7 November 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.


Following the announcement by the Saudi‑led coalition of the closure of Yemen’s sea and air ports, humanitarian access into and out of the country is halted.  All parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate safe, rapid, unhindered humanitarian access to all people in need, through all ports and airports.  Any further shocks to imports of food and fuel may reverse recent success in mitigating the threat of famine in Yemen.  Humanitarians have reached more than 7 million people with direct food assistance this year alone.  We urge the parties not to escalate the situation further, and to follow their fundamental obligations of distinction, proportionality and precautions, taking constant care to spare civilians and civilian infrastructure.  The UN calls on all parties to ensure the safety of humanitarian workers and assets [throughout] Yemen.

The United Nations calls on all States with influence over the parties to ensure their respect for international humanitarian law and the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure.  Humanitarian agencies operate in an impartial, neutral and independent manner; any party’s interference with these principles significantly hampers humanitarian agencies’ ability to deliver aid to those in need.

Meanwhile, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that it is deeply concerned by a series of attacks in Yemen over the past week that have killed dozens of civilians — including several children — and it appealed to all parties to respect international law governing armed conflict.  The Human Rights Office is also very concerned that humanitarian aid destined for innocent civilians caught up in the three‑year‑long conflict may be adversely affected by the coalition’s decision on Monday to close all land, sea and air ports into the country.  More details in the Geneva press briefing.


Turning to Syria, our humanitarian colleagues remain deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation in east Ghouta.  Almost 400,000 civilians remain inside the besieged area, where they face deteriorating humanitarian, health, living and security conditions.  The population represents nearly 95 per cent of the entire besieged population within Syria.  Recent World Food Programme (WFP) assessments indicate severe shortages of food supplies, a sharp increase in the prices of basic commodities [in] communities, further eroding coping mechanisms.  The cost of a standard food basket in October [was] almost 10 times higher than the national average.  The UN is also concerned over a recent escalation of airstrikes in Aleppo and Idlib Governorates.  Over the past 48 hours, multiple and sustained airstrikes were reported in the southern countryside of Aleppo Governorate and parts of Idlib Governorate.  We call on all parties to the conflict to take all measures to protect civilians, as required under international humanitarian law.


Meanwhile, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) has taken note of the statement concerning the recent ruling by the High Federal Court.  The UN Mission urges the Government of the Kurdistan region of Iraq to acknowledge, endorse and respect the ruling of the Federal Court and reiterate its full commitment to the Constitution.  UNAMI re‑emphasizes the urgent need for political dialogue and negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil, in a spirit of partnership and respect for the Iraqi Constitution that itself respects the constitutional rights of the Kurdistan region of Iraq.  The Mission also reconfirmed its readiness to play a facilitating role in this dialogue and these negotiations, if requested by both the Federal Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government.


Our colleagues at the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan today released a report which shows a sharp increase in attacks against places of worship, religious leaders and worshippers in the country, and in particular against Shi’a Muslims.  The report also documents targeted killings by anti‑Government forces of religious scholars and leaders whom they regard as pro‑Government, as well as the targeted killing of security personnel amidst worshippers inside mosques.  Since January 2016, the Mission has recorded 850 civilian casualties — [273] people killed and 577 injured — in 51 attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders and worshippers.  This is nearly double the number of documented attacks of this type between 2009 and 2015.  That report is available online.


The International Organization for Migration (IOM) today said the remains of 26 women and girls were recovered over the weekend during rescue operations off the coast of Libya.  Most of them were Nigerian girls who were making their way to Italy.  The agency warned that it has observed a significant increase in the number of women and girls arriving in Italy over the past three years, noting that most of them are under the age of 18.  IOM said it is most likely that they were victims of human trafficking.  Many of the survivors from the rescue operations said they had been abused, and some had lost relatives at sea.  The UN Migration Agency said some 50 [in this group of] migrants are still missing.  And also on Libya, the World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday delivered five emergency health kits to the town of Ghat.  These kits are designed to meet the basic health needs of 5,000 people for approximately three months and will help struggling health facilities to deliver primary health services.  WHO is also working on making the local hospital fully functional in the coming weeks.


