Where global solutions are shaped for you | News & Media | REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

ACCESSIBILITY AT UNOG A A A A The United Nations in the Heart of Europe

REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

21 May 2019

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

Syria

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, referring to a statement made by the spokesperson for the Secretary-General the previous day, said that the UN continued to be extremely alarmed by the dangerous intensification of violence in the de-escalation area of north-western Syria and condemned attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. Attacks that had damaged or destroyed medical facilities inside the de-escalation area were especially alarming. There had been repeated calls for the parties to respect international humanitarian law and to recommit fully to the ceasefire arrangements agreed between the Russian Federation and Turkey last September.

Marta Hurtado, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), gave the following statement:

“The UN Human Rights Office is extremely worried about the military escalation in north-western Syria, despite the announcement of a recent 72-hour ceasefire. There has been some reduction in violence, but airstrikes and ground-based attacks continue to take place in various parts of Idlib and Hama governorates. The situation remains volatile and the possibility of renewed clashes is high, worsening the prospects for some 3 million civilians caught in the crossfire.

Both pro-Government forces and non-State armed groups fighting in northern Syria appear to have failed to respect the principles of distinction and proportionality under international humanitarian law, resulting in a high number of civilian casualties and injuries and significant damage to civilian objects, according to information recorded by the UN Human Rights Office.

Military objects have been placed in close proximity to civilians and civilian objects, resulting in civilian deaths and injuries, and causing significant damage to civilian infrastructure such as hospitals, mosques, schools and markets.

Non-State armed groups have launched ground-based attacks on areas under the control of Government forces and hit residential neighbourhoods and refugee settlements in Hama governorate and Aleppo city.

From 8 to 16 May, multiple attacks by pro-Government forces were registered, resulting in at least 56 civilians killed - including many women and children - and severe damage to five schools and one hospital. In the same period, attacks by non-State armed groups were reported, causing at least 17 civilian deaths, mainly women and children.

Since this latest military escalation started at the end of April, at least 105 civilians have been killed, and at least 200,000 people have fled the hostilities in southern Idlib and northern Hama.

In addition, the Office is also worried about the fate of people in al-Hol camp in al-Hassakeh Governorate in the northeast of the country. Currently, the camp hosts more than 70,000 people living in dire conditions.

The approximately 2,500 children under 12, born to ISIL-affiliated fathers are being kept with their mothers. Meanwhile, children older than 12 have reportedly been taken away from their mothers and are being held in separate unidentified “settlements”. Other reports suggest that Kurdish authorities are detaining those children in secret detention facilities in al-Hassakeh. Reportedly, they are neither allowed to communicate with their families nor have the families been informed about their whereabouts or status.

While the temporary restrictions of movement imposed on civilians at al-Hol and in other camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) run by the Kurdish authorities may be part of a screening and vetting process, the Office is concerned about the lack of clarity regarding how long these restrictions will last.

While any agreement to halt hostilities and spare civilians is to be welcomed and encouraged, this ceasefire agreement does not exclude that a large-scale offensive by Government forces and their allies aimed at re-taking territories in Idlib Governorate and surrounding areas remains possible in the near future.

Parties to the conflict are obliged to do everything feasible not to put civilians in harm’s way.

The forced removal of civilians for reasons related to the conflict may be done so only in order to guarantee their own security or due to military necessity and for no other reason. The failure of civilians to respond to an order to evacuate an area in no way affects their protected status under international humanitarian law.”

Replying to questions from journalists, Ms. Hurtado said that the Kurdish authorities were separating children over age 12 from their families out of concern that they might become fighters for the Islamic State. There was little information about the conditions in which they were being held because their Office had no access; what information the Office did receive came from a network of reliable sources it had been collaborating with since the start of the conflict.

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, speaking on behalf of the Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria, made the following statement:

“Special Envoy, Geir O. Pedersen is in Amman for consultations with the Jordanian Government. He just concluded a meeting with Foreign Minister Safadi. He appreciates Jordan’s support for the efforts of the UN to facilitate a political process based on Security Council resolution 2254, and its hospitality for Syrian refugees.

Yesterday the Special Envoy met Syrian refugees in Mafraq and Zaatari camps in Jordan; he listened to their life stories, speaking with women, men and children about their personal journey throughout this horrific conflict, detailing the obstacles they have had to overcome, the grievances to be redressed, and their aspirations for a dignified future. He recognizes and appreciates the tremendous effort made by UNHCR, other UN agencies, and the Jordanian government for their continued support to the Syrian refugees there.”

In response to a journalist, Ms. Vellucci said that no date had been set for the talks between the Special Envoy and the Astana guarantors.

