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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

6 August 2019

Alessandra Vellucci, Director, United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons for the World Food Programme, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Organization for Migration, and the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Central African Republic

Hervé Verhoosel, for the World Food Programme (WFP), introduced Ozaguin, a famous singer and songwriter from the Central African Republic, whom he had known for a long time. His songs spoke about the difficulties of everyday life in the country. Ozaguin was in Geneva to put the spotlight on the difficult conditions of life of more than four million Central Africans.

Ozaguin said that he was in Geneva to lend his voice to the 4.8 million Central Africans, half of whom were living in a situation of insecurity. Physical and food insecurity were intertwined, creating a slow economic climate throughout the country. As a result of this inactivity, Central Africans were often manipulated by armed groups, which took advantage of the situation to recruit people for a small amount of resources, sometimes the only way for them to feed their families.

To feed his family, Ozaguin had gone to Brazzaville to look for work. Too young to get a job, he had spent four years living on the streets. Ozaguin explained that music had helped him out of his problems. Back home in Bangui, he had decided to set up a foundation to help street children. The money raised through his concerts is used to help the 32 children supported by his foundation, including 10 Muslim children in a separate district of Bangui. Ozaguin was also developing initiatives to create cohesion among children from Christian and Muslim communities.

Ozaguin insisted on the positive action of the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, MINUSCA, and of the WFP in the Central African Republic. The context of insecurity prevented national and international NGOs from going around the country and providing humanitarian assistance. Famine created fertile ground for the manipulation of people, which was why solving the problem of food insecurity was crucial for the country. Unable to go to the fields to farm, or unable to cross forests occupied by armed groups, robbing humanitarian workers and selling stolen items was sometimes the only way for Central Africans to gather resources to feed their families. Mr. Verhoosel confirmed that people who did not have enough to eat were easily exploited by armed groups.

Mr. Verhoosel added that currently more than 1.8 million people, about 40 percent of the country’s population, were suffering from serious food insecurity and did not know where their next meal would come from. In the month of August, food insecurity in CAR reached its maximum. The WFP was on track to feed 800,000 people per month until the end of 2019, for which USD 35.5 million was urgently needed. The priority was peace, as the Khartoum Agreement was still not fully implemented. Mr. Verhoosel stressed that peace was also necessary for humanitarian work, as currently CAR was one of the most dangerous countries in the world for humanitarian workers. WFP was once again appealing to donors to help them help Central Africans.

Questions were asked about the purpose of Ozaguin’s visit to Geneva and more information on the activities of his foundation. Ozaguin said that he had requested WFP to visit the United Nations in order to explain what was happening in his country. His goal was to present the situation as it was and raise awareness on the need to help CAR. He had been in Europe for three weeks and had done two concerts in France in order to fundraise for his foundation. Mr. Verhoosel added that events had been organized on borders between Muslim and Christian districts, in order to bring the youth of the two communities together.

On a question related to the French military mission Sangaris in the country, Ozaguin responded that the UN peacekeeping operation, MINUSCA, was currently present in CAR, after the French mission had provided initial support. In his view, the French mission had helped the people of the Central African Republic, and now it was MINUSCA which was fulfilling that role.

Syria

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), provided an update on the humanitarian situation in northwest Syria. He read the following statement:

“After three days of reduced hostilities in northwestern Syria following the conditional ceasefire that came into effect last Friday, fighting has flared up again, including with airstrikes, across northern Hama, southern Idleb and western Aleppo governorates. We reiterate our deep concern for the civilians in Idlib and surrounding areas who are trapped in the carnage.

No airstrikes were in fact reported over the weekend in northwest Syria after the ceasefire came into effect, although some shelling was reported in northern Hama and southern Idleb. Reports even indicated that some civilians started to return to their homes in southern Idleb.

A million of those in the affected areas in the northwest are children. Our Emergency Relief Coordinator spoke last week via video link to some of them and they told him that they – and their schools - were being bombed, they were afraid, and they just wanted the bombing to stop. The Emergency Relief Coordinator conveyed this message from the children in Idlib to the Security Council one week ago. That was before the conditional ceasefire.

The children got three days of reduced fighting, it seems.

If the desperate voices of these children have any value or carry any weight, then more shelling, more airstrikes and more violence is the wrong answer to their plea for peace.

Again, we remind all parties to the conflict, and those who have influence over them, of their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure at all times.”

