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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

12 May 2015

Ahmad Fawzi, Director a.i. of the UN Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the Spokespersons for the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Food Programme, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the International Labour Organization, the International Organization for Migration and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Yemen

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the six days from 4 to 10 May had been the deadliest since the beginning of the fighting in Yemen on 26 March, with a total of at least 182 civilians reported killed during that period, almost half of them women and children. The total number of civilians whose deaths had been verified by the OHCHR staff in Yemen had now risen to 828 since 26 March, with a further 1,511 injured.

A significant proportion of the casualties over the most recent six-day period were reportedly caused by airstrikes, especially in the Sa’ada Governorate. Other civilian deaths had been caused by mortar fire and during fighting between the two sides in at least four different Governorates - Taiz, Abyan, Dhale and Aden, as well as by sniper fire. On one occasion, on 6 May, dozens of people fleeing fighting in Al-Tawahi District in Aden Governorate, had taken to boats aiming for Djibouti, when they had been shelled by mortars apparently fired by members of the Popular Committees affiliated with the Houthis.

Given this alarming escalation, the OHCHR welcomed the announcement of a five-day humanitarian pause in Yemen, due to start today. The pause should enable desperately needed aid operations to be carried out, and it was essential that it was honoured by all sides to the conflict. It should also be used as the basis for a more permanent cessation of hostilities. OHCHR urged the coalition led by Saudi Arabia to enable fuel supplies to enter regularly into Yemen to facilitate humanitarian operations.

Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), stated that the UNHCR was making final preparations for a huge airlift of humanitarian aid into Sana’a, to take place over the following days if today’s proposed ceasefire came into effect and held.

Hundreds of thousands of people across Yemen were struggling to meet their basic needs and were in desperate need of help. UNHCR’s most recent shipment of aid by sea had arrived at Hodeida port on the Red Sea on 8 May, containing blankets, sleeping mats and kitchen utensils for 60,000 people, but there was a clear and urgent need for aid to reach many more people.

The plan for the airlift was for three flights carrying aid from the UNHCR stockpiles in Dubai. In addition to the flights, the UNHCR would be seeking to distribute more of the aid it already had in Yemen, and to carry out rapid needs assessments in previously hard-to-reach areas. UNHCR staff and partners were preparing to give relief kits out to tens of thousands of displaced people, including those who in recent days had fled airstrikes on Saada. In the south, the UNHCR was hoping to be able to send aid to 17,500 vulnerable people.

Mr. Edwards said that, while a humanitarian pause fell short of the peace so vitally needed in Yemen, it was nonetheless critically important that aid got through, as existing stocks in the country were becoming depleted, adding to the suffering of civilians. UNHCR was planning to use any pause in hostilities to transport and preposition aid to Sana’a, Amran, Haradh and Aden for onward distribution to vulnerable populations in surrounding provinces. UNHCR was also hoping to redouble its protection activities for refugees and asylum-seekers during the ceasefire. Through the telephone hotlines, UNHCR staff had received requests from some migrants who now wished to register as asylum-seekers because of the problems they were facing. Many other refugees who had previously survived as daily labourers or domestic staff had lost their livelihoods in the conflict and needed cash assistance.

UNHCR, with its humanitarian partners, was urging all parties to observe the ceasefire in full, to respect international humanitarian law and cease any targeting of civilians or civilian infrastructure, and to allow the urgent delivery of aid to tens of thousands of vulnerable Yemenis and refugees who desperately needed some respite.

Mr. Edwards specified that more than 300,000 civilians had been displaced across Yemen in the recent conflict. In addition, some 27,000 people of various nationalities had fled the country over the previous six weeks.

Tarik Jašareviæ, for the World Health Organization (WHO), informed that the WHO was preparing to scale-up its activities. There were around 11 metric tons of medical kits, blood bags, IV fluids in warehouses in Sana’a and Aden to be moved to field locations, hospitals and clinics in Al-Daher Governorate.

