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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
18 May 2012

Corinne Momal-Vanian, the Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by Spokespersons for the Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States, the International Labour Organization, the World Health Organization, the International Organization for Migration, the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Q & A with the Spokesperson for the Joint Special Envoy for Syria

Question: Based on what evidence has Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared that the bomb attacks in Syria have been carried out by Al-Qaeda?

Ahmad Fawzi, Spokesperson for the Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States, Kofi Annan: That is a very important question and I would refer you to the Spokesman for the Secretary-General. I am aware, and the Joint Special Envoy is aware, of what the Secretary-General has said, and I quote from the transcript: “I believe that there must be Al-Qaeda behind it.” So Mr. Ban has said that he believes that there must be Al-Qaeda behind it. The Joint Special Envoy has also said that there is a third element that appeared on the ground in Syria, which is worrying. We have not yet been able to ascertain who this element belongs to – who it is – and we are in the process of doing so. But any further questions on the statement by the Secretary-General should be directed to the Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

Question: Just a follow-up on that. You are talking about a third element. So could you please elaborate on that third element? And I believe that if the Secretary-General is making such statements, he is certainly also relying on elements, documents and evidence that you provide him because you are taking care of that region?

Mr. Fawzi: It is a joint effort, really. The Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York is managing the deployment of our observers. Our observers and their commander, Major General Robert Mood, are reporting both to the Joint Special Envoy and to New York. So it is a joint operation. And when we speak about third actors on the ground, we mean there are the hallmarks of activities and incidents and explosions that appear to come from sources other than opposition or Government sources. This has yet to be verified. We have to be very, very careful. As you know, the twin suicide bombs in Damascus that had horrifying casualties were claimed first by a jihadist group. The same jihadist group denied that that claim was authentic a few days later, denied that the video that was posted on the internet was authentic, called it a fake. So we have to be very, very careful who we apportion responsibility to.

Question: Good morning. I would like to ask you about the state of deployment of the observer mission. How many observers have been deployed yet? And second, I would like to ask you on the cooperation between you, the United Nations mission, on the one hand, and the Syrian Government on the other hand. Are you pleased with the cooperation of the Syrian Government so far? Thank you.

Mr. Fawzi: I have long stopped using adjectives of any kind to describe either the situation or […] an event. First of all, on observers: I do not have the exact figures. I know that General Mood will be announcing today what the exact figure on the ground is. But I believe it to be over 250 military, perhaps up to 270 today. But as I said, I do not have the exact figure, and General Mood will be making an announcement in Damascus today. He is pleased with the rapid deployment, and we are very grateful to our twin Departments of Peacekeeping Operations and Field Support, as well as to Member States, who have made their staff and personnel available at such speed. We will reach the final phase of operational capacity, I believe, in record time, up to 300, very soon. As I said, I believe we have up to 270 already on the ground. Those are military observers. We also have civilians on the ground. We have, at the moment, I believe, between 60 and 70 civilians on the ground, assuming their responsibilities in monitoring implementation of the other elements of the six-point plan.

On your other question, the Joint Special Envoy and his team have been in constant contact with the Syrian Government at various levels, both through UNSMIS in Damascus and through our communications from Geneva. Our team on the ground is meeting not only with Government officials but also with opposition representatives in various locations. We are deployed in over six, seven or eight locations now in Syria – Homs, Hama, Dara'a, Idlib, Aleppo, several locations around Damascus – and we travel frequently to and from these locations, and we meet people. So I would say that it is not a question of being happy or unhappy, or pleased or not pleased. It is a question of focusing on the task at hand in a serious, dedicated and perseverant manner.

Question: Thank you. Apparently General Mood has just said that the United Nations has very close to 216 military observers on the ground. Did you just say there were 250?

Mr. Fawzi: I said I do not have the exact figure, I believe there are between 250 and 270.

Question: There is an interesting video posted on the internet that shows a United Nations observer being dragged away during Tuesday’s attack, right in front of a United Nations vehicle. I wonder whether you have seen that or have any comment on that?

Mr. Fawzi: No, I have not seen it. And I really do not comment on videos posted on the internet.

Question: General Mood was saying today that observers cannot stop the violence. Is he trying to lower the expectation of the goals of the observer mission or what can we make of his comments?

