Geneva News Briefing - 26 March 2024
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Press Conferences | FAO , HRC , OCHA , UNHCR , UNICEF , UNOG , WHO

Geneva Press Briefing - 26 March 2024

UN GENEVA PRESS BRIEFING

26 March 2024

 

 

Heightened risks for displaced in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

 

Matthew Saltmarsh, for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said two years of cyclical conflict in the North Kivu territories of Rutshuru and Masisi had forced over 1.3 million people to flee their homes within the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), leading to a total of 5.7 million people becoming internally displaced across North Kivu, South Kivu and Ituri provinces. Since violent clashes in the town of Sake, on 7 February, almost 300,000 people had arrived in the city of Goma, where conditions were dire. A further 85,000 people had fled the same violence and sought shelter in the Minova region of South Kivu, which had already hosted 156,000 displaced people since January.

 

The shelling of a commercial centre on 20 March killed a displaced woman and injured at least three others, including two children. Reports of indiscriminate bombings in Sake and Goma over recent weeks, which killed more than 30 people and injured at least 80, were also concerning. In 2023, 25 schools were occupied by non-state armed groups in Masisi and Rutshuru territories alone, and a further 17 schools were attacked. In 2024, seven schools were destroyed by bombings. In 2023, in North Kivu alone, there were 50,159 reported cases of gender-based violence, more than half of which were rape; 90 per cent of these victims were women and girls, while 37 per cent were children.

 

UNHCR was calling for an immediate end to the violence and urged all parties to the conflict to respect and uphold international humanitarian law and human rights, and to protect civilians. A scaled-up humanitarian response in the eastern provinces between June and December 2023 reached more than 3.1 million people with life-saving assistance. UNHCR had provided emergency shelter to over 40,000 of the most vulnerable arrivals in Goma, but this addressed only a small portion of the need. UNHCR had only received 14 per cent of the $250 million required for its response in the DRC in 2024. The lack of funding threatened aid deliveries, exacerbating the region’s dire humanitarian crisis.  

 

The full statement is available here.


Responding to questions, Mr. Saltmarsh said it was not UNHCR’s role to track who was firing the shells, but to pick up the shattered pieces of people’s lives after those shots had been fired. There were several actors in the region who had been involved in the recent activities. Over 252 non-State armed groups were operating in the eastern provinces of the DRC. UNHCR was there to support the victims. The Organization was working with the Government and stood to protect civilians while the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo withdrew their activities. UNHCR did not track where the arms were coming from, but worked on expanding displacement sites and reception centres, providing shelter kits and providing psycho-social support for traumatised displaced people. Where the Organization had access, they were providing non-food items, such as tarpaulins, blankets and sleeping bags. UNHCR did not have complete access in the region; hundreds of thousands had been displaced in multiple territories where there was no access.

 

Cost-saving measure at UNOG

 

Kira Kruglikova, Director, for the Division of Administration of the UN Office at Geneva (UNOG), said that in 2023, the UN had ended the year with lowest collection of payments in the last five years. Only 142 Member States had paid their dues in full, meaning the financial situation for 2024 was very fragile. Amidst the UN global liquidity crisis, UN Geneva’s directive was to reduce non-salary related expenses by 42 percent, which meant finding savings upwards of 15 million USD. Effective 22 April, a series of strategic adjustments would be implemented which aimed to enhance operational efficiency and cut costs. These measures included temporary and permanent moves for more efficient office space management and the enforcement of reduced opening hours. UN Geneva was committed to fulfilling its mandates, particularly in providing essential conferencing services, despite the ongoing liquidity challenges.

 

Responding to questions, Ms. Kruglikova said the team would assess the situation of journalists needing to operate under extended hours. This was problematic for everyone, and it needed to be ascertained if funding was available for extra security. UNOG would see what they could do to minimise any inconvenience.


Responding to further questions, Ms. Kruglikova said the question of online and hybrid meetings was not tied to the liquidity crisis. If the situation was to change with the General Assembly giving a mandate for hybrid meetings, this would trigger a request for resources which would solve the situation.

