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.
Starting off with an update on Syria: The United Nations in Syria is urgently appealing for help to stem the catastrophic situation for tens of thousands of people, both from East Ghouta and Afrin. The UN and its partners have been informed of the desperate conditions of people who have left East Ghouta and Afrin, who are tired, hungry, traumatized and afraid, and we need to provide them with urgent aid. These civilians are facing harrowing humanitarian conditions. Many remain trapped by conflict. All are in desperate need. Insecurity and fierce hostilities continue to endanger the people of East Ghouta. Since 11 March, at least 25,000 people have reportedly left East Ghouta. UN teams have been visiting on a daily basis the collective shelters in Dweir, Adra and Herjelleh in Rural Damascus where people who have left East Ghouta are staying. All of the shelters are well over capacity, with more people continuing to arrive on a daily basis. Most of the people interviewed had some health conditions, likely due to years of lack of access to medicine and health care. Meanwhile, nearly 100,000 people have been displaced by hostilities in Afrin District. The majority, some 75,000 people, have fled to Tal Refaat and the remainder went to Nubul, Zahraa and surrounding villages. The massive influx of internally displaced people is putting a strain on host communities, which are already overwhelmed. All 16 schools in Tal Refaat are being used as internally displaced shelters, resulting in the interruption of education.
**Democratic Republic of the Congo
Back here, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, briefed the Security Council following his visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo last week. He stressed that humanitarian needs in the country have doubled over the last year, with 13 million people in need of assistance, in a context of persistent insecurity and bureaucratic impediments. He added that the single largest impediment to the humanitarian response was underfunding. This year, the appeal requires $1.7 billion, nearly four times what was secured last year. The Emergency Relief Coordinator encouraged high-level participation and pledges by the Security Council members to the first-ever Humanitarian Conference on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which will be organized on 13 April in Geneva. He stressed that we also need solutions to address the root causes of the worsening crisis, including on the political front, as well as for Congo’s neighbours to behave responsibly. Progress in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is possible, Mr. Lowcock told the Council, saying that infrastructure has improved in many major cities, access to education has increased and child mortality has fallen. We need to strengthen our support to its people, he added. His remarks are available in my office.
A new report issued today by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) says that the right to freedom of peaceful assembly was severely restricted and often violently suppressed in the country in 2017, and the trend continues so far this year. The report is based on information collected during six main mobilization days. While some people armed with sticks and broomsticks did attempt to perpetrate violence during some protests, the vast majority of demonstrators were peaceful. The use of excessive force — including lethal force — by the authorities was thus unlawful, unjustified and disproportionate, according to the report. The Special Representative for the UN in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Leila Zerrougui, said the report highlights impunity gaps and a continued shrinking of the democratic space in the country observed since the start of 2015.
Turning to Mali, our colleagues from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations tell us that they have been informed by the Canadian Government of its intention to deploy an aviation unit, including helicopters, to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). Canada’s contribution will play a valuable role in the continued efforts to bring peace and stability to Mali and the Sahel, and we are grateful for the pledge of these important assets and for Canada’s contribution to peacekeeping. We understand that the aviation assets should be on the ground in August. Further details are being discussed between the United Nations and the Canadian Government.
Our humanitarian colleagues report that an inter-agency team has been deployed to the districts in Madagascar most affected by tropical storm Eliakim. Access remains a major challenge as the most impacted area is in the North-East and is only accessible by air or sea during the rainy season. Seventeen deaths have been reported so far, and about 2,500 residents have been forced to evacuate.
In Brasilia, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) today launched its World Water Development Report, which highlights nature-based solutions, such as regenerating soils and forests, harvesting rain water, and preserving wetlands to address water management challenges. Nature-based solutions, also known as green infrastructure, can help improve water quality, reduce risks associated with climate change, and enhance water availability. According to the report, water management is heavily dominated by human-built, or “grey,” infrastructure, while green infrastructure remains underutilized. UNESCO argues that an appropriate mix of green and grey investments can maximize benefits while minimizing costs. The report is on UNESCO’s website.
Also related to UNESCO: Tomorrow, my guest will be Guy Berger, Director of Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO.
Our thanks today go to our friends in Bangkok, as Thailand has paid its regular budget dues in full, bringing us up to 68. I shall now take questions. Masood?
