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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.

**Syria

All right.  Good afternoon.  The United Nations remains alarmed about the safety and protection of over 3 million civilians in Idlib in Syria as well as the surrounding areas, over half of whom are internally displaced.  This is following ongoing reports of airstrikes and shelling.  Between 31 January and 2 February, at least 25 communities were reportedly affected by artillery shelling… ok.  As I was saying, between 31 January and 2 February, at least 25 communities were reportedly affected by artillery shelling, while 47 communities were reportedly impacted by airstrikes.  And since 1 December, over half a million people have been displaced due to the hostilities and around 80 per cent of these people are women and children. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported today that at least 53 health facilities suspended services in January due to the ongoing insecurity as well as threats of attacks, or as areas were deserted by civilians fleeing violence. 

In a statement we issued over the weekend you saw we expressed the Secretary-General’s deep concern at the ongoing military escalation in north-west Syria and his call for an immediate cessation of hostilities.  The Secretary-General reaffirms that attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, including on health-care and educational facilities, are unacceptable.

Military operations of all parties, including actions against and by designated terrorist groups, must respect the rules and obligations of international humanitarian law, which includes the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure.

The Secretary-General reiterates that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict.  The only path to stability is a credible and inclusive UN-facilitated political solution as laid out in the Security Council resolution 2254.

**Yemen

Turning to Yemen, today was the maiden voyage of the medical air bridge operation that brought a number of Yemeni patients out of an initial group of 30 along with their respective travel companions from Sana’a to Amman.  The remainder of the first group of 30 patients will travel in a second flight while more patients will follow on subsequent flights.

The UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, as well as the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande, and the World Health Organization Representative in Yemen, Altaf Musani, all welcomed the launch of this medical air bridge operation. 

The World Health Organization in collaboration with local public health and population authorities coordinated these flights.  The medical air bridge flights come as part of the United Nations ongoing humanitarian assistance in Yemen, including providing support to the health-care system.

Many UN entities and several Governments in the region and around the world collaborated to get these patients the treatment they need abroad, and we are grateful to them all.  The UN will do what it can to ensure the continuation of the medical air bridge as a temporary solution to reduce the suffering of the Yemeni people until a more sustainable solution is reached in the near future.

**Libya

The 5+5 Libyan Joint Military Commission is starting its meeting under UN auspices at the UN office in Geneva today. 

Five senior officers appointed by the Government of National Accord (GNA) and five senior officers appointed by the Libyan National Army (LNA) are participating in the talks, which are moderated by Ghassan Salamé, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Libya. 

More information will be communicated either later today or tomorrow.

**Central African Republic

Turning to the Central African Republic, UN peacekeepers in that country forced the UPC group, the Union for Peace armed group, to abandon its position in the centre of Alindao and to end all circulation of its armed forces in the city.  The armed group also announced it will withdraw from Bambouti — the city it had occupied since November — and this will be done by Wednesday.  In addition to the military pressure, the operation launched against the UPC continues on the political front, with the UPC required to stop its attempts to expand to other regions and to engage with the UN Mission (MINUSCA) and the Government.

**Sahel

Today the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), as well as the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), warned that over the last year there has been a spike in the Sahel in the number of people lacking food and vital livelihood opportunities.

In a joint statement, the agencies [said] the spike was due to the rising insecurity and climatic shocks in the region leaving about 3.3 million people in need of immediate assistance. 

The UN estimates that close to 4.8 million people in the Central Sahel will be at risk of food insecurity during the lean season, which runs from June to August, if no appropriate actions are taken urgently.

The agencies said they’re most concerned about the Central Sahelian countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, where conflict and its impact on communities have become the main cause of food insecurity.

**Locusts

Turning to Eastern Africa, our humanitarian colleagues tell us that Somalia has now declared the desert locust outbreak a national emergency.  We had previously flagged that the outbreak is threatening the food security of Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda, with other countries also at risk. 

Governments are conducting aerial and ground control operations and spraying pesticides to kill the large swarms, but their capacities are overstretched due to the speed of the spread as well as the scale of the infestation. 

FAO is working with the Governments impacted and has teams on the ground assessing damages and helping teams target the swarms. 

