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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
22 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 High Commissioner for Human Rights, the High Commissioner for Refugees, the Economic Commission on Europe, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme, and the International Organization for Migration.

Syria

On the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, Rupert Colville for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said using chemical weapons was prohibited under customary international law. This absolute prohibition applied in all circumstances, including armed conflict. As a norm of customary international law, it was binding on the Government despite it not being party to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. It was also binding on anti-Government armed groups. In total, 188 States had signed up to this Convention.

Furthermore, the High Commissioner welcomed the Secretary General's decision to conduct a United Nations investigation into the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, and OHCHR stood ready to join the investigation if requested to do so. If chemical weapons do indeed turn out to have been used, this could only be described as an abominable and depraved act.

The use of chemical weapons would most likely be either a crime against humanity or a war crime, he reiterated, and the High Commissioner echoed the Secretary-General's call that - if such a crime had been committed - those responsible must be held accountable. While awaiting the outcome of the investigation, the protection of civilians must not be put on hold. The High Commissioner reiterated her call to all parties to the conflict to immediately halt attacks against civilians, and to go beyond that - to actually provide for their protection.

Answering questions, he said the Secretary-General was required to carry out this investigation when cases were brought to his attention and the use of chemical weapons in particular, was a special case. Cluster bombs were not covered by international law in the same way. He also mentioned that the Commission of Inquiry on Syria was to continue its investigations into breaches of international law, including the use of chemical weapons.

Ms. Momal-Vanian added that initial discussions had taken place with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the WHO about the Secretary-General’s investigation, which was undertaken at the request of a Member State, as per the mechanism established by the General Assembly, and the modalities of the process were currently being worked out. There was a factsheet on the website of the Office of Disarmament Affairs (http://www.un.org/disarmament/WMD/Secretary-General_Mechanism/) which explained the mechanism for investigation, which might be of interest.

On another point, she answered a question on the lack of an investigation into the possible use of cluster munitions in the Israel-Lebanon war in 2006 saying the investigation about to take place followed a specific request from a Member State to do so. She also responded to a question saying the Secretary-General’s spokesperson had referred to two precedents for the use of this mechanism in investigating the possible use of chemical weapons, in Mozambique and Azerbaijan.

Tarik Jasarevic for the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that WHO would be offering expertise to the investigation in the area of public health. He added that there had been no information on new hospital admissions related to the alleged incident reported in Aleppo since 19 March.

Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said WFP had reached 1.7 million people inside Syria in its most recent round of monthly distributions and was scaling up food assistance to reach 2.5 million in the country in April.

In addition, as the number of Syrian refugees had crossed the one million mark, WFP was scaling up its emergency response to feed some 800,000 refugees in the neighbouring countries in March, and was further expanding to reach 1,225,000 Syrians by the end of the year.

WFP faced severe funding challenges which threatened its ability to expand its operations to reach hungry people inside Syria and more than one million refugees in neighbouring countries, she said. This meant that WFP needed an immediate $141 million to continue to provide vital food to Syrians affected by the conflict until June.

Meanwhile, the rapidly deteriorating security situation was impacting WFP operations. For the last two weeks, 13 WFP trucks transporting food to Syria had been stuck on the Jordan side of the border, along with 23 other trucks belonging to other humanitarian agencies due to insecurity on the road, but were now on their way.

She added that WFP was also starting a school feeding project in Zaatari camp in Jordan where children were to receive nutritious snacks while attending the schools in the camp. With serious bread shortages across the country, WFP planned to add wheat flour to the food basket as of April, so that every food basket was to include five kilograms of flour per person per month.

Marixie Mercado for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said three years into the crisis in Syria, every day brought more destruction to the services and institutions that protected children.

Highlighting some of the recent work UNICEF was doing to plug the most pressing needs she said that in Homs city and Aleppo suburbs, UNICEF had repaired water systems serving some 450,000 people that had been broken for over a month. Over 500 tons of sodium hyplochlorite had now been delivered out of the total of 1,000 tons planned for distribution. This was intended to provide safe water to some 10 million people. In Domiz camp in northern Iraq, construction of a water pipe connecting the camp to the Domiz boosting station was now complete – which would provide 15,000 refugees with safe water.

In Jordan, UNICEF and partner Mercy Corps had officially opened a water pumping station in Zaatari that would initially provide 50,000 litres of water per hour. In the past week, UNICEF and Acted had supplied over 3.3 million litres of water, and removed over 2,650 cubic metres of solid waste and wastewater each day.

