REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
27 July 2012
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for and Representatives of the World Health Organization, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration, and the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Ms. Momal-Vanian recalled that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday took part in the traditional torch run ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. Mr. Ban would also be attending the opening ceremony today and would take part in events to promote sport and physical activity to further development and peacebuilding efforts, as well as the Olympic Truce between warring countries during the Games. In October 2011, all 193 UN Member States exhorted nations to observe the Olympic Truce individually and collectively for six weeks, starting with the opening of the XXX Olympiad this Saturday, 27 July, and ending with the closing of the XIV Paralympic Games for disabled athletes on 9 September.
The resolution called on Member States “to cooperate with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympic Committee in their efforts to use sport as a tool to promote peace, dialogue and reconciliation in areas of conflict during and beyond the Olympic and Paralympic Games period.”
Tarik Jasarevic of the World Health Organization said with the opening of the Olympic Games today, and as usual with such high visibility events, WHO was working with the local health authorities to address possible health risks.
Maurizio Barbeschi of the WHO Global Alert and Response Operations said WHO was trying to use the funds that had been invested in the preparation to have safe games. A health system did not operate in a vacuum and in general it was the last to come to the table when the resources were shared. Concerning the numbers for the games, there were 26 sports, seven venues, 34 venues including the Paralympic Games, over 12,000 athletes and over 21,000 journalists accredited. If one tried to conduct public health activities in normal peace times, and then tried to do the same under the spotlight of 12,000 journalists, one would understand why the public health system was strained. London and the United Kingdom were used to hosting major events, but for the Olympic Games, the type of the crowds were different and the diseases transported were different. WHO and the local authorities were trying to expand the focus of the Olympic Committee and the local organizing committee to protect the athletes and the stadiums as well as the whole public health system. They were not only considering communicable disease, but were considering food, water, chemicals and health systems. They were trying to get the whole system ready for the Olympics, and that involved a different scale of thinking compared to regular capacity.
Patrick McCormick of the United Nations Children’s Fund said an estimated 1.5 million people in Syria were in need of humanitarian assistance and around half of them were children and adolescents. UNICEF continued to provide essential aid and services to hundreds of thousands of children inside Syria despite the increasing violence and despite the high risks of delivering those supplies by UNICEF staff. Sometimes, for security reasons, they were unable to deliver. Since January, UNICEF and its partners had reached 190,000 people with humanitarian assistance, including more than 145,000 children. Assistance included family packages, baby kits, children’s food baskets (mainly high protein biscuits), recreation kits, support to school clubs and remedial classes, and providing education, recreational activities and psychosocial support. According to the UNICEF representative in Syria, the needs among children and families displaced by the violence were enormous, whether in food, water and sanitation or other basic supplies. UNICEF was doing its utmost to respond, using whatever means they had at their disposal. But it was by no means a continuous supply. UNICEF’s humanitarian activities were undertaken in cooperation with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and a number of other partners. Currently UNICEF had 25 national and five international staff on the ground in Syria. UNICEF had also supported the vaccination of half a million children since January against polio and TB. UNICEF had asked for $18.8 million for its operations in Syria, out of which it had so far received around 26 per cent. On the refugee situation, UNICEF was assisting UNHCR, mainly in water and sanitation. The refugees were often in desperate shape when they arrived. Some of the refugee children had been out of school for a year because of the violence and in need of medical care and counselling. They were arriving on foot, in bad shape, and they had not eaten for some time, reported UNICEF staff in Jordan. They had also been exposed to atrocious things that no child should ever have to see.
Mr. Colville of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay today expressed deep alarm at the increased threat to civilians in Syria as the conflict and violence escalated across many towns and villages, as well as the country's two biggest cities Damascus and Aleppo. Ms. Pillay urged the Government and the armed opposition to protect civilians and abide by their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law, or face the consequences. Ms. Pillay said the Government had the prime responsibility to protect civilians from all forms of violence, and while Government forces had on some occasions, including recently in parts of Damascus in accordance with international humanitarian law, given civilians a clear opportunity to leave areas it was attacking, on other occasions it had not done so. Effective warning was required by international humanitarian law. The United Nations human rights chief expressed particular concern about the likelihood of an imminent major confrontation in Syria's second largest city Aleppo. She said she had been receiving as yet unconfirmed reports of atrocities, including extra-judicial killings and shooting of civilians by snipers that took place during the recent fighting in various suburbs of Damascus. It went without saying that the increasing use of heavy weapons, tanks, attack helicopters and – reportedly – even jet fighters in urban areas had already caused many civilian casualties and was putting many more at grave risk. Taking all this together, long with the reported build-up of forces in and around Aleppo, Ms. Pillay said this boded ill for the people of that city.
