The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
Here at Headquarters, as you heard on Friday, the Economic and Social Council Youth Forum has gotten under way under the theme “The role of youth in building sustainable and resilient rural and urban communities.” During the opening, the Deputy Secretary-General and the UN Youth Envoy, Jayathma Wickramanayake, praised the level of engagement that youth today are having with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and encouraged them to take ownership of the Agenda 2030 in their own countries to ensure its success. They also discussed ways to bring the young people closer to the UN as well as the UN closer to where young people are. As you may be aware, the SDG Media Zone for the Forum is also taking place today and tomorrow at the United Nations Correspondents Association Club. Many youth advocates and activists are participating there and you can join them at the Club or watch them live on UN Web TV. We would also like to inform you that the Youth Envoy will travel to Senegal, The Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa, later this week. It will be her first visit to Africa as the Envoy and she will meet with young people, and learn about the opportunities and challenges they are facing in their countries.
Turning to Syria, Ursula Mueller, the Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, briefed the Security Council today on Syria, where, she said, the United Nations estimates that 13.1 million people are in need of protection and humanitarian assistance, including 6.1 million people who are displaced within the country. Another 5.5 million people have fled the conflict across borders into neighbouring countries, she added. Ms. Mueller expressed particular concern for the safety and protection of civilians caught up in the violence in north-west Syria, where hostilities have reportedly caused numerous deaths and injuries. Airstrikes and fighting in southern Idleb and northern Hama have resulted in over 270,000 displacements since 15 December 2017, driving people from their homes to other areas of Idleb. Further north, she said, in Afrin, the UN is carefully monitoring the situation of over 300,000 people living in the district that is witnessing the fighting. We have reports of civilian casualties and that some 15,000 people have been displaced within the district, and another 1,000 have been displaced to Aleppo Governorate. We have also received reports that local authorities inside Afrin are restricting civilian movement, particularly for those who want to leave the area. She also warned about reports of possible attacks on hospitals and health facilities. And just to remind you that the Special Envoy, Staffan de Mistura, is in Sochi, Russian Federation, today and we are trying to get more details on the [talks] there, which are reportedly still going on.
An update on aid to Yemen: There are six vessels currently offloading at Hodeidah, three carrying a combined 61,700 metric tons of food and three carrying a combined 33,265 metric tons of fuel. There are seven other vessels at the anchorage area, carrying a combined 53,000 metric tons of fuel — and those are awaiting to dock and be onloaded. In January, over 290,000 metric tons of food and over 165,000 of fuel were imported via Hodeidah and Saleef ports, representing 82 and 30 per cent of the respective national imports requirements. As a result of the crisis, food prices are 30 per cent higher than pre-crisis. The price of food increased between 26 and 85 per cent after the start of the blockade in November and December 2017. Inflation has weakened the Yemeni currency by about 50 per cent.
Turning to Libya, our colleagues at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said today that the humanitarian situation in Libya continues to deteriorate, with 378,000 children in need of lifesaving assistance and protection in 2018. UNICEF is therefore appealing for $20 million to scale up its response to provide immediate assistance as well as long term support to children throughout the country. Among the 170,000 people displaced, an estimated 54 per cent are children. Libya is also home to hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees, a significant proportion of whom are children. At risk of abuse, violence, human rights violations, vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups and lacking the most basic services, children in Libya are in urgent need of protection and care.
In South Sudan, the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) is appealing for $103.7 million in 2018 to provide life-saving humanitarian assistance, as well as to support transition, recovery and migration management initiatives. Around 7 million people in South Sudan need relief aid. IOM said that as conditions worsen every day that the crisis persists, sustained levels of life-saving assistance are crucial.
UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, has launched an appeal for its emergency programmes of over $800 million. Of that amount, approximately $400 million each is intended for Syria and the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The appeal also covers some 50,000 Palestine refugees from Syria who have fled to Lebanon and Jordan. At a launch event in Geneva, the UNRWA Commissioner-General, Pierre Krähenbühl, explained that the majority of Palestine refugees in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and from Syria rely on the Agency to provide aid which is literally life-saving, including food, water, shelter and medical assistance.