 

It seemed that the liquidity crisis would not be an issue for the Strategic Heritage Plan, aside from moving up the building D occupancy, which had already been planned for later in the year. The Honour Roll was available on the webpage of the Committee on Contributions, which showed which members States had paid in full. Cost-saving measures would probably be reviewed in June.

 

Currently, the instruction was that staff would be preserved. The Secretary-General and the Director-General were fully committed to this. There was no intention of letting any staff go, or of not extending regular contracts. This was already a difficult situation, and the Office did not want staff to feel anxious about job security while they were already being asked to perform at a higher level with fewer resources.  

 

Situation in Gaza

 

Abdulhakim Elwaer, Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for the Near East and North Africa, for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), speaking from Cairo, said the crisis in Palestine, particularly in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, had reached unprecedented levels since the escalation of the conflict on 7 October 2023. The conflict had severely impacted the agricultural sector, leading to disruptions in agricultural production, livestock losses, and limited access to essential resources for farmers and herders. A 43 percent of crop lands, 27 percent of greenhouses and 28 percent of agricultural wells had been lost, which made it very difficult to produce fruits, vegetables, eggs, milk, fish and dairy products. Gaza had previously exported fish to Egypt and Palestine, but the fishing sector had been stopped since 7 October. The lack of electricity had further exacerbated the situation, and the lack of care of livestock had increased the likelihood of diseases for humans. FAO had been actively engaged in the distribution of animal fodder and aimed to supply 500 tonnes of animal fodder, which would sustain minimum levels of local production. Access was still not possible in some parts of Gaza. FAO had secured funding to support some initiatives, but there was an urgent need for additional resources to scale up efforts and prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.

 

James Elder, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), speaking from Rafah, said two major issues in Gaza that were central for survivors: the safety of those in Rafah, and aid delivery. Rafah was unrecognisable since he had visited it three months ago. The global standards stated that a maximum of 20 people should use a single toilet. In Rafah, there was one toilet for 850 people. For showers it was four times that number. This was a hellish disregard for basic human rights and dignity. Those same standards stated that people needed 15 litres of water each day. Today on average, the households in Gaza had less than one litre of safe water per person, per day. Only one-third of hospitals on the Gaza Strip were partially functioning, while more children needed health services than ever before. The endless talk of a large-scale military offensive in Rafah was highly concerning. Rafah was a city of children: 600,000 girls and boys were there, and Rafah was home to some of Gaza's last remaining hospitals and shelters and water systems. Yesterday, Mr. Elder had been in Jabalia in the north of Gaza. Tens of thousands of people crowded the streets, desperately seeking food. There were hundreds of UN trucks of lifesaving humanitarian aid, waiting to get to people in Gaza, but they were on the wrong side of the border. This was against the backdrop of the recent report released from the IPC, stating that famine was imminent in northern Gaza. Since the IPC had begun reporting two decades ago, the Gaza rating was the most severe ever given.

 

Before the war, wasting on the Gaza Strip was rare, with less than one percent of children under the age of five acutely malnourished. Today, of those children under two years old, one in three were acutely malnourished. The north had urgent, massive needs for food and nutrition, and efforts to provide aid were being hampered. There was an existing old crossing point in the north which could be used, just ten minutes from where people were pleading for food. If it was opened, the humanitarian crisis could be turned around in a matter of days. But it remained closed. Famine which was entirely man-made and this meant it could be reversed if the right decisions were made. Between 1 and 22 March, one quarter of 40 humanitarian aid missions into northern Gaza were denied. UNRWA was now blocked from delivering food to the north, despite being responsible for the delivery of 50 percent of the food. Lifesaving aid was being obstructed. Lives were being lost. Mr. Elder said a sense of despair was pervading the population. People often asked if there was still hope. The question had answers of varying extremes. Mr. Elder had spoken to a mother who had lost her loved ones and her home. She felt as though all she had left was hope. Then yesterday, UNICEF had sat with adolescents, several of whom said they were so desperate for the nightmare to end that they hoped to be killed. Amid all of this, so many brave and generous Palestinians continued to support one another any way they could. UN agencies and UNICEF continued despite the challenges. The ceasefire needed to be substantive, not symbolic. The hostages needed to go home. The people of Gaza needed to be allowed to live.

