UN Geneva Press Briefing - 24 May 2024
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Press Conferences | OHCHR , UNHCR , WHO , WMO

UN Geneva Press Briefing - 24 May 2024

UN GENEVA PRESS BRIEFING 

24 May 2024

Alessandra Vellucci, Director of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired a hybrid briefing, which was attended by the spokespersons and representatives of the United Nations Human Rights, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the World Health Organization, and the World Meteorological Organization.

 

Growing human rights crisis in Rakhine state in Myanmar

Elizabeth Throssell, for the United Nations Human Rights (OHCHR), stated that the OHCHR was receiving frightening and disturbing reports from northern Rakhine State in Myanmar of the impacts of the conflict on civilian lives and property. Some of the most serious allegations concerned incidents of killing of Rohingya civilians and the burning of their property. Tens of thousands of civilians had been displaced in recent days by the fighting in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships. An estimated 45,000 Rohingya had reportedly fled to an area on the Naf River near the border with Bangladesh, seeking protection. Over one million Rohingya were already in Bangladesh, having fled past purges. The High Commissioner called on Bangladesh and other States to provide effective protection to those seeking it, in line with international law, and to ensure international solidarity with Bangladesh in hosting Rohingya refugees in Myanmar. Testimonies, satellite images, and online videos and pictures indicated that Buthidaung town had been largely burned. OHCHR had received information indicating that the burning had started on 17 May, two days after the military had retreated from the town and the Arakan Army claimed to have taken full control. OHCHR was corroborating information received about who is responsible.

The High Commissioner called for an immediate end to the violence, and for all civilians to be protected without any distinction based on identity. Prompt and unhindered humanitarian relief had to be allowed to flow, and all parties had to comply fully and unconditionally with international law, including measures already ordered by the International Court of Justice, for the protection of Rohingya.

James Rodehaver, head of the United Nations Human Rights (OHCHR) Myanmar Team, connecting from Bangkok, informed that his team had spoken to many sources on the ground and reviewed numerous source materials, many which were deemed to be credible. The Buthidaung town had been burned, as corroborated by many victims. Information indicated that the burning had started on 17 May, but there were different claims on where the burning had originated. OHCHR corroborated information further in order to establish who were the perpetrators of the burning. 

Survivors described seeing dozens of dead bodies as they were leaving town, while others spoke of being blocked from leaving town by the Arakan Army, thus having to choose more perilous exit routes. The Arakan Army had reportedly abused the survivors and taken money from them, informed Mr. Rodehaver. Rohingya individuals spoke of sheltering with families who lacked sufficient food for themselves. He further said that at least four cases of beheadings by the Arakan Army had been confirmed, as well as multiple enforced disappearances of individuals. For a long time, the military had imposed draconian restrictions on the Rohingya. They had historically needed special permissions to move from their localities, which was why they had been reluctant to move this time. They also remembered previous experiences when leaving their home often meant not being able to return there ever again.

Responding to questions from the media, Mr. Rodehaver said that there had been several instances in recent weeks with lot of misinformation and propaganda on social media sowed with the purpose of spreading discord between the Rohingya and other Rakhine communities. The head of the Arakan Army himself had spread on X some ethnically motivated conspiracy theories about the Rohingya. So far, most interethnic clashes were being seen between armed actors rather than local civilian communities. He explained that there were many reports about conscription, and many conscripts had been promised various benefits by the military, which showed a level of desperation, as the military continued to lose ground, including in Rakhine. The military knew that the Rohingya men were overall poorly prepared to fight and malnourished and were often sent to the frontlines as the cannon fodder. A variety of pressures were reportedly used on the Rohingya to join, explained Mr. Rodehaver. The military targeted civilians because they could not fight back; when they fought organized armed groups, they frequently lost ground. 

Mr. Rodehaver explained that the Arakan Army was an ethnic armed group, part of the “Three Brotherhood Alliance”, which had started coordinating attacks against the Myanmar military and driving them back across the country. The Arakan Army had begun fighting the military in earnest in 2019, with some intermittent ceasefires. They were building alternative administrative structures in Rakhine and had gained a lot of credibility among the local community, said Mr. Rodehaver. There were some 600,000 estimated Rohingya left in the country, he explained, and about one million were displaced in Bangladesh and elsewhere. 

