Bi-Weekly Press Briefing 03 March 2023
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Press Conferences | FAO , OHCHR , UNHCR , WHO , WMO , ITU

Bi-Weekly Press Briefing 03 March 2023


3 March 2023


OHCHR’s latest report on Myanmar

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), informed that the latest report on Myanmar had been published today. The report stated that Myanmar’s military had created a perpetual human rights crisis through the continuous use of violence, including the killing, arbitrary arrest, torture and enforced disappearance of opponents.

“Two years after the military launched a coup, the generals have embarked on a scorched earth policy in an attempt to stamp out opposition,” UN Human Rights Chief, Volker Türk, said. 

The report echoed calls by the Security Council and ASEAN for, among other things, an immediate halt to the violence, the release of all those arbitrarily detained, accountability, and unhindered humanitarian access. The report also documented a litany of human rights abuses from 1 February 2022 to 31 January 2023, accompanied by a sharp rise in violence especially in the north-western and south-eastern parts of Myanmar. It cited credible sources as having verified the deaths of at least 2,940, and 17,572 arrests by the military and its affiliates since the coup. Nearly 80 per cent of Myanmar’s 330 townships had been impacted by armed clashes.

There were reasonable grounds to believe that the military and its affiliated militias were responsible for most violations, some of which might be crimes against humanity and war crimes.

James Rodehaver, Chief of the OHCHR’s Myanmar Team, said that the report tried to showcase the current human rights situation in the country, which was reaching new lows. Over the past one and a half years, some 300 armed groups had popped up, leading to an intensification of violence across the country. There had never been a situation in Myanmar that had affected the whole country to this degree. Myanmar’s military had increasingly relied on a military strategy to address opposition to its coup, said Mr. Rodehaver. The military was treating the people of the country as its adversaries, weaponizing the legal system as well. Almost a third of all civilians killed so far had died in detention, pointed out Mr. Rodehaver. The military was increasingly using airpower to fight its opponents; over 300 airstrikes had been conducted over the past year. Mr. Rodehaver provided several concrete examples of villages burned to the ground by airstrikes and ground troops. People in Myanmar were desperate to have their stories heard.

Responding to questions from the media, Mr. Rodehaver said that the Rakhine State featured prominently in the report. Some 600,000 Rohingya who were still there were frequently caught in the middle of fighting. Luckily, a ceasefire had now taken hold in the State, but the Rohingya continued to face daily legalized stigmatization. It was reported that the morale was extremely low within the armed forces, but the pace of defections seemed to have slowed down. Close to 20,000 people had been arrested just for showing opposition to the military. OHCHR was considering the current conflict to be a “non-international armed conflict”. As the OHCHR did not have access to the country, it had to rely on groups working in the country to provide information; OHCHR then verified and crosschecked information, assessing the credibility of information, which was a slow and painstaking process.

Situation in Tigray

Patrick Youssef, Regional Director for Africa at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who had just returned from the Tigray region in Ethiopia, said that the conflict there had uprooted tens of thousands of families and affected all areas of life. The conflict had taken a heavy toll on the healthcare system. For example, the Ethiopian Red Cross had operated more than 250 ambulances in Tigray before the war, while today, only 82 remained, and many were out of service. Healthcare personnel in Tigray had been working without pay for over twenty months. In some places, they reused gloves and gave expired drugs to patients. Thousands of wounded people needed urgent surgical care, protheses and physical rehabilitation. Waiting lists kept growing as people once cut off from assistance by the fighting were now able to access medical facilities.

Since the reopening of humanitarian corridors into Tigray in November, the ICRC had scaled up its response, sending hundreds of trucks and dozens of cargo flights loaded with medicines, sanitation material, equipment, and food for health facilities. Together with the Ethiopian Red Cross, the ICRC had supported 29 hospitals and health centers in Tigray, but that was not enough. Mr. Youssef also said that months after the fighting ended, areas of Tigray, Amhara, and Afar were still littered with unexploded remnants of war, which represented a significant risk for residents, as well as for thousands of displaced persons returning to their homes in former battlefields. The humanitarian community had to do more, and so many lives were still at risk, stressed Mr. Youssef.

More information on the ICRC’s activities in Ethiopia can be found here.

Answering questions from the media, Mr. Youssef said that the ICRC was intensifying its confidential bilateral engagement with the armed forces with the objective of increasing respect for international humanitarian and human rights law. Exact figures of casualties, including from malnutrition and disease, were not yet available, he said. He emphasized the urgent need to strongly support Tigray’s health care system, social services, and water infrastructure.

Earthquakes in Turkiye and Syria

Tommaso della Longa, for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said that 6 March would mark the sad one-month mark of the two devastating earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria. On that occasion, the IFRC highlighted the urgent need of a sustainable short- and long-term response to the health, mental health and psychosocial needs to prevent a “second disaster”.

