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Bi-Weekly Briefing

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service, chaired the hybrid briefing, attended by the spokespersons and representatives of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Food Programme, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Federation of the Red Cross, the World Meteorological Organization, the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria and the World Trade Organization.

Hurricane Iota hits Central America

Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said Friday 13 November had marked the 50th anniversary of the world’s deadliest tropical cyclone, Bhola, which had killed between 300,000 and 500,000 people in what is now Bangladesh. Bhola had paved the way for WMO’s Tropical Cyclone programme which this year marked its 40th anniversary. Turning to the current situation in Central America, Ms. Nullis said the record-breaking Atlantic hurricane season was continuing at a time of year when it was normally winding down. Iota was the 30th named storm this season—the highest number on record. For the first time on record, the Atlantic had had two major hurricane formations in November. Hurricane Iota has just made landfall as a strong category 4 hurricane, just 24 km and 2 weeks apart from category 4 hurricane Eta. Iota had made landfall in Nicaragua as a Category 4 hurricane with maximum winds of 155 mph (250 km/h), and was now the strongest November hurricane on record to make landfall in Nicaragua, surpassing the previous record set by Eta (140 mph) just 13 days ago.

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said people in Central America were again bracing for the potentially catastrophic consequences of tropical storm Iota, just two weeks after Hurricane Eta had made landfall in the region causing death, destruction, and affecting a total of nearly 5 million people. Iota, with its strong winds and heavy rainfall, could cause life-threatening flash floods, river flooding, and landslides not least because the soil was already saturated by tropical storm Eta. Ahead of Iota, the United Nations and its regional and national partners were building on the preparedness and response work underway for Eta, including pre-propositioning supplies. As part of the response to Eta, a seven-member United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination team had deployed over the weekend to San Pedro Sula in Honduras. Both the Governments of Honduras and Guatemala had called for assistance from international organizations and bilateral support following Eta.

Matthew Cochrane, for the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), said Iota had arrived as IFRC was building its response to Eta. Over the past week, IFRC had activated three water and sanitation Emergency Response Units and one emergency health clinic, along with a logistics unit and an IT/telecommunication unit. The arrival of staff and equipment had been delayed or complicated by Iota. IFRC had also deployed more than 100 tons of relief items to Nicaragua and Honduras from its regional logistics unit in Panama. Last week, IFRC had launched an emergency appeal for Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. Noting the very slow response from donors, Mr. Cochrane urged donors to please come forward with support. The needs—which were already severe—would certainly grow. People were in desperate, desperate need of support.

Responding to questions, Matthew Cochrane, for the International Federation of the Red Cross said the IFRC’s appeal for 20 million Swiss francs last week was only for Eta. In light of recent developments, it would likely increase. The unprecedented nature of the double barrage of hurricanes highlighted how the available funding for climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction did not seem to consistently prioritize the countries at highest risk and with the lowest ability to adapt and cope with these risks, as outlined in the IFRC’s World Disasters Report 2020. Mr. Cochrane noted that Honduras, for example, was considered one of the countries in the region most vulnerable to climate-related disasters. However, despite this, Honduras received only USD $ 1.22 per person in climate change adaptation (CCA) funding in 2018 and ranked 54th in the world for per capita CCA funding.

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs added that as humanitarian workers were gaining access to affected areas, the number of people affected was increasing significantly.

Tomson Phiri, for the World Food Programme, said continuing flooding would affect the incoming harvest in the region, and extend the food emergency into mid-2021.

Claire Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization, said WMO had run out of superlatives to describe this extraordinary hurricane season. While it was due to several factors, such as sea surface temperatures, it was certainly part of climate change.

Ethiopian refugees in Sudan

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said the Secretary-General had been making calls over the weekend, monitoring the developments in Tigray with great concerns, as the situation risked destabilizing the Horn of Africa. The Secretary-General believed priority should be given to human rights, the protection of civilians, and ensuring the access for humanitarian assistance. In addition, the UN had called for humanitarian access and the resumption of telecommunication and basic supplies, including food, medicine and fuel for civilians in the Tigray region.

Babar Baloch, for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), warned that a full-scale humanitarian crisis was unfolding as thousands of refugees flee ongoing fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region each day to seek safety in eastern Sudan—an influx unseen over the last two decades in this part of the country. Women, men and children had been crossing the border at the rate of 4,000 per day since 10 November, rapidly overwhelming the humanitarian response capacity on the ground. More than 27,000 had now crossed into Sudan through the Hamdayet border in Kassala State, the Lugdi in Gedaref State and a new location further south at Aderafi border where Ethiopian refugees had started crossing over the weekend. Refugees fleeing the fighting continued to arrive exhausted from the long trek to safety, with few belongings. UNHCR, with its partners, was supporting the Sudanese government in its response, ramping up humanitarian assistance at the borders as the needs continued to grow. In Hamdayet, clean water was being delivered and latrines were being constructed. Soap was provided but UNHCR remained very concerned about the hygiene conditions as more and more people arrived.

A full briefing note is available here.