 

Responding to questions regarding Israeli accounts that no one was starving in the north of Gaza, Mr. Elder said trucks with food hadn’t gone north for several days. A week ago, he’d been in Kamal Adwan hospital, with more than 20 children dying from malnutrition. Incubators were full of babies who had been born prematurely due to the stress from their malnourished mothers. Children faced starvation due to a lack of food. People in the north were surviving on a type of grass which they were eating with lemon. Children in the north dreamed of eating vegetables. Truth mattered and life- saving aid mattered.

Ms. Vellucci quoted the United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNWRA) report which said that Israeli authorities continued to reject urgent UNRWA food convoys to northern Gaza. Since 21 March, UNRWA had submitted daily requests to Israeli authorities, all of which had been denied with no reason given. A fourth request submitted on March 24 was also denied.

 

Mr. Elwaer said access to the north in Gaza was not assured. Most of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report outlined the presence of catastrophic phases were in the north and central parts of Gaza. There were cases of death, due to starvation, which were the early indications of famine.

 

Mr. Elder said 38 trucks from the World Food Programme had recently gone through to the north, which was the first-time aid had gone through in five days. This was not enough Before the war, 500 trucks had entered the Gaza strip every day. This was now down to one third of this number, and there had been periods of weeks where nothing entered the north. The IPC figures showed record catastrophic declines into imminent famine, which spoke to a lack of food and nutrition aid which was still not reaching the north. . The Palestinian Red Crescent and Egyptian Red Crescent were doing immense work.

 

Responding to further questions, Mr. Elwaer reiterated that the 500 trucks which had been entering Gaza prior to October 7, contained materials for further production, including seeds, fertilisers and animal fodder. This had all been lost. Currently the trucks which were only supplying food, could not be compared to this amount. There was an FAO office which communicated daily with the authorities trying to facilitate access. Trucks filled with animal fodder had been unable to cross the border for two months.

 

Responding to further questions regarding failed aid delivery, Mr. Elder said the situation was so desperate, that if aid was safely delivered to civilians, including from the sea, then any aid was welcome. But road networks were the most efficient and needed to be used. Ms Vellucci said the Secretary-General had stressed that the only efficient way to move heavy goods was by road.

 

Responding to questions, Jens Laerke, for the Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said he appreciated the pursuit of the truth and facts by the media. International conventions stated that the parties to the conflict were required to facilitate rapid and unimpeded access for civilians in need. This had never been truer or more urgent than it was today. Israeli authorities had a right to control and inspect aid, but they also needed to create an enabling environment to move it around. One could not claim to adhere to provisions of war when UNRWA food convoys were blocked, when Israeli forces attacked warehouses, or when hospitals were under siege.

 

Responding to further questions on the trucks containing animal fodder, Mr. Elwaer said it had initially been accepted, but then denied. It had passed through the first check point but had been denied access at the second points. At least 1400 farmers had been desperately waiting for the animal fodder. A reason for the rejection was that the Israeli authorities said it was not food. This was incorrect as although it wasn’t food directly, it was a way to generate food by feeding livestock. In March, the go-ahead had been given to try again with the animal fodder, and this was currently underway.

 

The IPC report showed that half of the population were affected with extreme malnutrition, lack of food security and starvation. There had been reports of death due to starvation, particularly in the north. The north remained a total blockade which was inaccessible. There was enough evidence which showed ongoing starvation, a lack of food supplies and water. Those who claimed otherwise needed to provide evidence for that.

 

Mr. Elder said both the Erez and Karni crossings in the north needed to be opened.

 

Responding to further questions, Mr. Elder said there were emergency stabilisation and therapeutic centres set up for feeding. These were critical. Nutrition experts said part of the challenge was to build up the capacity of the health staff, because malnutrition had previously not been an issue for them.

