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15 December 2017

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons and representatives for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Iraq: mass executions

Elizabeth Throssell, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was deeply shocked and appalled at the mass execution on 14 December of 38 men at a prison in the southern Iraqi city of Nassiriya, Iraq, which once again raised huge concerns about the use of the death penalty in the country. The 38 prisoners had been convicted for terrorism-related crimes.

Given the flaws of the Iraqi justice system, it appeared extremely doubtful that strict due process and fair trial guarantees had been followed in the 38 cases and thus raised the prospect of irreversible miscarriages of justice and violations of the right to life.

So far in 2017, OHCHR had received information on 106 executions in Iraq, including the mass hanging of 42 prisoners on a single day in September. OHCHR once again urged the Iraqi authorities to halt all executions, establish an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty and carry out an urgent, comprehensive review of the criminal justice system.

In response to questions from journalists, Ms. Throssell said that despite repeated requests from OHCHR, the Iraqi authorities had not been forthcoming with information about prisoners, including those on death row. It was likely that 106 executions had taken place thus far in 2017, but not all of them had been confirmed by the Iraqi Ministry of Justice. In 2016, the Ministry of Justice had referred to 88 executions, but according to the sources and tallies of OHCHR, there had likely been as many as 116 that year. As for the most recent known mass execution, the only information available was that the 42 prisoners executed had been male and that they had been convicted on terrorism-related charges. OHCHR had repeatedly called for the Iraqi authorities to establish a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. Under international human rights law, the death penalty could be applied only for the most heinous crimes. It was not clear with what exact crimes the men executed had been charged, but they did not appear to meet the strict threshold for application of the death penalty.

Iraq: shelling of the city of Tuz Khurmatu

Elizabeth Throssell, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was seriously concerned about the situation in the city of Tuz Khurmatu, in Salah al-Din Governorate, Iraq, where, on 9 and 12 December, residential areas had reportedly been shelled, causing civilian casualties. Iraqi forces were still working to discover the exact locations from which the shelling had come and the identity of those responsible.

Tensions had been increasing in Tuz Khurmatu following September’s independence referendum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and in disputed areas, which included Tuz Khurmatu. In recent weeks, clashes had broken out between Kurdish Security Forces – also known as the Peshmerga - and Turkmen Popular Mobilization Units or PMUs. This fighting had to date resulted in an unconfirmed number of deaths in both groups.

United Nations human rights officers had visited the area on 7 December and again on 14 December to investigate reports of the burning of homes and looting of businesses. They had spoken to residents of Tuz Khurmatu in Kirkuk and Erbil who had fled the violence and had also seen for themselves some 150 premises in Tuz Khurmatu that had been burned or otherwise damaged. That had followed reports that, on 16 and 17 October, a similar number of houses were looted and burned by Turkmen PMUs and civilians, and that up to 11 houses reportedly belonging to Kurdish families and officials had been destroyed by explosives in the city. Thousands of residents, mainly of Kurdish origin, had left for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, apparently fearing repercussions, and to date many had not returned.

Iraqi Government forces, supported by Popular Mobilization units were in control of Tuz Khurmatu. The city’s population was a mix of Turkoman, Kurd and Arab communities and there was a serious risk, given the ethnic and religious fault lines in the area, that violence could escalate and spread.

OHCHR urged the end of all acts that threatened the fundamental rights of the Tuz Khurmatu population. It also called on the Iraqi authorities to ensure that civilians there were protected and that those responsible for human rights abuses brought to justice.

El Salvador

Elizabeth Throssell, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that on 12 December, the Second Appeal Court of San Salvador had upheld a 30-year prison sentence against a woman, Teodora Vásquez, for aggravated homicide – a charge commonly used to prosecute women suspected of deliberately terminating their pregnancy.

Ms. Vásquez was one of four women whom the High Commissioner had met in the Ilopango women’s rehabilitation centre during his recent mission to El Salvador. All four women claimed to have suffered miscarriages or other obstetric emergencies. Ms. Vásquez had said that she had been in the ninth month of her pregnancy when she had suffered intense pain and called the emergency services before passing out. She had awoken to find that her baby had been stillborn. She had been accused of deliberately ending her pregnancy and had been sentenced to 30 years in prison in January 2008.

