REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
11 January 2013
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the High Commissioner for Refugees, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, the International Organization for Migration and the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Adrian Edwards for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the severe winter conditions across Syria and the surrounding region this past week had brought new difficulties for refugees and other displaced people. Even with the winter preparation work that had been done in recent months, many refugees in both camp and non-camp situations were facing particularly cold and damp conditions. At the same time, there had been no let-up in the numbers of people fleeing Syria into neighbouring countries. Around the region there were, as of figures received yesterday (Thursday), 612,134 people either registered as refugees or being assisted as such.
In Jordan the first week of 2013 had seen a surge in new arrivals with an average of more than 11,000 Syrians crossing the border every day. Many of those arriving have been barefoot, with their clothing soaked, and covered in mud and snow. Refugees had reported discarding their belongings to carry their children through flooded countryside to Jordan. For people arriving at the border, UNHCR managed yesterday (Thursday) to send 1,000 blankets and 500 mattresses along with emergency clothing. The WFP also sent 3,000 welcome meals.
At Za’atri there was flooding earlier this week, amid some of the worst weather conditions in Jordan in 20 years. UNHCR managed yesterday (Thursday) to deliver several truckloads of gravel to elevate the ground level and improve drain-off. Culvert openings were cut through the camp ring road at four different points to release standing water into creeks surrounding the camp. This had improved things in the eastern part of the camps and it was expected that the whole camp was to be dry soon.
Health services in Za’atri camp were all operational with mobile clinics covering the affected area in the camp. For refugees living away from the camp, conditions had also been difficult. Many were accommodated in shelters with limited heating and insulation from the freezing conditions, along with a shortage of warm clothing and blankets. Some 6,000 families were receiving cash assistance.
In Lebanon flooding had occurred in a number of tented settlements in the Bekaa, in houses in a low rise area of Wadi Khaled in the north, and at a warehouse housing refugees further south in Sidon. A collective effort was being put into action to deal with the flooding and help affected refugees. In light of this week’s conditions distribution of warm blankets, heaters, fuel vouchers, winter clothing, and plastic sheeting had been increased.
In Turkey authorities had done significant work in reinforcing camps against the winter conditions, including creating platforms for tents, providing electrical heaters, tarpaulins, plastic sheeting and warm clothing plus additional high thermal blankets. Tragically, and despite precautions taken by the camp authorities, late December saw two fire incidents – one at Ceylanpinar, another at Akcakale. Together these claimed the lives of five children, leaving two others injured.
In Iraq, heavy snow had affected the Domiz camp in Dohuk in particular. Living conditions for refugees outside the camps and in local communities were also difficult, with people affected by the cold and facing high prices for basic commodities. While substantial winterization work had already been done, UNHCR was monitoring the situation closely.
Within Syria itself UNHCR had in recent months provided significant winterization aid to refugees and displaced families. As of year’s end UNHCR had helped over 400,000 people in accessible areas of Syria, providing non-food aid, and in addition cash aid to nearly 15,000 families. Despite the difficult security conditions, they were continuing to work to help people where possible. However, difficulties of access meant all people in need could not be reached.
Answering questions Mr. Edwards said there were large numbers of Syrians in Egypt that had not registered. He also said there had been no evidence of child deaths due to the cold. On another point he said the population was fluid and with access difficult it was problematic to provide a figure for those that could not be reached.
Marixie Mercado for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said more than two million Syrian children affected by conflict, or in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, were struggling to stay warm and dry as one of the harshest winters in recent years sets in.
In Syria, more and more displaced families were taking shelter in large, often unheated public buildings, including schools. At Za’atari camp in Jordan, over a thousand refugees had sought shelter at the UNICEF school, with up to 35 people in each of the 40 classrooms. In Lebanon, tented settlements in the Bekaa Valley were flooded and families were in urgent need of basic items like fuel, blankets, and warm clothes. In northern Iraq, more children were getting sick as temperatures drop.
