Where global solutions are shaped for you | News & Media | REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

ACCESSIBILITY AT UNOG A A A A The United Nations in the Heart of Europe


30 October 2015

Ahmad Fawzi, Director a.i. of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was also attended by spokespersons for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Refugee Agency, International Organization for Migration, World Meteorological Organization, World Health Organisation, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and World Trade Organization.

Geneva Activities

The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was arriving to Geneva today, 30 October, and was scheduled to meet the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer, at 3.30 p.m. tomorrow, 31 October, followed by a joint press stakeout at 4 p.m.  In an unprecedented joint call, the Secretary-General and Mr. Maurer would speak to the press about the world’s humanitarian crises and urgent actions that governments must take to address them.

Responding to questions, Mr. Fawzi confirmed that a joint statement would be issued about the meeting between the Secretary-General and the President of the ICRC.  Mr. Ban and Mr. Maurer had been talking for a long time, and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs himself had been involved in the negotiation of the text.  The joint statement thus represented the conclusions of those long-lasting talks and negotiations, and was an unprecedented public announcement.

Mr. Fawzi confirmed that Under-Secretary-General Stephen O’Brian would attend the meeting and be present at the stakeout.  The United Nations Secretary-General Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, would not be part of the announcement.

Asked about the Secretary-General’s programme during his stay in Geneva, Mr. Fawzi said that the focus would be on the meeting with ICRC.

Several journalists asked about the meeting in Vienna, its conveners and the role of the United Nations.  Mr. Fawzi said the meeting was convened by the United States and Russia.  The United Nations Secretary-General Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, was representing the Secretary-General in those talks, which included all parties involved and interested in this crisis: the United States, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia.  Mr. de Mistura would brief the parties on the situation and the state of play in the mediation process, the Working Groups, and the meetings he had held with the governments and opposition groups.  The Secretary-General was not in Vienna; he had issued a statement on 29 October urging flexibility in the Syrian talks.

Also tomorrow, 31 October, a press conference with Daniel Barenboim would take place at 1 p.m. in Room XX, said Mr. Fawzi.  Mr. Barenboim would conduct the world famous West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, composed of Israeli and Palestinian musicians, which was set to perform for the very first time in the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations room on the occasion of International Human Rights Day.  The concert, produced by MEDIAPRO, would be taped and broadcast on 10 December 2015, International Human Rights Day.

This second Concert for the Understanding of Civilizations and Human Rights would be attended by Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, Michael Møller, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, and Miguel Angel Moratinos, President of ONUART Foundation, among others.

The Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review Working Group begins its 23rd session on Monday, 2 November, said Mr Fawzi.  During the two-week session the following 14 States would be reviewed:  Micronesia, Lebanon, Mauritania, Nauru, Rwanda, Nepal, St Lucia, Oman, Myanmar, Austria, Australia, Georgia, St Kitts and Nevis and Sao Tome and Principe.  A background press release had been issued on 29 October.  The meetings would be webcast live and highlights for each of the State reviews would be shared with the media shortly thereafter.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was today considering a report by Slovenia.  Next Tuesday morning, the Committee would consider reports by Lebanon, Uzbekistan, United Arab Emirates, and Malawi.  Presentations by non-governmental organizations on the situation in those four countries would be made on Monday, 2 November, starting at 4 p.m.

The Human Rights Committee was now mostly holding private meetings until the end of the session on Friday, 6 November.  The Committee usually made its concluding observations available at a press conference before the end of the session.  The Committee had considered seven country reports during this session: Greece, San Marino, Austria, Suriname, Republic of Korea, Iraq, Benin.

Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), announced the release of the global report on the plight of stateless children around the world on 3 November, the first anniversary of the UNHCR Campaign to End Statelessness.  The report included interviews with 250 children and addressed the psychological impacts of statelessness.

Matthew Brown, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), said that the Intergovernmental Working Group of Experts on International Standards of Accounting and Reporting (ISAR 32) would meet in Geneva from 4 to 6 November 2015.  Mukhisa Kituyi, UNCTAD Secretary-General, would open the meeting, which would examine how the International Standards of Corporate Social Responsibility and Transparency in Accounting would fit with the Sustainable Development Goals.

