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25 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.

Good afternoon, everyone.

**Financing for Development

You just heard from the Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, on the Financing for the Development report.  On this same topic, I want to flag that the Secretary-General’s brief on debt and liquidity will be published on Monday and we will be sending you embargoed copies of that on Friday.  Also on Monday, the Secretary-General, along with the Prime Minister of Jamaica, Andrew Holness, and the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, will convene the “Financing for Development in the Era of COVID-19 and Beyond:  Meeting of Heads of State and Government on the International Debt Architecture and Liquidity”.  At 11 a.m. the three of them will hold a press briefing.  The Secretary-General will be in the press briefing room and the two leaders will join virtually.  That briefing will replace the Monday noon briefing.

**Secretary-General/Slavery

Today is the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  At a General Assembly event, the Secretary-General honoured the memory of the millions of people of African descent who suffered immeasurably under the evil of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.  The Secretary-General noted that, while the transatlantic slave trade ended over two centuries ago, the ideas that propelled it remain alive today.  In Europe, the United States and elsewhere, he said, white supremacists are organizing and recruiting across borders.  We must counter all lies of racial supremacy.  By tackling inequities and inequalities, by building inclusive communities and economies, and by educating about history, we truly honour the memory of the victims of slavery, the Secretary-General said.  We’ve shared his full remarks with you.

**Olympic Torch Relay

As you know, the Olympic Torch Relay began today in Fukushima, Japan, ahead of the Tokyo Olympics this summer.  In a tweet, the Secretary-General says he salutes the participants as they carry this symbol of hope and resilience across the country.  He also conveys our best wishes to Japan and all Olympic athletes.

**Global Health Conference

Today, the Deputy Secretary-General spoke in a video message on behalf of the Secretary-General, at the opening ceremony of the conference named "Reinforcement of the role of the EU in Global Health", which was hosted by the Government of Portugal.  She noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed more than 2.6 million lives and caused a socioeconomic impact of unprecedented magnitude in contemporary history.  Ms. Mohammed added that the pandemic has exposed the grave risks of underfunded health systems, and the chronic lack of investments in pandemic preparedness.  She said that it should now be clear to all that without ensuring every person’s right to health, we will never have just societies.

**Middle East

Tor Wennesland, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, briefed the members of the Security Council by VTC this morning.  He said that we have witnessed a spike in demolitions and seizures of Palestinian-owned structures, which include internationally funded humanitarian projects.  Mr. Wennesland urged Israel to cease demolitions and evictions, in line with its obligations under international humanitarian law, and to approve plans that would enable these communities to build legally and address their development needs.  He added that COVID-19 continues to have a devastating effect on Palestinians.  In addition to the brutal impact on public health, the recurrent lockdowns, school closures and reduction of commercial activity have severely undermined living conditions.  The Special Coordinator said that support to the Palestinian COVID-19 response should be significantly enhanced to ensure that Palestinians receive a fair and timely share in the distribution of vaccines.  Mr. Wennesland said he is deeply concerned by the daily violence that continues to fuel mistrust and drives us further from a peaceful resolution of the conflict.  He is particularly concerned that children are so often the victims.  Children should never be the target of violence by any party, nor be exposed to violence, he said.

**FSO Safer

On the issue of the FSO Safer, I just would like to note that the discussions with the Houthis [who call themselves Ansar Allah] are ongoing to resolve all pending logistical and security arrangements.  We hope these discussions will come to conclusion soon so we can pin a timeline of deployment.  There was also a technical meeting with the Government of Yemen to brief them on the ongoing efforts to deploy the mission at the earliest possible opportunity.

