REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE UNITED NATIONS INFORMATION SERVICE
Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, chaired the hybrid briefing, attended by the spokespersons and representatives of the Human Rights Council (HRC), the World Food Programme (WFP), the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Unitaid.
Human Rights Council update
Rolando Gomez, for the Human Rights Council, said that the Council’s forty-sixth session had begun yesterday with opening statements from the President of the General Assembly, the UN Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, followed by representatives of 53 States, including a record nine Heads of States and Government. The common thread throughout the statements was coronavirus disease (COVID-19), specifically the various ways in which the virus was adversely affecting human rights. The speakers had also highlighted the importance of equal, fair and affordable access to vaccines. Those messages had been echoed during the panel discussion in the afternoon, whose main takeaway had been that the fight against racism and COVID-19 must be fought together.
A high-level panel discussion was taking place that morning on the question of human rights violations related to the use of the death penalty, in particular whether the use of the death penalty had a deterrent effect on crime. In her opening remarks, the High Commissioner for Human Rights had stated that there was no evidence that the death penalty deterred crime more effectively than any other punishment. On the contrary, studies suggested that some States that had abolished the death penalty had seen their murder rates unaltered or even decline. The panellists included the Minister of Justice of Chad, the Commissioner of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, a member of the Human Rights Committee and a criminology professor at the University of Oxford.
The high-level segment would continue from 11 a.m., with 82 speakers inscribed for that day and the next. A general segment with speakers at the Ambassador level would take place on 23 February, followed by the right of reply. Between noon and 1 p.m. on 23 February, country reports on the occupied Palestinian territory, Eritrea, Sri Lanka and Nicaragua would be presented, followed by statements by the countries concerned and an interactive discussion with States and non-governmental organizations.
A draft resolution on Sri Lanka had been submitted the previous day and was available on the Extranet. All draft resolution tabled for this session would be considered on 22 and 23 March.
Rising hunger levels in Central America
Miguel Barreto, Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, World Food Programme (WFP), said that since 2014, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua had been experiencing prolonged dry periods and excessive rain that had destroyed crops and livelihoods. In a region where poverty, inequality and climate shocks were the root causes of food insecurity, the countries had also experienced El Niño in 2015 and 2019. The situation had been improving at the end of 2019, but then the pandemic had hit.
The face of hunger in Central America had changed: it was increasingly urban and no longer only a dry corridor phenomenon. In some countries, the informal labour rate was over 70 per cent; therefore, COVID-19 restrictions had cost millions of people in Central America their jobs and income and had forced them to reduce the amount and quality of the food they ate. Just as the situation had begun to improve in September 2020, Hurricanes Eta and Iota had hit two weeks apart in November. At least 6.8 million people had been affected by Eta and Iota in Central America, including 3 million in Nicaragua, a number that could reach 7.3 million in the next three months.
The combination of those issues had made food insecurity even worse in the region, which WFP was monitoring through assessments and remote surveys that considered coping mechanisms and employment data. In 2018, after a drought year, an average of 8 per cent of respondents had said that they were making concrete plans to migrate, compared to 15 per cent in January 2021 and to 0.5 to 1 per cent in any given country normally. According to the Integrated Food Security Classification, acute food insecurity had jumped from 2.2 million people to 7.9 million between December 2018 and January 2021, including 1.7 million in the emergency phase.
The situation was precarious, and recovery was expected to be slow and long. WFP had already scaled up its operation to respond to the emergencies in 2020, reaching 1.9 million people in Central America. It planned to assist 2.6 million people in 2021, including the most vulnerable, and would need USD 47 million for next six months. WFP provided urgent food assistance but also assisted communities in building resilience and adapting to climate change. It had helped more than 40,000 people to graduate out of a goal of 2 million. WFP needed sustainable, multi-year resources, and it was critical to invest in development and expand national social protection programmes.
Replying to questions, Mr. Barreto said that donors had answered the call in 2020, but it had not been sufficient in the light of the dramatic rise in beneficiaries. WFP had nonetheless converted school meals into home rations, increased electronic cash transfers and helped some countries in the region with food procurement. The main challenge was now to maintain or increase resource levels for recovery purposes. WFP had not encountered any access problem and had been able to reach thousands of people, including through government social security programmes. Some Governments were requesting WFP’s help to allocate funds received from international monetary organizations.
Also in response to questions, Mr. Baretto said that according to its assessment made public in 2019, 2.3 million Venezuelans were severely food insecure. Confidential negotiations were ongoing with the Government, but WFP would not access the country unless it was assured that humanitarian principles, especially operational independence, would be respected. He also said that it was hard to say what impact the migration policies of the United States of America and Mexico had had on food insecurity in Central America, but WFP was hoping to launch a study on the link between food insecurity, migration and climate change in Washington mid-year.
2021 Needs and Response Summary for Syria and Yemen
Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that a summary of the humanitarian outlook for Syria in 2021 had been published, showing a 20 per cent increase in the number of people in need, mainly due to the severe economic downturn in Syria in the past year. Some 13.4 million people were estimated to require humanitarian and protection assistance in 2021 – up from 11 million last year – the same high level of need as in 2016 and 2017. Segments of the population who were previously less affected had been pushed into the ranks of people requiring humanitarian aid, and for those who had already needed aid, the situation had worsened. Driving up the number was a sharp 78 per cent currency depreciation, record price increases and cuts in subsidized goods, leading to growing food insecurity and increasingly unaffordable basic services. Some two million Syrians lived in extreme poverty, and the estimated cost of providing assistance in Syria in 2021 would be USD 4.2 billion.
