15 March 2016

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.


I will start off with a statement on the fifth year, the entry in the sixth year of the war in Syria.  Five years ago thousands of Syrians took to the streets calling for political change, only to be met with violence and repression. Recalling the origins of the conflict is important as we mark this grim anniversary.  The destruction that engulfed Syria following those hopeful days of March 2011 was not inevitable.  

The Syrian authorities could have responded peacefully to the legitimate demands of the people with genuine dialogue and reform. Regional and international actors could have united to help Syria stabilize rather than use it as a battlefield for regional rivalries and geo-strategic competition.  Instead, over 250,000 Syrians have been killed.  Nearly half of all Syrians have been forced from their homes, seeking refuge within or outside the country.  The world has been confronted with an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe. Terrorist groups such as Da’esh and Al-Nusrah Front have capitalized on the chaos.  Foreign fighters and sectarian militias, nightly, have poured into Syria to join the fighting.  Syrian men, women and children feel abandoned by the international community.

The Syrian conflict has been the scene of the use of chemical weapons, siege and starvation as a tool of war, unlawful detention, torture, and the indiscriminate and criminal shelling and aerial bombardment of civilians.  Those responsible for these crimes must be held to account.  The Secretary-General repeats my call to the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.  In Syria as elsewhere, peace without justice is not sustainable.  The global consequences of failing to resolve the Syrian conflict are now lamentably clear.  It is in this context that renewed international and regional diplomacy and commitment to finding a solution to the Syrian conflict is vitally important.  The formation of the International Syria Support Group and the commitment of its members to use their influence with the parties to increase humanitarian access to besieged and hard to reach areas in Syria and to implement a cessation of hostilities has created a rare opening and given reason for hope

We have finally moved beyond mere calls on the parties to uphold their obligations under international law to concerted and concrete action to reduce violence and aid civilians in need.  Diplomacy is finally making a difference in the daily lives of the long suffering Syrians.  Remarkably, as the violence has fallen in the past two weeks, the Syrian people have returned to the streets, demonstrating peacefully as they did five years ago.  As welcome as these developments are, they alone do not represent a solution to the Syrian conflict.  That can only come through a comprehensive political settlement to the conflict that addresses the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people and builds on a nationwide ceasefire.  Building on the call in Security Council resolution 2118 (2013) for a political transition, Security Council [resolutions] 2254 (2015) and 2268 (2016) now provide a political path and timeline for pursuing those goals.

The Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has this week convened intra-Syrian negotiations in pursuit of the full implementation of the Geneva Communique as the basis for a Syrian-led political transition.   “I appeal to Syrian parties, regional and international stakeholders and the Security Council to fulfil their responsibilities and to help make these negotiations successful.  If we miss this opportunity the consequences for the Syrian people and the world are all too frightening to contemplate.”  That statement from the Secretary-General is now online.

**Women’s Empowerment

This morning, the Secretary-General met with the Co-chairs of his High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, President Luis Guillermo Solis, President of Costa Rica, and Ms. Simona Scarpaleggia, CEO of IKEA Switzerland.  He also inaugurated the first meeting of the Panel, which has 20 members drawn from Governments, the business community, academia and civil society.  The High-Level Panel, which was launched in January by the Secretary-General, is expected to produce its first report in September to be followed by its final report in March 2017.  The Panel will provide leadership and galvanize political will to outline actions and policies to accelerate the women’s economic empowerment in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  Support for the work of the Panel is being provided by the UK Department for International Development.


As you will have seen in a readout we issued yesterday, the Secretary-General met last night with Foreign Minister [Salaheddine] Mezouar of Morocco, to exchange views on the state of efforts to settle the Western Sahara dispute, as well as his recent visit to the region to explore ways to intensify the negotiating process.  The Secretary-General took note of the misunderstanding related to his use of the word “occupation” as his personal reaction to the deplorable humanitarian conditions in which the Sahrawi people have lived in for far too long.

