REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
18 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 Human Rights Council, the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Office for the High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Health Organization, World Food Programme and the World Meteorological Organization.
Human Rights Council
Rolando Gomez for the Human Rights Council (HRC) gave a reminder of the upcoming Universal Periodic Review 15th session saying it opened on Monday (21 January) and ran for two weeks. The first country up before the session was France at 9:00 and reports were available online. There were 86 speakers that had indicated a wish to speak at the French review, and a list of these and other documents such as the link to the extranet and the webcast were to be distributed. On Monday afternoon came Tonga, then Romania on Tuesday morning and Mali on Tuesday afternoon. There were also a number of government and NGO side events in parallel.
Answering a question he said the review of Israel was still scheduled for January 29 at 14:30. If a delegation from the country was not to attend then action, as yet unspecified, would be taken. There was language in Resolution 5.1 that expressed the need for appropriate action should a state show persistent non-cooperation in the UPR process.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said that there were an estimated 8,700 newly displaced people in southern Mali since the latest round of fighting began on 10 January. An estimated 228,920 people were displaced in Mali. Limited access was preventing needs assessments and humanitarian assistance operations. The protection of civilians in the north was a key humanitarian concern. There was more information in an OCHA press release in the back of the room.
She also said that according to the joint assessment mission completed by OCHA, UNICEF and WFP to Segou, from 12 to 15 January about 200 new IDPs from Sevare (Mopti region) arrived in San (Segou region) following the recent armed activities. However, the mission highlighted the urgent need for assistance for people displaced since March 2012. About 32,500 IDPs in Segou region (including 3,500 in San) urgently need food, non-food items (NFIs), cash transfers and medical and nutrition care.
Melissa Fleming for the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said as military operations continued in northern Mali, UNHCR was reinforcing its teams across the region to assist the internally displaced persons and refugees. Their new planning basis allowed for additional displacement of up to 300,000 people inside Mali and 407,000 into neighbouring countries, she said.
As of yesterday, displacement across borders had been rising steadily, with 2,744 Malian refugees now having arrived in neighbouring countries since fighting and airstrikes started on January 10. Of these 1,411 were in Mauritania while Burkina Faso had received 848 new refugees and Niger 485. Including these numbers and those displaced since the Mali crisis started a year ago there were now 147,000 Malian refugees in neighbouring countries. At the same time, as previously noted, close to 229,000 people were now displaced inside Mali.
In discussions with UNHCR staff, refugees had said they fled their homes due to the lack of any means of subsistence and fear of the strict application of Sharia law. They say they had also witnessed executions and amputations, and mentioned that large amounts of money were being offered to civilians to fight against the Malian Army and its supporters. According to the accounts from refugees there were children among the rebel fighters. People spoke of family members having disappeared.
Refugees were also reporting they had paid the equivalent of $50 for the trip out of the country. For many this was the equivalent to more than a months earnings and the reason that not as many people had fled as expected. They said that more people were on their way to Burkina Faso by foot, many also using donkeys or local transport. Despite on-going insecurity in northern Mali in recent months, they said that people had delayed fleeing Mali to allow the men to take care of businesses and animals and there was trouble in getting transportation.
Refugees also said that hopes that the new military intervention would be short-lived were causing some to wait instead of fleeing, though it was expected that numbers leaving would increase as fighting spread.
Answering questions, she said no matter the length of the conflict there were already significant numbers of refugees to be helped and work would be needed to return the country to a peaceful state.
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said there were 1.8 million people living in the regions most affected by conflict in Mali, a third of which were in a state of food insecurity. Programmes were in place to help through the work done with nine partner NGOs on the ground, she explained, though the extent of action possible was limited.
WFP was actively exploring alternative options for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and was reinforcing its presence in Sikasso, which ensures access to Lomé, Accra, Cotonou and Abidjan.
Funding was now critical to allow for timely procurement of commodities and ensure vulnerable populations receive the much needed assistance. The lack of funds for the new Emergency Operation was an additional constraint to the already very challenging situation in country, which was causing some food pipeline gaps for cereals and pulses.
Answering questions she said the work being done on pre-positioning stocks related to possible new and existing locations, and was to ensure the maximum and best response possible, as the situation allowed. On another point she reiterated that this conflict came following a period of drought which had exacerbated the situation of food insecurity.
Tarik Jasarevic for the World Health Organization (WHO) said the health cluster had met yesterday (17 January) in Bamako and had decided to immediately put in place a sub-cluster at Mopti and Segou to coordinate interventions and inputs.
In response to a request sent by the Ministry of Health needs to Mopti hospital and health districts in the region, WHO had given supplies such as trauma kits, malaria drugs and other specialized materials.
