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.
**Republic of Korea
Good afternoon everyone. This morning the Secretary-General went to Yonsei University in Seoul to deliver remarks at the inaugural Global Engagement and Empowerment Forum on Sustainable Development. In his remarks, the Secretary-General called for a new deal for fair globalization. He told the audience, which included former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the President of the General Assembly, that engagement is essential if you really want to transform the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) into a blueprint that can be a basis for a new deal for fair globalization. He added that the combination of increased globalization and technological advancement has led to meaningful improvements in many people’s lives, but has also dramatically increased inequality and left us with a number of tough problems to solve — youth unemployment being one of them.
While at Yonsei University, the Secretary-General had an opportunity to meet with his predecessor, Ban Ki-moon. The current and former Secretaries-General, along with the President of the General Assembly, Miroslav Lajčák, met with the Prime Minister of the Republic of Korea, Lee Nak-yon. Before leaving Yonsei University, the Secretary-General met with representatives of the United Nations country team based in the Republic of Korea. Departing Seoul, the Secretary-General and his delegation drove to the site of the PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games. On site, he toured the Olympic village at Gangneung, where he was able to meet with a number of athletes, including Cheyenne Goh, the first Singaporean ever to qualify for the Olympic Winter Games. The Secretary-General also met and encouraged competitors from Switzerland, Hungary and China. In the evening, the Secretary-General attended the official dinner hosted by the President of the Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, for visiting dignitaries.
Vladimir Voronkov, the head of the UN Office on Counter-Terrorism, briefed the Security Council on the Secretary-General’s recent report on the threat posed by Da’esh, and he said that the fight against Da’esh is entering a new phase. But, despite setbacks in Iraq, Syria and the southern Philippines, Da’esh and its affiliates continue to pose a significant and evolving threat around the world. Da’esh, he says, is no longer focused on conquering and holding territory. It has been forced to adapt and focus primarily on a smaller and more motivated group of individuals, and it is now organized as a global network with a flat hierarchy and less operational control over its affiliates. His remarks are available in our office.
The Secretary-General, along with his Special Envoy Nickolay Mladenov, would like to express their gratitude to the State of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates for their prompt and generous contributions to the urgent UN appeal aimed at averting an imminent humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. This contribution will ensure that the vulnerable people of Gaza are able to access life-saving health, water and sanitation services. We must not forget, however, that to achieve a sustainable solution to the critical humanitarian and socioeconomic challenges that plague Gaza, it is critical to move forward with intra-Palestinian reconciliation, on the basis of the recent agreement brokered by Egypt, including the return of Gaza under the control of the legitimate Palestinian Authority.
I had been asked yesterday about the response by the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to Israeli construction activity near the Blue Line. I can tell you that, according to UNIFIL, the Israeli Defense Force construction works are taking place south of the Blue Line and not in sensitive areas. UNIFIL leadership has been fully engaged with both parties in order to find a common solution to this issue. It is of paramount importance for the parties to take advantage of UNIFIL’s liaison and coordination arrangements to find solutions aimed at preventing violations, decreasing tension and maintaining stability. It’s important to emphasize that during the Tripartite meeting held in Ras al Naqoura on 5 February, the Israeli Defense Forces and the Lebanese Armed Forces confirmed their commitment to further use the Tripartite and liaison and coordination mechanisms to address any issues that could increase tension. UNIFIL’s troops are on the ground to monitor the situation, which is calm.
We remain deeply concerned by the continued intense fighting in eastern Ghouta and its impact on close to 400,000 civilians in the besieged enclave in Syria. Over the past 48 hours, intense airstrikes and shelling have reportedly resulted in scores of civilian deaths and injuries, as well as damage to civilian infrastructure, particularly in the towns of Duma, Hamourieh, Kafr Batna and Sawa. Meanwhile, since 20 January, tens of thousands of people have been displaced in Afrin due to ongoing hostilities, with 2,000 people being reported as displaced elsewhere in Aleppo governorate. While numbers inside Afrin are extremely difficult to verify, displaced people are reportedly sheltered in schools, mosques and public buildings. The main needs of displaced people include food, medicine and winter items.