**Questions and Answers
Question: Since yesterday, there have been rab… rab… sabre rattling by India and Pakistan over the occupied Kashmir and the… even the former Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, said… accused his successor, Mr. [Narendra] Modi, of fanning flames of fire against Pakistan. And Pakistan and India are now again… being that they're nuclear States, they're, again, ready to go to war. Do you have anything to say about that? Secretary‑General…?
Spokesman: Obviously, we are following the situation there as closely, as we always do, and we would encourage dialogue between the parties to settle any outstanding differences.
Question: Besides that, that you've been saying, has there been any movement that Prime Minister… I mean that the Secretary‑General has talked with the Prime Minister of either Pakistan or India?
Spokesman: Nothing to report to you at this time, Masood. Yes, ma'am and then…
Question: Does Mr. [António] Guterres and the UN in general has already any statement about illegal elections in Crimea territory?
Spokesman: No, I don't have anything at this point, but I hope to have something for you.
Question: Because the… you… I understand that EU [European Union], United States, all the democratic countries already had a statement last week about that. One of the basis of their statements is international law and exactly this… decisions of General Assembly and resolutions of General Assembly…?
Spokesman: Our position on Crimea and the general… and following General Assembly resolutions is unchanged and will not change. And I will come back to you if I have more. Yes?
Correspondent: Stéphane, I heard your update about the situation in Afrin and SG's comments in his remarks last week about the situation there, but from the reports on the ground, the situation is way more dire. There are serious accusations of… of… of ethnic cleansing, of mass killings. I mean, I have these pictures that we verified in my networks, things like this. I don't know if you can look at it right now. I'm holding it in my hand. This is… these are verified pictures, and these are civilians, and authorities on the grounds are saying these pictures and for the record are result of deliberate targeting of civilians. That is why there was a big influx of… of refugees leaving Afrin…
Spokesman: Okay. What is the question?
Question: The question is: why there's lack of reporting, first of all, about the number of casualties, civilian casualties. And why there's no condemnation from Secretary‑General to… to… and demand Turkey to stop this military operation?
Spokesman: As you know, we are not… two things: I think the Secretary‑General's statement concerning the ongoing fighting and the lack of implementation of resolution 2401 (2018) early… late last week still stands, and those feelings remain. We have… our humanitarian colleagues have received reports of… through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund] of incidents in Afrin city, of threats of violence and arbitrary arrest of civilians, as well as looting of property. The United Nations views these reports with utmost concern and demands the parties to the conflict to respect their obligations under International Humanitarian Law and human rights law. But, I would say… I would also repeat that we are not directly present in Afrin at this time.
Question: And one follow‑up on that, Stéphane: About the right of the people to return to… to Afrin and their… their area, can you give me any update about that? There are major concerns of safety for civilians to return there.
Spokesman: Of course, there are concerns of safety. I mean, we've seen… we understand that there's still some fighting going on. Everyone should be able to return home in a safe and dignified way. What is important for us is that resolution 2401 (2018) be fully implemented. On Crimea, to your question on Crimea, I can say we do not pronounce ourselves on Member States' elections, absent of a mandate to do so. With regards to the situation in Crimea, the General Assembly expressed itself on several occasions, notably through resolution 68/262 on the "Territorial integrity of Ukraine" and resolution 71/205 on the "Situation of human rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol". Matthew?
Question: Sure. I wanted to ask you, there's a number reports around the world about a Myanmar‑proposed law and international NGOs [non-governmental organizations] which would… which would regulate… it purports to not only international NGOs but at the UN, to the degree that it's separate from that. So, I'm wondering… and a lot of group… I know that OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] sometimes can… coordinates with NGOs that have these concerns, but it would regulate the UN, as well. Is the UN aware of this law? What do… what… do they believe it would apply to them? And what's the status — and I'm sorry to ask you this again, but — of the envoy that was discussed in…?
Spokesman: There's no update on the envoy. The discussions are ongoing. I mean no updates to announce. The discussions are obviously very much ongoing. We're aware of the law. You know, the presence of the UN is regulated through the Charter and through international obligations that Member States have. But, obviously, I've… we've seen the law as being debated, but I will leave it at that principled response.
