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12 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.

All right, good afternoon.

**Afghanistan

I know a lot of you have been asking me about Afghanistan this morning.  I can tell you that the Secretary-General is following, with deep concern, developments in Afghanistan, including the latest fighting in Herat and Kandahar.  We are particularly concerned about the shift of fighting to urban areas, where the potential for civilian harm is even greater.  We hope that the discussions this week in Doha between representatives of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and Taliban along with regional and international envoys, will restore the pathway to a negotiated settlement to the conflict.  The United Nations stands ready to contribute to such a settlement and remains focused on providing assistance to the increasing number of Afghans in need.

On the humanitarian front, I can tell you that many people are indeed arriving in Kabul and other large cities, seeking safety from the conflict and other threats.  With 18.4 million people already in need of humanitarian assistance, and conflict displacement of up to 390,000 people this year alone, humanitarian organizations continue to operate in Afghanistan.  Inter-agency assessments are ongoing in the field, focusing on displacement, conflict, floods, gender issues and protection monitoring to determine the humanitarian needs and immediate response requirements.  The humanitarian community — both the UN and non-governmental organizations — remains committed to helping people in Afghanistan, but the security environment is highly complex and clearly challenging.

**Mali

From Mali, our colleagues at the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) tell us that their camp in Aguelhok, in the Kidal region, was attacked yesterday, with multiple rounds of both direct and indirect fire landing near the UN premises.  UN peacekeepers repelled the attack, in which three UN military personnel and two civilians were injured.  This was the fifth attack on this UN camp this year.  The Mission also tells us that, in response to the 8 August attack against civilians in Gao, in which at least 50 civilians were reportedly killed, UN peacekeepers continue to patrol the area, day and night, to protect civilians and help them access basic services.  This includes air and ground reconnaissance led by UN peacekeepers, who are working alongside Malian armed forces.  Peacekeepers have established a temporary base in the area of Ouattagouna, from where they will protect civilians.

**Niger

From Niger, the Secretary-General condemns the attack conducted by unidentified gunmen on 9 August in the district of Banibangou, and that’s in the region of Tillabéri of Niger.  He expresses his condolences to the bereaved families and wishes the injured a swift recovery.  The Secretary-General reaffirms the UN’s readiness to support the Government’s efforts to enhance the protection of civilians across the Sahel.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

From the Democratic Republic of the Congo, our UN peacekeeping mission there (MONUSCO) reports that it has facilitated discussions between the Hema and Bira communities in Irumu territory in Ituri.  As a result, the rival groups signed a protocol of non-aggression and cessation of violence, and community leaders agreed to work for the restoration of peace in the territory.  The move was welcomed by youth organizations who are supporting the Mission’s disarmament and reintegration efforts.

**South Sudan

From South Sudan, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is concerned about the division that has developed within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition, which has led to clashes between factions that took place last week.  Nicholas Haysom, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on the ground, said the Mission is committed to supporting the full implementation of the Revitalized Peace Agreement, which must continue to move forward quickly.  He said that the Mission joins the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), civil society groups and others in calling for the factions and all signatory parties to work together to overcome their differences peacefully.

**Sudan

And, from neighbouring Sudan, our humanitarian colleagues are telling us that limited amount of aid has been provided to 30,000 internally displaced people at a camp in Sortony in North Darfur due to lack of access following clashes last month.  Aid agencies have not been given security assurances to access the area where displaced people are.  Our humanitarian colleagues say the most urgent needs are protection, shelter and health care.  More than 350,000 people have been displaced in Sudan due to intercommunal conflict and armed attacks between January and June of this year.

**Syria

The International Syria Support Group’s Humanitarian Task Force meeting convened virtually today in Geneva.  At that meeting, [Geir] Pedersen, our Special Envoy, expressed his growing concern as increased hostilities, which have included heavy shelling and intensified ground clashes, which have resulted in civilian casualties.  Thousands of civilians have been forced to flee Daraa [al-Balad], he said.  Civilians are suffering acute shortages of fuel, cooking gas, water, and bread.  Medical assistance is in short supply to treat the injured.  The Special Envoy reiterated his call for an immediate end to the violence and for all parties to uphold the principle of the protection of civilians and civilian objects, in accordance with international humanitarian law.  He also stressed that the immediate, safe and unimpeded humanitarian access must be granted to all impacted areas and communities, including Daraa [al-Balad], and that the near siege-like situation must end.

