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.
All right. Good afternoon.
As you know, in a few days, we will mark the tenth year since the start of the conflict in Syria. At 3:15 p.m., the Secretary-General will talk to you at the Security Council stakeout about the horrific price that the people of Syria have paid for this decade of conflict. On Monday, you will hear from the Secretary-General's Special Envoy Geir Pedersen on the same issue, but that will be done from Geneva. So, we will see you at the stakeout at 3:15 p.m.
In a video message, the Secretary-General marked the tenth anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, in which 18,400 people died or are still missing. He extended his condolences to those who continue to grieve the loss of loved one. He thinks of those who remain displaced due to safety concerns surrounding the destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. In that respect, the Secretary-General said he welcomes the findings of the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. That Committee found that no adverse health effects among Fukushima residents have been documented that could be directly attributed to radiation exposure from the accident. The Secretary-General said in his message that Japan is leading the world when it comes to disaster prevention. Japan, he said, has invested heavily in building back safer over the past decade and has helped to share the lessons learned for the future.
**“Only Together” Campaign
I want to flag that, tomorrow, we will be launching a new global campaign, titled “Only Together”, to support its call for fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines around the world. The campaign stresses the need for coordinated global action to ensure that vaccines are accessible in all countries, starting with healthcare workers and the most vulnerable. As a reminder, the COVAX initiative still needs more than $2 billion to fully meet its goals to vaccinate those most in need by the end of the year. “Only Together” is part of the broader “Verified” initiative which was launched in May last year to tackle misinformation around the pandemic, as well as to promote fact-based advice and stories from the best of humanity. The Secretary-General is expected to release a video message on the campaign tomorrow, and an embargoed press release will be shared with you today.
**Ethiopia Airlines Flight 302
Two years ago today, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crashed shortly after take-off from Addis Ababa. Today, we remember all of the victims of this horrendous accident, but we have a special thought for the families and friends of our colleagues who were on board that flight which was heading for Nairobi. Twenty-one staff — many in the prime of their careers and hailing from various UN agencies — World Food Programme (WFP), World Bank, International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the UN assistance office in Somalia, as well as the UN offices in Nairobi — lost their lives that day. While they all worked on different issues, they were united in their dedication to the ideals of the Organization and the people we serve. They are very much missed.
On Myanmar, I’ve been asked about the work of the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, Christine Schraner Burgener. I can tell you that she remains in close contact with key actors in Myanmar, including the military, on a possible visit to the country. She has been engaging regularly with civilian political representatives, leaders of the popular movement and civil society actors inside Myanmar. The Special Envoy also continues to engage regional stakeholders, including senior officials in China, as well as leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, and other regional organizations.
Also on Myanmar, our UN team on the ground remains deeply concerned over the ongoing loss of life since the military took over the Myanmar Government on 1 February. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) tells us that, as of 8 March, at least 67 people — including women and children — have been confirmed to have been killed. Hundreds more people have been injured. The UN team again calls on the military to halt the use of force against peaceful protestors. The use of lethal force against non-violent demonstrators is never justifiable under international human rights norms. Our colleagues there say they are also profoundly concerned over further efforts to undermine freedom of expression in Myanmar, following increased pressure on independent media outlets.
The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) congratulated the Libyan people on the approval by the House of Representatives of a new interim unified Government. The Mission applauds the House of Representatives leadership and its members for coming together in unity on this historic day and for upholding the interests of their country and their people. The Mission says Libya now has a genuine opportunity to move forward towards unity, stability, prosperity, reconciliation and the full restoration of its sovereignty.
On Afghanistan, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) says the UN envoy for the country, Deborah Lyons, had meetings in Doha with Special Representatives from Germany, Norway and the [United States]. The aim was to discuss how to invigorate the Afghanistan Peace Negotiations and the enhanced role for the UN to help bring an end to Afghan people’s suffering through inclusive peace. Ms. Lyons also met today with Qatari Special Envoy, Mutlaq al‑Qahtani, to discuss the peace negotiations and the key role of Qatar, as well as how the UN can best assist in ending the conflict.
The Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), David Beasley, issued an urgent plea for peace in Yemen. He called for funding to help the most vulnerable hungry families as he wrapped up a two-day visit to the country. Mr. Beasley said that over half of the people in Yemen are facing acute food shortages, with millions knocking on the door of famine. He said that famine-like conditions are emerging across Yemen. He added: “We have a vaccine for this. It is called food. All we need to save lives is funding.” In Sana’a, Beasley visited a hospital and witnessed first-hand the devastating toll that malnutrition is having on Yemen’s children. Half of all children under five in Yemen — that’s 2.3 million children — are projected to face acute malnutrition this year. We will have Mr. Beasley beamed into this room on Friday at 11 a.m. for your reporting pleasure and he will be discussing with you his trip to Yemen.
