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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

23 February 2018

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons for the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, the Human Rights Council, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Meteorological Organization, the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization.

Visit of the Secretary-General to Geneva

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the Secretary-General would be arriving in Geneva late on 25 February. On 26 February he would participate in the opening session of the Human Rights Council. In the afternoon, he would address the Conference on Disarmament, before returning to New York the same day. During his brief stay in Geneva, he would conduct a number of bilateral meetings.

Human Rights Council

Rolando Gomez, for the Human Rights Council, said that the Human Rights Council would open its thirty-seventh session on 26 February. The four-week session would run until 23 March.

On 26 February, the session would be opened at 9 a.m. in Room XX by the President of the Council, Ambassador Vojislav Šuc of Slovenia. His opening remarks would be followed by remarks from the President of the General Assembly, Miroslav Lajèák, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, and the Federal Councillor and Head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, Ignazio Cassis.

Thereafter, the Council would begin its high-level segment, which would run until 28 February. During the segment, 28 dignitaries were expected to speak, including the heads of state of Austria, Mozambique, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Australia.

On the afternoon of 26 February, the Council would hold its annual panel discussion on human rights mainstreaming, focusing on the implementation of recommendations made during the Universal Periodic Review. The panel would be opened by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and would feature a video statement by the Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed. Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, would act as moderator for the panel members, who would include Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, Robert Piper, Special Adviser on United Nations Reforms for the United Nations Development Programme, Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, Chair of the Development Assistance Committee for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Human Mobility of Ecuador, and Mary Robinson, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Mr. Gomez also noted that at 9 a.m. on 23 February, a press conference had been held to launch a report by the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan. The report would be presented to the Human Rights Council on 13 March.

Conference on Disarmament

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that on 26 February, the President of the General Assembly would address the Conference on Disarmament at 12.30 p.m., while the United Nations Secretary-General would do so around 3.10 p.m.

In response to questions from journalists, Ms.Vellucci said that, according to the most recent provisional information available, Kang Kyung-wha, Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea, would address the Conference at 11 a.m. on 27 February. Sergey Lavrov, Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, would do so at 11 a.m. or 11.30 a.m. on 28 February.

In response to questions from journalists, Michele Zaccheo, Chief of the Radio and Television Section, United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that while the meetings of the Conference on Disarmament would not be webcast, video coverage of them would be made available upon demand.

Cases of sexual exploitation and abuse

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, recalled that the previous day, the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General had given an update on cases of sexual exploitation and abuse in the United Nations system. Answering questions, Ms. Vellucci said that the figures would be distributed, together with a list of the ongoing initiatives to end impunity.

UNAIDS announcement

Mahesh Mahalingam, for the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), made the following statement:

“The UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director, Programme, Luiz Loures, has communicated his wish to the UNAIDS Executive Director not to seek the renewal of his position as Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UNAIDS.

The Executive Director of UNAIDS has accepted the decision and thanked Dr Loures for his long and dedicated service to UNAIDS.”

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Mahalingam said that this decision could not be characterised as a consequence of the alleged sexual assaults case against Dr Loures. The internal investigation conducted by the Office of Internal Oversight Services of the World Health Organization had clearly found that the allegations were unsubstantiated and that the case should be closed. Dr Loures had given 22 years of service to UNAIDS and felt that it was time for him to move on. His term would expire at the end of March 2018.

Syria

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, had reiterated that the humanitarian situation of the civilians in Eastern Ghouta was appalling. There was an urgent need for a ceasefire to stop both the horrific heavy bombardment of Eastern Ghouta and the indiscriminate mortar shelling on Damascus. Mr. de Mistura had added that the ceasefire needed to be followed by immediate unhindered humanitarian access and a facilitated evacuation of medical cases out of Eastern Ghouta. The Special Envoy had called upon the Astana guarantors to hold an urgent meeting to reinstall the de-escalation, and warned that the situation could not be a repeat of Aleppo.

Ms. Vellucci also said that in Geneva on 22 February, the Special Envoy had participated in the Ceasefire Task Force, the agenda of which had been dominated by developments on the ground, and in a focused meeting of Humanitarian Task Force members on Eastern Ghouta.

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), drew attention to the statement to the Security Council made by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, on 22 February.

