26 February 2018

Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.


In remarks delivered to the Human Rights Council in Geneva earlier today, the Secretary-General welcomed the Security Council’s adoption of a resolution demanding a cessation of hostilities for at least 30 days.  But, he added that Security Council resolutions are only meaningful if they are effectively implemented, and he expects the resolution to be implemented immediately and sustained, particularly to ensure the immediate, safe, unimpeded and sustained delivery of humanitarian aid and services, the evacuation of the critically sick and the wounded as well as the alleviation of the suffering of the Syrian people.   The United Nations stands ready to do its part.

The Secretary-General reiterated that eastern Ghouta cannot wait and that it is high time to stop this hell on earth.  He reminded all parties of their absolute obligation and international humanitarian and human rights law to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure at all times.  He also told the Human Rights Council that, in his experience, the Rohingya are one of the most discriminated against populations in the world — and that was even before the crisis of the past year.  The Secretary-General called on the Myanmar Government to ensure unfettered humanitarian access in Rakhine State, and he appealed to the international community to support those who have fled to Bangladesh.  Before leaving Geneva, the Secretary-General spoke to the Conference on Disarmament and said he welcomed its decision 10 days ago to take forward its substantive work.  He added that he believed the Conference is off to its best start in nearly two decades, and he looks forward to building on this new momentum.


Turning to the situation on the ground in Syria, according to our humanitarian colleagues, over the last 48 hours, military operations continue to be reported in besieged eastern Ghouta, resulting in the deaths of at least 30 people, including women and children.  Attacks on Damascus from eastern Ghouta are also continuing.  Yesterday, a Syrian Arab Red Crescent warehouse in the Damascus suburb was reportedly struck by shelling.  Since 19 February, escalating hostilities have resulted in 500 deaths and some 1,500 injuries in eastern Ghouta.  A total of 24 health facilities in eastern Ghouta were reportedly impacted by shelling and airstrikes, in addition to three humanitarian sites.  During the same period, attacks on Damascus city and the Governorate resulted in 14 deaths and 214 injuries.  The United Nations has mobilised and is ready to immediately support life-saving aid convoys to several areas in eastern Ghouta as soon as conditions allow, as well as hundreds of medical evacuations.  In addition, the United Nations is ready to access other besieged areas and hard-to-reach areas in Syria.  The United Nations calls on all parties to facilitate unconditional, unimpeded, sustained access to all people in need throughout the country, and to take all measures to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, including schools and medical facilities, as required by international law.

**Sexual Harassment

Earlier today, the Secretary-General sent a message to staff to underscore his commitment to encourage and enable staff to call out sexual harassment in the workplace, and to support victims and witnesses.  The “Speak Up” helpline will be operational tomorrow.  Open 24 hours a day, the helpline will be a resource for United Nations Secretariat personnel to speak confidentially with an impartial and trained individual who can provide information on protection, support and reporting mechanisms.  The goal is to attend to the needs of personnel, and to empower them to make informed decisions on action, if they so choose.  To improve and centralize the Secretariat’s response capacity, the Investigations Division of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) will, with immediate effect, take responsibility for investigating all complaints of sexual harassment, and implement a streamlined, fast-tracked procedure to receive, process and address complaints.

A specialized team focusing on the investigation of sexual harassment is being created, and additional investigators are under recruitment.  Particular attention will be given to increasing the number of female investigators.  In his message to colleagues, the Secretary-General reiterated his commitment to zero tolerance of sexual harassment, and underlined that harassment of any type is antithetical to the principles for which we stand as an Organization.  As members of a standard-setting institution, he added, we must all be committed to fostering an inclusive environment in which every person is valued and respected.  A harmonious, safe and civil workplace is key to delivering on our mandates for the people we serve, he said in his message.

