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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
26 November 2013

Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was also attended by the United Nations Refugee Agency, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, International Organization for Migration, World Food Programme, World Intellectual Property Organization, World Health Organization, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention Secretariat. 

PHILIPPINES

Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), emphasized that food remained a priority for the WFP and for the communities that had been affected.  There had been significant progress since WFP had started sending food.  Since 13 November, WFP had dispatched more than 4,000 metric tons of rice and 127 metric tons of high energy biscuits for distribution by partners.

WFP was working closely with the Philippines Government on relief efforts.  The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) had distributed more than 1.3 million family food packs containing WFP rice.  The aid to isolated communities was continuing. WFP was continuing to expand its geographic assistance. Rice and high-energy biscuits were being delivered by airlift to remote island communities off the coast of Guyana and Iloilo. Some of those hard-to-reach locations were receiving food assistance for the first time. WFP continued to expand its operations and flights.

Ms. Byrs informed that 1,012 metric tons of relief and support supplies (tents, newborn kits, hygiene kits, mobile storage units, IT equipment) had been flown in to the Philippines from the United Nations Humanitarian Response Depots, managed by WFP, in Dubai (UAE), Subang (Malaysia) and Brindisi (Italy).  WFP also had a ship containing 2,400 tons of humanitarian aids which had arrived in Tacloban the previous day.  It had transported tents for families, Jerry cans and covers. The ship  would go on ensuring a shuttle service between Cebu and Tacloban in the upcoming days.  WFP trucks were at the same time delivering bulk rice rations to badly-affected coastal communities in East Samar and Guiuan.

The WFP-led Emergency Telecoms Cluster was providing shared IT services including internet connections, radio communications and printing facilities to around 1,000 humanitarian workers in 10 locations.  The WFP-managed United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) was operating two helicopters and a nine-passenger plane out of Cebu, serving the humanitarian community.  So far, UNHAS had carried 167 humanitarian passengers on 43 flights to nine locations.

WFP estimated the cost of the operation for the following six months at around USD 103 million. Out of that amount, USD 88 million was meant for food, USD 12 million was to  provide logistics and emergency telecommunications for the humanitarian community as a whole, and USD 2 million was to support food security and agriculture.

Asked how many people were benefiting from food packs, which were received by 1.3 million families,  Ms. Byrs said that that number could be multiplied by five in order to estimate a total number of beneficiaries.

Concerning the helicopters from the UN humanitarian air services, and whether there were only two helicopters for all of the Philippines, Ms. Byrs responded that those two were the ones provided by UN humanitarian services, while there were other organizations providing helicopters as well, including the Philippine Army. WFP was obliged to use the means of the Army under such critical circumstances.

Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that UNHCR was working with the authorities to decongest overcrowded evacuation centres housing survivors of typhoon Haiyan.

Thousands of people had been evacuated to public buildings such as stadiums, schools and churches ahead of the 8 November typhoon. Many had since left, but an estimated 240,000 people still remained in some 1,100 evacuation centres, according to the Department of Social Welfare and Development.  Those centres were often overcrowded, with many families living in confined spaces with limited water and sanitation facilities. There was no privacy and tensions were rising. Those public buildings were not meant for long-term stay and the situation was not sustainable.

UNHCR was supporting the authorities with decongestion efforts in close coordination with the shelter and camp coordination and camp management clusters. UNHCR was also working to ensure that the displaced people were consulted and that alternatives proposed were as safe dignified as possible.

Mr. Edwards explained that some of the latest interventions by UNHCR included:

In Tacloban’s San Jose village, which was one of the worst-affected in the areas, UNHCR was handing over 1,000 tents, 3,000 blankets, 2,000 jerry cans and 1,000 kitchen sets to the local authorities to help the affected population currently in evacuation centres to rebuild their homes; in Tanauan, south of Tacloban, UNHCR was providing another 1,000 tents to the mayor to help displaced people move out of evacuation centres; in Guiuan, in Eastern Samar province, UNHCR was also distributing plastic sheets and other supplies to families in the evacuation centres and in their home areas.

UNHCR was working with the Philippine Government through the Department of Social Welfare and Development. It had provided 240 tents to typhoon-affected staff of the Department and helped them return to their posts. Relief supplies were being sent from Cebu and Tacloban to the UNHCR humanitarian hubs in Ormoc and Guiuan. So far, those supplies had been distributed to more than 50,000 people.