Mr. Laerke read the following excerpts from the statement:

“Over the past 24 hours, heavy shelling and aerial bombardment on multiple communities in East Ghouta reportedly continued, resulting, it is reported, in the death of at least 50 people and wounding at least 200. According to some sources, the total death toll since 19 February is close to 300 people. […] At least seven health facilities were reportedly hit on 21 February. The only primary health care centre in Modira town was reportedly rendered out of service by airstrikes. A hospital in Duma city sustained significant damage from nearby barrel bombs. Also in Duma city, an obstetrics centre was damaged. A hospital in Jisrein town was reportedly attacked, resulting in the death of a nurse. The two Syrian Arab Red Crescent centres in Duma city and Harasta town were reportedly damaged by the bombardment. […]

Ground-based strikes and mortar shelling from eastern Ghouta are killing and injuring scores of civilians in Damascus city. […]

Eastern Ghouta is a living example of an entirely known, predictable, and preventable humanitarian disaster unfolding before our eyes. […]

When an entire generation is robbed of its future, when hospital attacks have become the new normal, when sieges of entire cities and neighbourhoods have become a lasting reality for hundreds of thousands of people, the international community must take urgent and concrete action. […] What we need is a sustained cessation of hostilities […] that will enable the immediate, safe, unimpeded and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and services, the evacuation of the critically sick and wounded and an alleviation of the suffering of the Syrian people.”

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), read the following statement:

“IOM, the UN Migration Agency, launched an appeal today [23 February 2018] for USD 193,767,960 to help 3 million Syrians displaced and affected by the conflict in Syria, Syrian refugees living in the region, and the communities that host them.

Seven years into the armed conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic, the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate. Over 13 million people are still in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria, including 6.1 million internally displaced. Nearly 3 million people are living in hard-to-reach and/or besieged areas.

In addition, over 5.5 million Syrians have taken refuge in the five neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. Since the crisis began, economic growth within host countries has been severely affected. With high unemployment rates, especially among young people, and limited resource availability, it is challenging for governments and municipalities to provide basic services.

Some areas of relative stability are emerging. IOM tracked 850,000 internally displaced persons returning to their areas of origin during 2017. During the same period, however, a far greater number, 2.9 million, continued to flee their homes, illustrating the continuing adverse effect of violence and conflict on the Syrian population.

Access to primary health care has been drastically reduced inside Syria, while agricultural production has been cut in half compared to 2011 levels. Livelihoods have also been severely hampered by the conflict and many areas of the country are contaminated by weapons. In a joint IOM-UNMASS assessment done in November 2017, IOM reported that 33 per cent of all sub-districts in Syria were contaminated by explosive hazards.

In this increasingly protracted situation, refugees continue to need access to durable solutions including resettlement and family reunification. In 2017, IOM organized the transportation of over 37,000 Syrian refugees from Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt to 23 countries including Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Norway, the United States of America and the Netherlands, among others.”

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Millman said that IOM was seeking to assist 1 million people with non-food items and shelter support, 800,000 people with access to safe water and services, 500,000 people with health services, 500,000 people with community-led protection services, 200,000 people with livelihood opportunities, 135,000 displaced people to receive adequate services in camps and 35,000 children to attend school.

Migrant deaths in 2017

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that the GMDAC global migrant research project in Berlin was releasing on 23 February its summary of the migrant fatalities recorded worldwide in 2017, which had totalled 6,142. It was the third consecutive year that the project had recorded more than 6,000 fatalities. Since IOM began tracking in 2014, more than 26,000 deaths had been recorded, but that was likely only a fraction of the real number.

In the Mediterranean, 3,139 deaths and disappearances had been recorded in 2017. That figure had been above 3,000 for the fourth year in a row. The number of deaths during the first 52 days of 2018 stood at 414.

The Missing Migrants Projects had recorded more than 1,700 migrant deaths in Africa in 2017, over 690 of which had occurred in the Sahara. The actual number was likely much higher. Experts contributing to the report had emphasized that horrific stories of abuse, torture and bonded labour were widespread among migrants who transited through the continent. In Africa, there were no publicly available sources of official data on migrant deaths, and media reports were difficult to track with more than 1,000 languages spoken on the continent.

In the Middle East, the death toll was also high. In the past year, IOM had repatriated to Afghanistan the bodies of 96 migrants who had died while crossing into Iran, 81 of whom had been the victims to vehicle accidents. The GMDAC report also contained startling statistics on Latin America.

