PRESS BRIEFING BY THE UNITED NATIONS INFORMATION SERVICE
26 January 2024
Ajith Sunghay, Head of the Office for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, (OHCHR) said civilians continued to face the brunt of the escalation in Gaza. The situation was nothing short of a catastrophe.
Last Saturday, Mr. Sunghay said he was in Khan Younis, where he met with people who were frustrated, angry and understandably wary. And yet, these people, explaining their situation, treating Mr. Sunghay with warmth and respect in the middle of a brutal, unconscionable situation, explaining how they fled their homes to seek shelter in overcrowded, makeshift camps. How children had not gone to school in months – and their schools have been destroyed, as had their universities, destroying their hopes for the future. The personal cost to each individual, each family, in addition to the killings of loved ones. Family separation, violence against women, documents destroyed, homes and communities uprooted, health deteriorating.
In Rafah, Mr. Sunghay saw displaced people who had been ordered by Israeli authorities to leave their homes, with no provision for their accommodation, literally living on the street, with sewage running in the streets and conditions of desperation conducive to a complete breakdown in order.
And even in the midst of it all, human rights and humanitarian non-governmental organizations in Gaza continued their courageous work, trying to make sure human rights violations were properly documented and humanitarian response continued – even as their own lives fell apart.
Over the past few days, the warm, heroic, long-suffering people of Khan Younis had been caught in the midst of ever intensifying violence, from Israeli airstrikes and street-to-street fighting between Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and Palestinian armed groups. There had been near continuous attacks, including on medical facilities and schools in Khan Younis, UN facilities, as well as residential areas.
The people Mr. Sunghay spoke to feared the extreme violence was spilling into Rafah – which would have catastrophic implications for the more than 1.3 million people already crowded there.
Shelling by the IDF continues in areas that it has unilaterally designated as “safe” areas, including Al Mawasi in western Khan Younis. Even after explosions were reported in Al Mawasi on 22 and 23 January, the IDF continued to order residents of western Khan Younis to move there. The order, which was issued repeatedly on 23, 24 and 25 January, reportedly affected more than half a million people, as well as three hospitals which had been under heavy attacks and siege – An Nassr Hospital, Al Amal Hospital and Jordanian Field Hospital. Mr. Sunghay expressed very grave concerns that these chaotic and mass evacuation orders were ineffective in ensuring the safety of Palestinian civilians, instead placing them in increasingly vulnerable, dangerous situations.
Attacks on hospitals, schools, and other places of refuge had repeatedly displaced Palestinians into ever smaller areas, with ever decreasing access to the essentials needed to sustain life. Such a failure violated Israel’s obligations under international law.
Having personally witnessed and heard the testimonies of those who had endured so much pain and suffering, Mr. Sunghay said he was very, very worried. He feared that many more civilians would die. The continued attacks on specially protected facilities, such as hospitals, would kill civilians, and there would be a further, massive impact on access to health care, safety and security in general of Palestinians.
OHCHR was also very worried about the impact of the rainy, cold weather in Gaza, which was entirely predictable at this time of the year and risked making an already unsanitary situation completely uninhabitable for the people. Most had no warm clothes or blankets. Northern Gaza, where IDF bombardment continued, was barely accessible, even to provide basic humanitarian aid.
The apparent disregard for international law needed to end. The violence needed to end. Humanitarian aid needed to be delivered without impediment to all those who needed it. OHCHR was urging for a ceasefire, immediately. It urged the release of hostages, and a political solution to the causes of this conflict that respected and ensured the rights of all Palestinians and Israelis.
In response to questions, Ravina Shamdasani for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that human rights non-governmental organizations were continuing to work and document what was going on in Gaza. It was important that the OHCHR continued this work also, to shine a spotlight on what was going on. Much more could be done on the international level. The OHCHR was calling on all States with influence on authorities to exercise that influence to bring an end to the conflict.
OHCHR reports on the situation were shared with authorities before publication, but the Office had received no formal response from them.
Many people remained under the rubble. There could be thousands more deaths than what was being reported. It was unimaginable to even begin to think about the suffering of the people.
Mr. Sunghay said the OHCHR had extremely qualified local staff in Gaza and the West Bank who continued to do immense work. International staff had been waiting for visas for three years. Letters were being sent to authorities by the OHCHR from Geneva. Civilians were still being killed; places that were called “safe” were still being attacked. States needed to step up and put pressure on leaders with influence.
The severe shortage of food was visible. People were struggling, especially in northern Gaza, where aid could not be delivered. Families were surviving on one meal a day or less. Hundreds of children were running behind food cars. There was a lack of food and an urgent need for humanitarian aid.
A rush of people into Egypt would be a terrible situation. OHCHR was hoping that this would not occur, but the indications were that if Rafah were attacked, this could be a possibility. The situation was catastrophic. If what was happening at Khan Younis continued and displaced persons moved into already congested Rafah, there would be a breakdown in civil order. If street fighting moved into Rafah, there would be nowhere to run for 1.3 million people. This would be a massive catastrophe.
Christian Lindmeier for World Health Organization (WHO) said that the World Health Organization had registered more than 26,000 deaths, with 75 per cent being women and children, and at least 60,000 registered injuries. Over 8,000 were still missing, with many people buried under the rubble. There were over 318 attacks on health in Gaza, resulting in 615 fatalities and 778 injuries. In the West Bank, there were 358 attacks on health resulting in seven fatalities and 59 injuries.
