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.

Good afternoon and happy Friday.


Though sadly, we are starting off with a tragic note from Mali, where we just learned that one of our Togolese peacekeepers who had been wounded during Wednesday’s attack has succumbed from his injuries.  We offer, obviously, our deepest condolences to his family, to the people and Government of Togo, and all of our colleagues in the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).  We continue to wish a speedy and full recovery to all the others who are receiving medical attention.  You will recall that 28 peacekeepers were wounded during a complex attack on their temporary base located in Kerena, near Douentza, in Central Mali.  The base was set up recently to better protect the local population, bring back calm in areas impacted by intercommunal violence, as well as to reduce the threat of improvised explosive devices.

**Secretary-General’s Call with United States Secretary of State

You will have seen that, last night, we issued a readout yesterday evening on the Secretary-General’s call with Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State of the United States.  During their conversation, the Secretary-General expressed his deep appreciation for the critically important and strong partnership between the US and the United Nations, particularly on issues such as COVID-19, the climate emergency, multiple peace and security crises, as well as the increasing threats they all pose to human rights.  The Secretary-General particularly welcomed the United States re-joining the Paris Agreement, as well as its reengagement with the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as the UN Human Rights Council.  They also talked about a number of situations, including Syria and Yemen.


On Myanmar, our colleagues in the country today said they are following the unfolding events with great concern, including the reports of arbitrary detentions, arrests and violence.  The Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for the United Nations in Myanmar, Ola Almgren, said the UN, as well as our partners have, for many years, been responding to humanitarian needs caused by conflict and natural disasters in Myanmar.  He stressed that it is our absolute intention to continue to do this work under the current circumstances.  Mr. Almgren said it is essential that life‑saving humanitarian assistance continues unimpeded and that humanitarian partners are given timely and safe access to the populations in need.  He noted that, as always, our humanitarian response is guided by internationally recognized principles of neutrality, impartiality, independence and humanity.  Last year, thanks to the generous support of donors, 930,000 women, children and men in conflict-impacted areas received food assistance; 250,000 people accessed essential health‑care services; and hundreds of thousands received nutrition support.  This year, the Myanmar Humanitarian Response Plan aims to help nearly 1 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and we are seeking $276 million for that.


Turning to Yemen, a new report tells us that nearly 2.3 million children under the age of five are projected to suffer from acute malnutrition this year.  Of these, 400,000 are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition and could die if they do not receive urgent treatment.  These figures are from a new report released jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization, along with other partners.  The agencies warn that these are among the highest levels of severe acute malnutrition recorded in Yemen since the escalation of conflict in 2015.  The head of WFP, David Beasley, said these numbers are yet another cry for help from Yemen, where each malnourished child also means a family struggling to survive.  The Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen remains critically underfunded.  In 2020, the plan received only $1.9 billion of the $3.4 billion it required.


On Ethiopia, I can tell you that the Secretary-General remains concerned about the plight of refugees in Tigray.  He stresses once again that it is important to respect all the cardinal principles in dealing with refugees.  Any forced return to their country of origin is a serious violation of international refugee law.  Also on Tigray, UNICEF today said that, even as more supplies and emergency personnel reach crisis-affected people in the region, it is troubled by the severe and ongoing harm to children.  Earlier this month, a UNICEF team accompanied by the Regional Health Bureau Head travelled from Mekelle to the town of Shire in Central Tigray.  The team had six trucks filled with 122 tons of emergency supplies.  This was the first UN mission to Shire since the conflict began in November 2020.  Shire hosts at least 52,000 internally displaced people, with more arriving.  The UNICEF team found there was no drinking water due to the water treatment plant not functioning; UNICEF and the Red Cross are trucking water in to people who need it.  The agency adds that conditions at sites for displaced people are dire — the few toilets that exist are broken and there are no showers.  Many families were separated as they fled, and UNICEF said there were many unaccompanied or separated children among the internally displaced.  More information available on UNICEF’s website.


UNICEF signed an agreement on behalf of the COVAX facility with Pfizer for the COVID-19 vaccine.  Under this new agreement, Pfizer will supply vaccines through this year, with deliveries anticipated to begin as early as the first quarter of this year.  Countries must first confirm they are in full compliance with the requirements set up by COVAX and Pfizer.  Today’s supply agreement allows UNICEF to procure doses out of up to 40 million that have been secured under the [COVAX] Facility’s Advance Purchase Agreement with Pfizer to be available throughout 2021.  Today’s agreement is the second long-term supply agreement UNICEF has signed with a COVID-19 vaccine manufacturer on behalf of the COVAX facility.  Last week, UNICEF signed an agreement with the Serum Institute of India to access two vaccines through technology transfer from AstraZeneca and Novavax, subject to the approval by WHO of these vaccines.


