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25 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.

**Afghanistan — Town Hall

All right.  As some of you have asked me about the Secretary-General’s town hall meeting with staff in Afghanistan, from the UN Mission there.  I can confirm that he did have a town hall meeting with staff today to outline what the UN system is doing to keep people safe and to keep our operations running.  Most importantly, he was there to answer questions from staff in Kabul.  He said that he understands the staff's deep anxiety about what the future holds and said that we are taking measures to keep our staff safe and as well, at the same time, ensuring that we are able to stay and deliver in Afghanistan in the face of mounting humanitarian needs.  He and other senior officials at the UN are strongly engaging with all actors in Afghanistan and other Member States.

**Haiti

Also this morning, in Port-au-Prince, Ramesh Rajasingham, the Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, joined Haitian Government officials and partners to launch a flash appeal to address the urgent needs of Haitians impacted by the 14 August earthquake, as well as tropical storm Grace.  The emergency flash appeal requests just over $187 million to provide urgent assistance to the most vulnerable 500,000 Haitians in the impacted areas.  The funding will be used to provide shelter, water and sanitation, emergency health-care, food, protection and early recovery assistance.  Full details of the Flash Appeal are available online.  And just as a reminder that tomorrow we will be joined by Mr. Rajasingham, as well as Bruno Lemarquis, the Humanitarian Coordinator in Haiti.

**Iraq

And also this morning, not in Iraq, rather, but here in New York.  the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, briefed Council members.  She said the clock is ticking with only 46 days left until Iraq goes to the polls on 10 October and noted the Independent High Electoral Commission has reached several milestones.  She added that the UN Mission continues to provide technical assistance wherever it can to the Commission.  Preparations are also under way for the UN monitoring of the elections, and the Mission is also stepping up its communications efforts aimed at informing the Iraqi voters on election preparations and related UN activities, sharing facts and figures, tackling misinformation and managing public expectations.  The Special Representative added that the elections clearly have the potential to be different from the elections of 2018 but warned that they cannot be the sole responsibility of the Electoral Commission.  She called on all parties to commit to transparent and credible elections — in words and in deeds.  Her remarks were shared with you.

**Algeria/Morocco

I was asked yesterday and this morning by email about the situation between Algeria and Morocco, and I can tell you that we have, of course, seen yesterday’s announcement by the Algerian Foreign Minister regarding the severing of diplomatic relations with Morocco.  I can tell you that the Secretary-General encourages the two neighbouring countries to find a way forward to mend relations, including in pursuit of peace and security in the region.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, our colleagues at the UN Children’s Fund are concerned about the impact on children of new cases of the bubonic plague in the eastern province of Ituri.  They say the plague has been reported in areas that had not seen a case in over 15 years, and other cases in areas where they previously had very few or none.  This is really near the borders with South Sudan and Uganda.  According to UNICEF, new research shows that children are especially at risk of contracting the plague.  They are appealing for help to support impacted communities through a rat and flea eradication campaign, as well as the construction of houses that are more resistant to rodents and dangerous insects.

**Water

Our friends in Rome at the Food and Agriculture Organization today released a guide that says forests and trees play a vital role in meeting the world's increasing demand for water and need to be managed for water-related ecosystem service.  Launched during World Water Week, the Guide to Forest-Water Management is the first global publication to provide guidance on the contribution of forests for a holistic approach to water resource management, including the management, monitoring and valuation of forests to deliver water-related ecosystem services.

**Climate

I want to flag something from our friends upstairs at the UN News.  They are launching a podcast tomorrow, which is all about the climate crisis.  The podcast, called No Denying It, will have new episodes every week and will last until the beginning of COP26, which as you know is scheduled to take place in October in Glasgow, in the United Kingdom.  The guests include activists from all over the world as well as Messengers of Peace and Goodwill Ambassadors.  You can reach it on iTunes, Spotify, SoundCloud or anywhere you listen to your podcasts.  UN News also just launched a Climate Newsletter which will go out twice a month and every day during COP26.  It will include curated content from across the UN system, with links to major news developments, report launches, explainers and multimedia elements, all to be re-purposed.  You can subscribe to it on the UN News website, and I recommend it.  Ms. Nichols and then Ms. Betul.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Few questions on Afghanistan.  Now that the UN has relocated 100 international staff to Kazakhstan, what's happening to the remaining 200 international staff in Afghanistan?

