15 March 2017

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.


The Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien said in a video statement issued today that the toll taken on civilians in Syria after six years of conflict is inexcusable.  He said that hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, while almost 5 million people — the majority of them women and children — have fled the grotesque violence and deprivation and are now living as refugees.  Another 6 million people are displaced within their own country.  He said even if a political agreement were to succeed tomorrow, millions of Syrians will still require critical humanitarian assistance for months and likely years to come.  The statement is available online.

And also in a press release today, the World Health Organization (WHO) says that, over the past six years, access to health services for the civilian population in the country has seriously deteriorated.  More than half of public hospitals and primary health centres in the Syrian Arab Republic have either closed or are only partially functioning.  Almost two thirds of health-care workers have fled.  Many health-care facilities that are open lack clean water, electricity, and sufficient medical and surgical supplies.  The full press release is available online.

Closer to home, starting about a few minutes ago, staff here at UN Headquarters are gathering at the Knotted Gun sculpture in the Visitor's Centre Plaza.  They are marking six years of brutal war in Syria and will be holding photos of a six-year-old Syrian child.  UN Staff around the globe will collectively observe a moment of silence to give a voice to those affected by the conflict and send a message to Member States and world leaders to put an end to the carnage that has ravaged Syria for six years.

And our colleagues at the Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs have just given me this humanitarian update for Syria, telling us that yesterday, the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent delivered humanitarian assistance, including food, nutrition and medical assistance, to 60,000 people in need in the besieged four towns of Madaya, Az-Zabadani, and Foah and Kafraya.

The teams encountered multiple challenges along the way, including insecurity in addition to delays imposed by security forces and the conditional nature of the Four Towns agreement.  Delays in the arrival of the convoys into the towns also restricted the ability of the UN team to undertake technical assessments, as the teams arrived too late to implement them.

The UN is concerned because medical items were removed from the convoys.  We continue to press for the delivery of medical equipment and supplies based on need, and stress that the removal of such items is in contradiction with the provisions of international humanitarian law.  The last inter-agency mission reached these towns on 28 November of last year.  The UN continues to call for safe, sustained and unimpeded humanitarian access to all those in need in Syria particularly those in hard-to-reach and besieged areas.

**Security Council

The Security Council, as you know, today is holding a ministerial open debate on the theme of “trafficking in persons in conflict situations:  forced labour, slavery and other similar practices”.  Addressing the Council, the Secretary-General noted that human trafficking is not a thing of the past, with trafficking networks having gone global and victims being found in more than 100 countries.  He said that the modern manifestations of servitude may touch and even implicate us all, pointing to examples of how consumer goods, such as smartphones and food, may bear traces of exploitation.

The Secretary-General noted that in some of today’s conflicts, armed groups — such as Da’esh — not only openly engage in enslavement and forced labour, but actually argue that it is legal.  He stressed that there is much that can be done to both punish human trafficking and to prevent it in the first place, calling for increased international cooperation to fight this scourge.  His full statement is online.


From Yemen, according to a new report, we are told that severe food insecurity threatens more than 17 million people in the conflict-ridden country.  That is according to the latest analysis released by the UN and our humanitarian partners today. The World Food Programme, the FAO and UNICEF all participated in the analysis.  Twenty of the country’s 22 governorates are in “emergency” or “crisis” food insecurity phases and almost two thirds of the population are now facing hunger and urgently require life and livelihood-saving assistance.

Without additional humanitarian and livelihoods support, Taiz and Hodeidah, two governorates accounting for almost a quarter of Yemen’s population, risk slipping into famine.  With an estimated 17 million people at “emergency” or “crisis” levels of food insecurity, Yemen is currently one of the worst hunger crises in the world.  These numbers represent a 21 per cent increase since June of last year.

**Commission on the Status of Women

Later today, the Commission on the Status of Women will symbolically mark the global gender pay gap of 23 per cent by interrupting its work at 4:10 p.m.  Female delegates will gather in Conference Room 4 and the General Assembly Hall to undertake their after-work activities when there is still 23 per cent of the work day left to highlight the disparity in pay for women who make only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.  The event is part of the CSW's and UN-Women's efforts to champion the economic empowerment of women through equal pay for work of equal value.

**Central African Republic

In response to questions, I think you had asked me, Matthew, about the Central African Republic, I can tell you that the [United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA)] in the country conducted investigations in July of last year on a Cameroonian contingent that was allegedly involved in illegal activities. The investigation concluded that there was no evidence of any wrongdoing.