UNHCR had also opened a hub in Roxas City in Capiz province and was mobilizing staff to open another hub in Borongan in Eastern Samar province. At least 17 international staff had reinforced UNHCR’s 30-strong personnel in the Philippines for that emergency, while more staff deployments were expected.

Mr. Edwards reiterated that, under the inter-agency response to Haiyan, UNHCR was supporting the Government’s efforts by providing relief supplies and coordinating protection monitoring and interventions.

Christiane Berthiaume, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that out of the USD 21.5 million of IOM’s initial appeal, USD 11.3 million had been received to this day, which was encouraging but still insufficient.  Ms. Berthiaume said that IOM would have to make another appeal soon to meet its financial needs.  Five operational hubs had been established across the areas ravaged by the typhoon Haiyan on 8 November, and non-food aid had already reached tens of thousands in towns and villages in Tacloban, Guiuan, Oromoc and Roxas.

Ms. Berthiaume explained that the aid consisted of tarpaulins, ropes, buckets, Jerry cans, sacks, plastic bags, pails and water scoops.  Bleach, shovels, brooms, scrubbing brushes, gloves, and soap had also been provided, together with towels, toothpaste, toothbrushes, diapers, and female hygiene kits.  Approximately 400,000 people were living in schools, churches, municipal buildings and other spaces.  Ms. Berthiaume said that the food and water situations were progressively stabilizing and therefore IOM was preparing the following step which consisted in helping displaced persons to return to their homes and repair the damaged homes. IOM had also provided chainsaws and security material – gloves and protection glasses - because thousands of coconut trees had been swept away by the typhoon.


EGYPT

Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), informed that the High Commissioner had warned that a new law regulating demonstrations in Egypt could lead to serious breaches of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and ought to be amended.

Mr. Colville said that the law gave wide-ranging powers to local security authorities to ban such gatherings.  Article 7 of the law prohibited protesters from conduct that would, among other things, constitute a threat to “security” and “public order,” “disrupt citizens’ interests,” or obstruct justice, without providing clear definitions of those terms.  International law required precision in detailing what specific conduct was prohibited by law.  

Of particular concern to OHCHR were the provisions on the use of force by law enforcement officials and the excessive sanctions, including massive fines as well as prison sentences, that could be imposed on those found to be in breach of this law.


The new law prescribed a list of escalating measures that law enforcement authorities could employ, after issuing warnings, to disperse unruly demonstrators. Those included use of tear gas, water cannon, smoke grenades, warning shots, rubber bullets and even live ammunition.

OHCHR believed that the law should make it absolutely clear that, in accordance with international standards, intentional lethal use of firearms might only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.  There was a real risk that the lives of peaceful protestors would be put at risk because of the violent behaviour of a few, or because the law might too easily be interpreted by local security authorities in a way that permitted them to use excessive force in inappropriate circumstances.


Organisers of protests were now required by the new law to give at least three days’ notice to the police, except during election periods when it was reduced to 24 hours. Such provisions effectively outlawed spontaneous peaceful demonstrations. The law was also much too wide-ranging in terms of restricting locations.

Mr. Colville stressed that assembly organizers should not be held liable for the violent behaviour committed by others.  Instead, police had the duty to remove individuals committing violent acts from the crowd in order to allow protesters to exercise their basic rights to assemble and express themselves peacefully.

OHCHR was urging the authorities to amend or repeal the seriously flawed new law.
The right to freedom of assembly was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was guaranteed by major human rights treaties, in particular, by article 21 of the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights, and article 8 of the International Covenant on Social, Cultural and Economic Rights, both ratified by Egypt in 1982.

Asked if any progress had been made on opening of an OHCHR office in Cairo, Mr. Colville said that the discussions were still ongoing both in Geneva and in Cairo.

On whether OHCHR had had any concrete discussions with the Egyptian authorities on that particular issue and whether they were listening to OHCHR concerns, Mr. Colville responded that the issues of the freedom of assembly and what international standards in this field were, had been raised with both the previous and current Egyptian authorities for at least a year.  It ought to be remembered that at many levels, authorities and civil servants had remained the same through different administrations, and OHCHR had been commenting on it for a while. 

On the numbers of people detained for political reasons  in Egypt, Mr. Colville said OHCHR did not have specific numbers, but would check. The central Egyptian authorities and local civil society organizations might have more precise figures.

