19 August 2020

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.

Good afternoon.  Happy Wednesday because I’m told it is Wednesday and Wednesday is always a happy day because we’re getting closer to the weekend.  Let’s see what I can say here.  All right.  Good afternoon.


I will start today with an update on Mali.  As you can well imagine, the Secretary-General is continuing to follow developments in Mali very closely and with deep concern.  The Security Council, as you may have heard, will be meeting this afternoon in a closed session to discuss the situation there.  They will be briefed by Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the head of peace operations here at the UN.  And as you can imagine, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is also following the situation and closely monitoring the developments.  Our colleagues on the ground are emphasizing that the work of MINUSMA must and will continue in support of the people of Mali and in close liaison with the Malians, including with the Malian security and defence forces in the North and Centre, where the situation is still very worrying.

In his statement yesterday, the Secretary-General strongly condemned the military mutiny, which culminated in the arrest of President Keita and members of his Government.  The Secretary-General calls for an immediate restoration of constitutional order and rule of law in Mali.  He reiterates his call for a negotiated solution and peaceful resolution of their differences, and expresses his full support for the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in their efforts to find a peaceful solution to the current crisis, including through the good offices of his Special Representative.  He urges all stakeholders, particularly the defence and security forces, to exercise maximum restraint and uphold the human rights and individual freedoms of all Malians.

**World Humanitarian Day

And today, as you know, is World Humanitarian Day.  As you know, 19 August was chosen as World Humanitarian Day because, on that day in 2003, 22 UN staff were murdered in Baghdad in a terrorist attack on the UN headquarters at the Canal Hotel.  Today, we mourn them and honour our brave colleagues who survived.  So many of them quietly returned to work and continue to serve humanity to this day.  In his message, the Secretary-General said that humanitarians, health workers and first responders are the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 response — often risking their own lives to save others.  And he calls on the international community to join him in thanking them for their work, solidarity and humanity in this time of unprecedented need.  Last year was the most violent on record for humanitarians, with 483 aid workers attacked, including 125 killed, in 277 separate incidents.  And our colleagues from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs invite you to look at the website and on social media where stories of these brave front-line workers are being shared.


Speaking this morning at the opening of the Inter-Parliamentary Union Conference of Speakers of Parliament, the Secretary-General addressed the broad impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.  He urged parliamentarians to turn the recovery into a real opportunity to do things right for the future.  On the climate [crisis], the Secretary-General said that, as the world recovers from COVID-19, it is a “make-or-break moment” for the health of our planet.

**Security Council

Turning to our friends in the Security Council:  ttoday, the ambassadors met in an open meeting on Syria.  They were briefed by the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, Geir Pedersen, who said that preparations are being made to convene the third session of the Small Body of the Syrian-owned, Syrian-led, UN-facilitated Constitutional Committee in Geneva.  There has been a nine-month hiatus due to differences over the agenda and then the COVID-19 restrictions.  Mr. Pedersen said that establishing a foundational act, a social contract for Syrians, after a decade of conflict and amidst deep divisions and mistrust, is a momentous task.  The Special Envoy stressed the need for a complete, immediate nationwide ceasefire and to enable an all-out effort to combat the pandemic.


And turning to Yemen, the Humanitarian Coordinator for the country, Lise Grande, warns that half of all UN’s major programmes in the country are currently impacted by a lack of funding.  Already, 12 of the UN’s 38 major programmes have been shut down or drastically scaled back.  Between August and September, 20 programmes face further reductions or closure.  Ms. Grande noted that World Humanitarian Day should be a day of celebration, but that this year in Yemen, it’s the opposite.  In April, food rations for more than 8 million people in northern Yemen were halved.  Health services were cut or reduced in 275 specialized centres treating people with cholera and other infectious diseases.  Allowances to nearly 10,000 front-line health workers were stopped.  If funding is not urgently received in the coming weeks, half of water and sanitation services will be cut.  Medicines and essential supplies for 189 hospitals and 2,500 primary health‑care clinics, representing half of the health facilities in the country, will halt.

Thousands of children who are suffering from both malnutrition and disease could die and at least 70 per cent of schools will likely be shut or only barely able to function when the new school year starts in the coming weeks.  Tens of thousands of displaced people who have nowhere else to go will be forced to live in inhumane conditions.  At the High-Level Pledging Event for Yemen in Riyadh on 2 June, donors pledged $1.35 billion of the $2.41 billion that is needed to cover essential humanitarian activities until the end of the year.  That leaves a gap of more than $1 billion.  Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.  Nearly 80 per cent of the population — more than 24 million people — require some form of humanitarian aid and protection.


