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.
Good afternoon. Quite a few things for you guys today.
**Chief Executives Board
This morning, the Secretary‑General brought together, as he does twice a year, the heads of the UN system organizations in a virtual meeting of the Chief Executives Board (CEB). And this meeting is to reflect on current world affairs as they affect and relate to the UN system’s work. The Board deliberated on salient emerging trends, opportunities and challenges facing the system. CEB members are engaging in a dedicated discussion on how progress and prosperity are currently measured and how to encourage collectively committed complementary metrics to GDP in order to capture human well‑being and planetary sustainability, otherwise known as GDP+.
Couple of updates for you from the field: On Sudan, following the recent coup and the wave of protests in Khartoum and other Sudanese cities, we have seen yet again the de facto authorities use excessive force against protesters yesterday [17 November] resulting in the deaths of reportedly 15 people so far, and an unconfirmed number of injuries. This brings the death toll of peaceful civilian protestors to 37 since the beginning of the protests against the 25 October coup. We strongly condemn this repeated use of excessive force against peaceful demonstrators and renew our call upon the de facto authorities and the security forces to exercise restraint and refrain from committing further human rights violations. Freedom of expression and assembly are fundamental human rights afforded to every Sudanese, and they need to have the opportunity to express themselves peacefully and without fear of retaliation. All those detained as a result of the protests, and those held since the 25 October coup must be released.
Turning to Afghanistan: Our humanitarian colleagues are telling us that aid operations continue across the country with new needs being identified in ongoing inter-agency assessments. Earlier this week, an inter-agency mission to Kandahar, our colleagues assessed the capacity and the needs of a UN‑supported health facility. The facility has recorded a significant increase in patients over the last three months due to a lack of access to basic health services in other districts. Our colleagues also noted an increase in cases of Severe Acute Malnutrition among children under five. The mission also visited a UN-supported Reception Centre for returnees that provides cross-border return and reintegration services. Reportedly, more than 3,000 people have returned from Iran to Afghanistan since the border reopened in November. In Herat province, some laboratory services have been halted for the last three weeks due to the non‑payment of staff salaries.
Yesterday, another UN mission to Taloqan in Takhar Province conducted assessments to help vulnerable households. Takhar Province has seen an increase in the number of people requiring assistance, including due to drought. Our humanitarian colleagues also warn that the use of unexploded ordnance across Afghanistan remains a major safety risk. Earlier this week, two unexploded ordnances and one improvised explosive device detonated on several civilians, including three children, who were injured, in Tirinkot city, in Uruzgan Province. The Flash Appeal for Afghanistan, which is seeking $606 million for the last four months of this year, is 87 per cent funded, having received $530 million to date, for which we thank all the donors who converted their pledges to cash. As you saw yesterday, Deborah Lyons, the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), briefed the Security Council and you in the afternoon.
From Myanmar, our UN team there says they remain deeply concerned by the continuing levels of people displaced internally as well as by the worsening humanitarian needs due to conflict, political instability and COVID‑19 since the military seized control of the Government on 1 February. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), since 1 February, a record high of 234,600 women, children and men have been newly displaced. This is up from 176,000 people at the end of August, compounding an already dire humanitarian situation in the country. The latest displacement figures come on top of the 370,000 people that had already been displaced before the military takeover. The humanitarian situation in Myanmar continues to deteriorate, with more than three million people requiring critical assistance and protection services since the start of 2021. We are particularly concerned about increasing food insecurity in Myanmar.
The town of Mindat, in Chin State, has experienced heavy fighting in recent weeks, with many people fleeing their homes. Our colleagues say that food for displaced people and host communities is running desperately short. Humanitarian access to Mindat has been extremely limited and aid workers need urgent access to the area to deliver much needed aid. Humanitarian organizations expect to have reached more than two million people with aid by the end of 2021. They stand ready to scale up their response, but this requires increased access to the people who actually need our help.
