The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
Good afternoon everyone. First of all, I’d like to welcome the Humphrey-Fulbright fellows from the University of Maryland, I hope this briefing is interesting to you.
**Press Encounters Today
And we will shortly be having with us our guest for today’s noon briefing, Nickolay Mladenov, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. He will talk to you ahead of his briefing to the Security Council on the Middle East, which will be in closed consultations.
And then immediately after, at around 1:15 p.m., Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, UN Special Envoy for Yemen, will be here to brief you on the situation in Yemen.
First off: an update on Western Sahara.
We have sent a note verbale to Morocco’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, in reply to the note verbale sent by the Government of Morocco on 16 March.
The note makes clear that we are deeply concerned that the recent actions taken by the Government of Morocco are contrary to Morocco’s legal obligations as agreed under the Status of Mission Agreement for the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). That agreement includes a legal obligation for Morocco to ensure that the members of MINURSO “shall whenever so required by the SRSG have the right to enter into, reside in and depart from the Mission area.”
The Executive Office of the Secretary-General strongly requests the Government of Morocco to comply immediately with its international legal obligations under the UN Charter, the General Convention and the MINURSO Status of Mission Agreement and to work together in a spirit of cooperation.
The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Maman Sidikou, told the Security Council this morning that the country was at a critical juncture with elections expected at the end of the year.
He said the electoral process was at an impasse and that a credible and meaningful political dialogue was needed to overcome it. In particular, he pointed to the need to identify clear and realistic conditions under which the UN could support a revision of the voters’ registry, which he said can help enhance the credibility of the process and prevent this from becoming another obstacle to timely elections.
Mr. Sidikou also said he was optimistic regarding the spirit of enhanced cooperation with the Government and noted that early progress could be made on the priority armed groups through improved cooperation between the UN Mission in the country, MONUSCO, the Government and the Congolese army, and with the support of other partners.
Concerning the UN Mission, he asked Council members for their support for the Secretary-General’s recommendation to reduce an additional 1,700 military personnel. He said that, according to assessments, a further reduction of MONUSCO military personnel can be envisaged without compromising the Mission’s ability to implement its mandate to protect civilians, including through the neutralization of armed groups.
His full remarks are available in our office. And Mr. Sidikou is expected to talk to you at the stakeout following consultations.
Earlier this week, the UN refugee agency, (UNHCR), sent thirteen trucks carrying blankets, mattresses, and other badly needed emergency relief items to Yemen’s Taizz governorate in the highlands of the country’s south-west. This was a breakthrough, since it was the first time a UNHCR convoy made it through all the way from Aden to Taizz.
Distribution is starting this week for 500 displaced people, others who have returned to Taizz, plus local families who have been affected by the conflict.
For months, UNHCR has been advocating for regular and sustained humanitarian access to Taizz city and governorate. Now, with key roads into Taizz reopened since 11 March after nine months of blocked access, UNHCR is taking advantage of the opportunity to get help to people who desperately need it. This includes aid, vital protection and shelter help.
And, as I mentioned, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the Special Envoy for Yemen, will talk to you at 1:15 pm in this room.
Nearly $19 million has been allocated to humanitarian partners today through the Syria Humanitarian Pooled Fund. This allocation of funds will finance water, sanitation and hygiene, nutrition, health, food security and agriculture, education and other projects to help almost 1.4 million people.
This is the first allocation of funds this year and it is also the biggest one to date. Our strategy was to prioritize projects that are implemented directly and in hard-to-reach and besieged areas.
In 2016, 13.5 million people require humanitarian assistance, including 4.6 million people in hard-to-reach areas — half a million of whom live in besieged communities where needs are most dire.
The Director of the World Health Organization, Dr. Margaret Chan, briefed the media yesterday in Geneva on the Zika situation. She said that in less than a year, the status of Zika has changed from a mild medical curiosity to a disease with severe public health implications.
