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24 May 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.

**Belarus

I will start with a statement on what happened in Belarus over the weekend, and I can tell you that the Secretary-General is deeply concerned over the apparent forced landing of a passenger aircraft over Belarus on 23 May and the subsequent detention of Mr. Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian journalist who was on board.  The Secretary-General supports calls for a full, transparent and independent investigation into this disturbing incident and urges all relevant actors to cooperate with such an inquiry.

The Secretary-General also remains greatly concerned by the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus in the aftermath of last August’s presidential elections.  He urges the Belarusian authorities to fully respect all its international human rights obligations, including in relation to the freedoms of expression, assembly and association.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

An update for you from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and I can tell you that, while we do expect a more formal statement, that the Secretary-General is of course very saddened by the loss of life and the damage caused by the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo near Goma in the DRC on 22 May.  He expresses his deepest sympathies to the families of those who have been affected, as well as to the Government and people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

We are, of course, concerned that this disaster comes at a time of increased humanitarian needs in the region, fuelled by insecurity and the current economic downturn.

Our colleagues on the ground are telling us that 13 people have died following the eruption.  Approximately 5,000 people have lost their homes.

As you can imagine, these numbers are likely to change as more information comes in.

After the eruption, most people fled, either towards Sake in North Kivu or across into Rwanda.

The road between Rutshuru and Goma is blocked.  It’s important to note that this is the main supply line for food into Goma.  Power lines and water supplies were also damaged and cut off electricity and water for approximately half a million people.

Our UN peacekeeping mission on the ground (MONUSCO) also remains on high alert.  During the eruption, several helicopter flights were organized by the Mission, including with volcano specialists, to assess the trajectory of the lava.  Information was shared by the Mission with local authorities to guide them in their emergency response efforts.

The lava streams stopped near Munigi, about 5 kilometres north-east of Goma, and that’s short of the airport.  The airport does remain closed, and this impacts, of course, the movement of staff — humanitarian staff and peacekeeping staff and government workers — and supplies, and also impacts, obviously, evacuations.

People who initially fled are gradually returning, but seismic activity continues to be reported.

Since the alert was issued, the UN on the ground has been in constant contact with provincial authorities, including the provincial Protection of Civilian Office and the Goma Volcanic Observatory, to provide advice and support.

A rapid needs assessment is under way.  Our humanitarian colleagues have set up a crisis cell in Goma to coordinate assessments and response.

We, along with the rest of the humanitarian community in the area, are supporting the Government-led response by providing water, shelter, health and family reunification, as well as whatever other priorities those who have been impacted need.  We are also mobilizing additional supplies and support.  The peacekeeping mission is ready to clear the main roads leading to Goma as soon as conditions allow.

The eruption occurs at a time when humanitarian needs are already high and increasing in North Kivu province.  Forty-four per cent of the 5 million people internally displaced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are in North Kivu.  In addition, 3.2 million people in North Kivu, that’s 33 per cent of the population, are already severely food insecure.

**Samoa

I have a statement on the situation in Samoa.

The Secretary-General has been following the developments since the 9 April General Elections in Samoa.  He urges the leaders in Samoa to find solutions to the current political situation through dialogue in the best interest of the people and institutions of Samoa.

The United Nations stands ready to provide support to Samoa if requested by the parties.

**World Health Assembly

The Secretary-General this morning spoke by a pre-recorded video message to World Health Assembly.

He noted how the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a tsunami of suffering — with more than 3.4 million lives lost; 500 million jobs gone; and trillions of dollars having been wiped from global balance sheets.

He said that the most vulnerable are suffering most, and he fears this is far from over.

The Secretary-General called for coordinated global action in three areas:

First, he underscored that the world must respond resolutely and in solidarity to stop the virus, calling for an urgent global plan for equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments.  Second, he said we must bolster primary health-care systems and universal health coverage.  And, lastly, we must prepare for the next global [health] emergency.  We’ve shared his remarks with you.

**Extractive Industries

Tomorrow morning, at 9 a.m., the Secretary-General will convene a round table of 14 Heads of State and Government and ministers, as well as leaders from extractive industry and civil society.  They will look to identify concrete measures to transform the extractives industry to maximize its contribution to Sustainable Development.

As you know, extractive industries are at the centre of some of the world’s most pressing issues, including climate action, debt and fiscal space, taxes and illicit financial flows, but also poverty reduction, social inclusion, women’s and indigenous rights, to name a few.