Russian attacks in north-eastern border areas of Ukraine

Elizabeth Throssell, for the United Nations Human Rights (OHCHR), stated that testimonies gathered by the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) highlighted the terrifying impact on civilians of the recent escalation in hostilities in the north-east of the country, where Russian armed forces had seized control of several villages. People who had fled from these areas along the Kharkiv region frontline described having to shelter for days in cold, dark basements, with no electricity amid intense aerial bombardment, strikes by drones and missiles, and artillery shelling. There had been massive destruction of people’s homes and other civilian infrastructure. Entire communities had been uprooted and destroyed, with more than 10,000 people displaced to date. According to HRMMU, at least 35 civilians had been killed and 137 injured in the Kharkiv region since Russian armed forces launched their cross-border offensive on 10 May. 

OHCHR called again on the Russian Federation to strictly respect all the rules of international law relating to the conduct of hostilities, and to cease its attacks on Ukraine immediately. In the third year of the Russian Federation’s full-scale armed attack on Ukraine, with no end in sight, lives, homes, and futures continued to be destroyed. The long-term impact of this war in Ukraine would be felt for generations, with the task of rebuilding shattered communities, already a massive undertaking, growing larger with every further day of violence and destruction.  

Full OHCHR statement is here

Impact of the Sudan crisis on the health situation in Chad

Dr. Blanche Anya, World Health Organization (WHO) Representative in Chad, speaking from N’djamena, said that Chad was at the centre of the refugee crisis resulting from the conflict in Sudan. About 45 percent of Sudanese refugees, close to 600 000 people, were being hosted in Chad, while some 170,000 Chad nationals had returned from Sudan since the start of the violence in April 2023. Every week, an estimated 5,000 new arrivals continue to stream in. Some 88 percent of refugees and 93 percent of returnees were women and children. Many women and young girls had been raped. Malnutrition among children was widespread. Combined with measles and other epidemics, and overcrowding in under-resourced camps, there was an ongoing, serious health emergency.

Dr. Anya said that Chad's already fragile healthcare system was under immense pressure; it was now grappling with a dual challenge: supporting the refugees while not neglecting its own citizens' health needs. The health challenges in the refugee camps were serious; every week, 1,500-2,000 cases of severe acute malnutrition are registered. Along with malnutrition, there were outbreaks of dengue fever, measles, chickenpox, and hepatitis E. Malaria, acute respiratory infections, and diarrhea diseases had been consistently increasing week-on-week.

She stressed that the outbreak of Hepatitis E in refugee camps was particularly concerning. By the end of April, some 2400 cases and seven deaths had been reported. Mental health needs were also significant. An estimated 15,600 refugees required mental health support, but the resources were simply not enough.

To sustain its work, and to do more, Dr. Anya said that the WHO urgently needed increased international support. Funding for the humanitarian appeal in Chad remained critically low: in 2023, the humanitarian appeal for Chad had been only 30 percent funded, leaving a significant gap in resources needed to avert a public health catastrophe. The Sudanese refugee crisis was not just a regional issue but a global humanitarian emergency that requires our united efforts. The health impact on Chad is profound, and swift, decisive actions were needed to provide the necessary support. 

Answering questions from the media, Dr. Anya said that Sudanese refugees were still coming into Chad. William Spindler, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), added that the situation in El Fasher in Sudan was getting worse and the humanitarian situation was deteriorating. The few remaining operational hospitals had been affected by fighting. People continued to flee the region and cross into Chad, he said. The conditions in Adré, Chad, were deteriorating, and the camps were congested. The rains would now make the already dire conditions more miserable and make the delivery of aid more difficult. He appealed to donors to continue supporting Chad and other countries affected by the crisis in Sudan. Elizabeth Throssell, for the United Nations Human Rights (OHCHR), reminded that the High Commissioner for Human Rights had repeatedly expressed his horror at what was happening in Darfur; he had spoken to the leaders of the two main military groups in the country and asked them to take the necessary steps to cease hostilities. It was for courts to establish whether what was happening in El Fasher was genocide. Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), stressed that the health system was collapsing, with only 20 to 30 percent of health facilities functioning. Some places in Darfur had not received medical supplies in over a year. Mr. Lindmeier listed numerous WHO activities to support people with medical care both inside Sudan and in the neighboring Chad.

