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15 February 2019

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Organization for Migration, the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

Sexual violence in South Sudan

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

“Together with the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) we are today issuing a report on sexual violence in South Sudan’s northern Unity region, especially in the area surrounding the town of Bentiu. The report details how at least 134 women and girls were raped or gang-raped, and 41 suffered other forms of sexual and physical violence between September and December 2018. The actual level of sexual violence is unfortunately likely to be considerably higher.

The report, based on interviews with more than 100 people, including 49 women and girls who had been directly subjected to sexual violence, warns that although attacks against civilians have in general decreased significantly since the peace agreement signed on 12 September 2018, endemic conflict-related sexual violence continues in northern Unity.

The report stresses that sexual violence is being committed in a context of ‘pervasive impunity’, which it says has ‘contributed to the normalization of violence against women and girls.’

The details are really shocking.

87 percent of the women and girls were raped by more than one perpetrator, and were often gang-raped over several hours. Fifty of the rape victims were children, with the youngest girl just eight years old. Pregnant women and nursing mothers were not spared. In a single incident on 17 December, in the village of Lang in Rubkona county, to the north of Bentiu, five women were gang-raped. Of these, four were pregnant, including one who was nearly nine months pregnant, and another who was seven months.

The extreme brutality of the attackers appears to be a consistent feature, with women and girls describing how they were brutally beaten by perpetrators with rifle butts, sticks, small firearms and cable wires, if they attempted to resist their assailants or were simply, gratuitously, beaten after the rapes had taken place.

The report describes what appears to be a certain level of premeditation and organization resulting in some women and girls being raped multiple times, in separate incidents, while travelling the same routes. In one case, a group of five women from one village were raped on three separate occasions in October, November and December, each time in roughly the same location near Lang, as they were traveling together to or from food distribution sites in Bentiu. Each time the number of assailants increased significantly, with four men taking part in the first attack, eight in the second and 12 on the last occasion.

Most of the attacks are reported to have been carried out by youth militia groups and by elements of the pro-Taban Deng Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO (TD)) as well as by the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF). A few attacks were perpetrated by members of pro-Riek Machar Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO (RM).

The investigation found that multiple factors had contributed to the upsurge in sexual violence in the area, including large numbers of fighters on ‘standby’ mode, awaiting implementation of security arrangements under the peace deal; the presence of many armed youth militia in the area; and a lack of accountability for past sexual violence at the individual and command level.

Given the destruction of livelihoods, forced displacement and food insecurity after years of civil war in South Sudan, many women and girls have to travel long distances through high-risk areas in search of food, water and firewood. The report notes a feeling of resignation amongst survivors, and a sense of normalization of rape, which is particularly chilling.

As one 30-year-old survivor from Koch County put it: ‘We women do not have a choice. There is no alternative for us. If we go by the main road, we are raped. If we go by the bush, we are raped. I was raped among others in the same area repeatedly on three different occasions. We avoided the road because we heard horrible stories that women and girls are grabbed while passing through and are raped, but the same happened to us. There is no escape – we are all raped.’

The High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet is urging the Government of South Sudan to take adequate measures – including those laid out in the peace agreement – to protect women and girls; to promptly and thoroughly investigate all allegations of sexual violence; and to hold the perpetrators accountable through fair trials.

Upon receiving initial reports of the surge in reported cases of sexual violence, UNMISS immediately engaged with political leaders and security services. The Mission also increased peacekeeping patrols and cleared foliage from roads to make it more difficult for attackers to conceal their presence. UNMISS has also been operating a mobile court in hotspots, including Bentiu and Malakal, to help address the issue of impunity, and intends to work with local judicial authorities to support such mobile courts in prosecuting crimes more widely across the country.

Sadly, we have continued to receive reports of rapes and gang rapes in northern Unity over the past six weeks, although the number of attacks seems to have been reduced since December, probably as a result of the measures taken by UNMISS and the local authorities.”

