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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
3 August 2012

Corinne Momal-Vanian, the Director of the UN Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was also attended by Spokespersons for the World Health Organization, the World Meteorological Organization, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the UN Children’s Fund, the UN Refugee Agency and the International Organization for Migration.

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Jens Laerke of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that continuous heavy rainfall and the cyclone KHANUN had caused flash flooding in several provinces in the second half of July. The current number of deaths was more than 100 according to figures received by OCHA, and nearly 63,000 people had been rendered homeless, their houses being submerged or partially destroyed. The Government had launched a rescue operation to evacuate affected people. In all flood-affected provinces the livelihood and the economic wellbeing of the people was affected.

A request was made by the Government on 30 July to the UN country team to release pre-positioned emergency stocks in support of ongoing relief and recovery efforts, in particular with food and fuel. On 31 July, an inter-agency assessment mission had visited some affected areas, finding that due to a breakdown of water supply systems access to clean water and health care remained high priorities to avoid disease outbreaks. Preliminary support had been mobilized from UN agencies and partners to address the needs. However, further assessments over the coming days were required to establish the exact needs. A detailed report by the Resident Coordinator’s Office was available.

Patrick McCormick of the UN Children’s Fund said that UNICEF was delivering life-saving supplies (many pre-positioned) to the tens of thousands of flood–hit North Korean families urgently in need of clean drinking water. Many of the wells had been contaminated by sewerage and UNICEF was concerned about children drinking contaminated water, diseases such as water-borne diseases sweeping through families who were in already desperate situations. Apart from water purification tablets – of which UNICEF had ordered 10 million, and these were on their way – it was also delivering water and sanitation equipment, emergency health kits, as well as recreation and education kits.

For a country which had been suffering chronic food shortages for years, this severe flooding situation would stretch things, requiring the effort of the Government, UN agencies and NGOs to stop the spread of the disease and contain this latest disaster to hit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Syria

Melissa Fleming of the UN Refugee Agency said that with no let up in the violence in Syria, more and more people were being forced to abandon their homes to seek safety. Those most difficult to aid - as many as 1.5 million - remained in Syria, uprooted and taking refuge in host families or makeshift shelters. Others were trapped, fearing the risk of being caught up in fighting or targeted during escape.

Inside Syria, through the critical help of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, UNHCR delivered basic materials to enable families to set up makeshift homes. But humanitarian access remained the most significant problem. With insecurity rising dramatically in Aleppo, terror was gripping the population and humanitarian aid was desperately needed. According to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, at least 45 schools and several dormitories were hosting a total of 7,200 persons. An unknown number of people were staying in mosques. Many were moving from village to village to escape violence. It was impossible yesterday to send additional relief items from Damascus as the city had been sealed off by military forces. UNHCR staff in Aleppo also reported a complete failure of mobile coverage and internet connectivity.

In Damascus, explosions had been witnessed in several neighbourhoods and violence was spreading. UNRWA had confirmed that 20 persons were dead and ten more were wounded in Yarmouk, where there was a large concentration of Palestinian refugees. Also in Damascus, one Sudanese refugee had been shot in his legs by armed groups and an Iraqi refugee had reported that as a result of the shelling, his son had been severely injured and passed away in the hospital. On a recent single day, about 700 refugees had approached UNHCR Damascus seeking advice and assistance, said Ms. Fleming.

UNHCR continued to provide limited financial and other assistance to the most needy refugees in Damascus and Al Hasakeh. The majority of the refugees approaching UNHCR reported fear, physical harm, the need to relocate due to lack of safety, robbery and direct threats. Many were hiding in schools, which were not equipped to host a large numbers of refugees and lack sufficient hygiene facilities.

Hundreds of people continued to resort to crossing international borders where they found safety, security and aid. In Turkey, the numbers crossing ranged from 400-600 per day, most from Aleppo and the surrounding villages. In Jordan, the increase in numbers crossing in recent weeks had led to a record breaking 9,500 new people registered in July alone. In Lebanon, there was no refugee camp, and people were living with host communities. The majority were women and children. Meanwhile, Iraqis returned from Syria by air.

Jumbe Omari Jumbe of the International Organization for Migration said that IOM was receiving more and more requests for repatriation from individuals and embassies in Syria. It had received 1,304 requests from individuals and 26 embassies had asked IOM to repatriate their citizens. Over the past week, IOM Damascus had repatriated 11 migrants to Moldova, Morocco and South Sudan. Another 144 migrants were already booked to fly out of Damascus soon. To date, IOM had assisted a total of 643 migrants to return to countries such as Bangladesh, the Philippines, Moldova, Ukraine, Sudan, Belarus, Romania, Argentina and Chile.

Iraqi refugees in Syria had also been resettled to other countries, said Mr. Jumbe. IOM had helped 500 Iraqis to resettle in the main resettlement countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Over the past week, IOM Damascus had assisted 118 refugees to resettle in the United States and Australia; another 422 were already booked to fly out of Damascus shortly, heading to the United States, Denmark, the United Kingdom and Australia.

