19 January 2021

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.

**Noon Briefing Guests

All right.  After you are done with me, you will be hearing from experts at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) — Dominique Burgeon, the FAO Director of Emergencies and Resilience, and he is joined by Keith Cressman, the FAO Senior Locust Forecasting Officer; Cyril Ferrand, the FAO’s Resilience team leader for Eastern Africa; and Rosanne Marchesich, the FAO Senior Emergency and Rehabilitation Officer.  They will brief you on the current desert locust situation, as well as the FAO’s response.

**Central African Republic

Starting with the Central African Republic, today, the peacekeeping Mission on the ground is telling us that the security situation remains fragile throughout the country.  Peacekeepers continue to maintain a robust posture to ensure the protection of civilians.  You will have also seen that, yesterday afternoon, Jean‑Pierre Lacroix, the head of Peace Operations, joined senior officials from the African Union, the Economic Commission of Central African States (ECCAS) and the European Union, [in issuing] a joint statement.  The statement took note of the decision of the Central African Constitutional court, which proclaimed the final results of last month’s presidential election.  In their joint statement, they called on all actors to accept the results of the elections as certified by the Court, and reaffirmed their commitment to political dialogue, the consolidation of peace and democracy.  The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) will continue to provide its multifaceted support to complete the electoral process, particularly the legislative elections.

Also on the Central African Republic, we have a few more details on yesterday’s attack in the country.  Two peacekeepers — one from Gabon and one Morocco — were killed near Bangassou, in the Mbomou prefecture, by alleged combatants from the Coalition of Patriots for Change, the CPC.  The Secretary‑General expressed his deep condolences to the families of the peacekeepers, and to the people and Governments of Gabon and Morocco.  The Secretary-General also reiterated his grave concern over the escalation of violence in the Central African Republic, and called on all parties to immediately cease hostilities, to engage in dialogue to advance the political process, preserve fragile gains and fulfil the country’s aspirations for lasting peace.

Already this year, as you will have noted, nine UN peacekeepers have been killed in incidents around the world.  The Secretary-General said this demonstrates, yet again, the perilous environment in which peacekeepers carry out their mandates to protect people and support peace processes.  The task is made harder by the global pandemic.  While progress has been made in reducing casualties among UN peacekeepers, recent incidents show that the threat continues.  Our collective efforts to ensure the safety of peacekeepers, including through the Action for Peacekeeping initiative, need to keep pace.  The Secretary-General salutes the service, the sacrifice and the selflessness of the women and men who are serving, or have lost their lives while serving, under the flag of the UN in some of the world’s most dangerous places.


The Head of Peace Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix is still in Mali today.  We wanted to note that, this morning, at the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) headquarters in Bamako, he took part in a ceremony to honour the memory of the peacekeepers killed last week.  The head of MINUSMA, Mahamet Saleh Annadif, also attended the ceremony.  Since his arrival in the country, Mr. Lacroix has had a series of meetings with political leaders and the UN’s partners.  His visit will go on tomorrow.

**South Sudan

From South Sudan, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) says it is deploying additional troops and resources to Bunj in the Upper Nile region following recent clashes.  The Mission said it is enhancing its peacekeepers’ ability to conduct more frequent patrols.  Peacekeepers recently assessed the security situation in the area.  They met with county commissioners and others to understand what the community is experiencing, given the current instability and tensions.  The Mission is also helping to deliver humanitarian aid to those in need.  There is more information on the web.


Turning to Ethiopia, our humanitarian colleagues are telling us that, although there have been substantial improvements to movement of aid in Tigray, requests to the federal Government for critical staff deployment and surge requests have been pending clearances for several weeks.  Overall, the humanitarian situation in Tigray is increasingly severe, with reports of fighting, human rights violations and abuse and increasing hunger and malnutrition affecting hundreds of thousands of people.  Most of them have not received any assistance to date.  I did want to note that the Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for Ethiopia, Wafaa Saeed, and other UN staff have been deployed Mekelle, the capital of Tigray.  The team is working with aid agencies and local authorities to carry out assessments and coordinate the humanitarian response.  Our colleagues at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said today it had regained access last week to two refugee camps in Tigray.  This is the first time in two months since the fighting forced aid workers to withdraw from the region.  UNHCR led the first humanitarian mission since November to the Mai Aini and the Adi Harush camps.  Eritrean refugees were found in desperate need of supplies and services.  The agency was granted one-time access by the Ethiopian authorities to assess the needs in the camps.  The only assistance refugees have received since the start of the conflict was a one-time food distribution conducted by the World Food Programme (WFP) nearly a month ago.  A second delivery is hopefully expected soon.