**Somalia

This morning, you heard from the Special Representative of the Secretary‑General for Somalia, James Swan, who briefed Security Council members on the situation in the country.  He said significant progress has been made since the signing of the Electoral Implementation Agreement between the Prime Minister Mohamed [Hussein Roble] and leaders of the federal member states on 27 May.  However, [Mr. Swan] said that more progress is needed in the areas of electoral security due to the continuing threat posed by Al-Shabaab.  And he said we are continuing to work closely with the Prime Minister and the committees on election preparations.

**Libya

Ján Kubiš, the Special Envoy for Libya, spoke at the session of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum and stressed that the ideas and proposals developed by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum contain all the ingredients necessary to reach a constructive compromise, if the participants can mobilize the political will.  That press release was shared with you.

**Zambia

Just to flag, as you will have seen, we issued a statement yesterday on Zambia, in which the Secretary-General said he is closely following developments in Zambia ahead of the general elections, which are taking place today.  The Secretary-General calls on all Zambians, notably all candidates and political party leaders, to do their part to create an environment conducive to credible, inclusive and peaceful elections.  The UN will continue to support the Government and the people of Zambia in achieving this outcome.

**COVID-19

A quick update for you from Cameroon and Trinidad and Tobago.  In Cameroon, the UN team, led by Resident Coordinator Matthias Naab, continues to work with authorities on communication campaigns to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as well as advocating for more funding [and doses] to vaccinate the entire population.  On Sunday, Cameroon received more than 150,000 [Johnson & Johnson] vaccine doses through COVAX.  These were purchased by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) through the African Union’s Vaccine Acquisition Trust initiative.  Cameroon has received 1 million doses so far.  As of yesterday, more than 300,000 people — or 1.6 per cent of the total population — had received their first dose of the vaccine.  And in Trinidad and Tobago, the Resident Coordinator, Marina Walter, continues working with authorities, the private sector and civil society to address the impacts of the pandemic.  The country received more than 30,000 doses of the vaccine yesterday, its third shipment from COVAX.  The Caribbean region has reported 1.3 million cases and more than 16,000 deaths, with more than 10 million people vaccinated so far.

**Youth Day

And lastly, today is International Youth Day.  This year’s theme is “Transforming Food Systems:  Youth Innovation for Human and Planetary Health.” It highlights solutions developed by young innovators to address challenges to our food systems.  There’s a message from the Secretary-General on that.  And I will take your questions.  Edie and then James.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thanks, Steph.  A couple of follow-ups on Afghanistan.  A senior Afghan official this morning called for the Security Council to hold an emergency meeting on Afghanistan to discuss the dire humanitarian situation and also to talk about where the Taliban is getting its weapons from.  Does the Secretary-General support and has he spoken to Council members about holding a meeting on the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan?

Spokesman:  We do think that the Security Council has a very important role to play through a unified voice in helping bring peace and at least a halt to the fighting as quickly as possible in Afghanistan.

Question:  Secondly, on the humanitarian and staffing front, under the circumstances of the Taliban now controlling ten provincial capitals, what’s the situation of UN staffing and deployments?

Spokesman:  The overall numbers in Afghanistan are basically, I think, what I said yesterday, which was in-country about 300 or so international staff, 3,000… almost 3,400 national staff.  Some of the international staff had already been… are working remotely, because they had already been working remotely due to COVID.  Obviously, the situation on the ground is very dynamic.  We’re doing what we can, and… let me rephrase that.  We’re doing everything we can to ensure the safety and protection of our staff in this very complex situation on the ground.  Yes, James?

Question:  What’s the UN’s view on what’s currently going on in two major cities where you have staff, Herat and Kandahar?  On social media, we’ve seen the Taliban in control of the main square, Martyrs’ Square in Kandahar, and we’ve seen the… it seems, on social media, and control of the police headquarters in Herat.  Are the Taliban now in control of those two cities?  What is the… what are your staff on the ground telling you?

