Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

18 January 2018

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.

**Security Council

Good afternoon.  This morning, the Secretary-General spoke at the Security Council session on non-proliferation and confidence-building measures.  He said that despite Council efforts, the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction seems to be gathering force, with the situation in the Korean Peninsula being the most dangerous security challenge in the world today.  He said he was encouraged by the recent reopening of inter-Korean communication channels and added that “we need to build on these small signs of hope, and expand diplomatic efforts to achieve the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”  He also reiterated his support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), saying its preservation is in the interest of the Iranian people and the international community at large. 

The Secretary-General noted that, in an environment of increasing military budgets and over-accumulation of weapons, confidence-building measures are extremely important to help decrease tensions and avert conflict.  “Going forward, the Security Council can provide leadership by demonstrating unity and continuing to highlight the importance of dialogue and diplomacy as an essential means for building confidence,” he said.  His statement is available to you.

**Syria

Turning to Syria, our humanitarian colleagues are alarmed by continued reports of fighting in Syria’s Idleb Governorate, which has resulted in the displacement of over 200,000 newly displaced people in the area since 15 December and has impacted civilian infrastructure, particularly medical facilities.  Between 5 and 8 January, attacks reportedly rendered three primary health care facilities inoperable.  Yesterday, two ambulances were reportedly destroyed and a physician injured by explosive devices in the vicinity of Beir Jia’an. 

The UN reminds all parties of their obligation to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, including medical facilities and medical workers, as required by the international humanitarian law and human rights law. 

Meanwhile, on the political side, the Deputy Special Envoy for Syria, Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, is in Damascus, where he met today with the Deputy Foreign Minister of Syria, Feysal Mekdad.  We do understand that there may be a press encounter afterwards and we’ll try to get you some type of transcript.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

Turning to the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], aid agencies in that country have appealed for $1.68 billion for 2018, the largest-ever funding appeal for the country, to respond to the dramatic deterioration of the humanitarian situation.  The funds are urgently required to help over 13 million people.

Kim Bolduc, the Humanitarian Coordinator for the DRC, said that the past year has been one of the most difficult for millions of civilians, with the unrelenting cycle of violence, diseases, malnutrition and loss of livelihoods taking a toll on families.  The geographical expansion of the humanitarian needs and worsening situations in existing crisis hotspots require a change in the response of the international community to address life-threatening humanitarian protection and needs. 

There are more details on OCHA’s [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] website.

**Central African Republic

From the Central African Republic, the humanitarian community there is responding to the needs of tens of thousands of newly displaced people who have fled ongoing clashes between armed groups in the northern region of Paoua. 

The UN and its partners have provided food to displaced families and host families will also receive assistance.  Free health care services are being offered to the displaced and host families.  Humanitarian agencies are also distributing hygiene kits to contain the spread of contagious diseases, while the Government has provided soap and clothes.  Yesterday, aid workers also began the construction of community hangars to temporarily shelter those displaced who are not staying with host families.

More displacement is expected as fighting continues.  Paoua town, which previously had 40,000 inhabitants, has seen its population triple in a few weeks.  Villages 50 kilometres north of there are almost empty. 

**Kenya

In Kenya, the World Health Organization (WHO) is helping to contain an outbreak of Chikungunya disease in the city of Mombasa following reports of people showing symptoms for this mosquito-borne viral disease.  Chikungunya was first reported in mid-December and as of 4 January, the Ministry of Health had received some 69 cases.  WHO is providing technical support to the Government and is closely monitoring the situation. 

**Colombia

From Colombia, the UN Verification Mission there have condemned the murder of Wilman Asprilla Allim and Ansel Montoya Ibarra, two FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] political party members who were participating in electoral activities in the municipality of Peque, in the department of Antioquia.  The Mission says the killings constitute the first deadly attack in the context of the 2018 electoral process.

The Mission urges all the competent institutions to spare no effort in investigating and prosecuting those responsible for this crime.

