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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.

Just to let you know, we are trying to use a new technology to be more interactive in the coming days.

All right.  Moving over to the news…

**COVID-19/New York City

You will have seen that over the weekend, the Secretary-General, together with the US Ambassador, Kelly Craft, announced the donation of 250,000 protective face masks to the United States.  They were then picked up by Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City on Saturday afternoon.

These masks were found in the United Nations in New York and were in surplus to our requirements.

The Secretary-General said they would be given to medical professionals in New York City who have been working courageously, selflessly, and tirelessly in response to the spread of the virus across the five boroughs in the hope that they play some small role in saving lives.

He added that we speak with one voice to express our resolute support for this great city and its proud people.  To us, the Secretary-General said, New York is not just our home or the headquarters of the UN — it is a vibrant international capital through which the world communicates, debates, trades, and prospers.

The Secretary-General said he sincerely hopes this modest donation would make a difference.

Tomorrow, as a programming note, the Secretary-General will speak to you by videoconference about his new report entitled “Shared responsibility, global solidarity:  Responding to the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19”.  The report is a call to action across the many social and economic dimensions of this crisis, and is, above all, a call to focus on people.

That will take place virtually around noon tomorrow, and then we will resume the briefings on Wednesday.

We also hope to be able to share with you advance copies of that report.


And just turning to some of the other publications put out by our colleagues across the UN system.

In a document published today, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is calling for a $2.5 trillion assistance package for developing countries, whose populations face unprecedented economic damage from the COVID-19 crisis.

The consequences of a combined health pandemic and a global recession will be catastrophic for many developing countries and halt their progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

UNCTAD proposes a strategy that would include the injection of liquidity, debt relief, and a strong recovery plan.  The full report is online. 


And our colleagues here in New York at the UN Development Programme (UNDP) said today the growing COVID-19 crisis threatens disproportionately to hit developing countries, not only in the short term but over the months and years to come.

UNDP said the income losses are expected to exceed $220 billion in developing countries, and nearly half of all jobs in Africa could be lost.  With an estimated 55 per cent of the global population having no access to social protection, these losses will reverberate across societies, impacting education, human rights and, in the most severe cases, basic food security and nutrition.

UNDP, in coordination with the World Health Organization (WHO), is already working to support health systems in countries including Bosnia and Herzegovina, China, Djibouti, El Salvador, Eritrea, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Nigeria, Paraguay, Panama, Serbia, Ukraine and Vietnam.

In the longer term, UNDP will work with countries to assess the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 and take urgent recovery measures to minimize long-term impact.


Turning to the International Labour Organization (ILO).  They warned today that the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the world’s inequalities and threatening to deepen them.

Some groups, such as migrant workers and workers in the informal economy, are particularly affected by the economic consequences of the virus, and women are especially exposed.

Across the world, 2 billion workers are in informal employment.

ILO emphasized that policy responses must ensure that support reaches the workers and enterprises who need it most, including low-wage workers, the self-employed and many other vulnerable people.

**COVID/Children and Armed Conflict

And the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba, issued a statement today to add her voice to the Secretary-General's call for a global cease-fire. 

Boys and girls living in conflict zones need us more than ever, she said, adding that reducing violence is essential.

Ms. Gamba paid tribute to child protection actors who continue to provide vital support and bring hope to child survivors of grave violations.  She also reiterated her commitment to work with the UN system to protect children impacted by armed conflict and to prevent violations committed against them from occurring in the first place.


And just a couple notes from the field related to the virus outbreak:  From Abyei, the UN peacekeeping mission there (UNISFA) says that it is taking steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and will continue to prioritize and implement its core protection of civilians mandate.

The mission has suspended the travel for staff, except for critical travel, to the Abyei Administrative Area.  Cargo flights will continue to operate.

The mission has also set up a COVID-19 taskforce to respond rapidly, including medical evacuations.

It is also conducting outreach and sensitizing efforts in communities to keep people abreast of the situation.


And from the Gambia, the UN team there is working to support the Government’s preparedness, with the third case of COVID-19 having been confirmed in the country.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is strengthening surveillance and lab preparedness, while the Resident Coordinator and other UN entities are supporting the Government’s communications efforts to prevent a full outbreak.

UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) is supporting with water and sanitation efforts, as well as on schools and community education.

UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) is training front-line health workers, while the UN Development Programme is working on the socioeconomic impacts of the virus.  UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme against HIV/AIDS) is also studying the impacts of COVID-19 on people living with HIV/AIDS.

For its part, the International Organization on Migration (IOM) is helping to deploy a border management information system for travellers and is training border and health officials to screen, identify and refer threats of public health concerns.


And in Guatemala, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) and WHO are working together to support the Government since mid-January to address health needs, providing technical assistance and focusing on containment measures.

The UN country team is working with the Government to analyse the needs in health, water, sanitation, education, food security and nutrition, as well as on reactivating the economy.

The UN is also helping to address violence against women and girls; this is crucial at a moment when people are asked to stay home.  Central America already has one the highest rates of femicide in the world.

**COVID-19/Middle East

And lastly, just on Friday, after the briefing, we shared with you a note in which the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East, Nickolay Mladenov, said that Israeli and Palestinian authorities continue to coordinate their responses closely and constructively to the response to COVID-19, especially in Gaza.

Mr.  Mladenov noted that Israel has facilitated the entry of critical supplies — including swabs to collect samples for COVID-19 testing and personal protective equipment — as well as equipment into Gaza since the beginning of the crisis.  This is in addition to Israel's cooperation to allow for the movement and access of personnel involved in the virus response to and from both the West Bank and Gaza.

And Mr. Mladenov will be briefing the council in a videoconference later today as part of his regular work.


Turning to Syria, Geir Pedersen, the Special Envoy for Syria, and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock provided updates on the situation in Syria while participating this morning in a videoconference meeting with Security Council members.

Mr. Pedersen reiterated his appeal for a complete, immediate nationwide ceasefire throughout Syria to enable an all-out-effort to counter COVID-19, and expressed his readiness to work with the Government of Syria and the opposition and all relevant players on the ground, as well as key countries with weight and influence who can support a scaling-up of action and ensure that the ceasefire holds.

The Special Envoy noted that there has been a decrease in violence in Syria’s north-west, especially in terms of airstrikes.  He also noted that agreements in the north-east continue broadly to hold.  However, current arrangements are not ideal for the kind of response across front-lines that the COVID-19 outbreak demands.

Mr. Lowcock told the Security Council members that, as of this morning, ten cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Syria, including one death.  Judging from other places, he said, this is the tip of the iceberg, with the virus having the potential to have a devastating impact on vulnerable communities across the country.

He added that Humanitarian needs remain enormous, with the UN data showing clear evidence of deteriorating conditions since December.  Mr. Lowcock said that we are seeing increased rates of stunting — a consequence of child malnutrition, from which it is rarely possible to fully recover.  Almost three out of every ten displaced children in north-west Syria under the age of five are stunted.


And turning to Yemen, our Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths, said he was alarmed by the continuation and escalation of ground and aerial activities in Yemen, in particular in and around Ma’rib governorate, and the attacks against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia claimed by Ansar Allah.  He reiterated the Secretary-General's call for an immediate ceasefire and cessation of hostilities to build a conducive environment to achieving a nation-wide ceasefire.

He recalled that Yemen needs its leaders to focus every minute of their time on averting and mitigating the potentially disastrous consequences of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Mr. Griffiths reiterated that indiscriminate attacks affecting civilians and civilian targets, whether inside or outside of Yemen, are unlawful and reprehensible.

Mr. Griffiths emphasized that the recent uptick in fighting runs counter to the stated commitments of all involved in the conflict to work on a ceasefire and their positive responses among diverse groups of Yemenis to the call the Secretary-General made to end the fighting in Yemen.


And I was asked about reactions to the announcement of the ELN ceasefire in Colombia; I can say that the Secretary-General welcomes the announcement by the National Liberation Army (ELN) of a one-month unilateral ceasefire starting on 1 April to facilitate the response in Colombia to the outbreak of the COVID-19.  He hopes that this gesture, following on his global appeal for ceasefires, can bring a measure of relief to communities and vulnerable groups in conflict-affected regions in Colombia, and help the authorities to focus on fighting the pandemic.

The Secretary-General calls on other armed groups to do likewise.