Turning to Madagascar, our humanitarian colleagues are seriously concerned about the rapidly deteriorating food security situation in the southern and eastern parts of the country where more than 1.3 million people are facing severe hunger.  Southern Madagascar is facing its worst drought in 10 years.  It is also the third drought in a row, and it is compounding the effects of COVID-19, as well as the extremely limited access to essential services in the region.  According to FAO, significant rainfall deficits in the Grand Sud region have led to a decline in the areas planted with staple foods.  This will likely compromise food production this year.  In addition, water availability for livestock is low and pasture is degraded.  This will probably push more people into severe levels of food insecurity in the months ahead.  As a result, we can expect increasing needs for humanitarian assistance.

We, along with our humanitarian partners, launched an urgent appeal last month for $76 million to provide life-saving assistance to over 1 million people.  This includes food, screening and treatment of acute malnutrition, water and sanitation, as well as health services.  Sadly, we have only received $140,000 against this appeal so far.  We urgently call on the international community to step forward and provide the necessary funding for this forgotten crisis.


And just a quick note from Rwanda where WFP says it [will reduce] food assistance to refugees living in Rwanda by a dramatic 60 per cent as of March of this year.  According to the agency, some 135,000 Burundian and Congolese refugees in camps in Rwanda rely on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic food needs.  WFP requires $9 million to avert reductions from March through June, and $20 million to continue full assistance to refugees throughout 2021.  If no new funding is received, deeper reductions will be necessary in the coming months.  WFP warned that ration reductions are likely to cause widespread food insecurity and potentially lead to increased tensions within the refugee community.

**COVID-19 in Africa

Our colleagues at WHO shared new numbers about the impact of COVID-19 in Africa.  In the past month, they say, deaths on the continent have surged by 40 per cent.  Thirty-two countries have reported a rise in deaths in the last 28 days, while 21 reported flat or [falling] rates.  In the coming days, Africa is expected to reach the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths since the first reported [case] on the continent, nearly a year ago.  WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, said the increasing deaths we are seeing are also disturbing warning signs that health workers and health systems in Africa are dangerously overstretched.  WHO said that new variants are likely to emerge as the virus continues to spread so preventive measures must be maintained, even as Africa gears up to start vaccinations against the virus.


And I’ve been asked about the departure of former Prime Minister of Guinea‑Bissau Aristides Gomes.  I can tell you that, today, the national authorities in Guinea-Bissau granted the former Prime Minister permission to leave the country for medical reasons.  The Special Representative for the Secretary-General for West Africa and the Sahel, Mohamed ibn Chambas, arrived in Bissau on 10 February and facilitated Mr. Gomes’ travel to Dakar on a UN flight today.  We want to extend our deep appreciation to the national authorities for enabling the departure of Mr. Gomes.  We also want to thank the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for its continued support and assistance on this issue.  As you may recall, Mr. Gomes had been granted safe haven at the UN premises in Guinea-Bissau since 12 March 2020, for fear of threats to his personal safety and security.

**World Radio Day

Tomorrow is World Radio Day and this year’s theme is “New World, New Radio”.  It celebrates radio as part of humanity’s history by following the various developments in our society and adapting its services.  We note that, as the world changes, so does radio.  Thus, during the COVID-19 pandemic, radio made it possible, as an example, to ensure continuity of learning and the fight against misinformation in many parts of the world.  This year’s theme is a tribute to radio's capacity for perpetual adaptation at the rate of societal transformation and listeners’ new needs.  Radio presents itself as an arena where all voices can be expressed, represented, and heard, hence this is why radio is still the most consumed medium worldwide today.  And a special shoutout to our friends in UN Radio in NY and all the peacekeeping radio stations throughout the world.

**International Day against Child Soldiers

Today is also the International Day Against Child Soldiers.  In a tweet, the Secretary-General said we must do everything we can to protect children from the chaos and madness of wars that have nothing to do with them.  “Children simply have no role in conflict.”

