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26 February 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.

**Nigeria

Good afternoon.  You will have seen the reports of a mass abduction of girls from a school in Zamfara in Nigeria.  I can tell you that the Secretary-General condemns this in the strongest possible terms and calls for their immediate and unconditional release. 

As we’ve said before, schools should always remain safe spaces to learn without fear of violence.  A full statement will be coming shortly from the Secretary-General on this.

According to UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) in Nigeria, this latest attack happened overnight at the Government’s Girls Secondary School in Jangebe in north-west Nigeria. 

Peter Hawkins, the UNICEF Representative in Nigeria, called on those responsible to release the girls immediately and for the Government to take steps to ensure their safe release and the safety of other schoolchildren in the country.

**Climate

You will have seen that this morning the Secretary-General released a statement on the UNFCCC’s (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) Initial Nationally Determined Contributions Synthesis Report, which was released this morning.

The Secretary-General said the report is a red alert for our planet.  It shows Governments are nowhere close to the level of ambition needed to limit climate change to 1.5 degrees and meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.   

He called for major emitters to step up with much more ambitious emissions reductions targets for 2030 in their nationally determined contributions, as well for the November UN Climate Conference in Glasgow in the UK. 

“Decision makers must walk the talk,” he said. 

That full statement was shared.

**Myanmar

On Myanmar, you will have seen that the Secretary-General’s Special [Envoy], Christine Schraner Burgener, briefed the General Assembly virtually this morning. 

She again strongly condemned the recent steps taken by the military and urged Member States to collectively send a clear signal in support of democracy there. 

There is no justification for the military’s actions, and we must continue to call for the reversal of this impermissible action, exhausting all collective and bilateral channels to restore Myanmar’s path on democratic reform, she said.  Her statement was shared with you.

On the ground, our humanitarian colleagues tell us that conflict continues to cause civilian casualties and displace people across Myanmar. 

More than 2,000 people were displaced in northern Shan state in February due to clashes involving the Myanmar Armed Forces and ethnic armed organizations.  Nine civilians were reportedly killed, and eight others injured, including children, in clashes in two towns in northern Shan on 5 February. 

Our humanitarian colleagues are also concerned about the continued fighting in south-eastern Myanmar.  More than 5,000 people are reportedly displaced in Kayin State and the Bago region due to fighting between the army and the Karen National Union. 

Despite facing challenges — including the closure of banks, as well as concerns for staff safety and security — we, along with our humanitarian partners, continue to deliver aid and protection services in conflict-affected areas.   

We continue to call for safe and unimpeded humanitarian access to all areas where humanitarian needs are, and for all parties to the conflict to take every precaution to prevent civilian harm.

The Humanitarian Response Plan for Myanmar for this year needs $267.5 million to help nearly 1 million people in conflict areas of Myanmar.

**Middle East

You will have seen in the Security Council this morning, Tor Wennesland, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, briefed the Security Council on the electoral processes under way among the Israelis and Palestinians. 

He said that the UN will continue to work collectively to support the Palestinian people, including through facilitating and supporting preparations towards their important elections coming up.  Elections will also help to clear the path towards restoring a legitimate political horizon to realize a two-State solution. 

Mr. Wennesland warned the Council that the COVID-19 crisis remains a persistent health threat that has triggered a massive economic fallout.  Meanwhile, unilateral steps on the ground are eroding the prospect of establishing a viable and contiguous Palestinian state, moving the parties further from constructive dialogue and compromise.  The United Nations is continuing its engagement to meet these challenges. 

**Yemen

A quick reminder that on Monday, we will convene a virtual high-level pledging event for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, co-hosted by the Governments of Sweden and Switzerland.  It will take place starting at 9 a.m. New York time.  Pledges will be announced at the event. 

The Secretary-General will address the opening.  We’ll get you his remarks ahead of time and there will be a press conference immediately after the event by the Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, and the co-hosts, and that’s at 1:10 pm.  Questions from media can be submitted in advance up to two hours before the presser starts to our colleagues in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.  And that will be broadcast on WebTV. 

**Migrant Children

Quick note from UNICEF:  Our friends across the street released a report that says a new approach is needed to ensure that unaccompanied migrant and asylum-seeking children in the United States receive proper reception, care and support services.  The report provides a road map showing how the US Government and its partners can draw on experiences in the US and globally to develop a long-term vision for reception, care and protection of unaccompanied children. 

UNICEF said that gang violence, extortion, endemic poverty and lack of learning and earning opportunities are part of daily life for millions of children and families across northern Central America.  The pandemic and recent natural disasters, including Hurricanes Eta and Iota, have made conditions more challenging for them. 