Today in Abuja, Edward Kallon, the Humanitarian Coordinator in Nigeria, launched the Humanitarian Response Plan for the north-eastern part of the country. The appeal is for $1.05 billion to reach 6.1 million people with assistance. Some 7.7 million people need humanitarian assistance in the worst-affected States of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe. This includes 3.7 million people who are expected to be severely food insecure during the lean season starting in June. Mr. Kallon said these are people who have been displaced and are living in camps or host communities, people who have returned home to nothing, and people living in other areas that are hard to reach for humanitarians. The humanitarian crisis in Nigeria’s north-east is one of the most severe in the world today and is now in its ninth year.
Our colleagues at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today launched a $1.06 billion appeal to help vulnerable communities in 26 countries fight back against hunger. The agency hopes to reach some 30 million people who rely on agriculture and have been affected by climate-related shocks in countries like Bangladesh, Somalia and Yemen. It will do this through activities that include: providing seeds, tools and other materials for crop farming; providing veterinary care for livestock; land and water management; and giving at-need families cash so they can immediately access food. More information on the appeal is available on FAO’s website.
**Women in Science
Today, in the Economic and Social Council Chamber, countries are celebrating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science; the actual Day is on 11 February. In a video message, the Secretary-General told attendees that, while both boys and girls have the potential to pursue ambitions in science, systemic discrimination means women occupy less than 30 per cent of research and development jobs worldwide. He said efforts are needed to overcome stereotypes and biases and stressed the need to support and invest in women as scientists and innovators. His message is online.
And thanks today go to Morocco, which has paid its 2018 regular budget dues. The Honour Roll total is now 45.
A reminder that correspondents are invited to a screening and discussion of the film entitled “Familiar Faces, Unexpected Places — A Global African Diaspora”, this evening from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. in Conference Room 4.
I have an appointment. Today, the Secretary-General is appointing Lisa Filipetto of Australia as Head of the UN Support Office in Somalia, known as UNSOS. Ms. Filipetto will succeed Hubert Price, to whom the Secretary-General expresses his gratitude for his dedication and effective leadership of UNSOS. Hubert Price is in fact my guest today. Ms. Filipetto brings to this position more than 30 years of experience within the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade where she served in a variety of posts at headquarters, including as Assistant Secretary, European Union and Western Europe Branch. We have more details in my office. Like I said, I will be joined by Hubert Price shortly. Before we get to him, do you have any questions for me? Yes, please?
**Questions and Answers
Question: This is Imran Ansary. I would like to draw your attention to Bangladesh. You may know that former Prime Minister of Bangladesh and key opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia was jailed for five years for corruption. After her verdict, tens of millions… thousands people coming to the street to protest against this politically motivated verdict. Police imposed [inaudible] and used live bullets to demolish these protests. Thousands of opposition activists have been arrested, as far as the media reports. You may know that the general election will be held this upcoming December, and political experts already told the media after his verdict, it is the process to eradicate Begum Khaleda Zia and her son, Tarique Rahman, from the general election. In this connection, what types of initiatives taken by Secretary-General? And could he send any special envoy to Bangladesh to resolve the political crisis?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, first of all, we only recently received the report concerning the arrest and the subsequent events. We're monitoring what the events are on the ground and we will react accordingly. We would, of course, be concerned about any reports of violence and at this point, we call on all sides to maintain calm and we expect to have a further reaction after we've evaluated the situation further. Edie?
Question: Two questions, Farhan. Does the Secretary-General have any comment on the attack by the US-led coalition in Syria that has killed dozens of Syrian troops? And secondly, the UN Humanitarian Chief, Mark Lowcock, is briefing the Security Council on the Syrian humanitarian affair behind closed doors. Is there any way of getting him to the stakeout to talk to us and tell us what he told the Council?
Deputy Spokesman: I don't know whether he would himself be willing to come to the Council, but we provided some of the details of the humanitarian situation in Syria in my notes just now, and that is in keeping with some of the things that he is expected to brief the Security Council about. By the way, Mr. Lowcock's briefing also concerns the call that came out from the humanitarian coordinator two days ago for a ceasefire of what we hoped would be at least one month.
