Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

23 January 2018

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.

**Syria

Our humanitarian colleagues tell us that they are deeply concerned by the fighting and military operations in Afrin District in north-west Syria near the Syria-Turkish border.  There are 324,000 men, women and children, including 126,000 displaced people, living in the district.

A number of civilians have lost their lives due to shelling and fighting over the past few days.  While the majority of bombardment has been reported to be concentrated on communities close to border, airstrikes on Afrin town and surrounding communities were also reported.  We have also received reports of cross-border shelling from Syria into Turkey.

Our humanitarian colleagues tell us that an estimated 5,000 people from the border communities of Bulbul, Shankal, Admanli, Balal Koy and Ali Bakki to the central parts of Afrin District have been displaced to nearby villages.  Another 1,000 have apparently been displaced to Aleppo city neighbourhoods. 

On 20 January, UN cross-border shipments from Turkey were temporarily put on hold because of the security situation.  This has impacted 123 trucks that are scheduled to bring in food, shelter and health assistance.  They were planned to go into Syria this week and are now unable to do so because of the fighting.

The UN urges all parties, and those with influence over them, to ensure the protection of civilians, and to allow sustained and unhindered access by all humanitarian parties to provide life-saving assistance to all in need.

**Yemen

The Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, has welcomed the response so far by donors to the 2018 Yemen Humanitarian Response plan that was launched on 21 January.  That plan requires $2.96 billion to provide assistance to more than 13 million people.

That includes the nearly $1 billion pledge by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as a commitment to mobilize an additional $500 million from regional donors.  Canada has also pledged $12 million. 

Mr. Lowcock asked for these pledges to be urgently disbursed to enable life-saving operations. 

He also noted the importance of keeping all of Yemen’s ports, including Hodeidah and Saleef, open to humanitarian assistance and commercial imports of food, fuel and medicines. 

**Mali

This morning, the Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, briefed the Security Council on the situation in Mali.  He said that the adoption of a timetable of priority actions in the framework of the peace agreement is an important step.  Less than six months before the presidential elections, he said, it is critical for the Government and signatory movements to stick to this timetable.  Mr.  Lacroix warned that time is short and that we are now in a race against time in Mali, confronted with growing insecurity and a worsening human rights and humanitarian situation. 

The objective must therefore be to create the conditions for the holding of elections and for the peace process, he said.  He encouraged the Government to launch the implementation of key provisions of the agreement, including decentralization and the reform of the security sector, in an inclusive manner.

Finally, Mr. Lacroix said that five years after the Mission's establishment, the time has come to reassess the assumptions that underpin the UN Mission’s presence, review its key mandated tasks against achievements on the ground and re-examine the Mission's layout through a comprehensive strategic review.

On that note, Mr Lacroix will be our guest tomorrow.  He will brief you on the Report on Improving Security of Peacekeepers.  He will be here at noon and we will start off the briefing with him.

**Myanmar-Bangladesh

Turning to the situation of the Rohingyas, regarding the arrangement for the voluntary return to Myanmar of Rohingya refugees, our colleagues at the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said today that the necessary safeguards for potential returnees are absent, and there are continued restrictions on access for aid agencies.

At the same time, refugees from Rakhine continue to arrive in Bangladesh.

To ensure the right of refugees to return voluntarily, and in safety and in dignity, UNHCR calls again on Myanmar to allow the necessary unhindered humanitarian access in Rakhine State and create conditions for a genuine and lasting solution. 

The refugee agency remains prepared to work with Myanmar and Bangladesh towards finding a long-term solution to this crisis in the interest of the people themselves, of both Governments, the host community in Bangladesh and all communities in Rakhine State.

**Central African Republic

UNHCR also said today that ongoing violence in the Central African Republic, particularly in the country’s north-west, has pushed forced displacement to the highest levels since the start of the crisis in 2013.  Data as of the end of December show that 688,700 people were displaced internally — that’s a 60 per cent jump from a year before.

Meanwhile, the number of refugees from the Central African Republic in neighbouring countries, at almost 550,000, is also up by 12 per cent in comparison to last year.  For a country whose population is estimated at around 4.6 million, these two figures combined represent an astonishing level of suffering and people in need.

In 2017, against needs UNHCR estimates at around $209 million, only 12 per cent were funded. 

**Development

I wanted to flag that yesterday afternoon, the Secretary-General presented his second report on the Repositioning of the UN Development System, and he stayed well into the evening answering questions from Member States.