Mr. Jašareviæ said that they were also planning to move the supplies from Dubai to Djibouti on 13 May and to bring it with UN transport into Yemen on 15 May. The 30-ton shipments would include emergency health kits, trauma kits, surgical supply kits, diarrheal disease kits, water testing kits, and other water and sanitation supplies. Mr. Jašareviæ also warned about the difficult health situation, power cuts and fuel shortages which were making the work of hospitals difficult in both public and private sectors. The disease surveillance reporting rate had decreased. Security for health workers was an important concern. WHO was also providing hospitals in the Aden camp with safe water, and procuring a large amount of fuel to ensure continuity of its services.

Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), stated that the WFP was ready to provide emergency food rations to over 750,000 people in conflict-hit areas of Yemen during the 5-day humanitarian pause due to begin today.

A WFP-chartered vessel had arrived in the Yemeni port of Hudayda on 9 May with some 250,000 litres of fuel and supplies for other humanitarian organizations. Another vessel was in international waters ready to dock in with an additional 120,000 litres of fuel. Nonetheless, that was only 15 percent of the monthly fuel requirement for all humanitarian operations.

Ms. Byrs said that the WFP had reached 1.1 million people in Yemen in the past month in 8 governorates. The conflict had increased the number of hungry people and it was now estimated that 12 million people were struggling to find their next meal.

WFP was planning to provide food to 2.5 million people over the coming three months and required almost USD 43 million every month in Yemen to feed them. Prior to the upsurge in fighting, WFP had been regularly assisting nearly four million vulnerable Yemenis.

During the pause, the WFP would also preposition special food products for treating and preventing malnutrition at health and nutrition centres. The quantity was enough to meet the needs of 25,000 children under five and pregnant and nursing women. Child malnutrition rates in Yemen were among the highest in the world. Around half of all children under five were stunted – too short for their age, as a result of malnutrition.

Ms. Byrs specified that the WFP required one million litres of fuel per month in Yemen. The total need for humanitarian operations was estimated at five million litres per month, which included fuel for milling wheat grain as well as keeping the water supply systems pumping throughout the country.

Between 15 April and 10 May, the WFP and its partners had distributed food to more than 1.1 million food-insecure and conflict-affected Yemenis in 8 governorates – Aden, Amran, Sana’a, Hudaydah, Hajjah, Al Mahwit, Dhamar and Lahj. Many were people who had fled from conflict and took shelter in public schools or with other families. WFP had appealed for more than USD 140 million to meet the food needs as part of the UN appeal.

Asked about the complete death toll, Mr. Jašareviæ said that at least 1,400 people had been killed, and nearly 6,000 injured. More precise figures would be provided in the upcoming situation report.

Mr. Jašareviæ said that 11 metric tonnes of medical supplies were in the WHO warehouses in Sana’a and Aden and efforts would continue to move them out.

Mr. Colville added that civilian casualties, especially in Saada, stood at unacceptably high levels, which was a matter of concern for the OHCHR. The ratio of killed women was high, as a number of residential buildings were bombed.

On whether there was any hope of fixing the runway at the Sana’a airport during the humanitarian pause, Mr. Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), stated that a number of humanitarian staff were airborne at the moment, on their way to Sana’a. Different planes required different conditions on the ground to land; details would need to be looked into. Ms. Byrs added that her information from the previous day showed that the two main airports were inaccessible, and that it would take a while to bring the Sana’a airport back into operation.

On reports that the UN was displeased with the Saudi proposal to control aid distribution, Mr. Laerke stated that since General Assembly resolution 188/46, the Emergency Relief Coordinator coordinated international relief, and any other parties that wanted to provide aid would coordinate through this mechanism. The flash appeal stood for Yemen at USD 274 million, and Saudi Arabia had indeed pledged to cover it all.

On when the humanitarian pause was to begin, Mr. Laerke said it was going to be at 11 p.m. today, Yemen time.

Asked whether child soldiers really formed one third of the Houthi rebel forces, as reported, Mr. Boulierac said that due to the security constraints it was very difficult to check every single case. UNICEF staff had counted more than 140 child soldiers, but also shared their visual impressions that one out of three soldiers on the ground was a child. It was thus possible, but not proven, that one third of troops were children; there was no certainty at the moment.

