The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
Thank you for your patience and we will start our slightly delayed briefing right now.
The Secretary-General is on his way back to New York from London, where earlier today he spoke to the United Nations Association of the United Kingdom in Central Hall Westminster — the same place where, 70 years ago today, Trygve Lie was elected the first UN Secretary-General.
In his remarks, the Secretary-General honoured the UK’s leadership in humanitarian and development aid. And he raised attention to the plight of migrants and refugees worldwide, saying that people who cross the waters in search of better lives are symptoms of wider problems and are not themselves a cause for suspicion. He affirmed that the world faces great challenges, but our capacity to solve them is even greater if we work and build together.
The Secretary-General also took questions from the audience, and was asked about LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transsexual) rights. He responded that, when he first became Secretary-General he had reached out to the LGBT staff at the UN and has always supported their rights.
And I have a trip to announce. The Secretary-General will travel to Canada next week.
In Ottawa, on Thursday, 11 February, the Secretary-General will meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of his cabinet. Along with the Prime Minister, he will then attend a youth event at a high school.
The Secretary-General will also meet Syrian refugees who have recently arrived in Canada. And he will also meet the Governor-General of Canada, David Johnston.
The Secretary-General will then go to Montreal on Friday, 12 February, where he will be welcomed by the Mayor, Denis Coderre, and will meet the Prime Minister of the province of Quebec, Philippe Couillard.
He will also give a lecture to students at McGill University, visit the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization and visit the International Civil Aviation Organization, which is based in the city.
The Secretary-General will be back in New York on 13 February.
The Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, met in Geneva today with members of the newly established Syrian Women’s Advisory Board. The Special Envoy has always stressed the importance of engaging with Syrian women and civil society organizations. Several civil society groups will be invited to Geneva on a rotational basis in order to give the opportunity to as many organizations as possible to share their views with Mr. de Mistura’s office.
The Special Envoy also met Qadri Jamil and a delegation of political figures who had participated in meetings in Moscow and Cairo.
And, as you know, Mr. de Mistura just briefed the Security Council in closed session by videoconference from Geneva, at the request of the President of the Council. John Ging also spoke to the Council.
The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that an inter-agency convoy to the Al Waer neighbourhood of Homs City in Syria delivered assistance for some 40,000 people yesterday. The convoy included food, health, education, basic household items, nutrition and water and sanitation supplies. Syrian authorities removed several medical and midwifery kits from the convoy.
Meanwhile, military operations around Aleppo have reportedly triggered the displacement of thousands of people, mainly from the Tel Rifaat, Hariyatan and Azaz sub-districts. It is estimated that up to 20,000 people have gathered at the Bab al Salam border crossing and another 5,000 to 10,000 people have been displaced to Azaz city. A further 10,000 people are estimated to have been displaced to Afrin following heavy fighting. There is currently one internally displaced persons’ camp in Afrin district and plans are under way to expand the camp.
The fighting has also disrupted major aid and supply routes from the Turkish border. Humanitarian organizations are responding to the needs of those displaced, but ongoing conflict is making access to populations in need increasingly difficult.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) today expressed concern over the reportedly dire living circumstances in France of some 4,000 refugees and migrants in what it calls the Calais “jungle” and nearly 2,500 others on the edges of Dunkerque.
The Agency said it is particularly concerned by the living conditions of children, many traveling by themselves, and that it would welcome the establishment of additional emergency reception places.
It welcomed the steps — including setting up temporary centres — taken by French authorities to provide emergency help to refugees and migrants in Calais and by Dunkerque.
UNHCR said that these people would benefit from more legal advice, as currently they receive mixed and sometimes inaccurate information from a variety of different sources. You can read more about this on the Refugee Agency’s website.
The UN Mission in Mali, MINUSMA, reports that this morning, at 6:30 a.m., a former UN Police camp in Timbuktu was attacked by unknown assailants.
A vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) was detonated at the entrance of the camp which was followed by exchange of fire.
The Malian Armed Forces have recaptured the camp. The Mission flew two attack helicopters and drones over the site. During the attack, one member of the UN Police was slightly wounded.
On South Sudan, the Humanitarian Coordinator there, Eugene Owusu, voiced his concern over the recent passing of the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Bill by the country’s legislature, which limits the number of foreign aid workers eligible to work in the country. The Bill is pending presidential approval.
He said he was deeply concerned that the adoption of this Bill would have wide-ranging and negative ramifications for the humanitarian operation at a time when needs are higher than ever.
He urged the Government to uphold both the letter and spirit of the peace agreement on this critical issue.
Aid agencies in South Sudan recently appealed for $1.3 billion to provide vital assistance to 5.1 million people throughout 2016. The statement should be available online soon.
The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, will begin a four-day official visit tomorrow to Sri Lanka at the invitation of the Government.
