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23 March 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 Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

We are going to get our briefing started now.

**Climate

This morning, the Secretary-General spoke, in a video message, to the 2021 Ministerial on Climate Action, convened by China, Canada and the European Union.

He said that decisions that countries make during this make-or-break year have the power to keep the limit of 1.5 degrees within reach.

He underscored that “we simply cannot contemplate any alternative,” and said that the net zero coalition must grow to cover well over 90 per cent of global emissions this year.

The Secretary-General also urged countries to submit, or re-submit, ambitious nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement.

His full remarks are online.

**Violence against Asians

A statement we issued yesterday afternoon said that the Secretary-General is profoundly concerned about the rise of violence against Asians and people of Asian descent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The world has witnessed horrific deadly attacks, verbal and physical harassment, bullying in schools, workplace discrimination, incitement to hatred in the media and on social media platforms, and incendiary language by those in positions of power.  In some countries, Asian women have been specifically targeted for attack, adding misogyny to the toxic mix of hatred.  Thousands of incidents across the past year have perpetuated a centuries-long history of intolerance, stereotyping, scapegoating, exploitation and abuse.

The Secretary-General expresses his full support for the victims and families and stands in solidarity with all those who face racism and other assaults on their human rights.  This moment of challenge for all must be a time to uphold dignity for all.

**Security Council — Afghanistan

This morning, Deborah Lyons, the Special Representative for Afghanistan, briefed the Security Council by VTC (video teleconference) on the situation in that country.  Ms. Lyons said that she was very sorry to report that in the first two months of 2021, we have witnessed the continued trend of rising civilian casualties.  Particularly worrying is the array of attacks deliberately targeting civilians.

Ms. Lyons noted that given the many interests involved — both domestic and international, to be clear — we always knew that this would be a complicated peace process.  Decades of conflict have created real grievances on all sides and there remains a lack of trust amongst the parties.  There are also genuine and profound differences between the Islamic Republic and the Taliban over their desired end state.

Ms. Lyons stressed that none of this can be resolved in the work of a moment — nor in a few meetings, no matter the location or format.  Addressing these issues will require patience and commitment on all sides.

**Syria

In a statement we issued yesterday afternoon, the Secretary-General strongly condemned the recent wave of attacks in north-west Syria, which have killed and injured dozens of civilians.

The Secretary-General reiterates that directing attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure, including medical units such as hospitals, are strictly prohibited under international humanitarian law.  There must be accountability for crimes perpetrated in Syria.

The Secretary-General reaffirms the need for a nationwide ceasefire, as called for in Security Council resolution 2254 (2015).  He calls on all parties immediately to renew their commitment to a cessation of hostilities.

**Deputy Secretary-General — Asia-Pacific

The Deputy Secretary-General took part at the first meeting of a new platform in Asia and the Pacific that brings together UN staff working to promote development in the region.

She stressed the importance of regional efforts to respond to COVID-19 and other complex challenges that know no borders.

In Asia and the Pacific, the COVID-19 pandemic has erased years of social-economic progress, with the UN Economic and Social Commission in the region (ESCAP) estimating that nearly 90 million more people in the region have been pushed back into extreme poverty.

**Lebanon

Najat Rochdi, the Officer-in-Charge of the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon (UNSCOL), today called on Lebanon’s political leaders to focus most urgently on the formation of an empowered Government.  She said that was a critical step to address the country’s multiple and serious crises and implement required reforms.  “This step must be taken and can no longer be delayed,” she said.

Ms. Rochdi called on Lebanese leaders to set aside their differences, step up to their responsibilities, end the paralysis and finally offer solutions to the people of Lebanon.

**Yemen

And we have an update on COVID-19 in Yemen:  The World Health Organization (WHO) reported yesterday the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in one day in the country since the start of the pandemic.  Some 140 cases were confirmed, bringing the total caseload to 3,422.

This is an alarming upward trajectory in Yemen, as COVID-19 cases have increased by more than 50 per cent over the last month.

