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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE UNITED NATIONS INFORMATION SERVICE

Bi-Weekly Briefing

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of theUnited Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, chaired the hybrid briefing, attended by the spokespersons and representatives of the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United Nations Development Programme, the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria, the World Food Programme, and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Ukraine

Tarik Jašarević, for the World Health Organization (WHO), speaking from Lviv, said that WHO had issued a press release on the supplies that it was bringing to the most affected areas of Ukraine. As of today, some 90 metric tons had arrived. WHO was working with the Ministry of Health and the health authorities to plan the distribution of the supplies and ensure that they reached health workers. Some shipments had arrived; others were still pending. WHO was also coordinating emergency medical teams from around the world who wished to travel to Ukraine or neighbouring countries to assist the authorities. One coordination cell was based in Moldova, where 12 medical teams stood ready to provide support to refugees. Another was based in Poland, where 10 medical teams were preparing to deploy either to Poland or Ukraine, thus supplementing the capacity of health facilities and providing trauma care where needed.

WHO was also monitoring attacks on health-care facilities and so far had verified 31 such attacks, including in Mariupol. He wished to stress that attacks on health-care facilities were a violation of humanitarian law and must cease.

James Elder, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that, since 24 February, scores of children had been killed and many more injured in Ukraine. More than 1.5 million children had fled the country, meaning that, on average, more than 75,000 children had become refugees every day. In other words, a Ukrainian child had become a refugee almost every second since the start of the war. The refugee crisis was, in terms of speed and scale, unprecedented since the Second World War, and it showed no signs of slowing down.

Like all children driven from their homes by war and conflict, Ukrainian children arriving in neighbouring countries were at significant risk of family separation, violence, sexual exploitation, and trafficking. They were in desperate need of safety, stability and child protection services – especially those who were unaccompanied or had been separated from their families.

The safest and fastest way out of the catastrophe was for the war to end immediately. Until then, attacks in civilian areas and on civilian infrastructure must stop. Such attacks claimed lives, forced people to forgo essential health services and caused children to miss school.

On a recent visit to Lviv, he had spoken to the mothers, fathers and children who had fled for their lives, and some of the frontline workers who were trying to help them. When he had asked paediatricians there – who had received 60 children from hospitals in Kyiv – how they were preparing, they had explained their training in prioritization. If large numbers of children were brought in with wounds of war, the doctors would use coloured stickers to identify those who could wait; those who required immediate treatment; those who required critical care; and those who could not be saved.

UNICEF had a team on the ground in Ukraine and continued to send in essential supplies. Over the weekend, a convoy of 22 trucks had arrived with 168 tons of supplies, including midwifery kits, surgical kits, obstetric kits, oxygen concentrators, cold boxes, blankets and winter clothes, water, sanitation and hygiene kits, dignity kits, early childhood education kits and adolescent kits. Meanwhile, the number of mobile child protection teams was being increased from 9 to 47 to scale-up protection and psychosocial services for children across Ukraine. UNICEF was also setting up more and more “Blue Dots” – safe spaces to provide critical support and protection services for children and families. It had also deployed a Facebook messaging service and chatbots for the safety of unaccompanied children and it had delivered hygiene products to refugee centres. Nonetheless, despite such efforts, the situation for Ukraine’s children would only get worse for as long as the war continued.

Ewan Watson, for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said that on 14 March, 200 tons of medical supplies and relief items had arrived in Ukraine. The aid would be unloaded in Vinnytsia and then dispatched to cities such as Kyiv, Kharkiv and Slaviansk. For ICRC, the priority was to deliver aid to collective shelters, adapting according to the most pressing needs and where security allowed. This aid included 38 war-wounded kits (each with enough to treat 50 people with serious trauma injuries), more than 1,000 kits of essential household items containing blankets, kitchen sets and tarpaulins; water and sanitation supplies; and more than 5,000 body bags to ensure that the dead could be treated in a dignified manner.