Mr. McCormick said that in July and into August, despite the deteriorating security conditions and limited access in many areas, UNICEF was still active and had reached around 94,000 people, of whom around 90 per cent were children and adolescents, with hygiene kits, stoves, mattresses, blankets, water and food for children in Damascus, Rural Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, Daraa and Lattakia.

Ebola outbreak in Uganda

Tarik Jasarevic of the World Health Organization said that as of today there were 50 suspected cases of Ebola and 16 deaths. A number of cases had been admitted to hospitals since Tuesday, but only two deaths had occurred. Five cases have been confirmed in total, three of which had died, meaning that two confirmed Ebola cases were still in isolation wards alongside other patients. The Ugandan Ministry of Health was working with all stakeholders and partners to control the outbreak, which was still limited to the western part of the country. The death in Kampala was a case which had been transferred from the western region; health workers treating this case had been followed up and, on the twelfth day of their presumed incubation, were showing no symptoms.

WHO and partners were helping the Ugandan Ministry of Health contain the disease. MSF was building a new isolation facility in a hospital, while the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention was sending three epidemiologists. WHO, for its part, had dispatched an epidemiologist and a logistician as well as 800 sets of personal protective equipment for health workers and those potentially in contact with infected persons. The Ugandan Red Cross Society was providing a mobilization expert to lead communication, community mobilization and education activities.

UNHCR and partners race to reverse alarming health situation in South Sudan camps

Ms. Fleming said that UNHCR and partners were intensifying efforts in South Sudan to reverse the alarming rates of malnutrition, disease and death in two camps hosting Sudanese refugees. Health workers in Yida camp in Unity state first saw a significant hike in death rates among refugee children in late June and early July. UNHCR’s partner MSF had reported an average of five children dying every day, mostly from diarrhea and infections. In the last three weeks, mortality and morbidity rates had stabilized and even decreased, as aid agencies had taken urgent action to address the root causes. In addition to providing emergency treatment, the aid agencies were also working to mitigate the risk of water-borne and hygiene-related diseases.

The refugees arriving in Upper Nile state also came across in a very fragile state, pointing to a dangerous and horrifying situation across the border, where reports of shelling continued, where people were unable to access food, and had to walk for days to reach safety across the border.

IOM Trains Host Communities in Northern Kenya to Cope with Drought

Mr. Jumbe said that IOM had completed five-day training for 180 pastoralists from six locations in Dadaab district in northern Kenya on how to protect their livestock and improve their livelihoods during periods of drought. The training involved animal husbandry and feeding during the dry season, pasture re-seeding during the wet season, and de-stocking during drought alarm and emergency stages. IOM was also carrying out a five-day livestock vaccination of 15, 587 animals belonging to Dadaab refugees and the host community to help boost their resilience to drought conditions.

Sudan (Darfur)

Ravina Shamdasani of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that security forces in Darfur were believed to have killed at least eight people – at least five of whom were young students aged 17 and below – and injured more than 50 on Tuesday when they opened fire at demonstrators in Nyala, the capital of South Darfur. Eye witnesses had also reported the use of heavy tear gas, in addition to the live bullets. OHCHR urged the Government to promptly launch an independent and credible investigation into the violence and the apparent excessive use of force by security forces.

There were key international guidelines that must be respected in handling protests so that the legitimate right of people to freedom of expression and assembly were fully respected. The Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials required that the use of force should be exceptional and in accordance with a principle of proportionality. OHCHR called on the Government to unequivocally condemn excessive use of force to suppress protests, and to hold accountable those who were responsible for the fatalities and injuries.

The High Commissioner had earlier called on Sudanese authorities to ensure that demonstrations were allowed to proceed peacefully, and for restraint from all sides. OHCHR called again on the Government to immediately and unconditionally release those who had been detained for merely exercising their rights to freedom of assembly and expression. Human rights staff of the African Union/UN Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) were continuing to monitor the situation.

Liberia

Ms. Shamdasani said that OHCHR was concerned about draft legislation currently before the House of Representatives in Liberia which proposed an amendment to the Penal Code broadly criminalising homosexual behaviour. The legislation, which had already been passed by the Senate, made it a felony of the second degree, which meant it carried penalties of imprisonment (up to five years, but with provisions in the law for extended terms) and/or fines, for a person who, for example, “seduces, encourages, promotes another person of the same gender to engage into sexual activities.” Sodomy, voluntary and involuntary, were already criminal offences in Liberian law. An amendment to the Domestic Relations Law to explicitly prohibit same-sex marriage was also being proposed, said Ms. Shamdasani.

OHCHR was also concerned about the atmosphere of intimidation and violence against gay and lesbian activists, as well as reports of attacks against them. Such harassment illustrated the difficult, discriminatory environment in which gay rights activists were operating. The proposals going through the legislature could make an already bad situation for lesbian and gay people in Liberia even worse.

