REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE UNITED NATIONS INFORMATION SERVICE
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, United Nations Refugee Agency, the World Food Programme, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Health Organization, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Human Rights Council, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations Mine Action Service and the International Labour Organization.
Forced landing of a Ryanair flight and arrest of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich
Rupert Colville, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was shocked by the unlawful arrest and arbitrary detention of the Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich after the Ryanair plane on which he was travelling was forcibly diverted to the Belarus capital Minsk, apparently under false pretences and with the express purpose of capturing Mr. Protasevich.
The manner, through threat of military force, in which Protasevich was abducted from the jurisdiction of another State and brought within that of Belarus was tantamount to an extraordinary rendition. Such abuse of State power against a journalist for exercising functions that are protected under international law is receiving, and deserves, the strongest condemnation.
Penalization of a journalist solely for being critical of the government can never be considered to be a necessary restriction of freedom of expression and is thus a violation of article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Equally, under human rights law, the mere act of organizing a peaceful assembly should never be criminalized under domestic laws, including counterterrorism laws, and the arrest or detention of someone as punishment for the legitimate exercise of their rights to freedom of opinion and expression and freedom of assembly, is considered arbitrary.
OHCHR feared for Mr. Protasevich’s safety and sought assurance that he was being treated humanely. His appearance on State television the previous evening was not reassuring, given the apparent bruising to his face and the likelihood that his appearance was not voluntary and that he had been forced to confess to serious crimes. Information obtained under coercion could not be used against Mr. Protasevich in any legal proceedings. Such forced confessions were prohibited under the Convention against Torture.
OHCHR called for the immediate release of both Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, both of whom should be allowed to continue to their intended destination in Lithuania.
The full briefing note is available here: OHCHR | Press briefing notes on Belarus
Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), noted that the Secretary-General of the United Nations had expressed his deep concern over the forced landing and subsequent detention of Mr. Protasevich, called for a full, transparent and independent investigation into the incident, and urged all relevant actors to cooperate with such an inquiry.
The Secretary-General “remained greatly concerned by the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus in the aftermath of last August’s presidential elections. He urged the Belarusian authorities to fully respect all its international human rights obligations, including in relation to the freedoms of expression, assembly and association”.
In response to journalists, Mr. Colville said that OHCHR would be contacting the Belarusian Government over the incident. He took the view that the Government was responsible for what was clearly an illegal act that amounted to the abduction of an individual from the jurisdiction of another State. OHCHR had seen no evidence of Russian involvement in the incident. It believed strongly that journalists should not be considered enemies of the people and should be entitled to do their jobs and to exercise freedom of expression under international law.
Furthermore, OHCHR had received figures from human rights organizations that, as of 24 May, some 405 individuals, including journalists and civil society activists, were currently imprisoned in Belarus on political grounds. It was also concerned about reports that, on 18 May, the authorities had closed the country’s largest online media outlet, Tut.by, which had been reporting on the protest movement, and had arrested at least 13 staff, supposedly in connection with tax evasion.
Persons displaced by the volcanic eruption in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Boris Cheshirkov, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that, following the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on 22 May, the United Nations Refugee Agency was assessing the needs of affected communities in the city of Goma. Thousands of people had fled their homes on foot as lava flowed towards Goma, burning down villages on the way. Many of them had been welcomed by host families in Goma and the surrounding area, while several thousand had fled across the border into Rwanda.
According to authorities, 32 people had died in incidents linked to the eruption, including seven people killed by lava and five asphyxiated by gases. Led by the Red Cross, a significant effort was under way to reunite several hundred children who had been separated from their families as they fled.
Although the lava flow had stopped, there had been repeated earthquakes since the eruption, and the lava lake in the volcano’s crater appears to have refilled, prompting fears of new fissures opening or another eruption.
Most people who fled on Saturday have returned home, including the majority of those who had fled to Rwanda. UNHCR stood ready to continue supporting the Rwandan authorities in addressing the emergency needs of people who have not yet returned. It was also preparing to assist those in need of shelter and relief items in the Goma area, in coordination with other UN agencies and non-governmental organizations and in support of the Government’s emergency response. Funding was urgently needed to help assist those affected. UNHCR had received just 17 per cent of the USD 204.8 million it needed for its operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The full briefing note is available here: UNHCR rushing to help displaced after volcano eruption in DR Congo
Rheal LeBlanc, for UNIS, said the Secretary-General of the United Nations had expressed his sadness at the loss of life and damage caused by the eruption. He had expressed his deepest sympathies with the families of those who have been affected and with the Government and people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He had also expressed concern that the disaster came at a time of increased humanitarian needs in the region, fueled by insecurity and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and its health and socio-economic impact. Furthermore, the Secretary-General had noted that “the United Nations and the broader humanitarian community were already working to support the Government’s efforts to assist those affected by the eruption, through the provision of emergency humanitarian aid”.