Migrant sea crossings

Leonard Doyle, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that the IOM Director-General General William Lacy Swing was in Brussels today to meet the European Union President Donald Tusk and discuss the need of moral leadership in the migrant crisis.

Mr. Swing was presenting in Brussels many suggestions for possible solutions. Those were short, medium and long term interventions implemented simultaneously in countries of origin, transit and destination. The suggestions were also dealing with information campaigns to dissuade migrants from taking such risky journeys.

Responding to questions about the legality of the practice of pushing back the boats, Mr. Doyle said that the important issue was not the political aspect of the matter, but the ways to aid people in risk of their life, in order to avoid big human disasters.

Asked about the European Union’s military plan about confiscating and destroying boats, pushed by Ms. Mogherini, Mr. Doyle stated that according to the IOM, the military option was not necessarily the best one. Beyond the logical and practical problems linked with its application, this solution did not provide the most important thing, which was the protection of migrants. Mr. Doyle said that the IOM did not believe that the military option was the best. IOM did not see the logic of sinking the boats. If migrants and smugglers were crossing the Mediterranean in dinghies, those were easy to replace and harder to strike and destroy.

Mr. Doyle expressed the IOM’s concern about the recent pushbacks of boats which could have caused many deaths, because migrants may have been abandoned by the smugglers who had had to face the blockage in the Bay of Bengal. That would have clearly represented a humanitarian emergency.

Asked about pushbacks, Mr. Doyle said that the IOM was more interested in delivering aid to people in need, rather than politics. If migrants were subjected to all sorts of torture, it was a duty to rescue them. There were reports of as many as 8,000 migrants at the sea at the moment.

Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), announced that, on the eve of the adoption of the EU Migration Agenda, UNICEF was calling for the rights and well-being of migrant children to be at the heart of Europe’s immigration policy. Mr. Boulierac reminded that the death rate from Mediterranean crossings had increased since 2014, with a lot of children among victims. With the warmer weather, the number of deaths was expected to increase even more.

Furthermore, during the crossings, children travelling alone or without their parents were the most vulnerable. Mr. Boulierac informed about new reports indicating smugglers and traffickers were exploiting a desperate situation, luring the parents to pay more money to join their children. Mr. Boulierac stated that wherever they were, transit children had the right to be protected and cared for. UNICEF believed that the migration agenda, which would be set on 13 May, was a good opportunity for the European Union to strengthen EU safeguards and be a model in the protection of migrant children. UNICEF had published a 10-point advocating plan in that regard.

On the issue of a military option against traffickers being discussed by the States, Mr. Boulierac stated that whatever option would be taken, the State parties were legally bound by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and had to comply with their responsibility to protect the rights of the children in each decision they took.

Mr. Edwards said that the UNHCR was appealing to governments in South-East Asia to step up search-and-rescue efforts and keep their borders open, amid continuing reports that thousands of people were stranded on smugglers’ boats between the Andaman Sea and the Straits of Malacca. UNHCR’s partner, Thai NGO The Arakan Project estimated that several thousand people, believed to be mostly Rohingya and Bangladeshi nationals could be adrift at sea as smugglers abandoned them to avoid arrest in the wake of recent crackdowns in Thailand and Malaysia.

UNHCR welcomed the rescue of hundreds of people off the coast of Indonesia and Malaysia in recent days. Governments were asked to continue their life-saving operations to find and safely disembark the passengers, many of whom were believed to be in a weakened state after days and possibly weeks with little food and water.

In Malaysia, local authorities said that 1,093 people, including many believed to be Rohingya, had arrived by boat in Langkawi on 10 May. UNHCR had offered its assistance to the Government, aware of the challenges of managing such a humanitarian emergency. While those involved included both asylum-seekers and migrants, the absolute priority was providing humanitarian relief, followed by the identification of those in need of international protection.

Mr. Edwards said that the UNHCR urged against indefinite detention of those rescued, who should be given access to basic rights and services, including family unification, shelter and healthcare.

UNHCR stood ready to help address the root causes of the outflow, including the resolution of longstanding citizenship issues for the Rohingya.

