REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
15 March 2013
Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the Human Rights Council, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Economic Commission on Europe, the World Food Programme, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Meteorological Organization, the World Health Organization, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the World Trade Organization, the International Labour Organization, and the International Organization for Migration.
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the crisis in Syria entered its third year this week, and there were no signs of a let-up in the immense suffering of civilians that needed aid in Syria.
In a press release that was about to be distributed, the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, Radhouane Nouicer, talked about Syrian families that had been uprooted and traumatized, with their household economies impoverished and their children unable to attend school. Basic human necessities such as shelter, warmth and healthcare had all become precarious and scarce, and it was now a struggle for survival for the at least four million Syrians in need in the country, as well as the 1.1 million that had fled.
Meanwhile, the entire country was becoming militarized, with no place considered safe. Most Syrians had no idea when, or even if, they would have a normal life again. In this context, the United Nations and partners were undertaking one of the largest operations, in monetary terms, in the history of the Organization and much had been achieved. To fund this, the combined short-term appeals called for $1.5 billion, which was currently about 20 per cent funded. For internal operations, $520 million was requested, and this was 21 per cent funded. Without increased funding some activities would not get off the ground or would simply stop, while human suffering continued.
He added that the Under-Secretary-General Valerie Amos had just finished a two-day mission in Turkey where she had met families that had fled Syria who told her they felt abandoned by the international community and just wanted the fighting to stop so they could return home. During this visit she had thanked the people of Turkey for their efforts to help the thousands of refugees that had entered the country.
Answering questions he said that hope remained that donors would step forward and provide the funding needed to continue, and OCHA was working to turn recent pledges into commitments. On another point, he said that it was often difficult to get funding for crises that were not in the headlines, however, in the case of Syria this was not the situation and it was surprising for it to be underfunded. It was an extraordinary situation and required an extraordinary response, which went beyond donor’s normal funding instruments.
Tarik Jasarevic for the World Health Organization (WHO) said prior to the crisis in Syria the country had some of the best public health figures in the region, however as the months passed the situation had deteriorated and there was increasing disruption in the provision of healthcare. This included a lack of medicines, problems in healthcare staff getting to work and large numbers of facilities damaged. Quoting a recent figure, he said one of the large referral hospitals was receiving an emergency patient every 32 seconds.
The damage done to water and sanitation infrastructure was also a concern as it could lead to the spread of waterborne diseases. In collaboration with health authorities, over two million people had been given healthcare support in 2012 and necessary services were offered, through 20 NGO partners on the ground, in both Government and opposition controlled areas.
Health professionals from Syria and representatives from pharmaceutical suppliers had met earlier in March in Amman to discuss the critical lack of drugs and medical supplies. From this WHO had evaluated that the need for supplies would total $900 million in the next 12 months. A further list of the most needed 168 items had also been developed, and this totalled $467 million for 2013. The WHO had received only 12 per cent of the funding it had requested from January to June 2013.
Answering questions, he said the meeting in Amman was a theoretical exercise as not enough funding had been received to procure medicines for the whole country. The representative at the meeting had been from the WHO Regional Office in Cairo. It was believed that 142 health workers had been directly affected by conflict, with 52 killed, 76 injured and 14 kidnapped. In terms of availability of medicine, he said there were barriers to financial transactions for the Syrian Government, which may not have the resources to buy medicine itself anyway.
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said an increasing number of Syrians, mainly from the northern governorates of Aleppo and Hassake, had taken refuge in northern Iraq in recent months. A WFP team visited refugees in Domiz camp this week and reported a dire situation and many were taking in newly arriving family members and visitors in their small tents.
WFP started a voucher programme in Domiz camp in northern Iraq in November and was currently providing 30,000 Syrians with a monthly food voucher worth $31 per person. WFP was also providing Syrian refugees in the Iraqi border town of Al-Qaim in Al Anbar with food, including rice, lentils, oil, and sugar. WFP was expanding its operation in Iraq to provide food rations and voucher assistance to 95,000 people every month. This was to cover 25,000 people in Al-Qaim and 65,000 in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.
