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.


First off, I had been asked by many of you in recent days about our participation in the forthcoming talks in Astana, Kazakhstan.  I can say that Staffan de Mistura’s office has received an invitation to Astana.  The Special Envoy has designated a team led by his Deputy, Ramzy Ezzeldin… Ramzy and his political director, Robert Dann, to represent the United Nations at that meeting.  Also on Syria, the UN is deeply concerned for the safety and protection of an estimated 100,000 people in the besieged western side of Deir Ezzour in Syria following reports of Da’esh attacks, resulting in the death and injury of scores of civilians.  Due to the heavy fighting in the area, the World Food Programme (WFP) has put its air drop operations to Deir Ezzour on hold since Sunday. Airdrops require a large and completely safe drop zone area where cargo is released and collected by a team on the ground for delivery.  WFP is continuing to monitor the situation and will resume such operations when the security situation allows.

Meanwhile, water remains cut off from Ain El Fijeh, depriving 5.5 million people in Damascus and surrounding areas from their main water source since 22 December 2016.  The Syrian Arab Red Crescent and water authorities’ technical teams, who suspended their mission following a security incident, remain on stand-by to enter the area again to complete their mission as soon as security conditions allow. The UN stands ready to provide additional support to ensure the swift repair of the water infrastructure.  And an estimated 1.3 million people in Aleppo have been cut off from their main water source since 14 January due to a technical failure at the Al Khafse water station.  The station is located in an eastern rural Aleppo area that is controlled by Da’esh.


In a video message issued today, the Secretary-General spoke of the importance of combatting anti-Muslim discrimination and hatred, with hate crimes and other forms of bigotry against Muslims on the rise.  In times of insecurity, he warned, communities that look different become convenient scapegoats.  He said that we must resist cynical efforts to divide communities and portray neighbours as “the other”.  He noted that the United Nations is launching an effort to promote respect, safety and dignity for all, called the Together campaign.  Together, he said, let us stand up against bigotry and for human rights.   The video message is available online.

**Middle East

Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, spoke by video teleconference at today’s Security Council meeting, and he said that despite the relative tranquillity of the Israel-Palestinian conflict compared to other crises in the region, the spectre of violence is always near.  He said that all stakeholders must avoid any unilateral action that would prejudge a negotiated final status solution.  Mr. Mladenov said that the international community has expressed its support for the two-state solution in recent weeks, but added that what is needed is action, first and foremost by the parties themselves.  His remarks are available in our office.


The UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, arrived in Aden yesterday for meetings with the President, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Yemen.  The Special Envoy’s visit to Aden comes after a week of meetings with senior officials from the Governments of Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar in Riyadh, Muscat and Doha.  The Special Envoy’s meetings in Aden focused on the need to renew the Cessation of Hostilities and the urgent measures to address the country’s dire humanitarian situation. The Special Envoy emphasized the importance of a Cessation of Hostilities in order to allow an expansion of humanitarian assistance and in order to create a conducive environment for the peace process.  The Special Envoy asked the President to act swiftly and engage constructively with the UN’s proposal for the sake of the country’s future.  The Special Envoy will travel to Sana'a in the coming days to share the same message with the Representatives of Ansar Allah and the General People's Congress.


We were asked yesterday about executions in Bahrain, and I have some things to add to what was said yesterday:  We deeply regret the execution in Bahrain of three individuals convicted of killing three policemen in March 2014.  Among other concerns, there were allegations during trial proceedings that the individuals were tortured while in custody.  The executions were the first to be carried out in Bahrain since 2010 and form part of a series of measures that do not contribute to furthering long-term peace and stability in Bahrain.

We advocate for the abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances, and for an immediate moratorium on its use.  We also call for restraint and calm following reports of clashes between police and protestors.  We reiterate the rights of people to the peaceful and legitimate exercise of their freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association in Bahrain.  To ensure peace, stability and prosperity for all Bahrainis, we encourage the Government to undertake meaningful and confidence building measures, including towards a genuine national dialogue.


