20 December 2016
Alessandra Vellucci, Director, United Nations Information Service, chaired the briefing attended by the spokespersons for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the World Meteorological Organization.
Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), started by paying tribute to colleagues at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who were the organizations running much of the evacuation operations underway in Syria. He said that ten buses had moved from the Ramouseh checkpoint at 9.20 a.m. local time this morning towards Khan al-Assal in western Aleppo, escorted by ICRC and SARC. As of this morning [Geneva time], nearly 19,000 people had been evacuated out of east Aleppo since 15 December, when the evacuations had begun. The operation was ongoing and more buses were expected to move today.
The UN did not know exactly how many people remained in the besieged enclave, but the goal was that everyone who needed and wished to get out could do so safely and with dignity.
In parallel, some 20 empty buses had headed this morning around 3 a.m. towards Foah and Kefraya to take besieged people out of those locations. Since the beginning of that operation on 19 December, the UN’s partner as of this morning [Geneva time] reported that some 750 people had been evacuated from those two towns. The first destination of those evacuees was in Government-controlled Aleppo, the public shelter in the Jibreen area.
Mr. Laerke also said, regarding the resolution unanimously adopted by the Security Council on 19 December, that the Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien had welcomed the resolution. Mr. O’Brien had stressed that the UN was already on the ground, monitoring the displaced people coming out of the remaining besieged areas of east Aleppo. He had also said that the UN stood ready to scale up its presence and efforts across the entire city, in line with the resolution and international humanitarian law.
Mr. Laerke also said that on 19 December the UN had unblocked a surge request with the authorities in Damascus to deploy additional staff from Damascus to Aleppo.
In response to a question, Mr. Laerke said that an additional 20 UN staff [national and international] had been unblocked to be ready to move as soon as possible to Aleppo. The UN staff to be deployed were already in Syria, based in Damascus. The approval had been given for the additional surge to go to Aleppo and the UN would move as soon as conditions would allow, but there should be no further bureaucratic hurdles to cross. There were so far around 100 UN staff already in Aleppo. The majority of them were Syrian nationals. Of the around 100 UN staff in Aleppo, approximately 10 to 11 were international staff, but those were not fixed numbers as there were rotations of staff. The mandate given by the Security Council was to monitor and observe the evacuations, as specified in the resolution. How exactly that would be carried out was still being worked on. But for several days already, the UN had been monitoring, with people present at the Ramouseh crossing to observe. That presence provided protection, and was a well-known way of providing protection by maintaining an international presence.
In response to further questions, Mr. Laerke said that the resolution provided a mandate, given by the Security Council to the UN and relevant institutions. The Secretary-General was to implement the resolution. But it also mentioned the other partners, which is why Mr. Laerke was stressing the crucial role of the SARC and of the ICRC. It was not a mission as such, or a separate entity. It was a mandate given to the UN already present.
In response to a question about the status on the approval of convoys in Syria, Mr. Laerke said that he would double check and get back to the press. [As per stakeout by Special Adviser Jan Egeland on 14 December, no inter-agency, cross-line convoy had been completed in December at that date]. Regarding Foah and Kefraya, he said that the negotiations that had led to those operations had not been done with the involvement of the UN. Of course, UN agencies stood ready to provide help to any evacuees and to provide assistance, health care, food etc to them. The operational lead on the evacuations from Foah and Kefraya was the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Mr. Laerke said that for example the WHO’s Elizabeth Hoff had been present at the Ramouseh crossing and that several staff had been rotating in and out. There was no independent UN access to the buses. So far Mr. Laerke had not seen reports on mistreatment of civilians, but that did not take away from protection concerns.
In response to further questions regarding buses, Mr. Laerke said that those were not UN buses but Government buses. It was not 900 buses that were needed but 900 rotations of buses. That information had come from the ICRC. The UN could not exactly pinpoint how many people were left in east Aleppo. As long as there were people who wished to leave, the operation should continue.
Mr. Laerke said that the resolution was quite short and did not specify UN presence in the areas that the evacuees were being taken to. However, the UN had partners based in Gaziantep and Idlib province and working with a network of NGOs there. Those partners were receiving the people coming off the buses. There were hospitals prepared to receive sick and wounded people, and organizations providing urgent humanitarian assistance, food, shelter and so on.
Leonard Doyle, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that IOM had a team on the ground in Aleppo mostly operating from Jibreen, and was assisting mainly with non-food items: health, emergency and shelter kits, sealing off kits, to enable people to get shelter in the winter in damaged buildings. IOM’s Officer in charge was on her way to Aleppo as part of the organized visit, to monitor the operations. Mr. Doyle was available to provide any further details on the shelter kits.