Spokesman:  We are continuing to look at possible relocations of international staff, also, obviously, of national staff that are at risk.  But I think it bears saying again that the UN presence in Afghanistan is… the UN is present in Afghanistan and will remain in Afghanistan.  We're continuing to deliver services.  I just got off the phone with a colleague who works for a humanitarian agency in Kabul.  She told me she was able to… was at an IDP [internally displaced persons] camp and a school and a hospital, as well, that were functioning, including visiting a classroom full of girls.  So, we are lightening a footprint, as we've said.  Part of it is to better manage a lot of the back‑office work where people in Almaty are able to really just focus on doing their functions as opposed to having to worry about security, as well.  It's also a matter of being able to better protect and better service the staff that remains and that will remain.

Question:  So, how do you identify Afghan UN staff most at risk?

Spokesman:  There are different criteria being used.

Question:  Because it's… we've just moved a story on a UN Security incident list which lists a lot of harassment and threats and abuse, which the Secretary‑General himself acknowledged yesterday.  So, how many of those staff have indicated they would like to leave?

Spokesman:  Yeah.  Look, as I said, there are different criteria being used.  What is also critical is that the authorities in charge in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan realize that they have the responsibility to protect UN premises and for the safety of UN staff.

Question:  And sorry, just one more quick question.  Do you have any idea how many of the 3,000 national staff how many of those actually already have visas that would enable them to travel somewhere else?

Spokesman:  No, that's not something I have… I can share with you from here.  Betul.

Question:  Steph, a follow‑up on Afghanistan.  We heard a Taliban Spokesperson telling women to stay home from work, and I'm just wondering if the national staff, female UN staff on the ground, have been impacted.  Can they go to work?  Are they being prevented?  And if you could also remind us how many female national UN staff there are in Kabul or in the rest of the country.

Spokesman:  Right.  It's a good question.  I don't have a gender breakdown of our national staff, but it's something I should be able to get.  We have seen some female national staff being able to work, as well as people in… who work for partners, for our partners in places that we're able, that we are supporting and funding.  What has been very as much front and centre in our discussions with the Taliban is the need to… women to be able to work and also to be able to work safely.

Question:  About the SG's meeting yesterday with the UN staff and I believe there were staff from Afghanistan in that meeting as well?

Spokesman:  Today was the town hall meeting, today, this morning, yeah, yeah.

Question:  That meeting, has this concern been raised by the female staff in Afghanistan?  Have they had any complaints that…

Spokesman:  Yeah, I mean, it's obviously…

Question:  …preventing them from going to work?

Spokesman:  I'm not going to go into the detail of the dialogue, but it's, obviously, an issue that was very much discussed.  Mr. Hanna.

Question:  There were a couple of reports quoting messages from the UN Department of Safety and Security advising staff to allow Taliban searches of premises and not to destroy UN identification or other papers.  Can you comment on that?

Spokesman:  No, I'm not going to comment or confirm any of these leaked documents that we've seen reported.  Okay.  Let me see if there are any questions on the screen.  Abdelhamid.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I have two questions.  One is about the escalation on the border between Israel and the occupied Gaza strip.  The Israeli snipers today shot and killed Palestinians on the other side, and it looks like there is an escalation in that part of the country, so if you have any statement on that.  And the second, which is related, Anhar al-Deek, a lady in jail Anhar al-Deek, she's 25, she's about to give birth any minute.  And she sent a letter appealing for the international community and the human rights groups to allow her to go and give birth in a decent hospital, not in a prison setting.  I wonder if her heartbreaking letter had reached the ears of the UN, including Tor Wennesland?

Spokesman:  I'm not aware of that case that you mentioned in your second question.  We can follow up.  We've, obviously, been monitoring those developments in Gaza and in Israel, and we are very concerned about the escalating tensions and, of course… and the number of casualties that we've seen.  Okay.  Rick Gladstone, Rick.

Question:  I have a couple of questions on Afghanistan.  Thank you.  Can you say how… if the United Nations has… any of the Afghan employees of the United Nations in Afghanistan have left the country?  Have any of them left the country?