The Human Rights Office today called on the Iranian authorities not to carry out the apparently imminent execution of Sajad Sanjari, who was a juvenile when he was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing a man in 2012.  The Human Rights Office reiterated its call to Iran to immediately institute a moratorium on the death penalty, amid serious concerns about the continuing high number of executions and the lack of fair trial and due process guarantees in accordance with international human rights law.


The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and the Human Rights Office issued a report today on lynching in Haiti, the first on the subject.  Lynching is of continuing concern in the country, with 483 incidents reported between 2012 and 2015, resulting in 59 arrests and only one conviction.  The report says that the passivity, even the tolerance, by State agents in front of serious crimes violates the right to life as guaranteed by international treaties to which Haiti is a party, and as protected by national legislation.  The main reasons given by the population to explain the use of lynching are a lack of confidence in police and justice, and the fear that perpetrators of crimes enjoy impunity.  The full report is available online.


Also today, the 2017 Somalia Humanitarian Response Plan was launched in Mogadishu.  The one-year plan asks for $864 million to reach some 3.9 million people with assistance.  It is focused primarily on saving lives in coordination with development groups and strengthening emergency response preparedness in collaboration with federal and local authorities.  The Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia has warned that many of the negative indicators observed ahead of the 2011 famine are again present; including severe drought, rising prices and continued access limitations.


The Government of Ethiopia and humanitarian partners launched today the Humanitarian Requirements Document for 2017, requesting $948 million to help 5.6 million people with emergency assistance, mainly in the southern and eastern parts of the country that are faced with a new drought.  Failed rains in southern and eastern parts of the country have left millions of people in urgent need of assistance.  Additional resources are urgently needed to save lives and protect Ethiopia’s development gains.  The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is warning that new drought across swathes of southern Ethiopia may jeopardize the East African nation's restoration of food security.  More on this is available on the FAO website.


I also want to flag today a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) that studies the use of law to improve health worldwide, from the soda tax in Mexico to the plain tobacco packaging in Australia or national health insurance in Ghana.  The report features case studies from around the world on how the law has improved the health and safety of populations, providing a resource for countries to learn from the experience of others.  You can find out about it on WHO’s website.

**Economic and Social Affairs

As you just heard a short while ago in this room, our colleague, Lenni Montiel, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, launched the UN World Economic Situation and Prospects report for 2017.  The report finds that, although a modest global recovery is projected for 2017 and 2018, the world economy has not yet emerged from the period of slow growth which has been characterized by weak investment, dwindling trade and flagging productivity growth.  It says that the world economy expanded by just 2.2 per cent in 2016, the slowest rate of growth since the Great Recession of 2009.  You can find the full report online.

**Security Council

And the annual Security Council Highlights Paper for 2016, prepared by the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), is now available online.  It's an interactive presentation with interesting data and analysis, and it can be found on the Security Council’s web page.  And that is it from me.  Are there any questions?  Yes, Oleg?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  And thanks for the information on the invitation to Astana.  What is going to be the role of the UN over there, just pure spectators, or are you going to be moderators between the sides?  What are you going to do over there?

Deputy Spokesman:  Right now, we have, like I said, a role to participate in the talks, and that is what we'll be doing.  Mr. Ramzy and his colleague, Mr. Dann, will represent the UN, and we'll provide any further details of the talks as they proceed.  Yes, please.

Question:  Why isn't Staffan de Mistura representing the UN at the talks?

Deputy Spokesman:  He's designated his deputy to be the person attending for this.  Yes?

Correspondent:  Yes.  I'd like to know whether the Secretary‑General has any comment on the [Barack] Obama Administration's decision to end the long-standing policy called Wet Foot, Dry Foot, which gave Cuban arrivals, including those fearing persecution, to obtain US residency without a visa.  Now they must have a visa.  And this would seem contrary to the whole notion of opening up borders to persecuted refugees.  So, I'd like to know if the Secretary‑General has any comment.