The Secretary-General also conveyed his astonishment at the recent statement of the Government of Morocco and expressed his deep disappointment and anger regarding the demonstration that was mobilized on Sunday, which targeted him in person.  He stressed that such attacks are disrespectful to him and to the United Nations.  The Secretary-General reiterated his 4 November 2015 call for genuine and serious negotiations without preconditions to make progress soonest.  The full statement is online.

**Security Council

This morning, the Security Council extended the mandate of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) until 15 June of this year, as well as the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) for an additional year.  On Afghanistan, Nicholas Haysom, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, briefed the Council.  And I expect to have him at about 1 p.m. to talk to you.

**Central African Republic

The UN [Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization] Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) reports that the Transitional Constitutional Court yesterday announced the final results of the first round of legislative elections.  The Court confirmed that 45 candidates — out of the 140-seat Parliament — were elected with an absolute majority.  The results in 10 constituencies were annulled due to inconsistencies and by-elections will be organized for those constituencies at a date to be determined.  A second round of legislative elections for the remaining 85 seats is tentatively scheduled for 27 March.


On Malawi, our colleagues at the UN refugee Agency say that daily arrival rates in the country of people fleeing Mozambique have been growing over the past month.  The increase has been from around 130 people a day before late February to around 250 a day now.  Most of the Mozambicans who have been crossing to Malawi since mid-December are in a single village.  Close to 10,000 refugees have now been registered in southern Malawi.  The agency is welcoming the Malawi Government’s decision to reopen a former camp to help cope with the rising numbers fleeing Mozambique.  It adds that the reopening of the Luwani refugee camp will allow better basic services and security for refugees.


Yesterday, I was asked about the latest numbers of arrivals of refugees and migrants in Europe.  According to UNHCR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], as of 1 March — that is about two weeks ago — more than 130,000 people made the journey to Europe in January and February.  Most of them landed in Greece.  [Out of 130,000, 122,637 landed in Greece].  UNHCR also says that this number approaches the total of arrivals for just the first half of 2015, which is 147,000.

**United Nations Development Programme

Also this morning the actress Michelle Yeoh was designated as UNDP Goodwill Ambassador.  In her new role, she will partner with the UN Development Programme to raise awareness and mobilize support for the Sustainable Development Goals. As Goodwill Ambassador, Ms. Yeoh will leverage her influence as an actress and advocate to shine a spotlight on disaster recovery efforts, as well as pursue her long-standing passion for global development issues, including the eradication of poverty and gender equality.

**West Bank

I was asked by one of your colleagues earlier today for a reaction on the land confiscations by the Israeli Government.  I can tell you that the Secretary-General views the recent classification by Israeli authorities of some 2,340 dunums of land as "state land" in the occupied West Bank as an impediment to the two-State solution.  Such actions appear to point towards an increase in settlement activities and demonstrate that Israel is continuing to push forward with the consolidation of its control of the West Bank.  Settlements are illegal under international law. The Secretary-General urges the Government of Israel to halt and reverse such actions in the interest of peace and a just final-status agreement.

**Press Conferences

At 2 p.m., in this very room, after you hear from [Nicholas] Haysom, a press conference on the appointment of Ashley Judd as UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund] Goodwill Ambassador.  Ms. Judd will be joined by the Executive Director of UNFPA.  If you were interested in the 2:45 p.m. press conference by Vĕra Jourová, the EU [European Union] Commissioner for Justice, it has been cancelled.  Tomorrow, at 11 a.m., a press conference here on empowering indigenous women, with Ashlee Donohue from Australia, Valerie Kasaiyian from Kenya, and Tarcila Rivera Zea from Peru.  And my guest at noon will be the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Sigrid Kaag, who will talk to you ahead of her briefing to the Security Council.  Mr. Charbonneau?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thanks, Stéphane.  Two questions.  First, I wondered if you could give us a few more details on the readout, the meeting with the Moroccan Foreign Minister and the SG [Secretary-General].  I mean, this was an unusually sharply worded readout when you compare it to the typically, well, dry readouts that we usually get.  And has the Secretary‑General heard any… gotten any reaction from the Moroccans to this rather sharply‑worded readout?  And then also, the former DPR [Deputy Permanent Representative], Dominican Republic, Francis Lorenzo, has agreed to plead guilty in the case regarding the alleged scheme of bribing the former President of the General Assembly.  I wonder if you could comment on…?