**Honour Roll

And we want to end today and this week with a big thank you to our friends in Prague and Bishkek for their full payments to the regular budget.  Thank you to the Czech Republic and Kyrgyzstan.  This closes the Honour Roll for 2021, and we end with 41 countries.  In comparison, in 2020, the Honour Roll closed with 35 countries.  The amount of the 2021 Honour Roll is $709,602,598.  That’s a 50 per cent increase over last year’s Honour Roll, which only amounted to $473,007,589.  Those are American dollars.  And just as a point of comparison, the total assessment of the letters we sent out to Member States is for $2.95 billion for 2021.  It was for $2.87 billion in 2020.  So, we shall open the floodgates on this World Radio Day.  I've often been told I have great face for radio.  So, Edie, I think you were the first one with your hand up.  Why don't you go ahead?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you very much, Steph.  I have a question… no… a question about the resolution at the Human Rights Council calls on Secretary‑General Guterres and the UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet to give the independent UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews “increased assistance, resources and expertise to carry out his job”.  Andrews said in a video message that, “We need real action from the United Nations”, citing information that the military has detained 220 Government officials and members of civil society.  So, what is the Secretary‑General's reaction?  And what action is he prepared to take?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Well, first of all, I think the passage of this resolution by the Human Rights Council is a very important step.  It shows that the international community will speak strongly and with a strong voice in calling for the reversal of the events we've seen in Myanmar and for the full respect of the democratic will of the people of Myanmar, as well as full respect of their human rights.  We will continue to speak out, as we have, I think, whether it's the Secretary‑General or his country team or his Special Envoy who continues to engage with various partners on the issue.  As you know, I think she delivered our concerns and our message directly to the military when she spoke earlier this week to one of the deputy heads of the military.  So, we will continue in that regard.  We will, of course, abide and follow the resolution of the Human Rights Council, as we do.  I think it just came out.  We'll take a look at it, and whatever we need to do to implement it, we will do so.  Okay.  James Reinl?

Question:  Morning, Stéphane.  Hi.  I've got a couple of questions on Yemen, and then I've got another question.  So, if you can come back to me, that would be great.  First one, the US, in the last couple of hours, has un‑designated the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, effective next week.  Can we get your formal response to that?  And also, obviously, Mr. Guterres and Mr. Blinken spoke about Yemen last night.  Would you say that the two of them are aligned on their approach to Yemen?  And what is the plan going forward?

Spokesman:  Look, I can't… I can only speak for the Secretary‑General.  I'm not going to characterize the US position.  What we have seen in terms of words and acts from the US, I think, has been extremely positive.  We hope that helps build momentum for a political solution to the conflict in Yemen.  I think the lifting of the… the reversal of the designation, the naming of the Special Envoy and the clear, clear language from the top of the US Administration, from President Biden himself, expressing his strong support for the UN‑led mediation process and political peace process, I think, are very, very welcome, indeed.  Mr. Griffiths, as you know, has been… met with the Special, the US Special Envoy.  He's met with the Yemeni leadership.  He's met with the Iranians.  He's met with the Saudis.  He's also been in touch with Ansarullah.  And our… he's given the same message to all, and I think we have a moment of some hope here.  And we want the parties, all the parties to grab it.  And we talk about Yemen on the political front, but think about what I just said today about the 400,000 children who are risking of acute severe malnutrition at the risk of death.  I mean, it is for the children and the civilians of Yemen that all Yemeni leaders and those outside of Yemen should all move in the same direction, which is a political agreement that could lead to a nationwide ceasefire.

Question:  That's great, Stéphane.  Thanks, and also in that conversation with Mr. Blinken, you mentioned that they spoke about the US re‑entry into the Paris accord.  If my diary is right, that becomes effective on next Friday.  I mean, really just in terms of forward planning, what's actually going to happen on Friday?  Will there be a statement from the UN…?

Spokesman:  We… listen, I don't have details to share with you, but we very much hope to have… to be able to announce some sort of an event.  I mean, that's what we're planning.  Whether it happens or not, I can't tell you, but that's what we're aiming to do.  Also, since you talk of forward planning, we expect to have the Secretary‑General, as well as the head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), be in the briefing room, in a hybrid briefing, on either… most likely Thursday to present a UNEP environment report, but we'll keep you posted on what happens on 19 February.  Did you have another question?

Correspondent:  No, we're good.  Thank you, Steph.

Spokesman:  Okay.  Great.  I don't see anything else in the chat, but if you want to wave… Philippe?  Is that Philippe in the room?  Whoever's in the room, take your mask off so I can see you.  The great reveal.

Question:  Hi… hi, how are you?

Spokesman:  Sorry.  I can't… I'm married to an Italian, so I can't tell the different between the Italian and the French.

Question:  No, just a follow‑up on Burma.  The Special Rapporteur denounced the use of live ammunition against protester, and he said that all the options should be on the table of the Security Council, including sanction and an embargo.  Is the SG in favour of the Security Council considering this option?

Spokesman:  I think it is important that the Security Council continue to keep an eye on the situation in Myanmar forcefully and live up to their own responsibilities.  We have… the use, the disproportionate use of force, the use of live ammunition, those are all unacceptable.  Okay.  Any more hands in the air, if anybody has a question?  All right.  Seeing none, hearing nothing… okay.  Wish you all a good weekend.  Farhan… oh, are you waving me goodbye, James?  Excellent.  Farhan will be with you virtually on Monday, and I will be back in the room on Tuesday.  So, enjoy the weekend.  Take care, bye‑bye.

For information media. Not an official record.