The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
The Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, attended a meeting today with representatives of Iran, Russian Federation and Turkey. It was hosted at the Russian Federation’s permanent mission in Geneva. He discussed with the three guarantors important follow-up to the Sochi final statement and the further advancement of the Geneva political process towards the full implementation of Security Council resolution 2254 (2015). In light of resolution 2401 (2018), discussions also emphasised the situation on the ground and the immediate priority of de-escalation, also in view of the forthcoming Astana meeting. Discussions also addressed the file of detainees, abductees and missing persons. Yesterday, the UN and its partners’ mission to deliver assistance to people in Douma, in eastern Ghouta, was forced to be cut short due to escalating violence and insecurity. Airstrikes and shelling in Douma and shelling of Damascus continued for hours while the inter-agency convoy was delivering food for 27,500 people, in addition to health and nutrition supplies. After nearly nine hours inside, the decision was made to leave for security reasons and to avoid jeopardizing the safety of humanitarian teams on the ground. As a result, 14 of the 46 trucks in the convoy were not able to fully offload critical humanitarian supplies. Of the 14, 4 were partially offloaded.
Turning to Yemen, our humanitarian colleagues inform us that hostilities continue in Yemen’s southern Hodeidah Governorate, about 100 kilometres south of Hodeidah port. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that about 77,000 people have been newly displaced in Hodeidah and neighbouring Taiz since December 2017. As of late February, humanitarian partners had reached about 54,000 people with emergency assistance and response efforts are continuing. Over 2 million people remain displaced across the country due to the conflict, 90 per cent of whom fled their homes more than a year ago.
Turning to Iraq, humanitarian partners together with authorities in Iraq today launched the 2018 humanitarian response plan, which is seeking $569 million to assist 3.4 million highly vulnerable people still struggling in the aftermath of the conflict with Da’esh. Humanitarian operations in Iraq are contracting significantly in 2018 compared with last year, when 6.2 million people were targeted with humanitarian assistance. This reflects the changing nature of needs of the population, as displaced people return to their areas of origin. It also reflects the growing capacity and reach of national institutions and the expanding role of development actors.
I also want to flag an upcoming trip by Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman. He will be in Sri Lanka from 9 to 11 March. He will meet with a wide range of Sri Lankan leaders — including the President, the Prime Minister and other senior officials — political parties and civil society groups. The visit is part of ongoing UN engagement with Sri Lanka.
At the conclusion of his visit to Bangladesh, the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, said that the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya from Myanmar is continuing. The rate of killings and sexual violence in Rakhine State has subsided, but recently arrived Rohingya interviewed by Mr. Gilmour and other UN officials in Cox’s Bazar provided credible accounts of continued killings, rape, torture and abductions, as well as forced starvation. Mr. Gilmour underlined the broad consensus that it is inconceivable to expect refugees to return to Myanmar at this point. On the same topic, our colleagues at UNHCR warned today that wildlife risks add challenges to refugee response in Bangladesh. The area now occupied by the Kutupalong refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar has long been an important habitat for East Asian elephants. There are about 40 elephants in the area and they move between Bangladesh and Myanmar in search of food. Tragically, ten refugees have been killed by frightened elephants inside the settlements. Other people have been injured and lost the little property they already had. UNHCR teamed up with the International Union for Conservation of Nature to bring about safe coexistence with wildlife in the refugee settlements. The main project is already in action with the creation of 17 Elephant Response Teams, groups of trained people who know how to respond appropriately to an approaching elephant and who can deter it from entering the camp. UNHCR hopes to see more support for these kinds of interventions in humanitarian contexts globally.
