Bi-weekly press briefing - 01 December 2023
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Press Conferences | OHCHR , UNICEF , UNHCR , OCHA , WHO , UNCTAD

Bi-weekly press briefing - 01 December 2023

PRESS BRIEFING BY THE UNITED NATIONS INFORMATION SERVICE

1 December 2023

 

Rolando Gómez, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section at the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, chaired the hybrid briefing, which was attended by spokespersons and representatives from the United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Health Organization, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

 

Conflict Resumes in Gaza

 

James Elder for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said today in Gaza there were a lot of bombardments and those in power decided that the killing of children in Gaza would recommence. The humanitarian situation in Gaza was so perilous that anything other than sustained peace and emergency aid would mean a catastrophe for the children of Gaza. The dire water, health, nutrition and sanitation situation was threatening a disaster of unparalleled magnitude for the children of Gaza. Such was the enormity of need that despite huge efforts for all of the United Nations, the health, nutrition and sanitation situation had been worsening by the day.

 

A lasting ceasefire needed to be implemented. The alternative was unthinkable for Palestinians who were already living in a nightmare. Inaction, at its core, was an approval of the killing of children.

 

The bombs had started just a few seconds after the ceasefire ended. Mr. Elder was in Nasser Medical Hospital. As he had approached the hospital, a missile hit the ground around 50 metres away. Nasser was the largest functioning hospital in Gaza. It was at around 200 per cent capacity. Children with the wounds of war were everywhere. Hundreds of women and children were taking refuge there. Families of five were sitting on mattresses for two, seeking refuge from the cold. Nowhere was safe from the attacks.

 

Mr. Elder met with children and brave, tireless Palestinian health workers in Nasser every day this week. He had tried to play with the children to bring them a sense of normalcy. Fear had now returned. So had the wounded. Ambulances were coming into Nasser Hospital. People were running with bloody bodies on stretchers.

 

It was reckless to think that more attacks would lead to anything other than carnage. There were four blasts very close to the hospital while Mr. Elder was there, and many more in the last 30 minutes.

 

Any conversations around the children Gaza had to begin with empathy and compassion. It was deeply unsettling to hear how some had been able to overlook the tragic deaths of thousands of boys and girls and were seemingly comfortable with the attacks starting again.

 

To accept the sacrifice of the children in Gaza was humanity giving up. This was our last chance before we would be forced to explain why yet another entirely avoidable tragedy was not stopped.

 

In response to questions, Mr. Elder said it had been a good seven days of aid. WHO had been supplying everything they could. Fuel and emergency kits had been delivered, as well as food, nutrition kits, medicines, blankets, tents and water. It was the right type of aid but was not nearly enough. The United Nations was well aware of what was required, but a ceasefire was needed to deliver the required aid. 100 trucks per day were coming in during the pause, but now we had chaos once again.

 

Waiting rooms in hospitals were filled with hundreds of people. Nowhere was safe in Gaza. Children and aid workers were not safe.

 

Mr. Elder said he had helped carry a child from a bus whose leg had started to decompose. Around 1,000 children had had an upper or lower limb amputated over the past week. Children were now being evacuated from hospitals. Most children were very much in the eye of the storm.

 

Richard Peeperkorn, World Health Organization (WHO) representative in the occupied Palestinian territory, said everywhere in Gaza was unsafe. Violence had resumed and bombardments could be heard very close by in the south.

 

Gruesome data from two days ago said that there had been over 15,000 fatalities. Over 6,150 children had died, over 4,000 females and roughly 4,850 males. There were more than 36,000 injuries. The Gaza health system had been crippled by the ongoing attacks.

 

WHO was extremely concerned about hospital functionality. The Gaza health system had been crippled by the ongoing hostilities. It could not afford to lose any more hospitals or hospital beds. 18 out of the 36 hospitals were partially functional, and some were barely functional. There were only 1,500 hospital beds available, but at least 5,000 were needed. Hospitals lacked supplies. There was a need to restore primary health care functions, treat non-communicable diseases and provide psychosocial support. 51 out of 72 primary health care facilities were not functioning; the others were partly functional.

 

In the south, there were 12 hospitals that were extremely overwhelmed. European Gaza Hospital, which had a capacity of 370 beds, had received a substantial number of transfers from Al-Shifa and Al-Ahli and was currently operating nearly triple its capacity, with 900 patients. Al-Aqsa Hospital, with a 200-bed capacity, currently had 600 patients. Nasser Medical Hospital had 350 beds, but now had over 700 patients. Extra tents had been installed by the Ministry of Health, but these were not enough.