From Somalia, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, as well as the Head of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Achim Steiner, are in Somalia and today they brought attention to the recently launched Humanitarian Response Plan and the Resilience and Recovery Framework, which seek $1.5 billion to keep up last year’s efforts to avert famine and build resilience in the country. Mr. Lowcock praised the collaborative efforts by the Government, civil society organizations, local people and the international community that helped avert catastrophe in 2017, but he stressed that some 5.4 million people are still in need of life‑saving humanitarian assistance.
UNICEF today appealed for $3.6 billion to provide lifesaving humanitarian assistance in 2018 to 48 million children living through conflict, natural disasters and other emergencies in 51 countries. Conflicts that have endured for years — such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen, among other countries — continue to deepen in complexity, bringing new waves of violence, displacement and disruption to children’s lives. UNICEF says parties to conflicts are showing a blatant disregard for the lives of children. Children are not only coming under direct attack, but they are also being denied basic services as schools, hospitals and civilian infrastructure are either damaged or destroyed. More than $3 billion of the  funding appeal is for work in countries affected by humanitarian crises borne of violence and conflict. Its largest component this year is for children and families caught up in the Syria conflict, soon to enter its eighth year: UNICEF is seeking almost $1.3 billion to support 6.9 million Syrian children inside Syria and those living as refugees in neighbouring countries.
A couple of trip announcements: one is to inform you that next month — that is February, it’s soon — the Secretary-General will be travelling to Geneva to attend the opening of the thirty-seventh session of the Human Rights Council. That will be on 26 February. To remind you, as he already announced in his press conference, he will be travelling to the Republic of Korea for an official visit next week. He will be in Korea from 7 to 10 February. As part of this visit he will meet with President Moon Jae-in, as well as Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha. He will also attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, and in Seoul, he will speak at the Global Engagement and Empowerment Forum on Sustainable Development.
To remind you, [tomorrow] at 1 p.m., there will be a briefing here organized by the UN Office for Partnerships on the 2018 Investor Summit on Climate Risk: Capturing the Investment Opportunities of the Paris Agreement. Tomorrow at 11 a.m., I believe, there will be the annual commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust — that will take place in the General Assembly Hall and the Secretary-General will deliver remarks.
Finally, we say thank you to Bahrain, India, Rwanda and Samoa, bringing the Honour Roll to? [Twenty-nine.] Excellent. Just as a point of comparison: this is an increase [compared] to the last few years. By the end of January 2015, 2016 and 2017, only 25 States had paid their [budget] dues in full. So, we are up. No, he won. You claim your prize, Matthew. I'm sure it's a prize for me. Yes, go ahead.
**Questions and Answers
Question: I want to ask… yesterday, I'd asked Farhan [Haq] about the meeting between the Secretary‑General and Omar al‑Bashir, and he confirmed that it took place. Somehow it wasn't disclosed in his opening, which is fine… all fine. I've asked the ICC [International Criminal Court], and they've come back with what are the rules or the guidelines for contacts. And one… I want to ask you about two things. One thing it says is that the Secretariat, in advance of such a meeting, is supposed to inform the Office of Legal Affairs, which, in turn, informs the prosecution… the prosecutor of the ICC's office. I wanted to know if that took place here. And, also, I'm asking you, pursuant to the guidelines, who attended the meeting? I'd like to know if you attended, but I'd also like to know on the Sudan side. And the reason I'm asking is because the guidance, on this important issue, says, whenever… if contact is deemed absolutely necessary… and I'd like you to address that “every attempt shall be made to interact with individuals of the same group or party who are not subject to an ICC arrest warrant”. So, can you… those are three things. Did… who attended the meeting? Was OLA and the prosecutor told? And, separately, did you go?
