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Bi-Weekly Briefing

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

Shooting of protesters in Cali, Colombia

Marta Hurtado, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was deeply alarmed at developments in the city of Cali overnight, where police had opened fire on demonstrators protesting against tax reforms, reportedly killing and injuring a number of people. Its office in Colombia was verifying the exact number of casualties. The protests, most of which were peaceful, had begun on 28 April, and a massive demonstration had been called for 5 May. OHCHR called for calm and reminded the State authorities of their responsibility to protect human rights and facilitate the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. It also stressed that law enforcement officers should abide by the principles of legality, precaution, necessity, and proportionality when policing demonstrations.

The full briefing note is available here.

In response to questions from journalists, Ms. Hurtado said the Office had received as yet unverified reports and witness accounts, including from staff in the field, of the police using excessive force and live ammunition and beating and dragging protesters, including injured ones. Prior to the latest incident, 14 people had reportedly been killed, mostly young men, and over a dozen people had suffered eye injuries as a result of the use of less lethal weapons. While the violence was concentrated in Cali, deaths had also been reported in several other localities, such as Yumbo, Tolima, Pereira and Dinamarca.

Dismissal of magistrates and the Attorney General of El Salvador

Marta Hurtado, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, had warned of the dangers of the decision by El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly to dismiss the magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice, for their ruling against the Ministry of Health’s decisions in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Attorney General for his ties to an opposition party. The separation of powers was the cornerstone of any democracy, and the weakening of that important system of checks and balances led to the erosion of the pillars of the rule of law and thus of a country's democratic system. The dismissals deepened an alarming trend towards the concentration of power, and the High Commissioner reminded all State authorities of the need to comply with their obligations under international law.

The full press release is available here.

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), recalled that the Secretary-General had also noted his concern about the situation in El Salvador, calling for constitutional provisions, the rule of law and the division of power to be respected with a view to safeguarding the progress made since the signing of the peace agreement.

Search and rescue operations in Italy

Carlotta Sami, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), joining from the port of Trapani in Sicily, said that more than 450 people, including 190 minors, many of whom were unaccompanied, were disembarking after six rescue operations by the NGO vessel Sea-Watch, and were among 1,500 people to have disembarked in Italy since 1 May. Most of the arrivals, who had departed from Libya on flimsy boats, originated from Mali, the Sahel, Eritrea, and North Africa and were fleeing war and indiscriminate attacks. The number arriving was just the tip of the iceberg, as millions of people were displaced within the region. So far in 2021, there had been a 170 per cent increase in arrivals to Italy. UNHCR commended Italy for keeping its ports open during the pandemic and called for urgent solidarity from other European Union members. At least 500 people were known to have lost their lives attempting the crossing – a 200 per cent increase that underscored the need to re-establish a coordinated search and rescue system in the central Mediterranean. UNHCR was on the ground to support the disembarkation process, as well as the reception system for asylum seekers. Humanitarian corridors, evacuation, resettlement and family reunification must be strengthened to provide alternatives for those who embarked on that desperate journey.

Replying to journalists, Ms. Sami said that more than 400 minors had arrived in Italy over the past few days alone. The persons interviewed by UNHCR were fleeing violence in their place of origin, not so much the coronavirus disease pandemic.

Positive steps in education in South Sudan

Mads Oyen, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Chief of field operations in South Sudan, said that schools had reopened on 3 May after more than 14 months of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in what was a major step towards normalcy for which UNICEF congratulated the Government. In countries like South Sudan, going back to school was about more than learning. Schools provided safety and, often, food. UNICEF had been supporting the reopening through the provision of textbooks, drinking water, soap and face masks. It would also be helping to identify and encourage back the children, disproportionately girls, who had not returned to school.

However, the overall humanitarian situation in the country remained of grave concern. Two thirds of children needed humanitarian assistance, a record since 2013, and 1.4 million were expected to suffer from acute malnutrition. Furthermore, admissions to health-care facilities were rising on account of malaria. In addition, children were vulnerable to violence, exploitation, abuse, recruitment by armed groups, psychosocial distress and family separation.