Last month, FAO formulated an initial response plan asking for $70 million to address immediate needs.  This was upgraded to $76 million to account for expanding the operation to Djibouti and Eritrea, and on 22 [January], the Central Emergency Response Fund released $10 million to support the pest control operations. 

**Mexico

In Mexico, the UN Children’s Fund estimates that some 2,200 migrants and asylum seekers, including 700 children, have been stranded in Matamoros near the US border as they wait for their asylum cases to work their way through the US court system.

UNICEF said that conditions on the ground are difficult because of insecurity and limited access to essential services.  Many families have been waiting there for weeks if not months.  More information online. 

**Young Leaders

I want to flag that on Sunday, the Secretary-General’s Youth Envoy launched its call for applications for the 2020 Class of Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This initiative recognizes and engages 17 exceptional young people who are leaders in the efforts to end poverty, combat climate change and reduce inequality. 

**Press Briefing Today

A couple of things to flag for today.  At 1:30 p.m. there will be a briefing here by Ambassador Marc Pecsteen, the Permanent Representative of Belgium to the United Nations and President of the Security Council for the month of February.  He will be here to brief you on the programme of work.

Then at 3 p.m.  the Secretary-General will meet with the Group of Friends on Climate and will deliver some remarks.

**Press Briefing Tomorrow

Tomorrow, fingers crossed, 11 a.m., the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, will be in this very room to speak to you, more importantly to answer your questions about his priorities for 2020.  That will take place at 11, and as it always happens, when the Secretary-General speaks the Spokesman has a day off, so we will not have a noon briefing. 

Khalas.  Betul?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  On Syria, there was a direct confrontation in Idlib between the [Bashar al-] Assad troops and the Turkish military forces, and eight Turkish soldiers were killed and there were some casualties on the Syrian side.  How concerned is the Secretary‑General? And has he talked to anyone from any side to de‑escalate the situation?

Spokesman:  Yes, we're very much alarmed by the reports that we saw of clashes between Syrian Government troops and Turkish forces in north‑west Syria.  I think this escalation underscores, yet again, the threat to regional and international peace and security caused by the ongoing conflict in Syria. 

We also remain deeply concerned by the continuing reports of civilian casualties and large‑scale displacement of civilians, resulting from the current Syrian Government offensive inside the Idlib de‑escalation zone. 

The Secretary‑General reaffirms, yet again, that no attacks on civilians or civilian infrastructure should take place.

Question:  Follow‑up.  Any talks within the SG or any sides from…

Spokesman:  Contacts are being had at various levels to pass on the message, which we are passing on publicly as well as privately, for the need for de‑escalation.

Edie?

Question:  Two questions, Steph.  As a follow‑up on that, it's fine to express alarm.  Is there anything else that the United Nations can do in this situation, given that there are hundreds of thousands of civilians whose lives are at risk?

Spokesman:  We are doing whatever we can on the humanitarian front, through the cross‑border operations, as we've been flagging.  As I said, we're also passing the messages for the need for de‑escalation to all the parties involved, publicly and privately.  And I think, yet again, this is another reminder of why there should be a redoubling of efforts to push forward on the political track.

Question:  My second question was on Libya.  What are the UN's expectations for this first 5+5 meeting?

Spokesman:  I will let Mr. Salamé address that.  He's in Geneva, and I understand he'll be speaking to your colleagues either today or tomorrow. 

Before we go on, I failed to read a very important note, is that we're delighted to welcome Cabo Verde to the true honour roll as Member States' payments to the regular budget arrived.  That's the January cut‑off date.  We now have 35 countries to the honour roll.  So, those who pay after 1 February will be most welcome, but the honour roll is only for those who pay in January.  We hope the others will pay soon and on time. 

Mr. Bays?

Question:  Could we, at some point, have an update on last year's budget and where we are on that?

Spokesman: Yeah.

Question:  My question is about Idlib and what you've said earlier on.  There seems to be a fracturing of the Sochi‑Astana understandings between Russia and Turkey.  And, as you know, Russia and Turkey basically have seized hold of the diplomacy of Syria in the last couple of years and seem to be taking control of it.  That suggests this is worrying you.  You said the Secretary‑General is worried.  What is his message to the President of Turkey and the President of Russia at this time?