The Secretary-General stressed that business as usual will not provide countries with the support they need to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and that is why his report proposes seven keystone reforms, which include the emergence of a new generation of UN country teams, a reinvigorated Resident Coordinator system, and a funding compact to bring better quality, quantity and predictability of resources, as well as increased accountability and transparency, among others.

He reiterated that with these reforms, Member States will be in the driver’s seat and the 2030 Agenda will be the driving force.  “We now have in our hands — perhaps more than ever before — all key conditions for success,” he said, and he asked Member States for their leadership to allow the UN to translate the report’s proposals into action as soon as possible.  His remarks have been made available to you.

**Western Sahara

Following questions from one of your colleagues, we can confirm that the Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General on Western Sahara, Horst Kohler, intends to hold bilateral discussions with the parties and neighbouring countries this January and February. 

He has addressed invitations to the Moroccan Foreign Minister, Nasser Bourita, the Secretary-General of the Frente Polisario, Brahim Ghali, as well as to the Algerian and Mauritanian Ministers of Foreign Affairs. 

**Holocaust

Tomorrow, in Conference Room 4, from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., our colleagues at the Department of Public Information (DPI) will host the film screening of Children of the Holocaust in observance of the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.  The film is apparently an animated documentary.

On your way to Conference Room 4, you can visit two related exhibits in the Visitors Lobby entitled The Butterfly Project: Remembering the Children of the Holocaust, developed by Holocaust Museum Houston, and The Holocaust — Keeping the Memory Alive, featuring the 12 best posters created by students of design out of more than 150 submissions. 

**Questions and Answers

Voilà.  Sir?

Question:  Thanks, Stéphane.  I want to ask about the situation in Egypt.  Following Ahmed Shafik, the former Egyptian Prime Minister, dropping out of the race for the Egyptian presidency, today, Egyptian authorities have arrested another potential candidate, the former Chief… army Chief of Staff, General [Sami] Annan.  Do you have any concerns about the developments and what it could mean for holding free and fair election in the country?

Spokesman:  Well, I'll tell… I had not personally seen those reports.  I'll take a look.  Obviously, we hope that, as in any country, the situation will be created to create the atmosphere for free and fair elections.  Ms. Lederer?

Question:  Follow-up?

Spokesman:  Yeah, go ahead.

Question:  The authorities also ordered all the Egyptian media not to report on anything related to arresting Annan…

Spokesman:  Again, this is the first I hear of it.  I will get you a comment.  Yes, Madame?

Question:  Thanks, Steph.  As a follow‑up on what the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is saying about the Rohing… the Rohingyas, is there anything that the Secretary‑General himself can do, is doing, to try and get both countries to adhere to the principles of return on refugees?

Spokesman:  This is something that the Secretary‑General has said privately and publicly.  It's a basic principle, that there should be no return that is forced.  There should be no return that is done in conditions that do not respect the rights of refugees, that people need to go back home to the homes they went back to.  And I think the High Commissioner for Refugees is very much in the lead on this, and I think one of the important points that he was making is that there are also issue… ongoing issues in Rakhine State that have not been dealt with and that it would be important for UNHCR to be able to monitor the situation there.  Mr. Lee and then we'll…

Question:  Sure.  I wanted to ask you about Yemen and the… Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed saying that he's ending.  I wanted to… I guess, to get your re… one, I don't know if you'll confirm it, that Mr. Martin Griffiths is the new one, but could you describe the timing, I guess, of the process to replace him?  And I have… related to that maybe [inaudible]…

Spokesman:  Sure.  Okay.  The consultations as to who will replace the existing envoy are ongoing.  The Secretary‑General is leading those… is taking part in those consultations.  The process is, as with all envoys that operate on Security Council mandate, once the Secretary‑General has decided on a name, a letter will be sent to the Security Council.  There will be consultations within the Council, and then we're able to announce the name.

Question:  And what… what's the role of the… of the Security Council penholder in… in at least proposing names to… to be an envoy?

Spokesman:  It's the Secretary‑General's choice.  Member States are free to propose names.

Question:  And I wanted to ask you something.  There was… with all due respect to Mr. Griffiths, there… there… there was an inquiry at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue when he was head of it for some… it was alleged fraud.  I don't know if it was resolved, but I wanted to know, are these the type of things that get vetted or is it just…

Spokesman:  I have no clue that Mr. Griffiths is part of the plate.

Question:  Okay.  And could I ask one… I just wanted to… I'd heard that you… I don't know if you were on this call, but I heard there was a call about speaking with one voice on sexual harassment at the UN this morning.  And I wanted to… I guess I wanted to ask you, because some staff members have had a question, this idea of speaking with one voice, does it in any way contradict the idea that staff are free without speaking with the same voice as the rest of the UN, or is UN management to speak to the press, is there…

Spokesman:  There's no… it's just to ensure… I think it's important from a communications standpoint that all our colleagues are fully aware of the current state of play of rules and regulations.  I think you're con… I don't know the English word, but you're mixing up the two.  I'll come… I'll come back to you.