In response to a question, Mr. Doyle said that 184 buses – Government buses – would be in use from 18 to 20 December. The needs were of course enormous.
Mr. Doyle also said that there were about 233 IOM staff in the country, national and international. The issue of getting a visa would always be down to the individual, and it was not fast.
Ms. Vellucci drew the press’ attention to the statement put out by the UN Special Envoy for Syria on 19 December. Ms. Vellucci also said that the resolution had been approved but that now it was necessary to work on the modalities.
In response to a question, Ms. Vellucci said that the unanimously approved resolution finally gave the UN an official mandate from all Member States of the UN, and the possibility of acting on something very concrete, the evacuations and the humanitarian assistance. It was a mandate recognized by the international community.
Ms. Vellucci reiterated that UN staff present in the country needed to be able to have access to the area in question. The resolution stated that the Security Council “requests the United Nations and other relevant institutions to carry out adequate, neutral monitoring and direct observation on evacuations from the eastern districts of Aleppo and other districts of the city, and to report as appropriate thereon, to ensure further deployment of staff for these purposes as needed and demands all parties to provide these monitors with safe, immediate and unimpeded access ”. It then mentioned humanitarian assistance. It was now necessary to see how that would be implemented. The Secretary-General was required by the resolution to report very quickly to the Security Council on the implementation of the resolution.
In response to a question about what was different now compared to when resolution 2254 had been approved in December 2015, Ms. Vellucci said that the situation on the ground had become dramatically difficult. There had been an escalation in horror, and the Secretary-General had spoken of Aleppo as a “hell”. Now, the mandate received by the UN from the whole international community allowed the organization to take concrete actions.
Asked whether Mr. de Mistura had been invited to attend a meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Turkey and Iran on the Syrian question, Ms. Vellucci said that that initiative did not involve the UN. The Special Envoy had always viewed with interest any initiative which supported his efforts. Russia and Turkey were two important countries as regards Syria. He looked forward to understanding further the ideas that they would have discussed. He took note that President Putin had described the possible Russia-Turkey initiative as not meant to compete with the Security Council-mandated UN Geneva political process, but rather to support it and complement it. The Special Envoy would welcome any effort that could support a UN-led process within the framework of Security Council resolution 2254. Ms. Vellucci also said that Jessy Chahine could also be contacted and would try to reply to questions.
In reply to a question on whether the invitations to the 8 February meeting (referred to by Mr. de Mistura in yesterday’s statement) had been sent, Ms. Vellucci said that no invitations had been sent out yet, and the Special Envoy and his staff were engaging in preparatory consultations.
In response to questions about people moving across the border from Syria to Turkey, Mr. Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency, said that at the moment UNHCR had not seen clear indications of people moving across the border. In Turkey, the refugee camps were being run by the Turkish authorities themselves. UNHCR did have stockpiles in place for an additional 100,000 people at any time, but there was no trend in movement observed for now. All of Syria’s borders were tightly managed at present but people were being allowed to cross into Turkey. However, UNHCR had not yet seen people move across the border in relation to what had happened in Aleppo.
Mr. Tarik Jasarevic, for the World Health Organization, said that 301 patients had been medically evacuated. On 19 December, 43 people had been evacuated. Out of the 301, 93 had been referred to hospitals in Turkey, others were in hospitals in Idlib and in rural western Aleppo. The vast majority of the patients, 268, had trauma injuries. Right now, out of the 301, 208 were in a stable condition and the other 93, who had been referred to hospitals in Turkey as the infrastructure there was better, were in a critical condition.
Out of the 301, 259 were men, and 42 were women; 234 were adults, and 67 were children.
In response to a final question, Mr. Jasarevic said that he had asked about the number of people who had been medically evacuated from Foah and Kefraya, and that he was waiting for an answer.
Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi was very pleased by the safe release on 19 December of three UNHCR staff members Sarun Pradhan, Ramesh Karki and Musa Omer Musa Mohamed who had been abducted on 27 November in El Geneina, Sudan. Special thanks in particular went to the Sudanese Government and its personnel, who had worked to ensure this outcome. UNHCR also wished to thank the members of the UN’s hostage management team and others who had worked tirelessly on this case.
