The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
Good afternoon. A couple of statements to read off: the first one from the Special Envoy for Yemen.
The Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, welcomed the latest statements by the Houthis which reaffirm their acceptance of UN Security Council resolution 2216. The Houthis reiterated their commitment to the seven Muscat Principles that have been previously conveyed to the Houthis.
This is an important step as resolution 2216, other Security Council resolutions, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative and the Outcomes of the National Dialogue have been at the core of the UN-led peace process. These three pillars will remain the basis for peace talks, which the Special Envoy has been working towards. Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed believes that the Government of Yemen, the Houthis and their allies should accept the invitation to join peace talks on this basis.
Another statement on the release of prisoners in the United States of America: the Secretary-General welcomes the decision by the United States Government to release approximately 6,000 prisoners from federal prisons to ease prison overcrowding and provide a degree of redress for persons who received disproportionately long sentences for non-violent drug-related offences. He also welcomes proposals that aim to consider early release of additional prisoners who are serving sentences disproportionate to their crimes, many of which are drug-related.
The Secretary-General notes that States should only apply deprivation of liberty as a measure of last resort and only after alternatives have been duly considered. Over-incarceration constitutes one of the major underlying causes of overcrowding, which results in conditions that can often amount to ill-treatment or even torture.
In order to address over-incarceration and overcrowding and their human rights implications, some States should develop and implement alternatives to custodial measures, and review penal policies and legislation to ensure proportionate sentencing. Consideration needs to be given to alternatives to criminalization and incarceration of people who use drugs, with an increased focus on public health, prevention, treatment and care.
**Central African Republic
Also a statement on the killing of a peacekeeper in the Central African Republic (CAR): the Secretary-General condemns the killing of a peacekeeper from the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) that took place yesterday in Bangui. A MINUSCA convoy travelling from Damara to Ngerengou (Ombella-Mpoko prefecture) came under fire by an unknown group of armed elements, some 55km north of Bangui. The MINUSCA military escort, composed of a Burundian infantry company, returned fire. During the exchange, one peacekeeper was killed and another was injured.
The Secretary-General deplores, in the strongest terms, attacks against United Nations peacekeepers and calls for swift action to bring the perpetrators of this crime to justice. He reiterates his call for all armed groups to end the fighting and lay down their weapons. The Secretary-General reiterates the commitment of the United Nations to support the Central African authorities in their fight against criminality and putting an end to impunity, in line with MINUSCA's mandate.
The Secretary-General offers his condolences to the bereaved family and to the Government and people of Burundi. He wishes a speedy recovery to the injured soldier. In addition to the incident I just mentioned, MINUSCA was attacked in two other incidents, one in Bangui's 4th district and one en route to Bangui from Bossentele (Ouham-Pende). The latter one resulted in exchanges of fire with MINUSCA personnel and one peacekeeper slightly injured.
The Mission has intensified patrolling activities near the National Transitional Council. Beyond the capital, peacekeepers continue to monitor the attempted movements of armed groups. With regard to elections, MINUSCA continues to work with the National Electoral Authority and so far 82.7 per cent of eligible voters have reportedly been registered. MINUSCA continues to be on high alert and to protect key installations and personalities, including key Government buildings, the International Airport and protection-of-civilians hot spots.
**Democratic Republic of the Congo
Turning to DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], as you will have seen, the Head of the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Martin Kobler, just briefed the Security Council for the last time in this function. He said he was departing with a feeling of satisfaction and pride, but also with a sense that the Mission’s mandate has not been fulfilled yet, as he could not say with certainty whether the progress attained is sustainable. The Council also heard from Said Djinnit, Special Envoy for the Great Lakes. Their remarks are available in my office and my understanding is that Mr. Kobler will speak to you at the stakeout afterwards.
On South Sudan, the UN Mission in the country, UNMISS, reports hearing mortar shells yesterday morning in Malakal in Upper Nile State, coming from the direction of the west bank of the Nile River. The Mission says it is not in a position to confirm who was shelling. Also in Malakal, the Mission reports the arrival of some 260 new internally displaced persons at its protection of civilians site in one day, coming from the west bank of the Nile, fleeing violence as well as food insecurity. There are currently more than 45,000 residents sheltering in the Protection of Civilians site in Malakal, with some 185,000 people in sites across the country.
