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19 January 2018

Rhéal LeBlanc, Chief, Press and External Relations Section, United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons and representatives for the United Nations Children’s Fund, the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization.


Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, recalled that, ahead of the talks on Syria scheduled to take place in Vienna on 25 and 26 January, the Deputy Special Envoy for Syria had met with the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister the previous day and expressed to him that the United Nations sought to make significant progress in the implementation of the provisions of Security Council resolution 2254, in particular with regards to the constitutional basket. The Deputy Special Envoy had reiterated that the United Nations endeavoured to bring the positions of the Syrian Government and the opposition closer, which would lead to consensus on the full implementation of all the provisions of the Security Council resolution, without preconditions and ensuring that the solution would be Syrian-made with the help of the United Nations.

Situation of children in Iraq

Peter Hawkins, UNICEF Representative in Iraq, speaking by telephone from Baghdad, said millions of children in Iraq were currently in need following many years of conflict and lack of investment. While the damage caused, particularly in West Mosul, Ramadi and Fallujah, had severely impacted on quality of life, there were signs that children were eager to resume their lives and begin learning as part of their own recovery.

It was important to remember, however, that many children across Iraq continued to live in extreme poverty. Their rights were not being met and they were receiving suboptimal education. Many schools were operating double or even triple shifts, meaning that students received 10 contact hours per week at most. Approximately 1 in 5 children were living in poor families.

While violence had subsided in some areas, the operation to mop up the remnants of ISIL was ongoing around Iraq’s western border with Syria and some fighting was continuing in Hawija.

UNICEF called on international partners to maintain their already very generous contributions both for humanitarian efforts and throughout the recovery period. While the Government needed to increase investment in education, the international community needed to ensure that education played a positive part in the future of Iraq and contributed to security and economic development.

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Hawkins said approximately 1 million children had fled Mosul either temporarily or permanently, and 1.3 million children remained displaced across Iraq. Aid agencies were now able to enter West Mosul, where the biggest threat to children was unexploded ordnance. There was also extensive damage to housing. Around East Mosul, life was returning to normal – markets were open and supplies were coming in. Convoys of trucks were leaving East Mosul on a daily basis carrying scrap metal as people set about rebuilding their lives. Social cohesion was key to life in the city, and communities there were determined to emerge strengthened and more unified than before.

In response to further questions, Mr. Hawkins said unexploded ordnance had been cleared from almost all schools and that UNICEF was working with local authorities to ensure that students were taught about the associated dangers. While some children from families associated with ISIL were being held in detention, others were being supported to reunite with family members in other parts of the world.

Asked about Kurds who had been displaced in Tuz Khurmatu, Mr. Hawkins said the prevailing situation in that area was not good. Tensions were high and large numbers of people were continuing to move around. UNICEF was concerned for the children who had been displaced and working towards ensuring they were protected.

Humanitarian Compendium

Olivia Headon, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said IOM had released its compiled humanitarian funding needs for 2018 and was appealing for almost USD 1.4 billion to address the needs of more than 80 million people in 50 countries.

These vital funds would support people displaced within the borders of their own countries, migrants, refugees and the communities that host them, people returning to their areas of origin and people experiencing or recovering from conflict and natural disasters. The appeal covered planned activities in crisis prevention and preparedness, emergency response, transition and recovery, with the aim of building resilience within communities so that they would be better placed to cope with a subsequent humanitarian crisis or shock.

The planned areas of support included shelter and non-food items, activities to promote solutions to displacement, support for community stabilization and transition, camp management and displacement tracking and health support.

The compilation comprised country-specific appeals that were typically part of the Humanitarian Response Plans.

In response to questions from journalists, Ms. Headon said the countries where IOM required the most resources were, in order, Bangladesh, Libya, Syria, South Sudan, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iraq. Many of those countries were experiencing internal displacement, some of them in tandem with conflict, environmental concerns and natural disasters. In 2016, IOM had provided support to almost 20 million internally displaced persons around the world. When designing programmes, the Organization aimed to assist the most vulnerable first, including children and persons with disabilities. In 2018, one of the Organization’s main goals was to help people develop business plans and establish their own livelihoods.

Asked about IOM’s priorities in Libya, Ms. Headon said IOM was a major implementing partner of the European Trust Fund in supporting migrants with voluntary humanitarian returns to their home countries. As part of the current appeal, IOM’s work in Libya was intended to support Libyans affected or displaced by the crisis and migrants in the country, both inside and outside of detention centres. Community stabilization was a key intervention, particularly in the south of Libya.

