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8 January 2016

Ahmad Fawzi, Director a.i. of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing attended by spokespersons for the World Health Organisation, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Refugee Agency, United Nations Children Fund and International Organization for Migration.

United Nations

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon confirmed the appointment of Parfait Onanga-Anyanga of Gabon as his Special Representative for the Central African Republic and Head of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).

Geneva Activities

In Geneva, the Committee on the Rights of the Child was scheduled to open its 71st session on Monday, 11 January, during which it would review reports from 14 countries : Senegal, Iran, Latvia, Oman, France, Ireland, Peru, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Maldives, Zambia, Benin, Brunei, Kenya.  The Committee would meet in double chambers at the Palais des Nations, and not at Palais Wilson where it usually met. A background release had been issued on Thursday, 7 January.

WHO-approved new production facility will double availability of cholera vaccine in 2016, from three to six million

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organisation (WHO), said that Thursday 14 January would hopefully mark end of Ebola transmission in Liberia and make the three countries free from the disease.  He introduced Dr Stephen Martin, of WHO Emergency Vaccines and Stockpiles who would brief on cholera vaccines and availability.

Full information in WHO briefing note.

Dr Martin announced that WHO had approved a new production facility for cholera vaccine, which in 2016 alone would double the amount of available vaccine, from three million doses to 6 million doses.  The new facility also had the potential to greatly increase the amount of vaccine production in the next three to four years.  With global shortage of cholera vaccine, the new production facility was a step in the right direction, said Dr Martin.  One of the results of stockpiles is turning the vicious cycle of low demand-low production-high unit cost-inequitable distribution, into a virtuous cycle which reduced costs and increased equitable access to the vaccine.  By committing to creating a stockpile and buying the amount of vaccine, WHO encouraged production of the vaccine and so exert pressure on its price.  Currently WHO was purchasing the cholera vaccine for the stockpile at 1.84 USD per dose, but the expectation was that the price would drop to 1.45 USD with the inclusion of this new producer.

The cholera stockpile was created in June 2013, and since then WHO had deployed it 21 times in ten countries, largely within the context of outbreaks and humanitarian crises, but not exclusively.  The introduction of the new producer might allow for the use of the stockpile in predictable endemic situations, such as rainy seasons start, cholera cases increase, etc.  The stockpile had been used in Nepal, Iraq, Ethiopia, DRC, Malawi, South Sudan, Guinea, and Haiti and in 2015 the demand had been greater than the supply.

Globally, one to 1.5 billion people were at risk of cholera, with the world afflicted with seven pandemics in the past.  Cholera only came to the attention of the global stage when it became highly politicized such as in Zimbabwe, Sierra Leon, or Haiti.  Often forgotten was that with such a huge at risk population, cholera was widely not recorded and under-reported, and it was expected that stockpiles would add to the quality of data.

Cholera was a disease of the poor, and as yet was not vaccine-preventable;  it could be prevented by water and sanitation, hygiene and social mobilization, stressed Dr Martin.  The vaccine provided a new impetus and focus to the cholera programme, which WHO hoped would allow for a wider distribution.

Yemen Peace Talks

Responding to questions concerning the holding of the Yemen Peace Talks, Mr. Fawzi reminded the journalists that, at the end of the December round of talks which had taken place in Switzerland, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, Special Envoy for Yemen, had announced that the talks would resume on 14 January, in a not-yet-confirmed location.  The Special Envoy was working with the parties to the conflict to confirm their participation in the next round of peace talks, said Mr. Fawzi.

After the briefing, the Spokesman issued a Note to Correspondents in which he confirmed that the Special Envoy was "back in the region."  He had met with the Foreign Minister of France Laurent Fabius in Paris on 6 January, and then travelled to the United Arab Emirates for a meeting with the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Mohammed Qarqash, and several other high-level Government officials.  The Special Envoy arrived in Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, today 8 January, where he would meet with the Vice President and Prime Minister of Yemen Khaled Bahah, the Government of Yemen delegation to the talks, leaders of Yemeni political parties, and senior officials of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  The Special Envoy would be traveling to Sana’a, Yemen soon.

OHCHR urges Yemeni Government to reverse the decision to expel the Country Representative

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), urged the Yemeni Government to reverse their decision to declare the OHCHR country representative as persona non grata, citing the fears of the consequences on the safety of OHCHR staff.  Mr. Colville stressed that OHCHR’s mission was to report on the human rights situation and civilian safety, regardless of the origin of responsibility, and noted that in Yemen, 2,800 civilians had been killed over the past nine months.  OHCHR had not ignored the situation in Taizz, as the Government claimed, on the contrary, it had spoken about the situation in this town on numerous public occasions, including during press briefing in Geneva on 5 January.  The expulsion of the OHCHR representative was likely to complicate the ability of OHCHR to implement the resolutions adopted by the Human Rights Council  in September 2015 and assist the Yemeni Government to fulfil their human rights obligations and assist in a national independent commission inquiry to carry out its work in accordance with international obligations.

Responding to questions, Mr. Colville said that the Country Representative was not in Yemen at the moment and that he had planned to return at the end of the week.  At the moment, 18 staff were in OHCHR in Yemen.

A journalist said that more than 40 journalists had been detained for many months by the Houthis in San’a and other cities, and that no information was available on their situation.  What were the High Commissioner for Human Rights and his Office doing for those journalists?  Mr. Colville said that OHCHR had made more than 50 public statements on Yemen, including on Taizz.  As far as arrested journalists were concerned, OHCHR was silently interceding on the ground on their behalf and had issued public statements months ago when the first journalists had been arrested.

