15 May 2018
Rhéal LeBlanc, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section, United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
Violence at the Gaza/Israel border
Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, recalled that on 14 May 2018, the Secretary-General had expressed profound alarm at the sharp escalation of violence in the occupied Palestinian territory and the high number of Palestinians killed and injured in the Gaza protests. He had called on Israeli security forces to exercise maximum restraint in the use of live fire and had also urged Hamas and the leaders of the demonstrations to prevent all violent actions and provocations. With tensions high and more demonstrations expected in the coming days, it was imperative that everyone should show the utmost restraint to avoid further loss of life, including ensuring that all civilians and particularly children were not put in harm’s way. The ongoing violence underscored the urgent need for a political solution. He had reiterated that there was no viable alternative to the two-state solution, with Palestine and Israel living side by side in peace, each with its capital in Jerusalem.
Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), made the following statement:
“Fifty-eight Palestinians were reported killed by Israeli forces during yesterday’s protests along Israel’s perimeter fence with Gaza, according to numbers from the Ministry of Health in Gaza verified by the UN. The fatalities include six children and one health worker. More than 2,700 people were also reported injured, including over 1,300 by live ammunition. There were zero reports of fatalities on the Israeli side, but one Israeli soldier was lightly wounded and was taken to hospital for treatment yesterday.
Medical facilities in Gaza are struggling to deal with the number of casualties and the Humanitarian Coordinator, Mr. Jamie McGoldrick, yesterday expressed his deep concern about the tragedy unfolding in Gaza after visiting the Shifa Hospital in Gaza.
Mr. McGoldrick said that the medical teams at Shifa are overwhelmed, dealing with hundreds of cases of injured, including women and children, and are running out of essential medical supplies. He stressed that public hospitals in Gaza have less than a week of fuel reserves to continue their operations.
Local sources estimated that around 35,000 people participated in yesterday’s demonstrations, many more than in previous weeks. Hundreds of Palestinian demonstrators marched towards the perimeter fence where they burned tires and threw rocks at Israeli forces, and flew kites with flaming materials attached to them into Israeli territory. Israeli forces responded by firing rubber bullets and tear gas canisters, and by firing live ammunition, including by snipers.
Humanitarian responders have identified three areas of intervention to the growing crisis: providing immediate life-saving health care; monitoring, verifying and documenting possible protection violations; and scaling up the provision of mental health and psychological support for people injured or otherwise affected.”
Tarik Jašareviæ, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the capacity of the health sector in Gaza was already threatened after more than ten years of blockade, with long-term shortages of essential medicines and medical equipment and disposables. In May 2018, two in every five essential drugs were completely depleted and half have less than a month’s supply remaining. Life-saving drugs used in emergency situations, such as antibiotics and adrenaline, were urgently needed. Essential life-saving medicines used in longer term health conditions such as cancer were also critically low, with 80 per cent of medications for cancer treatment depleted or with less than a month’s supply remaining. It was imperative that supplies should be allowed into Gaza and that health workers should receive protection and be paid their salaries on a regular basis. In addition, fuel was much needed to run the generators on which hospitals depended.
Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), referring to a statement from the UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, said that UNICEF had received reports of child casualties in the events of 14 May, said to be the deadliest day of violence since the 2014 Gaza war. No child should ever be the target of violence and must not be put at risk of violence or encouraged to participate in violence. The current events were a reminder of the already acute crisis in the Gaza Strip. One in four children – or 250,000 children – was in need of psychosocial support owing to past trauma; and more than half of all children in Gaza depended on some form of assistance for their daily survival.
Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), made the following statement:
“We condemn the appalling, deadly violence in Gaza yesterday during which 58 Palestinians were killed and almost 1,360 demonstrators were injured with live ammunition by Israeli security forces. Of those injured, 155 are in critical condition. Six children and a health worker were among those who lost their lives, and 10 journalists suffered injuries from gunshot wounds. The already crumbling health care system in Gaza has been placed under incredible strain and those suffering life-threatening injuries face a nightmarish scenario in the absence of adequate hospital beds and medical services. We are still witnessing cases in which injured demonstrators are effectively prevented by Israel from exiting Gaza for treatment.
The rules on the use of force under international law have been repeated many times but appear to have been ignored again and again. It seems anyone is liable to be shot dead or injured: women, children, press personnel, first responders, bystanders, and at almost any point up to 700m from the fence.
