19 January 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, United Nations Children’s Fund, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, United Nations Refugee Agency, World Health Organization, World Meteorological Organization and the International Organization for Migration.
Ahmad Fawzi, Director a.i. of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was in Geneva today for a short visit. He would visit WMO and WHO and meet their respective Heads, Mr. Petteri Talaas and Dr. Margaret Chan; he would also have a meeting with the Grand Mufti of Egypt. The Secretary-General would then preside over the swearing-in ceremony of his newly-appointed Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, Mr. Robert Glasser. In the evening, the Secretary-General would attend a working dinner with the Heads of UN Agencies based in Geneva, hosted by the Director-General of UNOG, Michael Møller. No press opportunities were planned. On Wednesday 20 January the Secretary-General would travel to Davos, Switzerland, to attend the annual World Economic Forum.
Intra Syrian Talks in Geneva
Ahmad Fawzi, Director a.i. of the United Nations Information Service Geneva, responding to questions, said the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, was intensively occupied with preparations for the Intra Syrian Talks, in order for them to start next week. On Monday the Special Envoy briefed the UN Security Council by video link from Geneva, and was in touch with both Security Council members and the Secretary-General. The Special Envoy was also in contact with members of the International Syrian Support Group in an effort to find agreement on the list of participants for the meeting.
The Special Envoy was expecting the countries spearheading the International Syrian Support Group to come to an understanding on who among the opposition should be invited. The Secretary-General had urged countries that have an influence to redouble their efforts to reach that agreement, said Mr. Fawzi, so the Special Envoy could send out invitations. The focus was on getting the talks started on 25 January, and there was likely to be clarity on that front by the end of the week, he noted.
Responding to a question about logistics for the talks, Mr. Fawzi said all Services at the United Nations Office at Geneva had been preparing for many weeks and were standing by to do everything required to get the talks on the road.
The Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR) started its twenty-fourth at the Palais des Nations on Monday 18 January during which 14 States were scheduled to have their human rights records examined under the mechanism. The group of States to be reviewed by the Universal Periodic Review Working Group during the session were (in order of scheduled review): Namibia, Niger, Mozambique, Estonia, Paraguay, Belgium, Denmark, Palau, Somalia, Seychelles, Solomon Islands, Latvia, Sierra Leone and Singapore. The programme, and links to the live webcast, were in the background press release. The meeting was taking place in Room XX at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.
The Conference on Disarmament started its 2016 session on Monday 25 January, and was holding its first public meeting today at 10 a.m. in the Council Chamber of the Palais des Nations.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child was reviewing today reports from Zimbabwe (Room XXIV) and Maldives (Room XXV). During the remainder of the session the Committee would also review reports from Zambia, Benin, Brunei and Kenya. There was more information in the background press release.
Christopher Williams, for the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), announced that Ms. Amina J. Mohammed, former Assistant Secretary-General and Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on Post-2015 Development Planning, had been appointed the new Chair of WSSCC, effective as of 5 April 2016. Ms. Mohammed would chair the Steering Committee and guide the work of WSSCC’s Geneva-based Secretariat, its operations in 20 countries in Africa and Asia, and its 5,000 members in 150 countries. In her new role Ms. Mohammed planned to draw upon her experience and network of contacts in politics, business, academia, and demonstrated knowledge of the United Nations, to raise awareness about practical solutions to improving sanitation and hygiene. Under her leadership, WSSCC intended to continue its current growth, notably of its Global Sanitation Fund, which has empowered over 8 million people in 36,000 communities to improve their sanitation, adopt good hygiene practices, and drive local process that contributed directly to education, health and economic development. Ms. Mohammed would hold a press event upon taking up her post. More information could be found in the press release.