Spokesman:  De‑escalate, and we… there are other processes… I mean other meeting points, whether it's Astana or Sochi.  Our message has always been that these meetings are welcome, and we attend these meetings, and it is important that all these efforts feed into the UN‑facilitated process under resolution 2254.

Majeed?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I wanted to ask about Iraq and the President designated a new Prime Minister, Mohammed Allawi, after months of stalemate.  As you know, there's a political crisis, protest.  This move was highly unpopular.  The protesters rejected the appointment of Mohammed Allawi as opposite to their demand of reform.  But there's a statement by the UNAMI (United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq), by the Special Representative of Secretary‑General.  She basically welcomes the designation of the new Prime Minister.  Why she… why is UNAMI's role coming…

Spokesman:  There was, indeed, a statement, but I think the other very important focus of her statement is her urging for swift action to deliver, first and foremost, on substantial reform and to fulfil the rightful demands of the people for justice and accountability, and I think that message is very clear.

Question:  But why… I mean, that message is… is… you know, she can have that message without welcoming the appointment of a politician as a Prime Minister.  Why does she feel the need…?

Spokesman:  It's a step that, I think, was long awaited.  The critical part is the need for the Government to deliver on the demands of the people.

Question:  And has Secretary‑General been… have any contact with the Iraqi leadership about the crisis in the…

Spokesman:  Yes, he spoke to the Foreign Minister last week, I think on… middle of last week.

Question:  What did they talk…?

Spokesman:  They talked about the current situation.  Nabil and then Evelyn. 

Question:  Thank you.  So, on Libya, the parliament in Tobruk announced today that they don't recognize the representative of Libya in the UN, and they sent a message to the SG on this regard.  Can you remind us, please, about the procedure here, how you recognize…

Spokesman:  Sure.  I haven't seen the message to the Secretary‑General.  The issue of challenging the credentials of any delegation needs to go through the Credentials Committee.  It is an issue for Member States themselves to decide upon.  It is not the Secretary‑General to decide on the validity of credentials.  If there's questions, those need to be raised within the Credentials Committee.

Question:  And "State" here, you mean the Government?

Spokesman:  Sorry?

Question:  The State here, Libya here means… the State of Libya, you mean the Government?

Spokesman:  There is a recognized Permanent Representative of the UN‑recognized Government in Libya who sits here in New York.

Evelyn, I promised.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  The Secretary‑General is supposed to have a report on the mess created on the cross‑border deliveries.  Do you know when that's due?

Spokesman:  I think 23 February, if I'm… if that date is correct.

Question:  Okay.  And has he spoken to Russia and Turkey recently about their aggression?

Spokesman:  He's had… as I said, conversations have had at various different levels.

Question:  Can you say what level…?

Spokesman:  I do not… I cannot. 

Joe, then James and then Stefano.

Question:  Actually, that related to the question I was going to ask, but I'll put it in a different way.  First of all, could you tell us — or maybe you did, and I just didn't hear it — who besides the generals on each side and the UN representative are attending this conference in Geneva?  Are there high‑level representatives from other countries, Russia, Turkey, in particular?

Spokesman:  Not… I mean, the… this is the Libyan… I mean, whether or not there are observers from other Member States, I don't know.  But this is a meeting of the Libyan… of Libyan parties, as I outlined.

Question:  Okay.  Then just to expand on Evelyn's question, I believe I'm correct in this, that Turkey and Russia are now on opposite sides, at least in some respects, in both Syria, north‑west Syria, as well as Libya.  So, wouldn't the Secretary‑General himself think, in terms of trying to get involved at the highest levels of preventing further fighting in both… in both… in both arenas, that maybe he should reach out directly to the presidents of both countries?

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General and his staff are very much in contact with various parties.

James and then Stefano and then…

Question:  So, back to the military meeting in Geneva, I understand that you said that SRSG [Special Representative of the Secretary-General] Salamé will give us the substance of what's been achieved, but in terms of the meeting, what is the information you got out of UNOG [United Nations Office in Geneva]?  How long have they met for?  Has the meeting been adjourned for the day today?  Is the SRSG physically present with those…

Spokesman:  Yeah, what I… the only thing I can confirm is that the SRSG is physically present.  Any information on the meeting will come out of Geneva, so I…

Question:  It would be useful if you could ask your Geneva, to say whether it's been adjourned until tomorrow, because it's now 6:30 in Geneva.