Mr. Fawzi: I think you should ask General Mood. What he has been saying repeatedly is that the presence of the observers usually calms the situation initially. He has also said that only the parties can stop the violence. And that is why we appeal every day, several times a day, to the parties to stop the violence. And I will let General Mood’s statements speak for themselves. He is eloquent and articulate enough to express what we all feel.

Question: I would like to ask two questions if I am permitted. The first one relates to the G8 meeting. I am wondering if Kofi Annan has had any input into the G8 meeting, if he has been asked to have an input, and what you hope for the G8 countries to agree – if anything – on Syria. And the second question: Given what Ban Ki-moon has said on Al-Qaeda, and given the increasing evidence of human rights abuses by the opposition, as well as by the Syrian Government, I wonder if there is any light at the end of the tunnel for the Annan plan or if it is just going to get worse, with more and more mud-slinging from both sides.

Mr. Fawzi: That is a very long question, but pertinent. On the G8, we are of course following very closely those meetings where Member States get together, and there is a further meeting – I think today – in Chicago, a NATO summit. We follow these meetings closely. The Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-moon, will be attending both meetings. [It has later transpired that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will participate in the NATO summit but would not attend the G8 meeting.] Whatever input is asked for from us goes to the Secretary-General. Whether he chooses to use it or not is of course his prerogative. But what we would hope for is continued unity in the international community, towards the six-point plan and towards Mr. Annan’s mission. Because it is unity in the Council that has so far secured any kind of movement on implementation of the plan, however small. Unity in the Council and unity within the international community are essential for the success of this plan.

As for your second question: There have been violations on both sides. There have been violations of the ceasefire in several forms. We – like you – see and hear media reports such as they are coming out of the country. We have our own observers on the ground, our eyes and ears, who report back to us. And we condemn, in the strongest terms, violence in all its forms by all parties. This must come to an end for any political process to be launched and to have a glimmer of success. All this talk about the light at the end of the tunnel and the doomed plan and the shaky plan – there is one plan on the table and that is the mediator’s six-point plan. Both sides have accepted it, both sides have vowed to implement it.

The plan calls for a cessation of hostilities in all its forms, it calls for humanitarian aid to those in need, and it calls for a political process that would address the concerns and aspirations of the Syrian people. We continue to push for the implementation of those three tracks and rest assured that Mr. Annan and his team are not idle, are not sitting back and waiting for this to happen. There are concrete efforts and actions that are being undertaken, both publicly and behind the scenes. Publicly, I would mention the observers on the ground, who are also risking their lives every minute of the day that they visit a conflict zone in Syria. I must applaud their courage and their creativity, on behalf of Mr. Annan and on behalf of all of us at the United Nations, in carrying out their very difficult and challenging task. The Annan plan, as we have said time and time again, is the only plan on the table at the moment. If we loose sight of our goal, then what are we doing here? Our goal is to end the crisis and to move to a political transition. I will stop there. Thank you.

Question: I have heard that an important personality was expected in Damascus today at 7 p.m. Is this Mr. Annan?

Mr. Fawzi: Alright, we are getting very specific here. Look, let me say the following: As a general principle, we do not discuss visits by personalities, from wherever to a location where their lives may be at risk. Our people are working under very challenging circumstances and, for security reasons we do not give dates, times and details of travel plans of our staff, whatever level they may be. Having said that, I can say yes, we can expect a visit soon. We have said before that the Joint Special Envoy is considering an invitation to visit Syria, but no dates have been set yet. His Deputy also plans to visit Syria but I cannot disclose his arrival time, or his arrival day, or his arrival date at this time.

Question: Two brief questions also related to Mr. Annan’s travel plans. Could you give at least some indication whether he is planning to visit other countries in the region in the near future? And second – given what you said at the beginning this morning, that there is a worrying development of third party involvement – how do you assess how that complicates the role of the observer mission which frankly already looks a bit like mission impossible?

Mr. Fawzi: I will just say this: Any violence in any form is threatening, not only to our observers but to the Syrian people, who are getting the brunt of this violence, who are apparently suffering fatalities and casualties as a result of this violence. So whether it is the first, second or third element, they are all uncalled for, and we ask that they all stop. Is he visiting other countries in the region? It is possible, it is possible. You know where he has been, so you can figure out where he has not been and guess where he might go.

