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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

4 January 2019

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

DRC refugees arriving in the Republic of the Congo

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

“UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is supporting local authorities in the Republic of the Congo to provide humanitarian assistance to some 16,000 recently arrived refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

People are fleeing deadly clashes that erupted at the end of December 2018 between two communities in Yumbi, Mai-Ndombe Province, western DRC. An old rivalry between Banunus and Batende communities led to fresh inter-communal clashes. The reignited dispute is reported to have killed dozens, with around 150 injured arriving in Congo-Brazzaville.

This is the largest influx of refugees from the DRC in Congo-Brazzaville in almost in a decade, since some 130,000 people were forced to seek shelter due to ethnic clashes in DRC’s former Equator Province in 2009.

Refugees, mostly women and children of the Banunu tribe, continue to arrive in Makotipoko and Bouemba districts in the Republic of Congo where the Congolese authorities and UN agencies, including UNHCR, are providing medical treatment, food and non-food items.

Those fleeing DRC talk of attacks that left homes burned and people killed. Some feared an escalation in the conflict.

In DRC, a recent humanitarian assessment mission to Yumbi found more than 450 houses destroyed following the clashes and found people in dire need of basic assistance including food, health services and shelter.

Inside Congo-Brazzaville, refugees are settled in the remote localities of Makotipoko, Bouemba, Mopongo and Mpouya in the Department of Plateaux, among local communities.

Authorities in the Republic of the Congo formally requested the assistance of UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations. We are coordinating relief efforts to support the government in assisting refugees.”

Replying to questions from journalists, Mr. Mahecic said that there was no link between the violence and the recent presidential election, although the long-standing rivalry between the two groups did have an impact on economic and political life in the area. Given that the Republic of the Congo was already host to 60,000 refugees, the new influx was significant and required a substantial response. The Agency’s focus was on providing assistance to the refugees in remote parts of the country that were difficult to reach and where there was very little access to clean water and medical care. Food distribution had begun on 1 January and would expand to other locations.

Safe water for Rohingya refugees

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

“The first five solar-powered safe water systems - put in operation by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Cox’s Bazar refugee settlements over the past six months - are now delivering at their full capacity. These new systems improve the daily supply of safe, clean drinking water to Rohingya refugees living in crowded sites in southeast Bangladesh.

The project, funded by UNHCR, is part of a broader shift in the humanitarian response towards the expanded use of green and non-polluting technologies.

The new safe water systems run entirely on electricity generated through solar panels. Motorised pumps draw water from newly-installed 70,000 litre chlorinated tanks. The water is then piped to collective taps strategically installed throughout the Kutupalong-Balukhali site. UNHCR’s aim is to provide 20 litres of safe and clean water to every single refugee on a daily basis.

More than 900,000 Rohingya refugees live across 36 different locations in Cox’s Bazar area. Water is scarce in most locations. During the dry season, for example, the only solution in the Nayapara site is to truck water, which is very costly. It has been challenging to secure adequate water sources for the whole refugee population – most of whom fled to Bangladesh in late 2017. This is why UNHCR and partners have stepped up their efforts throughout 2018 to address the massive water and sanitation needs.

Using solar energy has allowed the humanitarian community to reduce energy costs and emissions. Chlorination is a life-saver in refugee sites of this scale. Recent tests revealed that most contamination to drinking water occurs during collection, transport and storage at the household level.

Chlorinated water is safe for drinking and eliminates risks of spread of diseases. Previous water sources, mainly boreholes fitted with hand pumps were often highly contaminated by waste water penetrating the wells.

The five new water networks - jointly completed by UNHCR, MSF, OXFAM and BRAC – are providing safe water to over 40,000 refugees at present. A further 55,000 refugees will benefit as UNHCR and its partner agencies are hoping to install nine more solar-powered water networks across Kutapalong refugee camp in the coming year, at a cost of USD 10 million.

UNHCR has been working closely with the Government of Bangladesh to identify water sources. The authorities have also helped with expert advice and permissions to dig tube wells and build other structures such as water reservoirs, water treatment plants, pipelines, water storage tanks, chlorination systems and boreholes fitted with hand pumps.”

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Mahecic said that there were no reports of new crossings of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh. Most refugees had arrived between August and December 2017. More than 14,000 people had continued to arrive to Bangladesh from Myanmar in 2018. The Agency’s position regarding repatriation remained the same, namely that the situation in Myanmar was not conducive to returns that respected the principles of voluntariness, safety and dignity.

