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

21 July 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 Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

Good afternoon, everyone.

**Syria

The Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, is gravely alarmed by the disturbing developments in the eastern part of Aleppo City in Syria, where civilian, humanitarian and commercial movements have been effectively cut off following the closure of Castello Road, the last remaining access route in and out of this area.  An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people are at risk of besiegement, and hospitals and other civilian infrastructure have also been affected by the fighting.

While the United Nations and our partners still have some stocks to respond to humanitarian needs, food in east Aleppo is expected to run out by the middle of next month.  Our highest priority is to re-establish access to eastern Aleppo city, through both cross-line convoys and cross-border operations from Turkey, so that we can replenish critical life-saving assistance like food, medical supplies and fuel and assure the continuation of basic services.

Mr. O’Brien calls on all parties to the conflict to immediately enable unconditional, unimpeded and sustained access to the millions of people in besieged and hard-to-reach areas across Syria.  He urges them to lift all sieges, to respect the safety of medical and humanitarian workers, and to ensure the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure.

UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund, says that this week in Syria, more than 20 children were reportedly killed in air strikes in Manbij and a 12-year-old boy was brutally murdered on camera in Aleppo.

The Children’s Fund highlighted the parties’ shared responsibility to respect international humanitarian laws that protect children in war.

UNICEF estimates that 35,000 children are trapped in and around Manbij with nowhere safe to go.  In the past six weeks, and as violence has intensified, over 2,300 people were reportedly killed in the area, among them dozens of children.

The Children’s Fund deplores all forms of violence and urges all parties to the conflict in Syria to make every effort to avoid the loss of civilian lives.

South Sudan

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) updates that it is following up on the deeply disturbing reports of sexual violence reported earlier, including the rape and gang rape by soldiers in uniform against a number of civilians, including minors, around UN House as well as in several neighbourhoods of Juba.

The Mission reports that the number of victims could be in the dozens and that these acts have taken place since the start of the current spate of violence in Juba.  The Mission's Human Rights team is currently documenting these cases, which may constitute a war crime.

UNMISS calls on President [Salva] Kiir and First Vice President Riek Machar to take personal responsibility for immediately sanctioning the soldiers responsible for these unacceptable acts of sexual violence.  The Mission has stepped up its patrols in and around its Protection of Civilians’ sites as well in Juba city, although with restrictions, and is taking measures to provide the required safety to women who need to go out of the Protection of Civilians’ sites to collect firewood and procure other non-food items.

The situation in the country remains tense and volatile.

And in response to a question yesterday on access to Protection of Civilians’ sites in South Sudan:  protection of civilians, including in our Protection of Civilians’ sites, is the Mission’s main concern.

Given the intense fighting that occurred close to the sites, extensive safety and security operations, including operations to clear any unexploded ordnance and weapons searches in both Protection of Civilians’ sites, were the priorities for the Mission in the sites during the first week following the fighting.

During this time, to minimize security risks, only the most critical UNMISS and humanitarian staff were allowed to enter the Protection of Civilians’ sites.

In the days since the conflict subsided, internally displaced people (IDPs) have been freely moving in and out of the sites whenever they deemed the situation safe enough.  No displaced person has been stopped from speaking to the media outside the sites.

Given the continued volatile situation, the Mission is evaluating the security situation on a daily basis and expects that media will be able to visit the Protection of Civilians’ sites again in the coming days.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, just wrapped up a press conference in the Democratic Republic of the Congo today.

He said that the overall incidence of sexual violence and crimes appears to be decreasing in the country and commended President [Joseph] Kabila for his personal commitment to ensuring that justice is done in cases involving security forces.

He added that the Government had shown commendable effort in investigating and bringing to trial several of its peacekeepers accused of sexual exploitation and abuse while deployed in the Central African Republic. This is noteworthy given the reluctance of so many other peacekeeping countries to do likewise, he said.

On the political situation in the DRC, the High Commissioner said that advances may be in danger, with rising tension as crucial electoral deadlines approach and reports of increasing harassment of civil society representatives and journalists.

To overcome the many challenges facing the DRC, there must be an open and honest dialogue, the High Commissioner said, with respect for human rights at its centre.  Where there is criminal activity, including a clear incitement to violence, then investigation and prosecution should follow, he added — but where there are conflicting views on these allegations, only adherence to a transparent, effective and impartial rule of law can establish the required clarity.

