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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE UNITED NATIONS INFORMATION SERVICE

Bi-Weekly Briefing

Rhéal LeBlanc, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, chaired the hybrid briefing, attended by the spokespersons and representatives of the United Nations Children's Fund, the World Food Programme, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the International Labour Organization and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Drought in the Horn of Africa and the climate crisis

Mohamed Malick Fall, Eastern & Southern African regional director, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), said that the situation of children and families in the Horn of Africa was dire and millions of lives were hanging in the balance. The needs were massive and urgent and were quickly outpacing the funds available to respond. UNICEF projected that up to 20 million people in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, many of them children, would need water and food assistance in the next six months. The region could not cope with yet another perfect storm, combining coronavirus disease (COVID-19), conflict and climate change. Three consecutive dry seasons had led to severe water scarcity, killing livestock and crops, displacing populations and increasing the risk of disease and severe malnutrition. Nearly 5.5 million children were threatened by acute malnutrition and 1.4 million by severe acute malnutrition, and UNICEF feared that their number would increase by 50 per cent if rains did not come in the next three months. Families were taking extreme measures to survive and, in many cases, leaving their homes. It was a crisis that required an urgent collective response. UNICEF was appealing for US$ 123 million to cover life-saving intervention for the most vulnerable till the end of June 2022.

In addition to drought and water scarcity in the Horn of Africa, a growing number of children were bearing the brunt of severe climate related shocks. On 5 and 6 February, Cyclone Batsirai – the second major storm to hit Madagascar in two weeks – had displaced more than 45,000 people, destroying hundreds of schools and health centres and damaging roads. Before that, Tropical Storm Ana had already wrought havoc in parts of Madagascar, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. UNICEF was on the ground in those countries, working with governments, communities and partners to provide life-saving assistance. Yet again, too few commitments were being translated into meaningful actions for children. The climate crisis was a children’s rights crisis. There was a need for increased investment in climate adaptation and resilience, for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and for a world that listened better to and acted more on young people’s calls for action on climate.

Tomson Phiri, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that WFP was warning that an estimated 13 million people were waking up hungry every day across the Horn of Africa as the region grappled with severe drought caused by the driest conditions since 1981. The severe drought was widespread and likely to grow worse, with livestock dying, causing devastating losses for pastoral families. After three consecutive failed rainy seasons, harvests were as much as 70 per cent below the norm in affected areas. Moreover, food and water prices were skyrocketing, leading to a sharp decline in the terms of trade. The impact of the drought extended beyond farming by driving up malnutrition, disrupting children’s education, sparking displacement and exacerbating other shocks that impacted food security, including conflict, flash flooding, desert locust infestations and the socioeconomic implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the forecast for a below-average March to May rainy season, the next two to three months would be critical. Early action was needed to prevent a humanitarian disaster across the Horn of Africa. WFP would be launching its Regional Drought Response Plan for the Horn of Africa, where teams were already supporting families with cash and emergency assistance and providing life-saving food and nutrition assistance to affected communities. It was vital that WFP had the resources to scale up and support vulnerable families. It was therefore appealing for US$ 327 million to respond to the immediate needs of 4.5 million people and help communities become more resilient to extreme climate shocks.

In response to questions, Mr. Fall said that as previous crises had shown, the situation in the Horn of Africa could easily slip from bad to worse. Severe acute malnutrition was not only a leading cause of death but also had prolonged effects on a person’s life cycle. Hence the need to act quickly, together and across different sectors.

Mr. Phiri added that none of the drought-affected areas were reporting being in IPC 5 – on the threshold of or in the famine phase – but the situation could change rapidly without immediate humanitarian support. The drought was in areas unaffected by the conflict in Tigray. The Governments were responding, but they simply did not have the revenue to address the simultaneous crises.

Dissolution of the High Judicial Council of Tunisia

Liz Throssell, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the President of Tunisia to restore the High Judicial Council, warning that its dissolution would seriously undermine the rule of law, the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary in the country.

The full press release is available here.

In response to a question, Ms. Throssell said that OHCHR staff on the ground engaged with the authorities and NGOs as a vital part of their work. The country had made tremendous progress in recent years, making the latest developments that much more concerning.

Recurring attacks on IDP camps in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo

Liz Throssell, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was extremely concerned by recurring incidents of deadly ethnically motivated attacks on internally displaced person (IDP) camps by armed groups in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. On 1 February, at least 62 IDPs, members of the Hema ethnic community, had been killed and 38 others injured by the Cooperative for the Development of Congo (CODECO) armed group in a night-time attack on the Plaine Savo IDP camp. The Plaine Savo attack was only the latest in a string of devastating raids on IDP sites by CODECO in Ituri Province, where ethnic tensions between the Hema and Lendu communities had existed for years. OHCHR called on the authorities to urgently strengthen the protection of civilians, including IDPs, and, noting the launch of a preliminary investigation into the devastating attack on Plaine Savo, called on the Government to guarantee victims’ access to an effective remedy.