Deputy Spokesman:  No, we don't have any particular comment on this domestic legislation.

Question:  Well, it's not domestic leg… no, this is a… this is a policy of the outgoing President, and it impacts an issue that the Secretary‑General has spent 10 years of his life heading the refugee agency to open up borders to those who are fearing persecution.  This would seem to run contrary to that.  So, could you see if there isn't any comment now, just to whether this would be something that he would feel is going backwards?

Deputy Spokesman:  No, you're talking about residency laws.  Regarding the question of refugees, of course, we hope that all countries open their doors to refugees and treat them with the respect to which they're due.  Yes?

Question:  Sure.  Some other things, but I guess on… on this… it's a policy question, but one that's closer, I guess, to… to what the UN does.  You may have seen that Burundi has announced it's going to withdraw 5,400 troops from AMISOM [African Union Mission in Somalia].  They're saying they're not being paid.  The European Union says that they, in fact… the soldiers are being paid, just the Government is not able to take a cut of it because they believe the Government is in violation of various human rights issues.  What has the UN, which itself has peacekeepers… what does it think about the standoff?  Does it believe that it's legitimate for a funder of a peacekeeping operation to say we'll pay the people directly so that the Government doesn't get a cut, particularly in the case of Burundi where the UN has decided not to use Burundian police officers in CAR [Central African Republic]?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, regarding the question of how these troops are to be paid, that's a matter that needs to be resolved ultimately with the European Union, which is responsible for the payment issue, and with the African Union.  So, that's not really something which we would comment on.  Of course, we believe that all troops performing such tasks need to be paid.

Question:  But, you have… I guess my question is, in the Central African Republic, the UN is still paying the Pierre Nkurunziza Government for the use of these 800‑some peacekeepers, and you have another major, you know, admittedly, not the UN, but the EU saying this is a Government that would, you know, predictably use this funding to commit human rights violations.  Does the UN disagree?

Deputy Spokesman:  We… if we were to receive reports of problems with payments getting to our peacekeeping troops, we would act upon that accordingly.  Whenever we pay Governments, as a general policy, we do that on the assurance that those… that that money will go to the peacekeeping troops.

Question:  Just one final question.  What… what's the UN's understanding of the percentage that's kept by governments before they pass it through to… because it's not 100 per cent.  I think you know that.  So, what percentage of withholding is appropriate, according to the UN?

Deputy Spokesman:  That not something that we calculate or advise on.  That a decision made by different Governments.  Regarding this, like I said, this particular issue is one ultimately for the European Union and the African Union in their capacities dealing with the African Union Mission, AMISOM.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  This is in regard to the Haiti study you just mentioned.  I was just wondering if the UN has any particular response to the fact that lynching took place versus, you know… I mean, murder is terrible enough, but the fact that's mob rule.  And I know that impunity… you know, the fear of impunity you've mentioned, lack of confidence in the police were reasons given for potential… I mean for the use of lynching.  And I was wondering if there's any… you know, any particular response that the UN has to this.  And also, was there anything in the report that explained who these mobs were?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yes, there [are] further details in the report.  So, I'd urge you to look at the report for those details.  Obviously, this is a matter of extreme concern.  Any sort of actions like this that lack due process, that lack any guarantees even that the innocent are not being persecuted, is always a matter of concern for us.  And the way in which it's carried out is, of course, also horrifying.  So, there's a number of concerns that we have raised, but the full report gives further details.  Yes?

