Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General
Following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
**Human Fraternity Award
I’ll start off with a message from the Secretary-General. As you may have seen this morning, he was awarded… co-awarded rather, the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity. The Secretary-General said it was an honour to receive the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity. He said he knows this is also recognition of the work of the United Nations to advance peace and human dignity every day and everywhere. He also congratulated this year’s other awardee, Latifa Ibn Ziaten of France. Her dedicated efforts to support young people and promote mutual understanding, arising out of immense personal tragedy, have won admirers at home and beyond. Discrimination, racism and extremist violence are surging across the globe, he said. As the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic crisis, a climate emergency and threats to peace, unity and solidarity are more important now than ever. There must be no room for hatred in the future we are striving to build. The Secretary-General also said that this is also very much the spirit of the pathbreaking efforts of His Holiness Pope Francis and His Eminence the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, to advance their interfaith dialogue and promote our common humanity. This award will inspire us as we continue that vital work. In that spirit, the Secretary-General has decided to donate the prize money — half a million US dollars, that’s $500,000 — to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to buttress its indispensable efforts to protect the most vulnerable members of the human family — the forcibly displaced.
A bit of an update on the ground from our colleagues in Myanmar, who are obviously watching the situation very closely with concern. We have more than 2,500 personnel in Myanmar, both international and national, providing crucial development and humanitarian support to the people of Myanmar in their pursuit of democracy, peace, human rights and the rule of law. As we have told you yesterday, the UN [team] in Myanmar has been providing significant support to the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest political developments in Myanmar come at a particularly difficult time for the country, with it experiencing a public health emergency with significant socioeconomic impacts. The first vaccines arrived in Myanmar only last week and the response to the COVID-19 pandemic must remain a priority for the foreseeable future. We are also providing humanitarian assistance to more than a million people in Myanmar.
And as you saw yesterday, in a note we issued on the Safer tanker, we explained that we have requested the Houthi de facto authorities in Yemen to provide a letter with security assurances in order for us to deploy a team to the Safer tanker. We regret that, to date, we have not received a response to our multiple requests for this letter. Without the letter, the cost of the mission would increase by hundreds of thousands of dollars. We are also very concerned by indications that the Houthi de facto authorities are considering a “review” of their formal approval of the mission to deploy. Houthi officials have advised the UN to pause certain preparations pending the outcome of such a process, which would create further delays for the mission. In light of these challenges, the timeline of deployment of the mission for the tanker remains uncertain and dependent on the continued facilitation of all stakeholders involved. We hope to receive a renewed commitment from the Houthi de facto authorities to resolve this urgent matter as soon as possible. Any other outcome would be extremely disappointing.
On Ethiopia, we also issued a statement yesterday from the Secretary-General, saying he remains seriously concerned over the situation in Tigray. He attaches strong importance to the partnership between the Government of Ethiopia and the United Nations, through its country team, in addressing the acute humanitarian needs of all affected populations. He underlines the need for continued urgent steps to alleviate the humanitarian situation and extend protection to all those at risk in Tigray. In this context, he welcomes the positive engagement of the Government during the recent visits by senior UN officials. These included the High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi; the head of UN Safety and Security, Gilles Michaud; as well as the Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP). These engagements are undertaken in line with the Secretary-General’s call to the Government for sustained, impartial and unimpeded humanitarian access to affected areas in the Tigray region and to internally displaced persons and refugee camps.
Staying in the region, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Somalia, James Swan, today visited Hargeisa in Somaliland. He met with Muse Bihi Abdi and other senior government officials, members of civil society, and the National Electoral Committee. Mr. Swan said he was pleased to be able to discuss the work of the UN in Somaliland and to help address practical issues affecting the people. Our partnership dates back to 1991, he said, adding we have remained committed since then through the most difficult times and better times. Mr. Swan noted that the UN’s support is wide-ranging, and includes humanitarian and development aid. While in Hargeisa, he also visited a WFP-operated nutrition and medical centre. More information on the Internet.
