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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

5 January 2018

Rhéal LeBlanc, Chief, Press and External Relations Section, United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Health Organization, the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Refugee Agency and the World Meteorological Organization.

Egypt

Elizabeth Throssell, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was deeply shocked at reports that 20 people had recently been executed in Egypt.

On 2 January, five men sentenced to death by an Egyptian military court had been hanged in Alexandria. Four of them had been convicted in relation to an explosion near a stadium in the city of Kafr al-Sheikh on 15 April 2015 that had killed three military recruits and injured two others. OHCHR understood that the defendants had been tried by military judges on the basis of legislation that referred cases of destruction of public property to military courts and in view of fact that the victims were from the Egyptian Military Academy. On 26 December, 15 men convicted on terrorism charges had reportedly been executed. They had been found guilty by a military court of killing several soldiers in Sinai in 2013.

Civilians should be tried in military or special courts only in exceptional cases. In addition, it was important that all necessary measures should be taken to ensure that such trials took place under conditions which genuinely afforded the full guarantees stipulated in article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt was a State party. Such guarantees included the right to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal and the right of everyone charged with a criminal offence to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

OHCHR was seriously concerned that, in all the cases, due process and fair trial guarantees did not appear to have been followed, as military courts typically denied defendants’ rights as accorded by civilian courts. In cases of capital punishment, trials must meet the highest standards of fairness and due process. Reports also indicated that the executed prisoners might have been subjected to initial enforced disappearance and torture before being tried.

Despite the security challenges facing Egypt - in particular in Sinai - executions should not be used as a means to combat terrorism. OHCHR called on the Egyptian authorities to reconsider the use of death penalty cases in accordance with their international human rights obligations and to take all necessary measures to ensure that violations of due process and fair trial were not repeated.

Responding to questions from journalists, Ms. Throssell said the reports of possible initial enforced disappearance and torture had been made by OHCHR colleagues on the ground. While information was scant on the cases in question, which dated back a number of years, it was understood that, following their arrest, many of the individuals had been held in an unknown location for some time. While the death penalty could be applied where acts of terrorism that resulted in fatalities, OHCHR stressed that due process and fair trial guarantees must be ensured in all cases.

Democratic Republic of the Congo
Elizabeth Throssell, for the for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was deeply alarmed at the actions of the security forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during the recent protests in Kinshasa and a number of other cities. According to the latest information gathered, at least 5 people had been killed and 92 injured. In addition, arrests had been made of some 180 individuals, most of whom had since been released. Security forces had allegedly fired live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas grenades, in some cases at point blank range.

OHCHR believed that the casualty figures from the demonstrations on 31 December might be higher than that reported thus far. Its staff on the ground had been denied access to morgues, hospitals and detention centres by defence and security forces, and so had been unable to fully conduct their human rights monitoring work.

Security forces were also reported to have fired tear gas inside churches, stopped people attending religious services and stolen their personal property – an alarming development that impinged on freedom of religion and belief.

Amid the continuing tense political environment, the actions of the security forces suggest a deliberate attempt to suppress civil and political rights through the use of violence. OHCHR called on the authorities to ensure that the security forces did not resort to excessive force when policing demonstrations, and that protests were handled in line with international standards. Necessity, proportionality, non-discrimination and accountability were key principles that underpinned the use of force for the management of peaceful assemblies.

The Government should ensure that everyone, including political opponents, journalists and civil society representatives, were able to fully exercise their right to freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, opinion, and expression. There should also be credible and independent investigations into alleged use of excessive force, and those responsible for human rights violations should be brought to justice.

The 31 December Political Agreement in the DRC had been signed more than a year ago as part of efforts to create an environment conducive to free, fair, and credible elections. Confidence-building measures were part of the Agreement and should be fully implemented. As the Secretary-General had said, the Agreement remained the only viable path to the holding of elections, the peaceful transfer of power and the consolidation of stability in the DRC. OHCHR once again urged the authorities to engage in a constructive dialogue with the opposition and to ensure that the right of all Congolese to participate in the public affairs of their country were respected.

