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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

7 June 2019

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

Libya: Detention conditions for migrants and refugees, and flooding

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

“We are deeply concerned about the ghastly conditions in which migrants and refugees are being held in detention in Libya – with some 22 having died of tuberculosis and other illnesses in the Zintan detention facility since September 2018 – as well as ongoing reports of disappearances and human trafficking after people were intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard.

So far this year, a total of more than 2,300 people have been picked up off the coast of Libya and put in detention facilities. And the Libyan Coast Guard reports that since 30 April, it has delivered hundreds of people to a facility in Al-Khoms, which is under the oversight of the Department for Combatting Illegal Migration (DCIM). This includes 203 people who were delivered there on 23 May. However, the Al-Khoms facility reports that there are currently only 30 migrants present. This is particularly worrying given reports that migrants are being sold for forced labour or to smugglers promising transit to Europe. There are also reports that some women have been sold for sexual exploitation. We have long documented the kinds of horrific abuses to which migrants and refugees are subjected in Libya.

We urge the Government of National Accord to immediately launch an independent investigation to locate these missing people. The Libyan Coast Guard and DCIM must ensure that they are accountable for every person in detention, and that their human rights are respected. We remind the Government that when a person dies in custody, there is a presumption of State responsibility. Libya has a heightened duty of care to protect the lives of individuals deprived of liberty, including providing them with the necessary medical care.

During a recent visit to the Zintan Detention Centre, where 654 refugees and migrants are held, we found them severely malnourished, lacking water, locked in overcrowded warehouses reeking with the smell of rubbish and waste from overflowing latrines. Those held in the facilities reportedly receive only one meal of 200 grams of plain pasta per day. Some 432 Eritreans detained in the facility – 132 of them children – reportedly receive only half of this amount. More than 60 people suffering from tuberculosis are locked in a separate isolation hangar. Thirty others have been moved to the Gharyan Detention Centre, south of Tripoli, very close to the current frontline. They have reportedly been sent there to die because there are no burial facilities for Christians in Zintan.

The conditions at Zintan Detention Centre amount to inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, and may also amount to torture.

Some 3,400 migrants and refugees remain detained in Tripoli, according to UN figures. We appeal to the authorities in Libya and the international community to ensure that migrants and refugees held in such detention facilities are immediately released, that evacuation, resettlement and voluntary humanitarian return options urgently expanded, and alternatives to detention are developed.”

Charlie Yaxley, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), read the following statement:

“More than 2,500 Libyans have been forced to flee their homes after heavy rainfalls caused severe flooding in the town of Ghat, some 1,300 km south-west of Tripoli. The rains, which started on 28 May, have already claimed the lives of four people, while thirty more are injured. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, is rushing aid to the area.

Many have been forced to move in with relatives, while others are sheltering in makeshift sites, such as schools and other community structures.

Rising floodwaters have caused severe material damage. Several main roads are blocked and telecommunications infrastructure has been disrupted for days. Ghat’s only hospital has been flooded. In some areas, houses and crops have been destroyed. People reliant on their farmland as their sole source of income are set to face major challenges ahead.

All 20,000 of Ghat’s inhabitants are now in need of humanitarian support. Shelter, food and basic items are urgently needed.

UNHCR has immediately dispatched core relief items including family tents, mattresses, blankets, drinkable water, kitchen sets, solar lanterns, plastic sheets and clothes for an initial 400 families.

The aid has been loaded on to trucks and is now en route to Ghat. It is expected to arrive by road later today.

UNHCR’s local partner, LibAid, is on the ground and has made preparations to receive the relief items and swiftly organize distributions to the affected population.

Further rainfall, albeit of reduced intensity, is expected in the coming days, worsening the challenges and risks.

UNHCR’s response is being carried out together with the Libyan authorities, United Nations agencies and other humanitarian partners as part of the Emergency Cell activated by the municipality of Ghat.”

