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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
10 May 2013

Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Children’s Programme, World Food Programme, Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs, World Health Organization, International Organization for Migration, International Telecommunications Union and the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

Syria

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said today that reports of massacres allegedly carried out by Syrian government forces and pro-government militias in recent days should spur the international community to act to find a solution to the conflict and to ensure those responsible for serious human rights violations were made to account for their crimes.

The High Commissioner had expressed alarm at reports of a major military build-up around the western Syrian town of Qusayr, saying she feared further atrocities if the area was overrun. Ms. Pillay was appalled at the apparent killing of women, children and men in the village of al-Bayda, and possibly elsewhere in the Baniyas area, which seemed to indicate a campaign targeting specific communities perceived to be supportive of the opposition.

Harrowing images of piles of bloodied and burned bodies, including of small children and babies, have been emerging - allegedly taken after government forces and militia overran al-Bayda and other parts of Baniyas last week.

Those images, if verified, indicated a complete lack of regard for the lives of civilians, the High Commissioner said, emphasising that there needed to be a careful investigation of each and every incident like that, as “we should not reach the point in this conflict where people become numb to the atrocious killing of civilians”.

The High Commissioner has renewed her plea that the situation in Syria should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). She believed that serious human rights violations and other acts amounting to war crimes and/or crimes against humanity have been committed. It must be made clear to both the government and the armed opposition groups that there would be clear consequences for the people responsible for these crimes.

The High Commissioner welcomed the agreement this week by Russia and the US to work towards convening an international conference to find a political solution to the conflict. “The increasingly brutal nature of the conflict made international efforts to halt the bloodshed imperative,” she said. However in the High Commissioner’s view a much greater sense of urgency was needed.

The High Commissioner was also very concerned by reports that her team in the region had received from a variety of sources that, as a result of a major military build-up by Syrian government forces and pro-government militias around the area of Qusayr, near the border with Lebanon, the local civilian population was being increasingly displaced. It appeared likely that that was in preparation for a large-scale attack to uproot the armed opposition from Qusayr, and local people clearly feared a possible repeat of last week’s killings of civilians.

The High Commissioner stresses that violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture, constituted very serious crimes.

OHCHR’s concern was all the greater given recent information reaching its team on the ground in neighbouring countries that government forces wee continuing to resort to indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force in residential areas. Witnesses, many of whom had suffered serious injury such as loss of limbs, told UN human rights monitors their homes had been shelled during attacks from February to mid-April.

OHCHR was getting consistent testimonies that suggest government forces were directly targeting key life-sustaining entities such as bakeries and pharmacies, hospitals and schools where civilians are sheltering. Depending on the circumstances, those attacks may constitute war crimes and/or crimes against humanity. Witness accounts also suggested that areas were coming under rocket and mortar attack irrespective of whether they are suspected of having a heavy or a minimal presence of armed opposition groups.

The High Commissioner noted that the disgraceful disregard for the protection of civilians was not restricted to the Government side, and that the scope of violations by anti-government armed groups had also increased alarmingly. Recent reports suggested, for example that some anti-Government armed groups had been operating and hiding within densely populated areas, thereby seriously endangering civilians. Recent bomb attacks in Damascus had killed and injured dozens of civilians. The large number of civilian deaths and injuries suggested a failure on the part of those responsible to respect international law standards and principles, including the principles of distinction, precaution and proportion.

Abductions and the taking of hostages by some armed opposition groups, including Jabhat Al Nusra, were also reported to be increasing. The plight of Syrian women and girls was a particular concern to the High Commissioner, including recent allegations, not verified, that some fighters were engaging in forced marriages.

Marixie Mercado, for the United Nations Children’s Programme (UNICEF) said that hygiene supplies and children’s clothing were being distributed to displaced families in Banias and Bayda through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which reported that the majority of the displaced were women and children, and that children had clearly been traumatized. Three trucks were also heading from Damascus to Tartous to distribute hygiene kits, clothing and high energy biscuits to families displaced from Banias and Bayda.

Marixie Mercado also spoke about education in Syria, saying that very importantly exams had started for public grade schools in rural Damascus and Idleb on May 7, and would take place for all classes across Syria on 12 May.

