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UN Geneva Press Briefing

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, chaired the hybrid briefing, attended by spokespersons and representatives of the UN Environment Programme and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and followed by a briefing by the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Ukraine.

Update from the Assistant Secretary-General, Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Ukraine

Denise Brown, Assistant Secretary-General, Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Ukraine, provided an update on the area of Kharkiv in Ukraine, where there had been an intensification of the war over the past few months. Over 100 UN staff were based in Kharkiv and Ms. Brown visited often. On her last trip, there were 12 sirens during the day and 12 explosions. There was a constant disruption of daily life. Ms. Brown visited the city two weeks ago when a huge supermarket was hit by a missile strike. She had stood in front of the remnants of the building, which was a mass of twisted steels, broken glass and smoke. It was a hard reality in Kharkiv for the more than one million people who still lived there. When Ms. Brown had first visited in August 2022, the city had been empty due to its proximity to the frontline. Almost two years later, the city was trying to reclaim itself and live despite the war. However, the intensification, the constant strikes and the relentlessness disrupted daily life. 

In Kharkiv there were constant blackouts. The anticipation of the cold winters in Ukraine were a huge concern. The only way children could safely study in Kharkiv was in schools in the metro, which was not normal. Beyond the city, Volksfront was a community where mandatory evacuations had taken place. The United Nations, together with local and national actors, were there to receive people, however access to this important community had been reduced. People who had been displaced were living in collective centers. There was death, displacement, and destruction. The UN had also lost access to other important settlements as they were no longer safe enough. People were being impacted every single day by what was happening in Ukraine. The impact of missile strikes was widespread. Since the war, at least 60 percent of the energy Ukraine had able to produce had been lost. There were intense efforts to ensure that what was required would be in place before the winter months. The picture was not good. Everyone needed to understand the intensification of the war and the ramifications for the people of Ukraine; the longer it continued, the more suffering there was. The people of Ukraine were determined, but they needed support.

Responding to questions, Ms. Brown said the UN would be present as observer at the Summit on Peace in Ukraine in Bürgenstock. It was expected that those attending would be announced this afternoon. The Secretary-General had spoken to President Zelensky to explain that he had a personal commitment and could not attend the conference, but the UN would be represented. 

Ms. Brown said the UN was an observer at the conference, not an organizer. The Secretary-General had reiterated his considerations of the violation of the UN charter and the hope for a just peace in Ukraine. The rest of the world should not normalize the war in Ukraine. 

Ms. Brown said she was outside Ukraine because she participated in the Berlin recovery conference and was speaking to donors this afternoon. Journalists should speak to the conference organizers regarding details of the working groups of the summit and the peace plan. Whoever attended the conference from the UN would be attentively listening. 

Responding to further questions, Ms. Brown said the humanitarian response focused on civilians. Studies found a seven percent increase in persons with disabilities in Ukraine. This presented a huge, immediate challenge to the country including for physical support. Currently there wasn’t enough support for those who lost limbs, there was a need to strengthen capacity in areas like Kharkiv. The psychological traumatisms were being addressed, but needed more attention. The longer-term challenges for Ukraine would be the reintegration of people who were made disabled, into economic and social life. WHO and UNICEF were working hard to tackle this issue but were nowhere near where they needed to be. 

Conference on the sound management of chemicals and waste and to prevent pollution, 17 to 21 June 2024

Alejandro Laguna, for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)said the world was facing a crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and chemicals and pollution. UNEP’s work was focused on identifying the root causes of this crisis and finding solutions, including through providing science to policy makers so they could make informed decisions. There were already science policy panels in place for other crises, but the one for chemicals, waste, and the prevention of pollution was missing. Next week, through the conference, a crucial step would be taken towards the creation of this new panel. Two sessions would be open to journalists, including the opening session and the closing day. There would be a press release, but it was not yet decided whether there would be a press conference. Mr. Laguna said journalists could email him throughout the week to request interviews.

Jacqueline Álvarez, Chief of UNEP’s Chemicals and Health Branch, said that the three key words were death, pollution and GDP. The numbers were concerning; 99 percent of the world’s population were breathing air which levels did not respond to the WHO guidelines. Seven percent of the global GDP was lost due to just one chemical. The panel would aim to make the invisible things visible. There needed to be political will to achieve this, not just from countries, but also those who had the means to create different processes and modalities and ways of working. 

Responding to questions, Ms. Álvarez said the chemical which had caused the seven percent loss of GDP was lead. Everyone was at risk because of this chemical. The negotiations at the conference were guided by member states, but industries, non-governmental organizations, UN agencies and academia were also sitting in the same plenary and putting forward their initiatives to get rid of the problems. 

