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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE

9 August 2019

Alessandra Vellucci, Director, United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was attended by the representatives of the World Food Programme, the United Nations Refugee Agency, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Seventieth anniversary of the Geneva Conventions

Helen Durham, Director of International Law and Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), recalled that on 12 August 1949 the four Geneva Conventions had entered into force. Following the horrors of the Second World War, the international community in only four months, with the help of the ICRC and in a diplomatic negotiating process called on by the Swiss authorities, had agreed to the four treaties, which were universally ratified on that day. They contained the core elements of the International Humanitarian Law, the law of war, which aimed to reduce suffering in armed conflict.

The law required all parties to a conflict to undertake actions such as the prohibition of torture, the appropriate treatment of civilians, the requirement of all wounded on the battlefield to get access to healthcare, the dignified treatment of the remains of the dead, etc. Today’s anniversary was a forceful reminder that what united us as people was stronger than what divided us in the times of armed conflict.

The ICRC was present in all conflict war zones, engaging in providing protection and assistance to victims, and knew very well that those laws were not always followed. Still, it was important to remember that those laws did work and when they were applied, they made a difference. Every day the ICRC saw the results of the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in action. The law still had an incredibly important role to play and was relevant, for example by making it possible for the ICRC to provide fresh water to six million Syrians. Every time a wounded combatant passed a checkpoint to gain access to medical assistance was a sign of the law of war in action. The ICRC knew that many decisions were made which did protect humanity based on those very important principles.

Today there were a lot of challenges: new technologies, such as cyber warfare, artificial intelligence and autonomous weapons; the protracted nature of conflicts; the urbanization of conflicts; and the growing numbers of non-state parties involved. The ICRC knew that there were challenges ahead, but it also knew that the world was better off with the law.

A question was asked about reviewing or modifying the Geneva Conventions given the large number of non-state actors around the world. Ms. Durham said that the Geneva Conventions clearly applied to all parties, both state and non-state. Would more law be a way to further influence non-state actors or were there better ways to engage, one could ask. The principles of International Humanitarian Law needed to be more heavily and creatively promoted.

On the meaningful human control of lethal autonomous weapons, Ms. Durham referred to a recent ICRC paper. The laws were in place for humans to make and apply decisions. ICRC was looking into legal, military and ethical issues surrounding artificial intelligence, as they were intertwined. What role was the international community ready to give machines when it came to killing, was a big question at stake. Humans needed to make decisions about humans, stressed Mr. Durham.

Given the proliferation of civil wars, a journalist asked if it was more difficult to apply the Geneva Conventions today. Ms. Durham stated that 70 years ago most conflicts had indeed been between States, while now most were internal. Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention referred to non-state actors. Today civilians were major casualties in conflict, which had grown progressively, and the ratio today was quite different from what had been the case 70 or 100 years earlier. In the 1970s, Additional Protocols 1 and 2 had been created to supplement the Geneva Conventions, which addressed the situations of internal armed conflict. Treatment of detainees in non-international armed conflict was a priority issue for the ICRC. There was always a need for international law to evolve, but it was difficult to create new laws based on consensus in the multilateral context of today. If the parties to conflict around the world fully applied the existing laws, that would be sufficient.

Asked about possible sanctions, Ms. Durham stressed that the law of war was daily applied, but it was not applied enough. Solutions needed to be found to make the law more relevant; the Geneva Conventions should be further translated and disseminated; today they existed in only 43 languages. Examples of when the law worked should be promoted further. Ms. Durham said that virtual reality was now being used to promote IHL. There were fascinating new ways to involve both world leaders and the youth. Several years earlier, 17,000 people around the world had been polled, and the vast majority of them believed that there should be limits to wars. The message needed to be kept very strong and disseminated widely.

Asked about celebrations of the 70th anniversary, Anita Dullard, also for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), informed that there would be two events on 9 and 18 September, for which information on registration would be shared. On Monday, 12 August, the Jet d’Eau in Geneva would be colored red, public transportation would carry ICRC flags, and an exhibition would open at Quai Wilson on 17 August.

Rohingya

Andrej Mahecic, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), provided an update on the status of Rohingya in Bangladesh. He read the following statement:

“As of Wednesday, more than 500,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have been registered in a joint registration exercise by the Bangladesh authorities and the UN Refugee Agency.

For many of these refugees, it is the first time they have an identity card. The biometric, fraud-proof cards are being issued jointly by Bangladeshi authorities and UNHCR to all verified refugees over the age of 12.

This comprehensive registration being simultaneously carried out in all refugee settlements in Cox’s Bazar – is meant to ensure the accuracy of data on refugees in Bangladesh, giving national authorities and humanitarian partners a better understanding of the population and their needs. Accurate data will help agencies in their programme planning and be able to target assistance where it is needed most, particularly for people with specific needs, such as women and children taking care of their families and people with disabilities.