The Head of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), Annadif Mahamat Saleh, today condemned a series of attacks that took place yesterday in the country in which nine civilians and one member of the National Guard were killed.  And I also want to flag that Assistant Secretary‑General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, was in Mali between 2 and 5 November.  He met with the authorities as well as the G‑5 Sahel Joint Force.  The purpose of the visit was to reinforce the importance of human rights and justice in the peace process, and to discuss the establishment of a mechanism to guarantee respect for human rights during the deployment of the G‑5 Sahel Joint Force.  The Human Rights Office will be issuing a fuller press release shortly.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

Our humanitarian colleagues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo tell us today that a recent mission in Tanganyika, south‑east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, found more than 70,000 displaced people by renewed violence.  Their needs include food security, health, education, shelter and protection.  Humanitarian assistance to the area has been limited, as underfunding has had a significant impact on the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the DRC this year, with the response plan being only 42 per cent funded.


The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has just completed the first phase of Rohingya refugee family counting, where more than half a million refugees from Myanmar have so far been counted.  The exercise, conducted by UNHCR and Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission, took place in the Kutupalong camp and extension areas and the Balukhali areas [and] is now extending further south.  So far, the counting exercise has gathered data on 120,284 families comprising half a million refugees.  The UNHCR teams found that one third of the families are vulnerable.  As many as 14 per cent are single mothers holding their families together with little support in harsh camp conditions.  Others are struggling with serious health problems.  There is also a high proportion of elderly people at risk, and children make up 54 per cent of the total population; 52 per cent are women.


As you know, in Bonn, Germany, the Climate Change Conference is now in full swing.  Some of the highlights from today include a pledge by the HSBC bank to mobilize $100 billion in sustainable financing and investment to support the transition to a low‑carbon economy and to spur green growth worldwide, and the release of a report by the EU [European Union] saying it is on track for its 2020 target on emissions reduction.  We will keep you posted.


My guest today will be Liu Zhenmin, the Under‑Secretary‑General for Economic and Social Affairs.  He will brief on the Synthesis Report of the 2017 voluntary national reviews, which as you all know, is about progress achieved in the implementation of the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals].

**Honour Roll

And lastly, we say thank you to our friends in Beirut, in Lebanon, who have paid their regular budget dues in full this year, bringing us up to?  [139.]  Perfect.  If you have a question, you can ask.  Otherwise, you can yield.  No question.  Michelle and then James.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thanks, Stéph.  On the Climate Change Conference, Syria said they're going to sign up.  Have you received anything…?

Spokesman:  We've not received any official notification that I'm aware of.  We've asked a couple people in this building who would be best placed to know, but as soon as we get confirmation that something has happened, we will share that with you.

Question:  And, on Yemen, has the SG [Secretary‑General] spoken with anyone from Saudi Arabia?

Spokesman:  There are no contacts that I'm able to share with you at this point, though I… no details I can share, but I can assure you that there have been contacts between the UN and Saudi authorities at various levels over the last 24 to 48 hours.  James and then…

Question:  On… on Yemen again, does the UN believe that, by its actions, this blockade, that Saudi is in breach of international humanitarian law?

Spokesman:  I'm not in a position to issue a legal ruling.  What we do know is that the blockading of ports and airports and land routes can have a tremendously negative impact on a situation which is already catastrophic.  We have some food stocks already in‑country that we would be able to deliver, but you also have to imagine there is also… this sort of news can also have an impact on market prices, where food prices may go up in local markets; fuel prices may go up as people start to fear a long‑term impact of a blockade.  So, regardless of the legal implication, the humanitarian implications can be catastrophic.  Madame and then monsieur.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  On the allegation by Hezbollah's role… Hezbollah's role in the Persian Gulf [inaudible] Yemen, Saudi… Saudi is considering that the missile attack is an act of war by Lebanon as well.  Do you have any reaction on this?  And…

Spokesman:  Look, we have seen the various reports coming out of the region, which we're following very closely.  I think we would call for restraint, not only in action, but also in rhetoric in what is clearly a very volatile situation.

Question:  Do you take… do you take this allegation seriously?

Spokesman:  I… my… the message coming from the Secretary‑General of the United Nations is for a restraint both in actions and in words.

Question:  Sure.  On Yemen, I wanted to ask you about pre… President… [Abdrabuh Mansour] Hadi [Mansour] who's in Saudi Arabia.  It's reported actually that he… that Saudi Arabia has… has, I guess, banned him from… from visiting even a part of the country not held by the Houthis, Aden.  I don't know if you've seen this report, but my que… I guess my question would be, if he is Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed's interlocutor, is he aware that he's essentially under house arrest?