 

WHO had been focusing on getting supplies in. It had made nine distributions over the past weeks. This was not enough, and it needed to continue. WHO was also busy organising a medical evacuation procedure. It was further reporting what was happening on the ground, providing situation reports, including on attacks on healthcare.

 

WHO was extremely concerned by disease outbreaks. There was massive overcrowding in all the makeshift shelters. It had seen close to 120,000 cases of acute respiratory infections and over 85,000 cases of diarrhoea, 20-fold higher than the level last year. It had also seen cases of jaundice and meningitis.

 

We could not afford to lose any more hospital beds and we could not afford any more displacements. These would only increase the disaster.

 

In response to questions, Dr. Peeperkorn said WHO and partners had brought in supplies, including a minimal level of anaesthesia drugs to support surgeries. WHO was making pleas in all fora for an end to hostilities. It was extremely concerned about the vulnerability of the health system. It wanted to expand the capacity of the system to 3,000 beds.

 

Most medical referrals had been ad-hoc. There were critically injured patients who needed better care. WHO was helping with the evacuation of children. A system to deliver patients to Egypt was needed. As the violence had resumed, it was impossible to conduct operations. Bombardments needed to stop. The UN and partners needed to assist the health system to remain operational.

 

WHO’s operational plan was to strengthen the existing system; expand the number of beds; respond to outbreaks; provide supplies; and coordinate medical transfers. It was assisting in transferring patients from the north to the south. Several patients had been referred to Egypt as well. Bilateral discussions on an organised system for transferring patients were ongoing. Egypt had 15,000 beds and ambulances available to transfer patients, and other countries had also offered to receive patients. WHO was preparing a list of the patients in highest need of aid, including cancer patients. These patients needed to be referred to Egypt to get the care that they deserved.

 

The only functioning mental health hospital in Gaza was now closed. There had always been a high number of mental health issues in Gaza, but this had vastly increased due to the war. All people, including humanitarian staff, were tremendously affected. One WHO staff member had been killed, along with most members of her extended family. There were some excellent Palestinian non-governmental organizations who worked in the area of mental health, but a ceasefire was needed to allow them to provide the needed support.

 

Before the war, there were 485,000 people with mental health disorders in Gaza. This was a reflection of what Gazans had gone through over many decades. The current conflict would have huge detrimental effects on mental and psychosocial health. Every year, over 2,000 people were diagnosed with cancer in Gaza. There were over 60,000 patients with diabetes and 40,000 with cardio-vascular diseases.

 

Rob Holden, World Health Organization (WHO) Senior Emergency Coordinator, said he had visited Al-Ahli Hospital in the north of Gaza three times. This was a relatively small hospital and not built as a major receiving centre for trauma patients but was the only receiving centre for trauma for a large part of Gaza. It currently had 30 beds but over 100 patients.

 

Walking into the hospital felt like being in a horror movie. Patients were on the floor with the most traumatic injuries that you could imagine. They were given the best possible care, but the number of staff available was relatively small. Many of the staff had fled or been killed. On entering the hospital, you were met with deceased bodies lined up in the car park. There was no standing room; the floor was awash with blood. The doctors, nurses, lab technicians and engineers who kept the machinery running were working 22 hours a day to provide the most basic level of service.

 

During the pause, much was done by the United Nations, led by WHO and supported by UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP), to work with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society to help transfer patients to the south and deliver food, water and medical supplies.

 

Casualties in their tens and possibly hundreds would arrive at Al-Ahli Hospital today. Doctors would do everything they could, knowing that it would not be enough. The bombs had to stop. The healthcare system was on its knees. It would continue to struggle and would only get worse each day that the bombs fell. There were not enough supplies and access was fragile.

 

Rolando Gómez, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section at the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, said the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres had just posted on X about the crisis, saying “I deeply regret that military operations have started again in Gaza. I still hope that it will be possible to renew the pause that was established. The return to hostilities only shows how important it is to have a true humanitarian ceasefire.”

 

Ahmed Dahir, World Health Organization (WHO) Team Leader in Gaza, said that he had been visiting the three main hospitals in north Gaza, which were all over capacity. Patients were everywhere. It was catastrophic, and very difficult for medical staff to provide the quality care that patients deserved. The situation was dire. WHO was working to see how it could bring in additional beds to alleviate the burden, but it was a very difficult and complex emergency.

