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.
I have some travels to announce: the Secretary‑General will travel to Kuwait, where he will be on Wednesday to speak at the opening session of the Kuwait International Conference for the Reconstruction of Iraq. Prior to the start of the conference, the Secretary‑General will meet with the Emir of Kuwait, who is hosting the event. The Secretary‑General will encourage international support for Iraq’s reconstruction and expects to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi and other leaders gathered for the occasion. On Thursday, the Secretary‑General will then travel to Munich to attend the Munich Security Conference. On 16 February, he will deliver a keynote speech during the opening ceremony of the conference. He will also hold bilateral meetings with various delegations [and] Heads of Government who are also attending.
**Democratic Republic of the Congo
The UN [Organization Stabilization] Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) has received four allegations of misconduct, including three allegations of sexual exploitation. These allegations involve military peacekeepers from South Africa. According to information at this time, the three allegations of sexual exploitation involve adult victims, one of which includes a paternity and child support claim. These incidents allegedly took place in Sake, Beni and Goma (in North Kivu Province). UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) has been engaged to ensure that victims are provided with immediate assistance. The fourth allegation refers to physical violence inflicted by military peacekeepers on a 17‑year‑old boy in eastern Kasai. The victim was referred to UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) for immediate assistance and his protection is being monitored by the Joint Human Rights Office.
Ensuring the provision of assistance to the victims is our priority. The UN Mission and other UN agencies and partners, with the support of the Victims’ Rights Advocate, will continue to maintain the well‑being of the victims and monitor their needs. The UN Peacekeeping Mission will provide any additional assistance such as the collection of DNA samples. The UN has informed the Member State of these four allegations and has requested that national investigation officers be appointed within 5 days, and for investigations to be completed within the reduced 90‑day timeframe, due to the serious concerns raised by these allegations — that will be done jointly with a team from the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). The UN welcomes the South African Defence [Force]’s commitment to investigate the allegations, as per their press release that was shared. The United Nations is gravely concerned over these allegations despite the efforts in partnership with Member States to prevent and address sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as misconduct.
Turning to Syria, Ali Al‑Za’tari, the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, today said that the situation in the country has worsened since we had issued a call for a cessation of hostilities on 6 February. He said that we are witnessing some of the worst fighting of the entire conflict, with reports of hundreds of civilian deaths and injuries, massive displacement and the destruction of civilian infrastructure, including medical facilities. Mr. Al‑Za’tari said that history will record failure to stop the fighting and will lay the blame on those responsible. We need to reach people in need with relief now, not later, he said. And in a statement over the weekend, the Secretary‑General expressed his concerns about the alarming military escalation throughout Syria and the dangerous spillover across its borders. The Secretary‑General stresses once again that all concerned in Syria and the region have a responsibility and must abide by international law and relevant Security Council resolutions. He calls on all to work for an immediate and unconditional de‑escalation of violence and exercise restraint. The Secretary‑General further calls on the parties to move swiftly toward a political solution, in line with [Security Council] resolution 2254 (2015), which is the only way to end the violence and the terrible suffering of the Syrian people.
On Pakistan, you will have seen that yesterday we issued a statement on the death of human rights advocate Asma Jahangir, which said that we have lost a human rights giant. The Secretary‑General said that she was a tireless advocate for inalienable rights of all people and for equality — whether in her capacity as a Pakistani lawyer in the domestic justice system, as a global civil society activist, or as a Special Rapporteur. The Secretary‑General said that Asma was brilliant, deeply principled, courageous and kind, and she will not be forgotten.
The Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, concluded a 12‑day visit to the Western Balkans — including Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the four States that he visited, the Special Adviser met high‑level government officials, including cabinet members, heads of parliament and national prosecutors; religious leaders; representatives of civil society as well as members of the diplomatic corps and UN country teams. In his meetings with representative of the diplomatic community in the region, Special Adviser Dieng called for concerted and sustained efforts to prioritize reconciliation and prevention, particularly important in light of ongoing efforts by Western Balkan States to achieve European Union membership. More in a Note to Correspondents.
