REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
21 September 2012
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the Human Rights Council, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Food Programme, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the International Organization for Migration, the World Trade Organization and the World Meteorological Organization.
Human Rights Council
Rolando Gomez, spokesperson for the Human Rights Council, said discussion of the Universal Periodic Review report of the Netherlands was now well underway and this was to be followed by South Africa. This would complete the review process for the first group of countries in the second cycle. The next session began on 22 October.
Following the completion of the reports presentation came a general discussion on the UPR process, and a panel discussion to commemorate Nelson Mandela International Day. The High Commissioner, Navi Pillay, was to make an opening statement to this discussion, the first time the Human Rights Council had marked the day.
He added that 29 resolutions had so far been received and this included texts on maternal mortality, freedom of peaceful assembly and the safety of journalists. Country situations dealt with included Sudan, South Sudan and Mali, with more expected to be received.
Answering questions on draft resolutions, he said the renewal of the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, if it happened, would be decided by resolution through agreement from Member States. The resolution on Mali asked for a report from the High Commissioner to be presented in March. Four seats were vacant on the Advisory Council and nominations for the posts would be made by the end of this session.
On another point, Ms. Momal-Vanian said requests for media accreditation were received by the Information Service either directly from media organizations, or from Permanent Missions. If the request is from the latter, then it must indicate what media outlet the journalists work for.
Adrian Edwards for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said in Lebanon UNHCR and specialized partners were continuing a 'Back to School' programme among refugees aimed at encouraging enrolment of 15,000 children in public schools. In less than two weeks, 1,608 refugee children have enrolled in public schools in north and east Lebanon, over twice the total number of refugee children who enrolled in public schools last year.
A recent circular by the Ministry of Education and Higher Education allowing all Syrian refugee students to enrol in Lebanese public schools was expected to further increase the enrolment rate this year. Remedial classes and accelerated learning programs were underway, targeting both Lebanese children and Syrian refugees, Transportation to schools was being provided for those in need.
Significant progress had been made this past week on relocating refugee families who till now have been living in schools. Some 106 out of 170 families who were living in schools set to reopen have been assisted to find alternative lodging, and solutions were being sought for the remainder.
In Iraq Syrian refugees were being allowed to enter through the Al Qaem border, which was reopened last Tuesday. The new arrivals were directed to a new camp, which was established by the Ministry of Displacement and Migration in Al Qaem with UNHCR's support. In anticipation of continued arrivals, land had been allocated in the area for a third camp.
In Syria, UNHCR teams continued to visit and help displaced Syrians and refugees living in communal and private shelters in Damascus and surrounding areas.
Despite the difficult security situation, the delivery of emergency domestic assistance continued in these areas and across the country.
Since March 2012 UNHCR relief items had been distributed, primarily through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, to some 173,000 people. On Wednesday, over 2,000 blankets were delivered in al Hassakeh in north-eastern Syria. In Al Nabek, located between Damascus and Homs, UNHCR's cash assistance programme had so far reached over 2,200 Syrian families in need. Refugees continued to approach UNHCR's office.
The Turkish Authorities were advising that the borders were open for new arrivals. All Syrians who had been temporarily accommodated in schools have now been transferred to the camps. The total number of camps had reached 12 accommodating some 83,260 refugees. Four new camps were being prepared.
In Jordan, refugees continue to arrive by the thousands. Last week over 4,000 Syrians, mostly from the neighbouring governorate Daraa arrived, bringing the total number of Syrian refugees registered or awaiting registration to around 92,778. This week the priority was on enrolment of refugee children in school. In parallel a health vaccination campaign was underway in the Za'atri refugee camp. The Jordanian Ministry of Health, supported by UNICEF was vaccinating children for measles, polio and providing vitamin A. So far some 4,500 children have been vaccinated against measles.
Answering questions he welcomed the decision by Switzerland to offer 36 refugee families asylum. Overall in Europe relatively small numbers of people were arriving.
Christopher Lom for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) explained that until now when Syrian refugees crossed the border they were picked up by the military as the Government did not want international organizations close to the border due to security concerns. However, following negotiations with the Jordanian military his organization was to be able to register and transport migrants from closer to the frontiers so that IOM can provide support and initial triage.
Rupert Colville of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said his office condemned the acts of torture and ill-treatment perpetrated against inmates at a prison and a juvenile detention facility in Georgia exposed in at least four videos made public this week. He called on the Government to ensure that all allegations of such human rights violations – and not only the ones exposed in these videos – were promptly, impartially and effectively investigated and that perpetrators were brought to justice. Victims of the abuses must have access to the necessary medical and psychological support, as well as redress, he said. The videos were shown on television in Georgia, he explained, and showed prisoners being physically and sexually assaulted, humiliated and verbally abused by prison officers.