Asked if OHCHR had had any access to former President Morsi, Mr. Colville said that OHCHR had not had direct access to him. Other elements of the UN might have had access to Mr. Morsi, but OHCHR was not aware of it.

AUSTRALIA

Mr. Edwards stated that in two reports released on 26 November, UNHCR found that asylum-seekers transferred from Australia to processing centres at Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) were living in arbitrary detention in conditions that did not meet international standards of treatment.

UNHCR understood Australia’s determination to respond robustly to the challenges of people smuggling and to dissuade people from undertaking dangerous irregular travel by sea, but nonetheless believed that those responses should not neglect the compelling protection needs, safety and dignity of the individuals affected.

Those reports were also in the context of what UNHCR had observed to be a sharp deterioration during 2013 in the overall quality of protection and support available to asylum-seekers and refugees who came to Australia by boat.  It remained the case that when policies and practices were based primarily on deterrence, they could have harmful and, at times, punishing consequences for people affected, particularly families and children.

The reports identified troubling shortcomings at both centres, and urged all three States involved to consider the findings and recommendations and act upon them.  In both Nauru and PNG the current policies, operational approaches and harsh physical conditions at the centres not only did not meet international standards, but they also had a profound impact on the men, women and children housed there.

Mr. Edwards stressed that UNHCR was concerned that they constituted mandatory detention which was not compatible with international law. UNHCR was also worried that those centres did not provide a fair and efficient system for assessing refugee claims, safe and humane conditions of treatment in detention, and also did not provide for adequate and timely solutions for recognized refugees.

At both centres, the psycho-social well-being of vulnerable people - including survivors of torture and trauma and unaccompanied children - was an issue of concern.  UNHCR also called on all three States not to transfer children, particularly those who were unaccompanied, unless and until there has been a marked improvement in conditions in both centres.

UNHCR was particularly concerned by the impact of policies that would prevent recognized refugees from finding safe, dignified and sustainable solutions in the medium to long term. The prospect for refugees in PNG finding permanent protection there presented formidable challenges, and it was clear that Nauru would offer only very limited opportunities for refugees even in the shorter term.

UNHCR believed the arrangements at Nauru and PNG would benefit from a much clearer articulation of the policy and operational framework that would set out how, when and where refugees would be able to secure protection and exercise the rights required under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Asked to comment on the ruling by the New Zealand's High Court which turned down a bid by a citizen of Kiribati to be considered a “climate change” refugee, Mr. Edwards said that OHCHR did not normally comment on individual cases.  

Asked to provide examples of how the conditions in Australian processing centres were deteriorating, Mr. Edwards said that there were difficult conditions in ablution blocks, but also former recreation areas were now being used to hold people. In addition, there were problems of people being kept in confinement, which was something that UNHCR had stressed on many occasions.  UNHCR was primarily worried about the psycho-social situation of the those detained.  Detention for asylum seekers should be the last resort.

Regarding numbers, Mr. Edwards informed that, as of the end of October, there were 1,093 asylum seekers at the Manus Island centre and 801 asylum-seekers on the Nauru Island.

SYRIA

A question was asked on whether UN humanitarian agencies were expecting to have an easier access to the areas under siege and out of reach in Syria, now that an agreement had been reached on holding the Geneva II conference, Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that all agencies welcomed the announcement of the date for the conference.  He expressed hope that the UN would have access to all those in need, and reiterated that there was a distinction between the political and humanitarian tracks, which should be borne in mind.

Asked about a reported meeting between humanitarian agencies led by OCHA and the Syrian National Coalition, Mr. Laerke had no information on whether the meeting had taken place or its agenda. 

SAUDI ARABIA/MIGRANTS

Ms. Berthiaume informed that the Saudi authorities had decided that all migrants from Yemen and Ethiopia who had entered the country illegally would be sent back home.  In fact,  thousands and thousands of migrants had been sent home in recent months. Over 190,000 Yemeni migrants workers had returned home between June and March 2013.  During the first week of November, the rate of returns had increased, reaching the peak of 7,000 per day.  IOM had been working to question those migrants to understand where they would be going and where they had come from. According the statistics, 75 per cent of the returnees interviewed had been previously sending remittances home to their families in Yemen, amounting to between USD 100 and USD 200 per month. Cumulatively, that would represent approximately USD 55 million lost in remittances for the months of October and November alone.