Marta Hurtado, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), also gave the following statement on Syria:

Ten months after “reconciliation” agreements were implemented in Dar’a Governorate in the southwest of Syria, the UN Human Rights Office has received a number of worrying reports of human rights violations and abuses by State and non-State actors, including executions, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, looting and seizure of property. Access to adequate housing, water, education and other basic needs also remains difficult for many.

The reconciliation agreements emerged in July 2018, when Syrian Government Forces took control of Dar’a Governorate from armed non-State groups. As part of the reconciliation agreement between the Government and some armed non-State groups, the Government re-established its civilian authority across the whole province, but some of the armed groups continued to retain effective military control over parts of the Governorate. Following the reconciliation agreements, most people who had been displaced by the conflict returned to their places of origin in Dar’a Governorate.

We have raised our concerns that the deals may not have been in full conformity with international law and that civilians did not have access to information on the terms of the deal prior to decisions being taken about them.

We have received reports that between 26 July 2018 and 31 March 2019, a number of former members of the armed groups and civilians who took up positions in Government entities including in civilian local councils or military or security forces have been killed in what appears to have been targeted killings. We have been able to document 11 such incidents.

During the same period, we have received reports that at least 380 people were arrested or detained. In many cases, the reasons for such arrests remain unclear, and little or no information is given to the families of the detainees about their whereabouts and status. In some incidents, the arrests were reportedly on suspicion of “terrorism”. Out of the 380, some 150 were released after a few days in detention, but at least 230 have been subjected to enforced disappearances. Of those detained, 17 were arrested at checkpoints set up by the Government on the outskirts of areas under their control as they were on Government “wanted lists”. In one case, two detainees died in Government custody after a few days’ detention in March 2019 and their families were only officially notified of their deaths, with no information on why or how they died. Their families did not receive their corpses. Many families in Dar’a continue to have limited or no information about their missing or detained relatives.

Explosive remnants of war have been left behind by various parties to the conflict. Civilians, particularly children, continue to be killed or seriously injured by such explosives, despite the demining activities. We have recorded at least 12 such incidents.

The UN Human Rights Office has also confirmed reports that some non-State actors have carried out the looting and seizure of houses belonging to Shi’ite Muslims after forcibly evicting them in Busra al-Sham.

Many civilians have also not been able to return to their homes due to the extent of destruction, damage or looting.

Little improvement has been achieved in rehabilitation of infrastructure in the Governorate. Electricity and water supplies remain unreliable and poorly distributed due to the Government’s lack of capacity and finance as a result of a severe and long armed conflict.

The Government should take all necessary steps to enhance and respect the protection of the human rights of all people in areas under its control and ensure and facilitate non-discriminatory access by civilians to essential life-sustaining services including adequate housing, clean water, medical and education services.

The authorities should ensure that arrests of individuals in connection with the ongoing armed conflict or criminal charges against them are carried out according to law and supported by credible and sufficient evidence. The Government needs to ensure full respect for due process and fair trial rights of all people detained, and that the identity, location, status and condition of all those held in its custody are disclosed.”

Replying to a journalist, Ms. Hurtado said that there was no information about the arrest and detention of the 150 individuals who had been released beyond the fact that they had been specifically targeted, possibly on the suspicion that they were former fighters or collaborated with opposition groups.

Deaths of migrant children in the United States of America

In response to a journalist, Marta Hurtado, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the Office had confirmed reports that a fourth migrant child had died while in the custody of US border officials. It was unclear why the boy had remained in their custody for more than a week, but it was known that he had been diagnosed with the flu and had not been taken to hospital. As in the other cases, the Office continued to call for independent investigations into the deaths of children and an end to the detention of migrants, and recalled that all migrant children had a right to family and to health. The investigations launched with regard to the other three cases had not been suitably thorough.

Yemen

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, referring to a statement made by the spokesperson for the Secretary-General the previous day, said that the Secretary-General was following with great concern recent incidents and hardening rhetoric in Yemen, but was encouraged by the firm commitment reiterated by President Hadi and his Government to implement the Hudaydah Agreement. He reminded all parties of their commitments to take further steps to achieve full implementation, together with the Chair of the Redeployment Coordination Committee and the UN Mission to Support the Hudaydah Agreement, so as not to lose momentum. The Secretary-General urged the Yemeni parties to work with his Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, to make further progress in the implementation of the Stockholm Agreement. The Special Envoy was committed to working with the Yemenis to find a lasting and negotiated settlement to end the conflict and meet the legitimate aspirations of the Yemeni people.

