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

Good afternoon, everyone.


Yesterday afternoon, we issued the following statement attributable to the Spokesman for the Secretary‑General on Maldives.  The Secretary‑General is concerned about recent developments in Maldives with the gradual erosion of basic democratic norms and principles in the country.  He calls on the Government to uphold the constitutionally guaranteed rights of speech and assembly.  The Secretary‑General urges the Government to refrain from all acts that result in the harassment and intimidation of Members of Parliament, political parties, civil society and the media.  The Secretary‑General encourages effective dialogue and consultations on political issues.

**Central African Republic

The Under‑Secretary‑General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jean‑Pierre Lacroix, yesterday warned the Security Council that the increased intensity of attacks on civilians and peacekeepers in the Central African Republic risks bringing us rapidly to a tipping point, which we must forestall at all cost.  He was referring to the worsening security and humanitarian situation in Bangassou, where three peacekeepers were killed since last Sunday.

Mr. Lacroix noted that the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) has made efforts to reinforce Bangassou through redeployments of additional peacekeepers in order to stabilize the situation, stop the attacks on internally displaced persons, enable the delivery of humanitarian assistance and address the threat of the anti‑Balaka affiliated groups.  However, Mr. Lacroix stressed yet again that a military solution to the problem of the armed groups will not suffice to address the root causes of the conflict.  The absence of tangible progress in the peace process risks further worsening the situation, he warned.  Mr. Lacroix is heading to the Central African Republic over the weekend to convey a message of support to the UN Mission and engage with national authorities.


Our humanitarian colleagues tell us that, yesterday, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent delivered medical and nutrition items from the UN and the Red Cross in besieged eastern Ghouta in rural Damascus, with a second batch of supplies planned in the near future to complete the delivery.  The situation in eastern Ghouta remains extremely difficult overall, with limited access to basic services, such as health care.  However, the delivery yesterday, in addition to the access the UN had to Duma in May and to East Harasta in June, is not enough to support the increasing needs of civilians in the area.  The UN has requested access to towns in eastern Ghouta as part of its proposed inter‑agency convoy plan for August and September, and stands ready to provide additional immediate humanitarian support to the area as soon as access is authorized and security permits.


The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said today that it is deeply concerned at the risk of further violence in Venezuela, where Constituent Assembly elections are due to be held on Sunday.  The Office said that the wishes of the Venezuelan people to participate or not participate in this election need to be respected.

It also urged the authorities to manage any protests against the Constituent Assembly in line with international human rights norms and standards, and is therefore concerned that demonstrations that the authorities regard as disturbing the elections have been banned from today until 1 August.  The Office reiterated its appeal to the authorities to guarantee people’s rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and called on all in Venezuela to use only peaceful means to make themselves heard.


Assistant Secretary‑General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour wrapped up a three‑day visit to Honduras today.  He stressed the paramount need to increase protections for human rights defenders in the country, welcoming the strengthened cooperation between the Government and the newly established UN Human Rights Office in Tegucigalpa.  While in Honduras, Mr. Gilmour met with Government officials, civil society representatives, and diplomats.  You can read more about his visit on the Human Rights Office’s website.

**Viet Nam

The UN Human Rights Office said today that it is concerned about the intensifying crackdown against human rights defenders in Vietnam who have questioned or criticized the Government and its policies.  The Office said that it has serious concerns over the severity of the sentence handed down this week to a well‑known activist, Tran Thi Nga, for so‑called “anti‑State propaganda” over comments posted online.  Over the last six months, at least seven other human rights defenders have been arrested and face prosecution, several dozen are currently detained, and two have been deported or sent into exile abroad.  Many others have been intimidated, harassed and brutally beaten.

The Office stressed that human rights defenders should never be treated as criminals who are a threat to national security.  It urged the Vietnamese authorities to immediately release all those detained in connection with their exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, and to amend the overly broad ill‑defined laws that are used — under the pretext of national security — to crack down on dissent.


Today is World Hepatitis Day, and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), new data shows that efforts to eliminate the disease are gaining momentum.  WHO Director‑General Tedros Ghebreyesus said that it is encouraging to see countries commitment into action to tackle hepatitis.  Viral hepatitis affected 325 million people worldwide in 2015, with 257 million people living with hepatitis B and 71 million people living with hepatitis C — the two main killers of the five types of hepatitis.  Viral hepatitis caused 1.34 million deaths in 2015 — a figure close to the number of tuberculosis deaths and exceeding deaths linked to HIV.  You can read more on WHO’s website.


