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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE UNITED NATIONS INFORMATION SERVICE

Bi-Weekly Briefing

Alessandra Vellucci, Director 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 Environment Programme, and the World Health Organization.

War in Ukraine

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, reported that High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on Friday that the Russian invasion nearly two months ago had plunged Ukraine into a human rights and humanitarian crisis that had devastated the lives of civilians throughout the country and beyond. She called for all parties to respect international human rights law and international humanitarian law, in particular the rules governing the conduct of hostilities.

“Over these eight weeks, international humanitarian law has not merely been ignored but seemingly tossed aside,” Ms. Bachelet said.

Ms. Shamdasani said that Russian armed forces had indiscriminately shelled and bombed populated areas, killing civilians and wrecking hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure, actions that may amount to war crimes.

In Government-controlled Kramatorsk on 8 April, cluster sub-munitions hit the railway station, killing 60 civilians and injuring 111 others. This was emblematic of the failure to adhere to the principle of distinction, the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks and the principle of precaution enshrined in international humanitarian law.

The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) had also documented what appeared to be the use of weapons with indiscriminate effects, causing civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects, by Ukrainian armed forces in the east of the country.

Since 24 February to midnight on 20 April, HRMMU had documented and verified 5,264 civilian casualties – 2,345 killed and 2,919 injured. Of those, 92.3 per cent (2,266 killed and 2,593 injured) were recorded in Government-controlled territory. Some 7.7 per cent of casualties (79 killed and 326 injured) were recorded in Donetsk and Luhansk regions controlled by Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups.

During a mission to Bucha on 9 April, UN human rights officers documented the unlawful killing, including by summary execution, of some 50 civilians.   

HRMMU had received more than 300 allegations of killings of civilians in towns in the regions of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy, all under the control of Russian armed forces in late February and early March. These were gross violations of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law that amounted to war crimes.

HRMMU is also documenting the devastating consequences of the conflict on a range of other human rights, including the right to health. To date, it has recorded 114 attacks on medical establishments, although the actual figure is likely to be considerably higher. The disruption of medical care has also seen the general mortality rate among civilians increase in a number of besieged towns and cities.

The OHRHR estimated that at least 3,000 civilians had died because they couldn’t get medical care and because of the stress on their health amid the hostilities. This included being forced by Russian armed forces to stay in basements or not being allowed to leave their homes for days or weeks.

Allegations of sexual violence against women, men, girls and boys by members of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine had increasingly surfaced. HRMMU had received 75 allegations from across the country, although the majority were from the Kyiv region. HRMMU was looking into each allegation, although this remained challenging as some survivors were not willing or able to be interviewed.

Detention of civilians had become a widespread practice in areas controlled by Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups. Since 24 February, HRMMU had recorded 155 such cases, including of local officials, journalists, activists, human rights defenders, and others. Some were reportedly tortured or ill-treated, left without food or water, or held in overcrowded improvised facilities. Five victims of enforced disappearances were subsequently found dead.

HRMMU had also received information about alleged arbitrary and incommunicado detentions by Ukrainian forces or people aligned with them. In some cases, relatives did not have information about where their loved ones were, raising serious concerns regarding enforced disappearance, compliance with due process and the risk of torture and ill-treatment.

“Our work to date has detailed a horror story of violations perpetrated against civilians. First and foremost, this senseless war must stop. But as the fighting shows no sign of abating, it is vital that all parties to the conflict give clear instructions to their combatants to strictly respect international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” Ms. Bachelet said.

“This means distinguishing between civilian and military objects. It means not targeting or deliberately killing civilians. It means not committing sexual violence. People, including prisoners of war, must not be tortured. Civilians, prisoners and others hors de combat must be treated humanely,” she stressed.

“Those in command of armed forces must make it clear to their fighters that anyone found to have been involved in such violations will be prosecuted and held accountable,” Bachelet said. “I call on the parties to the conflict to investigate all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law allegedly committed by their nationals, armed forces and affiliated armed groups, in line with their obligations under international law.”

The full statement from the OHCHR is available online.

Ms. Shamdasani said that comparison with other conflicts was always difficult, but the number of credible reports on violations of human rights in Ukraine was mounting. Many actors were engaged in documenting them, and these would serve to help prevent human rights violations in future.

She reiterated that 2,345 civilians had been killed, including the summary execution of more than 300 people. OHCHR called for human rights and the rules of war to be respected. The OHCHR had not received specific documentation on persons involved in summary executions.