In terms of statute there was an absolute prohibition against torture, as well as cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in international human rights law and an obligation on the Government to ensure that perpetrators did not enjoy impunity. Georgia had ratified the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (CAT) and the Optional Protocol to CAT which enabled regular unannounced inspections by national and international bodies of places of detention. Concerns about the ill-treatment of prisoners in Georgia had been raised in various United Nations human rights fora over the years as well as in reports by the Public Defender of Georgia.
He said his office welcomed the positive steps taken by the Government so far, including the condemnation of the abuses by the President of Georgia, and the pledges made that these human rights violations will be investigated. Two ministers had now resigned, or offered to resign, and he urged the Government to ensure that their pledges were swiftly translated into effective and transparent action with significant steps undertaken to ensure that prisons and detention centres were managed in line with international human rights law and standards. The UN Human Rights Office stood ready to assist the Government and people of Georgia in this effort.
Anti-Islamic cartoons and film
Rupert Colville the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) responded to a question cartoons published earlier this week, saying that the cartoons and the video which had preceded were malicious and deliberately provocative. The film in particular provided a disgracefully distorted image of Muslims and the High Commissioner had said she fully understands why people wish to protest strongly against the film, and the same goes for the cartoons, and it was their right to do so, but peacefully.
She also utterly condemned the killings in Benghazi. Some 30 people in all are now believed to have died in events linked to the film. And there had been other violent and destructive reactions. The High Commissioner urged religious and political leaders to make a major effort to restore calm. In the same vein, she welcomed the fact that a number of senior Muslim figures have been making similar statements about the need to rise above the provocations.
The film and cartoons were the latest in a string of deliberately provocative acts or products targeting particular religions and their followers, he said, several of which had led to violent reactions and killings. The High Commissioner believed that the best way to deal with such provocations was to ignore them as deliberate and that obnoxious acts of this type should be deprived of the oxygen of publicity. Given what happened last week, and the fact that people were being killed, Charlie Hebdo was doubly irresponsible to publish these cartoons.
As both the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner have stated, the fault line is not between Muslim and non-Muslim societies, but between a small number of extremists on different sides, with a vested interest in stirring hostility and conflict.
In response to a question on freedom of expression against incitement he said that in March 2011, the Human Rights Council passed a unanimous resolution (Res 16/18) that provided a comprehensive road map for a coordinated national and international effort to ensure that certain rights and freedoms were not misused to undermine other rights and freedoms. In addition, over the years, a number of human rights mechanisms had contributed to efforts to clarify where the lines should be drawn between free speech and hate speech.
Essentially the debate revolves around Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (freedom of expression) and Article 20 (which is about incitement to hatred), he explained. Since October 2008, the High Commissioner for Human Rights had been spearheading a global effort to promote a legal framework based on international human rights standards to discuss freedom of expression and the need to enforce the prohibition of incitement to national, racial or religious hatred.
Rolando Gomez for the Human Rights Council added the issue might come up under discussion of Item 9 before the Council, which would take place on Tuesday.
Adrian Edwards for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said his agency had today issued new guidelines on the detention of asylum-seekers. The guidelines represent UNHCR policy and were intended as advice for governments and other bodies making decisions on detaining people.
As a principle, UNHCR opposes detention of people seeking international protection. The new guidelines make clear that seeking asylum was not a criminal act, and that indefinite and mandatory forms of detention were prohibited under international law. As such UNHCR was disappointed that many countries continue to hold asylum- seekers in detention, sometimes for long periods and in poor conditions, including in some cases in prisons together with common criminals.
The agency was particularly concerned that detention was in growing use in a number of countries and research showed that irregular migration was not deterred even by stringent detention practices, and that practical alternatives to detention do exist. In addition, there were well-known negative and at times serious physical and psychological consequences for asylum-seekers in detention.
The right to seek asylum entails open and humane reception arrangements for asylum-seekers. Recent research on alternatives to detention, commissioned by UNHCR showed that with community-based supervision arrangements, more than 90 per cent of asylum seekers comply with conditions of release from detention.
UNHCR called on states to make better use of alternatives to detention. These can include various forms of reporting requirements to community and supervision schemes or accommodation in designated reception centres but with guaranteed freedom of movement.
Such solutions were important features of immigration and asylum regimes. Alternatives to detention were also far more cost-effective, UNHCR will continue to carry out research to identify and promote good practices related to alternatives to detention of asylum-seekers and remained fully engaged on this issue at international and national levels.
In addition he stressed the view that unaccompanied children should not be detained. UNHCR calls on governments to also pay special attention to vulnerable asylum-seekers such as victims of torture and trauma, older persons or persons with disabilities. Detention should be a measure of last resort, prescribed by national laws and implemented only where necessary and proportionate to a legitimate purpose — in conformity with international standards.