Attacks were also continuing in other major towns such as Homs and Deir-ez-Zur. Already the consequences for civilians had been devastating, with many thousands killed and injured and between 1 and 1.5 million now reported to have fled their homes.
The High Commissioner said "a discernible pattern has emerged" as Government forces tried to clear areas it said were occupied by opposition forces. Typically, during the initial stages, after a village or urban district had been surrounded, water, electricity and food supplies were cut. This was followed by intense shelling and bombardment by a variety of weaponry, increasingly with air support from attack helicopters, and now reportedly even jet aircraft. Then tanks moved in, followed by ground forces who proceeded door-to-door and reportedly often summarily executed people they suspected of being opposition fighters, although sometimes they detained them. The bodies of those executed or otherwise killed were then sometimes burned or taken away. Ms. Pillay said she had also been receiving an increasing number of reports of opposition fighters torturing or executing prisoners. She stressed that murder and wilful killing (terminology used in the Rome Statute) whether committed by government or opposition forces, may constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes. Torture, likewise, was prohibited under all circumstances. The High Commissioner said that it was her belief, on the basis of evidence gathered from various credible sources that crimes against humanity and war crimes had been, and continued to be, committed in Syria. There was more in the release on the High Commissioner’s concern on reports of killings of unarmed prisoners and use of excessive force by authorities reacting to recent unrest in two prisons in Aleppo and Homs.
Rupert Colville of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said a press release would be sent to journalists shortly on Myanmar. In the press release, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay raised serious concerns about ongoing human rights violations in Myanmar’s Rakhine state after the violence between the Buddhist and Muslim communities there, urging a prompt, independent investigation. The High Commissioner said her Office had been receiving a stream of reports from independent sources alleging discriminatory and arbitrary responses by security forces, during the events of the end of May and early June, that indicated that the initial swift response of the authorities to the communal violence may have turned into a crackdown targeting Muslims, in particular members of the Rohingya community. The High Commissioner called for an investigation. She also highlighted that the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar would be in Myanmar next week and he was planning to visit Rakhine state. He would only be in Rakhine state for one day, but at least he would be able to make an assessment of what had happened there. However, that was not a substitute for a fully-fledged independent investigation. The High Commissioner also called on all national leaders to speak out against discrimination, the exclusion of minorities and racist attitudes, and in support of equal rights for all in Myanmar, and stressed that the United Nations was making an effort to protect and assist all communities in Rakhine state. There were more details in the press release.
Andrej Mahecic of the United Nations Refugee Agency said in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state, UNHCR had distributed assistance and emergency supplies to more than 30,000 people. UNHCR’s response was part of the overall United Nations response to this humanitarian situation. As they spoke, additional tents were being airlifted from the Republic of Korea to meet urgent shelter needs on the ground. An estimated 80,000 people were displaced in and around the towns of Sittwe and Maungdaw, according to estimates. Most of them were living in camps for internally displaced people, with smaller numbers staying with host families in surrounding villages. Many of the Rakhine internally displaced persons whose houses were not destroyed had returned home. Others had said they would return if they could get help building new homes. Some displaced Muslims told UNHCR staff they would also like to go home to resume work, but feared for their safety. Movements were restricted in Sittwe, preventing internally displaced persons and host families from earning a living as labourers, trishaw drivers and market sellers. Fishermen could not reach the lagoon and the nearby waters were too rough for fishing. Some said they were running out of money and food and the sick now had to travel longer distances to access health care in the camps for the internally displaced persons. Pregnant women were also facing problems reaching hospitals. UNHCR staff had so far distributed 6,000 family kits containing plastic sheets, sleeping mats, blankets, mosquito nets and kitchen sets. More relief items were being dispatched this week to those who needed it most, regardless of their background. In a positive development, some camps that had previously declined international aid were now welcoming whatever assistance that UNHCR could provide. There were more details in the briefing notes.
