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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

11 May 2018

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

Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Mr. Peter Salama, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that, on 3 May 2018, WHO had been informed by the Ministry of Health of the Democratic Republic of the Congo of a cluster of suspicious cases and deaths centred on the town of Bikoro, Equateur province. On 5 May, a joint WHO-Ministry of Health investigation team had taken five samples, which had been brought to the central laboratory of the Ministry of Health in Kinshasa the following day. On 8 May 2018, WHO had been notified by the central laboratory that two of the five samples had tested positive for Ebola virus disease. WHO had estimated figures for the period between 4 April and 9 May 2018, showing a total of 32 Ebola virus disease cases, of which 2 were confirmed, 18 probable and 12 suspected, including 18 deaths. Figures released by the Ministry of Health covered the period from 8 May, and thus differed from those issued by WHO.

The patients presented with fever, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, myalgia and arthralgia, and some also showed haemorrhagic signs and symptoms. All cases were reported from the catchment area of the Ikoko-Impenge health facility, located 30 km from the central health zone office of Bikoro, which was 280 km by road from Mbandaka, the capital of Equateur province.

WHO and Médecins sans frontières (MSF) already had a response team on the ground and a second team, with between 20 and 40 specialists in epidemiology, logistics, social mobilization, contact-tracing and vaccination programmes, was being set up. Personal protective equipment had been deployed and it was hoped that mobile laboratory facilities would be functioning by the weekend. Access to the area was extremely problematic, as it was 15 hours by motorcycle from the closest town; WHO was discussing with the World Food Programme (WFP) the possibility of clearing the runway in Bikoro and setting up an air bridge, which would be costly but was the only realistic solution.

The response plan, closely coordinated with MSF, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and WFP, covered surveillance and understanding the mechanics of the outbreak and would focus on safe burials, case management and any necessary public health measures, such as vaccination. With the help of the Wellcome Trust and the United Kingdom Department for International Development, WHO had been able to release US$1 million from its contingency fund on the day the outbreak had been declared.

The outbreak was of particular concern for several reasons: the Ebola disease virus was particularly deadly, with a fatality rate of between 20 and 90 per cent. While it might be hoped that the remote location would help to prevent rapid spread of the virus, the outbreak had already been identified in three locations over a range of 60 km. Furthermore, health workers could be an amplification factor in the spread of the disease, and three health workers were already known to have been infected, one of them having died on 10 May. Finally, the number of suspected, probable and confirmed cases was significant. WHO was therefore planning for all scenarios, included the worst case scenario.

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), made the following statement:

“Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock has announced an immediate US$2 million allocation from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to help humanitarian partners in the DRC fight and contain a new outbreak of Ebola virus disease. Urgent activities include critical health action such as surveillance, treatment, community mobilization and sensitization, safe and dignified burials, and supporting logistics services. “We know that coordinated early response will be critical containing this outbreak. This CERF allocation will help our humanitarian partners to deliver vital services to people in affected communities and to stop the spread of the virus,” said ERC Lowcock.”

Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that UNICEF had already mobilized a team of two doctors specialized in water sanitation and hygiene and community communication to begin working alongside the Government and WHO in assessing the situation and implementing the response. Action would focus on communication with the local communities to help protect people and to promote hygiene and sanitation. Supplies such as chlorine spray, soap and water purification tablets had been sent, along with posters to raise public awareness.

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Salama said that the fatality rate would depend not only on the strain of the virus – Zaïre ebolavirus - but also on the quality of treatment, including good rehydration, and whether early isolation was achieved. The response had been rapid, with WHO setting up a full emergency management team within an hour of the official declaration by the Government, and the partner agencies were well coordinated and currently on standby. Technical materials were already available in the local languages. The 2014 Ebola outbreak had highlighted the need for community engagement, and some of the other agencies were well placed to ensure that useful messages were well disseminated. As had been the case with the 2014 outbreak, traditional burial and healing practices could amplify the outbreak and cause superspreading, but it was hoped that the rapid response this time would lead to a different outcome.

The Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo had not yet taken a formal decision to trigger use of the experimental vaccine that had been developed, but WHO was putting everything in place to ensure that supplies were ready if requested and GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, was ready to help, with stockpiles currently available, including in Geneva. However, the requirements for delivery of the vaccine, including a very strict cold chain, were complex and would be difficult to meet, but there were teams in Guinea who had experience with conducting vaccinations in the field and the Guinean Government had been approached to release them to help in DRC.

As concerned the potential spread of the outbreak, the provincial capital of Bikoro had a population of around 1 million; if the virus reached there, it would be a huge challenge to eradicate it. There were also multiple factors in different regions of the country that could amplify its effects, were it to reach them: recent outbreaks of cholera, logistical issues and poor health facilities, in addition to the armed conflict.

The risk for spreading at regional level was defined as ‘moderate’, because of the proximity to the Congo river, which links with the capitals of two of the nine surrounding countries, the Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.

Pierre Formenty, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that a number of anthropologists had already reached the area concerned. While many traditions, such as those related to burials, were similar throughout the Central African region, there were several different ethnic groups concerned and any procedures developed would need to take the differences into account.

Response to flooding in East Africa (Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia)

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), made the following statement:

“Heavy rains in Somalia’s Juba and Shabelle river basins continue to cause flash and riverine flooding. An estimated 220,000 people have been displaced out of a total of 718,000 affected. Humanitarian partners and Somali authorities are providing life-saving assistance, logistical support to move people to higher grounds, and distributing sandbags to repair river breakages.
In Ethiopia, flash floods are expected to continue in flood-prone areas. In April alone, nearly 171,000 people were displaced across the country, the majority by flooding in Somali region. Floods have also destroyed some 13,000 hectares of farmland and damaged health facilities and schools. The Government and partners are dispatching emergency relief including safe drinking water and hygiene and sanitation relief which is crucial to avoid a re-emergence of acute watery diarrhoea.
In Kenya, more than 311,000 people have been displaced by floods and the death toll has risen to 132, including some 30 people who were killed in Nakuru, when a dam bursts its banks on 9 May. The Government and partners, in particular the Kenyan Red Cross, are responding including with search and rescue of people marooned by floods.”

Yemen civilian casualties

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

“The month of April was the deadliest month for civilians in Yemen so far this year, with a sharp increase in casualties. At least 236 civilians were killed and 238 injured in Yemen in April – a total of 474 civilian casualties, well over double the 180 civilian casualties documented in March this year.

In the first week of May, the heavy toll continued, with 63 civilian casualties documented by the UN Human Rights Office in Yemen, including six deaths and 57 people injured.

We are deeply concerned about the sharp increase in civilian casualties and call, again, on all parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law. Recent attacks against sites located in densely populated areas, including Monday’s airstrikes against the Presidential Office in Sana’a raise serious doubts about respect for the principles of precaution, distinction and proportionality in international humanitarian law. Based on the information collected by the UN Human Rights Office, the first raid directly hit the Presidential Office, which is located in a densely populated area. Eyewitnesses told us that the same building was hit again about seven minutes after the first strike, causing additional casualties among the first responders to the first strike. In another recent incident, 24 civilians were killed and 13 others injured by a Coalition airstrike against a gas station in Hajjah Governorate.

We have also documented casualties resulting from apparent indiscriminate shelling by the Houthis, including recent incidents on 1 and 2 May, during which five civilians were injured and one killed.

Between 26 March 2015 and 10 May 2018, our office has documented a total of 16,432 civilian casualties – 6,385 dead and 10,047 injured. The vast majority of these – 10,185 civilian casualties were as a result of airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led Coalition.”

Responding to a question from a journalist, Ms. Shamdasani said that OHCHR was in constant contact with the authorities in Saudi Arabia, attempting to achieve a reduction in the violence. It was also pushing for independent investigations to be conducted into cases of raids that had caused large numbers of civilian casualties, as yet without success.