These figures greatly underestimate the actual COVID-19 caseload in the country, as underreporting is widespread due to many factors, including limited testing capacities and a reluctance to seek testing and treatment.

**Myanmar

On Myanmar, our country team says it is deeply concerned about the continued use of force against children.  This includes live ammunition.

The team reiterates its call on security forces to refrain from violence and to keep children and young people out of harm’s way.

UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) says that, as of today, at least 23 children have reportedly been killed in the violence since the 1st of February, while at least 11 more have been severely injured.

**Bangladesh — Rohingya

On Bangladesh, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) expressed their sadness at the loss of life and immense suffering caused by yesterday’s massive fire in the Kutupalong Balukali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar.

As of this morning, some 15 refugees are confirmed to have died in the fire in the sites which are managed by IOM, with hundreds more missing or injured.  Some 45,000 Rohingya refugees were displaced from their homes.

The IOM’s largest health centre — which served more than 55,000 people in the last year — was also destroyed, making it more difficult now to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

IOM’s Director General, António Vitorino, said this disaster is a terrible setback that exacerbates the humanitarian needs of refugees in Cox’s Bazar.

UNHCR, IOM and their partners — together with refugee volunteers — are rushing to provide critical support and protection.

**Libya

The Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Libya, Ján Kubiš, arrived yesterday in Tripoli to continue his engagements with the new interim Government of National Unity, among others.  He will work to expedite the implementation of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) road map, including mobilizing the required support and resources to hold national elections on 24 December 2021.

He met, among others, with the leadership of the Presidency Council, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs.  The Special Envoy will conduct a series of meetings with various Libyan stakeholders in the coming days.

**Ethiopia

Turning to Ethiopia, in a joint statement issued yesterday, senior UN and officials from non-governmental organizations called on all State and non-State parties to the conflict in Tigray region to ensure their forces respect and protect civilian populations, particularly women and children, from all human rights abuses.  They also called on all parties to the conflict to explicitly condemn all sexual violence and act to bring perpetrators to justice where abuses do occur.

This call comes amid a worsening humanitarian situation in Tigray, where indiscriminate and targeted attacks against civilians are reported, including rape and other horrific forms of sexual violence.

Women and children in affected areas are reporting significant challenges in accessing health, social welfare and justice services.  The full statement is available online.

**Niger

We have an update on Sunday’s attacks in the Tahoua region of Niger.  As you may have seen, according to authorities, the death toll for the attacks has now risen to 137 — all of them civilians.

The Government, the UN and humanitarian partners are preparing to conduct a rapid assessment in the area to identify the humanitarian needs of the affected communities.

Since the beginning of the year, we have seen an upsurge of violent and deadly attacks by non-State armed groups, especially in the regions of Tillaberi and Tahoua, which are bordering Mali and Burkina Faso.  Since January, at least 290 civilians have been killed in the attacks.  This is over half of all victims killed in attacks in 2020.

The UN Refugee Agency is preparing to assist affected people with health care and protection services.

UNHCR reminds us that Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali, in the Sahel, are at the epicentre of one of the world’s fastest-growing displacement and protection crises.  The region is already hosting nearly 3 million refugees and people displaced inside their own country.

**COVAX — Brazil

We have an update from Brazil, where our team there tells us that authorities received more than a million doses of the COVAX-backed COVID-19 vaccine.  They arrived by plane from laboratories in the Republic of Korea on Sunday.  This is the first batch of many doses expected to be shipped to Brazil via COVAX, complementing other COVID-19 vaccines being distributed nationally.

The Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO)/World Health Organization Representative in Brazil, Dr. Socorro Gross, welcomed this crucial step to save lives and stop the spread of COVID-19.  She added that the UN team will continue to work together with health authorities and partners to make more vaccines available and to strengthen public health measures.

For its part, in the Amazon region, the International Organization for Migration continues its activities and donations of non-food items focusing on indigenous and riverside communities.  In the past two weeks, IOM delivered nearly 4,000 pieces of personal protection equipment to communities in the Amazon region.