Spokesman:  We remain in touch with our staff on the ground.  We’re not in a position to confirm who controls what city.  It’s not for me to comment on kind of the dynamic military component of what is going on.  We, obviously, are fully aware that there is fighting going on.

Question:  Moving to the talks in Doha, can you give us a readout of what Jean Arnault has been doing in Doha, who he’s been meeting?  There are reports the talks are going to a fourth day.  What are they actually working on right now?

Spokesman:  Mr. Arnault is continuing his contacts with all the delegations there, including the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Taliban and the US and others.  I don’t have an update I can share with you on the substance of the talks, but I can tell you that we’re there.

Question:  Final one on the talks.  I have more, but I’ll yield and hopefully you’ll come back to me.  I don’t know if Mr. Arnault was present last night when Mullah Baradar, the political head of the Taliban, gave a talk to various international representatives.  In that talk, he said, “We are committed to resolving disputes through dialogue.”  He’s saying this at the same time as the Taliban is carrying out a blitzkrieg military offensive at cities across Afghanistan.  Does the UN still believe the Taliban actually want peace, or do they believe this… that they’re using their presence in Doha as some sort of ruse?  And does the UN believe that the Taliban is now in breach of its agreement signed with the United States?

Spokesman:  We are continuing to engage with the Taliban in Doha.  I mean, we are continuing to believe that there is a political solution that can be had.  This doesn’t mean that we are also blind to what is going on on the ground.  We are not blind to the suffering of the civilians who are caught in crossfire in urban environments.  As to whether or not they have breached an agreement signed with the US, that is for the parties who have signed the agreement to declare whether or not a party is in breach.  Célhia, and then we’ll go to Maggie.

Question:  Stéphane, when you said that the UN is doing everything it can to protect the staff in Afghanistan, are you including the local staff?

Spokesman:  Very much so.

Question:  Okay.  Because before it was not the case?

Spokesman:  I know.  The safety of national staff and, frankly, their dependents is something we are very, very much focussed on.  Okay.  Margaret Besheer?

Question:  Hey, Steph.  How are you?

Spokesman:  Just dandy.

Question:  Great.  A few hours ago, a New York City Council member, who’s head of the Health Committee, tweeted about the upcoming September UN General Assembly high-level week.  And he said that it would be… that the UN is not requiring visiting dignitaries to be vaccinated, and he said this will expose both the dignitaries and the city residents to serious risks.  He said the UN needs to announce that vaccines will be mandatory.  So, I’m just wondering, is this something that is actually under consideration in the lead-up to high-level week?  And have you been in discussions with the New York City health authorities?  I know you always talk to Penny’s [Abeywardana] office, but have you been in discussions specifically with the Host City’s health authorities about UNGA plans?  Thanks.

Spokesman:  The holding of the General Assembly every year in the United Nations is a partnership, really, between the United Nations, the Host City, the Host Government, because people that come here don’t all come into the building.  They’re also in New York City and so on.  So, our Host Country, Host City will have whatever regulations they may have in place by September.  We may have … we will have… I very much expect an update on health requirements in this building that we’ll have, to come out within the next 48 hours on issues regarding vaccination, issues regarding mask-wearing.  That is being decided at this point.  We also need to have a dialogue with Member States.  As you well know, the Secretary-General has more direct authority over those that he pays, like the staff, than the 193 Member States in this organization.  All of that to say that the Secretary-General is determined to have the safest possible General Assembly.  I think he has shown, right from the beginning of this crisis, a very cautious approach to public health and to the way the United Nations works and the way that the UN staff who not only work here but are also all New Yorkers or New Jerseyans or Connecticuters, whatever you… the expression is.  So, we are part of this New York City community, and we want to be as safe as possible.

Question:  So, Steph, are you cryptically…?

Spokesman:  Michelle?  Sorry, yeah?

Question:  Steph?  Are you cryptically trying to say to us, perhaps, that mandatory vaccines will be required of UN staff as they start to reconstitute and come back into the building?