UNICEF urges Governments to end child immigration detention and scale up family- and community-based reception, care and support services for children, both in the United States and across the region. 

**Central African Republic

Our colleagues in the Central African Republic at the peacekeeping mission (MINUSCA) report that they continue to assist in the preparation for the forthcoming legislative elections, scheduled for 14 March. 

The Mission’s Human Rights Division has established and deployed a task force to investigate violations and abuses by all parties in response to numerous allegations of targeted attacks against civilians participating in the electoral process. 

Working along with the Central African Army and the Internal Security Forces, the Mission also participated earlier this week in the destruction of 89 explosive items and munitions collected during the first phase of the Demobilization and Disarmament process in Ndele. 

And in Bangui, the Mission also organized a four-day capacity-building workshop on gender-based violence for members of the Internal Defence Forces.  This was done to better understand and address the security needs of the general population, particularly women and children, in order to protect victims and serve local communities. 

**Armenia/Azerbaijan 

A few more quick updates, this one from Armenia and Azerbaijan:  As we have been saying we have been ready to deploy an initial independent inter-agency humanitarian assessment mission to Nagorno-Karabakh and other conflict-affected areas at the earliest opportunity.  We have informed all relevant actors in that regard. 

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and relevant UN entities continue to engage with all concerned on the specific parameters and timing of the deployment of the planned mission.  The latest official communication was sent on 19 February. 

The mission hopes to get a clearer picture of the humanitarian situation on the ground and broadly assess the conditions for safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable returns of all displaced populations. 

We look forward to a formal reply to our latest…  [phone rings]

I keep telling people to never call me here, but it never works.  Sorry, the mission hopes to get a clearer picture of the humanitarian situation on the ground and broadly assess the conditions for safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return to all displaced people. 

We look forward to a formal reply to our latest communication.  We call on all relevant groups to cooperate fully with the UN entities to ensure their unfettered and speedy access to conduct such a mission, which will be solely based on the humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. 

**Côte d’Ivoire

Quick vaccine updates, one from Côte d’Ivoire, which today became the second country in Africa to receive COVAX vaccine, that’s after Ghana.  Our UN team on the ground is proud to have supported authorities in this effort.  The country has received more than half a million COVID-19 vaccine doses, which were transported across the world by UNICEF.  Our UN Resident Coordinator, Philippe Poinsot, also welcomed the efforts of all partners who have contributed to this massive global and country effort with meticulous planning around logistics, preparedness and distribution. 

On Monday, the vaccination will kick off, prioritizing health workers and other more exposed, at-risk groups.  The UN team has repurposed over $12 million to support Côte d’Ivoire to address the multiple impacts of the pandemic. 

**Secretary-General — Vaccine

And an update from the Bronx, where later this afternoon, the Secretary-General of these United Nations, António Guterres, will receive his second shot.  He will receive it at the Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies.  He will have a conversation with the site manager from the New York’s City Health Department about the importance of fair vaccine access and information.  We will have a UNTV team and photo on the ground and we will ask them to replay all of that for you.  And as a reminder — the Secretary-General is above the age of 65 and that’s why he’s getting it.

**New Resident Coordinator

We have a new Resident Coordinator to announce and that is the Resident Coordinator in Kenya.  Stephen Jackson of Ireland.  He has been confirmed by the Government.

Stephen Jackson’s full biography is on the UN Sustainable Development Group’s website.

**Financial Contributions

We want to say thank you to Brunei Darussalam, South Africa and Viet Nam.  They have all paid their regular budget dues in full, bringing us up to 60.  I’m almost there; I feel like an auctioneer here.

**Press Encounters

At 12:45 a.m., there will be a virtual Security Council, or maybe a little later, a virtual Security Council Stakeout on the Middle East Peace Process with current EU members of the UN Security Council.  These are Estonia, France, Ireland and former members Belgium and Germany, and they will be joined by Norway and the United Kingdom. 

At 2 p.m., the President of the Security Council, Barbara Woodward, will brief in-person at the stakeout, following the Middle East Peace Process briefing. 

Monday, at 12:30 p.m., the President of the Security Council for the merry month of March, that’s Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield of the United States of America, will brief you on the programme of work. 

**Guernica

And I just want to end, if you let me, on a sad and somewhat reflective note and say a few words about the Guernica tapestry which had been hanging outside the Security Council stakeout for some thirty-five years.

Nelson Rockefeller, Jr., who owns the tapestry, recently notified us of his intention to retrieve it.  The tapestry was returned to Mr. Rockefeller earlier this month.  We of course thank the Rockefeller family for having loaned this powerful and iconic work of art to the United Nations for so long.