Cameroonian refugees in Nigeria

William Spindler, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), made the following statement:

“With the number of people fleeing English-speaking areas of Cameroon for Nigeria growing, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is increasingly concerned at the plight of women and children among them.

Women and children represent about 80 per cent of the approximately 10,000 refugees registered so far in eastern Nigeria’s Cross River state. Thousands more are among the population of unregistered Cameroonians in neighbouring states.

Some of these are boys and girls who fled to Nigeria alone. Unaccompanied and separated children are particularly affected by difficult access to food and the lack of subsistence opportunities.

UNHCR staff have received numerous reports that children have to work or beg to survive or to help their families. Many children are unable to attend school, as they lack both the time and funds for education. Although schooling in Nigeria is free, there are still some basic costs, such as those for school materials.

UNHCR is working with the Nigerian authorities to assist with the reunification of separated children with their families, to provide unaccompanied children with protection services and to restore the basic right of all children to education. Some children arriving to Nigeria reported to UNHCR that they had been out of school in Cameroon for the whole of the past academic year.

For women, the lack of work combined with the over-stretched reception facilities, creates a higher risk of sexual and gender-based violence, particularly from survival sex. So far, only a limited number of such cases have been recorded, mainly in the Amana community of Cross River state. However, UNHCR is concerned that many more incidents go unreported or are referred only to community elders. Incidents of domestic violence, as well as cases of teenage pregnancies involving girls as young as 14, have also been reported.

In Nigeria’s Benue state, where two school buildings have been reserved by authorities to serve as temporary refugee hosting accommodation, women and their families are forced to sleep inside communal school halls, deprived of private space and the right to family dignity. For them – and for the rest of the population living in temporary tents hastily built next to local residences – sufficient and appropriate shelter is key to ensure adequate registration, systematic aid distribution and reduced protection risks.

UNHCR is currently working with the Nigerian authorities to identify sites away from the border, where the refugees can be hosted according to international standards. We are also establishing offices in the towns of Calabar and Adikpo to better provide assistance and protection to the women and children. Our support includes food, basic relief items, health, and water and sanitation facilities.”

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Spindler said that while 10,000 refugees had been registered to date, there were likely many more, more than half of whom were children. Efforts were being made to increase registration capacity in order to obtain a clearer idea of the numbers of people and their needs. The emergency was in the initial stages and people were continuing to cross the border with whatever they could carry. They were mostly setting up unmanaged informal settlements close to the border. Work was under way to move people away from the border area and into planned camps with access to services.

Ethiopia release of detainees convicted of offences relating to the unrest and protests in 2015 and 2016

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

“We welcome Ethiopia’s decision to release 115 federal detainees on Wednesday 17 January.

The ruling Coalition has also indicated that cases against some 400 other detainees held at the regional level are being discontinued.

These are positive developments. We urge the Government to continue to take steps to release individuals detained for expressing their political views.

The Attorney General has indicated that detainees eligible for release exclude those suspected of murder, causing injury, destruction of infrastructure and attempting to overthrow the constitutional order by force. We appreciate the seriousness of some of the offences that may have been committed, but we urge the Government to review these conditions to ensure that they are neither interpreted nor implemented too broadly, thereby resulting in people being arbitrarily or wrongfully detained. We recall that pretrial detention should be the exception and not the rule and should be based on an individual assessment.

The Government has also announced that there will be investigations into recent instances of violence and killings. Such investigations should be prompt, independent, impartial, transparent, effective and thorough, and those found responsible should be held fully to account.

We reiterate the need for similar investigations into allegations of all human rights violations committed since the unrest began in Oromia in November 2015.

We recall that the High Commissioner during his visit to Ethiopia in May 2017 requested the Ethiopian Government to consider giving the Office access to areas affected by protests and violence in Ethiopia to assist the authorities in creating a stable and open democratic space for all its people.

The Government has stated its willingness to review its anti-terrorism legislation and laws regarding civil society and the media. Such a review should be aimed at bringing these laws into international human rights law and principles and result in Ethiopians being able to protest peacefully and express their opinions. We stand ready to offer our support with regard to such a review.”

Asked whether, despite the Ethiopian Government’s claims to the contrary, OHCHR believed that some of the prisoners had been detained for political reasons, Ms. Throssell said some of the people who had been released had been political figures. There were concerns that the exclusions set out by the authorities could be interpreted broadly and lead to people being kept in detention because of their political views. There were reports that during the state of emergency some 20,000 people had been detained, but some had since been released. OHCHR stood ready to help at what was a key moment for Ethiopia.