El Salvador had one of the most draconian abortion laws in the world, completely prohibiting access to abortion regardless of the circumstances, including if a woman’s life was at risk or if she had suffered sexual violence. Article 133 of the country’s Penal Code provided for prison terms of 2 to 8 years for those who procured or carried out abortions. And, similarly to Ms. Vásquez, at least 41 other women had been convicted of attempted or aggravated homicide under the Penal Code after suffering miscarriages or other complications since 1988. It was important to highlight, as the High Commissioner had done, that the Penal Code of El Salvador disproportionately affected women living in poverty, such as Ms. Vásquez. Women from wealthier backgrounds did not appear to be jailed under similar circumstances in El Salvador.

OHCHR reiterated the call made by the High Commissioner during his official visit for El Salvador to place a moratorium on the application of article 133 and to review all cases where women had been detained for abortion-related offences. If it was found that these cases were not compliant with international standards, the women should be immediately released. OHCHR also called on El Salvador to comply with its international human rights obligations and to lift the absolute prohibition on abortion as reiterated by United Nations human rights mechanisms.

In response to questions from journalists, Ms. Throssell said that one of the concerns regarding the abortion laws in El Salvador was that medical personnel were obliged to report incidents involving suspected abortions. Ms. Vásquez was appealing her sentence for aggravated homicide with the help of NGOs. It was appalling that women who had miscarried or whose baby had been stillborn could be convicted of carrying out an abortion, and deplorable that such policies disproportionately affected women living in poverty. The High Commissioner, who had been moved by his conversations with such women during his visit to the Ilopango detention centre, had also met with members of the Legislative Assembly, some of whom were trying to do away with the draconian abortion laws of El Salvador, even as others sought to impose higher sentences for abortion-related charges. Some 160 women had been charged with abortion-related crimes and more than 40 had been charged with carrying out or attempting to carry out aggravated homicide.


Responding to a request by the press for comments on the internal security law recently adopted in Mexico, Elizabeth Throssell, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR found it regrettable that the law had been passed. Rather than making the armed forces a formal part of internal security, Mexico should instead focus on building the capacity of its police forces.

International Migrants Day

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, drew attention to the message of the Secretary-General on the occasion of International Migrants Day, observed on 18 December, in which he recognized the contributions and celebrated the vitality of the world’s 258 million migrants and stressed the need for effective international cooperation in managing migration to ensure that its benefits were most widely distributed and that the human rights of all concerned were properly protected. He noted that in 2017 world leaders had committed to adopting a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in 2018 and he urged the international community to commit to making migration work for all.

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that Ambassador William Lacy Swing, Director General of IOM, was making an urgent call for “safe migration for a world on the move” in the lead-up to International Migrants Day. IOM would mark the occasion with a series of worldwide events, including a Geneva award ceremony for the Global Migration Film Festival. The Festival, in its second year, included many partners participating with IOM missions in over 100 countries. Ms. Vellucci added that the award-winning ceremony on 18 December would be preceded by a Ciné ONU Geneva screening of the film Problemski Hotel, which had been organized together with IOM, at Cinémas Grütli in Geneva at 7 p.m.

Mr. Millman said that other highlights included a United Nations leadership debate; the New York opening, at UNICEF House, of the critically acclaimed art installation UNPACKED: Refugee Baggage; and the launching by IOM of a podcast series on the stories of migrants and refugees. The Director General would be in New York and available for media interviews on International Migrants Day.

Sarah Crowe, for the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), referring to a press release distributed ahead of International Migrants Day, said that 2017 had been a dire one for many migrant children. Some 400 children had drowned trying to reach Europe and many others faced a number of dangers, including deportation and detention. In addition, many unaccompanied children remained stranded on islands or trying to cross mountain passes in the freezing winter. Around 32,000 children, of whom 11,800 were unaccompanied, were currently being hosted in Libya, many of them in various forms of detention held by smugglers and traffickers.
But it did not have to be that way. UNICEF had been working to shape global compacts on migrants and refugees and show that migration did not have to be so fraught with danger. Solutions include ensuring safe and legal pathways, providing humanitarian and study visas and giving schooling to children as soon as possible during their journey. A host of other recommendations for the Global Compact for Migration, if adopted, could make 2018 a pivotal year for countries to invest in the well-being of migrant children.