In line with the growth in international, regional and national monitoring and inspection bodies, he stressed that detention should be subject to independent monitoring and inspection, including by UNHCR.
Answering questions Alice Edwards, Head of Legal Section, Division of International Protection said that, for instance, Israel was moving towards automatic detention and there was a situation where countries with a previously good record, such as Canada and New Zealand, were considering tightening their detention laws. South Africa had a new detention facility with a capacity for thousands of people, including for unaccompanied minors. In the EU the UNHCR was concerned over Greece, Hungary and Malta. Camp confinement policies were widespread in African and the Middle East and were particularly harsh.
She continued by saying that some countries had programmes where unless persons were granted protection or deported then they will remain in detention with no possibility of being released. This inability to leave detention at a particular point in time was the UNHCR definition of indefinite. On Australian methods of asylum seeker management she said that UNCHR had an arms-length supervisory role but had not visited sites of detention. The Australian Prime Minister was due to meet the High Commissioner today.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said WFP expressed concern about the dramatic increase of displaced people in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who were in dire need of humanitarian support, including food assistance.
There was massive population movement in North Kivu, South Kivu, North Katanga and Province Orientale. In most cases, people had left behind their homes, their fields and livestock, which were their sole source of food and income. They were therefore, even if they just fled 20 km away from their village, cut off from any sort of support for their families. It was very difficult to have an exact figure on the number of these people as they moved regularly and roads were difficult to pass and were to get worse as the rainy season continued.
Given the magnitude of the new displacements, and as the crisis was expected to continue, WFP had recently launched a new emergency operation covering September 2012 to June 2013, which will assist approximately 1.2 million people in five provinces. This crisis in the East was taking place in one of the poorest countries in the world, she said, where 5.4 million people were already facing chronic hunger and malnutrition. The WFP needed $81 million additional funding to be able to continue to assist this very poor population and had so far we have mobilized only 15 per cent of the total cost.
The distribution of cash and vouchers, initiated earlier this year in areas where local markets can absorb additional demand, had proved to be cost effective and highly appreciated by 77,000 internally displaced people that have already benefited from them in North Kivu. WFP was currently completing a voucher distribution to 55,000 thousand Congolese who have resettled in Kanyaruchina, 10 km outside of Goma.
Marixie Mercado for the United Nations Children’s Fund said three countries in the Sahel had now completed national nutrition surveys. Two countries, Niger and Mauritania, showed more children needing life-saving assistance to treat malnutrition than estimated at the end of 2011, when UNICEF initially launched its emergency appeal. In Chad, the estimate for children with severe acute malnutrition remained unchanged, although numbers for children with moderate acute malnutrition had increased.
In addition, more children had been seen and treated professionally than ever before, and the numbers continued to rise. Since the beginning of the year, over 526,000 children on the brink of death across the Sahel had been reached with therapeutic support, she said. In Mali, UNICEF and partners had treated at least three times more acutely malnourished children this year compared with last year – some 187,000 children, including 56,000 with the most severe form of malnutrition.
Protecting children from a food and nutrition crisis required more than making sure there was enough therapeutic food and skilled health workers in the community. It required preventing diseases like cholera and malaria that ravaged malnourished children. And it also meant making sure families were not forced to take children out of school so they can bring in extra income, or to marry off very young daughters they can no longer feed.
This side of the response had gotten less attention, and less funding. Mali exemplified this. It had the third highest number of acutely malnourished children in the region, after Niger and Nigeria (175,000). The crisis in the north had displaced hundreds of thousands of people, both within Mali and in neighboring countries. There was documented evidence of grave child rights violations including recruitment and sexual violence. There was a cholera outbreak with a very high case fatality ratio.
Schools have been closed for much of the year for up to 300,000 children. Yet Mali’s $58 million appeal was only about one-third funded (33 per cent overall, nutrition and water / sanitation / hygiene about same; education and child protection were about 20 per cent funded).
This year more children were being assessed with severe acute malnutrition. There was a determination among the humanitarian community to treat children in need, and challenge a status quo that leaves vast numbers of children persistently malnourished. But there’s a lot more work to do yet to prevent malnutrition in the first place. Overall, UNICEF’s $258 million appeal for the Sahel was about 53 per cent funded.
Answering questions she said that in Chad 3.5 per cent of children (about 127,000 children) were suffering from severe and acute malnutrition.
Adrian Edwards for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said the agency was closely following the situation around the Somali port city of Kismayo as thousands of city's residents flee in anticipation of military activities and new clashes.
So far this month, more than 10,000 people have fled from Kismayo fearing the resumption of fighting. Movements substantially increased on Monday and have been continuing since. Some 7,500 people fled the area in the past four days amid growing tension.
