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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

2 February 2018

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons for the World Health Organization, the International Organization for Migration, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the International Labour Organization.

Situation in Yemen

Dr. Nevio Zagaria, World Health Organization (WHO) Country Representative for Yemen, speaking by telephone, said that 15.4 million people in Yemen required health-related humanitarian assistance. The Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen for 2018 had requested USD 2.9 billion in funding, compared with USD 2.2 billion for 2017. The increase was an indication of the further deterioration of the humanitarian situation in most parts of the country. In 2017, donors had been very generous and 70 per cent of the appeal amount had been funded; however, only 35 per cent of the USD 420 million needed for the health sector had been forthcoming. Thanks to additional funding made available by the World Bank, it had been possible to reach 10 million of the 11 million people in need.

The situation in Yemen was very difficult. The conflict was escalating and expanding into new areas and civil servants were not being paid, particularly in the health sector. WHO estimated that there were 30,000 new cancer patients in Yemen each year; in 2017, only 10,500 new cases had been registered and only 40 per cent of those had received full and appropriate treatment.

Asked to provide an update on the blockade of entry points to Yemen, Dr. Zagaria said that the ports in the south of the country were open and operational. The port of Hudaydah, which had been blockaded in November and early December 2017, had reopened to consignments of fuel, humanitarian supplies and commercial cargo, including food. Nevertheless, aid agencies were still having problems ensuring the continued flow of medicines and supplies through Hudaydah.

Asked to provide an update on the diphtheria outbreak, Dr. Zagaria said that the current number of suspected cases stood at 914, with 59 associated deaths. The case fatality rate had dropped from 6.5 per cent to 10 per cent in the space of a few weeks. While it was not possible to say whether the outbreak had peaked, Ibb governorate, which had recorded 40 per cent of all cases, had seen a decline in the number of admissions to the isolation unit that had been set up there. The reduction in new cases and admissions was perhaps the result of the deployment of rapid-response teams to identify the contacts of individuals who had fallen ill and the vaccination campaign for children aged below 7 years that had been conducted in that governorate in November and December 2017. The epidemic was nevertheless continuing to spread to other districts. In early February, a further vaccination campaign would target children aged between 8 and 15 years in 41 districts.

Asked about the overall situation in Yemen, he said that operations had become more difficult over the past two months. The number of checkpoints had increased, with 214 on the route between Aden and Sana’a alone. The delivery of humanitarian assistance had been impeded, with operations in the southern part of the country currently suspended, although it was hoped that they would resume within a few days. While national and international WHO staff remained in Aden, they were currently unable to reach hospitals to distribute medication.

Migrant deaths off the coast of Libya

Olivia Headon, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), speaking by telephone from Tunis, said that approximately 90 migrants had reportedly drowned when a boat capsized off Zuwara, in the west of Libya, in the early hours of 2 February. IOM staff and partners on the ground had been told that 10 bodies, said to be those of 2 Libyans and 8 Pakistanis, had washed up in Libya, while 2 survivors had managed to swim to shore and another had been rescued by a fishing boat. IOM was working to ascertain more details of the incident while the Libyan Cost Guard was searching for more survivors.

In 2017, Pakistan had ranked thirteenth among the countries of origins of migrants arriving in Italy from Libya, with 3,138 arrivals. In 2018 to date, Pakistan ranked third, with 240 of its nationals having arrived during January 2018, compared with just 9 in January 2017. The reasons behind the increase were not known.

In 2018 to date, 6,624 people had arrived in Europe by sea and 246 deaths had been registered in the Mediterranean.

In response to questions from journalists, Ms. Headon said that it was unclear why the boat involved in the latest incident had capsized.

Supreme Court of Maldives overturns conviction of former President

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

“We urge the Government of the Maldives to fully respect yesterday’s decision by the Supreme Court to overturn the conviction and order a retrial of former President Mohamed Nasheed and to release eight other political prisoners who have been detained in the Maldives, as well as the Court’s reinstatement of 12 suspended opposition Members of Parliament.

As you know, we have been expressing concerns about the situation in the Maldives for several years, so we are closely watching how the situation develops in the aftermath of yesterday’s decisions by the Supreme Court, and in particular the reactions of the Government, military and police. We understand the situation is extremely tense.

