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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 United Nations Children’s Fund, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the International Organization for Migration, the World Health Organization, the World Food Programme, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Human Rights Council, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, and the International Labour Organization.

Human Rights Council update

Rolando Gomez, for the Human Rights Council, said that the Council had called for an urgent debate on the human rights situation in Ukraine, which would begin on Thursday, 3 March, at 3 p.m., and was expected to continue into the following day. The Council would be considering a draft resolution calling for the establishment of an investigation. In addition, 47 speakers were scheduled to speak that day during the ongoing high-level segment. Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, would be speaking via video message at around 11.30 a.m.

In response to a question from several journalists, Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said that the Secretary-General had done his utmost to ensure that Minister Lavrov could participate in the meetings in person, following a request from the Permanent Mission of Russia to the UN in New York, but ultimately it was the prerogative of States to authorize access to their air space.

Replying to a journalist, Mr. Gomez said that only the General Assembly had the authority to revoke a State’s membership in the Human Rights Council and that, to his knowledge, no such request had been made.

Ukraine

James Elder, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), speaking from Lviv, Ukraine, said that the city was heaving with thousands of families seeking to escape the fighting. While there was great sadness and immense stress, the locals were showing tremendous support. Quoting the statement by UNICEF Executive Director, he said that the situation for children caught up in the conflict in Ukraine was growing worse by the minute. UNICEF was receiving reports that hospitals, schools, water and sanitation facilities and orphanages were under fire. Children had been killed and wounded and were being profoundly traumatized by the violence all around them. UNICEF renewed its call on all parties to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure and to abide by all legal and moral obligations to keep children out of the line of fire.

In response to questions from journalists, Mr. Elder said that UNICEF had been working on both sides of the line of separation in eastern Ukraine and that its aim was now to expand support across the country, with a focus on the people crossing into Poland and Romania.

Shabia Mantoo, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that around 660,000 refugees had fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries in the past six days. At that rate, the situation was set to become Europe’s largest refugee crisis of the twenty-first century thus far. Commendably, all neighbouring countries had so far kept their borders open for refugees fleeing Ukraine, most of whom were crossing into Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Romania and Slovakia. The national authorities were assuming responsibility for the registration, reception, accommodation and protection of those refugees. UNHCR urged governments to continue to maintain access for all those fleeing, including third-country nationals living in Ukraine forced to escape the violence. The Agency stressed that there must be no discrimination against any person or group.

UNHCR was reinforcing its operations by urgently sending more resources, staff and relief items while preparing to provide cash assistance as needed. UNHCR child welfare and protection specialists were also ready to support national authorities. In Ukraine, however, the volatile situation, security concerns, lack of safe access for humanitarian workers and movement restrictions were posing major challenges for aid workers.

For more detailed information on UNHCR’s country-specific activities in relation to the crisis, see the full briefing note.

Safa Msehli, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that IOM was mobilizing teams and boosting capacity in Ukraine and neighbouring countries to respond to the growing humanitarian needs of Ukrainians forced to flee the country, the internally displaced and stranded third-country nationals. The Organization’s top priority was the safety, protection and ability to access assistance of all those fleeing the country. It would also be crucial to screen for potential short- and longer-term vulnerabilities in terms of human trafficking, age, and physical and mental health. At least 600,000 people had fled Ukraine in the first five days following the start of military operations, and there were an estimated 470,000 third-country nationals, including a large number of overseas students and labour migrants, at least 6,000 of whom had arrived in Moldova and Slovakia. Several States in Africa, the Middle East and Asia had already requested IOM’s assistance to help with the return of their nationals. That day, more than 50 Tunisian nationals who had crossed into Moldova were being assisted to relocate to Romania before returning home on a chartered flight. Several more such operations were expected.

Paloma Cuchi, representative of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Poland, said that refugees, mostly women and children, were waiting up to three days to cross the border. The Polish State was providing a warm welcome, establishing reception points where refugees could rest, eat, receive medical and psychological attention and apply for international assistance. It had organized the transport of humanitarian aid into Ukraine, as well as a train to transport the wounded to Warsaw. The response and solidarity of the community was extraordinary. In preparation for a massive number of people arriving in Poland, WHO was supporting the country’s capacity to treat the wounded, prevent and treat communicable diseases, administer coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and routine vaccinations and treat pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, cancer and heart problems. The first WHO shipment – as well as experts in mental health, health interventions and emergency operations – would arrive the next day. WHO logisticians and communicators were already in Poland.

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that as the military offensive continued in Ukraine, the safety, health and well-being of all civilians impacted by the crisis remained WHO’s highest concern. The right to health and access to services must always be protected. Health workers, hospitals and other facilities, patients, supplies and transport must never be targets. Attacks on health facilities and health-care workers were a violation of international humanitarian law and a crime against humanity. In that context, WHO was concerned about several reports of attacks on hospitals and health infrastructure, though only the attack on 24 February – in which a hospital had come under heavy weapons attack, killing 4 people and injuring 10, including 6 health-care workers – had been verified. Together with partners, WHO was expanding its existing surveillance mechanism to monitor attacks on health care in Ukraine. Further, WHO was helping health authorities identify the country’s immediate oxygen supply surge needs and ensure a supply of trauma kits. Supplies would require safe transit, including via a logistics corridor through Poland.

Tomson Phiri, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that WFP was launching an initial three-month emergency operation in Ukraine to provide food assistance for people fleeing the conflict. In Ukraine, WFP was scaling up efforts to reach up to 3.1 million people through the use of cash-based transfers and in-kind food distributions if required. Outside Ukraine, WFP was on stand-by to assist refugees in neighbouring countries. WFP staff in the capital Kyiv were reporting that food supplies were running extremely low. The first WFP shipments of 400 tons of immediate response rations were on their way from Turkey to the Romanian and Polish border crossings with Ukraine. In a year of unprecedented humanitarian needs, WFP was extremely concerned that the conflict might have far-reaching consequences. As the world’s largest and fourth largest exporters of wheat, the Russian Federation and Ukraine were critical players in ensuring the food security of numerous countries around the world. Any serious disruption of production and exports would further escalate prices and erode food security for millions of people.

