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Bi-Weekly Briefing


14 May 2021

Michele Zaccheo, Chief of the TV and Radio Section of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the hybrid briefing, attended by the spokespersons and representatives of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Road Safety Fund, the World Health Organization, and the Economic Commission for Europe.

Humanitarian Situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and in Israel

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said the Office was alarmed by the continued escalation of violence in the occupied Palestinian territory and in Israel, with the casualty count climbing on both sides of the conflict and civilians suffering.

In the Gaza Strip, home to 2 million Palestinians, hostilities were having an impact on access to water, sanitation, health care and the COVID-19 response. Over 200 housing units had been destroyed or severely damaged; 31 education facilities had been impacted. Hundreds of people, many from refugee camps in Gaza, were seeking refuge in schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA); the challenge was the pandemic and the risk of people crowding and spreading the virus.

The North Gaza Seawater Desalination Plant was still not operational, affecting an estimated 250,000 people’s access to clean drinking water. Another 230,000 people from Gaza City and Khan Younis had limited access to piped water due to power cuts and the damages to the networks. Given the limited fuel reserves, Gaza’s sole power plant ran on only two of its four turbines, resulting in rolling daily power cuts.

Humanitarians provided assistance on the ground, but the current insecurity significantly restricted the delivery of essential services, including the COVID-19 response. OCHA had called for an immediate de-escalation of violence across the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel; and had reminded the parties to the conflict of their obligation to protect civilians and allow access for humanitarian groups.

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Laerke said OCHA was in contact with all relevant actors and authorities on the ground. Negotiations were being held at this time to gain access to the Gaza strip and to supply fuel. Mr. Laerke stressed that OCHA’s concern was for all civilians, regardless of where they were and of their ethnicity. Mr. Laerke added that his presentation had focused on Gaza because the [main aid effort] was carried out there. Regarding casualty counts, Mr. Laerke indicated that OCHA referred only to official sources available, these being the authorities of the occupied Palestinian territory and of Israel. Children below the age of 18 made up approximately half of the population of Gaza, he noted.

Aid Partners Calling for Strong Support for Rohingya Refugees

Andrej Mahecic, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said that ahead of next Tuesday’s (18 May) donor conference and launch of the 2021 Joint Response Plan (JRP) for the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis, the UN Refugee Agency was calling for renewed international commitment, support, and solidarity for Rohingya refugees.

The US$943 million JRP was intended to meet the needs of more than 880,000 Rohingya refugees and 472,000 Bangladeshis in the surrounding host communities in Cox’s Bazar District. With the refugee crisis in its fourth year, Bangladesh needed robust international support to ensure the safety and wellbeing of stateless Rohingya refugees. Both Rohingya refugees and Bangladesh, having generously hosted them for decades, must see the world standing with them.

The Government of Bangladesh, with the support of the humanitarian community, had effectively managed the COVID-19 response, though the trajectory of the virus remained unpredictable. It was critical to ensure the continued delivery of all humanitarian assistance and protection services. The needs of Rohingya refugees went beyond subsistence and physical safety: refugees, like any other people, could not be allowed to wait for years without access to education and options for a decent life.

Last year, the United Nations had appealed for more than US$1 billion to meet the needs of the Rohingya refugees and host communities in Cox’s Bazar District. At the end of 2020, this appeal was just 59.4% funded. The international community must adapt to new and emerging needs. The search for durable solutions had to remain focused on the voluntary and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees to their homes in Myanmar. However, the ongoing crisis and political instability in Myanmar had added new layers of complexity to this challenge.

Mr. Mahecic said the launch of the 2021 Joint Response Plan was scheduled on Tuesday, 18 May (10 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. Geneva time). A virtual press conference would follow at 12.30 p.m., with the following speakers: Shahriar Alam, Bangladesh State Minister for Foreign Affairs; Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; and António Vitorino, Director General of the International Organization for Migration.

Answering questions from journalists, Mr. Mahecic said that HCR was present in Myanmar, where it was assessing the evolving situation along with its sister agencies. As a humanitarian agency, HCR would carry out its mandate in impartiality and independence. The Office was shocked by the indiscriminate violence against civilians in Myanmar, in addition to the renewed fighting between the Myanmar military and some of the ethnic armed groups in border areas.

