REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
28 March 2014
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the Spokespersons for World Health Organization, United Nations Refugee Agency, International Organization for Migration, World Food Programme, World Trade Organization, United Nations Children’s Fund, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the International Federation of the Red Cross.
Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that WFP and partners had so far provided food and nutrition assistance for nearly half a million conflict-affected people in South Sudan. They were reaching more people every day, overcoming severe challenges including looting and continued fighting.
WFP was using a combination of airlifts and airdrops to reach tens of thousands of people in remote, hard-to-reach areas. WFP’s mobile distribution teams took advantage of sometimes-small windows of opportunity to distribute food to people in urgent need in communities isolated by conflict. The mobile teams were now being expanded to include other agencies.
Ms. Byrs said that the unrest had seriously damaged food security in South Sudan, pushing millions further into hunger and severely complicating our efforts to provide relief. The crisis was hurting food security even in parts of the country not directly affected by fighting, in part because of disruption to trade routes and food markets.
WFP was assisting tens of thousands of people who had fled across South Sudan’s borders into neighbouring countries. Nearly 85,000 refugees had arrived in Ethiopia, many in very poor condition with alarmingly high levels of malnutrition. WFP was providing specialized nutrition support for children and mothers to help them recover, and malnutrition rates were dropping.
Working with NGO partners, WFP had reached nearly 500,000 people affected by the conflict and was expanding assistance each day to reach more people in need of support. WFP was planning to assist an additional 275, 000 in the following month through the use of a combination of airdrops, airlifts and river transports, especially with supplies arriving via Ethiopia.
Ms. Byrs informed that mobile distribution teams were being deployed in remote, hard-to-reach areas in order to support the crisis response. The teams included staff from other UN agencies including UNICEF, and in the coming weeks would be expanded to include FAO and NGO partners. Teams were currently in the field providing food assistance in Akobo (Jonglei State), Nyal and Mayendit (Unity State) and Akoka. WFP mobile teams had previously distributed assistance to some 85,000 conflict affected people in five locations: Ganyiel in Unity State, Old Fangak, Lankien and Pibor in Jonglei State and Nassir County in Upper Nile State.
WFP continued assisting people sheltering in UN compounds and other IDP populations.
Ms. Byrs stated that the WFP was facing serious challenges in transporting food to deep field locations due to access and security concerns, which was hampering its annual pre-positioning exercise, in which they were stocking up warehouses in areas that would become inaccessible when the rains started in April/May.
Despite immense challenges due to insecurity, including looting and commandeering of trucks belonging to commercial transporters contracted by WFP, the organization had dispatched a total of 41,077 metric tons of food around the country since the start of the year. WFP had also continued providing regular food rations to a pre-existing caseload of Sudanese refugees living in camps in Unity and Upper Nile states. Re-supplying those camps had been complicated by continued insecurity along the supply routes and cross-border access constraints, particularly in Maban County. WFP was using a combination of airdrops, local purchase and land transport with supplies from neighbouring Ethiopia to replenish the stocks in Maban County.
Ms. Byrs informed that in areas that were stable enough, WFP was continuing work aimed at improving community resilience, including food for assets projects, Purchase for Progress activities benefitting local farmers, and school meals.
Sarah Crowe, for United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that it had been 100 days since the eruption of violence in South Sudan. The youngest citizens of the world’s newest country were suffering the most from the rising levels of malnutrition and increasing violence. The majority of the displaced and the refugees were children, with little access to safe water. Those children had seen rising level of violence and their schools had often been occupied by warring sides, with enrolment rates dropping significantly.
UNICEF had observed increasing levels of disease outbreaks, measles and polio. Cholera was under control at the moment. With the rainy season approaching, however, the looming threat of rains was a big worry as parts of the country were becoming impassable and swamped areas. It would thus be much harder and costly for relief operations to reach those in desperate need. Some UNICEF staff in the Unity State had met families who had not eaten decent meals in 75 days and were barely surviving. The situation was desperate and was becoming only worse. Many young children had to flee for their lives and were separated from their families in the process.