Ahead of a high-level European Union meeting tomorrow, the High Commissioner for Human Rights is calling on EU Member States to ensure that all discussions of migration policy are grounded firmly on the need to protect human rights. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein urged the EU and its Member States to move away from the flawed view of law enforcement as the main, or sole, panacea to contemporary migration challenges, especially when so many people are fleeing their countries of origin because of serious human rights violations or decaying or collapsing economies.
The High Commissioner said that narrow exclusion-focused policies have clearly failed. Increased border control and surveillance have not reduced the number of new arrivals, but have only forced them to use more dangerous routes, leading to increased human rights abuses and loss of life.
Our humanitarian colleagues inform us that the road between Kunduz and Pul‑i‑Khumri in Afghanistan’s Baghlan province has been opened to traffic for the first time in a week of fighting, allowing people to leave Kunduz. The number of people fleeing from Kunduz cannot be ascertained, due to high insecurity. Aid organizations are responding to the needs of those displaced from Kunduz in Mazar‑e‑Sharif, Taloqan and Kabul, and are preparing for a further influx of displaced people into those areas.
You will have seen that yesterday we issued a statement where the Secretary-General welcomed the election of Mr. Hoesung Lee of the Republic of Korea as Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. Mr. Lee will guide the Panel’s work on assessing the science related to climate change. There is also a note welcoming Mr. Lee’s election by Achim Steiner, the Head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). Khalas. Yes, ma'am?
**Questions and Answers
Question: Would you please talk about the John Ashe allegation? I'm aware of the fact that you talked about it yesterday because I asked one of the colleagues, but I don't found any video for the Noon Briefing from yesterday on videos on demand.
Spokesman: There should be…
Correspondent: There's like a very small segment about… things you said about the Palestinian territories.
Spokesman: I mean, we can check on the WebTV page, but I think we talked about it extensively yesterday.
Correspondent: But there is nothing on WebTV…
Spokesman: All right. Well, we'll check it. It exists because I was here and the camera was on. So we'll figure that out. Nizar and then Edie, then Matthew.
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. With regard to this announcement by Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed, obviously, he's dropped the partnership… peace and partnership agreement from his consideration. You've mentioned 2216, the GC initiative… GCC initiative and others. But can we consider that this partnership… peace and partnership agreement is defunct?
Spokesman: I think what we can consider is that the violence in Yemen is continuing. Every day more people are suffering. Not enough humanitarian aid is going in. People are being killed because of the fighting. The Special Envoy will be returning to the region tomorrow to gain the… in order to gain the support of the Government of Yemen, the Houthis, and of the regional powers for such talks and also determine the venue and specific dates of the consultation. So I think the focus is really on moving forward. You know, I think there's some agreement or same messages from all sides. So the Special Envoy will be going to the region and trying to gel what is being said into something a little more concrete. Edie?
Question: Follow‑up… a quick follow‑up on that. Today, Amnesty International accused Saudi Arabia of carrying out war crimes in Yemen, crimes against humanity, obliteration of whole cities, killing so many civilians and babies. Do you have any comment on that?
Spokesman: I think… you know, we have been talking, either myself or the Secretary‑General or other senior UN officials from the system, about our very high concern for the fate of civilians in Yemen, whether it's due to aerial bombardments or other attacks on civilians or civilian infrastructure. So we are… we are concerned, and we continue to be concerned about the situation. And that's one of the reasons, I think, Mr. Ould Cheikh Ahmed is working hard to move the process forward.
Correspondent: That doesn't answer my question…
Spokesman: I will come back… well, you asked a question. I answered it. We'll come back to you. Edie?
Question: Thank you, Steph. Couple of follow‑up questions on John Ashe: Doesn't this really come uncomfortably close to the Secretary‑General, considering that he, in June, personally thanked one of the women who's now under arrest, Sheri Yan, for her support of an art exhibition at the United Nations? And, as a follow‑up to that, the previous General Assembly President, Sam Kutesa, was also photographed meeting her during an official visit to China earlier this year, and his wife is listed as a vice chairman for Yan's foundation. So would the Secretary‑General now support asking the General Assembly to look at the issue of more oversight, vetting and transparency for the Office of the President of the General Assembly?
