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19-11-2021 | Press Conferences

Bi-Weekly Press Briefing 19 November 2021


Madagascar humanitarian appeal

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said Madagascar was on the brink of the world’s first climate change famine and the UN and humanitarian partners had extended the Flash Appeal till May next year and raised the funding requirements by 200 per cent. As the crisis in the Grand Sud escalated in January, an appeal was launched to complement the Government’s National Response Plan running up until May 2021. The appeal called for US$76 million to address the needs in the south, including for more than 1.1 million people experiencing Crisis and Emergency food insecurity (IPC Phase 3 and 4). Assistance was scaled up and more than 900,000 people have received assistance, including food and livelihood support.

The extended Flash Appeal was launched yesterday, asking for US$231 million. $120 million had been contributed by donors, but more funding was necessary to deliver food, water, health services, and life-saving nutrition to nearly 1.3 million people in the Grand Sud. Madagascar was in the midst of its worst drought in over 40 years and it was nearly impossible for people to grow their own food. People faced severe hunger, including 28,000 in life-threatening, famine-like conditions. People were displaced from rural to urban areas in search of sustenance and services. After a recent visit to the Grand Sud, the Humanitarian Coordinator for Madagascar, Issa Sanogo, described families eating cactus and locusts to survive and called on the international community to urgently increase its support.

Responding to questions, Mr. Laerke said the international agencies were doing all they could to help with the situation. It was not yet a declared famine, as the threshold had not yet been reached, however, if the situation continued to spread and deteriorate, then of course this would change.

Somalia drought warning

Continuing, Mr. Laerke said the UN and the Federal Government in Somalia had warned that a rapidly worsening drought could lead to an “extreme situation” by April next year as climate projections showed that the country was facing a fourth consecutive failed rainfall season. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator had said in a joint statement that it was imperative to act now to prevent a slide into the kind of drought and even famine conditions experienced in previous years. About 2.3 million people were already affected by serious water, food and pasture shortages as water pans and boreholes had dried up.

The number of people who needed assistance and protection in Somalia was forecast to rise by 30 per cent from 5.9 million today to about 7.7 million in 2022. Over 70 per cent of all Somalis lived below the poverty line. Local communities, the authorities and the UN were ramping up the response and reprogramming their activities to address the emerging needs, but critical response sectors like water, sanitation and hygiene were only 20 per cent funded. Somalia was on the frontline of climate change and has experienced more than 30 climate-related hazards since 1990, including 12 droughts and 19 floods.

The joint statement is available here.

Situation in Herat

Richard Trenchard, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Representative in Afghanistan, said this week he had visited Herat province. Western Afghanistan was one the regions that has been hit the hardest by drought. Rainfed agriculture had been particularly affected, as well as herding because of the scarce pasture available to feed animals. The situation was disastrous: Afghanistan had no doubt become the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, but this was not yet the worst of it.

Almost one in two Afghans were currently facing acute hunger. 18.8 million were facing acute food insecurity. 22.8 million people were projected to be in crisis and emergency levels of acute hunger between November 2021 and March 2021, according to the latest IPC report. To make matters worse, there should be a new La Niña event in Afghanistan over this winter. This meant another dry winter, with reduced precipitation and snowfall, and complicating even more the dire situation of the country, in particular in rural areas, where the majority of the population lives.

This created very real famine risks in 2022 unless immediate large-scale support to protect these people and their livelihoods happened very soon. Protecting rural livelihoods was a core element of the immediate emergency humanitarian response to Afghanistan’s dire crisis, in addition to other life-saving support like food assistance, which was also very much needed.

FAO required USD 115 million urgently to reach 5 million men, women and children this winter and next spring. This was a part of FAO’s overall USD 200 million requirement for the 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan. The consequences of not providing this urgent humanitarian assistance to protect livelihoods would be catastrophic.

Responding to questions, Mr. Trenchard said with regard to engagement with the de facto authorities, this conversation was largely local and in the relevant districts, and concerned security and access. The de facto authorities had been very clear in guaranteeing both of these, and FAO was able to work in all the provinces of Afghanistan, now being able to access all districts. The Taliban understood the humanitarian principles and that work was based on needs on the ground. FAO was not seeing any problems in this regard. As for female staff, the local team contained both men and women, and their work had not ceased since August. The female staff had a key and important role and were also able to go into communities and support the work of FAO. The need for female staff was recognized and acknowledged.

The crisis had been driven by a wide range of causes, including the suspension of international development assistance, which had underpinned so many of Afghanistan’s basic service provision, including agriculture, Mr. Trenchard said, continuing to respond to questions. The system for seed delivery had been paralysed since August, although FAO had provided a vast amount. However, many of them had not been planted and were sitting in warehouses. Afghanistan needed the rural livelihoods not to collapse, and without seeds and support for livestock, these would collapse, which was why the USD 115 million was utterly critical. The situation was spreading across the whole country. The collapse of the banking system was causing the FAO to struggle whilst distributing funds, but at the moment money was starting to flow to a limited extent. Whether or not the system could absorb the scale-up that was required was hard to know. A large part of the humanitarian system also focused on the delivery of water and increasing water-use efficiency. A lot of work was also being done on pest control, and to adapt agricultural and food systems to the changing climate.