In Za’atari, three new playgrounds had also been opened, bringing the total to five, and this week UNICEF expected to open a second school, serving 5,000 children. In Lebanon, an emergency measles and polio campaign targeting half a million children was underway in the 16 provinces not covered in the first round.

The needs were growing fast, and becoming more urgent, especially for children. In this environment, UNICEF was operating under huge funding constraints, with a funding gap of 72 per cent for Syria and the region.

Chris Lom for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in the last week IOM had transported over 11,000 refugees from the Jordanian border. This brought the total transported to over 225,000. On average 1,857 people were making the journey every day during 2013. The resettlement of refugees via Lebanon continued, he added, and between 13 and 19 March, 212 refugees had flown out of Beirut.

Adrian Edwards for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said there were currently 1,172,015 Syrian refugees registered or assisted.

Human Rights Council

Rolando Gomez for the Human Rights Council (HRC) said the HRC yesterday adopted 22 resolutions, on issues including the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the establishment of an independent expert on Mali. There were 18 remaining to be discussed today, with Iran and Syria expected to come up at around 11:30.

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Rupert Colville for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the Human Rights Council establishing a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was warmly welcome. This was a major breakthrough, and it was good to see that it was adopted by consensus: no state abstained, no state voted against.

On 14 January, the High Commissioner made an important statement on the DPRK in which she called for just such "a full-fledged international inquiry." She also pointed out that the international spotlight was, "almost exclusively focused on DPRK's nuclear programme and rocket launches." That was no longer the case now the Human Rights Council had taken this very significant step of establishing a Commission of Inquiry.

Answering questions, he said the existing country Rapporteur would be one of the three members of the Commission, with the other two appointed by the President of the Council. Their report would be issued in September. Human rights issues affected the whole country, he said, and the CoI would draw attention to the situation and carry weight in possibly carrying the issue into other fora.

In addition, the creation of a CoI meant there would be larger, and entirely focused, team working on the issue. He added that the detailed reports issued by previous CoIs had served as a powerful basis for criminal justice systems. On a different point he said the Resolution called on North Korea to co-operate, though there had been no such cooperation in previous years. He believed the unanimous adoption of the text sent a strong signal of international opinion on the issue.

Sri Lanka

Answering questions about Sri Lanka’s apparent rejection of the recommendations put to it in the Resolution adopted by the HRC yesterday, Rupert Colville for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the issues raised were still on the table. Another report would be put forward in September.

South Sudan

Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said the WFP had provided food assistance to nearly 13,000 people displaced by the food crisis in Pibor County. In February, there was an initial distribution of a 15-day food ration to 2,558 people in Gumruk, she said. The second round of distribution had been delayed due to insecurity as the Government sought to track down rebel militia groups operating in that part of the country. It was hoped that distributions could resume as soon as guarantees of security could be offered.

Chris Lom for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said IOM had assisted five children who were victims of human trafficking in South Sudan to return home to Uganda.

He explained that it seemed that human trafficking was on the rise in the country as the economy began to improve, evidenced in another recent case of two Kenyan women who were also trafficked.

IOM was working with the government to build the country’s capacity to cope with cases of human trafficking, and had appealed for funding to conduct a baseline assessment to determine the current extent of cross-border and internal trafficking country-wide.

Pakistan

Adrian Edwards for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said UNHCR was appalled by the bomb attack that took place yesterday (21 March) in a camp for internally displaced people in northern Pakistan.

The attack was in the Jalozai camp near Peshawar in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Ten people were known to have been killed, and several dozen others were left wounded. The dead were residents of the camp and an aid worker from a local non-governmental organization.

Reports said the bomb went off near the administrative office and the scene was described as extremely distressing. Jalozai is Pakistan’s largest camp hosting around 12,500 displaced families, around 57,000 people.

He said UNHCR joined the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Pakistan in expressing its deep condolences and sympathy with the families of all those who lost their lives or were injured in the attack. UNHCR urged Pakistan to further improve security arrangements around the camp and make sure that internally displaced people and humanitarian workers were safe and not targeted. He also urged all sides to respect civilian lives and the sanctity of humanitarian work.

As of today all humanitarian services at Jalozai camp had been suspended while UN agencies assessed the security situation. UNHCR, with other humanitarian agencies, remained committed to continue assisting uprooted people in Pakistan.