Unless the situation improved rapidly and radically, as many as one million people would face even greater threats in South Sudan and neighbouring countries, including Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Sudan. 75 per cent of some 80,000 refugees in Ethiopia were under 18 years of age; there were very few men and boys, which could be seen as a sign of child recruitment. Malnutrition rates in that, already impoverished, part of Ethiopia reached 50 per cent.
Ms. Crowe said that South Sudan was imploding, as the light that had been turned on two years ago was now turned off. With some many competing crises around the world today, South Sudan was getting scant media attention. The international community had a special obligation to South Sudan as it was a new, young country.
This week, emergency relief supplies had gone to very remote areas, delivering whole baskets of different supplies, including food, vaccines, hygiene kits, rehydrating salts, and chlorinating tablets. That process would continue in the coming weeks, and the goal was to reach as many beneficiaries as possible before parts of the country were made completely inaccessible.
Asked about child soldiers, Ms. Crowe said that the data was very difficult to come by given the extremely fragile security situation. At the very least, 83 cases had been verified in observations by the United Nations, and the numbers were likely to be much higher than that.
Central African Republic (Central African Republic)
Volker Turk, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that the situation in Bangui had significantly deteriorated, with the anti-Balaka elements becoming much more militarized. Different parts of the country were coming under increased threats and the level of hatred was rising. Muslim communities in some parts of the country, such as in Boda, were essentially besieged. Christian community representatives had said that they did not want any Muslims to stay in Boda, and if they did, various measures would be taken to make them leave. Mr. Turk said he believed that there would already have been a massacre were it not for the French military mission Sangaris.
Some internally displaced persons’ sites were too dangerous to visit, with anti-Balaka elements roaming around the city of Bangui, and scenes of violence seen in the streets. Fear and religious factors were being instrumentalized.
Mr. Turk said that the Government was absolutely overwhelmed and had no capacity with the crisis. There were no functioning state structures. There was a huge burden on the humanitarian community, which was essentially a life-line. Having said that, the humanitarian community could not replace what was utterly needed in terms of making sure that the situation in the country received the attention it required. It was very distressing to see such a situation develop in front of the international community’s eyes, with the incredible level of civilian suffering. The Muslim population was affected the most, but other groups were in difficult conditions as well.
Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), stated that this week marked the one-year anniversary since rebels, previously known as the Seleka coalition, had seized power in the Central African Republic, and violence and displacement continued.
In the two days leading up to the one-year mark on 24 March, the CAR Red Cross had reported that at least 18 people had been killed. Fighting with both light and heavy weapons had been ongoing in the capital Bangui in the previous week. Violence had also reversed an otherwise positive trend of return of internally displaced people. One month earlier, on 27 February, OCHA had reported that there were 276,000 IDPs in Bangui. Two weeks later, on 12 March, the number of IDPs in Bangui had been 100,000 lower. In OCHA’s report of 28 March, the number of IDPs in Bangui had again increased from 177,000 to approximately 200,000.
Mr. Laerke said that, if the violence continued, IDPs would not be able to return home before the rainy season started in earnest in mid-April. Violence would also limit humanitarian access and undermine our efforts to stabilize communities and support returns. The result might be that thousands would have to stay behind in overcrowded sites.
Humanitarian agencies in collaboration with the Office of the Mayor of Bangui were working to identify potential relocation sites to transfer people who could not return home from the M’Poko airport site before the rainy season. Some 70,000 IDPs were still at that site living in extremely difficult conditions.
Mr. Laerke stressed that the lack of funding was still of major concern as only 22 per cent of the CAR Strategic Response Plan requesting USD 551 million had been committed or disbursed.
OCHA remained extremely worried that if it did not get the money needed to pre-position relief, the world might witness an even deeper humanitarian crisis in the months ahead.
