The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
**Noon Briefing Guest
In a short while, I will be joined by Yukio Takasu, the Under-Secretary-General for Management who will be here to brief you on the financial situation of these United Nations.
Staffan de Mistura, the Special Envoy for Syria, spoke to reporters in Astana a bit earlier today and told them that the United Nations is very concerned at the reports of escalation in Syria, including reports of alleged air strikes. He noted that those reports had come at a delicate moment in the Astana discussions where proposals to de-escalate the conflict are under very serious consideration. And we have the full transcript in my office.
Yesterday, a UN-[International Committee of the Red Cross]-Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy was able to deliver life-saving humanitarian assistance [for] some 35,000 people in need in besieged Duma in eastern Ghouta in rural Damascus. The area was last reached by humanitarian convoy on 19 October of last year.
The convoy included wheat flour, nutrition and health supplies, food rations, education materials, clothes and other much needed emergency items. Some surgical supplies, medicine and health equipment were removed or reduced in quantity prior to loading. The convoy to Duma highlights that when there is enough political will, security and access challenges can be overcome and life-saving assistance can reach those in dire need of assistance.
The UN remains deeply concerned by the deteriorating security situation and humanitarian situation in eastern Ghouta. Plans are in place to reach other areas as approved under the April and May plan. Some 400,000 people are in need of humanitarian assistance in eastern Ghouta overall. We call on all the parties and those with influence over them to take the necessary actions to ensure that other areas in eastern Ghouta can be reached as soon as possible.
The Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), David Beasley, today concluded a three-day visit to Lebanon and Syria where he was able to assess the growing humanitarian needs of vulnerable Syrians and meet senior Government officials and partners to discuss humanitarian operations in both countries. More information online.
There were questions raised, I think, yesterday following a report in some South Sudanese media that had accused the UN of flying Government soldiers in UN planes. I can confirm that no Government soldiers were transported on any UN flights.
And a press conference at 1:15 p.m. tomorrow — there will be a briefing on the outcome of the sixteenth session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous [Issues].
I do want to say a big thank you to our friends in Rome as Italy has paid its regular budget dues in full, bringing the honour roll to?
Spokesman: 93, exactly. Yep?
**Questions and Answers
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. There are confusing, if not conflicting, reports from Astana about the withdrawal of the opposition… the Syrian opposition representatives to the Syrian talks. Does the UN have any confirmation as to whether the opposition leaders are still there or have they withdrawn?
Spokesman: No, as we are invited to these talks and not the organizers, it’s not up to us to confirm different people’s participation besides ours. I think Mr. de Mistura, in his remarks, made a comment to the fact that he would hope to see the opposition, the armed opposition, represented tomorrow. But, again, as he says, let’s wait and see. Oleg?
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. We’ve been talking awhile about safe zones in Syria. Now, apparently, the Russian, the Turkish and the sides are discussing some sort of de‑escalation zone, and this proposal was discussed as well with [United States] President [Donald] Trump. These zones, supposedly, will include some sort of peacekeeping presence over there, possibly the UN. What do you think about this idea? Would the UN be ready to introduce any sort of peacekeeping force?
Spokesman: I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves. I think let’s let the Astana meetings go forward and see what is being agreed to, what is being asked of the United Nations. As a matter of principle, we want to see a reduction and a halt in the suffering of the Syrian people. We want to see a halt in the military actions that’s been causing such suffering. But I think it’s important to look at what will be agreed to in Astana, and then we can comment. Mr. Lee?
Question: Sure. Couple of World Press Freedom Day questions for you. Some are… are not actually about the UN itself, so I know, I think, how you’ll answer. I wanted to ask, on Thailand — in Thailand, an event scheduled to be today was disallowed by the military junta. Meanwhile, in Cameroon, there’s a journalist, Ahmed Abba, sentenced to 10 years for reporting on the Boko Haram conflict, and there’s an Amnesty International report on Nigeria. And I’m just wondering, I did see António Guterres’ statement. How is the UN actually following up on that to… on these three cases or anything else you say, to actually convey to Governments that, at least on one day a year, they shouldn’t disallow journalist events?