Turning to Lebanon, our humanitarian colleagues there tell us that the Beirut port is temporarily operational.  Nearly 9,000 containers were unloaded at the port between 11 August and yesterday.  More than 1,000 tons of goods, including iron and wheat, have been imported through the port.  We, along with our partners are continuing to provide emergency humanitarian assistance and conduct assessments.  UN‑Women has received dozens of calls on a dedicated safe phone line for women and girls at risk or who are experiencing gender-based violence in areas impacted by the explosions.  UN‑Women and its partners are also carrying out a gender assessment later this month.

Since the day after the explosions, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) helpline has received more than 6,000 calls with more than 500 direct referrals for refugees in need of assistance.  UNHCR is providing psychosocial support, emergency help cash, shelter kits and follow-up on any issues related to child protection and gender-based violence.  Access to water is another critical issue in Beirut, with more than 680 households in need of water tanks.  Water is being trucked in and some buildings have been re-connected to the water supply.  Although the Government announced a two-week lockdown due to COVID-19 from 21 August to 6 September, all relief and aid work in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion will be allowed to continue.


Turning to Libya, earlier today, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, appointed the members of the Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya.  They are Mohamed Auajjar of Morocco, Tracy Robinson of Jamaica and Chaloka Beyani of Zambia and the United Kingdom.  The Fact-Finding Mission was established by the Human Rights Council in June to document alleged human rights violations and abuses of international human rights and international humanitarian law committed by all parties in Libya since 2016.  Ms. Bachelet said that the deterioration of the security situation in the country, as well as the absence of a functioning judicial system, underscored the importance of the work of the team of independent experts.  They will serve as an essential mechanism to address the widespread impunity for human rights violations and abuses committed, Ms. Bachelet went on to say.  The Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Libya will provide an oral update at the Human Rights Council later in September.  A comprehensive written report will follow next year.


And an update for you today on what we are doing in Madagascar to address the COVID-19 pandemic.  There are more than 13,800 confirmed cases of the virus and 171 deaths in that country.  The UN team, led by the acting Resident Coordinator, Charlotte Faty Ndiaye, is supporting the Government on all fronts, including on the health and socioeconomic responses.  UN agencies have provided nearly a million dollars' worth of protective, lab and medical equipment to boost local testing and treatment capacity.  Tens of thousands of these items have been sent to testing centres across Madagascar.  The World Health Organization (WHO) is also providing risk communications training and technical advice to local community workers and first responders.  WHO is continuing its existing vaccination campaign against other infectious diseases.

**Donation for Peacekeeping

And speaking of donations, our peacekeeping colleagues tell us that, last week, the UN received a donation of 5,000 nasal swabs from Copan Italia, a company based in Mantua in Italy.  As you know, swabs are used to collect samples and are critical for COVID-19 testing.  The swabs were received by the UN’s Global Service Centre in Brindisi and will be distributed to our field offices to test our staff.   This donation is an example of the partnership between the private sector and the UN to help us carry out our operations safely.

**Burkina Faso

And in response to questions I received on the situation in Burkina Faso, I can tell you that the Secretary-General condemns the assassination, last weekend, of El Hadji Cissé, the Grand Imam and president of the Muslim community of Djibo, in the Soum Province of Burkina Faso.  He had been kidnapped by still-unidentified men on 11 August.  The Secretary-General expresses his deepest condolences to his family and to the Government and people of Burkina Faso.  The assassination of the Grand Imam is part of an increasingly worrying trend of targeted assassinations of moderate community and religious leaders over the past months in Burkina Faso, in a vile but vain attempt to intimidate and subdue the population.

The Secretary-General calls on the Burkinabe authorities to spare no effort in identifying and swiftly bringing the perpetrators to justice of this heinous crime.  He also reiterates the commitment of the United Nations to intensify support to Burkina Faso in its efforts to create the conditions for sustainable peace and development.  Those are all the words that I was able to share with you proactively.  I can probably share some more if you ask the right questions.  So, let's go to the chat and see who wants to raise first.  Pamela Falk, please.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Hi, Steph.  I hope this is one of those right questions.  My question is about the Secretary‑General possibly meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tomorrow.  Can you tell us about it?  What time?  Will there be a readout and if it will occur?  Thanks.