Also on Yemen, on a very important topic that we are trying to keep you updated on, and that is the oil tanker, the FSO Safer vessel: I can tell you that we remain engaged in discussions with the Houthis, Ansar Allah, to resolve all pending issues and requests regarding logistical and security arrangements. We hope that these discussions conclude quickly so we can move forward with booking the mission’s vessels and finalizing a concrete deployment timeline. The environmental and humanitarian disaster that is waiting to happen in case of an oil spill is entirely avoidable. We are doing everything possible to deploy this mission at the earliest possible opportunity as an important step towards averting this catastrophe. As a reminder, there are about 1.1 million barrels of oil in that tanker.
Today, the UN and the Government of Iraq released the 2021 Humanitarian Response Plan to assist 1.5 million vulnerable people. The appeal seeks $607.2 million to carry out humanitarian assistance activities there. The Overview found that 4.1 million Iraqis need humanitarian assistance. This year’s Plan focuses on 1.5 million of the most vulnerable internally displaced people, as well as returnees, who continue to face significant humanitarian and protection needs. Last year, the humanitarian community was able to assist approximately 1.4 million people in Iraq, thanks to the efforts of donors and generous partners.
An update from Equatorial Guinea, following Sunday’s deadly explosions at a military complex in Bata: Initial figures from the military say that up to 300 houses were destroyed. Displaced families remain without shelter. The blast also significantly damaged the country’s only COVID-19 testing laboratory. Our colleagues at World Health Organization (WHO) have mobilized an emergency team and are preparing to deploy two trauma kits. UNICEF and WHO have sent a team to Bata to support the response. A UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination team will be deployed over the next few days. Concerns are rising over the risks posed by unexploded ordnances, including explosives, rockets and other munitions that remain at the site. Urgent needs have been identified, including the deployment of emergency response experts, financial support and medical interventions, including [mobile] hospitals, medical, water, sanitation and hygiene equipment, as well as medicines. Temporary shelter, food assistance and psychological support for victims are also critical.
Another Humanitarian Response Plan launched today was for Haiti, and it was presented to Member States this morning. 4.4 million people this year will require emergency humanitarian assistance. This is over 40 per cent of Haiti’s total population. All of them face food insecurity. The past year was, of course, marked by COVID‑19, also by the passage of Tropical Storm Laura, as well as sociopolitical events, which we’ve been reporting on, including an increase in violence. Taken altogether, it has deteriorated significantly the situation in the country. In November last year, 69 per cent of Haitian households had reported a drop in their income. Among the many impacts of the pandemic, humanitarians say that access to health care, water, hygiene and sanitation services have been reduced. In the new response plan, our humanitarian colleagues are appealing for $235 million to assist 1.5 million people this year.
Just a quick update from Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the peacekeeping chief, who wrapped up his visit to Togo. On Monday, he spoke at the Mali Transition Support Meeting held in Lomé. The meeting focused on progress made in the implementation of the Transition Road Map and the mobilization and coordination of international support. He highlighted that, in the context of the transition, progress has taken place in Mali, but added that many challenges remain. A number of obstacles continue to stand in the way of the new authorities, he said. He also reiterated the UN’s full commitment to work alongside Mali, also in consultation with other partners. As part of its mandate, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) will continue its mediation between Malian actors and good offices, as well as efforts for the gradual restoration of state authority in central and northern Mali. He also met with the President Togo as well as senior Government officials, and thanked them for Togo’s support to peacekeeping and for the service and sacrifices of Togolese peacekeepers.
Our colleagues at IOM and UNHCR tell us today they are deeply saddened by the latest loss of life in the Central Mediterranean, after two boats capsized off Tunisia’s shores yesterday. At least 39 people drowned in a shipwreck off Kerkennah island. One hundred and thirty-four survivors, most of them from Côte d'Ivoire, were brought to shore by Tunisia’s coast guard. A second shipwreck took place off the coast of Jebeniana city in Sfax [Governorate]. The boat had 70 persons on board, including 4 children. They were all taken to shore safely. The agencies that some 190 people have died while crossing the Central Mediterranean since 1 January. This is an average of almost three deaths per day.