Regarding the situation in the eastern provinces, the High Commissioner reiterated that it was crucial to put an end to the pitiless violence and illegal activities of armed groups.

**Development

The Deputy Secretary-General, Jan Eliasson, just spoke at the Development Cooperation Forum.

He stressed that at times of crisis, solidarity is more necessary than ever, adding that international development cooperation is based on the recognition that we cannot survive or overcome global challenges in isolation.

The Deputy Secretary-General highlighted development cooperation’s great potential to be a catalyst for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  He urged everyone gathered at the Forum to use the opportunity to pinpoint critical progress and areas for new or intensified efforts.  His full remarks are available in our office.

**Climate

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) warns that 2016 is on track to be the world’s hottest year on record.  Global temperatures for the first six months alone have shattered yet more records.

June 2016 marked the 14th consecutive month of record heat for land and oceans.  It marked the 378th consecutive month with temperatures above the 20th century average. Moreover, carbon dioxide concentrations have passed the symbolic milestone of 400 parts per million in the atmosphere so far this year.

The organization says that that this trend underscores the need to approve and implement the Paris Agreement on climate change, and to speed up the shift to low carbon economies and renewable energy.  More information is available on WMO’s website.

**Inter-Parliamentary Union

The Secretary-General will sign a new cooperation agreement today with the Secretary-General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Martin Chungong.  There is growing recognition of the role parliamentarians play in legislating on issues with global repercussions and on overseeing the implementation by Governments of the commitments they have made at the international level.  Parliamentarians will be key players in realizing the Paris Agreement, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Sendai Agreement.

This new cooperation agreement between the UN and the IPU recognizes this growing role of parliamentarians.  The signing coincides with the General Assembly’s discussion on the cooperation between the UN and parliamentarians, which takes place on Monday.

And the Secretary-General is expected to make press remarks at today’s signing, which is at 3:30 pm.

**Press Encounters Tomorrow

For other press encounters:  tomorrow my guest will be Jean-Paul Laborde, Executive Director of the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED).  He will brief on the flow of foreign terrorist fighters and the recent terrorist attacks.

And then, at around 4 p.m., there will be a press encounter by the UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson.  He will brief at the Security Council stakeout.

**Questions and Answers

That is it for me.  Are there any questions?  Yes, Oleg.

Question:  Thanks, Farhan.  On the air strike in Syria, did you manage to get any information about that, thank you?

Deputy Spokesman:  No.  We are following up.  Of course, we are opposed to all of the damage created by these sorts of air strikes that disproportionately strike at civilians.  We don't have any first-hand information about responsibility.  Yes?  Was your hand up?  Yes, I thought it was.

Question:  On South Sudan, you informed us yesterday that a couple of nations withdrew some police forces from South Sudan.  And could you just elaborate again what exactly is the problem by doing so?  And, second, the Germans just told us that they had informed the Secretariat before, in oral and a written statement obviously — can you say something about that?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, on the latter question, I would need to get some further details.  I'm not aware of the situations of particular individual contingents.  What I can say that is that in light of the deteriorating security situation in South Sudan, a number of police-contributing countries (PCCs) evacuated a number of their police officers in UNMISS.  This was done without consulting the Mission.  So the problems I'm referring to are problems having to do with cases where there was no consultation.  These departures affected the operational capability of the Mission and the morale of staff, particularly when hundreds of civilian staff, UN Volunteers and uniformed peacekeepers in Juba continued to carry out their duties under very challenging circumstances.  Consequently, UN Peacekeeping has decided to disinvite these police-contributing countries from returning their police officers to South Sudan and has conveyed this decision to the concerned countries.  UN Peacekeeping will continue to discuss issues of mutual concern, including duty of care issues, with all these and all police- and troop-contributing countries. 

Question:   Can I follow up?  I wanted to ask you, can you confirm as is set forth in the memo, that the UK withdrew two, Germany seven and Sweden three, and then can you state whether the US has withdrawn its police component?

Deputy Spokesman:  No.  I can't confirm any nationalities.  Basically, the concerned Member States were informed of our decision.  It's up to them to make public details on their decision to evacuate their officers, and that is of their choosing.

Question:  And what about a UN memo that opines on the qualifications of a country to be a permanent member of the Security Council?  I'm wondering does the Secretariat have the same view of France, given sexual abuse in CAR (Central African Republic), and we can go down the line of the P5, but what do you think of that memo?