Mr. Edwards stressed that the key issue was the voluntariness of the move. If one was fleeing conflict for one’s own life, pushbacks were not a moral option.

On whether it was legal for a country to push back a boat from its territorial waters, Mr. Edwards said that there was a history in South-East Asia of boats being re-provisioned and re-directed. In some cases it could definitely be considered as refoulement. People arriving inMalaysia were generally registered as asylum-seekers and their applications were processed.

Asked about the proposed military EU plan for the Mediterranean, Mr. Edwards said that the UNHCR’s concern was protection of refugees and asylum seekers. It was important to remember that international law made a distinction between smugglers and traffickers on one side, and their victims on the other. Priorities included saving lives and providing realistic alternatives.

On the question of quotas, Mr. Doyle said that quotas were a step forward, but that was still not an official position of the EU, so it would be best to wait for the official statement.

Asked to explain the surge of migrants in South-East Asia, Mr. Edwards said that there were a couple of factors. The smuggling business had become very lucrative. The context ought to be recognized: there were record numbers of displaced people around the world, and what was happening in South-East Asia was just one of the symptoms. Mr. Doyle said that young boys and men were being exploited by criminal gangs, and at times kidnapped.

A question was raised on the whole narrative on migrants and whether their possible contribution to receiving countries was emphasized enough. Mr. Doyle said that the IOM had conducted multiple campaigns demonstrating that migrants were indeed making useful contributions to society. The IOM had repeatedly made the case that migrants were necessary, especially in Europe, whose population was ageing. Europe needed support of managed migration flows, which would enrich its economies. The rational way to deal with migration was to manage it rather than stop it. Mr. Edwards added that the UNHCR knew and frequently spoke about the benefits of receiving and welcoming refugees.

Answering another question, Mr. Edwards stated that smuggling routes were being moved off shore, and it showed why there was such an important need for countries to work together. Stopping smuggling in one place would shift it elsewhere, unless a comprehensive, cross-border approach was adopted. Every vessel had a responsibility of coming to assistance to boats in distress.

South Sudan

Mr. Colville stated that the OHCHR was deeply concerned about the escalation of fighting in the strategic, oil-rich Unity State in South Sudan. Whenever fighting intensified, between Government and opposition forces, the civilian population bore the brunt. Since 29 April, at least 28 towns and villages had been attacked and burned, with reports of killings, rape, abduction and looting of cattle and other property.

Thousands of civilians had fled the attacks – with at least 2,200 new arrivals seeking refuge at the UN Mission in South Sudan Protection of Civilians site in Bentiu as of 10 May, while others had fled or were in bushes between villages south of Nhialdiu and Koch, and Leer. Of 2,200 new arrivals, 26 percent were children under five and 65 percent were women and girls.

According to interviews with civilians who had managed to flee, perpetrators of those atrocities were SPLA soldiers and armed youth. Mobilized youth were reportedly clad in civilian clothes wielding AK47s. There were also alarming reports of attacks, including abductions and sexual violence, by armed elements around the Protection of Civilians site.

Ahead of the rainy season, when people were planting crops, the OHCHR urged absolute restraint by the parties to the conflict. Attacks on civilian lives and infrastructure amounted to clear violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law and had to be investigated.

Asked if the reason for the attack was financial, Mr. Colville said that Unity was the home state of Riek Machar, which could make it a strategic target for the opposing side. Recent fighting was a continuation of the major fighting between the two parties, which was clearly not yet resolved. Sporadic incidents had been taking place in South Sudan all the time, but the current round had commenced around 20 April, explained Mr. Colville.

Angola

Mr. Colville said that there had been alarming reports in recent weeks of an alleged massacre in the central province of Huambo in Angola. OHCHR had been working to get more information on the incident but the facts remained unclear, with wildly differing accounts on the number of casualties.

According to the Government, nine police officers and 13 civilians had been killed in a confrontation in Serra Sumé, when police had attempted to arrest the leader of a religious sect called “Luz du Mundo” (Light of the World). However, other accounts of the incident claimed that hundreds of followers of the sect had been killed. There were even accounts suggesting the number might exceed 1,000.