Electoral violence in Bangladesh

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), made the following statement:

“We are concerned about violence and alleged human rights violations in Bangladesh before, during and after the recent elections on 30 December. There are credible reports of fatalities and numerous injuries on polling day alone. There are worrying indications that reprisals have continued to take place, notably against the political opposition, including physical attacks and ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests, harassment, disappearances and filing of criminal cases. Reports suggest that violent attacks and intimidation, including against minorities, have been disproportionately carried out by ruling party activists, at times with complicity or involvement of law enforcement officers.

There are troubling reports of media professionals being intimidated, injured and having their property damaged, as well as other constraints that have hindered free and public reporting on the elections. At least two journalists have been arrested under the Digital Security Act in relation to their reporting on the election. The blocking of at least 54 news and other websites since 10 December and temporary internet restrictions around election day have constrained freedom of expression.

The space for human rights defenders and organizations, political opposition members and interested members of the public seeking to speak out about the election is being restricted. There are reports of police breaking up recent peaceful public protests calling for a re-election, and reports of arrests and cases filed under laws like the Digital Security Act. Restrictive legislation, including this Act, should be reformed so that human rights defenders, civil society, journalists and all members of the public are protected in their exercise of the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association and engage freely in debating the election and Bangladesh’s democratic and development processes.

We urge the authorities to carry out prompt, independent, impartial and effective investigations into all alleged acts of violence and human rights violations related to the elections with a view to holding accountable those responsible, regardless of their political affiliations. We call on the authorities to take urgent measures to prevent further reprisals, and to ensure that law enforcement authorities exercise their powers strictly in accordance with the rule of law and principles of legality and proportionality.”

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, drew attention to the relevant note to correspondents issued on 31 December, in which the United Nations expressed regret for loss of life and injuries sustained by candidates and voters during the electoral campaign and on election-day, called on all sides to exercise restraint and ensure a peaceful post-electoral environment and encouraged the parties to address electoral complaints in a peaceful manner and through legal means.

In response to a journalist, Ms. Shamdasani said that some opposition candidates who had managed to get elected had refused to take their oaths of office in protest against how the elections had unfolded. There was some concern that the current national institutions, such as the Election Commission and the Human Rights Commission, had not been sufficiently impartial and independent in their monitoring of the elections. The High Commissioner had sent a letter to the authorities ahead of the elections raising many of the same issues as in the prior statement, and OHCHR had engaged with the authorities on a number of occasions.

Bahraini human rights defender Nabeel Rajab

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), gave the following statement:

“We call on the Government of Bahrain to immediately and unconditionally release prominent human rights defender Nabeel Rajab and to ensure that all Bahrainis are able to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression without fear of arbitrary detention.

Rajab has been imprisoned since June 2016 for tweeting in 2015 about Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes in Yemen and allegations of torture inside Bahrain’s Jau Prison. One such tweet read as follows: “We have the right to say no to the war in #Yemen and should struggle for peace and security but not bloodshed #Sanaa.” On Monday this week, Bahrain’s highest court – the Court of Cassation – upheld Rajab’s conviction and five-year prison sentence on charges of "spreading false news and rumours in time of war", "insulting foreign countries" and "insulting publicly the interior ministry". The UN Working Group of Arbitrary Detention had last year declared Rajab’s detention to be arbitrary.

Monday’s court decision brings into focus the continued suppression of Government critics in Bahrain through arbitrary arrest and detention, travel bans, harassment, threats, revocation of citizenship and other means. There have been numerous reports of human rights defenders, political activists, journalists and opposition figures being targeted for the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. The UN Secretary-General’s report on reprisals in September 2018 highlighted several specific cases where civil society activists and their families in Bahrain suffered reprisals for seeking to engage with UN human rights mechanisms, including the Human Rights Council. In some of the cases, the activists were accused of terrorism-related offences.

The arrest, detention and imprisonment of individuals for the exercise of their fundamental human rights is in violation of Bahrain’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it has ratified. We urge the Government of Bahrain to stop criminalising dissenting voices.”

In response to a query, Ms. Shamdasani said that there was no definitive figure on the number of human rights defenders being detained in Bahrain; however, there were several other cases of prominent human rights defenders or their relatives being subjected to reprisals for trying to take part in international meetings, including of the Human Rights Council. There was particular concern about how less prominent activists were being treated in the absence of international scrutiny.

Emirati human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), made the following statement:

“In a similar case, the Court of State Security in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Monday upheld a 10-year prison sentence and one-million dirham fine (about USD 272,000) against prominent Emirati human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor. Mansoor was initially convicted in May 2018 on charges of using social media to "publish false information that harm national unity and damage the country's reputation". This was in relation to tweets he posted that were critical of the Government. As the Court of State Security is UAE’s highest court, he has no further appeal rights under the UAE’s judicial system.

