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UN Geneva Press Briefing

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired a hybrid briefing, which was attended by spokespersons and representatives of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and the World Meteorological Organization. 

Situation in Gaza

Ajith Sunghay, representative of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, speaking from Gaza, said that another staggering milestone was being reached in Gaza, with almost 25,000 people reported to have been killed, majority of them women and children. In Raffah since 15 January, Mr. Sunghay had witnessed people arriving from various places in their thousands, in desperate situations, setting up makeshift shelters with any material they could get their hands on. It was a massive humanitarian crisis, and a large scaling-up of humanitarian aid was necessary now. The communications blackout was continuing since 12 January, contributing to fear and confusion. Bombings of Middle Gaza and Khan Younis was audible in Raffah. Mr. Sunghay had managed to meet a number of released Palestinian detainees. Those kept in captivity by the Israeli Security Forces described being blindfolded for long periods, beaten, and possibly subjected to what could amount to torture. Some of the released men were found wearing diapers only and no adequate clothes. The families of detainees, believed to be in thousands, had not been provided with any information on their fate. Mr. Sunghay said that Israel had to ensure that all those detained were treated in line with the international standards. Those held in detention had to be either charged or released, unless Israel could demonstrate pressing, imperative security needs to keep each individual detainee. Accountability into alleged torture and mistreatment was necessary. A humanitarian ceasefire was urgently needed, and all hostages had to be released without delay, stressed Mr. Sunghay.

Tess Ingram, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), speaking from Amman, said that almost 20,000 babies had been born in Gaza in over 105 days of the conflict, which meant one baby was born into horror every ten minutes. Having spent one week in Gaza, Ms. Ingram provided examples of new mothers, some of whom had lost their babies, others with serious injuries or illnesses. She spoke of a nurse who had performed numerous cesarean sections on dead women in recent weeks. The already precarious situation of mother and newborn mortality had been further exacerbated by the hostilities; more miscarriages were reported than usual, due to bombing and unhealthy air and smoke related to it. The Emirati Hospital in Raffah was now catering to most pregnant women in Gaza and was overwhelmed; new mothers had to be released hours after undergoing a C-section. Some 135,000 children under the age of two were in severe risk of malnutrition. In the north of Gaza, the situation was even worse, stressed Ms. Ingram. In the time Ms. Ingram had made her statement, another baby had likely been born in Gaza in terrible circumstances. Mothers and newborns in Gaza Strip needed a humanitarian ceasefire now.

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), mentioned the previous day’s statement by Philippe Lazzarini, UNRWA Commissioner-General, who had just completed his fourth visit to Gaza since the start of the war. 

Responding to a question, Ms. Ingram, for UNICEF, said that it was difficult to establish the exact infant mortality rate at the moment, due to the difficult conditions and limited access. What was certain was that babies were dying of hunger, illness, cold, and bombardment, and had no access to adequate aid. On another question, Mr. Sunghay, for the OHCHR, said that it was impossible to ascertain an exact number of Palestinians currently in detention, but this number was certainly in the thousands. Most released detainees claimed that they had also been taken to detention centres in Israel, but, as they had been mostly blindfolded, it was difficult to know where exactly those locations were. Mr. Sunghay informed that there were at least 4,700 Palestinians from the West Bank who were detained, the highest ever-registered number. The conditions of detention were horrific, whether those were detainees from the West Bank or Gaza, he said. The detainees were categorized differently based on their profile; some had undergone interrogations and others had not. Ravina Shamdasani, also for the OHCHR, confirmed that the engagement of her Office with the Israeli authorities continued. She said that the OHCHR had repeatedly raised with the Israeli authorities the issue of ill-treatment of Palestinian detainees, including before 7 October 2023. She reiterated that the UN was calling for a durable solution to this long-lasting conflict. Answering questions on the Israeli’s declaration against the two-state solution, the UN was fully supportive of it. The Secretary-General’s backing of the two-state solution was unchanged, added Ms. Vellucci, for UNIS. 

Ms. Ingram, for UNICEF, in a response to another question, informed that UNICEF was delivering medical supplies, including obstetric supplies and anesthetics, nutrition supplies for pregnant women and ready-to-use infant formula. UNICEF was working with implementing partners on the ground to deliver aid directly to local communities. Ms. Shamdasani informed that the Human Rights High Commissioner had not had direct engagement with the Israeli Prime Minister; his access to Israel and the OPT was requested. She said that the High Commissioner was closely following the proceedings on genocide claims at the International Court of Justice and was looking forward to the outcome of the process. 