You can watch the round table on our UN WebTV platform.  A press release and a policy paper will be made available later today, under embargo.

**African Women Leaders Network

On Sunday, the Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, joined African women Heads of State and Government, present and former, at a meeting of the African Women Leaders Network convened by former Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in support of the President of Tanzania.

The Deputy Secretary-General committed the UN system to fully support Tanzania and the continent.

This Thursday, Ms. Mohammed will join a virtual solidarity mission by the African Women Leaders Network to Mozambique.  That virtual visit will include Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Advocate Graça Machel, the former First Lady of Mozambique; Bineta Diop, the African Union Commission’s Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security; and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the head of UN-Women.

The mission will be accompanied by senior African women leaders and will engage with a wide range of women leaders and stakeholders in Mozambique.

**Security Council

This morning, at a Security Council open meeting on the safety and security of UN peacekeepers, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the Head of Peace Operations, reminded Council members that peacekeepers continue to operate in complex environments, where they face an increasing number of attacks by hostile actors.

He highlighted measures put in place that have contributed to progress but added, with a spike in fatalities this year — 15 to date — Mr. Lacroix said that the Secretariat is planning on doubling up its efforts on safety and security going forward.

He called on Member States to ensure adequate equipment for peacekeepers, military intelligence personnel and military public information personnel.  He asked for support to prevent the manufacturing of improvised explosive devices, particularly in the Sahel region.

Mr. Lacroix also appealed for the deployment of more female peacekeepers, and for political and technical support to ensure accountability for crimes against peacekeepers.

The head of the Department of Operations, Atul Khare, as well as the head of the Department of Safety and Security, Gilles Michaud, also spoke at the briefing.  Their remarks have been shared with you.

**Occupied Palestinian Territory

A quick update for you on the situation in Gaza from our colleagues in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA):  They tell us that the ceasefire, according to them, has held since it went into effect on Friday.  It is critical that all parties to the hostilities work to maintain it.

Routine life is being restored throughout Gaza.  Some of the main roads have been made passable, and the authorities are fixing damaged electrical lines, water and wastewater networks.

Today, the Erez crossing is open for international humanitarian personnel.  Regarding the Kerem Shalom crossing, which I was asked about, no trucks containing humanitarian goods have crossed into Gaza today, or commercial goods, we’re told.  Israeli authorities have given the UN a “green light” to use the crossing for the passage of humanitarian goods but there seems to be a lack of clarity on the kinds of goods that can cross at this point, though we are in constant contact with the relevant Israeli authorities to try to clarify this.

Meanwhile, Lynn Hastings, the Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory, spent the weekend in Gaza, speaking with people who she said had endured unimaginable suffering over the 11 days of hostilities.

In a statement, she said she met with several families that have been deeply impacted by the latest round of fighting.  One message she heard repeatedly is that people in Gaza are traumatized more than ever.  The intense strikes were without pause; too many homes were lost and loved ones gone.  Many people told her that they feel helpless and have no longer any hope.

As a reminder, in the coming days, we expect a joint humanitarian appeal to be launched, either likely Wednesday or Thursday.  We’ll have something here as well on that.

**Yemen

And on Yemen, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, arrived in Riyadh today for consultations.  In the coming few days, he is expected to meet with senior Yemeni officials, as well as with Saudi officials and diplomats.  The visit is part of Mr. Griffiths’ efforts in pursuit of a plan to ease movement restrictions on people and commodities to and from Yemen, to achieve a nationwide ceasefire and to commit the parties to the conflict to the resumption of the political process.

Meanwhile, in an effort to prevent a devastating famine, the World Food Programme (WFP) is increasing the level of food assistance in Yemen’s worst hunger hotspots, but the agency’s ability to sustain the response to the end of the year remains uncertain.

To prevent a famine, WFP needs $1.9 billion this year.  To date, they have received $1.24 billion, which should make their operations viable until the end of August unless more money is received.  To give you some context, nearly 50,000 people in Yemen are already living in famine-like conditions and 5 million people are in immediate danger, according to WFP.  A child dies every 10 minutes of preventable diseases such as diarrhoea, malnutrition and respiratory tract infections in Yemen.

Responding to these acute needs, WFP resumed monthly distributions to 350,000 people in 11 districts facing famine-like conditions back in February.

**Afghanistan

Moving to Afghanistan, we, along with national and international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in the country reaffirmed their commitment to stay and deliver humanitarian aid to millions of people in need.