Spokesman: I think on… at no time should Governments be putting any hindrance on the work of journalists. I will look into the specific cases you mention, but I think our… the Secretary‑General’s principled stand is elaborated in his statement, and some of these issues are being addressed with… addressed through more discreet channels and others are being taken up directly with Governments.
Question: I guess in the… in the… in the question, for example, the Thailand one, it’s pretty widely… it’s been widely reported. Is the Resident Coordinator there? The, whoever… is the UN presence there in the country? Do they have a response to it?
Spokesman: In most of these countries, there’s also a human rights presence, and I would encourage you to check with them. Abdelhamid and then Anna.
Question: Thank you. First, I will raise the first question about 1,500 Palestinian prisoners entered their seventeenth day of hunger strike, and so far not one word issued from the SG or his Special Envoy. Some of them are now in a very fragile health. So why there is no statement on this humanitarian issue?
Spokesman: This is something that has come up repeatedly at the briefing. We have supported the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who is on the lead on this issue. And I think we’ve answered the question over the last couple of days.
Question: My second question. Do you confirm that the SG has received a letter last Friday, signed by hundred senators asking him not to single out Israel in being biased, as the letter said? And it says that they expect Israel to be treated as a normal country, not better, not worse. Is Israel a normal country? That is, is there any other country in the world that occupying another people to be treated normally? And what is the position of the SG on… from this letter?
Spokesman: We’ve received the letter. It’s in the process of being answered. For the Secretary‑General, Israel is a full Member of this Organization that has the same rights and the same responsibilities as any other country. Anna?
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. I have actually two brief questions. Both of them are on Libya. First, it’s been reported that there was an agreement, breakthrough agreement, reached between two Libyan leaders, [Fayaz] Serraj and [Khalifa] Haftar, and UN was very proactive, as always. Do you have a road map, what’s going to happen in the nearest six months, let’s say, in Libya about these peace talks? And, also, do we have any information who’s going to replace the UN Special Envoy, Martin Kobler?
Spokesman: On your second question, no. On your first question, we’re very much aware of the meetings that took place in the United Arab Emirates. We welcome these meetings. We’re encouraged by the results, and I think these are good steps in… which will build on and advance the implementation of the Libyan Peace Agreement. But I’m not going to into a six‑months road map.
Correspondent: Thank you.
Question: Stéphane, can you tell us how… what the SG thinks of the safe zones? And does he think it’s a feasible proposal and whether UN staff… whether peacekeepers or humanitarian workers will be operating from those…?
Spokesman: I think… again, I don’t think we should get ahead of ourselves here. First of all, it’s important to see what is actually agreed upon in Astana, what the wording is, what the request of the UN is. As matter of principle, as a matter of policy, I think we all know the deployment of peacekeepers is something that demands Security Council resolution. It’s a bigger… it’s a very big project, and it also would require Member States to give troops to be deployed. But that’s a matter… that’s just a matter of basic fact. I’m not commenting on what’s going on in Astana. I think, in terms of, quote‑unquote, safe zones, the Secretary‑General has expressed his opinion on this in the past. I think the UN has had the experiences that we know with safe zones in the past, and we need to make sure that they don’t infringe on the rights of people to move in and out. Those are basic facts and basic principles. Again, I would stress that I’m… the Astana talks are starting tomorrow. It is very important for us to see what is actually agreed upon, and we will comment further once we see what happens. Mr. Klein and then…
Question: Does the Secretary‑General have any opinion on politicizing archaeological research and exploration, and of course, I’m thinking particularly in Jerusalem?
Spokesman: I think, in terms of the vote yesterday in UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization], we expressed our position clearly yesterday. It’s very important that final-status issues be decided in direct negotiations with the parties and also recognize that, when you’re talking about Jerusalem, you’re talking about a city that is… when you talk about the Old City and its walls, you’re talking about a city… an area that is critical to the history and the present and the future of the three main monotheistic religions. So I think we’ve explained and elaborated our position on that. I’m not going to go any further.
Question: Well, I mean, consistent with that, though — and I’m sorry I missed yesterday’s press conference, I was in jury duty.
Spokesman: The transcript is a great read when you’re sitting in the jury room. [Laughter]
Question: Well, anything is a great read. Fortunately, it was only one day. But, anyway… Let me just… did that statement… or is there an opinion that you can comment on as to whether archaeological exploration, to the extent it doesn’t disturb existing structures, but just research and exploration into history, would be seen as changing the status quo of Jerusalem?