Mr. Colville added that recent editorials and reports in State media condemning the sect had been very worryingly virulent. OHCHR understood that some members of the sect and their families might have gone into hiding out of fear of further violence.

OHCHR urged the Government to ensure that a truly meaningful, independent, thorough investigation was conducted with a view to ensuring accountability.

Asked about possible political implications of the massacres, Mr. Colville said that there were no such indications. There were, nonetheless, quite divergent accounts on what had happened.

Nepal

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), stated that that there had been an earthquake in Nepal at 9:05 a.m. Geneva time which was 7.3 on Richter’s scale and relatively shallow. It had been followed by two other earthquakes reaching 5.6 and 6.3 on Richter‘s scale, within a span of thirty minutes after the first one. The first one had come out as a red alert, like the one in April, which meant that it was very severe earthquake in a highly populated area.

OCHA did not have much information from the ground, but all OCHA and the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) teams were accounted for, according to communications with them that morning. On the other hand, OCHA did not have an overview of impact on the Nepali population, or information about other UN humanitarian workers on the ground. In the course of the day more information was expected to become available.

Asked about the characteristics of the area where the earthquake had stricken, Mr. Laerke stated that it was an area between 70 and 90 km north-east of Kathmandu, but he did not have an estimation about how many people lived there.

Indonesia

Mr. Colville stated that the OHCHR welcomed the decision by the President of Indonesia to grant clemency to five Papuan political prisoners as well as his announcement that foreign journalists would now be allowed to visit Papua.

Moldova

Mr. Colville said that the OHCHR welcomed the adoption on 7 May of a law strengthening the rights of persons with disabilities by the Moldovan Parliament. For the first time in Moldova, the right to vote of people who had been deprived of legal capacity on the basis of their disability was legally recognized. The new law also allowed persons under guardianship to appeal against decisions that deprived them of or restricted their legal capacity.

Report World Employment and Social Outlook 2015

Jean-Luc Martinage, for the International Labour Organization (ILO), announced the launch of a new ILO annual report «World Employment and Social Outlook 2015» on 18 May. The first edition of the new annual report would be dealing with the important topic of employment contracts and would include statistics on the different types of contracts at different scales. It was taking in consideration the part of permanent contracts as well as precarious contracts and the length of employment. The report provided an opportunity to show how the ongoing evolution of the labour market had an effect on employment contracts, job creation and employment stability. There would also be a specific chapter on the global supply chains with estimation on the evolution of the number of people being employed in these chains.

A press conference to launch the report would be held in Room III on 18 May at 9:30 a.m. The report would be launched by the ILO Director General Guy Ryder.

Malawi

Ms. Byrs informed that the Cost of Hunger Report for Malawi would be launched in Malawi on 13 May.

Geneva activities

Mr. Fawzi announced that the Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review Working Group was reviewing the human rights record of Croatia this morning. The WG would adopt reports for Andorra, Bulgaria and Honduras this afternoon, based on reviews held the previous week. More information was available through the usual media updates.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination would have a public meeting on 15 May, when it would review the follow-up information submitted by States parties in relation to its previous observations and recommendations. Except that, the Committee would be meeting in private this week until the closure of the session. Countries whose reports had been reviewed in the current session were France, Guatemala, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sudan, Germany and Denmark.

The Committee against Torture was meeting in private this week until the closure of the session on 15 May. The Committee would then present its concluding observations concerning the implementation of the Convention against torture in the eight countries reviewed during this session: New Zealand, Congo (Brazzaville), Romania, Luxembourg, Spain, Serbia, Colombia and The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Mr. Fawzi reminded that on 13 May at 2:30 p.m. in Press Room 1, UNCTAD would hold a briefing on the Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific 2015. The speaker would be Alfredo Calcagno, from UNCTAD’s Division on Globalization and Development Strategies.

Mr. Jašareviæ informed that the WHO had to change the venue of the briefing on jumpstarting Research and Development preparedness plan for future disease epidemics, which would now take place at the “India Room” of the WHO at 12:45. Recording was possible there.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: … http://bit.ly/unog120515