Question: Okay. I want to ask you about another principle. I actually have a couple of these, but one is directly, I think, on Department of Public — excuse me — of Political Affairs. Today, at the stakeout, Sweden's Ambassador, Olof Skoog, basically s… denied something that's in the… the North Korea… the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] Panel of Experts' report, which is that… it's in Annex 6.3. It says that a company based in Sweden falsified the origin of DPRK coal, saying it came from Russia instead of from DPRK. So, he says the company's not based in Sweden and that the Panel of Experts never contacted Sweden to ask. And at the bottom of the annex, it says "Source: Member State". So, I just… I wanted to ask you, as a general matter, given the DPA both staffs these things up and I'm assuming sort of oversees them, what are the… what's the standard of…?
Spokesman: The Panel of Experts are independent panels that report to the Security Council. It's not… whatever support we give the Panel of Experts is through… is a secretarial support in terms of hiring… you know, the administrative support that we give, but the reports of the Panel of Experts is not one that the Secretariat drafts. It's an independent Panel of Experts.
Question: But isn't the pool of people put on… I mean, isn't there… what's… I guess if… what is the UN's role with these? And is there any… who would then set the sort of standards or just the basic guidelines? I'm not trying to [inaudible]. It just seems extraordinary…
Spokesman: They report back to a committee, a sanctions committee, and I'm sure if members of the committee have an issue with the Panel of Experts or the… that will be done within the confines of the committee and the Security Council. It's not for the Secretariat to comment. Your next question?
Question: But I'm saying, should they ask… before these things are published, do they ask the country or…? I thought that was sort of basic.
Spokesman: As I said, it's an independent panel. It's not for me to comment on their work. Nizar?
Correspondent: Yeah. I'm sure you've seen these reports coming from Al Ghouta where some chemical labs were found by the Syrian army, and it was published in The Guardian, for example, on Saturday, detailed description about these labs. Also, allegations by those who are exiting from Ghouta that the rebels have been testing with these chemical weapons and with intention of using them.
Spokesman: What is the question, Nizar?
Question: Because the question… I've seen… you've seen these labs probably in the… as published. What is the position of the United Nations regarding the…?
Spokesman: The position of the Secretary‑General, he stands firmly against any use of chemical weapons regardless of who uses them. Any use needs to be fully investigated, and there needs to be accountability for those who use them. As you know, our access to East Ghouta is limited. The OPCW [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] has a mandate to receive reports of the use of chemical weapons. As far as the accountability mechanism, as you know, the Security Council failed to renew the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism.
Question: But, you are collecting information from those who are exiting Al Ghouta, as you did in the past? I mean, in the past when you accused the… you said the… there are reports, but we are… we cannot ignore them.
Spokesman: So, what is the question?
Question: Do you ignore… do you ignore…? I mean…
Spokesman: We don't ignore any information that is given to us. Okay?
Question: Are you checking with these exiting…?
Spokesman: We're… whatever information we get, we would not ignore any information. Yes, sir? Your microphone, please. There you go. You're good.
Question: A Nigerian human rights group, Socio‑Economic Rights and Accountability Project, has written to the UN Security Council to declare… to designate the armed herdsman operating in the country as a terrorist organization, following the attacks in the North-Central Nigeria. I want to know if the UN has received the letter. And, also, the DSG's [Deputy Secretary-General] visit to Nigeria this weekend, is the issue going to form a part of her consultations with the Nigerian leaders?
Spokesman: I will get you an update on the Deputy Secretary‑General's visit, and I'll see if there's actually… if we can confirm receipt of the letter. Yes, sir?
Correspondent: Thank you, Stéphane. I'm sorry if you talked about this, but I… I arrived a little late.
Spokesman: If you haven't heard it, it's new to you.
Question: Canada… Canada mentioned over the weekend they were going to send helicopters and troops to support the UN Mission in Mali. There were not a lot of details. I wonder if you can tell us more specifically the amount of helicopters and troops that are going to be sent and if you can give us an update on historically how many troops have been killed in that mission.
