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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

17 July 2018

Michele Zaccheo, for 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 Health Organization, the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Violence in Nicaragua

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), made the following statement:

“Tomorrow, Wednesday, will mark three months since demonstrations began in Nicaragua, initially against planned pension reforms but which have evolved into protests against President Daniel Ortega’s government.

The violence that has to date left an estimated 280 people dead and 1,830 injured has been overwhelmingly perpetrated by the State and by pro-government armed elements. Those killed include at least 19 police officers.

Police, armed elements and other violent groups have carried out so-called “clean-up operations” in different parts of the country, forcibly removing barricades erected by demonstrators and local communities. At least 12 people were killed over the weekend, including two when shots were fired at the Divina Misericordia Church in Managua where student demonstrators had sought refuge after the university premises they had been occupying came under attack.

The violence is all the more horrific as armed elements loyal to the Government are operating with the active or tacit support of the police and other State authorities. UN Human Rights Office staff on the ground report that a wide range of human rights violations are being committed, including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detentions, and denying people the right to freedom of expression. There has been incitement to hatred and smear campaigns, including against human rights defenders. The backdrop for all these violations is the absence of the rule of law and due process.

We are extremely concerned that two human rights defenders, Medardo Maireno and Pedro Mena, could be victims of enforced disappearance. Police detained them on Friday at Managua airport and since then the authorities have not informed their families as to where they are, despite judicial requests. We call on the Nicaraguan authorities to provide immediate information on their whereabouts, and allow us and other human rights organisations access to all prisons and other detention facilities where those detained are believed to be held.

We are observing an emerging and disturbing practice of human rights defenders and people who have merely taken part in protests being criminalized. For example, the police publicly accused Medardo Maireno of the murder of several officers and branded him a “terrorist”. On Monday, the Nicaraguan Congress adopted a law on money-laundering and terrorism, with a very broad definition of terrorism, which raises concerns that it could be used against people taking part in protests.

Amid the increasing climate of fear and mistrust, there are growing concerns that violence will intensify as Nicaragua prepares to mark Liberation Day on Thursday, 19 July, in commemoration of the overthrow of the Somoza regime in 1979 by the Sandinistas.

The appalling loss of life must stop – now. It is imperative that the Nicaraguan State, which has obligations under international human rights law to guarantee the right to life and security of the population, as well as the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, take concrete steps as soon as possible to end the crisis and find a peaceful solution.”

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Colville said that the aspect of the newly adopted law that was of particular concern was article 394, which defined a terrorist as a person who caused death or injury or destroyed public or private property in the aim of intimidating the population and altering the constitutional order. The loose wording laid itself open to interpretation. An OHCHR team had been sent to Nicaragua to monitor the overall situation and gain access to prisons. By and large, the team had been allowed to operate, though access had sometimes been denied owing to the security situation. It had been granted access to La Modelo prison that day and was hoping to obtain access to El Chipote prison as well. There was concern that the situation could deteriorate significantly. However, it was important to note that there was no armed opposition for the time being.

UN Watch report on antisemitism

Asked to comment on a report by UN Watch called “The United Nations and Antisemitism”, Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the attacks were levelled at the current High Commissioner and his two predecessors, as well as at a number of Special Rapporteurs and treaty bodies. In his opinion, the report contained considerable distortions and complete omissions of some of the High Commissioner’s statements and was not of any particular value.

Intercommunal violence in Mali

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), made the following statement:

“We are deeply concerned about a surge in violence perpetrated across communal lines in the Mopti region of central Mali. In recent weeks, UN human rights staff in the country have documented an alarming trend of civilians being driven from their homes, either after being directly targeted themselves, because of the community they belong to, or after deadly attacks on members of their community in neighbouring villages.

Since the beginning of the year, the Human Rights and Protection Division of MINUSMA, the UN peace-keeping mission in Mali, has documented 99 incidents of intercommunal violence resulting in at least 289 civilian deaths. Seventy-six of these incidents – some 77 per cent of the total – have occurred in the Mopti region alone, 49 of them since 1 May.

MINUSMA has documented, in particular, an escalation of attacks allegedly carried out by Dozos (traditional hunters) and elements of Dogon militias against villages or parts of villages occupied primarily by members of the Fulani (Peulh) community. While these attacks are said to be motivated by a desire to root out individuals linked to the violent extremist group,
Jama’at nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), in reality, they have increasingly been indiscriminately targeting members of the Fulani (Peulh) community.

