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 situation in Venezuela.
We are concerned about the latest developments in Venezuela and urge that all efforts be made to lower tensions and prevent further clashes.
We call on the Government of Venezuela and the opposition to engage sincerely to reactivate dialogue efforts, especially around the critical issues that they had already agreed to place on the agenda, namely the balance of power among branches of the State, the electoral calendar, human rights, truth and justice and the socioeconomic situation.
We call for concrete gestures from all parties to reduce polarization and create the necessary conditions to address the country’s challenges for the benefit of the Venezuelan people.
As part of the Secretariat’s ongoing review of costs and the use of resources provided by Member States, the Secretary-General today launched an initiative to reduce costs by increasing the efficiency in the use of our air assets.
The UN currently deploys 58 fixed-wing and 157 rotary-wing aircraft in 12 peacekeeping missions and 6 special political missions. The annual cost of these aircraft was close to $750 million in 2015/16.
While these assets provide essential logistics and military-enabling capabilities, given their significant cost implications, the Secretary-General has asked the heads of field missions to systematically analyse and adjust the composition and utilization of their air fleet and to seek alternative solutions that may be more cost-effective. This is also an opportunity for missions to innovate.
Mandate delivery is of course at the core of defining logistics and safety must remain paramount. As the analysis is ongoing, the Secretary-General requested with immediate effect that passenger movements be limited to critical mandated tasks, non-mission passengers be reduced and schedules be more finely tuned to allow for reduced fleets. Special flights must also become the exception.
The Secretary-General said that the Secretariat bears a great burden of responsibility when it comes to the judicious use of funding and assets provided by Member States. He has asked the Department of Field Support (DFS) to lead and coordinate this initiative from Headquarters.
The Secretary-General will be in Switzerland starting 24 April, where he will meet with the President of the Swiss Confederation, Doris Leuthard; the Swiss Foreign Minister, Didier Burkhalter; and the leadership of the External Relations Committees of both Chambers of Parliament. That will be in the Swiss capital, Bern.
On 25 April, the Secretary-General will preside over the high-level pledging event for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen with the Foreign Ministers of Switzerland and Sweden as Co-Chairs. He is expected to address the press afterwards. That will take place in Geneva.
On 26 and 27 April, he will be meeting with the UN System Chief Executives Board for Coordination, otherwise known as the CEB, which brings together all the Heads of UN funds, programmes and specialized agencies. The Secretary-General will be back in the office on Friday, 28 April, if that is indeed Friday. Yes, thank you, Joe.
Continuing on Yemen, the Humanitarian Coordinator for the country [Jamie McGoldrick] has authorized the first 2017 allocation of the Yemen Humanitarian Fund for $50 million. These funds will go towards addressing the immediate causes of food insecurity and malnutrition by ensuring access to food, nutrition, health and sanitation for the most vulnerable people. They will also be part of an integrated response for the most vulnerable internally displaced people, returnees and host communities by providing shelter, food, water and other items.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has received reports of fighting between Government and opposition forces around Atar and Owachi in the Upper Nile region. A UN patrol to Kodok yesterday observed that the town was deserted and saw no civilians present.
In Eastern Equatoria, a UN patrol to Pugee, south of Pajok, yesterday, met with civilians, who reported that Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers looted houses and Government offices, as well as a health facility during recent military operations in the area. The UN Mission calls on the Government to investigate these reports and bring those responsible to justice.
Meanwhile, in Marreng in Jonglei, the SPLA prevented UN peacekeepers from proceeding on a patrol and forced them to return to base after unsuccessful negotiations. The Mission, once again, calls on the Government to facilitate full access, as obligated by the Status of Forces Agreement, so it can implement its mandate, including the protection of civilians.
As you just saw, Nickolay Mladenov briefed the Security Council in his role as Special Coordinator for the Middle East. He said at the outset of today’s Security Council debate on the Middle East that a perfect storm has engulfed the Middle East and continues to threaten international peace and security. Millions have been displaced in the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. He added that the question of Palestine remains a potent symbol and rallying cry that is easily misappropriated and exploited by extremist groups. Ending the occupation and realizing a two-State solution will not solve all the region’s problems, he said, but as long as the conflict persists, it will continue to feed them.
Mr. Mladenov also briefly touched upon the recent reports of the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria. If confirmed, he said, this abhorrent action would amount to a serious violation of international law and present a threat to international peace and security. He also expressed the hope that the Security Council can unite to send a strong collective message that the perpetrators of such attacks will be held accountable. His remarks are in my office and the meeting is ongoing.