Hervé Verhoosel, for the World Food Programme (WFP), gave the following statement:

“WFP is highlighting an urgent need for 3 things in Yemen: operational independence, access to the hungry and vulnerable and the roll out of a biometric registration programme.

WFP uncovered systematic diversion of food aid in Yemen in December 2018 especially in areas under the control of Houthi authorities. In response, WFP wrote to the Houthi leadership in Yemen and outlined the steps required to ensure that the food assistance operation in the country met minimum international standards.

As part of this WFP sought permission from the authorities for an exercise allowing for the independent selection of beneficiaries and roll out of a biometric registration system that would allow WFP to identify and target the most hungry.

Between the end of December 2018 and March 2019, WFP noted and welcomed progress on this issue, but since March this year, cooperation has stalled and in some cases the initial progress has been reversed.

In early May of this year, WFP’s Executive Director wrote again to the Houthi leadership, outlining his concern at the lack of progress and stating that unless a positive response was received, WFP would have to consider a phased suspension of operations in areas of Yemen under Houthi control.

This letter was hand-delivered to Houthi leaders in Yemen by WFP’s Deputy Executive Director earlier this month.

WFP sincerely hopes that it can reach agreement with the authorities in Houthi areas of Yemen to avoid any suspension as the needs of the 12 million Yemenis who depend on our assistance are paramount.

This will require the cooperation of those leaders on the ground who have the authority to take the necessary steps that will allow WFP to operate to global humanitarian standards of neutrality and free from outside interference.

WFP will, at all times, do its utmost to ensure that children and the most vulnerable do not suffer as a result of this action.

Both the UN Secretary General and U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator are aware of WFP’s position and have offered their full support.”

Providing an update on the Red Sea mills, Hervé Verhoosel, for the World Food Programme (WFP), made the following statement:

“The technical team at the Red Sea Mills in Hudaydah are making good progress. The treatment of the wheat has commenced and will continue until early June. As long as operations are able to proceed unimpeded, we hope in the near future we will be able to start milling the wheat and then begin transporting it to the people who need it most.

WFP lost access to the Red Sea Mills in September 2018. We need continued, sustained safe passage to the Red Sea Mills, which are close to a volatile frontline, in order to complete this process efficiently and get this vital wheat to Yemen’s most food insecure communities.”

Providing an update on detained WFP trucks, Hervé Verhoosel, for the World Food Programme (WFP), gave the following statement:

“During April, 160 trucks carrying humanitarian assistance were detained at different checkpoints between Internationally Recognized Government (IRG) and de-facto authorities controlled areas, the majority in Ibb governorate.

Today, 87 of these WFP-contracted trucks, carrying WFP food and also agricultural supplies for FAO remain in custody across different security and customs checkpoints across Ibb and Bayda governorates.

These trucks are carrying wheat flour, vegetable oil and pulses from Aden to the North. WFP is continuing to liaise with the authorities for their release.”

Marta Hurtado, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that 7,169 civilians had been killed and 11,392 injured between March 2015 and 2 May 2019.

Replying to questions from journalists, Mr. Verhoosel said that it was not clear exactly how much food aid had been diverted, but that 9 million of the 12 million people WFP aimed to feed in Yemen, were in Houthi-controlled areas, where most of the diversions had taken place. The diversions of aid had to stop, and the civilian population should be everyone’s prime concern. Food was arriving in the country; what was required now was access, operational independence and a biometric registration programme. There was still hope that a solution would be found before WFP suspended food distribution, but, in any event, any suspension would be gradual. WFP had yet to be able to begin biometric registration in Houthi-controlled areas. Yet such registration was the only way to ensure that the people who received food aid were those who had been identified by WFP and other humanitarian partners as being particularly vulnerable. Some 90 per cent of food was imported and 70 per cent of imports arrived via Hudaydah port; therefore, WFP would ensure that the use of the port was maintained in any future agreements.

Guatemala

Marta Hurtado for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), made the following statement:

“A report published today by the UN Human Rights Office highlights the large number of attacks against human rights defenders in Guatemala, including 39 killings in the two years spanning 2017 and 2018. An alarming 884 attacks against human rights defenders were recorded during this period. Human rights defenders in Guatemala face not only physical attacks, but also threats, intimidation, surveillance, stigmatization, and gender-based and sexual violence. One worrying pattern is the misuse of criminal law to silence them, which especially affects defenders of rights to lands, territories and natural resources.

The report highlights the particular risks faced by indigenous peoples, women defenders, LGBTI defenders, journalists, judges and lawyers and defenders of victims of the internal armed conflict in Guatemala.

