REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
27 August 2013
Alessandra Vellucci, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by the Spokesperson for the Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States for Syria, United Nations Refugee Agency, World Food Programme, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and World Health Organization.
Syria – Geneva II
Khawla Mattar, Spokesperson for the Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi (JSRS), said that Mr. Brahimi was travelling tomorrow, and would talk to the press in Geneva next week.
Answering a question, Ms. Matter said that Mr. Brahimi was travelling to Paris for a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) conference. Concerning Geneva II, and answering questions about the talks on Syria to be held in The Hague on 28 August 2013, Ms. Mattar said that the meeting was just between Russia and the United States, and that Mr. Brahimi was never meant to be a part of it. However, she understood that the talks had now been postponed. Therefore, Mr. Brahimi was waiting to hear the positions of Russians and Americans before thinking about convening a new tripartite meeting with them to sit down and agree on the details of Geneva II.
Ms. Matter said that Mr. Brahimi had been working hard with all partners to push forward for the Geneva II conference. He was still confident that Geneva II would take place at some point. His team came to Geneva in early August to prepare for the conference to take place in September, but right now it did not look like the conference would take place then, given the events and developments on the ground. Nevertheless all of Mr. Brahimi’s teams, here in Geneva, in Damascus and in New York, were working hard to bring all partners to the negotiating table, to go through the political solution and to convince the partners that there was no such a thing as a military solution to the war.
Answering other questions, Ms. Matter said that Mr. Brahimi still believed that a political situation was the only way out. The recent escalation and accusations of the use of chemical weapons were actually proof to the whole world that more of it would only create a more complex solution. It would not solve the problem, it would only mean more suffering for the Syrian people. The only possibility was to go to the negotiating table for a political solution. On an almost daily basis Mr. Brahimi urged the two parties to meet together and to reach some kind of agreement. Part of his role had actually been to bring them closer to each other in understanding on how to go forward and would continue to do that in order to have the conference sooner rather than later.
Mr. Brahimi had warned, many times, that if the situation was left as it was, there would no longer be a Syria. Syria was almost completely destroyed. In many of his interviews, even before the accusations of chemical weapon use, he said that he had been involved in reaching a political solution in many other conflicts in the past, but Syria could not be compared to any other country. He was extremely worried about the situation and he had warned against it many times.
All of the reports, from the team in Damascus and from experts and others, showed that there was not one side winning the war. At some points the Government had said they were winning the war, and at times the opposition had said that they were capable of winning the war. Ms. Matter said they believed that neither could win the war, as had been evident in many countries in historical experience. That was why they continued to focus on a political situation.
Syria - UN Chemical Weapons Investigation Team to Damascus
Answering questions, Alessandra Vellucci, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, told journalists that, as they knew, the UN Chemical Weapons Investigation Team in Damascus was investigating on the ground, and once it had finalized its work it would report to the Secretary-General. She told journalists that the team intended to continue its investigations today [later on, it was announced in New York that the visit should be postponed by one day in order to improve preparedness and safety for the team].
Answering a previous question on the duration of the UN team’s mission to Syria, Ms. Vellucci said that it had initially been scheduled for 14 days with the provision that a longer period could be agreed by mutual consent, if necessary. Yesterday, the UN Spokesperson for the Secretary-General said that if the inspectors needed more time they would request it, but for now they were going about their work. They would provide further details on the amount of time they needed once they had collected the material necessary.
Following other questions, Ms. Vellucci said the Secretary-General had consistently spoken about the safety of the UN Chemical Weapons Investigation Team. He had consulted with everybody who had a concern in the crisis about ensuring the safety and security of the team. Ms. Vellucci said she could not speculate on possible evolutions of the situation in the field, but obviously the UN team could only work if all sides ensured its safety.
Syria - New WHO Guidance for Chemically-Contaminated Patients
Glenn Thomas for the World Health Organization (WHO) said that WHO today would issue interim guidance on the initial clinical management of chemically-contaminated patients, copies of which were available at the back of the room and would shortly be available on the WHO website. The document was based on a series of training and preparedness activities which had been carried out in the field since 2012.
The new guidance updated the information already available on the WHO website with very specific information for healthcare workers on the identification of contaminated patients, recommendations on personal protection, procedures for decontamination, and guidance for triage and identification of categories of exposure and treatment. It also contained a flow-chart on what actions to take and when. More information relating to chemical incidents, aimed at the general public, was also available on the WHO website. The document would be available in Arabic and English.
Answering questions from journalists, Mr. Thomas said it was not a coincidence that the new interim guidelines were being published this week. Given the inspections in Syria by UN and WHO staff and the enormous concerns and interest, WHO had rushed the guidance out, which was why it was called an interim guidance document. It would evolve with the understanding of the risks.
Replying to specific questions on the UN Chemical Weapons Investigation Team to Damascus, Mr. Thomas said that three WHO staff members were part of the team in Syria and they were focused on public health, epidemiology and clinical management. They were continuing the work under the guidance of UN Headquarters and the mandate of the mission.