The massive loss of income would become even more important as the migrants were returning to a region devastated by malnutrition and food insecurity. This situation would only worsen a pre-existing difficult situation. Those workers had been mostly working in construction, but also as farmers, vendors, shop keepers, carpenters and blacksmiths. Most of them had been brought to the border with no belonging, sometimes barefoot and often dehydrated and exhausted due to overcrowding, while detained and transported by Saudi authorities. 35 per cent of the returnees said that they had suffered physical abuse and confiscation of their belonging. Despite all of that, some 27 per cent of repatriated workers intended to go back to Saudi Arabia when possible. After the demand of the Yemeni Government, IOM had distributed urgent help like water, food, clothes, health care, and shoes.

Ms. Berthiaume added that the same movement was occurring for Ethiopians, with some 21,000 Ethiopians having been deported. On average, 12 planes per day would fly returnees to Ethiopia. IOM did not know the exact number, but the Government had been expecting a lot of returns. 23,000 Ethiopian had gone to the authorities and asked to be sent back home. Four points of arrival had been settled in Ethiopia with the help of the Government. In those camps, IOM had furnished places to spend the first night, and provided water, food and a little bit of money for the returnees to pay for their transport.

A question was asked whether there was protection for those people under the international law, and whether Saudi Arabia respected it. A comment was made that Israel did the same thing so that the country could stay Jewish and democratic. Ms. Berthiaume responded that IOM was not present in Saudi Arabia. It was in the right of the country to send back home workers who had been there illegally, but that to be done in order and in dignity. According to the reports of returnees, those laws were not always respected.

KENYA/SOMALIA

Mr. Edwards stated that, following the signing on 10 November of a Tripartite Agreement between UNHCR, the Government of Kenya, and the Somali Government, UNHCR and the Kenyan Government had reiterated that all returns of Somalis refugees from Kenya to Somalia should be strictly voluntary. UNHCR did not support forced returns.

This understanding had been reaffirmed on 22 November, when the Kenyan and Somali refugee commissioners Badu Katelo and Ahmed Nur, had visited Dadaab refugee camp-complex in north-eastern Kenya to discuss the repatriation process now starting. UNHCR worked and spoke with the refugees daily, but that visit had provided the refugees with the opportunity to ask high-level Somali officials about the areas to which they were considering returning.

Mr. Edwards explained that the Tripartite Agreement had set out the legal framework for returns to Somalia. It specified that all returns should be voluntary and take place in safety and dignity. There was no deadline in the agreement for the returns.

Implementation of voluntary repatriation would initially concentrate on supporting on a pilot-project basis refugees who were themselves spontaneously returning to Somalia. Three areas in Somalia would be targeted for that purpose, and so far, Luuq, Baidoa and Kismayo were under discussion with the refugees.

Preparations were under way in both Kenya and Somalia to implement the pilot project. In Dadaab, return help-desks had been established to provide refugees with information and assistance on repatriation to Somalia.

Ms. Berthiaume stated that IOM had received a donation of EUR 1.1 million from the European Union to help the fight against crime of child trafficking and women violence in the region of Puntland in Somalia.  In Somalia, the rate of child trafficking and women violence would be probably among the highest, if not the highest in the world. Most vulnerable victims of child trafficking were migrants and internally displaced persons. The violence against women included sexual violence also genital mutilation, and had worsened with the rise of regional insecurity. IOM program against child trafficking and violence against women had consisted of doing a mobilization campaign and information to help authorities settle the problem. Psychological treatment and emotional support would also be provided.

GENEVA ACTIVITIES

Ms. Momal-Vanian announced that the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights would complete its session at the end of the week, when it would adopt concluding observations on 10 countries considered.  The only remaining public session would take place on 29 November.

Ms. Momal-Vanian informed that the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) would hold a press conference on 28 November at 10 a.m. in Room III.  The subject would be the global launch of the Landmine Monitor Report 2013, and the speakers would include Kerstin Vignard, Chief of Operations, UNIDIR, and a number of authors of the report.

Kerry Brinkert, from the Secretariat for the implementation of the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, informed about the upcoming Thirteenth Meeting of the States Parties, a formal diplomatic meeting of the 161 States which had accepted the 1997 Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, also known as the Ottawa Convention or Mine Ban Treaty, which would take place from 2 till 5 December in Room XIX.  Algeria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva would preside over the 13MSP, and would call upon the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize co-laureate, Jody Williams, and ICRC Vice-President Christine Beerli, to open the 13MSP on 2 December at 10 a.m.