Spokesman:  Sure.  I think we'll wait till we've seen the reports.  That decision will take place on Mr. Lorenzo.  We'll obviously wait till that actually happens.  I don't want to preempt anything.  Obviously, I think the case involving John Ashe and Mr. Lorenzo and others create an opportunity for the UN to look at how it could strengthen the operations of the Office of the President of the General Assembly and increase the transparency of how it works.  I think the office had not really… in its administrative functions had not really evolved since the early 1990s as it's taken more and more importance.  The Secretary‑General had appointed a task force.  It will report to the security… to the General Assembly within the next 10 days in a report that will be made public that will outline suggestions for Member States on how to strengthen the Office of the President of the General Assembly.  Obviously, related to that, there was an audit that was called for by the Secretary‑General looking at our relationship with some of the individuals and foundations named in the original indictment, if that's what you call it.  We expect that audit also to be made public probably before the end of this month. On Western Sahara, I mean, I think, as… indeed, the readout, I think, was fairly clear in expressing the Secretary‑General's position, again, I think, you know, the Secretary‑General has been acting during his recent trip in accordance with the Security Council mandate and in accordance with… in terms of having him facilitate negotiations.  He obviously regrets that there was a misunderstanding over his use of the word "occupation."  There was… there have been some contacts between senior Moroccan officials and senior officials at the UN last evening following the issuance of the readout.

Question:  Just a quick follow‑up.  Can you characterize those communications?

Spokesman:  No, I would rather not.  Mr. Avni?

Question:  Follow‑up on that.  I don't understand exactly what he's saying about the demonstrations.  Is he against the right of assembly?  Is it only the right of assembly in case the… his honour is not being attacked?  What's… what's the beef with people demonstrating, or does he believe that it's organized by the Government?

Spokesman:  I think the Secretary‑General has been the first to defend anyone's right to… right to assembly and right to demonstrate peacefully.  I think he… you know, I… the demonstrations that were mobilized in Rabat clearly aimed at criticizing him for something that he felt… he didn't feel needed to be criticized about.  I think the trip was very clear, what he wanted to achieve on this trip, doing it in two parts, going to Tindouf, visiting the UN peacekeeping outposts, and then going to Rabat and what… the Secretary‑General has been acting very much in… within the mandate of the relevant Security Council resolutions.

Correspondent:  Except there was a misunderstanding, his word.  So, maybe it wasn't that clear.

Spokesman:  I think from the sec… the Secretary‑General's words and explanations had been made very clear.

Question:  Maybe the reaction is to…?

Spokesman:  Benny, I appreciate your analysis.  Thank you.  Oleg and then Masood.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Any reaction to the possible preparing… DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] possibly preparing for a new nuclear test this time using ballistic missile or some sort of nuclear warhead?  And also, anything on the decision of Russia to begin withdrawing the bulk of forces from Syria?  We've heard something from [Staffan] de Mistura, but maybe Ban Ki‑moon wants to say something through you.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  No, I… you know, I think… we heard what Mr. de Mistura said, and the Secretary‑General would very much agree that the decision by the Russian Government is a significant development, and he hopes that it will have a positive impact on the negotiations in Geneva aimed, as you know, at achieving a political solution to the Syrian conflict.  On the DPRK, we're obviously following this very closely.  I think, as you will recall, the Secretary‑General had, in his previous statement, very forcefully asked the DPRK to refrain from any further nuclear activities and to abide by its obligations under relevant Security Council resolutions.  Masood, you've been very patient.

Question:  Yes, sir.  On this Russian withdrawal from Syria, does the Secretary‑General think that the… that Russia's withdrawal this time will have a positive impact or a detrimental impact to the Syrian peace process as it unfolds?