James Elder, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said UNICEF had set up two transit centres for separated children and was working to reunite at least 150 such children with their families. It was also setting up water points to overcome the shortage caused by the interruption in the water supply, and thus prevent cholera and other diseases. Responding to journalists, he said that UNICEF child protection staff were providing psychological support, not only for children who had been separated from their families, but for all those who had experienced the traumatic aftermath of the eruption.
Situation in Gaza and the West Bank
Responding to journalists, Rupert Colville, for OHCHR, said that since the ceasefire, OHCHR had verified reports that 247 Palestinians, including 66 children and 38 women, had been killed in Gaza since 10 May. It believed that 129 of those victims had been civilians. Regrettably, OHCHR international staff had not been given visas to access the territory, but they continued to monitor the situation closely. He drew attention to the press release welcoming the ceasefire that had been issued by United Nations experts on 21 May, available here.
James Elder said that the UNICEF response in Gaza was centred on repairing water supply systems, providing education and psychological support for children and families, and ensuring the supply of essential medicines, especially for maternal, neonatal and child health services.
Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), responding to journalists, said that the World Health Organization would discuss the situation in Gaza and the West Bank at a meeting on 26 May.
Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that, according to the Office’s figures, there had been 27 fatalities in the West Bank, including 22 men, 1 woman and 4 children. A total of 6,794 people, including 88 children, had sustained injuries.
Scale-up of food assistance in Yemen
Tomson Phiri, for the World Food Programme (WFP), announced that the World Food Programme was expanding food assistance in Yemen to prevent the most vulnerable from slipping into famine conditions. WFP supported 12.9 million people with emergency food assistance, prioritizing areas with the highest rates of food insecurity, and provided rapid support for families displaced by conflict.
In April 2020, in a challenging operating environment and facing reduced funding, WFP had been forced to stop providing monthly assistance and instead provide it every two months in the northern areas of Yemen. However, since February, WFP had resumed monthly food assistance to 350,000 people in districts facing famine-like conditions and had gradually increased assistance in April and May to nearly 6 million people in the nine governorates with the highest rates of emergency food insecurity. In June, monthly distributions of the full ration would resume in those areas.
In 2021, donors had stepped up by providing almost USD 947 million for the famine prevention effort in Yemen. While that was very good news, humanitarian needs remained high. Some 50,000 people in Yemen faced famine-like conditions, with 5 million just a step away from famine – they would fall into famine if conditions worsened. A further 11 million people faced crisis levels of food insecurity. Around half of all children under five in Yemen, 2.3 million children, were projected to face acute malnutrition in 2021.
The operation faced funding gaps and the ability of WFP to sustain the response to the end of the year remained uncertain. WFP needed USD 1.9bn in 2021 to avert famine in Yemen.
COVID-19, children and new threats to routine vaccination
George Laryea-Adjei, the Regional Director for South Asia of United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that unprecedented scenes were unfolding in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Asia. Family members of patients were carrying oxygen cylinders into hospitals, risking their own lives in hopes of saving a loved one. Exhausted health workers were working 16-hour days. There was a real possibility of health systems collapsing.
South Asia, home to almost 2 billion people, and more than a quarter of the world’s children, now accounted for half of known new infections. Over three new infections were being recorded every second. Mortality had risen sharply, with one person dying of COVID-19 every 17 seconds. The scale and speed of the surge was outstripping countries’ abilities to provide life-saving treatment.
Last week India had recorded 4,529 deaths in a single day – the highest daily toll ever recorded by a country. Neighbouring Nepal had experienced case positivity rates as high as 47 per cent. Sri Lanka was recording new highs in cases and deaths on a daily basis, and was running short of hospital beds. Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan could all face similar devastating surges.
The international community needed to act without delay to save lives and to do everything in its power to keep critical health care services running, especially for women and children. During the first wave of the pandemic, an estimated 228,000 children and 11,000 mothers across South Asia had died because of disruptions to essential health services; the prospect of a new spike in child and maternal deaths was all too real. Moreover, the impact of the deadly surge on children extended far beyond their physical health. Children had become eyewitnesses to the suffering of their loved ones and were becoming orphans as they lost parents and caregivers.
Since the start of the surge, UNICEF had been on the ground working around the clock. Yet much more support was needed. UNICEF needed $164 million for the urgent delivery of oxygen and testing supplies, medical equipment, personal protective equipment and infection prevention and control material. Not only would those supplies save lives today, they would help build stronger health systems that were better prepared to face future waves of the pandemic.