Due to the steady flow of Syrian refugees to Iraq, the Domiz camp in Dohouk and Al-Qaim camp in Al-Anbar province had become overcrowded. The Iraqi Government was exploring locations to open new camps in Erbil and Sulaymaniya and had requested WFP to provide food assistance in these new locations. WFP was ready to assist Syrians once these camps were established. However, with a shortfall for its Iraq refugee operation of $9.4 million, additional funds were needed for WFP to be able to respond to the government's request.
In the neighbouring countries, WFP was also responding to the needs of vulnerable Syrian refugees who fled to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt, primarily through food vouchers. So far, WFP had distributed over one million food vouchers and half a million food boxes to Syrian refugees. Over three million meals were distributed to Syrian refugees in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan over the course of three months.
Answering questions she said an immediate $156 million was needed to provide affected Syrians with food to continue programmes until June. Three months funding was needed at any one time to mobilise supplies so donations were urgently required.
Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said it was telling to look back on the first OHCHR briefing on Syria in March 2011. The note released on that day said that six people had been killed following protests on the streets. A week later, with 37 people killed, it was obviously becoming more serious. By the end of the week, the High Commissioner was warning that events could head into a downward spiral and soon comments were mentioning dozens of killings.
The Syrian Government ignored these warnings and instead launched into large-scale torture and killings and now there was a situation where regular atrocities were now committed by both sides, he said.
Answering questions, he said there was a risk that cases of atrocities were perceived as becoming “normal” and were receiving less attention. For example, when the level of a river in Homs recently dropped 50 bodies of young men had been found, which had not resulted in considerable coverage. It was therefore important for international media coverage to continue. In relation to a resolution to be tabled in the Human Rights Council, he said the High Commissioner had taken a strong position on pushing for the situation to be referred to the International Criminal Court and he looked forward to seeing the contents of the draft resolution.
Asked about pronouncements by some countries that arms would be provided to the rebels, he said that the OHCHR position was that putting more arms into an already out-of-control conflict was not helpful. Ms. Momal-Vanian also reiterated that the Secretary-General had said many times that the further militarisation of the conflict was not desirable.
Patrick McCormick for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that two million people had been affected by conflict in Syria, half of which were children.
Chris Lom for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said the latest IOM situation report on Syria said that refugee resettlement flights for Iraqi refugees had resumed. Over the past week, 266 persons had been resettled in countries such as Switzerland, Australia, Canada, the US and Romania. Another 763 were due for resettlement soon.
He added that over 210,000 people had asked for transportation to Za’atari camp from the Jordanian border since July and conditions there were overcrowded. Ahead of the opening of further camps, transports would continue to that location.
Human Rights Council
Rolando Gomez for the Human Rights Council (HRC) said the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report on Sri Lanka was to begin this morning. Following this, there was a general debate on the review process, and the President was to give a short oral update on his efforts to urge Israel to resume its cooperation with the UPR process. He also noted that because of Israel’s failure to attend its last UPR, the HRC had decided to reschedule its attendance for 2014.
He added that 26 draft resolutions were tabled, and 12 were expected today (15 March), including one on Syria. These were to be considered next Thursday and Friday.
Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the OHCHR team deployed by the High Commissioner to monitor human rights issues linked to the elections in Kenya returned on Wednesday, 13 March.
The team visited several polling stations on election day and interacted with other international and local observers, UN agencies, national institutions, government officials and security agencies. It had reported that the elections were peaceful and characterised by an absence of any systematic violations of human rights.
Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said OHCHR was concerned about the swift adoption of the most recent amendment to the Fundamental Law (Constitution) by the Hungarian Parliament on 11 March 2013. The amendment was passed without proper public discussion on issues that may have a profound effect on the enjoyment of human rights by the Hungarian population.