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Colville said that the organization of the armed groups operating in the area was complex. The South Sudan People’s Defence Forces were the official government forces. The pro-Taban Deng branch of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition was part way through the process of integrating into the government forces. The third group involved, which had bene implicated in far fewer incidents of sexual violence, was the branch of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition aligned with Riek Machar. The three groups were the three main parties to the peace agreement. While a number of leaders had issued statements condemning sexual violence, the northern Unity area had a long history of appalling sexual violence and impunity was widespread. Little had been done by the authorities to bring the directors or perpetrators of the attacks to justice; indeed, one commander who had previously been identified as bearing responsibility for such attacks had since been promoted and was now overseeing some of the forces responsible for the most recent wave of attacks. Very few people had been tried and convicted for sexual violence in South Sudan; nevertheless, the establishment of the mobile court, which had recently handed down one conviction, was an interesting development towards accountability and justice.

Asked why the attacks were happening, Mr. Colville said that at the root of the issue was the very low status of women in South Sudan, alongside the lack of accountability. The most shocking element was the normalization of rape. Underlying cultural issues were also a factor; it was common for families to settle rape cases by having the perpetrator marry the victim. In contrast to previous waves of sexual violence, inter-tribal conflict did not appear to be involved.

Arrest of journalist Maria Ressa in the Philippines

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

“We are very concerned about the arrest on libel charges of Maria Ressa, the CEO of the independent news outlet Rappler in the Philippines, which appears to be the latest element in a pattern of intimidation of a media outlet that has fiercely guarded its independence and its right to conduct in-depth investigations and to criticize the authorities. While Ms. Ressa was released on bail on Thursday, the charges are still pending.

Maria Ressa, who has frequently been critical of President Duterte and his administration’s policies, has previously faced charges of tax evasion as well as attempts to revoke Rappler’s license to operate. These have been widely viewed as efforts to silence Rappler’s independent investigative reporting and critical voice, by misusing judicial and administrative powers, including libel laws. Rappler journalists have also allegedly been threatened with physical harm.

Attempts to intimidate or muzzle independent news sources has a serious effect on freedom of opinion and expression in general, and the rights of journalists to carry out their professional duties safely and without fear of reprisal are clear under international law.

The UN Human Rights Office calls for an independent and thorough review of all charges against Ms. Ressa and other media professionals in the Philippines, and urges the Philippines judiciary to safeguard their own independence by throwing out cases that are clearly politically motivated or are not in line with international human rights standards, including freedom of opinion and expression. Any charges that appear to be aimed at preventing journalists from undertaking their profession, thereby depriving the public of their right to information, should be dropped immediately.

The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye as well as the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard, and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, have all spoken out recently in defence of Rappler. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights fully endorses the positions they have taken.”

Answering questions from journalists, Mr. Colville said that Ms. Ressa was facing charges under the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act in connection with events that pre-dated the Act’s adoption. The offences she was accused of carried a penalty of up to 12 years’ imprisonment. Human rights experts had repeatedly said that defamation laws should not lead to criminal charges.


Asked to comment on a possible visit to Venezuela by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that no such visit was currently planned and one would not happen unless the necessary conditions were in place to ensure that it would be worthwhile. OHCHR was in regular formal contact with the Permanent Mission of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to the United Nations Office and other international organizations in Geneva

United Nations seeking USD 920 million for Rohingya humanitarian crisis in 2019

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

“The Joint Response Plan is an appeal for more than USD 900 million in order to reach more than 1.2 million people in 2019.

Close to one third of the appeal is dedicated to food security and nutrition, most of which is for WFP programmes. These programmes feed close to 900,000 refugees at a cost of around USD 24 million per month. Food security for the refugee population has improved over the past 12 months due to the effectiveness of the in-kind and e-voucher programmes. However, the majority of refugees remain entirely reliant on this food assistance and ongoing support for the operations is vital to save lives.
The continuation of this assistance is vital if we are to continue making gains in other areas of the response. This includes protection because without a stable food supply, protection simply is not possible.