Spokesman:  As far as I know, yes, it will occur tomorrow afternoon.  The Secretary‑General will meet the Secretary of State at the Secretary‑General's residence.  As far as a readout, we'll see what we can get out after the meeting.

Question:  An estimated time, please?

Spokesman:  I don't have it off the top of my head.  It's like mid‑afternoon, probably around 2 p.m. but…

Question:  2 p.m., you said?  Around 2 p.m. or 3 p.m., did you say?

Spokesman:  Sorry, I said around 2 p.m., but I will [inaudible] a little later.  Okay.  Toby Burns.  Have you been able to connect?  Okay.  I'll come back to you if you can't connect.  Sato‑san, please?

Question:  Yeah.  Thank you, Stéphane, yes.  It seems to me that Toby’s question with text message the same question to you, that, regarding Mali.  So, we recall the same similar coup d'état in 2012 which led to the Al‑Qaida rampant in that region.  So, how much does Secretary‑General concerned about this kind of political vacuum that lead to the… some… such a terrorist attack and terrorist activity?

Spokesman:  Look, we're, obviously concerned.  The Secretary‑General was very clear in his condemnation of this military, of this mutiny.  Instability is the last thing that Mali needs, and that's why we need to see, quickly, a return to the constitutional order.  I mean, as we've been reporting — and that's why the Mission is there — there is, there are major security issues in Mali, which the Mission is working to help the country with.  The Malian people need stability in their governance and they need stability in their country.  Okay, Benno.

Correspondent:  Yes.  Thanks so much.  I hope you're fine, Steph.

Spokesman:  I am.  Thank you.

Question:  A small technical question about Mr. Lacroix's briefing later on Mali.  Will it be, will it be made available to us or…?

Spokesman:  It's in closed… it's closed.  We'll see what we can do on, regarding your question.  Edie, please.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  A follow‑up question on Mali.  Since this obviously involves the military in Mali that the UN peacekeepers work very closely with, I think all of us would appreciate some more detailed thinking on who was involved, who might be leading, what the UN assessment is of the coup leaders?

Spokesman:  I think the situation is, continues to be very fluid.  Our colleagues on the ground are talking to, as I mentioned, or remain in contact with their operational partners in the north and in the centre on the security, the military front.  We are speaking with whoever we have to, we need to speak to to do our work in Bamako.  Going back to what I said to Sato‑san, the situation is very unstable.  It remains very fluid, and that's why the earliest we can return to a constitutional order with clarity, the better it will be, most importantly, for the Malian people, but, obviously, for the work of the Mission.

Question:  I also have a question about the latest situation in Belarus.  The President is standing firm.  The European Union today said they did not recognize the results of the election.  Is that a position that the United Nations also takes?  I mean, the EU didn't have observers there either, and they've made an assessment.

Spokesman:  Look, I think the Council of the EU is slightly different than the Secretary‑General in their remit and their political space.  But, that being said, I think we're very concerned by what we've heard, these latest reports of possible renewed restrictions on peaceful protests and peaceful gatherings.  I think it's critical that the authorities in Belarus fully respect the rights of all Belarusians to express peacefully their views and to refrain from using force.  There are clearly issues emanating from the elections on 9 August.  Those issues need to be addressed through dialogue.  They need to respect the democratic process and the rule of law, and we're going to continue to follow the situation with great… very carefully.  All right.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Going back to the agreement between three leaders, which is Netanyahu, Trump and MBZ, and three of them having trouble at home.  [Inaudible] MBZ, who failed miserably in Libya, Yemen, Turkey and others.  And as we see the reaction in the region, today, Saudi Arabia confirmed its commitment to the peace, the Arab Peace Initiative.  Sudan fired the spokeswoman who welcomed the talks with Israel.  Oman fired the Foreign Minister.  Not one country welcomed that, except Bahrain officially.  Don't you think the SG was rushing into welcoming an agreement between the three leaders, while seeing today the Palestinians in Gaza and West Bank demonstrating in thousands against this agreement?  Would he rather see himself next to the people or next to these hated… locally hated leaders?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General, to answer your last question, the Secretary‑General is seizing, in his… in this statement, I think, sees what he saw as an opportunity to move the process forward and to put a halt to the annexation.  And I think we have nothing to go back to in the statement or nothing to change.

