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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

25 August 2017

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

Secretary-General

Ms. Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, announced that the Secretary-General would leave New York tonight for a trip that would take him to Kuwait, Israel, and the State of Palestine.

The Secretary-General would meet on Sunday with the Emir of Kuwait and other senior government officials.  In his meetings, the Secretary-General had planned to discuss the situation in the region, as well as thank Kuwait for its generosity for humanitarian causes.

Later on Sunday evening, the Secretary-General would travel to Israel and Palestine where he would meet with the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to discuss the prospects of reviving the peace process.  He would also engage with civil society and university leaders.

The Secretary-General would be back in New York on the evening of 30 August.

Yemen

Elizabeth Throssell, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, spoke about an airstrike by Coalition Forces that hit a hotel in the village of Bayt Al Athri, in Sana’a Governorate on Wednesday 23 August.

OHCHR was able to confirm that 33 civilians had been killed and another 25 injured in the attack.  The Istirahat Al Shahab hotel was located 10 to 15 metres from a checkpoint that was also hit.

Also on 23 August, an airstrike by Coalition Forces hit a house in Raimat Hameed village, in Sanhan district, killing six civilians and injuring another 13.  The house was located some 400 metres from a Houthi security checkpoint.

On 22 August, a woman and two children had been killed and two women and two children had been injured when an airstrike by the Saudi-led Coalition hit a house in Talan village, some 20 kilometres from the Yemen-Saudi border.

In all these cases, in which civilians were killed and injured, witnesses said that there had been no warnings that an attack was imminent.  Ms. Throssell recalled that attacks targeting civilians or civilian objects were prohibited under international humanitarian law, which also prohibited indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks.

OHCHR reminded all parties to the conflict, including the Coalition, of their duty to ensure full respect for international humanitarian law, and called on the relevant authorities to carry out credible, comprehensive and impartial investigations into this incident.

Ms. Throssell said that, in the week from 17 to 24 August, 58 civilians had been killed, including 42 by the Saudi-led Coalition. Unknown armed men had killed 12 civilians and the Popular Committees affiliated with the Houthis had killed four civilians.

This week’s total civilian casualties was more than the number of civilians killed in the whole of June, when 52 were killed and in July, which saw 57 civilian deaths.

Since March 2015, the UN Human Rights Office had documented 13,829 civilian casualties, including 5,110 killed and 8,719 injured. These numbers were based on the casualties individually verified by OHCRH’s Yemen Office. The overall number was probably much higher.

Answering a question by correspondents, Ms. Throssell said that the casualty figure she had provided related to civilian deaths.  OHCHR did not have information on casualties at the checkpoint which was hit before the attack on the hotel which she mentioned.  She stressed that the Houthi militia did not reveal that type of information.

Answering a question, Ms. Throssell confirmed that OHCHR had been able to pinpoint the deaths.  OHCHR had figures that were collated weekly and monthly.  Those figures spoke to 42 deaths by the coalition for the week from 17 to 24 August.

William Spindler, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that the hotel mentioned by OHCHR and which suffered an attack yesterday was a simple guest house used by farm workers.  Among the casualties were five internally displaced persons who were sheltering in the hotel and were believed to have fled hostilities in the northern governorate of Al Jawf.

Mr. Spindler reminded correspondents that the Yemen conflict was now in its third year and had resulted in close to 2 million displaced individuals.  UNHCR had provided some 64,000 IDPs with financial support across Yemen to help cover rental costs.  An effort to urgently help another 70,000 IDPs with rental support was under way.

As of the month of August, some 250,000 of the most vulnerable IDPs had been assisted by UNHCR with shelter and non-food items support this year.

Cambodia

Ms. Throssell then said that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was concerned by a rapid series of ministerial and administrative measures taken recently in Cambodia which had resulted in the suspension of radio programmes and licences, had threatened a main English-language newspaper with closure, and had shut down a foreign non-governmental organisation.  

Ahead of next year’s general election, OHCHR called on the Government to guarantee full political and civil rights, and media freedoms.

A foreign NGO, the National Democratic Institute, was shut down by ministerial order on 23 August 2017, in the first such closure brought under the 2015 Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations. Its international staff were ordered to leave the country within seven days. The organisation had been working on elections and with parties across the political spectrum.

OHCHR was worried about the overall deterioration of the environment for human rights defenders and civil society in Cambodia.

Also this week, the Government had revoked licences for some radio frequencies, thus blocking programmes aired by national independent human rights and media organisations, U.S.-funded stations Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, and the main opposition party.

One of the main independent English-language newspapers had been given until 4 September to pay an alleged USD 6.3 million of tax arrears, or be closed.

OHCHR called on the Royal Government of Cambodia to ensure due process in all measures taken, including the right to appeal, and to respect the rights to freedom of association and expression.

Guatemala

Ms. Throssell, reiterated the support of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala and of the Office of the Attorney General, echoing repeated expressions of support for the Attorney General by the Secretary-General.

For the UN Human Rights Office, the Commission was a crucial ally in the promotion of human rights and in the strengthening of the State’s efforts to ensure an independent and impartial justice system in the country.

Working with the Attorney General’s Office, the Commission had investigated and prosecuted criminal organisations that had infiltrated State institutions within all three branches of Government.