The Envoys of the Middle East Quartet, and that is the European Union, Russian Federation, United States and we, the United Nations, met in person in Oslo. This follows an important meeting of the Ad‑Hoc Liaison Committee addressing the Palestinian economic situation. The Envoys welcome steps announced by Israel to reach out to the Palestinian Authority and to assist with the fiscal crisis. The Envoys remain deeply concerned by developments in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza, including ongoing acts of violence in the West Bank, the advancement of new settlement units, the untenable fiscal crisis within the Palestinian Authority and threats of violence in Gaza. That full statement was released.
**Democratic Republic of the Congo
Quick update from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where our UN peacekeeping colleagues are telling us that yesterday, they repelled an attack by combatants from the armed group known as CODECO. This took place in Drodro, in the Ituri province of the country. The peacekeepers secured a camp for displaced people, the hospital and the office of a non-governmental organization (NGO). Staff from the NGO were sheltered in the peacekeeper’s temporary base for the night. Our colleagues reiterated their concern about the increasing number of attacks by armed combatants in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, especially in the provinces of North Kivu and Ituri. The Mission continues to work to protect civilians, including through a stronger presence in areas with ongoing military operations and where the population can be targeted by retaliatory attacks.
Quick update from Madagascar, where we, along with the World Food Programme (WFP), have been talking about the risk of famine. Today, the Government and humanitarian partners launched a revised Flash Appeal that seeks $231 million to provide assistance to 1.3 million people through May of next year. As we have been reporting over the past few months, the climate crisis is having a devastating impact on people’s lives in the country, especially in the southern part — known in French as Grand Sud. For the last three years now, consecutive droughts, combined with sandstorms and pests, have made it nearly impossible for people in this area to grow their own food. We, along with our partners in Madagascar, estimate that 1.3 million people are facing severe hunger and 28,000 people are in famine-like conditions. Humanitarian organizations have significantly expanded their operations this year and provided life‑saving assistance to over 900,000 men, women and children. But, with the peak of the lean season fast approaching [January to April], more assistance is needed.
The Humanitarian Coordinator for Madagascar, Issa Sanogo, is calling for the international community to urgently increase its support. We have already received about $120 million towards the $231 million, but additional funding will enable humanitarian organizations to provide food, water, health services, and life‑saving nutrition treatment for people in need. If you look, we are asking for $231 million, and as a point of comparison, I saw a flat for sale in London for $242 million. So, instead of buying an apartment, give to this humanitarian appeal.
From the Maldives, the UN team there, led by Resident Coordinator Catherine Haswell, continues to support the country’s health and socioeconomic response to the pandemic. As of 13 November, nearly 80 per cent of people over the age of 18 have been fully vaccinated. More than 90 per cent of children between 12 and 17 have also been fully vaccinated. We have been supporting the vaccination rollout. More than 250,000 doses have been delivered through COVAX, with most of the doses donated by Japan and the US. A big thank you to them. While the Maldives has managed to keep the number of cases low in the capital, Malé, in recent months, a rise in cases has been observed in the outer atolls of the Maldives.
**Hybrid Guests Tomorrow
Tomorrow, our guests will be the head of UN Women, the head of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the head of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). And they will be joined by the Ambassador of the European Union Delegation to the UN, Olof Skoog. The UN Women Executive Director, Sima Bahous and Ambassador Skoog will be here, in the room, while Henrietta Fore, of UNICEF and Achim Steiner, from UNDP, will join us virtually to launch the Spotlight Initiative’s impact report for 2020-2021, “Rising to the challenge”. And I think that's it.
It's about… Spotlight Initiative… it's a very good question. The Spotlight Initiative is fighting… thank you for paying attention, first of all. It's about fighting violence against women. Excuse me. I've done a lot of speaking. I deserve a glass of water. James, and then we'll go to Edie.
**Questions and Answers
Question: So, first, is there any update on the UN staff detained in either Ethiopia or Yemen?
Spokesman: Yes. On Ethiopia, happy to report that six detained UN staff members were released today. Five staff and one dependent remain in custody. Our understanding is that the contract drivers were also released earlier this week. On Yemen, unfortunately, there are no positive developments to report. The two staff members remain in custody. And worryingly, we've had absolutely no contact with them, and that is despite our continuous efforts. And I think, yesterday, I was asked where they were detained. I think Maggie had asked. They were detained in their… I mean they were arrested or taken away while they were at home. Yep.