**South Sudan

Over the weekend, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) said it had recalled a unit of police officers from Wau and confined them to barracks after a preliminary investigation into allegations of sexual exploitation.  On 8 February, a complaint was received alleging that members of the Ghanaian Formed Police Unit were engaging in sexual activity with women living at a United Nations protection of civilians site in Wau.  An investigation was immediately launched by the OIOS staff on location in South Sudan.  The Special Representative of the Secretary-General, David Shearer, was briefed on the preliminary investigation on 22 February.  An immediate decision was made to remove the 46-member police unit from their duty stations that afternoon.  The unit was fully withdrawn from Wau base to Juba over the next two days.

The information received indicates that some members of the formed police unit allegedly engaged in transactional sex.  UNMISS has a zero tolerance, no excuses, and no second chances approach to sexual exploitation and abuse.  The priority is to put the victims’ rights and dignity first and ensure that there is transparency and accountability for such actions.  That is why the Mission has taken immediate action to protect and support potential victims and witnesses in the case while a full investigation is carried out.  You may also have seen that Ghana’s Police Headquarters in Ghana issued a statement over the weekend indicating their full cooperation and support to the investigation.

**South Sudan — Food Insecurity

Also from South Sudan, three UN agencies warned today that more than 7 million people — almost two thirds of the population — could become severely food insecure in the coming months without sustained humanitarian assistance and access.  If this happens, it will be the highest ever number of food insecure people in South Sudan.  The period of greatest risk will be the lean season, between May and July.  Particularly at risk are 155,000 people, including 29,000 children, who could suffer from the most extreme levels of hunger.  In January, 5.3 million people, or nearly half of the population, were already struggling to find enough food each day and were in "crisis" or "emergency" levels of food insecurity.  This represents a 40 per cent increase in the number of severely food insecure people compared to January 2017.  Improved access and a massive humanitarian response succeeded in containing and averting famine last year.  Despite this, the food insecurity outlook has never been so dire as it is now.  Our colleagues warn that progress made to prevent people from dying of hunger could be undone, and more people than ever could be pushed into severe hunger and famine-like conditions.


Back here, this morning, the Security Council met on Burundi.  Michel Kafando, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, said that the political situation remained tense and was characterized by some measures to restrict freedom, as only the majority party and allied political groups could freely conduct political activities.  He added that the economic situation was not improving in this political context.  Mr. Kafando warned that such an environment cannot be conducive to the organization of credible elections.  He added that the security situation was improving, although human rights violations continue to be reported, and that the humanitarian situation remains of concern.  While the Secretary-General has expressed some concern in relation to the Burundian government’s decision to reform the constitution, Mr. Kafando said that this must be understood in the spirit of seeking consensus around such a critical issue for Burundi’s future.  He added that dialogue remains indispensable.

**Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

The Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Ursula Mueller, arrived in Chad today for a two-day visit to see first-hand the humanitarian situation in the country and the efforts of the humanitarian community to respond in a context of chronic underfunding, multiple humanitarian crises and development challenges.  Ms. Mueller is expected to meet with Chadian authorities, humanitarian and development partners, as well as impacted populations.  She will visit the Lac region tomorrow to see for herself the humanitarian consequences of the Lake Chad Basin crisis in the country.  Her visit aims to generate greater international visibility and donor support for the humanitarian needs in Chad where a third of the population — nearly 4.4 million people —  are in need humanitarian assistance in 2018.


And over the weekend you will have seen that we issued a statement related to Somalia in which the Secretary-General strongly condemned the attacks perpetrated on Friday in Mogadishu, which claimed the lives of many civilians and injured many others.  That statement is online.

**Papua New Guinea

And our humanitarian colleagues tell us they are closely monitoring the earthquake that struck Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands in the early morning of today.  Humanitarian partners are in close contact with national authorities.  The United Nations stands ready to support any Government-led response to the quake.


