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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 virtual briefing, attended by the spokespersons of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Refugee Agency and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Human rights situation on the Poland-Belarus border

Elizabeth Throssell, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that an OHCHR team had visited Poland from 29 November to 3 December but had not been granted access to the restricted border area. Regrettably, Belarus had not accepted the Office’s request for a visit.

The team had met with government officials and civil society representatives and had conducted interviews with 31 people who had arrived in Poland through Belarus between August and November 2021. The interviewees had described dire conditions on both sides of the border, with no or limited access to food, clean water or shelter, often amid freezing temperatures. Most had said that, while in Belarus, they had been beaten or threatened by security forces, who had forced them to cross the border and had prevented people from leaving the border area to return to Minsk. OHCHR called on Belarus to conduct full investigations into the disturbing allegations and put an immediate end to such practices.

The team had also heard numerous reports of people being immediately and automatically returned to Belarus from Poland. Recurring practices by both countries meant that many of the interviewees had crossed the border multiple times. OHCHR urged Poland to review its legislation allowing for people who entered through unofficial border crossings to be immediately returned and to detain migrants only as an exceptional measure of last resort.

The lack of access to the border area for human rights and humanitarian organizations, lawyers and media was deeply concerning. The team had also heard about the challenging conditions in which those supporting refugees and other migrants were working.

In an atmosphere dominated by a focus on security and fuelled by anti-migrant narratives, practice and policy choices were being made on both sides that violated the human rights of refugees and migrants. OHCHR reminded the European Union (EU) and EU member States of their obligation to uphold human rights at external EU borders.

The full briefing note can be found here.

Replying to questions from journalists, Ms. Throssell said that OHCHR did not have any information regarding the allegations of mass graves along the border but called on the authorities to investigate them. The International Organization for Migration was monitoring the situation and reported 21 deaths along the Belarus-EU border in 2021. Some individuals had been able to return to their countries of origin. The local population and NGOs were not being actively prevented from providing assistance, though they were not authorized into the border area. OHCHR no longer had an expert resident in Belarus but would maintain its engagement with the authorities of both Belarus and Poland.

Protest violence in the Sudan

Elizabeth Throssell, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR had received deeply disturbing reports of sexual violence and harassment by security forces during demonstrations in Khartoum on Sunday, 19 December 2021. The Joint Human Rights Office in the Sudan had received allegations that 13 women and girls had been victims of rape or gang rape and that women trying to flee the area around the Presidential Palace had been sexually harassed by security forces. Two protesters had died after being shot, and around 300 others had been injured. The demonstrations had been organized to mark the third anniversary of the protests that had resulted in the overthrow of President Bashir in April 2019 and to protest against the military coup of 25 October and the political agreement signed on 21 November 2021.

OHCHR called for a prompt, independent and thorough investigation into the allegations of rape and sexual harassment, as well as the allegations of death and injury of protesters as a result of the unnecessary or disproportionate use of force. With further protests planned for the coming weekend and beyond, it was crucial that security forces guaranteed the right to peaceful assembly and acted with full respect for international laws and standards regulating the use of force. It also called on the national authorities to make public the findings of the committee of senior prosecutors tasked with investigating all human rights violations and other incidents since the military coup with a view to holding those responsible to account.

OHCHR was also deeply concerned at the increase in intercommunal violence in Darfur and South Kordofan as a result of which at least 250 civilians had been killed, 197 injured and over 50,000 displaced since September. It urged the national authorities to ensure that the temporary joint protection force received comprehensive training on human rights and international humanitarian law before deployment. It was essential that those responsible for the human rights violations and abuses were held accountable, regardless of their affiliation.

The full briefing note is available here.

Thousands of Congolese refugees in Zambia opt to head home

Babar Baloch, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that nearly 5,000 refugees who had fled violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo four years ago were opting to head home voluntarily from Zambia in the coming months, with the first 100 people setting out on 21 December. UNHCR and the Zambian authorities had begun the voluntary repatriation of Congolese refugees from Mantapala settlement to Pweto, Haut-Katanga Province, as security had improved sufficiently to allow for their return in safety and dignity. The voluntary repatriation would continue into 2022 as part of the tripartite agreement signed in 2006. An estimated 20,000 refugees had spontaneously left Zambia since 2018 to return to their areas of origin in Haut-Katanga. UNHCR was working with authorities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and development partners to advance reintegration projects.

The full briefing note can be found here.

Myanmar

In response to journalists, Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that the United Nations maintained a presence in Myanmar that was coordinating the humanitarian work of various agencies on the ground. Ms. Vellucci added that extensive information on the United Nations presence in that country was available here.

Announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said that the UNIS press briefings would resume on 4 January 2022. The first two briefings of the year would be virtual.

Ms. Vellucci also said that today was the last day of the Secretary-General’s visit to Lebanon. He would be giving a press conference at approximately noon, which would be webcast live on UN Web TV.

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