In Syria, UNICEF had reached over 260,000 people with winter supplies in Damascus, Rural Damascus, Homs, Hassakeh, Tartous and al-Raqqa. In Jordan, UNICEF was working around the clock to keep vital services running, while distributing warm clothing, sleeping mattresses, and heaters. In Lebanon, UNICEF would attempt to get supplies to the settlements as soon as the roads cleared. In Iraq and across the sub-region, work was being done to protect children from sickness by making sure they had safe water, proper winter gear, that they were vaccinated, and that they can stay clean.
Funding was a major constraint, she added, as UNICEF had less than 13 per cent of the $197 million appeal for Syria and the sub-region for January through June 2013.
Answering questions she said there was no proper reporting of child deaths in Syria and studies were being undertaken to assess rates of malnutrition. As a result concrete figures were impossible to give. Impacts that could be measured included falling rates of children in school and rates of vaccination.
Jean-Philippe Chauzy for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said IOM was appealing for an additional $35.6 million to continue providing humanitarian aid inside Syria and in neighbouring countries under extremely difficult conditions.
Funding was becoming more and more important to transport people crossing the border, on-going emergency repatriation of stranded vulnerable migrant workers and their families, he said.
The funding would go towards strengthening IOM’s providing emergency transportation for refugees and distributing emergency shelter and non-food relief items to Syrian civilians caught up in the conflict.
In Iraq and Lebanon, the funds were to provide emergency livelihood support, including on-the-job and vocational skills training for up to 110,000 individuals to increase their self-resilience.
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said the Executive Director of the WFP, Ertharin Cousin, would be in Turkey from 13 to 15 January to visit WFP’s food assistance operation for Syrian refugees and to hold meetings with senior government officials in Ankara and Istanbul.
Ms. Cousins was also to hold a news conference at Kilis refugee camp in which she would brief journalists about the developing humanitarian situation in Syria and WFP programmes to support refugees in the neighbouring countries. She was also to meet colleagues from the Red Crescent and see the electronic food voucher programme in action.
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) answered a question saying Valerie Amos had called for further action to scale up the response to the situation in Syria following her visit to refugee camps.
Adrian Edwards for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said growing numbers of people were risking their lives on smugglers' boats in the Bay of Bengal following the recent violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state and as frustration mounted over the lack of imminent solutions to their plight.
Just one week into the New Year, UNHCR had had reports that more than 2,000 people had left Myanmar's northern Rakhine state and Bangladesh on big boats run by smuggling rings. Their final destination was uncertain, although they were believed to be heading to other countries in South-East Asia.
These most recent reports added to what was already thought to be a record number of people who had reportedly made the dangerous journey in recent months. In 2012, an estimated 13,000 people left from the Bay of Bengal on smugglers' boats. Among them were Muslims from Rakhine state, long-staying refugees in Bangladesh, and Bangladeshis. Most appeared to be men travelling alone, but there were increasing numbers of women and children apparently among smuggled passengers - often an indicator of growing desperation and lack of prospects.
At least 485 people were believed to have died or remained missing in four reported boat accidents in the Bay of Bengal last year. The real death toll could be much higher as it was hard to tell due to the clandestine nature of these irregular movements.
There were unconfirmed reports in the media that smuggled passengers who made it to land were increasingly being detained by smugglers' networks on the Thailand-Malaysia border. The smugglers called their relatives in Bangladesh to demand money for the rest of the journey. If payment was not made, the passengers typically faced being sold to trafficking networks as bonded labourers on fishing boats until they could pay off their debts.
It was unclear how many actually made it to their final destinations, where they often risked arrest, detention and possible refoulement through deportation to Myanmar. UNHCR continued to seek access to individuals arriving by boat who were arrested and detained by government authorities.
Central African Republic
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said the UN Humanitarian Air Service was redeploying its aircraft to Bangui and was to resume flights and support for upcoming rapid assessment missions in the Central African Republic (CAR).
These assessment missions were to consider the possibility of returning to operations, and in preparation for their possible resumption, WFP was working on distribution plans for the regular activities for January and February 2013. These covered areas that were accessible.
An advance UN security team returned to Bangui on 10 January. The team was to monitor the security situation and the consequences of the conflict in the country. Subject to favourable security risk assessment, core critical staff from the UN would return to Bangui on 13 January.
Around 130.000 people had been unable to receive food assistance since the suspension of WFP operations and in Bangui, food prices had risen by 27 per cent during the past month. WFP had about 4600MT of mixed commodities prepositioned in Cameroon and these commodities could be immediately dispatched to CAR when access became possible.
