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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 Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the World Health Organization, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Organization for Migration, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the United Nations Development Programme and the World Meteorological Organization.

Ukraine

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), referring to the statement by the Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, at a Security Council meeting on 7 March, said that Mr. Griffiths had underlined the need to respect and protect civilians, whether they stayed in or left Ukraine. There must also be safe passage for humanitarian supplies, especially to where needs were acute. A system to make that happen was urgently needed. Mr. Griffiths had furthermore stated that the basis for safe passage for people to leave, and for supplies to enter, included route clarity and safety; the contact numbers of those running convoys in and out of the country; knowledge of the timing for movements and an understanding of their purpose; and a hotline in case something did not work according to plan. There was good cooperation with the Ukrainian authorities on those and other matters. Since 7 March, OCHA had a team in Moscow to liaise with the authorities there, including the Ministry of Defence, to make progress on deconfliction. The team had met on 7 March and would meet again on 8 March.

Tarik Jašarević, for the World Health Organization (WHO), calling in from Lviv, said that the current priority for WHO was to bring supplies into Ukraine in order to protect and preserve the health system, which was under huge pressure. Hundreds of health facilities were in areas that had undergone a change in control, or were in the vicinity of explosions or combat. The security situation, and also the resulting damages in infrastructure made it difficult for the population to access facilities, and also for much-needed supplies, including food and water, to reach them. In recent days, 76 metric tons of supplies had been brought in through western Ukraine. On the previous evening, 5 tons of supplies, mainly consisting of surgical kits, had been delivered to Kyiv, in cooperation with the health authorities. Many Ukrainians fleeing their homes were now in Lviv, where the authorities were providing care to them, before they moved onto Poland. The direst needs were currently in eastern Ukraine. WHO condemned the attacks on health facilities, which were a violation of international humanitarian law and deprived communities of basic health services. So far, 16 reports of such attacks had been verified; they had left 9 people dead and 16 injured, some of them health workers. There could be no health without peace.

Jessica Letch, for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), speaking from Budapest, said that there was a massive upswell in humanitarian needs, the likes of which had not been seen in Europe for decades. IFRC had made an initial appeal for CHF100 million to support some 2 million people in need in Ukraine; that figure would likely be revised upwards in the coming weeks. Three groups of people had been identified so far: people in Ukraine, including the displaced, host communities, and those sheltering in place; people on the move, along the border; and the displaced and host communities abroad. The current focus was on Poland, which had received the largest numbers of people crossing over the border from Ukraine. It was clear that needs would increase in many other European countries, each of which would have various levels of capacity to receive a large influx of people. Good data was crucial to making reliable assessments.

European countries had been generous in responding to the initial appeal for material goods, which had been distributed quickly. It was important to provide cash so that people in need could get the assistance they needed when they needed it. Emergency shelter would become an increasingly widespread need, with high rates of homelessness expected in Ukraine and beyond. Emphasis would be placed on protection, health and psycho-social assistance, given the huge amount of trauma and shock among people in Ukraine. The health and safety of staff and of the affected population was also critical, bearing in mind that Ukraine had one of the lowest levels of vaccination against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Europe. IFRC was working to sustain staff and volunteers for eight simultaneous operations in Europe, while upholding the principles of humanity, impartiality, dignity, access, participation and safety for all those affected by the crisis.

Ewan Watson, for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said that the situation in Ukraine was deeply distressing. He reiterated the appeal of ICRC to all the parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law. In Mariupol, hundreds of thousands of people were trapped and fast running out of medical supplies, food and water. ICRC was desperately trying to facilitate the dialogue between the parties to the conflict in order to allow sustained humanitarian access to Mariupol and elsewhere. It stood ready to play a neutral intermediary role to obtain the safe passage of civilians out of Mariupol, where the situation could be described as apocalyptic. ICRC had depleted its stocks of supplies throughout the country, distributing most of it through the Ukrainian Red Cross to hospitals and shelters. It was bringing aid in as fast as it could, but the security situation ought to allow for that to happen on a regular basis. Since the start of the crisis, ICRC had delivered aid to 16 areas in Ukraine, including 2.5 tons of insulin in Odesa. In Kyiv, it had delivered war-wounded kits and other urgent medical supplies to hospitals. In Mariupol, it had given out first-aid kits to the Ukrainian Red Cross, war-wounded kits to hospitals, and food and other items to those sheltering in bunkers. The situation was fluid and needs were changing as the conflict evolved. ICRC had brought in a weapon contamination team to provide support related to unexploded ordinance.

