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UN Geneva Press Briefing

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired a hybrid briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Office of the High-Commissioner for Human Rights.

Situation in Gaza

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said that the previous night the UN Secretary-General had reiterated his pressing call to both the Government of Israel and the leadership of Hamas to go the extra mile needed to make an agreement come true and stop the present suffering. He was deeply concerned by the indications that a large-scale military operation in Rafah might be imminent. The Secretary-General reminded the parties that the protection of civilians was paramount in international humanitarian law.

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), stated that the Rafah crossing was now under control of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and was closed for the movement of goods and people. The same was the case for the Kerem Shalom crossing. Therefore, the UN no longer had physical presence at the Rafah crossing, and the two main arteries for getting aid into Gaza were choked off. Temporary hopes of a ceasefire had been quickly crashed and a military incursion was now beginning. IDF was ignoring all warnings of what this could mean for civilians. Rafah was the only entry point for fuel, for example, reminded Mr. Laerke. 

James Elder, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that every warning and every image of children killed or injured had been ignored. The worst nightmare was now coming true. Rafah was a city of children, as more than half of the people residing there now were under 18 years of age. There was nowhere safe left to go in Gaza, stressed Mr. Elder. He said that there was one toilet for 850 people and one shower for 3,500 people. Rafah was home to the European hospital, the largest remaining functioning hospital in Gaza. The south of the Gaza Strip was the main point of entry of aid into Gaza, and it was hard to see how famine could be averted if this point of entry was closed off. The copying capacity of numerous families was being squashed, and people were exhausted and sick; hundreds of thousands of children in Rafah had a disability or a medical condition putting them at an additional risk. Mr. Elder said that the parties to the conflict continued to disregard the life and wellbeing of children. This had to change. UNICEF was pleading and imploring for a ceasefire once again. 

Ms. Vellucci, speaking on behalf of UN Women, informed that new UN Women survey data from Rafah highlighted the depth of physical and mental despair, with 93 percent of women interviewed feeling unsafe and over half reporting medical conditions requiring urgent attention. With any Israeli ground invasion, those numbers would soar. The imminent risk of death and injuries among Rafah’s 700,000 women and girls would escalate with any ground invasion, as they had nowhere to go to escape the bombing and killing. Over 80 per cent of women reported feelings of depression, 66 per cent were not able to sleep, and over 70 per cent had heightened anxiety and nightmares. More than half of women surveyed had a medical condition requiring urgent medical attention since the start of the war, with 62 per cent unable to pay for necessary medical care. More information is available here

Ms. Vellucci said that at 3:30 pm Geneva time, the Secretary-General was expected to address the media in New York on the situation in Gaza. This press encounter would be live webcast at UNTV.

Responding to numerous questions from the media, Mr. Laerke, for OCHA, said that 76 percent of the territory of Gaza was currently under evacuation orders. Reports from the ground spoke of panic and despair; people were terrified and fleeing toward the north with what they had. Exact numbers were hard to get by, stated Mr. Laerke. Under international humanitarian law, people had to be given an adequate time to prepare for evacuation and be guaranteed safe routes for evacuation and be assured a safe evacuation destination; none of these conditions had been met. What underpinned a humanitarian operation was access to electricity, water, and sanitation, all of which were missing. He reiterated that the Kerem Shalom crossing was operated by the IDF and was currently closed. One day of fuel stock was estimated to be available in Gaza; all aid that arrived into Gaza was distributed immediately so there were no warehouses storing large amounts of aid. If no fuel came in for a prolonged period of time, that would be an effective way to put the existing humanitarian operation to grave. Mr. Laerke said that the IDF had denied access to UN humanitarians to Rafah for the time being. Mr. Laerke further explained that the UN was coordinating humanitarian deliveries with the Palestinian Red Crescent and the Egyptian Red Crescent, and the statistics on aid deliveries included their parts. He emphasized that the Eretz border crossing was not a substitute for Rafah and Kerem Shalom crossings. 