Sandra Black, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that with the situation in the Central African Republic in a downward spiral, IOM was appealing for USD 56.5 million to bring life-saving assistance to the country and region.
The scope of IOM’s appeal had been broadened from CAR to Chad and Cameroon, which were carrying a heavy burden of an influx of migrants and returnees fleeing the conflict.
In addition, Ms. Black stressed, IOM wanted to reinforce transition and recovery efforts, which were beginning to show promise. IOM’s engagement with affected communities told a story of hope amid the chaos. Security was deteriorating, attacks against the Muslim population in Bangui and outside were continuing and road movements were not safe for anyone, including aid workers.
IOM’s support of the mixed religious neighbourhood in the 3rd Arrondissement included a successful street cleaning project. The scheme had supported 100 local youths from both sides of the divide to work side by side to clear away over 100 truckloads of garbage. Such activities gave ravaged communities renewed hope of working together for a better future. The project was so successful that surrounding neighbourhoods had asked for the project to be replicated.
In the midst of a dangerous information vacuum, where rumours quickly led to cycles of violence, IOM’s community facilitators were constantly engaged in a two-way communication exchange with the affected population. They tried to give a voice to the voiceless and pass messages of hope. Ms. Black said that local radio stations were often spreading biased and inflammatory messages.
Ms. Black informed that the following week IOM would extend its operations to Boda, which had suffered from inter-sectorial violence. There would be a distribution of core relief items to both communities and meetings with community leaders.
IOM’s “Intentions Survey” revealed that a majority of the population of CAR were people of good will, who wanted to return home, but fear extremism. Christians were more likely to go home, and some three fourths of those surveyed had expressed readiness to return.
Ms. Black specified that, to date, IOM had supported the evacuation and return to their home country of over 100,000 stranded and vulnerable migrants, including close to 10,000 assisted with direct international transport assistance. Returns had been organized from both CAR and neighbouring Cameroon, mainly to Chad. There were 44 displacement sites in Central African Republic.
Food prices had gone up and the food crisis was looming, especially with the upcoming rainy season.
A dedicated website http://carresponse.iom.int/ had been launched, providing all the necessary information and updates.
Asked why the international community was not responding more actively, Mr. Turk said that, in his 23 years with UNHCR, he found the situation in the Central African Republic among the most difficult ones to comprehend. There were many different layers of the problem, with multiple pre-existing tensions, both ethnic, religious and socio-economic. It was an absolutely desperate situation which had been going on for a while. Many ways and means were used to disseminate and manipulate information in the country, including the media and mobile phones.
It was clear that the first priority was security, and there was a call by the United Nations Secretary-General to increase the troop level. Security alone, however, would not restore the broken social fabric of a country that size, which was larger than France. The Central African Republic crisis required sustained international attention, which it was not receiving.
Asked about evidence that the communities actually wanted to live together, Ms. Black said that prior to March 2013, Christians and Muslims had lived together, and many had said that they could do so again. The conflict was fresh and there had been numerous casualties which made the immediate reconciliation hard. Many were nevertheless aware that the solution had to come through reconciliation, and a number of women and youth groups had expressed readiness for that. It was hard to move forward, but communities did, in general, realize that reconciliation ought to take place.
Ms. Black explained that anti-Balaka groups were spread out, and had no clear command structure, which made it difficult to negotiate with them.
Mr. Turk added that there were extreme levels of hatred, which had to be healed before moving ahead. At the moment, with the amount of fear, trauma and despair, it was very difficult to see that the co-existence project would succeed unless deeper causes of conflict were properly addressed. Anti-Balaka groups were carrying out targeted killings more and more, and were using more sophisticated weapons, so dynamics were changing . Nonetheless, the history of conflicts elsewhere had shown that it was possible to bring the communities together, which would require a currently non-existent security dimension, functioning government, and state structures across the country. International dedication was needed to move forward. Overall, the situation was unsafe for Muslims and humanitarian staff.
Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia
Amanda McClelland, for the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC), presented the evolving situation in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. IFRC was scaling up its efforts to support the Ministry of Health, Medecins sans Frontiers and other partners in Guinea to deal with the ebola outbreak, as well as to address cases in Sierra Leone and Liberia. An international team had already been deployed, consisting of four experts, with 15 more arriving in the coming days.
Ms. McClelland said that the focus of the IFRC was very different from other international organizations. The Ministry of Health in Guinea had done a great job clinically, but the biggest impact of this epidemics was the fear and stigma in the community. IFRC had seen a lot of hiding, infected people not going to isolation centres, not reporting deaths, etc. The role of the Red Cross was thus to use the community links to get the key messages out, stop the spread of the disease, find people more at risk, but also to provide psycho-social support. Three experts in that field were heading to the area to support the communities. There were special re-introductory programs for those people who had recovered from ebola to go back to their communities.
The Red Cross in Liberia and Sierra Leone were making efforts to keep and increase the communication with communities, and they were also working with the surrounding countries to do the same for the contingency planning.
Gregory Hartl, for the World Health Organization (WHO), informed that the numbers put out the night before on the disease outbreak news were 103 suspected confirmed cases, and 66 deaths. A lot of cases were only suspected cases, and it was likely that local health authorities would report some cases that would turn out not to be real ebola cases. All cases known so far in Sierra Leone and Liberia had epidemiological links with Guinea. Lab testing was underway through two mobile labs in Guinea, which should help diagnose cases and provide treatment much faster.
Asked how alarming it was and about any travel recommendations, Mr. Hartl answered that WHO had not yet recommended any travel restrictions. What was important in ebola outbreaks were physiological and social elements, the rumours, the fact that there were sometimes significant overreactions from communities and from those who felt that they could get affected.
The disease as a whole, if seen through past outbreaks over the last 40 years, was not a disease that caused huge number of cases. It was not like influenza or other similar diseases; but it was a disease which was very traumatic, which killed large percentages of people that were infected. There was no treatment, no medicine or vaccine. Once infected, a person could only hope that their body was strong enough for its natural defence to fight the disease. On a positive side, the history of the diseases had been until now almost exclusively in isolated communities. The disease often started when eating bush meat. Although the bush meat could be taken to the city, it normally happened in rural areas. Personal close contact with an infected case was needed in order to get infected. The virus did not transmit well, which was why outbreaks tended to be limited.
Mr. Hartl emphasized again that the outbreak ought to be watched extremely carefully because there was no treatment, no cure, and the course of the disease was frequently fatal. If personal contact or fluids of someone with symptoms were avoided, one could not get infected.
Mr. Hartl informed that an updated fact sheet on ebola was available on the WHO website. The two mobile laboratories were run by the European Union and Institute Pasteur.
Asked about the current situation of children in Syria, Ms. Crowe said that one of the largest health threats was polio, and a huge vaccination campaign was underway across Syria and in neighbouring countries. The last polio cases had been recorded in 1999, which was an indication of how poor and fragile children’s health was today. The outbreak in October 2013 had created the sense of a new emergency in Syria and the region.
Answering a question on the decision by the authorities of Kenya to force some 50,000 registered refugees to move from cities to camps, Adrian Edwards, for United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), stated that UNHCR’s position on that issue had been announced in the press release on 25 March. While UNHCR understood the need to address security concerns and strengthen law enforcement, blanket measures which targeted people based on nationality or belonging to a group were discriminatory and usually ineffective, and were creating suffering for innocent people. UNHCR was in contact with the Government of Kenya in that regard.
All communities were affected by insecurity, and scapegoating refugees was not an answer. Blanket implementation of encampment measures was arbitrary and unreasonable, and carried threats to human dignity. Increased police harassment had been observed in the past. UNHCR urged Kenya to reconsider those measures.
Mr. Edwards specified that Kenya had a long history of hosting thousands of refugees, and the current refugee population in the country amounted to over 550,000 people.