United Nations Humanitarian Chief to visit Ukraine, where 5 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance

Jens Laerke, for the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that the United Nations Humanitarian Chief, Stephen O’Brien, was expected in Ukraine next week,  from 2 to 4 November, to visit Kiev and eastern regions, and meet with senior officials, members of the diplomatic and humanitarian communities and those displaced by the conflict.  Five million people, including 1.5 million internally displaced persons, were in need of humanitarian assistance in Ukraine.  More information on the humanitarian situation would be available following this visit, said Mr. Laerke.

Record $20 billion requested for humanitarian relief in 2015, only 46 per cent funded

Mr. Laerke said that a record $20 billion were requested for humanitarian activities this year, of which only 46 per cent were funded at the moment.  It was important to say that donors were in fact very generous, but the growth of the needs outpaced the contributions received.  In the past two months alone, $1.2 billion had been requested in additional funding, said Mr. Laerke.  The factsheet on global humanitarian funding is available here.

In Syria, 13.5 million persons in need of assistance and protection, including nearly 400,000 living under siege

The Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien, had briefed the United Nations Security Council on 27 October, saying that 13.5 million people in Syria were in need of some form of protection and humanitarian assistance.  More than six million of those in need were children. This was an increase of some 1.2 million in just ten months.  There were 6.5 million internally displaced persons and 4.2 million refugees, while more than 11 million people inside Syria needed health assistance and nearly nine million were unable to meet their basic food needs. 

Access remained highly constrained, with some 4.5 million people living in hard-to-reach areas; because of active conflict, shifting frontlines, bureaucratic hurdles, and conditions imposed by the parties, the UN was able to reach only a small fraction of those people.  Almost 400,000 people lived under siege; so far this year the UN was only able to reach 3.6 per cent of people with health assistance and only 0.5 per cent with food in recent months.

Asked about the people under siege, Mr. Laerke said there were various definitions of hard-to-reach areas, said Mr. Laerke, noting that they included besieged areas, and also areas without sustained and predictable access to people and sustained and predictable opportunity for people to leave those areas.  In Syria, 200,000 lived under siege by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in Deir-ez-Zor; some 181,200 were besieged by the Syrian Government in various locations in eastern Ghutah, as well as Darayya and Zabadani in Rural Damascus; and some 12,500 people by non-State armed opposition groups and the Nusrah Front in Foah and Kefraya in Idlib. 

Mr. Laerke added that the 26,500 people in Nubul and Zahra, in Aleppo governorate, were no longer considered besieged following consistent and credible reports that access to and from the enclave for people and commercial goods had significantly improved over the last three months, although access remained challenging and protection concerns acute.

So far this year, only 23 of 85 convoy requests made by the UN had been approved in principle by the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Of those approved, less than half had been able to actually proceed due to lack of final security clearance by authorities, lack of safe passage from the armed groups and general insecurity. 

Responding to a question about the reasons for the dramatic increase in humanitarian needs in the last ten months, Mr. Laerke said it was a combination of many factors, including increased hostilities in various parts of Syria.

Asked about the latest displacement figures and the situation of 181,000 displaced in Eastern Ghutah, who apparently had not had access to food aid this year,  Mr. Laerke said that shocking images of those affected by the crises stressed the need for a political solution.  The UN did not have general information about the people in the besieged areas, as they could not reach them; what was known was what had been delivered.


Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), expressed concerns about the worsening climate for opposition politicians and activists in Cambodia.  Eleven opposition activists were serving prison sentences for participating in or leading an “insurrection”, and another opposition Member of Parliament was currently awaiting trial on a range of charges, including incitement to commit crimes and forging public documents.  Last Monday, 26 October, a group of pro-government protesters in Phnom Penh had assaulted opposition Members of Parliament, and threatened the safety of the private residence of the National Assembly's First Vice-President, in what appeared to be an organized attack.  Ms. Shamdasani said OHCHR welcomed the establishment of an investigative commission into last Monday’s incident, but stressed that the investigation would only be credible if it was independent, impartial, thorough and prompt, and those responsible for the violence were brought to justice.  OHCHR urged the government to take all necessary measures to ensure the security of all democratically elected representatives of Cambodia, irrespective of their political affiliation.

Answering questions, Ms. Shamdasani explained that this incident had happened in a deteriorating climate, and that the pro-government protesters, almost 2,000 of them, seemed well-organized in what looked like an orchestrated campaign.  Freedom of expression must be respected and any limitations must be respectful of international law, for example for those expressions that amounted to incitement to hatred, she stressed.