Turning to Afghanistan. A report released today by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) warns that allegations by detainees of torture in Afghanistan detention facilities continue at high rates. The report also notes that the procedural rights of those detained are largely ignored. According to the report, almost a third of people detained for security or terrorism-related offences in Afghanistan have been subjected to torture or other forms of ill-treatment. Also to note on the country, our humanitarian team warns that the number of people in need in the country has doubled from 9.4 million at the start of 2020 to 18.4 million at the start of 2021. Four in 10 people are now going hungry, which means that almost 17 million people are in crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity through March. According to our humanitarian colleagues, almost half of all children will be acutely malnourished in Afghanistan.
I was also asked about the latest developments in the Russian Federation, and I can tell you that, out of Geneva, OHCHR urged the Russian authorities to immediately release all those detained for exercising their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression over the past few weeks of protests across the country. OHCHR added they are deeply dismayed by the sentencing of Alexei Navalny yesterday. The Secretary-General fully subscribes to the statement made by the High Commissioner’s Office.
**Bosnia and Herzegovina
And Erol asked me about hate speech in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I can tell you that we reject any form of hate speech, denial of war crimes and genocide, as well as the glorification of convicted war criminals, in Bosnia and Herzegovina and elsewhere. The Secretary-General, as you will recall, in a message he delivered last year on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accord, stressed that building a future of peace requires dealing with the past. It means acknowledging that horrific crimes were committed during the war. The Secretary‑General emphasized that those crimes should never be forgotten, nor should the ideology of the perpetrators be celebrated. Hate speech or narratives of mistrust and fear have no place in an inclusive, peaceful Bosnia and Herzegovina.
This morning, the Secretary-General delivered remarks — by pre-recorded video — to the Brave New Ocean high-level virtual event organized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). This is to launch the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. He said that, as we recover from the pandemic and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we must stop degrading the environment we depend on. He said that restoring the ocean’s ability to nurture humanity and regulate the climate is a defining challenge. It will influence the outcome of our efforts to stem biodiversity loss, implement the Paris Agreement and meet the promise of the SDGs.
Our colleagues at the World Health Organization (WHO) announced today that Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York and many other things, including founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies, will continue for a third term as WHO’s Global Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases and Injuries.
I want to flag an interesting initiative called “Music against Child Labour”, which was launched as a competition to mark the UN International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. Musicians of all genres are invited to submit a song to inspire governments and stakeholders to take action to eliminate child labour, which affects nearly 1 in 10 children worldwide. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), child labour has decreased by almost 40 per cent over the last two decades. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening to reverse this progress. And we referred to it in the report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) yesterday. You can find more information about the competition and how to enter on the ILO website. I look forward to all of your submissions.
**Noon Briefing Guest
Tomorrow, we will be joined from Bangui by Denise Brown, the Deputy Special Representative for the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). She will brief virtually and will give us an update on the situation there. And I expect a Secretary-General’s statement on the situation in the Central African Republic in the coming hours.
And a sad note, we wanted to pay tribute to Timur Goksel, the long-time face and voice of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), who passed away from COVID‑19 earlier this week. We send our condolences to his family and his many friends around the world. Although Timur only signed on to be with UNIFIL for six months, he stayed with the peacekeeping mission for 24 years. He served as UNIFIL spokesman from 1979 and then as senior adviser from 1995 until he retired in 2003. And even after that, he spoke as a university lecturer in Beirut about the UN’s peacekeeping work. And on a personal note, both Farhan [Haq] and myself relied heavily on his expertise for many years to get the latest information from UNIFIL. It’s hard to imagine a world without his sage advice and wry outlook. We will miss him.
And I do want to thank both Hungary and Malaysia for their full payments to the 2021 regular budget. The Honour Roll now stands at 28. Edie?
**Questions and Answers
Question: Thank you, Steph. And may I add my condolences to Timur Goksel's family and friends. He certainly was a very important part of a very important story and very well-liked by the journalistic community. I have two questions. First, what is the Secretary‑General's reaction to the charges against Aung San Suu Kyi and… of basically having walkie‑talkies in her house, which is punishable by three years in prison, and also the charges against the President? And then I have one more question.