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Colville said that OHCHR had long been voicing its concerns about women being sold into sexual exploitation in Libya. Its most recent report on that subject dated from December 2018. The 132 Eritrean children were defined according to the United Nations standard, as being persons under the age of 18.

In response to an additional question, Mr. Colville said that under no circumstances could Libya currently be considered a safe country to which to return intercepted migrants or refugees. OHCHR and the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) were recommending that European States should step up their own search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. They also called on those States to ensure that any cooperation with Libyan institutions should include safeguards to ensure respect for international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law, and should not contribute to human rights violations, directly or indirectly. Migrants and refugees who had arrived in Libya and were now fleeing due to the conflict required international protection. They should not be sent back, even if they had originally left their own countries as economic migrants.

Also responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Yaxley said that even persons who did not qualify as refugees were nonetheless in need of other forms of humanitarian protection, due to the extreme human rights violations they might face at the hands of human traffickers. It was very troubling that migrants were being intercepted and returned to detention centres in Libya faster than the Agency could get them out. In May, 1,024 persons had been returned, which was more than in the first four months of 2019.

Responding to additional questions, Mr. Colville said that, although tuberculosis was not necessarily fatal if sufferers had suitable living conditions and adequate medical care, it was clearly a major problem in the Zintan Detention Centre where 22 persons had already died of the disease. He was not aware what had happened to the persons who were unaccounted for at the facility in Al-Khoms, but the prevailing situation in Libya did not augur well for their fate.

Responding to a question raised by a journalist, Mr. Yaxley said that no refugees were implicated in the flooding but UNHCR had had aid items available, which it had distributed at the request of the Emergency Cell.

Protests and repression in the Sudan

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

“We continue to be gravely concerned about the situation in Sudan and have proposed the rapid deployment of a United Nations human rights monitoring team to examine allegations of human rights violations committed since 3 June 2019. We are seeking the cooperation of the Government to be able to deploy such a mission – which would seek to engage with relevant Sudanese authorities, civil society organizations and others – at the earliest opportunity.

Once again, we call on the authorities to ensure a prompt, independent investigation into the use of excessive force against protest camps – including the alleged involvement of the Rapid Support Forces, which includes among its troops members of the former Janjaweed militias that are linked to systematic human rights abuses in the Darfur region, between 2003 and 2008 in particular. Accountability is crucial to avoid further bloodshed. We stress the need for a swift transition to a civilian administration.”

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that, on Thursday 6 June, the deputy spokesperson of the Secretary-General had reiterated the full commitment of the United Nations to supporting the African Union initiative to reinvigorate an inclusive dialogue over the transfer of power to a civilian-led transitional authority. The United Nations stood ready to support Sudanese stakeholders in their efforts to build lasting peace.

In answer to a question from a journalist, Mr. Colville said that the violations in question had apparently been committed on 3 June. OHCHR had sent a note verbale to the Government on 6 June.

South Sudan ratifies ICCPR and ICESCR

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

“We welcome the unanimous ratification, without reservations of two vital human rights treaties this week by the Transitional National Legislative Assembly (TNLA) of South Sudan.

On Monday, the TNLA ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), as well as the first Optional Protocols to both instruments, which establish individual complaints procedures. Once the decision is signed by the President of South Sudan, the Government will need to deposit instruments of accession to the United Nations Secretary-General.”

Humanitarian situation in Idlib, Al Hol and Rukban

Jenifer Fenton, for the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria, read the following statement:

“As Najat Rochdi, Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the Special Envoy said yesterday, after the Humanitarian Task Force meeting, that 3 million civilians are in urgent need of protection. The horror of the situation is evident. If there remains a continuation in the escalating violence in and around the Idlib de-escalation area, it is obvious that a humanitarian catastrophe could be triggered.

The Senior Humanitarian Adviser noted this to the Humanitarian Task Force members and called on them to take meaningful actions. All parties must uphold their obligations under international law and immediately stop attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, including medical facilities, schools, markets and places of worship. Fighting terrorism doesn’t absolve any party of its obligations under international humanitarian law.