The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) conducted a one-day voting process yesterday.  In it, members of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum were asked to cast their vote on a proposal for the selection mechanism of a unified executive authority.  Seventy-two Political Dialogue Forum members engaged in the process.  Fifty-one voted in favour of the proposed mechanism — representing almost 73 per cent of the votes cast, and 19 members voted against.  Two members abstained and two others did not engage in the process.  The proposal, therefore, passed.  The Mission commends the Forum members who engaged in the process for their commitment to the UN facilitated intra-Libyan dialogue and for upholding their responsibilities before the Libyan people.


Turning to Syria, we are following with concern the winter storms in the north‑west of the country, which are reportedly the biggest so far this season.  The heavy rainfall across western Aleppo and Idlib Governorates in north‑west Syria has reportedly caused damage to sites for internally displaced people.  It has damaged tents and cut off roads leading up to the camps.  While the damage continues to be assessed, there are reports of more than 1,700 households in north‑west Syria that have been affected by the flooding.  More than 200 tents were destroyed and more than 1,400 were damaged.  Humanitarian workers have distributed winter assistance to 2.3 million people across Syria.  This includes essential assistance to protect against the cold, including sleeping bags, winter clothing, heating fuel, as well as assistance to repair and replace tents.  But there remains a $32 million gap in the funding for these basic items.


You will have seen that yesterday evening we issued a statement from the Secretary-General expressing his deep concern at the decision of the Israeli authorities to advance plans for some 800 settlement units, most of which are located deep inside the occupied West Bank.  The Secretary-General reiterates that the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.  And I do want to note that Tor Wennesland has now started his work as the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.  I think yesterday was his first day officially on the job.


Turning to India, where our UN team, led by Resident Coordinator Renata Dessallien, is supporting the Government and our partners in the massive COVID-19 vaccination programme.  UN agencies are working closely with authorities to prepare and launch what is currently the world’s largest vaccination drive.  As of today, the Government has vaccinated nearly half a million people.  UN teams have monitored more than 4,000 vaccination sessions so far and we have helped to train more than 300,000 vaccinators and health‑care workers.  We are also providing technical assistance, including helping to ensure cold-chain equipment for the vaccines.  Also, in India, the UN team’s work has led to a five-fold increase in investments to address gender-based violence since the start of the pandemic.  UN agencies have helped to train hundreds of crisis centre workers who support thousands of survivors of gender-based violence every month.  We have also trained 47,000 nurses and others to address violence against women, girls and others.  The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has helped nearly half a million children in institutions and foster care.  We have also helped nearly 5 million children and women receive health care.  The UN has trained law enforcement agency officials to prevent and counter human trafficking.  A campaign by the Joint United Nations Programme against HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) to build solidarity for the LGBTQI community has reached millions [of people].


A quick note from Mozambique, where, tomorrow, the UN Regional Directors for Southern and Eastern Africa will hold a virtual press conference.  They will voice their extreme concern about the dire humanitarian and food security situation in the northern region of Mozambique.  This was brought on by the escalating violence and displacement of more than 565,000 people from the Cabo Delgado Province.  This press event will be at 10 a.m., Southern African Time; 3 a.m. in New York.  Meanwhile, the World Food Programme (WFP) [said that] Regional Directors recently concluded a joint mission to assess the plight of displaced people and host communities in the conflict-affected region.  The mission met with internally displaced people who have been victims of attacks, continue facing insecurity and who have lost everything — including their agricultural land, livelihoods and homes.


From Madagascar, we are issuing a flash appeal asking for $76 million.  This is to support more than one million people who face a potentially life-threatening lack of food, nutrition, water and sanitation and health assistance.  The flash appeal will focus on the country’s south — known in French as Grand Sud.  The agricultural season in this region has suffered the worst drought in 10 years.  COVID-19 and associated lockdowns are also affecting a large part of the country.  One in three people in the south is now severely food insecure.

