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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE UNITED NATIONS INFORMATION SERVICE

Bi-Weekly Briefing

Rhéal LeBlanc, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of theUnited Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, chaired the hybrid briefing, attended by the spokespersons and representatives of the World Health Organization, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Refugee Agency and the World International Property Organization.

World Health Organization activities

Fadéla Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that during the week of World Health Day 2022, celebrated on 7 April, WHO would seek to focus global attention on urgent actions to keep humans and the planet healthy and to create societies focused on well-being. WHO estimated that more than 13 million deaths each year were due to avoidable environmental causes, including the climate crisis, which was the single largest health threat facing humanity. Therefore, WHO was issuing an urgent call for accelerated action by leaders and all people to preserve and protect health and mitigate the climate crisis as part of the “Our Planet, Our Health” campaign. A global press release would be sent to journalists on 6 April, and WHO regional offices would be holding press conferences throughout the week.

Replying to questions from journalists, Ms. Chaib said that Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and a team of senior WHO officials, including Michael Ryan, Maria Van Kerkhove, Bruce Aylward and Catharina Boehme had travelled to Washington, D.C. to meet with administration, congressional and other leaders and partners. The aim of their visit was to strengthen the relationship between WHO and the United States and to discuss critical global public health issues, including COVID-19, Ukraine and other humanitarian crises. They would stay in the United States for the whole week.

As part of the effort to protect the world from future infectious disease crises, on 12 and 13 April, WHO would hold two rounds of public hearings on a new international instrument on pandemic preparedness and response, which was being considered by WHO Member States. WHO was seeking input from all interested parties, including non-State actors; civil society organizations; private-sector organizations; philanthropic organizations; scientific, medical and public policy institutions; academic institutions; and other relevant stakeholders with knowledge, experience and/or expertise related to pandemic preparedness and response. Further information was available here.

Responding to questions, Fadéla Chaib, for the World Health Organization, said that the next meeting of the International Health Regulations (IHR) Emergency Committee for COVID-19 was scheduled for 11 April. She stressed that the pandemic was not over and that WHO continued to recommend that Governments should apply preventive measures. On 30 March, WHO had released a document entitled Strategic Preparedness, Readiness and Response Plan to End the Global COVID-19 Emergency in 2022, which laid out three possible scenarios for how the pandemic might evolve.

Responding to another question, Ms. Chaib said that information on the election of the Director of the Pan American Sanitary Bureau was available here.

Sri Lanka – limits on protests amid economic crisis

Elizabeth Throssell, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the Office was closely following developments in Sri Lanka, where the authorities had recently announced a state of emergency and other restrictions in response to mass protests against the country’s worst economic crisis in decades. Public frustration had been mounting in recent months, with largely peaceful demonstrations taking place across the country. In the past two weeks, the situation had worsened amid sudden shortages in fuel, cooking gas and essential food items, as well as power cuts. That had led to further protests by Sri Lankans left desperate by the rising cost of living and difficulties in obtaining basic items. After a demonstration outside the President’s residence, the Government had declared a state of emergency, announced a 36-hour curfew and shut down social media networks for 15 hours. There had also been reports of excessive and unwarranted police violence against protesters.

OHCHR was concerned that such measures were aimed at preventing or discouraging people from legitimately expressing their grievances through peaceful protests, and that they frustrated the exchange of views on matters of public interest. The Office wished to remind the Sri Lankan authorities that measures related to states of emergency must comply with international human rights law, should be limited to the extent strictly required by the situation and be proportionate to it, and should not be used to stifle dissent or hinder peaceful protest. As the High Commissioner had noted in her recent report to the Human Rights Council, the drift towards militarization and the weakening of institutional checks and balances in Sri Lanka had affected the State’s ability to effectively tackle the economic crisis and ensure the realization of the economic, social and cultural rights of all people in Sri Lanka. The Office also reiterated the concern, previously voiced by the High Commissioner, that the Government responded to criticism and dissent in ways that undermined civic space.

OHCHR urged the Government, political parties and civil society to engage in immediate, inclusive and meaningful dialogue to find a solution for the pressing economic and political challenges that Sri Lanka faced, and to avoid further polarization of the situation.

Responding to journalists, Ms. Throssell said that the protests had been largely peaceful, although there had been reports that one protest had turned violent and that about 50 people had been arrested. It was important that the Government should allow peaceful protest and that a dialogue should be established to chart a peaceful way out of the crisis.

Ukraine

Tarik Jašarević, for the World Health Organization (WHO), responding to journalists, said that WHO officials had not yet visited the town of Bucha. WHO stood ready to provide any health assistance that might be needed and remained in contact with the health authorities. WHO was working with the health authorities and other United Nations agencies and had sent 180 tons of medical supplies – intended to reach 500,000 people – to the hardest-hit areas. It also continued to monitor attacks on health care facilities. As of 4 April, it had verified 85 attacks on health-care facilities that had taken place since 24 February, and was working to verify other attacks. WHO was also working in neighbouring countries to ensure access to antiretroviral drugs for people living with HIV.

