PRESS BRIEFING BY THE UNITED NATIONS INFORMATION SERVICE
25 February 2022
Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, chaired the hybrid briefing, attended by the spokespersons and representatives of UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Human Rights Council, World Food Programme, the International Telecommunication Union Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, the United Nations Environment Programme.
Conflict in Ukraine
Ms Vellucci began proceedings by reading excerpts from a statement from United Nations Secretary General António Guterres. Secretary General Guterres expressed his preoccupations about the situation in Ukraine, while saying that it was not irreversible. He repeated his appeal to President Putin to stop the military operation and bring the troops back to Russia.
Secretary General Guterres said that innocent people always paid the highest price in conflicts, and that was why the United Nations was scaling up its humanitarian operations in and around Ukraine. He announced that he would immediately allocate 20 million US dollars from the Central Emergency Response Fund to meet urgent humanitarian needs. The United Nations, he said, was committed to staying and delivering support to the people of Ukraine, and it was not too late to save them from the scourge of war. The world needed peace.
Afshan Khan, Regional Director for UNICEF, Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia, said that the military operation in Ukraine had posed an immediate threat to the lives of the 7.5 million children in the region. There had been major attacks in Kiev that had created greater fear and panic among the population. Families were moving into subways and shelters, and this was a terrifying moment for children across the country.
UNICEF, she said, had been working for the past eight years on scaling up lifesaving programmes for children. It was trucking safe water to conflict-affected areas, prepositioning health supplies, hygiene and emergency education close to communities near the line of conflict and working with municipalities to ensure that there was immediate help available to families on the ground.
Mobile teams were providing psycho-social support to traumatized children, responding to violence, abuse, separation from family, and gender-based violence, and supporting children with disability. The needs of children and families were escalating in line with the conflict.
Evacuations were ongoing in Luhansk Oblast and had started in Donetsk. Needs were wide-ranging, including hygiene products, blankets, gas burners, fuel, and first-aid kits.
UNICEF called on all parties to protect children at all times, and to ensure that humanitarian actors could safely access children in need wherever they were. refrain from attacking essential infrastructure supporting children, including water and sanitation systems, health facilities and schools. Already there were reports of grave shortages, along with a fast-rising number of requests for psychological support and care for children.
UNICEF was seeking USD 66.4 million to provide access to basic services including water and sanitation, immunization and health care, schooling and learning, psychosocial support, and emergency cash assistance for up to 7.5 million children inside Ukraine.
UNICEF would be working with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) and other United Nations agencies in the coming days for a Flash Appeal for the surrounding countries. It had activated ‘Blue Dots’, which were also used during the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe during 2015-2016. These would provide essential services en route where families and children had been evacuating in surrounding countries.
UNICEF, said Ms Khan, was rushing to tally the civilian casualties including among children, and stressed the need to address the trauma of the living. She called on the joint efforts of the entire UN family to support the response.
Tarik Jašarević, speaking for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the WHO was concerned for the health of the people of Ukraine, and expressed fear that the escalating crisis may impact health systems. The WHO, he said, was releasing USD 3.5 million from the contingency fund for emergencies to procure medical supplies for Ukraine.
Jarno Habicht, WHO Representative in Ukraine, said it was difficult to believe that the conflict was taking place. He stated that the WHO was deeply concerned for the health of Ukraine’s population. Before the conflict, Ukraine was in the process of tackling the COVID outbreak and stepping up vaccinations, fighting polio, and reforming the health care system. It had been a star in the region regarding health care, with a new health strategy toward 2030 also in place. He expressed concern that these efforts would now be put on hold.
The WHO, he said, was packing support kits, and aiming to heal human suffering. It was coordinating the humanitarian response with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and working with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to monitor civilian casualties. The response was the WHO’s top priority, and it was working to ensure the safety and security of its staff. WHO representatives were on the ground in bunkers in Kiev.
Mr Habicht said that the WHO’s priorities had shifted to trauma care, ensuring access to services, mental health and psychosocial support. There was a need to protect the humanitarian response, and to consider how to support Ukraine more broadly.
