11 August 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.


Good afternoon.  I will start off with a statement on Mali.  The Secretary‑General strongly condemns the attacks perpetrated against civilians that took place on 8 August in Gao, where at least 50 civilians were reportedly killed and several wounded.  The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) sent peacekeepers to the area to protect civilians and has increased its day and night patrolling to deter any further attacks and facilitate the delivery of basic services in the affected area and that was done in coordination with the Malian Defence and Security Forces.  For his part, the Secretary-General extends his deepest condolences to the bereaved families.  He wishes a speedy recovery to the injured.  These deliberate attacks against civilian populations constitute serious violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law.  MINUSMA stands ready to assist the Malian authorities in bringing the perpetrators of these crimes to justice.


Turning to Afghanistan with a humanitarian update, since the start of the year, nearly 390,000 people have been newly displaced by conflict across the country, with a huge spike since May.  Our humanitarian colleagues tell us that between 1 July and 5 August, the humanitarian community verified that 5,800 internally displaced persons have arrived in Kabul and are seeking safety from the conflict and other threats.  They have received assistance including food, household items, water and sanitation support.  Most of [those] staying in Kabul are hosted by friends and family, but a growing number are staying in the open.  Ten teams were deployed today to assess the situation for people staying outside in parks and open spaces.  They identified an additional 4,522 displaced men, women and children in need of shelter, food, sanitation and drinking water.  A temporary health clinic and mobile health teams are providing health services to these people.

Despite a worsening security situation, humanitarian agencies are staying and delivering to people in need, reaching 7.8 million people in the first six months of this year.  The ability of the United Nations and local and international NGOs to stay and deliver depends on the removal of bureaucratic hurdles by the parties, staff safety, and additional funds being urgently mobilized.  The $1.3 billion Humanitarian Response Plan for Afghanistan remains just 38 per cent funded, leaving an almost $800 million shortfall.


Turning to Ethiopia, our colleagues in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs inform us that the situation in Tigray is volatile and unpredictable, and there is spill-over of the conflict to neighbouring Afar and Amhara regions.  In Amhara, an estimated 200,000 people have been displaced and in Afar, more than 76,000 people are reportedly displaced following the entry of Tigray forces into the region.  The Office is also looking into information that a health clinic and a school being used to shelter internally displaced people in Galikoma Kabele in the Fenti Zone were shelled and that a warehouse was ransacked.  Within Tigray, humanitarian access has significantly improved with an estimated 75 per cent of the area now accessible, but the flow of humanitarian supplies into the region remains insufficient.  Access via the only road through Afar region remains partially open due to insecurity and thorough searches at checkpoints.  Staff rotation to and from the region is improving.  Last week, the UN Humanitarian Air Service operated two flights from Addis Ababa to Mekelle as planned.  Convoys transporting UN staff from Mekelle to Semera took place on 3 August and 6 August.

**South Sudan

From South Sudan, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) tells us that, following a recent upsurge of attacks in the Tambura region in Western Equatoria State, peacekeepers are engaging with local communities to address their security and humanitarian needs.  An assessment team from UNMISS visited villages east of the state’s capital, Yambio, and spoke with community members to hear their concerns.  Peacekeepers have also set up a free medical camp in the Wau Teaching Hospital to help patients with vision-related issues.


The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) says it’s is deeply concerned about the abduction and disappearance of Rida Faraj Fraitis, the Chief of Staff for the First Deputy Prime Minister of the Government of National Unity.  Unidentified armed men abducted Mr. Fraitis with his two colleagues on 2 August.  The whereabouts of all three of them remain unknown and UNSMIL fears for their safety and security.  Ján Kubiš, the Special Envoy for Libya, said that under international human rights law, no one may be arbitrarily arrested or detained.  The Mission calls on Libyan authorities to fully investigate all alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.


From Guinea, our colleagues there tell us that authorities yesterday confirmed the first case of Marburg virus disease in the country.  The UN team, led by Resident Coordinator Vincent Martin, is working to meet urgent needs, including in infection prevention and control.  The World Health Organization (WHO) supported the health ministry in the investigation that led to the confirmation of the first case, while also working with other UN agencies in supporting the ongoing responses to COVID-19 and Ebola.  Our team is helping to boost contact tracing, treatment capacity, risk communication and strengthening cross-border monitoring capacity.  We are also ensuring the continuity of essential social services, including protection against sexual exploitation and abuse.


