PRESS BRIEFING BY THE UNITED NATIONS INFORMATION SERVICE
14 July 2023
Mounting violence against women and girls in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo
Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, opened the briefing noting that 24 United Nations entities led by Pramila Patten, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, had called for immediate action to protect women and girls from sexual violence in or around internally displaced persons’ camps in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
For Gillian Triggs, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), it was not an exaggeration to say that the situation in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo was probably one of the most neglected and severe humanitarian protection crises globally. It had sadly been left aside and the UN Refugee Agency was now calling for much greater attention to the severity of this protection crisis. The impact had been unprecedented in terms of its impact on women and children, girls and also boys. The displaced community within the country was something staggering: it was about 6.3 million. It was also shocking that 2.8 million people had been displaced in the provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri since March 2022.
Many breaches of human rights law had been reported: civilians being killed and tortured, arbitrary arrests, looting of health centers and civilian homes and the destruction of schools. Out of the more than 10,000 people that had accessed gender-based violence services in North Kivu in the first quarter of the year, 66 per cent had been raped. Many of these heinous gender-based violent actions were reportedly perpetrated by armed men. UNHCHR believes this reflected only the tip of the iceberg for a number of reasons. Reporting these kinds of atrocities was exceptionally difficult in the context of the conflict, and many of those who had been subject to extreme levels of sexual violence were unable in remote areas to reach the gender-based violence services that UNHCR provided.
Food insecurity and the lack of livelihood opportunities had also increased risks of exploitation and abuse of women and adolescent girls. Some women were being forced to resort to harmful coping mechanisms, including transactional sex in the spontaneous settlements around Goma, the capital of North Kivu. UNHCR was calling on the Government and local authorities to take immediate action to address this shocking gender-based violence epidemic. Those responsible for these appalling human rights and humanitarian law violations should be held to account. UNHCR had now been able to identify 20,000 vulnerable individuals around Goma. However, the Agency had received only 33 per cent of the $233 million needed. It called on Governments, development agencies, civil society, to turn their attention back to this dramatic humanitarian plight.
The UNHCR press release can be found here.
Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, reminded the media that the Democratic Republic of Congo was among the situations of concern that would be discussed today at the Security Council’s open debate on conflict-related sexual violence. The UN Action Network of which UNHCR was part with other agencies, reiterated its commitment to support all actors who wanted to end this scourge in their country. The debate at the Security Council would be webcasted and held at 4 p.m. Geneva time.
Answering questions from the media, Ms. Triggs said much stronger peace efforts by countries within the region and by the international community as a whole were needed. In addition to peace initiatives, it was also important to see what support could be given to the Government. Security was a primary concern for the latter and for local authorities, but they were relatively not equipped to stand against the many armed groups. UNHCR was increasingly working with development partners to address root causes. However, international and regional support as well as political will were needed to resolve this situation.
Growing health impacts of the violence in Sudan
Rick Brennan, Regional Emergency Director for the World Health Organization (WHO) for the Eastern Mediterranean, speaking from Cairo, said there had been three months since the beginning of the escalation of violence in Sudan that has had such a devastating impact on people’s lives, including their health. Rampant insecurity, repeated attacks on health, and limited access to essential health service, were putting the people of Sudan in a life-or-death situation, with no immediate political solution in sight. The violence had also a huge impact on access to the most basic health care. Moreover, there were major challenges to controlling ongoing outbreaks of malaria, measles and dengue, and reports of a likely cholera outbreak were difficult to confirm in the absence of a functioning public health laboratory.
The delivery of health care across the entire country was limited by shortages of supplies, lack of health workers and functioning health facilities, as well as to logistic constraints due to insecurity and roadblocks by militias. Between 2/3 and 80% of hospitals were not functioning – in West Darfur, only one hospital was operational, but partially. Half a million of families, representing over 2.4 million people, had had to flee their homes to seek refuge elsewhere within Sudan. 70% of these were from Khartoum. Almost 3/4 of a million people had had no choice but to cross the border into neighbouring countries as refugees.
The lives of 8000 people in need of regular dialysis sessions, including 240 children, were now at risk due to the disrupted access to these services. There were estimated to be almost 49,000 cancer patients across Sudan. Many of them would die without restoration of access to their cancer care. With the onset of the rainy season, there was an increased risk of infectious diseases outbreaks, which could put further pressure on the already overstretched healthcare system.
Despite these enormous challenges, WHO continued to work with local health authorities and partners to support the delivery of life saving services. Actions included the delivery of over 170 tons of life-saving medical supplies to hospitals and clinics in 14 states. WHO was collaborating with partners such as UNICEF in responding to outbreaks of measles, diarrhea and malaria – while at the same time investigating reports of additional outbreaks. It was also supporting nutrition centers to treat the over 100,000 children who were severely malnourished. With United Nations Population Fund, WHO was working to ensure that women and girls had access to essential sexual, reproductive, and maternal health care. This included timely and compassionate medical care and psychosocial support for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. Among other things, WHO had also provided enough drugs and supplies for the treatment of hypertension, diabetes and other chronic diseases for a population of 130 000 people for three months.