This afternoon at 5 p.m., senior officials from Australia and Timor-Leste are here to sign the Treaty between the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste and Australia Establishing their Maritime Boundaries in the Timor Sea. The Treaty will be signed in the Secretary-General’s presence in the General Assembly building by the Kuwait boat area. The signing of this new maritime boundaries treaty would mark the successful conclusion of the first-ever recourse by States to conciliation proceedings under Annex V to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Comprehensive Package Agreement of 30 August 2017, which includes the new Treaty, puts an end to a decade-long maritime dispute between Timor-Leste and Australia. There will be a press release this afternoon with more details.
**Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
I have a note about the visit to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia by Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Miroslav Jenča. He was there from 4 to 6 March. In Skopje, he met with Prime and Foreign Ministers, Speaker of Parliament and Parliamentary Committees leaders, civil society, diplomatic community and the UN country team. Mr. Jenča commended the Prime Minister for undertaking reforms and welcomed the Government’s commitment to democracy, rule of law, human rights, and ethnic diversity. Mr. Jenča appreciated the Government’s commitment and steps taken so far to improve relations with its neighbours, stressing that this sends an important message for increased regional cooperation and overcoming the legacies of the past at a challenging time. The United Nations fully supports those efforts. There is more in a note in my office.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said today that child marriage is decreasing globally with several countries seeing significant reductions in recent years. Overall, the proportion of women who were married as children decreased by 15 per cent in the last decade, from 1 in 4 to approximately 1 in 5. South Asia has witnessed the largest decline in child marriage worldwide in the last 10 years. According to new data from UNICEF, the total number of girls married in childhood is now estimated to be 12 million a year. However, to end the practice by 2030, progress must be significantly accelerated. Worldwide, an estimated 650 million women alive today were married as children. The global burden of child marriage is shifting to sub-Saharan Africa, where rates of progress need to be scaled up dramatically to offset population growth.
I also want to flag a new report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which underlines that some 37 countries are in need of external assistance for food, a number unchanged from three months ago. These numbers are in the Crop Prospects and Food Situation report, issued today, and show that civil war and insecurity are direct reasons for high hunger rates in 16 countries, from Burundi to Yemen.
Earlier today, we announced the naming by the Secretary-General and African Union Commission Chairperson of Anita Kokui Gbeho of Ghana as Deputy Joint Special Representative for the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID. Ms. Gbeho succeeds Bintou Keita of Guinea, to whom the Secretary-General and the Commission Chairperson are grateful for her dedicated service to UNAMID. Her bio is in my office.
And today, we are up to 65 Member States, with two island States, Malta and Saint Lucia, paying their budget dues in full. And we say thank you. And this is where we pause to take questions from the audience. Mr. Lee?
**Questions and Answers
Question: Sure. I just wanted… now that you've announced this Jeffrey Feltman visit to Sri Lanka, is it fair to say… there's been wildly reported mass violence against Muslims there, a state of emergency declared, and supposedly, the police standing by as mosques and Muslim businesses were burned. Is this something… what's the relationship between his trip and that? And do you expect him to address this problem?
Spokesman: Well, the trip… his trip was obviously planned before the recent state of emergency. As planned, the Under‑Secretary‑General is expected to visit Kandy and to meet religious leaders there. We're obviously concerned over the reports of the ongoing communal violence, and we welcome the Government's commitment to addressing the tensions and achieve reconciliation. We urge all Sri Lankans to resolve their differences through dialogue.
Question: And just one… on Mr. Feltman, it seems that this is his final month. Is there… can you describe the process, if not names? Or do you expect to have an officer in charge? What's the current thinking in terms of DPA [Department of Political Affairs]?
Spokesman: The current thinking is that the process is ongoing. If there is someone in time to take his post, then the person will be there in time. If there isn't, as there always is, when there is an administrative vacuum of leadership, there will be an officer in charge to ensure that the vacuum is filled.
Question: And that would be Mr. Jenča?
Spokesman: Let's get… cross that bridge when we cross it if we ever… or when we get to it. Seana?