The UN Refugee Agency continues to focus on a vaccination campaign for indigenous communities.  In the past two weeks, UNHCR has also delivered more than 1,400 items such as mattresses and hygiene kits in the region.

UN-Women is providing financial support to several women’s organizations in the north and north-east regions, also to curb violence against women.

**Acute Hunger

A report issued today by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) warns that without urgent and scaled-up assistance, acute hunger is set to soar in over 20 countries in the coming months.

According to the “Hunger Hotspots” report, Yemen, South Sudan and northern Nigeria top the list and face catastrophic levels of acute hunger.  Families in pockets of South Sudan and Yemen are already in the grip of or at risk of starvation and death.

Already, more than 34 million people across the world are grappling with emergency levels of acute hunger, meaning they are one step away from starvation.

**World Meteorological Day

Today is World Meteorological Day.  This year’s theme is “the ocean, our climate and weather”.

The ocean absorbs over 90 per cent of excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases, shielding us from even greater temperature increases as a result of climate change.  But this comes at a heavy price as ocean warming and changes in ocean chemistry are already disrupting marine ecosystems and people who depend on them.

The Day highlights how observations, research and services are more critical than ever before as climate change makes the ocean both more vulnerable and perilous.

Ocean-related climate indicators are also featured in WMO’s (World Meteorological Organization) report on the “State of the Global Climate 2020”, which will be released ahead of Earth Day on 22 April.

**Financial Contribution

I am happy to announce that our friends in the Maldives have paid their regular budget dues in full.  We have now reached 75 fully paid-up Member States.  Our thanks to them all.

And with that, I will now… I’m now ready to take questions.

**Questions and Answers

And I see already Evelyn’s got a question.  So, Evelyn, over to you and then Erol.

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  On the discrimination against Asian women, what countries are chief discriminators except for… in addition to the United States?  What countries did the SG have in mind?

Spokesman:  When we’re talking about… we’re talking about something that actually has been noticeable in a number of countries, not just in North America, but we’re also talking about the Americas as a whole and Europe that, in different places, Asian communities have been subjected to discrimination, in part, but not only, because of the stigmatization that have been brought about by different groups, different individuals and political entities scapegoating the Asian communities for the COVID-19 pandemic.  And, so, I wouldn’t want to localize this to a specific country.

Obviously, you’re aware of recent incidents, and we’ve also tweeted our own distress at what happened, for example, in Atlanta last week.  But this is a global problem.  It’s not something that some… that’s restricted to any one place.

Erol, and then we’ll go to Edie.

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  Secretary-General often talk about vaccine nationalism, as he put it.  He also said that more… or about 75 per cent of those vaccinated belong to the 10 richest country.  Well, if I’m not mistaken, a few days ago, President of European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said that European Union or Europe will not be able to send vaccine, as she put it, to poor countries.  Well, I would like to hear, what does the Secretary-General say to this?  And what… would he urge something or say more than that?

Spokesman:  The Secretary-General has repeatedly urged the countries that already have sufficient amounts of vaccine not to hoard them but to make sure that vaccines are available more widely.  He’s made it very clear that it’s distressing that there are many countries around the world that don’t have any vaccine available yet.

We are trying our best, through our facilities, including through COVAX, and we’ve been mentioning to you all the many countries we’ve reached through the COVAX facility.  So, the situation is improving, but we want to make sure, although we respect the health needs of every nation, we want to make sure that they understand that the COVID-19 pandemic will only be successfully dealt with and brought to an end once it is put to an end everywhere.

Vaccine nationalism is not only morally and ethically a problem, but it’s also self-defeating on its own terms.  You cannot solve the problem of COVID if [viruses] are allowed to spread, mutate and pose a threat elsewhere, because then all you’re doing is ensuring that there will be successive rounds of the crisis.  So, that is why we’re continuing our calls and he will continue to reach out to all world leaders to make sure that vaccines are shared appropriately.

Edie?

Question:  Just a follow-up if I can?