WFP continues to meet large-scale needs with innovative solutions. The entire refugee population is enrolled on SCOPE, our electronic beneficiary database which allows us to provide food assistance in a more efficient manner. It also provides an effective platform for the rest of the humanitarian community to provide other in-kind and cash-based entitlements. In 2019 we plan to transition the entire refugee population from in-kind food distribution to this electronic voucher system which also puts money back into the host economy. One third of refugees (350,000) already receive food assistance through this modality. The e-voucher system provides refugees with greater access to nutritious food including fresh vegetables, eggs, fish and others.

These innovations represent efficiencies in delivery, but we must not forget that this is a vast operation on difficult, disaster-prone terrain. In the world’s largest refugee camp, this continues to remain a serious emergency. Sustained funding is necessary well into 2019 and beyond to support the Rohingya and the Bangladeshi host community.”

Joel Millman, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that IOM was one of the agencies participating in the United Nations appeal to raise USD 920 million for the 2019 Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis to be launched today in Geneva.

IOM monitors new caravans of Central American migrants in Mexico

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

“A survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) between 25 and 30 January near the border crossing flanked by Tecún Umán (Guatemala) and Suchiate (Mexico) revealed that just over half (51.6 per cent) of approximately 5,000 Central American migrants waiting at that border crossing to receive the humanitarian card of the Mexican government, only left their country as part of the ‘migrant caravans’.

Between January 14 and 16, migrants from Honduras and El Salvador left their homes with the hope of reaching Mexico and the United States of America, in the first ‘migrant caravans’ of 2019.

In response to the situation, the government of Mexico established a migration policy for entry into that country using a card for humanitarian reasons. The survey was applied mostly to people who were waiting for the delivery of this immigration document.

The survey indicates that the main reasons for migration are the search for labour opportunities (68 per cent), education (11.8 per cent) and better living conditions (10 per cent). Additionally, 68.3 per cent of people indicate that in the last 12 months they had to change their residence in their country of origin due to some incident related to violence or insecurity.

The migrants said they needed water, food, clothing, health and accommodation to allow them to continue their journey in decent conditions. The regularization of their immigration status, obtaining a humanitarian visa and access to the refuge or asylum application in Mexico was the last identified need to enable them to continue to their destinations.

Of the people surveyed, 67 per cent said they did not know the procedures and protection requirements in Mexico and 65.3 per cent did not receive information about their rights as migrants. The main nationalities reported are Honduran (72.2 per cent), Guatemalan (12.2 per cent) and Salvadoran (11.7 per cent).

The survey was applied to more than 800 people of this latest migratory flow, using IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix methodology.”

Containing the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

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

“The tenth Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has taken the lives of more than 500 people and resulted in more than 760 confirmed cases since it was declared more than six months ago. The current outbreak is the second largest in history, developing in the east of the country where long-standing insecurity, armed conflicts and instability challenge the humanitarian and public health response.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is calling on the international community to support its USD 12 million appeal to assist government and humanitarian partners to contain the disease before it claims more lives and spreads across borders.

Since the start of the deadly outbreak, the Organization has supported the government to screen more than 32 million travellers and to operate 80 screening points in areas of high population mobility, such as markets, parking areas and along major key transport routes.

In partnership with the Congolese Ministry of Health, particularly the National Programme of Hygiene at Borders (PNHF), and the World Health Organization (WHO), IOM implements surveillance and prevention activities, utilizing mobility trends to minimize disease transmission to new areas and across borders. IOM also trains frontline workers to detect illness among travellers, provides essential equipment and supplies to screening points and strengthens the capacity to oversee screening activities.

Currently, the outbreak is just a day’s drive from Goma, the capital of North Kivu inhabited by over one million people, as well as neighbouring countries: Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan. In areas with such high mobility, screening sites can be the last bastion.