Spokesman:  We've seen the reports.  We have no way of confirming… we have no way of confirming those reports.

Question:  Has he… is… is… is the envoy in contact with Hadi [Mansour]?  It seems like…

Spokesman:  The envoy is in contact with various parties.

Question:  And… and the… the President of the Security Council said there's going to be an any‑other‑business briefing on Yemen tomorrow.  And I wanted to know, has anyone in the Secretariat, whether Mr. Lowcock or… or… DPA [Department of Political Affairs] will brief?

Spokesman:  My understanding is there will at least be a briefing by the Emergency Relief Coordinator.  If others brief, we will let you know.  Madame.

Question:  On Yemen, too, you said that there were contacts between the UN and different Saudi officials.  Can you… could you elaborate on that and whether these contacts also touched upon what's going on in Saudi Arabia itself now regarding the [inaudible]…?

Spokesman:  I can't give you more detail, but to tell you that the focus of the contacts [was] on the humanitarian situation in Yemen.  Mr. Avni.

Question:  So, this… the Saudis claim that there was a missile shot from Yemen in… on Riyadh.  Do you have any confirmation of that?  Does the UN…?

Spokesman:  We have no confirmation… I have no confirmation.  I think Farhan [Haq] addressed that yesterday.  But we have… I have… we have no confirmation.  We've seen the reports, but, as I said, Farhan addressed that yesterday.

Question:  But nothing since yesterday?

Spokesman:  No.  No, sir.

Question:  Additionally, the US issued just… just issued a statement based on Saudi, the report from last July of missiles shot from Yemen by the Houthis that were made in violation of Security Council [resolutions] by Iran.  Can you con… do you have any confirmation of that?

Spokesman:  I do not.  Mr. Abbadi.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  The [United States] President Trump will soon meet with President Xi [Jinping] of China to discuss various global issues.  What importance does the Secretary‑General grant to their discussion of global peace?

Spokesman:  Well, the Secretary‑General is not a foreign policy analyst.  I will let you, all of you, decide the importance of the meeting, but it is clear that, I think, any type of high‑level dialogue, especially between these two countries, is a positive thing.  Sir.

Question:  Stéph, given the December 2016 agreement in the DRC calling for elections by the end of this year and the subsequent announcement by the Elector… Electoral Commission announcing elections by December 2018, does the United Nations believe that Joseph Kabila [Kabange] should remain President of the DRC in the year ahead?

Spokesman:  Look, it's not for the UN to decide who will be… lead one country or… lead one country or another.  We've seen the announcement by the Electoral Commission regarding the elections.

While regretting that these crucial polls have once again been postponed, we continue to call on political leaders, on all sides, to place the interests of the country, of their country and their people, above all else and to ensure the holding of credible, free and fair elections.  It's important to rebuild the trust, I think, between the political class and the Congolese citizens.

Question:  [Inaudible] the UN in the past has commented about respecting the constitutional mandates of leaders.  This would not… this would be outside of the mandate.  His term expired last year.  So, it's a very specific question as to whether he should remain in power given that his mandate has already lapsed.

Spokesman:  Look, we understand that Parliament — and we call on Parliament to still pass the remaining electoral legislation, legislation encouraging the implementation of confidence‑building measures foreseen in the agreement signed last December, and the full respect for the civil and political rights.  As I said, there is… constitutions need to be… need to be respected, but we're not in the… and I will leave it at that.  How's that?  Linda.

Question:  Thank you, Stéph.  We know that about 600,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh, and last… and yesterday, the Security Council obviously issued a presidential statement expressing grave concern over human rights violations, including killings, rapes, etc.  I was wondering if the UN has any statistics or the latest statistics, perhaps, in terms of numbers, in terms of how many people have been raped, how many killings have occurred?

Spokesman:  You know, our human rights colleagues as well as UNHCR have been, but especially our human rights colleagues, have been interviewing… have been interviewing refugees.  So, we can extrapolate from those interviews the fact that many of these refugees have… have undergone horrendous experiences, whether they were… when they were in northern Rakhine State or when they had to flee or on the road.  I'm not sure we're in a position to give hard numbers of exactly how many of these incidents have happened.

Question:  But… just to follow up, but may I ask, is there a sense that we're… that the UN is referring to hundreds or thousands or, you know, just some general scope?

