PRESS BRIEFING BY THE UNITED NATIONS INFORMATION SERVICE
Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, chaired the hybrid briefing, which was attended by spokespersons and representatives from the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Labour Organization and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora Secretariat.
Gaza Crisis Update
Samer Abdeljaber, Country Director for Palestine, World Food Programme (WFP), said he had visited Gaza many times. He had met with families who had lost everything, escalation after escalation, but had always found ways to keep their hopes alive. These families had told him that the current situation was unlike anything they had ever seen.
More than 1.4 million people in Gaza had been forced to flee their homes. Nearly half were residing in United Nations shelters, which were in fact schools. More than 70 people were sleeping and eating in classrooms. Nowhere in Gaza was safe. Shelters had been impacted by airstrikes and violence.
Food was running out and there was limited access to water and electricity across the entire region, affecting over two million people. Bakeries would shut within days if fuel was not allowed in. People were risking their lives and cueing for hours to secure bread, and many were going back to shelters with no bread. The notion of a warm meal was out of reach. There was no way for people to cook. A WFP staff member in Gaza said, “The situation is like a nightmare that we cannot wake up from.”
Humanitarian convoys had been trickling in since 21 October after two weeks of no cargo going into Gaza, but their scale and frequency were nowhere near enough to eliminate the suffering of the people. To date, WFP had brought in nine trucks of food assistance, but that was less than two per cent of the food needed to reach the people in need. For every person receiving assistance, six more were in need. In the communities, WFP continued to provide food vouchers. Overall, WFP had reached over 650,000 thousand people in Gaza and the West Bank, but this was not enough.
WFP was continuing to position food in different locations outside Gaza, so it was able to immediately respond once access was granted. It continued to advocate for more crossings to be opened to allow it to reach more people. It planned to reach more than one million people over the next two months with a lifeline of food. This would not be possible without continued safe, scaled-up access and additional fuel to allow bakeries to run and food to be distributed.
WFP worked with 23 bakeries to provide fresh bread for 200,000 people in shelters. However, with the shortage of fuel, there were currently only two bakeries in operation; tomorrow, there might be none. We could not sit and wait for people to starve.
More than half a million people in Gaza were struggling to afford basic meals before the crisis. It had some of the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the world. Mr. Abdeljaber said he could not fathom the sheer desperation that they must currently be feeling. Over 100,000 infants in Gaza were likely to be exposed to infectious diseases and malnutrition unless food reached them soon.
WFP was urging for safe humanitarian access to deliver supplies into Gaza at a scale that matched the needs. Twenty trucks a day was not enough. Civilians, essential services and humanitarian personnel needed to be protected.
Palestinians in the West Bank had also been facing increased violence, arrests and movement restrictions. WFP echoed the United Nations Secretary-General’s call for a humanitarian ceasefire. The people of Gaza needed continuous aid delivery. Mr. Abdeljaber said humanitarians in Gaza were working tirelessly and bravely to deliver assistance. He expressed his support to all humanitarian workers in Gaza.
Richard Peeperkorn, Occupied Palestinian Territory representative for the World Health Organization (WHO), said WHO had reported data on 7,045 deaths, of which 55 per cent were males, 45 per cent were females. From the total, 41 per cent were children. It had also reported 80,482 injured people, of which 34 per cent were female and 67 per cent were male. From the total, 33 per cent were children.
WHO was calling for sustained access for fuel, food, water, medical supplies into Gaza. An estimated 200 critical patients needed to be evacuated out of Gaza. 1,000 patients needed kidney dialysis, for which fuel was needed. 130 premature babies were in incubators; 2,000 cancer patients were at risk; and multiple patients were in intensive care units, on ventilators and receiving machine-assisted care. Medical equipment was increasingly not functioning.
The health system in Gaza had always been remarkably resilient. Health facilities were rationing and stretching supplies to maintain critical functions, which were at acute risk as fuel and health supplies were running out. Gaza health workers were continuing to serve patients. 23 of the 35 hospitals were still partially functioning. There were only eight hospitals with surgical capacity south of Wadi Gaza, which were all partially functional. 94,000 litres of fuel were needed to keep the 12 major hospitals functioning. 65 per cent of primary health care clinics were not functioning, and 64 per cent of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) primary health care clinics were closed.
Sixteen health workers had been killed on duty, thirty had been injured, twenty-four ambulances had been damaged and thirty-four health facilities affected. Trauma and injuries were worsening due to increasing daily casualties. Hospitals were overwhelmed. All supplies were short.
