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UN Geneva Press Briefing

Alessandra Vellucci of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, chaired the hybrid briefing, attended by the spokespersons and representatives of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Development Programme.

Myanmar political detainees

Jeremy Laurence, for the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR), said the release of political prisoners in Myanmar was a relief to those unfairly detained, and their families. This was an opportunity to call for the release of the thousands of others who remained in detention for opposing military rule. Even as news emerged about the amnesty to mark the country's independence day, reports continued to be received of people being detained for opposing military rule, many of whom had been subjected to torture and ill-treatment. Such detentions were intended to silence the junta’s critics and designed to instill fear. This year marked the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the High Commissioner had called for an end to arbitrary detention once and for all. This week he called on governments and all detaining authorities globally, to put the milestone Declaration into action by granting an amnesty, pardon or by releasing all those detained for exercising their rights. The pathway out of Myanmar’s crisis was not by locking people up – it was by allowing them to freely, fully, and effectively participate in political life.

Responding to questions, Mr. Laurence said he would have to come back with precise numbers of deaths in custody. Information had been received from credible sources; nearly 17,000 had been arrested since the coup, and over 13,000 remained in detention. With the amnesty the past week, some 7000 prisoners were released, of which around 300 were political prisoners. Interestingly, on the very day that these prisoners were released, another 22 were detained, meaning the situation continued. Mr. Laurence said the Office was engaged with the government in Myanmar, mindful of the fact this was a military government operating in the country.

With respect to Aung San Suu Kyi’s further sentencing, OHCHR had issued a tweet. It had stressed that it had been over 30 years since she had been in jail. OHCHR appealed for her release and for the arbitrary detention of individuals to be stopped.

Mr. Laurence said OHCHR was in constant engagement with authorities and had submitted questionnaires for an upcoming High Commissioner’s report on Myanmar which had been responded to. The Office was not at liberty to reveal the contents of the responses.

Belarus: trial of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Byalyatski

Jeremy Laurence, for the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR), said the Office was gravely concerned by the trial of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski which started in Belarus on Thursday. Bialiatski faced up to 12 years in jail. Two other representatives of his Viasna Human Rights Center were also facing prison sentences. OHCHR had serious concerns about the conduct of their trial. The trio were among hundreds detained after a violent crackdown on anti-government protests in 2020. OHCHR called for the charges against them to be dropped, and their immediate release from detention.

Responding to questions, Mr. Laurence said the Office and the Special Procedures Unit were following the case closely and had issued a statement citing their concerns. The case had been raised at the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly.

Mr. Laurence said the charges against Ales Byalyatski were under the Criminal Code’s Article 228, with respect to financing group actions violating the public order. The Office was following the case very closely. Human rights activists had been detained along with other people, after the protests. The charges should be dropped, and these people should be released from jail. OHCHR considered the arrests to be arbitrary and the charges to be politically motivated.

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), quoted the spokesperson of the Secretary-General, who said that the situation in Belarus was a very concerning development and another example of the shrinking space we are seeing in so many countries for human rights activists and defenders.

Zambia: Death penalty abolition

Alessandra Vellucci for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said on behalf of the UN Team in Zambia that on 23 December 2022, the country had achieved a historic milestone by abolishing the death penalty. This followed years of advocacy efforts by concerned stakeholders, such as the National Human Rights Commission, civil society groups, development partners, the UN team and other partners.

The UN team, under the leadership of Resident Coordinator Beatrice Mutali, contributed to the milestone by providing a wide range of technical support. For example, the UN Development Programme and UN Human Rights Office provided support to national authorities to prepare for the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Reviews, including the fourth review scheduled for this year. The abolition of the death penalty had been consistently included in the first, second and third periodic reviews as a key subject.

A breakthrough moment occurred when the President of Zambia and the new government pledged to abolish the death penalty on 24 May 2022 and work with the Parliament to end the abhorrent punishment. Since then, the UN team had stepped up its advocacy efforts, which culminated in the celebration of International Human Rights Day with government partners in December 2022. The UN team also supported the review, amendment, and enactment of ordinary laws, including the Penal Code and Public Order Act, also contributing to the recent repeal of the defamation of the President as a criminal offence. The UN and the government had recently signed a new roadmap for the partnership for the next five years. With this UN Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework, the country team would continue to support the government’s efforts to consolidate democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

America’s new immigration laws

Responding to questions Boris Cheshirkov, for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said UNHCR welcomed the expanded safe and regular pathways for entry to the United States and commended that these will now be available to an unprecedented number of people from four nationalities. However, such pathways must not preclude people forced to flee from exercising their fundamental human right to seek safety. The announcements were multi-faceted and UNHCR was seeking additional details and analyzing the impact of measures announced including on the situation of thousands of people already on the move. There was concern about the expansion of Title 42, which UNHCR had continually called on to be lifted.

