REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
2 November 2012
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 Refugees, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Food Programme, the International Organization for Migration, the World Health Organization, the World Meteorological Organization and the International Telecommunications Union.
Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said assessment data was coming in which provided a better picture of the impact of tropical storm Sandy in Haiti and Cuba. Sandy had killed some 60 people in Haiti and the current estimate was that, overall, 1.8 million people had been affected. In Cuba, half a million people had been affected, according to Government estimates.
In Haiti, floodwater had been receding since Sunday but more than 18,000 homes have been flooded, damaged or destroyed. There had been damage to roads and public buildings, including schools and hospitals and other critical infrastructure.
The most vulnerable IDPs in the camps, mainly in Port-au-Prince, were evacuated before the storm and many of these evacuees had now returned home, though 1,500 people remained in 15 hurricane shelters. Food security in the medium term was of concern as Haiti was now struggling with the combined impact of Storms Sandy and Isaac, which hit in August 2012, as well as drought. Preliminary estimates showed that food security had been acutely affected, with up to two million people at risk of malnutrition.
In the shorter term although there were sufficient stocks to cover immediate needs, the effect of the two storms had depleted available supplies and replenishment was urgently needed. An emergency revision of the Consolidated Appeal (CAP) was being considered to accommodate increased needs arising from the impact of Sandy.
In Cuba, Tropical Storm Sandy also severely affected the city of Santiago de Cuba, the second largest in Cuba with a population of 500,000 and of key economic importance. Power cuts were affecting more than 890,000 and nearly 200,000 homes had been damaged.
Tarik Jasarevic for the World Health Organization said the major concern in Haiti was access to health services and restocking supplies. Rivers had become impassable, roads were obstructed and in many places poor sanitary conditions could increase the risk of water-bourne diseases such as cholera and other diarrheal diseases. There had been an increase in cholera alerts, especially in the south. Treatment centres had been damaged by strong winds and flooding though WHO and the Ministry of Health were in the area to ensure that supplies could be delivered and replaced.
This rise in cases could not yet be attributed to the storm, and field teams continued to participate in monitoring the situation. Since the outbreak of cholera in Haiti two years ago, there had been approximately 600,000 cases and 7,500 deaths. Data analyses and epidemiological studies show there were more cases in 2011 than 2012 though the distribution of cases followed similar trends, peaking around heavy rains. The Government and Haiti and the Dominican Republic were responding with support from the WHO had reduced the number of cases.
Answering questions he said that every cholera outbreak was a crisis, and the situation in Haiti was one of the biggest outbreaks ever. More people were needed on the ground, with many health providers having already left due to a lack of funds.
Chris Lom said the International Organization for Migration had distributed cholera prevention kits packed with chlorine, oral rehydration salts and water purification Aquatabs to over 6,000 families in 25 priority camps. This was part of a much larger assessment of the impact of Sandy looking at people that were already in a vulnerable situation. IOM was also working with Haitian authorities and its UN and NGO partners to carry out post-storm field assessments in the most affected areas. IOM had also supported the return of 1,250 people evacuated ahead of the storm from 11 camps considered at high risk of flooding.
Marixie Mercado for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) gave details of an assessment recently completed which showed that in Al-Raqqah province, a population of approximately 1.1 million people now hosted around 500,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) was the primary organization meeting their needs, but only had about 70 volunteers in Al Raqqah city. Some health, education and water utility staff had been injured or kidnapped in rural areas, and many of these places were now no-go zones.
In the children’s ward, there were 120 beds but there were 200 patients, she said. At the General Hospital, there were 14 functioning incubators, seven that no longer worked, and a list of over 60 babies waiting to use these incubators. Health workers said many babies had died because there were not enough incubators. Yesterday, the Ministry of Health indicated to UNICEF that 400 incubators were needed across the country.
Health workers also said that mothers were delivering earlier, and that many were miscarrying. In the week before the assessment, health workers said they had performed 58 Caesarean sections, more than double the weekly average in 2011.
The Water Directorate had been forced to shut down water supply for 12 hours a day in rural areas where the biggest challenge was lack of chlorine gas, with Syria’s only remaining supplier having raised prices by a multiple of five between September and October. At least 10 of the 60 water stations had been damaged and while no damage had been reported to the sewage system, there was an urgent need for hygiene supplies, notably diapers, with babies seen wearing plastic bags.
She added that 151 out of 1476 schools were hosting IDPs, and many schools were double and triple-shifting. There was a shortage of school supplies, furniture, and teachers for IDP children. All recreational activities were suspended and insecurity was often forcing children to stay home.
