamdasani said that they had no news from Israel as to whether a delegation would participate but even if it did not, the UPR of Israel would take place on Tuesday.
[Later on, the Information Officer of the Human Rights Council (HRC) informed the correspondents that the issue of Israel’s UPR had been a matter of concern for the HRC due to Israel’s disengagement from the HRC since May 2012. As a result, the President of the Council had been working closely with delegations in a consensual and constructive manner to encourage Israel to re-engage with the HRC and to participate in its UPR. Council members had also expressed their desire to preserve the integrity and universality of the UPR process which witnessed a 100 % participation during the first cycle. The President of the Human Rights Council remained hopeful that the delegation of Israel will participate in their UPR on the 29th of October. At this stage the Secretariat had no indication on the presence or not of a delegation on 29 October. Since there was no need for a delegation to announce itself in advance, it might well be the case that nothing would be determined before Tuesday afternoon.
By the decision taken on 29 January, the HRC decided to reschedule the review of Israel to the 17th session of the UPR Working Group in October 2013. In accordance with HRC resolution 5/1, there was no obligation for a State to submit a written report. This had already happened in the past in a number of instances. When there was no written report, the review was based on the documents compiling UN information and summarizing stakeholders’ contributions.]
Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) answered a question about the alleged NSA phone-tapping and spying. She said that the High Commissioner had on several occasions spoken about the issue and expressed concern about the broad-ranging nature of surveillance that could impinge on people’s right to privacy. The High Commissioner said that surveillance needed to be carried out without infringing on human rights and the right to privacy, and should be narrowly targeted.
Ms. Vellucci, Chief, Press and External Relations Section of United Nations Information Service, announced that the Human Rights Committee, currently in session at Palais Wilson, had this week completed its reviews of country reports - on Bolivia, Djibouti, Mauritania, Mozambique and Uruguay. The session would end on Friday 1 November.
Ms. Vellucci said that the Committee Against Torture would next week begin a four-week session to consider the reports of nine countries. The countries, in the order they would be considered, were Mozambique, Uzbekistan, Poland, Latvia in the first week,
Belgium, Burkina Faso and Portugal in the second week and Andorra and Kyrgyzstan in the final week. A background press release was distributed on Thursday afternoon.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) would hold a press conference today, Friday, 25 October, in Press Room 1 at 1 p.m. preceded by a brown-bag lunch from 12.45 p.m. The subject was a briefing on the mission of the UNICEF Emergency Directors to the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ted Chaiban, Emergencies Director, UNICEF would speak.
Rheal LeBlanc, for the Universal Postal Union (UPU), provided an update on the Global Forum on Financial Inclusion for Development Forum discussions taking place at the Geneva International Conference Centre (CICG) on 24 ansto 25 October. Mr. LeBlanc stated that the Conference, which was a joint endeavour with the Swiss Government, was on financial inclusion and the role of postal services in this process. Yesterday’s discussions focused on the need to reduce the cost of money transfers sent by migrants to their home countries, and how global postal services could bring people into more formal financial systems. Mr. LeBlanc highlighted two discussions of interest taking place this afternoon: the first being a panel discussion on the role of authorities in financial postal inclusion, with representatives from different central banks like Burundi and Somalia. The second being a session on the role of the UPU’s partners and donating organizations in the development of financial postal inclusion, led by representatives of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the National Fund for Agricultural Development, which were partner institutions supporting UPU research and activities in the field. Representatives of the World Bank and the UPU’s Director and Vice-Director General would also be present. The programme was available on the UPU website.
Catherine Sibut for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) announced that the Global Investment Trade Monitor would be published next Thursday, 31 October. The last edition of the report was published in March, on the regional group of the BRICs. The latest instalment would report on global tendencies and include a regional breakdown. There were no plans to hold a press briefing, but Ms. Sibut said that there were experts available to answer any questions from journalists.
Laura Gehrke, for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) announced the launch of the annual State of the World Population Report, this year entitled ‘Motherhood and Childhood: facing the challenge of teenage pregnancy’. A press conference would be held on Wednesday 30 October in Press Room 1 at 10 a.m. Alanna Armitage, Director of the UNFPA Office in Geneva, and UNFPA Senior Maternal Health Advisor Luc de Bernis would be speaking. The main launch would be in London and the report was under embargo until 11 a.m. Geneva time on the Wednesday, Ms. Gehrke added. A media advisory with all information had been circulated.
Melissa Begag, for the World Trade Organization (WTO) outlined WTO activities in the coming week. Today at 3 p.m. there would be a meeting of the Trade and Negotiations Committee, followed by a press briefing at 5 p.m. in Room A at the WTO. The Committee on Trade in Financial Services would meet on Monday 28 October at 10 a.m. At 3 p.m. the same day there would be a meeting of the Working Party on Domestic Regulation. On Tuesday 29 October at 10 a.m. the Committee on Specific Commitments would meet, followed by a meeting of the Working Party on GATS Rules at midday, then of the Council for Trade in Services at 3 p.m. The Cotton Development Assistance consultations would take place at 10 a.m. on Wednesday 30 October, and that day and Thursday 31 October the Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade would hold full-day meetings.
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The representatives of the United Nations Refugee Agency and the International Labour Organization attended the briefing but did not speak.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: webtv.un.org/media