Question: Stéphane, yesterday, we asked about the meeting that was going on, the inter‑Korea meeting, and now that we have an outcome and the agreement by the two Koreas to hold their first summit in late April, and they seem to be voicing a readiness to hold denuclearization talks with the US, is there any reaction that you can give us?
Spokesman: I'm waiting for a more formal statement. I think, as I said yesterday, we're obviously encouraged by these discussions. Anything that can reduce further military tensions, I think, is to be welcomed. And again, I think, from our standpoint, we reiterate our commitment to further assist in this process with the Governments concerned in any way we can. But, I do expect, as I said, a more formal reaction shortly. Masood?
Correspondent: Thank you, Stéphane. Couple questions about the statement made by the UN people, one is on the Rohingya, where…
Spokesman: By the… excuse me. Speak… can you speak louder…? Yeah, go ahead.
Question: …that you just also repeated on Rohingya, that he made a statement saying that there's an ethnic cleansing going on. Does the Secretary‑General also believe that there is ethnic cleansing going on in Myanmar, especially in Rakhine [State]? And what is it he can do to, what do you call, send his special envoys to ask Myanmar to stop this [inaudible] Aung San Suu Kyi urges?
Spokesman: Well, I think the Secretary‑General has repeatedly underscored the horrendous situation that we see befalling the Rohingya people, whether the ones in Rakhine or the ones who have sought refuge in Bangladesh. I think Mr. Gilmour's assessment is a very important one, and it's the… he spent some time in Cox's Bazar and was… managed to speak to people who had recently crossed the border. As you know, there is a General Assembly resolution calling for the Secretary‑General to name an envoy. That process is still going on, and we engage, through the country team, at all levels of Government, to see how the UN can help, how we can gain further access to Rakhine State, and how we can help all the people of Myanmar, regardless of their religion or ethnicity. Yes, sir?
Question: Other statement that I was talking about, the statement made by Mr. [Yukiya] Amano, the United Nations atomic energy's head, and he gave a clean chit to Iran that you also know and have been speaking… talking about. Does the Secretary‑General believe that Mr. Amano's statement does matter and that the clean chit that he has given Iran matters instead of that Mr. [Donald] Trump is trying to undermine…?
Spokesman: I… we can speak… we can only speak about the things we speak about. Mr. Amano has a responsibility, under the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. The IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] does. He was reporting on that part of the agreement and his responsibility. And that is, indeed, an important statement. The Secretary‑General also has a duty to report back to the Council, and he does so. The Secretary‑General believes that the JCPOA is a very important diplomatic achievement and a very important part of our efforts to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and it's an agreement that he feels should be supported by all the signatories. Madame?
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. I have a follow‑up on Myanmar. Has the Secretary‑General recommended any names to the Security Council for the appointment of the UN Special Envoy for Myanmar? And my second question is, I was wondering if you could get a readout of the phone conversation between the SG and the Greek Prime Minister.
Spokesman: On your second question, let me see what I can share. On your first question, that process still going on, but it's a mandate given to it by the General Assembly, not the Security Council. Abdelhamid, welcome back.
Question: Thank you. First, is there any meeting on Syria today or tomorrow in the Security Council? Did you announce anything that I missed…?
Spokesman: I did not announce it, but just because I didn't announce doesn't mean it doesn't happen. I would urge you to check with the Council Presidency. I had heard that there may be something scheduled for tomorrow, but that's for the Presidency to announce.
Question: I wrote to them, and they did not respond so far. Anyhow, my second question, last week, all Palestinian churches declared a strike, protesting a new Israeli law to impose taxes on churches. Does this development catch the eye of any UN official? Was there any statement by any UN official, here or in the field?
Spokesman: We're obviously aware of the situation. My understanding from reading… from the reading of the situation is that the issue was either resolved or in the process of being resolved in discussions between the Israeli authorities and the religious… the various religious leaders. Mr. Lee?