The OHCHR had been contacted by the Russian side regarding allegations ill-treatment of prisoners from the Ukrainian side, as well as beating and intimidation of pro-Russian persons. There were thus allegations of human rights abuses on both sides. The vast majority of allegations were attributed to the Russian side.

The OHCHR was documenting many violations that could amount to war crimes, including summary executions and shelling and bombing of civilian areas. The events happening in Ukraine were extremely grave.

There were no documented patterns that would indicate genocide. The Commission of Inquiry established by the Human Rights Council would progress on areas leading to establish accountability.

Bhanu Bhatnagarm, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that WHO had surveyed 1,000 households from across Ukraine, in 24 oblasts plus Kyiv City. Its findings showed the devastating impact of this war on access to healthcare. Two out of five households had at least one member with a chronic illness, like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Of those, one in three struggled to access healthcare for those chronic conditions. The survey also found that the war was affecting people’s health-seeking behaviour, with less than a third of households having said they sought out health services recently. Of those, 39 per cent – or two out of five - cited the security situation as the main reason for not seeking health care, while 27 per cent said no healthcare services were available in their area.  Most households surveyed were sheltering in their own homes, while one in ten were staying with friends and family members in relatively safer areas, eight per cent were on the move within Ukraine and three per cent were in a shelter or camp for internally displaced people.

There was an urgent need for continued health systems support in Ukraine, and the WHO was working closely with the Ministry of Health, national health institutions, partners and donors to keep the health system running. However, this was a challenge, especially in conflict-affected areas.

WHO had provided emergency medical kits to serve the healthcare needs of 7.5 million people over three months. It had also brought in enough surgical equipment to conduct up to 207,000 emergency surgeries. Through its Regional and Country Offices, it was constantly in touch with Health Minister Viktor Liashko and Ukrainian health authorities, collectively strategizing to ensure that health care providers and facilities could continue to function.

However, WHO was still unable to reach some of the hardest-hit areas in the east where the health system had all but collapsed. It had received reports that nearly all health facilities and hospitals in Luhansk oblast were either damaged or destroyed, and the situation was critical in several others. It was vital that the WHO gained access to these areas so that it could assess health needs and move vital supplies into affected areas, including Mariupol, and also allow people to evacuate. Civilians had a right to health, even in times of war.

Responding to questions, Mr. Bhatnagarm said that the WHO did not have access to Mariupol and was not aware of the health situation there. It anticipated the worst, with people with chronic health conditions likely unable to access health care.

As of April 21, WHO had identified 162 attacks on health care, in which 73 persons had died. The number might differ from that of other UN agencies because of the way WHO recorded the attacks. Humanitarian actors could not enter Mariupol due to the transport situation. Access was absolutely vital at this time.

Escalating Violence in Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the OHCHR was deeply concerned by the escalating violence in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel over the past month.

Last weekend saw Israeli security forces injure around 180 Palestinians, including at least 27 children during tensions in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound. The witnessed conduct of Israeli security forces in particular on 15 April raised serious concerns that the use of force was widespread, unnecessary and indiscriminate. A number of Palestinians, including elderly, women, children and at least one journalist, who did not appear to pose any threat to the Israeli security forces in any manner, were beaten with batons or shot with sponge-tipped bullets from close range. Many sustained broken bones. Some were injured from stun grenades including some directly striking their heads.

In Jerusalem, between 15 and 17 April, Israeli police reportedly arrested over 470 people, including 60 children. Prisoners’ organisations had raised concerns that some of them were injured at the time of arrest, and that many were prevented from receiving legal aid. All of these 470 had reportedly now been released. Most of those released were prohibited from entering Al Aqsa Mosque compound or the Old City of Jerusalem in the coming weeks as a condition of release.

Ms. Shamdasani said that at around 6:30 am yesterday, 21 April, Israeli police reportedly raided the yards of Al Aqsa Mosque compound and used force to push Palestinians out of the area. Reportedly, Israeli security forces confined dozens of Palestinians inside Al Qibli mosque, and six people were injured by sponge-tipped bullets.  Last night and early this morning yet more violence had been reported in the compound, with a journalist, an elderly person and a paramedic among those injured by Israeli forces.

Ms. Shamdasani called for the use of force by Israeli police in and around the Al Aqsa Mosque compound to be promptly, impartially, independently and transparently investigated. Those responsible for any violations should be held to account, and policies and procedures on the use of force reviewed with a view to preventing any further violations.