And I was asked about the digitization effort ongoing currently in the United Nations.  I can tell you that the project called “Digitization:  Turning Seven Decades of the United Nations Work into Open Knowledge” was initiated to preserve parliamentary documents by digitizing them into a media neutral and searchable form, store them electronically and make available to users.  This is a collaboration between the Department of Public Information and the Department of General Assembly and Conference Management.  The objective is to ensure that the rich history of the United Nations is available to everyone around the globe and the Digitization Project is vital to sharing this knowledge with the world.  Overall, since the beginning of the project, 70,000 documents, amounting to more than 1.2 million pages, have been digitized and are being made available to the public.  Around 3 million such historical documents from the Dag Hammarskjöld Library's collection were also identified as being particularly important, including hundreds of thousands in urgent need of digitization due to their physical fragility.  These are related to the work of the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council from 1945 to 1993.

In September 2013, the Government of Qatar generously committed $5 million to the project, to be disbursed in annual contributions and used to pay salary, staff and other costs.  At the end of [June] 2018, the funding will come to an end.  We are very grateful to the Government of Qatar for its support.  That support has fully met its funding commitments to the project.  The Department for General Assembly and Conference Management is working with the Department of Management on addressing the situation of the impacted staff in line with Human Resources regulations.

**Honour Roll

And lastly, thank you to two friends — Grenada and Mauritius — who bring up the Honour Roll to 62.  Luke.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thanks.  On Syria, it appears that these differing views about who and what a terrorist is responsible for these apparent breaches in the ceasefire in recent hours.  What is the SG's view about language on terrorism in these resolutions is it necessary, or does it create…?

Spokesman:  I think, frankly, that may be a debate that is lost on the people who are on the receiving end of artillery bombs and other type of ammunition.  Our focus right now is on all the parties upholding the cessation of hostilities for us to get humanitarian aid in.  It's pretty plain and simple, I think, from our end.  And we hope that the members of the Security Council, the parties on the ground, and those who have influence over them will come to a consensus and ensure that there is a cessation of hostilities.  Yes, sir.

Spokesman:  Your… your microphone, please, if you don't mind.  It will be on when the red light is on.  There we go.  Now we can hear you.

Question:  John Terrett, CGTN Africa.  Regarding the UN Mission announcing on Saturday that a unit of Ghanaian peacekeepers has been withdrawn pending that investigation that you were talking about, what does the… what is the SG's concern about the fallout on the wider UN and the Mission with this sort of thing?  And what stronger steps does the SG want to take to prevent such misconduct?

Spokesman:  Any sort of misconduct… allegation of misconduct obviously harms the image of the organisation, the image of the work we're trying to do in the field.  It is not a reflection of the work of the vast majority of our colleagues, whether in uniform or civilian, who are out there on the front lines helping people.  We put measures in place, zero tolerance, greater, better training, ensuring that all those who are deployed understand the rules.  They carry cards around with them in case they forget, reminding them of what the rules… what the rules are.  But, especially when it comes to uniformed peacekeepers, whether military or police, this is a… this is a fight that we have to fight in partnership with Member States.  I think we're… we welcome the announcement by the police… national police in Ghana that they're fully cooperating.  You know, I think the Mission reacted very quickly and swiftly.  As soon as these… the allegations were made credible, the police officers were repatriated.  They're now confined to base in Juba until further notice, until the investigation goes along.  We are trying to be as transparent as possible in flagging these things, because, frankly, they… they hurt the very people we're trying to help.  They break the trust of the very people we're trying to help.  Mr. Lee?

Question:  Sure.  Actually, I guess, on this same issue of UN transparency on sexual harassment claims, I wanted to ask you again about this UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund] India case, not just the statement that they weren't going to use immunity and then they are using it, but you'd said last week… you'd said: "what's important, I think, to remember is this case does not involve allegations of sexual abuse".  And, as you may have seen, Ms. Prashanti Tiwari has given an interview in India saying very much that she has suffered unwelcomed sexual advances by Diego Palacios.  That's her allegation.  I guess I'm just saying, is it the UN's right… did they misunderstand to… to characterise a claimant's claim as not involving sexual harassment when it obviously does?

Spokesman:  I think all these claims need to be investigated, and I think you should… you should contact UNFPA or UNFPA India for further details, because I don't have the granularity on this.