The Senior Humanitarian Adviser noted that there has been a relocation of more than 1,000 Syrians and 526 third-party nationals from Al Hol, but that some 72,000 persons remain, the overwhelming majority of whom are women and children. A durable solution is urgently needed.

There must be sustained and predictable humanitarian access to the Rukban settlement. The Humanitarian Adviser noted that the situation for persons remains critical due to a severe shortage of the most basic needs. She has called for the immediate delivery of assistance to the people there.”

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

“Humanitarians are deeply alarmed by the ongoing hostilities in north-western Syria and the near daily reports of civilians and civilian infrastructure coming under attack including by airstrikes, artillery shelling and barrel bombs.

Hostilities have resulted in at least 160 civilians confirmed dead and hundreds more injured. A total of 3 million people, the vast majority of them civilians, and more than 300,000 of them displaced in April and May, are in imminent danger.

Since 28 April, there have been 25 confirmed attacks on health care in the north-west, including 24 health facilities and one ambulance. Two of the attacked health facilities were hit more than once and at least 6 health workers have been killed.

The wider impact of such attacks is that other health facilities are now being evacuated in anticipation of possible attack, depriving tens of thousands of others of necessary health care.

Education is also under attack. As of 30 May, the United Nations has received 36 reports of attacks on schools in the north-west; 23 of these attacks have been verified in Idlib in the month of May alone.

Humanitarian organizations continue to respond to the needs of the people in the north-west with food assistance to newly displaced households and health services through mobile clinics in areas that are receiving displaced people.

Self-learning programmes, catch-up classes and remedial education are also being provided for thousands of students who could not attend school since the beginning of May.

These efforts are urgently needed and being scaled up where possible. But they are band aids. We call for an immediate end to indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. Such attacks are an inexcusable violation of international human rights and humanitarian law.”

Asked by a journalist whether the situation in Idlib was a “humanitarian catastrophe”, Mr. Laerke said that it was important not to focus too much on how a situation was described. A military escalation was definitely underway around Idlib but, after eight years of conflict in Syria, the language used to describe the situation had become exhausted. His concern was not about whether or not the situation officially amounted to a catastrophe, but for the individual civilians caught up in the fighting. They urgently needed peace and, for each one of them, the current state of affairs clearly was catastrophic.

Answering questions about the attacks against medical facilities, Mr. Laerke said that most of the strikes had been launched from the air. He could not comment on whether or not the attacks had been deliberate but some of the sites had been “deconflicted”, in other words they had been identified as protected medical facilities and their location had been shared with the warring parties. This was in addition to the fact that health facilities were already protected under international humanitarian law. Some facilities were still operating but, even before the military escalation, health care in Syria in general and in Idlib in particular had been very bad. Now there was an additional concern that staff and patients would abandon the remaining facilities for fear that they too would be targeted.

Responding to a concern that, by sharing the exact location of health facilities with combatants, the United Nations might actually be providing information that facilitated the attacks, Mr. Laekre said that it was the organizations running the health facilities that decided whether or not to seek “deconflicted” status by sharing their coordinates. In addition, many of the facilities had been built prior to the conflict and their location was already public knowledge. The main purpose of “deconfliction” was to ensure that no incidental harm came to the sites concerned, and to provide information that might help hold aggressors to account at a later stage. Of the 25 confirmed attacks on health care facilities, a handful had been against “deconflicted” sites. In 2018, the Security Council had been informed about six attacks against “deconflicted” facilities.

UNICEF scales up its humanitarian assistance to children in Venezuela

Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that there were currently 10 million children in Venezuela of whom 3.2 million – or 1 in 3 – required humanitarian assistance; i.e., help in accessing basic nutrition as well as health and education services. Fifty-five tons of UNICEF health supplies had reached Venezuela since the beginning of the year. The items, which were being distributed in 25 hospitals in the most affected states of Caracas, Miranda, Zulia, Bolivar and Táchira, included midwifery kits, antibiotics and malaria treatment. With those 55 tons, the total of UNICEF humanitarian assistance to the country in the previous year now stood at 200 tons.

