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.
Happy days to all of you. You know what? We are going to start with good news today!
In a happy belated Valentine’s Day note, your colleague Maria Khrenova gave birth on Valentine’s Day to a beautiful little baby boy named Alex.
So, I know you join me in sending all of our love to Alex’s parents and wish him a strong and healthy life. I hope he starts asking a lot of questions to Maria very quickly!
**Noon Briefing Guests
In a short while, which is also good news, we will be joined by our colleagues from the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). Our guests will be our friend, Navid Hanif, who you know very well, the Director of DESA’s Financing for Sustainable Development Office, and he will be joined by Daniel Platz, DESA’s Economic Affairs Officer. They will be here to brief you on the UN Handbook on Infrastructure Asset Management.
**Security Council — COVID-19
Tomorrow, at 8:30 in the morning, as you may know, the Security Council will hold an open meeting by videoconference on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prior to hearing a briefing from UNICEF’s (United Nations Children’s Fund) Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, Council members will hear from the Secretary-General. He will make some brief remarks, which will include a proposal to increase vaccine solidarity.
And we’ll share those remarks ahead of time with you as soon as we get them.
On Libya, mid-morning, the Secretary-General spoke by phone with Mohammad Younes Menfi, the President-elect of the Presidency Council of the Libyan National Unity Government, and with Abdul Hamid Dbeiba, the Libyan Prime Minister-designate.
In his calls, the Secretary-General stressed the UN’s support to Libya’s elections, the monitoring of the ceasefire and the need for withdrawal of foreign forces. He continues to stress the need for national reconciliation and for the inclusion of 30 per cent of seats for women. I do expect a much more detailed readout shortly. [That readout was issued following the briefing.]
This morning, the Secretary-General spoke by pre-recorded video message to the G5 Sahel Summit that is being held in N’Djamena in Chad. He said that, despite recent promising developments, he remains concerned about the deteriorating security situation in the region, in particular in Liptako-Gourma, which borders Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The spiral of violence there is aggravating an already difficult humanitarian situation.
The Secretary-General said that the G5 Sahel has a key role to play in addressing this crisis and he called for sustained funding for the Joint Force.
He added that, beyond the security response alone, development, the rule of law and good governance are the cornerstones of stability in the region. He noted that his Special Coordinator for Development in the Sahel, [Abdoulaye] Mar Dieye, will ensure that the links between the challenges in the humanitarian, climate, security, political and, of course, development fields are taken into account in a more integrated and more effective approach.
On Somalia, you will have noticed that this morning we also issued a joint statement from the Secretary-General and the African Union Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat.
Both leaders commended the people and leaders of Somalia for progress achieved in recent years towards the stabilization of the country. The hard-won gains are a testimony to the firm determination of the people of Somalia towards lasting peace and prosperity, following decades of instability.
The Chairperson and the Secretary-General call on Somali leaders to resume dialogue and work in a spirit of compromise to overcome the last political hurdles to inclusive elections as soon as possible and respecting the agreement they reached on 17 September 2020.
Moussa Faki and António Guterres reiterated their commitment to continue to support the Government and people of Somalia on their path to peace and prosperity.
The UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, today announced an initial rapid allocation of $15 million from the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). This is to go to the outbreaks of Ebola in both Guinea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
This is the first time that Ebola has been recorded in Guinea since the last outbreak that ended in 2016, as you will recall. The outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is in the same area as the tenth Ebola epidemic that claimed more than 2,200 lives from August 2018 to June 2020.
The funding will help both countries respond to the outbreak and support neighbouring countries to prepare. Detailed allocation [decisions] will be made in the next few days as we receive more details about specific requirements and needs on the ground.
Here, or at least virtually here, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, briefed Security Council members.
She began by condemning last night’s deadly rocket attack on Erbil. Such reckless attempts to inflame tensions pose grave threats to Iraq’s stability, she said.
She went on to brief about preparations for elections in Iraq, adding that, for credible elections to take place, it is imperative that parties and candidates operate in a free and safe environment. The same goes for members of the media. In this regard, she warned, recent incidents are highly troubling, to say the least.
For elections to be trusted, she said, unfounded theories must be disproved, baseless accusations refuted, and intimidation replaced with accountability.
She also said that Iraq must build its domestic resilience and be shielded from rivalries.
Turning to Yemen, and again, turning to Mark Lowcock, who expressed his alarm regarding intensifying hostilities in Marib.
He said the fighting is threatening to trigger a new wave of displacement and heighten an already dire level of humanitarian need. Before this escalation, there were already about 1 million internally displaced people in Marib.