Correspondent:  But, Stéphane, the statement has… the agreement has nothing to do with the annexation, completely.  I mean, both Israel and United Arab Emirates retreated from the earlier statement that has to do with annexation.

Spokesman:  Again, I… listen, I will leave the analysts and the journalists to analyse and report on.  What I can tell you is our position remains unchanged, and we see this as an opportunity and hope that the people and the leaders will seize it.  Iftikhar, I think you had a question?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Last week, the United Nations made an appeal for over $600 million to help the situation… grave situation in Beirut.  What has been the response?  And how, I mean, how much of it has been funded?

Spokesman:  In terms of Lebanon, I will tell you in two seconds.  I apologise for this.  I think $41.2 million has been received.  This was as of a couple of… as of yesterday, but I will… so, there was… I will get… instead of trying to make up numbers here, I will give you… we'll send an update around very shortly.  [The Spokesman later clarified that, of the $565 million appeal, $41.2 million has been received so far.]  Okay.  All right, any more questions?  Dulcie was asking, when is a "military mutiny" called a “coup”?  Thanks.  I mean, we've, whether you call it a "military mutiny" or a “coup”, the point is that it is an effort to change the constitutional order through force of arms, and that is something we condemn very directly.

Question:  Can I ask a follow‑up, please?  So, why are you not calling it a coup?  Is there a legal reason?

Spokesman:  No, there's no legal reason.  This was the language used at the time in the afternoon when the situation was what it was, but I would not over‑analyse it or read too much into it.

Question:  So, you would call it a coup, as well?

Spokesman:  Yeah, I mean, it's a change, you can call it a “coup”, a “military mutiny”.  It's a change of government that is unconstitutionally through the force of arms, and that's why we're calling for a return to the constitutional order.  All right.  Anybody else?

Question:  Stéphane, it's Ben.  Do you hear me?

Spokesman:  Oh, Ben.  I hear you.

Question:  Thank you.  Quick question.  Tomorrow afternoon, will UNTV be offering a photo op of the meeting with the SG?

Spokesman:  No, unfortunately not.  As you know, the Secretary‑General is in the last days of his quarantine to follow the public health regulations of the city and the country where we, where he resides.  So, we are limiting to the bare minimum, which means basically the participants, the meeting.  If we can squeeze a photo from somebody's iPhone, I will send it to you, but that's… given the pandemic situation, that's, unfortunately, where we are.

Question:  Okay.  Just a follow‑up on the actual snap‑back, does the SG agree that, based on the reading of the resolution 2231 (2015), the US has the legal right to trigger snap‑back?

Spokesman:  That is a decision and a comment for Member States to make.  Dulcie, I…

Question:  Yeah, yeah.  Just the meeting with Pompeo and the Secretary‑General, is this where Pompeo will hand the letter to…?

Spokesman:  The US requested the meeting.  I think what the Secretary of State will do, I think that is something you have to ask the US Mission.

Question:  Steph, Steph.  Pam.  Just one follow‑up.  Maybe I missed it, on the Secretary‑General's quarantine, could you just lay out why?

Spokesman:  Because he was in… he went home for two weeks to Portugal, and as a precautionary measure and direct, the public health regulation recommendations of the city, the State of New York, he has not left his residence.  We are limiting, as I said, to the bare minimum his contact with anyone from the outside.  And that will end, I think, on Sunday.

Question:  Thank you.  And there's no press… there's no photo op, but there will be a readout?

Spokesman:  There will be no photo op, and whether or not there will be a readout is not something I'm able to promise, at least from our side.

Question:  Steph, may I just jump in, because I find it interesting.  Isn't the Secretary‑General an essential worker, and therefore, he doesn't have to quarantine?

Spokesman:  For the Secretary‑General, I mean, he's not an essential worker in the terms that he's a doctor or a nurse or doing any… he is, of course, doing essential work, but the point is that he can do this essential work from his residence.  It's all wired up, so he's conducting all his meetings by Zoom and so forth.  And even without the quarantine, he has been limiting his exposure and not going into the office every day as a precautionary measure to himself and to the staff, but the… while not being an essential worker, the essential work that he does continues from the residence unabated.  Okay, anybody else?  Okay, on that little excitement, we shall see you tomorrow.  Bye.

For information media. Not an official record.