A number of the demonstrators approached the fence, threw stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli security forces personnel, and flew kites laden with petrol soaked material. Some tried to damage the fence that separates Gaza from Israel. Others burnt tires. Israeli forces responded with tear gas, plastic bullets and various types of live ammunition, some causing horrific wounds and lifelong disability. We stress, again, that lethal force may only be used as a measure of last – not first – resort, and only when there is an immediate threat to life or serious injury. An attempt to approach or crossing or damaging the fence do not amount to a threat to life or serious injury and are not sufficient grounds for the use of live ammunition. This is also the case with regards to stones and Molotov cocktails being thrown from a distance at well-protected security forces located behind defensive positions.
Again, we call for independent, transparent investigations in all cases of death and injury since 30 March. Since 30 March, 112 Palestinians, including 14 children, have lost their lives at the fence and thousands have been injured. We are extremely worried about what may happen today – an emotional day on all sides – and in the weeks ahead. We urge maximum restraint. Enough is enough.”
Responding to questions from members of the press, Mr. Laerke, for OCHA, said that in order to monitor possible protection violations, humanitarian responders on the ground witnessed the events first-hand and spoke to those on the scene, including demonstrators or organizations providing first aid.
Responding to questions about the role of the United Nations in seeking a solution to the current crisis, Mr. LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the Secretary-General had repeatedly offered his good offices to bring the parties in conflict to the negotiating table. The United Nations offered a number of forums for discussing and finding solutions to crises. The legitimate desires of each party, including to live freely and in peace, needed to be understood. In the current situation, it was important that loss of life be prevented above all; both the Israeli security forces and Hamas and the leaders of the demonstrations had a responsibility to prevent further violence. The United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, had also recently met with Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, to discuss the situation in the Middle East, and had stressed the importance of calming the situation in that region. In addition, a Security Council meeting on the situation along the border between Israel and Gaza was expected to be held on Tuesday, 15 May. As expressed by the Secretary-General, the recent spate of violence made clear the need for a lasting political solution in the Middle East.
Responding to further questions from the press, Mr. Colville, for OHCHR, said that Israel had a right to defend its borders, but was under an obligation to do so in accordance with international law and principles. Under such law, the use of lethal force must only be a last resort. The number of casualties on both sides strongly suggested that the use of force by Israeli security forces was excessive. Furthermore, Israel had an obligation under international law to handle demonstrations in a way that preserved lives, unless their citizens’ own lives were very directly threatened; the mere approach of a well-fortified fence did not warrant the shooting of live ammunition. However, a proper investigation would be needed before any such claims could be confirmed. Once an investigation had been completed, it was hoped that anyone found to have breached international law or international humanitarian law, both of which applied to the recent violent events, would be charged and sentenced accordingly. He drew attention to the OHCHR press release of 27 April 2018, in which the United Nations High Commissioner had stated that in the context of an occupation such as Gaza, killings resulting from the unlawful use of force might also constitute willful killings, which were a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Although Israel had not always done so, it had on a number of occasions carried out investigations and found several members of its own security forces guilty of crimes committed in similar situations. However, as stated in the aforementioned press release, serious investigations only seemed to take place when video evidence had been gathered independently. So far, the official statements issued by Israel simply stated that Hamas was responsible for the current violence and ignored the fact that women and children and unarmed protestors were being killed in large numbers; an open, transparent investigation was therefore all the more important. He stressed that the term “genocide” should not be used lightly.
Asked whether the opening of the United States embassy in Jerusalem on 14 May 2018 was likely to have fomented the violence of the same day, Mr. Colville, for OHCHR, said that it was important to be cautious about such linkages of events. The seventieth anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel was always going to be hugely emotive both for Israelis and Palestinians. That being said, the transfer of the United States embassy to Jerusalem had not helped to reduce tensions. Quoting from the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, issued in 2004, he added that East Jerusalem remained an occupied territory and that had been a major factor in failed Middle East peace talks for decades.
Asked about the shortage of cancer medications, Mr. Laerke, for OCHA, said that Kerem Shalom Crossing – the designated point of entry and exit for goods from Israel to Gaza – was controlled by Israel, and had been closed indefinitely following an incident on 11 May 2018, during which Palestinians had caused extensive damage to the Crossing on the Gaza side. However, Israeli authorities had indicated that the crossing would be opened for “select humanitarian needs” on a case-by-case basis and had in fact allowed seven trucks – six of them carrying medical supplies – to enter Gaza on 14 May. There was a rising need for humanitarian aid, especially medical supplies. Mr. Jašareviæ, for WHO, added that the situation was not like that observed in Syria, where items were being individually checked and sometimes removed from shipments; in Gaza, the trucks themselves were not being cleared for passage, with the reason for such refusal not always clear. He further stated that the health cluster required at least USD 5.9 million to cover the immediate emergency needs.
Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Tarik Jašareviæ, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that on 13 May 2018, the WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had visited the town of Bikoro in the north-west of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to assess the response to the current Ebola outbreak. There, he had met with local and national health authorities and had assured them of the support of WHO and partners. The Ministry of Health in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was leading the response to the outbreak and had initiated its emergency response coordination mechanism. WHO was deploying some 50 public health experts to support the response; some were already on the ground, while others were on their way. In Bikoro, Iboko, and Mbandaka health zones, the Ministry of Health, along with WHO and partners, were strengthening surveillance for new cases including at points of entry, contact tracing, case management, community engagement, safe and dignified burials, response and coordination. Médecins Sans Frontières planned to establish a treatment center and to support infection, prevention control measures in Mbandaka and was currently supporting eight beds in Bikoro. There were concerns that the disease might spread to Mbandaka, the provincial capital from Bikoro, a smaller town some 250 km away.
Mr. Jašareviæ added that an air bridge has been established to deliver supplies and personnel, with daily flights by the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service and the World Food Programme operating from Kinshasa to Mbandaka and Mbandaka to Bikoro. The cost of the air bridge for 3 months was estimated at USD 2.4 million. WHO was also supporting the establishment of a mobile lab deployed by the Ministry of Health to Bikoro, which was now operational and would speed up diagnosis in suspected cases. The supplies being delivered included more than 30 tonnes of equipment, including personal protective equipment, Interagency Emergency Health Kits, body bags, ultra cold chain for vaccines, vaccination kits, a number of kits to deploy camp facilities and laboratory facilities. WHO logisticians had been on the ground since 9 May to train Bikoro health staff on infection, prevention and control measures. WHO had released USD 1.6 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund to rapidly scale-up operations and USD 2 million from the Contingency Fund for Emergencies. The Wellcome Trust had provided GBP 2 million for critical research needs. USAID has committed USD1 million and the Italian Government has pledged EUR 300,000 in support of the response. We need an estimated USD 25 million over the next three months. WHO was working with the Ministry of Health, GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, Médecins Sans Frontières and other partners to conduct vaccination of high-risk populations in the affected health zones as early as possible. The deployment of 15 vaccination officers was in process to support activities in Mbandaka. Some of the elements of the cold chain had already arrived in Kinshasa; they would require 24 to 48 hours to reach the appropriate temperature for the vaccines to be stored.
Olivia Headon, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), made the following statement:
“In support of the WHO and the Congolese Ministry of Health, IOM is focusing its Ebola response in DRC on population mobility mapping at border crossings and in the affected province of Equator, as well as risk communications and sanitary control. The affected region shares a border with the Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. People are continuously moving across these borders both by land and through the Congo River, which puts a great importance on the prevention and control of Ebola in the region and in the country.
Jean-Philippe Chauzy, IOM DRC Chief of Mission, said earlier today that communicable diseases like Ebola know no borders and this is why with the risk of crossborder transmission it is imperative that the neighbouring countries enhance surveillance measures and prepare to detect, investigate and respond to potential Ebola cases.
IOM’s population mobility mapping in the affected health zone and neighbouring health zones and throughout the full Equateur Province will help the humanitarian community know which locations are the busiest for people travelling through and so should have health measures strengthened, including risk communication, active case finding or health screenings and setting up of infection prevention and control measures, among other activities.
IOM will also monitor flows at major border crossings and congregation points to quantify cross-border and internal movements, and obtain the demographic and movement profiles of travellers. In addition, we will assist the facilitation of cross-border coordination and information sharing with neighbouring countries to ensure surveillance and operational readiness for early detection, investigation and response to potential cases of Ebola across borders.
IOM will also communicate with international travellers, internal travellers and host communities about Ebola prevention, detection and response in priority locations with heavy population movements.
IOM will also set up infection prevention and control measures at priority border crossings, travel routes and congregation points, which we’ll find through our population mapping. To carry out this work over the next couple of months, we are appealing to donors for USD 500,000 to be able to support the work in the affected province and at the border crossings to help prevent and control the spread of Ebola.”