We are concerned by what appears to be an initial heavy-handed reaction by security forces in the capital Male against people celebrating the Court’s decision, and urge them to show understanding and restraint, and to act in full accordance with international laws and standards governing the policing of protests and other forms of public assembly. We also urge all those celebrating, or protesting, to do so in a peaceful fashion.”

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Colville said that Mr. Nasheed, who was currently in exile in London, had called for people to remain calm. While the Supreme Court had overturned his conviction, the possibility of a retrial meant that legal proceedings against Mr. Nasheed might not yet be over.

Suspension of TV stations in Kenya

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

“We are concerned that three TV stations remain suspended for the third day today in Kenya after the Government accused them of “complicity” for airing footage of opposition leader Raila Odinga’s self-proclaimed “inauguration ceremony”.

We understand that this is in spite of an interim order by a Kenyan High Court, instructing the Government to allow the TV stations to resume transmission. We call on the Government to respect and implement the judicial decision. We are also concerned at the Government’s attempts to interfere with the rights to freedom of expression by reportedly warning that participation in the “inauguration ceremony” would lead to revocation of licences. Media organisations that disregarded this advice were shut down.

We urge the Government and the opposition in Kenya to work towards resolving the current situation through dialogue, with full respect for the rule of law and the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and political participation.”

Asked whether the shutdown of television stations had prevented the rioting that had been predicted if Mr. Odinga’s ceremony went ahead, Mr. Colville said that it was dangerous to make a connection between the two events. Despite the shutdown, most people in Kenya had been aware that the ceremony was taking place. The fact that the ceremony had passed off peacefully and that the police had appeared to take great care to avoid any problems was a positive sign.

Detention of journalists in Myanmar

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

“We deeply regret the continuing detention of two Reuters journalists in Myanmar, following yesterday’s decision by a court in Mingaladon to refuse bail, and we repeat our calls for their immediate release and for the charges against them to be dropped.

On 12 December last year, Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone were arrested in extremely murky circumstances after being invited to meet police officers in a restaurant in Yangon.

Along with the Secretary-General, the Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression and on Myanmar – and many others – we are alarmed at the serious erosion of freedom of expression in Myanmar.

The United Nations is in contact with both Reuters and the Myanmar authorities over the case of the two men.”

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, recalled that the Secretary-General had previously expressed his concern at the erosion of press freedom in Myanmar and called for the international community to do whatever it could to secure the release of the journalists and to ensure press freedom in the country.

Ms. Vellucci also recalled that on 1 February, Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, had said that the reports of possible mass graves were troubling and underscored the need for the United Nations, human rights mechanisms, humanitarian actors and the media to have access to Rakhine State.

Asked whether any independent information was available regarding recent press reports of the discovery of mass graves in Myanmar, Mr. Colville said that an extraordinary number of people in the refugee camps in Bangladesh had given coherent and consistent reports of grotesque killings in Myanmar. The recent press reports were one more element to support the need for the authorities to allow teams into Myanmar to investigate and to provide humanitarian assistance to people in need.

Bangladesh - Preparedness for the monsoon season (UNHCR)

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

“UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its partners are ramping up efforts to mitigate some of the expected impacts of the upcoming monsoon season in Bangladesh. The adverse weather conditions, including potential cyclones, could put tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees staying at the highly congested settlements in Cox’s Bazar district at serious risk.

The Government of Bangladesh has acknowledged and committed to addressing these concerns while UN and humanitarian partners have set up an emergency preparedness group to co-ordinate these efforts.

The findings of an initial risk analysis, mapping the world’s largest refugee settlement area in Kutapalong and Balukhali which shelters more than 569,000 refugees, indicate that at least 100,000 refugees could be in grave danger from landslides and floods. Working closely with experts at Dhaka University - UNHCR, IOM, REACH and the ADPC (Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre) carried out this assessment, which suggests that up to one third of the settlement area could be flooded. As a result, more than 85,000 refugees could lose their shelters. Another 23,000 refugees living on steep slopes within the site could be at risk of landslides.

In addition, key services in the settlement, installed by humanitarian agencies, working with the Government of Bangladesh, are also at risk of being washed away, including latrines, washrooms, tube wells, and health centres.

Access roads into the settlements could be blocked and inaccessible to vehicles, making it hard to provide emergency aid. There is also a high risk for public health situation, especially of outbreaks of communicable diseases.

UNHCR has already taken a number of steps to better protect refugees. They include providing families with upgraded shelter kits, including biodegradable sandbags to help to anchor the structures, which are sturdier and can better protect them in heavy rains.