Spokesman: I think… you know, as I said yesterday, I think the Secretary‑General was very dismayed and shocked by the allegations, which really go at the heart of the work of the United Nations. We are, obviously… you know, we would cooperate… we still have not… we have not been contacted by U.S. authorities. We would cooperate with them, obviously, in any way. The Secretary‑General has taken matters of corruption very seriously and will continue to do so. As to how the Member States want to handle and manage the Office of the Presidency, that is up to them; but, as a matter of principle, I think the Secretary‑General has always been a proponent of as much transparency and accountability as possible. Mr. Lee?
Question: Sure. What I wanted to ask is, beyond, you know, photographs taken with the people now indicted, in March of 2015, this Sun Kian Ip Group, which is the company that purchased the GA resolution about Macau, committed to give to the UN itself $5 million a year for three years. And I wanted to know, this was… after that, in August of 2015, they held a meeting in Macau with a number of UN officials there. So my question is: What's the status of that money? And what were they buying with it? And I guess what I'm saying is, it's… you're saying you haven't been contacted by the authorities.
Spokesman: What I can tell you is that the money you referred to was being given to the office of South‑South Cooperation. I've been speaking to its director, and he's available to speak to you guys, as well, should you wish to contact him. They are taking a very close review at all of the relationship with this foundation. If you look at… it is in a public document for the South… the office of South‑South Cooperation. They report the private foundations that have given money to them. $1.5 million was given by the foundation that you referred to. But they are taking an active look, and I think we'll look as deeply as possible into the money, where it went and what it was used for. The current director of the office of South‑South Cooperation, Mr. Jorge Chediek, came on board on Monday, which was his first day, and I think he's very determined to look into these issues as much as he possibly can.
Question: And I guess… I mean, I guess… can you give us the contact information for the person you named?
Question: In the indictment, it describes after the resolution was first passed a further payment to Mr. Ashe to get the resolution changed and a paragraph added. And it says there's an unindicted UN official 1, number 1. So I'm saying, whether or not the… you know, the U.S. Attorney contacts you, doesn't the UN have an interest in finding out who it is and who's doing it…? What’s being done?
Spokesman: We're obviously looking at the documents made public by the Department of Justice, and if we have more, I'll let you know. Mr. Avni?
Question: On that, to follow up on that, is it a problem for the UN that the Southern District has been able to dig up so much information while OIOS [Office of Internal Oversight Services] and other UN bodies that are charged with scrutinizing the UN at the UN apparently had no clue? I mean, the Secretary‑General says that he hasn't heard of it until yesterday.
Spokesman: You're comparing apples and oranges. You're comparing a national authority with full judicial subpoena powers, investigative powers, looking into the activities of an individual started who is not a UN official, the man who ran the foundation who is being indicted. They obviously followed up leads to activities that were beyond the UN. I mean, I'm not going to go through the indictment. OIOS is an internal investigatory body. I think they do a lot of work in looking into allegations of corruptions. They have in the past, and they will continue to do so.
Question: Follow‑up: It is, in my experience, quite rare for the Secretary‑General to go into internal affairs of states, Member States. The statement you read in the beginning of this briefing about the U.S. policies regarding incarceration, I haven't heard any critique or praise of the U.S. system in a long time. The question is: does it have anything to do with this indictment?
Spokesman: No, Benny. I appreciate your attempt at humour, but it doesn't. I think, on the contrary, I think you've heard, whether it's the Secretary‑General, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, speak out on cases in front of national justice systems, so I think we welcome the decision by the U.S. Government, and I see nothing strange about it. Let's go this way.
Question: Stéphane, can you please elaborate on what the UN is doing right now in terms of launching a separate investigation internally looking at this… you've said that we're ready to cooperate with authorities, but what is being done at the UN, independently of the investigation?