 

Responding to questions, Tarik Jašarević, for the World Health Organization (WHO) said WHO had established two stabilisation centres in the south of Gaza and were trying to establish more in a middle area. Yesterday, WHO had managed to bring two young people from Kamal hospital out of Gaza but it was a priority to be able to treat people inside Gaza. Access was vital. There were 20,000 health workers in Gaza who were ready to help but were unable to access hospitals.


Responding to further questions, Mr Jašarević said WHO had expressed concern at the attack on the al-Amal hospital in the south. Most of the patients had been forced to leave due to hostilities in the region. This was another example of hospitals being under attack. WHO still did not have access to Al-Shifa hospital. Half of the missions to hospitals had not been given the green light. More than 400 attacks on healthcare had been recorded since October, and more than 600 people had died in these attacks. This had to stop. It was hoped that the ceasefire would be implemented.

 

Ms. Vellucci quoted the Secretary-General who said the cease-fire resolution must be implemented; failure would be unforgivable.

 

Responding to further questions, Mr. Jašarević said WHO had not witnessed Hamas using hospitals as military headquarters. What they had seen were healthcare workers trying to do their best.

 

Mr. Elder, said the latest numbers showed that 13,750 children were reported to have been killed in the conflict. There had been reports of double-digit numbers of children killed overnight, only hours after the Security Council cease-fire resolution was passed. The Director of Kamal-Adwan hospital, had said that 23 children had died from malnutrition and dehydration. Mr. Elder had personally seen several children that day who were skeletal. It was hard to produce precise figures on starvation.

 

Responding to further questions, Mr. Jašarević said figures provided by the Ministry of Health were accurate, or if anything, under-reported. It was a deadly combination of diseases and malnutrition. Disease surveillance and reporting had been interrupted.

 

Human Rights Council Update

 

Pascal Sim, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said the Human Rights Council was currently considering the adoption of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) outcome of Cuba, the last of a total of 14 UPR outcomes adopted during the 55th session. A general debate on the UPR would follow immediately after, at around 11:30 a.m. At 3 p.m., this afternoon, Council was beginning its consideration of item 7 of its agenda on the human rights situation in Palestine and in other occupied Arab territories. The Council was holding an interactive dialogue with Francesca Albanese, the Special Rapporteur on the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, who was presenting her latest report. Ms. Albanese would also hold a press conference tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. in the news room. Following the interactive dialogue, the Council would hear from Deputy High Commissioner Nada Al-Nashif who would present two reports. The first, was a report of High Commissioner on Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan. The second was the report of the Secretary-General on the situation in the Occupied Syrian Golan.

 

Announcements


Alessandra Vellucci of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said this morning, the United Nations Deputy Special Envoy for Syria announced that 15 Syrian women had agreed to join the Syrian’s Women’s advisory board as new members. These new members of the board would bring the realities of Syrian women and men, girls and boys to the Office of the Special Envoy for Syria, over their three-year term.

 

The United Nations Human Rights Committee would hold a press conference to present their findings on Chile, Guyana, Indonesia, Namibia, Serbia, Somalia and the United Kingdom, on Thursday 28th of March at 1.30 pm.

 

This morning, the Conference on Disarmament was holding a public plenary meeting under the presidency of Ambassador Ali Bahreini, of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

 

 

***

HYBRID PRESS BRIEFING – Tuesday, 26 March 2024
 
 
ANNOUNCEMENTS
HRC Pascal Sim (PR)
 
 Human Rights Council update 
 
TOPICS
UNOG Kira Kruglikova, Director, Division of Administration (DOA)
 
 Cost-saving measure at UNOG
UNHCR Mattew Saltmarsh (PR)
 
 UNHCR urges immediate action amid heightened risks for displaced in eastern DR
Congo
 
FAO AbdulHakim Elwaer, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative
 
for the Near East and North Africa (From Cairo)
· Agenda item: Food insecurity situation in Gaza and its impact in the region.
 
Listening / available for questions but not briefing:
OCHA Jens Laerke (PR)
OSE Jenifer Fenton (PR)
UNECE Thomas Croll-Knigt (PR)
UNIDIR Elisabeth Schoeffmann (Zoom)
WHO Tarik Jašarević (Zoom)
 
 

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