During his visit, the High Commissioner will discuss a range of current challenges and opportunities for strengthening the rule of law and protection of human rights in Sri Lanka, including reviewing the implementation of the recommendations made in his report to the Human Rights Council, and in its subsequent Resolution 30/1 on “promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka”.
The High Commissioner will meet with President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, as well as other high-level Government officials.
And also on the Human Rights High Commissioner — High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said today that upholding women’s human rights is essential if the response to the Zika health emergency is to be effective.
He added that laws and policies that restrict access to sexual and reproductive health services in contravention of international standards must be repealed and concrete steps must be taken so that women have the information, support and services they require to exercise their rights to determine whether and when they become pregnant.
Acknowledging that Zika is a major challenge to the Governments in Latin America, High Commissioner Zeid said the advice of some Governments to women to delay getting pregnant ignores the reality that many women and girls simply cannot exercise control over whether or when or under what circumstances they become pregnant, especially in an environment where sexual violence is so common.
Also, the head of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Babatunde Osotimehin, said that the agency is closely monitoring the Zika outbreak and warning about its potentially adverse effects on the health of women and babies, particularly in Latin America. UNFPA will continue to lead efforts to promote widespread information about the virus and about voluntary family planning. And more information is available online.
**Female Genital Mutilation
Tomorrow will mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The heads of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have issued a joint statement today calling on the global community to do more to protect the well-being and dignity of every girl, and to end the practice of female genital mutilation.
Babatunde Osotimehin and Anthony Lake stressed that there simply is no place for FGM in the future we are striving to create — a future where every girl will grow up able to experience her inherent dignity, human rights and equality by 2030.
According to UNICEF’s new statistical report, at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in 30 countries.
The report adds that half of the girls and women, who have been cut, live in three countries — Egypt, Ethiopia and Indonesia. Moreover, girls aged 14 and younger represent 44 million of those who have been cut. In most of the countries the majority of girls were cut before reaching their fifth birthdays. More information is available online.
And while we are on the subject — on Monday at 10 a.m., there will be a press conference here on marking the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
And also for press encounters, this afternoon at 1:30 p.m., here in this room, there will be a background briefing on the Secretary-General’s World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) report, called “One Humanity — Shared Responsibility”. We have embargoed copies of the report available in our office, if you’re interested.
At last for the honour roll, Bulgaria has become the 27th Member State to pay its regular budget dues in full for this year. So our thanks go to Sofia.
**Questions and Answers
That’s it. Yes?
Question: It’s a question about Zika. The Commissioner for Human Rights says it doesn’t make sense to tell a woman to delay pregnancy in countries that don’t have access to contraception and abortion. Is this a position that the Secretary‑General shares, as well?
Deputy Spokesman: The Secretary‑General certainly supports the positions expressed both by the High Commissioner for Human Rights and by the Executive Director of the UN Population Fund. For these policies to be meaningful, women must have a meaningful way of controlling their own decisions on whether and when and how to be pregnant. The UN Population Fund has made clear that it’s going to try to provide the advice and information to mothers and mothers‑to‑be so that they can make informed decisions. But, ultimately, we need to make sure that women have sufficient control over their lives and their own decision‑making. Yes?
Question: Thanks, Farhan. A question on Syria: After the SG met with Staffan de Mistura yesterday in London, how would he characterize the reason for the talks being suspended? Does he share the remarks made by others that the Russian bombing campaign in support of the Syrian Government offensive is under… undermining the talks and that led to the suspension?
Deputy Spokesman: It’s not really a question of other people’s remarks. The Secretary‑General made his own remarks about what the situation has been. And one of the things he made clear is that what is needed is, first of all, that the coming days should be used to get back to the table, not to secure more gains on the battlefield. And he also said that the international community should strive to achieve tangible progress on the ground by the time the talks resume. So that is where his focus is. Yes, Abdelhamid?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. Did the Secretary-General receive any negative feedback from his article published on Monday in The New York Times?
Deputy Spokesman: Yes, some, I imagine.
Question: Can you share it with us?
Deputy Spokesman: It is not for me to say. If you look at newspapers as much as we do, you will be able to see things for yourself. He has seen the entire range of feedback. Yes?
Question: Sure, I wanted to ask you. Yesterday, you were asked about and made some responses on this DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) Group of Experts report. I wanted to ask you something in it, but also about what it’s in, as what the UN response is. It describes the Tanzanian battalion of the Force Intervention Brigade as being quite possibly providing supplies to and working with the ADF armed group. But then at the bottom it says, although the group is not in a position to explain why Tanzbatt would meet with ADF (Alliance of Democratic Forces), it can conclude that the Tanzanian peacekeepers who were present during the attack provided untruthful testimonies to both the group and to MONUSCO (United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo). So what I’m wondering is, what happens when a group such as the UN Group of Experts finds that a peacekeeping contingent or its members lied, dissembled, to both the mission and to sanctions a Group of Experts?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, regarding that, we are aware of the new elements presented by the Group of Experts in its January 2016 progress update. The UN Mission in the Congo, MONUSCO, has conducted an investigation at the time of the incident, which had led to a different conclusion. UN peacekeeping is now in contact with the Group of Experts concerning the circumstances surrounding this tragic incident.