Spokesman: Right now, I think our… we are continuing to study the complaint that was released yesterday. Mr. Klein?
Spokesman: That's what we're doing right now.
Question: Thank you. Mr. Seng was arrested in September. So I'd like to know, first of all, at that time, given his relationship to one of these foundations that's been mentioned in the indictment, or has been implicated in the indictment, what steps were taken at that time proactively by the UN Secretariat to look at what monies had been received by him directly or affiliated organizations and… with the view toward possibly returning that money, and what vetting procedures does the UN Secretariat have, or is it considering, to implement on these NGO's and foundations that spring up and give money to various UN agencies?
Spokesman: You know, on your first part, I don't… you know, I was not aware of the arrest. I don't know if my colleagues in the South‑South Cooperation office were, but as I said, there was a change in leadership, so we had now a new director of the office. You know, whenever we come into partnership with the NGO's or foundations, we do due diligence through available public records and do the best we can, but obviously, criminal activity doesn't always come… doesn't always become clear through that sort of due diligence.
Question: Mr. Seng had been implicated decades ago in a scandal involving the Clintons. So that would have been in the public record. But in addition to that, what's happening to the money now? I mean, is…
Spokesman: That's what… the money that was given to the South‑South Cooperation office, I think, was $1.5 million. Our colleagues in that office are looking at it right now.
Correspondent: There was also money from the Global Sustainability Foundation.
Spokesman: They're look at all the monies they've received. Masood and then… go ahead.
Question: Yes. Stéphane, switching gears, now that the United States and Russia are both bombing inside Syria at the… at the targets that they are undermining the peace in that region, and then there's Iraq, which is wanting Russia to intervene also. So does the Secretary‑General have any caveats for these two superpowers now vying for grounds over there at this point in time?
Spokesman: Does the Secretary‑General have what?
Question: Has any caveat for these two?
Spokesman: Well, I think we've… you know, I… at the risks of repeating myself, I think we have said that whatever action is taken against extremist groups need to be done within the parameters of international humanitarian law. Everything needs to be done to avoid civilian casualties, and we are continuing to talk to the parties and encourage the parties to go back to the table and all those who have influence on the parties to push them to go back to the table. Oleg. I'm sorry. Go ahead, Iftikhar. I'm sorry.
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. On Kunduz, I'm sure you have seen the Doctors Without Borders are insisting on international inquiry. Since Doctors Without Borders is an affiliate of United Nations, what is the view of the Secretary‑General? Especially because they are denying that there were any terrorists in the hospital when the bombing took place.
Spokesman: Sure. Sure, sure, sure. We just received the letter from Doctors Without Borders concerning what they're asking for. It's an organization which we work with but it is not affiliated with the United Nations. The Secretary‑General is, as a matter of principle, always in favour of accountability, and he looks forward to a transparent and impartial investigation of what happened in the hospital in Kunduz.
Spokesman: I'll get back to you… we'll get back to you. Oleg?
Question: Stéphane, on Syria, any updates from the political track now that there are bombings of different countries?
Spokesman: No. The contacts are continuing.
Question: Do you think this could be helpful for bringing the parties to the table?
Spokesman: I think we have seen enough suffering over the more than four years that it's not another round of bombing that's going to make people understand the need for political talks. The need for political talks happened as soon as the conflict started.
Correspondent: Stéphane, as a follow‑up on that question.
Spokesman: I'll come back to you. I will come back to you.
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. I have follow‑up on that. On Syria, I don't think that since the Second World War Russia and the United States operated militarily in one territory with having two apparently separate goals. This is… as you mentioned earlier, on Monday, this is very dangerous and delicate situation. Will the Secretary‑General have any role to avoid further escalation of this…?
Spokesman: Well, I think we've taken note of… I think discussions between military-to-military discussions between Russia and the United States and Russia and the coalition on de-conflicting whatever is going on. I think, as I said on Monday, this creates a very… potentially a very dangerous situation. We'd encouraged them to do whatever they can to avoid any incidents. Masood?
Question: A follow‑up on this Kunduz question. Will the Secretary‑General or the United Nations at some point in time order independent inquiry into that hospital attack? I mean, impartial inquiry is what is required, and people do at this point in time trust the United Nations to do such an inquiry.
