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, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), recalled that, in his remarks to the Security Council on 16 August, the Secretary-General had appealed to Council members and the international community as a whole to use all the tools at their disposal to suppress the global terrorist threat in Afghanistan and to guarantee that basic human rights were respected. He had called on the Taliban and all parties to respect international humanitarian law and universal rights and freedoms, especially amid reports of mounting human rights violations against women and girls. The United Nations would maintain its offices in areas that had come under Taliban control. The following days would be pivotal, and the international community could not and must not abandon the people of Afghanistan.
Rupert Colville, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the desperate scenes at Kabul airport on 16 August underlined the gravity of the situation after the Taliban had seized all the major population centres in Afghanistan. Fortunately, the capital and the other last major cities to be captured had not been subjected to prolonged fighting, bloodshed or destruction. However, the fear instilled in a swathe of the population was profound. Taliban spokespersons had issued a number of statements in recent days, including about amnesty for those who had worked for the previous Government and about education and employment for women and girls, which had been greeted with some scepticism.
As the Secretary-General had said in his statement to the Security Council on 16 August, all parties, including the Taliban, had an obligation to protect civilians, uphold human rights and respect international humanitarian and human rights law. Reports of human rights abuses continued but were difficult to verify due to disruptions to information flows. OHCHR was particularly concerned about the safety of the thousands of Afghans who had been working to promote human rights across the country and called on the international community to extend all possible support to those who might be at imminent risk.
The full briefing note is available here.
Shabia Mantoo, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that, owing to the rapid deterioration of the security and human rights situation in large parts of Afghanistan and to the unfolding humanitarian emergency, UNHCR had released a non-return advisory for Afghanistan on 16 August, calling for a ban on forced returns of Afghan nationals, including asylum seekers whose claims had been rejected. UNHCR remained concerned about the risk of human rights violations against civilians, including women and girls and those perceived to have been or to be associated with the Government, international organizations or international military forces.
Since the beginning of 2021, more than 550,000 Afghans had been internally displaced because of conflict and insecurity. While civilians had fled to neighbouring countries in fewer numbers so far, the situation remained fluid and uncertain, and UNHCR continued to call for respect for the principle of non-refoulement at all times. States had a legal and moral responsibility to allow those fleeing Afghanistan to seek safety and to not forcibly return refugees, and UNHCR welcomed the recent steps by several States to temporarily halt deportations of failed asylum-seekers. The advisory against forced returns to Afghanistan would remain in effect until security, the rule of law and human rights conditions improved enough to allow for safe and dignified returns.
Tarik Jašarević, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the ongoing conflict was exacting a heavy toll on the country’s already fragile health system, which had been facing shortages of essential medical supplies and equipment amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Needs assessments and service delivery by mobile health teams had been on hold for the past 24 hours due to insecurity and the unpredictable situation in Kabul, and disruption at the airport was also delaying urgently needed essential health supplies. Crowding at health facilities and camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) would limit implementation of infection prevention protocols, increasing the risk of COVID-19 transmission and outbreaks of other diseases. The vaccination programmes for COVID-19 and other diseases had been significantly impaired by the active fighting. Afghanistan remained one of two polio endemic countries in the world; therefore, any delays and disruptions to polio campaigns would directly jeopardize the health of Afghan children.
Mustapha Ben Messaoud, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Chief of field operations and emergency, said that over the past two weeks, he had been to Kandahar, Herat and Kabul, where he had seen the direct impact of the fighting on children as young as 10 months old, ranging from injuries to severe malnutrition. While the situation in Kabul was improving – notwithstanding the current halt of activities at an IDP camp – the rising conflict was taking a greater toll on the country's women and children. Since the start of the year, more than 550 children had been killed and 1,400 injured, the highest number since United Nations records had begun. Half of the population, including nearly 10 million children, needed humanitarian assistance. If immediate action was not taken, UNICEF predicted that one out of two children under 5 would be severely malnourished. Even in the face of the escalating crisis, UNICEF's work continued across the country. The Director of Emergencies and Regional Director had arrived in the country two days ago to support the call for immediate unhindered access to hard-to-reach areas.
Replying to journalists, Mr. Ben Messaoud said that 11 of UNICEF’s 13 field offices in Afghanistan, which were staffed by national and international personnel, were functioning. UNICEF had been established in Afghanistan for 65 years, and the field offices had not reported any recent problems with the Taliban, which had been the ones to initiate contact. In fact, UNICEF had met bilaterally with one of the Taliban’s newly appointed local NGO commissioners that morning and was waiting to hear what the direct line to the authorities would be in Kabul. In Herat, the health director, in a meeting with humanitarian actors, had urged women health-care professionals to report to work. The messages received from the Taliban differed somewhat in different areas, especially about girls’ education and women’s employment, though neither had been banned anywhere thus far. There was no indication that the Taliban’s position on education had changed since they had signed an agreement with UNICEF in December 2020 on opening schools in remote areas for girls and boys alike. So, there was cause for cautious optimism. Though the figures still needed to be verified, some 100 children had been killed and over 300 injured in July alone.
