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9 May 2017

Alessandra Vellucci, Director, United Nations Information Service, chaired the briefing attended by the spokespersons for the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration, the World Meteorological Organization, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and the World Health Organization.


Michael Contet, for the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria (OSE), spoke about the announcement made on 8 May that Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura had decided to reconvene the intra-Syrian talks with a new round starting in Geneva on 16 May 2017. The invitees to this round would be the same as to the previous rounds held in 2017, and the framework would remain that of Security Council resolution 2254.  That resolution would guide the agenda of the substantive talks, which would evolve around the four baskets.  The new round would come shortly after the conclusion of the Astana meeting.  The Special Envoy had been present at the Astana meeting as an observer, and it was based on his impressions that he had determined that it was the right time for him to call the talks.

The meeting in Astana had been convened by the three guarantors of the cease-fire in Syria: the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Russian Federation and the Republic of Turkey.  Other participants included the Government of Syria, armed opposition groups’ representatives, and representatives from Jordan and the United States as observers.  While in Astana, the Special Envoy had stated that he was encouraged by the agreement reached by the guarantors on the creation of four de-escalation areas in Syria.  What was crucial now was to see the implementation of the agreement within the stipulated timeframe, and to see it make a difference in the lives of Syrians.  The Special Envoy in particular welcomed the commitment by the guarantors to bring about the end of the use of all weapons, particularly aerial assets, and rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access, as well as creating the conditions for the delivery of medical aid and meeting civilians’ basic needs.  A team of UN experts had participated in a series of technical meetings as part of the Astana track.  They would continue to be involved and to actively engage with the guarantors on all those issues in the way ahead.  Mr. Contet also wished to underline the complementarity between Astana and Geneva, and in that regard, the OSE had appreciated the mention in the memorandum announced in Astana of the importance of the UN-led intra-Syrian talks process in Geneva as per Security Council resolution 2254.

Mr. Contet also announced that this week Yara Sharif completed her assignment with the OSE.  He thanked Ms. Sharif for her work and said that Tom Peyre-Costa would take over as the media liaison in the weeks to come and would be the interface for the press.  He could be reached at tpeyre-costa@unog.ch.

Asked about any progress on the issue of detainees, Mr. Contet said that last week’s meetings in Astana had seen some progress on this essential confidence-building measure.  Discussions would continue among the guarantors of the cease-fire and the interested parties to advance that file.  A successful resolution of this issue would greatly help progress on the political track.  The UN was doing all it could to help with this.

In response to other questions, Mr. Contet said that the objective of the talks was the realization of what was spelled out in resolution 2254.  The upcoming round would be the third in a row since February 2017.  As the rounds of talks were designed, they were considered as a series and not just one-off events.  At the beginning of the latest round, the Special Envoy was warning everyone not to expect a breakthrough nor a breakdown.  The talks did not start from scratch each time and there was a sense of incremental progress, although that progress had been modest until now.  It was with this spirit that the Special Envoy was reconvening this round of talks.  There was no reason to expect that it would be more spectacular than the previous rounds, but by continuing this incremental logic, he felt that with the invitees and with the support of the international community it would be possible to advance towards more progress.  The Special Envoy really wanted to have some intensified efforts during the next round of talks, which was why he had asked that all activity in the Palais focus on the substance of the talks themselves.  Invitees would be asked to hold any media activities outside of the Palais.

In response to further questions on this point, Mr. Contet confirmed that the media activities of the invitees would take place outside the Palais in the upcoming round.  On UN premises the Special Envoy wished to focus on the substance of the mediation.  The OSE was currently engaging with many stakeholders including UNIS and the Geneva police in order to organize the logistics of the process.  Ms. Vellucci added that some time was needed to discuss this with the Swiss authorities and with the invitees, and she hoped that on 11 May it would be possible to give more information on logistics.  Mr. Contet also said that the Special Envoy would address the media sometime early next week at the onset of the talks, and would probably have a wrap-up press encounter at the end of the round.  During the course of the talks, the Special Envoy would not report on the status of the talks day by day.  As for the invitees, it was up to them to decide with what frequency they wished to speak to the media.  Pools of journalists would be constituted for arrivals and the start of meetings at the Palais.

In terms of the substance of this round of talks, Mr. Contet reiterated that the four baskets formed the agenda of the talks.  He underscored that the process was characterized by a heavy level of engagement with parties between the rounds of talks and technical discussions informing the agenda of the rounds of talks.  Within this universe of the four baskets and all the issues they contained, the OSE looked at which ones were more ripe for discussion on day one and more likely to yield commonalities between parties.  However, it was important to remember that all those issues were to be tackled in parallel.  OSE was working with the parties to see in which order to look at the issues.  To address the fullness of the issue it was required to tackle the entire gamut of the agenda of 2254, so going in depth on all four baskets was necessary.  The Special Envoy would very much welcome the opportunity to host direct talks between all parties here, but for the moment that was not possible so the method which would be used would be proximity talks as in previous rounds.