**Press Briefings

After we are done here, the inter Parliamentary Union together with UN-Women will present the 2017 World Map of Women in Politics.  The report highlights the number of women in parliament and in ministerial positions.  Tomorrow, we will have as our guest via videoconference — Lise Grande, the Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq.  She will brief you on the latest developments in and around Mosul.  And at 3 p.m. tomorrow, the Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, and the World Health Organization’s Director-General, Margaret Chan, will make an announcement on Antimicrobial Resistance.  Speaking of resistance, Nizar.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Okay.  Thank you, Stéphane.  Well, talk about resistance, today in Beirut, there was this… the publishing of a report by ESCWA [United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia] calling Israel an apartheid and saying that, unless apartheid is dismantled in Israel, the two‑State solution will not… will never work.  What does the Secretary‑General believe about this report and if the United Nations endorses this report or not?

Spokesman:  Yes, we've seen, in fact, we just saw the report today, which as you say, was published by ESCWA.  It was done so without any prior consultations with the Secretariat, and the report, as it stands, does not reflect the views of the Secretary‑General.  I would add that there is… that the report… you know, in the publication itself, it says that the report and its findings and conclusions are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the UN.

Question:  Mr. Richard Falk is one of the authors of this report, and he used to work for the United Nations for a long time.  Does he…?

Spokesman:  I know who Richard Falk is.  He used to be the Special Rapporteur for human rights in Palestine.  That's no longer his function.  As you know, the Special Rapporteurs are independent.

Correspondent:  I have another question on Yemen.

Spokesman:  I'll come back to you for Yemen.  Majeed.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  First, I want to ask about Syria.  Today is the anniversary of the beginning of the uprising in Syria.  I wonder if you had anything to say about that.  And the second question is, today the Secretary‑General talked about… asked for aggressive investigation and prosecution with regard to trafficking in person.  Last week, the human rights lawyer Amal Clooney asked for investigation into ISIS crime against Yazidi minorities in Iraq.  What is the Secretary‑General's position about this?  Is he supporting an international investigation or not?

Spokesman:  I think the Secretary‑General feels that all these crimes, especially the trafficking crimes that he underscored, need to be… need to be investigated.  And, obviously, the right mechanism needs to be found.  But, there needs to be accountability for all those who are exploiting, trafficking, and dealing in this sort of horrendous… horrendous human… human trafficking.  You know, as far as the sixth… the Syria conflict, I think I highlighted what Mr. O'Brien would say… has said.  I think, for the Secretary‑General, it's clear that the conflict that the Syrian people have been… the current conflict and how it's impacted the Syrian people is one of the worst conflicts of our times.  I think as… we need to have… we need to ensure that all the parties make the most of the ceasefire that was agreed to last December, enhance it further, and ensure that it leads to the free flow of humanitarian aid to all those who need it in Syria.  I mean, we saw from the update today, there still needs… there are still many challenges every time we need to deliver humanitarian aid.  Medical supplies are removed.  Roadblocks, both literal and figurative roadblocks, still stand in the way.  Whether it's armed men or whether it's administrative procedures, the Syrian people are not getting the aid they need.  And all those who have an influence on the parties on the ground need to exercise that influence positively to jumpstart the intra‑Syrian negotiations on the basis of the Geneva Communiqué and what has been… what has been achieved.  Yes.

Question:  Thank you.  Wondering whether you have any thoughts about a report that was in Foreign Policy earlier today or yesterday about the US Secretary of State sending a letter around to some human rights organizations suggesting that the US might be ready to withdraw from the Human Rights Council unless reforms are made to his liking, and also whether you have any thoughts about the expected emergence tomorrow of a budget proposal from the US President that may contain steep cuts in foreign aid and possibly to the UN.

Spokesman:  On your first part, on the Human Rights Council, I mean, I think our colleagues in Geneva had some comments to make.  Obviously, the United States is an integral part of the Human Rights Council.  It's important that every country participate in its work.  We've all seen the reports, various reports, of what may or may not happen.  This is… we understand this is the beginning of a budgetary process.  We're not going to comment at this time.  Mr. Lee.

Correspondent:  Sure.  I want to ask about Libya, but maybe as… maybe as related to that, thanks for the answer on… on the Cameroon allegations by a member of parliament there about… about private business and conflict diamonds.  But, I'd also asked last week or now more than a week about the… the August 2015 allegations by Amnesty International that the contingent of Cameroon went back and was involved in reprisal rapes in CAR [Central African Republic].  And since it's now 2017…

Spokesman:  I mean, I don't have any…

Question:  How long is too long to investigate?