Question: That's correct, but could you please pass on a request from the media that we would appreciate his stopping at the stakeout?
Deputy Spokesman: I will do so as soon as I get out of this room. Yes, Majeed?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. About that… the UN call for a 30-day ceasefire in Syria. The Russian ambassador just said… just said that that call is unrealistic. What is your comment about that?
Deputy Spokesman: We have made clear what our concerns about the violence are. We have also made clear the reasoning behind this. We want to make sure that there's a cessation of hostilities in key parts of the country so that we can better gain access for humanitarian aid, and so that we can evacuate people who are in desperate need of medical help. We have done this several times in the past. Sometimes, it's worked; sometimes, it has not. But, it's gotten to one of the points where it is a crucial point, and this is what Mr. Lowcock is discussing with the Security Council.
Question: Any official response from… from Russia, Turkey, US, the countries who are engaged in military activities in Syria about this call?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, I mean, they can comment as they see fit. What we are trying to do, like I said, is see what can be done to get a cessation of hostilities as soon as possible. Yes?
Correspondent: Farhan, you didn't answer the first part of my question about the coalition airstrike.
Deputy Spokesman: We have no first-hand information about this. Obviously, we're concerned about any of the violence on the ground and, as I've said, what we're aiming for is to see whether there could be some sort of temporary halt brought about. Yes?
Question: Question on Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe's new President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, said earlier this year that they would welcome UN observers in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in the middle of this year. Have there been any contacts in… in that regard with the Zimbabwean Government and the UN?
Deputy Spokesman: I'm not aware of any formal request. Obviously, once we receive formal requests, we evaluate them and see what kind of help can be provided, but there's no detail on that at this stage. Yes, Mushfiqul Fazal?
Question: Thank you, Mr. Farhan. Just to supplement my colleague, as he said this current situation in Bangladesh: Do you… from this podium, many times you said, and the Secretary-General is urging for inclusive, participatory election, but with this verdict of the main opposition, Begum Khaleda Zia, do you think still there is a hope to hold a free, fair and credible election in Bangladesh? One. Second question is: Bangladesh, do you think the rule of law… currently Bangladesh prevailing, the rule of law is established, because the chief justice is forced to leave the country and the rule of law… the judiciary is very controversial… so what is your comment about this verdict on main opposition Begum Khaleda Zia and his… her son, Tarique Rahman?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, as I just mentioned we're just monitoring what the latest developments regarding this verdict are, and we expect that we'll say something more once we've evaluated the situation. It's too early to judge what impact this will have, but, yes, we do continue to call for an inclusive and democratic process in the country. Yes, Masood?
Question: Yes. Thanks, Farhan. As far as the situation in Egypt is concerned with the aid of the Israelis, they are routing the so-called opposition everywhere, and they are… and the [Abdel Fattah al] Sisi Government is arresting the opposition leaders. Has the Secretary-General got to say anything about that?
Deputy Spokesman: We're looking at the most recent actions taken by the Government. You'll have seen our previous concerns expressed, but I don't have anything new to add on that. Yes, Iftikhar?
Question: Thank you, Farhan Aziz. With regard to the situation in Maldives, how has the President of Maldives reacted to the UN offer to ease the crisis resulting from his actions, which the human rights chief described as an assault on democracy?
Deputy Spokesman: I'm not aware of the position of the President, but what I can tell you is that our Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Miroslav Jenča, did speak with the Foreign Minister of the Maldives two days ago to relay what our concerns have been. You saw the statement issued by the Secretary-General and we made those points directly to the Government. Erol?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. Now, in the light of many news that we are witnessing on a daily basis that many countries are now… especially in Europe and here in the United States, are concerned about meddling in the domestic elections. What does the Secretary-General think? How high is that in his box of concerns… global concerns? And what does he say? And does he plan to address that issue?
Deputy Spokesman: On which issue? Please repeat. Could you please repeat your question?