Responding to further questions, Ms. Álvarez said one of the reasons this topic was connected with the GDP, was because there was evidence that lead reduced the IQ of children. This was affecting mainly developing countries and was widening the gap for obtaining better living conditions and life expectancy. This was also related to public health policies and the need for treatments to support people affected by these chemicals. 

Ethiopia: UN Human Rights Chief calls for sustained efforts to halt violations and abuses

Elizabeth Throssell, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk today called for concrete measures to halt the human rights violations and abuses that continued to endanger reconciliation and peace in Ethiopia. The High Commissioner’s call came as the UN Human Rights Office issued an update analysing the human rights situation across Ethiopia from January 2023 to January 2024. Violent conflicts, particularly in the Amhara and Oromia regions, led to serious human rights violations and abuses in 2023, the update said. In the northern Tigray region, there was a significant improvement in the human rights situation following the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement in November 2022, but concerns persisted regarding ongoing violations by members of the Eritrean Defence Forces. In 2023, at least 1,351 civilians were killed in Ethiopia in attacks reportedly carried out by Government forces, Eritrean troops, anti-Government militias and some unknown actors. Overall, the update recorded 594 incidents of human rights violations and abuses affecting 8,253 victims, a 56 per cent increase compared with 2022. 

The State of Emergency, which was declared on 4 August 2023 and expired on 3 June 2024, had resulted in actions by security forces in violation of Ethiopia’s international human rights obligations. The High Commissioner welcomed the fact that the authorities had not extended the State of Emergency. The Office’s update acknowledged the Ethiopian Government’s efforts to promote transitional justice and prevent violence against women and children, as well as its openness to engage in dialogue to resolve the fighting in the Amhara region. The Office would continue to monitor the situation which remained worrying. Progress on accountability linked to conflict had been limited. If grievances were not addressed, there was risk of further conflict. Among the recommendations from the update, was the implementation of a comprehensive, inclusive and participatory transitional justice process. Ethiopia's Council of Ministers adopted a transitional justice policy in April this year, and its implementation was launched on the 9th of May. The UN Human Rights Office was ready to continue to provide support to the government.

The full press release is available here

Responding to questions, Ms. Throssell said the situation in Ethiopia was complex. The update emphasised the importance of ensuring that the accountability and transitional justice processes continued and were fully implemented. There had been significant improvements in Tigray since the cessations of hostilities in 2022. A few of the recommendations in the update related to accountability and to the transitional justice processes. There were significant planning and policies being put forward which now needed to be implemented. 

Responding to further questions, Ms. Throssell said the update noted the improvements in Tigray, but it was clear the situation remained volatile. The update was trying to paint a nuanced picture. There were humanitarian concerns which continued in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia. Also, Eritrean troops were operating on their own. When the Office issued reports, these were shown to the Government; journalists would need to ask the Government for their position on the report. OHCHR stood ready to help implement different policies, including the transitional justice policy. The Office would be looking to assist with any required legislative changes to help this move forward. 

Concerted global action needed to tackle cross-border and transnational female genital mutilation

Elizabeth Throssell, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said the global fight against female genital mutilation was being undermined by the practice of crossing national borders and beyond to have girls undergo the procedure, according to a new report from the UN Human Rights Office. Although many States had intensified their efforts to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM), the practice continued across the world, in part due to “the clandestine nature of cross-border and transnational FGM,” the report said. High Commissioner Türk called on FGM to be eliminated in all forms. Based on in-depth desk research and submissions from States and civil society organisations around the world, the report noted that an estimated 4.3 million girls were at risk of being subjected to FGM in 2023. More than 600,000 women in the European Union were thought to be living with the consequences of FGM. The report highlighted the concept of “vacation cutting” where girls were taken to their countries of origin to undergo FGM during the school holidays. States worldwide had made commitments to eradicate FGM; the High Commissioner called on all states to harmonise legal and policy frameworks to meet their commitments and end this harmful practice everywhere. 

The full press release is available here.

Responding to questions, Ms. Throssell said the recent legislative initiative to repeal the ban on FGM in the Gambia threatened the progress made on FGM. Female genital mutilation was a human rights violation; there was no justification for gender-based violence, neither on the grounds of culture or tradition. It was imperative for states to protect women and girls in their own countries and to collaborate with other countries to prevent cross-border FGM. 

Responding to further questions, Ms. Throssell said the report urged States to improve data collection.  It was difficult to gain an understanding the breadth of this phenomenon, due to its clandestine nature. The report stated that data in the Middle-East and Asia was scant, which hindered the development of policies and evidence-based interventions. 