Security measures in the warehouse in Bangui had been reinforced following recent attacks and supplies held there could immediately feed 300,000 people.
Adrian Edwards for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said UNHCR was seeking immediate and unconditional access to tens of thousands of refugees and CAR civilians displaced by the recent fighting in the north and east of one of the poorest countries and most deprived nations. It was believed that these civilians faced deteriorating living conditions and that they needed urgent and potentially life-saving help.
While UNHCR welcomed the one-week ceasefire announced last night during the Gabon peace talks between the CAR Government, the Seleka rebel alliance and opposition parties, it was feared that many more people would be affected including some 700,000 in the capital if full-scale fighting resumed
Reports had been received of thousands of people being displaced in the north and east since the start of the Séléka advance about a month ago. About 800,000 people were believed to be living in the affected areas when the current crisis erupted.
There were serious concerns about the general welfare of displaced civilians, many of whom lived under harsh conditions and in remote settlements, as well as of refugees from countries including South Sudan, Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There were particularly worries about some 2,000 Sudanese refugees in the Bambari camp, in the central part of the country – an area under rebel control. UNHCR was trying to re-establish contact with this refugee population.
There were confirmed reports that the UNHCR office there was looted on 28 December after HCR staff were evacuated. Another UNHCR office, in Kaga-Bandoro, had also been looted.
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the appeal for CAR funding of $129 million was zero per cent funded.
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said there were 6.7 million people in Haiti that were considered to be in a state of food insecurity, with 1.5 million to be considered in grave danger. This meant that their conditions were such that they could not be improved without external assistance.
The WFP had rolled out their school meals programme to 1.1 million children and was to continue this in the next year. Aid had also been given after hurricane Sandy to 486,000 other people. In 2013 it was hoped to extend to 225,000 others in need.
To do this for the first six months of the year funding of $18 million was urgently needed and so far only $2 million had been pledged.
Marixie Mercado for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said 77 per cent of children were in primary school in 2012, up from below 50 per cent in 2006. She also mentioned that five per cent of children suffered from acute malnutrition, down from 10 per cent in 2006. In terms of infant mortality of under fives this figure was down to 88 per 1,000 from 96 per 1,000 in 2006. Access to water remained the same at 65 per cent, though the figure for IDPs was higher at 82 per cent.
Jean-Philippe Chauzy for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said IOM Director General, Ambassador William Lacy Swing, arrived in Haiti today for an official visit during which he was to meet with high-level Government officials and was to also join European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, Ms. Kristalina Georgieva.
He reminded correspondents that 350,000 people still remained displaced and living in temporary shelters, many of whom were extremely vulnerable and without work. Families were often headed by only one parent. Work was being done to find decent homes for these people, including financing of rent.
During their visit, Commissioner Georgieva and Ambassador Swing were to formally announce the extension of the return assistance programme implemented by IOM Haiti in 2012, which would see an increase in funding from the European Commission’s Directorate General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO).
The ECHO funded programme started in August 2012 and had now been extended till mid December 2013. The new donation would allow the relocation of an additional 6,000 families, or 24,000 individuals, from the most environmentally-at-risk camps identified after the passage of Hurricane Isaac.
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the 2013 humanitarian appeal for Djibouti requested $71 million for more than 300,000 people in need of humanitarian assistance, including 212,000 vulnerable people affected by the persistent drought, refugees and migrants.
Humanitarian organisations and the Government of Djibouti focused specifically on strengthening people's resilience to drought and food insecurity and finding more durable solutions to the on-going drought in Djibouti.
There were three main strategic aims in the plan: first, saving the lives of those who were already malnourished and giving them access to food and water, nutritional care, sanitation and health services. Second, supporting people's ability to better respond to future humanitarian crises, especially drought. Third, building local capacity to manage emergencies and promote dialogue between Government, humanitarian and development actors to find common strategies and more durable solutions.
Djibouti’s consolidated humanitarian appeal 2012 requested $79 million and was funded with $40 million, covering 51.4 per cent of requirements.
