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PRESS BRIEFING BY THE UNITED NATIONS INFORMATION SERVICE

Bi-Weekly Briefing

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the hybrid briefing, which was attended by spokespersons and representatives of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, the Human Rights Council, the UN Refugee Agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN Road Safety Fund, the World Health Organization and the UN Conference on Trade and Development.

Human Rights Day

Alessandra Vellucci, speaking for the United Nations Information Service, said the United Nations Secretary General had issued a video statement on Human Rights Day, in which he said that the world was at a crossroads. The Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and the expansion of digital technology into all areas of our lives had created new threats to human rights. Seventy-three years ago today, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose principles remained the key to realizing all human rights for all people, everywhere. Today and every day, the UN would continue to work for justice, equality, dignity and human rights for all. Ms Vellucci also recalled the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights; equality, the theme of this year’s Day, was at the centre of this call.

Rupert Colville, speaking for Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said the High Commissioner had issued a statement yesterday focused on equality – the theme of Human Rights Day this year. The past two years have demonstrated, all too painfully, the intolerable cost of soaring inequalities. Over the past twenty years, since 2001, a succession of global shocks had undermined the progress made, and this devastating pandemic had laid bare many of the failures to consolidate the advances made.

Inequalities had fuelled the pandemic, and continued to do so. In turn, the pandemic had fed a frightening rise in inequalities, leading to disproportionate transmission and death rates in the most marginalized communities, as well as contributing to soaring poverty levels, increased hunger, and plummeting living standards. Inequalities had widened both within and between countries, with most developed economies forecasted to grow in 2022, while the lowest-income countries were projected to endure continued recession. Equality was at the heart of human rights, and at the heart of the solutions required to this global crisis. Human rights had to be brought back to the forefront if progress for all was to be achieved.

Responding to questions, Mr Colville said the traditional media were absolutely vital during these periods, and no country would advance if they suppressed the media, as doing so suppressed the possibility to make beneficial changes. The importance of the media had never been clearer or starker than it were right now. In many parts of the world the space for journalists to operate was shrinking, and journalists were harassed and intimidated, which was costly to the societies they were in. The importance of good-quality journalism could not be understated.

Also answering questions, Mr. Colville said that children from the poorest parts of society were those who had suffered most from the pandemic, which was particularly problematic for girls’ education. The complications to their lives caused by Covid-19 and the precautions taken not to spread the disease were impacting heavily on all children. The number who were dropping out of school entirely was increasing significantly, as were the number of children entering into labour market.

In response to a question on the Uighur Tribunal, Mr. Colville said it brought to light information that is deeply disturbing and that many victims and witnesses took great risk in coming forward and must be afforded full protection from any reprisals. He said OHCHR had similarly identified patterns of arbitrary detention, coercive labour practices and an erosion of social and cultural rights. He reiterated a need for an independent assessment of the situation of human rights in Xinjiang. There were systemic issues, Mr. Colville said. OHCHR’s assessment of the situation was being finalised and its findings had to be shared with the government before making them public. This was important work and in-depth work, despite the inability of OHCHR to visit the region, and the difficulty of conducting interviews due to the fear of reprisals for victims and witnesses. The High Commissioner had discussed the issue of access with the Government. OHCHR regretted that it was unable to gain unfettered access but hoped that this would change. The High Commissioner has raised the issues with the Government on numerous occasions as well as addressing it in her speeches to the Human Rights Council.

Among the most difficult human rights issues, there was the situation in Myanmar, as well as in Syria, which was far from being resolved, Mr Colville said. The socio-economic problems were also huge; they affected hundreds of millions of people and had been made considerably worse by Covid-19 as well as by the economic crisis of the early 2000s, and by climate change, which was having a devastating impact on many societies, and could drive some of them over the edge. Climate change was a huge existential threat to the entire planet.

Answering a question on inequities between those with power and those without, particularly in the context of Latin America and human rights defenders in the region, Mr. Colville said that some governments were trying to improve the situation of the people; but when governments were more interested in maintaining the power and wealth, this was disastrous for the development of a country, and short-sighted for those reaping the power and gains. The advancement of human rights really did depend on good leadership. The situation of the last twenty years needed to be changed. Human beings had been advancing in terms of knowledge and abilities, but to maintain that progress required good leadership, and where leadership only focused on feathering their own nests, this was hugely harmful. Human rights defenders and journalists were the front line, with an important, brave role, and on every Human Rights Day caps should be doffed to the human rights defenders who worked at great personal cost.