There were 350,000 non communicable diseases patients in Gaza. The maternal and neonatal situation was acutely worsening. There were 50,000 pregnant women, with an average of 183 births per day. In overcrowded shelters and hospitals, there was an increasing number of respiratory tract infections and cases of diarrhoea due to deteriorating water and sanitary conditions. Mental health issues were also increasing, both for the general population and for health workers.
The five WHO trucks had distributed enough essential supplies, including primary health care medication, stretchers and tents, for approximately 300,000 people to seven hospitals, five in the south and two in the north. Minimal fuel requirements had been delivered to six major hospitals in south Gaza, with support from UNRWA. Nothing had been delivered to the north.
WHO estimated that 50 million United States dollars was needed to support the health response efforts in the coming three months, including 30 million dollars for supplies. The overall flash appeal for over 290 million United States dollars was being substantially updated.
The WHO team in Gaza, a team of seasoned medical doctors, was still operational. This team was devasted. They had never seen scenes such as these. Doctors were operating in corridors without anaesthetics. The smell of death was everywhere. Dead children were everywhere.
Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk was appealing to all sides to heed the calls for peace. The violence needed to end and there needed to be strong efforts to seek an alternative to this carnage.
For almost three weeks, Palestinian civilians in Gaza had endured relentless bombing by Israel from air, land and sea. Thousands had been killed, lying dead amongst destroyed residential buildings, mosques and bakeries. OHCHR had received harrowing testimonies of entire families killed by airstrikes on their homes, including the families of its own staff members. Of parents writing children’s names on their arms to identify their future remains. Of the terrifying, sleepless nights people were spending in the open air, as airstrikes continued overhead. It mourned the loss of 57 UN colleagues and so many more civilians who were clearly disproportionately impacted.
Despite its repeated orders to residents of northern Gaza to move to the south, suggesting it is safe, Israeli Forces’ strikes on two southern Governorates and Middle Gaza had intensified in recent days. Meanwhile, heavy strikes on northern communities, including in Gaza city, continued. Nowhere was safe in Gaza.
Compelling people to evacuate in these circumstances, including to places such as “the Israeli designated area” of Al Mawasi, and while under a complete siege, raised serious concerns over forcible transfer, which was a war crime.
Israel’s use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in densely populated areas had caused extensive damage to civilian infrastructure and loss of civilian lives, which was difficult to reconcile with international humanitarian law.
Collective punishment was occurring through the choking-off of water, food, fuel and electricity. Fuel shortages were forcing the closure of hospitals and bakeries. People were being forced into shelters in increasingly dire conditions. Shelters were overcrowded, with poor sanitation and unsafe drinking water, bringing forward the spectre of disease outbreak. A humanitarian catastrophe was unfolding for the 2.2 million people locked inside Gaza who were being collectively punished.
Collective punishment was a war crime. Israel’s collective punishment of the entire population of Gaza needed to immediately cease. The use of dehumanising language against Palestinians also needed to be halted.
Indiscriminate attacks by Palestinian armed groups, including through the launching of unguided rockets into Israel, also needed to stop. They needed to immediately and unconditionally release all civilians who were captured and still being held. The taking of hostages was also a war crime.
The High Commissioner was appealing for efforts to seek human rights-based, lasting pathways towards peace for the people of Palestine and Israel. Efforts needed to be made to bring this escalation to an immediate end. It was of utmost importance that all those with influence negotiated a way out of this protracted, disastrous situation.
Peace, security and justice would not be found down this current path. The cycle of vengeance and bloodshed needed to end.
In response to questions, Ms. Vellucci said that the UN were continuing to engage through the normal channels with Israeli officials to get the visas that are needed for UN staff.
Dr. Peeperkorn said WHO had a team of 25 or 26 staff that was fully operational. It was doing whatever it could to deliver essential medical supplies. There was no safe place in Gaza, and the team was taking risks to carry out their mandates. Almost everyone on Gaza was mourning lost family and friends.
Some essential medicines for non-communicable diseases had been delivered to Gaza and were currently being distributed. However, this was a drop in the ocean of the required amount. There needed to be hundreds of trucks delivering essential supplies in a sustained manner. Goods needed to be distributed to the population all over Gaza. There were an estimated 40,000 internally displaced persons staying in one hospital in north Gaza, and 12,000 in another.
In every conflict and emergency, WHO relied on the data of the relevant health authorities. Yesterday, WHO received a list detailing name of people killed since the conflict began, which included over 6,700 people, and there were over 200 unidentified deaths. Dr. Peeperkorn expressed confidence in the figures but said that determining the exact number of deaths was not as important as preventing further deaths. Regardless of the exact figure, the thousands of deaths that were occurring were too many.
