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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.


Let me start off with answering the question that I’ve been receiving for the last half an hour.  The Secretary-General has just received a message from Mr. [Ghassan] Salamé expressing his intention to leave his post as Special Representative for Libya.  The Secretary-General has always had full confidence in Mr. Salamé’s work and the great efforts he has made to bring peace to Libya.  The Secretary-General will be discussing with Mr. Salamé the way to ensure a smooth transition so as not lose any momentum on the gains that have been made.  Also on Libya, you saw that, over the weekend, we issued a statement in which the Secretary-General strongly condemned the indiscriminate bombing of several parts of Tripoli, including residential areas and the airport in Tripoli.  The Secretary-General calls for an immediate cessation of hostilities and recalls the recently adopted Security Council resolution 2510 (2020) and urges its implementation.


Turning to the COVID-19, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros [Adhanom Ghebreyesus], spoke to reporters today in Geneva.  He said the number of cases in China continues to decline, with 206 cases reported to WHO yesterday — that’s the lowest number since 22 January.  Outside of China, a total of 8,739 cases have been reported in 61 countries with 127 deaths.  Dr. Tedros noted that, in the last 24 hours, there were almost nine times more cases reported outside of China than inside China, with the epidemics in the Republic of Korea, Italy, Iran and Japan being WHO’s greatest concern.

Also on COVID-19, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, yesterday released $15 million from the Central Emergency Relief Fund to help fund global efforts to contain the virus.  This funding has been released to the WHO and to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for monitoring the spread of the virus, investigating cases and the operation of national labs, among other essential activities.  Mr. Lowcock said that swift and robust action must be taken to detect cases early, isolate and care for patients and trace contacts, stressing that we must act now to stop this virus from putting more lives at risk.


Turning to Syria, Kevin Kennedy, the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, today said that a one-day inter-agency UN mission had been conducted across the border from Turkey into north-west Syria, where the needs for humanitarian aid and protection are growing more desperate by the day.  He said that the mission was a successful step to better understand the humanitarian realities on the ground and to assess the feasibility of a sustained UN presence in Idlib.  The UN mission witnessed first-hand the dire humanitarian consequences of the ongoing violence in Idlib, and it saw that people are traumatized and frightened and urgently need better access to food, shelter, sanitation, basic health services and protection.  All parties to the conflict must adhere to their obligations to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure in accordance with international humanitarian law.  More than 2,150 trucks carrying aid crossed from Turkey into north-west Syria in January and February.  This is more than double the number of trucks crossing during the same period in 2019.  Mr. Kennedy added that we need to do even more and scale up our presence on the ground.


On a related note, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is appealing for calm and an easing of tensions on Turkey’s borders with the European Union, following the increase in movements of people that we have seen in the past few days.  Groups arriving at Turkey’s borders have included Syrians, Afghans, Iranians, Sudanese and other nationalities, as well as women, children and families.  All States have a right to control their borders and manage irregular movements, UNHCR said, but they should refrain from the use of excessive or disproportionate force and maintain systems for handling asylum requests in an orderly manner.  Persons entering irregularly on the territory of a State should not be punished if they present themselves without delay to the authorities to seek asylum.  The Secretary-General is following the situation closely and is fully supportive of UNHCR’s approach.

**Deputy Secretary-General

Today at 2 p.m. in the Visitors’ Centre, the Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, will speak at the opening of the Spotlight Initiative’s One in Three exhibit.  The title of the exhibit comes from the shocking statistic that one in three women has experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetime.  The Deputy Secretary-General will highlight that this statistic prevents us from ending poverty or hunger, rolling back the effects of climate change or achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), since violence prevents more than half of the world’s population from completing their education, participating in economic activities or providing much-needed solutions to our common global challenges.  You are all welcome to attend.

**Gabon/Equatorial Guinea

Also, speaking of invitations, I would like to flag that, tomorrow morning, at 11:45 a.m., there will be a ceremony to mark the Special Agreement on the border dispute between the Gabonese Republic and the Republic of Equatorial Guinea.  The ceremony will mark the successful conclusion of a UN mediation process, which aimed to facilitate a peaceful solution to the longstanding border dispute between the two countries.  The Special Agreement will allow both countries to submit their dispute to the International Court of Justice.  There will be remarks by the Secretary-General, as well as the Permanent Representatives of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.  And this will take place in the Secretary‑General’s Conference Room.