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service, referred to a statement by the Spokesman for the UN Secretary-General which read that the UN was very concerned about the announcement of the Syrian Government and was calling for cessation of hostilities and the focus on the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people.

A question was asked whether the strikes on schools were deliberate. Mr. Laerke, for OCHA, said that he did not have the list of exact infrastructure objects hit in the renewed hostilities, but rather the areas where those objects were. A lot of critical infrastructure had been hit recently. A deconfliction mechanism had been operating for a while, but a discussion had been taking place recently on its effectiveness in protecting health facilities. Consultations were currently underway with civil society partners in that regard. When facilities which had been on a “no hit” list were subsequently hit, it brought up questions about the usefulness of such lists.

Responding to another question, Mr. Laerke informed that the best estimate for overall civilian casualties in the affected region since April last year was between 450 and 500. Coordinates of many of the protected structures were not a secret, explained Mr. Laerke; some of them had been built by the Syrian Government long before the war.

Mr. Laerke said that OCHA would continue to monitor the situation on the ground regardless of announcements by the Government. The situation was extremely dire for the people who had been trapped under attack for months; the population density there was very high. Never had protection of civilians in Idlib as important as it was now. It was frustrating to see that this protection seemed not to be happening. Many children had experienced nothing but war in their young lives.

Yemen

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), read the following statement:

“Over the past 10 days, we have documented a number of deeply worrying developments in Yemen that have had a serious impact on civilians across the country, including in Aden, Taiz, San’a, Sa’daa, Al Dhale and other areas. Armed groups affiliated with Al Qaeda and ISIS also appear to have intensified their activities in the country.

Since 27 July, the UN Human Rights Office has verified 19 civilian deaths in Taiz, Sa’ada and Aden and 42 civilians injured. The majority of the civilian deaths resulted from an attack in the Al Thabet market area of Sa’ada Governorate on 29 July, when 14 civilians were killed and 26 injured. There are conflicting reports about which party to the conflict carried out the attacks.

On 28 July, military forces and popular committees affiliated with the Houthis allegedly launched indiscriminate attacks in Al-Rawdhah neighbourhood in Taiz, killing one child and injuring three other civilians. This followed other similar attacks in previous days by Houthi-affiliated forces. There have also been reports of attacks hitting medical and educational facilities, including a 31 July attack damaging a hospital emergency department and ambulances in Taiz.

In Aden and Abyan in the south, a series of attacks took place on 1 and 2 August against a police station and military camps. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack on the police station. A ballistic missile reportedly launched by the Houthis was responsible for the attack on 1 August in Aden during a military parade, while armed groups affiliated with Al Qaeda reportedly attacked another military camp in Abyan governorate on 2 August. In apparent retaliation for these attacks, the “security-belt” forces are reportedly carrying out and enabling retaliatory attacks against civilians from the northern parts of Yemen, who are being rounded up, assaulted, harassed and forcibly displaced to the areas bordering other governorates.

We have received information from multiple sources about arbitrary arrests and detention, forced displacement, physical assaults and harassment as well as looting and vandalism by the security forces against hundreds of northerners. Reports suggest that security forces searched hotels and restaurants, stopping people, demanding their identification, and rounding up those hailing from the northern parts of Yemen. We remind parties to the conflict that such arrests and forced displacements breach international human rights and humanitarian law. Parties to a non-international armed conflict may not order the displacement of the civilian population, in whole or in part, for reasons related to the conflict, unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand. We are continuing to gather information about the number of people displaced and details of the violations they have been subjected to, but initial reports suggest hundreds have already been displaced.

We also remain deeply concerned about the situation in Al Dhale, in southwest Yemen, since the escalation of military operations there in March 2019, including the use of landmines – which are by their very nature indiscriminate – as well as airstrikes, shelling and ground fighting. Since March, fighting between the warring parties has resulted in at least 26 civilians killed and 45 injured, although due to lack of access to the area, the figures are likely to be much higher than what we have been able to verify. The only water reserve in Al Dhale is reportedly under the control of the Houthis and many water pumps have stopped working or been damaged, thus cutting water supplies to parts of the population.

We urge all parties to the conflict to seek to de-escalate the situation, and to ensure that any attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure are meaningfully investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.”

Responding to a question on the existence of the rule of law in Yemen, Ms. Shamdasani said that even wars had rules, and those rules were supposed to protect civilians. Indiscriminate attacks and the use of indiscriminate weapons, such as landmines, as well as forcible displacement of civilians, clearly breached the international humanitarian law. OHCHR was reminding all parties to the conflict of their obligation to respect the international humanitarian law.