Myanmar

Rupert Colville, for Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was appalled by the alarming escalation of grave human rights abuses in Myanmar. In the last week alone, security forces had killed and burned to death 11 people – among them five minors – and rammed vehicles into protesters exercising their fundamental right to peaceful assembly. More than 10 months since Myanmar's military overthrew the democratically elected Government in a February coup, the country’s human rights situation was deepening on an unprecedented scale, with serious violations reported daily of the rights to life, liberty and security of person, the prohibition against torture, the right to a fair trial, and freedom of expression.

These attacks were heinous, completely unacceptable, and disregarded common values of humanity. They were also far from isolated. Since the coup, General Min Aung Hlaing’s forces had repeatedly failed to respect their obligations under international law to protect the country's people. As a result, more than 1,300 people had lost their lives and over 10,600 more had been detained. These grave violations demanded a firm, unified and resolute international response that redoubles efforts to pursue accountability for the Myanmar military and the restoration of democracy in Myanmar.

Responding to questions on the situation, Mr. Colville said that there were groups who considered they had no option other than to take up arms, and this was a major concern, as were military build-ups in various parts of the country. In terms of more peaceful opposition, the silent protest today was an interesting sign that the people of Myanmar were not giving up and were signalling their dissatisfaction with the coup and everything that had gone with it.

Libya

Rupert Colville, for Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said the Office remained deeply concerned by a continuing series of forced expulsions of asylum-seekers and other migrants in Libya, including two large groups of Sudanese over the past month, with another group of 24 Eritreans apparently at imminent risk of similar treatment. Such expulsions of asylum-seekers and other migrants in search of safety and dignity in Libya without the necessary due process and procedural guarantees, contravened the prohibition of collective expulsions and the principle of non-refoulement under international human rights and refugee law.

OHCHR published a report on 25 November, entitled Unsafe and Undignified: The forced expulsion of migrants from Libya, in which it highlighted that asylum-seekers and other migrants in Libya were routinely at risk of arbitrary or collective expulsion from Libya's external land borders in a manner that failed to respect the prohibition of collective expulsion and the principle of non-refoulement.

Cameroon

Boris Cheshirkov, speaking for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said the Agency was deeply concerned by renewed intercommunal clashes that erupted this week in Cameroon’s Far North region, displacing thousands inside the country and forcing more than 30,000 people to flee to neighbouring Chad. Since Sunday 5 December, at least 22 people had been killed and 30 others seriously injured during several days of ongoing fighting. On 8 December, fighting broke out in the Cameroonian city of Kousseri, AND at least 10,000 people had since fled Kousseri to Chad’s capital N’djamena. Eighty per cent of the new arrivals were women, including many who were pregnant, and children. They had found refuge in N’Djamena and villages along Chad’s bank of the Logone River.

Chad had confirmed its hospitality towards the new arrivals, and the authorities there, together with UNHCR, other UN agencies and humanitarian partners, were rushing to support the Cameroonian refugees with emergency shelter and assistance. Security forces had been dispatched to Far North Cameroon, but the situation remained volatile. UNHCR had been forced to suspend its operations in the affected areas. Without urgent action to address the root causes of the crisis, the situation could escalate further. UNHCR was calling for an immediate end to the violence and for the support of the international community to assist the victims and refugees.

Responding to questions, Mr. Cheshirkov said that UNCHR had temporarily suspended its activities, and this would have an impact, as there were displaced communities in the area. There had been no attacks on staff, but there were tensions between local communities, the main driver for which was climate change. Lake Chad had been shrinking over the last 60 years, and the communities relied on the water to live. In Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso climate change was accelerating far faster than in other areas of the world. 90% of refugees were coming from climate-vulnerable hotspots, and 80% were coming from communities suffering from climate change, which would only increase. Technical support, financial support and giving refugee communities the ability to be at the table when discussions took place were all vital.

Venezuela

Answering a question on Venezuela, Boris Cheshirkov, speaking for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said that there were globally around 6 million refugees from Venezuela, the inhabitants of which were still leaving their country. As the situation was prolonged, steadfast support from the international community was crucial.