Asked about the agreement reached last week in Astana, Mr. Contet said that Astana was a very crucial process.  It was essential that Syrians in Syria felt the difference in their lives with the de-escalation of violence and less fear for their survival.  If successful, the de-escalation deal could only broaden the space for political mediation and progress.  The UN welcomed any effort to bring about this de-escalation and would do everything to support it, as an observer.  There was a timeframe of 14 days until the formation of the committees mentioned under the deal in Astana and that gave some time to assess how successful the measures announced in Astana would be.

Mr. Contet also insisted on the complementarity between Astana and Geneva.  Both processes dealt with different issues, with Geneva focusing on the political mediation track, based on the mandate given by Security Council resolution 2254.  The two processes were led by different entities: for Geneva, the Special Envoy as mandated by the UN Secretary-General, while Astana was a by-product of the cease-fire announced by the guarantors on 29 December 2016.  Both processes needed each other to sustain their long-term viability. 

In response to a final question, Mr. Contet confirmed that OSE was taking Ramadan in consideration in its planning of the upcoming round of talks, with the need for invitees to get back home in time for the start of Ramadan.  The OSE was also in touch with the Presidency of the Security Council to determine the best date for a briefing by the Special Envoy this month.

Mediterranean shipwrecks

Cécile Pouilly, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR had received alarming information on two new shipwrecks in the Central Mediterranean.  The first shipwreck had taken place on 5 May at night, when a rubber dinghy had sunk after several hours of sailing with 132 people on board.  Some 50 people had been rescued and disembarked in Pozzallo (Sicily) on 7 May.  Some 82 people were feared dead or missing.

Another shipwreck had taken place off the coast of Libya on 7 May.  According to one of UNHCR’s partners, the International Medical Corps, a woman and six men had been rescued by the Libyan Coast Guards.  Some 163 people were feared dead or missing during this particular incident.

This brought the total number of people believed to have died or disappeared while trying to cross from North Africa to Italy to more than 1,300 since the beginning of 2017.  So far in 2017, over 43,000 migrants and asylum seekers had used the Central Mediterranean route to reach Italy.  As stressed by High Commissioner Grandi on 7 May, rescue at sea operations, including by the Italian Coast Guard, in coordination with Frontex, and by NGOs were of crucial importance.

Asked about the criticism addressed currently at NGOs for providing “taxi services” from Libya to Europe, Ms. Pouilly reiterated that the NGOs’ work in saving lives was truly crucial and remarkable.  NGOs had been involved in one third of all rescue operations since the beginning of 2017.  Asked about smugglers putting more and more people on boats, Ms. Pouilly said that UNHCR had received information, confirmed by the Italian coast guard, that that was indeed the case.  The likelihood of shipwreck was thus increasing.  A trend had also been seen whereby people on the boat did not have satellite phones anymore.  According to a report by the Italian coast guard, between 2015 and 2016 the availability of those phones had decreased by half, so people were much more difficult to locate when problems occurred and could not call for help.  The quality of the vessels used was also decreasing.  Currently, one person out of 35 taking the route was dying, which was a staggering number.

Asked whether the EU-Turkey agreement was still holding, Ms. Pouilly said that in terms of numbers of sea arrivals to Greece (not necessarily from Turkey), there had been 213 arrivals to Greece for May so far, which was quite low.  In April, there had been 1,158 arrivals to Greece.  There was no major increase in arrivals to Greece at all.

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said IOM was reporting 6,612 people had been rescued over the past weekend.  IOM believed there were 80 people missing from the first shipwreck evoked by UNHCR above, which was close to the number cited by UNHCR.  IOM also had a report from late in the night of 8 May of 11 bodies having been retrieved in Al-Zawiyah, Libya, ten African women and one baby girl.  There was a possibility that those were casualties from a shipwreck on 7 May. 

