UN Geneva Press Briefing - 17 May 2024
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Press Conferences | OHCHR , UNHCR , OCHA , WHO , ITU

UN Geneva Press Briefing - 17 May 2024

UN GENEVA PRESS BRIEFING

17 May 2024

Deteriorating situation in Sudan

Ravina Shamdasani, for the United Nations Human Rights Office (OHCHR), stated that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, was horrified by the escalating violence in El-Fasher, where hostilities between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces were having a deeply devastating toll on civilians. At least 58 civilians were reported to have been killed and 213 others injured in El-Fasher since fighting had dramatically escalated in the North Darfur town previous week.

He urged both leading generals [Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, leader of the Sudanese Armed Forces, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces] to act immediately – and publicly – to de-escalate the situation. He also called on them to put aside entrenched positions and take specific, concrete steps to cease hostilities and to ensure the effective protection of civilians, as was their obligation under international human rights law and international humanitarian law, and consistent with their commitments under the Jeddah Declaration, agreed in May 2023. The High Commissioner warned both commanders that fighting in El-Fasher, where more than 1.8 million residents and internally displaced people were currently encircled and at imminent risk of famine, would have a catastrophic impact on civilians, and would deepen intercommunal conflict with disastrous humanitarian consequences. He reminded the commanders of their obligations under international humanitarian law to ensure strict compliance with the principles of distinction, proportionality, and precaution and to put an end to any ongoing violations, 

Full OHCHR statement can be read here.

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), stressed that in Sudan, half of the population, or 25 million people, needed humanitarian aid. Famine was closing in; diseases were closing in; the fighting was closing in on civilians, especially in Darfur. Collectively, the humanitarians asked for USD 2.7 billion, but as of today, they had received just 12 per cent of that. This was a catastrophically underfunded appeal. Without more resources coming in fast, humanitarian organizations would not be able to scale up in time to stave off famine and prevent further deprivation. Now was the time for donors to make good on pledges made, step up and help us help Sudan and be part of changing the current trajectory that's leading toward the cliff's edge.

Dr. Shible Sahbani, World Health Organization (WHO) Representative in Sudan, speaking from Port Sudan, said that some 17 per cent of the population were now displaced in what was the largest displacement crisis in the world. Close to 16,000 people had died due to the ongoing war, 33,000 had been injured, but the real toll of the war was probably much higher. The recent escalation of violence in Darfur, and particularly in Al Fasher, was alarming and causing more deaths and injuries among civilians as access to health facilities was hampered by the ensuing insecurity.

Both the displaced and those that had remained in their localities lacked access to necessities like food, water, healthcare, and medicines while disease outbreaks like cholera, measles, dengue fever and malaria are spreading. Currently, two-thirds of Sudan’s 18 states were experiencing multiple outbreaks. WHO was particularly concerned over the lack of treatment for people suffering from chronic conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and kidney failure. The lack of access to basic healthcare and medicines is putting their lives at risk in a country where there was a high burden of non-communicable diseases. On top of that, famine was looming, warned Dr. Sahbani, especially in parts of Darfur and in Khartoum, with more than one-third of the population facing acute hunger.

Attacks on healthcare and humanitarian workers worsened the lack of access to health services, said Dr. Sahbani, and put patients, health workers, humanitarian workers, and humanitarian assets at grave risk. WHO had thus far recorded 62 verified attacks on healthcare. Despite the challenges, the resolve WHO to respond to the health emergency remained intact. WHO had delivered into Sudan over 1,200 metric tons of medical supplies to health facilities across Sudan’s states by air and through cross-border and cross-line mechanisms, provided key equipment to sustain laboratory services, improve ICU care and enhance infection prevention and control, supported vaccination campaigns to respond to outbreaks of cholera, measles and polio, and trained health workers in case management of epidemic-prone diseases in a crisis setting, and in management of severe malnutrition. WHO called on parties to the conflict to silence the guns and give the people of Sudan respite. Health could not be ensured in the absence of peace.

Rolando Gómez, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), reminded that in his address to the Summit of the League of Arab States the previous day, the Secretary-General had urged the international community to intensify its push for peace, and call on the warring parties to agree on a lasting ceasefire. This should be followed by a political process that includes women’s and youth groups. He pledged the full support of the United Nations.

Answering questions from the media, Mr. Laerke, for OCHA, said that the scale of needs in Sudan and Gaza were uniquely high for those two places. Both contexts seemed to be in the worst situation in decades. Looking at the absolute number of people in needs, Sudan was larger and there were more people in need there. Humanitarians had the determination to keep pushing for what was right; donors pledged for what they believed was right, but the pledged money for Sudan had not yet arrived, and people of Sudan were staring in the face of famine. If there was an opportunity for access, UN humanitarians stood ready to use it, but it was very difficult to plan if there was no minimal guarantee. Dr. Sahbani, for the WHO, said that there had been 4,668 recorded cases of measles, with over 100 deaths; over 11,000 cases of cholera with some 300 deaths; and 1.27 million cases of malaria. With the upcoming rainy season, there was an increased risk of water-borne diseases, he warned. Surveillance ought to be increased, which could be done through increased access and increasing capacities of the partners of the ground. More proactive, preventive actions needed to be taken.