Similarly, the Mission urges all necessary measures to be taken to guarantee the free exercise of political rights during this electoral season.

**Mexico

Today, UNESCO’s [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] Director-General, Audrey Azoulay, condemned the killing of Mexican journalist Carlos Domínguez Rodríguez, who was murdered in the city of Nuevo Laredo last Saturday.  He was an experienced reporter and columnist, who had denounced abuses by local and national government officials, political violence, corruption and the failure of the justice system.  Ms. Azoulay urged authorities to ensure an effective investigation and said justice is crucial to end violence against those who defend the public’s rights to know.

**Press Briefing

A couple of events in the days ahead; tomorrow at 12:30 p.m., the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, your friend Sergey Lavrov, will be here to speak to you, so that will force me to actually start on time. 

**Park East Synagogue

On Saturday, the Secretary-General will speak at the Park East Synagogue as part of our commemoration of the Holocaust, and he will discuss the importance of countering all form of intolerance, including anti-Semitism and xenophobia.  Holocaust survivors and members of the diplomatic corps will also attend the event, which is located at the at Park East Synagogue.  If you are interested in attending, our office can put you in touch with the organizers.

**Honour Roll

We are delighted to thank our two friends from down under, as we thank Australia and New Zealand who have paid their 2018 regular budget dues in full, which brings us up to…?

Correspondent:  Nine.

Correspondent:  Eight?

Spokesman:  Nine. 

**Questions and Answers

Mr. Klein, do you have a question, or do you yield?

Question:  No, I do have a question.  I believe you said yesterday and the Secretary‑General's… I believe, said the day before that UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees] is a… is a UN institution and not a… not a Palestinian institution.  But I believe it's… you've also said in the past or it might have been Farhan [Haq], from the podium, that, at least in Gaza, the host, which, in the case of Gaza, would be Hamas, that the local government that's administering in Gaza, determines the curriculum in the UNRWA schools, that UNRWA has to defer to the host, again, in this case, Hamas.  And the curriculum in those schools contains very extreme anti‑Israel texts and does not even recognize that there is an Israel.  So could you reconcile…

Spokesman:  No, the… first of all, it is a UN institution in the way it operates under UN mandate.  The UNRWA schools use different curricula depending on the location where they are.  I do not… they do not use a, quote‑unquote, Hamas curriculum in UNRWA schools in Gaza.  I will check; it's either a Palestinian Authority curriculum or one that is… may have been left over from Egypt, but it is not, as you put it, a Hamas curriculum.

Question:  Okay.  That would be a question of fact to check out, but even if it's Palestinian Authority, still… It's being driven… it's being driven…

Spokesman:  And I think UNRWA has repeatedly — and you can contact them — that their curriculum teaches tolerance and… and understanding and I think is seen as a progressive one.  But you're welcome to check.  [He later added that UNRWA uses the Palestinian Authority curriculum, which is used in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, where the schools are administered by the Israeli Ministry of Education.  As well as teaching the Palestinian Authority curriculum, UNRWA teaches all its students, grades one to nine, a special human rights and conflict resolution component.]  Yes, sir?

Question:  That was close.  Thank you.  Stéphane, I want to ask you about The Guardian report that… that, based on almost 15 accounts of women in different UN offices around the world, that they say they have been assaulted and harassed, sexually harassed, and that the UN allowed sexual harassment and assault to flourish in its offices around the world.  One of the women has been raped, allegedly raped, by a senior UN staff.  What's your comment?