UNICEF’s interventions were critical – thanks to its work, 95 per cent of children with acute severe malnutrition recovered – but the USD 198 million humanitarian appeal was only one-third funded. Finally, UNICEF was very concerned about the rise in violence against humanitarian workers, which had a direct impact on service delivery.

In response to questions, Mr. Oyen said it was not yet clear how many children had not returned when schools reopened, but UNICEF would be working with local teachers and its community volunteer network to follow-up with children. Unlike some other countries, there was no pattern of violence against schools or school children in South Sudan. The lack of funding would have a direct impact on child survival. Without adequate nutrition, children became less physically resilient to the major killers, namely malaria and water-borne diseases. The under-5 mortality rate in South Sudan was already among the highest in the world.

World Hand Hygiene Day

Dr. Benedetta Allegranzi, Technical Lead, Infection Prevention and Control, World Health Organization (WHO), said that WHO would be marking World Hand Hygiene Day on 5 May through its annual campaign “Save Lives: Clean Your Hands”. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, good hand hygiene practices were tremendously important to prevent the risk of transmission. Effective hand hygiene also prevented infections acquired in health-care settings, as well as the spread of antimicrobial resistance. The role of policymakers and facility managers was critical in making the right decisions and investments to create a well-equipped environment and support culture change. Recent WHO data – to be released on 5 May – revealed that those decisions and investments were particularly necessary in low- and middle-income countries, none of which met minimum international standards on hand hygiene and infection prevention and control. Hand hygiene compliance rarely exceeded 60-70 per cent in high-income countries either. To help bridge those gaps, the 2021 campaign focused on achieving effective hand hygiene at the point of care. There were highly effective and cost-saving strategies that could lead to significant improvement in compliance with hand hygiene best practices and to lower infection and antimicrobial resistance spread during health-care delivery.

Replying to journalists, Dr. Allegranzi said that tremendous efforts, including on the part of Governments, had been made in various sectors across the globe since 2020, leading to improvements in access to water and hand hygiene infrastructure and to behavioural change in the community.

WHO announcements

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said the Technical Advisory Group for Emergency Use Listing (TAG-EUL) was still deliberating on the Sinopharm vaccine. As soon as a decision was taken in that regard, the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) on immunization would hold a briefing, which was tentatively scheduled for noon on 6 May. The TAG-EUL deliberations on the Sinovac vaccine were set to begin on 5 May.

In response to journalists, Mr. Lindmeier said that, as the deliberations were ongoing, new requests for clarification tended to arise, thereby making it difficult to know how long deliberations would last. Unlike the process for the Moderna vaccine, it had been deemed more logical to have SAGE brief on the proper use of the vaccine after it had been found usable. The issue of vaccination cards and their use as a condition for travel and other activities was tricky, as they presented a risk of forgery and stigmatization, among others. He directed journalists to recent statements by the WHO Director-General in that regard.

Mr. Lindmeier announced that the joint report on the global shortage of midwives was under embargo until 12.01 a.m. on 5 May and that the report on global sodium benchmarks was under embargo until 12.30 p.m. on 5 May.


Tomson Phiri, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that WFP, together with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), would be holding a virtual press conference on 6 May, at 10 a.m., to launch the Global Report on Food Crises 2021. Speakers would be: Dominique Burgeon, Director, FAO Liaison Office in Geneva and Director in charge of FAO Office of Emergencies and Resilience; Annalisa Conte, Director of the World Food Programme (WFP) Geneva office; Arif Husain, Chief Economist and Director of Research, Assessment and Monitoring, United Nations World Food Programme (WFP); and Luca Russo, Senior Food Crises Analyst and Strategic Advisor on Resilience, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), on behalf of the Human Rights Council, said that the thirty-eighth session of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review had begun on 3 May with the reviews of Namibia and the Niger. Today, the Working Group would be reviewing the human rights records of Mozambique and Estonia.

He also said the Committee on Enforced Disappearances would close its twentieth session on Friday, 7 May, at 4 p.m.

Lastly, he said that the second part of the 2021 session of the Conference on Disarmament would officially begin on Monday, 10 May. The Conference planned to hold public plenary meetings on 11 May and 12 May for a thematic debate on the cessation of the nuclear arms race and nuclear disarmament.

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