Answering a question on what chemical agent was most likely used in the attack in Syria, Mr. Thomas replied that the new document featured a section which listed ‘signs and symptoms’ of chemical exposure and based on what had been reported in the media, journalists might be able to make their own assessment. Obviously though, the United Nations team would have a better perspective on what had been used, if something had been used.
Syria – Humanitarian Assistance
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) briefed on a humanitarian airlift carrying relief items for Syrian refugees fleeing to Iraq. A chartered flight had arrived in Erbil carrying urgent relief items for the World Food Programme (WFP) and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to meet the immediate humanitarian needs of Syrian refugees fleeing violence in Syria and crossing into northern Iraq.
More than 44,000 Syrian refugees had crossed into the Kurdish region of northern Iraq since 15 August; most of them were women and children sheltered in camps or collective facilities while others resided with family and friends.
The WFP-chartered flight, which arrived on Monday from Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, carried 340 family tents for UNHCR, said Ms. Byrs, which was part of a generous contribution from the United States, 42 metric tons of high energy biscuits for WFP and 15 metric tons of special nutritional bars contributed by the United States Agency for International Development.
A second flight was due to arrive in Erbil today from Adana, Turkey, carrying 93 metric tons of food rations, enough to feed 11,500 people for three weeks. The UN food agency was also mobilizing more than 37,000 rations from around the region to feed up to 185,000 people for one month. Some 25 trucks carrying 500 metric tons of food supplies arrived Monday from Turkey to meet the urgent food need of refugees.
Almost 200,000 Syrian refugees had fled into Iraq since the onset of the conflict in Syria, with some 30 per cent in camps such as Domiz and 70 per cent living in Iraqi communities, Ms. Byrs said.
Ms. Byrs added that copies of a detailed press release were available at the back of the room and on the WFP website. A package of photo material and broadcast-quality video was also available and could be downloaded from the website.
Answering a question, Adrian Edwards for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that the refugees coming into Iraq, including the 46,000 who had crossed the far north-east crossing point since August 15, were predominantly Syrian Kurds. The refugees were indeed fleeing fighting and violence right across the north of Syria.
Answering another question, Mr. Edwards said that the Government of the Kurdistan region, on the Iraqi side of the border, was actively helping the people arriving from Syria. The border point at Sahela was temporarily closed for a day on Friday, but had reopened and some 1,550 people had crossed yesterday.
Occupied Palestinian Territory
Cecile Pouilly for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said they were concerned about the forced eviction and forcible transfer of Palestinians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as a result of a series of demolitions carried out by Israeli authorities in at least six different locations since 19 August 2013.
In one incident, on 19 August, Israeli authorities demolished all of the structures in the Bedouin community of Tel al Adassa in East Jerusalem, rendering all seven families, a total of 39 people, homeless, citing a lack of building permits. The Israeli authorities ordered the community to evacuate the area permanently or risk high monetary fines and confiscation of livestock. No alternative locations or housing options were offered. Left with no choice, the community had split and moved to two different temporary locations, where they remained vulnerable to further demolitions and repeated displacement due to lack of legal security of tenure and inability to obtain building permits.
In that case, the permanent removal of the families from Tel al Adassa might amount to a violation of the prohibition on forcible transfer of individuals or communities under article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The case also raised concerns regarding the prohibition on forced eviction under international human rights law, and the enjoyment of the rights to adequate housing and freedom from arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family and home.
In response to a question about Palestinians killed in refugee camps, Ms. Pouilly said that OHCHR was concerned about the possible excessive use of force by Israeli security forces against Palestinian civilians, during recent search and arrest operations in refugee camps in the West Bank. Since 18 August 2013, at least four Palestinian civilians had been killed in such operations, and at least 19 had also been injured.
OHCHR again stressed that any use of force and firearms in law enforcement operations had to adhere to international human rights standards: it had to be proportional to lawful objectives and the use of firearms limited to situations of self-defence or the defence of others where there was an imminent risk to life or of serious injury. While OHCHR did not yet have sufficient information to make an assessment of each of these specific cases, it had raised concerns several times before, including in its reports, regarding the excessive use of force by Israeli security forces in law enforcement operations in the West Bank.
The Government of Israel had the obligation to investigate in a timely, independent, impartial and thorough manner all cases of use of force by its security forces resulting in death or injury and to hold accountable any persons responsible of violations. OHCHR urged the Israeli authorities to make public any findings.
Answering a question about how many Palestinian homes had been demolished, Ms. Pouilly, said that in general figures, since the beginning of 2013 over 420 Palestinian structures had been demolished in the West Bank and a total of 720 Palestinians had been made homeless as a result of the demolitions.
Ms. Vellucci also drew journalists’ attention to a press release on the events in the West Bank published by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) on Monday 26 August and available on their website.
Annual Report on UNCTAD Assistance to the Palestinian People
Catherine Sibut for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) announced that the launch of the Annual Report on UNCTAD Assistance to the Palestinian People would take place on 3 September at 12 p.m. GMT. Information was embargoed until 5 p.m. GMT on the same day.