Only 14 of the 36 health facilities in Gaza were partially functioning, seven in the south and seven in the north, with 20 not functioning at all. In the south, the seven partially functioning health facilities, such as Al Kheir and Nasser hospitals, were only minimally functioning and not accessible. Bed occupancy was at over 200 or 300 per cent at operating hospitals. People were sheltering in hospitals that were under siege, fearing for their lives. Disease surveillance had been disrupted. Laboratories had been shut down and transporting of samples was impossible. The number of diseases could thus be much higher than the surveillance system was able to detect.
Jens Laerke for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that trucks at the Kerem Shalom crossing had been held up for several hours yesterday by Israeli protests attempting to block the entry of humanitarian aid. As a result, only nine trucks were able to enter and many were forced to reroute to the Rafah crossing in Egypt. OCHA regretted this incident. Crossings had since resumed at Kerem Shalom.
The United Nations was working with the Israeli authorities to address the issue of restricted aid items and how those items could be approved for delivery.
Execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith by Nitrogen Gas
Ravina Shamdasani for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said that Volker Türk, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, had issued a statement expressing deep regret regarding the execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith in Alabama, despite serious concerns this novel and untested method of suffocation by nitrogen gas could amount to torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Mr. Türk said the death penalty was inconsistent with the fundamental right to life. He urged all States to put in place a moratorium on its use, as a step towards universal abolition.
In response to questions, Ms. Shamdasani said that there were reports that the death could have taken up to 25 minutes. Rather than looking for novel methods of execution, states needed to bring an end to the death penalty. OHCHR was worried that this would now be adopted as an accepted method of execution. It was urging all states to implement a moratorium on the death penalty. This was not a satisfactory method of execution. It could amount to torture and other forms of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. Three other states had approved the method and a bill to approve it had been lodged in Nebraska.
OHCHR was appealing to governments directly on this issue. The United Nations Human Rights Committee had spoken out about the issue in its review of the United States and the High Commissioner had written to the Alabama government about it. The Committee against Torture was due to review the United States next year and would likely bring up this issue.
International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust
Ravina Shamdasani for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said Volker Türk, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had issued a statement for the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, commemorated on 27 January, saying that this was a day of profound importance when we remembered and honoured the millions of victims of the Nazi Holocaust – children, women and men on whom atrocious suffering and injustice were inflicted by an abominable machinery of mass murder.
Some six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, 1.5 million of them children. Millions of other people from targeted groups were also murdered, including Roma and Sinti people; Slavs; people with disabilities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people; members of resistance networks; and other opponents of Nazism.
The scale of these crimes engaged many perpetrators. The Nazi concentration camps and death trains were staffed. The victims had often been identified to the police, and therefore sent to their deaths, by people who they knew. Countless bystanders looked away from – or were indifferent to – what they must have suspected was extraordinary, inhuman brutality. The dehumanisation that enabled the Holocaust – the depth and scale of this failure of empathy and fellow-feeling for other human beings – was incomprehensible and terrifying.
It was our duty to seek answers to how these crimes could have been prevented. If we did not, they could happen again.
The High Commissioner paid tribute to the extraordinary courage and important lessons that so many survivors had brought to us. He said all human beings were born free and equal in dignity and rights. Antisemitism and all forms of racism and racial or religious discrimination were intolerable. They were unacceptable. Today and forever, we needed to stand against dehumanisation. We needed to work to overcome indifference and strengthen our understanding of and empathy with others. The atrocious crimes of the Holocaust should never be forgotten.
Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, said that an event would be held today at 1 p.m. at room XVIII of the United Nations Office at Geneva, at which the international community would come together for a solemn ceremony. The focus of the day was recognising the extraordinary courage of victims of the Holocaust. The ceremony would be attended by a Holocaust survivor, Martha Raviv, who would share her family’s experience of loss and survival. The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres would also host a commemoration in New York.
Christian Lindmeier for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that a virtual opening press conference of the global tobacco control governing bodies, the Tenth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP10) to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and the Third Session of the Meeting of the Parties (MOP3), would be held on Tuesday, 30 January 2024, at 3 p.m. Geneva time.
During the virtual press conference, Dr. Adriana Blanco Marquizo, Head of the Secretariat of the WHO FCTC, would be responding to questions regarding the topics to be discussed at the COP10 and the MOP3. Among the topics to be discussed would be tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, novel and emerging tobacco products, and tracking and tracing systems.
In response to questions, Mr. Lindmeier said the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was an international treaty that was housed in WHO. A conference on the Convention was held every two years.
Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) in Geneva, said the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women would open next Monday, 29 January, at 10 a.m., its 87th session, during which it would review the reports of Niger, Tajikistan, Italy, Turkmenistan, Greece, Oman, Djibouti and the Central African Republic.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child would have next Thursday afternoon, 1 February, a meeting with State parties. On Friday, 2 February, the Committee would close its 95th session and issue its concluding observation on the six countries whose reports have been reviewed during this session: Republic of Congo, Bulgaria, Senegal, the Russian Federation, Lithuania and South Africa.
The next public plenary meeting of the Conference on Disarmament would be held next Tuesday morning, 30 January.
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