Asked to explain why the number of deaths in the Mediterranean was still very high even though overall numbers of Mediterranean crossings were significantly down from 2016, Mr. Millman said that the reason the migrant numbers were down in terms of total crossings was the strong drop in traffic on the Turkey to Greece route in the eastern Mediterranean.  In 2016 at this time of the year, that number had already reached more than 155,000.  Almost all of that had occurred before the end of March.  What had changed was the central route, which was busier, with at least 10,000 people more crossing on this route so far in 2017 than at the same time in 2016, and at least 300 more deaths than for the same period in 2016.  Most of the activity in 2017 - and the deaths reflected that as well - was due to the central and western routes: Libya to Italy, but also Spain.  Regarding the question of shipwrecks, Mr. Millman also said that the infrastructure for smuggling was beginning to fray, and the lack of equipment, robberies of engines and even piracy among armed groups contributed to smugglers putting more people on boats than in the past.

On arrivals to Greece, Mr. Millman said that through 7 May, arrivals averaged less than 100 per day, and there had been only five days which had surpassed 100.

Migrants in Central America and the Caribbean

Regarding global deaths of migrants, Mr. Millman said that Latin America was running significantly ahead of 2016 at this time.  IOM was very concerned about the number of deaths in the Rio Bravo area.  In the past week, four bodies had been found in the same spot, three migrants and a local.  Migrant flows continued in the area as they had done historically, but apparently river flows were higher this year.  Authorities there were saying that the fast currents were snatching more people than they used to.  This could be avoided with more awareness of the conditions.

In response to questions, Mr. Millman said that he had a total of 196 migrant deaths in 2017 through 7 May for the four regions: South America, the Caribbean, Central America, and the south of Mexico as well as the US/Mexico border.  The border and the Caribbean were the two regions which had registered the biggest changes compared to 2016, with the border slightly ahead compared to 2016 and the Caribbean significantly ahead, with 89 drownings in 2017 compared to 39 this time in 2016 (one of those had been a single incident with 68 Haitian migrants killed in Turks and Caicos).

Cholera outbreaks in South Sudan and Yemen

Mr. Millman highlighted two reports about the work of IOM fighting a cholera outbreak in South Sudan and in Yemen.  In Yemen, the health care system was on the brink of collapse, and it was a challenge to just keep the hospitals functioning.  In the past six months IOM had screened almost 37,000 migrants in Yemen for cholera symptoms and there had been nine confirmed cholera cases in that group detected in Aden and Hudaydah.

Ms. Vellucci added that on 7 May the Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick had called on all member States to urgently fund the Yemen Humanitarian Response Plans.  All the engagements made in Geneva needed to materialize now.


In response to questions, Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said, regarding the health event in Liberia, that according to information from Liberia’s Ministry of Health, samples from four of the deceased patients in the cluster of deaths related to a religious leader’s funeral had tested positive for meningitis C.  Meningitis C had been found in blood samples of patients who had then died.  However, symptoms typical of meningitis C such as high fever and stiff neck had not been found in any of the cases.  Also, the incubation period of meningitis, which was four days and could range between two and ten days, also did not match.  All the cases identified so far had been related to the funeral and wake on 21-22 April.  The first cases had been detected on 22 April.  The main bulk of cases had been detected on 23 April.  So two-thirds of the cases had been detected within the immediate two days following the funeral.  It was too early to single out a single pathogen and there was still a possibility that multiple options were out there.  WHO was still awaiting results from further testing at the CDC in Atlanta, and in South Africa.

In response to further questions, Mr. Lindmeier said that it looked like a single source of infection because it seemed to be all related to the wake at the funeral.  The one person who had not attended the funeral but had been infected, had apparently been working in the house where the food for the wake had been prepared.  Yet, it was to be noted that 10 to 20 per cent of the population carried the meningitis bacteria in their throat constantly without being sick.  Therefore, meningitis could have been latent in the four cases who had died.  Meningitis was a possible diagnosis, among others.  WHO was still awaiting results from the autopsy samples.  A lot still needed to be understood in this case.

Geneva Events and Announcements

On behalf of Rolando Gomez for the Human Rights Council, Ms. Vellucci said the Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review Working Group was reviewing the human rights situation in Poland this morning.  This afternoon, starting at 4.30 p.m., the Working Group was scheduled to adopt its reports for the United Kingdom, India and Brazil.  Those reports would be shared with the press later today.

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), announced a press briefing on 10 May at 2 p.m. in Press Room 1.  WHO and partners recommended steps to improve adolescent health in a new report, Global Acceleration Action for the Health of Adolescents: Guidance to Support Country Implementation.  The report included the latest data on the top causes death and disability globally among young people, aged 10 to 19 years.  The speakers would be Dr Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director-General, Family, Women’s and Children’s Health, WHO, and the adolescent health expert at WHO, Dr Valentina Baltag.

Mr. Lindmeier also announced a background press briefing on 12 May at 9.30 p.m. in Room III on the main issues of the 70th session of the World Health Assembly, which would take place from 22 to 31 May 2017.  The speaker would be Dr Timothy Armstrong, Director of the Department for Governing Bodies and External Relations of WHO.