Catherine Huissoud, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), announced the World Economic Situation and Prospects 2016 published by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, would be presented in a press conference at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, 20 January in Press Room 1. Alfredo Calcagno, Head, Macroeconomic and Development Policies Branch, Division on Globalization and Development Strategies, UNCTAD and José Palacin, Senior Economic Affairs Officer, Development Policies and Cross-Sectoral Coordination Unit, Office of the Executive Secretary, UNECE, would be speaking.
Catherine Huissoud also announced the Global Investment Trends and Prospects would be presented in a press conference at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, 20 January in Press Room 1, with James Zhan, Director, UNCTAD Division on Investment and Enterprise. The report was under embargo until 5 p.m. GMT on 20 January.
Iraq: new report on civilian death toll
Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said a UN report released today detailed a staggering civilian death toll in Iraq. The report, compiled by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and OHCHR, was based largely on testimony obtained directly from the victims, survivors or witnesses of violations of international human rights or international humanitarian law, including interviews with internally displaced people.
Francesco Motta, Director of the Human Rights Office/UNAMI, Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Iraq, briefing by telephone from Baghdad, said the report detailed the severe and extensive impact on civilians of the ongoing conflict in Iraq, with at least 18,802 civilians killed and another 36,245 wounded between
1 January 2014 and 31 October 2015. Another 3.2 million people had been internally displaced since January 2014, including more than a million children of school age.
Of the total number of casualties, at least 3,855 civilians were killed and 7,056 wounded between 1 May and 31 October last year – the period covered by the report, although the actual figures could be much higher than those documented. About half of these deaths took place in Baghdad.
ISIL continued to commit systematic and widespread violence and abuses of international human rights law and humanitarian law, said Mr. Motta, and the report stated that those acts may, in some instances, amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide. There were numerous examples of killings by ISIL in gruesome public spectacles, including by shooting, beheading, bulldozing, burning alive and throwing people off the top of buildings. There were also reports of the murder of child soldiers who fled fighting on the frontlines in Anbar. Information received and verified suggested that between 800 and 900 children in Mosul had been abducted by ISIL for religious education and military training. ISIL continued to subject women and children to sexual violence, particularly in the form of sexual slavery.
The report also documented alleged violations and abuses of international human rights and international humanitarian law by the Iraqi Security Forces and associated forces, including militia and tribal forces, popular mobilization units, and Peshmerga. Concerning reports had also been received of unlawful killings and abductions perpetrated by some elements associated with pro-Government forces, the report stated, some of which may have been reprisals against persons perceived to support or be associated with ISIL. The discovery of a number of mass graves was documented in the report, including in areas regained by the Government from ISIL control, as well as mass graves from the time of Saddam Hussein.
Even the obscene casualty figures failed to accurately reflect exactly how terribly civilians were suffering in Iraq, said Mr. Motta, as the figures captured those who were killed or maimed by overt violence, but countless others had died from the lack of access to basic food, water or medical care. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, was calling for urgent action to stop the impunity enjoyed by the vast majority of the perpetrators of violence and had appealed to the Government of Iraq to undertake legislative amendments to grant Iraqi courts jurisdiction over international crimes and to become party to the Rome Statute.
Asked whether crimes committed by ISIL could amount to genocide, Mr. Motta said the report was not a comprehensive catalogue of every violation OHCHR had been informed of; it gave a selection of violations that had taken place. ISIL had been systematically targeting diverse ethnic and religious communities and the effect was devastating. Communities were driven out, expelled, forced to pay a protection tax or forcibly converted. In the case of the Yezidi communities, they were forced to convert or be killed. ISIL had shown its intention to destroy, in part or in whole, communities. It was a big issue for the international community and highlighted the need for involvement of the International Criminal Court.
Mr. Motta also said that the violence was continuing in Baghdad at present. More information, including links to the report, could be found here.
Syria: Humanitarian Update
Jens Laerke, for the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), briefed about the ongoing humanitarian operation in Syria, informing the press that overnight deliveries have reached the Syrian towns of Madaya, Zabadani, Kefraya and Foah. Fuel in particular was delivered to the locations in a joint operation with United Nations agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). The convoy was slightly delayed, but despite the obstacles the operation continued, based on the so-called ‘Four Town Agreement’.