I want to flag that in Vienna, the sixty-third session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs started today.  Ghada Waly, the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), called for concrete progress in strengthening responses to the world drug problem.  Resolutions under consideration by the Commission address topics including partnerships with the private sector; improving the collection of data to strengthen responses to the world drug problem; involving youth in drug prevention efforts; and ensuring the access to controlled substances for medical and scientific purposes.

**Humanitarian Aid

Yesterday, the UN Humanitarian Chief, Mark Lowcock, who was speaking on behalf of the Secretary-General at the 2020 Riyadh International Humanitarian Forum, thanked Saudi Arabia for its generous support of the UN’s humanitarian work around the world.  He highlighted the drivers of current humanitarian suffering:  conflict, a warming planet and disease.  He also noted that conflicts are becoming more protracted and intense, with affected people suffering displacement, hunger, [and] psychosocial trauma, on top of the loss of their livelihoods, their schools and health services.  Combatants are also showing a growing disregard for international humanitarian law, putting civilians and civilian infrastructure in the line of fire.


Over the weekend, we also issued a statement welcoming the efforts to achieve a lasting political settlement in Afghanistan.  In a statement, the Secretary-General said that Saturday’s events in Doha and Kabul marked an important development in this regard.  He expressed his appreciation to the Emir of Qatar for hosting the talks between the US and the Taliban.  The Secretary‑General also said he hopes the deeply held aspirations of the Afghan people for peace will be realized, through an inclusive Afghan-led process with the meaningful participation of women and youth.  The head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Tadamichi Yamamoto, attended the signing ceremony in Doha.  The Mission also issued a statement today.

**Press Conferences

A couple of more things to flag, excuse me.  Today, our guests will be, after we’re done here, panel members of the High-level Panel on International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity for Achieving the 2030 Agenda.  They will brief you on the launch of the Panel.  At 3 pm today, there will be a briefing by Ambassador Zhang Jun, Permanent Representative of the People’s Republic of China and President of the Security Council for the merry month of March.  He will be here to brief you on the Council’s programme of work.  Tomorrow, I will be joined by the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Resources Management, Martha Helena Lopez, who will brief you on the results of the recent UN Staff Survey.

**Financial Contributions

And we want to end on good news, and we want to say thank you to France, Greece and Serbia for paying their budget dues in full.  We are now up to?  Sixty‑two.  Oh.  All right.  Who said 61?  All right.  You go first.

**Questions and Answers 

Question:  Thanks very much.  Question about the fact-finding mission that went into Idlib to investigate the possibility of a sustained UN presence there.  What are some of the ideas that are being batted around for what that could be look… for what that could look like?  I realize they went in to answer that question, but can you give us… can you give us a…?

Spokesman:  I think the bottom line is that what we need at this point is increased cross‑border capacity to deliver aid.  That's the most immediate and clear way to get aid into Idlib.  Obviously, we have to wait for whatever else they report.  Ibtisam?

Question:  My question is about the resignation of Mr. Salamé.  Two questions.  The first one, why did we hear about it first from his Twitter account and not your office?  And then when did you hear about it?

Spokesman:  Ask Jack Dorsey.  I don't know.  No, I mean, I don't mean to be glib.  He… Mr. Salamé tweeted out his decision.  I think, as I… a number of you were asking me in the last hour, I said, that was the first we heard of it.  I spoke to the Secretary‑General about… just before coming in here.  He subsequently received an email from Mr. Salamé explaining his decision to be relieved of his duty.  You know, sometimes we all play catch-up.  But, I mean, the… everything is settled down.  And as I said, the Secretary‑General, you know, has told Mr. Salamé how much he appreciated all the work he has done at the helm of the Mission in very difficult times, I think very appreciative of the work that's been done especially recently in bringing the parties together.  And the most important thing now is to work on the transition to make sure that no momentum is lost.

Question:  But… so, just to clarify, so, you received the email after the announcement or before that?

Spokesman:  I don't know when exactly the Secretary‑General checked his email.  I… let's not look… for us, that's… you know, the tick‑tock is not as important as moving forward.  Señora?

Question:  Thank you.  Same topic.  Do you have already an indication of the timing of the end of his mandate…?

Spokesman:  No.

Question:  Okay.  And do you think that… or the SG think that the… can… this can represent a step back in the efforts towards the peace in Libya?

Spokesman:  I think our focus to make sure that this will not represent a step back, and that's why we're so focussed on the transition.  Michelle?