Humanitarian partners are continuing to provide assistance in the area. Over the last several weeks, this has included more than 6 million litres of safe drinking water, as well as emergency shelter kits, non-food items and family tents.
However, the 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen has only received 56 per cent of what is required.
On Myanmar, our team in the country says they are concerned with the impacts of a draft cybersecurity bill that has been circulated to mobile network operators and licensed network service providers.
The team is deeply worried that the bill is not aligned to international human rights standards, as it would permit illegitimate military-appointed authorities to infringe on the rights to freedom of expression, access to information, privacy and security.
**COVID-19 — Vaccines
Two quick COVID updates for you: First, the World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday gave the green light for two versions of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine to be rolled out through COVAX.
These vaccines are produced in the Republic of Korea and in India.
WHO says that countries with no access to vaccines to date will finally be able to start vaccinating their health workers and populations at risk, contributing to the COVAX facility’s goal of equitable vaccine distribution.
Also, UNICEF today launched the Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative, with  leading airlines supporting the prioritization of the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines and other critical supplies.
The new Initiative will also act as a global logistics preparedness mechanism for other humanitarian and health crises over the longer term.
The participating airlines cover routes to more than 100 countries in support of COVAX. They include, among others, Cathay Pacific, Etihad, and Air France, and other airlines are pending confirmation.
**Philippines — COVID-19
And, from the Philippines, where our UN team, led by Resident Coordinator Gustavo Gonzalez, has been supporting the Government with their COVID-19 readiness assessment, as well as a vaccination plan.
The UN is also supporting the Asian Development Bank’s and the World Bank’s efforts to define a suitable financing model for the country’s vaccination plan.
Our team is helping the Government with national risk communication and community engagement. We have trained more than 2,000 health workers to help them address vaccination hesitation, myths and misconceptions.
Through the COVAX facility, the UN team has committed to providing 44 million doses of vaccines to address the needs of 20 per cent of the population this year. The Government plans to vaccinate 60 million people this year and the entire population by 2023.
**Central African Republic
The UN Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) is telling us that its forces are on high alert in Bambari in the Ouaka prefecture. This follows heavy clashes that began yesterday between combatants of the [Unité pour la Paix en Centrafrique] and Central African troops, supported by bilateral forces.
Peacekeepers have been conducting robust patrols to ensure the protection of civilians. They have also evacuated civilians caught in the firefight areas. Approximately 800 people have sought refuge at the Mission’s location in Elevage in the Bambari district.
In Bangassou, UN Police are assisting a Central African internal security investigation over the killing of six civilians by armed combatants. This took place in a village close to the city of Bangassou last Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Mission’s Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Unit organized a two-day workshop that brought together 20 community leaders. They represented local authorities, youth groups, women’s groups, and members of the local Peace and Reconciliation Committee. The workshop focused on mediation, conflict management, and social cohesion, in addition to providing health and safety guidelines to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Turning to nearby Burundi, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), along with 33 partners, are appealing for close to $223 million to provide humanitarian assistance to over 315,000 Burundian refugees who are currently located in [the United Republic of] Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, and the [Democratic Republic of the Congo].
The agency also pointed out that last year’s response to the Burundian refugee situation was among the most underfunded globally.
This year’s funding appeal seeks critical support to provide food, shelter and education, as well as access to health care and water. And, as you will recall, last week or the week before, we flagged that [the World Food Programme] was also at risk of cutting food rations to Burundian refugees due to lack of funding.
**Questions and Answers
Question: So, couple of follow‑ups to things that you read out. You read out Mr. Lowcock’s concern about the Marib situation. The US State Department has gone further. They say that the Houthis must halt their advance on Marib. Does the Secretary‑General and Mr. [Martin] Griffiths share that view?
Spokesman: I think… what we’ve been saying and continue to say is the renewed fighting in Marib is a real threat to not only internally displaced people and none of this fighting also in any way helps getting us back to a political track. So, indeed, we feel the fighting should stop.
Question: But you haven’t spoken specifically there about the Houthis, and it appears to be a Houthi offensive.
Spokesman: I mean, I think we’ve said… we’ve been, I think, very clear in that the escalation from any quarter is detrimental to the ongoing mediation efforts.
Question: And a follow‑up on your Myanmar statement. There’s a new charge facing Aung San Suu Kyi. Reaction, please?
Spokesman: Look, we have called for charges against her to be dropped, for her to be released, and I think the adding of a new charge just… our reaction is to continue, I think, in our firm denunciation of everything that has happened in Myanmar, the overturning of the will… democratic will of the people, and we need to… and the ongoing arrests and detention of political leaders, of activists and people’s… the inability of people to protest peacefully.