Mr. Elder, for UNICEF, said that people were worried based on what they had seen over the previous seven months rather than on what they were reading in the leaflets they received. Children in Rafah were experiencing unprecedented levels of trauma, he said. More entry and check points needed to be operational if famine was to be averted in Gaza. 

Margaret Harris, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that all three hospitals in the Rafah area were overwhelmed and treating more patients than they could handle. One of them was treating over 200 dialysis patients per day, and if its operations were halted, that could spell a death sentence for those patients. Less than a third of all hospitals were functioning in Gaza in any shape or form, reminded Dr. Harris. 

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), replying to another question, said that hundreds of bodies had indeed been found in the compounds of Al Shifa and Naser hospitals; some of them had been, very worryingly, reportedly found with their hands tied. OHCHR was not in a position to verify these reports and could not tell under which circumstances those people had been killed. Independent investigations were thus absolutely needed; OHCHR, the Commission of Inquiry, and the International Criminal Court should all be involved. More than 30,000 people had been killed in Gaza thus far, and mass graves existed; a large number of individuals in those graves were unidentified. Ms. Shamdasani stressed that international humanitarian law provided strict requirements under which civilian populations could be displaced. Failure to meet those requirements could amount to war crimes. OHCHR was continuing to press for access and was continuing with its remote monitoring, in order to bring factual, legal, and even moral clarity to what was happening. The violations had to be recorded and widely reported in the media; and accountability had to be ultimately ensured. The cycle of impunity could not be allowed to continue. OHCHR had documented many violations that amounted to war crimes, and the OHCHR would continue to speak out on these issues, stressed Ms. Shamdasani. Speaking about the West Bank as requested, she said that, since 7 October, 475 Palestinians, of whom 120 children, had been killed there. 

Crackdown on journalists in Russia

Ravina Shamdasani, for the United Nations Human Rights (OHCHR), informed that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk today said he was concerned by the increasing number of journalists charged, convicted, and jailed in Russia for their independent reporting, in what appears to be an intensification of a crackdown on dissenting voices.

“The continuous attacks on free speech and the criminalization of independent journalism in Russia are very troubling. The intensification of the crackdown on journalists’ independent work must immediately cease and the right to inform – a key component of the right to freedom of expression – needs to be upheld,” stated the High Commissioner.

Since the start of the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, the number of imprisoned journalists in Russia had reached an all-time high. At least 30 journalists were currently detained in Russia under a variety of criminal charges, including terrorism, extremism, disseminating knowingly false information about the armed forces, spying, treason, extortion, infringing upon people’s rights, violating the provisions of the law on foreign agents, inciting mass disturbances, illegal possession of explosives, and illegal possession of drugs. “Journalists should be able to work in a safe environment without fear of reprisals – in line with Russia’s international human rights obligations. I call on the authorities to immediately drop charges against journalists detained solely for doing their jobs, and to release them,” Türk said.

Full statement is available here

Responding to questions, Ms. Shamdasani said that she did not have information on imprisoned journalists being offered to fight to Ukraine in exchange for their sentences being commuted. Since March, at least seven Russian journalists had faced charges related to their reporting on Ukraine or Alexey Navalny. Twelve foreign national journalists were currently detained in Russia. 


Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), reminded that today at 3 pm in Room XXIII the Palais des Nations, the World Press Freedom Day would be marked with an event “A Press for the Planet”, focused on the importance of protecting journalists and scientists in defense of the environment. 

The Committee Against Torture would conclude its 79th session at 10 am on 11 May and issue its concluding observations on the six countries reviewed during this session: Austria, Honduras, Azerbaijan, Liechtenstein, North Macedonia, and Finland. 

The Committee on the Rights of the Child, which had opened its 96th session the previous day, was concluding this morning its review of Namibia. This afternoon, it would begin consideration of Guatemala.