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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 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the World Food Programme, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights/Human Rights Council, the United Nations Refugee Agency , and the World Health Organization.

Rise in FAO Food Price Index

Josef Schmidhuber, for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), said that the FAO Food Price Index averaged 159.3 points in March 2022, up 17.9 points (12.6 percent) from February, the highest level since its inception in 1990. The month-on-month increase was the second highest in history. The increase reflected new all-time highs for vegetable oils, cereals, and meat sub-indices, as well as rises in the sugar and dairy product sub-incidences.

The FAO Cereal Price Index averaged 170.1 points in March, up 24.9 points (17.1 percent) from February, marking its highest level on record since 1990. The increase reflected a surge in world prices of wheat and coarse grains, largely driven by conflict-related export disruptions from Ukraine and the Russian Federation. With additional concerns over crop conditions in the United States of America, world wheat prices rose sharply in March, soaring by 19.7 percent. Significantly reduced maize export expectations for Ukraine, a major exporter, on top of elevated energy and input costs, underpinned a 19.1-percent increase in world maize prices month-on-month. Meanwhile, the March value of FAO’s Rice Price Index remained at around February levels and 10 percent below its year-earlier value.

The biggest jump was in the FAO Vegetable Oil Price Index, which rose up 46.9 points (23.2 percent) from February and hit a new record high. The sharp rise of the index was driven by higher sunflower, palm, soy and rapeseed oil prices. International sunflower seed oil quotations increased substantially in March, fuelled by reduced export supplies amid the ongoing conflict in the Black Sea region. Noticeably, volatile and higher crude oil values also lent support to international vegetable oil prices.

The FAO Meat Price Index averaged 120.0 points in March, up 5.5 points (4.8 percent) from February, also reaching an all-time high. In March, pig meat prices registered the steepest monthly increase on record since 1995, underpinned by supply shortfalls of slaughter pigs in Western Europe and a surge in internal demand due to the upcoming Easter holidays.

Rice, sugar and milk prices were still relatively affordable, but the very high cereal, vegetable oil and meat prices had seen large increases and required urgent action. In response, the FAO was holding a special session of the FAO Council and there was a new proposal for a Global Food Import Financing Facility (FIFF). More information on the proposal can be found here.

More information on the leap in the Food Price Index can be found in a press release from the FAO here . Further, information on the FAO’s response to the crisis in Ukraine can be found here.

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr Schmidhuber said that the FAO did not have a clear understanding of the extend to which the war had impacted food rises, but it clearly had a large impact on wheat and maize prices at these were important export commodities for Ukraine. Logistical factors also played a large role, with a large loss in shipment capabilities through the Black Sea.

Regarding the FAO’s proposed facility for alleviating import costs, he explained that the FAO proposed to make credit available for low and lower to middle income importing countries. The FAO envisaged a total financing volume of 23.5 billion US dollars. Mr Schmidhuber added that low- and middle-income countries who were eligible for this credit were required to invest in agriculture.

In response to questions regarding sanctions on fertilizer, he said that there was reluctance to remove fertilizer from sanctions; still, it was removed from sanctions ten days ago. A ship loaded with potash fertilizer had left Russia and was heading for Brazil.

Food security crisis in Africa

Ollo Sib, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that the food security situation in the Sahel and West Africa region was worsening. The number of hungry people had quadrupled between 2019 and 2022, reaching 41 million in West Africa and Cameroon and 43 million in the Central African Republic. In addition, 16 million urban people were at risk of acute food insecurity. 6 million children were undernourished in the Sahel.

The economy was recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic very slowly, and inflation remained high, at more than 12 per cent at the end of December 2021. The 2021 agricultural season had also been affected by drought. Many regions did not have enough food to cover their needs until the next harvest, and conflict was disrupting trade in the region. Population displacement also continued, with six million internally displaced persons in the Sahel.

The crisis in Ukraine was also affecting food availability. Food prices have increased sharply across West Africa, leaving millions struggling to meet their basic food needs. Many farmers were not able to access fertilizers due to price increases caused by the conflict. The Ramadan would be extremely difficult for many families, with the cost of bread increasing by 20 per cent. Traders were facing more and more challenges to supply the market, which many food commodities such as oil not available due to the Ukraine conflict.