Spokesman: Look, we continue and will continue to call for her immediate release, for the President's immediate release and all others who have been detained by the military in the last few days. I think the charges filed against her just compound the undermining of the rule of law in Myanmar and the democratic process.
Question: My second question is on what you said about Alexei Navalny, that the Secretary‑General echoes what the High Commissioner for Human Rights said, which was that she was dismayed by the sentence, but being dismayed by the sentence doesn't actually equate to calling for Navalny's release?
Spokesman: Well, I would refer you to what the High Commissioner said, which was that the… this was part of a case that already had been criticized by the European Court of Human Rights. So, I would just stick to what she said. Mr. Bays?
Question: Yes. So, a couple of further follow‑ups. On the Safer tanker, who is… who from the UN is dealing with the Houthis on this? Is it Martin Griffiths? You didn't mention him in the statement. Is he the person who's doing this?
Spokesman: There are different people who are dealing with the de facto authorities, whether from our humanitarian colleagues, Mr. Griffiths' office, and the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS), which is managing the project. It's a whole of UN effort, a team effort.
Question: Well, what's the whole of the UN… I mean, you read the statement. What's the whole of the UN feeling on this? You must be frustrated.
Spokesman: I think frustrated is… frustrating is underplaying the situation. There's more than a million barrels of oil on that tanker. We have often underscored the risk of a major ecological disaster, and frankly, a major economic disaster for the people who live off the water, not only in Yemen, but in countries in the region. And that explains, I think, our level of frustration.
Question: And your statement you put out on Tigray, I know that's going to be subject to an AOB [any other business] in the Security Council this afternoon, and Mr. [Mark] Lowcock is going to be briefing. But, if you could just give us an indication of what the UN is trying to get into Tigray in terms of personnel, in terms of permissions, visas, in terms of supplies and how much is being allowed in?
Spokesman: Very little is being allowed in. I mean, there was a convoy that was allowed in for some… to reach some of the UNHCR camps. What we need is to be able to just get in there in an unfettered manner without having to, I guess, negotiate for every truck, for every box. We work cooperatively with the Government, and it's their country, and it is their… we have to go through them, and that's the way it should be. But, there is a grave humanitarian need in Tigray, and at this point, we're not able to reach the people that need to be reached. Ray, and then we'll go to Mr. Sato on the screen.
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. Regarding the Safer tank, we know that the Houthis are obstructing the UN work. Also, they're getting armed… arms from Iran, according to a statement from the UN team of specialists. Do you plan any sanctions against them? And also, I have another question regarding yesterday's Security Council meeting. There was no common statement after that meeting. I mean, we just want to know what happened yesterday. Is there agreement or what?
Spokesman: Sure. I mean… the fact that there's no common statement is a statement of fact on your part. The Special Envoy, I think, in the remarks that were shared with you, called for a strong and unified voice from the Security Council. I think that is something we would like to see. Why that hasn't happened, I mean, I think that's for you to ask 15 people who sit around that table. On the Safer tanker, I mean, the… you've raised bigger issues. The issues of sanctions is, obviously, up to the Security Council. Mr. Griffiths is continuing his political work to try to get a political agreement, a nationwide ceasefire, to alleviate the pain and suffering of the people of Yemen. He is continuing on that track, and he will continue to do so. You have a follow‑up? If you could sit not behind the screen because it's hard for me to look… to see you.
Question: Will you still deal with this de facto…?
Spokesman: We… listen, we deal… and this is not just in Yemen. In any conflict where we're involved as a negotiator, a facilitator, a mediator, whatever term you want to use, we deal with de facto authorities. We deal with the people we need to deal with. It doesn't… and this is in general terms. It does not imply recognition. It doesn't imply that we accept what they do. But we need to… if you are negotiating peace, you need to talk to the people who are involved in conflict, whoever they are. Mr. Sato. And I see you, Erol. Mr. Sato?