The full briefing note can be found here.

Replying to journalists, Ms. Throssell said that the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was complex, with many actors operating in the country. The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), whose mandate included a human rights component, were conducting joint patrols in Plaine Savo and would be providing logistical support for the investigations and potential prosecutions in connection with the spate of attacks.

Mr. LeBlanc added that MONUSCO had scaled up its presence in the wake of the attack in Plaine Savo and was doing it utmost to assist the local authorities within available resources. The Member States had consistently supported the renewal of the Mission’s mandate by the Security Council.

Continued disappearance of women activists in Afghanistan

Liz Throssell, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that nearly three weeks after their disappearance, there was still no news on the whereabouts and well-being of four women activists and their relatives who had been detained or abducted in Kabul in connection with the recent women’s rights protests. In addition, two more women – Mursal Ayar and Dr. Zahra Mohammadi – had been forcibly taken in Kabul last week. OHCHR was gravely concerned for the safety of the disappeared women and their family members and continued to press the de facto authorities for information on those cases and for an effective and transparent investigation. OHCHR stressed the need to ensure their physical and mental integrity and called for their immediate release.

The full briefing note is available here.

In response to questions, Ms. Throssell said that OHCHR had interlocutors at the Ministry of the Interior. There had been some public response from the de facto authorities, which denied their involvement and assured that those responsible would be held accountable.

Mr. LeBlanc added that whenever heads of agencies, such as the United Nations Refugee Agency and the World Food Programme, travelled to Afghanistan, they liaised with the de facto authorities and raised issues with them. In addition, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General Deborah Lyons was in regular contact with the de facto authorities.

Policy brief on ageism in artificial intelligence for health

Dr. Vânia de la Fuente-Núñez, Demographic Change & Healthy Ageing Unit, World Health Organization (WHO), said that WHO would be launching a policy brief on ageism in artificial intelligence (AI) on 9 February. AI technologies that focused specifically on health had the potential to improve health and well-being, including in older age. AI could also help predict health risks and disease progression, suggest preventative measures, enable drug development and support the personalization of care management.

Falls were a good example of the potential of AI technologies. People over 60 had the highest risk of death or serious injury from falls, and AI technologies could be used to identify deficits in balance or gait, which were indicators of fall risk. However, AI for health could reach its potential only if ageism was avoided in its design, implementation and use. As showcased in the Global Report on Ageism, one in two people were ageist against older persons and ageism was very harmful to health and well-being. The new WHO policy brief explained how, if left unchecked, AI technologies for health could perpetuate ageism in society and undermine the quality of the health and social care that older persons received, for instance if the data used to train AI technologies was unrepresentative of older persons or if the design, testing and implementation of AI technologies tended to exclude older persons.

In addition to describing existing risks, the policy brief also described how to minimize those risks and maximize the benefits of AI for older persons by, inter alia, having older persons participate in the design of AI, ensuring age-inclusive data collection, investing in older persons’ digital access and literacy, and supporting strong governance frameworks and regulations. The world could not afford to overlook older persons in AI. The older population already constituted a large proportion of the total population and would continue to grow across countries. Today, older persons outnumbered children under 5, and there would be 2 billion people over 60 by 2050.

Replying to questions from journalists, Dr. de la Fuente-Núñez said that age discrimination in terms of access to care had been observed during the pandemic. While the policy brief did not examine all forms of discrimination, WHO did point to the need to consider the intersectionality of discrimination on various grounds, such as gender and race. AI was a growing field in high-income countries especially, so she hoped to see research coming out of a greater range of countries. It was also important to ensure good governance of AI, especially in terms of transparency of the source codes and algorithms.

Update on access to northern Ethiopia

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the situation in northern Ethiopia remained tense and unpredictable. A combination of insecurity and bureaucratic impediments continued to hinder humanitarian access and operations, making it extremely challenging to reach the 9.4 million people in need of assistance in the Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions. There were currently 21 mobile health and nutrition teams in Tigray, 33 in Amhara and 19 in Afar. WHO was working with the regional health authorities in preparation for the implementation of the Health Resources Monitoring System across the three regions. Essential medical equipment and supplies, vaccines and basic medicines, paediatric kits for the treatment of malnutrition, inter-agency emergency health kits, trauma kits and reproductive health kits were needed in all three conflict-affected regions.

In Tigray, an estimated 3.9 million people required health assistance, up from 2.3 million in the first half of December 2021. WHO welcomed the arrival of a shipment of medical supplies in Mekelle at the end of January, as well as the Ethiopian Government’s recent announcement that it would facilitate daily flights to Tigray to augment the transportation of food and medical and other crucial supplies by land. WHO was preparing to airlift critically needed medicines, medical supplies and equipment to Tigray, with the first shipment of 10 metrics tons (of an total of 33) expected to be dispatched on 11 February. Humanitarian partners were concerned that if the situation did not improve, operations might not be sustainable beyond February. An integrated measles vaccination campaign targeting close to 800,000 children age 6-59 months had been conducted in early January 2022 but had faced challenges, including lack of cash, fuel and cold chain capacity. The second phase of the campaign, combined with vitamin A and deworming, had been conducted in the first week of February.