The Ministry of Health and all partners were to provide an idea of the state of the stocks of medicines available and needed in the coming weeks no later than today (January 17.)
Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the crisis in Mali had led to various human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, rape and torture. These had been documented in a report requested by the Human Rights Council which was published by OHCHR on January 14, along with the growing ethnic tensions in the country which raised very serious concerns. The report was available only in French at the current time and was numbered AHRC/22/33.
The report presented the findings of a human rights mission deployed to Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger from 11 to 20 November 2012. The eight person team included two staff from the offices of the Secretary General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict and his Special Representative on Children in Armed Conflict.
The report showed that the current human rights situation was linked to long-standing and unresolved issues, and that human rights violations had been committed both in the North, and in the area under government control. In Northern Mali, serious human rights violations had been taking place since January 2012, including summary executions and extra-judicial killings.
A year ago, on 24 January 2012, armed combatants identified as members of the MNLA (Mouvement national de liberation de l’Azawad) allegedly used students as human shields to force military forces to surrender and later on allegedly executed 94 of the 153 captured and disarmed soldiers. Several Tuareg soldiers were also reportedly victims of reprisals by members of the Malian army in the North. Incidents of this nature included the killing of nine soldiers in Timbuktu on 4 February 2012.
Civilian deaths were also reported, including of people who tried to resist the looting of humanitarian warehouses by armed groups in April 2012, and a young unmarried couple who were stoned to death in Aguelhok.on 29 July 2012 by members of Ansar Dine and the MUJAO group (Mouvement pour l’unicité et le jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest).
Ten amputation cases by extremists groups in the North were also documented, including the case of a 30-year-old man whose right hand was cut off with a kitchen knife for allegedly stealing cattle following a summary trial set up by MUJAO militia.
Human rights experts also found that civilians in the North suffered from degrading treatments by extremist groups, based on an extreme interpretation of Sharia. Women, in particular, had suffered from harassment, abuses and sexual violence, for example after being accused of being improperly veiled or dressed, or for riding on a motorbike. On April 3, a 22-year-old woman was raped by six armed men allegedly belonging to the Ansar Dine extremist group for not wearing her veil in her own home.
Rapes of women and girls, at times in front of family members and often apparently carried out on an ethnic basis, had been repeatedly used in the North to intimidate people and break any form of resistance. Young girls, sometimes as young as 12 or 13, were reported to have been forcibly married to members of Ansar Dine, MUJAO and AQMI (Al-Qaida au Maghreb islamique) and gang-raped for days, the report says.
The report also highlighted cases of arbitrary detention in Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, as well as cases of sexual violence against female detainees. The recruitment of child soldiers, sometimes as young as 10, by extremist groups was also documented during the mission.
The human rights team also highlighted human rights violations in territories under the control of the Malian government, including the extra-judicial killings of several soldiers of the Malian army and at least 21 cases of forced disappearances following a failed reverse coup on 30 April 2012. Members of the police and the military suspected of supporting the coup were also arrested and allegedly abused, tortured and subjected to inhumane treatment in Kati camp. Malian soldiers also allegedly executed 16 pilgrims on 9 September 2012.
The OHCHR mission highlighted the increasing presence of self-defence militia and expressed its alarm at the growing ethnic tensions in Mali, which could also lead to possible acts of revenge against the Tuareg and Arab communities perceived as being linked to the armed groups.
In his statement he called on all parties to abide by international human rights and humanitarian law standards and welcomed the announcement by the Office of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court on January 15 that it was to open an investigation into the Mali situation, following the referral of the situation to the ICC by the Mali authorities in July. This was an important step for victims of human rights violations, and also sent an important message to perpetrators of human rights violations that they will be held accountable for the crimes committed.
He also called for the initiation of a reconciliation process to address current human rights challenges as well as long-standing unresolved issues, and urged the Malian army and its supporters to take extreme care not to carry out further reprisals as and when they retake territory in the North.
Answering questions he said the report came from the start of the crisis up until mid-November 2012 and the mission team had paid visits all over the country looking at violations by a number of groups, often acts of reprisal. He also explained that a section of the report outlined cases of the use of child soldiers, saying these young combatants had been offered to armed groups for either religious or monetary reasons.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said there was a media advisory at the back of the room on the visit of OCHA’s Operational Director John Ging’s visit to Syria from 18 to 22 January. During this visit he was to see first-hand the scale of the humanitarian crisis and review the response. He would be accompanied by Emergency Directors from FAO, IOM, HABITAT, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNRWA, WFP and WHO.
Tarik Jasarevic for the World Health Organization (WHO) said in light of the deterioration of the crisis in the Syrian Arab Republic, WHO had established an emergency support team in Amman in Jordan to provide support to its offices in the Syrian Arab Republic and the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey.