From Syria, yesterday, 550 people from Zabadani, Madaya, Sarghaya and the surrounding area in Syria were evacuated to Idleb governorate simultaneously with 3,000 people from Foah and Kafraya, who were evacuated to Jibreen, outside of Aleppo city. With those evacuations, the town of Zabadani is reported to have been completely emptied.
People evacuated from Foah and Kefraya to the Al-Mahalej shelter in Jibreen are being provided with food, water, emergency items and health services, supplied by the UN and our partners through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. People displaced from Madaya and Zabadani to Idleb are being assisted by cross-border NGOs [non-governmental organizations] through two reception centres.
The UN, as we have said, is not a party to the negotiations, the agreement or the evacuations, but stands ready to continue to assist people in need with humanitarian assistance, wherever they may be. The UN emphasizes that any evacuation of civilians must be safe, voluntary and to a place of their choosing. All those who are displaced through such local [agreements] have the right of return as soon as the situation allows.
Our colleagues from the UN Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) are following with great concern the tense situation in and around Tamanhint, where intermittent fighting continues to be reported. They are deeply worried about the impact this heightened violence is having on the lives of the residents of the south of Libya.
The UN Mission has received reports of food, water and medicine shortages, as well as increased electricity cuts. There are also reports of families fleeing their homes to Sabha and Ubari. The Humanitarian Coordinator, Maria do Valle Ribeiro, is working closely with UN agencies and other humanitarian workers to continue to provide assistance. She calls on all parties to immediately cease all hostilities to prevent further unacceptable human suffering.
I also want to flag a new tool offered by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) using real-time satellite data to track water productivity in agriculture. The WaPOR open-access database went online live as of today, tapping satellite data to help farmers achieve more reliable agricultural yields and allowing for the optimization of irrigation systems. The programme covers Africa and the Near East, with a focus on key countries that are or are projected soon to face physical or infrastructural water scarcity. More information online.
**United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
A paper released today by our colleagues at UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] shows the number of university students doubled to 207 million between 2000 and 2014, but Governments are struggling to keep pace with the growing demand for higher education. The paper, entitled “Six ways to ensure higher education leaves no one behind”, makes a series of recommendations to make higher education more equitable and affordable.
**Questions and Answers
Question: Thank you. Your statement on Venezuela was fairly general and sort of called on both sides to move back to a dialogue, etcetera. But I want to ask you specifically for a comment on the announcement by the Government, I believe within the last couple of days, that intended to arm a militia with guns that had been previously seized from… from citizens in… in Venezuela. And that might entail thousands and thousands of people being armed, presumably to be used for intimidation, and secondly, news that I just saw of the seizure of a GM plant in Venezuela by the Government. I mean, could you elaborate on this, because it would seem that the Government here is actually the bad actor?
Spokesman: I haven't seen the report of the GM plant, so I can't comment on it. We're obviously concerned by the violence that we've seen; notably, I think, the… a number of deaths and demonstrations yesterday. I think there are more demonstrations scheduled for today, and we're following that closely. As a matter of principle, we're always concerned and look at issues of extrajudicial militias and the impact that it would have on people's rights. Matthew?
Question: Sure. I want to ask something about Cameroon, but fir… given that you've now confirmed that he's going to… that the Secretary‑General is going to the CEB meeting, I wanted to ask you what I asked yesterday, which is, number one, whether WIPO [World Intellectual Property Organization] is the host; two, whether the Secretary‑General is aware of the retaliation issues that have been raised by the Government Accountability Project and others about Mr [Francis} Gurry; and three, is it true that the meeting will, after the first day of convening, move to a, quote, self‑descr… a described luxury hotel in Montreux? And, if so, what are the costs of the meeting, given what you've said about air travel?
Spokesman: The first day of the meetings will be held at WIPO. I think everyone is aware of the issues that have taken place in WIPO. The second half of the meeting is being hosted by the authority of… the Swiss authorities.
Question: In Montreux?
Question: Okay. What I wanted to ask you about Cameroon is that there's a report… they seem to be back and forth. Doctors without Borders have said that they have witnessed and can attest to the refoulement of refugees from Cameroon back into Nigeria. So I wanted know… I've asked about it before, and it seemed to be unclear at that time. And I also want to, again, ask since… I mean, I guess I'd like you to confirm or deny. Jeune Afrique, a respected publication, has said that the Secretary‑General tried to reach Paul Biya. And I wanted to know, now especially that it could be about one of either two issues, either the cut-off of the internet for 92 days or this refoulement issue. Can you give some guidance of what the Secretary‑General's thinking is on these two issues and whether he raised it yesterday with the African Union?