Asked whether the number of migrant deaths occurring in the Sahara Desert was rising, Mr. Millman said that it was not possible to be sure. IOM staff were of the belief that there were potentially more migrants dying in the Sahara than in the Mediterranean, and that the numbers for the Mediterranean were themselves underreported.

Libya

Cécile Pouilly, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), read the following statement:

“UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is concerned at the plight of several hundred Libyan families prevented by armed groups from returning to their homes in the city of Tawergha and now stranded in difficult conditions.

The Tawergha community been displaced since 2011, when the 40,000 inhabitants of the city were forced to leave. Since then, they have been scattered across the country.

After a decree by the Presidency Council allowed for their return from 1 February, these families tried to move back to Tawergha. Pushed back again, many moved to two temporary sites. More than 1,200 people, mostly women and children, remain in these locations in dire conditions.

For the past three weeks, UNHCR has been providing much needed assistance, including handing out tents, blankets and winter clothes since temperatures are extremely low in the area. The most pressing needs are shelter, drinking water, food, medical assistance and support for children and babies.

To respond to the needs of more than half a million Libyans uprooted by the conflict, UNHCR has increased its capacity and resources by 300 percent in recent months.

UNHCR is supporting settlements of internally displaced people with humanitarian assistance, including through small-scale community projects, cash assistance and protection activities.”

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the World Food Programme had reported that it had provided vital food assistance to almost 3,000 displaced people stranded in the harsh Libyan desert as they struggled to return to their home town of Tawergha.

In response to questions from journalists, Ms. Pouilly said that the Tawergha community had been forced to leave their home following allegations that they supported Gaddafi. They had been optimistic about returning home after the publication of the decree, but had not been able to do so and now faced a second displacement in difficult conditions.

In response to further questions, Ms. Pouilly said that the figures she had available showed that there were 44,000 refugees living in Libya, most of whom were from Syria, Iraq and Eritrea. The figures were estimates; it was very difficult to get a full overview of what was happening in the country due to the chaotic situation there.

In response to questions from journalists, Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that IOM was working towards compiling a complete registry of the names of migrants being held in detention centres in Libya. While considerable progress had been made in that regard, Libya was a large country and information was coming in from some areas but not others.

Refugee deaths in Rwanda

Cécile Pouilly, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), read the following statement:

“UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is urging authorities in Rwanda to ensure safety and protection for refugees after protests led to the tragic deaths of at least five refugees and the injury of many others – including the members of the police force – on Thursday. We are shocked and disturbed at loss of refugee lives.

Around 700 Congolese refugees from Kiziba refugee camp were demonstrating outside the UNHCR field office in Karongi, in western Rwanda. The protests, ongoing since February 20, were related to food ration cuts that have added to the refugees' sense of despair and lack of long-term prospective. Police were reported to have used teargas to disperse the protestors, after attempts to resolve the situation had failed. Clashes were reported before the police fired shots at angry protestors.

We regret that our continued appeals for maintaining calm and restraint were not considered. This tragedy should have been avoided and disproportionate use of force against desperate refugees is not acceptable. UNHCR calls on authorities to refrain from further use of force and to investigate the circumstances of this tragic incident.

UNHCR appeals to refugee leaders to show a sense of responsibility to avoid further confrontation and again urges them to respect laws and seek solutions to all their grievances through peaceful negotiations.

Underfunding has severely affected humanitarian operations in Rwanda, now with deadly consequences. UNHCR’s 2018 appeal for US$98.8 million to support refugees in Rwanda is only is 2 per cent funded.

Kiziba refugee camp hosts over 17,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

In response to questions from journalists, Ms. Pouilly said that in November 2017, the World Food programme had been forced to cut food rations by 10 per cent. A further cut of 25 per cent had come in January 2018. Many people in the camp were desperate and saw no future for themselves: some of them had been there for 20 years, while others had been born there. The consequences of the reduction in available resources were now being seen on the ground.

In response to further questions, Ms. Pouilly said that following the first protest at the camp on 20 February, protestors had later moved to the vicinity of the UNHCR office, where the situation had escalated, leading to the use of tear gas and live bullets by the police. As a result, five people had been injured and had later died in hospital.