Evacuating critical patients from hospitals was very difficult in the current circumstances. The Egyptian Government was ready to take on critical patients in their hospitals.
Mr. Abdeljaber, said many WFP staff who took refuge in shelters in south Gaza had had to find other places because many shelters were overcrowded. Many staff were traumatised, having lost family members. Staff were courageous, asking how they could help in spite of the situation. The people of Gaza were showing their resilience.
WFP had around 40 trucks ready to go into Gaza once border crossings were open, and many more were being prepared. The needs were much higher than what was going into Gaza. To meet the humanitarian needs, around 100 trucks of food a day were needed. Scaled-up, continuous support was needed in Gaza.
74 trucks had gone in this morning, but none had fuel. WFP was working on prioritising needs. The food system would completely collapse if fuel did not go in. Bakeries would not be able to source supplies without fuel. There was not enough fuel to move food to UN warehouses.
Ms. Shamdasani said many United Nations entities had staff in Gaza. Communication issues were hindering contact with these staff members. Some OHCHR staff members had several family members who had been killed. Many staff were sleeping outside, for fear of buildings collapsing. There were 10 OHCHR national staff in Gaza who were fleeing from one location to another. They were trying to continue their work given the circumstances. OHCHR also had 25 staff in the West Bank.
The High Commissioner was in touch with the Israeli authorities and the Palestinian Permanent Mission, and was very engaged on the issue. OHCHR was calling for the unconditional, immediate release of all families held hostage. OHCHR had documented an increase of arbitrary arrests of Palestinian workers in Israel. This was unacceptable.
OHCHR was calling on all States with influence to push for an end to the violence. There needed to be a political solution to the conflict and a de-escalation of the conflict.
Possible Deportation of Afghan Refugees by Pakistan
Ravina Shamdasani for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said OHCHR was extremely alarmed by Pakistan’s announcement that it planned to deport “undocumented” foreign nationals remaining in the country after 1 November, a measure that would disproportionately impact more than 1.4 million undocumented Afghans who remained in Pakistan.
There were more than two million undocumented Afghans living in Pakistan, at least 600,000 of whom left Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August 2021. The Office believed that many of those facing deportation would be at grave risk of human rights violations if returned to Afghanistan, including arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, cruel and other inhuman treatment.
Those at particular risk were civil society activists, journalists, human rights defenders, former government officials and security force members, and women and girls as a whole, who, as a result of the abhorrent policies currently in place in Afghanistan, were banned from secondary and tertiary education, working in many sectors and other aspects of daily and public life.
Already, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) had documented a sharp increase in returns to Afghanistan since the deadline was announced on 3 October. A recent flash report by UNHCR and IOM placed the number of Afghans who left Pakistan in the month to 15 October at 59,780 individuals. 78 per cent of those returning cited fear of arrest as the reason for leaving Pakistan.
As the 1 November deadline approached, OHCHR was urging the Pakistan authorities to suspend forcible returns of Afghan nationals before it was too late to avoid a human rights catastrophe. It called on them to continue providing protection to those in need and ensure that any future returns were safe, dignified and voluntary and fully consistent with international law.
Deportations without individualised determinations of personal circumstances, including any mass deportations, would amount to refoulement in violation of international human rights law, in particular the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which Pakistan was a State party, and of international refugee law.
As winter was approaching, any mass deportations were bound to deepen the dire humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, as it grappled with the devastating impact of a series of earthquakes that struck Herat Province this month, leaving at least 1,400 people dead and 1,800 injured, as per official figures. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), close to 30 million people were currently in need of relief assistance in Afghanistan - out of a population of 43 million - and 3.3 million were internally displaced.
OHCHR reminded the de facto authorities of the international human rights obligations that continued to bind Afghanistan as a State and their obligations to protect, promote and fulfil human rights.
In response to questions, Ms. Shamdasani said OHCHR was very worried that those were deported, in particular women, were facing a whole host of human rights violations. OHCHR had raised concerns with authorities in Pakistan. It had a presence in Pakistan that was continuing to monitor the situation and reports of abuse and torture.
Matthew Saltmarsh for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said Afghanistan was going through a severe humanitarian crisis, and deportations had severe implications for all those subjected to them. Returns needed to be safe, voluntary and dignified.