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said that several United Nations agencies were on the ground in Ukraine. Together, they had reached 1.4 million people, mainly in eastern Ukraine, providing food, water, shelter, blankets, medicine and hygiene items.

Elizabeth Throssell, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), responding to journalists, said that the High Commissioner had expressed her horror at the images that had emerged from Bucha. OHCHR had not yet gained access to the town; therefore, she did not have any direct information on what had occurred there. The High Commissioner had already spoken about possible war crimes in the context of the indiscriminate shelling of civilian infrastructure. The photographs that had been taken in Bucha strongly suggested that individual civilians had been directly targeted. She stressed that under international humanitarian law, the deliberate killing of civilians was a war crime.

OHCHR was not in a position to establish that war crimes had been committed in Bucha. For that to be established, detailed forensic examinations needed to be conducted and information gathered to determine exactly what had happened to whom and on what date. OHCHR was contributing to that painstaking work as part of a combined international effort. The International Criminal Court had opened an investigation and the Human Rights Council had established a Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine with a mandate to investigate alleged rights violations and abuses. Justice and accountability took time but the work had commenced.

Rhéal LeBlanc, for UNIS, said that both the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Ukraine had expressed shock at the images from Bucha and had requested an investigation into the atrocities. The Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, would today be briefing the Security Council following his meeting in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other senior officials, before travelling to Ukraine to see whether a humanitarian ceasefire could be achieved.

El Salvador – response to gang violence

Elizabeth Throssell, for OHCHR, said that the Office was deeply concerned by several measures recently introduced in El Salvador in response to the rise in gang killings. Since the adoption of a state of emergency on 27 March, police and military forces had been deployed to gang stronghold areas and had reportedly resorted to unnecessary and excessive use of force. More than 5,747 people had been detained without an arrest warrant and some had allegedly been subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

In addition to the state of emergency, OHCHR was troubled by certain amendments to criminal law and criminal procedure, which raised serious concerns from the perspective of international human rights law and standards. In particular, the amendments provided for the imposition of elevated sentences, including with respect to children, and for the weakening of due process guarantees. Criminal trials could now be held in absentia, in the case of alleged gang members, or presided over by so-called “faceless” judges whose identity remained confidential. A two-year limit on pretrial detention had been abolished. Teenagers associated with gangs who were found guilty of serious offences might now be sentenced as adults and serve their sentence in adult rather than juvenile detention. Those aged 12 to 16 years must now serve a 10-year term of imprisonment instead of 7 years; and those aged 16 to 18 years must serve a 20-year term.

OHCHR recognized the challenges posed by gang violence in El Salvador. However, it was imperative that State should fulfil its duty to ensure security and justice in compliance with international human rights law. The right to life, the right not to be subjected to torture, fair trial principles and the presumption of innocence, together with the procedural safeguards that protected those rights, applied at all times, even during states of emergency and especially in the case of children.

Responding to journalists, Ms. Throssell said that it was necessary to ensure that prisoners, were treated humanely and were provided with access to food, water and sanitation. Given that prisons in many parts of Latin America were overcrowded and had problems with inmate violence, reports that juveniles would be held with adults were particularly troubling. The OHCHR regional office in Central America engaged with the region’s Governments over human rights concerns.

Boris Cheshirkov, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), responding to a question, said that the gang violence had caused what was primarily an internal displacement situation, with tens of thousands of people displaced within the country. The Agency looked forward to the lifting of Title 42 border restrictions by the United States, which would be an essential step for restoring the right of asylum.

Announcements

Edward Harris, for the World Intellectual Property Organization, said that a press conference for the launch the World Intellectual Property Report 2022 would be held on Wednesday, 6 April 2022 at 10 a.m. Entitled “The Direction of Innovation”, the report looked at historical case studies and considered future trends in innovation. Speakers at the press conference would include Marco Aleman, Assistant Director General; Carsten Fink, Chief Economist; and Julio Raffo, Head of the Innovation Economy Section. Press materials would be sent out shortly and would be under embargo until Thursday, 7 April at 12 noon.

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said that the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families would this morning conclude its review of the report of Paraguay. It would then meet in private until the end of its thirty-fourth session (28 March to 8 April) and on Friday afternoon would issue its concluding observations on the reports of Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde and Paraguay.

The Committee on Enforced Disappearances would meet in private until the end of its twenty-second session (28 March to 8 April). On Friday afternoon it would issue its concluding observations on Greece and the Niger.

Mr. LeBlanc also said that Ciné ONU would be screening the film Marcher sur l’eau to mark International Day of la Francophonie. The screening would take place today at 6.30 p.m. at the Cinéma Empire in Geneva and would be followed by a discussion on the topic of access to water and the impact of climate change.

Finally, Mr. LeBlanc said that, to commemorate International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, a ceremony would be held on Thursday, 7 April at 3 p.m. in Palais des Nations room XX.

 

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