Correspondent: Okay. In the light of the concerns of "mendling", foreign Powers mendling in elections of…
Deputy Spokesman: Oh, meddling. Yes?
Question: Meddling, yes. Sorry for my… English is only my second language. So what does the Secretary-General think about that? Is that in his box of concerns, or so?
Deputy Spokesman: It's clear for us that we want all elections to be decided by the voters in their respective countries in which those elections are held, and we hope for free and fair democratic processes wherever they're held. Yes?
Question: Thank you. A follow-up question, if I may. Obviously, there are some concrete not only concerns, but allegations are that Russia is on the top of those countries who are interfering in other countries' elections in Europe and here in the United States. What does the Secretary-General say? He's a champion of democracy and the free and fair elections are the main tool of that democracy.
Deputy Spokesman: Well, I’ll just repeat what I had said. Ultimately, our goal is for everywhere for there to be free and fair elections in which elections are decided strictly by the country's voters. Yes?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. I have two questions, one on Iran and one on Libya. In Iran, an 81-year-old former UNICEF [United Nations Children’s Fund] diplomat, his name is Baquer Namanzi… Namazi. He was taken back to prison after he had a leave of… medical leave from prison for heart problems, so he was taken back to prison. Is there any statement or are you aware of what happened to Baquer?
Deputy Spokesman: Yes. What I can say is we understand that former UNICEF staff member Baquer Namazi has been returned to Evin prison after his medical release on 28 January. UNICEF is deeply concerned about Mr. Namazi's deteriorating health and continues to urge the Iranian Government to grant him a full and unconditional release on humanitarian grounds. Mr. Namazi is 81 years old and has been detained in Iraq… in Iran for almost two years and is in increasingly poor health. He was most recently admitted to hospital on 15 January and that was his fourth hospitalization in the past 12 months.
Question: Good. I'm glad that you had a statement. The second question: The Panel of Experts on Libya had documented some secret relations between the security forces in Tripoli and the gangs who are responsible for immigrant smuggling and smuggling other merchandise. I mean, the report has been leaked out to the press. Do you have any comment on that?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, we don't have any first-hand information about these reports, but certainly, we have called for there to be an end to any sort of cooperation between Governments and human trafficking networks, and we believe all Governments should work against that, and we will press all of them on that. Yes, you and then you.
Question: Thanks. I wanted to first to follow up on… on…. on Bangladesh. I mean, you had said… the arrest took place some time ago, and various countries have put out already travel warnings, so I'm wondering, at a minimum… the UN with its country team there, have they taken note of what's taking place in the street?
Deputy Spokesman: I've told you what I've got on that for now.
Question: And given that there's live fire, you say… very recently, DPKO [Department of Peacekeeping Operations] put out a statement thanking Bangladesh for its peacekeepers, and I'm sure they've done great work, but there have been repeated issues of abuses by the security forces, or seeming abuses, killing of civilians, use of live fire on protesters. Can you describe what vetting goes on, and… and the recent spate of… of these thank you, messages put out by DPKO, are they in any relation to… to… to the vetting process that's going on or issues that have arisen in various delegations, contingents of peacekeepers?
Deputy Spokesman: All peacekeepers are vetted to make sure that they have not engaged in any practices that involve the violation of human rights. And we go through that on a country-by-country basis.
Question: And so have there been any Bangladesh peacekeepers blocked in the last five years, given the events in the country in which units by name have taken place in crackdowns on their own civilians?
Deputy Spokesman: We raise all concerns with any particular members of incoming peacekeeping troops with the troop-contributing country to make sure that no one is deployed who does not meet our standards. Yes, Pam?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. The Secretary-General before he left for the Olympic Games said it was absolutely essential for nations to be involved in serious talks, in order to defuse the nuclear crisis in North Korea and there was some indication perhaps he would consider meeting with the North Koreans. Is there anything on that?
Deputy Spokesman: There's nothing to announce at this stage, no.
Question: And… but is he encouraging countries to have talks on the sidelines?