Spokesman:  Yes, a number of them have… have been relocated.

Question:  Can you specify… can you specify how many?

Spokesman:  I cannot give you numbers.

Question:  Okay.  One other follow‑up, if I might.  The… can you tell us when the United Nations first began to plan for the… a possible evacuation of the international staff?  How long ago did that process begin?

Spokesman:  Sorry.  Say again.

Question:  My question is, what… when did the United Nations start to plan for… contingency plan for the evacuation of international staff from Afghanistan? When did that… when did those plans first start?

Spokesman:  Contingency planning for worst‑case scenarios in Afghanistan have been going on for quite some time.  I… go ahead.  Michelle?

Question:  Did the contingency planning account for possible relocation of national staff?

Spokesman:  Contingency plans… contingency plans look at various options.  Relocation of staff is always an option and clearly has been an option here.  I just wanted to give a bit more detail, I think, to Betul, what you were… about the national staff.  Most of the national staff, the vast majority of national staff in Kabul are working from home, except some critical staff who are involved in certain, obviously, critical operations that can only be done from the office, but there's basically a policy for them to work from home.  The gender breakdown is about 10 per cent of national staff are women from what I'm told.

Question:  Can I follow up please?  Is that because of security concerns or they were told to stay home?

Spokesman:  Well, we… given the security situation, we're encouraging… we've told national staff to work from home.  Okay.  Yes, Gregory.

Question:  Thank you.  Can you please confirm the article in Politico that some UN staff sent the letter to Secretary‑General for evacuate of Afghan nationals from Afghanistan?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  There's been… there have been letters written from staff unions and others, which we are responding to.  Okay.  Maggie?  And Iftikhar.

Question:  Hi, Steph.  Has the Secretary‑General spoken directly to any of the Taliban leadership, such as Baradar or anyone?

Spokesman:  No, I'm not aware of any direct contact.  Our main point of contact with the Taliban in Kabul has been Ramiz [Alakbarov], our Humanitarian Coordinator on the ground.  Iftikhar.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  This town hall meeting that the Secretary‑General addressed, was the UN staff gathered in the UN premises, or they joined remotely?

Spokesman:  Everything was done remotely given the nature of the situation on the ground.

Question:  And secondly, we have seen reports that two Republican Senators… Congressmen have called for probe of [inaudible] lot of cash to UAE.  Does the UN have any information whether he embezzled money and took away the [inaudible]?

Spokesman:  No, we do not.  I do not.  Excuse me.  Betul.

Question:  Steph, sorry, a couple of more follow‑ups.  Just to clarify, the number of national staff in Afghanistan is 3,000?

Spokesman:  It's about 3,000.

Question:  And then 10 per cent of which are women?

Spokesman:  That's my understanding.

Question:  And would you happen to have a reaction to what the Taliban Spokesperson said… he, obviously, said that, like, some of their fighters are not trained to respect women so that women need to stay home.

Spokesman:  Look… I'm not going to get into a back‑and‑forth with what was said.  What is clear to us is that women… we work on principles that are unshakable.  One of them is being, obviously, the equality of women and men, the rights of women to go about their lives and, given this context, their right to go to work and to work safely.  Michelle.

Question:  Sorry.  Just another follow‑up.  In the UN's dealings with the Taliban, has the Taliban told the UN they want the UN to stay?

Spokesman:  We are… I mean, we're continuing our work, and it is clear that we are continuing our work under the… I mean, I guess the short answer is these discussions are ongoing, right, and that there is a recognition of the need for the UN to continue its humanitarian work.  Iftikhar, and then we'll go back to Mike…

Correspondent:  I just…

Spokesman:  …and Dulcie.  Sorry, Abdelhamid.  I'm sorry.  My bad.

Correspondent:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I just want to tell you that I sent the letter to Mr. Wennesland Twitter account, and I will ask about his reaction tomorrow if you don't mind.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Okay.  Dulcie and then Mr. Hanna.

Question:  Just a follow‑up… oh, sorry, sorry.

Spokesman:  Yeah, go ahead, Dulcie.

Question:  Okay.  Is Deborah Lyons… where is she located right now?

