Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General
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 Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
Today, the Secretary-General is in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where he is attending events during the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, including the World Future Energy Summit and the Abu Dhabi Action Day. He also has held bilateral meetings with the Foreign Minister of France, Minister in Charge of Energy, Water and Environment of Morocco, the President of Nigeria, the Foreign Minister of the UAE and the Vice-President of Yemen.
During his meeting with the Vice President of Yemen, the Secretary-General urged the Government of Yemen and all Yemeni parties to commit to a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire in order to enable the rapid resumption of peace talks facilitated by his Special Envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. We should have the remarks and readouts of his meetings in our office and online over the course of the day.
The Secretary-General arrived in the United Arab Emirates yesterday to attend the launch of the report of the High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing at the International Humanitarian City in Dubai. Speaking to the media yesterday, the Secretary-General stressed the need to deliver a new, more reliable, adequate and sustainable model of humanitarian funding. Those remarks are online.
UN humanitarian agencies have expressed concern that an estimated 200,000 people, most of whom are women and children, are facing sharply deteriorating conditions in the besieged western side of Deir-Ez-Zor city in Syria. Residents need immediate and urgent humanitarian assistance, particularly food, nutrition and health supplies, and there are reports of severe cases of malnutrition and deaths due to starvation. While Government stocks continue to provide bread, there are very limited supplies in the city as there has been limited humanitarian or commercial access to the area.
Approval has been secured for an emergency interagency United Nations airlift to deliver life-saving humanitarian assistance to the area. However, fierce clashes in the vicinity of the military airport have prevented the operation from proceeding. Meanwhile, UN agencies and the Red Cross/Syrian Arab Red Crescent are on their way to take food, fuel and health supplies to Zabadani today, while nutrition and health teams began to conduct field assessments in Madaya and Zabadani. This is the third humanitarian convoy delivering aid to Madaya and Foah/Kafraya and the first for Zabadani this month. Also on Syria, Staffan de Mistura, the Special Envoy, is briefing the Security Council via video teleconference right now.
In a statement we issued over the weekend, the Secretary-General welcomed the achievement of Implementation Day under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between the E3+3 and Iran. This is a significant milestone that reflects the good faith effort by all parties to fulfil their agreed commitments. The Secretary-General commends the dedication and determination shown on all sides. He encourages the parties to continue to implement the Plan of Action in the months and years ahead.
And the Secretary-General also welcomed the release of a number of Americans who had been detained in the Islamic Republic of Iran, including The Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, and of a number of Iranians held by the United States of America, following an agreement between the two Governments. The Secretary-General commends the recent moves by the Governments of the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran to improve ties. He is also heartened by the lifting of sanctions on Iran. The full statements are available online.
The Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, strongly condemned the two stabbing attacks that took place within the past 24 hours in the settlements of Otniel and Tekoa in the occupied West Bank. The attacks resulted in the death of one woman and serious injuries to a pregnant woman. Mr. Mladenov said that nothing justifies the murder of a mother in front of her own children.
The Special Coordinator is increasingly alarmed by the continued attacks in the occupied West Bank that are taking place almost on a daily basis. He calls upon the Israeli and Palestinian authorities to take action to ensure that the perpetrators are swiftly brought to justice. These tragic incidents only highlight the urgent need for all leaders to work together against the spiral of violence and the targeting of civilians. The volatility of the current situation only serves the hate-filled agendas of extremists on all sides. Mr. Mladenov encourages all parties to promote calm and refrain from inflammatory statements and retaliatory actions.
The African Union-United Nations [Hybrid Operation] in Darfur (UNAMID) said yesterday that it was deeply concerned about ongoing fighting between Government forces and armed movements in the Jebel Marra area, Central Darfur, near the Mission’s Nertiti team site. Mission personnel in Nertiti also reported five bombs being dropped at an area north-east of their location. The impact of the bombs was felt at the team site. Shops and markets in Nertiti have shut down in fear of looting and attacks. UNAMID is closely monitoring the situation. The Mission is also working with its United Nations Country Team partners to arrive at contingency measures for responding to protection and humanitarian consequences on the civilian population in the area.