UNICEF was concerned that the current situation in Venezuela had reduced children’s access to essential services and increased their vulnerability, rolling back decades of progress. According to United Nations estimates, under-5 child mortality had increased by more than half between 2014 and 2017. Moreover, 190 suspected cases of diphtheria and 558 suspected cases of measles had been recorded since the beginning of 2019.

Venezuela had once been a model of malaria eradication, and its northern region had been declared malaria-free by WHO in 1961. Now, it was the largest contributor to the malaria burden in the region. Between 2016 and 2017, reported cases had increased by over 70 per cent, and the number of persons dying of malaria had increased from 54 in 2010 to 456 in 2017.

Paloma Escudero, UNICEF Director of Communication, who had just finished a three-day trip to Venezuela, was quoted by Mr. Boulierac as saying: “People I spoke to painted a very grim picture of the health situation in the country. Many doctors and nurses have left the country. Medical centres are functioning at minimum capacity due to the shortage of medicine. Lack of spare parts has grounded mobile health units and ambulances. Pregnant women, many of them too young and anaemic, are struggling to get the care they need. With worsening fuel shortages, they are sometimes not even able to get to the health centres. Women in labour need to bring their own midwifery supplies when they check into the hospital. For a country that made remarkable progress for decades on the quality of its health care, this is quite dramatic.”

According to Mr. Boulierac, Ms. Escudero had added: “We are barely scratching the surface. Millions of children need to be immunized, go to school, drink safe water and feel protected. We have plans in place to further scale up our response, but we need increased flexible funding that would allow us to reach the children in need with the services they need.”

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Boulierac said that the recent shipment of 55 tons had been made up exclusively of health supplies, but it was important to remember that children in Venezuela were also in need of food and education. UNICEF was free to operate in Venezuela, where it had had a presence since 1960. It was scaling up its operations in the country and had recently opened three more offices in border areas. However, the dire situation of children meant that it needed to scale up even further. One of the limitations it faced in that regard was funding.

Replying to a request for more detailed statistics, Mr. Boulierac said that the number of out-of-school children had nearly doubled between 2013 and 2017, from 244,000 to 485,000, while the number of out-of-school adolescents had almost tripled from 115,000 to 300,000. Mortality among children under 5 had increased from 14 per 1,000 live births in 2010/11 to 31 per 1,000 live births in 2017.

UNICEF was purchasing, delivering and distributing its own vaccines and other supplies. It was also supporting a measles immunization campaign, which had been launched by the Government in May 2018 and aimed to vaccinate 4 million children. The strategy of the national authorities was to cover all children between the ages of 6 months and 15 years as well as persons up to the age of 39 years suffering from a confirmed or suspected measles infection. He was not aware that sanctions against Venezuela imposed by the United States of America were having any effect on UNICEF operations.

Australia

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

“It is not yet entirely clear precisely what prompted the police raid on the offices of the Australian Broadcasting Company. We call on Australia, a member of the Human Rights Council, to abide by the highest standards of due diligence with regard to freedom of expression, due process etc.

When restricting freedom of expression on national security grounds, States have an obligation to ensure that such restrictions do not go beyond what is necessary and proportionate for the protection of national security.

According to the Human Rights Committee, which monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it is incompatible with international human rights law to invoke national security laws to suppress or withhold from the public information of legitimate public interest that does not harm national security, or to prosecute journalists, researchers, environmental activists, human rights defenders, or others, for having disseminated such information. (General Comment 34, Human Rights Committee).

Restrictions on freedom of expression should never be enforced in the sole interest of a governing political party or other particular power group.

International law protects the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive or impart information. The confidentiality of journalists’ sources, including whistle-blowers, should be protected in law and in practice. Searches targeting journalists and media organizations – including, in this extraordinary case, the country’s highly respected national broadcaster – can have a very chilling effect on journalists and their sources in general.

Freedom of the media is essential for the protection of all human rights. Violations often come to light solely because of the work of investigative journalists, who play a crucial role in fostering transparency, and holding governments and other national authorities accountable for their actions.