At this time UNHCR’s immediate focus was on their health and well-being, as well as that of their loved ones following this ordeal. UNHCR was doing everything possible to ensure they were being well taken care of. UNHCR would like to thank all those who had sent messages of concern and solidarity during those difficult last days. Those messages had come from supporters, Governments, partners and private individuals, and they had been welcome solace.
UNHCR staff worked in some of the most difficult circumstances in the world, helping people in great need, and often facing being far away from their families for lengthy periods at a time. Like other humanitarian workers, they should not have to endure the peril of abductions, violence and threats to their lives. UNHCR was renewing its call to all parties, not just in Sudan but everywhere, to respect international humanitarian law and ensure the protection of all civilians, including aid workers whose work was to help refugees and others affected by conflict and persecution.
UNHCR would be continuing its work in Sudan, providing life-saving support to hundreds of thousands of displaced in the country. UNHCR appealed to everyone to respect the privacy of Sarun, Ramesh and Musa Omer and their families at this difficult time and as they began the process of healing. UNHCR would be standing with them on this journey.
Tarik Jasarevic, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that WHO was facing a shortage of 68 per cent of funds required to continue its work in Sudan. In 2016, WHO had received only USD 8.4 million out of the USD 26 million needed. Because of this, 11 clinics had closed and 49 others were in danger of closing and not being able to continue providing health services in the states in Sudan most affected by the ongoing conflict. Those were three states in Darfur: west Darfur, south Darfur and north Darfur, as well as the Blue Nile state and the south Kordofan state. That put at risk more than 700,000 people in those areas. More than 300,000 women of child-bearing age would lack access to maternal child health care if all those clinics closed. People would have to move further to clinics that were still functioning and there was a risk of outbreak of diseases. WHO was working with the federal Ministry of Health and with the Ministry of Health at the state level to try to find a solution to the problem. WHO needed USD 7 million to continue to run those clinics, some of which were operated by NGOs. About half of health facilities in Darfur were operated by NGOs, the others were operated by the state Ministry of Health.
In response to questions, Mr. Jasarevic said that the facilities were providing primary health care, ante-natal care, vaccination for children, including routine immunization, and epidemiological surveillance (Early Warning And Reporting System - EWARS), as the Darfur region was a border region and there was movement of people. There had been outbreaks of measles in early 2016 and of dengue fever in 2015. There had been outbreaks of hemorrhagic fevers in the past. It was essential to continue with the vaccination and provide primary health care. Many of those clinics were in what used to be IDP camps and had now become permanent settlements across Darfur, for example Kalma Camp near Nyala had close to 150,000 people living there. Most of the health services were provided by NGOs that were supported by, among others, the WHO.
Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein today had urged the Philippines judicial authorities to launch investigative processes following the past week’s admission by the President of the Philippines that as Mayor of Davao he had killed people, and had encouraged others to do the same.
President Duterte had told business leaders at the presidential palace on 14 December that he had patrolled the streets personally on his motorcycle and had killed people. In an interview with the BBC on 16 December he had confirmed he had personally killed “about three” people during his term as mayor. Mr Duterte had served as mayor for three terms between 1988-2016. He had previously stated the three people killed in 1988 had been suspected of rape and kidnapping.
“Such acts directly contravene the rights enshrined in Article III of the Philippine Constitution,” the High Commissioner had said. “The killings described by President Duterte also violate international law, including the right to life, freedom from violence and force, due process and fair trial, equal protection before the law, and innocence until proven guilty. As a government official, if he encouraged others to follow his example, he may also have committed incitement to violence.”
“The Philippines judicial authorities must demonstrate their commitment to upholding the rule of law and their independence from the executive by launching a murder investigation,” the UN human rights chief had said. “The killings committed by Mr. Duterte, by his own admission, at a time when he was a mayor, clearly constitute murder. It should be unthinkable for any functioning judicial system not to launch investigative and judicial proceedings when someone has openly admitted being a killer.”
Zeid had said the President’s repeated calls for the police, military and the general public to engage in a ‘war on drugs’, bringing people in ‘dead or alive’, had fostered an environment of alarming impunity and violence. Since assuming the presidency on 30 June, reports suggested a total of over 6,100 people had been killed either by police, or by vigilantes and mercenaries, apparently acting in response to the President’s war on drugs. In his public comments in the past week, Mr. Duterte had promised “For as long as there are drug lords, this campaign will go on until the last day of my term and until all of them are killed.”
“Despite police investigating thousands of the deaths perpetrated by vigilantes, there is surprisingly little information on actual prosecutions,” Zeid had. “Children as young as five years old have been the innocent victims of this appalling epidemic of extra-judicial killings.”