On 2 December, Chad, Mozambique, Niger, Serbia, Sudan and Turkey would present requests to extend their mine clearance deadlines. Decisions on these requests would be taken on 5 December.  On 3-4 December, a number of States Parties responsible for significant numbers of landmine survivors had been invited to provide updates. On 4 December, a number of  States Parties had been invited to provide updates on the fulfilment of their mine clearance obligations. At least four of those States Parties were expected to declare completion of the implementation of that aspect of the Convention.

On 5 December, the Geneva Progress Report would be adopted.  The Geneva Progress Report reviewed what the States Parties had achieved since the previous Meeting of the States Parties and the challenges that remained.  A press conference would take place on 5 December at 2 p.m. in Room III to discuss how what was discussed at the 13MSP related to laying the foundation for the next chapter for the anti-landmines movement, which would be decided upon at the 23-25 June 2014 Maputo Review Conference.  On 6 December, the States Parties would meet to prepare for the Maputo Review Conference in Room XIX. The meeting would be presided over by Henrique Banze, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Mozambique.

Catherine Sibut, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), announced the press conference on the launching of the 2013 Information Economy Report, which would take place on 28 November 2013 at 1:30 p.m. in Press Room I, in the presence of the UNCTAD Secretary General. Ms. Sibut reminded that the report was under embargo until 3 December.  In 2013, experts had examined a new aspect of the digital gap between developing and developed countries, and that of cloud computing. The issues were not only those linked to infrastructures, whether it was regarding the bandwidth quality or access to databases, but there were also some legal matters in question. Ms. Sibut emphasized how important it was to protect consumers during transactions, to protect private data, to secure payments and to fight against cybercrime in general.  In that area, the digital gap was widening as concluded the report. Ms. Sibut pointed out that UNCTAD had been working on the issues of technology and information for the previous 15 years.

Ed Harris, for the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), informed about the launch of WIPO GREEN, a new online marketplace that promoted innovation and diffusion of green technologies. A press conference, at which Francis Gurry, Director General of WIPO would speak, was scheduled for 28 November at 11:30 a.m. in Press Room I.  The WIPO green database matched the owners of new technologies with individuals or companies seeking to commercialize licenses or otherwise distribute green technologies. The project  was unique in bringing together a wide array of actors on the common task of combatting climate change, while also offering a public policy dimension to WIPO and other UN affiliated bodies.  Mr. Harris explained that the pilot phrase of the project had been highly successful, as some premier world companies in the innovation sector had already been signed up.   

Mr. Glenn Thomas, for the World Health Organization (WHO), informed that on 3 December, WHO would be releasing a first ever report on spinal cord injuries.  Based on the annual statistics, the report would highlight the fact that a large majority were preventable. Up to 90 per cent, of spinal cord injuries were due to traumatic causes, such as road traffic accidents.  Causes of spinal cord injuries among the youth and in the low and middle income countries were also particularly looked at.

Mr. Thomas provided a clarification regarding the recent reports on Greece and HIV.  A correction would be sent out with regard to the published story, which contained an editorial error suggesting that half of the new cases of HIV had been caused by people deliberately self injecting the virus in order to claim the benefits, which was not the case in reality.  

Mr. Edwards informed that UNHCR would be launching a report: “The future of Syria: Refugee Children in Crisis, which would be presented by Volker Turk, Director of International Protection at UNHCR, at the press conference on 27 November at 2:30 p.m. in Room I.

Mr. Colville said there would be two press conferences by the High Commissioner in the following week, on 2 December and 5 December.  On 2 December, at 12:00 noon, there would be a general press conference on a wide range of issues, and the High Commissioner might briefly cover key developments in 2013.  On 5 December, there would be a main event for the marking of the Human Rights Day -  a panel involving the  High Commissioner and Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, which would be preceded by a joint press conference at 12 noon.  Asked on what issues would be on the agenda for the second press conference, Mr. Colville specified that they would include the right to privacy, surveillance, and freedom of expression.


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Spokespersons of the United Nations Children’s Fund and International Labour Organization were also present, but did not brief.

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For technical reasons, there is no webcast for this briefing.