**United Nations Conference on Trade and Development

Lastly, we issued a note on the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) yesterday, announcing that UNCTAD’s Secretary-General, Mukhisa Kituyi, informed the Secretary-General that he would resign, effective 15 February.  The Secretary-General is grateful for Mr. Kituyi’s service and his commitment for the remainder of his term to the functions entrusted to him as a UN international civil servant.  The Deputy Secretary-General of UNCTAD, Isabelle Durant of Belgium, will be appointed as Acting Secretary-General.  Our Secretary‑General, meanwhile, will launch a recruitment process, in consultation with Member States, to find a successor to Mr. Kituyi.  Sorry.  I'm a little parched.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you very much, Steph.  Two questions.  First, does the Secretary‑General have any reaction to the panel led by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Helen Clark on the COVID‑19 pandemic, which basically concluded that WHO [World Health Organization] and China should have acted sooner?

Spokesman:  Look, this is one of the things that the Secretary‑General had supported early on, which is to have an assessment.  I think he salutes the work of the panel, and he very much hopes that the Member States and WHO will take its… study its recommendations very closely.

Question:  And secondly, a court in Thailand has sentenced a woman to 43 years in prison for insulting the king.  Does the Secretary‑General have any comment or thoughts on the length of that sentence?

Spokesman:  Look, our colleagues in the human rights office have been following the situation on this very closely, including two minors, who, I think, were arrested for their exercise of fundamental rights of freedom of expression.  And the High Commissioner herself, I think, expressed concern.  And I think it's very important that people be able to express their right to free… excuse me.  It's very important that people be allowed to express their right to speak freely.  There we go.  Ibtisam, and then Toby and then James.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  About two… I have questions about two subjects.  The first is Yemen.  So, according to Reuters, the United States exempt aid groups, the United Nations, the Red Cross and the export of agriculture commodities, medicine, et cetera, to permits from its designation of Yemeni Houthi movement as a foreign terrorist organization.  Is that enough for you?  And why not?

Spokesman:  Well, I think our concern from the beginning that we expressed very clearly is the impact on the commercial sector, right, and that the vast majority of food and other basic supplies that come into Yemen comes in through the commercial sector.  So… I mean, our position on this has not changed.  We call on the Government to reverse that decision.

Question:  On the Secretary‑General concern regarding the settlements, does he condemn the step by the Israeli Government, especially that it goes against UN resolutions and international law?

Spokesman:  Yeah.  Sorry.  And I didn't let you finish your…

Question:  Yeah.  So, if he condemns this step and what is he doing beside being deeply concerned about it?

Spokesman:  Well, I mean, this is an issue… I mean, I will not go beyond the language that's in the statement.  I think the statement language is very clear.  It expressed our deep concern and reiterate the illegality of the settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem.  This is an issue that has been at the centre of discussions between the UN and the Israeli authorities for a long time.

Question:  Why not go… take a step further and condemn such a step that goes, actually, against your own resolutions?

Spokesman:  It is clear that it goes against the resolutions passed by the UN.  We've… and we keep urging and we'll continue to urge the Israeli Government to reverse these decisions.  Toby?

Question:  Hi.  Thanks, Steph.  Two quick questions for you.  First is reaction from the Secretary‑General on the US designation of Chinese actions towards Uyghur Muslims as genocide and crimes against humanity.  What is the Secretary‑General's view on this?  And second question is, can you put the nine peacekeepers killed, I believe in the last seven days, I think, can you put that in context?  Just what is that number… obviously, it's lamentable, but is… is there a comparable situation in the past, or is this really new territory?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  It's an extremely heavy toll.  We, sadly, have had incidents where more peacekeepers were killed in one incident, but we're seeing here a repeated number of different incidents, both in Mali and in the Central African Republic, and I think these tragedies underscore the sacrifice that peacekeepers make every day, when they go out.  It also underscores the need for those involved in political talks to actually make progress, right, to actually ensure that there is peace and that, when agreements are signed, agreements are respected.  Your other question… sorry.  Switching continents, on the Uyghur… yeah, I mean, we've taken note of the position expressed by the United States.  We're, obviously, following the matter closely.  I mean, it represents the position and the opinion of the United States.  I mean, as you will recall, the Secretary‑General has often expressed his concern about the situation with the Uyghur communities and has made those concerns very clear to the Chinese authorities directly.  James?