On whether the United Arab Emirates had indeed left Yemen as announced, Ms. Shamdasani could not provide details on such information, but pointed out that retaliatory attacks against northerners in Aden were carried out by the so-called “security belt forces” with the support of the Coalition forces, which was contributing to the forced displacement.

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Responding to a question, Herve Verhoosel, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that following negotiations with the Sanaa-based authorities, the WFP had signed over the weekend an agreement with the Houthis. Technical details were still being finalized and awaited; all information would be provided shortly in full transparency. The agreement stressed the independence the WFP needed in order to operate. The biometrics were in the center of the current discussions. It was hoped that once the technical details were finalized, food deliveries would restart shortly.

Responding to a question on the current corruption case with alleged millions of dollars missing. Mr Verhoosel said that to the best of his knowledge, the WFP was not implicated. Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), responded that OCHA was aware of the report, but he did not have anything more to say at the moment. Mr. Laerke said that the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) had provided a reply the previous day. Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service, informed that Marixie Mercado, a spokeswoman for UNICEF, was available to answer questions about this matter.

Asked which agencies were implicated in the corruption report, Ms. Vellucci for UNIS stressed that the Office of Internal Oversight was looking into cases of misconduct. Questions on specific agencies should be directed to them directly. Mr. Laerke added that they were waiting to hear from the Yemen Country Team before providing further details.


Concerns about refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea

Charlie Yaxley, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), read the following statement:

“UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is concerned about last night’s decision by the Italian Parliament to convert into law a security decree that imposes more severe penalties on boats and people conducting search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

Under changes approved by Parliament, fines for private vessels that undertake rescue of persons and do not respect the ban on entry into territorial waters have risen to a maximum of €1 million. In addition, vessels will now be automatically impounded.

UNHCR reiterates its concern that imposing financial or other penalties on shipmasters could deter or impede sea rescue activities by private vessels at a time when European states have largely withdrawn from rescue efforts in the Central Mediterranean. NGOs play an invaluable role in saving the lives of refugees and migrants attempting the dangerous sea crossing to Europe. The commitment and humanity that motivates their activities should not be criminalised or stigmatised.

Likewise, NGO and commercial vessels must not be requested to transfer rescued people to the Libyan Coast Guard or be directed to disembark them in Libya. The extremely volatile security situation, ongoing conflict, widespread reports of human rights violations and routine use of arbitrary detention for people disembarked back to Libya underline the fact that it is not a viable place of safety.

UNHCR calls on States to build on recent discussions in Paris to establish a temporary, predictable arrangement for disembarking people after they have been rescued at sea, characterised by shared responsibility amongst States for hosting and responding to specific needs. These talks were encouraging, and progress should continue in the interests of all.”

A journalist asked on whether any sanctions could be taken against Italy. Mr. Yaxley said that law of the sea compelled people to rescue others in danger on the sea.

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), added that news was received that 49 migrants had arrived in Lampedusa by sea on Monday late at night; they had not been escorted by any official authority or rescue group. Most of them – 46 – were from Côte d’Ivoire. The survivors reported that 20 people who had been on board with them had perished. It was not clear whether the group had left from Libya, Tunisia or both. There was no further information at the moment.

Colombia

Charlie Yaxley, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), read the following statement:

“The Colombian Government has taken a major step in combatting statelessness by ensuring that children born in the country to Venezuelan parents are able to acquire Colombian nationality.

The measure, which was announced on Monday, is expected to benefit the 24,000 children born in Colombia to Venezuelan parents since August 2015, many of whom are at risk of statelessness or are stateless. It will also prevent children from becoming stateless in the future.

Until now, a child born in Colombia only acquired Colombian nationality if at least one parent was Colombian, or in the case of foreign parents, if they were legally domiciled in the country at the time of the child’s birth. Many of the estimated 1.4 million Venezuelans who have fled their country and are in Colombia may not meet this requirement.

The options for children born to Venezuelan parents in Colombia to acquire Venezuelan nationality are also very limited at the moment. Many Venezuelan families would have difficulties in obtaining the necessary documentation or in registering the child at a Venezuelan consulate in Colombia, as these services are currently unavailable.

With this exceptional and temporary administrative measure that will be valid for 2 years, the Colombian authorities will change the current birth registration system by including documentary proof of Colombian nationality of children born to Venezuelan parents.