One month into the response, scaling up mental health services was crucial. If not addressed properly, mental health was a ticking time bomb for hundred thousand of people in both countries. Entire communities were suffering after losing everything from their loved ones to homes, jobs, and many sentimental belongings they owned. On top of that, many caregivers and first responders were struggling to cope with what they had seen on top of the exhausting workload and secondary trauma. In Türkiye, Red Crescent teams had set up safe spaces offering mental health and psychosocial support for children to play, supporting over 42,000 people, including first responders. They also provided psychological first aid and offer referrals to local health facilities. In Syria, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent teams had supported over 30,000 people with psychological first aid, especially children and continued to provide healthcare and medicines through mobile health units, and physical rehabilitation programs and clinics.

Mr. della Longa said that he IFRC Emergency Appeals for 650 million Swiss francs would support the Turkish Red Crescent and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to continue scaling up their humanitarian response and recovery efforts over the next two years.

Replying to questions from journalists, Mr. della Longa said that the Turkish Red Crescent had been working around the clock to deliver aid to people impacted by the devastating earthquake. At the same time that Turkish Red Crescent teams were providing relief to families, its social enterprise arm— Kızılay Tent & Textile Inc— was producing high-quality tents, which other aid organizations purchased and distribute as emergency shelter. Tent production and the delivery of aid took place concurrently and did not distract from one another, he said. The Turkish Red Crescent’s social enterprise model enabled income generation for the organization. IFRC had so far raised about 15 percent of its appeal, but this did not take into account the funds raised by national societies around the world. Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said that as of 27 February, the UN appeal for Türkiye had been only 7 percent funded [later on, she added that as of today, 3 March, the appeal was only 8.2 percent funded].

Political freedom in Cambodia

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), informed that the High Commissioner for Human Rights said today that he was dismayed by the 27-year sentence handed down against Cambodian opposition figure Kem Sokha on charges of treason and conspiracy with a foreign power. “I am concerned by the basis of the charges and the conduct of his trial. I urge the Government to promptly release Kem Sokha and ensure his human rights are fully respected, including his right to a fair trial and to participate fully in the conduct of political affairs,” said the High Commissioner. Full statement can be found here.

Sentencing of Ales Bialiatski in Belarus

Responding to questions about the sentencing of the pro-democracy activist Ales Bialiatski in Belarus today, Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the OHCHR was very disturbed by the trial of the Belarusian human rights defenders for their legitimate human rights work. The High Commissioner had asked for an end to prosecutions of human rights defenders on politically motivated charges. He would be presenting the report on Belarus to the Human Rights Council on 22 March.

Reported poisoning of schoolgirls in Iran

Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), responding to questions, said that the OHCHR was very concerned that schoolgirls in Iran appeared to be deliberately targeted by poisonous gas under still unknown circumstances. OHCHR urged the authorities to make their investigation results public. All and any violence and discrimination against girls were rejected.

Margaret Harris, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the WHO was in contact with the country’s medical authorities and professionals, and more information would be shared as soon as available.

Food Price Index

Upali Galketi Aratchilage, Senior Economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), reminded that the index tracked the movements of five food commodity groups at the global level: cereals, vegetable oils, dairy, meat, and sugar. In February, the index had declined marginally, -0.6 percent compared to the previous month, which was the eleventh consecutive month for the index to drop, registering a cumulative decline of 18.7 percent from its peak in March 2022. The decline reflected drops in the price indices of vegetable oils and dairy, together with fractionally lower cereals and meat indices, more than offsetting a steep rise in sugar prices.

Mr. Aratchilage specified that the Vegetable Oil Price Index had declined the most, dropping by slightly over 3 percent from January, and marking the lowest level since the beginning of 2021.

Dairy prices had registered the second largest drop, declining by 2.7 percent, with steep declines in butter and skim milk powder, mostly due to lower global import demand, despite a noticeable increase in purchases by North Asia. The Cereal Price Index had been only fractionally lower in February and stood 1.4 percent above its level in February 2022. International meat prices had also been fractionally lower, whereas international sugar prices had increased steeply, reaching the highest level since 2017, driven primarily by the downward revision to the 2022/23 sugar production forecast in India amid strong global import demand.

Looking into the future, Mr. Aratchilage concluded that, although food commodity prices had relatively stabilized, the situation in global food commodity markets remained tight, and any uncertainty on the supply side, such as extreme weather events, changes in trade policies, especially those restricting supplies, congested shipping routes, could lead to price volatility and thereby limiting access to food. More data is available here.