Spokesman: No, I did not attend. I don't have… I'm not aware of who the insiders were on the Sudanese side. I think Farhan provided a very clear explanation yesterday as to our operational needs. This was also a meeting in the framework of the Secretary‑General's work on South Sudan. He wanted to meet with the heads of delegation at the African Union of every country bordering South Sudan, and that was… the meeting took place in that context.
Question: Right. The guidelines say it's very much about the country concerned. It's not a… I mean, and I'm sure you've read them, but the main thing is… it seems like you didn't answer there… did António Guterres inform OLA [Office of Legal Affairs] in advance of the meeting, as required by the guidelines, and did OLA, if he did so, inform the prosecutor?
Spokesman: I have no doubt that procedures were followed.
Question: Can you find out? I mean, it seems important…
Spokesman: Go ahead, go ahead.
Question: Follow‑up, please. With regard to this meeting between the Secretary‑General and President al‑Bashir of Sudan, did the Secretary‑General bring, at any point, the issue of his indictment with the ICC? Did he advise him to turn himself in or anything on this sort? And the second part, with regard to the Secretary‑General reform plan for the UN and the input from the donor and Member States, did he just bring the issue of the reduction in peacekeeping budgets? And since a lot of the African countries depend on revenues related to contributing forces, did the UN peacekeeping missions…
Spokesman: I think the… to take your questions backwards, the issue of peacekeeping was very much front and centre in his discussions, both publicly and privately with leaders. And I would refer you back to his press conference in his… that he did in Addis and how he addressed those points. One is the issue of mandates, especially, and also looking more strategically at those missions where there is little or no political process, also looking at the issues of training, the working partnership with TCCs [troop-contributing countries], how troops are trained, how troops are deployed, how troops engage. So, this was, as I said, very clear on his mind. I really have nothing further to say on the meeting with President Bashir. I told… we gave you the legal framework. I told you in which… the political context in which this occurs. And this does not lessen the Secretary‑General's support for the international criminal system. Raed, yes? Let's go back and then we'll go back to you, Nizar.
Question: Okay. How does the UN assess the situation in Aden? Is it a coup attempt, coup… is it just escalation? Do you have any concerns about the situation, that it's getting really bad, according to the reports that are coming…?
Spokesman: No, we are extremely concerned by the violence that we've seen over the last couple of days, especially the armed clashes between the so‑called Southern Transitional Council and Government forces. We've seen reports of a large number of dead, of injured. This only adds to the already… to the current suffering of the people of Yemen, the people of that region in Yemen. We call on all parties to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law. It's paramount that civilians are protected and that the wounded are afforded safe access to medical care and that all sides facilitate life‑saving humanitarian access.
Question: Staying on Aden, now with the Central Bank is supposed to be in Aden or maybe it's part of it in Aden; another is in Jordan, how is… how are sellers being paid? And do… does the United Nations still consider [Abd Rabbuh Mansur] Hadi as the legitimate President of Yemen with all this sec… secessionism in the country?
Spokesman: There is a legitimate Government that is represented here. The UN's not in the business of recognizing Governments, but there is a legitimate authority that we deal with. As for salaries, I'd have to check. I know that has been a concern in the past. I'll have to get an update on that for you.
Question: Well, another question regarding the Turkish operations in Northern Syria. Yesterday, we asked about napalm being used against Afrin, and today there are reports of cluster bombs littering many towns and villages there. How does the United Nations view these things…?
Spokesman: We've seen some of the press reports that you have. We have no independent confirmation of that actually happening. It doesn't mean it's not happening. We… as we've said, we have no one on the ground where the fighting is happening. Obviously, if those reports turned out to be true, it would… these would be gross violations of human rights and of international law. Nizar, I will come back to you. I will come back to you. Herman?
Question: On Mali, could you please confirm if MINUSMA [United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali] has asked once again for the reinforcement of its mandate?
Spokesman: No, I have to… let me get back to you on the mandate discussion on MINUSMA. Majeed? Yes, sir?