However, WHO did not have adequate access to large proportions of the population, especially in Khartoum, Darfur and Kordofan. Therefore, together with its UN partners, it was exploring all options to expand its operations, including through cross-border assistance.
Despite the catastrophic scale and nature of the Sudan crisis, it was being relatively neglected by media and donors. WHO’s emergency appeal to assist the Sudanese people was only 20% funded. Additional financial resources were needed immediately to scale up operations.
WHO’s ability to provide assistance would largely depend on guarantees by parties to the conflict for safe access and humanitarian space. WHO called on them to fulfil their obligations so that humanitarian agencies could serve those most in need and the most vulnerable.
Answering a question, Mr. Brennan said the situation was dire across the country, but particularly severe in Khartoum, Darfur and Kordofan. Currently, WHO had no confirmed outbreak of cholera and was investigating cases of watery diarrhoea in the Blue Nile.
Humanitarian situation in South Sudan
Pierre Dorbes, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) head of delegation in South Sudan, speaking from Juba, said the peace agreement signed in 2018 was holding. It had led to a significant decrease in armed conflict. This was visible for example looking at the number of war-related injuries. However, despite such decrease in armed conflict, the humanitarian situation in South Sudan remained very dire. A dangerous mix of violence, climate change, displacement was fueling the cycle of poverty, hunger and suffering. Violence between communities was jeopardizing the fragile stability and forcing people to leave their homes. The ICRC was particularly concerned by violence in a number of states like Equatoria, like Upper Nile, Warrap and Jonglei. As an example, Mr. Dorbes cited the violence that had occurred in Malakal, early June, leaving at least 20 persons killed.
At the same time, climate change was impacting South Sudan, making drought and floods more regular and severe. Those persisting flooding since July 2022 had affected millions of people. Many of them had lost their home due to violence and then had to be displaced again because of the flood. This week, torrential rains were forecasted potentially triggering floodings.
The conflict in Sudan had threatened to make the humanitarian situation in South Sudan even worse. South Sudan was very dependent on food importation and closure for instance of the Northern borders had left many markets completely empty. In a context where more than half of South Sudan’s population was already facing food shortage, the closure of markets would not help.
Over the last three months, more than 160,000 people had fled violence in Sudan, arriving in South Sudan. The ICRC and the South Sudan Red Cross had been providing phone call services to returnees and refugees to help them get in touch with their loved words. Since mid-April over 2,500 phone calls had been facilitated.
In South Sudan, the IRCR remained focused in addressing the situation in the areas most impacted by armed conflict and violence, providing food, medical care and essentials to people in need. ICRC visited places of detention, promoted international humanitarian law and human rights law in dialogue with authorities but also with armed groups. The scale of the need would not be fixed by humanitarian assistance alone. Development actors needed to step in to decrease the dependence on humanitarian aid and increase the capacities of the Government and civil society to respond to challenges.
Responding to questions, Mr. Dorbes said coordination and cooperation of organizations on the ground were essential. They were all trying to play their part of the tasks, which was immense, also considering the projected numbers of refugees and returnees, by the end of the year.
Staggering new data on the number of children taking the Central Mediterranean Sea migration route; and the number of children dying
Verena Knaus, Global Lead on Migration and Displacement with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) presented the agency’s latest data on the deaths of children crossing from Africa to Europa. The number of children who had lost their lives while attempting to cross the Central Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe had doubled in the first half of this year compared to the same period last year. Driven by conflict and climate change, more and more children were putting their lives at great risk while making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
Ms. Knaus stressed that this year, 289 children had died at sea. This was equivalent to about 11 children dying each week. This was also nearly double the number of children dying at sea compared to last year, which amounted to 150. In the first six months of this year, UNICEF estimated 11,600 children made the crossing –, nearly twice as many as in the same period in 2022. However, many shipwrecks on the Central Mediterranean Sea crossing left no survivors or went unrecorded, making the true number of child casualties practically impossible to verify.
Children were literally drowning in the inaction of governments around the shores, Ms. Knaus said. Children were dying because there was an absence of safe and legal routes. Children were dying because there were no robust search and rescue capacities deployed to prevent such deaths, and because they were so desperate in their countries and unable to seek protection in countries across.
These deaths were preventable. More should be done by the countries in the region and the EU to better protect vulnerable children at sea and in countries of origin, transit and destination. Governments should protect the rights and best interests of children in line with their obligations under national and international law. UNICEF was supporting Governments along the entire route in strengthening national child and social protection and preventing violence. It was also working with countries and partners to make sure migration and asylum systems were sensitive to children’s unique needs.
To prevent deaths at sea there needed to be safe, legal and accessible pathways for children to seek protection and reunite with family members. This meant expanding opportunities to access family reunification in countries of origin or transit, refugee resettlement or other humanitarian visas. Countries should also strengthen coordination on search and rescue operations and ensure prompt disembarkation to places of safety. The duty to search and rescue a boat in distress was a fundamental rule in international maritime law
Pushbacks at sea (or land borders) were violations of national and international law.
Further, in the first three months of 2023, 3,300 children – 71 percent of all children arriving to Europe via the Central Mediterranean Sea route – had been recorded as unaccompanied or separated from their families. This was three times higher than the number in the same period last year. Girls travelling alone were especially likely to experience violence before, during and after their journeys.