UNICEF had immediately provided relief items to around 60,000 IDPs following the assessment and was working to quickly bring in more supplies, including incubators and winter gear, to Al-Raqqah, Tartous, and across the country. UNICEF had so far received almost $11 million of the $44 million appeal for Syria.
Chris Lom for the International Organization for Migration said that during October IOM had evacuated 864 migrant workers, up from 575 in September and 410 in August. He added that IOM was participating in a lot of plans for winterization, primarily with Syrian refugees in Iraq and Turkey.
Answering a question on funding Jens Laerke for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said latest figures for funding for projects within Syria asked for $348 million and was 45.1 per cent funded. Adrian Edwards for the High Commissioner for Refugees added that the Syrian Regional Response Plan requested $488 million and was 33 per cent funded.
Asked about a video apparently showing executions in Syria, Rupert Colville for the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that like other videos of this sort, it was difficult to verify immediately and it needed to be examined carefully. The allegations were that these were soldiers who were no longer combatants and therefore, at this point, it looked very like a war crime. He then called again on all parties to the conflict in Syria to respect international human rights law and international humanitarian law. The people committing these crimes should be under no illusion that they were to escape accountability as there was a lot of accumulated evidence, perhaps including this video.
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme answered a question about attacks on bakeries saying that where possible they were still operating, though they were being affected by insecurity. Ms. Byrs later informed that the food was sent to SARC branch in Homs for distribution, and that out of the 3300 family food rations sent last week to Homs, 2850 rations (enough for 14,250 beneficiaries) arrived to three locations in Rural Homs, and a third of these had already been distributed.
The distribution was still ongoing and SARC would try to reach the old city of Homs with the remaining 450 food baskets.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme said that due to continuing instability more than 260,000 people had now been displaced across North Kivu since the current crisis erupted in April 2012.
In North Kivu province WFP had this week started distribution of 180 tonnes of food to 14,000 IDPs in Mugunga 3 camp in Goma area. This intervention was to be extended to cover the food needs of 100,000 IDPs hosted in 31 camps managed by UNHCR in North Kivu.
Food assistance through cash and vouchers with a total transfer value to IDPs of $2.8 million had begun in early November and 604 tonnes of food was delivered to 246 primary schools in Masisi and Rutshuru territories as part of WFP school meals programme. For the school year 2012 to 2013, the WFP was to assist 225,690 school children in 380 primary schools in conflict-affected areas in North Kivu. It was hoped this would reduce the number of children out of school.
The WFP now urgently required $66.3 million to meet the emergency food and cash voucher requirements of new IDPs and to provide complementary relief, early recovery and resilience support over the next six months, she said.
Adrian Edwards for the High Commissioner for Refugees said new data from Mali showed a higher number of internally displaced people than previously reported. According to the Commission on Population Movement in Mali, a working group under the Protection Cluster lead by UNHCR, at least 203,845 people were currently displaced. Previously, the estimate was 118,000 people.
The revised figure reflected in part better access to areas in the north by the Commission, as well as improved counting of IDPs in Bamako, thanks to work done by IOM. There the number of displaced people was estimated at 46,000 as of September from 12,000 last June and July
However, there had also been indications of actual new displacement, with people reported to be fleeing because of general insecurity and a deteriorating human rights situation in the north of the country, fear of imminent military activity, and because of loss of livelihoods and limited access to basic services.
New refugee arrivals were also being seen in neighbouring countries. In Niger there were 3,853 refugees in September and October, while in Burkina Faso last month there were 1,000. For UNHCR and its partners, access to refugees was becoming more difficult in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. The risk of abductions of aid workers meant that teams had to travel with armed escorts. Frequent security alerts were limiting access to the camps and the UNHCR’s ability to assist.
In Burkina Faso, the UNHCR had started voluntary relocation of Malian refugees from Ferrerio camp and Deou Tamachek site in the northern province of Oudalan, to a safer and improved site further south.
Security was also a concern in Niger. Schools had not started yet in the camps as school structures were still being built. UNHCR feared that without schooling, children and adolescents may return to Mali where there was a risk of recruitment by various armed groups.
Answering questions he said information was being gathered on the exact locations of IDPs, though he knew of some grouped on borders close to the south. Most of the refugee flows seen were into Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. The security situation changed on a weekly basis and UNHCR’s main concern was the threat to staff, exacerbated by the extreme remoteness of the locations where refugees are found.
