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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 Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Health Organization, the International Labour Organization and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

Earthquake in Afghanistan

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that OCHA was leading an inter-agency assessment team being deployed that day to Qadis District in north-western Afghanistan following a 5.3 magnitude earthquake that had struck the previous afternoon. Initial reports indicated that 26 people had been killed and 4 injured and that hundreds of houses had been damaged or destroyed. People whose homes had been damaged or destroyed were being hosted by their relatives and other members of their communities. Preliminary reports indicated that food, shelter, non-food items and heating materials were the most urgently needed. In addition to the OCHA-led assessment team, agencies were providing initial emergency support in the form of hot meals, mobile health teams and the distribution of water purification tablets, hygiene kits and water kits.

Continuing human rights concerns in the Sudan

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the human rights situation in the Sudan remained of serious concern, with peaceful protesters killed or injured by security forces on a near-daily basis, as well as a clampdown on critics of the authorities and on independent journalists. Credible statistics from the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors showed that 71 people had been killed and more than 2,200 had been injured by State security forces during protests since the coup d’état of 25 October 2021. The Joint Human Rights Office in the Sudan had noted that more than 25 per cent of those injured had been hit directly by teargas canisters, raising the concern that security forces were firing them horizontally, directed at individuals, in violation of international standards. OHCHR repeated its call on the Sudanese authorities to immediately cease the unnecessary and disproportionate use of force against peaceful protesters. There must be thorough, prompt and independent investigations.

A campaign of arbitrary arrest and detention against protesters, journalists and media workers continued amid the state of emergency. There were also disturbing reports of assaults against health-care workers and facilities. The clampdown on freedom of opinion and expression also appeared to be escalating through the arrest and ill-treatment of journalists, raids on homes and offices and suspension of licences.

OHCHR called on the Sudanese authorities to stop targeting journalists and to ensure that the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly were fully respected and that peaceful protests were facilitated rather than met with unnecessary and disproportionate force. As the High Commissioner for Human Rights had stressed, meaningful, inclusive and participatory dialogue was urgently needed to ensure a swift return to civilian rule in the Sudan.

The full briefing note is available here.

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), recalling the statement by the Secretary-General’s spokesperson on 17 January, said that the United Nations condemned the use of lethal force against protesters and that people had the right to protest peacefully. It was very important to create an atmosphere in the Sudan that was conducive to the ongoing consultations. Since its launch on 8 January 2022, the United Nations-facilitated consultation on a political process in the Sudan had engaged with a wide range of Sudanese stakeholders, including political parties and civil society.

In response to a journalist, Ms. Shamdasani said that it was the obligation of the de facto authorities to ensure that human rights violations were investigated. However, not much action had been seen in that regard, including in connection with the allegations of rape and other sexual violence committed against protesters and people fleeing protest areas in December 2021. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General regularly raised human rights concerns with the head of the Sovereign Council.

Escalating conflict in Yemen

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) recalled that Secretary-General had condemned the attacks on Abu Dhabi international airport and the nearby industrial area, which had been claimed by Houthis. Attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure were prohibited under international humanitarian law. He called on all parties to exercise maximum restraint and prevent any escalation amid heightened tensions in the region. There was no military solution to the conflict in Yemen. He also urged the parties to engage constructively and without preconditions with Special Envoy Grundberg with the aim of advancing the political process to reach a comprehensive negotiated settlement and end the conflict in Yemen.

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was deeply concerned by the continuing escalation of the conflict in Yemen. Overnight, air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition on the capital, Sana’a, were reported to have left at least five civilians dead and three others wounded. The latest airstrikes followed missile and drone attacks claimed by Ansar Allah forces (also known as the Houthis) on the United Arab Emirates, on 17 January, which had reportedly left three civilians dead.

The year 2022 had begun with a large counter-offensive by Government forces against Ansar Allah in Shabwah Governorate. In recent days, the parties had launched dozens of air and artillery strikes with seemingly little regard for civilians. The fighting had damaged civilian objects and critical infrastructure, including telecommunication towers and water reservoirs, as well as hospitals in Sana'a and Ta’izz. With frontlines shifting rapidly over large areas, civilians were also exposed to the constant threat of landmines. According to OHCHR figures, so far in January, there had been 839 air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition, compared with 1,074 for the whole of December 2021, and some 10 drone strikes by Ansar Allah forces towards Saudi territory in December.

Amid the escalation, OHCHR called on all parties to ensure the protection of civilians and civilian objects, in line with their obligations under international law. Any attack, including air strikes, should fully respect the principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack. Failure to respect those principles could amount to war crimes. OHCHR echoed the Secretary-General’s calls on all parties to exercise maximum restraint and avoid escalation.

The full briefing note can be found here.

Replying to questions, Ms. Shamdasani said that, while attacks on medical facilities were prohibited, it had not yet been established whether the recent attacks on such facilities had been targeted and proportional. That said, even before the attacks, difficult access to health care had been a factor in the dire humanitarian situation. OHCHR had national and international staff on the ground in Yemen.

Tonga

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that the Tongan Government had confirmed three fatalities and damage to or destruction of 150 houses in Tongatapu. The latest reports indicated that Tongatapu had sustained infrastructure damage. There was still no contact with the Ha’apai group of islands, and the authorities expressed particular concern over two small, low-lying islands; Tonga was sending an assessment team to the area. The population was advised to drink only bottled water amid concerns about the safety of water. Assessments by the Tongan authorities were ongoing and should provide a better estimate of what was required. The Pacific Humanitarian Team and regional humanitarian agencies had met to coordinate support for the communications, logistics, and water and sanitation responses. The United Nations was on standby to assist Tonga with teams and emergency supplies, and United Nations staff based in Tonga were working to assist coordination and response efforts in-country. An OCHA situation report was expected later that day.

