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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
8 February 2013

Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing, which was also attended by Spokespersons from the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Food Programme, the High Commissioner for Refugees, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Organization for Migration, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the Economic Commission for Europe.

Geneva Activities

Ms. Momal-Vanian said that as journalists had seen from the note sent out yesterday, work would start on changing the windows of Room III on 18 February. A new work area for the press briefings and press conferences would be created in Room XIV for journalists to use until the work on Room III was finished. The new work area would have similar facilities to the present room, including the ability to record and the possibility for journalists to listen in to the proceedings on the sqwak box. This was an adequate solution to the situation. Room III would be the first room at the Palais to get the new windows and the work would take around five weeks, hopefully less.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination would be meeting from 11 February to 1 March at the Palais Wilson to review the reports of Algeria, Russian Federation, Kyrgyzstan, Slovakia, Mauritius, New Zealand and the Dominican Republic. The background press release had been sent out yesterday.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women would be meeting from 11 February to 1 March at the Palais des Nations to consider the reports of Pakistan, Austria, Hungary, Cyprus, Greece, Angola and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The background press release had been sent out yesterday.

Ms. Momal-Vanian said the Conference on Disarmament would be holding its next public plenary at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 12 February.

There were no press conferences to be announced for next week.

In response to a question on whether the Secretary-General would give a press conference during his visit to Geneva at the end of February, Ms. Momal-Vanian said the Secretary-General’s programme and visit had not been officially announced yet, but the Human Rights Council had indicated that he would be addressing the high-level segment. It was hoped that the Secretary-General would give a press conference during his visit.

Syria

Marixie Mercado of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said preliminary findings from a UNICEF led assessment on the water and sanitation sector in Syria pointed to a severe disruption in services, damage done to water and sanitation systems and limited access to basic hygiene products, all of which put children at a much increased risk of disease. The assessment, the first of its kind since the start of the crisis almost two years ago, showed that in areas affected by the conflict, the availability of the water supply was now just one third of pre-crisis levels. Many people in these areas had just 25 litres of water a day, compared with 75 litres two years ago. The nation-wide assessment identified six most-at-risk areas. Regular and lengthy power cuts, fuel shortages, lack of maintenance and damage to infrastructure were the main reasons behind the worsening water shortages. The national production of water treatment chemicals has almost stopped, which raised risks that tap water was contaminated. Families were relying increasingly on buying water supplied by mobile tankers, which cost $15 every 15 days for a family of seven, more than many vulnerable families could afford. Water was often of poor and unknown quality. In affected towns, children and women were exposed to environmental health risks as the treatment of sewage water had decreased by half, from 70 per cent before the crisis to 35 per cent now. Collection and safe disposal of domestic waste was also highly disrupted. The situation for displaced people living in collective shelters, including some 1,500 schools, was especially critical. Living conditions were unsanitary with few too many toilets, showers and basic hygiene products like soap.

Ms. Mercado said earlier this month, UNICEF had started an operation to bring in 1 million litres of chlorine to provide safe water for more than 10 million people over the next three months. UNICEF was also bringing in generators, water tanks, hygiene kits and spare parts. Funding was a major issue. Of the $ 68.4 million UNICEF had requested for Syria over the next six months, it had received just over
$ 12 million. There were more details in the briefing notes.

Elizabeth Byrs of the World Food Programme (WFP) said WFP had started the distribution of food vouchers to Syrian refugees in Egypt on 4 February. The first round of distribution targeted 1,100 people in the town of Damietta in the north of the Nile delta. WFP and UNHCR recently concluded a joint assessment in Damietta and identified those who were extremely vulnerable. They aimed to reach 30,000 beneficiaries by June 2013. Beneficiaries would receive a monthly voucher allowing them to select a variety of food items including fresh fruits and vegetables and dairy products. The voucher was aimed to provide the daily nutritional requirement of 2,100 kcals. According to UNHCR, there were 15,057 registered Syrian refugees in Egypt, but the real number was much higher, estimated at around 150,000.

In response to a question about water-borne diseases in Syria, Ms. Mercado said WHO at the Tuesday meeting had talked about hepatitis. There were also cases of diarrhea among children and adults, as well as scabies and head lice. No numbers were available.

In response to a question about it taking two to three months to register a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, during which period they did not have access to any aid, Adrian Edwards of UNHCR said that while it took time to register people, they had over the last month increased cash assistance and stepped up registration facilities, including in the Bekaa. This came as part of substantial efforts to deal with the substantial additional population. There were 5,000 people crossing the borders of Syria into other countries every day. This was really a full-on crisis right at the moment. However, he also wanted to point out that help for people coming across the borders was not contingent on registration only. For example, a woman giving birth would be helped at a UNHCR hospital, regardless of whether registration had taken place. Today, there were 787,000 Syrians being assisted as refugees. On 18 December, the figure was 515,000. Therefore, they were talking about a 25 per cent increase in registered refugee numbers over a single month.