Regarding “vacation cutting”, Ms. Throssell said this was observed in North America, Europe and Australia, with girls being taken back to their community of origin, significant examples of cross-border mutilation. While FGM may be criminalised in the country where the girl lived, she could be taken to a country where it was not criminalised or the laws were not enforced, and undergo the cutting there, which was why the Office called for a global approach. It was not just about criminalising people but also about supporting the survivors and developing educational and prevention campaigns. This was a complex issue which needed a complex and nuanced approach. 

Ms. Throssell said the scope of the law would determine if parents who took their daughters to be cut in another country would be prosecuted, as well as evidence. If the criminal laws were in place, it was important they were implemented, with a view to ensuring that vulnerable people were not targeted. The scope of the criminal law would determine what level of evidence was needed to bring a successful prosecution. Support for the survivors had also to be paramount. 

Yemen: Continued detention of UN staff

Elizabeth Throssell, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said it had now been a week since six of the Office’s staff, among 13 UN personnel, were taken by the de facto authorities from their homes in the Yemeni cities of Sanaa, Hudaydah and Hajjah. Two of them were women. Several other people working for national and international NGOs and other organisations supporting humanitarian activities had also been detained. Since their detention on 6 June, the six OHCHR staff members had not had contact with their families, nor had the UN been able to access them or to receive individual confirmation of their detention. Two other UN human rights colleagues and two UNESCO staff were already being held incommunicado prior to the latest wave of arrest. Dozens of other individuals had similarly been detained outside of any legal protection in recent days. 

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk remained deeply worried about the conditions in which they were being held and demanded their immediate and unconditional release. He stressed that the public broadcasting on 10 and 12 June of statements procured under circumstances of inherent duress from one colleague, detained incommunicado, and others detained since 2021 was totally unacceptable, and violated their human rights. Targeting of human rights and humanitarian workers needed to cease immediately. Efforts should instead be stepped up to serve the needs of the 18.2 million people in Yemen currently in need of humanitarian aid and protection, needs that the detained colleagues were delivering on.  

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said a joint statement had been distributed yesterday, which was signed by heads of UN agencies and NGOs who called for immediate and unconditional release of all personnel held in Yemen by the de facto authorities. The High Commissioner was also a signatory. These detentions were unprecedented and directly impeded the ability of UN agencies to reach the most vulnerable people in Yemen. 

Responding to questions, Ms. Throssell said the broadcast featured one person who was put on camera and made to do a forced confession, with the video distributed on social media. This was a staff member who had been held since 2021. The detentions were extremely concerning. The Office was continuing to work with other UN colleagues to secure their release. The video, where the colleague was forced to admit to outrageous allegations, including acts of collusion, had been posted on X. Those being detained were all local staff. 

Ms Vellucci said the Secretary-General had released a statement which had been sent to media, on these alarming developments, that raised serious concern about the commitment to a negotiated solution to the conflict and the arbitrary detention of civilians.

Responding to further questions, Ms. Throssell said the UN were doing their utmost working behind the scenes on this issue. She could not provide further details.

Ms. Vellucci said the UN were in touch with the de facto authorities and were working to secure the personnel’s release from detention. 

Abortion Law in Brazil

Responding to questions Elizabeth Throssell, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said the Office was concerned that an urgent procedure for the law in Brazil had been approved, which deemed an abortion of over 22 weeks to be equated with homicide. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women had provided a recommendation to Brazil last month to decriminalise abortion in all cases and ensure women and girls had access to safe abortion services.  The access to safe, legal and effective abortion was firmly rooted in international human rights law. It was essential to women and girls’ autonomy and their ability to make their own choices. The Office was following what was happening in Brazil.

Occupied Palestinian Territory

Responding to questions regarding data on children in armed conflict, Elizabeth Throssell, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said colleagues working on the Occupied Palestinian Territory were gathering data on various incidents concerning children. She did not have that level of disaggregated data currently, but going forward this was something the colleagues would be looking at. 

Regarding alleged reports that the Israeli Ministry of Finance was taking Palestinian tax money to use for victims of Palestinian attacks, Ms. Throssell said she did not have specific details, so would need to further enquire. Occupying powers had certain responsibilities, so it would seem this was not appropriate.


Alessandra Vellucci for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said unfortunately, today marked 1,000 days on the unacceptable ban on secondary school girls’ education in Afghanistan. No other country banned education in this way. She called attention to the press release issued by Education Cannot Wait, who were starting the second phase of their campaign called #AfghanGirlsVoices, which highlighted real life testimonies of hope, courage and resilience by Afghan girls denied their right to education. The press release was available online. 

Monday June 17 was an official UN holiday and the Palais des Nations would be closed. However, access was permitted through the Chemin de Fer Gate between 7 and 11am. Exit was possible from the Pregny Gate until the end of the day. 

On Tuesday 18 June, the Human Rights Council would start a new session in Room XX where High Commissioner Volker Türk would give his update.