In one such attack, on 1 July, 16 Fulani (Peulh) civilians were allegedly killed by Dogon militia elements in a village called Bombou, some of them reportedly shot inside the local mosque, where they had sought refuge from the attack, while others were burned alive inside their homes. The victims included several elderly people and a 13-year-old child. In another case, a MINUSMA human rights investigation team concluded that, on 23 June, a large group of armed elements, identified by eyewitnesses as Dozos, stormed part of another village, called Koumaga, killing 24 male Fulani (Peulh) civilians, including six boys.

Dogon and Bambara communities have themselves in turn been targeted by JNIM and Fulani (Peulh) militias. Between 7 and 10 July alone, MINUSMA documented five attacks on civilians from these communities in the Djenné and Koro areas, resulting in at least seven deaths. In most cases, the victims were killed while out farming. MINUSMA has documented other similar attacks in recent weeks, raising concerns that they are part of a deliberate attempt to intimidate farmers and undermine the food security of these communities.

This escalating violence in parts of Mopti region has led to widespread displacement of a civilian population already vulnerable due to a lack of protection and basic social services provided by the State. In one particularly troubling situation, an estimated 3,000 displaced members of the Fulani (Peulh) community who have sought refuge in Birga-peulh village (in the Koro area) have been surrounded by Dogon militia and reportedly prevented from leaving the village to seek food and other essential items.

We commend the Government of Mali for the efforts it has already taken to intervene in the cycle of violence in Mopti region, and urge it to continue to take measures to prevent further grave violations and abuses of human rights in the region, including those committed by government forces, as a matter of urgency.”

Replying to questions from journalists, Mr. Colville said that the root of the conflict lay in land use and competition for natural resources. The conflict was relatively long-standing and traditionally arose around harvest time between farmers, who were primarily Dogon, and herders, who were Fulani (Peulh). However, more recently, the conflict appeared to have been instrumentalized by violent extremist groups who had aligned themselves with the Fulani (Peulh), hence the targeting of that community. While incidents still occurred in the north around Timbuktu, most now took place in Mopti, so it was difficult to make generalized comparisons between the destruction of religious sites in 2012 and the current conflict. Certainly, a major difference and key factor was the prevalence of small arms that had streamed into the country in the intervening years, partly as a result of the situation in Libya.

Report on human rights in Kashmir

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), made the following statement:

““Nefarious conspiracy”, “Pakistan-authored report”, “fallacious”, “mala fide” – these are some of the accusations levelled by numerous Indian media outlets against the UN Human Rights Office for our publication last month of the first-ever UN human rights report on Kashmir.

The report was developed through remote monitoring, after the Indian and Pakistani authorities failed to grant us unconditional access to the region. Since the report was published, we have been deeply disappointed by the reaction of the Indian authorities, who dismissed the report as “fallacious, tendentious and motivated” without examining it or responding to the very serious concerns about the human rights situation in Indian-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir as laid out in the report.

In recent days, a surprising number of Indian media organizations have seized unquestioningly upon a claim by someone reported to be a Canada-based imam of Pakistani descent, named Zafar Bangash, that the High Commissioner was in constant contact with him, with the inference being that Mr. Bangash influenced the content of the report. This is totally untrue. The High Commissioner has never spoken with Mr. Bangash, and we are not aware of receiving any information from him, let alone using it, although it is possible he sent an email or letter and received a polite acknowledgment, as is the case with thousands of letters and emails sent to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In the face of this and numerous other misrepresentations of the report, we would like to set the facts straight.

The report contains 388 footnotes that detail all the sources that were used: these include official sources such as the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha – India’s parliament – as well as the Supreme Court of India, the Ministry of External Affairs, the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly, the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission, the Union Ministry of Defence, the Chief of Army Staff and even a former Vice-President. Accusations that we used unverified information are thus rather puzzling. The report also draws on reliable information from reputable civil society organizations and the Press Trust of India, and these are all clearly cited in the footnotes.