Situation in Gaza

Responding to questions, Elizabeth Throssell, for the United Nations Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the Israeli operations had been intensifying in Rafah, but also in north Gaza. There had also been evacuation orders in north Gaza, the situation in which was concerning. About 800,000 people had moved from Rafah and some 100,000 had been displaced from the north. Regarding the International Criminal Court’s warrants, Ms. Throssell said that the process ought to be allowed to go ahead without interference. Aid had to start entering Gaza in massive quantities in order to avoid hunger, added Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service.

One month since start of the floods in Brazil

William Spindler, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), said that, almost one month after the start of heavy rains in Brazil’s southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, UNHCR was expanding its response with national authorities to meet the needs of the most vulnerable, including 43,000 refugees and other people in need of international protection, mainly Venezuelans, Haitians, and Cubans along with communities hosting them.

The floods were the biggest climate-related disaster in Southern Brazil and had caused 163 deaths and displaced 580,000 people. More than 65,000 were still in temporary accommodation centres; 93 per cent of the cities and towns in Rio Grande do Sul had been affected. An estimated USD 3.21 million was needed to support UNHCR’s response, including financial assistance to affected individuals and essential relief items. UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration were visiting shelters to survey refugees, those in need of international protection and migrants to assess their needs and support the most urgent cases. Refugee-led organizations in Rio Grande do Sul had been collecting and distributing donations and volunteering at emergency shelters. According to government data, Rio Grande do Sul state hosted more than 21,000 Venezuelans relocated from Roraima state on the Venezuela border since April 2018.

Mr. Spindler stated that extreme weather events in Brazil had been more frequent and devastating in recent years, including droughts in the Amazon region and severe rains in Bahia and Acre states, all of which UNHCR had responded to. But funding to address the impacts of climate change was insufficient to address the needs of those forcibly displaced and the communities hosting them. Without help to prepare for and withstand these impacts, to include them in national adaptation plans and to recover from climate-related shocks, they risked displacement. 

Speaking of other crises, Mr. Spindler said that in Afghanistan, flash floods and heavy rains, which had begun on 10 May, had caused extensive damage and loss of life in the north, north-east and west. Thousands of homes and hectares of farmland had been damaged or destroyed, and more than 300 people killed. The situation across East Africa also remained of great concern. In Kenya, for example, more heavy rains this week had flooded parts of Kakuma camp, affecting shelters and public facilities including health clinics and schools. In Burundi, UNHCR, with the government and partners, was assisting the most affected through relocations to temporary sites, provision of clean water, cash assistance for urgent needs and distribution of school learning materials for children. Mr. Spindler stressed that climate change disproportionately affected refugees and other people in need of international protection, who were already living in vulnerable areas prone to the effects of extreme and recurrent climate events. In April 2024, UNHCR had launched its first-ever Climate Resilience Fund to build the resilience of refugees, displaced communities and their hosts to the increasing intensity of climate-change-related extreme weather events.

UNHCR statement is available here.

Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), said that the Brazilian national meteorological service was posting constant updates on its website. A cold front was now passing through, slamming into the warm and humid mass of air, which would intensify the rainfall. Added to that was a tropical cyclone, which would make the situation even worse. Huge amounts of rainfall were witnessed in Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catherina, which would exacerbate the already terrible situation. 

Regarding East Africa, a new study released today looked at the role of climate change and rapid urbanization in destructive floods. The extreme rainfall in Kenya and Tanzania was becoming more intense with the climate change as a major driver. The study conclusions applied not only to East Africa but to the world. More information is available here. 

Responding to questions, Ms. Nullis, for the WMO, said that the science and the national meteorological services needed to be listened to. It really paid dividends to invest in national meteorological and hydrological services, as well as early warning services. It was not just the weather and climate change, but also rapid urbanization, loss of ecosystems and the damage to the environments, which were jointly creating a perfect storm. William Spindler, for the UNHCR, said that over USD 400,000 had been received in response to the floods in Brazil, mostly from private individuals in Brazil, the Netherlands, and the USA. 