Over the past year conflict, spiralling food insecurity and the impacts of the [COVID-19] virus have nearly doubled the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance — from 9.4 million in January 2020 to 18.4 million in January 2021.  Violence has continued across Afghanistan, characterized by high civilian casualties and the displacement of almost 100,000 people just this year.

Despite challenges, 3.7 million people have received aid in the first three months of 2021.  Together with our humanitarian partners, we ask parties to the conflict to protect civilians, aid workers and civilian infrastructure — including schools and hospitals — in compliance with international humanitarian law.  We urge them to grant unimpeded access and ensure that aid workers and service providers can deliver assistance and services without interference.  We also call on donors and the international community to urgently fund Afghanistan’s Humanitarian Response Plan, which requires $1.3 billion to help 15.7 million people.  Only $167 million — that’s 13 per cent of funding — has arrived so far.

**South Sudan

And in South Sudan, our humanitarian colleagues and their partners today strongly condemn what they say is yet another spate of senseless acts of violence against aid workers, with two separate attacks having taken place on 21 May.

In the first incident, a South Sudanese doctor working for the International Rescue Committee was brutally killed in a health facility in Unity State.

On the same day in the same state, a humanitarian convoy carrying 10 International Rescue Committee aid workers was shot at by gunmen on the outskirts of Guol Village.  Fortunately, no one was injured.

These two attacks come just 10 days after another aid worker was killed in Budi in Eastern Equatoria on 12 May.

Aid workers in South Sudan are extremely alarmed by increased attacks, looting of humanitarian supplies, and destruction and vandalization of infrastructure.  This is happening particularly in Pibor in Jonglei State, where more than 108,000 people in hard-to-reach areas are facing catastrophic levels of food insecurity.

Across South Sudan, more than 7.2 million people — that’s 60 per cent of the population — are facing severe hunger.

Together with humanitarian organizations, we need $1.7 billion to help 6.6 million people in South Sudan through the year.  So far, 33 per cent of that funding has been received.

**Central African Republic

In the Central African Republic, we are told by our peacekeeping colleagues that 50 constituencies went to the polls to elect their representatives to the National Assembly over the weekend.  Overall, the elections proceeded smoothly, with only a few reports of incidents, allegedly by armed elements of the CPC [Coalition of Patriots for Change].

Voters in the constituencies of Bakouma and Gadzi were able to vote for the first time since 2020, thanks to the strong presence of the national defence and security forces.  With support from UN peacekeepers, they secured the polls and the safety of the civilians, in compliance with the Integrated Elections Security Plan.  In addition to the multifaceted support provided by the UN and international counterparts, the process was monitored by domestic observers.  Provisional results are expected between today and 31 May, while the proclamation of the final results by the Constitutional Court is [scheduled around] 28 June.

**COVAX

Last note:  We have some COVAX updates from a country you’ve been asking about, and that’s Libya.  Authorities are speeding up the national vaccination programme after the second shipment of nearly 120,000 doses of the COVAX-backed vaccines arrived in the country last week.  This second batch will be used for priority groups.  It will also be administered to people who have already gotten the first dose.

According to the national plan, eligible migrants will also benefit from the vaccines, and that’s good news.

The UN team is working closely with national authorities to prepare, receive and dispatch all of the COVID-19 vaccines.  The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) supplied more than 70 refrigerators to boost the cold chain capacity and is also providing isolation centres and triage facilities.

WHO (World Health Organization), for its part, is providing technical advice to health authorities, as well as medicines, equipment, and lab supplies.

And in Chile, our team there tells us that the country has received their second shipment of more than 600,000 doses of the COVAX-backed vaccines, and that was last week.  The UN team continues supporting the authorities who are tackling the health, social and economic impacts.

**Questions and Answers

Célhia?

Question:  Stéphane, I have two questions.  The first one is on the arrest of the journalist.  Is the Secretary-General planning to talk or to ask the President of Belarus to free the journalist?  Second… Yeah?

Spokesman:  I think contacts are being had at various levels.  We would like to see him released.

Question:  About South Sudan, can’t the Mission there provide security to the health workers?

Spokesman:  Well, listen, the peacekeeping Mission provides as much security as possible to our humanitarian colleagues.  Is it possible to have a peacekeeper outside of every health facility?  Sadly not.  It is also the responsibility of the local… of the Government, the local authorities, to ensure the safety and security.  But we do our utmost to do what we can to protect civilians and, of course, to protect humanitarian colleagues.