Elizabeth Throssell, for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that between the morning of 24 February and midnight on 28 February, OHCHR had recorded 136 civilians killed in Ukraine, including 13 children, and 400 injured, among them 26 children. Most of the casualties had been caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including shelling from heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems and air strikes. Those were only the casualties that the Office had been able to cross-check; the real toll was likely much higher. As the High Commissioner had stressed, the use of such weapons should be avoided in densely populated areas due to the very high risk of an indiscriminate and disproportionate impact on civilians. OHCHR stressed the urgent need for an immediate cessation of hostilities.

Regarding the Russian Federation, Ms. Throssell said that peaceful anti-war demonstrators continued to be arbitrarily arrested, with reports suggesting some 6,400 people had been arrested since Thursday last week. Most had been released within hours, often after paying an administrative fine, while others had been given prison sentences ranging from 7 to 25 days. There were also reports of unnecessary and excessive use of force by police during and after the arrests. OHCHR stressed that arresting people solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly constituted an arbitrary deprivation of liberty. It called for the immediate release of all those arbitrarily detained and for the authorities to abide by their international obligations to respect and ensure the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

Turning to Belarus, Ms. Throssell said that many of the 800 people who had been arrested in several cities on 27 February were being placed in administrative detention for up to two weeks or were facing significant fines. Those arrested included people chanting “no war” and expressing support for Ukraine, as well as criticizing the Government’s lack of transparency and consultations in preparation for the referendum on constitutional changes. OHCHR called on the Belarusian authorities to respect people’s right to freedom of expression and assembly. All those detained for peaceful expression of their opinions should be immediately released.

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), announced that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and UNHCR would be holding a hybrid press conference on 1 March, at 2.15 p.m., to launch the humanitarian appeals in support of the people of Ukraine. Speakers would be Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. This would be followed by the “Joint Launch of the Humanitarian Flash Appeal and the Regional Refugee Response Plan for Ukraine” which would be presented by Mr. Griffiths and Mr. Grandi. António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General, would deliver opening remarks. Melissa Fleming, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, would moderate the event. An NGO representative would also deliver remarks.

In response to references by journalists to reports of discrimination at the borders, Alessandra Vellucci, supported by Ms. Throssell and Ms. Mantoo, recalled the Secretary-General’s statement of 28 February, in which he had said that he was grateful for the compassion, generosity and solidarity of Ukraine’s neighbours who were taking in those seeking safety and that it was important for solidarity to be extended without any discrimination based on race, religion or ethnicity. Similarly, Ms. Throssell added that sanctions should not negatively affect the human rights of ordinary people and that the authorities, particularly in European countries, should ensure that no one was targeted on account of their nationality.

Replying to further questions, Ms. Mantoo said that, from UNHCR’s standpoint, anyone currently fleeing Ukraine was considered a refugee. Ms. Throssell said that there had been 253 casualties in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, 189 in government-controlled areas and 64 in the self-proclaimed republics. Mr. Lindmeier said that the requests for supplies coming into the health cluster from hospitals in Ukraine ranged from basic hygiene products, drinking water, food and diesel fuel to trauma kits and back-up energy sources.

World Wildlife Day

David Whitbourn, for the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), said that World Wildlife Day would be celebrated on 3 March under the theme “Recovering key species for ecosystem restoration”. Key species were species that were vital for the survival of their ecosystem. Activities would include: success stories on species recovery; a live streamed event at 2 p.m. with the President of the General Assembly and front-line conservationists from the Bahamas, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nepal; a film screening; and an international youth art contest. For information, see https://wildlifeday.org/.

Mr. Whitbourn also said that the CITES Standing Committee would be meeting in Lyons, France, from 7 to 11 March to, inter alia, prepare recommendations for the nineteenth Conference of Parties to CITES in November on topics such as zoonotic diseases, the regulation of specimens produced through biotechnology, and the illegal trades in endangered species and CITES-regulated trees. Media accreditation for the meeting was open.

World Hearing Day

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that 3 March was World Hearing Day, which that year would be celebrated under the theme “To hear for life, listen with care”. Given the scale of the problem, WHO was releasing a new global standard for safe listening at venues and events to limit the risk of hearing loss while preserving high quality sound and an enjoyable listing experience. In addition to the new standard, WHO was releasing a set of digital messages for safe listening, together with a handbook on developing a digital awareness campaign.

Announcements

Mr. Lindmeier announced that on 3 March, WHO would be releasing a scientific brief on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health (under embargo until 2 March, at 3 p.m.), which provided information on the scale of the global increase in mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, since the onset of the pandemic and on the risk of infection, severe illness and death from COVID-19 for people living with mental disorders. The brief also summarized the effect of the pandemic on the availability of mental health services.

Mr. Lindmeier also announced that on Wednesday, 2 March, at 3 p.m., the WHO Director-General would be holding a press briefing on COVID-19 and Ukraine.

Rosalind Yarde, for the International Labour Organization (ILO), said that ahead of International Women's Day, ILO would be publishing “Care at work: Investing in care leave and services for a more gender-equal world of work” on 7 March. The report provided a global overview of national laws and practices on care policies and presented the findings from a survey of 185 countries that had looked at protection and legal gaps. The report would be presented at an embargoed virtual press briefing on Thursday, 3 March, by Manuela Tomei, Director of the ILO Conditions of Work and Equality Department.

 

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