Question:  I know, but I guess I'm just wondering, because people there have asked, then why did you say from this podium that it wasn't about sexual harassment?

Spokesman:  I think I've said what I've had to say.

Question:  Okay.  Then I wanted to ask you about UNAIDS [Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS] and… and the cases there of… of Malayah Har… Harper, the head of the YWCA of… a well‑respected… absolutely.  So, they've asked for an independent, i.e., non‑UN, independent investigation of the claims that… not just the most recent one, but she claims that when she was there she suffered it.  So, what I'm wondering is, I've heard all the things that you're saying and maybe the… the response is evolving, but, given this call, is there a… is there a…?

Spokesman:  I've seen the article.  I think, you know, there… there are mechanisms in place for people to come forward, internal mechanisms, external mechanisms, and I think they should be used to the… to the fullest.  We feel that claims need to be investigated.  People should feel free and safe to come forward and, if they need to lodge complaints, that they do lodge complaints.  Stefano.

Question:  Yes.  Again, about Syria, what do you know about the sus… the attack that was yesterday and they suspect it to be chlorine gas… gas attack?  Is… can you confirm something…?

Spokesman:  No, we're not able… we're not able to confirm one way or another.  We've seen the reports.  I think we've seen the harrowing images.  We would like to see this investigated fully.  Obviously, as the fighting is continuing, we have no way… or our colleagues from the OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons], I think, have no way of being on the ground.

Question:  And, just on that, because, yesterday, millions of people in this country watched the episode… the 60 Minutes episode where they’re talking about the chemical attacks in… in… last April in Syria and the investigation that the UN attempted and then how everything was blocked and so on.  We know that the Secretary‑General expressed in January his… you know, that he thinks the investigation should go up.  So. now what's going on with this?  It's still… are we going to finally have a… a decision on this, an investigation…?

Spokesman:  Stefano, we know what's going on on this.  The Security Council did not renew the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism.  That's what's going on on this.  And that will, unfortunately, I think have the impact of less accountability when we see atrocious cases of chemical weapons being used or even impact the… our ability to investigate, investigate these things.  So, that's what's going on.  Olga?

Question:  Thanks, Stéphane.  Also about Syria, Russia announced that, starting tomorrow, there's going to be the five‑hour ceasefire in eastern Ghoutah.  Is UN ready to start the humanitarian operation?  And will five hours be enough?

Spokesman:  We stand ready as soon as the conditions are safe for truck drivers, humanitarian workers to roll into these areas.  We… for that to be effective, the fighting needs to stop.  We need to ensure that there are no roadblocks, whether physical or administrative.  Whether or not five hours is enough or not enough, it's a difficult question to answer.  Five hours is better than no hours, but we would like to see any cessation of hostilities be extended 30 days as the Security Council had said.  But, we will effort to do whatever we can within the time that we're able to work.  Yes, sir.  And then Linda.  Sorry.

Question:  Thank you, Mr. Stéphane.  As you know, main opposition leader of Bangladesh is in jail more than two weeks and… the reason I am asking, the ruling Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, last week has said in a press conference that international community is not telling anything about the BNP Chief's… Khaleda Zia's imprisonment, and they are… were moving forward to one‑sided poll, which was like 5 January 2014, there was a one‑sided poll.  So, my question is, what action has been taken from the Secretary‑General to hold a free, fair and inclusive election which is…?

Spokesman:  I think I… we've already spoken about the arrest, and our position stands.  And, as a matter of principle, we would like to see free and fair and open elections everywhere they are… they are held.  Linda?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Just following up on Olga's question, we know that Russia has indicated it's going to start the five‑hour pause.  I was wondering, just to clarify things, is there any sense, does the UN know if the opposition or any of the rebel groups has… have indicated that they, too, will go along?