Responding to questions from journalists, Ms. Vellucci said that International days in general were an opportunity for the United Nations to put the spotlight on a particular issue in the hopes of raising awareness and improving the situation. Mr. Millman added that the medium of film and the topic of migration had an extraordinary symbiosis and synergy that went back to the origins of the film industry. It had proven a unifying medium for a polyglot public and was powerful in changing perceptions.

Migrant deaths in the Mediterranean and worldwide

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that around 170,000 Mediterranean sea crossings had been recorded in 2017 thus far; the figure for the entire year would likely be under half of that for 2016, which had reached nearly 360,000. In Greece, 2017 was projected to have seen the lowest total number of sea migrants arriving irregularly in the last four years.

In the Middle East, three migrants had died in a vehicle accident on 4 December near Murchenkhort, in Isfahan, Iran. Additionally, according to the cumulative data of deaths confirmed between 1 January and 4 December 2017 on the Iran-Afghanistan border, around 100 Afghan migrants had died in vehicle accidents at various locations in 2017.

On the Mexico-United States border, at least 14 migrants had died of hypothermia owing to extremely low temperatures in the past two weeks; the majority had died on the Texan side of the border. In addition, the remains of 13 different migrants had also been discovered since the beginning of December; those individuals had also reportedly died from the cold. The total number of deaths on the Texan side of the border in 2017 was 356 so far.

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Millman said that IOM had repatriated some 16,000 persons from Libya in 2016, compared to just 3,000 in 2016, in part demonstrating the effectiveness of agreements such as that adopted recently in Addis Ababa. It was difficult to say whether the drastic decrease in the number of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean necessarily meant that their life conditions were better now. Furthermore, those migrants who returned to their places of origin were often filled with bitterness and anger, not to mention shame at having ultimately failed in their endeavour and indebting their families in the process. Overall, things were getting better but the current situation was still not satisfactory.

Asked about recommendations for successfully managing migration, Mr. Millman said that migration should be legal, or “regular”, safe and secure for all, including transit, sender and receiver countries. Transparency was the desired norm. No one should have to engage in illegal – or worse, terrorist-affiliated – operations in order to migrant. It should, moreover, be in countries’ interest to make migration easier, since failing to do so resulted in underground groups managing migration in their stead. In addition, it had been found that migrants who irregularly entered countries where barriers were high were all the more reluctant to leave, which in turn caused increased discontent among the people legally residing in such countries.

South Sudan

Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that in South Sudan, childhood was “under attack” as the country entered its fifth year of fighting. The situation affected more than half the child population, which was victim to malnutrition, disease, forced recruitment, violence and loss of schooling. Specifically, more than one million children were acutely malnourished; of those, a quarter of a million were at risk of dying from severe acute malnutrition. In addition to massive displacement, one of the main reasons for such dire circumstances was hyperinflation, with some staple foods; such as sorghum, now costing nearly 25 times more than they had in 2015.

More than 2,300 children had been killed or injured since the conflict had first erupted in December 2013, with hundreds of incidents of rape and sexual assault against children having been reported. In total, more than 117,000 children had been affected in reported incidents of grave violations against children. It was important to bear in mind that those were documented figures and that the actual numbers were feared to be far greater.

More than 19,000 children had been recruited in the ranks of armed forces and armed groups. While progress had been made in 2015, when UNICF had overseen the release of 1,775 children, recruitment had since resumed.

Lack of schooling and health-related risks were also major concerns. Specifically, the lack of adequate health, water and sanitation services provided fertile ground for the spread of diseases such as malaria, pneumonia and cholera.

Because of fighting and displacement, since the beginning of the crisis, over 16,000 unaccompanied separated and missing children had been registered for family tracing services. An estimated 900,000 children suffered from psychosocial distress.

The lifesaving assistance offered by UNICEF and partners to children across the country since December 2013 had been provided in a difficult context. South Sudan ranked among the world’s most dangerous for aid workers. Since the conflict had started in 2013, 95 aid workers had been killed, including 25 in 2017 so far. New funding would prove essential to provide critical assistance to children and women. In 2018, UNICEF would require USD 183 million and currently had a funding gap of 77 per cent (or USD 141 million).

Responding to questions, Mr. Boulierac said that access indeed continued to be a major problem for all humanitarian actors on the ground.