Question:  Stéphane, on the peacekeeping report, I wonder what the Secretary‑General's views are on the recommendations.  Is he concerned about peacekeepers turning into war fighters?  And also, on the Security Council kind of side of this, isn't there, if you're going to be looking at recommendations, a need to look at the mandates that the Security Council also offers?

Spokesman:  Completely.  I think the Secretary‑General was very concerned with what the report showed.  He is very keen on ensuring that the mandates are fit for purpose, that peacekeepers are well trained, that they come with the right equipment, and that missions at some point do need to close and that peacekeeping is a very specific operation.  The UN doesn't… should not be doing counter… you know, there's a whole other issue of very armed… very robust peace enforcement, of counter‑terrorism operations.  This is an ongoing dialogue with the Security Council.  The Secretary‑General first raised this issue earlier this week in his lunch with the Security Council.  We need to do better on peacekeeping.  I think the report is very clear, and the Plan of Action laid out by the Department of Peacekeeping (DPKO) is very clear on issues of deployment, on issues of training, on issues of leadership.  But, obviously, peacekeeping doesn't operate in a vacuum.  Peacekeeping operates under mandates given to it by the Security Council.  Those mandates need to be clear.  They need to be fit for purpose.  I'll come back… I'll come back to you.  Ali?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  There have been reports about the renewed use of chemical weapons in… in Syria.  Do you have anything to say on that? And is the United Nations willing to send a fact-finding mission to clarify the situation, especially in Ghoutah?

Spokesman:  We've seen those reports.  We're extremely concerned that, still in 2018, there are reports of chemical weapons being used in Syria.  It is important that those who may be responsible be brought to justice, that these crimes be investigated.  As you know, the Security Councils did not renew the mandate of the body that was meant to… tried to assign responsibility in cases… attacks were confirmed.  We'll have to see what the OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons], to see what they're doing, but we've obviously seen those reports and are extremely concerned.  Masood?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Two questions.  Stéphane, this… about Afghanistan where yesterday the bomb… whatever, bombing happened where almost 25 or 20… 30 people died, has the United Nations been able to determine as to which party was responsible?  Because Pakistan…

Spokesman:  We do not have the investigative capacity nor mandate.

Question:  Oh, I see.  Now, on the Secretary‑General's interview that was published, I think, this morning in which he said, I asked Pakistan and India to resolve their disputes bilaterally and that he expressed no inclination to get himself involved because… why?  Is it because Pakistan… India is not willing to accept his good offices?

Spokesman:  I don't know of any interview that he gave.  You may be quoting me back to me.  It's what I… there was… I had an exchange with your colleague, I think, yesterday on this very issue, and I really have nothing more to say than what is in the transcript from yesterday.  Mr. Abbadi?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Today, a great South African musician, Ramopolo Masekela, passed away.  He was a great fighter against apartheid and injustice.  Does the Secretary‑General have any comment on this occasion?

Spokesman:  We, obviously, send our condolences to his family and, I think, recognize the historical role he played during the fight against apartheid and the fight for freedom and human rights after the fall of apartheid.  And I think he was a global cultural icon that will be missed by people all over the world.  Yep and then… sorry.

Question:  On the talks that Mr. Köhler is going to hold, are they going to be here in New York or elsewhere? 

Spokesman:  In Berlin.

Question:  In Berlin?

Spokesman:  Yep.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Back to Syria.  I just wanted to clarify.  You mentioned some numbers.  I was wondering if there has been any displacement due to the Turkish operation in Afrin.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  We're… obviously, we're not there on site.  I think it's very clear that there is likely displacement due to the ongoing military operations.  More… almost 200,000 people that are in the area have already been displaced, so they're probably being displaced again.

Question:  The number 126,000 you mentioned earlier, you said they were displaced.  Were they displaced before, or this is because of the operation?

Spokesman:  These were people that were already… had been displaced once and are… let me… I have to pay attention to what I say, don't I?  No, we're saying there's 126,000 displaced people living in the district.  Obviously, since the fighting is going on, it's hard for us to get first‑hand information, but I think it's very likely that these people are being forced to move if they're where the fighting actually is.  Let's go to people who haven't had a chance.  Mr. Ucciardo?

Question:  Just a clarification on the figure you gave of 324,000 people.  Could you review that again, please?