The 2021 Needs and Response Summary was available here.
Replying to a question on Yemen, Mr. Laerke said that the co-hosts of the pledging conference should be issuing a press release on 26 February, under embargo until 1 March, and would hold a press briefing at the end of the conference, around 7 p.m. Journalists were encouraged to send in their questions in English, French or Arabic until two hours before the closing of the conference.
Access to oxygen for treatment of COVID-19
Hervé Verhoosel, for Unitaid, said that affordable, sustainable access to oxygen had been a growing challenge in low- and middle-income countries. COVID-19 had put huge pressure on health systems, with hospitals running out of oxygen, resulting in preventable deaths. It was estimated that more than half a million people in those countries, mostly in Africa but also some in Asia and Latin America, currently needed 1.1 million cylinders of oxygen per day.
It was a global emergency that required a truly global response from international organizations and donors alike. Therefore, Unitaid and Wellcome, on behalf of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) and in partnership with a consortium of partners led by the World Health Organization (WHO), were announcing the launch of a COVID-19 Oxygen Emergency Task Force. There was an immediate funding need of $90 million to address key challenges in oxygen access in up to 20 countries, including Malawi, Nigeria and Afghanistan. The first set of countries has been identified through assessments coordinated by the WHO Health Emergencies Programme aimed at matching in-country need with potential financing, including from the World Bank and the Global Fund. The first $20 million would be put forward by Unitaid and Wellcome. While the urgent, short-term requirements of additional countries would be measured in the coming weeks, the overall funding for the next 12 months was estimated to be US$ 1.6 billion.
In response to journalists, Mr. Verhoosel said that, in general, most oxygen was imported and that Peru had reported oxygen being sold on the black market for upwards of three times the normal price. Some of the procurement problems related to the lack of established private sector contracting mechanisms, weak distribution and transport facilities, maintenance and training. Unitaid was working with the Medicines for Patents Initiative on issues such as encouraging pharmaceutical companies to share their technology.
Ethiopian asylum seekers in Blue Nile state
Babar Baloch, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that several thousand people fleeing escalating violence in the Benishangul Gumuz region of Ethiopia – not directly related to conflict in the country’s northern Tigray region – had sought safety in Blue Nile State, Sudan, over the last month. Intercommunal tensions had been high in the Metekel zone since 2019, and the Government of Ethiopia had declared a state of emergency in the area on 21 January 2021. UNHCR was working closely with the Sudanese authorities and partners to assess the situation and respond to the humanitarian needs of the newly arrived, many of whom had arrived in hard-to-reach locations along the border. Nearly 3,000 of the estimated 7,000 displaced persons had been registered. Most of the asylum seekers were living among the Sudanese host community. UNHCR and partners would continue to ramp up the response in support of the Government’s efforts.
The full briefing note is available here.
In response to journalists, Mr. Baloch said that the intercommunal conflict was linked to resources and involved two groups, one of which were the Gumuz - he would inform about the other later. With regard to the Tigray region of Ethiopia, he said that the situation has eased up a bit but concerns remain for Eritrean refugees who were dispersed from the two northern refugee camps. UNHCR calls for access to displaced persons and refugees across the region remained.
Tomson Phiri, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that the State of School Feeding Worldwide report for 2020 would be launched on 24 February. The report came at a critical juncture, as it indicated how COVID-19 had derailed some of the historic advances that had been made in children’s school meals. The report would be under embargo until 10 a.m. on 24 February.
Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service, said that the Security Council would be holding a high-level open debate today on “Maintenance of international peace and security: Climate and security”. The discussion would focus on addressing the threats to peace and security posed by climate change. The Secretary-General would address the meeting, to be chaired by the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and other speakers would include Sudanese youth climate activist Nisreen El Sayeem. The open debate could be followed on WebTV from 8:30 EST.
Ms. Vellucci announced that the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) would hold a virtual press conference that afternoon at 3 p.m. to present the Technology and Innovation Report 2021, entitled “Catching technological waves: Innovation with equity”, which would be embargoed until 25 February, at 7 a.m. The speakers would be Isabelle Durant, Acting Secretary General of UNCTAD, and Shamika Sirimanne, Director, Division on Technology and Logistics.
Ms. Vellucci also announced that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) would hold a virtual press conference on 1 March at 11 a.m. on International Trademark & Design Systems in 2020 (under embargo until 10 a.m. on 2 March). The speakers would be Daren Tang, WIPO Director General, and Carsten Fink, Chief Economist.
Ms. Vellucci said that the high-level segment of the Conference on Disarmament would continue all day today under the presidency of Ambassador Gonçalo de Barros Carvalho e Mello Mourão of Brazil.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women would be meeting in public today and tomorrow, from 12.30 p.m. to 2.30 p.m., to pursue its review of the report of Denmark.
The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights would be meeting in public today, tomorrow and Thursday, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., to review the report of Latvia.
Lastly, Ms. Vellucci said that from 24 February to 17 March, an exhibition called “Palais des Nations: un temps de réflection” would be open to the public in 160 outdoor locations around the city of Geneva. Organized by the Centre de la Photographie Genève and UNOG’s Change Perception Project, the exhibition consisted of a series of photographs of the Palais des Nations taken by UNOG Director-General Tatiana Valovaya during the first lockdown in March and April 2020. The photographs could also be seen on the Centre’s website.
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