Last week, using the biometric data collected during this registration exercise, UNHCR launched the Global Distribution Tool (GDT) initially in one of the refugee settlements in Cox’s Bazar. Through verification of fingerprints or iris scans, this tool speeds up distributions, is fraud proof, and can be used by partners to ensure that there is no overlap in assistance, and to ensure that nobody is left out. It continues to be rolled out in more settlements in the coming weeks.

The new registration cards indicate that Myanmar is the country of origin, a critical element in establishing and safeguarding the right of Rohingya refugees to return to their homes in Myanmar, if and when they decide the time is right for them to do so.

An estimated 900,000 Rohingya refugees live in crowded settlements in Cox’s Bazar, with over 740,000 thought to have fled from Myanmar since August 2017.

The registration exercise, currently under way, began in June 2018. On average, some 5,000 refugees are being registered daily at seven different sites within the settlements. More than 550 local staff have been recruited with the goal of completing the registration process during the last quarter of 2019.

UNHCR’s Biometric Identity Management System (BIMS) captures biometric data, including fingerprints and iris scans, which secure each refugee’s unique identity as well as other important information such as family links.

Both UNHCR and the Bangladesh authorities meet regularly with the refugee community, including with elected community representatives, imams, elders and teachers, to explain the benefits of registration and respond to questions and concerns. Outreach teams composed of refugee volunteers also go into the community to explain the registration process and encourage people to register.

UNHCR is appealing to the international community to continue to support Rohingya refugees and Bangladesh. At the end of July, UNHCR and partners working on the joint refugee response in Bangladesh have received USD 318 million, just over a third of the total USD 920 million needed in 2019.”

Responding to a question on the number of registered versus the total number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, Mr. Mahecic stressed that the registration was continuing, and it should be completed in the last quarter of 2019. The aim was to register all Rohingya refugees in the refugee settlements in the Cox’s Bazar area.

Mr. Mahecic, in an answer to another question, said that there had been no problems with the digital registration and verification exercise. The primary purpose was to protect the right of the Rohingya to return home and to improve planning and targeting of the assistance to various groups of beneficiaries.

On whether Myanmar had recognized the legitimacy of those biometric cards, Mr. Mahecic said that it was very important to safeguard the right of the Rohingya people to return home. A number of conversations had been held regarding possible repatriation, and a number of agreements had been signed regarding potential repatriations. Any repatriation would need to be voluntary and in line with international standards. Freedom of movement, safety, interaction between the communities, access to services and education, and livelihood were all among the key elements for a possible repatriation. If and when refugees decided that it was time for them to return, that data would need to be exchanged between the governments and the UNHCR in order to verify the voluntariness of the returns and the conditions in the areas of return. Responding to another question, Mr. Mahecic said that the cards were relevant for registering and identifying people while in displacement; they regulated their stay in Bangladesh.

On another question, Mr. Mahecic further explained that most people who had fled from Myanmar had been stateless and had had no identification documents. For most of them it was the first proof of identity they had ever had. The scope of the registration was to regulate their status in Bangladesh. Any repatriation would need to include agreement of both the country of origin and the country of asylum. The Rohingya would need to be provided a pathway to citizenship, he stressed.

Mr. Mahecic confirmed that the Myanmar authorities were aware of the biometric registration; it was a transparent process conducted jointly with the Bangladeshi authorities, during which several significant benchmarks had been reached.

Mali – new protection guidelines

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

“In light of the deteriorating humanitarian and security situation, UNHCR is urging States to provide protection to people fleeing conflict-affected areas in Mali.

While not all Malians may be in need of international protection, many from the northern region (Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal, Taoudenni and Menaka), central region (Mopti), some parts of the southern region (Koulikoro, Ségou and Sikasso) and border areas with Niger and Burkina Faso are likely to need asylum.

Persistent violence amongst armed groups and inter-communal clashes continue to affect northern Mali and have now spread to other regions. Some armed groups affiliated with Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA) and the Platform, a loose coalition of militias, have failed to respect the 2015 Peace and Reconciliation in Mali agreement. The conflict has been further escalated by Islamist extremist groups.

The ongoing insecurity has weakened the authority of state institutions in some parts of the country, particularly in the northern and central regions. Civilians, politicians and civil servants and security forces are being targeted and killed. Nearly 200 peacekeepers have been killed since 2013, making it the deadliest peacekeeping operation in the world. People who collaborate with national or international defence forces subsequently find themselves targeted for attack.

Local populations, particularly in the central regions, report widespread human rights violations including summary execution, disappearances, torture and arbitrary arrest. Smugglers and traffickers are able to operate with impunity.

