16 February 2016
Ahmad Fawzi, Director a.i. of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing attended by spokespersons for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Refugee Agency, and the World Health Organization.
Mr. Fawzi said that the Conference on Disarmament (CD) was holding a public meeting today at 10 a.m. This was the last week under the Presidency of Nigeria (until 21 February); the CD would also be successively chaired by Norway, Pakistan, Peru, Poland and the Republic of Korea.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women - which had opened its sixty-third session on 15 February, in Room XVI of the Palais des Nations – was reviewing today the report of Japan (as usual for the State Parties reports, this review was public). During the current three-week session (ending on 4 March), it would review reports presented by Iceland, Sweden, Mongolia, Czech Republic, Vanuatu, Haiti and Tanzania.
Mr. Fawzi announced a press conference of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which would take place on 17 February in Press Room 1. During this press conference, Samuel Gayi, Chief of the Special Unit on Commodities, UNCTAD, would present the UNCTAD Iron Ore Market Report.
On 19 February at 11.30 a.m., in Room III, the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) would hold a press conference dedicated to the 2016 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan. On 18 February in Geneva, the humanitarian community would launch the 2016 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan (YHRP), aiming to provide critical and life-saving assistance to 13.6 million people affected by the conflict in Yemen. Mr. Fawzi said that the plan brought together over 100 aid organizations to respond to an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe, in which 21.2 million people – four out of five Yemenis – were in need of humanitarian assistance. Following the official launch, the Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, would brief the press about the Plan’s strategies and requirements as well as his recent missions across Yemen to improve humanitarian access.
Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), announced a press conference on 19 February at 2.30 p.m. on microcephaly, neurological disorders and Zika, with
Dr Bruce Aylward, who would speak about the WHO’s international response. He would probably be joined by Dr Pedro Alonso, Director of the Global Malaria Programme, specializing in vector-borne disease control.
Mr. Fawzi also announced that the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, would be briefing the press on Friday, 19 February, in Room III, at a time to be announced.
In response to a question, Mr. Fawzi said that the UN Special Envoy’s intention was to resume the Intra-Syria talks by 25 February, and earlier if possible. He said that we were witnessing a degradation on the ground that couldn’t wait, but all the parties had to come to the table. Certain commitments had to be fulfilled in order to be able to move forward. Mr. de Mistura was trying to convince those with influence over the warring parties to persuade them to come to the table and “stop the madness.”
Mr. Fawzi confirmed that the Humanitarian Task Force was expected to meet again on Thursday 18 February, and that Jan Egeland was on his way to Geneva. He said that humanitarian work never paused, and that humanitarians were working around the clock on the ground. The commitment from the ISSG had been made on 11 February and the deliberations chaired by Jan Egeland had started on 12 February in order to decide on the challenges and procedures of delivering aid. It took time to convince those with influence over the matter to agree to allow access to the areas in question. Securing humanitarian access and the cessation of hostilities were high on Mr. de Mistura’s agenda during his trip to Damascus.
In Damascus, Mr. de Mistura was meeting with the Foreign Minister of Syria today, as well as with his team and with the UN Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator, Yacoub El Hillo. Mr. Fawzi confirmed that Mr. de Mistura and the Foreign Minister had spoken about unhindered humanitarian access to all besieged areas, not just those besieged by the Government. They would have another meeting on this topic today at 4 p.m. local time. Mr. Fawzi confirmed that Mr. El Hillo and Khawla Mattar, the Head of the Special Envoy’s Office in Damascus, had attended the meeting.
Mr. Fawzi also promised to talk to the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to ask them to brief the press soon on the delivery of humanitarian aid, and also to provide maps showing where the needs and the distribution of aid were localized.
For the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Rupert Colville said that on 15 February, at least four hospitals and a school had been hit in airstrikes in Syria. In Maarat al-Numan, in Idlib Governorate, two hospitals had been attacked, including one supported by Médécins Sans Frontières (MSF). The MSF hospital had been reportedly hit by four missiles, which had allegedly killed nine people and injured 30 others. The National Hospital in Maarat al-Numan had also been hit with three people reported killed and six injured.
A mother-and-child hospital in the town of Azaz, some 30 kilometres from Aleppo, had also been struck, with 13 people killed and dozens injured. The facility, which was supported by the UN, had been previously struck on 25 December 2015. A second hospital in the town, the General Hospital, had also been struck with seven killed and 23 injured. Both hospitals were well-known facilities.
