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12 July 2019

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by spokespersons for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Refugee Agency and the World Meteorological Organization.

Secretary-General’s travels

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the Secretary General was in Mozambique, where he had met the President. He had congratulated the Government and the people of Mozambique for their extraordinary response to the natural disaster that had hit the country and appealed for the quick delivery of the pledges made during the donors’ conference that had been hosted in Beira in May. The Secretary-General was flying to Beira today to take stock of the recovery efforts in the area impacted by the cycles.

Human Rights Council update

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the Human Rights Council would take action on the remaining draft resolutions it had before it. There were 10 in total. After considering these remaining drafts, it would adopt its report for the session and then close its 41st session. Updates would be provided to the press throughout the day.

World Food Programme Update on the Situation in Cox’s Bazar, in Bangladesh

Hervé Verhoosel, for the World Food Programme (WFP) read out the following statement:

Days of heavy monsoon rains and wind have pounded the refugee camps in the Cox’s Bazar area of Bangladesh since 04 July, leading to loss of life, displacing 5,600 people, and damaging thousands of homes. Those in the most vulnerable living situations have been relocated to safer, newly developed land in the camps. Additional rainfall is forecasted for the weekend. The destruction is caused by the most significant weather event in over a year, and it was triggered by monsoon weather systems in the Bay of Bengal. Over 45,000 individuals have been affected by weather-related incidents since the end of April
In July, WFP has assisted 11,000 refugees affected by monsoon rainfall, providing rapid food assistance to sustain affected families.

WFP’s food assistance includes 3,100 refugees who received cooked meals. WFP's assistance includes a one-week ration of high energy biscuits, followed by a two-week ration of dry food (rice, lentil and oil) or cooked meals.

Moving around the camps on foot or in vehicles remains a challenge due to mud, water, and traffic congestion. However, WFP has prepositioned emergency food supplies around the camps and is able to deliver assistance where it is needed most. WFP has enough extra food in stock to feed the entire camp population of over 900,000 people, for two weeks if needed.

WFP is racing to stabilize slopes that have slipped, and has teams out fixing the slopes and drainage systems that have been damaged. Engineering and disaster risk reduction works are ongoing with around 3,700 Rohingya refugees deployed each day to assist - 3,000 for disaster risk reduction activities and around 700 for engineering. However, there is always potential for more landslides if the heavy rains continue, and WFP emergency teams are positioned in the camps and are on standby to quickly respond if something major or life threatening happens, including overnight.

Considering the damage wrought by these heavy rains, it is easy to imagine the devastation that thousands of Rohingya refugees may have faced if teams had not been on the ground completing preparedness projects before the monsoon season arrived.

Over the past year, WFP’s engineers and partners have been conducting disaster risk reduction activities for cyclone and monsoon preparedness and have steadily improved camp conditions and humanitarian access. Disaster risk reduction work is ongoing in 545 sites -60 percent- of the planned 750 sites, which consists of bridge repair, slope stabilization, drainage clearance, access road rehabilitation, reinforcing bridges in the camps, and reforestation.

This year 20 Agencies and NGOs will complete reforestation activities across more than 200 hectares of the camps. WFP is responsible for around 40% of the reforestation with technical inputs from FAO.

Almost two years after the 2017 influx of Rohingya refugees, the situation remains critical. Vulnerability to food insecurity remains high and would rapidly deteriorate if humanitarian assistance were to cease or decrease.

80 percent of refugees are entirely dependent on WFP food assistance. Half of those refugees receive rations via food distributions, and the other half through e-vouchers.

It costs WFP US$24 million every month to feed almost 900,000 refugees and without continued support from the international community the situation for these refugees would become increasingly dire.

Responding to a journalist’s question, Mr. Verhoosel said two people, including one child, had died.