To date, 12 countries and territories have reported an increased incidence of Guillain-Barré syndrome, and the virus is currently circulating in 38 countries and territories. On present knowledge, no one can predict whether the virus will spread to other parts of the world and cause a similar pattern of foetal malformations and neurological disorders, she said.
Dr. Chan updated the press on developments in science and the Zika evidence base that have built up since 1 February. As experts convened by WHO concluded, a shift in thinking is needed, away from the management of individual cases and towards the longer-term building of capacities. Her statement is available online.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is concerned over cutbacks in health-related investments in some countries despite growing evidence that demand for health workers will only increase in the future.
It says that in many countries, the health sector has created jobs at a faster rate than other sectors over the past 10 years, particularly for women. According to WHO, about half of the new private sector jobs created in the United States between 2001 and 2012 were in the health sector. In the European Union, the health and social sectors employ 20 million people, or about 10 per cent of total employment.
In January 2016 WHO’s Executive Board reviewed “Global Strategy on Human Resources for Health: Workforce 2030”, which will be considered by the World Health Assembly in May. The strategy aims to accelerate progress towards universal health coverage and the Sustainable Development Goals by giving countries policy options to ensure that all people can access health workers where and when they need them.
More on the WHO website.
**Questions and Answers
Deputy Spokesman: And before we get to Nickolay Mladenov, are there any questions for me? Yeah, Joe.
Question: Can you confirm whether there are any back‑channel discussions led by several Member States to try to bridge the gap between the UN Secretariat and Morocco?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, more or less, by definition, if there were back‑channel discussions, I would not be aware of them, so…
Deputy Spokesman: …so I could not actually [inaudible]
Question: Well, I think that's a little… you know… Nice answer, but it doesn't really address the question. I think, to the extent that the Secretariat is involved to some extent or is encouraging Member States to be intermediaries, I would think that the Secretariat office would at least know about them. Not asking you for the content. But I… I understand there are… from other sources, there are such discussions going on. I'd like you to confirm as to whether the Secretariat is truly at least aware or participating in those efforts.
Deputy Spokesman: I think what we can say is that we have been encouraging concerned Member States to be involved and to help resolve the situation so that, ultimately, our peacekeeping mission, MINURSO, can go about its work in the way that it's supposed to. We've made that clear repeatedly, and I just read from the note verbale that the Executive Office of the Secretary‑General has sent to the government of Morocco on this. And certainly, we would appreciate any help, but as for which countries are being involved, you'd have to…
Question: No, I'm not asking you which countries. You said you've asked. I want to know whether at least, in fact, that request has been honoured and to confirm that such discussions are going on in response to the UN Secretariat's request.
Deputy Spokesman: I believe different concerned countries are trying to help as best they can. And we'll see how that's resolved. Yes. Yes, Anna.
Question: Thank you, Farhan. I wanted to ask actually couple of questions on the refugee situation, the same topic, in Greece. We know that over 50,000 people are there without any status or anything. And, according to EU‑Turkey deal, they are going to be blanketly deported to Turkey, and nobody knows what's going to happen to them afterwards. Since we've seen from experience that nobody was given official permit to work in Turkey and these people usually are being deported to their original countries like Syria and Afghanistan, which basically is a death sentence for them. So I just wanted to know, what is Ban Ki‑moon's official opinion on EU‑Turkey deal, how he evaluates that, what kind of stance does UN take about it? And the second question is, do you have an official statement from Filippo Grandi about this issue since he's been dealing with this?
Deputy Spokesman: There was, in fact, a statement that was issued by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' office at the press briefing in Geneva yesterday, so I would refer you to that, where they made clear their concerns. Regarding our own concerns from the Secretary‑General's side, one of the keys to the agreement will be how it's implemented — which needs to be in line with the safeguards set out in the agreement. Some of these safeguards have not been in place right now, and we've pointed to the need to strengthen Greece's reception system and its asylum system. One of the things we've tried to highlight is that people who are determined to be needing international protection must be granted asylum in line with international law and European law without discrimination and in accordance with the international standards and that the response must be about addressing the compelling needs of individuals fleeing war and persecution, as you've pointed out. We believe, ultimately, the bottom line is that refugees have the right to protection rather than rejection.