I would like to point out to you that UNSMIS, the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria, has a website. So it might be enlightening, I hope educational and informative, if you visited that every once in a while. We try to post everything we do on there as quickly as possible. It is www.un.org/news/focus/syria [while this is a page of the UN news Centre specifically dedicated to developments in Syria, the site of the mission is http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/unsmis/]

Thank you all very much.

Mixed migration flow from the Horn of Africa reaches new record levels

Andrej Mahecic of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that a record number of African refugees and migrants were arriving in Yemen this year. More than 43,000 people had reached Yemen’s shores in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea in the first four months of 2012 alone. During the same period last year almost 30,000 people had made the same perilous journey. In total, more than 103,000 people from the Horn of Africa had arrived in Yemen in 2011 – a record number since UNHCR had begun compiling these statistics in 2006. Should the current trend continue, 2012 would sadly become another record year.

The striking increase in the overall number of the new arrivals in Yemen reflected the growing Ethiopian population on the move. Today, three out of four people making the crossing to Yemen were Ethiopian nationals. Four years ago, Somali refugees constituted three quarters of all arrivals in Yemen.

All those who had decided to make the crossing exposed themselves to extreme risks and dangers at every stage of their journey. They faced shocking levels of abuse and violence by smugglers, as well as arbitrary arrests and detention, closed borders and forced returns, trafficking, lack of access to shelter, water, food or medical assistance. Most of these people boarded rickety boats on the beaches near the port towns of Obock in Djibouti or Bossaso in Somalia. Those who ultimately reached Yemen often arrived exhausted, dehydrated, malnourished and in a state of shock, said Mr. Mahecic.

All Somali arrivals were automatically recognized as refugees in Yemen and thus had access to documentation and enjoyed relatively unhindered freedom of movement. UNHCR maintained a well-established network of transit and reception centres along Yemen’s Gulf of Aden coastline, while along the hundreds of kilometres of Yemen’s Red Sea coast it was becoming increasingly difficult to reach new arrivals due to security constraints and limited access.

The situation was profoundly different and more difficult for Ethiopian nationals. Few Ethiopians decided to seek asylum upon arrival to Yemen. Many cited lack of prospects and dire economic situation compounded by drought as the key reasons for making the move. To avoid detention and deportation, they attempted to evade contact with the authorities. Insecurity in Yemen had also led to a proliferation in smuggling and trafficking activities. Once ashore in Yemen, Ethiopians were picked up on the beaches by criminal groups involved in trafficking and smuggling of people to other Gulf states.

UNHCR noted with concern that there were persistent reports of violence and abuse as many Ethiopian migrants fell victims to robberies, abuse and extortion. For Ethiopian nationals who did not fall under the protection of the Refugee Convention, there was virtually no protection space. They were extremely vulnerable and often became easy prey for traffickers and smugglers. There had also been increasing cases reported to UNHCR involving the trafficking and abuse of Somali refugees and other nationalities.

Meanwhile, Yemen was also coping with a significant internal displacement as tens of thousands of civilians fled tribal clashes in the north and fighting between government troops and militant groups in the south. There were currently 470,000 registered internally displaced people in Yemen and an additional 95,000 were estimated to have been displaced this year in the north and the south of the country.

This year, UNHCR was seeking US$60 million to address the protection and humanitarian needs of some 220,000 refugees and almost half a million internally displaced people in Yemen. So far the organisation had received a third of required funds. It hoped that both government and private donors would respond adequately and in timely manner, thus allowing UNHCR to meet the existing needs of refugees and internally displaced people in Yemen.

UNHCR repatriates Ivorian refugees from unstable Mali

Mr. Mahecic said that UNHCR had helped 104 Ivorian refugees fly back home earlier this week from Bamako, the Malian capital, where they felt insecure due to continuing instability. UNHCR organized their repatriation by air as general insecurity and clashes throughout Mali made the road travel from Bamako to Abidjan too dangerous. The 104 passengers flew on board a Boeing 737 operated by peacekeepers of the United Nations Mission in Liberia.

Post-electoral violence in Côte d'Ivoire had forced more than 250,000 Ivorians to seek asylum in 13 countries in West Africa. So far, over 150,000 had returned home. In addition an estimated one million people had been displaced internally but most of them had now returned to their places of origin.

Angolan refugees return home from Namibia ahead of June deadline

Mr. Mahecic said that UNHCR had organized the voluntary repatriation of Angolan refugees from Namibia on Tuesday as part of the organization’s overall effort to help return as many Angolan refugees as possible, ahead of the cessation of their refugee status at the end of the next month.