Also responding to journalists, Mr. Colville, supported by Ms. Mantoo, said that the safety of civilians, particularly at-risk groups, was of paramount importance. Thus, Members States should use their influence to de-escalate the situation and ensure the protection of those groups, as well as protect refugees arriving at their borders and provide desperately needed aid for IDPs. Drawing attention to OHCHR’s briefing note of 10 August, he added that the scale of the upheaval, the speed at which the situation was changing and fear made it difficult to verify reports, but more tangible information would hopefully be available soon. It was not the first time that an organization on the Security Council’s list of terrorist organizations overran a country; in fact, the Taliban had done so in Afghanistan once before in the 1990s. The special procedures’ statement to Member States was intended to reinforce the message that the ultimate goal was to protect civilians and ensure that they could exercise their rights. The Human Rights Council had yet to schedule an emergency meeting on the situation in Afghanistan.
Replying to questions, Mr. LeBlanc said that the United Nations had more than 700 international staff assigned to Afghanistan, 300 of whom were currently in the country, and 3,000 national staff. While the Organization was concerned about the safety of its staff and reminded the parties of their responsibility to protect United Nations personnel, no evacuations were planned thus far, and it intended to continue providing assistance to the best of its ability.
Ms. Mantoo added that, although comprehensive data on the number of people leaving the country were unavailable at present, the number – though increasing – was small in comparison with the huge numbers of IDPs. Of the 550,000 displaced persons, 80 per cent were women and children. In the face of the worsening humanitarian situation, UNHCR’s role was primarily to assist people displaced in Afghanistan and in neighbouring countries, including by referring potentially at-risk individuals to human rights organizations; it was not involved in other countries’ arrangements to evacuate their nationals. UNHCR commended Pakistan and Iran for their decades-long generosity towards Afghan refugees and urged them to continue to keep their borders open. That being said, the international community should step up its support for host countries, especially in the event of a spike in arrivals. Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland had taken the very welcome step to temporarily suspend deportations to Afghanistan of asylum seekers whose applications had been unsuccessful, and UNHCR hoped that other countries would also heed its advisory.
In response to a journalist, Mr. Jašarević said that the impact of the situation on the spread of COVID-19 was obviously a concern, as it was difficult to put in place the necessary public health measures amid large population movements. It was encouraging that Afghanistan and Pakistan had each seen only one case of polio so far in 2021 and, given that the polio vaccination campaigns had been conducted during conflicts before, WHO was determined to pursue its efforts.
Ebola outbreak in Côte d’Ivoire
Tarik Jašarević, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that on Saturday, 14 August, Côte d’Ivoire had declared its first Ebola outbreak in more than 25 years. WHO was very concerned about the disease’s ability to spread because the first case was identified in Abidjan, which had a population of nearly 5 million. However, Côte d’Ivoire had begun to vaccinate high-risk populations, including health workers, just 48 hours after the outbreak had been declared, thanks to vaccines sent by Guinea. The swift response was a reminder of how crucial preparedness and effective surveillance were to minimize potential damage. WHO was working with the health authorities to coordinate cross-border responses and helping to ramp up contact tracing, treatment, infection prevention control measures and community outreach. As of 16 August, there had been two cases (one confirmed and one suspected) and nine contacts had been identified. The country currently had 5,000 doses of the two main vaccines, and seven WHO experts were on the ground to support response efforts.
Replying to questions, Mr. Jašarević said that there was so far no reason to believe that the case was connected to the outbreak in Guinea, which had been declared over in June. Early sequencing indicated similarities with the Zaire strain behind the 2014–2016 outbreak in West Africa, but further investigations were needed before jumping to any conclusions. Since the case identified in Abidjan was a person who had travelled on public transportation for five days while being symptomatic, efforts were focused on stepping up surveillance and tracing contacts, who would be monitored for 21 days and offered a vaccine.
Regarding questions on COVID-19, he said that WHO had been clear that pharmaceutical companies should share their technology to enable the vaccines to be produced around the world and in greater quantity. The increased output should be channelled through COVAX with a view to achieving the goal of vaccinating at least 10 per cent of the population of every country by September 2021. WHO was looking into the need to vaccinate children. However, since severe disease and death still concerned the same category of people, namely, the elderly and otherwise vulnerable individuals, even taking into account the Delta variant, and since the vaccine did not reduce transmissibility, the focus of vaccination efforts should remain on that category.
Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said that the Conference on Disarmament was holding a plenary meeting that morning at 10 a.m., during which it would discuss its draft annual report to the General Assembly, as submitted by its President, Ambassador Tressler Zamorano of Chile. The session would close on 10 September.
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination would conclude its review of the report of the Netherlands that afternoon at 4 p.m.
The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, whose twenty-fifth session had opened on 16 August, would review the report of France on 20 and 23 August and the report of Djibouti on 27 and 30 August and 1 September. All meetings would begin at 12.30 p.m.
A ceremony to mark World Humanitarian Day would be held at the Palais des Nations on 19 August, at 3 p.m., outside of room XX. The UNOG Director General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights were among those would give remarks or testimonials. The event would be webcast live.
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