The World Food Programme (WFP) says it is increasingly concerned about food security in southern Africa where an estimated 14 million people are facing hunger following prolonged dry spells that led to a poor harvest last year. It adds that the El Niño global weather event, which is leading to even worse drought across the region, is already affecting this year’s crop.
The number of people without enough food could rise significantly over the coming months as the region moves deeper into the so-called lean season, the period before the April harvest when food and cash stocks become increasingly depleted. The World Food Programme says that the worst affected countries by last year’s poor rains are Malawi, Madagascar and Zimbabwe. Lesotho has declared a drought emergency last month and one third of the population does not have enough food. Also of concern are the situations in Angola, Mozambique and Swaziland.
The Under-Secretary-General for Field Support, Atul Khare, began a five-day visit to Japan today at the invitation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mr. Khare plans to meet with senior Government officials to discuss issues related to UN peacekeeping operations. He will also deliver a lecture on "Fostering future leaders in international peace cooperation" at the Seventh International Peace Cooperation Symposium, at the invitation of the Prime Minister.
I would also like to flag today a new book from the Food and Agriculture Organization that takes a close look at how the world's major cereals — maize, rice and wheat — can be grown in ways that respect natural ecosystems. These cereals account together for an estimated 42.5 per cent of human calories and 37 per cent of our protein. Drawing on case studies from around the planet, the new book illustrates how the "Save and Grow" approach to agriculture advocated by FAO is already being successfully employed to produce staple grains, pointing the way to a more sustainable future for farming and offering practical guidance on how the world can pursue its new sustainable development agenda. And there are more details online. And that is it for me. Do we have any questions? Yes. First you?
**Questions and Answers
Question: Thank you, Farhan. Why does [the] UN remain silent on the situation in Madaya until the shocking images circulating by media of the starvation? I am sure you are aware of the article published by Foreign Policy on Saturday.
Deputy Spokesman: Yeah, I'm aware of the article, but the idea that we didn't raise attention earlier is, frankly, inaccurate. And your own records can show that. The UN tried to get access to Madaya six times in 2015, and it brought aid to the town in October. And the UN also made several public statements calling for aid to all of the towns in the Four Towns Agreement, including immediately following the aid delivery on 18 October and after medical evacuations on the 28 December. So, we did point things out, and we're continuing to. The big problem with Madaya, al‑Foua, Kafraya, Zabadani and other various areas is the siege conditions imposed by the Government and different rebel groups. And we've made clear our criticisms of all parties who are essentially starving out populations, which is a major violation of international humanitarian law. For our part, we've raised noise when we can. You're aware from all of our monthly humanitarian briefings about the dire picture we've presented about humanitarian access. And the Secretary‑General and senior officials, including Stephen O'Brien and his predecessor, Valerie Amos, have continually raised this up to you and will continue to do so.
Question: Can I just follow up? But, the UN hasn't spoken about the starvation and people are dying there until that shocking images just published by media.
Deputy Spokesman: Well, in terms of the extent of starvation, we ourselves needed access to the town in order to be able to see how bad the situation is. But, we did point out the problems that, without access, we couldn't provide food and water and necessary facilities to tens of thousands of people, and we've raised that up. You've seen the record of what we say every month in the Security Council. You've seen the press releases we've put out, and I would just point you to those. We've made that very clear. Regarding the pictures we've seen, once we get access, we can say firsthand, as Yacoub el Hillo told you by the phone link that we set up, what he himself was able to see and hear as he was in the town. But, ultimately, what we're talking about is the extent of the calamity. We've raised up the idea that this is a major problem and that this is a major violation of international humanitarian law. What we've seen raises the stakes. What you're seeing ultimately is that the different parties to the conflict are starving people as part of the war and hundreds of people are… you know, have died in various… in each of the different towns. And as I just said right now about the situation in Deir ez‑Zor, we're worried again about another town where again we need access. And the world has to pay attention, and the world needs to make sure that the parties do not get away with this. Yes, Edie?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. I assume when you say that the parties should not get away with it, that's reiterating the Secretary‑General's call for possible war crimes charges. I was going to actually ask about Staffan de Mistura's briefing today. I know he's doing this by video conference, but is there any chance that journalists can get a crack at him in any way possible to try and get a readout on what his thinking is about this meeting on 25 January, and is the Secretary‑General still hoping that that meeting is going to go ahead at that time?