On another question, Ms. Shamdasani, for the OHCHR, said that the High Commissioner for Human Rights had had phone calls with both generals, appealing to them to put the needs of their people first, not block humanitarian assistance, and respect international humanitarian and human rights law. Both generals had then committed to respecting the international norms. It was very important for the UN Human Rights Chief to speak to the two leaders and remind them of their obligations. Matthew Saltmarsh, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that aid was currently not able to cross from Chad into Darfur, where assistance was desperately needed. The pressure on Chad was acute, especially in the border areas which hosted numerous arrivals from Darfur. Dr. Sahbani, for the WHO, said it was difficult to know how many people had died of malnutrition, but some 37 per cent of the population were currently in Integrated Food Security Phase Classification category 3 or above. Due to the lack of access to food and lack of resources, it would be difficult to provide adequate nutritional support to the people in need.

 

Refugee arrivals in Uganda

Matthew Crentsil, United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Representative in Uganda, said that Uganda hosted 1.67 million refugees, the highest number in Africa and third in the world. Uganda had one of the best refugee systems in the world, with refugees enjoying freedom of movement and access to labour to market. This year, some 19,000 refugees had arrived from Sudan; an average of 2,500 were arriving every week. The funding shortfall was severe, warned Mr. Crentsil; in 2022, some 35 per cent of the USD 836 million funding requirement for refugees had been funded. Despite the increasing numbers of refugees, funding was going down, he said. In 2023, for example, the World Food Programme had had to cut food supplies for refugees due to the funding shortfalls. Because Uganda had been hosting refugees for decades, it was assumed that many of them had been there for decades, which was not the case: only ten per cent had been in the country for ten years or longer, while all others were more recent arrivals. Suicide rates among refugee were high, with this year only more than 100 recorded cases. UNHCR had signed an agreement with private sector actors in Uganda in order to increase support for the refugees in need.

Responding to questions, Mr. Crentsil specified that the United States was by far the biggest contributor for the Uganda response, followed by the European Union and a number of other European countries and Japan. This year, USD 858 million was needed, and only 13 per cent of it was funded. If 50 to 70 per cent of the requirements were funded, UNHCR would be able to implement a meaningful response. Cooperation with local implementing actors was one of the ways to lower the costs. He explained that there had been a significant decrease in US funding, which affected the overall situation, with the US being the largest donor.

Increased targeting of migrants in Tunisia

Ravina Shamdasani, for the United Nations Human Rights Office (OHCHR), said that the OHCHR was concerned by the increased targeting in Tunisia of migrants, mostly from south of the Sahara, and individuals and organisations working to assist them. At the same time, there was a rise in the use of dehumanising and racist rhetoric against black migrants and black Tunisians. OHCHR had recorded incidents of arbitrary arrest and detention of human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists critical of the Government, as well as its migration policies. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the authorities to respect and safeguard freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, as guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Tunisia is a party. The human rights of all migrants had to be protected, and xenophobic hate speech must stop.

Full statement is available here.

 

Situation in Gaza

Responding to questions from the media, Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that the latest number of people fleeing from Rafah, provided by UNRWA, stood at 600,000. People were moving north and northwest, where they had been told to go, but there were no safe routes out of Rafah, or safe destinations in Gaza. Any and all aid into Gaza, by any route, was welcome, he explained. Land crossings remained the most important route for getting aid into Gaza. UN was making preparations for handling aid that was about to start arriving through the maritime corridor and the floating dock. However, assisting people of Gaza through a faraway floating dock on its own was far from adequate.

Tarik Jašarević, for the World Health Organization (WHO), stressed that the biggest issue right now was fuel. Only 13 out of 36 hospitals were now partially functioning in Gaza, he reminded, emphasizing the indispensable importance of fuel for running life-saving activities on health facilities. WHO once again appealed for access; it was trying to do best it could, under the impossible circumstances. It was hoped that the humanitarian appeals would be heard sooner rather than later. Bringing supplies into Gaza was part of the process, but freedom od movement for humanitarians and a ceasefire were also very much needed.

 

Missing persons in Sri Lanka

Answering a question on the latest report on enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, Ravina Shamdasani, for the United Nations Human Rights Office (OHCHR), said that there were tens of thousands of forcibly disappeared persons between the 1970s and 2009, but there was no single authoritative data on the total number. There appeared to be a general lack of political will by the Government to deal with this issue decisively and comprehensively. People deserved to know what had happened to their loved ones, she stressed.