And last, I would like to mention that today is the last day that Marlene Tremblay is working in the Office of the Spokesperson, since she takes her retirement at the end of the month.  Those of you in the press corps know Marlene’s smiling, cheerful presence as you walk into the office, and many of you have seen — and some of you have even posed for — the works of art that she has displayed, here and around the world.  We wish Marlene the best of luck in her future, which we expect to be as colourful as her paintings and photography.  That’s it for me.  Any questions?  Yes, Ronda?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  I have two.  First, I came to hear the memorial for Father Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann that was in the General Assembly this morning, and I went to the 4th Floor where people are supposed to go in the press… supposed to go.  And there was not a single mic… earphone available to hear translation, and even if you wanted to hear what was happening at the podium, you wouldn't hear it there.  So I'm wondering what the rationale is.  I once earlier complained that there were only a few earphones.  Now there are none.  And I'm wondering if this is a purposeful situation or, you know, if the people who go there are expected not to want to hear anything or…?

Deputy Spokesman:  I'll check with our colleagues in the Media Accreditation and Liaison Unit.  Actually, let's go around, and we'll go back to you.  Yes, Mr. Sato?

Question:  Thank you, Mr. [Haq].  Japan and the US Government just confirmed that the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] launched a ballistic missile last night in the local time.  It is a fact that it will be a violation of the Security Council's resolution.  So, what will be the Secretary‑General's comment on that?  Thank you.

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, you're aware of our responses to the recent missile launches by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  We reiterate once more the Secretary‑General's calls on all parties to take steps to de-escalate the situation and return to the path of sincere dialogue.  Yes, Jehan, you had a question?

Question:  As predicted, Friday has now come in Jerusalem, and there are indeed clashes.  What is your response to today's and yesterday's increase in violence?  We're still hearing of use of weapons and arms, yeah, and just, you know, opposite of what was expected to… you know, what the UN was wanting to happen.

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, the statement that we've issued, the sentiments in those statements still stand.  Obviously, we're aware of the recent violence, and it's regrettable that violent protests have been reported, including in the West Bank with one Palestinian protestor reported killed.  At the same time, we have taken note of the fact that the Friday prayers in Jerusalem took place in a relatively calm atmosphere and that the day so far was largely free of incidents.  The UN reiterates its call for calm and for avoiding statements that incite violence.  Yes?

Question:  Sure.  Thanks a lot.  I want to ask you, now, given the guilty on six counts verdicts in the Ng Lap Seng, previously known as the John Ashe, case.  I was going to ask you just for your comment, but I've seen that you've made a comment, and I want to ask you about it.  You said “we are exploring the possibility of requesting restitution as a victim to these crimes, including recovering expenses incurred to provide the requested cooperation”.  I guess what I want… I want to understand, given that it was undisputed in the trial that the Department of General Assembly and Conference Management provided a false document to Mr. Ng Lap Seng and that the Office of South‑South Cooperation wrote numerous letters promoting his conference centre and that a current… a number of current UN officials also participated in that, how… one, how is the UN… does it mean that the UN Secretariat is also a victim of its own personnel?  And number two, if the US Attorney’s Office says that the UN refused to even provide the names of people interviewed for the task force report, are you saying that the US Government should pay the UN as… as… for sending Mr. Hannaford to give one morning's testimony?

Deputy Spokesman:  What I can say on this is that the United Nations cooperated extensively to facilitate the proper administration of justice in this case by disclosing thousands of documents and waiving the immunity of officials to allow them to testify at trial.  The Organization is considering next steps as a victim of these crimes.

Question:  How… I guess… I'll go to the fundamental rather than the money because I think it's… I don't know if there's any provision for that, and it seems pretty extraordinary if the UN said it should clean itself up from the… from the… from the bribery and corruption that was exposed by the US Attorney’s Office that you'd be putting in for costs.  But, the main thing is how is the UN the victim if many of its own officials participated and were only not prosecuted because they have immunity that was never waived.  For example, Mr. Botnaru, did he waive immunity?  Mr. [inaudible], did he waive immunity?

Deputy Spokesman:  I've explained that we've provided documents, and we've waived the immunity of individuals to testify.

Question:  Photocopying charges?

Deputy Spokesman:  Regarding other problems that were revealed, our management is following up, and we are continuing to follow up on the findings of, of the prosecutors in this particular case.