Spokesman:  I don't have anything here.  You may want to look through the Special Measures report, see if there's anything in there.  I'll see what I can get, but I just don't have anything off the top of my head.

Question:  Also on reform, I wanted to ask whether you've seen today the Government Accountability Project has made a proposal that there be a Special Adviser on whistleblower and has expressed some concern that the current Secretary‑General may be, from their point of view, as unconcerned with protecting whistleblowers as his predecessor citing the case of Kompass, Miranda Brown and now Emma Reilly.  And so, I'm wondering, is there any consideration of appointing such a position?

Spokesman:  I think, I mean, I always appreciate hearing from the Government Accountability Office.  I think anyone who has looked at the whistle-blower policy that was approved within a few weeks of Secretary‑General Guterres coming into office will see in it his strong determination to protect whistleblowers to ensure that there is the right kind of policies for the staff and for whistle-blowers.  The policy was, in fact, approved by both management and the representation of the global staff.  So, I think we're very… we're very confident, and I think the Secretary‑General is very determined to ensure that the right policy is put in place.

Question:  Is the head of OHRM [Office of Human Resources Management] still in place?  I wanted to ask you that.  I've heard that the ASG [Assistant Secretary-General] for OHRM is actually no long… and I ask because it's… they're the person who decides who can be punished and who can't.  Are they…?

Spokesman:  Right, right.  I understand… I mean, I don't know if the outgoing… or if the person who was in that post is actually still there.  And even if they… if a senior official is no… a person is no longer in the post, there's an officer in charge, and the process… the process continues.  Madame.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I'm yearning to report ESCWA report.  Who commissioned it?  And who reviewed it?  Who is…?

Spokesman:  I think… that's a question to ask of ESCWA.  It's a report commissioned by ESCWA, and I would refer your questions to ESCWA.  In the meantime, I was given a statement to read out on Syria in the voice of the Secretary‑General, and I will read it out now.  For six years now, the Syrian people have been victims of one of the worst conflicts in our time.  As the war enters its seventh year, I issue two urgent appeals to the parties.  First, make the most of the 30 December 2016, ceasefire established by the guarantors of the Astana meetings, enhance it further and ensure that humanitarian aid can reach all those in need in Syria without any obstacle or impediments.  Second, all those with influence on the parties to the conflict must strive to overcome their differences and work together to put an end to the conflict, namely contributing to the success of the intra‑Syrian negotiations in Geneva on the basis of the Geneva communiqué and relevant Security Council resolutions, including 2254 (2015).  Peace in Syria is a moral and political imperative both for the Syrian people and for the world — an imperative that cannot wait.  Fathi.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  There were reports over the past 48 hours of existence of Russian military assets in Egypt, close to the border with Libya, ready to intervene into Libya if they have not intervened already.  Any comments from the Secretary‑General, and what's his position on that…?

Spokesman:  We've seen the press reports.  We have no way of verifying these things one way or another.

Question:  Will the Secretary‑General endorse the involvement of the…?

Spokesman:  As I said, we have no… I'm not going to comment on hypothetical.  I think what is important is that, A, that we cannot confirm these reports.  We have no idea of their veracity and also that it's important that the international community support the UN's effort as mandated by the Security Council to bring stability to Libya.  Nizar.

Question:  Yeah.  Last week, at the Security Council, everybody, including the Secretariat, called for the opening of Hudaydah seaport for… in order to prevent a real starvation of the Yemeni people.  Has there any progress been done on this level?  Did the Saudis respond positively to allow ships to go into Hudaydah?

Spokesman:  I have no… I did not get an update, a humanitarian update on Yemen today except to underscore, as you heard, the fact that almost 60 per cent of the country, of the people in the country, are suffering from hunger.  I will try to get a bit more detailed update for you.

Question:  When you talk about 7 million people are facing starvation, that's a quarter of the population of Yemen.  Doesn't that place the Yemeni crisis on the top of the agenda of the international community?  Why is Syria considered the number one [inaudible]…?

Spokesman:  These are… no one is trying to compare and contrast the suffering of people.  You've been in this room for at least the last 13, 14 minutes, which I've been here.  I read out the conclusions of a UN‑sponsored report on hunger in Yemen highlighting that it is the worst hunger crisis the world is facing today.  So, I think no one, especially the Secretary‑General, is ignoring the people of Yemen.  He was here just a few weeks ago to highlight the threats of famine himself.  Olga.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Venezuela parliament announced the humanitarian crisis in the country because of food insecurity.  Any chance UN agencies will be involved in the situation?