Also on the health front, in Malawi, the UN team, led by Resident Coordinator Maria Jose Torres, continues supporting the response to the virus.  The country received over 300,000 single doses of vaccines donated by the United States through the COVAX Facility over the weekend.  This brings the total number of COVAX-backed vaccines to more than 850,000.  We also recently provided 145 oxygen concentrators and 35 oxygen cylinders to boost critical care facilities.  Eight UN agencies are also supporting authorities to distribute vaccinations, strengthening access to essential services and education, as well as protecting vulnerable communities.  And in the Bahamas, they received over 33,000 vaccines doses.  This is the third batch received via COVAX.  As of 31 July, a total of over 106,000 doses had been administered, with more than 61,000 people having received the first dose and over 46,000 being fully vaccinated.


Moving on to Madagascar and to the situation we’ve talked to you about in the south, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today said their latest data shows an alarming number of people facing severe acute food insecurity in the southern regions of the country.  According to FAO, in the post-harvest period between April and September, the number of people facing acute food insecurity was estimated at 1.14 million, about 43 per cent of the analysed population, compared to 35 per cent of the analysed population in the period from January to March.  FAO warned that this number is projected to increase to 1.31 million in the October to December period.  This is 24 per cent higher on a yearly basis.  FAO said that of particular concern is the increasing number of people in the most food insecure categories, which are Phase 4:  Emergency; and Phase 5:  Catastrophe.  Currently, an estimated 400,000 people are assessed to be in these categories, but the number is projected to increase to more than 500,000 in the last quarter of this year.  FAO stressed that an extension and immediate scaling up of ongoing food and livelihood [assistance] is urgently required.

**Financial Contribution

Lastly, we want to thank a Member State for bringing us up to the nice number of 120 fully paid-up Member States.  The country’s national flower is called the dok champa.  Anybody can guess?  No?  It is also the only landlocked country in South-East Asia.  [Lao People’s Democratic Republic.]  Exactly.  You know, Edie, your experience in the field has come in handy today.  So, let's go.  Go ahead.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Okay.  I have two questions.  First, does the Secretary‑General have any reaction to North Korea repeating its threats to respond to US‑South Korean military exercises, which the north claims are a rehearsal for invasion?

Spokesman:  And your second question?

Correspondent:  Second question is on Russia levelling new charges against opposition leader Alexei Navalny of creating a foundation that Moscow claims infringes on people's rights.  His foundation for fighting corruption, which was launched 10 years ago, has published dozens of videos exposing alleged corruption of senior Government officials.

Spokesman:  On the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], we would reiterate that diplomacy is the only pathway to a sustainable peace, and we would call for a lowering of the rhetorical tensions that we are seeing.  On your second question, I would reiterate the Secretary‑General's concern that he's repeated on a number of times across the world where we are seeing a shrinking of space for civil society.  James?

Question:  Let me start with Afghanistan.  Meetings taking place in Doha, series of meetings.  Who is representing the UN?  And can you give us a readout of what has happened so far?

Spokesman:  Jean Arnault is in Doha, where meetings between representatives of the Islamic Republic and the Taliban and other regional representatives and envoys are continuing in different formats.  I'm not in a position to give you details, but I can tell you that he is there and fully engaged.

Question:  A question about the 11‑year sentence for Michael Spavor, the Chinese… the Canadian citizen sentenced in China.  Many diplomats who observed this do not believe there was a fair trial.  What is the UN's reaction to this sentence?

Spokesman:  I don't have any language on that at this moment, but I do expect to have something a bit later on, which I'll share.

Question:  Okay.  Then I'll ask you one more, which is, you mentioned Libya and UNSMIL, but you didn't mention the Libyan political dialogue talks, which have restarted in virtual terms.  Could you tell us what is at stake here?  And if they don't come to some agreement soon, is the timeline now of an election at the end of the year at risk?

Spokesman:  Look, we're continuing with the timeline that was elaborated and agreed upon, and we continue to hope that all the Libyan parties will work towards that goal.  Célhia?

Question:  Stéphane, in South Sudan, how many people from the Mission have been vaccinated?  And if they are not, how can they do their work in a country where almost nobody's vaccinated?

Spokesman:  Well, I mean, I don't have the numbers of who's been vaccinated in the Mission off the top of my head.  What I can tell you is that, throughout the start of the pandemic, we have continued our work, whether it's in South Sudan or anywhere else where we serve in the field, in all the peacekeeping missions.  People are taking the precautions that they can with masks and social distancing, whatever they need.  So, we are scaling up the vaccination of our colleagues in the field, but before vaccines were even available, we were continuing to do our work.  Okay.

Question:  [Inaudible]?

Spokesman:  Yes.