Ms Vellucci said that the UN was calling for urgent funding for the 2022 humanitarian response plan, which asked for 190 million USD to meet the needs of 1.8 million vulnerable people. This included over one million in government-controlled areas, and 750,000 in non-government-controlled areas.
Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), expressed grave concerns about reports on the ground. There were increasing reports of civilian causalities. She said that the Russian Federation military’s actions were in violation of international human rights law and should be immediately halted.
The High Commissioner, she reported, stressed that States that failed to take all reasonable measures to settle their international disputes by peaceful means fall short of complying with their obligation to protect the right to life. She urged full respect for international humanitarian law and international human right law.
She also said that OHCHR was disturbed by the multiple arbitrary arrests of demonstrators in Russia who had been protesting against war yesterday. More than 1,800 protesters, she reported, had been arrested in 50 cities across Russia. It was unclear whether some had been released. She said that arresting individuals for exercising their rights to freedom of expression or of peaceful assembly constituted an arbitrary deprivation of liberty, and called on the authorities to ensure the immediate release of all those arbitrarily detained for exercising these rights.
The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission remained in Ukraine and would continue to closely monitor and report on the situation.
Read the full OHCHR briefing note here.
Ms Khan for UNICEF, responding to questions, said that there were shortages of supplies. Different parts of Ukraine would be affected differently, with the East being the most vulnerable. Water had been principally delivered by UNICEF to the eastern regions. The ‘blue dots’ provided safe spaces, information, and supplies for families, and UNICEF was expanding blue spaces across Ukraine from East to West.
Responding to a question on the impact of sanctions, Ms Khan said that UNICEF would normally focus on providing cash assistance, but the drain on cash within the country had made that difficult. However, it was strengthening its capacities in surrounding countries, including Moldova, Romania, and Poland as a first call, as well as Hungary and Slovenia, to provide support. UNICEF would be working with UNHCR in Poland, and had offices in Romania and Moldova that allowed her agency to immediately surge additional teams to support families.
Responding to a question on refugees, Ms Khan said that UNICEF had prepared for one to five million refugees flowing into surrounding countries, with people already crossing into Romania, Hungary, and Poland. People were also pushing to the West inside Ukraine. The organization called for neighbouring countries to open their border crossings and support families as best they could.
There were reports of substantial movement in Ukraine. More than 100,000 people had left their homes and may be displaced. Up to four million people may flee to neighbouring countries if conflict were to escalate further.
Shabia Mantoo, for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), answering a question on crisis response, said that UNHCR had been working for eight years in the non-Government-controlled regions, including Donetsk and Mariupol. In this crisis, it had been providing water trucking, hygiene kits, support to kindergartens, education, and child protection. The UNHCR was appealing for 66.4 million USD to support all of Ukraine. It was also working with municipalities to support families in Western Ukraine. There were stocks in warehouses in Kiev to support 3,000 children, and additional stocks were being delivered up to Ukrainian 20,000 families. 7.5 million children were in need in the country. As teams became able to support people in shelters, it would do so, but as the conflict was so intense, UNHCR was calling on families and humanitarian workers to take shelter and stay safe.
Mr. Habicht, for WHO, in response to a question, said that the Omricron variant of the COVID virus did exist in Ukraine, with a high number of COVID cases across the country. He expressed concern about the effect of the conflict on vaccination, as well as the availability of medicine, electricity and water. He said that supplies of prepositioned medical kits would soon run out, and the WHO was working to ensure that supplies were available.
Ms Shamdasani, for OHCHR, responding to a question, said that colleagues on the ground were monitoring the human rights situation, but an information war was hampering efforts. Some reports that had been received were completely false. It was very difficult to verify who was disseminating false reports.
There were verified reports of at least 127 civilian casualties, including 25 killed and 102 injured due to shelling and other forms of conflict. Of the 127, 114 were reported in Government-controlled territories in Donetsk, Cherkasy, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, and Luhansk regions. OHCHR consulted a broad range of sources to obtain these figures, including interviews with victim’s families and forensic records. She expressed fears that those figures may be underestimates.
Ms Shamdasani added that although there were no verified attacks, there were reports of journalists on the ground that were being hampered in their communications efforts. It was crucial, she said, that journalists were allowed to provide objective coverage of the conflict.