Located throughout North Kivu and Ituri, as well as in other provinces not affected by the disease, screening points are important to prevent the spread of the disease and to strengthen the capacity of other provinces to detect and respond to cases. The Organization has deployed around 800 workers to support these efforts significantly minimizing disease transmission both inside and outside the country.”

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that according to updated figures from the Ministry of Health, to date there had been 829 cases of Ebola, 768 of which had been confirmed. There were a further 61 cases that were classed as probable, and 521 people had died. A further 283 people had been discharged from treatment centres and enrolled in monitoring programmes. So far, 68 health-care workers had been infected.

United Nations and Syrian Arab Red Crescent complete delivery of assistance to Rukban

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

“The United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) yesterday completed the delivery of much-needed humanitarian assistance to more than 40,000 displaced people at the remote Rukban ‘makeshift’ settlement in south-eastern Syria, on the border with Jordan.

Mr. Sajjad Malik, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator a.i. in Syria, said: ‘People have been telling our teams how desperate their situation is; they are cold, hungry and lack access to the most basic services, even water is scarce. What limited commodities are available are too expensive for most to afford. Women and girls face serious protection risks such as early marriage and sexual abuse.’

Comprehensive distribution oversight and monitoring took place by UN and SARC teams to ensure assistance reached civilians in need. In addition, the teams carried out needs assessments and an intention survey, which close to 2,900 households took part in, and which will inform discussions on finding a durable solution to their plight.
The complex, large-scale aid operation is the biggest ever carried out by the UN in Syria. The mission lasted nine days, consisting of 133 trucks: 118 loaded with relief supplies and 15 carrying logistics supplies, with more than 300 staff, volunteers and commercial suppliers taking part. It took more than two months of advocacy and negotiations with all parties to ensure safe access to the site.”

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Laerke said that the most recent convoy, which had taken two months to negotiate, constituted only the second time the United Nations had been able to reach Rukban with supplies from within Syria. Sustained access was required in order to continue to provide aid to the area.

Andrej Mahecic, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that a UNHCR team had spent a week in Rukban as part of the humanitarian effort. The majority of the civilian population at Rukban were women and children, who were living in makeshift and scattered shelters with no privacy or protection from the harsh weather conditions. Children were walking barefoot through puddles and mud, in cold and rain.

Early marriages were commonplace. Some women had been subjected to serial marriages, and some reported having turned to survival sex as a last resort. Many women were terrified to leave their mud homes or tents, as there were serious risks of sexual violence and harassment. UNHCR staff had met mothers who kept their daughters indoors because they were too afraid to let them go to improvised schools. Education options were scarce.

During their mission, UNHCR staff had also carried out an intentions survey. Most people had reported that they wanted to return home. Some of the families had been at Rukban for more than four years. While the aid had provided some immediate relief, most people wanted a meaningful and sustainable solution to their plight.

None of the children born in Rukban had any civil documentation; no birth certificates, not even a birth notification. A single local nurse was keeping a form of registry. Medical staff had likened their working conditions to operating in the Stone Age.

As part of the larger humanitarian effort in Syria, UNHCR was adding its voice to the calls of the wider UN to all parties to facilitate delivery of aid to meet immediate critical needs. Sustained, predictable and safe access was essential to deliver life-saving supplies, monitor aid distributions and carry out needs assessments, as required by international humanitarian law.

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Mahecic said that many people wishing to return home from Rukban would have to cross the line of separation in order to do so. Consequently, finding a meaningful and durable solution to the situation was paramount.

Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that UNICEF-supported vaccinators had immunized thousands of children during a 10-day mission to Rukban. Thirty of the convoy’s 118 trucks had been loaded with UNICEF’s life-saving supplies for children, including health and nutrition supplies for an estimated 20,000 children and mothers, hygiene kits for more than 40,000 people, recreational kits and education supplies, including school books, stationery and school bags, for over 8,000 children.