Responding to questions from journalists, Ms. Throssell said colleagues on the ground had provided the information that most of the 180 individuals arrested had been released. Unconfirmed reports indicated that there may have been several further deaths.

Asked to comment on the Government’s decision to cut access to Internet and phone services a couple of weeks previously, Ms. Throssell said that access to Internet and other services should not be unduly restricted, especially in the context of the upcoming elections. OHCHR had urged the government authorities not to repeat such actions.

Asked for an update on the cholera situation in the country, Tarik Jašareviæ, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said there had been a slight decrease in the number of cholera cases, with 856 suspected cases during epidemiological week No. 51, down from 939 suspect cases in previous weeks. In 2017, there had been 54,166 cases of cholera and 1,172 deaths, for a mortality rate of 2.1%.

Asked about reports that the cholera crisis was in fact worsening, Mr. Jašareviæ said that cholera infection and death continued to present a significant risk, especially given the prevalence of malnutrition and diarrhoea. Some 10.5 million people were at risk of contracting cholera.

Answering a question about the new head of the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, referring to the noon press briefing by the spokesperson for the Secretary-General held on 4 January 2018, said it was hoped the new head of MONUSCO would take up her duties shortly, although no specific date had been announced.

Evacuations from Yemen and Libya

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that during the final days of 2017, IOM had completed two sea evacuations of Somali and Ethiopian migrants in Aden and Hudaydah, despite immense security challenges and difficult ocean conditions. A total of 2,414 refugees – the majority Somalis and Ethiopians – had been evacuated from Aden since the beginning of the conflict nearly three years. A further 746 Ethiopian migrants had been evacuated through the Hudaydah seaport. A second group had been evacuated on New Year’s Day.

The IOM website now featured daily updates of graphics on developments on the Libyan Coast – a daily breakdown of every craft intercepted off the coast and returned to the African mainland and any fatalities that were recorded during those operations – and on voluntary humanitarian returns. Following the conclusion of the agreement at the European Union-African Union Summit held in November 2017 in Abidjan, IOM had begun a programme to evacuate 20,000 individuals from Libyan detention centres and had since carried out the evacuation of some 7,000 since 28 November and nearly 20,000 since the beginning of 2017.

Asked about the breakdown of nationalities in Libyan detention centres, Mr. Millman said that although such figures likely did not exist, it was possible to extrapolate some information from surveys that had been carried out. According to that information, there were between 700,000 and 1 million third-country nationals in Libya, about 400,000 of whom were likely being held in detention centres, on boats or in other precarious situations. IOM had access to a dozen government detention centres. It was possible to obtain a breakdown of nationalities for any completed evacuation flight, but not necessarily before that point.

Responding to further questions from journalists, Mr. Millman said IOM continued to monitor the number of rescues of sub-Saharan Africans travelling by boat from Libya, which had thankfully decreased in recent weeks. IOM was involved in reintegration programmes, though its activities varied according to donor structure and the countries and programmes involved. Returnees were usually given so-called “dignity kits” on the flight home, along with money to cover the cost of their transportation to their hometowns. In some cases, returnees were given sufficient funds to finance a micro-enterprise.

Migration and the Mediterranean

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said the latest figures for 2017 indicated that total arrivals by sea in both Italy and Greece had been at their lowest in four years – under 120,000 and 30,000, respectively. In addition, at least 2,000 fewer migrant deaths had been recorded in the Mediterranean; the same pattern appeared to apply worldwide, with the exception of some regions, such as South-East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where 2017 had proved much more lethal than years past.

International classification of diseases

Tarik Jašareviæ, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that in light of the significant interest recently expressed in the inclusion of “gaming disorder” in the draft eleventh revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), WHO planned to post a question-and-answer section about the disorder on its website very shortly.