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the earthquake and tsunami had caused some population displacement, including 89 people who had taken shelter in evacuation centres on the island of ‘Eua and others who had sought shelter with relatives on Tongatapu. Approximately two centimetres of ash and dust had fallen on Tongatapu, raising concerns about air pollution and the potential contamination of water supplies. It was important to note that health facilities, including the national referral hospital and the central medical warehouse, were fully functioning. There had so far been no increase in medical consultations on Tongatapu. The tsunami had damaged the country’s cellular and Internet communication infrastructure, including the undersea Internet cable. Local voice calls were again possible in parts of Tongatapu, but there was no Internet connectivity and international calls were not possible. Further volcanic activity could not be ruled out, so the population was instructed to stay alert and seek higher ground if further tsunami warnings were issued. Immediate priorities were to restore emergency telecommunications, secure the water supply, reduce the inhalation of ash, and communicate with and assess the situation on the smaller islands.

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), recalled the Secretary-General’s expression of concern and offer of United Nations support to the people and the Government of Tonga.

Replying to questions from journalists, Mr. Laerke said that no one had yet reached Tonga because the airport landing strip remained covered in ash - though Australia and New Zealand had conducted fly-over missions; he also said that the plume of ash was hindering satellite imaging. More information was critical to better assess humanitarian needs. There were some 20, chiefly national, staff in Tonga from a number of United Nations agencies. He recalled that Tonga was a zero-coronavirus disease (COVID-19) country, so any assistance would have to be provided in a manner that respected the country’s strict public health protocols.

Also replying to journalists and recalling that the Tongan health-care facilities remained operational, Mr. Lindmeier said that it was the Government’s prerogative to put in place COVID-19-related rules for entry into the country, including of humanitarian teams.

Coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the WHO Director General’s regular COVID-19 update would take place at 4.30 p.m. that day. The Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization would hold an extraordinary virtual meeting on 19 January; the related press conference was tentatively set for 2 p.m. on Friday, 21 January. The Programme, Budget and Administration Committee of the Executive Board would be meeting from 19 to 21 January, ahead of the 150th session of the Executive Board on 24 to 29 January.

In response to questions, Mr. Lindmeier said that the closing statement of the sixth meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee regarding the coronavirus disease pandemic, that took place on 14 January 2021, was expected at any time; the slight delay was likely due to the fact the Committee was conducting all its activities virtually [the statement has now been issued and can be found here].

ILO Director-General’s Position

Rosalind Yarde, for the International Labour Organization (ILO), recalling that the second term of ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, would end on 30 September 2022, said that the five candidates for the post would take part in public dialogues with ILO constituents on 20 January (noon to 4.20 p.m.) and 21 January (12.30 p.m. to 3.20 p.m.). The dialogues would be broadcast live in seven languages on the ILO website, and the recordings would be available online at the end of the last dialogue. The full schedule, as well as each candidate’s vision and curriculum vitae, were available on the ILO website. The list and order of the constituents invited to put questions to each candidate would be posted online.

The dialogue with each candidate would consist of a brief presentation of the candidate’s vision, followed by 16 questions from the tripartite constituents. The dialogues would be moderated by the Chairperson of the Governing Body, Anna Jardfelt, Permanent Representative of Sweden in Geneva. The candidates, in order of their presentations, were Gilbert Houngbo of Togo, Kang Kyung-wha of the Republic of Korea, Mthunzi Mdwaba of South Africa, Greg Vines of Australia and Muriel Pénicaud of France.

The Governing Body would then conduct candidate hearings in private session on 14 and 15 March, and the election would take place on 25 March, after which the result would be made public.

In response to a question, Ms. Yarde said that the candidates would not know the question in advance, only the name and order of the individuals asking the questions. Each group was free to put the same or different questions to each candidate.

Announcements

Catherine Huissoud, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), said that UNCTAD would be publishing its latest data on foreign direct investment trends in the world for the full year 2021 on 19 January 2022 (under embargo until noon on 19 January).

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), on behalf of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), said that FAO was pleased to issue an invitation to the virtual event “Climate Change, Peace and Food Security. A holistic approach for a sustainable future”, which would be opened by FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu and would include interventions by Luigi Di Maio, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Italy, and Muhammad Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Laureate. At the event, the 2021 Nobel Laureate in Physics, Giorgio Parisi, would be invited to join the FAO Nobel Laureates Alliance for Food Security and Peace and would deliver a lecture entitled “Science: the headlight on our future.”

The event would be webcast at https://www.fao.org/webcast/home/en/item/5760/icode/.

Ms. Vellucci also said that, on Tuesday, 18 January, at noon, Philippe Lazzarini, the Commissioner-General of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), would hold a hybrid press conference to present operational updates and the 2022 budget requirements (under embargo until 18 January, at 1 p.m.).

Lastly, Ms. Vellucci said that the Conference on Disarmament would hold the first public plenary of its 2022 session – in person – on Tuesday, 25 January, at 10 a.m., in room XIX, under the presidency of Ambassador Li Song of China. The three parts of the 2022 session would take place from 24 January to 1 April, from 16 May to 1 July and from 1 August to 16 September. Following China, the rotating presidency would be assumed by Colombia, Cuba, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ecuador.

 

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