In response to a question on the flow of humanitarian assistance to Taizz, Mr. Colville said that access and supply of Taizz had been problematic for seven months, although some  supplies were getting through.  This was the worst affected city in Yemen, with 375 civilians killed and 522 wounded since the fighting started.

The situation in besieged Syrian town of Madaya “horrendous”, says OHCHR

On Thursday 7 January, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis had issued a joint statement calling for unimpeded humanitarian access to people in hard-to-reach areas in Syria, where humanitarian tragedy continued to unfold, said Mr. Fawzi.  The plight of nearly 400,000 people besieged by parties to the conflict was of particular concern.  Almost 42,000 people remaining in Madaya were at risk of further hunger and starvation.  The UN had received credible reports of people dying from starvation and being killed while trying to leave.

The full text of the statement in English and in Arabic.

Asked about the High Commissioner’s silence about people dying of hunger in Madaya, Mr. Colville said that the situation there was horrendous and confirmed that OHCHR was feeding into the joint statement issued on Thursday 7 January.  As for the rest of the country, the Commission of Inquiry on Syria was still running and would take lead on the human rights front.  OHCHR would react publicly if the planned convoy to Madaya would not be allowed to get through, and it continued to monitor the situation very closely and liaise with other United Nations agencies, both on the situation in Madaya and on the very alarming situation in two Shiite villages nearby where the population was besieged by the opposition forces for many months. 

A journalist said that, according to the reports by Médecins Sans Frontières, at least 23 people had starved to death in Madaya and that non-governmental organizations were comparing the situation in besieged areas to concentration camps.

“The situation in Madaya is ghastly”, said Mr. Colville.  Although it was hard to verify various figures because of lack of access, there was no reason to doubt them, and there was no reason to doubt that the situation there, and in other parts of Syria, was very grave, he added.  The government forces were preventing the aid getting in Madaya, while and the opposition forces were preventing access to two neighbouring majority Shia villages – both sides were culpable.  Non-governmental organizations were often better placed to provide information as they were on the ground; OHCHR was unable to have staff on the ground in Syria since the beginning which limited its ability to track the situation closely.

Still, OHCHR was very engaged on the situation in Madaya, and was actively liaising with other UN agencies in getting more attention on this situation and on breaking the impasse and bringing the food and medical aid to the population, stressed Mr. Colville.

Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that estimated 42,000 persons were in Madaya including 17,000 displaced people from other areas.  Severe food shortages and cases of malnutrition including severe malnutrition, had been reported.  Across Syria, 4.5 million people were in hard-to-reach areas and besieged locations, reminded Mr. Edwards.

Responding to questions on the planned convoy to Madaya, Mr. Edwards confirmed that UNHCR was one of the United Nations agencies involved in the planning of the convoy to Madaya where it would send non-food items for 40,000 people.  The negotiations on the convoy were ongoing and that the date had not been set as yet.

Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), added that half of the 42,000 people in this town were children in need of urgent life-saving assistance and confirmed the participation of UNICEF in the convoy.  While unable to confirm Médecins Sans Frontières report that six of the 23 persons who had starved to death in December 2015 were children, Mr. Bouilerac expressed UNICEF' great concern about the reportedly devastating humanitarian situation in Madaya, particularly the deteriorating nutritional situation among the children and lack of basic supplies amid a harsh winter.  The tragic situation of children in Madaya was an example of the dire situation of close to 4.5 million people, including over two million children, living in hard-to-reach and besieged areas across Syria, said Mr. Boulierac and called on the parties to conflict to facilitate unimpeded and sustained humanitarian access to those in need.

Mr. Colville said that deliberate starvation of civilians amounted to war crimes under the international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid to take part in the conference on promotion and protection of human rights in the Arab Region

Mr. Colville confirmed that the Regional Conference on the Role of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Promoting and Protecting Human Rights in the Arab Region would take place in Doha, Qatar on 13 and 14 January, and that the High Commissioner for Human Rights would participate.  “It is a meeting with countries in the region, non-governmental organizations, human rights defenders and others interested in the human rights in the region,” he said.

With more than 2.3 million people forced to flee, South Sudan is one of the world largest humanitarian emergencies

Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), expressed UNHCR's growing concern at the rising insecurity in South Sudan’s state of Western Equatoria, where fighting between local groups and the government soldiers was driving the people from their homes. More than 4,000 people had fled into a remote region of north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in December 2015, while the number of new arrivals had risen to more than 6,000 during the first week of 2016.  Two years of conflict in South Sudan had produced one of the world’s largest humanitarian emergencies, with 2.3 million people forced to flee their homes.

Additional information in UNHCR briefing note.

Mr. Edwards, answering questions, said that progress on peace were vitally needed in South Sudan as the consequences of the conflict were devastating. 

More than one million asylum seekers arrived to Germany in 2015

Joel Millman, for the International Organization of Migration (IOM), said that 46 people had drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean during the first week of 2016, which was a great source of concern.  In 2015, Germany received 1.1 million asylum seekers and 476,000 asylum applications; 30 per cent of those were from the western Balkans states: Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo, Yugoslavia, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.  On the relocation of 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, Mr. Millman said 5,200 refugees had arrived in December 2015.

Further information in IOM press briefing note.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://webtv.un.org/
(due to a technical problem, the webcast will only be available on Monday)