Mr. Cheshirkov said UNHCR was concerned at some of the border measures which had been announced, including the expanded use of Title 42, a health order, to expel Cubans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans without consideration of the dangers they fled and the risks and hardships many of them will face in Mexico. This was not in line with refugee law standards to link establishment of “safe and legal pathways” that are accessible for some people with curtailment of the right to seek asylum for many more who are ineligible for these pathways. UNHCR would continue to engage with the United States and other governments, to expand safe pathways and develop protection and solutions for asylum seekers, in line with international standards. Additional details would be sought regarding the announcements, and analysis was being made. Seeking asylum was a fundamental human right. UNHCR were not in a position to make assessments for the future at this time.

WHO updates

Responding to questions, Tarik Jašarević for the World Health Organisation (WHO), said WHO were tracking all the sub-variants which belonged to the Omicron variant of SARS CoV 2. The precautions and measures were still the same regarding all the Omicron subvariants. WHO called on all countries to continue to sequence the virus and to upload that sequencing, so WHO could evaluate any change. If there were any major changes then a new name would be given. WHO is asking all countries to continue the surveillance.

Mr. Jašarević said the situation in China was discussed at the WHO press briefing on Wednesday, where WHO called on China, as well as on all countries, to share data on number of cases, deaths, hospitalizations, and those in intensive care units, and to continue registering genetic sequencing of the virus. It was important for WHO to receive this information to perform a proper risk assessment. Data provided so far underrepresent the burden of the disease, however WHO was engaging with Chinese colleagues and continued to call on China to provide data. In the absence of the data, it was understandable that some countries would introduce measures which they saw fit to protect their population. Countries were responding based on that they knew from China.

Globally, more than 3 million new cases and 10 000 deaths were reported in the week of 26 December 2022 to 1 January 2023. In the last 28 days (5 December 2022 to 1 January 2023), cases and deaths increased by 25% and 21%, respectively, compared to the previous 28 days. China was seeing a big surge, and authorities and individuals were called on to do what they could to reduce the transmission of the virus.

Responding to questions, Mr. Jašarević said there were some shortages of amoxicillin-related antibiotics in certain countries; 80% from 35 countries that WHO has data about reported a shortage in this type of medicine. WHO wanted countries to report on shortages of medicines; however this could sometimes result in a hoarding of medicines and bring up their price, so this was a complex issues. Countries had to look at the situation and, in every country, there was a national regulation agency which oversaw the process. In some instances, processes could possibly be accelerated.

Mr. Jašarević said yesterday WHO had briefed memberon COVID 19 and that China participated in this meeting. This was a space to discuss what member states wanted to hear from one another.

WHO recommend a focus on vaccination in China, especially of priority groups; elderly and health workers. WHO hopes China would provide data on deaths, cases, hospitalization and ICU admissions as well as genetic sequencing of the virus from different parts of the country.

Responding to questions, Mr. Jašarević said the meeting with China, which occurred yesterday, was a member states meeting; a regular meeting which occurred where WHO briefed member states on COVID-19. Last week, the technical briefing occurred between WHO and authorities in China, to obtain more information on what was going on. All reported numbers from all countries are available on WHO dashboard and in Weekly epidemiological updates

International Conference on Climate Resilient Pakistan

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said the Secretary General would be present at the International Conference on Climate Resilient Pakistan and stakeout, on Monday 9 January, which would be transmitted live on the UN TV.

Sarah Bel, for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) said invitees included active partners of Pakistan, member states, financial institutions and representatives of the private sector, UN agencies; there would be about 250 participants in total. Currently, there were not many more details which could be shared, but the agenda would be circulated as soon as it was finalized, as well as the list of speakers.

Responding to questions, Ms. Vellucci said the conference would begin at 9am and UNIS would do their best to provide the speech of the Secretary General to the media in advance.

Ms. Vellucci expected that the Secretary General would take a few questions at the stakeout, but they would like to focus on the conference.