Honduras mass protests related to election results

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

“We are concerned about the risk of heightened unrest in Honduras, amid continuing tensions following the disputed November presidential election, and call on all political parties, media and civil society representatives to refrain from any statements that may be interpreted as an incitement to violence. The opposition has announced widespread nationwide protests starting on 20 January, culminating on 27 January, when Juan Orlando Hernández is due to be sworn in as president.

Between 29 November and 22 December, at least 22 people were killed in the context of post-electoral protests – among them 21 civilians and one police officer. We have verified information that 13 of these deaths were at the hands of the security forces.

Our Honduras Country Office on 13 January voiced concern at the extensive and indiscriminate use of tear gas to break up demonstrations the previous day, 12 January, and condemned acts of vandalism. We once again call on all parties to refrain from violence, and for the right to peaceful assembly to be respected.

We reiterate the call made by our Honduras Office for the authorities to undertake an assessment of the rules of engagement, including the use of force, and for the security forces to use only necessary and proportionate force, in line with international law, in policing demonstrations. There should be full public accountability for any use of lethal force, which should be strictly restricted to the protection of life, in accordance with international human rights law.

We also call on the Honduran authorities to avoid using the Military Police and the armed forces to police demonstrations, functions for which they are neither effectively trained nor equipped.”

In response to questions from journalists, Ms. Throssell said the Honduras Office was engaged with all sectors, including the Government, political leaders and civil society, with a view to discussing the human rights ramifications of the ongoing protests and excessive use of force. In the light of the political polarization, OHCHR encouraged all sides to engage in dialogue.

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, recalled the statement made by the Secretary-General on 12 December, in which he had expressed concern about the incidents of violence, calling for restraint and for the authorities to uphold the rule of law and respect for human rights.

WTO agenda for the upcoming week

Fernando Puchol, for the World Trade Organization (WTO), announced that on 22 January, the Director-General of WTO would meet the Chairman of Japan External Trade Organization and the Colombian Minister of Trade, Industry and Tourism.

On 24 January he would travel to Davos for the World Economic Forum, where he would hold several bilateral meetings and participate in a number of panels, discussing topics including eCommerce. On 26 January, also in Davos, he would attend the Informal WTO Ministerial Gathering hosted by the Swiss Government.

As part of the regular WTO agenda, the Dispute Settlement Body would meet on 22 and 25 January, while the Gambia would undergo its Trade Policy Review on 23 and 25 January.

Lastly, on 26 January there would be a seminar discussing the crisis-era trade distortions that had been holding back European Union exports in comparison to American, Chinese and Japanese rivals and the implications for the EU commercial policy and the multilateral trading system.

WHO Announcements

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), announced that the Director-General of WHO would speak at four events at the World Economic Forum in Davos, including as part of an interactive panel entitled “New era for global health”, which would take place at 1 p.m. on 25 January.

Mr. Lindmeier recalled that the 142nd session of the WHO Executive Board would be held from 22 to 27 January. The Director-General’s opening remarks on the morning of 22 January would be webcast.

Geneva events and announcements

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, speaking on behalf of Rolando Gomez for the Human Rights Council, said that on 19 January, the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review was reviewing the human rights record of Barbados and would adopt the reports for France, Tonga, Romania, Mali, Botswana and the Bahamas.

Mr. LeBlanc also said that on 19 January, the Committee on the Rights of the Child would conclude its review of the report of Seychelles. Later in the current session, the Committee would review the reports of Spain, Solomon Islands, Palau and the Marshall Islands.

He also said that on 23 January, the Conference on Disarmament would hold the first public plenary of its 2018 session. The plenary meeting would be attended by the Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Ms. Izumi Nakamitsu, who would deliver the statement of the Secretary-General to the Conference. The 2018 session would open under the presidency of Sri Lanka; later in the session that position would be held by Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey. The three parts of the session would take place from 22 January to 30 March, from 14 May to 29 June and from 30 July to 14 September.

Asked whether the Secretary-General would attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mr. LeBlanc said it was unlikely he would be attending but the United Nations would be represented at the event by Liu Zhenmin, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, and Michael Møller, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, among others.

Asked to comment on an article in the Guardian newspaper regarding allegations of sexual harassment at the United Nations, Mr. LeBlanc said the Secretary-General had made it clear that sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse were not to be tolerated. A number of measures were being taken to ensure that such things did not occur and to protect the victims. Mr. LeBlanc recalled that the Secretary-General had appointed Jan Beagle to lead a task force to examine the processes in place in the United Nations and assess how complaints could be dealt with more quickly and more effectively.

Press conferences

Monday, 22 January at 11:00 a.m. in Room III
Launch of the report: “World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2018”
Under embargo until Monday, 22 January at 8:00 p.m. GMT (9:00 p.m. Geneva time)

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog190118