“Gaming disorder” was defined in ICD-11 as a pattern of gaming behaviour (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming took precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences. For such a disorder to be diagnosed, the behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at last 12 months.

The International Classification of Diseases (ICD) was the basis for identifying health trends and statistics globally and the international standard for reporting diseases and health conditions. It was used by medical practitioners around the world to diagnose conditions and by researchers to categorize conditions. Inclusion of a disorder in ICD was a consideration that countries took into account when making decisions on the provision of health care and allocation of resources for prevention, treatment and rehabilitation. WHO was leading the work of updating the ICD. ICD-11 was scheduled for publication in mid-2018.

The decision to include gaming disorder in ICD-11 had been based on reviews of available evidence and reflected a consensus of experts from different disciplines and geographical regions who had been involved in technical consultations by the World Health Organization in the process of ICD-11 development.

Inclusion of gaming disorder in ICD-11 followed the development of treatment programmes for individuals with health conditions identical to those characteristic of gaming disorder in many parts of the world and would result in the increased attention of health professionals to the risks of development of the disorder.

It was important to note that gaming disorder affected only a small proportion of people who engaged in digital- or video-gaming activities. However, people who partook in gaming should be alert to the amount of time they spent on gaming activities, particularly when it was to the exclusion of other daily activities, as well as to any changes in their physical or psychological health and social functioning that could be attributed to their pattern of gaming behaviour. Essentially, “gaming behaviour” could have negative physical and mental health consequences and, in a small number of people, could lead to “gaming disorder”, which was an addictive behaviour, similar to gambling disorder.

The revision of the ICD, which had begun in 2005, was a transparent process: detailed information was available on the WHO website.

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Jašareviæ said there was a consensus among experts that gaming disorder should be included in ICD-11; it would be featured in the mental health chapter, together with such conditions as gambling disorder and substance abuse. As for the order of magnitude of people affected by the disorder, the epidemiological data at population level had yet to be generated, but it was estimated that between 1 and 10% of the population was affected. It could be expected to apply more to younger generations, but again, there was no epidemiological data as of yet. It was important to note that the ICD did not issue recommendations regarding prevention and treatment, but was limited to the classification of medical conditions. He noted the interest of the members of the press and would look into the possibility of a separate briefing by an expert on the matter.

Diphtheria in Yemen and in Bangladesh

Tarik Jašareviæ, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said diphtheria was spreading in Yemen, with more than 471 clinically diagnosed cases and 46 deaths in less than four months, for an alarmingly high case fatality rate of 10%. Most cases and deaths had been reported in Ibb and Hudaydah, but the outbreak was spreading fast, already affecting 18 governorates. The situation in Ibb governorate was of particular concern, with 231 cases and 13 deaths reported. WHO has deployed a rapid assessment team to conduct investigations, strengthen surveillance and response capacity, support lab diagnostics and sample collection, and engage with communities.

WHO was working with the Yemeni health authorities and partners to contain the outbreak, with priority being placed on strengthening surveillance, detection, treatment and prevention. Diphtheria was a highly infectious but vaccine-preventable disease; it could be treated with antitoxins and antibiotics, both of which were in short supply in Yemen.

The diphtheria vaccine was administered as part of routine immunization programmes for children around the world. The rapid spread of diphtheria in Yemen highlighted major gaps in routine vaccination coverage and signified a health system under severe strain. Some 68% of suspected diphtheria cases were children under 15 years of age.

Turning to the situation in Bangladesh, Mr. Jašareviæ said the first round of diphtheria-containing vaccines had been administered to nearly 350,000 children between 6 weeks and 15 years of age during the period from 12 to 31 December 2017. The second round was scheduled to take place in late January and a third round would take place four weeks later.

There were currently 12 health facilities with a capacity of 419 beds available for treating diphtheria patients; recent bed occupancy was around 50%. Administration of diphtheria antitoxins was being monitored.