But it… we talk about all these horrible things here, frankly, all the time, but one can only imagine the impact of… on a whole community when a doctor is killed.  It’s… I mean, the tragedy of this individual being killed is, of course, huge for his family and his loved ones, but one can imagine the impact it has on a whole community when you start attacking health workers, attacking humanitarian workers.  It’s terror.  Right?  It’s a form of terrorism, and it needs to stop.

Sorry.  Yeah.  Toby?

Question:  Thanks, Steph.  We heard from Special Envoy [Christine] Schraner Burgener today, and we’re appreciative for her briefings.  I just wanted to ask, is she and her office’s work… is that the totality of the Secretariat’s diplomatic efforts right now with regard to Myanmar?  Or is the Secretary-General also continuing an independent line of diplomacy to ameliorate and improve the situation?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Let me put it… sorry.  Let me put it this way.  The Secretary-General is not operating separately from his Special Envoy, nor is his Special Envoy operating separately from the Secretary-General.  The Secretary-General will have contacts and he’s had in the past in support of the Special Envoy’s mission and work.  She is… she represents him, so whatever he does and whatever she does is really for the same… on the same goal and along the same strategy.

James Reinl?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Can you hear me?

Spokesman:  I can hear you.  I can’t see you, sadly, but I can hear you.

Question:  Here I am.  Here I am.  Here I am.

Spokesman:  Ah, there you go.

Question:  Listen, it sounds like you’re really busy today, and there’s a chance you don’t know anything about what I’m going to ask you, but I’m going to try anyway.  It’s about the United Arab Emirates has offered or asked to host the COP28 (Twenty-Eighth Conference of Parties).  That’s the climate change conference, but it’s a couple years down the line in 2023.  Do you know anything about that?

And if a Government says we’d like to host it, is it like an automatic thing — you say, thank you very much, and they host it, or does it have to go through some kind of process?  Anything you have on this would be appreciated.

Spokesman:  Yeah, it’s a matter for the Conference of Parties to decide, so it’s a Member State decision as to who hosts a COP.  And I believe there’s some sort of regional rotations, but in the end, it’s the Member States themselves who agree on that.

Question:  Okay.  Listen, that’s great.  Can I just flag one more thing?  You were talking before about South Sudan.  South Sudan is coming up to its tenth anniversary of independence, 14 July.  It’s a little way down the line.  I’m just wondering, before then, is there a chance we could get the UN’s Special Representative for South Sudan or somebody like that talking to us about where the country has gone over the last 10 years and where it could possibly go?

Spokesman:  It’s… that sounds like plan.  Mr.… we’ll ask Mr. [Nicholas] Haysom to come to you at the earliest possible… well, closer to that date.  Anyway…

Correspondent:  Yeah.  Thank you so much.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  He would be… okay.  James… no, sorry.  Not everybody’s named James.  Mr. Abdelhamid.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  For the last two days, settlers invaded again the Al Aqsa Mosque right in front of [inaudible] eyes and protected by the Israeli security forces.  Are you aware of that?  And why there was no mention of that?  Why there was no statement?  Isn’t that violation of the kind of terms of the ceasefire, also?

Spokesman:  I… sorry.  I could hear every other word, but I think I know what you were talking about.  We did see some of the very disturbing images that came out of what happened on Al Aqsa, Temple Mount area.  It is very clear to us that there should be no violence in that area, that religious sites need to be respected and that the status quo needs to be respected.

Question:  And my second question… can you hear me?

Spokesman:  Yes, go ahead.

Question:  Okay.  On 30 April, the UN Committee on Elimination of All Forms of Racism and Racial Discrimination accepted the complaints submitted by Palestine in April 2018.  Now, this Committee is entitled, and it will, I think, start re… investigation of racial discrimination and racism con… undertaken by the authorities in Israel.  Are you aware of that?  And what is your comment on that?

Spokesman:  No, I’m not aware of the decision taken by that Committee, but I’ll… we can look.

Correspondent:  Please do.  And I will ask again about it.  Thank you.  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  Okay.  There was a question, I think, typed in by one of your colleagues whose mic is not open about the passing of Mr. Yuan Longping, the person known as the “father of hybrid rice”.

And I can tell you that we join others from the UN system who have expressed our condolences to his family and also honour the momentous work that Professor Yuan did throughout his life, which helped billions and billions of people improve their food security.  And food security is an issue that remains on top of the global agenda, and we all should be honouring his work.

Okay.  Unless there are any other questions, I will release you, and I apologize again for coming late.

For information media. Not an official record.