Tomson Phiri, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said the humanitarian situation on the borders between Ethiopia and Sudan was quickly evolving and was extremely urgent. The World Food Programme was supporting the humanitarian response to address the immediate needs of people fleeing from violence. WFP had been providing food items to partners on ground who were preparing and providing hot meals to refugees arriving at reception centres in Kassala and Gedaref. Where cooking facilities were not available, WFP was providing immediate sustenance through meals ready to eat including high-energy biscuits. In addition, WFP was also providing logistics support to the humanitarian community. WFP stored relief cargo in massive tents in hard-to-reach areas where people needed food assistance during conflicts or natural disasters. WFP had established these supply hubs for the storage of food and other humanitarian supplies.

Responding to journalists’ questions, Babar Baloch, for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that, as there were no signs of the fighting abating, there could be an increase in the influx of refugees. In the Tigray region, there were about 100,000 refugees in 4 camps. There was a risk that Eritrean refugees would be displaced inside of Ethiopia because of the fighting. He added that there were 990, 000 refugees in Sudan who came from Eritrea, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Tchad.

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that, based on massive movement of people exiting the country, there were concerns that there could be significant internal displacement in Tigray too.

Tomson Phiri, for the World Food Programme said Sudan was facing challenges of its own, including because of a recent economic crisis. WFP was already assisting internally displaced people and refugees in the country, as well as providing cash and vouchers to vulnerable segments of the population.

COVID-19 situation at the UN Secretariat in Geneva

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said there had been 158 cases confirmed for about 4,000 staff members of the UN Secretariat in Geneva, from March to date. There was a rather low rate of infections among the UN Geneva secretariat staff — less than 4 per cent of the UN Geneva staff has been infected since the beginning of the pandemic. No contamination clusters had been identified in the UN Geneva secretariat. In all its considerations, the management of UN Geneva had benefitted from, and been guided by, the decisions of the Host Country as well as the advice from the United Nations Inter Agency Working Group of Medical Directors, which includes inter alia a senior representative of the World Health Organization.

Ms. Vellucci added that, already in March, UN Geneva management had reacted very quickly to the first wave of contaminations, and conference activities had immediately shifted from in-person to virtual. As was the case in the city and country, and indeed in the whole of Europe, these measures had been gradually loosened in the summer, following the improvement of the pandemic situation, always in full agreement with the Swiss authorities. However, as the situation had recently started to worsen again, the management had swiftly reacted by limiting the access to the Palais des Nations and reducing the number of people that could attend meetings in person to 50, as recommended by the Swiss authorities. Two weeks ago, UN Geneva had aligned itself with the stricter measures taken by the Confederation and the City: while the Palais des Nations remained open for business, only hybrid meetings with a maximum of five people in the room at any given time were now allowed, and the presence of outsiders in the Palais des Nations was very limited.

Responding to a journalist’s question, Ms. Vellucci said that, before the pandemic, there were between 4,000 to 4,5000 people coming to the Palais des Nations every day. Last week, the daily average stood at between 500 and 550 people – a significant reduction.

Geneva announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said young people from four continents would take part in the 2020 Young Activists Summit for live discussions on shaping the post-COVID-19 world. The event would be held online on World’s Children Day, on Friday 20 November 2020 at 15:00 CET. Moderated by Tania Chytil (Radio Télévision Suisse), it would be streamed live on Facebook in English, French, Arabic and Spanish.

Ms. Vellucci added that UN Geneva was preparing to welcome the 2020 Afghanistan Conference at the Palais des Nations (Room XVII) on 23 and 24 November 2020. Co-hosted by the Governments of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, of Finland and the United Nations, the 2020 Afghanistan Conference would be the last pledging conference of the Transformation Decade (2015-24). The main conference would take place on 24 November, with side events to discuss key challenges and accomplishments for Afghanistan occurring the day before.

Fernando Puchol, for the World Trade Organization (WTO), recalling that WTO turned 25 this year, said it would host this Thursday from 1 pm a series of discussions to commemorate this anniversary. They would provide an opportunity to reflect on, and take stock of, the achievements as well as the challenges the organization was facing. The title of the event was “WTO at 25: Past, Present & Future” and would be opened by Guy Parmelin, Vice President of the Swiss Confederation. Ambassador David Walker of New Zealand, chair of the General Council, and Ambassador Alan Wolff, WTO Deputy Director-General would also deliver opening remarks. Two discussion panels would follow. In the first one, senior government representatives would discuss how the WTO has evolved over 25 years. In the second panel, representatives from the private sector, civil society, media and IGOs would debate how the multilateral system has served society.

Mr. Puchol added that tomorrow WTO would launch its latest Trade Monitoring Report on G20 trade measures, which compiled the number and coverage of trade-restrictive and trade-facilitating measures on goods implemented by G20 countries between May and October 2020. The previous report had been published in June this year and captured only the very early effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. This new report reflected more fully the impact the global health crisis had had on trade and trade policy. The report would be available on WTO’s website from 3 pm.

Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said a press conference would be organized for the release of WMO’s Annual Greenhouse Gases Bulletin on Monday 23 November. Additional information would be shared with the press ahead of time.


Responding to questions on the selection process for the next Director-General of WTO, Mr. Puchol said a General Council Meeting, which was due to take place on 9 November, had been postponed to hold further consultations, which were still ongoing.

Responding to a journalist’s question, Jenifer Fenton, for the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria, said planning was underway for a session of the Constitutional Committee in the near future. The dates mentioned in the media of 30 November to 4 December were indeed a possibility. But this remained subject to COVID-19 restrictions, continuing consultations with the host country and assessments by the OSE. The OSE would inform journalists if and when it was in a position to confirm.

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