Governments needed to step up to address these issues by providing emergency relief and opening up borders. Life saving help was needed in the region to tackle the underlying drivers of hunger and malnutrition. Barriers needed to be lifted to alleviate complex customs clearance procedures and other restrictions on the free movement of goods and services within countries and across borders. Food systems needed to be built, and the agricultural industry needed to be supported. Short-term life-saving aid was necessary to limit the impact of the crisis on communities, and longer-term interventions were also needed to prevent and mitigate crises, reduce humanitarian needs over time, and pave the way toward sustainable solutions to hunger and malnutrition.

To ensure continued assistance over the next six months, the WFP urgently needed 777 million US dollars to meet needs of 22 million people in Nigeria, Central African Republic, Chad, Burkina-Faso, Cameroon, and Niger.

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr Sib said that food prices had risen by 30 to 50 per cent in the region. The WFP was considering potential short-term and long-term responses, including support for shock responsive and nutrition-sensitive social protection national systems. It planned to have a political dialogue to tackle issues including border closures and other barriers to trade in the region. The WFP was also contributing to national response plans.

Conflict in Ukraine

Jens Laerke, for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that the Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths visited Kyiv yesterday, met with Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and Government officials, and witnessed first-hand death and destruction in the nearby towns of Bucha and Irpin following the withdrawal of Russian troops. Mr Griffiths was the first high-level United Nations Staff Member to visit Ukraine, and United Nations staff would return to Kyiv in the coming days. He also visited Moscow on Monday and met with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss possible agreements and arrangements for a ceasefire in Ukraine at the request of the Secretary-General.

Mr Griffiths had described his visit to Bucha as “horrifying.” He had seen a mass grave that contained 280 bodies, as well as dozens of destroyed apartment buildings and houses. He had echoed the Secretary-General’s call for an immediate, independent investigation to ensure accountability. He had also reaffirmed the United Nations’ commitment to provide aid to those in need in Kyiv and protect those people as soon as possible.

Within six weeks, the United Nations had dramatically scaled up humanitarian operations, and 160 humanitarian partners were now active in all of Ukraine’s 24 Oblasts. These partners had reached at least two million people with assistance and mobilized four interagency humanitarian convoys to reach thousands of people in the most inaccessible areas. More convoys were planned in the coming weeks.

The Emergency Relief Coordinator had said that his first humanitarian concern was the need for safe passage and evacuations of civilians from “encircled places of hell,” Mariupol being the worst. Luhansk and Donetsk were also going to be of very high humanitarian concern and Mr Griffiths had urged the two parties to the conflict to commit to ensuring safe passage of civilians out of those areas.

Matthew Saltmarsh, spokesperson for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that the war in Ukraine had triggered one of the fastest-growing displacement and humanitarian crises ever. Within six weeks, more than 4.3 million refugees had fled the country, while a further 7.1 million were displaced internally.

As people continued to flee, UNHCR was working closely with local authorities in Ukraine to increase reception capacity. More core relief items were being distributed to reception and collective centres to expand their capacity. Delivering aid remained challenging in parts of the country where there was active fighting. UNHCR had helped to deliver four inter-agency convoys - two to Sumy, one to Kharkiv and one to Sieverodonetsk - reaching 15,600 people with relief items.

UNHCR with NGO partners continued to provide support at reception centers and border points, providing protection services, legal services and psychological support to some 36,000 people. UNHCR also provided protection services closer to conflict hotspots, at first points of arrival.

UNHCR had continued to send humanitarian supplies into Ukraine from Poland. To date, it had sent 96 aid trucks. Poland remained the main country of arrivals for refugees, having welcomed more than 2.5 million since the start of the war. Newly arrived refugees were coming from various parts of Ukraine, including the east. At Warsaw, Blue Dot protection facilities provided counselling, child support and other services. Over 700,000 Ukrainian refugees have registered with the authorities in Poland, allowing them access to health and other social support from the State. 94 per cent of those registered were women and children.

To enable refugees to prioritize their most critical needs, and to complement the national authority-led response in Poland, UNHCR was expanding cash assistance, and more than 10,000 people had registered in Warsaw for such assistance over the past fortnight.

On 1 March, UNHCR launched the initial Regional Refugee Response Plan (RRP), calling for $550.6 million. The revised RRP would cover 10 months (March – December 2022) and was expected to bring together 110 partners including over 50 local NGOs, faith-based organizations and academia. UNHCR aimed to reach hundreds of thousands of affected people through this plan. The High Commissioner stressed that the only way to protect civilians was to stop the shelling and the bombardment.