New numbers on damaged and destroyed schools from the Ministry of Education showed that there were now over 2,960 damaged and destroyed schools out of a total of over 22,000 schools in Syria; 1,401 schools being used as shelters; and 222 education staff had been killed. The last reported numbers were of some 2,400 damaged and destroyed schools; 1,500 schools being used as shelters; and 110 education workers killed. That meant the numbers of schools being used as shelters was decreasing, although there had been an increase in the number of education workers being killed.

Next week, UNICEF would deliver 10 prefabricated schools to Adra in rural Damascus and 1 school in Damascus, the first instalment of a total of 104 pre-fabricated schools UNICEF would provide. Each classroom could fit about 30 to 35 children and would go some way to meet the huge demand for safe spaces to learn across Syria.

Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said WFP had on Wednesday begun urgent distribution of emergency ready-to-eat food rations and high-energy biscuits to thousands of newly displaced families who were forced to flee Banias and surrounding villages on Syria’s Mediterranean coast to Tartous city following heavy fighting in their villages.

The distribution would continue for the next few days to more than 10,000 people – mainly women and children – in gathering points and shelters in communities such as Zamrin, Breej and Mrah, near Tartous city. Following the emergency ration, families would be given WFP’s regular food basket which included rice, bulgur, sugar, pasta, vegetable oil and lentils.

WFP was gravely concerned about the increased scale of violence throughout the country and urged all parties to the conflict to facilitate the free passage of humanitarian assistance.

On-going clashes on the main route between Tartous and Damascus, further south, could significantly disrupt the movement of WFP cargo from Tartous Port to WFP’s warehouse in the capital city, Ms. Byrs said. Food was dispatched from the Damascus warehouse to affected families in Quneitera, Dara’a, As-Sweida, Rural Damascus, Deir-ez-Zor, Al-Hassakeh and Ar-Raqqa governorates. More than 60 per cent of all food stored in that warehouse – enough for one million people – arrived from Tartous Port through the Damascus-Homs highway, which was witnessing heavy fighting.

WFP must raise US$19.5 million each week to feed 2.5 million people inside Syria and more than one million refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

Answering questions from journalists, Mr. Colville replied to a query about whether a list held by the Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria of people responsible for the killings in Syria would be made public. Mr. Colville said the purpose of that list, which had been shared with the High Commissioner, was for court process. As everybody knew, there was no court process currently. Making those names public could potentially undermine any future court process, or prejudice cases before they event entered a court – whether international or national. That list may provide the first step of evidence that could be given to prosecutors.

Answering a question on OCHA timeframes, Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that both the Refugee Response Plan and the Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan (SHARP) were currently under revision, and were likely to be launched at the beginning of June.

Novel Coronavirus (nCoV)

Gregory Hartl, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that on Wednesday 8 May, two WHO staff travelled to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) on Wednesday 8 May to meet with staff from the Ministry of Health on the novel coronavirus situation in KSA. The purpose of the WHO mission was to better understand the situation and to provide guidance. This visit by WHO was independent of a visit by a group of international scientists who were invited by KSA. The WHO team may meet with some of the international scientists but would primarily hold discussions with the Ministry of Health. The investigation by KSA and the experts it invited was on-going and the cause of the infections remained under investigation.

And in answer to a follow-up question, he reiterated that there had not been any evidence yet of sustained, or community-level, transmission as of this moment. WHO knew of at least two instances - a previous event in Saudi Arabia and the event in the UK - where there was likely limited human-to-human transmission, but as of this moment there had not been any sustained, community-level spread. He added that what we knew today may not apply tomorrow, as this was a rapidly evolving event.

A journalist asked about media reports of novel coronavirus infections in France: apparently a doctor caring for someone with the infection had also been infected, as had another patient sharing the room with the first infected person. Mr. Hartl replied that the cases had not yet been confirmed. He said there were actually news reports of a third case, of a nurse being infected. In total there were apparently quite a few contacts of the initial case who were being investigated in France. WHO was aware of them but there had not been anymore confirmed cases yet.

Answering a question about the finalization of influenza phase guidelines, Mr. Hartl said there was an expert group meeting on the subject three weeks ago and the experts made quite diverse comments. Those comments were being drafted and revised, and it was hoped to get their comments online on the website as soon as possible.