Death Penalty Imposed by De Facto Authorities in Sana’a, in Yemen

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), read out the following statement:

We are deeply alarmed by the imposition of the death penalty on 30 people by the Specialised First Instance Criminal Court of the de facto authorities in Sana’a. The 30 men – most of whom are academics, students and politicians affiliated with the Islah party that has been critical of the Houthis – were sentenced to death on Tuesday.

The UN Human Rights Office has received credible information suggesting that many of those convicted were subjected to arbitrary or unlawful detention, as well as torture and other ill-treatment in custody. They were arrested by members of the forces and popular committees affiliated with the Houthis at various points in 2016 and charged in April 2017 with allegedly participating in an organized armed group with the intention of carrying out criminal acts against the security personnel and popular committees affiliated with the Houthis, such as bombing and assassination in Sana’a, providing intelligence to aggressors, and affecting Yemen’s social peace and security.

We understand that the convictions and sentences will be appealed and call on the Appellate Court to take heed of the serious allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, and of violations of the fair trial and due process rights of the convicted people. Any politically motivated charges should be dismissed, and international fair trial standards fully complied with.

The UN opposes the use of the death penalty in all circumstances.

A journalist asked why the executions had been carried out at this particular moment. Ms. Shamdasani said that there had been several hearings but at no point had the accused been given a chance to present a proper defence. Suddenly, on Tuesday, the court read out the convictions and the sentence, which came as a surprise to everyone. This sentence was handed down by a court of first instance, and the understanding was that the decision would be appealed. That was why the OHCHR believed it was important to now underscore the high likelihood that many of these charges were politically motivated, and that there were very credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment. The arrests had taken place without warrants, for the most part. The accused had been held for several months or up to a year without being brought before a court.

Fires and floods in the Arctic and the United States

Claire Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said that since the start of June there had been unprecedented wildfires in the Arctic, which had been a source of concern for various reasons. Since the start of June, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service had tracked over 100 intense and long-lived wildfires in the Arctic Circle. In June alone, these fires had emitted 50 megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which was equivalent to Sweden’s total annual CO2 emissions. This was more than was released by Arctic fires in the same month between 2010 and 2018 combined. Although wildfires were common in the northern hemisphere between May and October, the latitude and intensity of these fires had been particularly unusual. The ongoing Arctic fires had been most severe in Alaska and Siberia, where some had been large enough to cover almost 100 000 football pitches. In Alaska, almost 400 wildfires this year had been registered, with new ones igniting every day.

The average June temperature in parts of Siberia where wildfires were raging was almost ten degrees Celsius higher than the 1981–2010 long-term average. Alaska had had its second hottest June on record.

Temperatures in Alaska hit record highs of up to 32°C one week ago. These fires released pollutants and toxic gases, such as carbon monoxide, which could be carried to long distances away. This amplified the potential for global warming.

In view of the risks, WMO has initiated a Vegetation Fire and Smoke Pollution Warning and Advisory System at the global level. It had already been started in the Southeast Asia region. WMO was now better at monitoring fires than it had been a few years ago, thanks to satellites.

Turning to floods, Ms. Nullis pointed out that there was very bad flooding in Bangladesh.

Furthermore, for the third consecutive time in 2019, the past 12-month precipitation record (July 2018 to June 2019) had hit an all-time high in the United States of America. Before that, the 12-month record from May was the wettest on record, and, before that, the 12-month record from April had been the wettest on record. This was quite exceptional. The United States had issued flash flood emergencies for two cities in a matter of days.

Adding to flooding problems, tropical storm Barry was expected to make landfall on Saturday. It is a very slow moving system, meaning the rainfall potential was higher. The US National Hurricane Center had used the term “crawl” to describe it. Barry was expected to produce total rain accumulations of 10-20 inches (254 mm to 508 mm) over Southeast Louisiana and South West. The rains were likely to cause flash flooding and potential severe threats to life. This would happen at the time when the Mississippi River was already at ground level and the ground was waterlogged.