**Rohingya/Bangladesh

The UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, today released $14 million from the Central Emergency Respond Fund (CERF), to help tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees after a devastating fire tore through the Kutupalong camp — the world’s largest refugee camp — in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.  That fire on 22 March displaced more than 45,000 Rohingya refugees and affected many others.  A hospital and other critical health, nutrition and education sites were destroyed.  The funds will help set up and rebuild shelter and provide people with emergency services, including water, sanitation, food and mental health assistance.  Mr. Lowcock said that Rohingya refugees need our support now more than ever, as the pandemic continues to take its toll and the monsoon season is coming.  He noted that Rohingya refugees themselves have always stood shoulder‑to‑shoulder with the aid workers, volunteering their services to support response efforts in the camps.  Now is the moment for the international community to stand by them.

**Myanmar

On Myanmar, the UN team in the country is deeply concerned about the impact of the political developments on vulnerable people in conflict-affected areas.  The UN team is helping some 1 million people, one third of whom are internally displaced.  Aid agencies’ work is hampered by disruptions to the banking system and limited availability of cash, as well as challenges to the supply chain.  Active conflicts in areas such as northern Shan and Kachin States also make the situation difficult for humanitarian organizations.  The UN team is also concerned about the low level of funding received for the Humanitarian Response Plan.  Only 10 per cent of the nearly $270 million needed has been received so far.

Also on Myanmar, you saw yesterday that we took note of reports that hundreds of demonstrators have been released.  We remain concerned at ongoing arbitrary arrests, including of journalists and civil society leaders.  We call for the release of all those arbitrarily detained, including President U Win Myint and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.  We continue to follow developments closely and are also extremely disturbed over the killing by security forces of a seven-year-old child in her home this week.  There must be accountability for all the crimes and human rights violations that continue to be perpetrated in Myanmar.  We continue to call for maximum restraint.

**Central African Republic

The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) says its patrols helped prevent looting by armed groups in Markounda in Ouham Prefecture yesterday.  The Mission has also increased patrols in parts of Nana Mambere Prefecture following clashes between the country’s military and armed groups.  Earlier this week, the Mission helped to launch an awareness campaign on the peaceful movement of cattle, which can be a major driver of violence in the Central African Republic.

**Latin America and the Caribbean

Turning to Latin America and the Caribbean, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) today said that 114 million children are still out of the classroom in the region.  This is the world’s largest number of children without face-to-face schooling.  UNICEF said that, to date, only seven countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have fully opened their schools.  In 12 countries and territories, schools remain fully closed.  In the rest of the region, classrooms are partially closed.  During school closures, some 45 million students in 24 countries in the region have been supported by UNICEF in the provision of distance programmes, and 9 million children, parents and primary caregivers have received mental health and psychosocial support in the community.  More on this is available online.

**Honduras

From Honduras, the UN Resident Coordinator, Alice Shackelford, has condemned the assassination of Juan Carlos Cerros Escalante, an indigenous leader and climate activist.  Ms. Shackelford and our human rights colleagues call for justice and for the protection of indigenous leaders and human rights defenders.

**El Salvador/COVAX

And we have a COVAX update today from El Salvador, which has so far received 85,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses so far, with more on the way.  The UN team has been working for months with health authorities in the area of logistics, among many others.  The first batches of vaccines will be given to health workers and people over the age of 50 living with conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and respiratory diseases.

**Forests/Indigenous Peoples

Staying in the region, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today launched a report to show evidence of the key role that Indigenous and Tribal Peoples play in preserving forests and reducing carbon emissions in Latin America and the Caribbean.  The report reveals that deforestation rates in the region are significantly lower in Indigenous and Tribal territories where Governments have formally recognized collective territorial rights.  It argues that improving the tenure security of these territories is an efficient and cost-effective way to reduce carbon emissions.  The report is available on FAO’s website.

**International Narcotics Control Board/Report

The Vienna-based International Narcotics Control Board today launched its Annual Report for 2020, highlighting a global hidden epidemic of drug use among older people.  According to the report, as the world population ages, the number of older people with drug use disorders has been increasing.  However, this development has been largely overlooked.  The International Narcotics Control Board also expressed concern about the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global supply chain of medicines.  The report noted that people with mental health and substance use disorders have been particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.  The full report is available online.