Asked what was happening with the detained UNHCR and other aid workers, Mr. Mahecic said the situation of UNHCR staff and other UN staff in detention was a priority for UNHCR, other agencies and the United Nations as a whole. UNHCR still had three detained staffers. Two had been charged but UNHCR did not know what charges these were yet. UNHCR was seeking access to detained colleagues and their release was a priority.
In response to a question, Mr. Colville said the crackdown included detention of persons and increased security presence on the ground. This was not just a one-off event. In the press release, the High Commissioner went into the history of discrimination against the people from this part of the country. She also expressed concern about the derogatory language that was being used against the Rohinyga by State media, and also by independent media and users of social network. The crisis was basically highlighting the long-standing and systemic discrimination against the Rohingyas, who for the most part remained stateless.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Mr. Mahecic said UNHCR was shocked by the reports of rampant abuse of the civilian population in eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This was the result of four months of fighting between the government troops and armed rebel groups. Tens of thousands of people had been forced to flee their homes in North Kivu province, many of whom sought safety in neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda. UNHCR staff and partners in Uganda, Rwanda and eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo had been receiving regular and extensive reports of widespread human rights violations and abuses. These included indiscriminate and summary killings of civilians, rape and other sexual abuse, torture, arbitrary arrests, assaults, looting, extortion of food and money, destruction of property, forced labour, forced military recruitment, including children, and ethnically motivated violence. All this was fuelling massive displacement within the province and into neighbouring countries. UNHCR estimated that more than 470,000 Congolese had been displaced in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo since April - some 220,000 in North Kivu, another 200,000 in South Kivu while more than 51,000 fled to neighbouring Uganda (31,600) and Rwanda (19,400). The estimated total population of internally displaced persons in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was 2.2 million people. The fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo was conducted without any respect for the safety of civilians and in clear violation of international humanitarian and human rights principles. UNHCR again urged parties to the conflict to avoid targeting the civilian population and populated areas. It called on all parties to the conflict to take all steps to protect the civilian population and to prevent indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks. The fighting between the government troops and M23 militia had left large areas of the province without an adequate security presence. In the Masisi and Walikale territories, several armed groups had taken advantage of the power vacuum to attack villages and settlements for internally displaced persons, destroying and looting houses, killing people belonging to ethnic groups seen as hostile and subjecting the entire communities to extortion.
In Uganda, some of the young Congolese refugees arriving at the Nyakabande transit centre near the border told UNHCR staff they were fleeing a recruitment campaign. Many reported seeing young males and minors being forced to join the rebels to carry ammunition. UNHCR had heard similar tales from arrivals in Rwanda since April, including reports of looting and verbal and physical harassment of people speaking Kinyarwanda, particularly in North Kivu’s Masisi territory but also in Rutshuru and Kalehe in South Kivu. In addition to protection and shelter, UNHCR teams and partners in the settlements and camps in Uganda and Rwanda provided health and medical services as well as psycho-social counselling for the victims of violence. The situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was far more challenging where worsening security was severely limiting their capacity to deliver assistance outside the established camps for internally displaced persons north and west of the provincial capital Goma.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said a WFP press release about food needs in Zimbabwe was available at the back of the room. According to the release, a new report on food needs in Zimbabwe said that nearly one in five rural people in the country, an estimated 1.6 million people, were likely to need food assistance during the peak of the coming “hunger season”. The number of people in need was 60 per cent higher than the one million who needed food assistance during the last lean season. WFP and its partners were gearing up to respond to this large rise in food needs as WFP field staff were already reporting signs of distress in rural areas, including empty granaries and farmers selling off their livestock to make ends meet. There were more details in the press release.
Mr. Colville of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said OHCHR deeply regretted the President of Venezuela’s announcement that the country intended to pull out of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Regional human rights bodies such as the Court and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which Venezuela had also said it would withdraw from, played a very important role in the promotion and protection of human rights in the region and in reinforcing international standards and treaties. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights was a highly respected body which had had a very positive impact in the region as had the Commission, and had been crucial in obtaining justice for the victims of human rights violations, particularly during the period when dictatorships ruled many of the countries in Latin America. The Court’s work had also played a key role in the transmission to democracy and its rulings had had a crucial role in the advancing of transitional justice.