Separately, a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that the United States had tied the record for number of high tide flooding days in 2018. This was expected to increase in 2019. More coast flooding along the United States coast line was expected due to rising sea levels.

Responding to journalists’ questions, Ms. Nullis said that these fires were generally caused by human activities. Mitigating or preventing fires in the Arctic was complex, as they seemed to occur on permafrost or what used to be permafrost. In that context, climate action was an answer. There were different causes to these fires, including lightning. The drying out of permafrost, which led to the release of methane, was certainly a factor.

On storm surges, Ms. Nullis said that, according to the National Hurricane Centre, the combination of dangerous storm surges and the tides would cause normally dry areas near the coast to be flooded by rising waters moving inland from the shoreline. The water could reach up to six feet, or 1.8 meters above ground.

Mediterranean arrivals and situation in Libya

Joel Millman, for the International Organization of Migration (IOM), said that the arrivals through the three main Mediterranean routes stood at 31,649 through 10 July. The 3,165 arrivals to Italy in 2019 was the lowest ever reported by the IOM; previously it had been exceeded every month between January 2014 and November 2018. The 426 deaths on the Central Mediterranean route, including the 82 reported last week, was still quite high a number. While the number of arrivals had shrunk significantly, the mortality rate had ticked up slightly. However, the number of deaths used to be much higher.

This past week, there had been 27 confirmed deaths of migrants in the world, 26 of which were in the Americas. The IOM was not making any comment on whether this was a more dangerous part of the world or on whether deaths were rising there. It was however a rather remarkable one-week statistic. What stood out was that it was not a U.S.-Mexico phenomenon: out of the 27 deaths, 15 had been recorded along the US-Mexico border, while eight others were documented in the Caribbean, two in Central America and one in South America

As bad as this year was for the Americas, the actual death rate at the U.S.-Border was low compared to one year ago: 97 deaths had been recorded this year compared to 214 last year.

On drowning victims on the Texas-Mexico border, 51 out of 57 had been identified: 25 were from Mexico, 15 from El Salvador, 15 from Guatemala, 13 from Honduras, 5 from Ecuador, 2 from Nicaragua plus one each from Colombia, Haiti, India and Ukraine.

Responding to a question on the number of deaths in the Medditerranean, Mr. Millman said that in previous years the casualty number had been pretty high, but there had not been as many this year, even though there had been bodies that had washed up in Spain that did not seem to be associated with any known ships. However, the fact that one did not find something did not meant that it was not there, he added.

In response to a question on the highest monthly total, Mr. Millman said it was 25,384 in October 2016. A journalist asked what were the causes of death on the Mexican-U.S. border, a part from drowning. Mr. Millman said a lot of people had been found dehydrated and there were also accidents, such as train accidents, and occasional homicides. There was a variety of causes of death.

A journalist asked if the deployment of 15,000 members of the Mexican military had caused migrants to take different routes. Mr. Millman said that the 2,200-mile border was very diverse, and while migrants did respond to law enforcement, the variety of options was so great that the IOM had not noticed that things had changed due to the presence of a different set of troops. According to the Mexican press, people coming from the South were avoiding the land routes through Veracruz — an area in which there had been several kidnappings, as well as gang violence against migrants. It was hard to judge how people responded to information on the ground; it was fluid everywhere.

A journalist asked about report that people were being returned to Tajura, Libya. Charlie Yaxley, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that, according to the latest information he had received, Tajoura was closed and the people who were there had been taken to the gathering and departure facility, where they had spent the last few nights.

Launch of the Report on Land Use

Jonathan Lynn, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had produced eight reports in five years. It would next consider the special report Climate Change and Land on 2 – 6 August 2019, during its 50th Session to be held in Geneva. A press conference to present the report would be held after the 50th Session, on 8 August. The press conference would be livestreamed, and it would be possible to ask questions remotely. The full title of the report was Climate Change and Land, an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems (SRCCL). Land and agriculture were affected by climate change, Mr. Lynn recalled. People often thought of climate change in terms of how it was impacted by energy, but agriculture and land use practices had also a very important effect on climate change as well.