Correspondent: I wanted to ask you something that I tried to ask… ask yesterday at the ceremony or… or… or press encounter of the Secretary‑General and… and Mike Bloomberg. And it's whether… given all… particularly what he said in the press encounter, whether the Secretary‑General, who, I guess, is in… in control… I mean, it's… of the Global Compact or has some influence on its principles, whether he believes that, you know, straight‑up oil and coal companies should be looked at differently in terms of joining, should have to design a plan for the type of things he discussed yesterday. And I ask this particularly in light of the China Energy Fund Committee that I've asked you about before has now been essentially taken over by the Shanghai local government. So, it's now a Government entity. It's… it's buying stakes in oil companies…
Spokesman: Well, my understanding is that the China Energy Fund… the business part of it was suspended from the Global Compact, as we told you a while ago. The principles of the Global Compact are principles that all the companies agree to. It would involve a dialogue. We do expect all the companies that are part of the Global Compact to follow those principles. All of the private sectors, including energy companies, have a role to play in combatting climate change.
Question: But I guess… and I wanted to ask… and I know you've often said… and I've tried to follow up with ECOSOC [Economic and Social Council]. I promise you that I have. But, I wanted to know, now that it is, in fact, a Government company and it's a 100 per cent funder of the underlying NGO [non-governmental organization] whose head has been indicted in… in the… the Southern District of New York, is it… is it your understanding… I guess I'll just ask you, in terms of the NGO Committee and ECOSOC, can Government entities… straight‑up Government entities be in consultative status?
Spokesman: Again, I think, if there's any change in the status of an NGO or its bylaws, I would… you know, that would be something for that committee to look at. Again, the committee is run and chaired by Member States. They're my bosses. I don't speak for them. So, I think those are questions that you should address to the countries…
Correspondent: It seems to have a Sec… a Secretariat or UN‑paid Spokesperson who haven't answered a single question.
Spokesman: There's a Secretariat for a lot of Member State legislative bodies. The Secretariat is there to support. The… that Committee is run by Member States. The list of the Member States on that Committee is not a secret list. You know how to dial or how to press buttons. So, dial those buttons or press those buttons, I should say. And I just wanted to add, too, I think you had either asked me or written about issues relating to our colleagues in the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management. And I think the suggestion that you made that the department is changing staff members' internal computer profiles to “steal their money” is baseless. The processing of overtime and compensatory time‑off in the department is consistent with the staff regulations and rules of the Organization, known as the United Nations. Masood‑ji?
Correspondent: Thank you. Thank you, Stéphane‑ji. Thank you very much. I just wanted to…
Spokesman: I'm not sure I'm deserving of that honour, but go ahead.
Question: Oh, yes, sir. You more than deserve it. Okay. I wanted to ask you about this situation in Egypt where General [Abdelfattah al] Sisi keeps arresting all of his opposition, and… and it seems that, eventually, there will be nobody left to challenge him. So… but the thing is, what I'm asking, has the United Nations been able to take this case up about his incarceration of so many of the opposition…?
Spokesman: I think, as we've said in the past, our… we've expressed, in the past, our concerns about the limited political space in the country. And as I said, we continue to engage with the government on these issues. Mr. Lee?
Question: I just wanted to… and thanks a lot. There's nothing better than getting a question asked that… answered that wasn't asked. But, I did want to, I mean… the quote about staff is directly from the affected staff members, and what they say… What I want to ask you is that they were told that, in order to make it appear that they're not being paid overtime, that a side system was set up, which they… not through Umoja, to book their overtime and that then the deal was changed, and what… their understanding of what they were going to be paid has been changed. So, is that…?
Spokesman: I think what I'm saying to you is that how the Department processes and manages overtime and compensatory time‑off is consistent with the staff rules and regulations.