Spokesman:  She's in Almaty.

Question:  Okay.  How long has she been there?

Spokesman:  She's been there for, I guess, four or five days.

Question:  So, she was in the second relocation airlift?

Spokesman:  I don't know which plane she was on.  I think she's been there for about four or five days.

Question:  And her deputy, where is he?

Spokesman:  Her deputy… her deputies are in Kabul.  Ms. Lyons has been extremely focussed on dealing with critical Member States that will… who may be able to assist the UN in terms of its security and safety of staff, both national and international.  Mr. Hanna… go ahead.  Go ahead, Dulcie.  Go ahead.

Question:  The national staff who have been relocated outside the country, they were able to [inaudible] because they had dual visas?

Spokesman:  I'm not going into the detail of our operations regarding national staff given the very obvious delicate security situation.

Question:  Okay.  Just one more question.  Most of the people on the ground working for the UN are working in Kabul or throughout the country.  What does the picture look like?

Spokesman:  They are… there are a… there is a smattering, from what I understand, of international staff outside of Kabul.  Obviously, Kabul is the… holds, by far, the vast majority of UN staff at this point.  But we are operating in different parts of the country.  Mr. Hanna.

Question:  Steph, you mentioned the need for the UN to continue its work in Afghanistan, even in these circumstances.  Have you identified the amount of personnel you will need to continue to work effectively?  And would this be on a volunteer basis in terms of the staff who are prepared to stay behind to carry out this work?

Spokesman:  Well, I… staff… I mean, we work on a voluntary basis.  Right? The assessment… I guess the short answer is all of that is still being worked out.  Right?  We are ongoing with a number of programmes.  I think we've talked about WFP, UNICEF, UNHCR, WHO.  Obviously, as the situation stabilizes, we will have a better idea of what we're able to do, what the humanitarian needs are, and what the staffing is… will be that we need to run those programmes and, most importantly, the funding that we will need to run those programmes.  Okay Yes, two more.  Go ahead.

Question:  Thank you.  Thank you, Stéphane.  I have a follow‑up on this question, please.  Do you have any kind of deadline or term by what you're going the… to relocate your personnel from Afghanistan?  And do you have approximate number in total that you're going to relocate from Kabul?

Spokesman:  No, I think we'll… as we've been doing, we will announce large batches of relocation as they happen, but there will remain a sizable presence of international staff and, obviously, national staff in Kabul to continue the work we've been doing in Afghanistan, frankly, not only the last 20 years but the last 40, 50 and even longer in the case of certain UN agencies.

Correspondent:  Final question.

Spokesman:  One more question.  It's never the final question.

Question:  This one will be the final one.  Does the UN have any concerns about the aid flow once the Taliban take control of the Kabul International Airport?

Spokesman:  I think, as I said yesterday, the… there is a critical and essential need for a fully fledged functional airport in Kabul for us to bring aid in, to be able to rotate people out.  We can, obviously, bring some commodities through cross‑border operations, but it goes without saying that a truck convoy in these circumstances is expensive and takes a lot longer to get to where it needs to go.

Question:  Is that the only way for the UN to bring in international aid, humanitarian aid, into Afghanistan?

Spokesman:  No.  I mean, there are, obviously… there are always different ways, and as I've said, I think WFP or others have done cross‑border truck convoys.  But to have a functioning airport in Kabul that can handle large planes, cargo planes, is essential, right, as is having other airfields operational in other parts of the country.  Okay.  Thank you.  Hasta mañana.

Correspondent:  I have one more.

Spokesman:  I could never… I overlooked you.  Yes, go ahead.

Question:  I'm sorry if you've addressed this before.  Can you just clarify the percentage of the national UN staff, the Afghan staff in Afghanistan who are working remotely?  I think you said something about how a majority of them in Kabul are working remotely, but what about the entire country?

Spokesman:  It's a good question.  My understanding is that most… those who can work remotely are doing so.  Obviously, there are some… where there's programme delivery going on in terms of emergency aid, people have to be present.  But the vast majority of UN staff is in Kabul, and except for a few critical… people who have jobs that can only be done from offices, those people are being told to work from home.  Okay.  Thank you.  And see you tomorrow.

For information media. Not an official record.