The international community could not ignore the role that vaccine inequity has played in fuelling the virus’ rampage in South Asia. Although 211 million doses had been administered in the region, only 2.6 per cent of the population had been fully vaccinated. Most of the high-risk population remained unvaccinated. Consequently, every decision of the international community now had the potential to alter the course of the surge and to either safeguard or endanger millions of lives. In South Asia, the virus was far from being exhausted. The time to ensure the universal accessibility of vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics was now. The longer the virus could spread unchecked, the higher the risk of more deadly or contagious variants emerging. The deadly surge in South Asia showed precisely what might happen if the international community did not take prompt action.
Update on the World Health Assembly
Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the Daily Journal of the seventy-fourth World Health Assembly had been posted online, in six languages, here.
Today’s sessions would be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. The issues to be discussed mostly related to health emergencies: the WHO secretariat would make presentations about the pandemic and the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator. There would be presentations from the Chairs of the three Committees: the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response, the Review Committee on the Functioning of the International Health Regulations and the Independent Oversight Advisory Committee.
During the Assembly, WHO would consider a draft resolution entitled “Strengthening WHO preparedness for and response to health emergencies” and a draft decision entitled “Special session of the World Health Assembly to consider developing a WHO convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic preparedness and response”.
Furthermore, four strategic briefings would take place during the Assembly and would be live-streamed. The first of those briefings, entitled “The time to act is now: Preparing for the next pandemic today” would be held on 25 May at 1.10 p.m. It would take the format of a round-table discussion, with brief interventions from the WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, and the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, among other speakers. Concluding remarks would be provided by Dr. Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO Emergency Programme.
Rhéal LeBlanc, for UNIS, noted that the Secretary-General of the United Nations, in his message to the World Health Assembly, had observed that unless action was taken, the world would face “a situation in which rich countries vaccinate the majority of their people and open their economies, while the virus continues to cause deep suffering by circling and mutating in the poorest countries. Further spikes and surges could claim hundreds of thousands of lives, and slow the global economic recovery. COVID-19 cannot be beaten one country at a time.”
The full message is available here.
Replying to questions from journalists, Ms. Chaib said that the Organization was still working on the review of Sinovac vaccine. The review process was a lengthy one, which required large amounts of data from the regulator and the manufacturer. Once all the data had been compiled, it would review the data and consider whether the vaccine met the safety criteria and could be approved. There had been no delay in that process, but more time was needed to review all the data. WHO published a list of all vaccines that were under review and the progress that was being made in that regard.
Rolando Gomez, for the Human Rights Council, said the special session of the Council to address the grave human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory would take place on Thursday, 27 May at 10 a.m. The meeting would be webcast live and would take place in a hybrid format at the Palais des Nations. Due to COVID-19 measures, most interventions would be delivered online.
Matthew Camilleri, for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), said that FAO was organizing the first Review of the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA), which would take place from 31 May to 4 June. Laying down a minimum set of standard measures for States to apply when foreign vessels sought to enter into their ports and while they were in their ports, the Agreement was the first binding instrument that targeted illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing and the sole legal tool to combat it. The participants in the Review would examine the Parties’ progress in fulfilling their obligations under the Agreement.
The Port State Measures Agreement had been adopted in 2009 and entered into force in 2016. Thanks to FAO support for countries’ implementation of its provisions, the majority of the 69 Parties had reviewed their legislation. Almost a third of Parties had denied entry or use of their ports to vessels suspected of having engaged in illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. Parties had conducted inspections on foreign vessels seeking to enter their ports. FAO already supported over 40 countries in implementing the Agreement and was ready to support more. The results achieved over the past five years clearly showed that the Agreement was an effective and powerful means of combating illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. The Review meeting would be live-streamed and accessible to the public.
Bruno Donat, for the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS), said the International Meeting of National Mine Action Directors and United Nations Advisers would be held from 25 to 27 May. The Meeting would begin at 2 p.m. on 25 May and would be broadcast online. Speakers would include the United Nations Global Advocate for the Elimination of Mines and Explosive Hazards, Mr. Daniel Craig, and the Acting Director of UNMAS, Ms. Ilene Cohn.
Sophy Fisher, for the International Labour Organization (ILO), said the launch of the report World Employment and Social Outlook – Trends 2021 had been delayed and would now take place on 2 June 2021. The details of the launch had been circulated in a media advisory.
Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Mr. Geir O. Pedersen, would brief the Security Council tomorrow, Wednesday, 26 May, at 10 a.m. in New York and 4 p.m. in Geneva. The briefing would be broadcast live on UNTV and the text of the briefing would be distributed when Mr. Pedersen concluded.
Mr. LeBlanc also said the Conference on Disarmament was today holding a public plenary meeting – the first under the presidency of Cameroon – which had commenced at 10 a.m. Geneva time.
Mr. LeBlanc further said that tomorrow, 26 May, at 12 noon, the Committee on the Rights of the Child would begin its review of the report of Tunisia, which would continue on 27 and 28 May from 12 noon to 2 p.m.
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