**International Day of Solidarity with Detained and Missing Staff Members

Today is also the International Day of Solidarity with Detained and Missing Staff Members.  In his message for the Day, the Secretary-General says that we recognize the extreme dangers encountered by so many colleagues as they carry out the vital work of the United Nations.   The Secretary-General notes that the threats vary — from deliberate and deadly ambushes to kidnappings, intimidation and unlawful detention.  But the thread is the same, he adds.  He emphasizes that these are unacceptable obstacles to fulfilling our mandates and advancing peace, sustainable development, human rights and humanitarian assistance around the globe.

**Financial Contribution

And before I end this briefing and turn over to Brenden Varma, I would like to thank very much our friends in Benin, as they have paid their regular budget dues in full.  This takes us to 76 fully paid-up Member States.  And now I will take your questions.  I see that James and Edie have their hands raised, so James first and then Edie.  I can't hear you, James.  Sorry.  Can someone fix this?  I'm not able to hear the microphones from the room.  Hold on.

**Questions and Answers

Correspondent:  [Inaudible]… talking so we can that it’s fixed.

Deputy Spokesman:  Now I can hear you.  Start again, please.

Question:  No problem, Farhan.  I'd like to ask you about Ethiopia and Tigray, please, if I can.  I have a couple of questions.  First, a report from Médecins Sans Frontières that says that their staff witnessed executions taking place on the road from Adigrat to Mekelle.  They say that Ethiopian soldiers stopped their car and two minibuses, which were public transportation vehicles.  The soldiers then forced the passengers to leave the minibuses.  The men were separated from the women.  The men were shot.  There were more than four of them, and the MSF driver was executed.  What is the UN's reaction?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, these reports are horrifying, and they certainly need to be looked into and investigated thoroughly.  Along those lines, I'd like to say that the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and the Office of the UN Human… High Commissioner for Human Rights today said that they've agreed to conduct a joint investigation into the human rights violations and abuses allegedly committed by all parties in the context of the Tigray conflict as part of the much‑needed accountability process for the victims.  Both organizations have been closely monitoring the human rights situation since the start of the conflict.  They remain concerned about reports of serious human rights violations and abuses and the devastating impact of the conflict on the civilian population.  And so, they will look into this, and the deployment will start as soon as possible for an initial period of three months.  And you had something further on this?

Question:  I have two follow‑ups, if I can.  There was an important briefing for Member States by OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] in the last couple of hours.  I'd say in passing that it was not of acceptable broadcast television quality to be able to put it on television, which is most unfortunate, given the content was very important.  They were briefed by the representative of international NGOs [non-governmental organizations] in Ethiopia, who said there had been an improvement in bureaucratic access impediments, but visas were only being issued for one month, making things difficult, and ongoing fighting was making things difficult.  How does the UN currently view the humanitarian access to Tigray?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, on that, I mean, the basic point is that we have been saying and reporting an overall improvement in the situation.  So, we've appreciated the cooperation in terms of getting people into Tigray in a more efficient and expedited way.  At the same time, of course, we want all obstacles to deployment in Tigray to be removed, and we're hoping for continued improvement in the access that we have.

Question:  Does the Secretary‑General think raising the problems of humanitarian access and humanitarian concerns is legitimate?  Because the Ethiopian Permanent Representative seemed to belittle that.  He said in the meeting a short time ago:  "We love statements, but people don't eat statements.  We love to see on Twitter your concerns, but people don't eat tweets."  What is your reaction to a statement like that, which is responding to international concern, which has come from Member States and, of course, from the UN itself?

Deputy Spokesman:  We believe that in all the work we do that both public statements and the use of the bully pulpit as well as private diplomacy and negotiations are equally useful in terms of getting progress towards concrete improvements of the situation on the ground.  So, we will continue to raise the concerns we have in public where it's useful, and we will also continue to do the sort of work we do at the ground level, at the Headquarters level, trying to make sure that all of the humanitarian situation, including problems of access, can be resolved.  And with that, Edie?