Legislation criminalising homosexuality could have a seriously negative impact, not only on gay and lesbian people, but also on the most vulnerable populations, such as people living with HIV, sex workers, refugees and internally displaced populations, who might be in need of special attention but would not come forward due to the high risk of stigmatisation, discrimination and possible violence.

OHCHR reminded Liberia that it was legally obligated to implement the international human rights treaties that it had ratified, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UN Human Rights Committee, which oversaw implementation of this Covenant, had warned States that laws criminalising homosexual acts between consenting adults violated individuals’ rights to privacy and to freedom from discrimination.

Viet Nam

Ms. Shamdasani said that OHCHR was concerned by what appeared to be increasingly limited space for freedom of expression in Viet Nam. Information that OHCHR had received indicated ongoing persecution of bloggers and people who used the Internet and other means to freely express their opinions. In particular, OHCHR was concerned that the upcoming trial of Mr. Nguyen Van Hai (also known as Dieu Cay), Mr. Pan Thanh Hai and Ms. Ta Phong Tan for “conducting propaganda” against the State was directly linked to their legitimate exercise of freedom of expression, including their online publications about social and human rights issues. The three individuals faced charges under Article 88 of the Criminal Code and could face penalties ranging from 7 to 16 years’ imprisonment. The trial, which was scheduled for 7 August and was just postponed indefinitely, would reportedly be closed and witnesses would not be called, raising concerns that the process would not comply with fair trial guarantees. Mr. Nguyen Van Hai and Mr. Pan Thanh Hai had been in detention since 2010 while Ms. Ta Phong Tan has been detained since September 2011.

A number of arrests and harsh convictions in recent years suggested a disturbing trend of curbing freedom of expression, opinion and association of bloggers, journalists and human rights activists who questioned Government policies in a peaceful manner. On 16 July, for example, three land activists who had led a peaceful campaign against corruption and wrongdoing by local authorities against farmers had been sentenced to jail terms of four to five years.

OHCHR urged the Government of Viet Nam to fulfil its commitments with respect to ensuring fair trial guarantees and to consider promptly releasing the accused for the exercise of their right to freedom of expression, opinion and association.

World Humanitarian Day

Mr. Laerke said that the World Humanitarian Day campaign had been launched yesterday in New York and a press release was available at the back of the room. The theme of the campaign was “People helping people”. Artist Beyoncé has joined the UN and humanitarian aid organizations to shine a light on humanitarian work and encourage people around the world to get involved.

The campaign featured a music video and a song by Beyoncé. Filmed in the UN General Assembly with a live audience, these will be released on World Humanitarian Day, on 19 August. A campaign website had been launched where people could show their support and help spread the word and the message that all could contribute and help in individual and different ways.

Situation in China following two cyclones

Clare Nullis of the World Meteorological Organization said that China had been hit by two tropical cyclones in close succession. On Thursday, the China Meteorological Administration had issued a red alert – the first of the year – for typhoons Damrey and Saola. Damrey landed on the coast of Jiangsu Province at 9.30 p.m. local time on 2 August with strong winds. It had subsequently weakened into a tropical storm and was now classed as a tropical depression. The China Meteorological Administration forecasted that Damrey would weaken further as it moved northwest.

Saola, which earlier had caused torrential rain and high winds in Philippines and Taiwan province, had weakened from being a typhoon as it reached Fujian Province early Friday. The China Meteorological Administration forecasted that its strength would gradually decrease as it moved northwest.

In the Atlantic, Tropical Storm Ernesto had formed. A Tropical Storm Warning continued for Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, St. Lucia, Martinique and Guadelupe.

UN-Water at the Fêtes de Genève

Ms. Nullis said that the fetes de Genève had officially opened this morning. The theme this year was water, and one of the exhibitors in the Jardin Anglais was UN-Water. WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud was currently chair of UN-Water, which grouped UN agencies concerned with water.

Press conferences and meetings

Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, and the United States Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, Anne C. Richard, would give a joint press conference at 11.30 a.m. in Room III to offer insights from their visit to Burkina Faso, to review the Mali refugee operation, and to draw international attention to the neglected West African refugee crisis. They would also respond to queries on other crises such as South Sudan and Syria.

Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee would start a one-week session next week to discuss several studies submitted to it. These papers notably dealt with the promotion of human rights of poor urban populations; rural women and the right to food; hostage-taking by terrorist; and the contribution of traditional values to the promotion of human rights. A background release had been issued yesterday.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination would kick off a four-week meeting next week, reviewing the situations in Austria, Belize, Ecuador, Fiji, Finland, Liechtenstein, the Republic of Korea, Senegal, Tajikistan and Thailand. The first country to be examined on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning was Ecuador. A background release has been distributed yesterday.

The Conference on Disarmament would meet on Tuesday to discuss guarantees against the use of nuclear arms.