REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
1 April 2014
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the Spokespersons for the World Health Organization, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration, the World Food Programme, the United Nations Mine Action Service and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that it was the second day of the visit by the Executive Director of the WFP and the High Commissioner for Refugees to South Sudan, after which they would go to Ethiopia. Ms. Byrs highlighted that there were 3,700 000 people suffering from food insecurity, which was so acute in the country that it had almost reached almost an emergency threshold. Seven million people were at risk of food insecurity; WFP was now assisting half a million persons in South Sudan. WFP urgently needed USD 224 million for the coming months; the logistic costs in the country were extremely high.
Chris Lom, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), announced that over 57,000 refugees had been relocated from South Sudan border into Ethiopia since violence had broken out between South Sudan's government and opposition forces in December 2013. IOM had provided transport for refugees who had flown the country from Akobo from the Sudan side to Akobo-Tergol on the Ethiopian side. IOM had moved up to 450 people a day by boat and another up to 2,000 people a day by road to a number of refugee camps in Gambella on the Ethiopian Side of the border, where the refugees were provided with shelter and food.
Mr. Lom stressed that there was a strong element of urgency to find new sites on the Ethiopian side, as the camps were rapidly filling up with people to their maximum capacity and there were no indication that the flow of people leaving was declining.
A lot of those people were in desperate conditions. The majority of the refugees were women and children, most of whom had been living on whatever they could find during their journey. Many had walked for seven to ten days to reach the border, living on wild fruit, and were destitute. Many families had also been separated in the chaos. Some had been displaced even for a second time in order to avoid the fighting.
Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that more that so far the conflict had forced more than one million people to flee their homes, including more than 800,000 internally displaced persons. The humanitarian appeal for South Sudan asked for USD 1.3 billion, and was around 30 per cent funded at the moment.
Ms. Byrs informed of a contribution of USD 31 million from the Government of the United Arab Emirates towards the WFP emergency humanitarian operations in Syria. She said that the WFP had appealed for funds in order to feed around seven million Syrians displaced in their country and those who had fled to neighbouring countries. The previous month, a lack of funding had forced the WFP to reduce by 20 percent the March food basket provided to vulnerable families inside Syria. As a result, families did not receive sufficient nutrients to stay healthy.
Ms. Byrs reiterated that WFP needed USD 40 million each week in order to bring aid to Syrians in and outside of the country. The delivery pipeline ought not to be disrupted.
Answering a question, Ms. Momal-Vanian said that Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi had not relinquished his post. He did not have a spokesperson at the moment, and was currently supported by the United Nations Information Service in that regard.
Central African Republic (CAR)
Cécile Pouilly, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was concerned about the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Bangui. Since 22 March, at least 60 people had been killed.
A series of clashes between anti-Balaka and Muslims had taken place in various neighbourhoods of the capital in the previous week. On 27 March, at least 20 people had been killed and 11 injured when a grenade had been thrown at a crowd of mourners during a funeral service near the PK5 neighbourhood. On 22 and 23 March, anti-Balaka elements had attacked the same neighbourhood, where some 700 Muslims were believed to be stranded, in an attempt to take control of the zone. According to the Red Cross, at least 15 people had been killed during the subsequent fighting and the intervention of International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (International Support Mission to the Central African Republic) and the French Sangaris forces.
Increased tensions and clashes between anti-Balaka elements and MISCA forces had also been reported, with anti-Balaka reportedly directly targeting MISCA military and civilian personnel on several occasions.
Ms. Pouilly informed that on 29 March, 24 people had been allegedly killed and some 100 people injured, including at least one child, by Chadian soldiers on the outskirts of the PK12 neighbourhood, in the suburb of Begoua. Although OHCHR was still trying to clarify the exact circumstances of this incident, it appeared that Chadian soldiers had fired indiscriminately at a crowd following an incident. OHCHR was still trying to confirm the exact affiliation of those soldiers. On 31 March, an anti-Balaka element had reportedly thrown a grenade at Chadian soldiers, before being killed by French troops.