Sudanese refugees returning from the Central African Republic

Babar Baloch, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that during the current week, UNHCR had started the voluntary repatriation of Sudanese refugees from a camp in Bambari, Central African Republic. More than 230 refugees had arrived at Nyala airport in the Sudan since the returns had begun on Tuesday, 12 December. Sixty-six UNHCR chartered flights were scheduled to bring some 1,500 refugees home before the end of the year.

Nearly 3,500 refugees had fled from South Darfur to the Central African Republic in 2007 during the conflict between the Sudanese forces and armed groups. Refugees were being hosted in Pladama Ouaka camp, near Bambari. In late November, refugees had expressed their intention to return. The decision came after improvement in the security situation and the disarmament of armed groups in the areas of origin. Returning refugees were currently being hosted in a transit centre in the capital of South Darfur State and would subsequently be returning to their home villages in Dafag, South Darfur – located some 350 kilometres from Nyala.

UNHCR was working with the Governments of the Sudan and the Central African Republic in assisting the returnees with air and land transportation and return packages. Returning refugees would also have access to land. UNHCR was working with government authorities and other partners to enhance service provision in the return area. The Sudan had pledged to implement international standards governing refugee returns, including the benefit of amnesties, as well as the role of UNHCR role in monitoring the returns.

The war in the Darfur region of the Sudan had broken out in February 2003, when rebel groups had begun fighting the Government of the Sudan. The ensuing conflict had killed tens of thousands and displaced millions of people within the Sudan and over its borders.

The Darfur region had witnessed a growing trend of refugees and internally displaced persons returning spontaneously in the past few years. That was in part due to gradual security improvements, as a result of signed peace agreements between the governments of some armed groups, and the efforts of the peacekeeping mission led by the United Nations. Many areas had also become more conducive for displaced people to return owing to a growing number of early recovery and development initiatives.

Around two million people were currently displaced inside the country, while more than 650,000 Sudanese refugees lived in the neighbouring countries, including Chad and South Sudan.

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Baloch said that there were still large numbers of displaced persons in the Sudan, the majority of whom lived in 60 camps for internally displaced persons in Darfur. The airlift was bringing home some 1,500 individuals who had shown a willingness to return to their place of origin. UNHCR had been conducting visits of those places, which had been assessed as safe for the group of refugees that had recently been repatriated. That said, their return would not be without challenges, given that their homes were in remote locations with no infrastructure. UNHCR planned to work with the Sudanese Government and other agencies to improve services and would more generally be monitoring the situation of those returning to their homes.


Babar Baloch, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR was bracing for further displacement and a spike in humanitarian needs as hostilities intensify in frontline areas on Yemen’s west coast. That followed the recent fighting in the capital, Sana’a, and neighbouring governorates.

Over the past few days, UNHCR had received reports of new displacement from Hudaydah and Taizz governorates. UNHCR and partners were still assessing the situation, but initial reports were that more than 1,400 people had fled from Taizz and Hudaydah to the Ash Shamateen district in Southern Taizz, and Al Fayoosh district in Lahj. With numbers expected to rise further, UNHCR was working with partners to be in a position to support and help those fleeing.

To date UNHCR had deployed emergency relief items for 2,000 families in Hudaydah, and a further 2,000 aid kits were on their way along with 2,000 emergency shelter kits. As the port of Hudaydah remained closed, an additional 43 containers with emergency, shelter and household aid, including plastic tarpaulins and blankets for more than 20,000 families, had had to be diverted to Aden.

Of particular concern to UNHCR was the fate of 1,460 Eritrean refugees and Yemeni civilians in the Al Khawkah area, 117 kilometres south of Al Hudaydah City. The area had been declared a military zone. OHCHR was arranging for emergency cash assistance to be sent to that vulnerable community, which was facing difficulties in accessing food owing to the hostilities.

The situation in Sana’a itself had returned to relative calm following days of ground fighting, aerial bombardment and shelling in urban areas. As of the current week, UNHCR premises in Sana'a had reopened and OHCHR was working with partners to resume humanitarian operations that had been halted since the beginning of the month. UNHCR was also restoring services and resuming assistance for the most vulnerable.