Today, ICRC aimed to facilitate the safe passage of civilians out of the town of Sumy, in a joint operation with the Ukrainian Red Cross, consisting of two convoys with approximately 70 buses in total. A marked ICRC vehicle would lead one of the convoys. ICRC reiterated that it was not a guarantor of the agreement to allow safe passage from Sumy. It was down to the parties to the conflict to agree to the terms of any agreement and then stick to it.

ICRC was still unable to get aid into Mariupol, where the situation remained dire and desperate. It had been reported that vehicles were leaving the city. While ICRC was not involved in that evacuation, it welcomed any possibility of civilians reaching safe haven and finding respite from the conflict. But that is a drop in the ocean. However, the bottom line was that there was no specific agreement for the safe passage for civilians out of the city, where hundreds of thousands of people were suffering. They faced a life-and-death situation and impossible choices to feed their families. An agreement between the parties to bring aid in and ensure safe passage out was urgently needed.

Sarah Bel, for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), said that on Wednesday, 16 March at 5 a.m. Geneva time, UNDP would release early data estimates calculating the socioeconomic impact on the people of Ukraine in the event of a continuing, protracted war. Immediate humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians was of the utmost importance; however, the acute development impacts of a protracted war were now becoming more apparent. UNDP would present early projections for short-term and long-term scenarios and outline actions that it would take based on its longstanding, trusted partnerships and close cooperation with the Government of Ukraine at all levels. A press release and report, under strict embargo, were available on demand.

Paul Dillon, for the International Organization for Migration, responding to a question, said that according to latest figures, the threshold of 3 million refugees fleeing the conflict in Ukraine had now been reached. Out of these 3 million, 157,000 were third-country nationals. Although there had been anecdotes of discrimination against them, many people had expressed sympathy and appreciation for the support they had received from authorities of Ukraine and neighbouring countries.

Matthew Saltmarsh, for the United Nations Refugee Agency, speaking from Poland, responded to questions and said that according to the latest numbers, 1.8 million refugees were now thought to be in Poland, while significant numbers had moved to Western Europe. Some 90 per cent were women and children. An update would be provided later today.

The generous response of donors, in comparison with other crises, might have to do with the scale of the emergency and also with media coverage. UNHCR wished to reiterate that many appeals were chronically underfunded. Donors should not forget the many millions of refugees in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The private sector has been highly mobilized in the current crisis. UNHCR had a data portal on refugee numbers that provided regular updates.

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), responding to journalists, said that OHCHR was monitoring the case of the woman who had staged a demonstration against the war on Russian television. OHCHR understood that 15,000 people had been arrested in the Russian Federation for protesting against the war. It was unclear how many of those people had been released. OHCHR did not have access to detainees in the country.

WHO statement on COVID-19 boosters

Dr. Joachim Hombach, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the primary goal of COVID-19 vaccination was the prevention of severe disease and death. From that perspective, WHO had been analysing the data on vaccine performance and duration on immunity. Over the past few months, the evidence supporting the need for booster, particularly for the highest risk groups, had become increasingly clear. In the light of waning vaccine effectiveness over time, WHO had observed reduced effectiveness against mild and asymptomatic infection with the Omicron and Delta variants, as well as some slippage, although to a much lesser degree, in protection against severe disease.

The updated WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) Roadmap for prioritizing uses of COVID-19 vaccines (https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/who-sage-roadmap-for-prioritizing-uses-of-covid-19-vaccines), which had been available since 21 January 2022, recommended a booster dose. Booster doses should be offered four to six months after individuals had completed the primary series. Special policies applied to immune-compromised people. The roadmap aimed to optimize the impact of COVID-19 vaccination by prioritizing the protection of highest- and high-risk populations, including through the administration of boosters. More specifically, WHO recommended that countries with low rates of primary series coverage should first achieve high primary series coverage amongst high-risk groups, before offering vaccine doses to lower-risk groups. Countries with moderate-to-high primary series coverage rates in higher-risk priority groups should prioritize giving boosters to higher-risk priority groups, before offering vaccines to lower-risk groups.