Several engineering projects are also underway to build bamboo-reinforced footpaths and stairs, raised bridges, bamboo/brick/concrete retaining walls for soil stabilisation and drainage networks.

The large-scale mechanised work is scheduled to start within the next few weeks to level some of the steep hilltops in order to reduce the risk of landslides, as well as to increase the amount of useable area. In addition, we will start to relocate some families living in the most precarious parts of the camp, who are most at-risk of landslides.

Early warning systems are also being put in place, with public information campaigns also underway to alert the refugee population of the risks they could face. The refugees lived in low-lying plains in the Maungdaw area of the Rakhine State in Myanmar and have not previously experienced landslides.

As part of our preparations for the monsoons, UNHCR is also working with the Bangladeshi authorities and other key operational agencies in the refugee settlements to pre-position materials and heavy-lifting machinery.”

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Mahecic said that any refugees who needed to be moved while the works were carried out would be relocated within the camp itself. The monsoon was expected to arrive in March or April and to continue for several months.

In response to further questions, he said that discussions with the Bangladeshi authorities regarding the Memorandum of Understanding were ongoing. On 26 January, an agreement had been reached on a data exchange involving the information collected in the family counting exercise conducted in the camps and the biometric registrations undertaken by Bangladesh.

World Cancer Day

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that World Cancer Day was marked on 4 February each year. This year, WHO was highlighting the fact that almost every family in the world was affected by cancer in one way or another.

Cancer was now responsible for almost one in six deaths globally, and while progress had been made in preventing and treating cancer and providing palliative care, advancements had not been accessible globally. In many countries, cancer was diagnosed too late, treatment was unaffordable or inaccessible and basic palliative care services were not available.

In the second half of 2018, Member States would implement guidance from the landmark 2017 World Health Assembly resolution and report on progress in achieving implementation of the road map of national commitments at the Third High-level Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases.

Cancer was one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality worldwide, with approximately 14 million new cases diagnosed in 2012. The number of new cases was expected to rise by about 70 per cent over the next two decades. Cancer was the second leading cause of death globally and had led to 8.8 million deaths in 2015. Approximately 70 per cent of deaths from cancer occurred in low- and middle-income countries, and around one third of deaths from cancer were due to the five leading behavioral and dietary risks: high body mass index, low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, tobacco use and alcohol use.

In response to questions from journalists, Dr. André Ilbawi, for the World Health Organization, said that there were a number of actions that developing countries could take to improve cancer outcomes. These included improving awareness of the disease at the community level, achieving early detection through improved diagnostic capacity in primary health care and ensuring accessible and affordable treatment. WHO was producing a report on access to cancer medicine. The report, which was due to be published in early 2019, would address issues including the cost of such medicine and its variability between countries, information which was often unavailable in the public domain.

OCHA announcement

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that at 1 p.m. on 5 February in Press Room I, Maria do Valle Ribeiro, Humanitarian Coordinator in Libya, would brief the press on the humanitarian situation in Libya and the priorities in the Humanitarian Response Plan for the country. The Plan requested USD 313 million to address the needs of 940,000 of the 1.1 million people in need in Libya, including vulnerable Libyans as well as migrant and refugees in the country.

UNCTAD announcement

Catherine Huissoud, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), said that a special issue of the Global Investment Trends Monitor would be launched at 11 a.m. on 5 February in Press Room I. The special issue would cover the impact of US tax reforms on global foreign direct investment.

Ms. Huissoud also said that the UNCTAD Trade and Development Board would hold an executive session on 5 and 6 February. During the session, the latest figures and economic trends from the 47 least developed countries would be presented.

ILO announcement

Hans von Rohland, for the International Labour Organization (ILO), said that on 5 February, ILO would launch a study examining the differing views of male and female economists regarding major economic and social issues, including austerity policies and renewable energy.

Geneva events and announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, announced that on 14 February at 9:30 a.m., the United Nations Information Service would hold a briefing at which the spokespersons of the United Nations agencies and programmes in Geneva would discuss their priorities and key messages for 2018.

Ms. Vellucci also said that the Committee on the Rights of the Child would close its seventy-seventh session on 2 February. The concluding observations of the eight countries it had reviewed during the session would be made available on the Committee’s webpage on the OHCHR website.

She also said that the next public plenary meeting of the Conference on Disarmament would be held on the morning of 6 February under the presidency of Sri Lanka.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog020218