The emergency support team (EST) was to provide assistance in coordination; information; technical expertise; and core services and was to comprise international experts in public health, epidemiology, information management and logistical support. It will be operational for three months and its function will be reviewed.
The WHO joined a joint UN mission to Homs governorate from 3 January to 17 January to assess the health situation, monitor the activities implemented by NGOs receiving support from WHO, and expedite health responses in the governorate. At present, six out of 13 public hospitals in Homs were out of service including the National hospital in Homs city. The Ibn-Al-Waleed Maternal and Child hospital had scaled up its operation to serve as a general hospital, however an assessment mission to the hospital revealed that only limited services were being provided.
Al-Birr hospital, operated by a charity, was fully functional and delivering free health care to vulnerable populations. WHO was providing support for trauma management, life-saving medicines including non-communicable diseases and supporting the provision of hemodialysis sessions. Due to increasing number of patients, hospital resources were rapidly being depleted, an observation heard from all health facilities visited.
A vaccination programme had been carried out in 13 out of 14 Governorates, reaching 1.3 million children under five had been vaccinated against measles and 1.5 million had received inoculations against polio. Children in conflict areas of Bab Amer and Asheria (where fighting was ongoing) were not reached. WHO will promptly support the renovation of a health center in Bab Amer which had been partially damaged during the unrest.
WHO and UNFPA also visited Daraa. The governorate had nine public hospitals of which three were fully functioning and six have been affected and were only partially operating. The director of health services reported difficulties for patients to access health services and for health workers to reach their workplace due to the ongoing conflict. Health authorities were facing serious difficulties in delivering medicines, vaccines and medical equipment to hospitals and health facilities. Referral services have broken down and 39 of the 40 ambulances belonging to the governorate have been stolen.
Some villages in the governorate cannot be accessed by health authorities in the governorate. There was therefore a need to strengthen mobile health services delivered by NGOs.
According to the Ministry of Health say 48 out of 88 public hospitals had been damaged or affected and 27 were out of use.
Answering questions Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said it was uncertain at this point how to proceed in terms of providing updated casualty figures in Syria as it was a complex matter.
He added that the High Commissioner was to address the Security Council at a closed meeting at 11:00 today New York Time. It was likely that more information about the points discussed would be available following the meeting.
Ms. Momal-Vanian added that Valerie Amos would also address the same meeting.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Ms. Momal-Vanian said international and national aid organizations were appealing for $30.5 million to respond to humanitarian needs over the next six months in North Kivu province in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The “North Kivu Response Plan” aimed to help some 590,000 people with life-saving and recovery assistance in the aftermath of the latest fighting that affected the province in late 2012. There was a press release from OCHA available at the back of the room.
Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay was deeply concerned that the impeachment and removal of Sri Lanka’s Chief Justice had further eroded the rule of law in the country and could also set back efforts for accountability and reconciliation.
The removal of the Chief Justice through a flawed process, which had been deemed unconstitutional by the highest courts of the land, was, in the High Commissioner’s view, gross interference in the independence of the judiciary and a calamitous setback for the rule of law in Sri Lanka.
Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was served notice of her dismissal and removed from her chambers and official residence on Tuesday (15 January), in spite of a Supreme Court ruling that the parliamentary procedure to remove her violated the Constitution. Sri Lanka had a long history of abuse of executive power, and this latest step appeared to strip away one of the last and most fundamental of the independent checks and balances, and should ring alarm bells for all Sri Lankans.
The jurist sworn in by the President as the new Chief Justice on 15 January, the former Attorney-General and Legal Advisor to the Cabinet, Mr. Mohan Peiris, had been at the forefront of a number of government delegations to Geneva in recent years to vigorously defend the Sri Lankan government’s position before the Human Rights Council and other human rights mechanisms. This raised obvious concerns about his independence and impartiality, especially when handling allegations of serious human rights violations by the authorities.
It was also concerning that the impeachment process had caused bitter divisions within Sri Lanka, and that it sends an ominous signal about the Government’s commitment to accountability and reconciliation. It flies in the face of the strong calls by the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission, and by leaders of Sri Lanka’s civil society and legal profession, to rebuild the rule of law which had been badly eroded by decades of conflict and human rights violations.
Just this morning the OHCHR had received alarming reports from the Independent Bar of Sri Lanka of a series of death threats, acts of intimidation and even a couple of reported murder attempts against lawyers who had been supporting Chief Justice Bandaranayake, and the rulings of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal on her case.
The High Commissioner was to issue a report on Sri Lanka at the February-March session of the Human Rights Council, focusing on the engagement of UN mechanisms in support of the accountability and reconciliation processes.