Asked about a non-governmental organization’s report alleging genocide in Myanmar, the OHCHR spokesperson confirmed that Myanmar was very much of the radar and that the High Commissioner had said that the treatment of Rohingya amounted to persecution, which was a serious international crime.  OHCHR hadn’t reached the conclusion that genocide had occurred in Myanmar, but Ms. Shamdasani said the situation on the ground was very serious, and that no one should wait till a court of law had determined that a genocide had occurred.  The international community should take this situation seriously.

On the monitoring of elections in Myanmar, Ms. Shamdasani said the UN Department of Political Affairs was in charge of it.  On the human rights side, the climate leading up to the election was being monitored to ensure the full respect and enjoyment of freedom of expression and assembly.

A journalist noted that Venezuela had been elected to the Human Rights Council with a very high number of votes, despite the OHCHR communications about the human rights concerns in the country.  Ms. Shamdasani responded that OHCHR did not comment on the result of the elections for the Human Rights Council, but also that the Office did not shy away from taking a stand and stating the problems.  There were concerns about the independence of the judiciary and the detention of Leopold López, declared arbitrary by the Working Group on arbitrary detentions, confirmed Ms. Shamdasani.  She said OHCHR urged the Government of Venezuela to listen to the finding of the Working Group, which did not take findings of arbitrary detention lightly.  Ms. Shamdasani also said that the country’s election to the Human Rights Council led to more scrutiny about their human rights records, by the press and the public, but not by the OHCHR. 

European refugee and migration crisis

Joel Millman, for the International Organization of Migration (IOM), said that a new report on the response of IOM to the European migrant flow was available, which addressed IOM’s operations in various countries.

Deaths in the Mediterranean continued, said Mr. Millman, stating that within the last 24 hours, 22 had died off the coast of Greece, while as many were missing or presumed dead.  As of this morning, 3,350 fatalities had been confirmed in the Mediterranean this year, which was considerably higher than the record number of 3,279 deaths recorded in 2014.  Mr. Millman noted that 442 people had died since he had addressed the press four weeks ago, and 72 since he had talked in this briefing room on Tuesday, 27 October.  There was no sign of this carnage tapering off and there was a deep concern about what lay ahead with the weather getting colder. 

Responding to a question, Mr. Millman provided more details about the new incidents in Spain, where possibly around 40 people were killed this morning, when the bottom of a boat was probably ripped off as it hit shore.  Last week several boats capsized in Spanish waters, with 4 confirmed deaths, 35 missing people and 15 confirmed rescues.  In Greece, five different shipwrecks had been registered on 29 October.  One of the ships was suspected to have carried more than 150 people who were still missing.  September 13th, when 34 people had died at sea, had been the deadliest day on record, but it was surpassed by the number of people dying in Greek waters in the last 24 hours.

Questions turned to the situation in Greece, specifically Lesvos, and the continued arrival of refugees and migrants via the Mediterranean route.  When asked about UNHCR's presence on the beaches as thousands continued to arrive daily and the funding situation, Mr. Edwards answered that this week there were just nearly 20 UNHCR personnel on the island.  Indeed, the reception centres on Lesvos were wholly inadequate, as they were in many in other locations across the Aegean.  A robust reception capacity was needed urgently.  There must be more legal avenues for individuals wanting to flee their country – now, hundreds and hundreds of people were travelling by sea and over land and too many lives were being lost on these journeys.  October was a record month for the number of people crossing the Mediterranean.  There must to be an alternative to these perilous journeys as the trend continues.

Mr. Edwards answered questions concerning the European Union pledges and funding by referring to the 17-point Action Plan agreed by the European Union on 25 October, which included proposed receptions centres for 100,000 people in the Western-Balkans and another 50,000 in Greece.  The key was to support the implementation of this plan, including through funding.  At the moment, the needed funds were not available and UNHCR would soon issue an updated funding appeal covering the winter needs ahead.  The fact remained that the level of response to these crises was not up to scale and this must be urgently addressed, especially with winter just around the corner, stressed Mr. Edwards.

A journalist asked whether the journey across the Mediterranean should even be attempted with the changing weather and if such journeys would continue through the winter.  Mr Edwards stated that people forced to flee were making this journey despite obvious perils.  When compared to sea crossings last January the trend persisted through the winter with many drownings.  This should be expected to continue this year.  The route shifted primarily to arrivals in Greece via Turkey, which was a very dangerous route.  There was no indication that the number was decreasing, stated Mr. Edwards.