Question:  Is the idea that the UN is a victim of… of this exposed corruption and that it should seek costs from the US Government… is this António Guterres' position?  I guess this is what I wanted to… I know you're the Deputy Spokesman.  I just want to be…

Deputy Spokesman:  This is the position of our Legal Counsel.  Yes, you had a question or not?  Okay.

Question:  The General Assembly this morning was considering a resolution to increase UN funding from UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East].  The vote has now been postponed.  I just wondered if the Secretary‑General supports the increase in funding for UNRWA especially… I know it’s got a lot of American opposition because it would hit America the hardest because it's the biggest contributor.

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, with regard to the UN Relief and Works Agency, the Secretary‑General has made very clear its funding needs.  It has a very large caseload throughout the Middle East and is sometimes operating in some of the most turbulent areas, including areas in Syria that have seen tremendous violence.  So, it… it has a lot of Palestinian refugees that it needs to take care of, and he wants to make sure that it could be fully funded and that it won't have to cut back the many programmes it does, which range from education programs at schools across the region to the basic means of living, including things like sanitation and other services, for people in areas stretching from Gaza through Lebanon and Syria.  Yes?

Correspondent:  My second question was about the… the Security Council had the hearing on Palestine, I think it was Wednesday, and essentially, several of the ambassadors spoke to the obligation of the Secretary‑General to report to the Council every three months on the implementation of the provisions of the resolution that was passed in 2016, Security Council resolution 2334 (2016).  And they spoke to the fact that they didn't feel that the Secretary‑General was reporting…

Deputy Spokesman:  What's the question, Ronda?

Question:  Well, my question was I wondered if the Secretary‑General is considering that request made during that hearing and if… if there is an effort in some ways to report on the provisions of the present resolution and whether they're being implemented or not.  That was the specific language that they felt was not being responded to.

Deputy Spokesman:  We are trying to respond to all of the requests that were made in resolution 2334 (2016).  Yes?

Question:  [Inaudible].  Is the Secretary‑General frustrated that all that can be done is to reiterate the demand for de-escalation?

Deputy Spokesman:  I think it's important that all the various parties, including those who have participated in the Six-Party Talks, use their particular influence to help resolve this.  You've seen the demands that the Security Council has made, that the international community as a whole has made.  Obviously it's frustrating that those demands have not been heard and have not been responded to, but we will keep up with our efforts on that.  Yes?

Question:  I wanted to ask you… I see it as somehow related to the idea of the UN trying to… requesting restitution for this trial.  You may have seen a long article in The Miami Herald yesterday about cholera that was brought to Haiti by the UN, and it has extensive quotes that were collected during the Security Council's visit there, including by a victim saying the following:  “What they had financially when they contracted cholera is gone.  What they need now is liquid individual payments and saying that the community projects described by Amina Mohammed were totally unacceptable.  This is without exception.”  The people quoted in the story say that.  So, I'm wondering, one, what's your response to this… to this… to these comments?  And two, what would you say to those who say it's strange that the UN would be talking about requesting restitution for having been exposed for corruption in its own halls while denying any restitution to people whose family members were killed by cholera that was brought by the UN?

Deputy Spokesman:  Those are completely separate circumstances.  In one case, it has to do with the standard legal procedures that would be followed as a result of this case.  In the other case, we have been trying for many years, as you know, to find ways to help the Haitian people.  We're trying to get the funding in order to do the sort of approach that would help the Haitian communities that were affected most by the cholera crisis.  Regarding individual payments, that has always been something that has been under consideration, but as Stéphane made clear a few weeks ago, this is something we need to take one step at a time.  We need to see what kind of support we can get.  Remember, the United Nations does not have its own supply of money to fix these things.  We get it from the Member States, and we need the Member States to support us on this.

Question:  So, with this, with this money that you're apparently seeking either from Ng Lap Seng or the US Government, somehow go to… I mean, you're saying that they're unrelated, but the only reason the UN isn't paying in Haiti is that it has immunity.  That's the main reason, right?  That it can't be sued.

Deputy Spokesman:  I don't agree with that.

Question:  I guess I want to ask you, make just another request that Josette Sheeran, who's now been charged with trying to raise money to… to address this scandal of people uncompensated after, you know, years of this cholera, can she give a press conference or do something to speak publically on this topic?

Deputy Spokesman:  We'll check with her.  Have a good weekend, everyone.

For information media. Not an official record.