Spokesman:  Masood, with all due respect, I think Oleg just asked the question, and I just answered it, which is to say that it's a significant development, and we very much hope that it will have a positive impact on the progress of the negotiations in Geneva.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Actually, it's a follow‑up question to all the questions asked about Syria and Russian withdrawal from airbase Humaymim.  I just wanted to know, since many experts think that this is going to help UN‑led political process in Syria, especially on the cusp of negotiations in Geneva, what kind of expectations does UN have from these negotiations?  And could you a little bit describe this political process?  Like, what kind of directives Mr. de Mistura has been given, how far he can go in his negotiations?

Spokesman:  Well, I think Mr. de Mistura's road map are the relevant Security Council resolutions.  He's undergoing… right now he's leading proximity talks with various groups that are assembled in Geneva, and I think the end game, all of that, is spelled out in the Security Council resolutions.  That's his road map.  What we want to see is a return of peace and stability to Syria.  I think, as we enter the sixth year of this conflict, as I've, I think, at length explained the Secretary‑General's position in a statement that I read out, I think the Syrian people deserve peace, and they deserve to be able to rebuild their country.

Question:  Does Secretary‑General envision a time frame for these negotiations?

Spokesman:  As I said, everything… the road map, the political roadmap, is enshrined in the Security Council resolutions.  Pam, and then we'll go all the way in the back.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  A follow‑up to the follow‑up to the follow‑ups.  The… on the Syrian talks, we saw Under‑Secretary‑General [Jeffrey] Feltman going into the briefing, and his… he… and asked him about this.  He said it has increased the ability of humanitarian aid to go in.  Can you specify which agencies — UNICEF [United Nations Children’s Fund], OHH… I mean UN… OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs]… who's been able to have more access now?

Spokesman:  Well, I mean, it's… it's not so much a competition between the agencies.  They're all working as one, working hand in hand with the Syrian Red Crescent Society, and I think we always need to… to appreciate the courageous work done by the local humanitarian workers.  So…

Question:  No, I…  That wasn't the point.  The point was, can you give us how many more trucks got in…?

Spokesman:  You know, I think… I had an update yesterday.  I don't have the numbers with me.  It's still… the access has increased, but it's still very much a drop in the bucket.  I think, if I recall what I said yesterday, we were able to reach about 285,000 people out of 4.6 million people that are in need.  There were some convoys that were scheduled to go to some of the hardest-reached areas yesterday we had to cancel because of security concerns.  They're going to try again later this week.  Obviously…

Correspondent:  Visible feeling from these since the agreement…

Spokesman:  I think it's… I think it's much, much too early to tell.  I think we're reaching places that have not been reached for a long time.  So, it… this is really the start of where… we're getting there, but it's really very much a drop in the bucket.  Yes, in the back.

Question:  [Inaudible], 1+1 Media in Ukraine.  In July 2014, Nadiia Savchenko, former Ukrainian officer and a current member of Ukrainian parliament, was captured by pro‑Russian forces in eastern Ukraine and transported across the border to Russia where she's being tried for false accusations.  On 9 March, the Russian court postponed announcement of its final verdict until 21 March.  The court has also denied Ms. Savchenko's right to be attended by the Ukrainian consuls, physicians and family who came to Russia for that purpose.  Savchenko's persecution has inflamed public opinion all over the world.  Many world leaders, including Secretary of State [John] Kerry of United States and High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security Policy of the European Union, condemned and fabricated case against Ukrainian citizen and called on Russia for her immediate release.  In this regard, can you comment on the Secretary‑General's position towards Nadiia Savchenko?

Spokesman:  You know what?  Yes, I can, if you give me just a minute, I think one of my colleague… I had something with me, but I don't have… one of my colleagues will bring it in.  But, I'll get to you before the end of the briefing.  Mr. Klein?