Today is the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers. In a statement, the Special Representative of the Secretary‑General for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba [de Potgieter], said that last year, more than 5,000 children were released from armed groups and reintegrated into society, but she stressed that tens of thousands more children remain. More on the topic: I will be joined in a short while by Dr. Siobhan O’Neil, Project Manager of the United Nations University’s Children and Extreme Violence Project, and editor of the report entitled Cradled by Conflict: Child Involvement with Armed Groups in Contemporary Conflict; she will be joined by Boukary Sangaré and Mara Revkin, lead researchers to the project. That will be right after you hear from Brenden Varma.
Today we are up to 48 in our Honour Roll. Can somebody guess who contributed? Sweden. All right. We say thank you to our friends in Stockholm. Sherwin?
**Questions and Answers
Question: Stéph, couple of questions on the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo). There were earlier reports of as… that the SANDF (South Africa National Defence Force) troops had been accused of assault and torturing of locals. Where does this torturing notion come from, given the statement you've just made?
Spokesman: It runs… concerning the abuse of the 17‑year‑old… it refers to the abuse of the 17‑year‑old child.
Question: How did these allegations come to light? When was the UN first informed of it? And then how was it processed?
Spokesman: We were informed, if I'm not mistaken, last… late last week. And we subsequently requested from the South Africans that they dispatch investigation teams to the region. We've seen the press statements which as they've… they are in the process of doing so, which is something we welcome — their quick reaction. Joe?
Question: Yes. Is there any comment on the Iranian incursion into Israel, you know, the drone and Israel's response?
Spokesman: Well, I would refer you back to the statement the Secretary‑General made over the weekend when these incidents took place. What is important for us is that there is no further escalation beyond Syria, and I think our call to all the parties is to exercise maximum restraint. Madame, and then we'll go to Matthew.
Question: Stéphane, have you seen the comments by US Vice‑President Mike Pence on North Korea, the fact that they're open to talks? I'm wondering if you have a response to… to what that might entail.
Spokesman: Well, you know, we've seen… I've seen the interviews reported in the press. This is, obviously, something that the Secretary‑General has been calling for, both publicly and privately during his meetings, and that is the need for dialogue, especially between the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and the United States. Mr. Lee?
Question: Sure. Something on the DPRK, but I wanted to ask, I'm sure you've seen or the UN has seen the reporting about Oxfam in Haiti, where the UN has had a long mission, saying basically there was a history of the use of prostitutes, including underage prostitutes. And at least one of the Guardian stories quotes a former UN staffer about how even UN people that tried to raise it faced retaliation. The quote is, "If you blow the whistle when you're out in the field, you may never be hired again. It makes you very vulnerable." I wanted to know, what does… what does the UN, with its presence in Haiti, think about these allegations? What does it think of the call by some that the UN establish kind of a register of even non‑UN, you know, international humanitarians who have been charged with these things so they're not just moved from one field of operation to another? And what do you say about this [inaudible]…
Spokesman: I think the allegations as reported are extremely troubling. It is, again, the abuse of the most vulnerable. It is an abuse of power. They're extremely troubling. From our standpoint, I think what the Secretary‑General and his senior managers have really pushed forward and especially in the last year is to ensure that there is a climate in which people feel free to come forward without any fear of retaliation. I think that this is a message that has been made repeatedly to staff throughout the UN system. We are trying and are improving, I would say, our recruiting… our way of doing background checks on people who are recruited, either between agencies or within the UN system, so as to avoid cases of people who've had allegations made against them finding employment within the UN system.
Question: Could I ask you on North Korea?
Spokesman: Yeah, sure.