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. My question on nuclear disarmament. Today, US and Russian Government announced the extension… five‑year extension for New START Treaty. So, no doubt, Secretary‑General has long requested for this extension. But, does he have… does Secretary‑General have a… specifically expect from the huger participation of China for arms control?
Spokesman: Look, I think it is… first of all, I would say that we very much welcome the extension… the five‑year extension of the New START as a means of maintaining verifiable limits on the world's largest nuclear arsenal, and I think it's a first step of reinvigorating the arms control… the nuclear‑arms‑control regime. From our point of view, we encourage both Russia and the United States to use these next five years to negotiate further reductions in their nuclear weapons, as well as new agreements that can address the emerging nuclear weapons challenges of our time and make the world a better place. It is clear that the more nuclear weapons… the more countries that have nuclear weapons engage in disarmament talks and move towards a world free of nuclear weapons, the better we will all be. Benno, and then we'll go to Erol.
Question: Thank you, Steph. I have a follow‑up on Myanmar. Did you… were you able to establish connections to the authorities in Myanmar? And do you have any contact to Aung San Suu Kyi and other detainees and know anything about their [well‑]being?
Spokesman: No, we're very concerned about their well‑being, given the concern about well‑being of anyone who is in detention, but, on top of that, we're in a pandemic, as we all know. So, that adds another level of concern. I'm not aware that we've been able to reach her or anyone else directly nor that we've been able to speak to the highest level of the military, but we… our Special Envoy will continue to speak… to try to speak to establish contact with whoever she needs to speak to. Okay. Erol, then we'll go to Nabil and Pam. Sorry. I see Pam, as well. Erol?
Question: You hear me now, don't you?
Spokesman: I hear you. I see you. Just like Tommy. Go ahead.
Question: Okay. Thank you for the answer. I can only assume that this afternoon or in the evening is going to be main headline in Bosnia and probably in the region, but I have another question. Probably you notice that Denmark announced that they are going to move with some kind of digital passport on the COVID-19 vaccination. I ask you before, from the point of view of human rights, what is the opinion of the Secretary‑General. You did give me an answer. Would you a little bit elaborate more on that as a sign of time or so? And I have another question, if you…
Spokesman: It clearly is a sign of the times. I'm… listen, I'm not knowledgeable enough to speak on the Danish move, but what I would… I think what we would need to underscore is that whatever requirements Member States put in place is done in a way that is coordinated globally. I think it would not help us getting out of the economic impact of this pandemic if Member States were going to go it alone with different restrictions, and we've seen what happens when that happens. And, obviously, being in the digital sphere that human rights… issues of human rights and privacy be addressed, as well. Your second question?
Question: Yeah. Yesterday, Iftikhar asked you if there are any kind of reaction or signals from the Rohingya community regarding the events in Myanmar. Do you have anything today and to be put in context… just to be…?
Spokesman: I don't… you know, we don't speak for the Rohingya refugees. They are able to speak for themselves. So, I mean, I've seen press reports from the UN side, from UNHCR side, from our humanitarian colleagues. We are there to support them and help them. Our concern, obviously, is that we are now moving further back from any eventual return in safety, dignity and voluntary. But how they feel is a question they need to an… that you need to ask them directly. Okay. Nabil, and then Pam.
Question: Thank you, Steph. So, we expect the Secretary‑General to address the General Assembly tomorrow. I think it's a meeting on inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. Does the Secretary‑General see a new window of… or maybe opportunity after the new policy announced by the US Government on the Middle East peace process? Where does he stand on this now? And should we expect any meeting for the Quartet in the near future? Is he pushing for such a meeting?
Spokesman: Look, I think the Secretary‑General expressed some hope for the Middle East peace process when he was here last week — I think last… it seems like a lifetime ago — last week to answer your questions. So, I think his opinion has not changed on that front. And as for the Quartet, we have been advocating for a Quartet meeting. We still very much hope that that will happen. Pam?