Spokesman: The decision taken by UNESCO is one taken by the member States of UNESCO. The Secretary‑General has his opinion, as I’ve just expressed, as we expressed yesterday. Anything and everything can be politicized. Anything and everything, I think, in that part of the world, can be politicized especially. Issues that will be dealt… that should be dealt as part of the final-status issues need to be dealt directly by the parties.
Question: In your answer yesterday, you said… about the position of the Secretary‑General, you said, my tone can tell about… about the position, which means that the SG in a way maybe he does not approve this UNESCO decision. First, does he have the right to go against a major UN organization if they pass a resolution like that? Second, tell me if there is any piece, any word, in this resolution that the SG does not agree and if it goes against any UN resolution. There is resolution 5… 476 and 478 regarding Jerusalem as occupied territories and Israel has no sovereignty over the occupied territory.
Spokesman: I think you’re…
Question: Is there anything that the SG does not agree with…?
Spokesman: I know which… what path you want to have me walk down. I’m not going to walk down that path with you. It is not up to the Secretary‑General to disagree or disapprove or go against a resolution. That’s not what this is about. The sec… one right the Secretary‑General enjoys, which we all enjoy, is the right to speak and the right to express his opinion. What I said yesterday is that we were aware of the vote. We remain aware of the vote today, and we’ll probably remain aware of the vote tomorrow. For the Secretary‑General, there is no question about the importance of the Old City of Jerusalem and its walls for the three monotheistic religions or about the importance of religious and historical links to Jews, Muslims and Christians in the… to the holy sites. Any undertaking perceived to repudiate the undeniable common reverence for these sites would not serve the interest of peace and only feed violence and radicalism. That’s the Secretary‑General’s opinion. Rosalind, then Edie.
Question: I wanted to go back to Astana and this proposal for de‑escalation zones. Is the Secretary‑General concerned that the Russians and Iranians are trying to essentially override the Geneva process by coming up with new proposals? I thought Astana was simply about trying to maintain the ceasefire.
Spokesman: The Secretary‑General, I think, is supportive of the Astana process, and I think you can see the fact that Mr. de Mistura is attending this… these talks. We have always seen it as something that is supportive of the Geneva process. We have been told that by the conveners of the Astana process… of the Astana meetings, and we continue to hold on to that belief.
Question: But in terms of… of coming up with this idea, does this in any way detract from the overall goal of Geneva, which is to try to get a political resolution to the civil war?
Spokesman: First of all, we have to see what exactly is agreed upon tomorrow. So I don’t want to do any pregame arm‑chair quarterbacking. Let’s see what happens tomorrow. The Geneva process is based on relevant Security Council resolutions dealing with political issues. I think anything we are looking for ways to halt the current violence. I mean, we’ve seen, when there’ve been pauses, we’re able to get humanitarian aid through. So those are important issues for us. Edie and then we’ll…
Question: Stéphane, does the Secretary‑General have any comment on the announcement today by the United Arab Emirates that there had been a significant breakthrough in talks on live… on Libya between the rival parties, Field Marshal Haftar and Prime Minister Serraj?
Spokesman: Sure. I mean, as I said, we’re… we welcome this meeting. We’re encouraged by the fact that it took place. I think these are good steps that will build upon and advance the implementation of the Libyan peace accord. Yeah?
Question: It’s a follow‑up regarding Astana. Mr. de Mistura had or… this idea before of safe zones. So my question is actually, to which extent… extent he’s coming with his own ideas or letting the parties come with their own and…?
Spokesman: I think there will be open and frank discussion tomorrow, and Mr. de Mistura will participate. And, again, I don’t want to anticipate what the outcome will be, but he is going there to participate in these discussions.
Question: But do you have your own plan…?
Spokesman: I’m not going to get into that at this point. Olga?
Question: Thanks, Steph. The follow‑up on Israel and UNESCO. After UNESCO resolution Israel announced it will withhold $1 million from… in payment to UN budget, do you already know which programmes will it affect? Will it affect directly UNESCO or other UN programmes?