Responding to questions from members of the press, Mr. Jašareviæ, for WHO, said that according to the most recent figures, 41 Ebola cases had been reported, including 2 confirmed cases, 20 probable cases and 19 suspected cases. Over 480 contacts had been identified; the majority were being monitored. Epidemiological teams were needed on the ground to do mapping of the probable cases and suspected cases and their respective contacts. For every confirmed case, there were 100 to 150 contacts and contacts of contacts; they all needed to be vaccinated. From the start, WHO and partners had spared no effort in putting response measures in place as quickly as possible; it was also important that response efforts were being led by the Ministry of Health. Discussions were under way with partners on whether unlicensed treatments might be used in the response to the outbreak. If a decision was taken to allow their use, a similar process to that for vaccines, involving a series of permits and protocols, would need to be applied.
Asked why Ebola virus disease had resurfaced recently, Mr. Jašareviæ said the Democratic Republic of the Congo was a vast country with a lot of tropical forests, in which the likely host species of bat lived; the virus could be transferred to humans either through direct contact or indirectly through other animals, such as monkeys. The Government was in a good position in that it had experience with the disease and knew what measures had to be taken to prevent its spread. That had not been true in the 2014 epidemic in West Africa.
Responding to questions about the Ebola vaccine, Mr. Jašareviæ said that people considered at high risk of contracting the virus, including local and international health workers and first responders, would be on the priority vaccination list. There were still three health workers among the probable or suspected cases. Epidemiological mapping was a crucial first step in order to carry out targeted vaccinations. Furthermore, the vaccine was but one element of the response – others included effective treatment centres and safe burials.
Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that UNICEF condemned an attack that had killed more than 25 people including 11 children, on 11 May, in northwest Burundi. According to several reports, children had been deliberately targeted after an attack on a village in Cibitoke province. Children needed peace and protection, as stated by Leila Pakkala, UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa. UNICEF called on all parties to immediately ensure full respect of children’s right to safety and their protection from violence. As Burundi was preparing to hold a referendum, UNICEF emphasized that protecting children and upholding their rights was a shared responsibility.
Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), made the following statement:
“The High Commissioner is issuing a press release today highlighting the rising tension following a recent deadly attack on a village in Burundi that left 26 civilians dead. More broadly, he is very concerned about a possible upsurge in violence during the run-up to Thursday’s controversial constitutional referendum, and this horrific incident could unfortunately key straight into that potentially lethal dynamic.
Ten women and 11 children were among the victims of the attack by unidentified armed men on the village of Ruhamagara, in Cibitoke Province, some 60 kilometres north-west of Burundi’s capital Bujumbura at around 10 p.m. last Friday. There are very differing accounts of whom the attackers may have been, and what the motive was. It may have been political – designed to impact on the referendum – or it may have been carried out for other reasons, including revenge. Local residents have reported the men wore military uniforms, but this does not necessarily indicate who they were. Either way, in this febrile atmosphere, it is a very dangerous development. Burundi is awash with rumours, political negotiations are deadlocked, and tensions are rising sharply in the wake of this attack, with many dreading what may happen during and after Thursday’s referendum.
We take note of the authorities’ announcement that they are launching an investigation and urged them to ensure it is transparent and credible. He also expressed his condolences to the families of the victims of Friday’s attack on Ruhamagara.
Because of the constant stream of violations over the past three years, and this extremely controversial and divisive referendum, the actions of the authorities are viewed with considerable mistrust by a sizeable segment of the population. We noted that a significant number of opposition politicians and others calling for a ‘No’ vote have been targeted for arbitrary arrests and detention by security forces, sometimes with the assistance of the notorious Imbonerakure group which supports the Government.
Everyone will suffer if Burundi explodes into violence during or after the referendum. The High Commissioner is urging the Government to live up to its responsibilities to provide the people of Burundi with peace, security and a fully functioning democracy where everyone’s human rights are observed, and the rule of law is applied equally to all. It has very little time to turn this around. While the opposition has much to oppose, it must also avoid any actions that could add fuel to the fire.”
Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), made the following statement:
“We are deeply concerned about the escalation in attacks by military forces and armed groups in Kachin and northern Shan States in Myanmar. Some 7,400 people have been internally displaced in Kachin State since early April, adding to the 100,000 already displaced. About 2,000 of these civilians spent about four weeks trapped in the jungle after fleeing the fighting in the conflict zone of Awng Lat, but this weekend, they were reportedly relocated to other towns in Kachin State. Many more remain trapped in areas of active fighting, with extremely difficult escape routes through mountains and forests, and in need of humanitarian support.