**Staff Security

As we do every year, we update you on figures of UN personnel that were killed in deliberate attacks in the line of duty.  And these are numbers for 2019, given to us by the UN Staff Union Standing Committee on the Security and Independence of the International Civil Service.  At least 27 UN personnel — 23 peacekeepers and 4 civilians — were killed in deliberate attacks in the line of duty in 2019.

This brings the death toll to at least 423 UN and associated personnel who were killed in deliberate attacks in the last ten years from improvised explosive devices, rocket and artillery fire, mortar rounds, landmines, grenades, suicide attacks, targeted assassinations and armed ambushes.

For the sixth year in a row, in 2019, most of the attacks took place in Mali.

**Pension Fund

And as you will have seen, we announced yesterday that Mr. Sudhir Rajkumar has resigned from his role as the Representative of the Secretary-General for the investment of the assets of the UN Joint Staff Pension Fund.  That’s effective at the close of business on tomorrow, 31 March.   The Secretary-General has accepted his resignation and thanks him for his service in managing the assets of the Joint Pension Fund.  The Secretary-General wishes Mr. Rajkumar the best in his future endeavours.

The Director of the Finance Division in the [Office of Programme Planning, Finance and Budget], Mr. Pedro Guazo, will be appointed as the Acting Representative of the Secretary-General while the Secretary-General launches a recruitment process to find a permanent successor to Mr. Rajkumar.


Also in terms of announcements, today we’re announcing the appointment of Antonia Marie De Meo of the United States as Director of the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, UNICRI, which is based in Italy.

The Secretary-General wishes to extend his appreciation and gratitude to Bettina Tucci Bartsiotas, who will continue to serve as Acting Director until Ms. De Meo assumes her position.

Ms. De Meo brings to the position twenty years of experience in rule of law and human rights, including criminal justice, crime prevention, gender equality and migrants.  She is currently Chief of the Human Rights, Transitional Justice and Rule of Law Service at the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and Representative of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Libya.

That's it for me.  I will now turn to your questions, for which I need glasses, so bear with me. 

**Questions and Answers

All right.  From Edie and others, reasons… okay.  All right.  Let me address the issue of Mr. Rajkumar.  He decided to leave for personal and family reasons.  The Secretary‑General accepted his resignation. 

Obviously, I think it's clearly a volatile time for global markets.  The Secretary‑General fully recognises that this is a unique and difficult time in the financial markets, as we all know, and he thought it necessary to act quickly and decisively to appoint an interim representative.

As you know, Mr. Guaidó will… Guazo, sorry, will start first thing Wednesday morning at the end of Mr. Rajkumar's tenure.

The Secretary‑General not only has full confidence in Mr. Guazo's ability to run the fund immediately, he's also asked Mr. Guazo to review the fund's assets and brief him on the position on the fund within the next week.  And I will leave it at that for now.

From Rami:  Does the UN respond to criticism from social media users who question why the UN is donating masks to city of the richest and most powerful countries?  Shouldn't these excess masks go to poorer countries who have little ability?

First of all, this is separate from our ongoing efforts with the World Health Organization to distribute medical kits, masks, testing kits to the countries that need it the most.  That has been going on for weeks and weeks now, and that will continue.  So, the fact that these masks were given has no impact on the UN system's ongoing efforts to support the most vulnerable countries.  I highlighted a few cases here, whether it's in the Gambia, Guatemala, where we're working hand in glove with Governments in trying to prepare them. 

These were masks that were intended to use for the UN for our own field operations, peacekeeping operations.  We realize that we had a surplus.  As you know, our host city is also facing a crisis.  It is one of the epicentres of the outbreak in the United States.  It's also very important for us to be good neighbours.  I think Mayor de Blasio had said the city risks running out of certain medical supplies within a week. 

We're also doing our best to help the community in which we, UN staff, diplomats, journalists, all live and work.  But as I said, it has no impact on the UN's ongoing efforts to support the poorest and most at‑risk countries.

The… again, these were in our own possession.  We contacted the US Permanent Mission, which is our counterpart, and it was then decided to give it… to hand it over to Mayor de Blasio and to the City of New York.

Evelyn asked:  Was Kelly Craft at the mask handover?

I do not believe she was, but you should ask the US Mission who was there at the handover.

We will be sharing Mr. Pedersen's statement to the Security Council [members].

After… does… yes, we remain… Pamela, we have… we do have enough masks to support our UN field operations in storage.