Asked how many civilians in Madaya had starved to death, Mr. Laerke said it was believed five civilians in Madaya had died from starvation since 11 January when the first aid convoy arrived. It was not a United Nations figure per se, noted Mr. Laerke, as it had been recorded by health staff in Madaya.
Responding to a question about future convoys, Mr. Laerke said last night’s was the third such aid convoy but the United Nations was planning to deliver more aid, and the planning for future convoys would be determined over the course of the week. A diverse range of aid was needed – additional food, nutrition and health services – and it was an ongoing operation, he emphasized.
Mr. Laerke also said that the humanitarian situation in the eastern part of Syria was extremely grave, catastrophic in fact, and the United Nations was extremely concerned in particular about the plight of some 200,000 civilians living in the city of Deir al-Zour which was under siege by ISIL, and to whom the United Nations did not have access.
Regarding the delays to the convoy destined for Foah and Kafraya, Mr. Laerke said the delays were due to reports received by the joint team from armed opposition groups who said they needed more time to finalize arrangements in areas under their control. That information consequently delayed the convoys to Madaya and Zabadani because all the convoys had to proceed at the same time – if one convoy was delayed then they all had to wait. It was a very finely calibrated operation, he emphasized. Answering a further question, Mr. Laerke said OCHA had taken note of the air drop of aid into Deir al-Zour by Russia, and was monitoring the situation there.
Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that Elizabeth Hoff, the WHO Country Representative for Syria, would be in Geneva next week and would brief the press, details of which would be shared in due course.
Europe Climate News
Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), updated the press on a Climate Watch advisory about a cold spell in the Balkans and the Middle East, issued by the WMO’s regional association for Europe, based in Germany.
The advisory covered the period 18 to 31 January, and said due to the recent weather conditions - ‘cold spell’ – in eastern Europe and the weekly, monthly and seasonal forecasts, over the next two weeks significant cooling and a period with significantly below-normal temperature, partly with heavy snowfall, was expected for the southern and eastern Balkan peninsula, Turkey, the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. There was a possibility those conditions could extend until mid-February 2016, at least for Turkey. The probability for the anomaly was estimated to be above 90 per cent for the first week and above 60 per cent for the second week.
Ms. Nullis noted that the Climate Watch advisories were still a product in experimental mode, designed primarily for consumption by national meteorological services which then issued warnings at national level, but given the humanitarian situation in the Balkan region and Turkey, the WMO had decided this time to make the advisory public.
Responding to questions, Clare Nullis clarified that specifically for this weather warning ‘Middle East’ referred to Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, as other Middle Eastern countries were part of a different regional association. She also stated that the temperatures were diverging from the seasonal norm by one to three degrees, and more than that in some areas of Turkey.
Finally, Ms. Nullis said the WMO would release the annual climate figures for 2015 next Tuesday, 26 January.
Child Refugees in Europe
Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said the recent sub-zero temperatures and sometimes snowy conditions were having an impact on children arriving in south-eastern Europe, and UNICEF was concerned about the health of those children for several reasons. The children arriving into a harsh winter in south-eastern Europe were physically exhausted, scared, distressed and often in need of medical assistance.
The conditions were exacerbating the poor physical condition of the children, as many lacked access to adequate clothing and age-appropriate nutrition. That had been worsened by the lack of shelter and inadequate heating in some reception centres, as well as on buses and trains, said Mr. Boulierac.
Another concern was that the proportion of children amongst refugees and migrants – now more than one in three – had continued to increase over the past three months. It was a pressing issue. According to national sources, in The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the ratio in December was 37 per cent, compared to 23 per cent in September. In Serbia, those figures were respectively 36 per cent in December compared to 27 per cent in September. In December most children transiting through UNICEF child-friendly spaces in Serbia were young children, including babies and infants and those between five and nine years old. In 2015, more than one million refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean, arriving on Europe’s shores, of which an estimated 253,700 were children – one in four people.