Question: Stéphane, thank you very much. With regard to the Assistant Secretary‑General's statement today, she mentioned Afrin… okay. Well, I want to repeat my question. With regard to Assistant Secretary‑General's statement today, she mentioned Afrin and its 300,000 civilians, but she did not mention two things that I'm hoping you can tell me why. The first one is no mention of the number of civilians, although there are reports that there are dozens of them, number of civilians that got killed due to this operation. And the second thing she didn't mention is… is the word Turkey in the statement. Turkey started this operation, while she mentioned the local authorities about restricting the civilians, but no mention of Turkey there.
Spokesman: First of all, this was a humanitarian briefing, and she focussed on the impact on civilians. And that's her… that's the focus of the briefing, so that's one. Second, if there were numbers that were not mentioned, I'm sure it's because they were not able to have enough clarity in the reports that are being received. As I said, we don't have anybody particular… specific on the ground so we are… what we do is try to rely on reports from other sources that we feel confident in. It is clear that people are being killed. It is clear that people have been killed. There is fighting going on. There's shelling going on. We've asked… we've expressed our concern and asked for these… for this violence to stop. Whenever we're able to report on numbers in a way that we feel confident, we do so.
Question: And just follow‑up. Do you have people on the ground in eastern Ghoutah?
Spokesman: I will check what our presence is in Ghoutah from either us or our partners. [He later said that the United Nations has no personnel in eastern Ghoutah.] Mr. Lee and then Nizar.
Question: Sure. I wanted to ask you, yesterday… Farhan, both here and then in writing afterwards, about the four now… I guess it's 47 Cameroonians that were extradited or refouled back from Nigeria to Cameroon, and he initially indicated that the Deputy Secretary‑General had done some things on this. I tried to ask her this morning; she didn't say it. But, the minister had said it. It seems pretty clear they were sent back. UNHCR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] had said that they'd received assurances from Nigeria that they would not be sent back against their will. What is the UN's understanding of how this took place? And what's their comment on it? And what specifically did the Secretary‑General do while she was in Abuja?
Spokesman: The issue was raised during the Deputy Secretary‑General's visit. We've seen the reports of the return. Our… the understanding from UNHCR —and I'm relying on UNHCR's reports; I know they're… they will be issuing a full report… press release soon — that there was an issue of people being refouled as they had been… they had requested asylum. As a matter of principle, it is paramount that the rights of asylum‑seekers be respected and that the rights of non‑refoulement be also respected.
Question: Given that… that the political envoy, François Fall, had talked about a dialogue and given that one of the people presumably that would have been part of the dialogue has now been accused of being a terrorist and has been sent back to “face justice in Yaoundé”, has Mr. Fall done anything… is there any… beyond UNHCR…?
Spokesman: I think the conversations between Mr. Fall and the Cameroonian authorities are continuing and our offer to assist remains.
Question: How can you assist if somebody is going to be charged with terrorism…?
Spokesman: I'm saying our offer remains. Nizar, I've promised to return to you.
Question: Yeah, staying on Syria, in previous occasions, you relied heavily on eyewitnesses… some of them were in other countries… to find out the facts about what's happening on the ground. Hundreds of thousands are leaving… fleeing the areas of conflict in Northern Syria. Has the United Nations been able to contact any of these victims or any of those injured to… to tell the story what's happening there?
Spokesman: I think we… our humanitarian colleagues do their best through various sources, whether it's primary eyewitness sources or various NGOs [non‑governmental organizations], to gather as much information as possible. Raed and then Evelyn. Sorry.
Question: Follow‑up on my previous question. I just received the breaking news that one of the main neighbourhoods in Aden just collapsed and the… from the legit Government. I mean, I really appreciate your concerns about the humanitarian situation, and a lot of the people will do that, but what about the political aspect? Like, do you have any concerns about the political aspect and the political process?
