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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

19 May 2017

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

Syria

On behalf of the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria (OSE), Ms. Vellucci said that the intra-Syrian talks were continuing today and there would be a press conference of the Special Envoy at the end of the afternoon. More details would be provided as soon as possible.

In response to a question about a WhatsApp group for communicating with journalists, Tom Peyre-Costa, media point of contact for the talks at OSE, said that the group was set up for convenient and fast sharing of information in an informal way, to facilitate the journalists’ work.

South Sudan

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that today, jointly with the Human Rights Division of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), OHCHR was issuing a report on what had happened in and around Yei in Central Equatoria province, about 150 kilometers southwest of Juba, between July 2016 and January 2017. He introduced Julie de Rivero, Chief of OHCHR’s Africa Section for East and Southern Africa. Ms. de Rivero said the report was the result of an in-depth investigation into human rights violations and abuses committed in and around Yei town during that timeframe. It documented shocking levels of violations and abuses against civilians both sides of the conflict, including 114 cases, individually verified, of killings by pro-Government forces. There had also been many cases of conflict-related sexual violence, arbitrary detention, abduction, looting and destruction of civilian property. OHCHR believed that what had been documented was just a small sample of what had happened in Yei, but access restrictions by the Government were such that it had been impossible to discover the full extent of the violations and to adequately document the violations committed by the opposition, due to lack of access to areas where those groups were active.

The report was particularly significant because of the locality where the violations had taken place. Until recently, Yei had been largely a peaceful and multi-ethnic area of South Sudan which had been spared from the conflict until July 2016. After Riek Machar had used this corridor to escape into the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) forces had followed the opposition and conflicts had intensified around the Yei area.

The events in Yei were widely believed to have had repercussions elsewhere in South Sudan, especially fuelling the ethnic dimension of the conflict. An attack by a suspected armed group of the opposition on a vehicle carrying civilians from Yei to Juba on 8 October 2016, in which at least 21 members of the Dinka tribe had been killed, was widely believed to have triggered the incidents of hate speech and threats against non-Dinkas across the country, particularly against Equatorians. During the attack, the suspected rebels had opened fire on the vehicle, had climbed into it, doused it with gasoline, and set it on fire. Some 19 casualties had been rushed to hospital, including a seven-month-old girl, whose mother had been killed in the attack, as well as a seven-year-old Dinka boy, whose siblings had also been killed. Of the 11 bodies taken to the morgue, six had been burned beyond recognition.

The SPLA, during this period, had facilitated the movement of mainly Dinka civilians from Yei to Juba in Government and military vehicles. The Government had also prevented Equatorian communities from leaving Yei town, through setting up checkpoints and preventing their freedom of movement. The report documented targeted killings by the SPLA, including the killing on 14 October 2016 of a 50-year-old man who had called in to a radio station to denounce the killings. He had then been shot dead. In other instances, civilians had been rounded up in huts, shot, and the huts had been set on fire. OHCHR had satellite imagery of the wanton destruction of traditional huts. There were two incidents in which SPLA soldiers had attacked mourners.

With the report, OHCHR was once again making an appeal to all the parties to cease the hostilities, calling on all international and regional partners and actors to intensify their efforts to bring the conflict to an end, and calling on the Government to investigate those cases, implement the cease-fire it had promised, and allow access to human rights observers across the country. OHCHR was also asking the African Union to accelerate proceedings for the establishment of a hybrid court to judge such crimes.

Asked about the provenance of the satellite images she had mentioned, Ms. de Rivero said that she believed those were UNMISS-commissioned images. She would confirm that and get back to the press. Asked why the report stopped in January, she said the period covered in the report was a period of particularly intense violence. It was the period of several missions carried out by OHCHR in the area. The situation had calmed down somewhat since then but targeted killings were still being recorded in the area.