Earlier this year, UNHCR had recommended the invocation of the cessation of refugee status as of 30 June 2012 for Angolan refugees who had fled during the war of independence in Angola (from 1961 to 1975), and the subsequent Angolan civil war (from 1975 to 2002). Cessation was being invoked because the situation in Angola had fundamentally changed. Peace and stability had come back to Angola, with most Angolan refugees already having returned home.

IOM Airlift Moves 1,890 South Sudanese from Khartoum to Juba

Jumbe Omari Jumbe of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said that, after initial challenges, the airlifting of South Sudanese stranded in Kosti was proceeding smoothly. Since the start of the operation on Monday, IOM had airlifted nearly 2,000 persons to Juba. Another airlift was under way to Juba as he was speaking, bringing the number to 2,600 by the end of this day. IOM had been making four rotations a day but soon these would be increased to six rotations. If things continued as they were, and provided that the USD3 million top-up funding that IOM had appealed for were received, IOM was positive that in two to three weeks it would have brought home all those who had been stranded in Kosti and who wished to return to South Sudan. Also, an IOM-sponsored River Nile barge had yesterday anchored at Juba port with 1,900 South Sudanese who had spent time in Renk, in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State.

Things also looked bright on the funding front, said Mr. Jumbe Omari Jumbe, as IOM had received pledges from the Central Emergency Response Fund, the Common Humanitarian Fund and the European Commission for Humanitarian Aid and Civilian Protection Office.

Mexican National Migration Institute, IOM Workshop Shares “Grupos Beta” Experience

Jumbe Omari Jumbe said that a workshop co-organized by IOM Mexico and the National Migration Institute on aid to migrants, provided by Grupos Beta, had ended today. The Grupos Beta, a government initiative launched in 1991, were groups that were operating primarily in Mexico’s northern and southern border states, offering advice and humanitarian aid to migrants.

Meeting of the Joint Commission for Oceanography and Marine Meteorology

Claire Nullis of the World Meteorological Organization said that the Joint Commission for Oceanography and Marine Meteorology, a joint body of the World Meteorological Organization and UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, would meet next week. An information note would be sent out early next week. While the meeting would take place in South Korea, Ms. Nullis could arrange expert interviews for journalists.

World Health Assembly

Fadéla Chaib of the World Health Organization (WHO) said that the first press note on the World Health Assembly that would run from 21-26 May was available at the back of the room. It detailed all the major events to take place during the Assembly, including the technical briefings on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan would address the plenary on Monday, 21 May from 2.30 to 3 p.m. On Tuesday two special guest speakers would address the Assembly – a princess from the Arab world and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway.

Committee A would open its work on Tuesday afternoon and Committee B on Wednesday morning, said Mr. Chaib, adding that the Director-General would be elected on Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday at 5 p.m. there would be a ceremony to award prizes to five individuals and institutions who have made major contributions to public health.

ILO Agenda

Hans von Rohland of the International Labour Organization (ILO) said that a press release and documents on the ILO report entitled "Global Employment Trends for Youth 2012" were now available online from a password-protected website. The timing of the press conference for the launch of that report had been changed and would now take place on Monday, 21 May at 9.30 a.m. in Room III.

In early June ILO would also offer updated statistics on bonded labour.

Various Geneva Activities

Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights would conclude its session this afternoon. The concluding observations would be made public on Monday afternoon and could be accessed from the Committee’s website. The countries examined at this session were Slovakia, Peru, New Zealand, Spain and Ethiopia.

The Committee against Torture was meeting in private today and would examine the last two countries on its programme, Canada and Cuba, next week. The session would run until 1 June.

The Conference on Disarmament would reconvene in public on Tuesday, for a meeting during which it would examine a schedule that detailed the questions to be discussed at each public meeting until the end of the 2012 session in September. The draft schedule foresaw that the Conference would start discussing questions related to nuclear disarmament on Tuesday.

Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the Meeting of the Standing Committees of the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention would take place at the World Meteorological Organization from 21-25 May. It was expected that several States Parties would update the plenary on their mine clearance and stockpile destruction efforts and on the upcoming Twelfth Meeting of the States Parties which would take place at the United Nations in Geneva in December. Any relevant information during the week would be communicated by the Secretariat of the Standing Committees.


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