Human Rights Council
Ms. Momal-Vanian informed that the Human Rights Council was continuing with its meeting today to take action on the remaining draft resolutions. As noted, there were 28 draft resolutions remaining.
The meeting would last all day, and possibly until after 6 p.m. There was a scheduled break between 1 and 2 p.m.
At the end of the action on those draft resolutions, the President would announce the appointments of the 19 mandate holders to fill vacancies for Special Procedure positions. Afterwards, the session would close.
Ms. Momal-Vanian informed that, following the vote on the resolution on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the European Union Ambassador and the Deputy Permanent Representative of Japan would speak to the press around 12:30 near Room XX.
Ms. Momal-Vanian informed that the Human Rights Committee was closing its three-week long session today. The Committee would publish concluding observations on six examined countries: Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Latvia, United States, Chad, and Nepal. A round-up press release would be issued in the afternoon.
A round-up press release would also be published on the session of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, which had examined reports of Germany and the Netherlands.
The Committee on Migrant Workers would commence its session on 31 March. During the session, it would examine reports of Uruguay, El Salvador, Mali and the Philippines. The Committee on Persons with Disabilities would also commence its work the following week, when it would consider reports of Sweden, Azerbaijan and Costa Rica. Background releases for both committees had been distributed.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said that this year, as per usual practice, the United Nations Office at Geneva would be joining the initiative “Earth Hour” launched by the World Wide Fund For Nature. On 29 March, lights would be turned off on United Nations premises from 8:30 p.m. for one hour, all in an effort to promote the fight against climate change.
Melissa Begag, for the World Trade Organization (WTO), presented the WTO meetings for the following week. There would be a briefing on the Agricultural Negotiations in Press Room I at 2:30 p.m. today. On 31 March, the Working Party on the Accession of Algeria would meet and so would the Informal Negotiating Group on Market Access, both at 10 a.m. On 1 April, members would negotiate the Intellectual Property at 10 a.m, would then meet on the Council for Trade in Services at 11:30 a.m. and in the Committee on Trade and Environment at 4:30 p.m. On 2 April, there would be a Committee on Trade and Development at 10 a.m, followed by a Dedicated Session on Preferential Trade Arrangements at noon. On 3 April, the Sub-Committee on Least Developed Countries would take place at 10 a.m.
Regarding Director-General Roberto Azevêdo's agenda for the following week, Ms. Begag informed that he would travel to Montevideo, Uruguay on 31 March to meet President José Mujica, Foreign Affairs Minister Luis Almagro Lemes and Latin American Integration Association (ALADI) Secretary General Carlos Álvarez, where he would give remarks on "International trade and multilateral negotiations after Bali" at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On 3 April, DG Azevêdo would travel to Buenos Aires where he would meet President Cristina Kirchner, Foreign Minister Hector Timerman and Secretary of International Economic Relations Carlos Bianco. On 4 April, Mr. Azevêdo would be in Geneva where he would take part in UNCTAD's Second Geneva Dialogue on post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda: "The road from Bali" at the Palais des Nations.
Catherine Sibut, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), made an announcement relating to the Second Geneva Dialogue, which was a trade-related meeting to take place on 4 April. Trade and development actors would come to Geneva to give their perspectives for negotiation about the post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda. Secretary-General of UNCTAD Mukhisa Kituyi would also address the event.
Ms. Sibut informed that on 2 and 3 April, UNCTAD would bring together experts of commerce, particularly those who work on collective trade measures used in the domains of green products and renewable energy. The debate regarding the development of protectionism and the protection of the nascent industry was open, and collective trade measures would be discussed during the debate.
A press conference would take place on 31 March at 11:30 a.m. on the Global Commodities Forum, which concerned issues such as the world value chains and the distribution of the value chains, basic product markets, transparency of the market, etc.
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The representative of the International Labour Organization also attended the briefing, but did not brief.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/1rKfTbB