Mali

Ms. Byrs of WFP said the first delivery by boat from Mopti to Gao region departed on 7 February for the launch of the emergency school feeding activity in the region. Some 56 metric tons of mixed commodities were to be loaded on boats called “pinasses”. The water levels allowed for this mode of transportation to be used up to Gao, however with boats of reduced capacity. This load would cover for assistance to 6,390 children in the 20 selected schools. The road axis from Mopti to the North remained closed. The presence of non-State armed groups in Menaka, Gao region had been confirmed. This directly impacted WFP operations as deliveries that were scheduled to depart imminently to Menaka through the Niger cross-border route (Niamey-Abala-Menaka) had been put on hold until the situation on the ground was clarified. This affected the dispatch of a total of 790 metric tones of mixed commodities, covering for the monthly ration of 50,000 beneficiaries. Once it was estimated safe for the commodities to be dispatched, it would take 48 hours for the commodities to reach Menaka through the Niger axis.

In response to a question on whether the announced withdrawal of French troops from the north of Mali would impact on the presence of United Nations bodies and funds in those regions.

Ms. Momal-Vanian said that they did not respond to hypothetical questions, but for all humanitarian assistance, the security situation was reviewed on a daily basis and the delivery of assistance might be scaled back or expanded depending on the security situation. This was true for everyone and they would have to see how things evolved in Mali.

A journalist asked about refugees in the Central African Republic, where a new government was in control. Apparently the refugees had problems with access to water, sanitation and other. In response, Mr. Edwards of UNHCR said they were trying to look into this situation but he did not have more details now.

Somalia

Ms. Byrs of WFP said WFP had been absent from Kismayo for the past four years. The situation in Somalia still required aid which was essential. Humanitarian assistance was still vital in Somalia because the gains made in food security and nutrition were fragile. The number of people who remained “in crisis” now stood at just over 1 million, down from 3.7 million in August 2011 and 2.1 million in 2012. WFP continued to work in Somalia and was in need of $ 57 million for the period of February to July for the humanitarian operations. They hoped to provide food aid to 1.6 million persons in 2013. There were more details in the briefing notes.

Papua New Guinea

Cecile Pouilly of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said OHCHR was deeply disturbed by reports of the torture and killing of a 20-year-old woman accused of sorcery in Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea, on 6 February. According to reports, Ms. Kepari Leniata was burnt alive in front of a crowd by relatives of a six-year old boy whom she was accused of using sorcery to kill, while attempts by law enforcement officials to intervene failed. OHCHR noted with great concern that this case added to the growing pattern of vigilante attacks and killings of persons accused of sorcery in Papua New Guinea. OHCHR urged the Government to put an end to these crimes and to bring perpetrators of attacks and killings to justice through thorough, prompt and impartial investigations in accordance with international law. They also called on the authorities to demonstrate their political will in concretely addressing the issue through a multi-pronged approach and urged the Government to take urgent action to prevent further cases through education, to provide protection to persons accused of sorcery and witnesses of sorcery-related killings, and to provide medical and psychosocial treatment for victims.

Ms. Pouilly said the Constitutional Law Reform Commission, whose report had yet to be presented to Parliament, had held consultations to review the Sorcery Act (which contained the crime of sorcery) and said the Sorcery Act should be repealed. In light of the heinous crime which had been committed, OHCHR encouraged the authorities to hasten the process to strengthen the legal response to such killings.

In response to a question about the growing pattern of such attacks, Ms. Pouilly said that last year, in March 2012, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women visited Papua New Guinea and met with a number of victims. She said she was shocked by the growing pattern of sorcery related killings. She said it included people who were using sorcery as a pretext to deprive women of their land and property. In addition to killings, victims had been raped and tortured. OHCHR was able to document another case of five people who were tortured for 20 days and then killed after being accused of using sorcery against other people. OHCHR believed that such cases were clearly underreported because they occurred in the countryside. There had been some persons who had been prosecuted, but clearly the issue was deeply rooted because most of the perpetrators were free and had never been brought to justice.

Responding to another question, Ms. Pouilly said the 1971 Sorcery Act defined the crime of sorcery, in a way acknowledging sorcery, and defined sentences for people committing sorcery, and for people who falsely accused other people of sorcery. It was available on the internet. Clearly there was a need for institutional reform on this issue. OHCHR had repeatedly asked the authorities to move fast and had offered its assistance in this regard. The reaction to the latest crime had been quite strong from the authorities. They had actually condemned the practice and said that they would take legal action. OHCHR believed that the consultations that had been held by the Commission had now come to an end and they needed to move to the next step, for the Act to be cancelled.