Asked about smugglers searching for larger boats to transport refugees, Mr. Edwards said that the larger boats were most likely a response to a larger amount of people wishing to cross, and smuggling must be addressed.  There was no indication that the flow from Turkey will stop: UNHCR had predicted 700,000 arrivals in 2015 but this number has already been exceeded.  As the underlying causes of the conflict and circumstances driving people  in the countries of origin persisted, Europe should be prepared to continue receiving refugees. The level of response was not up to the scale of arrivals at the moment, and this was a critical problem, stressed Mr. Edwards.

The situation in the Greek islands was catastrophic and a journalist asked how long UNHCR would wait for the European Union before starting bilateral talks with countries that had reception facilities ready and discuss relocation. Mr. Edwards reiterated that complementary avenues for people to legally and safely make this journey were critical.  The Action Plan announced by the European Commission included a number of steps to actually manage the situation, which UNHCR always insisted was manageable.  The key was to see this plan quickly and effectively implemented, and also to ensure that the Relocation Programme that Europe had already agreed to – which was absolutely crucial - was in place and working.  Relocation from Greece has not begun yet, while approximately one hundred had been relocated from Italy.

Asked about the extremely bad conditions of refugees in the Manus islands, Mr. Edwards said that UNHCR was in contact with the government of Australia, and that even if the situation had improved, more must be done for refugees on the island.

Yemen and Oman possibly in the path of rare tropical cyclone Chapala

Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said that cyclone Chapala, a very rare and potentially high impact tropical cyclone, had formed in the Arabian sea in the past couple of days and had intensified rapidly.  Chapala was likely to become a super cyclone storm in the next 24 hours and reach a strength of a category-four hurricane with maximum sustained winds speeds of 220 to 230 kilometres an hour.  Chapala was forecast to make landfall in Yemen and Oman around midnight on 2 November, but was expected to weaken before it hit the land.  Nevertheless, it might cause a big impact in an area that is not used to this kind of phenomenon, and whose infrastructure was not designed to cope with heavy rainfall. 

Tropical cyclones were extremely rare over the Arabian Peninsula, said Ms. Nullis.  WMO was not aware of such a cyclone impacting Yemen before.  The most severe cyclone that had hit Oman was in 2007, killing 50 people and causing several billion dollars’ worth of damage.

Responding to questions, Ms. Nullis said that Chapala would be a category-one hurricane when she landed, and that the concern was not the winds but the heavy rain falls.  This kind of storm was very rare; it was caused by high sea temperatures, which were conducive to higher cyclonic activity, and also due to what was happening in the atmosphere.  Ms. Nullis could not confirm whether the cyclone was a consequence of El Niño or climate change.

2,171 confirmed cases of cholera in Iraq, World Health Organization announces a vaccination campaign

Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that WHO was expected to start next week a vaccination campaign for 250,000 persons in 15 of the 18 provinces in Iraq.  510,000 vaccines against cholera had arrived in the country in an effort to control the outbreak declared on 15 September, in which 2,171 cases had been confirmed as of 26 October.  WHO and Iraqi authorities would start the vaccination in 62 refugee camps, with the first dose given next week and the second one 14 days later.  The vaccination wasn’t a quick fix and it couldn’t replace drinking water supply, sanitation, personal hygiene and social mobilization to fight cholera.  The vaccination came in addition to a range of other activities by WHO, UNICEF, Iraq authorities and other partners, concluded Ms. Chaib. 

Answering a question on the number of deaths, Ms. Chaib said that WHO could not confirm any deaths by cholera in the country. 

World Trade Organization: consultations continue on the remaining Doha Round issues

Jessica Hermosa, for the World Trade Organization (WTO), said that, on Monday 2 November, Director-General Roberto Azevêdo was scheduled to meet with the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), José Graziano da Silva in Rome, and deliver a speech to FAO delegates.  He was also scheduled to address the International Organization of La Francophonie on 3 November. Mr. Azevêdo would meet Mr. Gyan Acharya, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States, on Thursday, 5 November, at WTO.

Ms. Hermosa also announced sessions of several of the committees during the week, including the Committee on Trade and Development dedicated session on small economics, the Trade Policy Review of Southern African Customs Union, the Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade, and others.

* * * * *

The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog301015