In response to a question, Ms. De Rivero said that on several occasions, OHCHR had tried to access areas controlled by the armed opposition, but had been impeded by Government forces. OHCHR had also tried to collect testimony from people leaving those areas, but had not had enough testimony to make a rough estimate of the abuses carried out by armed opposition groups. But the report also reflected some allegations of killings and abductions of refugees by opposition armed forces. Ms. de Rivero also said that what had triggered the violence had been the attempt to catch the opposition as they had been crossing into the territory of the DRC, and that had sparked revenge killings on both sides, which was a standard violation seen across South Sudan. There was always command responsibility when military structures were operating, and that was why OHCHR wished to see appropriate investigations, and if necessary, international investigations in the form of a hybrid court, so that that responsibility could be established.

Venezuela

Asked about the continuing deadly violence in Venezuela, and the opposition leader Henrique Capriles being blocked from leaving the country to go to the UN in New York, Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR very much regretted the continued loss of lives during the political unrest. The latest death toll that he had was the one disclosed by the attorney general Luisa Ortega Díaz on 17 May, who had confirmed 42 deaths. OHCHR welcomed the announcement that the deaths were being investigated and hoped that they would be properly investigated, which was extremely important. There were allegations of excessive use of force by security forces, and OHCHR stressed that it was important that they operated in accordance with international human rights standards. There were also reports of violence by armed groups and it was the responsibility of the State to protect its population from armed groups and from the proliferation of weapons. OHCHR also urged protesters to use peaceful means, and was concerned by the reports that people being detained in the context of the protests were being brought before military tribunals. Civilians taking part in public protests should be brought before civilian courts if they were being accused of crimes or misdemeanours.

Mr. Capriles was to meet the High Commissioner in New York and was unable to leave the country. High Commissioner Zeid had said on Twitter that he regretted that Mr. Capriles was unable to travel and hoped that the passport removal was not a reprisal for the planned meeting in New York with him today. The High Commissioner would meet today with Mr. Capriles’ lawyer who was in the US, and would share with the High Commissioner a report from Mr. Capriles. If Mr. Capriles were able to leave Venezuela on another occasion and the High Commissioner was able to fit a meeting into his agenda, there was no reason why he would not meet with him. OHCHR was having a conversation with the Venezuelan authorities to be able to visit the country and that hadn’t happened yet. OHCHR would continue to contact the Permanent Representatives of Venezuela in Geneva and in New York on various issues. OHCHR was monitoring the situation as well as it could from outside the country, but it would be good to be able to visit the country as the situation in Venezuela was very worrying.

Asked about snipers active during demonstrations, Mr. Colville said that OHCHR had not heard specifically about snipers but had heard reports about armed vigilante-type individuals outside official forces that were committing violent acts.

Mexico

Asked about what the Mexican Government could do to protect journalists in Mexico following recent killings, Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), deplored the assassinations of six journalists and three human rights defenders in 2017, including most recently Javier Valdez, a very well-known journalist, and the human right defender Miriam Rodriguez. Those cases had raised real questions about the protection programme that was supposed to be operating in Mexico. OHCHR welcomed the announcement on 18 May by the President and Governors of Mexico of measures designed to strengthen existing institutional mechanisms to protect journalists and human rights defenders. Mr. Colville also said there really needed to be tangible results. The attrition on freedom of expression and on human rights defenders was really chronic and OHCHR hoped the current sadness and anger about the recent killings would translate into better protection. There was a national protection mechanism which was supposed to help protect people, but in the recent cases even the escorts of the beneficiaries of that mechanism had been themselves killed. Very often, those who were killed, journalists and human rights defenders, had already been threatened and had already suffered attacks that had not been fatal. So the warning was there in most cases, and yet they were still getting killed. The question of impunity was essential, as in very few cases were the killers brought to justice, which encouraged more killings.

There had been a press release on 18 May by the UN Special Rapporteur on the freedom of expression, David Kaye, but also by the Special Rapporteur of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Edison Lanza, which focused specifically on Javier Valdez. Mr. Colville also stressed specifically the case of Miriam Rodriguez, who had been a very brave woman. After her daughter had been murdered (after having disappeared), Miriam Rodriguez had become a human rights activist, specifically focusing on disappearence cases. She had then been murdered in front of her own home, ironically, on Mother’s day. Mr. Colville emphasized that people like her were tremendously important to upholding the rule of law in Mexico.