Question: I have a related question, and it has to do with Tanzania…
Deputy Spokesman: Well, hold… all right. You do that and then Oleg. Yes?
Question: Okay. My question is this, is that in its report… and you probably have seen this in reading the newspapers or seeing reports that… that Burundian refugees in Tanzania, in camps, were apparently told by UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) that they’re not allowed to talk to the press. And so this gave rise to a report on Al Jazeera that, in fact, Burundian Government militias were sent into the camps to lure people that would want to oppose Pierre Nkurunziza out and in some cases kill them. My question is, as a UN matter, is it the case that UNHCR, any UN body, prohibits those that it’s ostensibly protecting from speaking to the media about what’s happening to them?
Deputy Spokesman: No, we allow for freedom of expression and freedom of the media and its activities in all activities and all places, including in refugee centres. So the UNHCR…
Question: So Al Jazeera is wrong.
Deputy Spokesman: UNHCR, as policy, does not seek to constrain the freedoms of those whom it is protecting.
Question: They show the Al Jazeera journalists having to call them after they left the camp because they weren’t allowed to speak to them in the camp. So is this staged or some misunderstanding?
Deputy Spokesman: I’m not aware of the circumstances of that particular incident, but you’d have to check with UNHCR on that. Yes, Oleg?
Question: Thank you. Farhan, yesterday, while commenting on the decisions on the opinions of this Group on… of Experts on the Arbitrary Detention, you said that they are not legally binding. At the same time, the experts themselves today were quoted as saying that their opinion and conclusions are actually legally binding. So where is the truth in between? And actually, if it’s not legally binding, then what’s the point of it?
Deputy Spokesman: No, it’s… their decisions are based on international law and, specifically, on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. So Member States are enjoined to respect the rulings of the various special procedures that work with the Human Rights Council, including the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. So, from our standpoint, those are authoritative rulings, and we encourage Member States to respect them. At the same level, however, it’s different from being legally binding. Yes. Yes. You have something more then?
Question: A direct question. Does Ban Ki‑moon stand behind the conclusions of this group?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, they’re independent experts. We don’t have to speak to the conclusions of that group. For the Secretary‑General’s views, I would refer you to the comments he made in, I think, 2010 when this first happened. Yes?
Question: Yeah. Has the Secretary‑General or Mr. de Mistura tried in recent days to reach out directly to either Syrian President [Bashar al] Assad and/or Vladimir Putin or do they have… does he have plans or Mr. de Mistura have plans to do so in the next coming days? And if the answer is no, then I would have to ask you, why not?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, Staffan de Mistura is meeting with the delegations from the various sides. And, as you know, he met with the delegation from the Government, which is to say President Assad’s delegation, over the past days. That is the level at which he’s been conducting the process in the last days. If and when we have any plans by him to visit Damascus, we’ll let you know, but right now, that is the level where he’s conducting it.
Question: Well, I’m not necessarily talking about a visit to Damascus. The talks have at least temporarily broken down. There’s a difference of opinion, as we heard at the stakeouts, in terms of what would be required to have the talks be renewed as of 25 February. Wouldn’t this be a time for the Secretary‑General to directly step in, if possible, make phone calls, as he’s done to other leaders, to both President Assad and Vladimir Putin?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, it’s not a question of particular people, but the Secretary‑General has been in touch with a number of leaders. As you know, he was at the Syria donors’ conference just yesterday in London, where he met with a range of officials. We put out readouts of some of those very meetings. And he will continue to be discussing the intra‑Syrian talks and the overall process for Syria with a number of leaders in the days ahead, as well. Yes?
Deputy Spokesman: No, no, it’s Olga. It’s not you.
Question: Thank you, Matthew. Thank you, Farhan. Farhan, when the Syrian talks were postponed, de Mistura said that the meeting of International Syrian Support Group is needed and also the meeting of the Security Council is needed. So the meeting of Security Council just adjourned. What exactly Special Envoy needed to hear from Security Council members, or why he needed this meeting?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, he… Staffan de Mistura, in the last days, as he announced the recess in the latest round, made very clear that he believes that the participants in the International Syria Support Group need to use their own influence on the various parties to make sure that we can get real meaningful progress from them on key issues. Ultimately, what he is wanting to do is to have talks that will focus on substantively improving the situation on the ground for the people of Syria. He does not want to hold talks for the sake of holding talks. And so that is where the onus on the International Syria Support Group lies at this stage. Yes?