Question:  Thank you.  At 5:30 p.m. today, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are going to deliver a commemoration ceremony for the people who've died from coronavirus outside the… in [Washington,] D.C., and buildings across the US are going to get lit up, Empire State Building among them.  Is the UN taking part in any way?  Are you lighting up the UN…?

Spokesman:  I'm not aware that the UN is being lit up.  I can check, but I… if it is, nobody's told me, which would not be the first time, but I will check.

Question:  Will there be an SG statement…?

Spokesman:  Well, we had a very clear message from the Secretary‑General just a few days ago when we reached the tragic milestone of 2 million deaths worldwide.  Yeah.  All right.  Let's go to the videotape.  Who's… sorry.  I guess you're all live.  Okay.  Abdelhamid, and then we'll go to Mohsen.

Correspondent:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Today the number of Palestinians…

Spokesman:  I can't hear you.

Correspondent:  Sorry.

Spokesman:  First word.

Correspondent:  My voice is not…

Spokesman:  No.  There we go.

Question:  Today, the number of Palestinians in jail infected by coronavirus reached 250.  There's pressure on Israel to allow vaccination dose to be released.  Do you have any knowledge of this situation? And if you do, what can we do about it?  What you can do about it?

Spokesman:  This is, obviously, a situation we have been following.  We've continued to encourage Israel to help address the needs of the Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and to support vaccine availability more generally.  I think there… this would be critical to supporting the broader efforts of the Palestinian Government to control the pandemic and also in line with Israel's obligations under international law.  Now, obviously, we… it is important also to note that Israel has worked closely with the UN and partners throughout the course of the pandemic to ensure equipment and supplies have been delivered throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem and Gaza.  And the Palestinian Authority is also eligible for support through the global COVAX facility.  Okay.  Mohsen?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  My question is about the Iran’s voting rights over unpaid dues.  The Iranian officials say they have been in talks with the Secretariat for now to resolve this issue.  Also, they believe the main problem is US [inaudible] unilateral sanctions.  Can you explain the latest developments and efforts that have been made to solve this problem?

Spokesman:  There are two… thank you for the question.  There are two separate issues.  As you state, it is… we have, in fact, been in close touch with the Permanent Mission of Iran, as well as other relevant Iranian authorities.  It's clear from our side that Iran is keen to find a way to pay into the UN budget.  But, as you know, I think there… specific circumstances are making such payments difficult to transfer.  But we have been in discussions; we will continue to be in discussions and we fully recognise the goodwill of the Iranian authorities to try to find a solution.  We're all trying to find a solution.  Now, separate from that, we are mandated to report to the General Assembly if… a list of countries that are in certain… in arrears of a certain amount.  And, so, the letter goes out to the General Assembly.  It's a routine letter, which is an administrative procedure, but obviously, it doesn't reflect the efforts that are being made.  Okay.  Apostolos?

Question:  Hi, Stéphane.  Since we don't have the opportunity to be briefed by Elizabeth Spehar on her briefing to the Council, could you tell us anything about how it went?  And, also, if the Secretary‑General has made up his mind about convening the informal 5+1 conference sometime in mid‑February?

Spokesman:  No date has… there's no date I'm able to share with you.  Ms. Spehar was briefing on the latest developments, as she's mandated to, to the Security Council.  But if I get anything else, I will share it with you.  Okay.  Iftikhar?  Then Erol.

Question:  Thank you, Steph; this is a follow‑up to the question about increasing casualties among UN peacekeepers.  Is the United Nations contemplating some steps to protect… special steps to protect them?  And in this connection, how is the Secretary‑General Plan B programme working out?