 

Margaret Harris for the World Health Organization (WHO) said an important paper was published in The Lancet. This was an analysis conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that examined a list of 7,028 people reported dead. The paper concluded that the assessments of the Palestinian Ministry of Health were accurate. It was possible that the current data underreported mortality, as there were missing people who could be buried under rubble. People who were dying were not necessarily being brought to hospitals.

 

For its operational response plan, which went from October 2023 to January 2024, WHO was asking for 110 million United States dollars (USD). It still had a 92 per cent funding gap, but 50 million USD was apparently in the pipeline.

 

Jens Laerke for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said it was difficult to hear testimonies from Gaza. Hell on earth had returned to Gaza. OCHA’s Humanitarian Coordinator Lynn Hastings had tweeted that, “Today, children, women and men in Gaza and Israel woke up again to war. Parties must protect civilians and provide access to humanitarian actors to deliver across Gaza according to needs as per international humanitarian law. Humanitarian aid must continue unconditionally. Hostages must be released unconditionally. The UN will continue to stay and deliver food, water, medical and other critical supplies to save lives.”

 

Yesterday, 30 November, as in previous days, significantly larger convoys than prior to the pause entered Gaza from Egypt, carrying a variety of humanitarian supplies, fuel and cooking gas. These convoys also reached areas north of where the Gaza, which prior to the pause, had received almost no supplies. During the pause, thousands of metric tonnes of food, water and fuel was delivered to United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) shelters, hospitals and warehouses in the north. Around 80 per cent of these supplies were delivered by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, facilitated by the United Nations. We needed a resumption of the pause and not a return to war.

 

In response to questions, Mr. Laerke said OCHA’s revised flash appeal was 29 per cent funded. It had received 353 million USD.

 

OCHA would not participate in the establishment of any safe zone in Gaza that was set up without the agreement of all the parties, and unless fundamental conditions were in place to ensure safety, other essential needs were met, and a mechanism was in place to supervise its implementation.

 

Ravina Shamdasani for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said the bombs had to stop. Again, civilians were living a nightmare. Civilians were being told to flee, but nowhere was safe.

 

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk had issued a statement, which said that recent comments by Israeli political and military leaders indicating that they were planning to expand and intensify the military offensive, were very troubling.

 

Since 7 October, thousands of Palestinians had been killed in Gaza, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza. More now faced the same fate. Others risked being forcibly displaced to already severely over-crowded and unsanitary parts of Gaza.

 

The situation was beyond crisis point.

 

Under international humanitarian law, Israel as the occupying power, was required to ensure that the basic needs of the population in Gaza, such as food, water, and medical care, are met. Mr. Türk reminded all parties of their obligation to allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief for civilians in need, throughout Gaza.

 

The way forward needed to be through an immediate end to the violence, the prompt and unconditional release of all remaining hostages, the cessation of firing of indiscriminate rockets and use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas, humanitarian aid commensurate to the immense need and rapid unimpeded access, an end to practices of arbitrary detention by Israel, and concrete steps to avert further disaster, founded on full respect and protection of the human rights of Palestinians and Israelis.

 

In response to questions, Ms. Shamdasani said OHCHR had not received a response to its request to access Gaza and the West Bank. There was a real need for objective verification of the situation on the ground to combat the disinformation that was being spread. It was vital that the High Commissioner was granted access.

 

Nowhere in Gaza was safe. Leaflets had been dropped asking civilians to evacuate, but there was nowhere to evacuate to. Israel had a responsibility to protect civilians and comply with the principles of international humanitarian law. The identification of military objects did not absolve it of this responsibility.

 

Support Needed for Humanitarian and Recovery Efforts in Ukraine

 

Philippe Leclerc, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Bureau Director for Europe, said he was in Ukraine, 50 kilometres away from Kyiv, in a city where heavy fighting had taken place in March 2022. A sense of normalcy was slowly returning to the area, with repairs taking place. 5,000 households in the area had been supported with shelter, mostly people who had been displaced in other parts of Ukraine.

 

Mr. Leclerc had visited several oblasts, meeting people who had been benefitting from shelter and support, enabling them to get back to places which were occupied by the Russian Armed Forces for seven months. People were willing to go back to their homes, often close to the frontlines, such as in Kherson City.