Question:  Thank you very much, Farhan.  Two questions.  The first one, the UN rapporteur on Myanmar has called for UN Member States to hold an emergency summit on Myanmar to try and spur international action to reverse the coup.  Does the Secretary‑General support the holding of a summit?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, that's one proposal for the Member States to consider.  What the Secretary‑General supports is for Member States to consider all possible helpful actions that can reverse this coup.  That is our goal, and we want the Member States to come together in whatever way is most useful and most effective at bringing about a restoration of the democratic system of governance in the country.

Question:  My second question is that North Korea launched two ballistic missiles today.  Does the Secretary‑General have any reaction to these launches, which do violate UN sanctions?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, on that, what I can tell you is that the Secretary‑General is concerned by the latest developments on the Korean Peninsula.  He reiterates the need for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to renew its diplomatic engagement with the parties concerned and to work for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.  Diplomatic engagement is the only pathway to sustainable peace and complete and verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.  And with that, I'll turn the floor over next to James Reinl.

Question:  Thanks so much, Farhan.  I hope you don't mind.  I've got three questions, if I could do them consecutively.  First one is on the Ethiopian mega‑dam dispute with Sudan and Egypt.  The parties are going for mediation in Abu Dhabi next week.  Is the UN sending anyone?  And do you have a message to the parties?

Deputy Spokesman:  I'm not aware that we have any role in this particular process.  For our part, we reiterate the readiness of the UN to support all efforts toward reaching an agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.  And as you know, the Secretary‑General has welcomed initiatives to move forward the negotiations and awaits agreement from all the parties as to how the UN can best support this process.  What's your next question?

Question:  [Inaudible]… Boris Johnson has been answering questions on whether or not British forces would take part in a UN deployment to supervise a ceasefire in Yemen.  Obviously, we need to have a ceasefire in Yemen before you can supervise it, but is there some kind of conversation going on about this kind of potential deployment through the UN?

Deputy Spokesman:  I wouldn't go into any details about the sort of background discussions we have while we're preparing for things.  Obviously, we don't have a ceasefire yet, so that's the first step.  And then beyond that, we can work on figuring out how best to monitor that.  But, we are in touch with different Member States to see what they're willing and able to provide, and we'll continue with those discussions.  And then your last one before we turn it over to Elena?

Question:  Yeah.  Your colleagues in Geneva have confirmed the high‑ranking Saudi officials did, indeed, issue a death threat against your rapporteur, Agnès Callamard.  What's the message from the Secretary‑General to Riyadh?

Deputy Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General's message is very simple and very clear, that any and all such threats are unacceptable.  Okay.  We'll go first to Elena Lentza, and then I believe there's someone with his hand raised in the back of the room.  So, Elena first and then whoever you are with both your hands raised, you get it after that.  Elena?

Question:  Hi, Farhan.  Thank you for taking my question.  This is about Mozambique.  There were more armed attacks in Palma in the northern region of Mozambique and very close to an enormous international gas project.  So, that made the civilians trying to hide in the woods, in the forest, but… and also the communications are cut.  I wanted to know, what is the UN's reaction on this situation, considering that security forces are saying that Palma is under siege?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yes.  We are following closely the situation in Palma town and the attacks that reportedly began on 24 March and continue today.  There's limited information on the incidents so far.  We remain concerned about the violence in Cabo Delgado Province, which is driving increased displacement of populations and leading to a rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the region.  The United Nations stands ready to continue to support the people and the Government of Mozambique in urgently addressing the humanitarian needs of the affected populations.  And with that, I'll turn back to the room, whoever it is.  Is that Alan?

Question:  Farhan, I'm sorry.  Sorry, I have a second question.  I was muted.  I'm sorry.  Also, what is the UN doing to protect the UN staff and the UN colleagues?  How are they being protected at the same time as they try to work on the ground in Mozambique?

Deputy Spokesman:  We always make sure that our presence on the ground, our staff and related aid workers, are protected.  In this case, there were several aid workers in the area when the attacks started.  We're communicating with all relevant contacts to ensure that these aid workers are able to safely leave the area.  Okay.  And then to… I think it's Alan.