Displaced and refugee children in DRC

Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), made the following statement:

“Dans la Province de l’Ituri, au Nord-Est de la République Démocratique du Congo, l’UNICEF est très préoccupé par la situation d’environ 90 000 enfants qui fuient les violences inter communautaires dans le territoire de Djugu, au nord de la ville de Bunia. Suite à ces violences, UNICEF estime que 66 000 enfants déplacés internes n’ont pas accès aux services de santé et d’éducation et qu’environ 25 000 enfants se sont réfugiés en Ouganda.

Lors de ces violences, qui ont commencé en décembre et se sont intensifiées en février, plus de 70 villages ont été incendiés. Plus de 76 meurtres à l’arme blanche ont été documentés, parmi eux une majorité de femmes et d’enfants.

Au moins trois centres de santé et sept écoles ont été pillés et/ou incendiés, privant les enfants de soins de santé et d’éducation.

L’UNICEF estime également que plus de 100 écoles ont interrompu les cours, privant 30.000 enfants de leur scolarité.

La plupart des déplacés internes se sont installés dans les écoles, les églises et les hôpitaux vers Bunia, la capitale de la Province de l’Ituri. Ils sont exposés aux intempéries et ont un accès limité à la nourriture et à l’eau salubre, avec un risque réel de développement de maladies diarrhéiques, y compris de cholera.

L’UNICEF et ses partenaires ont identifié 70 enfants non-accompagnés et 245 enfants séparés de leurs familles en besoin urgent d’assistance dans les alentours de l’Hôpital général de Bunia.

En réponse à la crise, l’UNICEF a activé à partir de son bureau de Bunia son Programme de Réponse Rapide aux Mouvements de Population.

Entre le 16 et le 20 février, UNICEF et ses partenaires ont distribué des couvertures, des nattes, du savon, des gobelets et des seaux a 17 000 personnes et installé un réservoir d’eau d’une capacité de 20 000 litres.

L’UNICEF et son partenaire gouvernemental ont envoyé des équipes de la protection de l’enfant sur le terrain pour l’identification des enfants non-accompagnés et séparés et leur prise en charge.

L’UNICEF demande à toutes les parties de protéger les enfants contre la violence et de chercher une résolution pacifique à leurs différends.”

Birth certification for Malian refugees in Mbera camp

Cécile Pouilly, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), read the following statement:

“UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, welcomes the launch of birth certification for thousands of Malian refugee children in Mbera camp, in south-east Mauritania.

In a ground-breaking development for refugee protection in the country, the Mauritanian authorities have started issuing birth certificates for some 7,600 Malian children that were born to date in the camp. They have also set up a system allowing for all new-borns in the camp to be directly registered from now on.

Birth certificates will help fight early and forced marriages, as proof of age can be crucial in identifying such cases.

Proof of age will also play a significant role in the eventual voluntary repatriation of the refugees, should security conditions in Mali allow.

UNHCR collaborates with authorities to strengthen their technical capacity for the civil registration of refugees, and to provide life-saving assistance in the camp.

Despite the US$20.1 million required for our operation in Mauritania in 2018, UNHCR has yet to receive any contributions.”

Refugees in Israel

Asked by journalists about reports that refugees in Israel had been arrested or forcibly removed to Rwanda, Cécile Pouilly, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR had received no official confirmation of such practices. Israel had a legal obligation to protect refugees and UNHCR stood ready to assist Israel in finding durable solutions for refugees living there. There had been cases of refugees arriving in Italy who had previously been present in Israel.

In response to further questions, Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that IOM supported only voluntary repatriation of refugees. In the past decade, there had been instances of African migrants accepting payments to leave Israel.

Cold weather in Europe and heat in Arctic (WMO)

Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said that 1 March marked the start of the meteorological spring; however, large parts of Europe were due to experience very cold temperatures over the coming days.

Such an event was rare but not unprecedented. In general, the frequency and intensity of cold spells were decreasing. The cold weather that was expected was the result of a sudden stratospheric warming event that had occurred 30 kilometres above the North Pole a few weeks earlier. Regional Association VI, which covered Europe and parts of the Middle East, had issued a Climate Watch Advisory earlier in the week, with effect from 20 February. A period of significantly below-normal temperatures was expected in most of Europe, from Spain to Greece and from Ireland to Russia, with the coldest days expected during the week beginning 26 February. Temperatures below -10°C were forecast for western European Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland, below -6°C for Central Europe, northern Italy, the Balkans and the Baltic States, and between -3°C and -6°C for southern, western and northern Europe.