UNHCR, together with the International Organization for Migration and UNICEF, will financially support the Colombian Government in implementing this measure to provide these children with documents to prove their nationality.

Stateless people can face a lifetime of exclusion and discrimination, are often denied access to education, health care, and job opportunities. Colombia’s decision is hugely positive for these children and their families.

Worldwide, statelessness affects millions of people, leaving them without the basic rights and official recognition that most of us take for granted. Some 3.9 million stateless people appear in 78 countries, but UNHCR believes the true total to be even higher.”

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that the resolution should enter into force on 20 August 2019. It would apply to children born in Colombia since 19 August 2015, and would thus cover some 24,000 children. The IOM, together with the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration of the US State Department, would technically support the Colombian National Registry Office in the implementation of the resolution, as well as in the dissemination of the campaign “Primero la Niñez.” The campaign sought to inform the targeted population on how to access the measure, what procedures to follow, the date of entry into force of the initiative, as well as the role of the different entities.

Mr. Millman quoted the IOM Colombia Chief of Mission, Ana Duran Salvatierra, who said that “the resolution was a contribution towards regular and safe migration, which hopefully will facilitate the recognition of the fundamental rights of Venezuelan children as well as contribute towards their integration in society.”

Mr. Millman added that the death of 137 Venezuelan nationals had been recorded since 2014. Those fatalities had been recorded in the following places: Curaçao, Aruba, the US-Mexico border, Colombia, Ecuador, Trinidad and Tobago, and Brazil. In 2019, through just six and a half months, 82 fatalities had been recorded, or nearly twice those recorded all last year. Mr. Millman explained that there had been several large shipwrecks in the Caribbean in 2019, due to which the number of fatalities had gone up significantly this year. There were also car accidents and other mishaps which happened along the road which contributed to the total figure.

Responding to a question, Mr. Millman said that the IOM worked with Member States, neighbours of Venezuela, to support and integrate Venezuelans. The decision made by Colombia was celebrated.


Shootings in the United States

Asked for a comment on the weekend shootings in the United States of America, Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service, referred to the statement by the Spokesman of the UN Secretary-General, which read:

“The Secretary-General condemns in the strongest terms the terrorist attack in El Paso, Texas, on 3 August. He also expresses his shock and outrage over the mass shooting only hours later in Dayton, Ohio. He extends his heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims and expresses his solidarity with the peoples and Governments of the United States and Mexico, from where a number of those killed and injured in the El Paso attack hailed. The Secretary-General stresses the need for all to work together to counter violence rooted in hatred, racism, xenophobia and all forms of discrimination.”

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), read the following statement:

“We are deeply concerned by the mass shootings that took place over the weekend and convey our heartfelt condolences to the victims and their families. We encourage the authorities to pursue their investigations into these acts and to ensure due process guarantees. We welcome the US condemnation of ‘racism, hatred and white supremacy’ in the wake of these two awful tragedies. We unequivocally condemn racism, xenophobia and intolerance – including white supremacy -- and call on States, not just the US but all States, to take positive steps to eradicate discrimination.”

Mr. Colville reminded that the previous High Commissioner had issued a statement on gun control measures in the US, to preempt further killings, on 14 June 2016. His call was unfortunately as relevant today as it had been then. Zeid has particularly called on the US to live up to its obligations to protect its citizens from the horrifyingly commonplace but preventable violent attacks that are the direct result of insufficient gun control.

This 2016 statement was fully endorsed by the current High Commissioner.

On what could be done to stop such hate crimes against minorities around the world, Ms. Colville said that various kinds of hate crimes seemed to be on the rise and were a matter of grave concern. One call by the OHCHR was for the social media companies and the governments to work together on an approach to ensure that human rights considerations were ‘baked in’ to the development of legislation, policies, and social media products could assist in identifying and mitigating risks.

Alessandra Vellucci for UNIS added that the UN Secretary-General had positioned combating hate speech as one of his priorities. “We should treat it like any other malicious act: by condemning it unconditionally; refusing to amplify it; countering it with the truth; and encouraging the perpetrators to change their behavior,” he had said. Ms. Vellucci reminded that he had recently released a strategy and a plan of action which sought to address the roots of hate speech and make the response more effective.

Question was asked on whether the US President’s anti-migrant rhetoric could have contributed to the latest violence. Mr. Colville for OHCHR said that in general all authorities had a responsibility to ensure that their actions in no way contributed to public attitudes that were discriminatory, or that stigmatized and dehumanized minorities, including migrants, refugees, women, LGBT, or any so-called “other”. Instead, they left targeted persons and communities vulnerable to the risk of reprisals and attacks. That applied to any authorities anywhere. It was essential that they took the primary responsibility on this issue.