Spokesman:  Okay.  We've just read the article just published a short while ago.  What I will… let me make a couple of points.  First of all, I think right from… almost from the start of taking office, the Secretary‑General has prioritized addressing sexual harassment and upholding a zero‑tolerance policy within the Organization.  Later in the fall, you will recall, he sent out a letter, which was jointly signed by all the heads of the staff union, that clarified the different routes to lodge complaints and a reminder of the zero‑tolerance policy.  No one believes that the UN is different from any other Organization, public or private, that has seen sexual harassment, where sexual harassment occurs.  It would be of no surprise that the issue may very well be underreported within the UN.  He has… the Secretary‑General has tasked, both in terms of the CEB [Chief Executives Board] that created a systemwide task force, inter‑agency task force, that will examine the issue of sexual harassment in how we respond and how we can better respond.  For the Secretariat itself, Jan Beagle, the head of the Department of Management, is chairing a task force that will examine and strengthen existing measures to make sure that staff understand exactly what constitutes sexual harassment, know how to report it, understand formal and informal methods of resolution, and are aware of their right of protection against retaliation.  We also look at how to strengthen our capacities to investigate the cases as they may come forward.  We're looking at, obviously, a staff… we're looking at a staff survey to get a better sense of the issue within the UN.  Fact sheets will be distributed.  A help line would be set up in order to have people have a place to call if they want to seek advice on sexual harassment.  And we will ensure that all managers have time… dedicated time to which to address this issue.  I think the Secretary‑General is adamant about dealing with this issue, which also is part of a broader issue of gender parity, of balance of power.  These are issues that he is driving at, whether it's issues also… not unlinked to issues of sexual abuse, where he's tackled this issue head on.  As I said, I think we are not blind to the fact that this happens in the United Nations, as it happens, unfortunately, everywhere.  Already, a few years ago, I think back in 2008, a bulletin was issued to staff which clearly outlined what was harassment and how to deal with it.  But these processes can always be strengthened and always need to be strengthened, and that's the road on which the Secretary‑General is pushing his senior staff and pushing out a message to all staff.

Question:  And, Stéphane, you talked about that bulletin that was distributed two years ago about paper, about facts.  You know, clearly, most of the staff or… or at least somebody who's at the UN know what sexual harassment do.  The… in the story, they talk about women that already reported this harassment.  Seven of them reported it to their higher… and nothing has been done.

Spokesman:  No, no, it's hard… I can't address the specific cases that are in the story because there are no details.  Obviously, you know, if specific cases are brought, we can address those issues on how those were treated.  There are various avenues through which staff can address cases of sexual harassment, whether those are formal or informal.  Staff have been informed.  They will continue to be informed.  It's… there's an importance of a… you know, a sense of internal public information campaign to make sure that people know what their rights are and their avenues.  The message from the top is that behaviour will not be tolerated, that people will be made to be held to account and that people should not fear coming forward.  It's an issue that will demand a lot of effort to deal with, and the Secretary‑General is determined to put in that effort.

Correspondent:  What about policies?

Spokesman:  Go ahead.  Please.

Question:  You said you can't…

Spokesman:  Your microphone.  Yeah?

Question:  You said you can't address the individual cases.  That's… the article just came out, but it describes some policies that I think you could address.  One policy that it mentions is that some UN agencies have a six‑month statute of limitations on complaints.  Is that something the Secretary‑General is interested in changing, and another…

Spokesman:  I don't know which UN agencies the article is referring to.  What is clear is that the Secretary‑General wants to see, across the board, in parts of the UN over which he has no direct‑line authority — as you know, some specialized agencies and others, he has no direct authority — but through the Chief Executives Board, he wants a harmonization and he wants effective policies to be put in place to ensure that people feel free and comfortable coming forward.

Question:  How about comfortable speaking?  One of the… one of… the article says that… that… that those interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity, quote, partly because they are precluded from talking publicly by UN rules governing staff.  Can you say from this podium that UN staff are free to speak to the press about abuse they suffer within the UN from superiors?

Spokesman:  No one is putting a gag order.  I don't… but you know, obviously, those quotes are anonymous quotes.  I can't address them.  But the whole point is to create an atmosphere in which people who have suffered harassment or who are… feel comfortable to come forward and speak and comfortable enough without any fear of retaliation, which would be unacceptable.