This Fourth Amendment to the Fundamental Law raised serious concerns in a variety of areas, including possible threats to the independence of the judiciary, the authority and the jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court and, by extension, to the rule of law in general.
In particular, it was noted with concern that the new amendment may further strengthen the already extensive powers over the judiciary held by the President of the National Judicial Office. For example, the amendment upheld the President’s right to reassign cases to a different court – a provision that was previously adopted as a transitional measure and was subsequently struck down as unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court.
The new amendment also gave the Prosecutor General the right to transfer cases to a court other than the legally designated one – despite the fact that this provision had earlier been struck down by the Constitutional Court as unconstitutional and in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Government was apparently recognizing the role of the Venice Commission that handled legal constitutional issues of the Council of Europe, and gave advice on compliance with international and regional norms which was welcome. OHCHR was to continue to watch the situation closely.
Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said OHCR was very concerned by allegations that north of Phuket the Thai Navy had shot dead at least two Rohingya asylum seekers fleeing Myanmar by boat. The shooting allegedly took place on 22 February while the Navy was transferring around 130 people from the boat they had arrived in into smaller boats.
The Prime Minister had said to the media that the Government was investigating the incident and OHCHR urged the Government of Thailand to ensure that the investigation into these allegations was full, prompt and impartial, and that anyone who had committed a crime during this incident was brought to justice.
He further urged Thailand, along with other countries in the region, to consider alternatives to the "help-on" policy, which led to deaths at sea, and to find alternatives to detaining migrants and asylum seekers, including children, in accordance with its international human rights obligations.
The regional implications of the outbreak of ethnic violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state last year had increasingly raised concerns about reports of smuggling and trafficking in persons and tragic incidents such as this one involving the boat. The OHCHR called on the Government of Myanmar to address the root cause of the discrimination and violence in Rakhine state and believed that a regional response was needed to address the multiple dimensions of the current crisis.
Likewise, Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said UNHCR had asked the Royal Thai Government to verify recent reports that a Rohingya boat was towed out from Thai waters, and that shots were fired during the interception.
UNHCR had met the survivors of a boat incident reported in Phang Nga, southern Thailand, cross-checked their accounts with other sources and established that the incident was the same one reported by boat people who arrived in Aceh, Indonesia on 26 February. UNHCR staff in Indonesia have spoken to some of the 121 arrivals in this group, which includes women and children.
Those interviewed in both countries said that they left their village in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state around 5 February. During the journey lasting three weeks, they ran out of food and water. When intercepted by authorities in Thai waters, they were provided with some assistance and then twice towed from Thai waters out to sea. According to converging accounts, at least three shots were fired during interception, but information was conflicting as to whether these were warning shots or actually aimed at the passengers. Survivors and local fishermen near Phuket said two dead bodies were recovered from the sea, though it was unclear if the cause of death was shooting or drowning.
UNHCR was gravely concerned that people fleeing unrest could have been turned away and exposed to further distress in their search for safety, and was seeking access to such boats intercepted in the high seas.
Following the inter-communal violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state last year, thousands of people have boarded smugglers’ boats from the Bay of Bengal to seek safety and stability further south. More than 7,000 people were estimated to have taken this dangerous voyage in the first two months of this year, though the clandestine nature of these movements makes it difficult to know the real scale of the movements.
Amid news reports of boats being pushed back to sea, some boats have arrived on the shores of countries in South-East and South Asia. Since January, more than 1,800 boat arrivals – the vast majority Rohingya from Rakhine state – have been accepted on Thai soil and provided assistance in shelters and immigration detention facilities mainly in the south. UNHCR had welcomed the Thai government’s decision to provide them with six months of temporary protection while solutions were sought.