Also in Azaz, a school that had been sheltering internally displaced people (IDP) had been hit in the 15 February strikes, reportedly killing 14 people.
OHCHR was gravely concerned about these abhorrent and repeated attacks on medical facilities in the Syrian conflict. While it was not yet clear whether these facilities had been intentionally targeted, the sheer number of incidents raised huge question marks about the failure of the parties to the conflict to respect the special protections afforded to medical facilities and personnel under international humanitarian law.
Depending on the circumstances, an airstrike on a hospital may constitute a war crime. Customary international humanitarian law afforded special protection to hospitals, medical units and healthcare personnel, and Article 3, common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 – which was binding on all parties to the conflict in Syria – required the wounded and sick be collected and cared for. Intentionally directing attacks against hospitals and places containing the sick and the wounded and against medical units using the Red Cross or Red Crescent emblem was a war crime, in a non-international armed conflict.
Attacks on hospitals and other medical facilities in Syria had begun as far back as the beginning of 2012. A 13 September 2015 report by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, entitled “Assault on medical care in Syria” had listed an appalling litany of attacks on hospitals and medical units over the previous four years, as well as numerous examples of the sick and wounded having been deliberately denied medical assistance, primarily by Government forces and pro-Government militias.
The report had also cited what it had termed “one of the most insidious trends of the armed violence in Syria” - namely the targeting of healthcare personnel, with ambulance drivers, nurses, doctors and medical volunteers attacked, arrested, unlawfully detained, and disappeared.
The escalation of the conflict in and around Aleppo was of grave concern, with civilians continuing to suffer the consequences. Air and ground strikes by different parties – including airstrikes conducted by Syrian and Russian planes, as well as ground operations by Syrian Government forces and their allies, and by armed opposition groups – had led to the destruction of essential civilian infrastructure such as medical facilities and bakeries, rendering life even more difficult for civilians in many towns and villages across the governorate.
As of 15 February, 58,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) were at the Syrian/Turkish border, many of them in camps, with the figures increasing daily. Several villages in the northern rural part of the governorate were reported to be almost empty due to people fleeing over the last week. The population of Aleppo was in dire need of an immediate ceasefire and unhindered humanitarian assistance. Without it, the tens of thousands of civilians remaining in towns and villages across the governorate would be left vulnerable to aerial attacks, mass killings, and destruction of the remaining infrastructure and would be deprived of badly-needed assistance. Fuel and some vegetables were now very difficult to procure.
In response to a question, Mr. Colville said that attacks on medical facilities went back to 2012, and there had been nine separate attacks since the beginning of November 2015, of which five or six had been airstrikes. The Commission of Inquiry report contained the list. The scale of the attacks suggested that this could be a deliberate tactic of war, but it was difficult to tell. Mr. Colville had been informed by WHO that about 700 health workers had been killed in Syria since the beginning of the conflict, which was an “astronomical” number. The attrition of medical care in large parts of Syria was appalling. In response to another question, Mr. Colville reiterated that it was not known who was responsible for the latest strikes on hospitals. Russian and Syrian planes were very active in the area. Overtime, evidence could be gathered, and it would have to be determined whether the attack was deliberate or accidental. Those dropping missiles should take far more care as the number of civilians killed in the conflict was outrageous and the rules and standards of warfare had been “swept aside” in Syria. Deliberate targeting of hospitals could amount to a war crime, but sufficient evidence was needed for a court to make that judgment. Hospitals were usually marked and their coordinates were usually given to the belligerents. The Commission of Inquiry should investigate the incidents.
In response to another question, Mr. Colville also said that IDPs should be allowed to cross the Turkish border, in agreement with a fundamental tenet of international refugee law.
Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that there had been many attacks on health workers and facilities in Syria and that those attacks had intensified in 2015. The attacks had severe immediate and long-term consequences, depriving the most vulnerable in the population, such as children, of basic, life-saving health care. They were a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law and human rights law, and contravened the right to health. After almost five years of conflict, an estimated 60 per cent of public hospitals and nearly 49 per cent of primary health centres were only partially functional or had been closed. Ms. Chaib would come back to the press with a map of functioning health facilities. Since the crisis had begun, 640 health workers had been killed in Syria. It was extremely difficult for health workers to access their places of work or to work in normal conditions.