Question:  And the one last thing, it talks about OIOS [Office of Internal Oversight Services] and… and interviewing the wrong people and bungling investigations.  And I just wondered, since… I think since Ms. [Heidi] Mendoza took over, I haven't seen her have a press conference, and I'm just wondering if… on this issue, if this issue is important enough in order to understand how investigations are done.

Spokesman:  Look, we will have people come forward to talk about investigations.  I can't speak for OIOS, but I know… you know, I know as for… they have been investigating these cases, I think, 15 reports in 2016 and about 17… 18 in 2017.  Madame?

Question:  Just a follow‑up on the same subject and another question on Syria.  So, you mentioned that there's 15 and 17 reports… like, 2016 and '17, there are investigation in different cases.  Is there any results of these investigations?  Are you willing to make them public without mentioning the names of the victims, et cetera.?

Spokesman:  I think part of… in the… there's an annual report in which these… some of these things are dealt publicly.  OIOS is not the only avenue through which people can lodge complaints.  And, as I said, there's no… it would be no surprise to think that the cases of sexual harassment are underreported as they are in many different places.  On Syria?

Question:  On Syria, you mentioned that there are 200,000 refugees in the last… since December 15.  Do you have more information about which area they went and whether they are, for the second time, displaced and which…?

Spokesman:  Yeah, I think, as we said yesterday, this is mostly around Idleb governorate, and we are seeing that people are… have been often twice displaced.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you.  I want to ask you if the SG now planning any meeting to solve this budget issue with UNRWA.  Is he calling for some donors for consultation?  Does he have any plan to fill that shortage?

Spokesman:  The plan right now is being led by the Commissioner‑General of UNRWA, Pierre Krähenbühl.  The Secretary‑General is being kept up to date on those plans and is, obviously, very supportive of the efforts of the Commissioner‑General.  UNRWA had told us, and I think has made public, that they will launch some funding campaign very shortly that will look both to traditional donors but also new donors on how to plug the hole, to speak simply.

Question:  My second question, Stéphane, is about Ahed Tamimi, 16‑year‑old girl who was dragged again to the court last Monday, handcuffed in a very unfriendly manner, to say the least, and yet the… Mr. [Nickolay] Mladenov, the coordinator for the Middle East peace process, so far have not said one word about this young girl.

Spokesman:  I think there have been statements from our human rights colleagues on the ground, and we would like to see… ensure that the rights of this child are fully respected, in accordance with international law.  Madame?

Question:  i24NEWS.  Can I ask you about the UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic?  There's been fresh reports that sexual assaults are being carried out, some against children.  I know that the UN has a programme to tackle this, but it's clearly not enough.  Can you tell me what the Secretary‑General is doing to tackle this terrible problem?

Spokesman:  We're fully aware of the issue that has plagued especially this… the mission in the Central African Republic.  The head of the mission, I think, has been extremely active on ensuring that there is better reporting.  We have, working with Member States, managed to drastically shorten the amount of time through which investigations are done.  We are working more actively with communities to ensure that those who are victimized get the support that they need and, just as important, working with troop contributors to ensure greater troop discipline and better training through deployment.  What is important is that any uniformed person or civilian working for the UN or under the UN banner be held accountable for those crimes.

Question:  [inaudible] So you intend to do that…

Spokesman:  These are things that are already going on, have been going on now at least for a year.  And I think the way we have been dealing with each new allegation has improved, and I think the appointment of victim rights' advocates, whether it's the system at the UN level or on the ground, there is one in the Central African Republic, is to ensure greater support for the victims.  We want to get to zero, but this is a work that we have to do in partnership with the troop-contributing countries and is… also ensure that issues of discipline are dealt with and issues of accountability are dealt with.

Question:  Can I ask one follow‑up on that?  Is there a particular problem with particular nations that are contributing troops in this region?

Spokesman:  No, I think… to take it to a greater macro level and linked to the issue of harassment, the plague of sexual harassment, of sexual assault has been committed by people of every race, every ethnicity, every profession, every religion.  There is no… it is an issue of gender and of power between men and women.  It is not an issue as much of culture or nationality.  Oleg? You've been patient.