Sudan and South Sudan
Jens Laerke of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said there were heavy rains across Sudan’s southern and western areas and in South Sudan’s northern areas. This was limiting the humanitarian response, mainly due to impassable roads. Humanitarian organizations continued to focus on assisting the approximately 162,000 refugees from Sudan in Upper Nile and Unity states in South Sudan. The health situation for these refugees had deteriorated in the past weeks, partly due to the rainy season. Concerning the outbreak of water-borne diseases such as accurate diarrhea, they had recorded in the third week of July 23 deaths in the camps. Humanitarian agencies had stepped up their response in terms of health and hygiene and provision of clear water. Also in northern Bahr El Ghazal in South Sudan, the heavy rains continued to restrict access to some 7,000 conflict displaced persons. In Sudan in South Kordofan, there were heavy rains affecting the conditions of roads and infrastructure, likewise in Abyei. Despite those conditions, agencies in Abyei had delivered non-food items to displaced people , and some 7,600 had received non-food items and assistance in the course of the past week. In Darfur, reports said that the rains were damaging roads and houses. They did not yet have an overall number for those affected b the rain. More heavy rain was being predicted in coming weeks in all these areas.
Concerning the consolidated appeals, in South Sudan, the media review of the consolidated appeal had increased the emergency funding requirements to $ 1.2 billion; that appeal was 45 per cent funded at the moment. For Sudan, the appeal was currently $ 1 billion, and it was 44 per cent funded. The rest of the funding was needed to address all the needs. The European Commission announced yesterday that they would further support this emergency response to Sudan and South Sudan with 40 million Euros and OCHA welcomed this.
International Organization for Migration
Jumbe Omari Jumbe of the International Organization for Migration said IOM had suspended the airlift evacuation of mainly Ethiopian stranded migrants from Yemen because of funds. However, the Dutch Government had given IOM $ 1.2 to support IOM’s work in Yemen. Therefore, starting tomorrow, a plan carrying 277 Ethiopian stranded migrants would be leaving Yemen back to Addis Ababa, and the second would follow on 31 July, carrying an identical number of stranded migrants. These Ethiopians were stranded in Yemen’s north western city of Haradh. There were more details in the briefing notes. Extremely vulnerable migrants, including women, unaccompanied minors and medical cases would be on these first two planes. Since 2011 and to date, IOM had voluntarily returned about 7,000 stranded migrants, mainly Ethiopians but also some from Nigeria, back home from Yemen.
Mr. Jumbe said IOM was starting disaster risk reduction projects in Pakistan and Turkmenistan to help people to better prepare for recurring disasters in these countries. Through new funding of 380,000 euro from the European Commission for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, IOM was training 600 disaster response specialists in Turkmenistan. In Pakistan, IOM was joining hands with the private sector to train people in the Sindh province. The money for this came from the Pakistan Marine Group of Agencies, which was a private sector group.
Mr. Jumbe said IOM, jointly with UNHCR, had just finished the registration of an estimated 3,000 internally displaced persons in Nahibly in western Côte d’Ivoire. The camp sheltered some 5,000 displaced victims of the 2010 post-election violence in Côte D’Ivoire, and it was the scene of communal violence last week.
CITES Briefing on Results of Standing Committee Meeting
Juan Carlos Vasquez of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) said the sixty-second meeting of the CITES Standing Committee would be concluding today with some important measures to combat the smuggling of elephant ivory and rhino horn. There would be a media briefing at 12:30 p.m. at the CICG with the Secretary-General of CITES and the Chair of the CITES Standing Committee to brief journalists about the outcome of the meeting of the Standing Committee.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said the Human Rights Committee was this afternoon concluding its summer session and releasing its concluding observations and recommendations on the reports of Iceland, Lithuania, Maldives, Armenia and Kenya which it reviewed during the session. A roundup press release would be available later in the day.
The Conference on Disarmament would be starting the third and last part of its 2012 session on Tuesday, 31 July and it would continue until 14 September. The public plenary on Tuesday would continue with the thematic discussions on the Conference’s agenda items and would take up the prevention of an arms race in outer space.