Spokesman:  There are 324,000 men, women and children in the district.  Included in that 324,000 are 126,000 displaced people.  Madame?

Question:  [inaudible] Just are you aware of any changes to Israel's plan to build a border wall?  I know there's a structure there already, but there's… are you aware of any changes…

Spokesman:  We've seen these reports, and I can tell you that UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon], the UN peacekeeping mission's leadership has been fully engaged with both parties in order to find a common solution to this issue and, if asked, to further improve security arrangements in the area.  I think one of the key messages that we continue to emphasise to both parties is the sensitivity of any work along the Blue Line.  It's of paramount importance that the parties take advantage of our liaison and coordination arrangements, including the Tripartite Forum, to find solutions aimed at preventing violations, decreasing tensions and maintaining stability in the Area of Operation.

Question:  Do you have any idea where they're planning to pick up…?

Spokesman:  No, ma'am.

Question:  Okay.  I want to ask if there is any update on Sochi?  Are you going to… is the UN going to attend this meeting?  It's happening with less than a week.

Spokesman:  No, I know.  We're aware.  There's been no decision as of yet.  And you know the… if I'm not mistaken, the Vienna discussions will happen first in the calendar.  Mr. Lee?

Question:  Sure.  Thanks a lot.  I just… what I was asking you before you moved on, you'd said that I'm conflating, but yesterday you'd said… 

Spokesman:  Thank you.  That was the word I was looking for.

Question:  You said that… that… that staff should speak in concert with their supervisors.  That's a direct… that's from the transcript.  So, I just wanted to know, again, if someone is saying that they were a victim of abuse in the UN, to have them speak in concert with their supervisor is…

Spokesman:  What I’m saying is that, if you look at the whistleblower policy, it is clear that there are internal mechanisms to deal with the issue, various avenues, informal, formal.  And, if those external mechanisms are not… do not give satisfaction to the people, there are… those internal mechanisms, there are external mechanisms that are available.  So, I would frame it in that way.

Question:  Right, but I guess… that's not what Jan Beagle wrote to The Guardian.  She didn't say your staff are free to speak to the media after they've exhausted internal…

Spokesman:  Right.  I mean, The Guardian letter was obviously short because letters need to be short.  What she said clearly is that staff are not prohibited from speaking to the press, which is a statement of fact.

Question:  Right.  After they've done certain things.

Spokesman:  It's a statement of fact.  You can look at their media guidelines.  There's whistleblower policy.

Question:  All right.  All right.  All right.  Well, I just know many people don't understand it.

Spokesman:  No, no, I understand.

Question:  I wanted to ask you, on these talks of Mr. Köhler, I mean, obviously, he's… I don't know if… is he… can you… is he based in Berlin?  Where are… are these talks based in a UN facility, in his own office?  Does he have a UN regular office?  How does it work?

Spokesman:  I don't know exactly what location will be, if the German Government will be lending us space.

Question:  More on offices.  Mr. [Edmond] Mulet, what's he doing these days?

Spokesman:  Mr.  Mulet, again…

Question:  JIM [Joint Investigative Mechanism].  I mean…

Spokesman:  Hope… the JIM no longer… the J‑I‑M no longer exists.  My understanding and I hope for him that he's at home in Guatemala and getting some well‑earned rest.

Question:  Okay.  And I'd wanted to ask, yesterday, you gave this readout on the Secretary‑General's presentation about his repositioning of the development system.  And there was some criticisms raised by Member States, including the EU [European Union], which said there's a failure to reform or change or improve in any way DESA, the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.  Does he… did he take that to heart?  Is there going to be some… I'm asking because DESA is the one that used the million dollars from China Energy Fund Committee…

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General takes every suggestion put forward by Member States to heart.  Mr. Ucciardo?

Question:  Stéphane, just a housekeeping issue with the feed to the webcast.  There's been several incidents over the past two weeks whereby the Secretary‑General was giving a briefing and the Trusteeship Council, and there's black over his face, and then we just see audio for a while.  And then yesterday…

Spokesman:  I'm sorry if that happens.  I would…

Question:  Okay.  No, it happened again yesterday with the Security Council President.  We see video.  We hear no audio for the entire time he's up there.  Then the French Ambassador comes up.  Okay?  We… half of his… There's no audio at all.  We call webcast.  They say it's the IT guys.  And they blame the IT guys.

Spokesman:  Okay.  I will have…

Question:  Can you look into this?

Spokesman:  I will have our DPI colleagues look into this issue.  Thank you.  I will leave you with Brenden [Varma].

For information media. Not an official record.