Question:  Yes.  Thank you, Stéphane.  On the incident with killing of the politician, the Serbian politician, in Kosovo, there was no statement from the Secretary‑General.  Why is that?  I know you would say that the SRSG [Special Representative of the Secretary-General] came up with a statement, and the Secretary‑General does not comment on any event… every event happening in the world, but this has some potential to destabilise the situation in the region.  And, previously, the Secretary‑General had commented on the murder of prominent politicians, including in Russia recently. 

Spokesman:  Well, since you've partially answered the question for me… no, I mean, Oleg, we take this extremely seriously.  The Special Representative of the Secretary‑General speaks for the Secretary‑General, so the Secretary‑General shares the concern expressed by his representative, shares the condemnation expressed by his representative.  Just today, we're seeing, again, political violence in a different part of the world, in Colombia, which the Secretary‑General's representatives there have condemned.  The SRSG speaks for the Secretary‑General, and I… sometimes you'll see when we're in place where there is a representative of the Secretary‑General — there isn't one in every country — you will see that person speak on his behalf. 

Question:  Follow‑up?

Spokesman:  You may.

Question:  And, in the statement by the SRSG, he offered any… any kind of support for the investigation of the murder.  Are you aware if the Serbian authorities actually asked the UN for any sort of help…?

Spokesman:  I'm not, but I will… we will check.  Linda, you've also been patient.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  I mean, putting aside the whole UNRWA situation, I was just wondering, the UN is involved in overseeing the education of children in other places, perhaps maybe in the DRC.  So, again, I was just wondering, is there an overall procedure by which the UN reviews or vets what's being taught in… you know, even in countries that are in the midst of civil war?

Spokesman:  You know, I think each situation is seen as… operates differently.  It's also important to use the curriculum that is appropriate for each region.  We're not there to set the curriculum.  I think UNRWA has the issue of the curriculum, and UNRWA has been addressed many, many times.  And I think UNRWA has addressed and answered those questions very directly, and they will continue to do so. 

Question:  No, I don't mean that.  I meant in general.

Spokesman:  You know, in general, it's also… if we operate a school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it's important that we educate people who can then rejoin the local educational system, so there needs to be local coordination of the curriculum.  Majeed?

Question:  Yes.  Stéphane, one follow‑up on The Guardian story and then a question about Iraq.  One of the alleged victim, she alleged that she was raped by UN staff… senior UN staff member that got fired.  She said that, despite medical evidence and witness testimony, an internal investigation by the UN found insufficient evidence to support her allegation.  Given what you are seeing now in the US, around the world, that only an accusation was… is enough for many cases to get somebody fired, do you think the UN will apply that standard — if a senior official was just accused, which is in this case, most of the time, that will be enough for sexual harassments case for obvious reasons…

Spokesman:  Again, I can't…

Question:  Will that be enough?

Spokesman:  I don't know the specifics of the case, and, obviously, I think our… obviously, our heart goes out to the women in the article who have outlined the suffering they've gone through.  Like anywhere, there are procedures and there are legal procedures.  We have seen — and I speak in general terms — of people being suspended or removed from their jobs while investigations are going on.  And I would say, if there is a criminal investigation, that is also the responsibility of the host country to also prosecute those crimes, and we cooperate, as a matter of routine, with the host countries to ensure that a criminal procedure is followed and that people are held to account. 

Question:  And my question about Iraq is, you know, we've seen Mr. [Mark] Lowcock go to Syria and rightly so, giving attention to the humanitarian disaster there, but it's been almost six months and… about when it's come to Iraq, which you know there are still millions of IDPs [internally displaced persons] and humanitarian crisis.  We haven't seen Ms. [Lise] Grande or Mr. Lowcock hold a press conference or give us more updates on what's going on in Iraq, while both Iraq and Syria, they are war‑torn countries, but we are seeing that the UN gives more attention to Syria…

Spokesman:  Well, we'll see if we can get you some more information on Iraq.