She called on all parties to protect the rights of civilians, and to prevent the use of explosive weapons in populated areas at all costs.
Answering a question, Ms Mantoo for UNHCR said that there were about 5,000 refugee arrivals in Moldova, and refugees were also arriving in Poland, Romania, and the Russian Federation.
In response to a question on potential sanctions for Russia, Ms Vellucci recalled the words of the Secretary-General about the military operations being against the UN Charter. The Security Council would meet at 3 pm today (New York time) to discuss the situation in Ukraine.
New OHCHR report on developments in Sri Lanka
Ravina Shamdasani for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights announced that in a new report* for the UN Human Rights Council on developments in Sri Lanka since last year, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet had recognized the recent steps taken to initiate reforms but expressed deep concern over a number of human rights trends in the country.
While OHCHR recognized the renewed willingness of the Government of Sri Lanka to engage constructively with the Office, including in the preparation of the report, it urged the Government to go much further with the legal, institutional and security sector reforms necessary to comply with Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations.
OHCHR said it had observed setbacks to accountability for past human rights violations and recognition of victims’ rights. The High Commissioner highlights particularly the continuing precarious situation of the families of the disappeared – the majority of whom are represented by women. OHCHR urged the Government to acknowledge their sufferings, urgently determine the fate or whereabouts of victims, provide reparations, and bring perpetrators to justice.
The report also highlighted continuing trends toward militarization and ethno-religious nationalism that undermined democratic institutions, increased the anxiety of minorities, and impeded reconciliation.
Read the full briefing note.
In answer to a question, Ms Shamdasani said the Office of the High Commissioner had shared its concerns with the Government as well as its report before it was made public. They had engaged with OHCHR constructively.
Killing of polio workers in Afghanistan
In answer to a question about the killing of polio workers in Afghanistan, Tarik Jašarević from the World Health Organization said the polio vaccination campaign has been suspended in two provinces. Ms Shamdasani said OHCHR will present a report on Afghanistan to the Human Rights Council on 4 March.
Attacks on journalists in Mexico
Responding to a question about the President of Mexico’s verbal attacks on journalists and an initiative in Congress to investigate NGOs that receive funding from abroad, Ravina Shamdasani from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that OHCHR was very concerned about these issues and following the situation very closely. She said OHCHR continued to stress to the authorities that it is the obligation of the State to protect journalists so they can perform their work.
Prison reform in Ecuador
Ravina Shamdasani for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that OHCHR welcomed the positive steps taken this week towards prison reform in Ecuador, where about 300 people have been killed in prison violence in the last year and the prison population has tripled in 13 years.
On Monday, President Guillermo Lasso had launched a new public policy on social rehabilitation aimed at guaranteeing access to basic rights for prisoners, among them the rights to health, food, water, education, and work. The new policy was developed with significant technical support from the UN Human Rights Office and UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and in consultation with a large cross-section of Ecuadorian society, among them government agencies, academics, non-governmental organizations, human rights defenders, and, crucially, the families of prisoners and prisoners themselves.
The President also ordered the release of some 5,000 prisoners as part of an early release programme, in a bid to reduce prison overcrowding.
Ms Shamdasani said OHCHR hoped the new policy would be implemented to help shift Ecuador’s prison system away from over-reliance on punitive measures and towards crime prevention and to bring it into compliance with international human rights standards. It also hoped this policy would inspire reform in other countries in the region facing similar challenges. It welcomed these changes and called on the Ecuadorian authorities to ensure dedicated capacity was made available to enable implementation of the new policy. OHCHR reiterated its call for prompt, thorough and impartial investigations into all deaths and serious injuries in custody. The victims and their families have a right to justice, truth, and reparations.
Read the briefing note.
Human Rights Council
Rolando Gomez for the Human Rights Council said that the President of the Human Rights Council last night had received a letter from the Ambassador of Ukraine asking for an urgent debate on the Ukraine crisis to be convened. He said the five-member Bureau would discuss this request this afternoon during its meeting.