Elizabeth Throssel, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the High Commissioner, as part of her global update to the Human Rights Council on 8 March, had repeated her urgent call for a peaceful end to the hostilities in Ukraine and called on all parties to the conflict to take effective action to enable civilians trapped in areas affected by active hostilities to safely leave.

To date, OHCHR had recorded at least 1,207 civilian casualties, including 406 people killed and 801 injured, since the latest armed conflict had begun on 24 February. However, the exact figures were likely to be much higher as ongoing hostilities had made it difficult to verify cases in many parts of the country. Most of the civilian casualties were from airstrikes and explosive weapons used by Russian forces with wide area effects. As a result, hundreds of residential buildings in many cities had been damaged and destroyed.

OHCHR was alarmed by numerous reports of threats and actual harm against journalists. It was also concerned by reports of arbitrary detention of people perceived as pro-Ukrainian in areas that had recently come under the control of armed groups in the east and by reports of violence against those considered to be pro-Russian in Ukrainian government-controlled territories. In Russia, some 12 people had been arbitrarily arrested for holding peaceful anti-war protests, and new criminal code amendments had introduced heavy fines and prison terms of up to 15 years for disseminating information deemed fake by the authorities or discrediting the Russian armed forces. OHCHR was concerned by that and other overly broad and repressive laws that restricted freedom of expression, including media freedom, and hindered the free enjoyment of other civil and political rights.

Paul Dillon, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that, among the 2 million people that had fled Ukraine to neighbouring states as a result of the ongoing war, some 103,000 were third-country nationals from dozens of countries. As part of its response to the crisis, IOM had partnered with Airbnb.org to connect people fleeing from Ukraine to free short-term housing in Poland, Moldova, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia. The provision of safe, private and accessible accommodation was of critical importance for the physical and emotional well-being of people fleeing from violence.

Responding to questions from journalists, Shabia Mantoo, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that just 12 days after the conflict had begun, there were already 2 million refugees scattered in various countries, including 1.2 million in Poland, and the remainder primarily in Hungary, Slovakia, the Republic of Moldova, Romania, the Russian Federation and Belarus. UNHCR had been assured that all borders were open and that people were able to access safety and protection. Nevertheless, it had raised concerns regarding the treatment of third-country nationals with all the relevant authorities. Mr. Dillon added that IOM had been regularly expressing concern at the situation of third-country nationals, many of whom remained stranded in Ukraine, and had assisted many in getting home already. Mr. Watson for ICRC, noted that the Committee referred to the “safe passage of civilians”, rather than “humanitarian corridors”, which was not a term established in international humanitarian law; he said that the parties to the conflict must guarantee the safe passage of civilians and facilitate humanitarian access to them. Those elements should be detailed in an agreement between the parties setting out the main terms by which safe passage would occur. Without such an agreement, the current situation, in which an agreement had been reached in principle, but was not observed in practice, would continue. Another important element was that the exit point as determined in the agreement between the parties to the conflict had to be a safe area for the civilians to be evacuated, who had to be informed of the details of the agreement so as to be able to make an individual decision to leave or to stay.

Responding to further questions from journalists, Mr. Laerke for OCHA said that deconfliction pertained first and foremost to the movement of humanitarian supplies, staff, facilities and infrastructure, and aimed to offer an additional layer of protection, on top of that already afforded under international humanitarian law. If parties were informed of convoy movements, it should make it easier for the parties to a conflict to adhere to international humanitarian law and to lessen the risk of an accident or attack involving such movements. Mr. Watson added that ICRC was not a guarantor of any ceasefire or safe passage agreement. It was the parties to the conflict themselves that must reach an agreement and then adhere to it.

Responding to a question about the weapon contamination team just deployed by ICRC, Mr. Watson said that the team’s mission was twofold: to ensure that ICRC was able to operate safely, for instance by verifying that nearby buildings were free from unexploded ordinance; and, at a later point, to work with communities to make sure they understood the risks of unexploded ordinance.