Deputy Spokesman: He is encouraging there to be dialogue on all the issues involving the Korean Peninsula and indeed, in an interview he gave earlier today, he once more made a call for that sort of dialogue and any sort of occasion can be useful for that, including this one. Yes?
Question: Farhan, follow-up on Edith's question. So, regarding the American coalition and the strikes in Syria. Do you… to which extent you are informed for humanitarian reasons when such strikes are taking place? And when you say you cannot verify the information, is it because you don't have enough people on the ground; you don't have anyone at all or partners; or can you elaborate on that?
Deputy Spokesman: Yes. We don't have the first-hand presence that would allow us to do that. At the same time, we do inform all of the various parties about the presence of our humanitarian workers, our humanitarian facilities, and when we travel to different areas we get our travel cleared by all the various parties on the ground, as well as the Powers conducting military operations. Yes, Carla?
Question: Thank you. In view of the fact that the Secretary-General is encouraging dialogue, overt or covert, during the Olympic Games, is… does he… will the UN have any comment upon the fact that Vice-President [Michael] Pence has announced even more cruel and draconian sanctions on North Korea, despite the fact that the United Nations rapporteurs on human rights have stated their alarm about the humanitarian consequences of the current sanctions? And how does that impact upon any chance of dialogue? And as a follow-up, since the President of North Korea is sending his sister and since President [Donald] Trump is sending his daughter, is there any hope of dialogue among the two family members?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, that's really a question to ask the respective Governments. Regarding your first question, we don't have any comment on the bilateral measures being taken. Yes, Masood?
Question: Yes, Farhan, about Yemen. There are charges by the International Red Cross that the Saudi-led coalition is not allowing enough humanitarian aid in… into Yemen and there are people dying in the hospitals without essential supplies. Do you have anything to say about that? Has anybody dealt or talked to the Saudis about allowing this humanitarian aid, especially the medical aid, to go through?
Deputy Spokesman: Yes. We continue to be in touch with the various parties, including the coalition to get as much access as possible. Of course, there has been some access to Yemen, but we're continuing to try to expand that. Yes?
Question: Farhan, how much is… on the… on the Secretary-General's agenda this year, the beginning of this year the question of Cyprus? As we know, he was very enthusiastic at the beginning of his tenure. What's going on now?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, he continues to be advised, including from Elizabeth Spehar, who is our senior official currently dealing with the Cyprus file, about all of the events, and he continues to see what influence we can have to bring the talks forward.
Question: Also… if I… if I may? In that region, is Secretary-General fully advised on the situation on the negotiation on the changing of the name of the former [Yugoslav] Republic of Macedonia?
Deputy Spokesman: Yes, of course. He's been in touch with Mr. [Matthew] Nimetz about that topic. And now… yes one more.
Correspondent: Actually, I have two.
Deputy Spokesman: I've got a guest.
Question: Well, all right. First, I want to ask you about the… what I asked you about yesterday, Burundi and UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund]. I'm aware that the UN is aware that there are many people, not only in Burundi, asking why it would be that the UN system would be giving money and equipment to the wife of the controversial President of Burundi, which is cracking down on the press? So, I'm wondering, one, do you have an answer yet? Or two, the Deputy Secretary-General is meeting with the head of UNFPA today at 2:45 p.m. Do you expect this to be an issue to come up and can there be a readout of that meeting?
Deputy Spokesman: No, we don't have readouts of meetings with agency heads, but I have inquired to the UN Population Fund about this and I'm awaiting their reply.
Question: And on Honduras, what is the UN's role in Honduras? It's reported that Mr. [Salvador] Nasralla is meeting with a team that was sent there. Is the Government… who is it that's invited this mediation team of the UN, and what is its mandate?
Deputy Spokesman: I don't have any particular details to share about a mediation team at this stage. We'll see what we can say about a UN role as that progresses. [He later added: The Secretariat received a request for technical assistance from the Government of Honduras in the context of efforts to establish a national dialogue. In response, the UN's Department of Political Affairs has deployed an exploratory team to conduct consultations with a wide array of interlocutors. The team will report back to the Secretariat with a view to determining the possible assistance that could be provided in light of the request.] Thanks.