Question: One more. I've got lots more, but one more for now. There's a lot of concern around the world about a missing Chinese tennis player, and there are questions about the email that she may have sent or may have been fabricated. Does… is the Secretary‑General joining all of those who are concerned about the whereabouts of this tennis player and urging for there to be proper proof that she's safe and well?
Spokesman: I don't have any comment on this at this particular moment. Yes, Edie?
Question: A follow‑up on the Ethiopian releases first. There were 34 truck drivers released earlier this week. Are you saying now that the 36 who were still being held were free today? Or…
Spokesman: The head count on the truck drivers is a bit murky because these are contracted either by us or by UN agencies. So, my understanding is that all of the 70-plus that we had spoken about earlier this week were released, and these were con… these were drivers contracted by us and the World Food Programme.
Question: Okay. And do you know what's happened to them? Are they back at their trucks?
Spokesman: I don't know. I would hope they're back at their trucks, but unfortunately… we're very glad they were released. Unfortunately, the trucks are still not moving in a way we'd like… in a direction we would like them to see moved.
Question: And are the five staff and one dependent still being detained in Addis?
Spokesman: That's my understanding.
Question: Okay. My question is a follow‑up on Sudan. Can you tell us what Mr. [Volker] Perthes is doing and whether there have been any meetings, any fresh attempts to try and get Prime Minister [Abdalla] Hamdok released?
Spokesman: We continue. Mr. Perthes continues to be in touch with all the relevant parties in Sudan. It is not so much as a fresh attempt as a continuous attempt to get him and all of the other detainees released, and that has been his work and the Secretary‑General's work since the beginning. Mr. Klein?
Question: One follow‑up and then one subsequent question. And the follow-up is, those staff members who were released in Ethiopia, are there plans to get them out of the country so they won't be subjected to potentially another detention?
Spokesman: No, I'm not aware of any plan to relocate them.
Question: Okay. And then my regular question is…?
Spokesman: Your regular question?
Question: My regular question. That was a follow‑up. Mr. [David] Beasley has provided to Mr. [Elon] Musk kind of a blueprint on how the $6 million that he asked to be contributed to end world… to help alleviate world hunger, yeah, would be spent, and he promised transparency and so forth. My understanding is that Mr. Musk has not responded to that yet, but has the Secretary‑General reached out or is he considering reaching out directly to back up these calls for multi‑billionaires like Mr. Musk and others to contribute a portion of their wealth to helping end hunger? And is the UN concerned about what some are saying could be… that the UN would be… is being used for — for lack of a better term — blue‑washing?
Spokesman: Look, the Secretary‑General has been extremely concerned about growing inequality in this world. Right? We've… we all should be. It's not healthy for the planet. It's not healthy for people. The Secretary‑General is not involved in the discussions between Mr. Musk and Mr. Beasley that is going on with the World Food Programme. We need… we are continuously underfunded for our humanitarian appeals, and we're not… in the greater scheme of things, it's not a lot of money. I mean, I just said we need $242 million… $240 million for Madagascar. There are apartments for sale for that kind of money. it's… we're calling for people to do the right thing, right, to help people in southern Madagascar who are suffering from a climate‑induced crisis for which, by all measures, they have no responsibility in. We're just asking for a little humanity. Madame?
Question: Stéphane, can or will the UN take action against the people arrested, the staff member? What… what can the UN do?
Spokesman: I mean, I think you can answer that question yourself. I mean, listen, we are working in… just to name two countries, Ethiopia and Yemen under… frankly, as we do in every country, under protection of the Government. It is their responsibility to also ensure the safety of UN staff. Colleagues have been detained without any explanation given to us. They have been released in Ethiopia. We very much welcome that. We continue to be engaged with the Government in Ethiopia, in Addis. We continue to be engaged with the authorities in Yemen who are detaining our colleagues to, first and foremost, get them released.
Question: But is it a sign that those Governments don't respect the UN anymore?