Spokesman:  You know, the proof will be in the silence.  Once the guns go silent, we know this will be effective.  What we're seeing in Syria, not just in eastern Ghoutah but in other places, is a fragmentation, especially on those fighting… fighting the government with command‑and‑control issues.  So, we're not in the business of having received any promises from anyone.  I think the Security Council resolution was clear.  The messages that the Secretary‑General, that his humanitarian staff have been putting out are also clear.  We need to see a stop of the fighting for us to get the humanitarian aid in.  Yes, ma'am.  Your microphone, please.

Question:  I have two questions.  One is about the incident last week in the American embassy in Montenegro.  And the second one is the President of European Union… sorry, Commission, is visiting Balkan with a plan for giving a push to European Union enlargement.  My question is, what is UN wishing from his visit?

Spokesman:  Sorry.  I didn't understand your second question.  What… what… wishing from his visit.  As a matter of principle, we always wish people good visits.  That's… that's because we're polite people.  You know, obviously, there is a dialogue ongoing with the countries in the Balkans and the European Union, and it's not a discussion we're involved in.  As for the attack in Montenegro, obviously, it is… these kinds of attacks against diplomatic compounds is something that we condemn, and we hope that it will be fully investigated by the authorities in Montenegro.

Question:  Are the priorities of the UN in Balkan [inaudible] the priorities of the European Union in Balkan?

Spokesman:  It's too… I think it's not a compare‑and‑contrast exercise.  It's two different institutions.  We very much hope that there will be a positive dialogue between the European Union and the countries in the Balkans, but these are sovereign states that will have to make their own decisions.  Yes sir?

Question:  Sure.  I wanted to ask you, over the weekend in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there was a… the Government used live fire against… against protesters for Mr. Kabila staying on.  Apparently, two people were killed, many injured.  The internet was turned off or slowed down.  What's the UN mission there saying or doing about this?

Spokesman:  The mission has… is very much aware of the… of the incident and has asked for the… has asked for an investigation, especially into the… since we're seeing deaths of protesters.  It's important that people have the right to protest peacefully and that authorities protect that right.

Correspondent:  Okay.  I have a couple other ones, but I just wanted to ask you, I'm sure you know that there was a work stoppage in… at the UN in Geneva today during the opening of the Human Rights Council.  And I've seen a… an email from Michael Møller to staff there essentially saying that they can be disciplined for… for this work stoppage.  And maybe I'm misreading it, but that's how…

Spokesman:  I have not seen the email, so I can't comment on it.

Question:  What is the right of the UN staff to… if they have a grievance — you were just talking about the right to peaceful protest — if they have a grievance to… as… you know, have a… have a work stoppage, half‑day work stoppage, in order to get the Secretary‑General's attention?

Spokesman:  I don't know the intricacies of the staff rules concerning work stoppages.  Obviously, people have a right to… have a right to air their grievances.  Staff also have responsibility towards their work.

Question:  And what does the Secretary‑General think of their grievances?  A lot of the them are… they're kind of economically related, and I wanted… what does he think of them?

Spokesman:  I haven't seen their… the list of grievances.  I know there are issues relating to the International Civil Service Commission.  But, otherwise, I haven't seen the particulars…

Question:  And something… I know I'd asked… I'd asked before about the… the… the travel budget and had been… had been… I'd seen it said that the Secretary‑General and the Deputy have a right to, in every instance, travel… travel first class.  And it was said that this is for safety reasons.  And just in looking into it, there's a big controversy in the US right now about Scott Pruitt and… and… and others for travelling first class, they say, wastefully.  And a US Senator from Louisiana said he never travels first class because his constituents would be offended.  And I'm just wondering, what is the… what is the unique safety issue for the Secretary‑General that he must always, in every case, fly first class?  And I'm relating it, I think, to the issues that are… have arisen today in Geneva leading to the work stoppage.

Spokesman:  First of all, the travel rules are approved by the General Assembly.  The Secretary‑General and the Deputy Secretary‑General also often travel business when first class… because an increasing number of flights, planes, in fact, do not have first class, so they often also do travel business.  Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.