To a question asking if OHCHR expected the Government of Mexico to accept a visit from the Special Rapporteur, Mr. Colville said he could not speak for the Government but stressed that the Special Rapporteur should be able to go to all countries as relevant. There were a lot of issues affecting the freedom of expression in Mexico: not just physical attacks, but also a climate of fear now surrounding people who were brave enough to express opinions and report on crime, particularly drug-related crime.

Iraq

Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), introduced Peter Hawkins, UNICEF Representative in Iraq. Speaking by phone from Iraq, Mr. Hawkins said that 500,000 people had been displaced out of western Mosul, where the siege on the inner city continued. In total, over 700,000 civilians had been displaced out of Mosul in its entirety. The protection of civilians, especially women and children still stuck in a city where conflict continued on a day to day basis, was of great concern. Those civilians had been cut off from food and medication for a number of weeks now. Children who had been stuck in basements were suffering from trauma, and that was also of enormous concern. Civilians were being injured and killed. Some of those who had been able to flee had seen their protection in fleeing compromised. It was expected that some 200,000 more civilians would come out of west Mosul – that could be less or more depending on the military situation. Preparations for that had bene underway for a while and UNICEF was providing water and sanitation facilities for the camps, as well as child-friendly spaces. For the moment, there were constraints in the number of places available. However, if the current exodus continued, there would be enough places to accommodate people over the next few days. Should it spike, the ability to accommodate them in all the camps might be compromised.

About 50 per cent of those coming out of west Mosul were finding places to stay outside of camps. In east Mosul, people had been greeted very warmly and hospitably. For those who were fleeing, a rapid response mechanism consisting of water, food and dignity kits was being provided. That was an ongoing operation by UNICEF, UNFPA and WFP. They then went through the screening to be accommodated within the shelters or in host communities. In the camps, there were facilities for children to receive immunization and psycho-social care through play and educational facilities.

One of the main concerns were those who remained inside the city. UNICEF, WFP and UNFPA with their very brave partners on the ground were providing multi-sectorial support in the form of water or aqua tabs, hygiene kits, some food and dignity kits so that people may remain in the city should they require to. This was also proving logistically very difficult since the roads leading into the city had been badly damaged and there was a risk of drone and mortar attacks from within the city, which were ongoing.

A lot had been done in eastern Mosul since the retake of the city. The water system was starting to work much better, UNICEF still trucked in about 2 million liters of water per day but the pumps were now beginning to be rehabilitated and connected to the water supply, thanks to work done by UNICEF and UNDP together with the Water Resources Authority. Vaccination of children was ongoing, and most of the city had been covered with measles and polio vaccination. A programme had been launched to make sure that all children were fully immunized over the next three to four months.

Schools were fully open now. Some 140 schools had been fully renovated and 350,000 children were back in school. That had been an enormous effort by the Department of Education. Mr. Hawkins highlighted the dedication of the teachers.

Asked about the figures regarding displacement, Mr. Hawkins added that about 30,000 people who had initially fled West Mosul had already returned. He also said that UNICEF believed that in the old city there were probably about 200,000 people trapped, but it was very difficult to know precisely. The potential for most of them to flee the city was very high.

Asked about the use of drones, Mr. Hawkins said that there had been experience of ISIL using drones in the eastern part of the city and that was of concern to the humanitarian community. It would constrain humanitarians’ work if drone attacks were to continue and intensify, especially if humanitarian convoys were targeted. At times, ISIL had used explosive ordnance on their drones.

Mr. Hawkins also expressed thanks to donors for their generosity towards all agencies and organizations working in Iraq, without which none of the humanitarian operations would be possible.