Spokesman: I think what we're seeing, because of the lack of progress on finding a political peaceful solution to the Yemen crisis that we have been working at tirelessly for too long now… we have been pushing the parties to get back to the table… the longer this takes, the more complex the situation on the ground becomes, the more complex the political situation on the ground, the more fragmentation that we see of armed groups and armed conflict in the country. And that only piles on to the misery of the Yemeni people. I think this also should serve, as if we needed more excuses, for the parties to return to the table to find a political solution. There is no military solution. I mean, how many people need to die? How many peop… how many Yemenis need to suffer? How many hospitals and civil… bridges and all sorts of civilian infrastructure needs to be destroyed? All the leaders involved, whether national or regional, need to get back to the table to find a political solution. Evelyn and then…
Question: Yes. Also on Syria, Ms. Mueller this morning mentioned the difficulty in getting more patients to Damascus for emergency care and said 21 that already died who were waiting for such care. I thought the SG’s staff had been negotiating this for quite a while to get people into proper hospitals. Has it fallen apart or…?
Spokesman: Our humanitarian colleagues have been focussed on that for quite some time in Syria, but as we know, what is often promised on paper doesn't always materialise on the ground, and it's very unfortunate, especially for people who need urgent medical care. Majeed?
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. I want to ask a question about Iraq, but before that, can you try to get us a number about the civilian casualties in Afrin later on? And my question about Iraq, there will be an international conference to rebuild and reconstructing Iraq. Will the Secretary‑General participate in that conference…?
Spokesman: Yes, I believe he will. We're waiting for an official announcement soon, but I believe he will do that, and that will be part of another larger trip, but we expect him to be there. Matthew, let's go. And then we'll go… and then… did you have a question? And then Linda and then Brenden [Varma]. You don't get to ask a question. You get to answer them. Go ahead.
Question: Sure. I wanted to ask you about, in Kenya, Raila Odinga's done his, you know, alternative inauguration, but the Government shut down TV and radio stations during it, and there's a well‑known blogger there, Cyprian Nyakundi, whose relatives have been illegally arrested and asked to… to turn over where he is. Does the UN, including the country team, have any comment on these Government actions?
Spokesman: Sure. I think we're obviously taking a look at the situation as it's unfolding and keeping an eye on it very closely. What is important and our urging is that all Kenyan parties, political actors and their supporters maintain a lawful and peaceful social and political environment. We want to reiterate that it's important that Kenyans continue to uphold the Constitution and work together to strengthen governance, advance inclusive development, and uphold human rights and the rule of law. In recognition of the critical role of security agencies in preventing violence and maintaining law and order, the UN urges all law enforcement officials in Kenya to continue to observe the law and respond proportionally in dealing with protests. We do, of course, feel that it is critical for the media to be able to operate freely and to report freely on these situations.
Correspondent: Just as a UN… I guess as a UN connection, the blogger that I named is quite well-known there, is not only… I guess one of the reasons I'm asking whether the country team did it is that he's someone who's actually blocked by the resident representative of the Secretary‑General despite being a well‑known commentator in Kenya. So, the UN maybe doesn't think his relatives should be arrested and detained and…
Spokesman: I'm not aware of the particular case. You're welcome to contact the… our colleagues in Nairobi, but I'm not aware of the particular case.
Question: And can you get an answer on… this ICC guideline of OLA. You said you're sure that the guidelines were… but it's easy for you to find out. Can you…?
Spokesman: I will leave it at that for the time being. Linda and then Sylviane.
Question: Thank you, Steph. Turning to Ukraine, is there any sense by the UN that there's progress being made in terms of a political settlement?
Spokesman: I think the short answer would be we have not seen the progress that we'd like to have seen. There are a number… there's a process that exists that we support, but the humanitarian situation is not… is one that is not improving because of a lack of political process. Sylviane?
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. There is violence erupted yesterday in Beirut, in Lebanon — different part of Lebanon — due to supporters of the head of Parliament. Do you have any comment on that?
Spokesman: We're aware of the situation, and we're obviously calling for calm and for restraint. Evelyn? Your microphone, please.
Question: Yeah. In Yemen, is there any indication that the Coalition led by Saudi Arabia is interested in talks or because of their superior military power, just bang away?
Spokesman: I will leave the analysis to you. What we need is political will on all sides to restart the talks. Mr. Varma, you're up.