In 2015, WHO had dispatched medical aid for more than 17.2 million treatments to people across Syria, through a network of local NGOs. Dr Elizabeth Hoff, the head of the WHO office in Damascus, was in Aleppo today and would provide an assessment of the health situation. Ms. Chaib would check back regarding the transmission of the coordinates of the attacked hospitals to the belligerents.
Christophe Bouliérac for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) confirmed that two of the attacked medical facilities were supported by UNICEF. He also said that in 2015, UNICEF had been able to verify 42 attacks on schools. But this was the tip of the iceberg, the number could in fact be much higher. Attacks on schools and hospitals were becoming commonplace in Syria. One in four schools in Syria could not be used as they had been destroyed or damaged. More than 50,000 teachers had fled the country and many hundreds had been killed.
Ms. Chaib said that Dr. Hoff would soon have more details to share with the press, and could be put in touch with journalists. She also said that Tarïk Jasarevic would be in Damascus for a few weeks starting in the week of 22 February and would also be a point of contact for the press.
Ms. Chaib mentioned that many hospitals had to close their intensive care units due to the lack of fuel, medicine and health staff. Patients with chronic conditions were struggling to access essential medicine and dialysis centres. Following months of blocked access to the city of Taizz, WHO had succeeded to deliver more than 20 tons of life-saving medicine and medical supplies to meet the most urgent needs. At least four hospitals in Taizz had received some form of medical aid from WHO. An additional 40 tons of medicine and medical supplies would be distributed where they were most needed across the country in the following weeks.
Ms. Chaib also said that as of December 2015, the escalation of the conflict in Yemen had resulted in the damage or destruction of over 99 health facilities, including 38 hospitals, 10 polyclinics and 27 ambulances. Furthermore, nine health workers had been killed and 17 injured. In all the attacks, patients, including children, had been severely injured.
In response to a question, Mr. Fawzi said that the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, Sheikh Ahmed, was concerned about getting the talks back on track.
Andreas Needham, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that on
14 February, the Agency had delivered emergency aid - blankets, mattresses, and other emergency relief assistance - to 1,000 families in the centre of Taizz city. This was the first time that UNHCR had been able to access the city after more than five months of trying to negotiate access for the distributions. There were 200,000 people cut off inside Taizz city centre, and over 400,000 IDPs in Taizz governorate as a whole. UNHCR had recently launched its Yemen Situation Emergency Response. At this stage in the year it was just 5% funded at USD 8.6 million, with a funding gap of USD 163.6 million for the required overall appeal of USD 172.2 million. The response inside Yemen was 7% funded and Djibouti was 1% funded. No funding had been received for the responses in Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan. The revised 2016 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan would be launched by the Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen in Geneva at the OCHA press conference on 19 February as discussed.
In response to a question, Mr. Needham said that the distribution on 14 February had been led by Johannes Van Der Klaauw, who had witnessed a critical need among people who had been cut off for many months now from emergency relief supplies. He had expressed the hope that this would not be a one-off but a prelude to sustained access to the delivery of various types of aid. Mr. Needham also confirmed that it had taken up to three weeks of negotiations to obtain physical access into these areas.
Mr. Colville said that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein had raised concerns and sought clarifications from the Chinese authorities about the recent arrests of lawyers, and harassment and intimidation of Government critics and NGO workers. He had described it as a very worrying pattern that had serious implications for civil society and the important work they were doing across the country. The High Commissioner appreciated the opportunity to raise such cases with Chinese officials in Geneva, and had acknowledged their efforts to clarify the matters at issue. However, the responses he had received indicated that the authorities too often reflexively confused the legitimate role of lawyers and activists with threats to public order and security.
Mr. Colville said that police had detained about 250 human rights lawyers, legal assistants, and activists across the country since a nationwide crackdown had begun in July 2015, although many had been subsequently released. In January 2016, 15 additional human rights lawyers had been formally arrested, ten of them for the crime of “subversion of state power,” which carries a sentence of 15 years to life in prison.
Among those facing the ‘subversion of state power charge’ were leading human rights lawyers, Li Heping and Wang Yu. “Lawyers should never have to suffer prosecution or any other kind of sanctions or intimidation for discharging their professional duties,” the High Commissioner had said, adding that lawyers had an essential role to play in protecting human rights and the rule of law. He had urged the Chinese Government to release all of them immediately and without conditions.