 

UNHCR was targeting 900,000 people who should benefit from winter assistance. A sense of normalcy was extremely important for those affected. With the leadership of the Ukrainian Government, UNHCR was identifying the most vulnerable families so they could be supported through the winter. Access to documentation, legal aid, individual cash assistance and psychosocial support was needed as a consequence of the prolonged war.

 

UNHCR was advocating for the necessary funds to enable people to go back home. Internally displaced persons were returning to frontline homes, and many refugees were returning to the centre-west of the country. It was important to sustain relief efforts.

 

There was a strange feeling of normalcy in the area, Mr. Leclerc said, but bombs could fall at any time.

 

In response to questions, Mr. Leclerc said the refugee situation had been characterised by women and children seeking assistance in neighbouring states and moving back and forth. It was a strange situation, with some people continuing to seek international protection while others returned to homes where they believed it was safe. Many people did not want to move too far away from the provinces under temporary occupation by armed forces, in hope that they would be able to return and be reunited with their families.

 

Pneumonia Outbreak in China and France

 

In response to a question on a pneumonia outbreak in China and France, Margaret Harris for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that it was not clear whether the recent increase in cases was due to a lack of exposure to the bacteria during the COVID-19 pandemic. This type of pneumonia was normally seen during the winter and was treatable through antibiotics. WHO was monitoring the situation and providing advice. It did not consider that this situation had pandemic potential.

 

Announcements

 

Catherine Huissoud for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) said UNCTAD’s eWeek was starting next Monday, 4 December. All persons who wished to attend needed to register online. The opening ceremony would be public and streamed on UN Web TV. The other sessions could be viewed via the eWeek website by all persons who had registered. The week would address key issues concerning e-commerce and mobilise global support for a more inclusive and sustainable digital economy.

 

Monday, 4 December, would be the first “Trade Day” in the history of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. UNCTAD would be present during that day, hosting several activities under the leadership of Rebecca Greenspan. UNCTAD believed that trade could not only boost development but also fight climate change.

 

Rolando Gómez, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section at the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, said the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres was currently in Dubai, where he was taking part in the UN Climate Action Summit, COP28. In his statement to the Summit, he noted, among other things, that “Earth's vital signs are failing. Record emissions, ferocious fires, deadly droughts and the hottest year ever. We can guarantee it even when we're still in November. We are miles from the goals of the Paris Agreement and minutes to midnight of the 1.5 degree limit. But it's not too late. We can prevent planetary crash and burn,” he stated. Three areas which could lead to success for the COP were, he said, drastically cutting emissions; accelerating a just equitable to renewables; and more financing on climate action, including for adaptation and loss and damage.

 

The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination would have a public meeting with States Parties to the Convention next Monday morning at 10 a.m. The Committee would close its 111th session next Friday, 8 December at 4 p.m., and issue its concluding observations on the six countries reviewed: Bolivia, Morocco, Germany, South Africa, Bulgaria and Viet Nam.

 

The Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, which opened this week its 37th session (27 November – 8 December, Palais Wilson), was concluding today the review of the report of Sao Tome and Principe.

 

On Monday, 4 December, the Human Rights Council would hold an intersessional meeting to mark the 75th anniversary on the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This was a full day meeting, to be held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at room XX of the Palais des Nations. The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, would deliver opening remarks, as would the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Alice Wairimu Nderitu.

 

Volker Türk, High Commissioner for Human Rights, would hold a press conference at the UN Geneva press briefing room on Wednesday, 6 December at 11 a.m.

 

Today was World Aids Day. In his message for the day, the Secretary-General said AIDS-related deaths had fallen by almost 70 per cent since their peak in 2004, and new HIV infections were at the lowest point since the 1980s. But AIDS still took a life every minute. “The response to AIDS must include scaled-up funding for local programmes led by people living with HIV and prevention initiatives led by communities,” he said.

 

Tomorrow, Saturday, 2 December, was the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. In the Secretary-General’s message for the day, he noted the various victims of the past, particularly the millions of Africans ripped from their homes. “There are some 50 million people trapped in modern slavery today,” he said. “We must move faster to stop this terrible crime. Today, countries must legislate, protect the rights of victims and eradicate the practices and conditions that allow modern slavery to flourish, from trafficking to debt bondage and economic marginalization.”

 

Sunday, 3 December, was the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. 1.3 billion persons with disabilities worldwide. The Secretary-General said that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) required living up to the promise to leave no one behind, especially the 1.3 billion persons with disabilities worldwide.


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