Spokesman:  I'm afraid I'm not able to do that.  Mr. Lee and then Mr. Avni.

Question:  Sure.  Follow‑up… some other stuff, but on the DRC, I wanted to ask you this.  The US has put out… the State Department put out a press release saying: "The US notes the importance of President Kabila [Kabange] abiding by the DRC's Constitution, reaffirmed in the St. Sylvestre accord, that he will not seek a third term and will step down following elections."  So, is that… is that the UN's… is that your understanding as well, that that is what is required?

Spokesman:  I think my understanding is the fact that I used every word that I could think of in answering your colleague's question.

Question:  Right.  I mean, can you get…?

Spokesman:  I will leave it to what I've already answered.

Question:  Okay.  I wanted… you may have seen the speech by the King of Morocco in which he said that there will be no solution to Western Sahara that's not fully in accord with Morocco's sovereignty, which basically means… it's not really clear what is really being negotiated given that statement.  I wanted to know, is there any response by either Mr. [Horst] Köhler or by the Secretariat?

And, also, is it the case… was Mr. Köhler's recent visit to the region… was he restricted of travelling where… anywhere that he wanted within Western Sahara? Because I've heard that he has, and I wanted to just ask you…

Spokesman:  I'm not aware of…

Question:  Did he visit MINURSO [United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara]?

Spokesman:  I'm not aware of these, of whatever restrictions.  Obviously, on these trips, itineraries are negotiated.  I'm not going to react to the King's… the King's speech.  There is a mandate from the Security Council for the Personal Envoy as well as the… as well as MINURSO, and we will follow that mandate and continue our work.

Question:  And you'd said earlier… I'd asked you about this case of the Western Sahara journalist, who's now been twice denied accreditation.  You said you'd look into whether this is under the policy of needing to be from a Member State of the General Assembly.  Were you able to check that out?

Spokesman:  I don't recall, but I'll check again.  Mr. Avni.

Question:  Just to follow up on your answer before that, you said that you have no independent information on the 20 July report.  Since this is allegedly a violation of Security Council resolution…

Spokesman:  No, I didn't say I had no… I just said I had nothing to add.  I didn't say…

Correspondent:  You said you had no information.

Spokesman:  Go ahead, what's the question?

Question:  We can go back to the videotape?

Spokesman:  What's the question?

Correspondent:  My question is…

Spokesman:  Thank God we don't have instant replay here.  Yes.

Question:  Can you get instant replay?  My question is, since the allegation by the US and others is that this is a violation of Security Council resolution, should you look at that…?

Spokesman:  I will go back and look at the July incident.  I have no further information on this most recent incident.

Question:  But should the UN independent, I don't know, DPA or any other department, look at allegations of violation of Security Council resolutions…

Spokesman:  Well, Security Council resolution committees also have authority in this domain.  Mr. Lee.

Question:  Sure.  Thanks a lot.  I wanted to ask you two questions about Cameroon.  One is, since the Secretary‑General's visit, one, there's a… there are reports of a crackdown in a place called Jakiri, where one gendarme was killed, and now basically everyone is being told there will be collective punishment unless a gun is turned over.  And I wanted to know, is Mr. [François Louncény] Fall… who… after the visit, who's keeping track of it?  Also, bigger picture maybe, the… the Cross River State Governor in Nigeria, Ben Ayade, has said that the border has essentially been closed for people fleeing the Cameroon… the anglophone region of Cameroon, and I wanted to know whether that's something that either Mr. Fall or on the… you know, UNHCR is aware of.

Spokesman:  UNHCR, you can check with them.  I will… I don't have anything on… more on Cameroon.

Question:  Is there any… I guess what I'm saying is, if Mr. Fall was there on the trip… he wasn't in the photograph with the…

Spokesman:  He was there.  We already said he was there.

Question:  All right.  So what was the… was any plan reached for continued work…?

Spokesman:  If there's a further visit that he's able to make, we will announce it.  Mr. Abbadi.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I would like to refer to the report to the General Assembly on the circumstances that led to the death of Dag Hammarskjöld and his companions.  It has been put on the web.  What other measures has DPI [Department of Public Information] taken to bring the report to the attention of world community?

Spokesman:  I think they've… they've reported… I think it's been on the UN News Centre and that we rely on the members of the free press to also do that.  Mr. Varma, I will have you brief very quickly, and then we will go to our guest.  Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.