Answering a question, Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that, on 9 May, the United Nations Secretary-General had condemned the escalation of the attacks, and Martin Griffiths, the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen was maintaining contacts with all the parties concerned to try to bring them to the negotiating table.

Cambodia opposition convictions upheld

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

“We are disappointed at the decision by Cambodia’s Court of Appeal yesterday to uphold the “insurrection” convictions of 11 opposition party members and supporters, despite concerns about fair trial rights and the perception of Government interference at the time of the trial.

The men, members and supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), were originally sentenced on 21 July 2015 to between 7 and 20 years in prison in relation to violence during a demonstration at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on 15 July 2014.

The UN Human Rights office in Cambodia monitored both the original trial and the appeal. While the appeal hearings were procedurally correct, they did not address the fair trial defects that marred the initial convictions. During the initial trial, the accused were unable to cross-examine the complainants and were not given adequate time and opportunity to present their defence. This raised doubts with regard to the guarantees of a fair trial and equality of arms. At the appeal hearing, the original complainants – members of an auxiliary security force engaged by the Government – admitted that they had merely signed on to complaints drafted by others.

The demonstration on 15 July 2014 ended in deplorable violence, with dozens injured. However, no evidence was produced during the trial or appeal to link any of the 11 accused men with the violence, or the charges of “insurrection” defined in law as “collective violence liable to endanger the institutions of the Kingdom of Cambodia or violate the integrity of the national territory”. None of the injured complainants or video recordings of the incident that were presented as evidence identified any of the accused men as having undertaken, incited or guided any violent acts.

The “CNRP 11” – who have already spent nearly three years in detention – appear to have been convicted for their political opinion, and for exercising their rights to freedom of expression.

We have previously raised concerns about the Government of Cambodia using the judiciary to silence opposition parties, civil society organisations and dissenters. Similar concerns have long been raised by international mechanisms.”

Cuba human rights defenders

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

“There are deeply worrying reports that officials in Cuba have prevented a number of human rights defenders and civil society representatives from boarding flights to travel to meetings abroad on the pretext of requiring more detailed identity checks. These measures have resulted in passengers missing their flights and therefore the meetings, which in some cases were organised by a UN entity.

So far this year, the UN Human Rights Office has received direct information relating to 14 cases of Cubans being told by officials that the computer system required extra screening. We are also aware of reports that dozens of other people may have been stopped in this way from travelling, allegedly with no explanation by the Cuban authorities as to why they were held up nor on whose orders.

These cases suggest that these additional checks are being used deliberately as a form of intimidation, pressure and harassment against certain individuals. Civil society organizations have also told us that they were informed verbally by the authorities that their representatives would not be allowed to leave the island before June.

We have previously expressed our concern at the harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders in Cuba, including the arbitrary arrest and short-term detention of individuals, particularly before, during and just after demonstrations.

We call on the Cuban authorities to respect everyone’s right to freedom of expression and to freedom of movement, and to ensure that human rights defenders and civil society representatives are not unjustifiably prevented from travelling, including those planning to attend UN meetings, in particular the Universal Periodic Review of Cuba on 16 May in Geneva.

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” Article 19 of the Universal Declaration states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The UN Secretary-General presents an annual report to the Human Rights Council on intimidation and reprisals, and in October 2016 the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, was designated to lead the monitoring and response to reprisals for cooperation or intimidation, including that which aims to discourage or prevent future co-operation with the UN system. Cuba was among the countries named in the last two reports.

The UN Human Rights Office will continue to monitor such cases to ascertain whether they merit inclusion in the next report.”

Responding to a question from a journalist, Ms. Shamdasani said that the issue of reprisals against human rights defenders had been raised with the Cuban authorities by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, several of the United Nations Special Procedures and Andrew Gilmour, the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights. OHCHR had specific information on 14 cases of individuals being prevented from leaving the country and had been told that members of civil society organizations had been informed by the authorities that they would not be allowed to leave the country before June 2018.