In Shan State, on Saturday, at least 14 civilians were reportedly killed and at least 20 others injured in attacks by armed groups, with the military mounting an offensive in response. There are also reports that the military, known as the Tatmadaw, has used heavy weaponry an aerial bombing in the region. More than 600 people have been displaced in Namtu Township in northern Shan.
We urge all sides to exercise restraint and to fully respect human rights and international humanitarian law, ensuring the protection of civilians at all times. The protracted conflict in Kachin and northern Shan States has already caused immense suffering, and we urge all sides to work to resolve the situation through a genuine, meaningful dialogue. We call on the Government to ensure that those who have been displaced or remain in conflict-affected areas have access to humanitarian aid.
We are also concerned about the reported arrests Saturday of those demonstrators in Yangon who were peacefully calling for an end to hostilities in Kachin State. We call on the authorities in Myanmar to respect the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.”
Mediterranean data and new indicators in the Balkan region
Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that the IOM team in Rome had recently reported rescuers providing support to a two-deck wooden boat carrying 180 people directly from Tunisia to Italy. There had been no casualties but the incident pointed to a growing trend of Tunisians arriving in Italy by sea from North Africa in 2018. An increasing number of people from Libya and Algeria were also arriving, whereas there had been a sharp decline of arrivals from certain sub-Saharan countries, such as the Sudan, Senegal and Guinea. In addition, so far in 2018, 6,642 migrants had been returned to Libya by the Libyan Coast Guard; such returns clearly had an impact on arrivals in Italy. Arrivals into Greece had been increasing, and were now nearly on par with those into Italy. Furthermore, a number of deadly incidents had been reported over the previous weekend: nine individuals had drowned off the coast of Cyprus; eight bodies had been recovered thus far. On the morning of 15 May, at least seven Afghan nationals, who were believed to have been trying to reach the island of Lesbos, had died. What had been modest activity in terms of fatalities in that region until very recently had therefore doubled and was now close to that during the same period in 2017. Available data showed that irregular arrivals through the eastern Mediterranean route had doubled in 2018 when compared with arrivals during the same period in 2017. Between January and April, Greek authorities had registered more than 10,400 new arrivals compared to 5,771 reported in 2017. New arrivals and the prolonged presence of a significant number of stranded migrants in the transit countries (estimated at more than 62,000 at the end of April 2018) had resulted in increased further movement of migrants through the Western Balkan countries.
Mr. Millman added that in terms of worldwide migration, at least 20 bodies had been found in ranchlands across Brooks County, Texas, which was regularly crossed by migrants trying to avoid detection. That was a rate of more than one victim per week at a time that was considered a slow period, hence a cause for concern.
Tarik Jašareviæ, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that in addition to the two press conferences scheduled on 15 and 16 May, respectively, the WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, would meet with the press on Thursday, 17 May, at 1.30 p.m., i.e. prior to the beginning of the World Health Assembly, scheduled to open on Monday, 21 May.
Catherine Huissoud, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), said that media launches of two major reports – the Shale Gas report and the Economic Development in Africa report – would be organized by UNCTAD on 23 May, at 11 a.m., and on 25 May, at 12 noon, respectively.
Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that on Tuesday, 15 May, the Committee against Torture would have a short public meeting at 3 p.m., at the Palais Wilson, on the follow-up of articles 19 and 22 of the Convention Against Torture. The Committee would then meet in private until the closure of its sixty-third session, on Friday, 18 May, at which time it would issue its concluding observations on the six reports reviewed during the session – those of Norway, Senegal, Belarus, Qatar, Czechia and Tajikistan.
Mr. LeBlanc also announced that the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which had opened its seventy-eighth session on Monday, 14 May, at the Palais Wilson, would finish its consideration of the report of Argentina on the morning of 15 May and would begin its consideration of the report of Angola in the afternoon of the same day. The Committee was also due to review reports from Algeria, Montenegro, Russian Federation, Lesotho and Norway during its current session.
Mr. LeBlanc drew attention to the 2018 AI for Good Global Summit, which had opened on Tuesday, 15 May, at the International Telecommunication Union.
Mr. LeBlanc announced the first public plenary meeting, on Tuesday, 15 May, of the second part of the annual session of the Conference on Disarmament.
Tuesday, 15 May at 3 p.m. in Press Room 1
First-ever WHO list of essential diagnostic tests to improve diagnosis and treatment outcomes
Wednesday, 16 May at 3 p.m. in Room III
Launch of first WHO report on the costs and gains of investing in prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases
The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog150518
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