The tension in Jerusalem had impacted other areas. Between 18 and 21 April, Palestinian armed groups launched six rockets and one mortar shell towards Israel. One of the rockets caused damage to a residential building. Israel responded by striking several armed groups’ military sites across the Gaza Strip. No casualties were reported in either Israel or Gaza.

These latest events followed weeks of violence in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and in Israel. In the most serious attacks in Israel in many years, 14 people were killed by attackers in incidents in Beersheba, Bnei Brak, Hadera and Tel Aviv. Among those losing their lives were 12 Israelis and two foreign nationals.

Israel’s intensified military operations in the West Bank, in particular in Jenin, and the use of firearms by Palestinian militants placed Palestinian residents at high risk. In April so far, Israeli security forces had killed 19 Palestinians, including three boys and three women, and injured tens of others. Israeli security forces had also intensified raids and arrest operations across the West Bank, raising serious concerns of excessive use of force and ill-treatment and arbitrary arrests of family members of wanted people. Some of the killings, in particular Israeli security forces shooting at a Palestinian woman in Husan on 10 April, raised serious concerns of excessive use of force and arbitrary deprivation of life. Ms. Shamdasani called for all use of force resulting in killing or injury to be promptly, impartially, independently and transparently investigated, and those responsible for any violations held to account.  

The response by Israeli authorities to the attacks in Israel, in particular measures imposed by Israel on Jenin Governorate raised concerns of possible collective punishment. International humanitarian and human rights law strictly prohibited penalties of any kind against people or entire groups of people for acts they had not personally committed.

The OHCHR echoed the call of the UN Secretary-General for calm and urged investigations where people had been killed or injured.

Responding to questions, Ms. Shamdasani said that the concerns of OHCHR had been raised with Israeli authorities for several years. There was a lack of a clear outcome of prior investigations, and those responsible for the violence needed to be identified and held to account.

World’s First Malaria Vaccine Recommended by WHO Ahead of World Malaria Day and World Immunization Week 

Dr. Mary Hamel, Team Lead, Malaria Vaccines with the World Health Organization (WHO), said that World Malaria Day and World Immunization Week were coinciding in 2022. This year was of particular significance, as the worlds first malaria vaccine, RTS,S, had been recommended by WHO to reduce malaria illness and deaths in vulnerable children.

WHO and its partners were marking World Malaria Day under the theme of innovation and the theme for World Immunization Week was “Long life for all”. These were appropriate themes to recognize the over 30 years of research that went into the development of the first malaria vaccine, and its life-saving potential.

To defeat malaria, new tools and technologies were needed, and delivery of existing tools needed to be improved.  Urgent action was needed to get the world back on track towards ending malaria.  In 2020, 600,000 lives were claimed by malaria, including nearly half a million African children, with one child dying every 60 seconds. The recommendation for the RTS,S malaria vaccine was good news, however. This recommendation, and the evidence that informed it, represented a historic breakthrough for science, child health, and malaria control.

Since 2019, more than 1 million children had been reached with the vaccine through pilot introductions in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, and were benefitting from the added protection it provided. The pilot introductions have shown that demand for the malaria vaccine was high, and their findings had confirmed that the vaccine was safe, feasible to deliver and reduced deadly severe malaria. During the first two years of use in routine immunization, a 30 per cent drop in children being hospitalized with deadly severe malaria had been recorded and a nearly 10 per cent reduction in deaths in children of eligible age to receive the vaccine.

If widely deployed, the vaccine could save the lives of an additional 40,000 to 80,000 African children each year.

More than 155 million dollars had been secured from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to support expanded introduction of the vaccine. In the coming months, governments would prepare applications to Gavi to support vaccine introduction in their countries.

In the coming years, demand for the vaccine was expected to far outstrip supply, and increasing supply was a high priority for WHO and partners. No single tool would end malaria, so investment in research and development of vaccines remained important to develop a range of tools to speed up the pace of progress. Making more effective use of existing prevention, diagnostic, and treatment tools, particularly in those countries where the burden of malaria was the highest, was also important.

Malaria was a preventable and treatable disease, and the children who suffered from malaria deserved an aggressive effort to fight it.

Responding to questions, Dr. Hamel said that WHO was working with partners to determine where the first vaccine doses would go, and it should be where the need was highest. Countries would apply for the vaccine and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, would determine which areas were most in need.