 

Afghanistan in the aftermath of the floods

Responding to questions, Matthew Saltmarsh, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said the joint assessment teams were deploying to affected areas to determine the impact of the floods. Over 3,000 people had been assessed and 845 homes were determined to have been fully damaged. UNHCR and partners were distributing tents, clothes, and other necessities. Most urgent cases needing interventions were being identified so they could be prioritized. Tarik Jašarević, for the World Health Organization (WHO), had delivered seven metric tons of medicine and medical supplies in the immediate aftermath of the floods. Seven mobile teams had been deployed to the most affected areas by the WHO and health cluster partners.

World Summit on the Information Society and AI for Good Global Summit

Gitanjali Sah, Strategy and Policy Coordinator at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), informed that the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)+20 Forum High-Level Event would be held in hybrid format from 27 to 30 May. Stakeholders included governments, media, non-governmental organizations, regulatory bodies, UN agencies, and academia. The agenda had been formulated through a wide consultative, bottom-up approach. The Summit would look into a number of issues such as connecting remote villages; importance of communications in disaster aftermaths; protection of journalists; digital health; protection of indigenous languages, etc. This inclusive process of digital governance had stood the test of time, stressed Ms. Sah, and every voice counted. All details can be found here.

Frederic Werner, Head, Strategic Engagement at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), said that during the same week, the ITU would be hosting the AI for Good Global Summit 2024, including AI Governance Day, from 29 to 31 May. Among questions to be addressed was how AI would work differently for people of different backgrounds; if AI would bridge or divide the digital divide. AI for Good aimed to help the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals by harnessing the power of AI as best as possible; more than 40 sister UN agencies were part of the process. Great efforts were being made to bring different voices to the table, including private actors, academia, and civil sector. Some 3,000 participants were expected at the Summit, including 300 speakers; over 90 demos would also take place during the Summit. The theme of this year’s AI Governance Day would be “From Principles to Implementation”, informed Mr. Werner. The morning session of the Governance Day would be by invitation-only, and the afternoon would be open for the media. More information about the Summit is available here.

Media accreditations were open for both events, and one accreditation would suffice. A press conference with lunch would be organized on 31 May at 1 pm.

Responding to a question, Ms. Sah said that WSIS discussions would be summarized and shared with the facilitators of the drafting process of the Global Digital Compact. Mr. Werner, on another question, said that deepfakes and misinformation were among the biggest challenges anywhere in the world. Developing international standards to combat these two was on the agenda of the AI for Good Global Summit. Solutions and standards ought to be made with ethics in mind, be sustainable and long-term, be aligned with the SDGs and human rights principles. Switzerland was a co-host of the event, informed Mr. Werner.

 

Announcements

David Hirsch, for the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), said that today was World Telecommunication and Information Society Day commemorating the anniversary of ITU’s founding in 1865. This year’s theme was digital innovation for sustainable development. ITU would host a video event from its studios at ITU headquarters beginning at 4 pm today and would be webcast live.

Rolando Gómez, for the for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said that the Secretary-General’s message on the World Telecommunication and Information Society Day had been shared with the media.

Peggy Walters, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), informed that the IOM would host its flagship event, the International Dialogue on Migration (IDM), in New York on 21-22 May. The IDM was IOM’s main forum for migration policy dialogue, which brought together all migration stakeholders, at a global level, for open discussions on the opportunities and challenges which migration presents. It was held twice year, with one session in New York and another in Geneva. “Facilitating regular pathways for a better future – harnessing the power of migration” was the theme of the upcoming event.

 Rolando Gómez, for the for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), informed that the Committee on the Rights of the Child was concluding this morning its review of the report of Paraguay.

 The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was reviewing today the report of Estonia.

 An event to mark the International Day for Biological Diversity would take place at the Palais des Nations on 22 May, informed Mr. Gómez.

 

 

***

 

 

 

TOPICS

OHCHR Ravina Shamdasani: 

  • Tunisia: Concern at increased targeting of migrants.
  • Sudan: Escalating violence in El-Fasher.

UNHCR Mattew Saltmarsh with Matthew Crentsil, UNHCR Representative in Uganda:

  • Uganda's open door policy for refugees strained by arrivals from Sudan, DRC and South Sudan

OCHA Jens Laerke:

  • Sudan’s humanitarian plan remains catastrophically underfunded at 12 per cent (OCHA)

- WHO Tarik Jašarević with Dr Shible Sahbani, WHO Representative in Sudan (From Port Sudan):

  • Update on the health situation in Sudan


- ITU

  • Gitanjali Sah, Strategy and Policy Coordinator : The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)+20 Forum High-Level Event (27-31 May)
  • Frederic Werner, Head, Strategic Engagement, ITU Telecommunication and Standardization Bureau: AI for Good Global Summit 2024, including AI Governance Day (29-31 M


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