Question:  Well, my question is why there's not much update about it… 

Spokesman:  I think we update on a regular basis from here.  I would also encourage you to look at the OCHA websites.  They also provide… whether it's ReliefWeb or their websites, and I think there are regular updates provided there.  Mr. Lee?

Question:  Sure.  I wanted to ask you, the… the… this week, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES, has written to its 183 member States saying that, based on what I've previously been asking you about, these Nigerian rosewood certificates signed by the Deputy Secretary‑General, that, henceforth, all rosewood certificates issued… permits issued by Nigeria will have to be verified by the Secretariat and that a special mission is being sent to the country.  So, clearly, there's an ongoing issue, and I just want… you'd said throughout that the Deputy Secretary‑General answered all questions; there's no questions remaining.  And I think that this seems to indicate that there are still some questions pending.  So, just as to her own… not that… not the overall issue, not… the… the… the… the Environmental Ministry in Nigeria, but her role and knowledge when she signed the 4,000 certificates, do you now… is it now possible that she'll… I can… I'll give you written questions, but will she answer questions given the findings by CITES…?

Spokesman:  Listen, she's away.  She'll be back soon.  Whenever… next opportunity to speak to her, you'll be able to ask her the question.  She has… through us and in writing, she has expressed her position on that story and made it clear that she followed the rules.  Whatever investigation or whatever discussion there may be between CITES and the Nigerian Government, that's something you need to follow up with either one of those parties and not me.

Question:  But it seems like the reason that they're saying that now all certificates from Nigeria have to be checked with them is that these certificates, they believe, were signed after the wood was already in China, which means it wasn't in compliance with the rules.  That's one of the issues.  I guess…  I don't understand how she…

Spokesman:  I think she's been very clear and very transparent with the authorities and with CITES.

Question:  And I wanted to ask you again, because there have been… I don't know if it's true or not.  There have been some reports that, in her time in Nigeria, she did inquire in some way into the case of these ten Anglophones, Cameroonian leaders, abducted in Nigeria 12 days ago.  Is… and I know that the Secretary‑General made some… made sort… he said generally that there are…

Spokesman:  As I said, if I had an update, I would give one to you.

Question:  What about the Global Compact?  You'd said that you would check with the Global Contact about China…

Spokesman:  I would need to check on that.  Yes, Mr. Lee.  No, Mr. Klein.  Excuse me.

Question:  How quickly you forget.  Okay.

Spokesman:  How quickly… I hardly knew you.

Question:  This morning, in his address to the Security Council, the Secretary‑General referred several times to the importance of verification in the context of non… of non-proliferation.  One of the criticisms of the JCPOA is that military sites in Iran are off‑limits unless Iran itself decides to give permission to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], and there've been allegations that some nuclear weapon‑related research or development has taken place and may be still taking place in some of those military sites.  So, does the Secretary‑General have a concern, given his emphasis on the importance of verification, about this potential loophole in the JCPOA?

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General was not a party to the negotiations and where the JCPOA ended up being.  Our focus is on the different parts that fall under it, including the IAEA's responsibility and the Iranian responsibility towards the IAEA and the IAEA's reported on that.  I'm not going to speculate on what the agreement should have been or could have been.  Yeah, go ahead.

Question:  Sure.  I wanted to ask you, in Cambodia, I know you've had statements before, but the… Sam Rainsy has… the par… the main opposition party was dissolved, and now they've started what they call a movement, and the Government has said they're going to investigate it and disband it if necessary and go forward with elections in July.  I'm just wondering, is there any follow‑up in terms of the DPA [Department of Political Affairs] or the country team? [Cross talk]

Spokesman:  We believe that, during this electoral season, there should be an atmosphere in which people are free to express themselves and free to participate in the election, whether as voters or as candidates.  Thank you.  Mr. [Brendan] Varma, it's all yours.  They're all yours.

For information media. Not an official record.