Spokesman:  Yes.  But they do… contrary to popular myth, people do work past 6:30 in Geneva if they… I mean…

Question:  Are they allowed to?

Spokesman:  Yes, it is a right to work.

Question:  Steph, as a quick follow‑up on that, I just got an email from our Geneva correspondent who said that they have absolutely no information on anything so… If you could put in an appeal for some kind of a statement or something to be issued today, it would be greatly appreciated.

Spokesman:  Yes.  I will.  I promise I will appeal.

Caro, Stefano, dicame.

QuestionGrazie.  Thank you very much.  Is Libya, about migrants.  Italy and Libya just renewed, with no amendments, the agreement they have on how to handle migrants.  Now, organization like Amnesty International, for example, just issued statement.  What it says that "renewal of migration deal confirms Italy's complicity in torture of migrants and refugees".  What's the reaction of the Secretary‑General on the renewal of this… on this agreement?

Spokesman:  I haven't seen the agreement, but what I can tell you is that we have some basic principles that we call on to be respected, which is that the rights of refugees need to be respected.  The dignity of migrants needs to be respected.  And we do not feel, I think as UNHCR [United Nations refugee agency] and IOM [International Organization for Migration] have said repeatedly, that Libya is a safe place for migrants or refugees.  We've seen in the last few days and repeatedly efforts by various UN organizations to close down the migrants’ camp and refugee camps, to move people out of Libya.  I think there's a programme that moves them to Rwanda. 

So, those are our basic principles.  I can't comment on the agreement itself because I have not seen it.

Question:  Stéphane, just a follow‑up very quick.  I understand that you didn't read it, but it is exactly the same agreement that's been in place for three years.  And they should… they said before… Italy said before that they're going to do amendment, but they didn't.  And they promising we will do later, but still the agreement is exactly the one the three years ago.  I'm sure that Secretary‑General that were… that was the director of UNHCR, I'm sure he knows…

Spokesman:  Well, I think his… what his answer would be very mirrored… would mirror mine.  I would hope so, because otherwise I'm in the wrong job. 

Alan?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Russian no government org… NGO called Foundation… Foundation for National Values Protection, they claim that their two members were seized in Libya by GNA side.  So, largely, they accused in some attempts to affect the elections in Libya.  So, according to this NGO, they… they submitted the letter to SG.

Spokesman:  We haven't seen the letter, but we can look with our colleagues into their case in Libya.

Correspondent:  Yeah.  Thank you.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Okay.  Joe?

Question:  I know you read out a statement from UNICEF concerning conditions in Mexico, children.  But does the UN consider overall Mexico to be a safe country for migrants and refugees? You just mentioned Libya as not being safe… Can you report on Mexico?

Spokesman:  I mean, I think there is… by any measure, I think there is a very big difference as to the situation in Libya and the situation in Mexico.  I would not want to compare the two. 

I would refer you to UNICEF's… the full UNICEF press release where they also call on the Mexican institutions to implement the protection… the protocols on the protection of migrant children.

Correspondent:  Last question?

Spokesman:  Don't ever say last.  One more.  Yeah.

Question:  Yes, one more.  Any update about coronavirus?  Have… has… is… WHO has any message, warning for…

Spokesman:  They put out bulletins every day.  They put one already out today.  I would refer you to them.  They're firmly in the lead on this…

Question:  Has the SG personally been involved with any…

Spokesman:  He's been in touch with Dr. Tedros [Adhanom Ghebreyesus].  Again, this is a medical, scientific issue in which WHO is the natural leader within the UN system.  So, we fully… we, obviously, fully support them. 

One message, I think, that's important is that the fight against the coronavirus should not lead to any prejudice, any stigmatization of groups of people or of health‑care workers, and that human rights need to be respected. 

Thank you.  And, hopefully, you'll see the boss tomorrow.

For information media. Not an official record.