The total number of suspected cases, as at 2 January 2018, was 3,155 and the total number of diphtheria-related deaths was 30, for a mortality rate of 1%. WHO has provided over 2,400 doses of diphtheria anti-toxins, in addition to antibiotics to treat cases and preventive medication to contacts of suspected cases.

In response to questions from journalists concerning Yemen, Mr. Jašareviæ said the diphtheria vaccines contributed by UNICEF for Yemen were already in the country; there was no question as far as WHO was concerned that a vaccination campaign should be conducted urgently, but the final decision rested with the Yemeni authorities. No specific date had been set yet. WHO had already deployed one rapid response team to Yemen and WHO rapid assessment teams had visited Hudaydah governorate. It was important that clinical diagnoses were made by health experts, as health-care capacity was sorely lacking in Yemen. Indeed, the country’s health-care system had been in poor shape even before the conflict had erupted. Nevertheless, the spread of diphtheria was a clear sign that children were not immunized; moreover, 55% of health facilities were partially operating or not at all. Health-care providers had not been receiving a salary and there was a severe shortage of medicines and of fuel for generators. The collapse of the health system had been announced months ago; as a result, there was only so much that WHO and partners could do. The only true solution was an end to the conflict.

Responding to a request for clarification about the number of cases of diphtheria in Yemen and Bangladesh, Mr. Jašareviæ said a laboratory-proven diagnosis involved doing culture tests. In Yemen, there was no such capacity, which was why clinical diagnosis was so important; the vast majority of clinical diagnoses carried out by medical experts were believed to be diphtheria cases but were referred to as “suspected cases” because they had not been laboratory-proven.

Asked what accounted for the difference in mortality rates between Bangladesh and Yemen, Mr. Jašareviæ said access to treatment made an enormous difference. Infected persons who were given antitoxins and antibiotics had much higher chances of recovering from diphtheria. It was estimated that the mortality ratio could be as high as 50% for people who received no treatment whatsoever. To make a longer-term impact, vaccination was of the utmost importance, as it provided protection against future infections from the bacteria.

Asked about the situation of two Reuters reporters who had been detained in Myanmar since 12 December 2017, Elizabeth Throssell, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said OHCHR was concerned about the situation and reiterated its stand that journalists should be able to report on the situation in the country. Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, added that the Secretary-General was himself quite concerned about the situation, as had been made clear in the noon briefing held in New York on 4 January 2018; journalists should be able to go about their work without hindrance.

Violence in the Central African Republic drives thousands to Chad

Babar Baloch, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said UNHCR was registering and helping thousands of new refugees arriving in Chad, mostly women and children fleeing a recent flare-up in violence in the northwest of the Central African Republic (CAR). More than 5,000 refugees were estimated to have arrived in southern Chad since late December, escaping clashes between two armed groups in the town of Paoua, which has an additional 20,000 people displaced internally. Working with its government partners in Chad, UNHCR had thus far registered some 2,350 new refugees in the village of Odoumian, located near the CAR border.

Many of the refugees had trekked on foot to cross into the departments of Nya-Pende and Lam Mountains in Chad. According to local officials, some 5,600 refugees had arrived since December 27, 2017, when the recent fighting had started. Over 1,000 new refugees were also reported to have arrived at existing camps for CAR refugees near the town of Goré. The influx was the largest movement of refugees from CAR, exceeding the total number for 2017, when about 2,000 had fled into Chad. Many were reporting widespread human rights abuses committed by the members of the armed groups in villages along the CAR-Chad border. The border with CAR was officially closed. UNHCR welcomed the humanitarian gesture of the Chadian authorities in allowing refugees seeking international protection inside its territory despite the closure.

UNHCR was also helping Chadian authorities to register and aid refugees. With its partners, UNHCR was also providing medical check-ups for the many refugees arriving in poor health, some unable to walk. Chad hosted over 75,000 refugees from CAR – out of the nearly 540,000 hosted in all neighbouring countries.