Nicaragua protests

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

“We are concerned at the volatile situation in Nicaragua, where, according to information from credible sources, to date at least 47 people - the majority of them students, as well as two police offices and a journalist - have been killed in connection with protests that began in mid-April.

The demonstrations began as a reaction to social security reforms but have now widened to include calls for investigations into, and accountability for, these deaths, and to demand justice and democracy.

On 7 May, we officially asked the Nicaraguan authorities to grant us access to the country so that we can, in line with the UN Human Rights Office’s mandate, gather first-hand information about what happened during the protests and to resume contact with the authorities and others in the country.

We note that the Nicaraguan National Assembly has created a truth commission to investigate the deaths and allegations of torture and enforced disappearances during the protests. For its investigations to be credible, the Commission must be independent, and able to conduct its work in a transparent and impartial manner.

With demonstrations continuing, including a march that passed off in Managua on Wednesday, we once again call for an investigation into all acts of violence and credible and inclusive national dialogue.”

Asylum seekers on Mexico-United States border

In response to questions from journalists, Ms. Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was concerned about the practice being used by the United States of America on its border with Mexico of separating refugee children from their parents. She said that it would only serve to increase the vulnerability of such persons, and the best interests of the child, which in the situation concerned would not be separation, should always be held paramount.

Mr. Charlie Yaxley, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that preserving family unity was the fundamental tenet of refugee protection. Most of those attempting to enter the United States of America at its southern border came from three Central American countries where there were high levels of violence and persecution, often targeted at young people. UNHCR encouraged States to use alternatives to detention for asylum seekers and, in particular, to provide special facilities to allow families to remain together. The United States of America had a strong track record in ensuring proper reception for families, which it was encouraged to maintain.

Announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the Human Rights Council universal periodic review session was continuing with the review of the situation in Canada. The reports on Turkmenistan, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Germany, Uzbekistan and Tuvalu would be adopted in the afternoon.

Ms. Vellucci also said that the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination would close this afternoon, around 4pm, its 95th session, and issue its concluding observations on the six reports reviewed during the session – those of Kyrgyzstan, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Mauritania and Sweden.

She added that the Committee on the Rights of the Child would open next Monday (14 June), at the Palais Wilson, its 78th session, due to last until the 1st of June and during which it would review reports from Argentina, Angola, Algeria, Montenegro, Russian Federation, Lesotho and Norway.

Ms. Vellucci noted that the Conference on Disarmament would begin next week the second part of its annual session which will last until the 29th of June (the third part of the session will take place from 30 July to 10 September). The first public plenary meeting of this second part of the session would take place on Tuesday, 15 May, at 10am, still under the presidency of Ambassador Sabrina Dallafior of Switzerland.

Press Conferences

Friday, 11 May at 2.00 p.m. in Press Room 1

UNCTAD

Publication of the Technology and Innovation Report 2018: Harnessing Frontier Technologies for Sustainable Development (under embargo until 15/05/2018 at 5 pm GMT)

Press conference by Shamika Sirimanne - UNCTAD - Director - Division on Technology and Logistics; Angel Gonzalez-Sanz - UNCTAD - Chief - Science, Technology, and Information and Communication Technologies Branch - Division on Technology and Logistics

https://bit.ly/2wmsiyl

Monday, 14 May at 10.30 a.m. in Room III

ILO UNDER EMBARGO UNTIL MONDAY, 14 MAY at 20:00 GMT (22:00 GENEVA TIME)

Launch of the report: “World Employment and Social outlook 2018 - Greening with Jobs”

Press conference by Deborah Greenfield, ILO Deputy Director-General for Policy; and

Catherine Saget, Lead author of the report

https://bit.ly/2IaOJvF


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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog110518