In response to questions on reports of suppression of political voices in the context of the Venezuelan elections, Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, said the Secretary-General was closely following developments in Venezuela. He had been calling on the authorities to guarantee full adherence and respect for the political rights of all citizens. He reiterated his call to implement in good faith the partial agreement on political rights and electoral guarantees for all that was signed in Barbados on 17 October. It was important that these commitments were implemented. Earlier on, the Secretary-General had commended the efforts of international partners in promoting the agreements and called for inclusive, transparent elections to be held.
Ravina Shamdasani for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said OHCHR was aware of reports of intimidation and censorship. OHCHR continued to work on protection and technical cooperation activities on the ground. It had been meeting with different actors in this regard.
The High Commissioner had visited Venezuela in January, where he had met with a wide range of actors. He had heard concerning reports on the ground and issued a comprehensive statement addressing them.
Meeting of the Standing Committee of CITES
Sofie H. Flensborg, Chief, Governing Bodies Unit, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora Secretariat (CITES), said the Standing Committee of CITES would hold its 77th Meeting in Geneva at the Centre International de Conférences Genève (CICG) on 6 to 10 November 2023. Over 600 participants from 90 parties and 100 organizations were expected to take part, a record number of participants for a Standing Committee meeting. The meeting would be the first since the 19th Conference of the Parties in Panama last year and would address a very wide range of conservation and trade related issues.
Among the items on the agenda were compliance cases with respect to Bangladesh (illegal trade in live birds), Cameroon (management and trade in African teak), China (trade in live Asian elephants for commercial purposes), European Union (implementation of Convention provisions related to trade captive bred specimens of species) as well as Guinea, Nigeria, Lao People's Democratic Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Committee would also be discussing illegal trade in big cats; illegal Totoaba fishing, a threat to Vaquita, which was on the brink of extinction; trade in West African rosewood; elephants; the potential role of CITES in preventing zoonotic disease spill over; how to engage indigenous peoples, local communities, women and youth; and the links between CITES and the Global Biodiversity Framework adopted in December 2022 in Montreal.
Media representatives have access to the meeting if they have been accredited in advance.
In response to questions, Ms. Flensborg said the meeting would address the extent to which Mexico had addressed illegal Totoaba fishing. The recommendations proposed by the Secretariat for each State would be discussed by the Standing Committee. The agenda and working documents for the Standing Committee meeting can be found online.
Isabel Piquer for International Labour Organization (ILO) said ILO’s Governing Body will hold its 349th Session in Geneva between 30 October and 11 November.
The Governing Body’s agenda includes discussions on the Global Coalition for Social Justice, apprenticeships, labour protection, just transition, as well as the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work, and the right to strike, among other topics.
It will also examine several country cases, including Belarus, Guatemala, Myanmar, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Members of the press can follow proceedings of the Governing Body from the public gallery, but cannot film or take photos.
On behalf of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, said that FAO was organising a media breakfast next Thursday, 2 November 2023, at 9 a.m. for the upcoming launch of the State of Food and Agriculture 2023 report. The report was under embargo and would be released on 6 November at 9 a.m.
The report would present the true cost of food and would touch on hidden costs that were not reflected in market prices - which were associated with a range of impacts, including environmental damage, undernutrition and related health consequences, and underdevelopment and derivative social impacts. FAO Chief Economist Maximo Torero would be joining in-person to share the findings of the report.
Ms. Vellucci said the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) would hold a press conference on Thursday, 2 November at 10:30 a.m. to preview the ITU World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 (WRC-23). Speaking would be Joanne Wilson, Deputy to the Director, ITU Radiocommunication Bureau.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and World Meteorological Organization (WMO) would also hold a press conference on Thursday, 2 November at 12 p.m. to mark the release of the State of Climate Services for Health report. Speaking would be Professor Petteri Taalas, WMO Secretary-General; Dr. Maria Neira, Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, WHO; and Dr. Joy Shumake-Guillemot, joint WMO-WHO Office on Climate and Health.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women would close this afternoon at 5 p.m. its 86th session and issue its concluding observations on the eight countries reports reviewed: Bhutan, Philippines, Jamaica, Guatemala, France, Albania, Malawi and Uruguay.
The concluding observations on Nicaragua, whose report had been reviewed in the absence of delegation (the Permanent Representative made an opening statement before leaving the room), would be issued in February 2024 at the next session of the Committee.
The Human Rights Committee would have next Wednesday morning, 1 November, a public meeting to hear the presentation of the progress reports on follow-up to concluding observations and follow-up to views.
The Committee Against Torture would open next Monday morning at 10 a.m. its 78th session (30 October-24 November, Palais Wilson), during which it would review the reports of Burundi, Costa Rica, Kiribati, Denmark, Egypt and Slovenia.