The report, prepared jointly with the National Human Rights Institution (Procuradoría de Derechos Humanos) is based on over 190 interviews with human rights defenders, State authorities and others, as well as monitoring missions around the country. It covers the period from January 2017 to April 2019.

The report found that human rights defenders in Guatemala have been facing extreme risks over the last few years, both from State and non-State actors. Eighty-six percent of the people interviewed said they had been attacked or threatened at least once during the reporting period.

The risks to human rights defenders’ safety and work are even more heightened in the current electoral context. We have documented reports of attacks against community and indigenous leaders targeted for their political engagement. This is another worrying trend as Guatemala is in a crucial electoral process and attacks on human rights defenders bring into question the credibility of the process. Three political candidates and two people with declared intentions to run for office have been killed since January 2019.

Impunity in relation to these crimes is persistent and rampant. Independent judges – including from High Courts - and prosecutors have faced assaults, threats, reprisals and have been stigmatized, in particular due to their involvement in cases of corruption or transitional justice.

Endemic corruption, a lack of land tenure, security and institutional weaknesses are some of the elements that hinder the structural changes needed to address the situation.

Despite efforts by the State in various areas, over the last few months, there have been several setbacks, including the closing of spaces for coordination of protection measures and the ongoing promotion of a regressive legislative agenda in key human rights areas.

The report recommends that the Government strengthen measures for prevention, protection, investigation and prosecution of crimes committed against human rights defenders. More political will is needed, as well as civic education and awareness campaigns on the importance of the defence of human rights for democracy and the rule of law. The adoption of a public policy on protection of human rights defenders, which has already been initiated by the Government, would be an important step towards recognizing the legitimacy of the defence of human rights and developing a comprehensive response to the situation of risk that human rights defenders face.”

Venezuela

Elizabeth Throssell, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), gave the following statement:

“Given the worsening political, economic, human rights and humanitarian situation in Venezuela that to date has seen 3.7 million people leave, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, now considers that the majority of those fleeing the country are in need of international refugee protection.

In an updated guidance note issued today, UNHCR reiterates its call to States to allow Venezuelans access to their territory and provide them with proper protection and standards of treatment, highlighting the critical need for safety for people forced to flee for their lives and freedoms.

The updated guidance note aims to assist those adjudicating international protection claims by asylum-seekers from Venezuela and those responsible for setting government policy on this issue.

By the end of 2018, some 460,000 Venezuelans had formally sought asylum, the majority in neighbouring countries in Latin America. The guidance note acknowledges that the number of people leaving Venezuela poses complex challenges and that it may be impractical to undertake individual determinations of refugee status, which is why group-based recognition is recommended.

UNHCR’s guidance note advises that for certain profiles of Venezuelans at risk the 1951 Refugee Convention is applicable. In any event, the majority of Venezuelans are in need of international refugee protection, based on the wider criteria of the 1984 Cartagena Declaration applied in Latin America. This is because of the threats to their lives, security or freedom resulting from circumstances that are seriously disturbing public order in Venezuela.

Together with our partner, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), we have repeatedly welcomed the solidarity of Latin American and Caribbean governments in hosting Venezuelans under a range of legal stay arrangements. To enhance the much-needed protection of Venezuelans, UNHCR continues to urge States to harmonize these responses.

UNHCR also calls on States to ensure that Venezuelans, regardless of their legal status, are not deported or otherwise forcibly returned to Venezuela.

UNHCR, together with the International Organization for Migration, is working with Governments, other UN agencies and partners, to address the protection and basic needs of Venezuelan refugees and migrants. The two organizations have appointed a Joint Special Representative, Eduardo Stein, and jointly lead the Regional Inter-Agency Platform that ensures a coherent and consistent operational response.”

In response to journalists, Ms. Throssell said that there were no figures on the number of Venezuelans who had been forcibly returned to their country of origin. The new guidance – which should be considered as superseding the guidance issued in March 2018 – stressed the need for Venezuelans to be given international protection, in the light of the deteriorating conditions in the country and their increasing vulnerability, and not be forcibly returned. Official border crossings between Venezuela and neighbouring countries had been closed for a time, though the one with Brazil had recently re-opened, pushing some Venezuelans to opt for unofficial, often dangerous routes. In recognition of the strain on host communities and countries, UNHCR was calling for stronger engagement and support from the international community. The appeal for US$ 146 million remained only 28 per cent funded. Approximately 3 million Venezuelans had left the country since 2015, of whom 464,229 had sought asylum in other countries in the region and 1.4 million had been given some form of permit to remain in their host country.