In Indonesia’s Aceh province, more than 180 presumed Rohingya have arrived so far this year, among them 12 women and 58 children. The youngest was a seven-month-old baby. The local authorities in Aceh were providing medical and other assistance. The International Organization for Migration was providing food and relief supplies. The local community and civil society have also donated food, clothes and sanitary items. UNHCR was interviewing them to assess their protection needs. In Malaysia, two boats had been picked up in the last week with some 320 people believed to be Rohingya in need of international protection.
In mid-February, a boat with over 30 people was rescued in Sri Lanka, reportedly after some 90 of their fellow passengers had died of starvation and dehydration during the long journey from the Bay of Bengal. The survivors joined another 130 people reportedly originating in Myanmar and Bangladesh who had arrived in Sri Lanka earlier this year.
UNHCR was appealing to all States in the region to keep their borders open to people fleeing persecution. Our offices were ready to support States in assisting and protecting these individuals.
Answering questions she said some of those fleeing were still going to Bangladesh, though increasing numbers of people were going further afield. Furthermore, migration patterns were going beyond the normal season and people were using bigger boats.
Patrick McCormick for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said UNICEF condemned the attack that took place on March 11 near a secondary school in Kirkuk governorate, Iraq. A news note with quotes was available.
Central African Republic
Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said UNHCR was increasingly worried by the situation in southeastern Central African Republic (CAR) where attacks this week were posing additional risks to the civilian population, including Congolese refugees.
On Monday, Seleka rebels who signed a peace accord with the government two months ago, attacked and took over the town of Bangassou. The rebels had been advancing eastwards towards the town of Zemio, where 3,300 refugees from Province Orientale in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) reside.
As well as presenting a security risk, the Seleka advance was further compromising our access to refugees and internally displaced populations. UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies have been forced to temporarily relocate some staff to Bangui, the capital. Although some staff were still in place, services for refugees were nonetheless reduced. Clashes since December between Seleka forces and the CAR army had seriously restricted humanitarian access to some 5,300 refugees and over 175,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Meanwhile an estimated 29,000 civilians have fled to neighbouring DRC. Chad had also received some 5,000 refugees since the beginning of the crisis. People continued to cross into southern Chad in the wake of the takeover of the town of Sido by Seleka forces on March 1.
Over the past two months UNHCR and other members of the protection cluster have conducted evaluation missions to nine of CAR’s prefectures. Most of the internally displaced people UNHCR spoke to reported that they were living in fear and insecurity: 88 per cent of community members surveyed told us they do not feel safe. In addition, 99 per cent of the 168,000 children who went to school before the crisis were no longer in school. Even more worrying, one in five of the children out of school was believed to have been forcibly recruited by armed groups.
The Protection Cluster mission found that in most cases civilians had extremely limited access to food and basic services because of the combination of continuing armed violence, human rights violations and forced displacement. People were also subjected to physical assault, rape, and looting and extortion of their properties. Humanitarian workers were also facing harassment, including theft and looting of their office premises.
UNHCR reiterated its call to the government and rebels from Seleka to ensure the protection of civilians and to facilitate access for humanitarian staff to people in need.
Ms. Momal-Vanian added that the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on the CAR had given the previous day an interview to UN Radio that was available through the UN website, and in which she stated her concerns on the humanitarian situation in the country.
Chris Lom for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) mentioned a Canadian-funded project to help West African states cope with stranded Sri Lankan migrants, which had already helped 557 people return home.
He also talked of a project in Nicaragua to build the capacity of Costa Rica and Nicaragua to create and manage regular migrant flows between the two countries, which was becoming a model for such projects globally.
World Meteorological Organization
Clare Nullis for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had issued a global update for February temperatures, saying February 2013 was the ninth highest since records began.
The Bureau of Meteorology of Australia had today issued a special climate statement on the prolonged heat wave affecting southeast Australia earlier this month, which had broken the record for the longest period of persistent hot days and nights.
Ms. Nullis said the national drought conference being held in Geneva had laid the foundations for practical and proactive policies. She said there had been scientific discussions showing we had better monitoring and prediction tools and this needed to be translated into policy measures. The meeting had issued a non-binding declaration encouraging governments to develop and implement drought management policies. A press release had been issued.