On a personal note, I think like all of you, I feel a little sad and a sense of loss looking at the empty wall that was recently graced by the tapestry.

The tapestry was not only a moving reminder of the horrors of war but, because of where it stood, it was also a witness to so much history that unfolded outside of the Security Council since 1985.  Standing side by side with generations of journalists reporting world-changing events that took place at the stakeout. 

I can tell you that the Secretary-General and others tried very hard to keep the tapestry here, but we were not successful. 

The Secretariat will review options for art to be displayed outside of the Council Chamber.  That will be undertaken by the United Nations Arts Committee. 

The Secretary-General’s Chef de Cabinet, Maria Luiza Viotti, informed the Council yesterday, given its proximity. 

**Questions and Answers

Célhia and then James.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  [inaudible]

Spokesman:  Le microphone marche pas.  There we go.

Question:  I read in The Epoch Times that leaked email…  what I want to know is, did the UN give the names of China’s dissidents, as written in that article?

Spokesman:  To where?

Question:  To the Chinese.  Leaked emails confirm UN gave names of dissidents to CCP.

Spokesman:  No.  That is not true.

Question:  Never?

Spokesman:  No. 

Mr. Bays?

Question:  So, the General Assembly meeting today, as you’ll be aware, the Ambassador of Myanmar surprised many people, one of those rare moments where an Ambassador speaks against the events in his own country.  You heard from the Special Envoy.  She said, “It’s important the international community does not lend legitimacy or recognition to this military regime.”

So, given that, one assumes they may try to sack him.  What would be your message to Member…  what’s the Secretary‑General’s message to Member States if they try and sack him, given that the Special Envoy, who speaks for the Secretary‑General, says there should be no legitimacy?

Spokesman:  Look, the Secretary‑General’s message is one of support for the people of Myanmar, who very clearly expressed their democratic wishes, and for the military to respect it.

Who sits in the chamber, who recognizes…  who is recognized as an authorized representative, that’s an issue for Member States to decide, to challenge through the Credentials Committee.  And I’m sure my colleague Brenden [Varma] will expound on that process.  But I thought it was a very moving moment and, frankly, a very courageous moment, from what I saw.

Question:  And given…  you’ve used the word courageous.  Certainly, some I’ve spoken to, including UN officials, have said that they would be worried about his family in Myanmar.  What is the message from the Secretary‑General to the military authorities if they were considering any sort of reprisals?

Spokesman:  Look, no one should be harmed.  No one should be thrown in jail for expressing their opinion.  No one’s family…  and that goes for their families.  Families should not be punished for the actions of another member.  There needs to be freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and there hasn’t been.  And we’ve been very concerned about that.

Question:  Can I have one last question on the Guernica, please?

Spokesman:  Yes, and then we’ll go to Edie.

Question:  Have you been given any indication by Mr. Rockefeller, whose mother clearly sat down with the then‑Secretary‑General for a long time and made this very long‑term loan; it was clearly the family’s wishes that it was going to stand…  why have they changed their mind?  Why has he changed his mind?  Is he short of money?  Is he selling it?

Spokesman:  No, we have no indication.  I mean, it is…  it was a tremendously generous loan from Happy Rockefeller, Nelson Rockefeller Jr.’s mother, if I’m correct.  To say that we enjoyed having it here would be an understatement.  I mean, it was really…  I think it derived…  the tapestry in itself was extremely powerful, but it also derived its power from where it stood, and that can’t be replicated.  But I can’t speak for them.

Question:  You say it can’t be replicated.  Apparently, there are two others of those tapestries.

Spokesman:  No, no, no.  I’m saying the…

Question:  I’m just wondering, is the UN trying to see if one of the other owners might want to…  one of the other tapestries…

Spokesman:  No.  I haven’t gone down that road yet.  I can ask my colleagues.

Edie?

Question:  Couple of questions, Steph.  Today, the Myanmar authorities used rubber bullets against demonstrators, protesters.  Does the Secretary‑General have any comment about the use of rubber bullets, which…  which, of course, can be deadly?

Spokesman:  We, once again, stand against it.  Any use of…  disproportionate use of force should not be tolerated.  The people of Myanmar, from what we’ve seen, want to express themselves, and they’ve been expressing themselves peacefully.  And that is an inherent human right, and that right needs to be respected.

Question:  Secondly, there was another massive abduction of schoolgirls in Nigeria today, over 300, by unidentified gunmen.  Does the Secretary‑General have any reaction to that?

Spokesman:  Yes, we…  I had something right in the beginning, that we, of course, condemn this abduction.  There’s an official statement coming out very soon, but I’ll give you my notes from a few minutes ago.