In the light of the further deterioration of the security situation, OHCHR once again urged States to support the Secretary-General’s urgent appeal for thousands more peacekeepers and police.
Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that Bangui had indeed relapsed into wider violence in the previous week after anti-Balaka fighters had stepped up attacks on Muslim populations and African Union peacekeeping forces protecting them.
Also the previous week in Bangui, a group of Muslim youth had attacked Christians during a funeral ceremony, killing 20 mourners.
The renewed inter-communal violence had triggered further displacement within the country and across its border. Since the attacks in the capital early the previous week, the number of internally displaced people in CAR had risen to 637,000, including 207,000 in Bangui alone. That represented an increase of nearly 16,000 uprooted people.
At the height of the crisis, close to one million people had been displaced by violence inside the country, including 700,000 in Bangui alone. More than 2,000 people had also been killed in the conflict between Seleka and anti-Balaka fighters since December 2013.
Anti-Balaka forces controlled major routes to and from Bangui as well as many towns and villages in the southwest of the Central African Republic. They posed a particular threat to Muslims in the PK12 neighbourhood of Bangui, Boda, Carnot and Berberati, to the west of Bangui, and in Bossangoa, further north.
Ms. Lejeune-Kaba stated that UNHCR feared for the lives of 19,000 Muslims in those locations. The United Nations Refugee Agency stood ready to assist with their evacuation to safe areas within or outside of the country.
Representatives of the Muslim population in Boda had told UNHCR staff the previous week that they felt trapped and that only the presence and protection provided by the French troops had so far saved them from being killed. They had added that their freedom of movement was restricted and were requesting to be moved to a safer place. Many of Boda’s Christians also feared the anti-Balaka militiamen, who operated with impunity.
UNHCR and its partners were planning to send staff to the area this week in order to establish a humanitarian presence and ensure the delivery of assistance to those at risk in Boda and Carnot. In the meantime, UNHCR was exploring the possibility of their relocation to Kabo and Moyen Sido in the north of the country.
Ms. Lejeune-Kaba informed that the town of Bemal, also in the north, had been identified for relocation of communities at risk. A joint mission by UNHCR and OCHA was heading there on 1 April for discussions with local youth worried about their security, should the relocation take place.
Meanwhile, the mostly Muslim refugees were continuing to stream into neighbouring countries. In the previous three months, more than 82,000 CAR nationals had found shelter in Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of Congo and Chad.
Dorothea Krimitsas, for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), informed that she had just returned from the Central African Republic, where she had been on a mission with the ICRC President Peter Maurer. The first people that they had met in Bangui were fleeing their homes because they had just been threatened to be killed. People lived in a constant fear for their lives; insecurity was a major issue in that country where violence came from armed groups, intercommunal and criminal violence. It was a real explosive mix of violence that affected everybody in the country.
The situation was also compounded by chronic poverty and crippling institutions. Almost no administration and barely any services were currently delivered in the country. All those factors increased the pressure on humanitarian organizations to deliver essential services such as health, medical care, water, food and other items. Violent incidents were affecting people on daily basis, while the prison system had also been affected by the absence of a functioning state. The prison system had being extremely affected by what happened in the last months, and the ICRC was maintaining its regular schedule of visits to prisons in the country. There was a need to rehabilitate or to restore the judicial system in the CAR, because it had a direct impact in the insecurity.
Asked about allegations that Chadian troops had attacked Christians in the country and were supporting the Seleka, Ms. Pouilly said that OHCHR had indeed heard such allegations. The situation in the country was indeed complex. Some International Support Mission to the Central African Republic (MISCA) troops were indeed made up of Chadian soldiers. There were also elements of the Chadian army as well as Chadian mercenaries on the ground. A commission of inquiry was looking into those allegations at the moment, but ascertaining facts was difficult because of the security constraints. Ms. Lejeune-Kaba said that OHCHR had also heard of such allegations, but could not confirm their veracity.
Asked about the joint UNHCR-OCHA mission, Ms. Lejeune-Kaba said that it was a mediation effort to have a discussion with host communities to which Muslim population was being evacuated. It was difficult to find sites for the displaced and evacuated people. Threats against them had become very clear in February, and if it had not been for the peacekeepers, many encircled people would have been killed.