Northern hemisphere hurricane season

Clare Nullis, for the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), informed that high ocean heat content and the anticipated development of La Niña were expected to fuel an above average hurricane season in the North Atlantic this year, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA). NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center forecast a range of 17 to 25 named storms (average was 14); of those, 8 to 13 were forecast to become hurricanes (average was seven), including four to seven major hurricanes (average was three). A major hurricane was category 3, 4 or 5 on the Saffir Simpson, with winds of 178 kmh/111 mph or higher.

It took just one landfalling hurricane to set back years of socio-economic development. For example, Hurricane Maria in 2017 had cost Dominica 800 percent of its Gross Domestic Product. Early warnings by the WMO community and improved disaster risk management had dramatically reduced fatalities. Sea level rise, worsened by storm surge, increased the potential risk for coastal communities. In recent years, there had been more rapid intensification of tropical cyclones, which posed a significant challenge when it occurred near land, such as Hurricane Otis.

More details are available here.

World Health Assembly 

Christian Lindmeier, for the World Health Organization (WHO), replying to numerous questions, informed that the discussions on a pandemic treaty were still ongoing and were tentatively expected to finish by 9 pm today. The mandate of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body (INB) was to present an outcome, or the lack thereof, to the World Health Assembly (WHA), which would then advise on the next steps. It was difficult to prejudge on either outcome at this stage. 

Mr. Lindmeier reminded of the Walk the Talk event on 26 May, which would start at Place des Nations at 9 am. At 5 pm the same day, a celebratory event would be held prior to the formal opening of the World Health Assembly. The event would be opened by WHO Director-General and attended by High-Level Representatives of Member States, with live performances by internationally acclaimed Egyptian opera singer Farrah El Dibany. There would be statements of commitment to WHO from Member States and other supporters. The Grand Prix winners of the Health for All Film Festival would be announced by Indian actor, filmmaker and social advocate, Nandita Das, a member of the distinguished international jury.

On another question, he explained that the next WHO Investment Round would encourage Member States and other donors to finance the estimated gap. He reminded that the WHO Investment Round was a new approach to mobilizing resources for WHO’s core work for the next four years (2025-2028). Working with existing donors and other partners, the Investment Round also aimed to attract new donors through an inclusive engagement process that would culminate in a high-level financing event in the fourth quarter of 2024. More details are available here

The formal opening of the 77th World Health Assembly would be held at the Palais des Nations on 27 May at 9 am, reiterated Mr. Lindmeier, while the official Director-General’s main address would take place at 2:30 pm. All details on the 77th WHA are available here; all official side events would be listed in the Journal. Photo opportunities were planned, but there was no space for additional cameras setup. 

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said that the accredited journalists would be allowed to stay at the Palais des Nations as late as needed to cover the WHA and the negotiating process. During the WHA and the subsequent International Labour Conference, working hour limitations at the Palais would be reduced. As a high number of vehicles were expected during the WHA, all parking slots would need to be used, and the security service might impose certain limitations. She explained that in order to receive a media accreditation to access the Palais des Nations, journalists would need to have a travel document issued by a country recognized by the United Nations General Assembly. Media requesting accreditation also had to be registered in a country recognized by the General Assembly.

On another question, Mr. Lindmeier, for the WHO, said that the list of the high-level speakers would be shared tonight or the following day. Taiwan’s observer’s status was a question for the 194 Member States to consider and decide on. Decision in this regard should be taken on 27 May between 11 and 11:30. 

Announcements

Alessandra Vellucci, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), informed that the previous night World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Member States had approved a groundbreaking new treaty related to intellectual property, genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, marking a historic breakthrough that capped decades of negotiations. More details could be found here. A press conference would be held at WIPO today at 1:15 pm, with media presence preferred in person.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was reviewing today the tenth periodic report of Rwanda. 

The Conference on Disarmament had the previous morning held the last public plenary meeting under the presidency of Iran. The next plenary of the Conference, under the presidency of Iraq, had not been announced yet.


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