As new evidence became available, the WHO SAGE Working Group on COVID-19 carefully reviewed the data and determined what revisions were required to the interim recommendations for each of the respective Emergency Use Listing (EUL) vaccines. On 15 and 16 March, updates to the interim recommendations, including new language on boosters, would be published for the ChAdOx1-S vaccine also known as AstraZeneca and for the inactivated COVID-19 vaccines produced by SinoVac, SinoPharm and Bharat. The revised recommendations would flag the importance of offering booster doses to high priority-use groups about four to six months after completion of the primary series.

WHO had also found evidence to indicate that heterologous boosters were in many instances superior to homologous boosters. Additional guidance on heterologous scheduling (more commonly referred to as “mixing and matching”) was available in dedicated interim recommendations on this subject, available on the SAGE website. WHO considered that heterologous boosting provided significant flexibility that would facilitate improved vaccination coverage in low- and middle-income countries who were still struggling to reach effective coverage rates and were handling multiple vaccine products.

Eleventh anniversary of the Syrian conflict

Jenifer Fenton, for the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria, said that the Special Envoy for Syria had noted that as the conflict in Syria entered its twelfth year – marking another grim milestone – Syrians continued to suffer in profound ways and the hardship was only deepening. The Secretary-General had noted the horrific and appalling nature of the war and his appeal was a reminder that, above all, the Syrian people needed and deserved a political solution to the conflict.

That was why Mr. Geir O. Pedersen continued to engage the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic, the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission, the men and women of Syria and all key international actors, as widely as he could, with one goal in mind – to promote the implementation of Security Council resolution 2254 (2015). His message to all was the same: a military solution was an illusion. That was always so, but it was now plain for all to see.

The way out of the impasse was for the parties to forge a political solution that could end the suffering of the Syrian people, restore Syria’s sovereignty and enable the Syrian people to determine their own future – something that, with political will, was perfectly possible. The Special Envoy was pleased that the Constitutional Committee would meet again soon in Geneva and he believed that it needed to move substantively forward on its mandate.

Mr. Pedersen believed that a series of reciprocal confidence-building measures in resolution 2254 could be implemented in parallel, step-for-step, and in the process, a broader political process could be constructed to tackle all the issues in the resolution and bring about its full implementation. His sincere appeal to the Syrian parties and all key international actors was to work with the United Nations effort in order to help advance that shared goal.

Boris Cheshirkov, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that the Agency appealed to the world not to forget or neglect the growing needs of displaced Syrians inside and outside the country, 11 years since the crisis had begun. Syria remained the world’s largest displacement crisis. More than 13 million people had either fled the country or were displaced within its borders. Neighbouring and nearby countries required continued international support, having generously welcomed more than 5.6 million Syrian refugees. Those countries were under increased financial pressure, especially in the light of the devastating socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Refugees and host communities had been hit hard, losing livelihoods and facing surging prices for food and other necessities.

Meanwhile, humanitarian needs inside Syria were mounting. More than 6.9 million people were still displaced inside the country, and 14.6 million people required humanitarian or other forms of assistance. Some 5.9 million people needed help to secure safe accommodation, and many still faced challenges accessing basic services like education and health care. In 2021, three quarters of all households in the country said they could not meet their most basic needs. Last year, the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan to respond to the Syria refugee crisis received less than half of the required funding. Humanitarian organizations urgently required additional resources to strengthen their work inside the country.

The full briefing note can be found here: UNHCR - Eleven years on, mounting challenges push many displaced Syrians to the brink. 

Yemen: acute hunger at unprecedented levels as funding dries up

Richard Ragan, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that on 14 March, WFP had released a new Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) analysis on Yemen, based on work undertaken with UNICEF and FAO. The analysis showed that Yemen’s already dire hunger crisis was teetering on the edge of outright catastrophe, with 17.4 million people now in need of food assistance and a growing portion of the population coping with emergency levels of hunger. The humanitarian situation in the country was poised to get even worse between June and December 2022, with the number of people who would likely be unable to meet their minimum food needs possibly reaching a record 19 million people. Seven years of conflict, combined with the ensuing economic crisis, the depreciation of the currency and a global pandemic, had caused food prices to double. There was also the risk of a knock-on effect from the Ukraine crisis, as Yemen received almost 1 million tons of grain from Ukraine and a similar amount from the Russian Federation. WFP was currently only 11 percent funded and needed more than USD 887.9 million to provide food assistance for 13 million people over the coming six months.