Answering questions, Mr. Colville said the process of removal of the Chief Justice had first begun in July with the beginning of impeachment proceedings which a parliamentary select committee had later agreed were appropriate, though the Supreme Court then quashed this as unconstitutional. Various reasons had been given as to the reasons behind the impeachment proceedings.
Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the OHCHR condemned recent attacks against human rights defenders in Zimbabwe, including arbitrary arrests, intimidation and harassment.
In the latest case, on January 14, the police charged Okay Machisa, the director of Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) and chairperson of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, for allegedly publishing false statements prejudicial to the State, fraud and forgery after allegedly conducting illegal voter registration. Machisa handed himself to the police on January 14, accompanied by his lawyer, and remains in detention.
In a previous incident, ZimRights Education Programmes Manager, Leo Chamahwinya, and ZimRights Local Chapter Chairperson, Dorcas Shereni, were arrested by the police on 13 December 2012. They were both denied bail by the High Court and remained in detention.
He said the OHCHR was concerned about the crackdown on non-governmental organisations and dissenting voices seen as critical of President Robert Mugabe's rule and apparently politically motivated prosecutions, ahead of the elections which were expected to take place later this year.
Answering a question Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) confirmed the High Commissioner would be attending the meeting held next week where she was to take part in a debate on democracy and a number of closed events. She was also to take part in side meetings which were yet to be confirmed.
Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the OHCHR welcomed the temporary release of Nasrin Sotoudeh, the well-known lawyer and human rights activist who was serving a six-year sentence in Tehran’s Evin Prison. Ms Sotoudeh was granted a three day temporary leave and it had now been confirmed that she joined her family yesterday.
The travel restrictions imposed on her family, restrictions which had caused her to go on hunger strike in the autumn, were lifted in December, so her temporary release marks a second improvement in her case. It was hoped that the temporary leave would be extended, and that Ms Sotoudeh would soon be indefinitely released.
Clare Nullis for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) gave details of MyWorldWeather, a free mobile application with official weather forecasts across the globe.
A new Android version app supporting multiple languages, including English, Spanish and Polish, was today launched by the Hong Kong Observatory on behalf of the World Meteorological Organization. Meanwhile, an updated iPhone app was also available incorporating Spanish and Polish language versions.
UNEP mercury conference
Answering a question related to press activities regarding the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) meeting on a Convention relating to the use of mercury Ms. Momal-Vanian repeated a suggestion that there may be a press conference tomorrow at 11:00, though no official confirmation had yet been given on this. Questions related to the conference could be directed to UNEP’s Head of Communications, Nick Nuttall.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said the Committee on the Rights of the Child today examined the report of Guinea and had already this week discussed reports from Guyana, the United States and Malta. Next week, the Committee was to consider the reports of Burkina Faso, Niue, the Philippines and Slovakia.
Meanwhile, the Conference on Disarmament started its new session on Tuesday (22 January) and a background press release was distributed yesterday.
On Monday there was a press conference planned by the International Labour Organization (ILO) at 10:00 in Room III for the launch of the study, "Global Employment Trends 2013.” The speaker was Guy Ryder, Director-General of the ILO.
She also announced that Kassoum Tapo, President of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians was available for questions and comments on the most recent meeting of the Committee following the briefing.
Catherine Sibut announced a press conference from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) on Tuesday (23 January) 2013 at 11:00 in Press Room I for the release of UNCTAD's Latest Global Investment Trends and Prospects (under embargo until 23 January at 18:00 Geneva time). The speaker was James Zhan, Director, Division on Investment and Enterprise, UNCTAD.
Ankai Xu for the World Trade Organization said nine candidates have 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 expires on 31 August 2013.
The nine candidates will have the opportunity to meet with the Press on 29, 30 and 31 January, immediately following their respective meetings with Members in the General Council. The press conferences will take place in room S1 of the WTO building. The press conference was to last for 30 minutes for each candidate.
In order to make the fairest possible use of the time, each journalist will be allowed to ask only one question, with no follow-up questions. Questions should last no more than one minute.
The press conferences will be webcasted simultaneously on the WTO website. TV journalists who wish to cover the press conferences were asked to contact the WTO press office as soon as possible. The UN press badge was valid to enter the press conference. Requests to interview candidates should be passed on to the respective mission.
She also announced that the current WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy was today (18 January) in Moscow, Russia to speak at the Higher School of Economics. On Monday (21 January) he was in Geneva to meet with a stakeholder panel on Defining the Future of Trade and on Wednesday (23 January) he was in Davos, Switzerland to attend the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting and meet various trade ministers and private sector representatives. On Saturday (26 January) he was to attend the Davos mini-ministerial meeting.
Finally, Rupert Colville for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) mentioned that briefing notes and press releases were often issued following briefings and if journalists were not receiving them then they should get in touch to ensure they were registered for the appropriate mailing list.