The blockade of Yemen, which had yet to be fully eased, had also resulted in scarcities and subsequent price increases for fuel, water and essential commodities, including food and vital medicines. The situation was affecting many displaced and local Yemenis as well as refugees. Restrictions on both commercial and humanitarian goods reaching Yemen were still in place. New procedures for clearances including at Aden Port were also resulting in delays for the offloading of cargo, including humanitarian cargo. Vessels were facing delays and, as result of these new clearance processes, there was currently no more space at the port. UNHCR had asked the authorities to expedite clearances for humanitarian cargo, especially perishable goods such as medicines.

Assistance and services for conflict-affected and displaced communities across Yemen had also been interrupted. The UNHCR financial assistance programme, which was intended to benefit more than 17,000 vulnerable displaced families with winter assistance grants, had been postponed for the time being owing to delays in funds being released from financial service providers and families themselves struggling to access financial assistance.

For Somali refugees hoping to escape Yemen and return to Somalia, through an Assisted Spontaneous Return programme supported by UNHCR and IOM, three boat departures from the Port of Aden to Berbera in Somalia had been postponed in the past fortnight as clearances from relevant authorities were pending. A fourth vessel, chartered as part of the programme, had finally been able to set sail with 108 Somali refugees on board.


Babar Baloch, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that nearly four months into the Rohingya refugee crisis, UNHCR was increasingly worried about the deterioration of the overall protection environment in which refugees were living.

On 17 December, UNHCR would start distributing some 200,000 items of clothing to help recently arrived Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh prepare for cooler temperatures in the weeks and months ahead. The distribution would comprise 170,000 warm shawls for adults and 15,000 sweaters for children under two years, worth USD 1.5 million. The lack of adequate clothing and shelter insulation made refugees vulnerable to even modest declines in temperatures, especially at night. Children, who accounted for 55 per cent of the Rohingya refugee population, were particularly vulnerable. So were the women, and they represented more than half of all refugees in Bangladesh. An estimated ten percent were disabled, had serious medical conditions or were older persons at risk.

UNHCR had been working to bolster the quality of shelters in the camps by supplying higher quality materials as well as expanding technical support for construction and drainage. In the past month, the agency had distributed over 15,000 new shelter kits, one third of the 45,000 targeted in the second phase of its shelter strategy. UNHCR had also distributed more than 40,000 core relief items over the past 30 days alone. A similar number would be provided by the end of the year.

Another two massive airlifts had arrived in Bangladesh in the past week, carrying 26,500 kitchen sets, some 15,000 solar lamps and 5 pre-fabricated warehouses. Since the beginning of the crisis, UNHCR had organised 17 airlifts, bring more than 2,100 metric tons of aid relief items, worth over USD 9 million. Additional aid had been shipped by sea in three separate consignments.

Meanwhile, in the immediate response to a reported diphtheria outbreak in Cox’s Bazar, UNHCR had turned part of its Transit Centre in Kutupalong into a treatment and isolation facility. The Centre currently was accommodating 375 patients managed by Médecins Sans Frontières.

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Baloch said that “protection risks” referred to a number of concerns that applied to any situation in which hundreds of thousands of people were living in overcrowded conditions.

Geneva Events and Announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, responding to concerns raised by the press in relation to an exclusive interview given by Staffan de Mistura, Special Envoy for Syria, to RTS, said that the concerns would be transmitted to the Office of the Special Envoy. She added that the logistical arrangements for journalists covering the arrivals and departures of delegations to the 8th Intra-Syrian talks at the Palais des Nations had not been ideal in the cold weather; efforts would be made to provide better protection from the elements in future.

Ms. Vellucci informed the journalists that no press briefings were planned between 26 December 2017 and 4 January 2018, but UNIS colleagues would be available to answer queries from the press.

Press conferences

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, announced that at 12 p.m., on 19 December, in room III, a press conference would be held by the World Tourism Organization on the occasion of the closing ceremony for the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. The Secretary General of the UN World Tourism Organization would be speaking on the designation of 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development and the way forward for reinforcing the contribution of tourism to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Ms. Vellucci also announced that the Internet Governance Forum would take place from Monday, 18 December, to Thursday, 21 December, in 12 different rooms at the Palais des Nations. There would also be a Day Zero, to be held at the CICG. Press points would be held on a daily basis, during which experts on major digital issues would be available. A final press conference would also be held. In addition, all the meetings would be webcast.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog151217

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