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that hundreds of thousands of people were leaving Mosul and many of them had found refuge with other people in the area who had opened their doors to them. He quoted the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq as having said on 18 May that it was incredible to see the generosity of people in other parts of Mosul city, who had opened their homes and were looking after displaced families from western Mosul. Without their support the camps would have been overwhelmed long ago.

Mr. Laerke also said that the UN had an overall humanitarian response plan requesting USD 985 million and about one third of the plan was focused on the humanitarian response in Mosul. The plan was currently 28 per cent funded and more resources were urgently needed.

Yemen

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), introduced Dr Nevio Zagaria, WHO Yemen Country Representative. Speaking by phone from Yemen, Dr. Zagaria said that on 18 May, 3,460 new cholera cases and 20 more deaths had been reported in that one day only. The total of reported cases in the past three weeks in Yemen was of 23,425, and 242 deaths. The disease had spread in 18 of the 23 governorates. The case fatality rate of around 1 per cent was misleading because there were geographical pockets with very poor access to health services, where case fatality reached 4 to 5 per cent as patients reached health facilities very late. Specific age groups, like the population over 60 which represented more than 25 per cent of the overall case load, also had a case fatality over 4 per cent.

A cholera epidemic had started in October 2016, had peaked in December and then had shown significant reduction, but had never been fully controlled. The resurgence of cholera coincided with the rainy season, the further deterioration of the economic situation and the collapse of the health system, with most health workers not receiving salaries over the past six months. That was combined with clear vulnerabilities and attitudes of the population in relation to cholera with roots before the conflict. People had the tendency to go directly to the hospital, while hospitals were completely overwhelmed and congested, instead of having home-based oral rehydration therapy started immediately and then go to the oral rehydration points.

In the first three weeks of the outbreak, WHO worked hand in hand with UNICEF and all the health cluster partners to set up new cholera treatment centres with beds, within hospitals or within temporary structures outside of hospitals, and oral rehydration points. There were now 50 cholera treatment centres operational in the country, and around 300 oral rehydration points. But those numbers were not sufficient to deal with the resurgence of the cholera epidemic.

Looking at the new data released this morning (see above), Dr Zagaria said that the speed of the resurgence of the cholera epidemic was unprecedented compared to what had been seen previously in Yemen. Factors contributing to this were the very severe economic situation, and the fact that electricity was not functioning, so the water pumping stations were functioning in an intermittent way. The sewage system was damaged and the population was using water that was not decontaminated. The cholera epidemic already had pockets with person to person transmission.

The overall humanitarian response was being coordinated by the humanitarian coordinator. WHO would release an emergency response cholera plan in the coming 48 hours. There was an underfunding of the health and water and sanitation sector. There was a need to work together for an integrated response and scale up operations on the ground.

Asked about the emergency response plan to be launched, Dr Zagaria said the plan would entail a reinforcement of the health education campaign at all levels, as well as community mobilization, and a scaling up of the number of cholera oral rehydration points and cholera treatment centres. WHO had a target of 350 cholera treatment centres and 2,000 oral rehydration points, and was covering around 10 to 12 per cent of that target at the moment. WHO was also improving further the surveillance system and the quality of reporting to identify the areas from which the patients came. WHO was supporting the local authorities to increase the number of data managers to provide timely information to international and national NGOs. This part of the work was in real need of funding and scaling up. The spread of the disease was such that the authorities needed substantial support to rehabilitate the sewage system, treat and chlorinate the water sources, and in terms of a social mobilization campaign which needed to reach many more people with different methods: not only TV and media, but also house-to-house visits in remote areas. Support to health workers was also necessary, and it was not possible to respond to the emergency without addressing the issue of the payment of their salaries.

Asked about worries about a potential attack on the port of Al-Hudaydah, Dr Zagaria said that access to the port was currently limited but not interrupted. The medical supplies in the country were already depleted. WHO had organized a cargo of 80 tons of cholera medical supplies and IV fluid to be distributed inside the country. That aspect needed to be factored in: the cost of the operation in Yemen was extremely high, also due to the very difficult logistical situation. It was necessary to rely more on aid operations because of lack of time, poor stockpiling inside the country and the difficulties in accessing ports such as the one of Al-Hudaydah.