Question: Just a little follow‑up. We know that Doctors Without Borders agency suspended its activities there as… as a boycott. And UN refugee agency followed up sort of on that… followed after that. Okay. Doctors Without Borders, they can do whatever they deem correct or whatever. But don't you think that UN's inactivity on this very important issue is dooming these people, like 50,000 people who are currently in Greece?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, we've made our concerns clear. And specifically with regard to the High Commissioner for Refugees and UNICEF, both of those agencies have made clear what their concerns are and what activities they will and will not participate in as a result of this.
Question: Till when the suspension will last?
Deputy Spokesman: Ultimately, they want to have particular concerns addressed, and I'd refer you to the UNHCR for further follow‑up as this proceeds. Yes, please.
Question: Thank you. Thank you, Farhan. This is a clarification on yesterday. You said that that Morocco asked the MINURSO to close its liaison office in Dakhla. But according to the Moroccan Government, the liaison officers were asked to redeploy to Asward, a site within the mission area, actually. So, basically, the UN staff has not been instructed to leave the mission area and can still liaise with the army.
Deputy Spokesman: What I made clear — yes, the three military observers who were based in Dakhla were relocated to the Asward team site, and that is on the western part of the territory, which is controlled by Morocco. However, at the same time, the relocation does make the direct dialogue with the Royal Moroccan Army, especially on ad hoc issues, more difficult.
Question: But Asward is still… there are UN offices there. So why…
Deputy Spokesman: Yeah, there's a UN team site. I mentioned that yesterday. But the basic point was that this was a closure of the military liaison office in Dakhla. It does complicate our activities, and I… but, yes, I did point out that they are in Asward.
Question: They were working from a hotel in Dakhla, and now they're going to work from other offices in Asward, right?
Deputy Spokesman: They're working from other offices in Asward.
Question: So what is the…
Deputy Spokesman: So they're continuing with their work, but as my point is their duty is to have a direct dialogue with the Royal Moroccan Army, and that has been impaired. It's particularly on ad hoc issues by the relocation. Yes, Ronda.
Question: In the current Security Council resolution, it does call very minimally for some negotiations — in the resolution about the DPRK. The resolution does call for some very minimal negotiation activity, and I'm wondering if the Secretary‑General sees any role for the UN in helping to… to support negotiations so that there can be a peace treaty at some point ending the Korean war.
Deputy Spokesman: Well, if there's a climate, an atmosphere, that allows for us to play a helpful role, we're ready to do that at any such time that that happens, and we'll continue to evaluate to see whether that is, in fact, something that happens. Yes?
Question: Sure. Thanks a lot. Just now, this morning at the stakeout, the Foreign Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tshibanda, said… when asked about the contingent that was repatriated from the CAR for alleged sexual abuse, said that he felt that UN staff or UN personnel accused of sexual abuse in the DRC have not — the cases have not been closed, that he thinks that there's something of a double standard. So I wanted to know, can you, either from the podium as you go along or later today, provide some update in allegations that have been made in the DRC against UN personnel, whether military or civilian, and what the UN itself did in terms of speed of bringing to trial? That's what he was referring to.
Deputy Spokesman: We're processing all the cases. As you know, we've provided periodic updates, and we'll continue to do those as we get the information. But we've been proceeding as quickly as we can with regards to due process in all the various cases. And of course, you'll have seen from our periodic updates that it's not just the troops of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but there are many other troops and staff that we've given details on, and we'll continue to do that.
Question: He was specifically asking about civilian staff employed by MONUSCO in the DRC. So I'm wondering, can you provide a report of how long it takes these individuals to be brought to trial to compare it to what's being asked of the DRC?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, we wouldn't make any comparisons. Each case is different. And, ultimately, everyone has their own due process rights respected. We have to go about that. But… but, across board, we are bringing all of these cases forward, and we'll continue with that.