A COVAX update from Cambodia, this time, which received more than 320,000 COVID-19 vaccines from the COVAX facility last week. This was the first batch of a total of 1.1 million doses that will be provided by the end of May. Cambodia will receive enough doses from COVAX to vaccinate 20 per cent of its population this year. This is the most rapid and ambitious vaccination operation in Cambodia. We have been supporting authorities, including in logistics and training. Our colleagues have also been working on a communications and community engagement strategy to increase demand, reduce vaccine hesitancy and address misinformation.
I just want to flag a new UNEP report along with Oxford University, which says that one year from the onset of the pandemic, recovery spending has fallen short of nations’ commitments to build back more sustainably. The report found that only 18 per cent of announced recovery spending — that’s $341 billion out of $14.6 trillion — can be considered “green”.
Today, we say thank you to our friends in Tbilisi because Georgia has made the list, which is now at 68. Edie and then James.
**Questions and Answers
Question: Thank you, Steph. A couple of follow‑ups. First of all, on the Safer tanker, is… has the issue of that insurance certificate been resolved, or does that remain a key outstanding issue?
Spokesman: That's… there are several issues right now. Those are where an eventual UN ship can drop anchor, who can stay on board, whether Houthi security officers and whether… how security… Houthi security officers will monitor the work of the staff. I mean, we're trying to resolve these issues, but some of them have cost implications. Some of them have security implications. And I think some of these issues are besides the point. I mean, none of them are technically required to implement the plan that has already been agreed to. The issue of the insurance certificate is one that was raised when we had a commercial vessel under contract. That's no longer the case. So, we now… it's a bit of a cat‑and‑mouse. At this point, we can't spend any more donor money, and we don't want to spend any more donor money. We have a restricted amount of money. We're trying to resolve these issues because those issues will have an impact on the bid we put out to contract. Right? Then, obviously, the commercial enterprise that we all contract with will have questions related to insurance. So, those will have to be resolved. But, there is a… we just need to ensure that everybody is working in the same direction. And we're continuing the talks. I mean, talk about cost, we've already spent about a million dollars of donor money on equipment which we'd secured, and now we have to pay to store that equipment. So, the longer the delay, the more the cost increase and, most importantly, the longer we delay, the risk increase.
Question: My second question was a follow‑up on Myanmar. Is there any indication when SRSG [Special Representative of the Secretary-General] Schraner Burgener might be going to the region? And has she had any luck recently in contacting the military leaders? And also on Myanmar, today, there have been reports that the military has gone after striking railroad workers, kicking them out of their houses. And many, apparently, were seen walking, carrying elderly relatives who couldn't walk with suitcases, looking for places to stay.
Spokesman: On your first part, she remains in touch with the military. There's no indication as to when she'll be able to travel to the region, let alone inside the country. I think the reports that we're seeing are extremely, extremely disturbing. These are heavy‑handed tactics that violates a number of human rights, and it just gets added to the long list of human rights violations that we have seen since the coup. Do you yield to James? Yes, Edie yields to you, James.
Question: I have two follow‑ups and a question. So… and I have more after that, but anyway, for now, first, on Afghanistan, you talked about the SRSG's trip to Doha among those that she met was Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalilzad. Has she been asked to convene this conference of Foreign Ministers that seems… that is the first part of the [Antony] Blinken plan? Secondly, Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov is on a tour of the Gulf and will shortly be in Doha. He is proposing on Afghanistan that Russia stage an Afghanistan conference. What does the UN make of that? And is she planning to meet him?
Spokesman: I'll have to check whether or not she meets with Foreign Minister Lavrov. But, she has been in touch with Mr. Khalilzad and many others. It's no secret that there are a number of proposals that are out there on the calendar. We are in touch with everyone that matters to try to get some clarification and also to… not only on the substance of the meetings but also on the calendar.
Question: And my second follow‑up is on Libya. You talk about the new Government that's been formed, which seems to be good news — this, of course, though, is built on the back of the political forum in Geneva and those disturbing allegations of vote‑buying. Can you update us? What is the UN doing to work out what actually happened and whether anyone was wrongly elected to posts?
Spokesman: Look, there was a process from the political forum. I mean, we've seen… I haven't seen the… we've seen the reports, but I think what is important is that the vote today in the house… in the Libya legislature was taken with full knowledge of the proposals and the situation, and I think it's an important step forward.