Answering on whether the relocation of Muslim population was the best option, Ms. Lejeune-Kaba said that UNHCR did not want to stand by and watch people being slaughtered. Only the presence of the French troops and MISCA was preventing that from happening at the moment. Many people themselves were asking UNHCR to evacuate them. If the United Nations did not evacuate them, their lives would be at risk. So far, some places for their relocation had been found, mostly to the north, close to the border with Chad, where anti-Balaka were not so present.
On the opening of other camps, Ms. Lejeune-Kaba stated that the relocation was meant mostly for people in Bangui. Their current sites were inadequate, as there were no enough latrines and there was fear of water-borne diseases. The protection cluster was meeting today to decide on immediate actions on relocation before the rains; otherwise it would be too late.
On when the inquiry commission was returning to Geneva, Ms. Pouilly said that the chair had decided to stay in Central African Republic for several extra days, and the exact date of the commission’s return was not yet known.
Answering a question on when United Nations troops could be expected in the country, Ms. Momal-Vanian stated that it depended on the Security Council. The program of work for the Security Council in April was not yet available, but the question was likely to be discussed this month. However, she noted that even if the Security Council decided in April to deploy troops, they would not be effectively deployed on the ground before September.
On the question whether such a belated deployment of UN troops would affect the timeline of the transition, which was planned for 15 February 2015, Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the already present United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic (BINUCA) was dealing with the transition and helping develop institutions.
On mediation efforts between the communities, Ms. Lejeune-Kaba said that there were still religious leaders and other humanitarian organizations involved in such efforts, but the situation had not changed on the ground. The anti-Balaka were becoming more militarized and bolder in their actions. That could be seen in the way that they were operating, staging attacks and advancing. Ms. Lejeune-Kaba said that UNHCR was working closely with the authorities, particularly the President. During her tenure as the Mayor of Bangui, she had been very active on the ground, trying to pacify the situation. UNHCR supported relocating people as long as the situation was so bad for them, but such relocations did not preclude their return. On the contrary, UNHCR wanted to see people return to their homes at some point, but the tensions were so high at the moment that it was not possible for them to remain where they were.
Ms. Lejeune-Kaba stated that there were fewer reports of people starving, but people arriving to neighbouring countries were still in terrible conditions.
Gregory Härtl, for the World Health Organization (WHO), informed that new figures on the Ebola outbreak would be released at 1 p.m. The previous day, the figures had been 122 suspected and confirmed cases of Ebola in Guinea, of whom 80 had died. In Liberia, there were cases connected to Guinea. Although there was no infection in Liberia itself, the infected were Liberians who had travelled to Guinea and had been consequently infected. There were seven suspected and confirmed cases of whom four had died. The Sierra Leone cases had been tested negative.
Answering a question on the scope of the outbreak, Mr. Härtl specified that it was smaller than others in the past such as in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 1990s. The largest outbreaks had seen over 400 recorded cases.
Mr. Härtl also stated that this had not been the first time that the WHO had seen cases of Ebola in a capital city. Such cases had been observed in Libreville in Gabon in previous years, as people who were infected tended to travel to capital cities in search of more effective medical treatment.
The source of infection had been localized in the South East of Guinea. For the WHO, the outbreak fitted the patterns of all previous Ebola outbreaks.
Responding to another question, Mr. Härtl specified that there were recorded instances in the Côte d’Ivoire, which was in the same geographical area as Guinea. The supposition was that the virus was widespread in tropical areas of the rainforests in Africa. The reason the cases were very rare was because Ebola predominately existed in rainforest where there were not many people. Normally, bush meat hunters found it easier to kill a diseased animal than a healthy animal. The virus spread form the rural villages of the South East to the capital city of Conakry due to the infected seeking medical attention.
Mr. Härtl stressed that in an outbreak the priority was stopping chain transmission and tracing all contacts. The contacts needed to be followed up for a period of 21 days and ensured against inadvertently spreading the disease to someone else. 11 health care workers had been confirmed as having contracted Ebola.