Regarding the US President’s mention of a new law which would include death penalty for hate crimes and mass shooters, Mr. Colville said that hate crimes needed to be tackled, as well as their causes, but new laws needed to be very careful as well, in order to take into consideration human rights and freedoms. He stressed that the OHCHR opposed the death penalty in all circumstances; it did not have place in the 21st century.

On whether mentally-ill people were responsible for those shootings, Mr. Colville quoted the former High Commissioner Zeid’s statement that “it is hard to find a rational justification that explains the ease with which people can buy firearms, including assault rifles, in spite of prior criminal backgrounds, drug use, histories of domestic violence and mental illness, or direct contact with extremists – both domestic and foreign.” Mental illness might be a factor in some cases, but it clearly was not an issue in every case. If assault rifles were widely available, there was a risk that people would use them for different reasons.

Hong Kong

Asked to provide an assessment on the alleged disproportionate use of police force in Hong Kong and the warnings from Beijing, Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), stated that all acts of violence, either by the authorities or the protesters, ought to be investigated in a credible and impartial way. There were allegations of violence by both sides in Hong Kong. While there was an element of violent protesters, the vast majority of protesters had not been violent, so the demonstrations as a whole could not be characterized as violent. The authorities were urged to engage in a dialogue with the civil society and the protesters on a wide range of issues.

Kashmir

Asked for a comment on the Indian Government’s decision to revoke the special status of Kashmir, Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service, referred to the UN Secretary-General’s Spokesman’s statement which read that:

“We are following with concern the tense situation in the region. We are also aware of reports of restrictions on the Indian side of Kashmir. We urge all parties to exercise restraint and refer to the reports of the reports of the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan.”

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), referred to the OHCHR’s 8 July report on human rights in Kashmir, which documented how the authorities of the Indian-administered Kashmir repeatedly suppressed communication networks, conducted arbitrary detentions, and punished their opponents.

Mr. Colville then read the following statement:

“We are deeply concerned that the latest restrictions in Indian-Administered Kashmir will exacerbate the human rights situation in the region. We are seeing blanket telecommunications restrictions, the reported arbitrary detention of political leaders and restrictions on peaceful assembly. These restrictions will prevent the people of Indian-Administered Kashmir and their elected representatives from participating fully in democratic debate about the future status of Jammu and Kashmir.

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which India has ratified, the right to freedom of opinion and expression includes the freedom to seek, receive and impart information.

While Article 19(3) of the Covenant allows states to impose restrictions on certain grounds including protection of “public order,” the Human Rights Committee – which monitors and interprets the Covenant -- has warned that any such curbs must be necessary and proportionate and should not jeopardize the right itself. The fact that hardly any information at all is currently coming out from Indian-Administered Kashmir is of great concern in itself.”

World Humanitarian Day

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service, informed that the World Humanitarian Day would be marked on 19 August. The day would be used to remind the world that men and women humanitarians in many countries were risking their lives to help populations in need. The focus this year was on women humanitarians. A global UN campaign would be launched on 12 August, and on 19 August an event would be organized at the Palais des Nations. Journalists would soon receive the invitation.

Geneva announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, informed that on 5 August, Tatiana Valovaya of the Russian Federation had taken over as the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva. Ms. Valovaya brought to the position more than 35 years of extensive experience in journalism, diplomacy and government service. A meeting with the Geneva press corps would be organized soon.

Ms. Vellucci also said that the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which had opened its 99th session on Monday, would begin this afternoon its consideration of the report of Poland. Other countries to be examined were El Salvador, Mexico, Mongolia, Iceland, the State of Palestine and the Czech Republic.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was currently meeting at UN Geneva and considering a report on climate change and land, as part of its 50th session. A press conference to present the Summary for Policymakers of Climate Change and Land would take place at the WMO headquarters on Thursday, 8 August, subject to the approval of the Summary.

On Friday, 9 August at 12:30 p.m. in Press Room 1, the Committee Against Torture would present concluding observations on Bangladesh, Greece, Poland, and Togo.

Finally, Ms. Vellucci informed that on 9 August, the World Day of Indigenous Peoples would be commemorated. The theme this year was indigenous languages in the framework of the current International Year of Indigenous Languages.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog060819


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