Human Rights Council

Pascal Sim, for the Human Rights Council (HRC), informed that the HRC had concluded its high-level segment the previous day. A total of 141 dignitaries had spoken, 83 of whom had spoken in person. Today the Council was concluding its general segment, including rights of reply for States. After that, the Council would hold an interactive dialogue on the High Commissioner’s oral update on Nicaragua, followed by discussions on Sudan and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Situations in Eritrea, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Nicaragua would be discussed on 6 March. More details on the 52nd session can be found here.

World Hearing Day

Dr. Shelly Chadha, expert on hearing at the        World Health Organization (WHO), informed that today was the World Hearing Day. She said that nearly one out of every 15 people globally experienced disabling levels of hearing loss for which they required diagnostic testing and rehabilitation. Nearly three out of every four children, by the time they reach their fifth birthday, suffered at least one and often more episodes of ear infection, which, if they remained untreated, could lead to chronic ear problems, hearing loss, and at times, life threatening complications.

Even though ear and hearing problems were some of the most common conditions encountered in the community, services for those problems remained mainly limited to the tertiary or secondary levels of care and were provided by highly skilled professionals such as ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists and audiologists. The majority of low- and middle-income countries had less than one ENT specialist and one audiologist per million population, said Dr. Chadha. Healthcare providers working at the primary level had to be empowered with the relevant knowledge, skills, and tools. This was possible through systematic training on ear and hearing care and provision of equipment and tools that enable them to identify common ear problems

Dr. Chadha said that the WHO was releasing a new Primary ear and hearing care training manual that could assist countries in building the capacity of their health workforce to provide those services at the community level. On this World Hearing Day, WHO called upon governments to take steps for integrating ear and hearing care into primary health care, as part of their efforts to reach universal health coverage. Media could also help by raising awareness further. A free WHO app was available to test one’s hearing.

Answering questions from media, Dr. Chadha said that cotton swabs (Q-tips) should not be put inside the ear. Smoking had a negative effect on hearing by affecting blood vessels adversely.

Fifth UN conference on Least Developed Countries

Catherine Huissoud, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), informed that the UN was organizing the fifth UN conference on the Least Developed Countries, LDCs (LDC5) in Doha, Qatar from 5 to 9 March. The world’s 47 LDCs were being hit the hardest by multiple crises including the COVID-19 pandemic, climate crisis, growing inequalities, rising debt burdens, and economic shocks. UNCTAD’s Secretary-General and Deputy Secretary-General would lead UNCTAD’s delegation to LDC5 and would make a strong call to accelerate economic development in LDCs in the next decade. Ms. Huissoud said that UNCTAD urged tackling debt, investment, and productive capacities. UNCTAD was calling for effective debt relief and management, economic and export diversification, stronger productive capacities, a new strategy to enable these countries to graduate from LDC status, increased investment capacity, and a just, balanced and sustainable low-carbon transition in these nations. UNCTAD’s Productive Capacities Index helped LDCs assess the status of their productive capacity and how it could be improved. More information about UNCTAD’s participation at LDC5 can be found here.

David Hirsch, for the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), said that the new ITU report digital connectivity trends in the LDCs would be presented on 5 March. The release would be sent out to reporters in the morning of 5 March. 

Other announcements

Catherine Huissoud, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), informed that the biannual Technology and Innovation Report 2023, Opening Green Windows, would be released on 16 March. A press conference would soon be announced for 14 March, under embargo.

Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), stated that the WMO Executive Council would end its one-week session today. The Council had discussed a number of proposals, including on how to accelerate UN’s early warning initiative. A press release would be shared later today. The Council also discussed setting up a global greenhouse gas monitoring structure, a complicated but important task. On 6 March at 12 noon, Lars Peter Riishojgaard, Deputy Director, WMO Infrastructure Department, would present the Global Greenhouse Gas Monitoring Infrastructure report.

Margaret Harris, for the World Health Organization (WHO), informed that Dr. Tedros, the WHO Director-General, would hold a press conference this afternoon.

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said that the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights would close at 5:30 pm today its 73rd session and issue its concluding observations on the reports of Panama, China, Portugal, Yemen, Cambodia, and Lithuania, reviewed during the session.

The Human Rights Committee was concluding this morning its review of the report of Zambia.

The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities would open on 6 March its 28th session, during which it would review the reports of Angola, Georgia, Tunisia, Peru, Argentina, and Togo. On 7 and 8 March (morning), the Committee would have a general discussion on article 11 of the Convention, related to situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies.

On 7 March at 1:30 pm, there would be launch of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan’s latest report. Speakers would be Andrew Clapham and Barney Afako, Members of the Commission.

The date of the next public plenary meeting of the Conference on Disarmament would be announced at a later stage.

Finally, Ms. Vellucci informed that today was the World Wildlife Day, while on 5 March, the first ever International Day on Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Awareness would be marked. Secretary-General’s message is available here.

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