Possible closing of Russia’s oldest human rights group, Memorial

Elizabeth Throssell, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said there was concern that there was possible legal action occurring in Russia to dissolve the Memorial Human Rights Centre and the Memorial group for alleged breaches of Russia’s “foreign agents” laws. Court hearings were due to begin on 24-25 November. Concerns had been raised at the international level that these laws were muzzling human rights organisations. Since 2012 the law had been used against civil society, media organisations, journalists and bloggers among others. The Russian authorities should abolish or substantially amend this law, and uphold the fundamental freedoms of expression and association, and allow the expression of ideas, criticism and dissent.

Responding to questions, Ms. Throssel said the law came in in 2012 and had been amended several times subsequently. Some 30 organizations had closed rather than going on the Foreign Agents list. There were concerns about the law. Memorial was among Russia’s most respected human rights organizations. OHCHR’s concern over the law was that it had vague definitions of what were “political activities” and “foreign support”. Another concern was that the law was very complex, and hung over NGOs. It was very hard to get off the Foreign Agents list. OHCHR was calling for the law to be overhauled to meet Russia’s humanitarian obligations. There was a whole range of regulations covering civil society organizations, and OHCHRs concern here was that it basically meant that a lot of organizations had been forced into liquidation, faced massive fines, and repeated inspections.

Responding to a question on the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, Ms. Throssel said it was important to have proof of her whereabouts and wellbeing, and to have a full and transparent investigation into her allegations of sexual assault made against a former Vice-Premier of China. It was a challenging issue, as it was difficult for victims of sexual assault to come forward to make their allegations. Sexual assault was found in any and every society. It was important to ensure justice and accountability for victims.

Mandatory vaccination

Fadela Chaib, speaking for World Health Organisation (WHO), in response to questions on mandatory vaccination in the context of Austria, said that countries were looking for ways to reduce the spread of Covid-19 during the winter. WHO believed countries needed to follow a risk-based approach based on an assessment of their own epidemiological situation when seeking to control infection and curb the spread of the virus. Implementing what was called selective lockdown on specific groups and not others had some human rights and ethical implications. What WHO advised was that governments should continue to make every effort to ensure the vaccine was available and accessible to all priority groups. Every individual had a role to play in bringing cases down. Everybody should continue to wear a mask, keep a distance, open windows, cover coughs and sneezes, wash hands regularly, and get vaccinated as soon as it was their turn. Today every single European country was facing a resurgent threat and was fighting it. Two main reasons were driving this increase: insufficient vaccination coverage; and an increase in public social mixing. There would be a SAGE briefing on Wednesday 24 November which would be attended by Dr. Tedros.

Ms. Throssel, speaking for OCHA, in response to questions on this topic, said people should be encouraged to be vaccinated, and the situation should be explained. Restrictions of rights could be allowed for a legitimate public health purpose, including mandatory vaccinations, and to meet the requirements set out in international human rights law, including that they had to be necessary, proportionate to the interests at stake, should be the least intrusive option among those that could be achieved, and, most importantly, should be non-discriminatory. OHCHR believed that mandatory vaccination with regard to health workers should be approached with particular care. Governments should use all measures available to encourage people to get vaccinated in the first case. With regard to Austria, she did not yet have specific information available in order to comment.

Geneva announcements

Michele Zaccheo, speaking on behalf of FAO, said the International Year of Artisanal Fisheries and Aquaculture 2022 (IYAFA) would be officially launched today at 13:00 CET with a virtual event. IYAFA 2022 is an important recognition of the millions of small-scale fishers, fish farmers and fish workers who provide healthy and nutritious food to billions of people and contribute to achieving Zero Hunger.

On behalf of WHO, the World AntiMicrobial Awareness Week was also being organised, and more information thereon is on the website.

Speaking on behalf of the United Nations Information Service, Mr Zaccheo said today was World Toilet Day, and there was a message by the Secretary-General of the United Nations on the topic, reminding all that life without a toilet was dirty, dangerous and undignified, and everybody should have access to sanitation. 20 November was World Children's Day as well as Africa Industrialization Day. 21 November was World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims and there was an announcement by the Secretary-General for that as well.

Catherine Huissoud, for United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), said a new UNCTAD report on “Economic costs of the Israeli occupation for the Palestinian people: poverty in the West Bank between 2000 and 2019” would be launched on Tuesday 23 November at 2.30 p.m.. Speaking at the launch would be Richard Kozul-Wright, Director, Division on Globalization and Development Strategies, UNCTAD; Mahmoud Elkhafif, Coordinator of the Assistance to the Palestinian People, UNCTAD, and; Rami Alazzeh, Economist, Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People, UNCTAD.

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was concluding this morning its review of the report of Singapore.


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Bi-Weekly Press Briefing 19 November 2021 / 1:15:16

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