Question: Finally for now from me, the daughter of the ruler of Dubai Sheikha Latifa, there was, back in 2019, you remember, a lot of news about her and her whereabouts and whether… and how she was returned to Dubai. Now new video has emerged. The BBC is broadcasting it, and she is claiming she is being held hostage by the royal family there. Does the UN have a reaction?
Spokesman: My understanding, from our colleagues in Geneva, this is something the UN’s Working Group on [Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances] will be looking at.
Edie, and then we’ll go…
Question: Steph, first a follow‑up on the Secretary‑General’s conversation with the transitional President and Prime Minister of Libya. Has there been any signs of a withdrawal of foreign fighters and mercenaries from Libya? And what is the status of the UN advance team? Is it there? And how long is it going to be there? And when is the Secretary‑General going to be getting a report from them?
Spokesman: Okay. I have not gotten here any updates on troops… foreign troops leaving. We want that to happen, obviously, as soon as possible. We are continuing to work on the deployment of an advance team to Libya, security conditions and, obviously, COVID‑19 requirements permitting. And as soon as I have an update on when they will actually hit the ground, I will share that with you.
And your… sorry?
Question: It will be sooner rather than…
Spokesman: Yes, we all wish it to be sooner rather than later.
Question: I wanted to ask you about the trial opening in Rwanda tomorrow of Paul Rusesabagina, who was the person praised for saving hundreds of ethnic… if not thousands of ethnic Tutsis during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. You might remember that was made into a movie, Hotel Rwanda. And he is going on trial tomorrow, charged with terrorism, and his family fears for his life.
Spokesman: I think we had… I think, first of all, I think everyone knows the amazing acts of heroism that he displayed during the genocide. I think we had expressed our concern during his arrest, which we continue to have. And we will be monitoring the trial very closely.
Question: Stéphane, I’d like to ask about Arora Akanksha — I don’t know if I pronounced this right — who declare last week that she was entering the race to be the next Secretary‑General. I heard that she has been asked to resign. Is it the rule? Because if I remember it well, Kofi Annan was working for the UN and did not resign.
Spokesman: I… let me tell you something. I’m absolutely not aware that she’s been asked to resign. As for… the Secretary‑General has no comment on her stated candidature, but I will check that as soon as possible, because that is news… that would be news to me. And I will leave it…
Question: What are the rules? I mean, can someone from the UN…
Spokesman: Look, the… it is up to… I will… it is up to the General Assembly and to the Member States to decide who can be considered a candidate. The Secretary‑General has put himself forward. If others put themselves forward, that’s not his issue, in a sense, right? I mean, he is focusing on his own candidacy.
Correspondent: Hi, Steph… [cross talk]
Correspondent: Can I… Can I make a comment?
Spokesman: You can ask a question later. I’m not interested in comments by… in general, but I’m very interested in questions. I will come back to you, Abdelhamid.
Correspondent: Can you hear me? Okay.
Question: James had actually beat me to my first question about Myanmar, but as a follow‑up, could you give us a sense of whether there has been progress in the Special Envoy’s request to visit Myanmar? And if not, what is being done to get that access?
Spokesman: Short answer is no. We want her to be able to go. I think the Secretary‑General made that very clear in his statement. She is continuing her contacts, regionally, more globally. The Secretary‑General has also raised the issue. We feel it would be a step forward if she would be allowed to go in order to speak to the authorities directly.
As you know, she’s already had one conversation with, I think, the deputy military commander.
Okay. Let me take some questions from those who haven’t asked just yet. And she, in fact… she spoke to the deputy commander again ye… she spoke yesterday. That’s the latest conversation she had, about the visit.
Abdelhamid, if you have a question, please ask.
Correspondent: I do and a comment on your rejecting my comment; I just wanted to remind you of Shashi Tharoor… [cross talk]
Spokesman: This is… In this environment, I’m the one who comments and answer your questions. That’s how the game is played. But go ahead, Abdelhamid.
Question: My question is about Gaza and the… COVID‑19 is really reaching high levels, and Gaza is now under real threat of this pandemic. And Israel is preventing vaccine to reach Gaza. A member of the human rights organization criticized Israeli decision not to allow vaccines to reach Gaza. Do you have any comment on that?
Spokesman: Look, I will try to get an update on the vaccine situation in Gaza. We… the UN have been working with the Palestinian Authorities to help them access the COVAX facility. We’ve continued to encourage Israel to help address the priority needs of the Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. So, I will try to get an update for you on that.