Deputy Spokesman: Yes. If he were here, we would certainly do our best to bring him to the stakeout, but he's not, so we can't. He's speaking to the Security Council from Geneva and sharing his estimations with them. At the same time, we do expect that the Secretary‑General and Staffan de Mistura will communicate with each other by telephone so that they can share their impressions of where we need to go. Right now, the objective is and remains to get the parties to talks in Geneva by the date of 25 January. At the same time, of course, there are concerns about the arrangements. He is, as we speak, in touch with the members of the Security Council. And so we will have to see whether the various parties, the members of the Security Council, whether we can all come to an agreement on the best way forward. If we need to alter our timetable one way or another, we'll let you know, but right now, our target remains as it was.
Question: Two follow‑ups. First, it certainly is not out of the question and it's been done before that Staffan de Mistura could do a video press briefing with us. And I'm sure that I speak on behalf of all of us that we would certainly like to have that, if possible. And secondly, on the possibility of changing the date, that… is that actually in the air? Or is…?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, like I said, right now, what we're focused on is getting the talks going at the time that we had previously announced, which is 25 January. As you can know from the current calendar, of course, that is a week from today. And so if there's any sort of way of slippage, we will let you know, as soon as we can, whether that needs to be altered. But, right now, our target remains as it has been. Yes, Abdelhamid?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. It seems that the statements only comes out from the Secretary‑General or his Special Representative and the occupied territories only… only, again, I say only, when Israelis are killed. He issued a statement on 3 January and 4 January, related to Israeli attacks and on 13 and 14 November only when Israeli were killed. However, I want you to know that last Thursday, four Palestinians were buried, and a few days later… few days before, also four Palestinian were killed. Every single day, there is a Palestinian killed. And they go unnoticed. And also, I want you to give me your… if the SG [Secretary-General] is aware of a journalist who's on hunger strike for 55 days and he's… his health now is deteriorating because he's detained without any trial. His name is Muhammed al‑Qeq. All humanitarian organization issued the statement expressing concern about his health except the 38th floor. Why is that?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, regarding the violence, first of all, we're concerned about all the violence and all of the victims…
Correspondent: That is not the case, Farhan.
Deputy Spokesman: Please, let me speak. I'm sorry. I let you speak. We're concerned about all the victims of violence whether Israeli or Palestinian. In this case, Mr. Mladenov made very clear that he wants to make sure that, regardless of what's happened right now with these attacks, that all sides avoid any further provocation, any further inflammatory actions that could lead to a worse spiral of violence, and we do want to avoid any further violence, but certainly, we are concerned, and certainly, as you know from the reports that go to the Security Council each month, we are aware of the death toll on each side, and we have made the Security Council aware of what the numbers stand on each side in terms of the daily cost on… of this conflict on both Israelis and Palestinians. We're concerned about the whole spiral of violence, the consequences it caused and the need for the parties to return to serious negotiations and break out of this ever‑worsening spiral. Regarding the journalist, as you know, we're concerned about any efforts, any crackdowns on people in the media, and we are concerned in this matter as well, particularly… and you're aware, of course, of our normal concerns about the practice of detention without charge, that we believe that anyone who is held in detention facilities needs to be charged or otherwise released. Yes?
Question: Sure. Thanks a lot. One, I support definitely the request for a briefing by… Q&A with Mr. de Mistura. But, I wanted to ask you about Burundi, two questions. One is, there are reports a person that was ultimately released by the authorities, Ajid Nkurimana, has said that, while in… in detention in Burundi, he was injected with what he called poisonous chemicals, reported by a group called SOS Torture. So, I'm wondering, is this something… is the UN aware of that? And relatedly or not, the Deputy Spokesman for the President, Gervais Abayeho, has said that there's been a request by Burundi to provide peacekeepers for South Sudan, which would seem to be a UN request. So, I want… either if you know about that or you can ask DPKO [Department of Peacekeeping Operations] whether, they have, in fact, given recent events, nonetheless, asked Burundi to contribute peacekeepers to UNMISS [United Nations Mission in South Sudan].