Inside CAR, the humanitarian situation had significantly deteriorated during the second half of 2017. Armed violence and attacks against humanitarians and peacekeepers had provoked a 50% increase in the number of internally displaced people – bringing the total number from 400,000 in May to 600,000 at the end of 2017. The total number of refugees and internally displaced was the highest ever recorded for CAR – almost one-fourth of the population of around 4.6 million.

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Baloch said UNHCR staff on the ground believed that the total number of recent arrivals could be higher than the 5,600 cited by local officials. UNHCR was helping to register and accommodate the new arrivals and to help them in any way possible.

Asked for an update on the resettlement of refugees in Europe, Mr. Baloch said he would provide information in writing to interested members of the press.

Climate update

Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said WMO would issue the consolidated temperature ranking for 2017 in the third week of January. The ranking would be based on consolidated datasets from NASA, NOAA, Met Office, ECMWF and JMA. The Copernicus Climate Change Service implemented by ECMWF had become the first service on 4 January 2018 to issue its own figures, stating that 2017 was the third year in a row of “exceptionally warm years.” According to that Service, 2017 was the second hottest year on record, after 2016.

Temperatures had been most above average over parts of the Arctic, according to Copernicus, confirming previous statements made by WMO. Arctic sea ice was starting 2018 with the lowest extent yet observed in the satellite record for the current time of year, according to the United States National Snow and Ice Data Center. That announcement had come as the major winter storm in the eastern coast of the United States had dominated the headlines, causing major travel disruption. That storm was expected to pull away from New England overnight and the accompanying snow to come to an end. Bitterly cold temperatures and dangerous wind chills would continue for several days, however. Satellite images showed a long line of clouds stretching over a thousand miles south of the storm, with Tallahassee, Florida, experiencing its first snow in 28 years, according to the United States National Weather Service. Nevertheless, December 2017 and January 2018 had been abnormally warm for most of the world, according to NASA.

Europe had also experienced extreme weather during the current week with a powerful winter storm, Eleanor, which had brought strong winds and heavy rain. At the same time, temperature records had tumbled in France, which had seen a new national record on 3 January of 11.5°C (+6.3°C/norm). South-eastern France had seen new monthly records, including 22.9°C on 3 January in Cannes.

Parts of the southern hemisphere were witnessing heatwaves. The South African Weather Service had issued warnings for a heatwave over many parts of the country during the upcoming weekend. There was a chance that every mainland state in Australia could experience temperatures of 45°C or higher on 6 January, with an increased fire danger rating over parts of southern Australia on that day.

The Indian Ocean has seen the first tropical cyclone of the sea, with tropical cyclone Ava approaching Madagascar.

Asked to comment on President Donald Trump’s recent tweet about the current extremely cold temperatures and climate change, Ms. Nullis said that while she had no specific comment on President Trump’s tweet, it was true that daily weather should be distinguished from long-term climate change.

United Nations budget for the 2018-2019 biennium

Asked to comment on the potential consequences of the newly adopted budget for the 2018-2019 biennium on operations at the United Nations Office at Geneva, Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said the slight decrease in the Organization’s overall budget was expected to affect United Nations operations everywhere. That being said, the cuts had been made mainly to material and administrative resources. The United Nations Office at Geneva would therefore make efforts to be more frugal but would continue to provide services in the best conditions possible. He added that the General Assembly had shown support for the Secretary-General’s proposed reforms, including the proposal to change the United Nations budget cycle from a biennial to an annual budget period, which would be put into effect in 2020 on a trial basis.

Press conferences

OHCHR / HCDH
“Faith for Rights” - a framework for mutually enriching connections between religions and human rights
Monday, 8 January at 10:30 a.m. in Press Room 1
http://bit.ly/2nSpDrU

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It will be available here http://bit.ly/unog050118 as soon as possible.