International Mountain Day

Rosalaura Romeo, Programme Officer, Mountain Partnership Secretariat, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), said this year, the theme of International Mountain Day was dedicated to sustainable tourism in mountains. Urgent action was needed to address climate change and remove food insecurity and malnutrition in mountain areas, as well as policies to improve the resilience of mountain ecosystems and promote sustainable food systems that support innovation, research and community involvement. A new study published on 10 December by FAO and the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) looked at how the COVID-19 pandemic was an opportunity to rebuild mountain tourism in a greener and more sustainable way. Through examples of best practices and initiatives from all over the world, it highlighted the role of tourism in the sustainable development of mountain regions.

Responding to a question, Ms. Romeo said mountains were considered an indicator of climate change, and they were suffering to a disproportionate extent from this. The already-fragile livelihood of mountain people were suffering. The most important funds should develop specific plans to benefit mountain areas and people specifically. There were one billion people living in areas where human rights were often non-existent, and climate change was a big issue in this regard, as they might have to move to the low-lands if life became increasingly difficult.

UN Road Safety Fund

Stéphanie Schumacher, speaking for the United Nations Road Safety Fund (UNRSF), said the UNRSF aims to raise awareness among 1 billion people by 2030 of need for financing to tackle road deaths in low- and middle-income countries. Estimates indicate that road crashes cost low- and middle-income countries 3-5% of their gross domestic product. However, road safety was underfunded in most countries. Long-term, sustainable investment was required for the development of safe road infrastructure as well as for a broader range of interventions that could improve road safety. UNRSF’s #moments2live4 campaign would raise awareness on the importance of investing in better road safety performance within low- and middle-income countries.

World Health Organization

Margaret Harris, speaking for the World Health Organization (WHO), said WHO had sent out a press release about the establishment of a children’s cancer medicines platform, with the idea to get medicines to children with cancer from low- and middle-income countries. The aim of the platform was to make it possible for countries without access to medicines to have access, as many childhood cancers were treatable, Dr. Harris said in response to a question.

Responding to a question on the naming of Covid-19 variants and on African research, Dr. Harris said that variants of concern were given a name. On a possible variant from Marseille, this would be notified to the Variant Monitoring Team. Research in Africa should be applauded and awarded, not punished, as it was gold-standard in quality. There were currently five variants of concern, Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Omicron. WHO examined these every week and provided weekly epidemiological updates.

On figures on Omicron, there were at least 58 countries reporting it, with world-wide spread. Some were reporting localized spread as well, Dr. Harris said. There were however no hard numbers. From the outstanding research taking place in South Africa, their very large spike was essentially almost all Omicron. It was important to understand better was what was happening in Europe, where there was a huge Delta outbreak.

South Africa was not currently seeing a high number of people with severe cases of Omicron, and did not have a large number of people requiring hospitalizations, although there was a rise. However, this was a different, younger population, and the impact of the virus was different. The situation continued to evolve. The majority of global Omicron cases were still being reported in South Africa.

Sequencing was something the WHO had been asking countries to do for more than a year. It did require not just laboratory technology, but also a high level of ability and could not be developed overnight. It was variable around the world, and resulted from decisions that countries themselves made. WHO was asking for it to be done and the results to be uploaded to a shared platform so that all could see the developing variants world-wide. Europe was currently the main driver, with 65% of cases, and was in the midst of a fierce outbreak, the majority of which was Delta. Vaccinations and other public health measures had to be accelerated, as they would stop both Omicron and Delta. Europe had to double down on all measures: avoiding mass gatherings, wearing masks and washing hands.

UNCTAD

Catherine Huissoud, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), said a new free trade agreement, covering a third of the world economy, called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) would enter into force on 1 January 2022 and would create the world’s largest trading bloc by economic size. It includes 15 Asian and Pacific nations, representing around 30% of world GDP. On the occasion of its entry into force UNCTAD was going to publish next week an analysis of its economic impact on all economies.

Human Rights Council

Rolando Gomez, speaking for the Human Rights Council, said on Tuesday, 14 December, 10 a.m., there would be an oral update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, and the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nada Al-Nashif, would present the report in person. On the same day at 3 p.m. there would be an Interactive dialogue on the interim oral update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Nicaragua, and the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nada Al-Nashif, would also present the report in person. On Wednesday, 15 December, 10 a.m. there would be an oral presentation by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the findings of the latest OHCHR periodic report on the situation of human rights in Ukraine.

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