We are concerned that Mansoor’s conviction and harsh sentencing relate to his exercise of the right to freedom of expression and opinion. We urge the Government of the UAE to promptly and unconditionally release Mansoor and to ensure that individuals are not penalised for expressing views critical of the Government or its allies.”

Replying to a journalist, Ms. Shamdasani said that Mr. Mansoor’s case was certainly not an isolated incident in the United Arab Emirates.

Trial in Saudi Arabia in connection with the murder of Mr. Khashoggi

Replying to journalists, Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR did not have a presence in Saudi Arabia and therefore could not assess the trial. Nevertheless, OHCHR had been pressing for justice in the Khashoggi case – though an independent investigation with international involvement had yet to be launched – and was against the imposition of the death penalty in all circumstances. The Office had not been in direct contact with the Saudi authorities on the specific matter of the trial.

Elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

In response to questions from journalists, Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR had a large presence in DRC and, though it had not monitored the elections themselves but, rather, respect for human rights in the context of the elections, staff were reporting a calm but tense situation ahead of the announcement of the results. OHCHR was concerned that efforts to silence dissent, as illustrated by the Internet and the signal of Radio France Internationale being shut down, could backfire once the election results were announced.

In response to a related query, Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the Security Council would be gathering in a closed meeting that afternoon at 3 p.m. EST to discuss, inter alia, the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Invitation by Venezuela to the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Queried by journalists, Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the High Commissioner had indeed received an invitation from the Venezuelan Government to visit the country. No specific dates or locations had yet been decided as the standard practice was to send a technical team ahead of any visit to sort out the modalities.

Deaths of Guatemalan migrant children in the United States of America

Replying to a journalist, Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was aware of the cases, which were complex and brought to light the terrible conditions migrants experienced in their countries of origin and of destination. In the light of doubts as to whether medical attention had been provided in a timely manner, OHCHR called on the authorities to take steps to prevent the recurrence of such situations.

Abuse of food relief in Yemen

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, recalled that Martin Griffiths, the Special Envoy for Yemen, would visit Yemen and Saudi Arabia, from 5 January, in his latest round of consultations with the parties. In Sana’a, he expected to meet with the Ansarallah leadership, as well as with General Patrick Cammaert and Humanitarian Coordinator Lise Grande. In Riyadh, he expected to meet with President Hadi and other officials. Meanwhile, in Hodeidah, General Cammaert and the parties had convened a second joint meeting of the Redeployment Coordination Committee. The cessation of hostilities in Hodeidah continued to hold.

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

“The UN World Food Programme welcomes the statement from the Houthi leadership in the capital, Sana’a, that it is undertaking an investigation into the issue of abuse of relief food in Yemen.

This follows demands by WFP for an immediate end to the diversion of humanitarian food assistance in the country after evidence of the practice was uncovered in Sana’a and other parts of the country controlled by the Houthi movement. WFP’s demands were issued in a letter to the Houthi leadership as well as in a news release issued on New Year’s Eve.

Misuse of food aid also happens in areas controlled by the government of Yemen (GoY). However, these tend to be of lower volume than in Houthi-held areas. This is an issue that affects not just WFP but all aid agencies working in Yemen and indeed in war zones everywhere and no-one can say for certain how widespread this problem is. It is worth noting that the Government of Yemen gave WFP permission to undertake the biometric registration of beneficiaries. Recently, in Aden biometric registration enabled us to weed out people who are not entitled to food assistance.

So far, our monitoring has identified seven centres in Sana’a city and we estimate that about 1,200 metric tons (600 MT/month) of food was diverted in August and September. But to put this into context, 600 metric tons is only about one percent of the food we provide on a monthly basis nationally.

It is our monitoring systems that detected there was a problem. We are committed to ensuring our food assistance reaches those who most need it.

The local partner organization that has apparently been involved in this abuse has the capacity to provide food relief to millions of beneficiaries. Currently, they help us reach up to 3 million people with food assistance so what is needed is for the authorities to investigate and sack those responsible for this corruption.

We have been proactively monitoring the markets for presence of WFP food on sale there. Through our beneficiary contacts and monitoring of distributions, we know that many extremely poor people sell part of their ration to meet other needs (education, medicines, rent) because for many the only aid they receive is WFP’s food rations.

About three months ago when we witnessed food being sold in bulk on Yemeni, we suspected that food was being diverted by a partner organization from distribution points. We immediately identified the location to which the food was being moved. We tracked and monitored suspected locations.