Zeid had said that repeated statements indicating that immunity would be provided to police officers who engaged in human rights violations in the line of duty were “a direct violation of all democratic safeguards that have been established to uphold justice and the rule of law.”
“Credible and independent investigations must be urgently re-opened into the killings in Davao, as well as into the shocking number of killings that have occurred across the country since Mr. Duterte became president,” Zeid had. “The perpetrators must be brought to justice, sending a strong message that violence, killings and human rights violations will not be tolerated by the State and that no one is above the law.”
The High Commissioner had expressed his full support to the 16 December statement by the UN Special Rapporteur on summary executions, Agnes Callamard, calling on the Government of the Philippines to lift a series of preconditions it had imposed on her planned visit to investigate the alleged extra-judicial killings of suspected drug dealers.
In response to a question regarding the follow-up that had been given to previous warnings on extra-judiciary executions in the Philippines, for example the warnings of Father Shay Cullen in 2003 on the executions of children, Mr. Colville said that he would check on that. Asked about the degree of independence of the justice in the country, Mr. Colville said that time would tell. The Philippines were a functioning democracy where there should be functioning institutions, with a separation between the executive and the judiciary.
Global Climate Roundup
Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said that 2016 had been a remarkable year for the world climate system. In the atmosphere, carbon dioxide levels had reached new records and pushed the symbolic barrier of 400 p.p.m. In the oceans, more record warmth had contributed to widespread coral bleaching. On land, many floods, heat waves and tropical cyclones had been witnessed, affecting millions of people.
The year 2016 remained on track to be the hottest year on record, with average global temperatures set to break even the records of 2015, according to data covering the first eleven months of the year.
Temperatures had spiked in the early months of 2016 because of a very strong El Niño event. El Niño was a naturally-occurring phenomenon since the beginning of time, but was now combined with human-induced climate change caused by greenhouse gases. The WMO provisional statement on the climate in 2016, released for the latest UN Climate Change conference in Marrakech, Morocco, cited preliminary data (to the end of September) that 2016’s global temperatures were approximately 1.2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Temperatures in the Arctic had been particularly high. As a result, Arctic sea ice had been exceptionally low, especially during early 2016 and the October-November re-freezing period, when it had been the lowest on record. Antarctic sea ice extent had also been the lowest on record in November.
Scientific studies were increasingly proving the link between extreme weather – especially heat waves – and human-induced climate change from greenhouse gases. The most recent study, released by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS) on 15 December, with contributions of hundreds of scientists, had said that numerous weather events in 2015 were made more likely by climate change. About 65 per cent of the papers over a five-year period showed that human-caused climate change influenced an event’s frequency and/ or intensity in a substantial and measurable manner. More details were available in the briefing note.
Winter support for children in the Middle East
Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that UNICEF wished to remind that cold temperatures and winter weather were sweeping across the Middle East, threatening millions of children affected by crisis in the region. Children were weakened from months of undernutrition and lack of health care, putting them at high risk of hypothermia and serious respiratory infections from the cold.
This winter, UNICEF aimed to reach more than 2.5 million children in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt with warm clothes, thermal blankets and cash assistance for families, who were draining their financial resources. UNICEF’s winter response also included school heating. However, UNICEF was facing a USD 38 million funding shortfall for winter supplies and cash assistance, that could leave over one million children in the cold.
Winter support was in addition to UNICEF’s ongoing programmes in health, nutrition, water and sanitation, protection and education, which continued to reach millions of vulnerable children across the region.
Distributions of winter kits – including clothes, scarves, gloves, shoes and warm blankets – and cash assistance packages were already underway:
· In Syria, winter kits had been delivered to almost 50,000 children, including in shelters hosting children from east Aleppo.
· 95,000 children in Lebanon had been reached with school heating.
· Over 50,000 children in Jordan had received cash assistance for winter.
· In Iraq, 38,000 children and 400 pregnant or lactating mothers had received winter clothing.
But needs were outpacing support. UNICEF had received just over half of the $82 million in funding it urgently required to help protect vulnerable children across the region from the bitter cold.
Geneva Events and Announcements
Mr. Jasarevic announced a WHO press conference on 22 December at 11.15 a.m. in Press Room 1 on the results of the Ebola vaccine trial. The speaker would be Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, Assistant Director-General, Health Systems and Innovation, WHO. The information would be under embargo until 00.30 a.m. CET on 23 December.
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog201216