Deputy Spokesman:  First of all, I'm not aware that there is any sort of authentic memo.  I was actually trying to check up with my colleagues this morning about this document that was reported on one of the news wires.  And, no, they looked over all their memos and there is no such document that they see, so I'm not aware of any such thing.

Question:   Finally, even if a country gives notice in the middle of a crisis and pulls its soldiers out, doesn't that also hurt morale?  In terms of civilian staff remaining, what is the difference in terms of hurting morale?  And do you encourage countries, can Chad pull out of Mali any time they want or when it gets dangerous?  How does that work?

Deputy Spokesman:  First of all, this is not simply an issue or pulling out.  We are well aware that there are times when military circumstances on the ground are extremely dangerous.  We are well aware that troop-contributing countries and police contributing countries have sovereign control over their personnel and may take operational decisions to ensure their safety, which may, from time to time, include relocating them or withdrawing them; that's very clear.  For us, the issue is really one of communication and coordination; that in this case where some withdrawals were done without consulting the mission, that impedes our work and that's what we wanted to make sure does not happen.

Question:  How is it consistent with protection of civilians if the UN is saying to its peacekeeping and police-contributors you can leave, whenever it gets dangerous you can leave, no problem?

Deputy Spokesman:  That's not what we are saying.  We are not saying you can leave.

Question:  As long as you tell us we are leaving?

Deputy Spokesman:  No, it's not even that.  People have to take military decisions.  We are not trying to put people into a path where they have to sacrifice themselves.  There are ways to protect people in conditions of conflict that do not involve that kind of action.  But what we are saying is that those actions that they take need to be coordinated.  And, of course, when we do these things, we have to make sure that we can ensure the protection of civilians.  We have to do that.

Question:  Isn't there a chain of command?  Doesn't the command to come out, well, whatever, doesn't it come from the top or can individual countries say, I'm going my own way, this is what I'm asking you?

Deputy Spokesman:  Of course we have a chain of command.  We have force commanders for peacekeeping missions.  There is a way in which all of these issues are to be handled.  Again, with the appropriate amount of communication and coordination, there is a lot of things that can be done.  Without that, the system doesn't work and that is why we need to make sure that all contingents understand that.  Yes, yes, Mr. Abbadi?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  Farhan, you scheduled a lot of press conference for different people in this room.  When will you do that for the Secretary‑General?

Deputy Spokesman:  We will do that whenever it's applicable.  I'm well aware that we are coming close to the start of the General Assembly in September; and, of course, prior to that, we always have a very big press conference by the Secretary‑General.  If there is any others, we will let you know.  But, of course, he has press encounters and I believe he is going to have some press remarks in just a few hours from now for people who go up there.  Olga?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  It was announced over there that next week the trilateral meeting by and between UN, US, and Russia will talk in Geneva on Syria.  What do you expect to be discussed next week?

Deputy Spokesman:  Our hope is that any discussions on Syria will help move forward with the process so that we can also get to starting the next round of intra-Syrian talks.  And as you know, Staffan de Mistura, the Special Envoy, continues his own discussions and is encouraging all countries to play a helpful role so that we can get the next round going in short order.

Question:  Just a follow‑up?

Deputy Spokesman:  Sure.  And then Evelyn.

Question:  Just a follow‑up, do you know if Staffan de Mistura will take other meetings in preparation for next week consultations?

Deputy Spokesman:  We expect him to consult widely, as he has been doing, and we will share details of those meetings as we get them.  Yes, Evelyn?

Question:  Do we know if these police officers were armed or not armed?  And then, secondly, Turkey has now expelled a journalist who testified in front of in Geneva on human rights — arrested, not expelled.  Is there any news on… is there any update on Turkey and locking up everyone who disagrees with the Government?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, you have seen what we have been saying in recent days and the concerns expressed about some of the detentions and some of the treatment.  I would refer you most particularly to what High Commissioner for Human Rights says, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, has been saying on this.  And I also anticipate that as we are evaluating the situation, the Secretary‑General may have a little more to say on this in the days ahead.  [He later added that the UN police officers were unarmed.]

Question:  And also, as everyone is talking about climate change, is there any outreach to the Republican Party before or after its convention, since the earth is flat there and they don't believe in the science of it and that could be quite crucial in the future?

Deputy Spokesman:  I think the UN is doing as much as it can to educate the world about the reality of climate change.  Yes?