Deputy Spokesman: Well, I can't confirm that request. [He later said that no uniformed peacekeepers from Burundi are being sent to South Sudan.] Regarding your first question, I'm not aware of the specific case, but we'll check whether our human rights colleagues, who have been following up on the situation in Burundi, have any detail on that. Yes, Evelyn?
Question: Yes, thank you, Farhan. Could you repeat again how many supplies are going into Madaya in the last week and the other three towns? Also, do you have any details of how long it takes to get in? And I'm sorry I wasn't here most of last week, but have the 400 seriously ill people found any refuge in hospitals in Damascus?
Deputy Spokesman: Okay. Well, first of all, regarding the seriously ill people, discussions are underway between the different parties about evacuations or possible, potential evacuations to get people to hospitals, and we have received permission to evacuate one case from Madaya and three cases from Foah. So, that is where we stand on medical evacuations. Regarding the people helped, we've given the numbers bit by bit over the time, but basically, our aid convoys have brought assistance to more than 100,000 Syrians in Madaya, Biqin, Foah, Kafraya and al‑Waer. So those are the places where we've done… And regarding the question Edie had asked earlier about the Syria talks — this just in, as they say — at this stage, the UN will proceed with issuing invitations when the countries spearheading the International Syria Support Group process come to an understanding on who among the opposition should be invited. The Secretary‑General urges those countries to redouble efforts to reach that agreement. The UN is ready to fulfil its tasks in convening the parties and continues planning for negotiations. Yes, Joe?
Question: On Syria, I guess a couple of questions. First of all, what is holding up the designation of the opposition representatives? I thought that that had already moved along, spearheaded was, I guess, in Saudi Arabia. Where is the effort to designate commonly agreed terrorist organizations that Jordan was working on and responsible for compiling? And thirdly, as I recall, the ceasefire, the nationwide cease… national ceasefire, was supposed to have been negotiated maybe in parallel with the political dialogue. I'm wondering, you know, has that been put on hold, pending finalizing the date for this next meeting? Is the agreement relating to the four towns and opening up access, is that being used as a stepping stone to a broader ceasefire agreement? Where does that stand?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, first of all, on the question on the ceasefire, we hope and expect that a ceasefire will be in place once you have the intra‑Syrian talks to begin. But, regarding what your question was, like I just said, in terms of what I just read out to you, at this stage, the UN will proceed with issuing invitations when the countries spearheading the International Syria Support Group process come to an understanding on who among the opposition should be invited. And for the Secretary‑General's part, he urges those countries to redouble efforts to reach that agreement.
Question: That begs the question, I'm trying to drill a little deeper to find out what is holding up this process. We… we… you know, it's been a month since the Security Council resolution. We heard some very optimistic discussion in this room. It sounded like progress had been made toward reaching a result on the opposition. So, if a month later, you can't even get basic closure, how… how in… can we expect that this meeting next Monday is going to go forward? Also didn't address the issue of the terrorist designation.
Deputy Spokesman: Yes, and I'm not going to get into those extremely sensitive issues that are being discussed among the various parties. You're aware, or I assume you're aware, of the differences that exist between different countries on these issues. But, where we stand is as I've just put it. Yes, Carla?
Question: If the meeting is held on 25 January, is it expected that Iran and Saudi Arabia will be present, and will it… for example, would John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov be there, as well?
Deputy Spokesman: I have nothing to say about the list of invitees just yet. The invitations would have to go out, and then it will become more clear who's going and who isn't. Yes, and then you.