Correspondent:  No, no, it's Toby.

Deputy Spokesman:  No?  Oh, there you are.  Hi, Toby.

Question:  Hi, Farhan.  Can you hear me?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yes, I can hear you.  I can see you, as well.

Question:  Sorry.  I was just flailing wildly here in the background.  Two quick questions for you.  One, the Deputy Secretary‑General said today that six countries are now in financial default with 42 having been downgraded for their credit ratings.  First question is, is the UN anticip… or expecting this number to rise?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, we actually will have more to say about the issue of debt and debt liquidity.  We're going to have a report that we hope to share with the correspondents under embargo possibly by tomorrow afternoon.  But, in any case, that report will be launched on Monday, as I said at the start of this briefing.  And you'll also get to hear on Monday from the Secretary‑General and from the Prime Ministers of Canada and Jamaica, and they'll talk about how serious this crisis is and how we need to deal with it.

Question:  Okay.  Thanks.  Noted.  We'll be sure to follow that next week.  Also, just wondering where the latest Panel of Experts' report is regarding sanctions on the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea].  Usually, it's been published by this point every year, the final report, and it's… it's still not up.

Deputy Spokesman:  Yeah.  I think it's being worked on.  Once it goes to the Security Council, we'll let you know, but we'll check where in the pipeline it is.  And with that, we turn over to Maggie Besheer.  Hi.

Question:  Hi, Farhan.  On the DPRK answer that you gave to Edie, you didn't say whether the Secretary‑General believes that the latest missile launches are a violation of UN Security Council resolutions.  Does the Secretary‑General believe that?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, as you know, it's up to the members of the Security Council to determine what's in violation, and we have no doubt that they will be seized of this matter, and we will report to them on what the latest incidents have been.  But ultimately, we'll leave that [matter] in the [hands] of the relevant Sanctions Committee and of the Council members.  Okay.  And after that, Ephrem Kossaify.

Question:  Thanks, Farhan.  Hello.  There was breaking news this morning.  The Houthi Deputy Spokesman said that the Houthis are ready for good relationships with Saudi Arabia, and I was wondering if the Secretary‑General has any reaction to that?  Thank you.

Deputy Spokesman:  We have been very hopeful that there would be an improvement in relations between the various involved parties, and so any… any rapprochement between the Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Ansar Allah would be welcomed.  And of course, Martin Griffiths is in touch with all the parties, and we'll see what can be done to help bring the parties closer together and get to a resolution of this conflict.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  I was listening to the briefing of the… of Mr. Wennesland, and I have two questions.  First, when he was talking about the provocative statements by officials from both sides, he gave three examples from Palestinians and… very harsh examples, and he gave one mild statement from an Israeli member of the Knesset, which is… that is very unfair.  And I want to ask him through you why he did that.  And I can give him 20 statements, especially during elections, that targeting the Palestinians, dehumanising the Palestinians, threatening the Palestinians of ethnic cleansing, et cetera.  So, that is one question.  The second question, when he uses the word "in response" to that Israel conducted a raid in Gaza, which ended up with eight injured Palestinians, "in response", what does that mean, "in response"?  Isn't occupation itself a reason for a Palestinian to resist occupation?  Why Israel "in response" that is he just… he is giving a justification to the Israelis to commit these atrocities against civilians.  Why is that  I need an answer for these two statements he gave.

Deputy Spokesman:  The answer to both questions is the same, that Mr. Wennesland uses his best judgement in terms of determining what information to put into his briefings to the Security Council and how best to portray it, and we have confidence in his selection of material and the words that he uses.  Ultimately, dealing with parties is always a series of judgement calls about how you present different matters, and it is his role, as a professional diplomat, to weigh all the various factors in doing that, and we simply trust his judgement on that.  And with that, I wish you all a good afternoon, and I'll turn the floor over to Brenden Varma.  Brenden, over to you.

For information media. Not an official record.