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12 January 2018

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


Asked by journalists for an update on the Syria talks, Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, recalled that in his most recent declarations, the Special Envoy for Syria had said that he was working towards the ninth round of talks. While no concrete details were yet available, a great deal of diplomatic work was happening at the moment to that end.

Update on Yemen

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that since 20 December 2017, when the Saudi-led Coalition had announced that it would keep Yemen's Red Sea ports of Hudaydah and Saleef open for a period of one month for both humanitarian and commercial cargo, 13 vessels had delivered food and much needed fuel through the two ports. The vessels had been mainly commercial and more deliveries were in the pipeline.

This development was positive but was far less than what was needed to meet overall food and fuel needs, the Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, had said in a statement. For example, commercial imports of fuel in December had been 92 per cent below the regular monthly average.

A total of 22 million people in Yemen were in need of humanitarian assistance. Over 70 per cent of them lived in proximity to Hudaydah and Saleef ports.

Overall, Yemen imported about 90 per cent of its staple food and nearly all its fuel and medicine. Therefore, the functioning of all ports - including Hudaydah, Saleef and Aden - was critical to meeting vital needs, Mr. McGoldrick had said.

The United Nations also welcomed the Saudi-led Coalition’s approval to move four cranes to Hudaydah port, which would enhance the capacity of the port and allow for faster off-loading of vessels, thus helping to avert an even greater humanitarian disaster. The World Food Programme had reported that the cranes were expected to arrive in Hudaydah port around 15 January.

The United Nations called on the Coalition to continue allowing vessels into the Red Sea ports, and on the Houthis to desist from threatening this vital access route. The steady flow of imports was a lifeline for millions of vulnerable Yemeni people.

Asked to provide an update on the latest fighting in Yemen, Mr. Laerke said that while he had no specific new information available, clashes and airstrikes were continuing on a daily basis. The disaster affecting 22 million people in Yemen – almost the entire population of the country – was man-made and a political solution needed to be found.

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, recalled that on 11 January the Deputy Head of Mission of the Office of the Special Envoy for Yemen, Muin Shreim, had concluded a five-day visit to Sana’a. During his visit, he had held meetings on the resumption of the Yemeni peace process with senior political figures from the Ansar Allah Movement, the General People’s Congress and other political actors and civil society leaders.

Mr. Shreim had urged the parties to engage fully and in good faith with the Office of the Special Envoy to reach a Yemeni-led agreement to end the conflict and underscored that all parties must take concrete steps to build confidence between them, including on the issues of access and humanitarian support.

In response to questions about vaccination campaigns in Yemen, Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that health services in the country had been severely disrupted by the conflict and the diphtheria outbreak was a sign that the system was no longer functioning as it should. While WHO had completed a diphtheria vaccination campaign in partnership with the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF) at the end of 2017, a cholera vaccination campaign was still under negotiation. Its implementation required the agreement of all parties. The rapid spread of the two diseases highlighted major gaps in the regular vaccination campaigns. Any disruption to either regular or emergency campaigns could have both immediate and long-term impacts on the health of the population.

Mr. Lindmeier also said that the data received by WHO showed a cumulative total of more than 1 million suspected cases of cholera and 2,241 associated deaths. However, that number included all forms of diarrhoeal disease and there had been unconfirmed media reports that the number of cholera cases had been inflated. The latest available figures put the number of clinically diagnosed cases of diphtheria at 610, with 48 related deaths, in a period of less than four months, giving an alarmingly high case fatality rate of 8 per cent.

Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF), added that the majority of the diphtheria cases had occurred in children. Cases had been recorded in 19 governorates as of 10 January, with Ibb and Hudaydah the worst affected areas.

Cholera Outbreak in Zambia

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that as of 10 January, the Zambian Ministry of Health had reported 2,905 suspected cases of cholera, with 67 associated deaths. In Lusaka alone, 2,755 suspected cases and 62 deaths had been registered, making the capital by far the worst affected area.

The cholera vaccination campaign had entered its third day on 12 January. During the previous two days, 440,000 of the 1 million people being targeted around Lusaka had received the first of the two doses being administered.

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Lindmeier said that while WHO was aware of the decision by the Government of Zambia to close some markets and businesses, WHO took the position that such closures were unnecessary given that cholera was not an airborne disease. Food safety and hygiene measures such as hand-washing and access to safe water were key to combating the disease. There was also a need for improved dissemination of health support messages.

Listeriosis outbreak in South Africa

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that South Africa was currently experiencing the largest outbreak of listeriosis ever reported worldwide.