Spokesman: I can't give you that update off the top of my head, but as we know, Mali has been one of the deadliest peacekeeping missions for UN peacekeepers over the last few years. Unfortunately, on a monthly basis almost, if not more, we have seen peacekeepers being attacked, targeted or killed by improvised explosive devices. On the Canadian contribution, they will be sending an aviation unit, which should be deployed in August. This aviation unit includes helicopters. I'll try to get you the exact numbers, but, obviously, this is very much a welcomed development, very much a welcomed announcement by the Canadian Government. As you know, Canada has a long and storied presence in UN peacekeeping, and we're very glad that they will be represented in Mali with such a key deployment.
Question: The initial announcement a few years back was about 600 troops. Is that what they're going to be sending?
Spokesman: Right now, we're… what we've been able to confirm is the intention to deploy an aviation unit.
Question: Just… so no troops?
Spokesman: Well, an avia… again, an aviation unit comes deployed with support personnel, but I'm not aware of any infantry or specific troop deployment. Matthew?
Correspondent: Sure. I'm just going to go… now… on this… since you're going to look into the Deputy Secretary‑General's trip to Nigeria, I'd wanted to know, previously, when she was there, the issue of the 47 Cameroonian — many of them UNHCR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], you know, accredited or whatever — designated refugees being refouled to Cameroon, that issue… does the UN know any more about where those 47 people are…
Spokesman: Nothing more than what we've said at the time.
Correspondent: And another part of her trip, I guess, either just after that, she's going to the Czech Republic about ECOSOC [Economic and Social Council]. So, I was going to and may still ask Brenden [Varma] this, but I wanted to ask you this. It has arisen the group… the China Energy Fund Committee, the founder or the… the ultimate owner in Shanghai has purportedly been brought in for questioning, and it turns out he was ac… not only an adviser to Sam Kutesa as PGA [President of the General Assembly], but also an adviser of the Czech Republic President. So, the Czech Republic has sent people to sort of look into his situation, but the Czech Republic has… also has the presidency of ECOSOC. So, noting that I haven't gotten any answer from the Czech Mission, my question is…
Spokesman: I think those are questions that you should address to the Presidency of ECOSOC.
Question: I guess but my question is an overall UN question. Is there… is there any… it seems like it might be a conflict of interest if your President has a business relationship with an NGO to be in charge of the committee that is either… how do we get an answer if…?
Spokesman: That is a question for the… that’s a question for Member States. Member States elect the Presidency of ECOSOC. They elect the bureau. Those are Member State questions. I struggle to answer the questions directed to the Secretary‑General. I think Member States need to answer other questions.
Question: Okay. Let me… DPKO question. Okay. The Government of Japan has… has… has disclosed, in response to a… to a House of Representative inquiry, that two — and this is a very serious thing — two of their Self‑Defence Forces that were deployed in… in South Sudan have committed suicide since they returned to the country. They say it's not related to the service. Others feel differently. But, I… my question to you is really… I mean, most militaries in the world conduct some kind of studies of, like, post‑traumatic stress, what happens to people after they deploy. And I'm wondering… maybe… I don't think you'll know it off the top of your head, but has DPKO ever looked at this issue? I mean, maybe they…?
Spokesman: I don't know. I'll check, but, obviously, I will check. The welfare and the conduct of the troops is the responsibility of the troop‑contributing country. That being said, I will check with DPKO. Masood‑ji, and then we'll go to Brenden.
Question: Thank you; so grateful to you. I just… two questions. One, the visit of the Saudi King, Salman, was visiting United States as of today, and he'll be meeting President [Donald] Trump, I think, tomorrow. And they will, in fact, he will ask for more arms and ammunition, which is being used in Yemen.
Spokesman: Your question, sir?
Question: The question… the question… two questions, sir. Number one question is, will the… will the Crown Prince come here? And will he with the United Nations talk to him about Yemen and the situation over there and to let go of…?
Spokesman: Okay. I… he has not… as far as I know, he's not scheduled to come this week, but we will check… I know he's in the US for quite some time. I will check if there is a meeting we can connect you to…
Question: Okay. Now, on the human rights issue of Saudi Arabia, there have been reports as of… and published in BBC and stuff like that, that he has… the… the man who is now Salman, he has disallowed his mother to visit her f… his father for the last year and a half, and that is considered to be a…?
Spokesman: I'm not aware of the reports going on within that family. Over to you, Brenden. Thank you.