Question:  Sure.  I wanted to ask you, I've seen… there's a letter today by… by the various staff unions to the Secretary‑General, António Guterres, about the layoffs in OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs], numbering them at 170, saying that the unions have, since November, asked Mr  [Stephen] O'Brien for a variety of information, how it was decided which offices to close and who to lay off and urging him, you know, to “ensure OCHA discloses the information we've requested”, establish a staff management working group, and there's two other bullet points.  I wanted to, one, ensure… make sure you've received it and, two, what does the Secretary‑General think of this… seems like it might be the first standoff between… between staff workers and a department under his watch.  How should this be resolved?  And how are people not going to be injured by the closing of… of some OCHA offices in… in various countries?  

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, first of all, this is still something that's very much a work in progress.  The budget for the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs is still under review and will be available on its website when it's released later this month.  For that… for the time being, you'll need to contact OCHA for more details.  We'll be monitoring this as it unfolds.  Of course, our hope is that any of the concerns by staff will be resolved during this process.

Question:  What's the role… I guess in… in even coming up with a final budget, it seems pretty clear from this that at least some in the staff union are… are dissatisfied with the degree of consultation.  Does António Guterres believe that departments, if as others may have to, are engaged in downsizing that they should consult with their staff or simply announce numbers and then get letters like this?

Deputy Spokesman:  Obviously, staff consultation is an important part of any such process, but like I said, the budget is still under review.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you.  Regarding Gambia, the inauguration of the President on 19 January, and it seem that there still conflict between the President‑elect and the President.  Does any UN respond… what… what… how does UN respond to the situation in Gambia?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, we have been encouraging all efforts to make sure that the President‑elect, Adama Barrow, is inaugurated as scheduled on 19 January, which, as you all know, is the day after tomorrow.  We support the efforts by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and regional leaders to resolve the situation.  You will have heard from our Special Envoy, Mohammed ibn Chambas, who spoke to the Security Council and to the press late last week and is continuing to follow up on this, and we'll see what happens in the coming days.  Yes?

Question:  Sure.  I wanted to ask, there's a… it's a case that involves two individuals, which has become pretty high profile, in Myanmar.  There are these two Baptist leaders, one of whom used to show journalists the effects of airstrikes by the Government in Shan State, and Fortify Rights has called for the Government to… to say where they are.  They've been disappeared.  Is the UN aware of it?  And who's been sort of monitoring the human rights aspects of Myanmar, not just the Special Rapporteur, but is there still a Secretariat function, as used to be carried out by Mr. [Vijay] Nambiar?

Deputy Spokesman:  There still is a Secretariat function that's being carried out now by the Department of Political Affairs, and I'll check with them whether there's anything to say about this particular case.

Question:  Okay.  And this is a… this may seem strange… like a small thing, but I was looking at the appointments of the Secretary‑General, I guess his daily schedule.  And for today, it just simply says, the Secretary‑General is travelling.  Since it's like… it's reported that he's in Davos, that he's meeting various people, is there… is this not… maybe the reports are inaccurate…?

Deputy Spokesman:  No, no, no, he's not in Davos yet.  Today, he's travelling to Geneva.  And we'll have some events for him in Geneva, including, I believe, there's a high‑level event he'll be attending along with the President of China, and he'll have a separate meeting with the President of China.  He will go to Davos from there.

Question:  I guess my question would just be, given that it's a new Secretary‑Generalship, is it possible even when he is traveling to have some details other than just he is travelling?

Deputy Spokesman:  Oh, yeah, we'll try to have some more details.  Today is really basically a transit day, but he will be in Geneva, and then we'll get more details, which we can share tomorrow.  Have a good afternoon, everyone.  Oh, wait.  One more.  Yeah?

Question:  Yeah.  Russian ambassador.  During the debate in the Council right now, he was actually talking about the role in the UN and Astana meetings, and he proposed that the UN would be moderator of the meeting.  Is it possible?

Deputy Spokesman:  We will explore what kind of format there is for the meeting, but of course, we're going to try to be as supportive as possible.  And we hope that the Astana talks will, in turn, help with the February talks in Geneva.  Good afternoon.

For information media. Not an official record.