Replying to a query about malnutrition in Venezuela, Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that the lack of reliable data on the current situation of children was hampering response efforts and fuelling misinformation. Without data, it was difficult to know the scope of the crisis, where the needs were most acute or how best to respond. However, it was certain that the worsening economic crisis was leaving vulnerable children with limited access to health, education, protection and nutrition services. UNICEF had strengthened its field presence and was implementing activities to support children through the current economic crisis. For example, in 2018, UNICEF had provided 189,547 children with access to nutrition programmes.

In response to a journalist, Marta Hurtado, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the Office was against generalized sanctions but open to targeted sanctions as voted by the Security Council. Discussions were under way with the Venezuelan authorities regarding a visit by the High Commissioner. However, agreement had to be reached on a number of confidential issues before a date could be chosen.

World Health Assembly

Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), providing an overview of activities as part of the World Health Assembly, said that her Majesty Queen Letizia of Spain would be attending several meetings on issues relating to public health and the environment that day. Her Majesty Queen Mathilde of the Belgians would participate in meetings on mental health with a focus on young people and women on 22 May. There would be photo opportunities with both sovereigns. 21 May would be devoted to discussion of the Organization’s work on emergencies, the International Health Regulation, universal health coverage and the WHO programme budget. Algeria and Argentina would be officially certified malaria-free at a side event on the evening of 22 May. Interviews with representatives from WHO, Algeria and Argentina would be possible.

Replying to journalists, Ms. Chaib said that she would enquire about holding a briefing with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) regarding its role in Venezuela. The key to the two countries overcoming malaria was well-trained health practitioners, good health systems, rapid response to disease outbreak and the ability to detect all cases from neighbouring countries. Nevertheless, efforts to enhance surveillance should continue.

Geneva announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the next public plenary meeting of the Conference on Disarmament, on 22 May at 10.30 a.m., would be devoted to the question of transparency. It was the last week of the US presidency of the Conference.

She recalled that, from 22-24 May at the premises of the World Meteorological Organization, 300 delegates would be gathering for an informal meeting on the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction.

Lastly, she said that 21 May was World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, 22 May was International Day for Biological Diversity and 23 May was International Day to End Obstetric Fistula.

Rosalind Yarde, for the International Labour Organization (ILO), said that the Women in Business and Management report, which studied the link between genuine gender equality policies at the senior management level and the profitability of companies, would be launched on 22 May in Press Room 1. A media advisory on the International Labour Conference, to be held on 10-21 June, would be issued on 25 May. A very large number of heads of State and other notable figures were expected that year at both the beginning and the end of the Conference. The plenary sessions would be live streamed.

Press conferences

Tuesday, 21 May at 2:00 p.m. in Room III
United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
UNDER EMBARGO UNTIL Tuesday, 21 MAY 2019, at 2:00 p.m. GENEVA TIME)
Launch of UNRWA Health Programme’s Annual Report 2018
This report is embargoed and can be downloaded via the following hyperlink
https://www.unrwa.org/resources/reports/health-department-annual-report-2018 from Tuesday, 21 May 2019 at 2 p.m. Geneva time.
The report reveals some important statistics regarding the UNRWA HP services and activities during 2018, and explains the health situation, via many indicators, of Palestine refugees in the Agency’s five fields of operations – Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Syria.
A press release will be issued at the Press Conference. Hard copies of the UNRWA Health Programme's Annual Report 2018 will be distributed in the room.
Speaker:
· Dr. Akihiro Seita, Director of Health Programme, Department of Health, UNRWA

Wednesday, 22 May at 10:00 a.m. in Press Room 1
International Labour Organization (ILO)
UNDER EMBARGO UNTIL WEDNESDAY, 22 MAY 2019, at 13:00 GMT (14:00 GENEVA TIME)
Launch of the report Women in Business and Management: The business case for change by the ILO’s Bureau for Employers’ Activities (ACT/EMP)
Speakers:
· Deborah France-Massin, Director ILO ACT/EMP
· Jae-Hee Chang, report co-author and ACT/EMP specialist

Wednesday, 22 May at 11:30 a.m. in Press Room 1 [update]
WHO

Subject:
Update on the World Health Assembly, 20-28 May 2019
WHA will consider the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11)

Speaker:
• Dr Robert Jakob, Team Leader Data Standards and Informatics, WHO

Thursday, 23 May at 10.30 a.m. in Press Room 1
Monday, 27 May at 10.30 a.m. in Press Room 1

WHO

Subject:
Update on the World Health Assembly, 20-28 May 2019

Speaker:
• Fadéla Chaib, WHO Communications officer and spokesperson


* * *

The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog210519