The entire five-week session of the Council would be held in Room XIX, except on 30 and 31 March, when the Council would move to Room XX to vote on resolutions.
Some 144 dignitaries would be addressing the High-Level Segment of the Council, 49 on Monday alone. While some dignitaries will speak through videoconference, some 70 officials will be attending the Council in person. It is the highest number of dignitaries to ever address a high-level segment of the Council.
Mr Gomez reminded the media that a media zone was set up at the back of Room XIX for impromptu interviews with dignitaries as they came out of the room.
He also mentioned the annual high-level mainstreaming panel on universal participation that would take place in the afternoon.
Aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Emnati in Madagascar
Tomson Phiri for the World Food Programme said that Tropical Cyclone Emnati that made landfall in Madagascar on Wednesday, the fourth tropical storm in as many weeks to hit one of Africa’s most storm-prone countries, was threatening food security and was an example of how weather extremes would trigger runaway humanitarian needs if we did not tackle the climate crisis.
Cyclone Emnati was bound to deepen hunger including in southern Madagascar, which had been reeling from years of severe drought – another manifestation of the country’s vulnerability to climate extremes. Given how dry the land is in these areas, there were now concerns regarding the risk of flash floods.
The storms - Emnati, Dumako, Batsirai and Ana - have wrecked the island nation, causing widespread damage to agricultural land including the rice crop that was just weeks away from harvest. Cash crops like cloves, coffee and pepper have also been severely affected. In a country where the majority of people made a living from agriculture, an estimated 90 percent of crops could be destroyed in some areas of affected regions. The back-to-back storms had impacted market supplies with the potential to send food prices soaring and food insecurity spiralling in the coming months. Forecasts predicted another tropical system already forming in the south-west Indian ocean.
While WFP was in a race against time to assist those affected, its longer-term climate adaptation work helped communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from climate shocks and stresses. For example, WFP’s integrated risk management in the districts of Ambovombe and Amboasary last year reached 3,500 smallholder farmers with insurance, savings and climate-adapted agriculture practices training. The programme saw a US$350,000 payout during the rainy season and a US$157,500 payout during the dry season in 2021. Such programmes needed to be scaled up, especially for communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis.
Full press release available here.
World Telecommunication Standards Assembly
Bilel Jamoussi, for the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, announced that the ITU would be hosting the World Telecommunication Standards Assembly from 1-9 March at the CICG in Geneva.
He added that the ITU would hold a press conference on 10 March to share the outcomes of the Assembly and the Global Standardization work accomplished over this period.
United Nations Environment Assembly
Alejandro Laguna from the United Nations Environment Programme announced that the Fifth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) would take place online and in Nairobi on 28 February and it would go until 2 March 2022. The overall theme of the Assembly would be “Strengthening Action for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”.
Dozens of environment ministers were expected to participate as well as members of civil society and the private sector.
One of the draft resolutions to be discussed next Wednesday would aim to establish an international negotiating committee to kickstart works on a lasting treaty on plastic. Some 11 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean every year, and plastic accounts for 85% of marine litter.
Mr Laguna added that there would be a special session on 3-4 March to celebrate the 50th anniversary of UNEP, created in 1972.
Alessandra Vellucci, on behalf of the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria, announced that Mr Geir O. Pedersen, the Special Envoy for Syria, would be briefing the Security Council this afternoon at 4 p.m. Geneva time (10 a.m. in New York). His remarks would be shared with the press.
Ms Vellucci also announced that the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women would be concluding its 81st Session today, making public its concluding observation concerning its reports of Gabon, Panama, Senegal, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Peru, Lebanon and the Dominican Republic.
Further, she announced that the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was continuing its work with the review of the report of Bahrain, the last scheduled for the session. This committee’s work would close on Friday 4 March at 5:30 p.m. Geneva time (11:30 a.m. New York time).
Finally, Ms Vellucci reiterated that the Human Rights Committee would open its 134th session next Monday at 10 a.m. Geneva time. The session would last until the 25th of March, and would review the reports of Qatar, Israel, the Russian Federation (on the 3rd of March), Iraq (on the 7th and 8th), Bolivia, and Cambodia.