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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 Human Rights Council (HRC), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Arbitrary killing of nine activists in the Philippines

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was appalled by the apparently arbitrary killing of nine activists in simultaneous police-military operations in Batangas, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal provinces. According to available information, the eight men and one woman were killed in joint police and military operations that reportedly began at around 3:15 a.m. on 7 March in execution of search warrants issued by a Manila court in the context of the Government’s counter-insurgency campaign against the New People’s Army. Among those killed were a labour rights activist, a couple who worked on the rights of fishing communities, two housing rights activists and two indigenous rights activists. Six people had reportedly been arrested during the operations. The execution of search warrants had resulted in killings on previous occasions.

OHCHR welcomed the Government’s commitment to investigate those cases, and the United Nations was working with the Government to strengthen domestic investigative mechanisms. However, OHCHR stressed that the mechanisms must be prompt, transparent and effective in order to meet international standards. The High Commissioner’s June 2020 report to the Human Rights Council on the Philippines documented a serious lack of due process in police operations and near-total impunity for the use of lethal force by the police and military.

OHCHR was deeply worried that the latest killings indicated an escalation in violence, intimidation, harassment and “red-tagging” – the accusation of being fronts for the armed wing of the Communist party – of human rights defenders.

The full briefing note is available here.

In response to journalists, Ms. Shamdasani said that, in addition to the most recent killings, nine other activists had been killed in December 2020, two lawyers had been killed between November and December 2020 and four journalists had been killed between May and November 2020. However, those were only the cases OHCHR had been able to document and typically involved prominent human rights defenders connected with well-established organizations. While there had been a lot of Government engagement with the United Nations, including through an advisory and capacity-building programme, there had been no concrete progress on accountability. Furthermore, the investigations carried out by the National Human Rights Commission were credible, but they did not lead to prosecutions. She recalled that the Secretary for Justice had spoken at the current session of the Human Rights Council about a review of cases where anti-drug operations had resulted in lethal force by the police, which had raised a lot of questions about due process. Though the review was welcome, much more needed to be done to end impunity.

Also in response to journalists, Ms. Shamdasani said that the High Commissioner, as a former doctor and Head of State, was keenly aware of the issues around the importance and accessibility of vaccines and did not wish to see the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine suffer from the same inequities seen in other domains. Hoarding vaccines was counterproductive, and the High Commissioner had called on all States to support the COVAX Vaccine Global Access Facility.

Legislation about face-covering

Replying to a question, Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that using the law to dictate what women should wear was problematic from a human rights perspective. Women should not be forced to cover their faces, but a statutory ban on face-coverings would unduly restrict women’s freedom to manifest their religion or beliefs and further marginalize and exclude them from public life. Under article 18 (3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, that freedom could only be subjected to limitations necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. Vague justifications on how the wearing of face coverings would be a threat to safety, health or the rights of others could not be considered a legitimate reason for such an invasive restriction of fundamental freedoms.

Arguments in favour of such ban in various European countries, including Switzerland, called into question the free agency of women who wore face coverings and punished them further for something that, in some cases, was beyond their control. OHCHR appreciated the fact that the Swiss Federal Government had opposed the initiative; however, now that the initiative had been approved, following a political publicity campaign with strong xenophobic undertones, Switzerland was joining the small number of countries where active discrimination against Muslim women was now sanctioned by law.

Concerns ahead of the legislative elections in the Central African Republic

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said that the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) continued to support the preparations for the second round of the legislative elections on 14 March. On 5 March, Mission staff in Markounda had met with the local commander of the Coalition des patriotes pour le changement (CPC)/Front populaire pour la renaissance de la Centrafrique, who had expressed his commitment to facilitate peaceful legislative elections in Markounda and the surrounding areas. In addition, the Mission was completing the deployment of election materials in all 16 prefectures and would be providing security services in the context of the elections.

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was very worried about the volatile situation in the Central African Republic and the risk of renewed violence. The electoral process in December had been marked by violence linked primarily to a new coalition of armed groups, known as the CPC, who opposed the holding of elections and had launched a violent boycott of the process. As a result, there had been a steep increase in documented human rights violations and abuses.

Between 1 October and 31 December 2020, the Human Rights Division of MINUSCA had documented 185 such incidents, 86 per cent of which were attributable to armed groups. The incidents included the killing and abduction of civilians, attacks on United Nations peacekeepers, seven of whom had been killed in December and January, and the destruction of polling stations and election materials.

The post-electoral period had also been characterized by human rights violations and abuses committed during counter-offensives against the armed groups by Central African defence and security forces and their allies.

In that context, the imposition of a nationwide curfew and the decision to extend the state of emergency had resulted in a fragile situation in which human rights might be further at risk. OHCHR reminded the authorities that security forces must protect civilians, prevent violence and act in conformity with international law, that any allegations of violations must be thoroughly, impartially and effectively investigated and that those responsible must be held accountable.

The full briefing note is available here.

Replying to questions, Ms. Shamdasani said that there were overseas militia involved in the crimes, but their provenance had not been verified. The considerable lawlessness was why OHCHR was raising the alarm and reminding the Government that, despite the challenges on the ground, it had a duty to protect civilians, ensure the elections went ahead freely and without the fear of violence and bring perpetrators of abuse to trial. The Human Rights Division of MINUSCA was conducting monitoring, though it was hampered by the size of the country and the security situation.