Spokesman:  What I’m saying clearly is that we will have an update in the next 48 hours.  Ms. Nichols?

Question:  Thanks, Steph.  Just another couple of questions on Afghanistan.  Has the UN asked the Taliban specifically not to attack UN staff and facilities in Afghanistan?  Has there been any discussion of that?  And there’s also been a lot of talk about the airport in Kabul and control of the airport.  Is continued UN presence in Afghanistan dependent on who controls the airport?  Just trying to get an indication of sort of what an evacuation might be dependent on.

Spokesman:  Obviously, the airport is a critical path in and out of the country for humanitarians and others.  I understand, from just reading the media, that there are discussions about security at the airport.  Those, as far as I know, do not include the UN.  We are in… as in any conflict area, we are in touch with all parties to the conflict, reminding them of their responsibility, not only to protect civilian infrastructure but of the inviolability of UN premises, of the need and their responsibilities to ensure that UN staff and UN premises are kept safe.  Okay.  Mr. Bays, I’m happy to come back to you if you’re still interested.

Question:  Always interested.  A follow-up from yesterday, just specifically on UN staff in Afghanistan, particularly in provinces that have fallen to the Taliban, and there, clearly, were a lot of UN staff in Kunduz, in Fayzabad, in places that are teetering on the edge, like Mazar-i-Sharif, Lashkargah, Kandahar, Herat.  Can you tell us what redeployments have been made in the last seven days of staff?  And have staff been moved because of the fighting?

Spokesman:  Yes and no, I mean in terms of what I can tell you.  There are at various points redeployment of staff.  I’m trying very hard to get a better picture of where we still remain, and I would have hoped to be able to share that with you — or where we’re not.  But, I can tell you that our staff, our humanitarian staff, are determined to stay and support the people of Afghanistan, but, obviously, we also are taking into account a very, very complex and difficult security situation.

Question:  Given what’s happened across the provinces, how worried is the United Nations about the capital, Kabul, given it’s the most populated, the most fortified place in Afghanistan, with a population of almost five million people?  And the Taliban have already said that they are conducting a campaign to target key officials in the [Ashraf] Ghani Government.

Spokesman:  It is clear that urban fighting in the city of the size of Kabul would have catastrophic impact on civilians, and we very much hope that this does not happen.   Okay.  Iftikhar.  I’ve seen other people in the… Iftikhar then Abdelhamid.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  All the questions on Afghanistan have been asked, but may I ask you, since Afghanistan is a landlocked country, are its land routes into neighbouring country, regional neighbouring countries and other central Asian countries open?  Who controls those routes?

Spokesman:  I think, as I said to James, I’m not in a position to kind of make determinations on military and security situation as to who controls what city and who controls what routes.  As in any conflict area, we try to have as much access as possible, but that’s really not a question that I can answer.  Abdelhamid, and then we’ll go to Dulcie.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I have two questions.  One, there is an article in The New York Times with this heading:  “America needs to start telling the truth about Israel’s nuclear weapons”.  Will the UN also have the courage one day to speak with courage about the Israeli nuclear capabilities?

Spokesman:  I think our position calling for disarmament across the world has been clear.  I don’t really have any comment on this particular article.  Your second question?

Question:  My second question:  Human Rights Watch issued a statement today, and it says that it has investigated the three Israeli raids during the aggression on Gaza in May and these three raids killed 62 civilians with no military targets around the area, which they qualify as war crimes.  It also, in the same statement, called on the firing of rockets by the Palestinians as also war crimes, and they should be also investigated by ICC [International Criminal Court].  Do you subscribe to the crime … finding of the Human Rights Watch breach … breach?

Spokesman:  Look, Human Rights Watch says what it says.  I think if you look back to the period of the most recent conflict in Gaza, we were very clear in condemning any targeting or deaths of civilians.  Dulcie?

Question:  Hi.  I just have some more Afghanistan questions.  So, you said there were 300 international staff, and then there are 3… I think you said 3,000 national.  So, you said a lot of people are working remotely in the international staff.  So, how many are approximately left, actually, in Afghanistan?