Question:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Okay.

Question:  And — wait — one last thing.  Does the Secretary‑General have any comment on the United States [Joseph] Biden Administration’s first military action, this air strike in Syria?

Spokesman:  Yes.  I can tell you that the Secretary‑General is following closely the reports of a US air strike targeting sites in eastern Syria in response to recent attacks against the US and Coalition personnel in Iraq.  He remains concerned about the volatile situation in the region and calls on all concerned sides to exercise restraint and avoid escalation.

I’ll come back for a second round. 

Erol, and then Abdelhamid, and then I’ll go you to, Carla.  Erol?

Question:  Thank you very much, Stéphane.  Highly appreciated your words on Guernica.  I’m the one that can share institutional memory.  In August 1995, then‑Ambassador…  US Ambassador Madeleine Albright, in front of Guernica, showed us the picture of what turned to be a genocide in Srebrenica. 

My question is, regarding Guernica, what actually did Secretary‑General talk to Nelson…  somebody from the Nelson foundation?  What kind of exchange, letter or so did he do?  And…

Spokesman:  There were letters exchanged; phone calls were made by people in this…  in the Secretariat who deal with the art in this building.  As, I think, the Secretary‑General said to one of your colleagues yesterday, he tried very hard and he did not succeed, but…  again, this is…  no one is contesting their right to take back something that was on loan.  It was not our…  it was not the property of the United Nations.  It’s the property of the Nelson Rockefeller, Jr. 

Question:  Is it fair to say…  if I can just follow up, please.  Is it fair to say that it was rather than any suspicious — I’m journalist; I have right to be suspicious, suspicious — some political motivation, disagreement with Secretary‑General…?

Spokesman:  I will let you say and think what you want.  I have no…  it was a transaction.  I’m not aware from our end of any political, other kind of motive.  I was just…  they own it.  They asked for it back.  We gave it back to them.  It was a transaction.

Question:  Did it came really…  yes, I know it’s difficult, but it’s important for my story.  Sorry, Steph.  Did it came somehow as a surprise to the Secretary‑General, to UN?

Spokesman:  Oh, yes…

Question:  That request to be returned back?

Spokesman:  Yes, yes.  It was not expected, but I would…  for terms of motivation, I would encourage you to ask the owners. 

Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I have few questions, and I hope you’ll bear with me to ask my four…  fourth question, and I know you will answer them probably in 30 seconds…

Spokesman:  Oh, others have asked more in a row.  Go ahead.

Question:  First question, Michelle Bachelet today issued a strong statement calling on Saudi Arabia to allow freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and called on Saudi Arabia to release those who are in jail unjustly.  Does the SG stand with this statement?

Spokesman:  I think the High Commissioner for Human Rights today delivered her kind of…  for lack of a better word, her annual state of human rights in country‑specific situations.  That is her job.  That is her remit.  That is her mandate, and the Secretary‑General stands fully behind her.

Your second question?

Question:  Thank you.  Would the UN be helpful in pressuring Israel to allow Palestinians living in East Jerusalem to participate in the forthcoming elections?

Spokesman:  I’m not aware of our involvement in that, but I can find out. 

Your third question?

Question:  The last two experiences, they put so much difficulties. 

Anyway, third question, do you have any update from Guerguerat in Western Sahara?  I mean, remember the Polisario said that we are no longer bound by the ceasefire agreement signed between both parties in 1991.  So, do you have any information what’s going on there?

Spokesman:  No, we have not received any information that the situation in Guerguerat has changed in any way.

Question:  And my last question… 

Spokesman:  Maybe that will be the daily double.  Let’s go.

Question:  Thank you.  My last question, today, Stéphane, is the twenty-seventh anniversary of the massacre committed by an Israeli terrorist, entered the Palestinian Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, gunning down, in the morning prayer, 29 Palestinians and wounding 150.  And his tomb now became a shrine in Israel.  Do you have any statement on this sad occasion?

Spokesman:  I mean, we would refer and reiterate the condemnations that we issued at the time, and as always, of course, our thoughts are with the victims of this crime.

Okay.  James Reinl?

Correspondent:  Thank you. 

Question:  Hi, Stéphane.  Thanks so much.  I just wanted to flag something and then ask a question.  I think the press conferences you’ve announced for Monday at 12:30 with Linda Thomas‑Greenfield and then, I think, Mark Lowcock about 1:10, I just want to say, maybe it would be great if there wasn’t any crossover between those two.

Spokesman:  I was thinking the same thing as you as I was reading it.  We’ll see if our OCHA colleagues can start a little later.  I’m sure it won’t be a problem.