The vaccine was recommended from five months of age. After five years of age, children developed enough immunity to not become seriously ill from malaria. The vaccine helped to protect children from five months until they reached five years old. It was not 100 per cent effective, but it would contribute to greatly reducing serious illness and death from malaria.

There had been a few instances of resistance to the vaccine, but it was still highly effective. Malaria developed quickly in the body, sometimes making impossible to get to the doctor on time, so preventive measures such as the vaccine were very important.

From 2000 until 2015, considerable progress had been made in the fight against malaria, and deaths had been cut by about half. In the last six years however, progress in reducing malaria had stalled, partly due to a lack of funding, partly due to increasing populations, and partly due to interventions not being 100 per cent effective. It was thus important to continue to develop new interventions. The Sub-Saharan African region was the most severely affected. African malaria cases represented about 90 per cent of global figures.

The vaccine against malaria was under development before the COVID vaccine, but the WHO had learned lessons from the development of the COVID vaccine. New platforms that had been developed for the COVID vaccine would be used in the development of future malaria vaccines.

The manufacturer, GSK, had agreed to provide the vaccine at the manufacturing cost plus five per cent. WHO expected that as the scale of production increased and competing vaccines emerged, the cost would decline.

Announcements

Mark Grassi, for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said that a press conference would be held on Tuesday 26 April at 9:40 Geneva time in room B-128 of the Palais des Nations to launch the UNEP’s Sand and Sustainability 2022 report. The report’s coordinator and UNEP Global Resource Information Database-Geneva Director, Pascal Peduzzi, would present the report and answer questions.

Mr. Grassi said that sand was vital to economic development. It was needed to produce concrete and build vital infrastructure ranging from homes and roads to hospitals and schools. However, sand was not infinite, and was being used faster than it could be naturally regenerated. Demand had tripled over the last two decades. Depending on how and where it was extracted, it could also have major harmful impacts on livelihoods and the environment, for example due to erosion.

The report would put forward solutions for improved extraction and management of sand resources. It also laid out viable alternatives to sand for building, and set out specific recommendations for different sectors to help make sand management sustainable.

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, said that today was International Mother Earth Day. Ms. Vellucci cited the Secretary-General, who said that we humans had been poor custodians of our fragile home. Today, the Earth was facing a triple planetary crisis: climate disruption, nature and biodiversity loss, pollution and waste.

However, the Secretary-General said that there was still hope. Fifty years ago, the world came together for the Stockholm Conference. It was the start of the global environmental movement. Since then, we had seen what was possible when we act as one.

He warned the world that we needed to do much more, much faster. “We must limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees,” he said.

He further stated that in June, the world would gather once again in Sweden for the Stockholm+50 meeting. “Let us make sure our leaders bring the ambition and action needed to address our triple planetary emergency. Because we have only one Mother Earth. We must do everything we can to protect her,” he concluded. The full message had been distributed to the journalists.

Ms Vellucci also said that the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) would hold a press conference to launch its Global Assessment Report (GAR) on Disaster Risk Reduction 2022, “Our World at Risk: Transforming Governance for a Resilient Future” on Tuesday, April 26 at 2pm in a hybrid format. Speaking at the conference would be Ricardo Mena, Director of UNDRR; Francesca Perucci, Chief, Development Data and Outreach Branch, Statistics Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations and GAR Contributing Author; and Lisa Robinson, BBC Media Action, Lead Author of GAR 2022 chapter on “Advancing risk communication”.   

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (106th session, 11 to 29 April), was concluding this morning its review of the report of Kazakhstan. It would then conclude next Friday its session and issue its concluding observations on the reports of the four countries reviewed during the 106th session: Cameroon, Luxembourg, Estonia and Kazakhstan.

The Committee Against Torture (73rd session, 19 April – 13 May) would have next Monday morning a meeting with the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT). Instead of this afternoon as initially planned, it would conclude the review of the report of Cuba next Friday morning (29 April). Other countries to be reviewed during the session were Iraq (26 April am and 27 pm), Montenegro (27 April am and 28 pm), Kenya (4 May am and 5 pm) and Uruguay (5 May am and 6 pm).

On April 24, the international community would commemorate the International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace. The day had special significance in Geneva, the home of multilateralism. UNIS would launch a webpage to commemorate the day on the UN Geneva website, on which a message from the Secretary-General would be displayed. Ms. Vellucci invited all persons to visit the website and watch the interviews posted on it.

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