Ms. Throssell said that, in the current context in Guatemala, it was necessary to guarantee the protection of justice institutions and human rights defenders, especially those involved in the fight against corruption and impunity.

Myanmar

Answering a question on attacks in Rakhine State, Ms. Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, read out a statement by the Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Myanmar, Renata Lok-Dessallien, condemning in the strongest terms the series of coordinated attacks carried out against the Myanmar security forces in northern areas of Rakhine State in the early hours on 25 August. 

The Resident Coordinator called on all parties to refrain from violence, protect civilians, restore law and order and resolve issues through dialogue and peaceful means.

The grave events confirmed the significance of the government's commitment to implement the recommendations of the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State for the betterment of all communities.

The Resident Coordinator was deeply concerned about the security situation in Rakhine State, continued to follow the situation and remained in contact with authorities.

Syria immunization programmes

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization, said that routine immunization programmes restarted in North-West Syria, starting in the spring of 2017 with technical support and guidance from WHO.

As of August 2017 more than 35 centres in the areas of Idlib and Hama offered vaccinations against tuberculosis, measles, rubella, mumps, polio, hepatitis B, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and a special influenza type.

During the years of the crisis, basic vaccines were not always available and clinics and hospitals in some areas could not offer immunization or were even destroyed. During the crisis, WHO’s field office in Gaziantep, Turkey, had worked with UNICEF to do short term vaccination campaigns that lasted several weeks, with vaccination teams fanning out to reach children in remote areas of Northern Syria.

However on-going outbreaks in Syria indicated low vaccine coverage and WHO had worked with local NGOs and local clinics to re-establish centres. In July 2017 alone, thanks to the immunization work at these centres, more than 20,000 children the North-East area were vaccinated with the pentavalent vaccine which protects against hepatitis B, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and the Haemophilus influenza type B.

WHO partners planned to re-establish routine vaccination programmes in dozens more centres in North West by the end of 2017.

Answering questions, Mr. Lindmeier explained that records of immunization had been lost in many cases, with people being displaced; it was very difficult to obtain figures on the number of children who might have died or been sick as a result of low immunization. He also said that, before the war, the level of immunization had been above 95%, but that it was difficult to ascertain the level today.  Ongoing outbreaks of polio and measles were indicators that the vaccination level was too low in Syria.

Answering another question, Mr. Lindmeier said that WHO provided supplies to partners on the ground such as NGOs as well as hospitals or health centres, which in turn negotiated with authorities which, in the areas concerned, would be opposition groups.

On immunization, Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), added that the second round of polio vaccination in Deir ez-Zor had started on 22 August.  On that first day, 14% of the total target had already been reached.

Tropical cyclones

Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization, said that typhoon Hato had made landfall in the Pearl river delta.  It had caused huge devastation, particularly in Macao, and had caused a lot of economic damage in Hong Kong. Loss of life had been relatively limited, as the figures were about 8 deaths in Macao and another 8 in Southern China, but those preliminary figures didn’t do justice to the extent of the damage caused.

In the Atlantic, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had recently updated its hurricane outlook, saying that they were expecting the rest of the season to be more active than usual, as this would be the most active season since 2010.

Hurricane Harvey had formed and was rapidly intensifying. It was projected to be the first major hurricane (category 3 or above) to make landfall in Texas since 2008.  Life threatening storm surge flooding could reach heights of 1.8 to 5.6 meters above ground levels.

On the brighter side, the US National Weather Services was probably one of the most advanced in the world in warning about the threat of storm surge. In 2017, for the first time this year, they had started issuing storm surge warning and allowed people at a fairly localized level to see what the risks to their communities were.

WMO strongly welcomed and supported these efforts and hoped that this type of initiative would be spread to other areas in the upcoming years.

Geneva Activities and Announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the Conference on Disarmament would be holding a public meeting this morning.  It was also expected to hold a public meeting next Tuesday at 10 a.m.

Ms. Vellucci reminded correspondents that the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was closing its work today.  Concluding observations would be issued on the reports submitted during the session by Kuwait, the Russian Federation, the United Arab Emirates, Ecuador, Djibouti, Tadjikistan, Canada and New Zealand.

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities would be meeting today for a day of discussion on article 5 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  The remaining meetings for the ongoing session of the Committee, which ends on 31 August, would be held in private. 

The Committee was scheduled to hold a press conference on 31 August at 12:30 to present its concluding observations on Latvia, Luxemburg, Montenegro, Morocco, Panama, and the United Kingdom.

Ms. Vellucci also announced that on Thursday 31 August, at 10 a.m., there would be a press conference by the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) on the launch of the Cluster Munition Monitor 2017 Report.  Speaking would be the UNIDIR Director Jarmo Sareva, as well representatives of NGOs and other partners.

At 2:00 p.m. on the same day, Ms. Catherine Marchi-Uhel, the Head of the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism on international crimes committed in Syria would be giving a press conference. 

Answering a question on the nature of the Mechanism, Ms. Vellucci explained that it had been established by the General Assembly to assist in investigating and prosecuting international crimes committed in Syria.  This Mechanism was based in Geneva and would cooperate with existing bodies dealing with the situation in Syria.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog250817