The crisis has had a devastating and disproportionate effect on children. Children are being forcibly recruited by armed groups, kidnapped and killed. More than 285,000 children are being denied an education due to school closures, predominantly in the Mopti region. Girls are being raped and sexually assaulted.

Humanitarian access is severely restricted, creating significant difficulties in providing sufficient access to health, water and sanitation. Drought and desertification in the Sahel have exacerbated the already scarce availability of food.

An estimated 3.4 million Malians are in need of humanitarian assistance, approximately 2.9 million of whom are in areas of the country affected by the ongoing conflict. Meanwhile, nearly 140,000 Malian refugees have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries, mainly Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger since 2013.

Within this context, UNHCR urges States to provide access to territory and asylum procedures to people fleeing the conflict in Mali. Nobody from the conflict-affected regions should be forcibly returned to Mali. The remaining parts of the country should not be considered as an appropriate alternative to asylum until such a time that the security, rule of law and human rights situation in Mali has significantly improved.”

A question was asked about which States should provide protection for the Malians. Mr. Mahecic responded that the purpose of the guidelines was to provide advice to all those in national asylum systems around the world who were supposed to adjudicate asylum claims from Malians. The neighbouring countries, especially Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, had been receiving and providing protection to Malians throughout; it was important that such an approach continue in the immediate neighbourhood.

Mr. Mahecic emphasized that the remaining parts of Mali should not be considered appropriate for providing asylum. He reiterated that the UNHCR was simply issuing its view on how the asylum applications of those Malians should be considered. Nobody from those conflict-affected areas should be returned to Mali.

Given the new circumstances and developments on the ground, the guidelines for States were periodically updated, explained Mr. Mahecic. There were Malians among those arriving to Europe, but a majority were from other countries. The vast majority of Malian refugees were currently stationed in the neighbouring countries, he explained.

On whether UNHCR was able to access the northern parts of Mali, Mr. Mahecic said that humanitarian access was severely restricted to certain parts of the country which were affected by conflict. There were guidelines in place for UN staff on when and how they could to certain areas.

Yemen

Herve Verhoosel, for the World Food Programme (WFP), confirmed that the previous day technical documents on registration of people in need of food assistance had been signed between the WFP and the Sana’a-based authorities. He proceeded to read the following statement:

“The United Nations World Food Programme welcomes important, positive steps taken by the Sana’a-based authorities on safeguards to ensure humanitarian food assistance reaches the most vulnerable children, women and men in areas of Yemen under their control.

A document signed with the Sana’a-based authorities on Saturday 3 August 2019 and the subsequently signed technical annexes will allow WFP to work to establish an independent and accountable process to identify and register families who most need life-saving food assistance.

WFP will resume food distributions following the Eid Al Adha festival for the 850,000 people in Sana’a City who have not received food rations from WFP for the last two months.

WFP will now begin the roll-out of a smartcard-driven beneficiary management system, registering 9 million people in areas of Yemen controlled by the Sana’a-based authorities. These vital measures provide for the protection and privacy of the people we serve and the independence of our humanitarian operation.

The signed documents give a framework to ensure that WFP’s largest operation in the world is operating in an efficient and cost-effective way. For that to happen, the Sana’a-based authorities have provided written assurances that WFP will be able to bring in the staff and equipment required for a targeting and registration process. WFP staff and our partners will also be granted unimpeded access to all areas where we need to work. Once the beneficiary selection and biometric registration process is complete, the agreement will also allow WFP to introduce cash transfers to local people so they may purchase food from local shops, where this is available.

WFP continues to work tirelessly to ensure that hungry Yemeni children, women and men get the food assistance they need. Over the past three months, WFP continued to scale up operations as it strived to reach a monthly target across the country of providing life-saving food assistance to 12 million people.

Yemen remains the most complex and challenging humanitarian crisis in the world. Over four years of conflict have pushed millions of Yemenis to the brink of famine. Some indicators have started to improve in a number of hard-hit areas as WFP has boosted support for them. The overall situation remains precarious and the humanitarian community cannot slow the pace of assistance now.”

Mr. Verhoosel added that the WFP was deeply concerned about the rapid deterioration of the security situation in Aden and was closely monitoring the situation.

Regarding the Red Sea Mills, Mr. Verhoosel said that a team had been based at the Red Sea Mills for the previous three months to get the mills working again, after they had been totally cut off by the conflict for over seven months. Milling of the WFP wheat was about to start in the coming days. WFP was very pleased that current assessments suggested that only a small amount of the 51,000 metric tonnes of wheat grain, enough to feed 3.7 million people for one month, had been spoiled. WFP was exploring the best way to being dispatching the wheat once it was milled to flour. The Red Sea Mills were close to a sensitive and active frontline so that remained a delicate and difficult operation.

The registration process would be very long, said Mr. Verhoosel responding to a question. As many as nine million people across the country were expected to be registered, but it was difficult to now speak of an exact timeframe. The registration would start after the Eid.