Question: Yes, Stéphane. Thank you very much. My question is about… I know the SR… the UN envoy to Iraq just made the remark about the attacks on Erbil, but now there are new developments. I saw reports of Iran‑backed militias that conducted these attacks, and there’s a casualty. Any remark from Secretary‑General?
Spokesman: Well, I mean, the Secretary‑General, obviously, fully backs what his Special Representative has said. He, of course, deplores these attacks. He condemns these attacks. These attacks are also an attack on the stability of Iraq, and it is important that all forces in Iraq support the stability of their country, and that goes for all those Member States who have an influence on what is going on in Iraq.
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. My question is about Security Council — sorry — security conference in Munich this Friday. Secretary‑General is one of the major speakers in that online meeting, including the US new President. What’s going to be the SG’s central message for them?
Spokesman: I’m going to be honest with you. I have not read the remarks. So, I will try not to improvise. I will read the remarks and share… but… yeah, I don’t want to freelance because… I shouldn’t have taken the day off yesterday, basically, is the message.
Spokesman: Okay. We’ll go to James and then back to Edie.
Question: Sort of a follow‑up question but a more general one, in that you have that Munich security conference on Friday. You have the G7 on Friday, and you have a Security Council meeting taking place tomorrow morning, which you mentioned in your opening. So, very important day for global… few days for global diplomacy, and all of those events, I think, are going to focus on COVID‑19.
What is the one thing that the Secretary‑General wants all of those leaders who are going to be speaking at those events… what’s his one big ask?
Spokesman: The one big ask, I would say, is to truly operationalize vaccine solidarity, to really do away with vaccine nationalism. It is clear that, in the path that we’re following now, we will not be able to vaccinate everyone at a speed that needs to be done. It is fully understandable that each Government looks out for its own people. That is their primary responsibility. But we do believe that, through enhanced international cooperation, backed by financing, the needs of the wealthiest nations can be met at the… the Governments can meet the needs of their own people; at the same time, show real solidarity through financing to the developing world.
I mean, we’re seeing all these strains of the virus growing, and they’re growing because, in a sense, the vaccines are not going quickly enough. It is in everyone’s self‑interest, whether you come from a developed country or developing countries or middle‑income country, that everyone be vaccinated.
Question: And two quick follow‑ups, if I can, to things you were talking about earlier on. I think everyone is a little bit unsure of the way the SG process is evolving, because clearly, 2016, the process happened differently to the way it’s happened in the past. And this is, after that, the first time that there potentially is a… an incumbent SG seeking a second term under the new rules. So, just to be clear, is the SG formally nominated by Portugal for his aim to have a second term?
Spokesman: The… again, we’re in… if I… my reading of the Charter is clear — and I’m stepping on Brenden’s toes here possibly — at this point, the President of the General Assembly asked the Secretary‑General what his intentions are. Secretary‑General was very transparent. There was an exchange of letters. He is clearly a candidate.
I’m not aware of an official letter from Portugal, and I’m not even… this is a question you’d have to ask Brenden [Varma]. I’m not even 100 per cent sure that’s a re… I don’t think that’s an actual requirement. What is clear is that he is a candidate. He will make himself available to Member States in whatever forum they want to have. He’s clearly ready to defend his record and lay out his vision for the next term.
So, he is at the… he will be at the service of Member States in however they want to hold forum or discussions on… with him as a candidate.
Question: And finally, we had slated last week a press briefing with USG (Under-Secretary-General Jean-Pierre) Lacroix. It’s disappeared. Is that coming back…
Spokesman: It’s been re… it’s reappearing. We’re trying… we’re very busy towards the end of the week. We’re trying to shoehorn it in, I believe — today is Tuesday or Wednesday?
Spokesman: Probably Thursday afternoon, but he is… he’s very keen, and he’ll be here… he’s going to be here in the building, so we wanted to have him in person, which is always nicer.
Question: Steph, before all of these coronavirus‑related events, can you get us some statistics on how much money has actually been committed to COVAX and who’s given what? [cross talk]
Spokesman: Yeah, all the COVAX updates? Yes, ma’am.
Okay. Unless somebody has a question… yes, Iftikhar.
Question: Thank you, Steph. Do you happen to have the name of airlines that are helping UNICEF transport COVID vaccine around the world?
Spokesman: What I do… sorry. What I do know is that it is… includes Air France, Cathay Pacific, Etihad. I think there are a number of other airlines that are in the process of signing up, but our friends at UNICEF would know more.
Navid, I will leave it over to you. I apologize. I have to go see my boss, who actually doles out my salary. So, I will leave you in Farhan’s capable hands for your bit. Take care.