Most of the internally displaced Somalis were leaving Kismayo and its surroundings on minibuses. Poorer households undertake the journey in Lorries and trucks, in some cases using donkey carts.
The majority of those displaced were heading to villages in other parts of Kismayo district as well as villages in the neighbouring Jilin and Jammed districts. Some were also moving towards Mogadishu and Dadaab refugee camps.
According to partners on the ground, most of those fleeing Kismayo say that they were planning to return as soon as the situation stabilizes. There were reports of sporadic militia attacks and looting. The displaced also fear being caught in the crossfire and possible reprisal attacks by armed groups operating in the town.
Meanwhile in Ethiopia, some 200-300 Somalis continue to arrive at the Dollo Ado camps every week. They were mainly from the Gedo, Bakool and Bay regions. Most of the new arrivals continue to cite insecurity, continued fighting and fear of forced recruitment in Somalia as the main reasons for leaving their homes.
After two decades of conflict and violence, Somalia remains one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, generating the largest number of refugees, second only to Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, more than a million Somalis live as refugees in the neighbouring countries. Another 1.3 million were internally displaced across Somalia.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said large parts of Yemen were facing food insecurity, a lack of safe water, inadequate health services and displacement of civilians. Humanitarian organizations have warned that a rise in global food prices could further threaten the food security in the country, where half the population is considered to be food insecure. Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis remained displaced by conflict.
Christopher Lom for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said IOM had resumed the assited voluntary return programme of Ethiopian migrants from Yemen, adding that at any one time the migrant response centre in Haradh had around 1,000 people there asking to be returned home.
In this context a major conference was to take place on Sunday and Monday in Djibouti which would bring together states concerned with taking action on this migration management issue, he said. Rising numbers of people were coming into this extremely unsafe situation, according to UNHCR figures in the first seven months of this year, some 63,800 Ethiopians and Somalis.
Polar issues and sea ice
Clare Nullis for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said that on September 16, Arctic sea ice appeared to have reached its minimum extent for the year of 3.41 million square kilometers (1.32 million square miles), according to a preliminary assessment from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.
This was the lowest since satellite records began in 1979 and was the result of persistent warming in the Arctic and the figure had surprised even experts. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, this year’s minimum was 760,000 square kilometers (293,000 square miles) below the previous record and overall there was a loss of 11.83 million square kilometers (4.57 million square miles) of ice.
Vladimir Ryabinin, senior scientist with World Climate Research Programme said the research showed an interconnected dramatic warming and melting of ice. Currently science had a clear understanding of what was happening but was not able to predict the phases in which these things happened, though research was ongoing.
Answering questions he acknowledged errors made in the IFCC climate change prediction and said there were many processes to be understood that were less predictable than simply a rise in temperatures. Asked about Antarctica he said the trends seen in the Arctic were reversed, and a drop in temperatures had been registered.
Christopher Lom for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) announced the launch of a campaign to prevent child recruitment to armed groups in Colombia. This was being fronted by Juanes, an international rock star.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said The Committee on the Rights of the Child had examined the report of Andorra, and next week Austria, Albania and Canada. The Committee had already considered Liberia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Namibia
The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities finished reviewing the report of Hungary this morning. The other two reports being discussed this week were China and Argentina. Work was to now take place in private until the close of the session on Friday, in particular the adoption of concluding observations on the countries examined. During the previous two sessions, the Committee published its observations on the following Monday.
She also reminded correspondents that today was the International Day of Peace and details of events happening in the Palais had been issued.
Catherine Sibut for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) gave details of a lunch on Tuesday, the day focusing on trade in the UNCTAD Trade and Development Board. The lunch at 13:00 include a film made by UNCTAD and UNTV and would be in Room XXVI. Meanwhile keynote speakers of the meetings of the board on that day were the UNCTAD Secretary-General and the head of the World Trade Organization would be attending.
Ankai Xu for the World Trade Organization (WTO) gave details of a public forum from Monday 24 to Wednesday 26 September on “Was Multilateralism in Crisis?,” an opportunity for discussion of the current issues regarding multilateral trading system. As the inaugural session of the forum the former President of the Swiss Confederation was to give a speech. Aside from this, on Friday (28 September) was the Dispute Settlement Body
The Director-General of the WTO was in Singapore to give the Singapore Global Dialogue World Leader Keynote Address on the Governance of a Multipolar World Order and then address a keynote speech at the Schuman lecture at the European Chamber of Commerce in Singapore. On Monday (24 September) he presided over inaugural session of the WTO Public Forum and meet with the Foreign Trade Minister of Costa Rica. On Tuesday (25 September) he was to meet the panel of stakeholders on Defining the Future of Trade, attends 59th session of UNCTAD Trade and Development Board and on Thursday (27 September) was to speaks at ICTSD Bridges China Dialogue.