Spokesman:  Sure.

Question:  And since you have a team in Bosnia and Herzegovina, you probably know that Bosnia is the hard hit, probably the worst situation in the region, hardly with the vaccines… without vaccines.  What does the Secretary-General specifically urge or say about Western Balkan and Bosnia and the epicentre of the crisis?

Spokesman:  Well, we want all of the areas, including the Balkan States, such as Bosnia, to have the vaccines that they need.  And these are also countries that we are working to see whether they can be helped through the COVAX facility.

Edie?

Question:  But Farhan, COVAX delayed several times the paid contingency of vaccines to Bosnia, specifically with your team, in consultation with your team.  What can you say?

Spokesman:  Ultimately, COVAX is trying to provide this.  With different countries, there are logistical issues that are to be considered, but this is one of the countries that we’re trying to help.

Edie?

Question:  Thank you very much, Farhan.  Does the Secretary-General have any concerns about the data released by AstraZeneca on the safety of its vaccine following a US trial?  As you know, there’ve been some concerns raised here about the data not being complete.

Spokesman:  Well, as a general rule, we want to make sure that all of the companies that are providing vaccines go through a rigorous process and provide all of the relevant data so that it can be evaluated fairly.

Regarding AstraZeneca in particular, as you know, we follow the judgement of the World Health Organization.  At this stage, the World Health Organization is looking into any of the issues involved in this, but they have testified to the safety of the vaccine, and we’re going with what they have to say on this for now.

And I believe the World Health Organization Global Advisory Committee on vaccine safety met on AstraZeneca this week, and the opinion of the World Health Organization is that AstraZeneca’s vaccine continues to have a positive benefit-risk profile.  And so, that is the main factor that we’re looking at at this stage.

I can’t hear you.

Question:  [inaudible] on a completely different subject.

Spokesman:  I’m sorry?  Okay, now.

Question:  Okay.  On the… you did an update on the casualties in Niger and talked about the upsurge in violence in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.  The Secretary-General, I know, has called for better funding for the G5 Sahel force.  Is there anything else that he would like to see done… that the UN could do in this to address this growing extremist issue in that area?

Spokesman:  Well, we do continue to work with all of the Governments to see what can be done to deal with the tensions and the violence throughout the Sahel region.  The places where most of the recent violence have happened, although in different countries, are often just a small number of kilometres apart on different roads and different passageways that are at risk, and we want to see what can be done to improve that.

But certainly, support for the G5 Sahel force is one crucial aspect of that, and our other offices, including our office in West Africa, the UN Office for the West African States (UNOWAS), will be also working with the Governments to see what can be done.

James Reinl?

Question:  Hi, Farhan.  Thanks so much for the briefing.  There’s a report out today about Agnès Callamard.  That’s the US Rapporteur who investigated the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.  She says that the Saudi… Saudi officials made a death threat against her in a meeting in Geneva with other UN officials.  Is the SG aware of this?  And do you guys have any comment?

Spokesman:  I’m not aware of it, but certainly, we do have a comment, which is that all of our human rights defenders, including the special rapporteurs that report to the Human Rights Council, such as Ms. Callamard, should be able to go about their work without any harassment, without any threats, and all such threats need to be taken very seriously.

Majeed?

Question:  Yes.  Thank you, Farhan.  I have a question about Amnesty International report that came out that talks about Syria refugees that has been allegedly detained and tortured by Lebanese authorities in Lebanon under the allegation of terrorism.  Do you have any comments about that?  Have you seen the report that just came out today?

Spokesman:  Yes.  We’re aware of the reports.  Of course, we credit the Government and people of Lebanon for the generosity with which they have hosted Syrian refugees, but that also means that any allegations such as these are very disturbing.  And they need to be looked into, and we trust that the Lebanese authorities will now look into this matter fully.

Sylviane?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  I have a question on Lebanon.  Does the Secretary-General have new ideas to bring to the table and take action, finally start to act on behalf of the Lebanese people who are suffering so much without any hope on the horizon?