The report would review developments in the Palestinian economy, survey the effects of Israeli policies on economic life and living standards in the occupied Palestinian territory, and summarize UNCTAD activities to support economic growth there. The report also focused on fiscal leakage from the revenue lost from taxes on direct and indirect imports and on smuggled goods into the Occupied Palestinian Territories from or via Israel.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Adrian Edwards for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said UNHCR joined other UN agencies in condemning the killing of civilians during fighting last weekend between the Congolese Army (FARDC) and the M23 rebel group around Goma, the capital of North Kivu in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
At least three people were killed and five others wounded on Saturday morning (24 August) when a shell landed in Ndosho, a suburb of Goma. Goma was packed with civilians because more than 150,000 people had been displaced towards the city since 2012. Another shell fell Saturday near the Mugunga 3 camp, which sheltered more than 14,000 internally displaced people. On 22 August, numerous shells landed in residential areas of Goma, killing at least four people and wounding 15 – all civilians.
UNHCR reminded all parties to the conflict that indiscriminate or deliberate attacks against civilians were war crimes. Civilians did not have to be targeted.
Elsewhere in eastern DRC, UNHCR saw a flaring of a longstanding conflict in the Ruzizi Plain, on the border of South Kivu and Burundi. Conflict there re-erupted in April 2012, but over the last 12 days had sent 1,500 asylum-seekers into Burundi. Asylum-seekers, fleeing the Sange, Mutalule, and Rwanena areas of the Ruzizi Plain, told UNHCR that unidentified armed people killed eight people and seriously wounded many more.
The asylum seekers were being temporarily hosted at the Cishemere Transit Centre, in Burundi’s western province of Cibitoke. Many who were hosted by Burundian families in the commune of Buganda had been moved to the transit centre where they could be better assisted. So far UNHCR had transferred 174 people to Kavumu Refugee Camp in the eastern province of Cankuzo, and some 341 others were on their way there. UNHCR was still seeing people arriving in Burundi, about 60 per day, down from 150 to 200 per day last week. About 60 per cent were children.
Meanwhile, Uganda still hosted some 50,000 Congolese refugees who fled fighting in North Kivu in mid-July. Refugees continued to come on their own from the border to the transit centre at Bubukwanga in western Uganda. Despite the fact that UNHCR had already transferred more than 3,000 people to better facilities at the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in mid-western Uganda, 21,344 people remained at the transit centre. A further 20,000 refugees who were staying with relatives or host families inside the Ugandan border also required help.
Answering questions Mr. Edwards said that their biggest concern was the impact of attacks on civilians, particularly indiscriminate attacks. Mr. Edwards also said that with its partners, UNHCR was moving those people displaced from South Kivu who were coming into Burundi, across Burundi to the other side of the country.
Ms. Vellucci reminded journalists that a statement on the situation had also been issued by Mary Robinson, the UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa.
Responding to a question, Ms. Vellucci confirmed that the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) had indeed been reinforced recently, but its main mandate was still to protect the civilians.
Elisabeth Byrs for the World Food Programme (WFP) said that WFP welcomed the arrival of a consignment of wheat from the Government of the United States of America that WFP would distribute to 3.9 million food-insecure people in 15 governorates.
The shipment of 9,400 metric tons of wheat from the US Government’s Food for Peace office arrived last week at the Yemeni port of Hodeidah aboard the bulk carrier Liberty Glory. The wheat was unloaded from the Liberty Glory’s holds and repacked dockside into 50- kilogram bags and stacked onto trucks for delivery as part of WFP’s emergency rations. WFP would also receive over the coming two months two more US food consignments totalling 42,000 metric tons.
The US was a key donor to WFP activities in Yemen. Last year, it provided WFP with more than 46,000 metric tons of food, valued at almost US$40 million, enough food to feed more than two million hungry Yemenis for six months. In 2013 the US was granting US$50 million to WFP’s operations in Yemen.
Globally, the United States remained WFP’s largest single donor. This year, the US had already contributed more than US$900 million. In 2012, the US provided US$1.4 billion in support of WFP operations worldwide.
In 2013, WFP’s primary operations in Yemen targeted five million people, including emergency food assistance for 3.5 million food insecure people and cash transfers for another 400,000; food assistance to 600,000 internally displaced people; and nutritional support for 405,000 children under five and 157,000 pregnant women and nursing mothers.
Ms. Vellucci said the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which was to close its eighty-third session on Friday 30 August, on Monday completed its review of the report of Cyprus, which was the last of eight States party reports whose review was on the agenda for the eighty-third session. The other reports reviewed were Chile, Chad, Venezuela, Burkina Faso, Belarus, Jamaica and Sweden. The Committee would meet in closed session for the rest of the week to adopt its concluding observations on the eight reports, which were expected to be released on Monday 2 September.
The Conference on Disarmament would hold a plenary session today to focus on the preparation of its annual report to the General Assembly. The third and final part of its 2013 session would be over on 13 September.
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In the room but not briefing were the spokespersons for the United Nations Children's Fund, the International Labour Organization, the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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The webcast for this briefing is available here: http://bit.ly/1djIsXK