The High Commissioner was also concerned by recent cases of disappearances of booksellers from Hong Kong. Five people from “Causeway Bay Books” – a shop that published books critical of the Chinese government – had gone missing since October 2015. The High Commissioner urged the Government of China to ensure a fair and transparent procedure for those cases, adding that the men’s relatives and representatives should be given access to them. The High Commissioner had also expressed concern about the case of Peter Dahlin, a Swedish citizen and co-founder of the legal-aid NGO “Chinese Urgent Action Working Group.” He had been detained in early January and had been the first foreigner to be held on charges of “endangering state security.” In late January, Dahlin had been expelled from China.
Mr. Colville said that like the bookseller Gui, Dahlin had been presented on state television, where he had “confessed” to having breached Chinese law. The High Commissioner had noted that that method of ‘confession’, extracted during incommunicado detention and publicized on national television, was very worrying, and that it was a clear violation of the right to a fair trial.
The Government was currently drafting a new law which, if adopted, might have far-reaching implications for non-governmental organizations. It was part of a series of new laws governing national security in China. The High Commissioner regretted that more and more Governments around the world were using national security measures to restrict the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. These were fundamental human rights guaranteed under international law. Those security measures were also used to target human rights defenders and silence critics.
At the same time, the High Commissioner had welcomed the recent enactment of a nation-wide law on domestic violence as an important step in strengthening legal protections for women in accordance with China’s international commitments.
In response to a question, Mr. Colville said that OHCHR had been raising concerns for several months and had regular contact with the Chinese Permanent Mission in Geneva. There had been a constant stream of communication on these issues with the Chinese Government. The High Commissioner had recently sent a letter and had received a response from the Chinese Government over the previous weekend. The Chinese Government’s response suggested that all the persons that OHCHR had raised concerns about were guilty of criminal activities, and this response did not address the core issue.
Mr. Colville said that OHCHR was increasingly concerned about 559 Sunni Arab Iraqis who had been stuck for some three months near Sinjar in no-man's-land between ISIL and Kurdish security forces. Since OHCHR had last raised concerns about this group in December 2015, their humanitarian situation had further deteriorated. Since 4 February, they were no longer able to access food and drinking water. At least two children and two women had allegedly died in January due to the cold weather. The group had recently been shelled by ISIL on at least three occasions, on 9, 10 and 15 February. They had apparently been threatened by ISIL with further attacks unless they agreed to relocate within ISIL controlled territory.
OHCHR once again urged the Kurdish Regional Government to act as quickly as possible to ensure the safety, protection and access to basic humanitarian assistance for this group of extremely vulnerable people. If the Kurdish authorities had security concerns about this particular group, they should have vetted people on an individual basis in a safe location, in full transparency and in accordance with the law. If any wrongdoing had been found to have taken place, those responsible should have been charged and tried according to the law. If an individual had not committed any crime and there had been no legitimate security concerns warranting his or her continued detention under the law, then he or she should have been immediately released.
In response to a question, Mr. Colville said that everyone should be allowed to live in their own home, and the level of displacement in Iraq and Syria was very preoccupying.
The tensions and distrust present among the different groups in Iraq were very worrying for the future.
On a separate issue affecting the whole country, OHCHR understood that the review requested by President Fouad Masoum of over 600 cases of people who had been handed down death sentences, had been completed. OHCHR urged the Iraqi authorities to take this opportunity to institute an immediate moratorium on the death penalty. Given the significant weaknesses of the Iraqi judicial system and its heavy reliance on confessions extracted under torture, there was obviously a very serious risk of miscarriages of justice. Implementing executions in such circumstances would risk Iraq being in breach of its international legal obligations.
OHCHR had also received disturbing information that the Ministry of Justice had ceased to communicate information to the UN in relation to executions when they were about to take place. That would constitute a serious breach of the transparency required in such cases.
Central African Republic/ Sexual abuse allegations
In response to a question regarding sexual abuse allegations levied against peacekeeping forces, Mr. Fawzi said that he would request more information on the topic from DPKO.
In response to a question, Ms. Chaib said that the WHO was looking into the issue of pesticides in relation to microcephaly. WHO was finalizing a one-page document to explain this issue. After reviewing the toxicology data on one of the pesticides being talked about, pyriproxyfen, WHO had concluded that there was no evidence that this pesticide, used to kill the larvae of the mosquito, could be at the origin of the current surge in microcephaly cases in Brazil or the previous one in French Polynesia. WHO had reviewed data provided by the manufacturer, but also all the scientific literature linked to this pesticide. This had also been the conclusion of European Union investigators.
Ms. Chaib said that WHO was trying to finalize and share the situation report on Thursday.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog160216