Spokesman: At this point, I have nothing to add to what I've just said. Nizar. Oh, sorry. Go… sorry. People who haven't asked a question?
Question: On Syria again, yesterday, Russian systems based in Syria harassed Turkish fighter jets. After this, over two times they were diverted to Turkish airspace… space. What's the Secretary‑General doing to ease the tension and did he speak to Moscow or any others?
Spokesman: He's had not… at his level, there have been no discussions, but obviously, he would call on all the parties and all the countries operating militarily in the area to do whatever they can to coordinate and avoid any unfortunate incidents. Mr… Nizar?
Question: Yes, on the situation in Jerusalem, of course, it's very tense there. More civilians were killed yesterday. There is targeting of the media representative, our correspondent of Al Mayadeen, Hanna Mohammed, was shot while she was broadcasting live from there, reporting live, and she is… she was… she went to hospital. She's in bad condition. Do you have any statement regarding the targeting of journalists there, as well as the civilians?
Spokesman: You know, I think we had quite an extensive statement yesterday. I haven't seen the report about your colleague, but obviously, we call on all governments or security forces to ensure that journalists are protected and able to do their work freely. Mr. Avni, Mr. Lee, and then Mr. Kobler will be speaking to you.
Correspondent: Back to the John Ashe issue…
Spokesman: You want to formulate your question? Mr. Lee?
Correspondent: Sure. I do have other questions, but I have more on this John Ashe, I think… actually, I'd like to ask that the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) South‑South person do a press conference…
Spokesman: Or you can contact them. Go ahead.
Question: Here's what I wanted to ask about. Yesterday I was… the current PGA [President of the General Assembly] did a press conference that you referred to as sort of a… I don't know if it's the UN system's response or you just heard he was going to respond. What I wanted to ask is that there are a number of people that are actually named in the indictment as having travelled with John Ashe to Macau that work in the current PGA's office. If you actually look at the teams, they overlap quite a lot, which is not to cast aspersion on all of them, but to say, if people are referred to in the indictment, what is… he presented it as there's a total lack of continuity. He's brand new here. He knew nothing about it. What steps are being taken at the UN to actually read the document and see who still works in the UN?
Spokesman: Well, I think, as far as the PGA's office goes, I would encourage you to ask his Spokesman, which… who's down the line.
Spokesman: Go ahead.
Question: What were you saying?
Spokesman: No, that's it.
Question: Okay. My point, I guess the overall question I wanted to ask is, it seems clear that at least some Secretariat money goes to that office. Some salary lines are funded by the Secretariat, and some salary lines are funded by countries, seconded staff. I mean, I've asked him to name which but, given that Secretariat funds go there, has the PGA's office… is it subject to OIOS or board of auditors auditing, and if not, why not?
Spokesman: I think… I can't answer you that question in detail, but I think that is a question for the PGA. The PGA's elected by the Member States. He is responsible to the General Assembly. As far as authority of investigation, I will check.
Correspondent: But if you pay the staff…
Spokesman: I understand. I will check. Mr. Avni?
Correspondent: South‑South News has on its website… it boasts of a lot of access to UN officials, diplomats and so on and so forth. Is it accredited to the UN as a news agency or as anything other than…
Spokesman: I think…
Correspondent: How is it…
Spokesman: They have… they have… they have credentials, press credentials.
Spokesman: As a news agency.
Question: An independent news agency?
Spokesman: They produce news content.
Question: So are they an independent news agency?
Spokesman: They are accredited as a news agency here. Nizar, and then we'll go to Mr. Kobler.
Question: I have a question regarding the refugees into Europe. There were reports that the number of Syrian refugees represents only the percentages… only 20 per cent of the total. Do you have any statistics on that? Another thing is, do you have any record on how many refugees sought refuge in Saudi Arabia, in particular?
Spokesman: We can put you in touch with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), which would have those numbers. I think the percentage of Syrians is slightly higher than 20 per cent. But we can put you in touch with UNHCR. Mr. Kobler should be at the stakeout in about 2 and a half minutes.