Some Indian media outlets have even gone so far as to claim that a photograph of the High Commissioner with three individuals from Pakistan-administered Kashmir taken outside the Human Rights Council room in Geneva is – I quote – “clear proof of the ISI’s [Pakistan’s intelligence agency] involvement.” The unsupported conclusion that this photo indicates complicity is tendentious and – along with other such wild claims – appears designed to discredit the report while avoiding any real examination of, and reflection on, its contents. Individuals often ask to be photographed with the High Commissioner, and he often politely obliges.

We are disturbed by the sustained attempts to distract and divert the focus away from the human rights violations on both sides of the Line of Control. The UN Human Rights Office has a global mandate and works independently, with a well-established methodology, in its public reporting. Ultimately, our goal in drafting this report was to assist the States and others to identify and address human rights challenges and to give a voice to all Kashmiris who have been rendered voiceless amid the deep political polarization. This is not about politics. It is about the human rights of millions of people in Kashmir. And we will continue to try to engage with Indian and Pakistani authorities on this and other important human rights issues, and press for access to both Indian-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.”

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Colville said that much less attention had been given to the report in Pakistan, partly because the report dealt far more with Indian-administered Kashmir and because the nature of the violations differed on either side of the Line of Control. Some of the articles coming out of India were intelligent and well thought through, but there was also a considerable amount of very simplistic and aggressive reporting, he said. It was particularly worrying that mainstream Indian media had picked up the story about the Canada-based imam. There had been no in-person interaction between OHCHR and the Indian authorities, and he was unsure whether the High Commissioner had met with the Indian ambassador either in Geneva or New York.

Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organizations (WHO), said that the Ministry of Health of the Democratic Republic of the Congo was counting down to the end of the Ebola outbreak. The countdown had begun on 12 June, when the last patient had been released after testing negative twice, such that by 24 July, 42 would have elapsed, in other words twice the incubation period. If no new cases were identified by that date, the Ministry would declare the outbreak over on 25 July. From 3 to 5 July, the Ministry, with support from WHO and partners, had conducted a strategic operations review. The objective was to define a post-Ebola plan, including a 90-day response plan. Active surveillance would remain ongoing and all alerts would be investigated. WHO would remain vigilant and would maintain a presence in the region.

Replying to questions from journalists, Ms. Chaib said that, since the outbreak on 8 May, there had been 53 cases, of which 38 were confirmed and 15 were probable. Of the 53 individuals, 29 had died and 24 had recovered. Some 3,330 people had been vaccinated as at 30 June, and 1,706 contacts had been identified and followed up. Lessons had been learned from the 2015 outbreak in West Africa. The response to the current outbreak had been robust and very large: WHO had been on the ground within hours of the declared outbreak and partners had been mobilized under the strong leadership of the State. Moreover, WHO had allocated more than US $2 million from its contingency fund and had deployed 250 professionals ranging from epidemiologists to data managers and anthropologists to work with the community and explain the steps being taken. Naturally, the new Ebola vaccine had played a part in containing the outbreak, but it was one among a range of tools and research had to continue into new drugs. Early detection was key, as was dialogue with the community. For example, WHO had the support of a well-known priest in the region, who had helped to mobilize the population and set up a survivor’s association. Indeed, survivors should not be abandoned after an outbreak; in addition to continued monitoring of their health, they required psychosocial support.

Rohingya refugees

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that the Director General of IOM had returned that morning from a week-long visit to Myanmar and Bangladesh. A press release would be issued shortly, but the Director General had stated that the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar were in danger of becoming the wretched of the earth, homeless and without a future. The world must rally to support them both financially and politically.

Migrants in the Mediterranean

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that, as predicted, Spain had become the most active route for migrants coming from Africa, surpassing Italy the previous weekend. However, although Spain experienced the highest volume of irregular migrants entering by sea – 18, 016 thus far in 2018, compared to 17,827 via Italy – fatalities were roughly one quarter what they were in the central route. In fact, there had been only one death among the nearly 7,000 migrants who had used the route from Africa through the Western Mediterranean into Spain in the first half of July. There had been 55 drownings in June, which remained less than the over 75 seen in both February and April. By contrast, it had been a fairly terrible 30 days in Libya, with drownings on route to Italy and, on the previous night, the deaths of at least 8 people found suffocated in a truck along a migrant route into Tripoli. Those latest fatalities were in addition to the at least 4 Somalis who had drowned off the coast of Italy over the weekend and to a shipwreck after which 17 migrants remained missing and were presumed drowned. Thus, there had been more than 480 deaths since June, an extraordinary number given that arrivals to Italy had trickled to almost none.