She then explained that WMO was to issue a press release next week on World Meteorological Day, with the theme this time being, “Watching the weather to protect life and property.”
Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the Committee on Human Rights this morning (15 March) finished reviewing the report of Angola. This afternoon came discussion of the situation in Belize, in the absence of a report. Next week, the Committee considered the report of Macao (presented by China) and Peru. Reports already discussed: Paraguay and Hong Kong (China).
The Conference on Disarmament held a debate on Tuesday (19 March) on the issue of the prevention of an arms race in space.
Today (15 March) at 3 p.m. in Hall XIV, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) held a press conference on the United Nations Forum on Sustainable Standards. Speakers were from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Trade Centre.
Ankai Xu for the World Trade Organization (WTO) said WTO Director-General, Pascal Lamy was in Geneva from on Monday (18 March) to Wednesday, where he attended the opening of Global Commodities Forum organized by UNCTAD. On Tuesday (19 March), he met with Mr. Augusto Costa, Secretary of International Economic Relations of Argentina and from 22 to 24 March he was in Beijing, China to attend the China Development Forum.
She then said that on Tuesday (19 February) there was an informal meeting of the General Council at 4 p.m., which would look at the procedures for the selection of the next Director-General. A briefing was to follow this at a time and place to be confirmed. On Wednesday (20 March) at 10 a.m. was Argentina’s trade policy review (continuing on Friday), and later at 3 p.m. came Kazakhstan’s membership negotiations. On Thursday (21 March), there was a meeting of the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures Committee at 10 a.m.
Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced an embargoed press conference on Wednesday (20 March) at 10 a.m. in Press Room 1 on the release of UNHCR's report on ‘Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries’.
Jean Rodriguez for the United Nations Economic Commission on Europe (UNECE) mentioned a UNECE event on Tuesday (19 March) at 5 p.m. on energy, held in the context of the United Nations Forum on Sustainable Standards organised by UNCTAD. Three international energy companies were to present their efforts to support the reduction of poverty in countries in which they extracted resources.
He also mentioned an event taking place next week in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, which looked at land Administration in Central Asia and was to explore the challenges and current situation of developing robust land registration and land administration systems in Central Asia, including environmental issues such as access to water.
Finally, he said the first International Day of Forests was to take place on 21 March and a celebration was to be held in the UNOG Library. Invitations had been issued electronically. A number of diplomatic representatives and the UNECE Executive Secretary were to attend.
Answering questions, he said materials on the level of air pollution across Europe were available and he would send the link to those interested.
Jean Martinage for the International Labour Organization (ILO) said a round table on economic growth and the creation of work in Africa was to be held on Monday (18 March) at 1 p.m at the ILO building.
Tarik Jasarevic for the World Health Organization (WHO) Monday 18 March 2013 at noon in Hall XIV, WHO held a press conference in advance of World TB Day (24 March) where WHO and the Global Fund were to outline some key priorities for tackling tuberculosis and addressing a new threat posed by multidrug-resistant TB. A press note and factsheet were to be issued shortly.
Speakers were Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General, World Health Organization, Dr Mark Dybul, Executive Director, Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, Dr Mario Raviglione, Director, Stop TB Department, World Health Organization and Dr Eliud Wandwalo, Senior Specialist on Tuberculosis, Global Fund to Fight
Ms. Momal-Vanian added that on Tuesday (19 March) at 2:30 p.m. in Press Room 1 the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) would hold a press conference on the International Patent System in 2012, International Trademark System in 2012 and International Design System in 2012. The speaker would be Francis Gurry, WIPO Director General. WIPO were to bring embargoed copies of the press release on Monday so journalists could prepare in advance.
* * * * *
Webcasts of the regular press briefings will not be available for the next few weeks due to renovation work in the Palais des Nations.