Question:  Thanks, Steph.  As you know, this meeting's been going on about whether or not to hold CSW [Commission on the Status of Women], scale down or postpone it.  The Saudi representative made an interesting comment saying that there were also discussions about whether to postpone UNGA [United Nations General Assembly].  Are there any such discussions to postpone UNGA?  And who would make that decision?

Spokesman:  Okay.  What we are looking at are meetings on a case‑by‑case basis.  Right?  And that's why the Secretary‑General made the recommendation to the Bureau of the CSW.  The situation around corona… the COVID‑19 is fast evolving.  It's very fluid.  I think all these questions will be looked at.  I am not aware of any substantive discussion to postpone UNGA.  Again, we are looking at meetings as they come up on a case‑by‑case basis.  What has to be made absolutely clear, the decision to cancel, postpone or alter any intergovernmental meetings, that decision lies with Member States.  It is their responsibility.  The Secretary‑General cannot and did not make the call to postpone or change the CS… the upcoming CSW.  It was a recommendation that he's made as… in a sense, as the administrator of this building, in an effort to always pub… to balance the need for the UN's critical work to go on, and especially, on issues of gender and the need to protect public health.  But, the calendar of meetings is one that is firmly in the hands of Member States.

Question:  So, just a quick follow‑up.  Has anyone asked the SG for recommendations on UNGA, and what to…?

Spokesman:  No.  I'm not aware that that has come up in any way.  Betul, and then madame?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Back to Syria, a follow‑up on humanitarian aid into Idlib.  As far as I understand, the UN wants to increase the number of trucks going through the two crossings from Turkey to Idlib.  And how many trucks do you send a day and how many days are you allowed to use the crossings?

Spokesman:  I'd have to… I don't have that granularity in my head of details, but I will… I know we are pushing to increase the volume, and as you saw over the… you know, the year‑to‑date has increased significantly, but it's always a challenge.  We're working closely with the Turkish authorities.  But, at this point, the only way to get aid into Idlib is through the cross‑border crossings…

Question:  How many days a week does…?

Spokesman:  Again, I have to check how many days a week they operate, but we're trying to exploit it in as… to maximum capacity.  Melissa.  Then I'll get to you.

Question:  Thanks, Steph.  So, I understand the decision lies with Member States, but today's briefing was based on a recommendation from the Secretary‑General, who, in turn, made the recommendation based on input from the World Health Organization and others.  So, even before UNGA, there are large gatherings.  You've got the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.  You've got the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] Review, which will be huge.  Are there plans…?

Spokesman:  I mean, we're looking…

Correspondent:  I know it's on a case‑by‑case, but this was a bit… it was late and so these are…

Spokesman:  Well, it's late, I mean, the… you know, the situation… I mean, I'm giving you the updates from WHO.  The numbers are moving… where the cases are taking place, that's moving on a daily basis.  So, we are looking at, you know, the upcoming meetings.  We will make recommendations to Member States to what we think is the best way forward.

Question:  I understand the situation is fluid and evolving, but is there… are you planning, since you do have these big international gatherings already under review, to give recommendations with enough notice so that…?

Spokesman:  We will give recommendations to Member States…

Question:  With enough notice so that…?

Spokesman:  We're trying… I mean, I think… everyone is… on the Secretariat's side is fully aware of the importance of the issues being debated here, the investments that Member States and that civil society make into coming here.  Our goal is to make sure that the UN's work goes forward and that people are safe.

Correspondent:  I have just one quick follow‑up based on that.

Spokesman:  Don't be shy.

Question:  There were several delegates today in the briefing, Jamaica among them, who brought up the possibility that the UN might help many of these delegates, CSOs [civil society organizations], who were coming, planning to come, to CSW, many of them from small and developing countries who bought non-refundable plane tickets, don't have cancellation coverage, if there was something that the UN could do to help them get reimbursed.  For example, the suggestion from Jamaica was to liaise with airlines.  Is there something that the UN could do?

Spokesman:  Listen, I know these issues came up.  There is nothing in the Secretariat's budget to cover that.  I think it's a question you… that may be explored with UN-Women.  We will, of course, be as helpful as possible, and we're very cognizant of the sacrifices that civil society organizations make, especially those from the developing world who may be strapped for cash.  Benno?

Question:  Thank you.  So, there are reports that Turkey is sending refugees to the border with Greece to increase the pressure on the European Union in the conflict with Syria.  I wonder if the SG has a direct message to countries, like in this case Turkey, which are trying to influence global politics on the back of refugees?