Asked about the current non-invitation of Taiwan to the World Health Assembly, Mr. Lindmeier said that the Cross-Strait understanding between China and Taiwan had been the basis for the invitation for the Taiwanese representatives as observers to the WHA since 2009.  Such an understanding had not been reached this time so far, but discussions were ongoing. The deadline for invitations had officially passed but WHO was still waiting for any developments.  He said that between 1997 and 2008 there had been no Cross-Strait understanding on this matter and the World Health Assembly had decided not to discuss inviting Taiwanese representatives.  As of 2009, Taiwan had been invited to the WHA as an observer on the basis of that understanding, and there were other observers at the WHA as well. The One China policy was a UN-wide policy, and Beijing was representing China on that basis.

Mr. Lindmeier also said that contact between WHO and Taiwan was ongoing.  Whenever there was a health subject, there was direct contact with the authorities in Taiwan.  In case there was a health emergency in Taiwan, WHO would inform Beijing but would not need an approval in order to intervene.  Technical cooperation was ongoing and was not impacted by the current discussions.  Taiwanese experts were still able to attend technical meetings at the WHO.

Asked about a press conference of the candidates for WHO Director-General, Mr. Lindmeier said that as far as he knew a briefing before the WHA was not planned, but WHO was working on having the DG-elect brief the press as soon as possible.

Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), announced that the WMO’s Executive Council would open its annual meeting on 10 May.  The main focus would be on how to improve weather and climate services.  Ms. Nullis said that the organization was seeing more extreme weather, partly as a result of climate change's bigger impact, so a key focus of its work would be to try and shift to more impact-based weather forecasting.

Ms. Nullis mentioned an example of extreme and unusual weather: at the moment, there was a tropical cyclone (Donna) in the South Pacific.  It was the first category 5 (strongest category) hurricane that WMO had seen in May since records had begun.  It highlighted the unusual weather patterns that WMO was starting to see more and more of, which was why it would be the focus of the Executive Council.

One of the priorities of WMO was also polar and high-mountain activities, again, because of the impact of climate change, but also because those were parts of the world where WMO did not have enough weather observations.  The Organization was going to launch a major initiative called the Year of Polar Predictions, to be kicked off on 15 May with a press conference at the Palais des Nations at 11 a.m.  The speakers would include Thomas Jung, Chair of the Polar Prediction Project steering committee, and professor at the Alfred Wegener Helmholtz-Centre for Polar and Marine Research; Celeste Saolo, Head of Argentina’s national meteorological service (Antarctic); and Paolo Ruti, Chief of WMO’s World Weather Research Programme.  More details would be shared shortly and a press pack would be sent out on 11 or 12 May. 

Catherine Huissoud, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), announced a press briefing on 10 May at 3 p.m. in Press Room 1, on trade- related aspects of fisheries, ahead of the Ocean Conference to take place on 5-7 June 2017 in New York.  Fish and derived products made for a global export market of around USD 150 billion.  UNCTAD was very much involved in the preparation work for the conference, on fishing subsidies, access to markets for Small Island Developing States and the Least Developed Countries, and ways of stopping illegal fishing, which distorted markets.  The speakers would be Lucas Assunçao, Head of the Trade, Environment, Climate Change and Sustainable Development Branch in the UNCTAD Trade Division, and David Vivas, Legal Affairs Officer in the same branch, in charge of the preparatory work for the conference.

Ms. Vellucci reminded journalists that the UN in Geneva was hosting the first of six informal thematic sessions of the General Assembly supporting the inter-governmental process designed to lead to the adoption in 2018 of a global compact on safe, orderly and regular migration.

Member States had committed to developing this compact when they had adopted the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants last year.

This first thematic session, entitled "Human rights of all migrants, social inclusion, cohesion and all forms of discrimination, including racism, xenophobia and intolerance", had opened on 8 May at the Palais des Nations, under the co-facilitation of Switzerland and Mexico.  The UN Secretary-General's Special Representative on International Migration, Louise Arbour, had said in her speech on 8 May in her capacity as Secretary-General of the intergovernmental conference, that it was incumbent on everybody to take the lead in enacting migration policies that would contribute to changing the negative perceptions of migration.  Migrants were not a burden, even less so a threat, she said; properly managed, migration stood to benefit all.  The session would close today, 9 May.

Ms. Vellucci said the Committee against Torture (CAT), would meet in private until the end of its 60th session planned for 12 May at 10 a.m.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) would also meet in private until the end of its 92nd session, on 12 May at 3 p.m.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog090517

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