A press release can be found here.
Answering questions from the media, Ms. Knaus noted there were different trends across different routes. Focusing on the Central Mediterranean route in particular, she noted a rebound to what had been the number of arrivals pre-COVID. In Greece, an overall increase of arrivals in the first few months had been seen, but a relative drop in the share of children. In the Central Mediterranean route, a tripling of the share of unaccompanied children compared to last year had been seen. There was a proportionate increase in the number of deaths as more boats departed in the absence of robust search and rescue operations, or in the absence of legal migration pathways available to children. A large number of the children that were arriving unaccompanied came from countries in West Africa, Syria and Afghanistan. Very often the route from Afghanistan took around 11 months across 5 or six countries. The route from West Africa very often went more directly through Niger being a very important transit point. From Syria, that route to Greece had become more difficult, thus longer and more expensive. Therefore, the death of the child of a child at sea was very often a tragic end point of what had been a collective failure all along.
They were several testimonies and documented evidence of a range of abuse, sexual exploitation, trafficking, torture, rape, systematic gender-based violence and violent pushbacks that amount to refoulement at many different border points around the world and in many different settings where children were transiting or being held or trying to reach their next point of destination on their way to safety. On a positive note, there were many examples of Governments that had opened up more humanitarian visas for children or moved away from using immigration detention and actually investing in family-based community-based alternatives.
Shabia Mantoo from Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) noted the total number of arrivals for this year in 2023 was 94,000. The death toll on these routes was unacceptable and quite high in proportion. Compared to the numbers of displaced described by previous speakers with regards to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, this was a manageable situation. She reiterated Ms. Knaus' call for more search and rescue capacity.
Debt report: “The Human Cost of Inaction: Poverty, Social Protection and Debt Servicing, 2020–2023”
George Molina Gray, Chief Economist with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), speaking from Gandhinagarm Gujarat, India, said that following the “A world of debt” report launched yesterday by United Nations Secretary-General, UNDP now launched a follow-up policy brief titled “The Human Cost of Inaction: Poverty, Social Protection and Debt Servicing, 2020–2023”.
Turning to data point, Mr. Molina Gray said 52 developing economies were debt vulnerable and 46 of them were currently paying more than 10 per cent of the Government revenues on debt servicing. Low-income economies were particularly vulnerable paying 2.3 times more on net interest payments than on social assistance and 1.4 times more than on health expenditures. As debt servicing was crowding out social expenditures on health, education, and social protection, it was slowing countries’ ability to mitigate shocks in poverty and recover to where they were in 2019. Some 165 million people had fell into poverty between 2020 and 2023, using the $ 3.65 a day poverty line. An 80 per cent of those falling into poverty were from low-income and lower-middle-income economies. There were no new poor in high-income economies around the world.
According to UNDP, it was time to link the macro-challenges of debt pauses that create fiscal space for countries that are struggling with debt, to the micro-challenges of protecting poor and vulnerable households from climate shots, hurricanes flooding droughts future pandemics, “a poverty pause”. This would be the beginning of a new policy architecture focused on adaptive social protection. It was necessary to move beyond emergency measures and change the multilateral policy architecture to trigger automatic debt poverty pauses that were not subject to long debt negotiations. According to the policy brief’s calculations, the annual cost of mitigating the additional 165 million poor would be $14 billion or 0.009 per cent of the global Gross Domestic Product.
A press release can be found here.
Responding to questions, Mr. Molina Gray pointed to the annex of the report for country-specific data. Out of the 46 countries mention, the one in most dire situation was currently Sri Lanka, but the assessment changed on a monthly basis.
Pascal Sim, for the Human Rights Council (HRC), informed that the HRC was closing today the works of its 53rd session. The Council was considering four remaining draft resolutions on: the elimination of violence and girls and two amendments; contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights; new and emerging digital technologies; cooperation and assistance to Ukraine in the field of human rights. A final table of the draft resolutions with details on their adoption would be shared today. The 54th session of the Human Rights Council would begin on 11 September 2023 and would last five weeks.
Starting on Monday 17 July, the 15th Nelson Mandela World Human Rights Moot Court Competition would begin at the Palais des Nations. The competition that would last five days, co-organized by the Centre for Human Rights of the University of Pretoria and the Human Rights Council, would take place in the context of Nelson Mandela Day on 18 July. This year, more than 25 students from 19 countries of all continents would come to Geneva to participate in the competition. The Moot Court Competition was the largest gathering of students, academics and judges around the theme of human rights in the world.
Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, reminded the media of the message of the Secretary-General on Nelson Mandela Day.
Answering a question from the media, Catherine Huissoud from United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) said no information was available on an upcoming trip to Moscow by UNCTAD Secretary-General Rebeca Grynspan.
Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, noted that 15 July marked World Youth Skills Day. A message from the Secretary-General can be found here.
The Human Rights Committee would conclude next week its 138th session.
The Committee Against Torture would begin next Tuesday morning the review of the report of New Zealand. It will then review the reports from Romania and Spain.