Spokesman:  Look, I would refer to what I just read out from UNHCR, which… they are the lead on this.  Where our concern is with the well‑being of people, and States have a responsibility to ensure that people are treated with dignity and that their rights are respected.  But, again, that's… this whole issue is one that UNHCR is in the lead on.

Question:  Quick follow‑up, please?  So does the Secretary‑General think that, in this case, rights are respected?

Spokesman:  I think as the… UNHCR appealed for calm and easing of tensions.  They expressed their concern, and we fully back UNHCR's approach.  Mr. Barada?

Question:  Again on Ghassan Salamé, does the Secretary‑General still expect a formal letter of resignation from Ghassan Salamé?  And what are the later steps that the SG is going to take?

Spokesman:  I think we're… in the twenty-first century, I think we're beyond formalities.  What is clear, Mr. Salamé has written an email to the Secretary‑General expressing his wishes.  Whether or not a more formal letter comes, I don't know.  But, obviously, our focus now is on ensuring a smooth transition so as not to lose the… you know, some of the momentum we've gained.  I mean, the situation in Libya is critical.  We're seeing… we've seen increased fighting.  We also saw different Libyan parties being able to meet around a table.  Mr. Salamé has made some great progress.  We don't want to lose any of that momentum.

Question:  Another subject, if I may.  On the humanitarian forum that was held in Riyadh, Mr. Lowcock represented the Secretary‑General.  And would you please lay out what the… what are the other steps the… might follow this important meeting in the region?

Spokesman:  I don't have anything beyond what I've said.  Evelyn?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  I was late today, because I listened to the CSW discussion until the end, and it seems what they're going to do is have a one‑day meeting to pass the declaration and some resolutions and then figure out where to have an… a bigger one with the NGOs [non-governmental organizations], possibly even in Paris in the July meeting that was scheduled on Beijing.  What I don't understand, though, is, if you're taking decisions on resolutions and on major statements without the NGOs or the civil society, which often feed into individual Member States, is…?

Spokesman:  I… you have a leg up on me as I didn't… I was here, so we have to see what the actual decision is.  There's, obviously… there's always a political process.  There are also the very important voices that we need to hear from NGOs.  Stefano?

Question:  Thank you.  As a follow‑up on the border between Turkey and Greece, well, Greece is stopped to guarantee asylum, and how the UN consider this moment that this mass of people, refugees or migrants?

Spokesman:  I think different people have different claims in different cases.  That's something that needs to be examined on a case‑by‑case basis, which is not something we can do from here.

Question:  Okay.  And then a very quick follow‑up.  You just say that the Secretary‑General's following what the UNHCR is saying on this, but does the general… the Secretary‑General, according to the Charter, has also a kind of moment where his word are much heavy, the weight of his words…?

Spokesman:  He's full… I mean, I didn't say he… I didn't say he's following what UNHCR… I said he's following the situation closely, and he fully backs UNHCR's approach.

Question:  So, can we expect him to declare something of the situation at any moment?

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General always has a right to speak up, and he will speak up when he feels it's necessary.  Alan?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Who may become the next Special Envoy to Libya?  Do… can you name any candidate… candidates?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  No, but it's a nice try.

Correspondent:  Melissa.

Spokesman:  Melissa Kent, yes, ma'am.

Question:  I have another sort of follow‑up again.  Again, just based on the same… being more prepared since we know that there is this virus out there and that it's travelling internationally, you are… you have a lot of international gatherings coming up.  I'm wondering… some are big, some are small.  Obviously, the CSW is enormous, but is there… or can you tell us if the World Health Organization is suggesting a sort of a threshold?  Like, is it above 100, above 1,000?  Does it…?

Spokesman:  I would… the World Health Organization has put out some very useful guidelines on the organization of mass meetings and guidelines to follow, and those are publicly available and shared with Member States.  But, you have two things.  You have guidelines from the World Health Organization, and then, obviously, each Member States makes its own decisions.  Right?  I mean, we saw, I think, the decisions taken by the Swiss authorities to ban meetings of more than 1,000 people.  Different Member States are in different situations and are taking approaches that best suit their public health needs.  So, it's really two things.  There are recommendations, then guidelines from the UN, from WHO, and then there are decisions taken by Member States, which we will obviously respect.  Thank you.  I will get our guests.

For information media. Not an official record.