Question: And finally, an anniversary. It's… 10 March was the date a year ago that this building closed to the public. What is the Secretary‑General's reflection on that date and this year?
Spokesman: Look, it's been a year of loss, most importantly, in terms of human lives globally. It's been a year of loss of the progress that we as the United Nations have been working on across the board on socioeconomic indicators. As always in these crises, it is those who were most vulnerable and who were already suffering who lost the most. And sadly, they will be the last one to go back and to gain, unless there is a concerted effort by the international community to build back better and to invest in those areas that need it the most, whether it's access to health care, human rights, the way that women have borne the burden of this crisis on so many levels. There's also been, on a more parochial level, there's been… the halls, as you said, have been empty almost for a year. I think, despite that, the United Nations has been able to continue its work to support all the things that we do in the field, to support the Member States in having their meeting, so the work has continued. And I want to salute all our colleagues in the field and headquarters who have worked in difficult conditions, like all of us and all of you have worked. And I think everyone has been touched one way or another, but the Secretary‑General is committed to bringing this building back to life, but in a very measured and careful way. Okay. Dulcie, if that's you. Yes.
Question: Yeah, that's me. Maybe you can just tell us briefly the thinking behind this COVAX Facility, because it just seems like a little random, who's getting X number of doses and where are these vaccines? Which brand are these vaccines? Thanks.
Spokesman: It's… what happens is that Member States… countries apply to the COVAX Facility. They have to meet certain needs. We, as the UN team on the ground, are helping Member States prepare themselves and prepare these applications. The allocations of the vaccines and those numbers… those are worked out, as far as I know, by COVAX, which is WHO and other agencies, but I think… the vaccines, as we've been reporting here almost on a daily basis, I think the COVAX Facility, while still short of money, has been effective and is going much faster in sending vaccines to various countries.
Question: And what's the brand of the vaccine? Is it just one brand or an array?
Spokesman: I have to check… you know what? I should know that. It's basically… I don't have my phone. It's the vaccines that have been approved by WHO. I should know this off the top of my head, and I don't, but someone will bring me that answer.
Question: So, it might be a range of companies?
Spokesman: Yeah, I mean, it's all the ones that have been approved by WHO, which aren't that… I think they've approved two or so. All right. Alan?
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. Earlier in the March, the newspaper New York Times previewed the… I mean issued an article where it previewed, quote, a series of clandestine actions across Russian networks. So, today, earlier, a Russian… New York… new Russian Internet users faced several problems so… while accessing… trying to access the state government, parliament and Kremlin websites. Do you see any connection in these two occasions? And the second question is, on your point of view, what's the risk of large‑scale cyberspace conflict between Russia and United States at this point, and what would be the consequences to the world if such a conflict occurs? Thank you.
Spokesman: That's a light question. On your first part, I can't… it's not for me to offer that analysis. That will be for others, like you, to do. I think we have been raising the risk and the spectre of cyber‑warfare between countries for quite a long time. It is a relatively new brand of weaponry, and I think, one that should be taken into the construct of disarmament talks. And the risks of cyberwarfare… and I'm not speaking between Russia and the US because I have no indication of that, but in terms of… there's a big global risk, and we can all imagine the devastating consequences of an all‑out cyberattacks, which… and the added risk it is not only within the realm of state power, as we know. The ability to do harm to cyber‑networks is very much, sadly, in the hands of non‑state groups and criminal groups, which adds to the risk because of the lack of actual control. Dulcie, my colleagues, who are much smarter than me, tell me it is the AstraZeneca, and I think the Pfizer one has also been approved, the Oxford/AstraZeneca and I think Pfizer. Okay. Let's go to Tobias.
Question: Thank you, Steph. My question is on Myanmar. We're seeing reports of defections and derelictions of duty within the military, and I'm wondering what the assessment from the Special Envoy, Schraner Burgener, is regarding the integrity and the structure of the military. Are we seeing a disintegration? Are we seeing increasingly chaotic behaviour, not just against civilians but in terms of the command‑and‑control structure of the military? Thank you.
Spokesman: Look, it's a hard question for me to answer, Toby. I think what we are seeing is a continued clampdown on basic human freedoms by the military, which needs to stop. Whether or not there is the question of command and control, the one of defection is not really one that I can analyse from here. We've seen anecdotal evidence of some defection, but what we're really seeing and what we need to focus on is the continuing violent crackdown. Okay. James Reinl?