Australia, like any other State, must abide by its international human rights obligations, including by ensuring that its national legislation is in line with international law.”

Update on the forthcoming International Labour Conference

Rosalind Yarde, for the International Labour Organization (ILO), said that the International Labour Conference would open on Monday 10 June, and around 45 Heads of State and Government were expected to take part. The opening ceremony would start at about 11.00 a.m., with an opening address by the ILO Director-General. The high-level section would then begin at 3.15 p.m. Among those expected to attend were the Presidents of Italy, France, Ghana, South Africa, Georgia and Cyprus, the Vice-President of Turkey, the Prime Minister of Russia and the Chancellor of Germany. The Secretary-General of the United Nations would address the plenary on 21 June.

A full list of VIPs attending was available on the Conference webpage, and their expected arrival times and the times they were expected to speak, were going to be made available to the accredited journalists. It was important to note, however, that the schedule was subject to change.

The VIPs would arrive in Hall XIV, where an area would be cordoned off for the media, where they could take photographs and ask questions. The webcast of the plenary would be available on the Conference website at the end of each meeting, in the form of downloadable indexed mp4 files. In addition, audio and video signals from the plenary would be made available in Room XVI, although there would be no editing facilities. There would be pool coverage of the arrival of Heads of State and Government, which would be made available on request. All official photographs would be distributed on the ILO Flickr site.

Access to the plenary meeting room was highly restricted for photographers and prohibited for videographers other than those of ILO and those officially designated by the State delegations. Limited space for cameramen – around 5 places – was available on a rotational basis in the diplomatic gallery on the fifth floor. Another 20 seats for non visual journalists were available in the press gallery, also on the 5th floor.

Answering a question posed by a journalist, Ms. Yarde said that the address of the ILO Director-General would be made available as soon as possible, in all probability, after it had been delivered.

Journalists wishing to attend the meetings of committees during the Conference – including the Violence and Harassment Committee – should submit a request 24 hours in advance. The decision as to whether or not to grant access to the media lay with the Committee chair and Vice-Chair.

Answering an additional question, Ms. Yarde said that the list of 24 countries to come under the scrutiny of the Committee on the Application of Standards would in all likelihood be made public in Tuesday 11 June.

Announcements

Tarik Jašareviæ, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that a press conference would be held in Press Room I at 1 p.m. on Tuesday 11 June to present the latest WHO estimates on mental health disorders in conflict areas, which were known to be significantly higher than among the population at large. Previous estimates were more than a decade old and the report would conclude that previous numbers for mental health conditions in conflict settings had been underestimated. The report being provided during the press conference would be under embargo until 12.30 a.m. on Tuesday 12 June, when it was due to be published in the Lancet.

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that, as requested by journalists, the regular UNIS press briefing of Tuesday 11 June could be moved to 2 p.m., if so desired.

Ms. Vellucci said that the United Nations Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People would be holding an international conference on the question of the preservation of the cultural and religious character of Jerusalem on 27 and 28 June, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Ms. Vellucci said that 7 June marked World Food Safety Day and 8 June was World Oceans Day. The topic of the latter for 2019 was “gender and ocean”, and the Day would be an opportunity to explore the gender dimension of the humankind’s relationship with oceans.

Ms. Vellucci said that she wished to remind journalists that at 10.30 a.m. New York time (4.30 p.m. in Geneva) on Monday 10 June, Melinda Gates and Jack Ma would be joining Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for a live webcast conversation on the report of the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation.

Press conferences

Tuesday, 11 June at 3:00 p.m. (under embargo) in Press Room 1
UNCTAD
Publication of the World Investment Report 2019: Special Economic Zones (embargo until 12 June 2019 at 5 p.m. GMT)
All embargoed documents are online in the virtual pressroom.
Speakers:
• Mukhisa Kituyi, UNCTAD Secretary-General
• James Zhan, Director, Division on Investment and Enterprise, UNCTAD

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog70619