Question: Thank you, Steph. Just back to the Safer oil vessel, you've been… you've answered a lot on it, but last July, the experts told the UN that the Safer was an environmental… could be an environmental catastrophe of epic proportions if there were not swift access to the ageing and leaking oil storage facil… vessel. My question to you is, is there… was there any mitigation? Is it still leaking the same way? Do you have any sense of how close to a disaster this is? Thank you.
Spokesman: Part of the issue is… to really assess the situation is to get there, and the plan had been to send a team there to do both some mitigation, but also to look at more in depth what we needed to do. It's not a matter of just dropping people from a helicopter. It's a matter of getting the right technical ships that we need to lease or to rent, people with the right skills. It's a very delicate operation. And as I said, you have an ageing and rusting oil tanker with a million… more than a million barrels of oil, about eight kilometres off the coast of Yemen. It's a huge risk. It can have a huge ecological impact. Okay. James?
Question: So, I missed the end of yesterday afternoon's briefing because the President of the Security Council was speaking at the same time. So, this may have been asked, but I'm going to ask it and tell me if you've already answered. News in The Lancet medical journal that the Sputnik V vaccine is considered safe and efficient. You'll remember that President [Vladimir] Putin offered the UN that vaccine. What happened to that offer? And is the Secretary‑General thinking of taking up that offer in any way, here at Headquarters or anywhere else the UN operates, given that the vaccine seems to be pretty effective?
Spokesman: Yeah, we are continuing to be in discussion, really, through WHO, because we would take vaccines that are… have been cleared by WHO. But, obviously, I mean, I think this is very welcome news on yet another vaccine, and I think we need to salute the scientists around the world who have done amazing work in the last year.
Question: And another question for you, relates to Somalia, where, clearly, the election timetable is getting very urgent and very worrying, given that there's supposed to be presidential elections that don't look like they're going to happen in five days' time on 8 February. How concerned is the UN about the situation that there doesn't really seem to be a way forward after 8 February? And could you, I mean, give us some comment now? And perhaps, could you arrange some access to SRSG [Special Representative of the Secretary-General] Swan? Because it sounds like…
Spokesman: Sure. I think our concern is very real and very great on the slipping of the calendar and the impact that it would have on Somalia, on the people of Somalia. And we will try to see if Mr. Swan is available to come to you. James Reinl. James?
Question: Oh, hi, Steph, and thanks so much. You've spoken quite a lot about the Safer oil tanker a few times today. And your comments about it are very, very strong. I'm just wondering that, given how seriously the UN perceives this risk of the tanker rupturing to be and the fact that you've gotten so close to it and the Houthis aren't going to let you access the tanker, have you, even at a provisional level with Secretary‑General, assessed whether or not he might recommend to the Security Council for a request for use of force under Chapter 7 to access the tanker, to drain the oil out of it and to remove it from the sea?
Spokesman: I can't tell you that that's a discussion that I'm aware that has taken place, and I think we can all imagine… and I'll just leave it at that. I don't want to start speculating, but I'm not aware that that's a conversation that has been had, to my knowledge. Excellent. There's no Brenden [Varma] today. But hopefully, there will be a Brenden tomorrow. There will be a me tomorrow, and we shall see…
Correspondent: I have a question.
Correspondent: I had a question.
Spokesman: Ah, yes. Who's that?
Correspondent: Mohsen from IRNA.
Spokesman: Yes, Mohsen. Sorry. Sorry. I didn't see your name in the chat. Please go ahead.
Question: Sorry. As you know, in 2018, the ICJ [International Court of Justice] issued an order regarding Iran in this case. But the [inaudible] ignored the court order and imposed unlawful sanctions on Iran. Also, the US Administration is still watching in the same vein. What's Secretary‑General's position regarding the order of the ICJ? And does he have any comment to [inaudible] by the US Administration in this regard?
Spokesman: We have taken note of and seen the decision by the International Court of Justice, which, as you know, is one of the principal organs of the United Nations. It's not for the Secretary‑General to comment on those decisions. The ICJ is a pillar of the international coop… the international multilateral system, but they are an independent body. Okay. Thank you, all. Hasta mañana.