Spokesman: I think you will answer that question. Celia?
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. So, Sunday, Venezuela is going to have their elections. The UN sent a technical team, three members of the staff. What's the expectation of the Secretary‑General, especially when, few days before the elections, the Government of the United States questioned the election? Some of the members of the State Department [have] said that there might be manipulation on the list of the members of voters. Is that a dangerous statement to make before an election like this?
Spokesman: Well, I mean, I'm not going to comment on what others are saying, but what I can tell you is we very much hope for a free, fair and transparent election for the sake of the people of Venezuela so they can help chart their own future.
Question: How important is the presence of the big mission from the European Union and knowing that the Carter Institute have people there?
Spokesman: I think it is always very important in elections to have independent observers who can then render judgement. It's… and we see it all over the world. I think it only brings more credibility to any election when you're willing to have outside observers. Ray and then Grigory.
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. In a press conference this morning, the head of the police in Khartoum, Sudan said that the protests yesterday were not peaceful, and many policemen were injured. They [are] talking about 89 policemen injured. Can your Mission on the ground confirm these numbers?
Spokesman: No. I mean, it's not numbers that I've been given. Grigory?
Question: Thanks very much. Poland said that yesterday over 200 people penetrated from the border. How can UN estimate the situation in the light of human rights? And are there any plans to discuss this situation in Security Council? Thank you.
Spokesman: Whether or not it goes up to the Security Council is up to members of the Council to do that. Our focus is on the people. Right? On the heart-breaking images we've seen of families, of men and women and children, in the freezing cold in an untenable situation. Our colleagues, both from UNHCR and IOM (International Organization for Migration), are working on both sides with, obviously, more focus on the Belarusian side because that's where most of these people are, to try to distribute basic necessities with the support of the Belarusian Red Cross. This is, frankly… it's… as we've been saying from the beginning, people should not be used as political bargaining points or bargaining chips. Every one of us who lives here on this planet has a right to dignity and respect to their rights, and we're not seeing that happen. Ibtisam and then we'll… go ahead. Sorry.
Question: No. Follow‑up on Ray's question. So… on Sudan and the issue of demonstration. I know you said you can't verify these numbers, but your people on the ground, how would they describe the demonstrations in Sudan?
Spokesman: What we saw is excessive use of force by security forces in Khartoum against demonstrators. There's been a military takeover. People are demonstrating. They have a right to demonstrate peacefully, and we have seen yet again excessive [force] being used and yet again people being killed and being injured.
Question: Would you say that the demonstrations in general are also very peaceful? Thank you.
Spokesman: Listen, we are not in every corner on every street in Khartoum. What we have seen, for the vast majority, are people demonstrating peacefully. And I should also add, members of security forces should not be attacked, but what we've seen is… I'm told we've seen the vast majority of it being peaceful. Okay. Ib… who's on the screen? Sorry. We'll go to Abdelhamid and then Michelle.
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. Can you explain to me the UN position vis‑à‑vis the presidential elections in Libya? I am really confused about the UN role. What is the UN role in the forthcoming presidential elections?
Spokesman: It's a very valid question. Are you ready? Okay. Excellent. We're continuing to support the Libyan authorities in preparation for the presidential and parliamentary elections. Our Mission in Libya is engaging with all Libyan stakeholders to ensure the organization of timely, credible and inclusive elections in line with the Libyan political road map and relevant Security Council resolutions. What does that mean concretely? Concretely, the UN in Libya has been providing technical support to the High National Elections Commission in several broad areas: First, outreach to decision‑makers and opinion-formers, including technical advice and assistance, as requested, awareness‑raising and support for women and other marginalised groups' participation in the electoral processes. [Second], support and advice to electoral operations, including assistance with improvements to the voter registration system, training, public outreach, operations coordination, electoral security, procurement and logistics, as well as COVID‑19 mitigation measures. [Third], institutional capacity‑building. And fourth, support to a coordination of international assistance.
Question: Follow‑up. Can I?
Spokesman: There's… yes, you can follow up, but there's not much left for me to say. Go ahead.