Listeria was a foodborne bacterium mainly found in unpasteurized dairy products and some ready-to-eat foods and was able to grow in refrigerated conditions. Listeria infection could lead to unplanned abortions in pregnant women and the death of newborn babies. While rates of the disease were relatively low, listeria could have severe and sometimes fatal health consequences, particularly among infants, children and older persons.

The outbreak of listeriosis in South Africa had been declared on 5 December 2017. Between 1 January 2017 and 11 January 2018, there had been a total of 748 laboratory-confirmed cases, with 61 related deaths.

WHO was ready to provide support to the Government, including by sending food safety and communications experts to South Africa to help deal with the outbreak.

WHO Announcement

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the Director General of WHO would hold a virtual press briefing at the WHO premises in Geneva on 15 January at 2 p.m. Journalists were also welcome to attend in person. [The spokesperson later announced that the press briefing had to be postponed.]

Migrant deaths

William Spindler, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR was renewing its appeal to countries for help in saving human lives by offering more resettlement places and other safe alternatives to protection for refugees, including through family reunification. In the past week alone, some 160 people had been reported dead or missing in three separate incidents in the Mediterranean.

On 8 January, the survivors of an incident that might have claimed more than 60 lives had been picked up by the Italian coastguard and had disembarked in Catania. In addition to 8 corpses recovered by the rescuers, 56 people, including 15 women and 6 children, were feared to have drowned.

On the same day, in a separate incident, a dinghy carrying 54 people had capsized off Morocco. The Moroccan coastguard had reported that two men had drowned.

On 9 January, UNHCR and its partner, the International Medical Corps, had assisted the Libyan coastguard in the disembarkation in Tripoli of 279 refugees and migrants. The survivors had reported that between 60 and 100 people were still missing at sea. No bodies had been found so far.

In September 2017, UNHCR had issued an urgent appeal for 40,000 resettlement places for refugees in 15 priority countries of asylum and transit along the Central Mediterranean route. In all, 277,000 refugees were estimated to be in need of resettlement in these countries.

Against these projected needs, UNHCR had to date received approximately 13,000 offers of resettlement places in 2018 and 2019. Most of these were part of regular established global resettlement programmes and only a few were additional places.

Since November 2017, UNHCR had evacuated hundreds of vulnerable refugees, the vast majority children and women, from Libya to the Niger. For unaccompanied children, a solution in the best interest of each child would be identified, while adults underwent regular UNHCR processing with a view to identifying solutions for them, including resettlement.

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that the information received by IOM in connection with an incident off Morocco on 9 January showed that 43 people had been rescued and the remains of 3 people had been recovered. Survivors had said that a further 8 people were missing. In addition, the Government of Mali had confirmed reports in the West African press that 48 Malians had drowned in an incident on the Central Route.

The number of deaths on the Western Mediterranean route so far in 2018 stood at 16, which was high for that route, although still lower than the number for the Central Mediterranean route.

As of 10 January, 654 returnees had been flown home from Libya. On 10 January itself, three flights – two commercial and one chartered by IOM – had left Libya for Sierra Leone, the Niger and Senegal.

While there had been no recorded deaths of migrants in South America during 2017, on 10 January 2018 4 Venezuelans had drowned off Curaçao. In addition, on 1 January 2018 3 Cubans had been killed in a car accident in Brazil while attempting to make their way to Uruguay.

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, recalled that on 11 January, the Secretary-General had launched the Making Migration Work for All report. He had emphasized the positive aspects of migration and called for better management of the global issue.

Asked about the nationalities of the migrants, Mr. Millman said that according to IOM’s information, in the incident on 9 January the Libyan coastguard had rescued 8 Bangladeshis, including 1 woman, and 2 Pakistanis. The nationalities of those missing in that incident were unknown. The majority of the survivors of the incidents that had occurred in the Mediterranean to date in 2018 were from West African countries, including Nigeria and the Gambia.

In response to further questions from journalists, Mr. Spindler said that UNHCR was confident that States would realize it was in their best interests to find legal pathways to help refugees find safety, including through resettlement and family reunification programmes. People were risking their lives in the Mediterranean because no other options were open to them. Many lives could be saved by ensuring that people could receive protection closer to their countries of origin. It was also important to tackle the root causes that drove people to leave their home countries, including a lack of development, poor governance and conflict situations.