Spokesman:  No, what I … the total number of international staff is roughly 720.  About 300 of those are working in-country.

Question:  Okay.  So, more than half are working outside the country?

Spokesman:  The math… I’m not very good at math, but, yes, I would agree with that statement.  But, a lot of this… Dulcie, a lot of this had already been in place due to the ongoing COVID issues.

Question:  Right.  So, those people are sort of taken care of.  The 420 who are not working in Afghanistan are not there.  Right?  So, that’s … so, that leaves you about 300 international staff and then many national staff.  So, who’s guarding the UN… the UNAMA [UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan] bases now?  Are they Afghan security forces?

Spokesman:  As in any country, we have lo-… whatever security… local security guards, but in terms of the safety and security is always the re-… of UN premises, especially in non-peacekeeping missions, is the responsibility of the Host Government.

Question:  Well, except I think NATO was also helping to secure some of those bases.  Is that correct?

Spokesman:  That’s… I don’t know if NATO was or it may have been that… I can tell… yeah.

Question:  And is the UN talking currently to the US Government about UNAMA, what to do about it?

Spokesman:  What do you mean, “what to do about it”?

Question:  How to handle this situation…?

Spokesman:  I mean, we’re in touch… I think, as I… my answer to James, we’re speaking to the Americans, speaking to, obviously, all Security Council members about this current situation in Afghanistan.

Question:  So, what is the Security Council and US advising?

Spokesman:  That’s not de-… I mean, that’s not… conversations are being had.  That’s what I’m going to leave it at.

Question:  Well, are they suggesting that you evacuate Afghanistan?

Spokesman:  I think … on the security situation, we’re, obviously, reviewing things on a day-to-day basis.  Michelle?

Question:  Thanks, Steph.  Sorry.  Another Afghanistan question.  The Special Envoy said on Friday that there’d been about a thousand deaths in the past month.  Does the UN have any idea of sort of which party is to blame for most of those deaths?  And the Taliban put out a statement yesterday suggesting that the UN, the Red Cross and other aid groups go with Taliban into areas that they’ve taken over to investigate civilian deaths.  What’s the UN response to that?

Spokesman:  I think, for that, any investigation of this type, fact-finding or any other type of investigation, needs to be based fully on impartiality.  It would concern all parties to the conflict and would need to take place independently from them.  On your first question, the Mission regularly, I think, quarterly, puts out basically casualty report, so I would refer you to the last one.  Obviously, in… especially in urban environments, it is sometimes difficult to decide who is responsible when civilians are caught literally in a crossfire.  Okay.  Let’s close out with James.

Question:  Sorry.  Couple more.  It’s Friday tomorrow.  You’re going to have an announcement in 48 hours on the vaccine policy.  Will we have it by the end of the week?  We’d rather not have it at the weekend.

Spokesman:  I would really rather not do anything over the weekend that involves work.  So…?

Question:  Right.  Right.  Two more.  It’s very nice to hear from you on Afghanistan, but the situation is very serious now.  Do you think we will be able to hear from the Secretary-General himself or from his Special Representative in Kabul, or could we get an update, a stakeout or something, for our colleagues in Doha from Mr. Arnault?  We would like to hear from someone.

Spokesman:  I… the thing I would love the most is not having to answer questions and having people over my head take them.  So, I am working on a number of those fronts for you.

Correspondent:  And I didn’t get the statement — maybe my cell phone filed it — an email from Mr. Kubiš about the UNSMIL about the Libya political dialogue.

Spokesman:  We’ll have it…

Question:  But, has the dialogue… I mean, it’s met again.

Spokesman:  Yeah.  The Mission put out a whole press release.

Question:  Yeah, but it hasn’t achieved anything, has it?  Again.  So, I mean, are the elections now in doubt?  You keep saying it had to be done by the end of July, had to be done by the end of August.  I mean, you’ve had another meeting, and nothing’s been achieved.  Are the elections now going to have to be postponed?

Spokesman:  I’m not in a position to agree with what you just said.  Okay.  Thank you, all.  Always a pleasure.

For information media. Not an official record.