Chris Lom for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said IOM’s shelter programme for flood victims in Pakistan had just received funding of CDN$1.5 million, which would go towards assisting the 4.8 million people affected by the 2012 flooding.

World Water Day

Ms. Momal-Vanian read an excerpt from the Secretary-General’s message for World Water Day saying one in three people lived in a country with moderate to high water stress, and by 2030 nearly half the global population could be facing water scarcity, with demand outstripping supply by 40 per cent. She reminded journalists that she had sent them yesterday information about a call for action on sanitation launched by the Deputy Secretary-General.

Tarik Jasarevic for the World Health Organization (WHO) said the press release about the Deputy Secretary-General’s call to action was available at the back of the room.

Dr Graham Alabaster added that despite large interventions there were still 2.5 billion people without access to sanitation. Monitoring showed that were still parts of the world, mostly sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia, where sanitation facilities were available to fewer than 50 per cent of the population. If this situation continued then the sanitation target of the Millennium Development Goals would not be met.
The campaign just launched sought to limit open defecation and the reuse and safe management of human waste, he said.

Answering a question, he said there had been a systematic lack of investment in water, and it was the poor and the marginalised that had not been served. The campaign now was to focus on this group and bring together actors on local-level interventions and improvements. At the latest estimate, there was thought to be around 783 million people worldwide without access to an improved source of water, being one that could be easily collected and was of a decent quality.

Jean Rodriguez for the Economic Commission on Europe (UNECE) said there was a note at the back of the room explaining UNECE’s role in celebrating World Water Day, and its involvement in the wider context of the International Year for Water Cooperation. He also flagged the mention in the Secretary-General’s message on the day saying the UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes would soon be available to all Member States.

He said that official celebrations organized by the United Nations and the Government of the Netherlands were taking place in The Hague, and yesterday there was a multi-party dialogue as part of the ongoing consultation about the role of water in the region.

Giving some examples of the UNECE Water Convention’s ability to foster cooperation, he mentioned cooperation between Tajikistan and Afghanistan in the upper Amu Darya River Basin. A bilateral meeting supported by UNECE was to be held from 25–28 March in Dushanbe with the objective to establish a framework for cooperation on environment and hydrology. Other examples included the new treaty between Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova on cooperation in the Dniester River Basin, signed in November 2012 and a bilateral agreement on the management of the Kura River between Azerbaijan and Georgia.

He also mentioned that a report produced last year outlined the issues in access to sanitation in the UNECE region. There were several case studies that outlined a lack of access in Western Europe, he said, and he could distribute this on request.

Geneva activities

Ms. Momal-Vanian said the Committee of Human Rights on Wednesday had completed the public examination of the last countries in the programme of the session. It was to now adopt its concluding observations on the reports reviewed before the end of the session, Thursday, March 28. These should be made public at the beginning of the following week.

The Conference on Disarmament, devoted next Tuesday (26 March) to a debate on the "negative security assurances.” This covered effective international arrangements to assure non-nuclear-weapon against the use or threat of use of weapons.

Catherine Sibut for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) announced a press conference today (22 March) at 3 p.m. in Press Room 1 on Foreign Direct Investment Trends for BRICS and Africa, ahead of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Durban next week. The Global Investment Trends Monitor - Special Edition, was embargoed until 25 March 2013 at 6:00 pm Geneva time.

She also explained that the Trade and Development Board, which oversees the activities of UNCTAD, was to meet this morning (22 March) to discuss the staging of UNCTAD XIV in Peru in 2016, and to consider the agenda and programme of work for this meeting.

Meanwhile the United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards finished this afternoon, though it was to meet again before the end of the year.

Jean Rodriguez for the Economic Commission on Europe (UNECE) said there was a Compliance Committee Meeting (Aarhus Convention) in Geneva from 25-28 March. Countries to be discussed included Romania, the Czech Republic, Germany, the United Kingdom, Armenia, Austria, Croatia and Kazakhstan.

He also said that on Tuesday (26 March), there was a UNECE meeting of its Group of Experts on climate change impacts and adaptation for international transport networks. This group was to prepare a report, the first of its kind, which should be available around September.


Chris Lom for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said a press release on World Tuberculosis Day (24 March) was available at the back of the room. He explained that IOM had the world’s largest tuberculosis screening programme, with 270,000 refugees and migrants screened every year.

The representative of the International Labour Organization (ILO) also attended the briefing but did not speak.

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