Spokesman:  Let me check, and I'll get back to you.  Oleg.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Still nothing from the Secretary‑General on the arguments between Turkey and Netherlands, which are really getting hot, and there… there are number of measures, counter‑measures, retaliations?

Spokesman:  We would hope… we would hope for a calming of the situation.

Question:  Did he contact any of the officials from…?

Spokesman:  I'm not aware of any contacts he's had between the two.  And in the back.  Take your coat off, Richard.  Stay a while.

Correspondent:  I… it's cold [inaudible]…

Spokesman:  The resistance is leaving.

Question:  There is more resistance to come, I think.  Two quick questions.  If you mentioned it in the first ten minutes, I withdraw it.  Did the Secretary‑General plan to go outside to receive the petition of the staff regarding the anniversary of the end of the six years of Syria?  Because I thought that was supposed… he was supposed to be there to receive the petition.  Is that going to happen?

Spokesman:  There was a scheduling issue.  He, unfortunately, could not… could not make it, but, as I said, I think I read out just now a statement expressing his feelings on Syria.  Next?

Question:  Next.  I realize you can't comment now on the budget issue, but it keeps coming, and I was curious, since we don't see much of the Secretary‑General, are… are there overall plans at different agencies from UNICEF [United Nations Children’s Fund] to World Food to UN?  Have there been crisis talks on how to handle, react, or is it every agency, every staffer for himself…

Spokesman:  I think… I'm not sure it's every staffer for his or herself.  I think we're obviously aware of the reporting, and we're reading what's going on.  The Secretary‑General, for his part, is engaged in discussions, constructive discussions, with the Permanent Representative of the United States on a regular basis.  As I said, we're not going to comment on things that have yet to happen.  There is a budget process in this country and it is playing itself out.  And we're obviously… we're obviously watching it, and we're obviously extremely grateful for the contributions of the United States to the UN's operating budget, whether through assessed or voluntary contributions.  Pam.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Follow‑up to the… that and the previous question.  Is… is there any effort to persuade the US State Department once… the budget is coming out tomorrow, and the definitions of how they allocate the UN part will not be determined tomorrow.  But is… is there a meeting set up with the… I mean, a new… it was to be set up but with the SG and the Administration?  Is there any connect… contact other than with Ambassador Haley?

Spokesman:  Again, the main point of contact for us is through the Permanent Representative here.

Question:  And would you say that there's been an effort to persuade not to…?

Spokesman:  I'm not going to get into… again, to get into the details of something that has yet to happen.  Mr. Lee, and then we'll go to our briefers.

Question:  Okay.  I wanted to ask about DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], but I wanted to just follow up on these two.  One, can you confirm that… that Under‑Secretary‑General Jeffrey Feltman has recently, within the past week, been down in Washington, D.C., on Capitol Hill meeting with representatives on the topic of budget cuts?

Spokesman:  No.

Question:  Okay.  Can you an… well, can you answer… the Secretary‑General's trip to Kenya, unannounced, but, obviously, important trip to Somalia… how is it decided how… what media would accomplish… would accompany him?  And I ask it because…

Spokesman:  I decided.

Question:  Okay.  There's now a big outcry.  As you know, the Secretary of State… US Secretary of State is traveling to Asia.  The press corps there has said there needs to be input; you can't just hand‑pick people.  So, did you, in fact, hand‑pick people?

Spokesman:  First of all, I think you're comparing apples and oranges.  When the Secretary‑General travels, he travels, for the most part, on commercial flights.  We do not have the infrastructure that a lot of Member States have, that their foreign ministers or leaders have in terms of… of taking journalists along.  That's just an infrastructure we don't have.  When we feel we need to take journalists along, we take them along, and we figure out what… in the best possible way.

Correspondent:  Right, but…

Spokesman:  And it's… I… I decide…

Question:  You [inaudible] that it's hand‑picking?  How is this different than what…?

Spokesman:  Well, I have two hands.  It's… I think you're comparing apples and oranges.  Thank you.  I'll go get our briefers.  Yeah, what?

Correspondent:  One quick question.  On…

Spokesman:  Your microphone, please.

Question:  Oh, sorry.  Because it's the Syrian anniversary, do you see any progress on any of the bodies for accountability of the horrific crimes, starting with the Government and then there…?

Spokesman:  I don't think we've seen much progress on the issue of accountability.

For information media. Not an official record.