I know Mrs. Rochdi same… use the same rhetoric, UN rhetoric.  Every time since many years, you have the same rhetoric since… do you have a new idea, new rhetorics to send to Lebanese people?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Well, on that, what I can say is the following, that we reiterate our calls and those of the international community to all political forces to facilitate the timely formation of a Government able to undertake the reforms necessary to put Lebanon on the path to recovery and respond to the needs of the Lebanese people.

We also reiterate our calls for progress with an impartial, thorough and transparent investigation into the Beirut port explosion and a swift and transparent investigation into the recent killing of Mr. Lokman Slim to bring the perpetrators to justice.  There must be accountability for these acts.

And with that, I turn to Toby.

Question:  Hi, Farhan.  Nice to see you, and thank you very much, as always.  Two questions for you today.  First is, any update from Martin Griffiths and his team in response to the offer of a ceasefire?  And what is he reading on the ground now from his interlocutors?

And the second question is on… there was a debt restructuring event this morning, and I… one… and one fact from there is that nine countries have begun debt restructuring as a result of the pandemic.  Can you confirm that number, or do you have any data on how many countries have actually fundamentally changed their debt architecture in the last year as a result of the pandemic?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Well, on your question on debt, actually, you’re in a bit of luck, because we’re going to be having some events about the debt issue and give you a report on this later this week, so you’ll get a report on this.

The Secretary-General will have some remarks, and, indeed, next Monday, the Secretary-General, along with the prime ministers of Canada and Jamaica, will be doing an event at… that you’ll get to participate in, to talk to you about the nature of the debt issue.  So, all that is coming up shortly.  And if I can get that to you any quicker for your questions, I’ll see whether that can happen.

Regarding Mr. Griffiths and his efforts on Yemen, he’s continuing to try to bring the parties closer to a resolution so that we could have a nationwide ceasefire; we could have the re-opening of Sana’a airport and the regular flow of fuel and other commodities into Yemen, including through the port of Hudaydah.

As you… of course, you’ll have seen the announcement made by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia yesterday, and we do expect to have, later this afternoon, a statement from the Secretary-General with some more on this, although, unfortunately, we didn’t have it ready in time for the noon briefing, but we’ll try to get it for you.

And Gloria, you have a question?

Question:  Yes, I do.  What caused the fire in Cox’s Bazar?  Do they know?  This terrible fire.

Secondly, the barbed wire prevented people from escaping.  What are they going to do about the barbed wire in the future?  Are they going to allieve [sic] that situation?

Spokesman:  Well, we’ll have to see what can be done to improve safety at the Rohingya refugee camps, including the one that was set on fire in Cox’s Bazar.

Regarding the cause, we do not know what the cause of the fire is at this point.  The World Food Programme did deploy engineering experts and equipment, including water tanks, to help in containing the blaze.  And our humanitarian teams continue to be ready to provide further assistance as needed.

And with that, I wish you all a good afternoon.  See you tomorrow.

Correspondent:  Farhan?  Farhan?

Spokesman:  Yes?

Correspondent:  Can I have just one more, if you don’t mind?

Spokesman:  Sure.  Last one.

Question:  Thank you, Farhan, indeed.  You said, in general, the Secretary-General is ready to talk to world leaders.  In particularly, with whom did he talk regarding the vaccination distribution?  And will he be able or willing to talk even with US President [Joseph] Biden or Ursula von der Leyen of European Commission regarding that?

Spokesman:  He’s been bringing this up with all of his interlocutors, and he will do so with all of them, including the ones you mentioned.

As for what he’s been saying specifically, I would just refer you to his recent remarks on vaccine nationalism, which we’ve put out in recent weeks, and he’s been very strong on this issue.

All right.

Question:  What did they say to him, the world leaders?  How did they respond?

Spokesman:  I don’t speak for other world leaders, but our message is clear, and we’re going to keep pushing this issue.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  All right.  Have a good afternoon, everyone.

For information media. Not an official record.