From Benno:  Doctors Without Borders that said pharmaceutical companies should forgo patents for medicine and vaccines.

I think it's a very relevant question.  It is very important that it be all hands on deck and to ensure that vaccines and preventive measures are able to be shared with the widest possible people and number of people.  It is clear that none of us will be safe until the outbreak and the curve has been broken all over the world.  As long as it is not broken all over the world, we all remain at a certain level of risks.

Does the Secretary‑General endorse CPJ's (Committee to Protect Journalists) appeal to release all journalists in prison around the world?

You know, the pandemic, I think, is forcing people rightly, countries rightly, to look at incarceration and to ensure that incarceration does not make the outbreak worse.  We have always stood for and will continue to stand for the rights of journalists to do their work.  I think UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) put out a statement on that last week, which we fully back, and journalists should be able to do their work free of harassment by Governments or others.

From Pam, UNDP says income loss… no.  This is… from what I gather from UNDP… the question from Pam is, UNDP, it says income losses are expected to steep $220 billion in developing countries. 

No, this… UNDP‑led COVID‑19 response facilities has already been launched funding from existing resources with initial $20 million, but this is… the facility that UNDP's put on track is dispersing through a fast‑track mechanism, enabling UNDP teams to offer media assistance to countries for their national response.  UNDP anticipates that nearly $500 million will be needed in 100 countries. 

The UNDP… from what I understand, the UNDP report is not asking for funds to fill the income losses.  It is… it's an economic study, but we… UNDP is looking to raise money to support Governments in their national response.

From Morav, following… well, I think Hussein's asking about the UN response to the Houthis’ militia.  You know, we had seen a positive response from the Houthis, also from the Coalition.  We did see the increased aerial attacks, including over Riyadh.  I think Mr. Griffiths' message is pretty direct in the need for all parties to abide.

How do we assess the outcome that is called for a global ceasefire?

I think we're still very much looking at different places.  We saw the ELN.  We've seen it in the Philippines and many other places.  Those are positive movements, but those in itself are not enough, and that's why our envoys locally are working with the parties.  We do expect to have a broader analysis of the call for the ceasefire to be shared with you on Friday.

Betul, can I give you… yes, I should be able to give you… hold on a second.  I should have it up.  Bear with me two seconds.  I will give you an answer in two seconds. 

In the meantime, I'll go to Betul's question.  How many staff [reading inaudibly] have contracted the virus?

Yes, I'm working on that answer for you as we speak.  I don't have a breakdown on journalists and diplomats for the reason that not… we would encourage people to report to us, but not everyone is obliged to report to us. 

At this point, as of today, we have 100 confirmed cases among UN staff worldwide.  I don't have a regional breakdown for this… at this moment. 

All right.  Any more questions? Going once… sorry.  Dulcie, I see you had a question, with apologies.  Organizing anything else in New York, New York State and COVID‑19?

No, at this point… I mean, we are… I would say, of course, we remain in constant contact with the New York City health authorities through our medical director.  We have a workforce here in New York.  I think it's very important and the responsible thing to do for us to be in touch with New York all the time.

The donation of masks came through the US-UN, and it was jointly decided that these masks would then be given to our host city, to New York City.

How many UN staff have come in today?

As of today, we were down to about 89 swipes coming into the building today, and that's, again, down from about 11,000 on a normal day, so I think our footprint is shrinking by the day, and all our staff is continuing to telecommute as much as possible.

Okay?  We will… I will not see you tomorrow.  We will have the Secretary‑General here at noon tomorrow.  And thank you, all.  And as I said, again, we're trying to upgrade our technical facilities.

And Dulcie's asking, can we get readouts on SG's calls?

Secretary‑General is making calls to world leaders, both in Africa, where we have peacekeeping missions, and other places, in order to extend our solidarity and to see how the UN can best support these countries. 

I do not have a detailed outbreak of how many… an updated number of how many UNHQ have tested positive.

Abdelhamid's asking a question.  I'll have some water.  Stand by.

In Gaza, is the SG's mind for assistance is… of… the Secretary‑General is very much focussed on some of the world's most vulnerable people around the world, and those are the people that are most… foremost on his mind.

Thank you, all, and enjoy the remainder of the day.

For information media. Not an official record.