Question: Ask you, Anders Kompass, the whistleblower in the CAR [Central African Republic] rape inquiry, has said that he received a letter from OIOS [Office of Internal Oversight Services] saying that he's been exonerated and cleared. And he also said… this is what I wanted to ask you about… is… you know, that he doesn't understand… he said he's saddened, and it's a mystery why most of the UN leadership decided to do this to me when they know very well how badly the UN was handling these type of cases. So, this seems to be… what do you… one, would you confirm the OIOS sent such a letter? And, two, although he doesn't name names, he in the… in this process has named fairly high names. What's your response to what he's saying?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, regarding his case, yes, I can confirm that the Office of Internal Oversight Services has written to him, and they've confirmed that the cases against him are now closed. And so that is where we stand on all the various cases concerning Mr. Kompass. Regarding how we deal with these matters, as you're aware, the Secretary‑General appointed a panel headed by Judge Marie Deschamps to deal exactly with that very question. And she came out with a report, of which you are all, I think, fully informed. You've heard what she had to say. You've seen the report, which we have made available in its entirety, and it is now being studied for follow‑up action. So, we continue to see what we can learn from this and how we can do better.
Question: But, has anything been… I guess… one of the things that he talks about in his interview is to say that… that he wants to make sure that other UN staff are not dissuaded from blowing the whistle. Although he's now been cleared, it obviously was quite a process. There was an attempt to remove him from his job, which he was only restored by the internal justice system. Are there any steps taken to actually encourage, rather than discourage, UN staff to come forward when they're aware of the rape of children?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, certainly, the Secretary‑General believes that all staff should be encouraged to come forward. This is the purpose of all of our various newer initiatives, including, for example, the Human Rights Up Front initiative. But, beyond that, you, yourself, just pointed out that he was cleared by the internal justice system. And that is a sign that we hope staff take to heart, that the internal justice system does, in fact, work. And although it is… can be a tedious process and, for the people participating in it, it can be frustrating, we have tried to make sure that the internal justice system is strengthened enough that it will come to the right conclusions as you go through the process. Yes?
Question: On Yemen, is there any update on the situation in the city of Taizz? The city's still under siege by Houthis and their allies?
Deputy Spokesman: The situation in Taizz continues to be one of concern. We, as you know, have been trying to get aid and access, and you've seen our regular reporting on this. Beyond that, of course, as you're aware, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed himself was in Yemen in recent days, and he tried to get some progress on the humanitarian situation, as you're aware. During his efforts, he was able also to secure the release of two Saudi nationals as well as… and he also played an instrumental role in the release of Yemen's minister of technical and vocational education and four other Yemeni political activists. So, he has made some progress on that, and he is currently in Riyadh for further discussions. And now if I can let all of you know, consultations have adjourned in the Security Council. Ambassador [Elbio] Rosselli of Uruguay will be at the stakeout shortly. Yes?
Question: The question I asked before, how many days in the last week have supplies been going to Madaya? And do you have any details of how long it takes to get in… how long it takes the convoys to get in?
Deputy Spokesman: It… as Yacoub el Hillo told you, a travel that could be done within a few hours sometimes has taken ten hours or more because of the various checkpoints.
Question: I wondered if that…?
Deputy Spokesman: And that… so that was what he said after the first convoy went in. A second convoy went in a few days later, and so aid has gone in towards the latter part of last week. And now the third convoy is on its way. So hopefully, we'll be able to get more and more aid over there. Yes?
Question: And the other towns?
Deputy Spokesman: The situation is the same in various different towns. Right now, like I said, our main concern is in the town of Deir ez‑Zor, but we continue to have our concerns about all of the various besieged towns. Yes?
Question: Yes. The number of Palestinians killed during the latest wave of violence, let's call it, about 152, 153… I'm not sure exactly… and about 23, 24 Israelis, which is, I mean, almost 1 to 8. And 28 persons of all Palestinian killed were young people under the age of 18, which is considered officially children. Now, the number of statement issued is about, if I'm not mistaken, six statements, none of them related to the Palestinian. I am asking about why when Palestinian's children, civilian under occupation are killed, there is no statement and only when Israelis is killed, there is a statement? This is my question. I need a straightforward answer.