Spokesman:  I think we are always looking at force protection improvements, how to increase the safety of our peacekeepers.  A big effort was made in the last few years, especially in protecting peacekeepers from explo… improvised explosive devices, which has been sort of the weapon of choice, especially in Mali, and there were improvements in equipment.  Number of the fatalities, I think, had gone down.  Unfortunately, the people we are dealing with are also improving their methods.  So, we are always looking on how to improve the security.  But, I think, as I told Toby, the best way to ensure the security of peacekeepers is for all the parties involved to show the willingness to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict, to find a political way forward, and to put down their guns and to stop laying down explosives along a road that kills peacekeepers who are there to protect people and to bring peace and solace to the population.  Erol?

Question:  Yes.  Do… do you hear me?

Spokesman:  I hear you, and I see you.  You look very relaxed.

Correspondent:  Okay.  Sorry for that.  All right.  Steph…

Spokesman:  I wish I could be relaxed.  Yeah.  Go ahead.  Go ahead, Erol.  Sorry.

Question:  That's fine.  We know each other.  So, as a follow‑up, actually, on that question on the Secretary‑General delivering strong message to Chinese authorities on Uyghurs, I would, actually, ask you, did the Secretary‑General start, if any, his campaign for the second term?  And did he talk to any of the five P5 members regarding that?

Spokesman:  Of course, he did, Erol.  We said so very clearly when we made the announcement that he first…

Question:  Hello?

Spokesman:  No, that he first… let me finish — that he first informed the President of the General Assembly, and then he informed the five permanent members of the Security Council.  It is up to the Member States, I think, as Brenden [Varma] has told you a number of times, to move forward on the selection process.  And the Secretary‑General will make himself available to any forum or questioning that the Member States wish to put him through.  On the question of the Uyghurs, because I think you're trying to make a link that doesn't exist, he has put… he has made that… his position clear to the Chinese authorities on numerous occasions in the past years.  Toby.  Go ahead.

Question:  Okay.  Just one on Yemen… on Yemen, if I may, yesterday, Iftikhar asked you to talk directly to the [Donald] Trump Administration regarding the… regarding Houthis decision.  But, as you know, tomorrow President [Joe] Biden, when he becomes so, he will repeal much of the decisions by the previous administration.  Did the Secretary‑General or is he planning to ask President Biden to repeal… to ponder that previous decision by the State Department and Trump Administration about on Houthi…?

Spokesman:  Look, there is one US Administration at a time.  We've made our position clear to the current US Administration, and when, in 23 hours and 15 — and 45 minutes… there will be a new administration in place.  We will relay the same message to them.  But one at a time, please — I mean administrations and questions.  Yes, Toby.

Question:  Just quickly wondering if there's an update on UN staff getting vaccinated in coordination with the State of New York.

Spokesman:  Those UN staff who are above the age of 65 have… will need to register through New York City, New York State portals.  And as I mentioned, the Secretary‑General will be doing… is expected to be doing it this Thursday, and that's where we are.  Okay.  Did I miss anybody?  Excellent.

Correspondent:  Yes.  This is Joe Klein.

Spokesman:  Oh, Joe, Joe.  Sorry.  Yes, Joe Klein.  I know you well.  Yes, please.  Sorry to have missed you.  Go ahead.

Correspondent:  I'm on the chat line.  Not as relaxed.  Anyway, yes, taking note of the statement you read out by the Secretary‑General on expansion of Israeli settlements, I guess I have two questions.  First of all, is the Secretary‑General prepared to speak out publicly about Turkey's intention to continue its military occupation in northern Cyprus?  It has thousands of troops there, which has no legal basis.  So, that's number one.  And number two, is he prepared to make a similar public statement regarding China's treatment of the Uyghurs?  I know you said he's talked to China privately to relay his views, but he has done this with Israel repeatedly in public.  I want to know whether he's prepared to do the same regarding China and Turkey.

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General's message regarding the situation in China has been the same.  He's given publicly and he's spoken to… he's answered the question directly from you or your colleagues here.  He's also expressed it privately in his meetings with Chinese authorities.  And the Secretary‑General, I think, has been very clear in his efforts to find a resolution to the current situation regarding Cyprus.  Okay.  If you recall, we have guests to talk to you about the devastating impact of locust in Africa.  I will turn it over to our guests, and I will turn it over to Stephanie [Tremblay], who will moderate.  Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.