Question: Sure. You… you often read out the honour roll. I guess I want to ask you about a… either a dishonour roll or just factual question. It’s widely reported that, while others got exemptions, Libya has lost its vote in the GA (General Assembly). And given that… given what an oil‑rich country it is and given that the UN has a Mission there, one, can you confirm that that’s taken place? And, two, I wanted to ask you, has the Secretariat received any correspondence concerning the… the, I guess, credentials of Ambassador [Ibrahim] Dabashi?
Deputy Spokesman: I don’t have anything to report on Ambassador Dabashi. Regarding Libya, we had provided and you’ll have seen the list of countries that fall under Article 19 for losing their vote. I believe, in recent days, several of them have paid sufficient dues so that they are no longer on that list. But you might need to check with our colleague Dan [Thomas] in the Office of the General Assembly Spokesperson whether Libya is in that category or not. Yes?
Question: Farhan, a question on Syria. On the ceasefire, the first impression was that it should come into force after the sides start negotiating and the first steps in the political process will be taken. Now there is opinion that it should begin immediately as a precondition for the talks. So what do you think about that?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, the important thing is the views of the Special Envoy, Staffan de Mistura, who has made it clear that, while the talks should be held without preconditions, at the same time, his expectation, in order for the talks to be successful, was that once parties begin to talk to each other that there would be a halt to fighting on the ground. He made that clear again in his remarks to the press this week. And I’d just refer you back to what he said as he announced this current recess. Yes, Carla?
Question: Is the date for the International Syria Support Group still 11 February?
Deputy Spokesman: This is what we have heard from the various parties of the International Syria Support Group. Of course, it’s their role to confirm when it will be held. But they’ve been discussing the possibility of talks in Munich on 11 February. And if the Syria support group can meet at that time, that could be a big help in moving the process along. Yes?
Question: Do you have any update on aid delivered to those sieged towns? The ones that were really under siege…
Deputy Spokesman: Well, I… Certainly, we’ve been trying to provide aid to a number of these towns in recent days.
Question: Because each aid agency says something else.
Deputy Spokesman: Yeah. What I’ve said is… just now is that an interagency convoy went to the Al Waer neighbourhood of Homs City to deliver assistance for some 40,000 people yesterday. So that is the latest big movement. There have also been activities in recent days by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and International Committee of the Red Cross. So we are trying to do that. At the same time, of course, we do have concerns about the various besieged towns, including Madaya, Zabadani, Fouah and Kafraya, and we’re continuing to work with the Government to get access again so that we can have the necessary deliveries. Yeah?
Question: Sure. I wanted to ask you. I’m sure you have seen this, that former Dominican Republic Deputy Permanent Representative Francis Lorenzo, who has been indicted as part of the John Ashe/Ng Lap Seng scandal, has found to not have immunity in a judge’s ruling yesterday. So, one, I wanted to ask you if you have any comment, but I’m going to renew despite… renew the request I’ve made to you throughout this week which, if not to provide the information of whom this room has been lent to, to ask you maybe to look into it and provide it by this afternoon whether this room, as Mr. [Stéphane] Dujarric said, he controls it and lends it out, was ever lent to Mr. … Mr. Lorenzo, who is indicted for receiving money from Ng Lap Seng and has now been found not to be immune.
Deputy Spokesman: As we’ve said before, the… our positions on this are not different from what I’ve said over the last few days. Regarding Francis Lorenzo, if he ever was in this room, it would be in… at a briefing in his capacity with the Permanent Mission of the Dominican Republic. And you could ask them whether they scheduled any briefings with him.
Question: He had other capacities, as explained in the indictment. He was wearing a number of hats. And I just want to understand your position better. If you won’t provide to the press information about how your office has lent this room out, who would you provide it to? The Fifth Committee? I’m just wondering in the spirit of this information being available what the answer is to that.
Deputy Spokesman: This room is under the aegis of the Office of the Spokesperson. We use it for briefings. There are very rare occasions in which it’s used for other non‑press briefing usages, and we do that on a case‑by‑case basis. We have that information at our disposal and can share it with our colleagues in the Department of Public Information. It’s not a room that is used for any official functions and… aside from the press briefings. Regarding Mr. Lorenzo, we’re aware of the process and have no particular comment on the judicial process in the United States as it proceeds. Oleg?
Question: Farhan, the Ukrainian Ambassador yesterday at the briefing announced that the joint group, the UN… group of the UN agencies that went to Ukraine and were there for a while, they will come back, I think, at the end of this week. Is there any opportunity for a press availability with them or something like that?
Deputy Spokesman: I’m not aware, but we can check.
Have a good weekend, everyone.