WFP is proactively tackling this issue and we are closely inspecting other distribution centres. Our monitoring efforts are ongoing, and we are refining our monitoring mechanisms so that they are as effective as possible under the circumstance in tracking any misappropriation of relief commodities.

To improve the support to beneficiaries, we have been looking into the introduction of cash-based transfers in some areas. However, given the risk of corruption, we have made it clear to the de facto authorities that we will not introduce cash-based transfers unless we are authorized to implement a biometric identification system that uses personal data including iris scans and ten-finger prints to ensure that only registered beneficiaries are able to claim their cash or food rations.

The de facto authorities in Sana’a have a responsibility to take action against those involved in stealing from the beneficiaries and in trading of food aid. They should allow an independent beneficiary selection process and a biometric-based registration system.”

Replying to questions from journalists, Mr. Verhoosel said that the problems with the issuance of visas for WFP staff were ongoing. It was standard practice for WFP to work primarily with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in war zones. The biometric identification system had been rolled out in areas controlled by the Government; the de facto authorities in Sana’a had yet to agree to implement the system. Regardless of whether the misuse of aid was carried out by NGOs or the Government, it was important to dismiss the individuals responsible, not to stop collaborating with their employer altogether.

Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Tarik Jašareviæ, for the World Health Organization (WHO), gave the following statement:

“The Ministry of Health, WHO and partners continue to respond to the Ebola virus disease (EVD) outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), despite security challenges which have temporarily disrupted key response activities in some affected areas, notably Beni and Butembo. Civil unrest resulted in vandalism to an Ebola transit centre in Beni on 27 December and several other health facilities last week. The insecurity slowed down vaccinations and epidemiological surveillance and follow-up for several days. As a precautionary measure, operations were scaled back for a few hours on the day of the elections to ensure the safety of all staff deployed. Full operations have been restored in all locations since 1 January 2019.

WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros, travelled over the new year to Ebola-affected areas in DRC to review the response at this critical phase. On the way back, he also visited Uganda to see preparedness activities there.

After an intensification of field activities, we were seeing hopeful signs in many areas, including a recent decrease in cases in Beni. These gains could be lost if we suffer a period of prolonged insecurity, resulting in increased transmission. The Ebola outbreak in DRC is occurring in one of the most complex settings possible, but we are determined to stay the course and end this outbreak.

As of 1 January 2019, a total of 608 EVD cases, including 560 confirmed and 48 probable cases were reported, including 365 deaths. So far, 203 people have recovered. The majority of new cases were concentrated in major urban centres and towns in Beni, Butembo, Mabalako, Katwa, Komanda and Oicha, which remain the main hotspots of this outbreak. The Ministry of Health, WHO and partners continue to monitor and investigate all alerts in affected areas, in other provinces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in neighbouring countries. Since the last report was published, alerts were investigated in several provinces of the DRC. To date, EVD has been ruled out in all alerts outside the above-mentioned outbreak affected areas.

North Kivu and Ituri are among the most populated provinces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The provinces are affected by insecurity and a worsening humanitarian context, with over one million internally displaced people and continuous movement of refugees to neighbouring countries including Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is concurrently responding to multiple disease outbreaks, including three separate outbreaks of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) in the provinces of Ituri, Mongala, Maniema and Haut Lomami, and outbreaks of cholera, measles, monkey pox and yellow fever across the country.

WHO advises against any restriction of travel and trade to the Democratic Republic of the Congo based on the currently available information. WHO continues to closely monitor and, if necessary, verify travel and trade measures in relation to this event. Preparedness activities continue in neighbouring countries. South Sudan is set to join Uganda in vaccinating most at-risk health care and frontline workers.”

In response to journalists, Mr. Jašareviæ said that the situation in the country had improved, enabling WHO operations to resume progressively. Nevertheless, any interruption could result in increased transmission and delayed containment of the disease. Overall, the reaction of the population to the efforts of WHO and its partners had been positive. What distrust had been exhibited was just one of a number of complicating factors, including general insecurity, the emergence of cases in larger towns and the displacement caused by the humanitarian situation. There were no figures on the movement of people; however, since the beginning of the outbreak, 25 million travellers had been screened for fever and, where necessary, referred for further testing. There had been no confirmed cases in Goma or in neighbouring countries. It was too early to tell whether the interruption in operations the previous week had caused an uptick in cases.

Andrej Mahecic, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), added that there was a lot of cross-border traffic but that most of the people crossing into neighbouring countries returned to North Kivu to attend to their families and livestock.

Press Conferences

No press conferences were announced.


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The webcast for this briefing will be available here (technical issues for the time-being): http://bit.ly/unog040119