Answering a question Tarik Jasarevic for the World Health Organization (WHO) said the cumulative number of cholera cases in Cuba in 2012 was around 500. No further deaths had been reported other than the three mentioned in the update of 31 July.
Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed deep dismay at the execution of a young Sri Lankan woman in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.
Rizana Nafeek, who arrived in Saudi Arabia from Sri Lanka to work as a housemaid in 2005, was charged with the murder of her employers' baby a week after her arrival. Despite a birth certificate that allegedly showed she was a minor at the time of the baby's death and repeated expressions of concern from the international community, she was convicted of murder, sentenced to death and beheaded.
He said it was deeply troubling to hear of reports of irregularities in her detention and trial, including that no lawyer was present to assist her in key stages of her interrogation and trial, that language interpretation was poor, and Ms Nafeek’s contention that she was physically assaulted and forced to sign a confession under duress.
On 1 November 2010, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, sent an urgent appeal in connection with Ms. Nafeek’s case. In June 2007, his predecessor Philip Alston raised concerns about the imposition of the death penalty for an alleged crime committed when Ms Nafeek was still below eighteen years of age.
He also noted with great concern the sharp increase in the use of capital punishment in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since 2011. The High Commissioner strongly supported the global movement away from the death penalty and was pleased that a clear majority of Member States (111) recently voted for General Assembly resolution 67/176, which called for a moratorium on the death penalty. He then called on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to join the growing world’s movement away from the death penalty.
Answering questions he said the figures on executions in the country came from Amnesty International, which believed there were 27 in 2010, growing to 82 in 2011 and 79 in 2012.
Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said it was seriously concerning to hear of the convictions and harsh sentencing of 14 activists in the Supreme People’s Court of Nghe An province in Vietnam on 9 January 2013 for “subversion of the administration” under article 79 of the Criminal Code.
They were accused of actively participating in and being members of the Viet Tan organization. Although Viet Tan was a peaceful organization advocating for democratic reform, the Government had deemed it to be a “reactionary organization”. None of those convicted were alleged to have been involved in violent acts.
He said it was alarming that convictions were handed down after only two days of trial. The defendants received sentences ranging between three and 13 years, with three receiving the 13-year sentence. All had been held in custody for more than a year prior to the trial.
These latest convictions, as well as the arrest and detention on 27 December of human rights lawyer Le Quoc Quan, exemplified the limited space for critical voices in Vietnam. The Government of Vietnam was urged to review its use of the Criminal Code to imprison people who were critical of its policies, and to review all such cases violating freedom of expression and association in the country.
Jemini Pandya for the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) said an IPU expert mission to Egypt will work with authorities there on revising a law governing parliamentary elections ahead of new polls for the lower house of parliament in the coming weeks. The mission on 13-14 January was part of on-going IPU support to Egypt in efforts to build a democratic society.
The team of experts specializing in electoral processes, women’s political participation and an MP from the UK, will provide advice on amending the law governing parliamentary elections, due to be finalized in the coming weeks, after a new constitution was approved last month. Egypt currently had only 15 women MPs, representing 2.0 per cent of the total number of parliamentarians.
Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) said he welcomed the passing into law by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Law on Victims’ Rights on 9 January.
The law had been unanimously adopted by Congress in April 2012. Its enactment had been one of the principal human rights commitments made by President Peña Nieto when he took office on 1 December 2012 and was included in the “Pact for Mexico” signed the following day by the principal political parties. It had also been the object of recommendations of the High Commissioner during her visit to Mexico and of several UN human rights bodies.
Answering questions he said the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had played an active role in the work leading to this law and had provided advice to the government.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said that a meeting was to be held in the Palais des Nations between the Joint Special Envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, and representatives of the United States and Russia. A stakeout was planned following the close of the meeting and interested correspondents were asked to remain on standby.
She also said that the Committee on the Rights of the Child begins a three-week session on Monday to consider reports submitted by Guinea, Guyana, Malta, Niue, Slovakia, Burkina Faso, the Philippines and the United States. A background press release was distributed yesterday.
Jean Rodriguez for the Economic Commission on Europe (UNECE) said a press conference for the presentation of the report “World Economic Situation and Prospects 2013”, published by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations was going to be held on 16 January at 14:30 in Press Room 1. There was a possibility the time might need to be changed due to other commitments, he explained. Other press conferences were planned around the world. In Geneva, speakers were Alfredo Calcagno and Robert C. Shelburne.