Children were particularly susceptible to respiratory infections, digestive problems and diarrhoea. Non-controlled use of baby formula may also seriously affect babies’ health, said Mr. Boulierac. There remained insufficient cross-border information-sharing and follow-up on the most vulnerable children, mainly due to the speed of the population movement. UNICEF was engaging with its partners and counterparts to develop contingency plans for population movement slow-downs and an increasing number of people being stranded along the route.
In the past three months, UNICEF and its partners had provided 81,000 children with services in UNICEF-supported, winterized child-friendly spaces in The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia. In addition, nearly 18,000 babies and infants had received specialized services through UNICEF mother-and-baby care spaces.
More details on the impact of UNICEF’s actions in the region could be found in the briefing note. A second press release on Government of Slovenia and UNICEF strengthening humanitarian support for refugee and migrant children on the move would be issued today, noted Mr. Boulierac. In Slovenia, UNICEF aims at strengthening and scaling up child protection services, training front line workers, carrying out hygiene promotion and distributing supplies for winter, Mr Boulierac added.
Zika virus and Microcephaly in Babies
Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said WHO was monitoring closely the spread of Zika virus in at least 18 countries in the Americas and a number of countries across Africa and in the Western Pacific region. The virus was transmitted by the same mosquitos that transmitted Chikungunya, Dengue Fever and Yellow Fever, and could be found in sub-tropical regions across the world. Normally Zika was a fairly mild disease and only 25 per cent of people infected showed symptoms, which included headache, muscular pain, mild fever and a rash. Therefore 75 per cent of people who had the virus were asymptomatic. It was not yet known where the mosquitos got the virus from, said Mr. Lindmeier. There was no specific cure apart from resting, drinking plenty of fluids and treating any pains with common medicines. The total number of Zika cases was not known. Zika had not been on the radar as a disease so widely and not been regularly tracked by health authorities. Now, more and more authorities were reporting cases.
At the same time there had been a huge increase of microcephaly cases in Brazil, said Mr. Lindmeier, noting that there was no established link between Zika virus and microcephaly. More studies were necessary. Microcephaly led to a foetus developing an abnormally small head, which often led to brain damage. Some babies were stillborn. Microcephaly could be caused by a variety of genetic and environmental symptoms, including drugs, alcohol and toxic influences, as well as chicken pox and rubella during pregnancy.
There had been 3,530 cases of microcephaly reported in Brazil since the beginning of 2015 to the first week of 2016. Those 3,530 cases included 46 deaths, including stillbirths. So far WHO had counted seven laboratory confirmed cases of microcephaly where the mothers or the foetuses also had Zika virus. Stating the most recent figures, he said Brazil had confirmed two cases in December, and the United States CDC had laboratory-confirmed four other Brazilian cases, plus one case in Hawaii of a mother of Brazilian origin who had travelled back to Hawaii and there gave birth to a microcephaly baby.
Mr. Lindmeier said the WHO Regional Office in the Americas, PAHO, had led on the issue, and had had Zika on their radar and on the front of their website since at least November 2015. As the virus had spread to other regions the WHO Headquarters in Geneva had now taken up the issue.
Responding to further questions, Mr. Lindmeier said WHO at this point was not issuing any travel recommendations for pregnant women traveling to Brazil but stressed that it was important to take prevention and protection measures against mosquito bites and follow travel advice issued by the national authorities. The best known protection measures were getting rid of standing pools of water and eliminating possible sources for mosquitos, then also sleeping under bed nets, wearing mosquito repellent and avoiding peak times for bites – dawn and dusk. There was no known vaccine for Zika as it had so far been a fairly mild and un-respected virus. Mr. Lindmeier directed journalists to the press release issued this week by PAHO.
Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said UNHCR was warning against perilous Horn of Africa sea crossings as 92,000 people reached Yemen in 2015, and 36 had already drowned this year.
Despite the ongoing conflict in Yemen some 92,446 people arrived by boat there in 2015 – one of the highest annual totals of the past decade. A full two thirds arrived since March 2015 when the conflict began. With 95 deaths reported, 2015 was the second deadliest year recorded to date. In view of this, and the loss of 36 lives in an incident on 8 January this year, UNHCR was today reiterating its warning to people contemplating the crossing over the dangers of this journey.
Many new arrivals were misinformed about the severity of the conflict, believed that the situation had become relatively calm in some of the southern governorates, or were following rumours of improved access into neighbouring Gulf countries. New arrivals face movement restrictions in Yemen, and there have been reports of some being caught in the conflict and killed. More details could be found in the press briefing note, said Mr. Edwards.
Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said UNHCR and its partners were struggling to help an estimated 100,000 people newly displaced in recent weeks in south-east Niger’s Diffa region by attacks launched by Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgency group.
The UNHCR team in Niger described the situation as very serious, with acute shortages of shelter and non-food items for the displaced. They included local villagers, internally displaced people from Niger, people who had been displaced several times and Nigerian refugees who were staying with host families or in sites for the displaced in a 10 to 30-kilometre belt of land between the River Komadougou and Niger’s Route National No.1. Some 170 villages had been left empty in the Diffa region.
UNHCR was redirecting available resources to meet the urgent shelter and other assistance and called on donors for extra support to help the vulnerable population. The officials expected more to flee the volatile border area when the dry season returned in a matter of weeks and Nigerian military operations resume in the area.
Help was needed urgently and UNHCR had offered to conduct a more comprehensive registration that will make it easier to determine needs, especially as many refugees and locals had been displaced several times in recent months and may have been counted twice or not at all. More details could be found in the press briefing note.
Guatemala: trial for crimes against humanity
Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said OHCHR welcomed the news that 11 former military officers were to be tried on crimes of enforced disappearances and crimes against humanity committed during the civil war in the 1980s.
The decision taken by a judge on Monday represented an important step forward in establishing truth and ensuring justice in Guatemala for crimes committed during the 36 year conflict. The decision to try the accused took place after investigations by the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Officer into grave human rights violations, which found mass graves holding the remains of 500 people who had been blindfolded, gagged and bound, and included women and children.
For the first time in investigations into past abuses, a complete chain of command involved in enforced disappearances and crimes against humanity was identified, from alleged perpetrators to the instigators of the crimes, said Ms. Shamdasani. More information could be found in on the OHCHR website.
Itayi Viriri, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said since the beginning of 2016, IOM estimated that 31,244 migrants and refugees had arrived in Greece by sea. That was a huge increase, 21 times as many as the 1,472 recorded by the Greek Coast Guard for the whole of January 2015, said Mr. Viriri.
The number suggested that the number of maritime arrivals in Greece in 2016 may significantly exceed the record 853,650 migrants who arrived in Greece by sea in 2015.
Some 48 per cent of Greece’s 2016 arrivals were Syrians, 29 per cent Afghans, 12 per cent Iraqis, three per cent Pakistanis and two per cent Iranians. Other nationalities had included Algerians, Bangladeshis, Egyptians, Eritreans, Lebanese and Moroccans. It was significant to note that almost 90 per cent of the newly arrived migrants were nationals of countries (Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis) that were allowed to cross Greece’s border with The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. According to the Greek police, almost 31,100 had already crossed the Greek border with The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia this month
Meanwhile in Italy, 607 migrants had so far in 2016 been rescued in the Channel of Sicily and brought to land since 1 January. Last weekend, 245 migrants – mainly Sub-Saharan Africans – were brought to Catania by the Coast Guard Ship Dattilo. Among them were 22 women and 58 Unaccompanied Minors. More information could be found in the briefing note.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog190116