Responding to a question about volunteer fighters from third-country nationals, Mr. Watson said that picking up arms to fight in a conflict came with obligations, including clearly displaying weapons and wearing insignia indicating which side a person was fighting on. Those obligations were crucial so that civilians could be distinguished from those in combat.

Responding to a question about the role of the Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, Ms. Vellucci said that, from the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, the Director-General had expressed clear support for the statements and actions of the Secretary-General on the situation. UNOG had hosted an array of meetings, including as part of the ongoing sessions of the Human Rights Council and Conference on Disarmament, to facilitate discussions; UNOG was a holding up to its role as a hub for dialogue and ultimately to restore peace. Answering a further question on whether the Director-General had clearly stated her position on the crisis in Ukraine, Ms. Vellucci answered that while the Director-General had not had the occasion to make official speeches since the beginning of the crisis, she had clearly stated her support to the Secretary-General on several occasions, including on social media.

Women in Myanmar

Sarah Bel, for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), said that UNDP and UN-Women were launching, on 8 March, the findings of a new survey on the impact of rising violence and insecurity on women in Myanmar.

Jaco Cilliers, for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), said that gender equality was regressing in Myanmar in an alarming way. Violence had increased at an worrying rate, with women feeling threatened both at home and in the public space. Women’s livelihoods were seriously impacted and their access to health care had become limited. The situation deserved the attention of the international community.

High Commissioner plans to visit China

Responding to a question from a journalist, Elizabeth Throssel, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the United Nations High Commissioner had recently announced that an agreement had been reached with the Chinese Government regarding an upcoming visit to Xinjiang and other locations. The agreement included the parameters and methodology for the visit, such as unfettered access to a broad range of actors, including civil society.

Femicides in Mexico

Responding to a question from a journalist, Elizabeth Throssel, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR and its office in Mexico had long monitored the issue of femicide in Mexico, among other places, and it continued to be an issue of great concern.

International Women’s Day

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva drew attention to the Secretary-General’s statement on International Women’s Day, in which he emphasized the need for more women leaders and declared that now was the time to turn the clock forward for women’s rights.

Tribute to the memory of Hedayat Abd El Nabi, former President of ACANU

Ms. Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga, for the Association of Accredited Correspondents at the United Nations (ACANU), paid tribute to the memory of Hedayat Abd El Nabi.

Other announcements

Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), stressing that water was at the frontline of climate change and that integrated action was needed to deal with the related challenges, said that WMO would be hosting a press conference and issuing an urgent call for action on 8 March, at 2 p.m., at WMO Headquarters.

Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that WHO would soon issue two statements: an interim statement on COVID-19 vaccines in the context of the circulation of the Omicron SARS-CoV-2 Variant from the WHO Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 Vaccine Composition (TAG-CO-VAC); and new guidelines and recommendations on safe abortion, to protect the health of women and girls.

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that on, 8 March, the Human Rights Council had concluded its discussion on the High Commissioner’s report on the Tigray region of Ethiopia and would go on to hear High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet's global update addressing human rights developments around the world and the work of her Office. The High Commissioner would also be presenting reports on Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Cyprus and Eritrea; those reports would be followed by a general debate with statements from States and NGOs. The Human Rights Committee had concluded its consideration of the report of Iraq on the morning of 8 March and would begin its consideration of the report of Bolivia that afternoon. The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which had opened its twenty-sixth session on 7 March, had begun considering the report of Hungary on the morning of 8 March, and would continue to do so on 9 and 10 March in the morning. In the afternoon of 8 March, the Committee would begin consideration of the report of Jamaica.

Lastly, Ms Vellucci announced that the Conference on Disarmament would hold its next plenary meeting on 8 March, at 3 p.m., at which the President, Ambassador Alicia Victoria Arango Olmos of Colombia, would present an update on the work of the Coordinators of the Subsidiary Groups and open the floor for delegations to speak on the topic. To commemorate the International Women’s Day, the Presidency would then hold an informal meeting dedicated to discussing the importance of including women’s perspectives on the topics of the agenda of the Conference on Disarmament. Turning to the subject of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said that, as of 7 March, and since the previous update in January, there had been 83 new COVID-19 positive cases among Secretariat staff in Geneva, bringing the total number of such cases since the beginning of the pandemic to 762 cases.

 

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