Human Rights Council update

Rolando Gomez, for the Human Rights Council, in follow-up to Ms. Shamdasani’s statements, said that the Central African Republic was very much on the Council’s agenda, and an interactive discussion was scheduled on 19 March, with special emphasis on the fight against impunity. Representatives of MINUSCA and the Government were expected to take part. The Philippines and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines were also on the agenda. In fact, a draft resolution on the latter issue had been discussed that morning.

Regarding the Council’s programme, he said that a debate on item 3 – promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development – was under way and was expected to last into the next day. That afternoon would be devoted to the reports of the Special Representative on the impact of armed conflict on children and the Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran. An oral update on the fact-finding mission to Venezuela was scheduled for 4 p.m. on 10 March.

Mr. Gomez recalled that the deadline for submission of draft resolutions was 11 March. Thirty were expected and would all be available on the extranet.

In response to a question, Mr. Gomez said that Ecuador was the main penholder for the draft resolution on vaccine accessibility, along with a cross-regional group of States.

February weather and climate statistics

Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said that the data were showing very mixed patterns with regard to the northern hemisphere winter and southern hemisphere summer. For boreal winter, the region with the most above-average temperatures covered northeastern Canada, Greenland and the Arctic Ocean, whereas Siberia stood out as the region with the most below-average temperatures. February had been much colder than its 1991–2020 average over much of Russia and North America, but much warmer than average over parts of the Arctic and other parts of the world. The United States of America had had its coldest February since 1989, essentially because of the polar vortex. The swirling westerly Jet Stream winds were typically strong enough to keep the coldest air in the Arctic during the winter, but a weakening had allowed that air to spill out. None of that negated climate change or reversed the long-term rise in temperatures. Cold waves were becoming rarer and heat waves much more frequent, and green house gas concentrations continued to rise.

New 30-year baseline for calculating above-average temperatures

Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said that, with the start of a new decade and at the recommendation of WMO, Europe’s Copernicus Climate Change Service and some national meteorological and hydrological services in Europe had recently switched to the new 1991–2020 baseline to calculate climatological averages. Prior to now, the most current and widely used standard reference period had been the period 1981–2010. It was necessary to update climate normals to support decision-makers in climate sensitive sectors, such as agriculture, health, energy, infrastructure and transportation. However, for the purposes of historical comparison and climate change monitoring, WMO still recommended the use of the 1961–1990 period. For its annual state of the climate reports, WMO used the pre-industrial era (1850–1900) as the baseline because that was what had been used in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Replying to questions, Ms. Nullis said that switching to the new 30-year baseline entailed considerable work, so developed countries tended to be quicker at implementing it. WMO offered technical assistance to developing countries who wished to make the switch. WMO and other organizations purposely did not use the misleading term “global warming”, preferring instead the term “climate change”, which encompassed many facets, including extreme weather and melting ice caps. Active investigation was ongoing into whether the melting of Arctic ice was affecting atmospheric and ocean circulation patterns, which would have an impact on the weather in parts of the world. What had been seen in 2020–2021 was so-called “blocking patterns”, with effects in the United States and elsewhere. Current higher rain fall in Central America was likely due to the residual effects of La Niña; more neutral patterns were expected to return to the region by the northern summer.

Hurricane Committee meeting

Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said that Hurricane Committee would be meeting virtually on 15–17 March. A press release would be issued at the start and end of the meeting.

In response to a journalist, Ms. Nullis said that the meeting would be divided between reviewing the previous, record-breaking season through reports from all the members in North and Central America and the Caribbean and considering an operational plan for the 2021 season, including the refinement of early-warning systems. The Committee would also consider retiring names of particularly destructive or deadly hurricanes. WMO did not issue forecasts for hurricane season, but the United States of America usually did in May.

Announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said that UNIS had sent an extensive note the previous day on the Strategic Heritage Plan and how journalists who had offices or booths in the Palais could prepare for their move during the renovations. Questions could be directed to Rhéal LeBlanc and François Richer.

Ms. Vellucci also said that the Conference on Disarmament would be holding two public plenary meetings that day, at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., still under the presidency of Ambassador Gonçalo de Barros Carvalho e Mello Mourão of Brazil.

The Human Rights Committee would review the periodic report of Kenya on 9–11 March at virtual meetings to run from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities had opened its twenty-fourth session on 8 March and would review the periodic report of Estonia on 12, 15 and 17 March at virtual meetings to run from 12.30 p.m. to 2.30 p.m.

Ms. Vellucci announced that the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) would hold a virtual press conference on Tuesday, 9 March, at 3.30 p.m., on 12 months of COVID-19 and the deadly gap in global plans to equitably roll out COVID-19 vaccines. Speakers would include Francesco Rocca, IFRC President, and Emanuele Capobianco, IFRC Director of Health. The report was under embargo until 10 March, at 12.01 a.m.

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction would hold a virtual press conference on Wednesday, 10 March, at 11 a.m, on the tenth anniversary of the great east Japan earthquake and tsunami. The speakers would be Mami Mizutori, Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, and Dr. Vladimir Ryabinin, Executive Secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, UNESCO.

Replying to questions, Margaret Harris, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that WHO was not a co-sponsor of the event on vaccine supply organized on 9 and 10 March by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations and Dr. Tedros would not be speaking, but WHO experts would be taking part.

 

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