The Philippines

Mr. Edwards of UNHCR said on Wednesday, the Philippines’ Congress passed a bill that sought to protect the rights of more than a million internally displaced people. This was a very welcome development for UNHCR. The bill still needed the President’s endorsement, which could take between one to three months, but when it became law the Philippines would become the first country in the Asia-Pacific to have comprehensive legislation that protected people against arbitrary displacement and guaranteed the rights of the internally displaced in accordance with international standards. The measure was a milestone for the protection of internally displaced people in the Philippines, where decades-long armed conflicts and multiple natural disasters had caused massive displacement, particularly in the Mindanao region.
It was estimated that between January and October of 2012 alone, some 300,000 people were displaced throughout Mindanao. Natural disasters causing displacement occurred frequently in the Philippines. Most recently, in early December, Typhoon Bopha, the strongest and deadliest storm to hit the Philippines in recent times, left more than 1,000 people dead, affected 6.2 million people and displaced close to 1 million people. Thousands of them remained homeless and were in need of humanitarian and other assistance in southern Mindanao. The bill sought to prevent displacement, and spelt out rights during and after displacement. It also imposed heavy penalties against arbitrary internal displacement of any person, including non-combatants caught in the crossfire of internal armed conflicts. It also spelt out key rights of internally displaced people during and after displacement, emphasizing that displacement should not violate anyone’s rights to life, liberty, dignity and security. The bill also importantly provided for monetary compensation for lost or damaged property or for the death of family members. The Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, an independent agency of the State, had been designated as the focal point for the protection of displaced people.

Myanmar

In response to a question on reports that aid to the Rohingya camps in Myanmar was being blocked by the military government and the local authorities, and that there had been deaths among the camp population as a result of this, Mr. Edwards said that they were aware of the reports of threats and intimidation against some non-governmental organizations and UNHCR was concerned that this was affecting the provision of desperately needed humanitarian assistance and services to people affected by last year’s communal violence. UNHCR had adequate access, but there were some issues of concern, including for example areas which were difficult to reach because people were simply off limits due to the logistics of getting there through boat travel.

International Organization for Migration

Chris Lom of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO) had just contributed to the crisis of the camps in Haiti with 6 million euros to IOM’s programme that supported the re-location of the camp’s residents to safer housing options by providing rental subsidies to encourage people to move out of the camps. This funding would allow about 7,560 families to move out of 50 of the most high-risk camps in the country. There were still around 450 camps dotted around the country, home to around 87,750 families. Many of them were make-shift, unsanitary and very dangerous to live in. The entire programme to close the camps and get people into alternative accommodation planned to relocate some 36,500 families this year, around 146,000 people, but that would still leave about 50,000 families or 200,000 people in these high-risk camps.

Mr. Lom said concerning the floods in Mozambique, the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund had allocated $ 1 million to enable IOM and its partners to distribute shelter kits to flood victims in Mozambique. These floods had so far caused 91 deaths and displaced 150,000 people, who were mostly in emergency centres. IOM had started to distribute 10,000 shelter kits, including plastic sheets and ropes, to people in these centres. There was a tremendous need for emergency centres because of the very limited stock of shelter materials in the country. The CERF money would allow IOM to buy plastic sheeting and other essential non-food relief items for another 50,000 to 75,000 displaced people.

In the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mr. Lom said that last week, IOM and its partners had relocated 967 families sheltering in three Goma schools to a displacement camp. The relocation of these people was facilitated by an information campaign that aid would no longer be delivered to the schools but to the displacement camps.

Finally, Mr. Lom said IOM had given an award to a teacher in New Jersey who with his high school students had raised $ 200,000 to help combat child trafficking in Ghana’s fishing industry.

Solomon Islands

In response to a question on the international response of the international community following the earthquake and tsunami in the Solomon Islands, Jens Laerke of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that 9 people were confirmed dead in the Solomon Islands following the earthquake, 3,500 were displaced, and 700 households were affected. The Solomon Islands Government had declared a state of disaster for Santa Cruz. The first relief supplies, which were moving with an assessment and medical team and personnel, had arrived in the affected province yesterday afternoon.

Economic Commission for Europe

Jean Rodriguez of the Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) said that on Monday 11 February the International Year of Water Cooperation 2013 would be launched in Paris by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, and Michel Jarraud, Chair to UN-Water and Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), with a high-level event. The European Commission for Europe would be represented by the Director of the Environment Division who would participate in two panels. The European Commission for Europe would be one of the major actors in the year because of the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (the Water Convention). Journalists had already received the programme and other documentation.

Ms. Momal-Vanian said that the Information Service would send out the press release from UNESCO on the launch of the International Year of Water Cooperation 2013 as soon as possible.

Mr. Rodriguez said a meeting on transport and security of cargo by road would be discussed at a meeting at the Palais des Nations, Room VII on 15 February. Journalists had already received the documentation related to this meeting.

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The webcast for this briefing is available at http://bit.ly/XrnP0Q