Question: Mr. Abdelhamid Dbeibah, the Prime Minister of Transitional Government had met with Ján Kubiš, I think, yesterday in Geneva. Do you have any information, what has been discussed in that meeting?
Spokesman: On that, I do not. Michelle Nichols?
Question: Hi, Steph. Thanks. There's a case that's getting headlines here in the states at the moment. The state of Oklahoma is set to execute a man this afternoon. Would the Secretary‑General like to comment or remind us of his policy on the death penalty? Thanks.
Spokesman: The Secretary‑General's position on… against the imposition of the death penalty has been stated many times and will continue to be underscored. He has also urged all Member States to abide by the moratorium on capital punishment and the progressive abolition of the death penalty. Okay. I don't see any more questions… one more. Célhia?
Question: Yes. We were thinking, when we… [inaudible] the NGOs will come back on 3 January? What about the Greenpeace…
Spokesman: Yeah. You should check with my colleagues in MALU (Media Accreditation and Liaison Unit), but I think you're seeing a progressive re‑opening, and I think… there is a case‑by‑case… I mean, if you have people in Greenpeace who need to come back in the building, our colleagues in MALU, I'm sure, will take care of it. Mr. Bays?
Question: Couple more for you. The Secretary‑General's been tweeting about ending statelessness. Having a nationality is not a privilege; it's a human right. Why does he think this issue is so important?
Spokesman: Because if you don't… if you are stateless, you are outside… all too often outside of the legal framework. You don't have access… it is difficult to get access to basic services, and it has a clear impact on your ability to live freely and openly where you would want to live.
Question: So, the UK is a country where already they can strip you of your nationality. They have the powers. There's new legislation going through that hasn't yet… it hasn't yet been passed by parliament, but it's being proposed by the Government, which you would be able… they would be able to strip you of your nationality without giving you notice beforehand if it was in the interests of national security or diplomatic relations. One assumes, then, given this campaign, the Secretary‑General condemns that legislation.
Spokesman: We are not in the habit on commenting on legislation that has not yet been passed, but the Secretary‑General's position, as expressed by him in the tweet that you read out, I think, could not be clearer.
Question: And one more, which is about the building. The building remains very empty. I mean, just remind us what staff are supposed to now be back at work… and are the staff that the Secretary‑General expects to be back at work, have they turned back up, or are they not here? Because it… I mean, we all have to be COVID‑safe, but it just seems deserted around here.
Spokesman: As of, I think it was, 15 November, staff were… could do a maximum of three days a week working from home, and two days a week at the office, minimum. We understand that there has to be… that certain people have specific circumstances due to family or childcare issues, but that is the current policy.
Question: And could you — maybe not today but — give us some statistics for how many people are coming into the building compared with pre‑pandemic? And also maybe… it's very hard… that "two days a week" thing, the metric on that, could you tell us whether… how far below that being met you are at the moment? I mean the numbers? See what I mean? Because you're clearly not meeting that at the moment.
Spokesman: I understand. Thank you. Tomorrow's Friday?
Spokesman: I hope to see you all here tomorrow. Ray, sorry. Go ahead.
Question: Stéphane, is there any update regarding the meeting of the Credential Committee? They were supposed to meet in November.
Spokesman: Yes. They will meet in November… one of the weeks in November, which sounds like an obvious answer. I just cannot remember off the top of my head; however, it will be… I will encourage you to look in the Journal. Since it will be an official meeting, it will be in the… it's expected the week… sorry. It's expected the week of 29 November, but check the Journal. Abdelhamid, you have one question.
Question: Yes, Stéphane. Regarding the meeting of the Quartet in Norway, who called for that meeting? I thought it was intended for fundraising for the rebuilding of the infrastructure in Gaza and other…?
Spokesman: They… all the envoys were…
Question: So what happened exactly?
Spokesman: All of the envoys were present at the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, which aims, as you well know, to deal with the Pal… economy of Palestine. So, at that point, on the side‑lines of that meeting, the envoys decided to meet as the Quartet, which they did. Merci, shukran, hasta luego.