Question: You say each case is different, but you're… the whole point of that recent report was Ban Ki‑moon setting minimum standards for what TCCs [troop-contributing countries] should do. So I guess the real question that he's raising is… is, does the UN meet those minimum standards, and can you provide…
Deputy Spokesman: Yes.
Question: …data such as he's requesting from them?
Deputy Spokesman: Yes, it does. And you have to remember, with UN staff, those are… those are staff ultimately under our authority, so we are able to deal in terms of repercussions for their actions much more quickly and directly. The reason we try to make sure that there are also minimal standards for Troop-Contributing Countries is they also abide by the same sort of standards that we try to hold for ourselves.
Question: And where's the data? That's the last…
Deputy Spokesman: Like I said, we provide it periodically, and we continue to do that. Yes, Oleg.
Question: Thank you, Farhan. On this unannounced meeting of Ban Ki‑moon with the Ukrainian Permanent Representative yesterday, based on the readout they posted online on the website of the Mission, it says that the main point of the meeting was the situation, the trial and the verdict on Savchenko case. And it says that, basically, Ban Ki‑moon promised his support to Ukraine in this case, which means that Ban Ki‑moon takes the side of the Ukrainian authorities. And… let me finish, please. And since the Ukrainian authorities say that the judicial proceedings were unfair, does that mean that Ban Ki‑moon announcing his support to the Ukrainian authorities thinks that the proceedings were not correct?
Deputy Spokesman: No, the meeting with the Permanent Representative doesn't imply that we're taking one side or another in this. What I can tell you on this is that, just earlier this morning, the Secretary‑General spoke by telephone with the President of Ukraine, President Petro Poroshenko. We are trying to get a readout of that, and so hopefully, later in the day, we'll be able to share you some information about how specifically he's reacting to this specific case.
[The following readout was later issued: “The Secretary-General spoke over the phone today with H.E. Mr. Petro Poroshenko, President of Ukraine. The call was initiated by President Poroshenko, who appealed to the Secretary-General on behalf of Ukrainian national Ms. Nadiya Savchenko, who has been convicted for 22 years in prison on 22 March by the Donetsk City Court in the Rostov-on-Don region of the Russian Federation.
The Secretary-General informed the President that he continued to closely follow Ms. Savchenko’s case, including reported breaches of due process and fair trial rights. He underscored his overall expectation that all UN Member States guarantee due process, fair trial rights and abide by internationally recognized standards for the administration of justice.”]
Question: So did he promise support or no, in this case?
Deputy Spokesman: In this case, simply, he's been studying the situation. Of course, we, as in other such cases, have concerns about due process rights and to make sure that due process is fairly respected. But regarding what he's going to do as follow‑up, I think that what we'll try to do is get you a readout of the call that he made with the President of Ukraine, and we should be able to have some further details at that point. Abdelhamid.
Question: Thank you. I have two questions, one on Libya and one on Lebanon. Mr. Kobler tried to reach Tripoli, but he was denied. I don't know if you read something about it or if there is any details about his attempt to relocate or to visit Tripoli and who denied him entry into Tripoli. And my second question about the visit of the Secretary‑General to Lebanon. There was a plan to… for UNRWA employees to go on a strike, but it was negotiated, I think, not to go ahead with the strike. But there will be a meeting with the Secretariat. Do you have any details about what he has to offer UNRWA, because there was so much reduction of the services of UNRWA and Lebanon.
Deputy Spokesman: Well, we're certainly doing what we can to make sure that the UN Relief and Works Agency is funded across the board — in Lebanon and elsewhere. We've had, as you know, immense problems with funding. And you've heard from our colleagues in the Relief and Works Agency about our efforts to resolve that. The Secretary‑General does intend to meet with the staff, and we hope to have some further details at that point. Regarding Mr. Kobler, yes, we are aware of the problems regarding Tripoli. He is continuing to try — his efforts to land in the country and continue with his work, and we'll try to get an update whenever he is able to get back into Libya. Yes, please.