Spokesman: On the… the meeting with the African Union was very broad. They went through a number of issues that are pertinent to the African Union‑UN partnership. As a matter of course, we try to announce, when we feel it's necessary, phone calls that have happened. I'm not going to go into details of phone calls that have not happened. And, on the issue of the refoulement, we, of course, stand against any refoulement, which is against the 1951 Convention on Refugees. On this particular case, I would ask you to ask UNHCR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], which obviously is more involved in this than we are from here.
Question: When you… and just on the AU meeting, I wanted to ask this yesterday. Did the issue of Burundi come up? Given that there is supposed to be AU monitors there and there's also a UN Mission, both seem to be getting rebuffed; were any decisions made between the two protagonists…?
Spokesman: There was a wide exchange of views on all sorts of countries, and I do believe that Burundi did come up. Yep, in the back? Sorry, and then Linda.
Question: On… follow‑up on Venezuela. Has the Secretary‑General talked to the Venezuela authorities, or can we expect any sort of action, especially on this militia issue? I believe the Colombian Foreign Minister raised this with the SG yesterday.
Spokesman: Yes, the situation in Venezuela, that did, I believe… did come up yesterday in the meeting. As we have more to say, we will announce it. But, obviously, we also have a UN country team on the ground in Venezuela. Linda?
Question: Thank you, Steph. Regarding the quarterly debate that's taking place right now on the Middle East, we know that it generally focuses on the Israeli‑Palestinian crisis, and now US Ambassador Nikki Haley is pressing for an expansion of the discussion beyond the Israeli‑Palestinian crisis to include, she… she said, you know, particularly Iran and Iran's support of Hizbullah and Hamas, etcetera. I was just wondering if the SG, you know, has a point of view on this issue.
Spokesman: Well, I think… listen, I would refer you back to what Mr. Mladenov said, and if you look at the remarks he delivered, which were broader than they usually have been in this context, while he did, of course, focus on his particular mandate, which is the Middle East peace process, the Security Council sets its own agenda, and we brief as requested, in a manner requested.
Question: Can I just do a follow‑up on that?
Question: Because I did listen to his speech, and I… maybe I missed it, but I didn't hear him make any specific reference to Iran and its role in supporting terrorist groups like Hizbullah and Hamas, which do relate directly to the Palestinian‑Israeli conflict. So is… was there… was that intentional or an oversight?
Spokesman: I think the… as I mentioned, his statement was broader than usual. Some people may have wished it to be even broader, and others may have wished it to be narrower. We chose our own path. Yes, sir?
Question: Sure. Thanks a lot. I want to ask you, there was a press conference here at… at… at 10 by the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict and Save the Children. And both of them were pretty strenuous in saying that the Saudi‑led coalition should be listed by the Secretary‑General in this annex. I wanted to… I guess I… I don't expect you to preview it, but I do want… I'd like to ask you a couple of things. One, is it the case that Virginia Gamba will take… will, in fact, assume her work on 1 May? And, if so, will she be the… the primary one rep… making the recommendation to the Secretary‑General? Two — this is… this is not related to the press conference — can you confirm that… that… that those considered for the… for the position involved Yanghee Lee and also Allan Rock? And how would you respond, if so, to a… to… to the idea that Ms. Gamba, despite her, you know, work on the JIM [Joint Investigative Mechanism], is not really viewed as a child advocate? So I guess I'll stop… I have another NGO question, but those are…
Spokesman: I think Ms. Gamba will stay on at the JIM for another few weeks or couple of weeks. I don't know the exact date of her start time. In the meantime, the Secretary‑General is… we're looking at people to succeed her. The office… the Special Representative isn't alone in that office. There is a Deputy Special Representative. There's a Chief of Staff. They're continuing their work, obviously, in preparation for the report, which will come out later this year. And so she will be… as soon as she assumes her job, she will take over the position and assume that responsibility as the Secretary‑General's principal adviser on issues of children and armed conflict. I think Ms. Gamba is an extremely experienced and talented international civil servant who's had wide experience and I think will be a great leader to that office and a great advocate for children and for the protection of children.
Question: Okay. And I wanted to ask you, there's a… there's… this is also… a different NGO. Amnesty International, you may have heard of, has issued a de… a call saying that the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, MINURSO, should have a human rights monitoring function. And I… I've seen a copy. I'm not sure if you can say what the status of the Secretary‑General's report is. Is it now officially…?
Spokesman: Yeah, the report… I would refer you…
Question: I want to make sure…
Spokesman: I would refer you to the report.
Question: Since it… is it fair to say that he's not recommending a human rights monitoring function? If so, how… how… why not?
Spokesman: I think it's fair to say that the report speaks for itself.
Question: Right. So he's not recommending it?
Spokesman: You do the analysis, and we've written the report. Thank you.