FAO announcements

Dominique Burgeon, for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), said that FAO was pleased to announce the launch of the new annual FAO Awards, honouring heroes who transformed agrifood systems and inspired change. The Awards acknowledged progress in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. FAO wished to hear how individuals were transforming agrifood systems, advocating for change or bringing about a chain reaction for better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life. Applications for the Champion Award and the Partnership Award were open with a deadline of 1 March 2022.

Mr. Burgeon also said that the FAO Regional Conferences, which were held every two years and were essential to ensuring the effectiveness of FAO’s regional work and to defining its priority areas of work, would be taking place in the first semester of 2022. For more information, see https://www.fao.org/about/meetings/regional-conferences/en/. For the thirty-sixth session of the Regional Conference for the Near East taking place on 7 and 8 February in Baghdad, see https://www.fao.org/about/meetings/regional-conferences/nerc36/documents/en/

Lastly, Mr. Burgeon said that the fourth World Pulses Day would be celebrated on 10 February under the theme “Pulses to empower youth in achieving sustainable agrifood systems”. It was an opportunity to raise awareness of the nutritional benefits of pulses and their contribution to sustainable agrifood systems and to a world without hunger. Pulses were particularly important for sustainable crop production, as they could trap atmospheric nitrogen and improve the turnover of phosphorous. They were also an affordable source of protein for a large share of rural populations in the world who might have limited access to diversified diets. To mark the day, FAO was organizing a virtual event on 10 February, at 12.30 p.m., with high-level speakers, including FAO Director-General Mr. Qu Dongyu, World Trade Organization Director-General Ms. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and WHO Assistant Director-General Ms. Naoko Yamamoto. More detailed information could be found at https://www.fao.org/world-pulses-day/en/.

WHO announcements

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator Facilitation Council had developed a financing framework to support low-coverage countries in achieving the global vaccine, test, treatment and personal protective equipment targets. The launch on 9 February, from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., would include a question-and-answer session with WHO Director-General and the Prime Minister of Norway.

Mr. Lindmeier announced that WHO Director-General would be joining the Minister of Development and Cooperation of Belgium on a high-level visit to Cape town, South Africa, on 11 and 12 February, to see the mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub and other facilities that played a crucial role in the COVID-19 response, including Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines and the Biomedical Research Institute​​ at Stellenbosch University. There would be a press conference that could be followed remotely.

Mr. Lindmeier also said that no regular COVID-19 press conference was scheduled that week.

Announcements

Rosalind Yarde, for the International Labour Organization (ILO), said that ILO would be hosting a high-level multilateral global forum for a human-centred recovery aimed at increasing the level and coherence of the international response to the economic and social impact of the COVID-19 crisis. The virtual forum, to be held from 22 to 24 February, would bring together Heads of State and Government, heads of international organizations and multilateral development banks, as well as employers’ and workers’ leaders from around the world. A key issue for discussion would be the Global Accelerator on Jobs and Social Protection for a Just Transition launched by the Secretary-General at the General Assembly in September 2021. Participants would examine the actions and investments needed to support a fully inclusive, human-centred recovery from the crisis in all countries through the expansion of decent jobs, inclusive economic growth, universal social protection, worker protections and enterprise sustainability and a transition towards a carbon-neutral global economy. The high-level panel sessions would be broadcast live on www.ilo.org/globalforum.

Andrej Mahecic, for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said that IPCC would be considering the report of Working Group II, entitled “Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”, at a virtual session from 14 to 25 February. The opening of the session would take place at 10 a.m. and would be livestreamed. The session would be followed by a virtual press conference on 28 February, at 10 a.m. Registration was mandatory to attend the press conference and to receive the embargoed materials.

Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), announced that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) would be holding a virtual press conference at noon on Thursday, 10 February, on innovators’ COVID-19 pandemic-era usage of WIPO’s global intellectual property services for patents, trademarks, designs and others (under embargo until noon on 10 February). Speakers would include WIPO Assistant Director General Mr. Marco Aleman and Chief Economist Mr. Carsten Fink.

Mr. LeBlanc said that the Conference on Disarmament was holding a public plenary meeting that morning, in room XVII, which might continue from 3 to 6 p.m., still under the presidency of Ambassador Li Song of China.

Mr. LeBlanc also said that the Committee on the Rights of the Child would be holding an informal meeting with States parties on Thursday, 10 February, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. The eighty-ninth session, during which the Committee had reviewed the reports of the Netherlands and Madagascar, would close on 11 February, at 5 p.m.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women would be reviewing the report of Gabon on the mornings of 8 and 9 February and the report of Panama on the afternoons of 8 and 9 February. During its eighty-first session, to run until 25 February in Room XXIII, the Committee would also review the reports of Senegal, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Peru, Lebanon and the Dominican Republic.

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