Mr. Millman added that there appeared to be a degree of randomness to the number of accidents that occurred in the Mediterranean. While there had been 192 deaths in the first 11 days of 2018, in the same time period in 2017 there had been only 12 deaths. In December 2017, the total for the entire month had been 26. Despite the fluctuations in the number of deaths, the number of arrivals had remained stable. While there continued to be a flow of people from sender countries who intended to travel through Libya, Egypt had become less used as a transit country. There were undoubtedly any number of unofficial detention centres in Libya in addition to the official ones operated by the authorities, and potentially up to half a million people in the country with a similar profile to that of the people who tended to attempt to cross to Europe by boat. Numbers of arrivals from Libya had slowed in the second half of 2017, however, when compared to the first six months of that year.

Situation in Tunisia

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was watching closely the demonstrations across Tunisia and the authorities’ response to them. OHCHR was concerned about the high number of arrests – 778 people had been arrested since 8 January, approximately one-third of them between the ages of 15 and 20.

OHCHR called on the authorities to ensure that people were not arrested in an arbitrary manner and that all those detained were treated with full respect for their due process rights and either charged or promptly released.

Following the reports of looting, vandalism and violence, including damage to police stations and shops, OHCHR called on all those taking to the streets to exercise restraint and calm.

The authorities should ensure that those exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly were not prevented from doing so. Ahead of the 14 January anniversary of the 2011 revolution, it was particularly important to ensure that demonstrators were able to protest peacefully and were not held responsible or penalized for the violent acts of others.

Asked about detention conditions for those arrested, Mr. Colville said that while no reports of ill-treatment had yet been received, OHCHR was on the alert for such practices.

Reaction to alleged remarks by President Trump

Asked for a reaction to remarks allegedly made by the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, denigrating certain countries, Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that, if confirmed, the comments from the President of the United States were shocking and shameful and could be described as nothing other than racist. Entire countries and continents could not be described as “shitholes” whose entire populations – who were not white – were therefore not welcome. The positive comment on Norway had made the underlying sentiment very clear.

Like the earlier comments made vilifying Mexicans and Muslims, the policy proposals targeting entire groups on grounds of nationality or religion, and the reluctance to clearly condemn the anti-Semitic and racist actions of white supremacists in Charlottesville, the remarks went against the universal values the world had been striving so hard to establish since the Second World War and the Holocaust. This was not just a story about vulgar language, it was about opening the door to humanity’s worst side and validating and encouraging racism and xenophobia that would potentially disrupt and even destroy the lives of many people - perhaps the single most damaging and dangerous consequence of this type of comment by a major political figure.

Mr. Colville added that in a speech at the Human Rights Council in September 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had called on the United States Congress to provide a durable legal solution for the so-called “Dreamers”. Their future should not be used as a bargaining chip to negotiate the most severe and restrictive immigration and security measures possible. They were human beings and not commodities.

Mr. Colville said that OHCHR was also very concerned about the decision to terminate temporary protection status for 180,000 Salvadorans in September 2019, 59,000 Haitians in July 2019 and 5,300 Nicaraguans in October 2018.

In response to the same question about the alleged declarations of President Trump, Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that as no official statement had been issued by the United States, IOM had no official response.

In response to the same question, William Spindler, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that while he was not able to comment on the alleged remarks, UNHCR always maintained the position that people forced to flee war or persecution and needing asylum should be given protection by whichever country they were in, irrespective of race, religion, ethnicity or country of origin.

Asked whether the UN made any difference among migrants, Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, added that the United Nations did not categorize migrants or refugees based on their country of origin.

Geneva events and announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, speaking on behalf of Rolando Gomez for the Human Rights Council, said that the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review would hold its next session from 15 to 26 January, at which the human rights record of 14 States would be reviewed.

Ms. Vellucci also announced that the Committee on the Rights of the Child would hold its seventy-seventh session at Palais Wilson between 15 January and 2 February. During the session, the Committee would consider the reports of Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Panama, Seychelles, Spain, Solomon Islands, Palau and the Marshall Islands.

In response to questions from journalists, Ms. Vellucci said that the plenary meeting of the Conference on Disarmament would take place on 22 January. [Later, the spokesperson said that the Conference on Disarmament would open the first part of its 2018 session on Monday, 22 January, which would conclude its works on 30 March 2018. The first plenary meeting would take place in the morning of Tuesday, 23 January. This meeting would be open to the public. Media events would be announced as soon as possible.]

Press conferences

Friday, 12 January at 2:00 p.m. in Press Room 1
Dispute Settlement Body

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog120118