He also mentioned that the UNECE Executive Secretary, Mr. Sven Alkalaj, was going to be in Abu Dhabi next week. During the visit he was to sit as a panellist for the Ministerial Roundtable in IRENA 3rd General Assembly "Renewable Costs and Benefits” on 14 January, participate in the Ministerial Panel "Building National Frameworks for Renewable Energy" within the World Future Energy Summit 2013 on 15 January, and also serve as key-note speaker for the International Water Summit 2013, at the Panel "Cross Boundary Collaboration through International Water Governance in MDG and SDG concept" on 17 January.
Jemini Pandya for the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) said the IPU’s Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians was due to meet in Geneva between 14 to 18 January.
The human rights abuses of MPs in Bahrain, Maldives and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) were among the cases examined. The five-day session was to include a hearing with parliamentary authorities of Bahrain on the case of Matar Ebrahim Matar and Jawad Fairuz Ghuloom on allegations of arbitrary arrest, detention and ill-treatment. Fairuz was also among 31 opposition activists whose Bahraini citizenship was revoked last November. The hearing followed a resolution adopted by IPU at its 127th Assembly in Quebec City last October.
The Committee was also to follow-up on the findings of an IPU human rights mission to Maldives carried out last November to gather first hand evidence on allegations of ill-treatment, detention and harassment of 19 opposition MPs. It had already expressed concerns at continued political violence and intimidation of MPs.
The human rights body was to also seek further action on the cases of two opposition MPs from the DRC, Eugène Diomi Ndongala and Pierre Jacques Chalupa.
A briefing was planned for 11:30 on Friday (18 January).
Ankai Xu for the World Trade Organization (WTO) said Trade Data Day was planned for Wednesday (16 January) at 9:00. The event hoped to create a better idea of trade flows and market access. There was also an informal meeting on Friday (18 January) on agriculture.
WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy was going to be in Paris on Wednesday (16 January) where he was to participate in the OECD policy dialogue on Aid for Trade and in a discussion on trade in value added with OECD Secretary-General Mr. Angel Gurría . He then travelled to Moscow on Thursday (17 January) where he was to attend the Gaidar Forum plenary discussion on "Russia in the World: Challenges of Integration" and meet with Mr. Igor Shuvalov, First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia.
She also said that nine candidates had been nominated by their respective governments for the post of WTO Director-General to succeed the current Director-General, Pascal Lamy, whose term of office expired on 31 August 2013. A formal General Council meeting was to be held on 29 January 2013 where candidates would present themselves to the membership and each candidate would have the opportunity for a press conference following their presentation.
Answering questions she said the General Council meeting would not be public and requests for interviews should be channelled through the Missions of each candidate.
David Piper, Deputy Head of the Chemicals Branch for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said the fifth and final session of the International Negotiating Committee on Mercury (INC5) was to take place from 13 to 18 January in Geneva. The meeting was the last of a series that sought to create a global legally binding treaty to minimize risks to people and the environment from exposure to mercury, he explained.
An advocacy document, 'Mercury: Time to Act' was now available and could be found online. He added that the results of this conference would be sent to a meeting in Japan in October for agreement and signature. There were 140 countries registered and an additional 900 delegates from other sectors.
A press conference was to take place at CICG on Sunday (13 January) at 14:00 to launch the Global Mercury Assessment which UNEP was asked to conduct and which provided a first and preliminary assessment of releases of mercury into the environment and methods of transport.
Answering questions he said parts of the document had been made available for consultation through the UNEP website for some time. On another point he said the WHO considered that the use of mercury in vaccines was not considered harmful and made for a very small proportion of total mercury use and release, and so had not been considered in the report. However, with talks ongoing it was possible that the list of exemptions may change over the coming days.
He also explained that there were many items still to be negotiated in the treaty though it was hoped that the text could still be agreed by the end of the week. Further, he explained that some parties had concerns with some aspects of the treaty, for example on the release of mercury to the air through coal-based energy generation, though there was a broad consensus that there was a need to take action.