Adrian Edwards for the High Commissioner for Refugees said in South Sudan UNHCR was focusing on the security of nearly 63,000 refugees in the Yida settlement near the border with Sudan’s South Kordofan – a persistent problem over many months.
The agency was currently assessing several alternative sites, with a view to relocating people as soon as rainy season conditions allowed. Yesterday, UNHCR and the Peacekeeping mission, UNMISS undertook a joint mission by helicopter to explore the suitability and accessibility of potential relocation sites offered by the South Sudan government.
He said UNHCR was in daily contact with the Government regarding the relocation and UNHCR technical experts were to be in the area next week to design new sites - both for the refugees now in Yida, and in anticipation of possible new refugee inflows from fighting in South Kordofan once the rainy season ended.
Yida’s close proximity to the border had made it a high risk protection environment for refugees, with the recurrent presence of armed personnel in and around the settlement. Right now, the safety of the refugees and the civilian character of the settlement cannot be guaranteed. UNHCR had regularly reported incidents of armed elements being seen to the South Sudan authorities.
Safety of refugees was always a concern to UNHCR, he said, but what made the situation in Yida particularly worrying was that nearly 70 per cent of refugees there were below age 18. UNHCR and partners had established seven child protection committees with the refugee community. When children arrived on their own, it was ensure they were quickly united with relatives already settled in Yida or were provided foster care to make them less vulnerable.
The current funding situation made it incredibly difficult for UNHCR to address even the most urgent needs of some 175,000 refugees in Unity and Upper Nile states in South Sudan, he said. The UNHCR revised appeal for this year covered $186 million of which only 40 per cent had been received so far. At minimum, a further $20 million must be received before January. International NGOs also needed additional funding beyond that amount to ensure that all activities can be carried out as needed.
Adrian Edwards for the High Commissioner for Refugees said the government now estimated that in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state more than 35,000 people have now been displaced by the ongoing inter-communal violence. UNHCR staff had travelled to affected villages and found groups of displaced people in urgent need of food and shelter.
The Myanmar authorities had granted permission for humanitarian teams to assess the situation and needs in areas affected by the unrest that started nearly two weeks ago. In the last two days UNHCR staff had conducted inter-agency visits to several villages in Myebon, Mrauk-U and Minbya townships, to the east and north-east of Rakhine’s state capital Sittwe.
The police and army were present in all the villages visited. UNHCR staff spoke to displaced people who shared their fears of being attacked again if the troops left. Medical staff in the assessment teams were able to treat many of the wounded, including people suffering from burns, gunshot and arrow injuries. There were also a number of new mothers – 14 in two villages – who said their labour had been induced by the violence.
A few families said children had been left behind when they fled. Among the children who made it to safety - many were malnourished. Most of the displaced people UNHCR staff met said they needed food and shelter material. Aid agencies including UNHCR had sent food and plastic sheets but there were still many needs to be met.
The latest wave of unrest brought to 110,000 the total number of people displaced by inter-communal violence in Rakhine state since June this year. UNHCR had joined the international community in calling for an immediate return to calm between the communities.
Answering questions he said the figures quoted came from the Government and there was not sufficient visibility for UNHCR to do their own registrations.
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme said the WFP was providing food assistance to more than 65,000 people who were deplaced in June and was looking to increase its operations in the region. It was delivering food by boat, considered the easiest method to reach isolated villages.
Answering a question about the outbreak of violence Ms. Momal-Vanian drew attention to the Statement attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General of 25 October which said the most recent outbreak of communal violence in five townships in Northern Rakhine was deeply troubling.
The widening mistrust between the communities was being exploited by militant and criminal elements to cause large-scale loss of human lives, material destruction, displaced families as well as fear, humiliation and hatred affecting the people from all walks of life, it read.
While the Secretary-General noted the clear recognition at the highest political levels in Myanmar of the need to contain this communal violence, he called on the authorities to take urgent and effective action to bring under control all cases of lawlessness.
The statement also noted that Myanmar was striving to be an example of tolerance and moderation in Asia and the world. Such events must not be allowed to tarnish its efforts. The United Nations was ready to do whatever is necessary to alleviate the situation and bring tranquillity and harmony to the region.
China / Tibet
Rupert Colville for the High Commissioner for Human Rights said the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay had just issued a statement urging the Chinese authorities to promptly address the longstanding grievances that led to an alarming escalation in desperate forms of protest, including self-immolations, in Tibetan areas.
The High Commissioner noted the continuing allegations of violence against Tibetans seeking to exercise their fundamental human rights of freedom of expression, association and religion, and pointing to reports of detentions and disappearances, of excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators, and curbs on the cultural rights of Tibetans. Her office was also calling for the release of all individuals detained for merely exercising the rights to peaceful assembly and expression – which were universal rights.