Question: Thank you. Farhan, you said yesterday Syria regime doesn't allow surgical equipment inside the besieged areas. What Secretary‑General doing to facilitate this surgical equipment to reach these people?
Deputy Spokesman: Yeah, when we negotiate with the authorities in terms of our convoys, what we're trying to do is press the case to make sure that surgical medical equipment is included. In this last one that we reported yesterday, some surgical medical equipment was, in fact, removed from the convoy, and, and we have objected to that, and we're trying to press the point, and we'll continue with our Syrian government interlocutors to make the case, that these are necessary equipment that we need to be able to send as part of our aid convoys. Yes.
Question: Thank you. I just want to better understand how it works and why is it more difficult to work, logistically speaking, and, specifically, why is it more difficult to work from Asward, and does it mean that it's only possible to work from the comfort of… of a hotel?
Deputy Spokesman: That's not what I'm saying.
Deputy Spokesman: They're going to go about their work. It hinders the direct sort of contacts that they were trying to get with the Royal Moroccan Army. Yes?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. I wanted to ask about American airstrikes on Yemen, two airstrikes, which have taken over 200 lives. And it's been reported that they happened hours after the terrible attacks in Brussels, terroristic attacks. Does UN have any information whether these events were connected? Was this a retaliation mission or a mere coincidence?
Deputy Spokesman: I'm not aware of any connection, and as I've pointed out, you will be able to talk to our Special Envoy for Yemen in just about an hour from now. Yes.
Question: Sure. I wanted to ask you, there… there… there are some published reports saying that the UN is near to returning people to UNDOF in the Golan Heights. These are published reports. They cite also an Israeli official who went to Russia and said that they want them back. Is it… Can you describe any preparations by the UN to return to the abandoned posts? And, related, relatedly, in terms of personnel moving from missions, just can you explain that some of the… some of the MINURSO staff stayed in Las Palmas, and some were sent home on leave. Does this indicate any kind of projecting when they can go back? How fast could they go back? And why didn't they all stay nearby in theatre in Las Palmas?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, there were some who were UN Volunteers who were sent back to their home countries. The staff who are needed are in Las Palmas awaiting the point when, we hope, they can go back to Laayoune to go about their regularly scheduled work.
Question: What about the Golan Heights?
Deputy Spokesman: And in the Golan Heights, I don't have any details for you. There's nothing to announce at this point. Okay. Yes, one more, and then let's go to our guest.
Question: I mean… well… okay. All right. Then I'll go with this one. I was going to ask you about South‑South News, but I'm going to ask you about Sri Lanka. And I'm going to ask you about Sri Lanka because there's a letter that was released today by the resident representative in the country directed to the Northern Provincial Council, and it's a response to a letter that they wrote to Ban Ki‑moon on…
Deputy Spokesman: About you, right?
Question: …on March 1st. I'm going to ask what the letter is. The letter says, "We are happy to tell you that the Under‑Secretary‑General for Public Information and Communications has, after serious consideration, decided to change the accreditation of Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press." And the thing is, where it says they're happy to say, the thing that we're protesting in the letter was exactly this decision, which was taken without once speaking to me. So I wanted to know…
Deputy Spokesman: Matthew, Matthew.
Question: …was this letter, which was on UN letterhead, drafted by OLA… who wrote it?
Deputy Spokesman: This is not a courtroom, and this is not your place to try your case.
Question: There's a letter written to Ban Ki‑moon, and this is the response. I'm asking you.
Deputy Spokesman: You have a situation you're dealing with… I am not aware of who writes those letters. It comes out in the name of the resident [coordinator], so it's the resident [coordinator]'s letter.
Question: Who [inaudible]… It’s a UNICEF official?
Deputy Spokesman: It is a resident [coordinator]'s letter. It states the facts. And…
Question: It says, I'm happy to tell you, in response to a protest letter.
Deputy Spokesman: Yes, I understand you're unhappy with the use of the word "happy." It's duly noted.
And, yes, you have a question? If not, we can go to our guest. Thank you very much.