Question:  Sure.  I wanted to… just one thing on what Mr. Abbadi asked about, when you say press remarks, this is a kind of a code word for no Q and A?

Deputy Spokesman:  I don't believe that there is Q and A.  I think it's a very short press event that will be at the opening of the meeting that the Secretary‑General has with Martin Chungong.

Question:  Do you know if it's about IPU, it's welcoming IPU or some other topic? 

Deputy Spokesman:  I would imagine it's about IPU, because that is what the meeting is.

Question:  Sure.  Can I ask, in Gambia, the opposition leader, Mr. [Ousainou] Darboe, has been sentenced to three years for participating in a demonstration, and I wanted to know, I know previously the UN and the UN Office of West Africa and Mr. [Jeffrey] Feltman had been trying to engage with Gambia; what has been done since and do you have any comment on this prison sentence?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, we need to look into what the process is and make sure that due process has been followed in this particular case.  But I'll also check up and see whether there is any other reaction about this.

Question:  Can I ask, there is, I wanted to ask, and I know this is a question, whether the health insurance of the UN staff or American UN staff here was told that the US has, quote, opted out of Obamacare, if you're aware of that?  And that items such as breast pumps and other items that are required to be covered by Obamacare are, in fact, not covered by the insurance given to you and staff, so I don't expect you to know off the top, but what is the relationship between the new health-care mandate and the UN as in regards to US?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, first of all, different staff have different health-care policies.  It would vary, depending upon the health-care providers.  So you need to talk to the health providers.

Question:  What is the relationship between the UN and the new nationwide mandate known as Obamacare and US nationals who are UN staff members, and is there a relationship and has the UN opted out?  That’s my question to you.

Deputy Spokesman:   That is ultimately a question for the United States, so you would need to check the United States.  If the United States has opted out, like I said, staff are on different health-care plans.  You would need to talk to each of the providers.

Question:  The US has opted out of Obamacare…

Deputy Spokesman:  It's an issue for providers, not an issue for the UN. 

Question:  Right, the employer, I just want to be very clear, you are the employer, I wanted to know whether the Obamacare mandate applies to the UN as an employer and if so you opted out.  If people that are in it and want those programs don't have them, it's not about the US, it's about the UN.

Deputy Spokesman:  No.  It's about the health-care provider.  I mean, for example, I'm an American staff member.  I'm on a health-care plan.  There has been no change to my plan.  Whether that is true of other people on different providers, I do not know.  Yes?

Question:  I know there are mechanics on the question of the SG race, but as a long-time veteran of the building, and having been through the process and observing it, I just wonder, as an experienced staff member, despite whatever health plan you are on, can you comment on the significance of today's event with a crowded field for the Security Council to consider and the climate of the world, as a UN long-time person’s interest, what do you think of the start of the process?

Deputy Spokesman:  It's fascinating.  And as before it's shrouded in mystery and yet interesting.

Question:  And my second question, I always ask, it seems every few years, could you guarantee us that the 38th floor is completely at the same Cool UN higher temperatures, that there is not a secret air conditioning blast blower that keeps everyone cool up there, it's the same treatment that everybody else in the building — really, still on the 38th, that they meet with an important VIP from another country?

Deputy Spokesman:   When I go up in the mornings for meetings, it feels the same as it does here, so I think so.  I don't know.  It's hard to tell your temperature from your body, but it feels no different there than it does here.  Yes, Oleg?

Question:  Thanks, Farhan.  On the same topic on Syria, I'm not asking whether you can determine responsibility, can you at least confirm the fact that there was an air strike in that area, or you don't have means to do that?

Deputy Spokesman:  We are certainly aware of the reports of air strikes and we are aware of reports of damages that are comparable to that caused by air strikes.  Yes?

Question:  And on a separate topic on Turkey, the Deputy Prime Minister of the country said his country is going to suspend European Human Rights Convention under the new state of emergency which was, I guess, endorsed today by the Parliament for three months, do you have any comment to that?  Do you think it's in line with the calls you made for respecting the democracy, thank you?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, for us, like I said, our basic concern is that the relevant human rights norms and commitments made by Turkey are upheld; those include to basic freedoms, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and others.  We may have more to say on this, as I told Evelyn, in the coming day or so, so I expect we might have something more formal to tell you down the line.  Good afternoon, everyone.

For information media. Not an official record.