Question: I wanted to ask, the… the… apparently, the… the mission met… not only met with Jan Beagle of the Department of Management, they also wrote her a letter or delivered a letter from the… from the Ministry, saying that they're unable to pay their 2018 dues due to banking sanctions. And the letter says that, in 2017, they did pay but by some form of swap, which I don't… I wanted to actually ask… I don't really understand how that works, how the UN… the question would be, how… how did the UN get paid by DPRK in 2017 if not through a bank? And also — I may ask Brenden as well, but I wanted to ask you — is it the case that 10 countries, including Equatorial Guinea, Yemen and Venezuela, are currently unable to vote in the GA as… as António Guterres wrote in January, or have some of them cleared those dues, particularly Equatorial Guinea, which is on the Council… Security Council?
Spokesman: On your first part, my understanding of the swap is that the UN has… the UN country presence has a certain amount of costs in the way it operates in the DPRK. It… the DPRK paid those costs, which would have been borne by the UN as a credit towards their dues. Ms. Beagle did meet with the delegation from the Permanent Mission. What she told them is that the UN would work with them to try to find a way through which they could pay, and that includes an opening of an account at the UN Federal Credit Union, but we're going to continue our discussions with them to see how we can facilitate the payment.
If Brenden would allow me, I do have guidance on those countries, if I may speak. Thank you. As of… as you know, under Article 19, Member States who are in arrears of payments in the amount of… that equals or exceeds the contribution due for two years can lose their vote in the GA. An exception is allowed if the Member State can show that conditions beyond its control contributed to the inability to pay. As of 29 January, 12 Member States are subject to Article 19. In a resolution passed on the 17th [9th] of October, the GA decided that Comoros, Guinea‑Bissau, Sao Tome and Principe and Somalia, although in arrears of the payments, shall be permitted to pay their votes… to be — excuse me — shall be permitted to vote until the end of the current session. So, there are eight Member States that do not have a right to vote in the seventy‑second session of the General Assembly — the CAR (Central African Republic), Dominica, Equatorial Guinea, Grenada, Libya, Suriname, Venezuela and Yemen. So that information is valid as of 29 January.
Question: In the… in the letter that he signed, Dominican Republic, there's one other one that I missed from the list the way you were reading it, but…
Question: Yeah, there was also… underneath that… I mean, it… has there been another letter put out, or this is an update that… [inaudible] actually paid…?
Spokesman: I will check. This is, as I said, as of 29 January. Okay. Madame?
Correspondent: Thanks, Stéph. I'm presuming that the UN has heard about the arrest of the Iranian‑Canadian, Kavous Seyed Emami. He was arrested 24 January in Iran. He died in Evin Prison sometime last week. His family was told on Friday that he'd committed suicide. He's the third person in the last 40 days who has committed suicide in Evin Prison, another scientist, and he was arrested along with seven colleagues. And I'm wondering, one, if the UN has heard about this, what your comment is. And there are also calls for a UN‑led investigation into his death since the family is not being permitted to conduct an independent autopsy.
Spokesman: Sure. We've, obviously, heard of the case. We're following it… we're following the developments in the case. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said they're gravely concerned by the reports of Dr. Kavous Seyed Emami's death and, obviously, the circumstances surrounding his death. According to the information received by the Human Rights Office, he was arrested on 24 January, and his family was informed of his death on 9 February and has been reportedly pressed to immediately proceed to his burial without seeking an independent confirmation of the cause of death. The Human Rights Office urges the Government to ensure that all people in custody are afforded their human rights and that their families are provided with information of their well‑being and, in case of death, with the possibility to seek an independent investigation into the cause of death. As far as UN investigation, as a matter of principle, there needs to be… UN investigations need to be mandated by a legislative body or parts of the Organization. That's just a matter of principle. Oleg, you've been patient.
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. There's a report commissioned by a former NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) chief which will be presented, I guess, in Munich on the conference on security. And it provides some assessment for possible UN future presence in Ukraine, which says that the UN should consider a force of some 20,000 peacekeepers and some police units as well. Is this something the UN will be looking at? Is there any consideration or consultation going?