She appealed to Tibetans to refrain from resorting to extreme forms of protest, such as self-immolation, and urging community and religious leaders to use their influence to help stop this tragic loss of life, he said.
She fully recognised Tibetans’ intense sense of frustration and despair which had led them to resort to such extreme means, he explained, but there were other ways to make those feelings clear. It was important that the Government also recognised this, and permitted Tibetans to express their feelings without fear of retribution.
As a confidence-building measure, the High Commissioner was also urging the Chinese Government to allow independent and impartial monitors to visit and assess the actual conditions on the ground, and to lift restrictions on media access to the region. She noted that there were 12 outstanding requests for official visits to China by UN Special Rapporteurs on various human rights issues. During the Universal Periodic Review of China’s human rights record before the UN Human Rights Council, the State pledged to step up cooperation with Special Procedures. The full statement was at the back of the room and had been posted on the OHCHR website.
In a separate positive development, OHCHR welcomed the announcement last week of the passage of China’s first mental health law by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. This was an important sign of progress in China's implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was recently reviewed by the UN Committee of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
His office had only just received the Chinese text of the law and had not yet managed to analyse it in detail but understood that it addressed some key areas of concern. For example, it provided that individuals with psychiatric conditions who were deemed unlikely to cause harm to themselves or others should not be held in psychiatric institutions against their will. The law should provide an important framework for civil society in China to monitor and advocate on mental health care issues, and for persons suffering such disabilities to better claim their rights and entitlements. He looked forward to studying the law more fully in light of the relevant international standards.
Answering questions he said discussions with China on the Tibet issue had been ongoing for many years and the conversation about human rights defenders continued. No fixed date had been set for the High Commissioner to visit Beijing.
WFP Executive Director visit to Lebanon and Jordan
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme said the Executive Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), Ertharin Cousin, was to be in Lebanon and Jordan from 6 to 9 November to meet Syrian refugees and see the increasing humanitarian needs first hand. Cousin was to meet senior government officials in both countries and visit WFP food distributions in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon and in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.
Cousin was to hold a press conference in both Lebanon and Jordan in which she was to brief journalists about the developing humanitarian situation in Syria and WFP operations to support refugees living in camps and host communities.
Ms. Momal-Vanian said the Committee of Human Rights ended its three-week session today during which it had examined the reports submitted by five countries: the Philippines, Turkey, Germany, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Portugal. A final statement will be distributed at the end of the day with information about the publication of the concluding observations on each of these countries.
The Committee against Torture was to this afternoon finish its public examination of its report from Norway. Next week they were to examine reports from Qatar, Senegal, Tajikistan, Russia and Gabon. The Committee on Enforced Disappearances continued with work devoted to questions of organization and methods of work. This was being done mainly in private.
Clare Nullis for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) gave an update on the recent WMO Congress which brought together governments from around the world to agree on a detailed roadmap to improve and expand climate services. These services were needed to deal with weather, climate and water related hazards and it was expected that such hazards would increase in frequency and intensity as a result of climate change.
The extraordinary session of the Congress approved the governance structure and implementation plan for the Global Framework for Climate Services, which was finally given the full and detailed seal of approval this week. This initiative was to capitalise on scientific advances and roll-out user-driven services, such as seasonal climate outlooks and flood prediction and drought monitoring tools.
Sanjay Acharya for the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) said ITU would host a workshop in Geneva on Wednesday (7 November) to demonstrate on short-range radar systems for vehicles that will contribute to increased transport efficiencies and road safety.
The workshop organized by '79 GHz Consortium,' a group of industry partners, calling for the harmonistation of the 79 GHz frequency band for automotive radars. This process was backed by the European Commission and the upcoming ITU World Radiocommunication Conference in 2015 (WRC-15) would consider allocation of this band.
A press briefing and demonstration for media of radar equipped vehicles was to be held from 9:30 to 10:30, this would include an adaptive cruise control system, blind spot monitoring systems and autonomous braking.
Tarik Jasarevic for the World Health Organization announced a formal meeting from 5 to 7 November to conclude the work on the development a global monitoring framework, including indicators and targets on non-communicable diseases. The World Health Assembly had previously agreed to try and lower premature mortality from these conditions by 25 per cent by 2025 and this meeting was to agree which indicators and targets were needed to monitor progress towards this goal. This was a private meeting but access to experts and a press note was foreseen.