For the full WFP news releases, see: Yemen: Acute hunger at unprecedented levels as funding dries up | World Food Programme (wfp.org) and Ukraine adds to Yemen's woes as hunger emergency spreads and lack of funding leaves millions vulnerable | World Food Programme (wfp.org)

Kamau Wanjohi, for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said that the results of the new analysis were not surprising, as Yemen was suffering from a protracted humanitarian crisis in which life was getting worse every day for most of the population. Some 17.4 million people, or 54 per cent of the total population, were now facing severe food insecurity. In addition, Yemen had 2 million acutely malnourished children, over 500,000 of whom were severely malnourished, and 1.3 million pregnant or nursing mothers suffering from acute malnutrition. The international community should be careful not to normalize such large numbers.

The war had affected millions of Yemenis and benefited none. Import restrictions and prolonged delays at the ports to bring in essential goods, an unprecedented fuel crisis that had seen basic transport costs more than double, and the displacement of more than 4.3 million people from their homes, had combined to push more and more Yemenis to the brink of hunger and starvation. The economic repercussions of the war were felt in every home, with food prices reaching new highs in 2021 and still increasing. In December 2021, the price of wheat – the main staple food for all Yemenis – had more than doubled in comparison with December 2020. During the same period, salaries had not been paid, remittances had stagnated due to COVID-19, and humanitarian funding had shrunk.

To address the situation, the priority was to find a permanent and immediate solution to the conflict. Without peace, all other measures taken by the international community would not have a long-lasting impact. Secondly, lives could be saved by providing much-needed humanitarian assistance and focusing on resilience-building to foster people’s self-reliance. It was also necessary to invest in tackling the underlying causes of food insecurity and acute malnutrition, which was the only way to escape the vicious cycle. Monitoring systems should be enhanced so as to closely track those districts which had a high burden of hunger.

FAO activities included the provision of seeds, tools and fertilizers; the provision of cash and inputs for backyard agriculture and nutrition training; the rehabilitation of irrigation infrastructure; the provision of cash and vouchers to access wider diet diversity; livestock restocking, vaccination and healthcare; and reconstruction of flood-damaged infrastructure in agricultural areas. To continue its activities, FAO required more than USD 50 million in 2022.

Responding to a question, Kamau Wanjohi said an extremely worrying new data point was that the number of people experiencing catastrophic levels of hunger – IPC Phase 5, famine conditions – was projected to increase five-fold, from 31,000 currently to 161,000 people – over the second half of 2022.

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), on behalf of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said that today at 2 p.m. the Office would hold a virtual press briefing in advance of the High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen on 16 March. The briefing would be under embargo until 16 March at 6 a.m. Geneva time (1 a.m. New York time). Speakers would include Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator; Manuel Bessler, Deputy Director-General and Head of Humanitarian Aid Department at the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation; and Carl Skau, Deputy Director-General, Head of Department for UN Policy, Conflict and Humanitarian Affairs of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Sweden.

Report on human rights violations in Myanmar

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR had released a new report that set out the continuing spiral of violence in Myanmar since the military coup of 1 February 2021. The report stated the military has engaged in systematic and widespread human rights violations and abuses – some of which might amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The report, released for the 49th regular session of the Human Rights Council, said that Myanmar's military and security forces had shown a flagrant disregard for human life, bombarding populated areas with airstrikes and heavy weapons and deliberately targeting civilians, many of whom had been shot in the head, burned to death, arbitrarily arrested, tortured or used as human shields.

Citing the determination of Myanmar's people in their opposition to the coup, High Commissioner Bachelet called on the international community to do all it could to resolve the crisis and hold perpetrators of gross violations of international human rights law accountable.