Spokesman: I don’t know. We’re… obviously, we’re keen to find out, and I would also encourage you to talk to the Israeli Mission. Oleg?
Question: Stéphane, can we get any update on the activities of Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed? Where he’s going?
Spokesman: Nothing much to report since we last reported on it. Yeah?
Question: Sure. I wanted to ask you about Myanmar, Western Sahara and the John Ashe case. On Myanmar, yesterday, Aung San Suu Kyi, in a press conference with the EU, said they will not allow in the fact-finding mission agreed to by the Human Rights Council in March. She said: “We disassociate ourselves from the resolution because it has… it’s not in keeping with what’s happening on the ground.” I’m wondering, given that there was a lot of work behind that, is the Secretary‑General or somebody, the… the remnants of the good offices mission, thinking of contacting Aung San Suu Kyi about this rebuffing of the UN Mission?
Spokesman: I think that’s a question right now more aimed at the… our colleague at the Human Rights Office. We, obviously, as a matter of principle, encourage all Member States to cooperate with the various human rights mechanisms.
Question: Okay. I wanted to ask you… I’m sorry to ask you this again, but it’s… the stakeout took place Friday. It’s now Wednesday. So it’s five days later. You’d said that it’s something working on. I’d like you to explain it, because in April 2016, after, I think, a shorter period of time, it was decided to append the Polisario stakeout behind Algeria. What’s the difference now?
Spokesman: When I’m ready to have something to announce. I will announce it and I will explain it.
Question: Does that solution…?
Spokesman: That’s all I can say.
Question: Stéphane, you said that Mr. [Espen Barth] Eide is coming to the Headquarters. Can you tell us when he’s coming? And, also, is it true that he is planning a meeting here at the Headquarters with Secretary‑General and the leaders of the… and the President of Cyprus and the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community?
Spokesman: Your… I will get you a date soon or if maybe one of my colleagues who’s watching… who are hopefully watching in my office will get us a date before the end of the briefing. I know he’s seeing the Secretary‑General to update him on the situation. I’m not aware of any trilateral meetings scheduled for here. Anna?
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. To honour the Freedom of Press Day, I wanted to ask about a Russian blogger, Aleksandr Lapshin, who was detained in Belarus illegally, and then he was surrendered to Azerbaijan merely for writing in his blog, Life Adventures, his opinions about Nagorno‑Karabakh, Armenian region’s independence. What is UN’s take on this? He has been detained since February. And his, you know, destiny remains unclear. What is UN doing?
Spokesman: I’m unaware of this particular case, but, as matter of principle, obviously, the Secretary‑General stands for the right of journalists and… to express themselves and to write without harassment from Governments or any other sources.
Correspondent: Thank you.
Question: Thank you. You spoke about the… the SG’s position vis‑à‑vis Israel that it is a full Member State; it has responsibilities and rights, which is… I agree with you 100 per cent. They have responsibilities. What are these responsibilities if does not… if these responsibility do not include abiding by the Security Council resolutions?
Spokesman: I don’t know how else I can express my opinion. Israel is one of 193 Member States. All Member States have the same responsibilities to abide by their Charter obligations and any other obligations they may have in the UN, and they all have the same rights. Full stop. Mr. Lee?
Question: Sure. Great. Thanks a lot. John Ashe case and DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo[. There are two new filings in the John Ashe case, and I wanted to ask you about, in particular, one of them is a superseding indictment of Francis Lorenzo, and it describes him in paragraph 3 as an agent of an organization, to wit, the UN did corruptly solicit and demand, etcetera. But I guess what I’m wondering is, now, if the US Attorney is describing Mr. Francis Lorenzo as an agent of the UN, does this change the way the UN is looking at the case?
Spokesman: We’re looking at the case. I’m not aware that Mr. Lorenzo is an agent of the UN. But, again, we’re looking at the case. And, when we have something more to say, we’ll let you know.
Question: And another filing at the same time says that… that Ng Lap Seng provided money to and educational loans to a staff member of the Office of South‑South Cooperation. That’s not something I ever saw…
Spokesman: Okay. I… I… we have… obviously, we’re following the case. I don’t have anything to say while the proceedings are ongoing. Thank you. I’m going to get Mr. Takasu.