Dr Zagaria added that given that there was no information out of some areas, the situation may be even worse than portrayed. The resources to beef up and reactivate the health system in order to deliver services to the population were lacking. WHO had made clear that any patient going to a health facility in the case of this epidemic must have completely free access to health care. The international community needed to be more flexible and in this emergency, to open the door to the payment of incentives to health workers as well as their salaries. Even in areas close to the frontline it was necessary to rely more on the network of community volunteers and social mobilization in order to detect cases early as mortality was widely due to cases being detected and arriving at the hospital late.

The population of Yemen was not at 29,600,000 people. WHO had predicted that it expected 150,000 cases as part of this epidemic, but if transmission went on at this speed the figure would need to be revised to over 200,000 – 250,000 over the next six months, in addition to the 50,000 cases which had already occurred. With these numbers, the price to pay in terms of loss of life would be very high.

Asked about the difference between cholera and acute watery diarrhoea, Mr. Lindmeier said that the presence of the bacteria vibrio cholera needed to be confirmed for the cases to be confirmed as cholera cases. Normally when cases were found, they were all treated as cholera even if there was not a laboratory confirmation. But cholera was a specific type of acute watery diarrhoea.

Babar Baloch, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that as the bitter conflict in Yemen continued, the pressure was also mounting on refugees who had gone to the country. Currently, there were about 280,000 refugees in Yemen. Their situation was worsening and their needs and vulnerabilities were growing by the day. The overwhelming majority of refugees in Yemen, 91 per cent or some 255,000, were Somali refugees who had been coming to the country since the early nineties.

Yemen had traditionally been very generous in accepting those in need of international protection and was the only country in the Arabian Peninsula signatory to the Refugee Convention and the Protocol, but the ongoing war had limited the capacities to provide adequate assistance and protection to refugees.

UNHCR was receiving an increasing number of refugees approaching the Agency for assistance to support their return to Somalia, citing safety and security concerns and limited access to services in Yemen. Some 30,600 Somalis have reportedly already returned to Somalia from Yemen since the beginning of the current war. UNHCR was now providing some support to those choosing to return on their own. In 2017, UNHCR would be able to assist up to 10,000 Somali refugees who had made the choice to return, based on the information received at Return Help Desks on conditions in Somalia and the assistance package that was being offered both in Yemen and Somalia.
UNHCR assistance would include documentation, travel and transportation assistance and financial support in Yemen to facilitate the journey, as well as assistance upon arrival in Somalia.

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), added that IOM had also been working on removing stranded migrants from Yemen. In 2017 IOM had helped evacuate 431 migrants by sea from Al-Hudaydah to Djibouti, with the help of the Federal Republic of Germany's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the US State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. Also, IOM staff in Yemen had met with a high-level delegation this week to discuss working on the cholera outbreak and also providing shelter for stranded migrants.

Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that WHO teams were now going into the country and heightened surveillance had started. It happened that people were sometimes reporting symptoms but it then turned out not to be Ebola. It was very important to test and look at all the symptoms. As of this morning there were 29 suspected cases. One case had been taken off the list. There were still three deaths and two laboratory-confirmed cases. Some 416 contacts were being followed now, 35 samples had been collected and five had been tested. The results were being awaited. The national authorities had set up a lab in Likati which meant that every sample could be tested much quicker in the coming days than if it had to be brought to Kinshasa.

Mediterranean update

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that according to IOM Rome, 2,139 migrants had been rescued just on 18 May in over a dozen different operations in international waters in the Mediterranean. Additionally, IOM had learned of about 500 people rescued in Libyan waters that day too.

Casualty numbers were not known at that moment, although IOM’s Libya office had reported remains of six migrants found over the past four days in various spots and various communities on the Libyan coast. It was quite possible that some of those had been from a previous shipwreck, or they could all be from a new shipwreck, which IOM was still trying to determine.