Spokesman: As you know, Oleg, I mean, this is a question that's been reported on, discussed in the past. Any deployment of UN peacekeepers, whether they be military peacekeepers, observers, police officers, requires a mandate given to it by the Security Council. So, obviously, if the Security Council were to pass such a resolution, the UN would act… the Secretariat would act upon it, but these are decisions that are firmly in the hands of the Security Council.
Question: But, as a matter of preparation for possible Council action, will the UN be looking at this report? Because it's going to be really high‑level one…
Spokesman: Well, you know, we look at all sorts of reports in the public domain, and we're very well aware of the circumstances surrounding events around the world and the discussions that are being had. Nizar?
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. Today, the Turkish military targeted the press in Afrin [Syria] area, and the crew of Al Mayadeen and the correspondents of Al Mayadeen hardly escaped death as a result of that. Also, water facilities in the region have again been targeted, cutting water from the inhabitants. Do you have any statement on this?
Spokesman: Well, as far as the second part of your question, this is something that Mr. Al‑Za'tari addressed, which we've been addressing, which is the condemnation over and over again, which is, unfortunately, unheeded, to stop the destruction of civilian infrastructure. We've seen it for all too long happening in Syria and in other parts of the world. We've seen in Syria water being used as a tool of war. These are unacceptable. These are clear violations of international humanitarian law, and they need to stop. As for your colleagues, I'm sorry to hear of this. I had not heard the report, but I mean, let me check into it.
Question: I have other questions regarding the realities being done by Israel on the bor… on the green… not the green — sorry — Blue Line, where Israeli continue to create new realities by building the wall, although the President of Lebanon has adamantly refused that and said that this will be confronted by all means. Is there anything the United Nations is doing about that?
Spokesman: My understanding is I think Farhan [Haq] addressed this last week, and the reports that we had from UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) was that the Israeli actions were being… were taken south of the Blue Line, within Israeli territory. Matthew?
Question: I wanted to ask you, in South Sudan, James Gatdet Dak, who used to be the Spokesman for SPLA‑IO (Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition), has been sentenced to death. And… and one of the reasons that he was… he was sent back to the country from Kenya is that he… he was calling for the…
Spokesman: No, I recall the case.
Question: Yeah, absolutely. So, I guess, given particularly that one of his alleged crimes was calling for the ouster of the then force commander, Mr. [Johnson Mogoa Kimani] Ondieki, what's the UN — I know the UN has a general principle against the death penalty, but does it have any particular comment…?
Spokesman: I've just seen these reports. If true, they're, obviously, deeply troubling. As you rightly said, we stand… we stand against the death penalty, and we'll check with our colleagues on the ground, who I'm sure are following the case.
Question: And I wanted to know, in… in Bangladesh, the… the… unrest continues after the… the arrest and… some people are saying that basically the… she may not serve five years, but the goal would be to keep her out of… out of circulation pending the upcoming elections. And I wanted to know, one, is there any reaction to that? But, two, does the UN or its DPA (Department of Political Affairs) or electoral unit have any role or comment on the upcoming elections, particularly given this arrest?
Spokesman: All I can tell you is that we're following the developments relating to the arrest and conviction of the former Prime Minister, [Begum] Khaleda Zia, and several other high‑ranking leaders of the Bangladesh National Party, and we'll obviously continue to update you as we get more. Madame?
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. A follow‑up on Syria. I was wondering if the UN has contacted the Turkish authorities on the destruction of the civilian infrastructure or the civilian casualties? What is the response to the UN?
Spokesman: We are not on the ground where the conflict is actually happening in Afrin, so we're trying to get some information from… from local partners. But the message of protection of civilian infrastructures is one that is being passed constantly at various level. Melissa?
Question: Sorry. As you know, Asma Jahangir was the UN Rapporteur on Iran Human Rights, and I'm wondering, will she be replaced? Will the mandate continue?
Spokesman: If I'm not mistaken, I don't think she still had that title, but I may be wrong, and you may be right. The mandate is one given to… given by the high… by the Human Rights Council, so as long as the mandate exists, the position stays. All right. We will go to Brenden, and then please stay for our guests. Thank you.