Central African Republic

Marixie Mercado, for the United Nations Children’s Programme (UNICEF) said that UNICEF condemned in the strongest possible terms the re-recruitment and the killing of a 17-year-old boy in the Central African Republic (CAR). On 24 April, the 17-year-old and a 19-year-old were ordered by a Seleka officer, known as the Colonel, to steal a vehicle in a Bangui neighbourhood. A crowd gathered at the scene and the two youth were stoned to death by a mob while the Colonel leading the attempt theft fled the scene.

The two killed had been demobilized from the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP) rebel movement and were part of a group of 64 children and youths associated with armed groups moved to Bangui in December 2012 when fighting intensified. Many were placed with foster families and some were re-recruited after the Seleka took over the capital in March.

UNICEF was engaging with all parties to protect the rights of children in armed conflict in CAR. All children had the right to be protected from violence. The recruitment and use of children in armed conflict is one of the six grave children’s rights violations according to Security Council Resolution 1612 and those who commit such crimes against children must be held accountable.

In context, Ms. Mercado said that half the population of the CAR, that was 2.3 million children, were all directly or indirectly affected by the insecurity and the conflict in the country. Most schools remained closed, many health centres and nutrition centres had been looted and damaged and water was unsafe. Right now, for example, there was a measles outbreak in Bangui, in a context where public health services were not strong to begin with the risks to children were enormous. UNICEF called upon all authorities to establish law, peace and order as quickly as possible to protect civilians, especially women and children. They also called upon the authorities to protect humanitarian workers, ensure they could reach populations in need and that their supplies were not looted.

Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that in CAR sixty-three per cent of the population lived on less than $1.25 per day. An estimated 42 per cent of the population was food insecure and more than two out of three had no access to health services.

Despite the prevailing insecurity, there were 809 national and international humanitarian workers in CAR, mostly concentrated in the capital Bangui. Forty were UN international staff and 48 were international NGO staff while 721 were local staff. However despite the insecurity humanitarian organisations were also present in 25 locations outside of Bangui.

Mr. Laerke provided the following links for further information: Central African Republic: Humanitarian Dashboard (7 May 2013, OCHA) and
Central African Republic: UN and INGO office locations (7 May 2013, OCHA).

Marshall Islands

Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said a state of disaster had been declared in the Republic of the Marshall Islands on 7 May, as a prolonged and severe drought affecting the northern islands was getting worse. Assessments from four atolls with an estimated population of 1,500 people found that most of the domestic water tanks were completely empty and water from wells was unsafe to drink due to bacterial contamination and high levels of salt. Most of the installations for water purification and desalination were operating below capacity.

In addition, food crops, which were mainly breadfruit and banana, were also reportedly devastated due to the drought. The lack of clean drinking water was of acute humanitarian concern, and children were particularly vulnerable. Two Government ships to the north-east and north-west of the Marshall Islands had begun transporting full water containers, hygiene kits and other relief items to nearly 600 families in the worst-affected communities. An UNDAC team headed by OCHA had arrived in the Marshall Islands and assessments were on-going.

There was a high likelihood that drought conditions would remain through July. It would take several months of normal rainfall for groundwater to be replenished and longer still for food crops to recover. The Government was to receive an initial OCHA Emergency Cash grant of US$50,000 to assist with the immediate response efforts.

Jumbe Omari Jumbe, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that IOM was continuing to provide relief supplies to the drought-stricken remote northern atolls of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. A donation of USD$100,000 from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has allowed IOM to send assistance on government ships to some of the remotest locations on earth, halfway between Indonesia and Hawaii.

Another vessel, the Aemann, left for Wotho, Lae, and Ujae today. The initial aid shipments would assist almost 600 families in the worst-affected areas. International Organization for Migration was delivering a minimum of five gallons per person and more for institutions such as hospitals and schools. USAID was in the process of deploying 13 solar-powered mobile Reverse Osmosis machines capable of producing 360 gallons of water per day, procured through IOM. Plans were also underway to address the food insecurity situation as well.

Mr. Jumbe commented that although the situation seemed like a small story, it was actually a huge story in the terms of the context of migration and climate change. It raised serious questions such as what the 50,000 plus inhabitants of the atolls would do if they could not get water at all and if life because unsustainable. Should they leave, migrate? Would they benefit from the refugee convention to be considered refugees rather than migrants?