The situation remained very fluid in Myanmar, there being deeply rooted humanitarian challenges in the country. HCR estimated that about 830,000 people fell within the realm of its mandate; these included an estimated 600,000 stateless Rohingya refugees in Rakhine State, facing serious limitations in their access to healthcare, livelihoods, and citizenship. HCR continued to communicate with communities to understand their situation and concerns.

UN Action on Road Safety

Nneka Henry, Head of the United Nations Road Safety Fund (UNRSF) at the Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), explained that the Fund had been established in 2018 to substantially reduce death and injuries from road crashes in low- and middle-income countries.

The 6th United Nations Global Road Safety Week would be launched next week, on 17 May (2 p.m. Geneva time – registration). The Week would be focused on the biggest contributor to road crashes, which each year claimed the lives of 1.35 million people, as well as 50 million injuries. The Week would encourage everyone to “slow down on the roads”. An associated campaign – “Streets for Life” – would be calling for 30 km/h (or 20 mph) speed limits in “mixed areas”, where cars, cyclists and pedestrians were close. Many activities would take place next week, at all levels, including a “slow-down challenge”; a podcast with Mr. Jean Todt, the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for Road Safety (19 May); and a video message from world leaders.

The Week would also serve to officially launch the second Decade of Action for Road Safety 2021-2030.

Nhan Tran, Head of Security and Mobility at the World Health Organization, noted that most persons hit by a car travelling at 30 km/h (20 mph) would survive; beyond that speed limit, the risk of death was much higher. Slower speed – in particular the 30 km/h limit promoted by the campaign – was also essential to “livable cities”; it brought about improvements in air quality; and allowed for more cycling and walking, and thereby more physical activity. Slower speed in cities was also important for equity as, in many countries, “the choice to be a pedestrian or a cyclist is actually not a personal choice, as it is in Europe or North America: it is often the result of the inability to afford a car”, Mr. Tran stressed.

Answering journalist’s questions, Ms. Henry and Mr. Tran said there were issues in tracking road-related fatalities and injuries in developing countries. Road traffic crashes were the first cause of death among young people aged 5 to 29. The African region had the highest rate road traffic fatalities in the world, with a rate of about 26 per 100,000 population, against 10 per 100,000 in the Europe region.

Regarding future trends, “building back greener and safer” after the COVID-19 pandemic could be an opportunity to have less people commuting and driving. However, the pandemic had, in some case, led to an increase in severity of car crashes, with empty roads encouraging some drivers to go even faster.

Promoting Cycling Across the Pan-European Region

Jean-Isaias Rodriguez, for the Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), said Austria would be hosting the fifth High-level Meeting on Transport, Health and Environment in Vienna next week (17-18 May), with a strong focus on promoting cycling across the pan-European region. 

The [participants] would be called to endorse a ministerial declaration to spur the transformation towards clean, safe, healthy and inclusive transport and mobility, as well as the first ever pan-European Master Plan for Cycling Promotion.

Many countries had witnessed important increases in bicycle usage during the pandemic, and had opened pop-up cycle lanes, opening up possibilities for lasting policy shifts. The Master Plan could unlock major benefits – doubling the modal share of cycling in the European Union alone would create an additional 400,000 jobs and additional €3.5 billion turnover in retail bicycle sales and would reduce GHG emissions by 8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), with indirect economic benefits of €1.1 billion per year in the region.

The five-yearly ministerial meeting in Vienna would also discuss policy changes in the transport and mobility systems to address challenges such as ambient air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, physical inactivity and noncommunicable diseases, as well as social inequity in accessing transport and mobility.

The closing of the meeting on Tuesday, 18 May, would be followed by a press conference (1:30 p.m.) with the Austrian Ministers of Climate Protection & Health; UNECE Executive Secretary Olga Algayerova; and WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr Hans Kluge. Invitations would be sent directly to journalists after the briefing.

Geneva Announcements

Michele Zaccheo, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, announced that the 87th session of the Committee on the Rights of the Child would start next Monday, 17 May, with an opening meeting at 12:30 p.m. The Committee would examine the report of Luxemburg over the course of three public meetings, Wednesday, 19 May, through Friday, 21 May (2 to 4 p.m. each day).

Also next week, the Conference on Disarmament would hold a debate on the “Prevention of Nuclear War, including all related matters”. The first part of the debate would take place Tuesday, 18 May (10 a.m. – noon); the second part on Thursday, 20 May (10 a.m. – noon)


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