Covering the period since the military takeover, the report is based on interviews with over 155 victims, witnesses, and advocates, whose accounts were corroborated with satellite imagery, verified multimedia files and credible open-source information. Its findings, however, represented only a fraction of the violations and abuses Myanmar’s people have been subjected to since the coup.

At least 1,600 people had been killed by security forces and their affiliates and more than 12,500 people had been detained. At least 440,000 others had been displaced and 14 million were in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, the delivery of which had largely been blocked by the military.

The report concluded that there were reasonable grounds to believe the military, the Tatmadaw, had engaged in violence and abuse as part of a widespread and systematic attack directed against civilians – patterns of conduct that might amount to crimes against humanity.

For the full OHCHR press release, see: OHCHR | Myanmar: UN report urges immediate, concerted effort by international community to stem violence, hold military accountable

Executions in Egypt

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that the Office had received disturbing reports that at least seven people had been executed in Egypt the previous week. The death sentences had been handed down after trials that allegedly had not met fair trial and due process standards. Civil society organizations had reported that four men had been executed on 8 March after being found guilty of several terrorism-related charges in connection with the 2016 killing of eight police officers. OHCHR had been informed that the four accused persons had been subjected to enforced disappearance and torture in order to extract confessions. Three other men had been executed on 10 March after being convicted of joining a terrorist group in connection with attacks carried out in 2014. Those men had also alleged that they had been subjected to torture in order to coerce them into confessing. OHCHR was deeply concerned at the executions and wished to reiterate its position that the death penalty should be abolished. It urged the Egyptian authorities to introduce a moratorium on the death penalty and called upon them to ensure that due process guarantees were adhered to and that all safeguards were in place to ensure fair trials in the criminal courts.

Health situation in Afghanistan

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that WHO was extremely concerned about the overlapping health threats facing Afghanistan. Malnutrition was widespread, and the country was seeing a surge in measles and COVID-19 cases. Despite tremendous efforts by WHO and partners, the health system was struggling with acute shortages of medicals supplies, fuel and money for staff salaries. This deeply troubling combination of factors could lead to an increase in preventable illness and death unless urgent action was taken. The unprecedented level of malnutrition was especially worrying, as it weakened immunity and made people more vulnerable to disease. A measles vaccination campaign, targeting than 1.2 million children aged 6-59 months in 24 provinces, had been launched. Around 9,200 health workers, volunteers, supervisors and monitors had been mobilized during the campaign, scheduled for 12-17 March. WHO remained committed to scaling up the humanitarian response in support of the people of Afghanistan.

Announcements

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that on 16 March, an update on COVID-19 and pregnancy and childbirth would be published in the British Medical Journal. The research had been led by the WHO Collaborating Centre at the University of Birmingham, including findings on mother-to-child transmission. WHO also planned to hold a press briefing on 22 March to mark the occasion of World Tuberculosis Day.

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of theUnited Nations Information Service (UNIS), on behalf of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said that on Friday, 11 March, FAO had released a set of information on its analysis and activities in response to the conflict in Ukraine and the potential impacts of the conflict on food security. The information was available on FAO website.

On behalf of the Human Rights Council, Ms. Vellucci said that the Council was continuing its forty-ninth session. This afternoon, the Council would hear a presentation from the special representatives of the Secretary-General on violence against children and armed conflict.

Ms. Vellucci also said that the Human Rights Committee (134th session, 28 February to 25 March) was meeting in private until next Friday afternoon when it would review follow-up reports on concluding observations to State Parties and on views (individual complaints).

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities would this morning conclude the review of the report of Switzerland and this afternoon would conclude its review of the report of Venezuela.

The Conference on Disarmament would hold its next public plenary meeting on Thursday, 17 March, at 10 a.m. under the presidency of Ambassador Alicia Victoria Arango Olmos of Colombia.

Finally, Ms. Vellucci said that the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism , Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, would hold a hybrid press briefing on Tuesday, 15 March at 4 p.m.

 

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