South Sudan

Jumbe Omari Jumbe, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said together with United Nations High Commission for Refugees, IOM was helping to relocate refugees from Jamam camp in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State to a new site called Kaya that would offer better access to basic services and flood protection. Kaya had the potential to host up to 35,000 people and was situated in an area that is less prone to flooding.
Relocation operations began on 6 May and were expected to continue for the next seven to eight weeks. A total of 1,210 individuals and their luggage had been moved as of 8 May. It was expected that an average of 600 persons would be transported per day and the case load would take two months.

In 2012, heavy rains severely affected refugees living in Upper Nile State and completely flooded the Jamam camp, which was one of four camps in that area. Latrines overflowed, contaminating water sources and creating hazardous sanitary conditions. The poor hygiene and sanitation conditions created by flooding are of particular concern, as camps in Upper Nile State are already vulnerable due to water-borne hepatitis E and an outbreak in 2012 resulted in 175 deaths.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Jumbe Omari Jumbe, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said IOM had issued a joint letter with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) detailing enhanced cooperation to address the problem of protracted internal displacement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Because of recurrent violence and displacement in Democratic Republic of the Congo event the protracted figure of 2.6 million IDPs was likely to be an underestimate. Work would begin with profiling of IDPs. IOM was already in the early stages of implementing its displacement tracking matrix (DTM) in North Kivu, hope to nearly one million IDPs. That tool recorded the numbers, location, places of origin and needs of the IDPs, focusing on the most vulnerable. The DTM process would now be complemented by UNHCR’s profiling activities. The organizations would also cooperate on capacity building programmes in the areas of camp coordination and camp management.

International Telecommunications Union - ITU

Sanjay Acharya for the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) said next week was a big ‘WWW’ for the ITU. The WSIS Forum (the World Summit on the Information Society) would start on Monday, 13 May. The World Telecommunication Policy Forum (WTPF) opened on Tuesday 14 May; and Friday 17 May was World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD).

The theme for WTISD this year was “ICTs and Improving Road safety”. Formula-1 Ferrari driver Felipe Massa would attend the event and give a demonstration of road safety in a simulator. Also participating were the three laureates announced last week; President Ueli Maurer of Switzerland, Mr Volkmar Denner, Chairman of the Board of Management of Robert Bosch GmbH, and Jean Todt, President of the International Automobile Association.

Kicking of the week on Monday was the WSIS Forum, which was an international multi-stakeholder engagement to meet the goals of the World Summit on the Information Society which met in Geneva in 2003 and in Tunis in 2005. Governments, industry, academics and civil society would review progress made on the action lines set out by the Summit and about 1,500 partipants were expected to come to Geneva to attend. Some of the most innovative developments in the ICT sector had been seen in the last ten years since the Geneva phase of WSIS.

Mr. Acharya read out a statement from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who said: “Ten years after the first Summit took place in Geneva, information and communication technologies have gained even greater importance. Today, there are nearly 7 billion mobile phone subscriptions. More and more people are using the Internet, giving them access to vital information and knowledge. This is welcome progress.”

A press conference with ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré would be held on Monday 13 May at 12 Noon at the International Conference Centre Geneva (CICG). Winners of the WSIS Project prizes would be announced at the opening ceremony at 9 a.m. on Monday 13 May. The prizes were awarded for outstanding success in implementing development-oriented strategies that leverage the power of ICTs. Following the opening ceremony, the WSIS Forum would continue meeting at ITU, while WTPF will begin at CICG. A press advisory would be issued on Tuesday.

Sarah Parkes for the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) announced that the World Telecommunication Policy Forum (WTPF) opened on Tuesday 14 May. The Policy Forums were ad hoc events held every two to three years, Established in 1994 as a way of bringing the fast-moving ICT industry together as the ITU had 700 industry members as well as its 193 Member States. It was a way of bringing everyone together to speak informally about the issues. The 2013 WTPF would be the fifth forum, the first being in 1996 and the most recent being in 2009 in Lisbon, on the topic of the financial crisis. About 800 delegates were expected to the event which would be held for three days in the CICG, from Tuesday 14 May until Thursday 16 May.