WFP had written guarantees from the Houthis, which had been signed after several weeks of negotiations; the technical aspects had been signed just the previous day. WFP believed that the Houthis would help with the implementation of the agreement. The people in Sana’a would start to receive food even before the start of a biometric registration; 850,000 people in Sana’a would progressively start receiving food after the Eid. Cash distributions could not take place everywhere around the country; the situation would be evaluated region by region.

Mr. Verhoosel stressed that the signed document allowed the WFP to work independently on the biometric lists of people who the WFP thought should receive food. A check and monitoring system would be put in place. WFP trusted its partners and needed to restart food distributions even before the biometric registration started.

Dry corridor in Central America

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

“For the fifth consecutive year, erratic weather patterns –prolonged dry spells and excessive rains—have decimated maize and bean crops in the Dry Corridor of Central America. This has affected the food security of subsistence farmers meaning that many struggle on a daily basis to feed their families.

More than 2 million people in the dry corridor- Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua - have been affected, and 1.4 million of them need urgent food assistance according to the latest Emergency Food Security Assessment, or EFSA, which was carried out by the World Food Programme, the Food and Agriculture Organization and government institutions.

The Dry Corridor is a geographical area made up of a tropical dry forest ecosystem that runs from Southern Mexico to Panama. The area is vulnerable to the El Niño phenomenon and erratic weather patterns, which delay rains and extend the dry spell.

Families in the Dry Corridor grow and eat their own food, so they rely heavily on the two seasonal crop cycles each year. Planting the first cycle takes place between April and June and is supposed to be harvested in August which should cover food needs until December.

The second cycle is planted between September and November, and harvested in January of the next year, covering food needs from February until June, leaving a lean season- or a period of food shortage between harvests- that runs between June and August each year.

Subsistence farmers and their families in the Dry Corridor are highly vulnerable to food insecurity. If crops fail, they will not have food to eat, or even food reserves until the next crop cycle.

Maize and beans, their main crops, are very fragile and grown on hillsides with poor soil. They are susceptible to adverse weather conditions, meaning that too little or too much rain can ruin an entire harvest.

When they lose their crops, farmers try to find jobs in local plantations and often have no income to buy food. Other farmers migrate to cities, neighbouring countries, or further afield. According to the EFSA, 8 percent of families indicated that they were going to resort to migration, which the assessment classifies as an extreme coping strategy.

Migration, though, is not a solution. When a person migrates, those who are left behind continue to suffer the cause of the migration. It takes years to economically recover when one person migrates. solution instead is to work together on longer term food security systems that enable these farmers to be resilient and remain engaged in their local markets.

Given the current situation, WFP plans to provide food assistance to more than 700,000 people living in the Dry Corridor. We have assisted more than 160,000 vulnerable people this year. Our work focuses in their immediate needs as well as helping them adapt to climate change.

WFP needs USD 72 million to assist these people with food distributions in the short-term, and with capacity strengthening interventions in the medium- and long-term to help them build resilience, adapt to climate change and enhance national social protection systems.”

A journalist asked what had prompted the current activity by the WFP. Mr. Verhoosel responded that it was linked to the actual humanitarian situation and was not related to the migratory flows. It was hoped that the local food production capacities would be strengthened in long term, after the emergency assistance was provided. That should help people stay in their countries. No specific government had made any requests in that regard, Mr. Verhoosel stated. The decision had been made based on the situation on the ground.

On whether the problem was linked to the climate change and how the resilience could be built, Mr. Verhoosel said that the issue was indeed linked to the climate change and the heavy droughts of the previous five years. Building resilience would be spearheaded by the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Some of the affected countries were more populated than others, confirmed Mr. Verhoosel, and all people in those countries would be supported in the same way.

Geneva announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, informed that today was the Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, and the focus this year was on indigenous languages. Almost half of the world’s estimated 6,700 languages, of which most were indigenous, were in danger of disappearing. There were an estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world. A statement by the UN Secretary-General was available.

The next public plenary of the Conference on Disarmament would be on Tuesday 13 August, from 3 to 6 p.m. It would be dedicated to a discussion on the working paper “Back to Basics: the Programme of Work” presented by the Netherlands.

Press conferences

Friday, 9 August at 12:30 p.m. in Press Room 1

Committee Against Torture - Concluding observations on Bangladesh, Greece, Poland, and Togo

Tuesday, 13 August at 1:30 p.m. in Press Room 1

Briefing on World Wildlife Conference – CITES CoP18, Palexpo, Geneva, 17-28 August 2019

Speakers would include Ivonne Higuero, CITES Secretary-General.

Ms. Vellucci informed that on Monday, 12 August, the Palais des Nations would be closed in observance of the Eid.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/unog090819