Question: Thanks, Steph. I've got another question about the pandemic and anniversaries, and I do note the great answers you gave to James Bays' question before. Tomorrow is the one‑year anniversary of the declaration by the WHO of the pandemic… of it being a global pandemic. And in the past year, we've seen some pretty creaky response internationally, strained relations, especially between the US and China, US leaving WHO, re‑joining, UN Security Council deadlocked for a number of months. One year on, do you feel that the… that we're getting the right levels of international cooperation yet?
Spokesman: I don't think "creaky" is the word that I would use. I would use the word "uncoordinated", right from the start. And sadly, in some aspect, continue… that is ongoing today. I mean, the Secretary‑General's been saying it from day one, and it seems so obvious, I think, to all of us, and hopefully, all of you that the only way we're really going to beat this and build back in a more sustainable way with the right amount of investment is through a global coordinated manner. And the Secretary‑General's called on Member States to do it. He's called on the G20 to do it. I mean, what we have seen — and I think we can't ignore it — is the amazing scientific response and the rapidity at which many Member States have been able to develop effective vaccines. I think the scientists have done their job. It is now for multilateralism, in a sense, to do its job and for finding a more coordinated response to the roll‑out of the vaccine and to many other things that have been impacted by the virus.
Question: Thanks, and that's great. Can I do a question about Syria, as well? Obviously, we're looking forward to hearing from Mr. [António] Guterres later today, but there's a conversation in the Middle East happening right now, 10 years after the uprising against [Bashar al-]Assad began. That conversation is about whether or not Syria should be allowed back into the Arab League, whether or not sanctions should be dropped against Syria, whether or not diplomatic relations should be restored with the country. From the UN perspective, 10 years on, is it time for Syria to be normalized?
Spokesman: Look, 10 years on, it's time to find a solution to this ongoing conflict. It's time to stop the suffering of the Syrian people. That's what it's time for. It's time for all the parties to re‑engage in the political dialogue and the UN‑supported discussions that Mr. Pedersen is leading. Whether it's time for Syria to re‑join the Arab League is not a question for me to answer, given the logo behind me is that of the United Nations and not the League of Arab States.
Question: Steph, can I do one more? Sorry.
Spokesman: At this point, go ahead. You still have a ways to catch your namesake. Go ahead.
Question: Yeah, I know. I know. I know. I'm doing a James Bays today. Yesterday, you were talking… on Afghanistan, this is. Yesterday, you were talking about a potential UN role. Your language changed today. You were talking about an enhanced UN role, these discussions that you're having with the various parties. In this discussion about an enhanced UN role, have blue helmets been mentioned?
Spokesman: Not… I've… not to my knowledge at all. Okay. If you have a question, wave. Otherwise, I'll go back to Mr. Bays. All right. Abdelhamid, do you have a question?
Question: I was just waiting for you to give me a follow‑up on Gaza and the vaccine. As you promised.
Spokesman: Oh, I… that's… you're right. I did promise. I don't have anything for you to share today. I apologize. But, I will get you something. That I promise again. James?
Question: So, back to Myanmar, as you know, the Security Council has been trying to come up with a statement on Myanmar. Al Jazeera's spoken to several sources since the silence procedure ended at the top of the hour, and we're told that the new statement has passed silence, a statement that reinforces the Security Council's deep concern, reinforces its call for the release of the detained politicians and strongly condemns violence against peaceful protesters. What's the Secretary‑General's reaction to the fact the Security Council have spoken but had to have a watered‑down statement taking out the bit about readiness to take further measures?
Spokesman: Look, we… I think we always welcome when Security Council members agree on common language on an issue that is… can be challenging. Whether or not it could have been improved more or less, I will leave that to the analysts, but we do welcome the fact that a statement was approved.
Question: Any update on, arguably, the most important job you have to fill at the moment, Mr. [Mark] Lowcock's job? Do you have a short list?
Spokesman: No, sir. I have nothing to share with you at this point. Okay. Mr. [Brenden] Varma?
Question: Can I have one more?
Spokesman: Please, go ahead, while he walks.
Question: Yeah, while he walks. The Saudi activist — I'm not sure that's the right word but — who was imprisoned, Loujain Alhathloul, she has now been in court, and the sentence against her has been upheld. She's no longer in jail because she's been released under parole, but she still has travel ban imposed. What's the Secretary‑General's reaction to the fact that they're not letting her off?
Spokesman: We had called for her unconditional release and for everything to have been dropped against her, so that remains our position. Okay. Let me clear out.