Correspondent: And I thought you were going to actually… I actually… when you mentioned DGACM, I thought you were going to ask about hot‑desking. I had wanted to ask you. The… it is reported by people that work there that on the 30th Floor of this building… 30th… 30th… DGACM… that as this… "nobody has a desk" scenario was rolled out, people came in over the weekend to try to stake out desks, try to… I don't want to make fun of it, but it seems like it's caused… many people say it's caused inefficiencies, that people are more concerned with not being… being left with a place to work… Is it an evolution?
Spokesman: Look, I think any change in a working environment is, by nature, disruptive. We're all creatures of habits, whether we're bureaucrats like me or journalists like you, right? We all have our habits and our… the way we like to do things, the seats we like to occupy. The process that we're… that is going on is to save money, is to cut down on the market rate rents that we're paying in different parts of the city. We're trying to get more people in the building. We're trying to use the space more efficiently. As I said, it can be difficult for people, and we very much hope that the process is done in a way that people have time to adapt. People need to change… time to adapt… and it's going to… I'm sure it's going to be disruptive to any office in the beginning.
Question: But, why isn't it being applied to, for example, the USGs [Under-Secretaries-General] and their own assistants? What I was told is they still have their…
Spokesman: Some USGs, I know, sit in cubicles. Others have the right to offices, and I think it's perfectly normal. Abdelhamid?
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. And this is maybe a request more than a question. Can the Office of the Spokesman compile a comparison between how the Security Council responded to the attacks on Muslims in Central African Republic, how many resolutions, when was a Special Envoy was designated, compared to what is happening to the Muslims in Myanmar and want to see how the Security Council responded to almost similar crisis…?
Spokesman: Abdelhamid, it sounds like a fascinating question, but it sounds like that's a job for a journalist or an analyst. Mr. Klein?
Correspondent: Yeah, I just… I'm just trying to verify something before I ask you the question.
Spokesman: Always good to check with counsel before raising… speaking. Yes, go ahead.
Question: Always want to get the facts right. But, I want to go back to the space issue. Was there any thinking in terms of trying to save the rents in commercial buildings around the city of maintaining the North Lawn Building or perhaps re‑enforcing it?
Spokesman: I think this was also a discussion with… the fate of the North Lawn Building was also a discussion made with Member States. It was built as a temporary structure. It wasn't meant to stay. It was also meant to… it was really built… the purpose of the building was more for conference rooms than for anything. And I also think there is a… and here I… if I may speak personally, I'm very attached to the architectural beauty of this compound. And I think it was designed by a group of eminent architects, and I think whatever we can do to… not to alter the exterior too much, I think, should be… is a responsibility the United Nations have. It's a piece… it's a historical landmark, at least in my heart. Mr. Klein? I'm a creature of habit, you know? There we go.
Question: No problem. I wanted to ask… there was a… there was a press conference in here at 10 a.m. about… by the group Watchlist about the upcoming Children and Armed Conflict report. And one thing… I wanted to ask you specifically, they're… they're saying that… that the Secretary‑General should give serious consideration of listing the AMISOM [African Union Mission in Somalia] troops, and they're listing… saying that, even in UN's own documents, there are listings of rapes by components of AMISOM. But… so, I wanted to know if you have a response to that, but, more generally, they… it… it… it arose that last year there was the long delay. Many people attributed it to… to Saudi lobbying or the coming up with a… with a good child killers' list, as some people call it. Is it going to be… going to go back to the earlier time schedule? And…
Spokesman: My… first of all, we, obviously, appreciate the work that Watchlist and other NGOs do. It's very important to hear from these voices. I checked, in fact, before coming into the briefing. As far as I know, the report is on track to be on schedule probably around late June — to go back to normal schedule. I think, last year, this was… the Secretary‑General was coming into office. I think he wanted to make sure all the dots… the Ts were crossed and the Is were dotted. And I think the report that came out of the process, as I expect this year, was a very strong and factual report that shined a very important light on the fate of Children and Armed Conflict. Thank you, all. Have a… I was about to say have a good weekend, but we're not there yet. And Mr. [Brenden] Varma is here. Thank you.