The late cold spell coincided with unusual heat in the Arctic. At the world’s northernmost land-based weather station, where the average temperature for February was -32.9°C, the temperature had risen to freezing point in recent days. In the Arctic, 2018 had already seen the lowest extent of sea ice on record for January and it was feared that March may bring a new low.

In contrast to the cold spell due to hit Europe, the East Coast of the United States had seen temperatures of 28°C in recent days.

WHO announcements

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the WHO Consultation and Information meeting on the Composition of Influenza Virus Vaccines for use in the 2018-2019 Northern Hemisphere Influenza Season had concluded on 22 February with the recommendations on the composition of the influenza vaccines for the next influenza season. The recommendations were used by the national vaccine regulatory agencies and the pharmaceutical companies to develop, produce and license influenza vaccines.

Mr. Lindmeier announced that on 27 February, WHO would launch a campaign entitled Nursing Now. Parallel events would be held at University Hospital of Geneva (HUG), in the presence of HRH Muna Al-Hussain of Jordan, and in London, in the presence of HRH the Duchess of Cambridge.

Mr. Lindmeier also announced that the briefing on polio that had been scheduled for 27 February had been cancelled.

WTO announcements

Fernando Puchol, for the World Trade Organization (WTO), read the following statement:

“Director-General Roberto Azevêdo will speak on 26 February at the WHO-WIPO-WTO Symposium on Innovative technologies to promote healthy lives and well-being at WHO, and will meet with the President of Mozambique, Mr. Filipe Nyusi, at WTO.

On 27 February, DG Azevêdo will participate in the EU trade ministers meeting in Sofia and will address the National Assembly of Bulgaria. On his return from Sofia, he will meet with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of the Republic of Moldova, Mr. Tudor Ulinanovschi, at WTO.

On the regular WTO agenda, the TRIPS Council will meet on 27 and 28 February, and the Trade in Service Council on 2 March. The SPS Committee will meet on 1 and 2 March.

I would also like to briefly highlight a few items which will come up at the meeting of the Dispute Settlement Body on 28 February.

First, India will submit its second request for a dispute panel to determine whether it has complied with a previous ruling concerning domestic content requirements in its national solar energy program. The United States, which brought the WTO case against India, blocked India’s first request at the last DSB meeting on 9 February.

The DSB will also consider the adoption of two panel rulings. The first is a compliance panel ruling in the case brought by the United States against China's anti-dumping and countervailing duty measures on imported broiler products from the US. The second is the panel ruling in Indonesia's case against European Union anti-dumping duties on biodiesel from Indonesia.

Both these rulings however may still be appealed in advance of the DSB meeting.

Finally, the DSB will consider a proposal from more than 60 WTO members regarding the launch of selection procedures to fill the current three vacancies on the Appellate Body.”

UNECE announcement

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, read the following statement on behalf of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe:

“There will be a Regional Forum on Sustainable Development on 1 and 2 March at CICG in Geneva. It will review progress towards the SDGs in the UNECE region, which covers 56 countries in Europe, North America and Central Asia.

The Forum will provide a regional space to share policy solutions, best practices and challenges in SDG implementation in that region and help identify major regional and subregional trends.

The Forum will be structured around peer learning roundtables on SDGs 6 (water), 7 (energy), 11 (sustainable cities), 12 (sustainable production and consumption) and 15 (forests and biodiversity).

The Chair’s summary of the Regional Forum will provide the regional input for the High-level Political Forum in July 2018 in New York.

The President of the Economic and Social Council, Ambassador Marie Chatardová, and Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohammed (via VTC), will address opening remarks at the Forum. Switzerland’s Special Envoy for Global Sustainable Development, Ambassador Michael Gerber, will be chairing the Forum.”

Geneva events and announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was continuing its session, which would run until 19 March, with reviews of the reports of Slovenia, Seychelles and the Russian Federation.

Ms. Vellucci also said that the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women had opened its seventy-ninth session and was continuing its review of the report of Fiji. On 26 February it would review the report of Saudi Arabia. Later in the session, it would also review the reports of Suriname, Luxembourg and the Marshall Islands.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog230218