In response to a query, Mr. Millman said that there were reports that ships carrying migrants arriving in Sicily were being prevented from mooring for up to 24 hours. He was not at liberty to discuss the specifics of conversations with a State; nevertheless, the delayed submission of statistics notwithstanding, there was no sign that the change of government in Italy had had any impact on the immigration process. It was surprising to note how few migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa were coming through: the figure thus far was 1,200, down from 14,000 in the same period in 2017.

Australia: Family separation

Andrej Mahecic, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), made the following statement:

“UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is alarmed by the separation of a Sri Lankan refugee family in Sydney by the Government of Australia. The deportation overnight of the father leaves his Sri Lankan partner, who is a recognized refugee, alone in Australia with their 11-month-old daughter.

This contravenes the basic right to family unity, as well as the fundamental principle of the best interests of the child. UNHCR sought assurances from the Government of Australia that the man would not be removed from Australia and be allowed to remain with his family. Private legal representatives had also lodged multiple requests for intervention with the Minister for Home Affairs. We regret that those collective representations were unsuccessful.

Australia’s broader current policy of “offshore processing and deterrence” has led to the ongoing separation of refugee families since 2013. Asylum seekers who arrive to Australia by sea have been prevented from reuniting with their loved ones in Australia, including spouses, parents and children.

UNHCR is aware of several other parents currently held under Australian “offshore processing” in Nauru, whose spouses were transferred to Australia for medical reasons, including in order to give birth. The Government of Australia has refused to allow them to be reunited in Australia, despite the fact that neither Nauru nor Papua New Guinea are considered suitable places of settlement for the vast majority of refugees.

In more than one instance, children have also remained in Nauru separated from an adult parent sent to Australia for medical care. This has had a particularly devastating effect on their deteriorating mental health.

This latest incident goes beyond a refusal to reunite families, to instead actively and indefinitely separate them. Current legislation prevents the Sri Lankan mother in this case from ever sponsoring her spouse to join her and their child in Australia. The husband and father is likewise prevented from ever obtaining even a short-term visa to visit his family. Sadly, the family members expect to be kept apart indefinitely.

UNHCR is urging the Government of Australia to uphold the fundamental principle of family unity, and allow family members to be together.”

Replying to journalists’ questions, Mr. Mahecic said that the couple had been in a customary marriage since 2016, a relationship of which they had notified the authorities. The wife and baby had been granted asylum the previous week, but the husband could not be included in their application by virtue of having already submitted an application prior to forming the relationship. The Minister for Home Affairs had discretionary power to allow a second claim in exceptional circumstances or to grant a visa on compassionate grounds. Since 2013, asylum seekers arriving by sea had been barred by law from applying for any type of visa. The prohibition could be lifted only by the Minister for Home Affairs, who had in the past five years exercised his discretionary power to grant temporary visas. Since a relationship with either a permanent resident or citizen of Australia was an eligibility requirement for all family visas, asylum seekers were in essence precluded from sponsoring and reuniting with their family.

Announcements

Michele Zaccheo, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, made the following announcements:

-17 July marked the twentieth anniversary of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. A number of events, including the presence of the President of Nigeria, would be taking place in The Hague and could be followed by webcast on the ICC site ( http://player.cdn.tv1.eu/statics/66005/icc.html )

-The UN Secretary-General had returned to New York after travelling to Costa Rica for the fortieth anniversary of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. While there, he had held a press conference with the President of Costa Rica, where he had addressed the deteriorating situation in Nicaragua.

-Wednesday, 18 July would mark the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, and Nelson Mandela International Day. The occasion would be celebrated at the United Nations in Geneva with a ceremony at 12.30 p.m. in Room XX, Palais des Nations.

-On Wednesday, 18 July at 10 a.m., the Human Rights Committee would continue the discussion of its draft general comment on "the right to life".

-The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women would meet in private until the end of its seventieth session. At around 4 p.m. on Friday, 20 July, the Committee would issue its concluding observations on the reports of the eight countries reviewed during the session, namely Australia, Cyprus, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Turkmenistan, the State of Palestine, New Zealand and Cook Islands.


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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog170718