Asked whether the Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) was exaggerating the situation, Mr. Hartl emphasized that MSF had been absolutely key in the outbreak response, as almost all the doctors who had been brought in to work in the clinics were MSF doctors. WHO had been working both with MSF and the Ministry of Health to ensure that the proper practices and equipment had been put in place to protect all these healthcare workers from the virus. Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) had already been shipped, and more was on its way.
Mr. Härtl said that in public health terms, there was a fine line between an outbreak and an epidemic. The terminology used by local authorities in Guinea, describing the situation as an epidemic, was due to a difference in language: “outbreak” in French did not have the same definition as in English. The WHO was dealing with limited foci, limited geographical area and only a few chains of transmission. For the moment, therefore, it continued to refer to an outbreak in Guinea.
Answering another question, Mr. Hartl explained that the epidemiology of this outbreak was the same as with other previous outbreaks. The question was one of controlling infection in hospitals and controlling transmission among the people who might have been infected. The two most important factors were what the WHO did in hospitals and how the contacts were traced.
The focus was on avoiding new transmissions. The incubation period for all strains of Ebola was between two and 21 days. The WHO then took the maximum incubation period and multiplied it by two to get the length of time needed to ensure no onwards transmission. Communication with local communities and their education was of crucial importance.
The WHO did not recommend any travel or trade restrictions, as they did not make sense with regards to public health.
On whether the Ebola virus seen in Democratic Republic of the Congo was the same as the one in Guinea, Mr. Härtl explained that there were four different known strains of Ebola in Africa. The Guinea strain was the same as the one known as “Zaire ebola”, and could be found in tropical areas of west and central Africa. WHO considered that fruit bats were the natural, but perhaps not unique, host of the Ebola virus and could transmit it to other animals, primarily primates.
Mine Action Week
Bruno Donat, for the United Nations Mine Actions Service (UNMAS), introduced himself as the incoming chief of the UNMAS office in Geneva. This year’s theme of the Mine Action Week was empowering women in mine action, and three days of activities would take place in Geneva and worldwide. Paper and electronic copies of the programme were printed and distributed. On 2 April, at 6 p.m. there would be a photo exhibition and a demining demonstration in Building E of the Palais des Nations; the exhibition was entitled “Both Halves of the Sky Deserve all the Earth.” On 3 April, at 10 a.m. there would be a panel discussion on the theme of the “Road to Completion” regarding the third review conference of the Anti-Personnel Mine Convention. On 4 April at 1 p.m. three films would be screened of women in mine action. That would take place at the UN Cinema at the Palais des Nations.
Ms. Momal-Vanian informed that the Committee on Migrant Workers was examining the report of Uruguay this morning, after which it would consider reports of El Salvador, Mali and the Philippines.
The Committee on Persons with Disabilities was continuing the consideration of the report of Sweden this morning, after which it would examine Azerbaijan and Costa Rica.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the International Federation of the Red Cross would hold a press briefing in Press Room I on 2 April at 12:30, on the subject of Dengue. On the occasion of the pre-launch of the advocacy report on “the silent disaster”, Walter Cotte, Under Secretary General, and Amanda McClelland, Senior Officer for Emergency Health, would address the journalists. Mr. Härtl informed that the WHO would join IFRC for the press conference, on the occasion of the World Health Day.
UNMAS would brief the press in Press Room 1 on 3 April at 9:30 a.m, on the occasion of the International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action. Paul Heslop, Chief of Programs for UNMAS and a demining veteran, would provide a background briefing and describe new threats from landmines and explosive remnants of war.
Mr. Laerke informed that a press conference on South Sudan would take place in Press Room III on 3 April at 11:30 a.m. The speaker would be Toby Lanzer, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General, UNDP Resident Representative and Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan, who would speak about the humanitarian situation in the country.
* * * * *
The representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development also attended the briefing, but did not brief.
* * * * *
The webcast for this briefing is available here: … http://bit.ly/1s2tCe0