The full statement from the UNHCR is available here .

Responding to questions from journalists, Mr Lærke said that United Nations aid continued to be delivered to all regions. There was no commitment to ceasefire from any parties, but Martin Griffiths was mandated to explore opportunities for peace. He was confident that results would be achieved in time, but the top priority was to achieve localized ceasefires to allow aid and humanitarian workers to arrive.

Martin Griffiths assured the Government of Ukraine that United Nations staff would soon return to Kyiv. Mr Griffiths said that he reported the situation in Ukraine as he saw it. The Russian side had a different view of facts to the Ukraine side. He intended to continue discussions with both sides. There was a common interest in protecting civilians from both sides, although there had been unsuccessful attempts at evacuations. There had been movement of United Nations staff into different regions of Ukraine.

Rolando Gomez, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said, responding to questions, that yesterday, the Russian Federation had relinquished its membership of the Human Rights Council. Russians had made their position very clear on its exclusion from the Human Rights Council. The human rights mechanism was going to allow for the collection of evidence that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. It was important to hold perpetrators accountable for human rights abuses.

Fadela Chaib, for the World Heath Organization, said, responding to questions, that the World Health Organization was preparing for incidents involving chemical weapons. It was working with the Ministry of Health of Ukraine to provide in-person and online training for health workers in Ukraine on the impact of possible chemical incidents. The WHO was issuing public health guidance on the response to chemical events including public risk communication, providing basic and advanced health responder training to public health officials, clinicians, ambulance teams, medical teams and other health partners, and providing critical supplies to health responders (including personal protective equipment). It had also supplied therapeutics and consumables sufficient to treat up to 1,500 patients with chemical exposures and protective equipment for 700 health responders. As of 6 April, WHO had trained over 1,500 health workers on responding to toxic chemical incidents.

Ms Chaib said that there was a number of attacks in Ukraine that had impacted health facilities. There had been more than 100 attacks on health care verified by WHO since the start of the war on February 24. The attacks so far had claimed 73 lives and injured 51. These attacks were a violation of international humanitarian law. The impact on health and wellbeing of these attacks was enormous. The WHO could not provide details on the location of the attacks to protect those affected.

Vaccinations for COVID-19 had been disrupted in Ukraine due to the conflict. Prior to the conflict at least 50,000 people per day were receiving vaccination. This number had now dropped significantly, with only 175,000 people being vaccinated between 24 February and 15 March. Refugees leaving Ukraine were taken care of by local health care facilities in host countries. WHO had developed tools to estimate the number of people living with HIV and tuberculosis among the refugee population, to support resource planning for the refugee-hosting countries and estimate the need for treatment among refugees from Ukraine. WHO was working with partners and health authorities of neighboring countries to ensure access to antiretroviral therapy and drug-resistant tuberculosis treatment for refugees who require continuation of treatment outside of Ukraine.

Announcements

Fadela Chaib, for the World Heath Organization, said, that the WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) held a regular meeting this week discussing vaccine policy issues including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and COVID-19 vaccination on immunization services, infection and vaccination-induced immunity, use of the Hepatitis A vaccine, Typhoid conjugate vaccines (TCVs), changes to the HPV vaccination schedule, and the polio eradication programme. SAGE would brief on its conclusions on Monday, 11 April.

Also on 11 April, the eleventh meeting of the Emergency Committee on COVID-19 would be held. The Committee would review the status of the current pandemic, progress in implementing the temporary recommendations, and a way forward. The recommendations of the EC would be shared with the media in the course of the week.

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), added that there would be a hybrid press briefing on Tuesday, April 12 at 4:00pm from the Committee on Enforced Disappearances to present their findings on Greece, Niger and Mexico. The briefing would be attended by the Chair of the Committee, and members of the Niger and Mexico delegations would be participating online. The Committee would conclude its 22nd session this afternoon, issuing concluding observations on Greece and Niger.

The Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families would conclude its 34th session this afternoon, issuing concluding observations on Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde and Paraguay.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination would open its 106th session next Monday, 11 April at 10:00am. During the session, which would last until 29 April, they would review the reports of Cameroon, Luxemburg, Estonia, and Kazakhstan.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) would hold a hybrid press conference on April 12 at 12pm in Room D of the WTO building. The conference would focus on the release of the WTO trade forecast, and would be attended by the WTO Director-General, Chief Economist, a Senior Economist and the WTO spokesperson, and would have Spanish and French interpretation.

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