Answering a question from the media, Tarik Jašarević, for the World Health Organization (WHO), stated that the previous day Dr. Tedros had spoken of Hepatitis A among children in Gaza, which, while a mild disease, demonstrated how bad the living conditions were, including a lack of clean water and sanitation. Since mid-October 2023, 223,600 cases of upper respiratory infections had been reported in displaced people shelters, 158,300 cases of diarrhoea, including 84,000 among children under the age of five, 68,700 cases of lice and scabies, 6,600 cases of chickenpox, and 44,550 cases of skin rashes, among others. The number of diarrhoea cases among children under five years of age cases recorded during the last three months of 2023 were 26 times higher than reports from the same period in 2022. Health system and surveillance had to be supported and rehabilitated, stressed Mr. Jašarević. A ceasefire was as needed as ever.

Anti-terrorism bill in Sri Lanka

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), stated that the OHCHR was seriously concerned by the revised Anti-Terrorism Bill currently being considered in the Sri Lankan Parliament to replace the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act. Repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act should be a turning point for meaningful reform of Sri Lanka’s approach to its internal security, but this proposed law instead risked perpetuating patterns of violations from the past.

The proposed law was substantially identical to previous drafts that were withdrawn after widespread criticism. It defined acts of “terrorism” overly broadly, restricted the scope of judicial guarantees, especially with respect to challenging the lawfulness of detention orders, and curtailed the ability of the Human Rights Commission to visit places of detention, among other problematic provisions. OHCHR urged the authorities to meaningfully engage with civil society and other stakeholders to substantively revise the Bill and bring it fully into line with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations.

Answering a question from the press corps, Ms. Shamdasani said that the OHCHR had raised very detailed concerns with the authorities, and it was hoped that the OHCHR’s calls would be heeded. 

Flood response in the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville) 

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), informed that in the Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville), the United Nations was responding to a flood disaster, unprecedented in scale for six decades, and with hundreds of thousands of people in need of humanitarian assistance. Extreme rainfall since October 2023 had led the banks around the Ubangi River - a tributary to the Congo river - to burst. A flood emergency had been officially declared by the Government on 29 December. Some three weeks later, nine out of the country's 12 departments remained under water and a total of 1.8 million people were affected. 

Mr. Laerke specified that more than 350,000 people urgently needed humanitarian assistance, but access was a challenge because of the floods and many villages could only be reached by boat or canoe. UN agencies had developed a response plan with the Government with a total budget of some USD 26 million. Priority sectors included shelter, food security, nutrition, health, and water, sanitation, and hygiene. To support the initial response, an allocation of USD 3.6 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund had been made to address the most pressing needs of 270,000 people. However, to implement the response, more international funding would be needed, concluded Mr. Laerke.

In response to questions from the media, Mr. Laerke said that the UN was still assessing the situation, a slow process because the infrastructure was not working well. The official death toll as of now stood as 23, while over 6,000 people were displaced. This was a long-term disaster, as in mid-to-long term food security would be compromised, and children would need to go back to school. He called for more international support. Logistics was a major challenge.

Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), informed that Jean Bienvenu Dinga of the Congo Hydrological Service said this was the most exceptional event since the catastrophic floods in 1961, when there had been a measured discharge of 80,000 cubic meters per second. On 9 January 2024, the discharge had reached 75,000 cubic meters per second. The Congo was trying to improve their early warning system, which was one of the priorities of the WMO’s new Secretary-General, concluded Ms. Nullis. 


Tarik Jašarević, for the World Health Organization (WHO), informed that the 154th meeting of the Executive Board of the WHO would be held from 22 to 27 January. He reminded that this body of 34 elected Member States implemented decisions and policies of the World Health Assembly and facilitated its work. All documents were available on the WHO website, and the proceedings would be webcast. WHO Director-General would deliver his report on the opening day at 10 am. Appointments of regional directors for Eastern Mediterranean, South-East Asia and Western Pacific would be considered by the Board on 23 January. While journalists could not enter the meeting room, they could observe the proceedings from a nearby overflow room. On 22 January at 1 pm there would be an informal briefing by the Board on the negotiation process on the future pandemic preparedness treaty. 

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service, informed that the Committee on the Rights of the Child was continuing this morning its review of the report of Senegal, which would be concluded this afternoon. 

On 22 January, the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review would commence. The States to be reviewed by the UPR Working Group during this 45th session would be, in order of scheduled review: Saudi Arabia, Senegal, China, Nigeria, Mauritius, Mexico, Jordan, Malaysia, the Central African Republic, Monaco, Belize, Chad, the Congo, and Malta. 

The Conference on Disarmament would hold the first public plenary of its 2024 session on 23 January, at 10am, under the Presidency of India.