Question:  Yes, thank you.  Two questions.  One is a follow‑up on Morocco.  Did the Secretary‑General expressly walk back his use of the word "occupation" or does he intend to, as opposed to saying it was a misunderstanding?  And secondly, my question… another question has to do with Iran.  Yesterday, in connection with the Security Council meeting, Iran distributed a statement saying that it was blameless and did nothing wrong with respect to what it called this… defensive missile launches, that these missiles were not designed to deliver nuclear weapons and so forth.  I wonder if the Secretary‑General, after having released a previous statement, which was fairly general in terms of his comment on the missile test, does he have any reaction to Iran's statement essentially exonerating itself?  And is he prepared to say that what those missiles… the missile tests were a violation of Security Council resolution… I believe it's [resolution] 2231 (2015)?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  No, I don't… the short answer to your… the second part of your question is I don't have an update or anything to add to what we've already previously said on the tests in Iran.  On your first question, the Secretary‑General is not walking back from his use of the word "occupation", which was done as he answered a question in the specific context having to do with the humanitarian situation, what he had just seen in the camps in Tindouf.  What he has is… you know, he's expressing his regret that there was a misunderstanding, but he's not walking back from his use of the word.  I'm sorry.  I'm… I found your answer on Nadiia Savchenko.  And I can tell you, the Secretary‑General has been following the situation of Ms. Nadiia Savchenko, who is the subject of judicial proceedings in the Rostov region of Russia, very closely.  He is relieved that she has announced an end to her "dry" hunger strike.  The Secretary‑General urges the authorities to observe due process and the fair trial rights of Ms. Savchenko.  Thank you.  Yes, sir?

Question:  Yes, thank you, Stéphane, and thank you for the numbers on the refugees.  Do you have a breakdown or do we know many how many of them are from Syria?

Spokesman:  The vast majority are from Syria, Iraq and then Afghanistan.  Those are the top three, if I'm not mistaken.

Question:  And one follow‑up on the Iran business.  Does the Secretary-General have an opinion on… I believe that the Russian [Ambassador] Mr. [Vitaly] Churkin said that the resolution that calls for Iran to do X, Y, Z, calls for… you cannot violate a call is the fine point on the legalisms of this.  Is there an opinion on the difference “calls for” and “obligates”?

Spokesman:  I think we will let the members of the Security Council, maybe especially the P5, decide on the legality of those words.  Yes?

Question:  Stéphane, I have two questions.  One, on the weekend, the Israeli army strike two persons were killed, so your comment on this and why didn't we hear anything from your side?  And the second question, regarding refugees in Europe, Syrian and Iraqis and others, I think, two days ago, the Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei went to [the former Yugoslav Republic of] Macedonia, if I'm not mistaken, and tried to draw attention to their problem.  Are we going to see the Secretary‑General or going also there or somebody who can just bring more attention to these problems?

Spokesman:  Well, I think, you know, quite a lot of people, including the Secretary‑General, have been trying to bring attention to the refugee crisis.  The Secretary‑General has met with refugees and migrants on a… when he was recently in Central Europe, in Germany, in Canada, in Italy.  I know the High Commissioner for Refugees was himself in Lesbos, I think, two, three weeks ago.  The Special Envoy of the High Commissioner for Refugee, Angelina Jolie, I think, was in the Bekaa Valley today meeting with Syrian refugees to mark the grim anniversary that we're talking about.  On your first question, we've seen these reports.  I'm not able to confirm it.  Obviously, we would hope that any military operation would ensure that no civilians get hurt. Yes, sir?

Question:  I have two questions, Western Sahara and Syria.  So, why didn't the SG use the term "occupation" before?  Does this mean that he changed his position?  He has changed his position on the issue… the conflict in the Western Sahara?  And what is the next step with Morocco?  I mean, how would the SG work on reviving the political process, and who would take the first step or first initiative to overcome this… this situation with the Moroccan Government?