A journalist asked about the impact of pesticides on the quality of soil, water and human health. Mr. Lynn said the reports were requested by governments and tended to focus on climate change. Pesticides in itself, while part of a broader environmental picture, was not stricto senso part of the interaction between land and climate. Responding to logistical and technical questions, he said that UN-accredited journalists had to register to obtain embargoed materials. It was also necessary to register to have access to the press conference. Authors of the report would be available for interviews, including broadcast interviews.

High level meeting on Ebola and New Joint Yearly Estimates for 2018 on Global Vaccination Rates, on Measles, Diphtheria and Tetanus

Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said a press conference on “New joint yearly estimates for 2018 on global vaccination rates, on measles, diphtheria and tetanus” would be held today, 2 p.m. in Press Room 1. Since 2000, WHO and the United Nations’ Children Fund (UNICEF) jointly produced national immunization coverage estimates for each of the 194 WHO Member States on an annual basis. In addition to producing the immunization coverage estimates for 2018, the WHO and UNICEF estimation process revised the entire historical series of immunization data with the latest available information. The 2018 revision covered 39 years of coverage estimates, from 1980 to 2018.

For the first time, it also included estimates of coverage for human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which protected girls against cervical cancer in their later life. The speakers would be Dr. Kate O’Brien and Dr. Jan Grevendonk who were respectively the Director and a Technical Officer at the Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals at WHO.

Further, the WHO and the OCHA would co-chair a high-level event on Monday, 15 July at 1 p.m. in Room VIII of the Palais des Nations. The event would discuss the response and preparedness regarding the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was occurring in a complex setting. In addition to Ebola, there were several other health issues in the country, such as measles, malaria, cholera as well as high levels of food insecurity. Regular conflicts were hampering the response to the Ebola outbreak. This high-level event would provide the opportunity to take stock of the stages of the disease outbreak and discuss actions needed to get to zero Ebola cases. It would be an opportunity for the international community to reaffirm its commitment to supporting the response politically and financially. Funding had been short. There was a risk of spread to neighbouring countries. The meeting would be co-chaired by Dr. Tedros Adhanom, Director general of WHO, and Mark Lowcock, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator and the Head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Responding to journalists’ questions, Ms. Chaib said the United Nations and WHO were co-chairing the meeting to take stock of efforts deployed to respond to the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, understand what was still missing, and identify funding gaps. The WHO needed USD$ 98.4 millions for the February to July 2019 period. As 48.5 millions had been received, there was still a USD$ 50 million gap as of 4 July. The meeting was not a pledging conference per se. It was a high-level meeting gathering several partners under the leadership of the Democratic Republic of Congo. While funding needs would be addressed during the meeting, it would also deal with other issues, such as strengthening the health system. Stock would be taken of the lessons learned. The international community had a responsibility to control Ebola outbreaks, and it was important to galvanize it and ensure it remained mobilized to overcome the outbreak. It was useful to hear what the actors on the ground had to say. If funding continued to lack, the international community could find itself coping with a much worse Ebola outbreak in the future. It was also important to ensure neighbouring countries were also prepared.

Journalists asked to which extent financing shortfalls were impacting the responses to the Ebola outbreak, and how the security and violence issues were being addressed. Ms. Chaib replied that efforts should be focused on operational needs and supporting respondents on the grounds. WHO was constantly re-prioritizing, moving money around and spending critical time appealing for resources instead of focusing on fine-tuning the response. WHO would like to expand preparedness work in the neighbouring countries. Security was an issue, but so was the weakness of the health system. It was important to ensure the protection of staff and patients from attacks by armed groups while putting and end the outbreak. While security was one problem, the outbreak and its causes had to be comprehensively addressed. Response efforts involved dozens of partners, without which success would not be possible. WHO’s work focused on health issues.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog120719