Access to health services in the area was extremely limited: there were no certified doctors and only a few poorly supplied clinics. Since December 2018, at least eight children, most of them newborns, had died in the camp because of freezing temperatures and lack of medical care.

UNICEF’s Representative in Syria, Fran Equiza, who had accompanied the convoy, had said that the winter months had been incredibly harsh for mothers and children in Rukban. Their health had been weakened from poor nutrition and the extremely difficult living conditions. With no access to adequate medical facilities and no qualified medical personnel, a simple complication during childbirth could be fatal for mothers or their babies.

Almost 3,000 school-age children in Rukban were out of school because of overcrowded classrooms, a lack of qualified teachers and difficult financial conditions. With very limited income-earning opportunities, the monthly school fee of USD 3.50 was unaffordable for most families. Parents and children in the makeshift camp had raised many protection concerns including child labour, early marriage, violence against children and fear of violence against girls and women.

While the convoy had been a welcome development, UNICEF was continuing to advocate with all parties to provide sustained and unconditional access to all children in Syria.

WHO Consultation and Information Meeting on the composition of influenza virus vaccines for the 2019-2020 Northern Hemisphere influenza season

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 2019-2020 Northern Hemisphere influenza season was due to take place in Beijing from 18 to 21 February. The meeting would determine the recommendations on the composition of the flu vaccines for the next flu season.

The periodic replacement of the viruses contained in flu vaccines was necessary in order for the vaccines to be effective due to the constant evolving nature of influenza viruses, including those circulating and infecting humans.

Twice a year, WHO organized consultations with an advisory group of experts to analyse flu virus surveillance data and issued recommendations on the composition of the vaccines. The recommendations were used by national vaccine regulatory agencies and pharmaceutical companies to develop, produce and license flu vaccines.

The composition meeting would be held between 18 and 20 February, and the information meeting, which would be open to NGOs and the pharmaceutical industry, would take place on 21 February. A part of the meeting would be open to the press.

Annual session of UNECE Inland Transport Committee

Jean Rodriguez, for the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), said that the Inland Transport Committee would hold its annual session at the Palais des Nations in Geneva from 18 to 22 February 2019. The Committee dealt with normative and policy issues relating to roads, railways and inland waterways.

The highlight of the session would be the high-level segment on 19 February on the automation of transport. The morning meeting would be attended by at least 22 ministers and deputy ministers from around the world, including Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Areas of particular interest included the transportation of dangerous goods, working conditions for truck drivers and the proper management of frozen food and perishables.

The Committee was expected to adopt a resolution on enhancing cooperation, harmonization and integration in the era of transport automation and a 2030 strategy on its normative work and the contribution of the transport sector to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

On 19 February, a virtual reality module for truck driver training would be demonstrated in the grounds of the Palais des Nations to enable decision makers to see the added value of new cost-effective training techniques. The same day, between 3 and 6 p.m., a discussion event would be held on digitalization and e-documents as enablers of growth and development, with speakers from China, Iran and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Geneva announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that on 18 February the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights would open its sixty-fifth session at the Palais Wilson. During the session, which would run until 8 March, the Committee would review the reports of five States parties: Estonia, Cameroon, Bulgaria, Mauritius and Kazakhstan.

Ms. Vellucci added that also on 18 February, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women would open its seventy-second session at the Palais des Nations. The session would run until 8 March and the Committee would review the reports of Colombia, Antigua and Barbuda, Ethiopia, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Angola, Serbia and Botswana.

On 22 February, the Committee would also hold a general discussion on trafficking in women and girls in the context of global migration. The same day, it would consider an exceptional report submitted by Myanmar on the situation of Rohingya women and girls in Northern Rakhine State.

Nina Larson, President of the United Nations Correspondents Association (ACANU), said that on 18 February an exhibition marking the seventieth anniversary of ACANU would open in the Salle des Pas Perdus at the Palais des Nations in Geneva for two weeks.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog150219