Question:  [Inaudible] I asked a question yesterday, but I want to ask again.  My question is regarding ecological terror ongoing by Armenia in the liberated region of Azerbaijan so the trans‑boundary Okchuchay River is being polluted with their…?

Spokesman:  No, I heard your question.  In fact, I was trying to get something for you.  I've been told to direct you to our UN Environment Programme (UNEP).  So, I'm sorry I made you wait for that non‑answer, but I'll give you the contacts there.  All right.  Anything in the… Benny, please.

Question:  Yeah.  I'd like you to try to confirm or deny or maybe comment on a story that appeared yesterday from Gaza.  According to a story, UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] asked a weapons… a UN ex‑weapons experts from… what are they called… UNMAS [United Nations Mine Action Service] to inspect a tunnel that was found in an UNRWA school in Zaitoun neighbourhood of Gaza two months ago, and Hamas blocked the inspection; and therefore, another inspection that was similarly planned for Rafah was also cancelled.  According to the story, UNRWA said that they can't open the school year if the inspection is not taking place.  Can you shed any light on this?

Spokesman:  No, I mean, our colleagues at UNRWA could give you the details.  What I can tell you is that it is critical for every UN premise anywhere in the world to be free of any weapons or anything that would put that premise at risk.

Question:  But, that tunnel in Gaza City was found two months ago, and now they are trying to inspect it but are not allowed to do that.  Is that a problem…?

Spokesman:  Benny, as I said, on the operational details, I would ask you to ask UNRWA.  I can only state what our policy is.  [The Spokesman later shared a statement by UNRWA protesting what it said was the takeover of one its schools by the de facto authorities.]  Mr. Gladstone?

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Thank you.  Forgive me if this question has been asked in recent days or weeks, but is there a list of Heads of State and Government who are going to physically appear at the General Assembly in four weeks', five weeks' time?  Is there a…?

Spokesman:  No.  The short answer is, at this point, no.  I think you would have to check with the Permanent Missions to see what their plans are.  I think as just… as a matter of a reality check, whether it's for Heads of States or our own personal lives, we may have plans for September, but I think we all have to see what the situation will be in late September.  Right now, the format of the GA, as far as I… the format of the GA remains unchanged; it’s what we had announced a few weeks ago, which is some Member States will be allowed… will have… Member States will have the choice of either having an in‑person delivery of a speech or a video delivery of the speech.  I assume that a lot of plans will be made at the last minute because of the changing situation of the Delta variant in the four corners of the world.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Seven brothers were forced to demolish their own home by their hands in Beit Haniya.  Is there any cruelty in history more brutal than that?  And why Mr. Tor Wennesland is silent on these crimes?

Spokesman:  I think Mr. Wennesland reports regularly and thoroughly on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including on the issue of demolitions, which we have spoken out against.  Mr. Bays?

Question:  Couple more questions, one on… another one on Afghanistan and then two on Ethiopia.  On Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, when she spoke to the Security Council on Friday, was very clear what she wanted.  She listed six bullet points of things she wanted from the Council.  She said the situation was urgent, and I think her words have been borne out by the fact that quite a few cities have… I think six have fallen since she spoke, and yet silence from the Council.  What's the Secretary‑General's message in support of his Special Representative in terms of them actually doing something with regards to her very specific list?

Spokesman:  I mean, the Special Representative speaks on behalf of the Secretary‑General, so the Secretary‑General continues to… as in many conflict areas, the need… there's always a need for a strong, unified voice from the Security Council.  My understanding is that Ms. Lyons will be back again in front of the Security Council, I think, later this month, but it is something that we remain in touch with with all the parties.

Question:  On Ethiopia, the Oromo Liberation Army have issued a statement saying that they are now in a military alliance with the Tigray People's Liberation Front, and their leader is quoted as saying the only solution now is overthrowing this Government militarily.  What's the UN's reaction?

Spokesman:  We do not believe that there is a military solution to this conflict.  As the fighting continues, though we've seen some of it abating, which has allowed for greater humanitarian access, we're still seeing pockets… we're still seeing some zones of conflict.  We're seeing horrendous reports of human rights violations.  I mean, today… I think today Amnesty International came out with a report on the allegations of rapes and enslavement by military forces against women in Tigray.  It's one of these cases where we've run out of words to describe the horror of what civilians are being inflicted.  More conflict can only lead, sadly, to more civilian pain.