The theme this year was ‘internet-related public policy issues’. It was a very inclusive event that was open to all ITU members, from the private sector and the government, as well as an additional 100 special guests who were not ITU members. The opening press conference would be held straight after the first morning session, presided over ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré, on Tuesday 14, at 12.30a.m. The CEO of the Internet Society Group was also expected to attend. Discussions at the forum focused on fairly technical internet infrastructure matters such as internet addressing and internet exchange points. The Secretary-General’s report formed the basis of background documentation and was available on the web. There was a lot of other useful information, including guest lists, applications, graphics and more available on the website as well as lots of video content (including high-definition broadcast quality) and photos which would be available for free download directly from the ITU website.

An event badge would be needed to access the building, and if journalists already had a Palais Badge it could be done automatically by Sarah or Sanjay upon request. Requests for interviews would also be taken.

Geneva activities

Ms. Momal-Vanian said the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights would review the report of Denmark today. The Committee would adopt its concluding observations and recommendations on States reviewed this session at the closing next Friday afternoon (17 May).

The Committee Against Torture would today hear the replies of Mauritania following review of its report earlier this week. Next week the Committee would review the reports of Guatemala, the Netherlands, Kenya and Bolivia. It would also meet with Romania on the Optional Protocol of the Convention Against Torture. The following week the reports of Japan and Estonia would be reviewed. Review of the report of the UK was completed on Wednesday 8 May.

Ms. Momal-Vanian announced that the Conference on Disarmament would resume its session next week, meeting in public on Tuesday morning (May 14).

Gregory Hartl, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said they had scheduled a World Health Assembly pre-briefing for 3.30 p.m. Tuesday 14 May (time to be confirmed) in Press Room 1. Andrew Cassels, Director, Office of the Director General of World Health Organization would brief on the World Health Assembly (20-28 May 2013). The World Health Statistics for 2013 would be launched on Wednesday 15 May at 10.30 a.m. in Press Room 1. They would include indicators such as life expectancy, death and disease rates, health expenditure and service coverage.

Brigitte Leoni, for United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), announced a press conference to take place on Monday, 13 May at 10.30 a.m. in Press Room 1 on an embargoed pre-launch briefing on the 3rd Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction: 'From Shared Risk to Shared Value: the Business Case for Disaster Risk Reduction'. Margareta Wahlström, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and Andrew Maskrey, lead author/project coordinator would speak at the event about why businesses should invest in disaster risk reduction. The private sector was not only one of the most affected by the disasters but it was also the sector that would be responsible in coming years for 80 per cent of urban investment, Ms. Leoni said. It was important that the private sector was involved in risk prevention as it would build the schools, hospitals and infrastructure of tomorrow. The report would be distributed at the press conference but UNISDR requests that any related publication should not be released before 16.00 on Wednesday 15 May, when the report would officially be launched in New York before the United Nations Secretary-General.

Brigitte Leoni, for United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), announced that the fourth session of the Global Platform for Risk Reduction would be held at the International Conference Centre Geneva (CICG) from Tuesday, May 21 until Thursday 23 May. It was the final global platform before the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction takes place in Japan in 2015. The topic for discussion would again be the Hyogo Framework for Action, which was adopted at Kobe in Japan in 2005, a few weeks after the tsunami in the Indian ocean. The Hyogo Framework for Action was a 10-year action plan to reduce the human and economic costs of disasters that would expire in 2015.

Sanjay Acharya for the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) said that in addition to the press conference with ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré which would be held on Monday 13 May at 12 Noon at the International Conference Centre Geneva (CICG), a second press conference for the World Telecommunication Policy Forum (WTPF) would be held on Tuesday 14, at 12.30a.m. also at the CICG building.

United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and International Labour Organization (ILO) will hold a joint press conference on Tuesday, 14 May 2013 at 2.30 p.m. in Press Room 1 on their joint publication Shared Harvests: Agriculture, Trade, and Employment. Speaking at the event will be Ralf Peters, Economic Affairs Officer, Division of International Trade, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and David Cheong, Chief Technical Advisor, International Labour Organization.

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The representatives of the International Labour Organization and United Nations High Commission for Refugees also attended the briefing but did not speak.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/149mrU5