Spokesman:  Well, we very much hope that we can get over this difficult moment with the Moroccan authorities.  As I said, contacts are continuing to be had at senior level between the Moroccan Foreign Ministry and people close to the Secretary‑General.  You know, again, the Secretary‑General has not changed his position.  The Secretary‑General's position on Western Sahara has always been guided by the Security Council resolution.  That's what his work has been about, whether it's with MINURSO [United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara] or supporting the work of his personal envoy, Mr. [Christopher] Ross.  You know, to give you context in the use of the word, last Saturday… last Saturday?  No, two Saturdays ago, the Secretary‑General witnessed a very desperate situation in one of the camps in Tindouf, resulting from decades of life without hope in the harshest conditions.  He stressed that the Sahrawi refugees deserve a better future.  He referred to occupation as related to the inability of Sahrawi refugees to return home under conditions that include satisfactory governance arrangements, under which they can all freely express their desire.  The Secretary‑General reiterated his call for genuine negotiations in good faith and without preconditions.  The objective of restarting these negotiations in a more positive spirit is to provide hope that these people will be able to return home.  Again, I mean, I think we've seen the word "occupation" used in certain Security Council… certain General Assembly resolutions in the 1980s, but I think we have… I… the context in which he used it is very important.  And, again, the Secretary‑General has not changed his position.

Question:  May I ask another…?

Spokesman:  You may.

Question:  On Syria, please.  Yeah, I'm reading here the SG's statement on Syria.  He, like, summarized the five years… the… the last five years, but I don't see any… any word about the UN… the UN's responsibility, especially on the humanitarian side of this conflict.  I don't see that the SG believes that he's also responsible maybe in… in not responding quickly enough to the situation crisis, especially that the UN has known about the… [inaudible], let's say, or Madaya besieged situation.  So, what's his position on this?

Spokesman:  I mean, I think the Secretary‑General has spoken at length about the role of the UN, but I also know that our humanitarian colleagues are working in what is arguably one of the most difficult places in the world in which to deliver aid, where you have more than 100 armed groups who control different parts of the country, where you have a Government that doesn't control all of its territory, a Government that also has been responsible for the humanitarian crisis, holds parts of the responsibility for the humanitarian crisis.  I think they have done… our humanitarian colleagues and our partners have done as best as they possibly can under extremely, extremely difficult circumstances.  I think, while there was no political will or no political movement, the UN continued to do what it can to help alleviate the pain of the Syrian people, whether it's inside Syria or outside Syria, by providing support to the millions of refugees that poured out of the country and supporting those countries like Lebanon, like Turkey, and like Jordan that have been bearing the… carrying the biggest load of refugees coming from Syria.  Yes.  And [inaudible].

Question:  I have a follow‑up question on your answer regarding [inaudible].  You said you saw the report, but you were not able to verify them.  What do you exactly mean by… not able to verify that they were airstrikes or…?

Spokesman:  I haven't received any reports from our colleagues on the ground.  I'm happy to check after the briefing.  Mr. Avni and then…

Question:  On Syria, last week, the… the… de Mistura gave a few interviews in which he recommended an election in 19 months.  In light of the pushbacks, do we still believe… where does that stand?  Do we still believe that it's possible, feasible?

Spokesman:  I think the… I think, as I was telling Anna, I think the political framework and timeline is in the Security Council resolutions.  I will not from here try to reinterpret or characterize what Mr. de Mistura has already said.  Go?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Again, on Syria, would you assess that what… all the developments we're seeing right now on the ground in Syria, as well as the talk in Geneva, unprecedentedly positive in the last five years?

Spokesman:  I mean, you know, all… compared to what we've seen, yes, unprecedentedly positive, but we're coming back from a very dark place.  So, are we moving in the right direction?  Yes.  I think the cessation of hostilities has been, by and large, holding.  Have we been able to increase our humanitarian deliveries?  Yes.  But, we are still seeing some violations, and we're not nearly where we would want to be in terms of delivery of humanitarian aid.  Thank you.  Have a wonderful day.  Now I've got a free umbrella.

For information media. Not an official record.