Question:  I was going to ask another… a question about the Amnesty report, but you raised that yourself.  So, I'm going to ask one more then, if I can, which is following up on Rick's question on the General Assembly.  You can't tell us which leaders are coming, so we will have to make 193 phone calls…?  I'm assuming some of these missions have actually told you that their leader is coming.  It would be useful guidance…

Spokesman:  I mean, I think… no, I can understand, but it is not… there are… as always and prior to a GA, some Member States are telling us, this may happen, this may not happen.  It is not for me to confirm the travel plans of a Head of State or Head of Government, especially this far out from the GA in a time where things are so volatile, in a sense, of what will happen.

Correspondent:  So, my question was this.

Spokesman:  I can give you the 193 phone numbers.

Correspondent:  I've got the blue book.

Spokesman:  Yeah, I know you do.

Question:  But, yes, that's Member States and Heads of State who will decide, and you will let them do what they want to do.  The press, you will not let us do what you want to do.  You will have rules in place.  Can you tell us what the rules are going to be in terms of the reporters here?  Will it only be resident correspondents?  Will the UN premises be open to other visiting correspondents?  Perhaps you could tell us the media arrangements because we won't have any say, as ever.

Spokesman:  No, I… okay.  One, our friend Tal [Mekel], I think, will be back here in person on Monday.  I know he's been advocating on your behalf, as we have.  The visiting… allowing visiting delegations… press will, obviously, depend on leaders, delegations coming in, but I would advise you to reach out to Tal.  Edie?

Correspondent:  A quick follow‑up on two things that James mentioned.  I would just like to put on the record that, every year before the GA, we have at least gotten an early list of possible speakers in July.

Spokesman:  Speakers' list.  Yeah.

Question:  So, I am… and, obviously, lots of things change.  Lots of things change from that list, and we get updates.

Spokesman:  No, no.  I will try to see where we are on the speakers' list, but, obviously, in this… the speakers' list is one thing.  Who will be speaking in person and who will be speaking by message, to answer James' question, is a different thing.  But, I will… I hear you.  I hear your…

Question:  And if we're go… if you're going to do a speakers' list, perhaps under these very unusual circumstances of COVID, you could put on the speakers' list "possibly in person" or whatever?  Second…

Spokesman:  We could.  Yes.

Question:  You could.  It would be very helpful.  Secondly, on the Oromo link‑up with the Tigrayans, is there any possibility, since you have said that the United Nations does not believe in a military solution, that the UN might offer its good offices to try and tamp down this conflict and find a peaceful solution?

Spokesman:  I mean, I think we have… our good offices are always available as a matter of course, should all the parties want it.  We've had contacts with all the… with most of the parties and continue to deliver the same message.  Okay.  I think that is it for a slow… oh, Rick.  I think Rick Gladstone had a follow‑up.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you.  I wanted to follow up on what… a question that James had on Afghanistan.  Are there any plans by the UN offices in Afghanistan to scale down or evacuate the staff there because of the rapidly changing security situation with the number of provincial capitals falling?  We had three or four yesterday.

Spokesman:  Listen, contingency plans are continuously updated and reviewed in order to keep all our staff safe while, at the same time, delivering as much aid as possible.  But, forefront in our mind is helping the people of Afghanistan and keeping our staff safe.

Question:  So, does that mean that you haven't… I'm sorry.  Can I follow up?  You haven't evacuated any UN staff from Afghanistan?

Spokesman:  No, I'm not… there's been no evacuation.  Our footprint, as of now, I can tell you what it basically is.  We have about 3,000 or so national staff and about 300 international on the ground.  There are more people working… that are working remotely.  Because of COVID, they had been working and had been working remotely.  Yes, ma'am?

Question:  [Inaudible] between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  Armenia violates almost every day.  I want to emphasise that fact there are shooting Azerbaijani military base in Nasosnaya a few days ago.  What's the reaction of UN?

Spokesman:  I don't have… we do not have… the UN does not have a monitoring mission on the ground.  We would encourage all the parties to respect the agreements that have been agreed up to date to ensure the safety and calm for all civilians.  Mr. Bays?

Question:  Just a follow‑up on Rick's question about UN staff across Afghanistan.  Just to be absolutely clear on what you just said, are you telling us that no UN staff have been repositioned in the last few days — for example, from Kunduz, from Fayzabad, places like that?

Spokesman:  No, no, I'm not saying people haven't been relocated.  I mean, I took Rick's question as an evacuation from the country.

Question:  No, but I'm asking, can you tell us what… how many staff… are there provinces where the UN had an office where that office is now not operational…?

Spokesman:  I will see what I can… numbers I can get you on that.  Okay.  Thank you, all.  I will escape.

For information media. Not an official record.