Mr. Millman also highlighted numbers from Greece about who had been crossing through in the first four months of 2017. Almost 6,000 people had come through Greece in 2017 (5,200 through the end of April), which was a low number compared to the numbers in 2016 and 2015. Of those 6,000, half had come from Syria and Iraq. Following those two countries came Congo, Algeria, Kuwait, or Cameroon, ahead of countries like Afghanistan or Iran, that had been countries of origin of many migrants in the past. Observing this, one could wonder about the degree to which Turkey continued to be an escape valve for the Iraq and Syria conflict. It was surprising how many other country nationals seemed to be accessing Turkey to make the voyage to Greece, including Haitians and Dominicans who had been seen coming to Greece through Turkey.

Worldwide migrant deaths

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said worldwide migrant deaths were very close to what IOM had seen in the past few years, but in 2017, the 200-death threshold had already been hit in Latin America, about three weeks sooner than in 2016 and about 11 weeks sooner than in 2015. An increasing number of drownings was being seen, including one recently of a Guatemalan man drowned while attempting to reach California by sea, which was an unusual route but one which was picking up. IOM also noted some major tragedies in the Caribbean involving Haitians and Dominicans. IOM’s new report on the topic provided a split by nationality.

Geneva Events and Announcements

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), announced the agenda of the opening of the World Health Assembly, at the Palais des Nations on 22 May. At 9.30 a.m. that day, the opening would start, followed by the appointment of the committees and the election of the President and Vice-Presidents. The general committee would then meet to discuss procedural matters. At 2.30 p.m. would take place the address by Director-General Dr Margaret Chan and the text of the address would be distributed as soon as possible after the speech. At 3.30 p.m. the general debate would start. At the same time the Committee A would open in Room XVIII. There were in total three technical briefings planned and at least 26 side-events.

On 23 May the elections of the new Director-General would start in the afternoon, with speeches from the three candidates. The order of the speeches would be known on 22 May. As of 2.30 p.m. the session would be completely closed and would not be webcast. The time that a winner would be elected would depend on the number of rounds of voting. The DG-Elect would make an acceptance speech once elected. After the voting is finished and before the speech, WHO would issue a press release. The press could cover the acceptance speech from the gallery. After the speech there could also be a stakeout, exclusively for journalists present in the building, if possible for the D-G Elect. On 24 May in the morning there would be a virtual press conference in Room III. The Geneva press could be present in the room.

Asked why the election was taking place behind closed doors, Mr. Lindmeier said that this had been a decision of the World Health Assembly, of the Member States.

He also said that this was the first time that candidates had been selected through interviews and that three candidates were being forwarded to the WHA. In previous elections, one candidate was selected by the Executive Board and that name was submitted for confirmation to the WHA. So the difference this time was that all the Member States at the WHA had the possibility to vote on the selected candidates. There would be no official comment on who of the candidates would be going from round one to round two. In order to win outright in the first round, it was necessary to have two thirds of votes cast in the room. The candidate who had the least votes in the first round would drop out.

In response to further questions, Mr. Lindmeier said that the countries who had not paid their membership would be able to do so until the beginning of the WHA and only those who had paid their membership dues would be able to vote.

Regarding the press stakeout on 23 May, Mr. Lindmeier acknowledged the request from the press to instead organize a conference in Room III, but said that it would be hard to move all the equipment from the Assembly Hall area to Room III. The press expressed their difficulties in working at stakeouts next to the Assembly Hall as all the delegates poured out of the meeting room simultaneously and it was very difficult to hear and to have access.

Ms. Vellucci said that UNIS could arrange to reserve Room III for this press conference. Also access to the stakeout positions could be reserved to accredited journalists. The issue of journalists’ access to the Assembly Hall for journalists after they left the Hall once would be discussed with UN security and WHO security.

In response to a request from the press, Ms. Vellucci said that she would convey their wish for ITU representatives to come to the briefing more regularly.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog190517