Deputy Spokesman: If you're looking at the statements from Mr. Mladenov, which is what we're talking about here today, he has issued statements when different Palestinians were killed, and you can just look at the record of the statements he has issued over the months, including, for example, the Dawabsha family, which included, of course, a child who is… a very young child who was killed. Beyond that, there are… this isn't something that is simply about statements, but also about things such as the briefings to the Security Council. And we have made clear our concerns there, and we have put out the various numbers of the deaths. But, at the end of the day, this is not a numbers game. No one is in a competition for who is suffering more. The numbers are, at this stage, already too many. And the worrying sign is, as it worsens, more and more people will live in fear; hatred will deepen; enmity will deepen. And ultimately, you will get into a dynamic where the spiral to violence will get worse and worse. What we are trying to do is to prevent all of that. And we're trying to make it clear that neither side should believe that their cause is in the right. Neither side should believe that only the violence against them matters. Ultimately all the violence has to stop, and the parties have to return to negotiations. That's where we stand.
Deputy Spokesman: But, these are not equal parties, Farhan. There is an occupying forces and occupied people. That is the equation. Unless we look at it this way, we'll continue to do the same.
Question: Yes, Abdelhamid, you've expressed your point, and I believe I've also expressed mine. Yes?
Question: Sure, thanks a lot. I wanted to al… on Yemen ask you, there's been this pretty extensively reported airstrike by the coalition in Sana’a on a police station that's apparently killed 25 people. And also IRIN, previously a UN affiliate, has said that one of its journalists was killed in an airstrike. And I wanted to know, does the UN… can they confirm particularly the death of the journalist and do they have any comment on it?
Deputy Spokesman: We don't have the confirmation that we can provide, but certainly we would be concerned about the killing of any journalist. We're aware of the media reports in this case.
Question: And can I ask you…?
Deputy Spokesman: Hold on. Yeah, Zack?
Question: Yes, Farhan. Thanks a lot. Back to Syria, has the US. has the UN responded in any kind of formal way to the charges in the Foreign Policy article, which stems from the letter from the humanitarian workers, saying that the UN was seeking authorization or permission that it doesn't even need for Madaya?
Deputy Spokesman: I wouldn't say that we've responded specifically to the article. We have responded to the concerns, and there was a letter that's gone out from Stephen O'Brien, the Under‑Secretary‑General for Humanitarian Affairs, to members of Syrian civil society, responding to a letter that they had sent about their criticisms. And if I may, I just wanted to read out a small bit of that letter, because he makes very clear his concerns about any misunderstandings about where we stand here, where he makes it very clear, as he puts it, "The United Nations, including myself, have repeatedly and unequivocally called for an end to siege as a weapon of war against civilians and for full, unhindered, unconditional and sustained access to all people in need in besieged and hard‑to‑reach areas in Syria. We have also demanded that civilians be protected from violence and abuse, including targeted and indiscriminate attacks, and for respect for their freedom of movement." And beyond that, he says: "I can assure you that the UN is neither too close to any party nor acting in such a way to encourage the use of siege tactics. It is our duty to act impartially, neutrally and independently, and to have contact with all parties to negotiate unimpeded and safe access to those who are vulnerable and in need, regardless of how or why their need arises." Yeah?
Question: And that letter's available somewhere?
Deputy Spokesman: Yes. I believe that's available through our humanitarian colleagues, and I can help provide that to you, as well.
Question: Sure. Thanks, Farhan. Yesterday… on Friday I'd asked Stéphane [Dujarric] about this protest outside by Oromo people. And he'd said… he had something, I guess, he read, saying the UN hopes for dialogue. But, in hearing more about it, it seems… there were 140 people killed, according to Human Rights Watch, and there are many people still detained from those protests, and there's been an attempt to close down communications from some of the areas that were subject to the protests. Since the UN has this office in Addis, is there anything… do you have anything beyond asking for dialogue, is there any request that those detained be released, that there be an investigation of the deaths or a stopping of what people call censorship there?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, what I have to say is simply that the Secretary‑General calls on the Government of Ethiopia and protesters to engage in a constructive dialogue to address the issues at hand, and the Secretary‑General continues to stress the importance of respect for peaceful protest and freedom of assembly. Have a good afternoon, everyone.