Question:  Thank you so much.  And the question is…

Spokesman:  We would not want to ask…  we would not want to make you choose.

Question:  Sure!  It’s your two headliners.  Right?

Spokesman:  I know.  Go ahead, James.

Question:  Yeah.  So, over in Libya, interim Prime Minister [Abdulhamid] Dbeibah was meant to…  have agreed the individuals that are going to be part of his cabinet, his government, and that hasn’t happened.  What’s the UN’s statement on this?  And is the interim PM still the right man for the job?

Spokesman:  Again, it’s not for the UN to decide who the right person is, right man or right woman is, for any leadership post in Libya.  We’ve seen that…  the statements yesterday from the Prime Minister‑designate when he said he’d submitted to the Speaker of the House of Representatives his proposal for a structure for national unity government, as well as the criteria, I think, for the members of that government. 

We’re encouraged that he further indicated that his proposal is in line with the road map adopted by the Libyan Political Forum under the auspices of the UN Mission, which requires, among other things, 30 per cent of the national unity government positions be filled by women and young candidates. 

We now encourage all relevant stakeholders in Libya to proceed with the formation of a new government of national unity without delay, including the convening of a formal session of the House of Representatives to hold a vote of confidence in the PM‑designate’s government proposal.

Carla, and then we’ll go to Majeed. 

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I…  is there a distinction between a loan and a gift to the United Nations?  I know the Chinese tapestry of the Great Wall on the Delegates’ Lounge is practically an icon.  Is that a gift or a loan?  I…  this is…

Spokesman:  I mean, to me, the distinction between when I loan somebody my car and when I give somebody my car — if I give it, I can’t take it back.  If I loan it, I can take it back.

Question:  Did the Chinese…

Spokesman:  I don’t know.  I’ll find out about the status of the Chinese.

Question:  Also, the land on which the United Nations was built was donated or was it lent?  Or…

Spokesman:  We own the land on which we stand, which was a gracious gift of the Rockefeller family, I might add.  But that was a gift.

Correspondent:  Yeah.

Spokesman:  Thank you.  Majeed. 

All right.  No Majeed. 

Okay.  Célhia?

Question:  Stéphane, is it normal for the US to conduct an air strike in Syria without informing the UN?

Spokesman:  That’s a question I think you should save for Monday, but I think…  yeah, I would save it for Monday.

Okay.  Erol?

Question:  Two questions on vaccination process.  As you know, yesterday in Brussels, the European Union were talking about introducing a digital passport on COVID vaccination.  And I asked you that before.  You told me about the importance of unified approach, but I would like you to address this from the point of view of human rights.  What is the position of Secretary‑General?  Would…

Spokesman:  I think that’s exactly it.  We need…  not only need a coordinated approach, but one that respects people’s human rights, rights to privacy, that doesn’t increase inequality.  So, we need to be able to find a way that helps to get people’s ability to travel again, whether for trade, for tourism, to get the economies going, but that needs to be done with full respect for people’s rights to basic human rights, right to privacy and to avoid stigmatization. 

Question:  Is that possible…?

Spokesman:  Sorry?

Question:  Is that possible?  I have another one.

Spokesman:  Everything is possible.  Ask your second question.

Question:  Yes.  My second question is, you several time…  many times, actually, you said that nation in Europe and in western Balkans, which I’m interested in, should cooperate with COVAX.  We have a serious problem now with COVAX in Bosnia and Herzegovina, stays as only country in the region that didn’t receive any of the vaccines, although they paid for it.  What would be…

Spokesman:  I don’t know what the exact situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, whether they applied for COVAX or through other ways… 

Question:  They did.

Spokesman:  Well, then I know our UN teams on the ground are working with countries to try to facilitate the COVAX.  One of the issues, obviously, is the lack of…  not enough…  insufficient funds, but we can look into that particular situation for you.

Question:  Can you get back…  okay.

Spokesman:  I can always try.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Gloria, and then we’ll leave it to Brenden. 

Question:  Yes.  My question is, has the Nigerian military attaché at the UN made any comments on the kidnapping?  And is there a feeling that it could be for ransom, or it’s just cruel terrorism?  Is there any hint of what they speculated… 

Spokesman:  I don’t…  as far as I’ve seen from the press reports, there’s not been any claim of responsibility.  Whatever the horrific motivation for this doesn’t really matter.  In the end, people…  these girls need to be released at once without condition. 

For the Nigerians, I think you should…  I don’t know.  You should speak to the Nigerian Mission. 

Speaking on behalf of the General Assembly President will now be Brenden. 

Okay.  Thank you.  Hasta lunes.

For information media. Not an official record.