6 February 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 Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.


Earlier this morning, we issued a statement expressing the Secretary-General’s concerns about the unfolding situation in Maldives, in particular the declaration of a state of emergency and the entry of security forces into the Supreme Court premises.  The Secretary-General urges the Government of Maldives to uphold the Constitution and rule of law, lift the state of emergency as soon as possible, and take all measures to ensure the safety and security of the people in the country, including members of the judiciary.

Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Miroslav Jença, spoke today by phone with the Foreign Minister of Maldives, Dr. Mohamed Asim, and reiterated the Secretary-General’s serious concern about the unfolding situation in the country, in particular the arrest of the Chief Justice earlier today.  Mr. Jença stressed the importance of upholding the Constitution and the rule of law, in particular the need to preserve the independence of the judiciary.  He urged the Government of Maldives to release the Chief Justice and Supreme Court judges urgently.  Mr. Jença also called on the Foreign Minister to take all necessary measures to ensure the safety and security of all people in the country, and to resolve the political crisis through all-party talks, which the UN stands ready to facilitate.


The UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator and the UN Representatives in Syria today called for an immediate cessation of hostilities lasting for at least one month throughout Syria to enable the delivery of humanitarian aid and services, evacuation of the critically sick and wounded, and alleviation of people’s suffering, to the extent possible.  The United Nations humanitarian team in Syria warns of the dire consequences of the compounded humanitarian crisis in several parts of the country.  In Afrin, the ongoing military operations, on the one hand, and the reported blockage of exits by other forces, on the other hand, have virtually trapped many civilians preventing them from accessing safer areas.  So far, 380 families have reached surrounding villages and Aleppo City neighbourhoods, while thousands of people have been displaced within Afrin.  As the fighting escalates, the number of civilians affected by violence is bound to increase.  In Idleb, the military operations resulted in increased casualties and movement of civilians to safer areas.  Some of them have been forced to move several times to escape fighting.  We have more details online.


Emergency fuel for critical facilities in Gaza will become exhausted within the next 10 days, the acting UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territory, Roberto Valent, warned today.  The UN office in Gaza says there is an urgent need for donor support to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe driven by the energy crisis.  At present, the nearly 2 million Palestinian residents of Gaza, over half of whom are children, receive electricity for no more than eight hours each day.  This year, $6.5 million is required to provide 7.7 million litres of emergency fuel.  This is the bare minimum needed to stave off a collapse of services.  Mr. Valent said that hospitals have already begun to close.  Without funding, more service providers will be forced to suspend operations over the coming weeks, and the situation will deteriorate dramatically, with potential impacts on the entire population.  There are more details online.


In line with that, we also have an appointment to announce:  Today, the Secretary-General is announcing the appointment of Jamie McGoldrick of Ireland as Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory.  He succeeds Robert Piper of Australia to whom the Secretary-General is grateful for his commitment and dedicated service.  Mr. McGoldrick brings extensive experience in humanitarian affairs, international cooperation, economic development and political affairs.  Most recently, you will remember, he served as UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen.  We have much more in a bio note in our office.


The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its partners are today launching a funding appeal for $391 million to support some 430,000 Burundian refugees during 2018.  Low levels of humanitarian funding for this crisis remains a great concern.  Burundian refugees could get a mere 21 per cent of the required funds — making it the world’s least-funded refugee response plan.  Since 2015, more than 400,000 refugees and asylum seekers have fled the country, escaping human rights abuses, continued political uncertainty, and the related humanitarian crisis.  Refugee numbers are expected to increase by over 50,000 this year as regional efforts to resolve the political crisis in the country have not made significant progress.  The United Republic of Tanzania is hosting the largest number of Burundians, followed by Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda.  At this stage, UNHCR and partners are not promoting or encouraging refugee returns to Burundi, and reminds States that refugees should not be forced to return against their will.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

UNHCR also expressed today grave concern about escalating violence in Ituri Province of the north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, creating new displacement over the last four days.  At least 30 people are reported to have been killed amid conflict between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups, and many villages have been burned to the ground.  Fighting among the two communities had previously devastated the region from 1999 to the early 2000s, leading to large‑scale internal displacement and refugee movements to Uganda.  Now, UNHCR offices on both sides of the border are once more on high alert, with initial reports putting the number of internally displaced in the thousands.  In total, some 5 million people have been displaced by conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

**Female Genital Mutilation

Today is the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.  In his message for the Day, the Secretary-General said that this practice is a gross violation of the human rights of women and girls.  He said that while progress has been achieved in many countries, further political engagement is needed to prevent some 68 million girls from being subjected to female genital mutilation by 2030.  “With the dignity, health and well-being of millions of girls at stake, there is no time to waste.  Together, we can and must end this harmful practice,” he added.  And UN-Women also just announced the appointment of activist Jaha Dukareh as Regional Goodwill Ambassador to support its advocacy to end Female Genital Mutilation and child marriage in Africa.  You can find more information on this online.

**Honour Roll

Thanks today go to Cyprus and Kuwait, both of which have paid their regular budget dues in full for 2018.  The Honour Roll now totals 40.  And with that, are there any questions?  Yes?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Sure.  Some other things, but I wanted to know, I was looking at the Secretary‑General's schedule today, and it says everything's internal, and I understand that he's leaving today for the Olympics.  But, Code Blue has said that he's meeting today with Michel Sidibé of UNAIDS [Joint United Nations Programme against HIV/AIDS].  I don't know if that's true.  And they… they're urging him to… to provide more transparency on the reported clearing of Luiz Loures on sexual harassment charges.  So, I wanted to know two things.  Number one, I tried to ask before, but given that… that a pretty prominent group in this field has said that it's not to… to simply… they claim that Mr. Sidibé basically unilaterally dismissed the case.  And, so, how was the decision made within UNAIDS?  And is it true that… as they say, that Mr. [António] Guterres is meeting with Michel Sidibé today?

Deputy Spokesman:  Actually, the Secretary‑General right now, as we're speaking, should be leaving for the Republic of Korea.  So, they're already starting on a plane flight.  And, in the morning, he just had internal meetings.  I do not believe he met Mr. Sidibé prior to his departure from headquarters.  And he, obviously, doesn't have any meeting scheduled now, because he's on the airplane.  Beyond that, from the moment the complaint was received by the UNAIDS executive director, it was immediately referred to the Office of Internal Oversight of the World Health Organization (WHO).  And investigation was underway after that time and has just been completed.  That was the procedure that UNAIDS follows.  It goes to the World Health Organization's Internal Oversight.

Question:  Does he have… okay.  But, does the… does the director of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibé, then make a final determination, or is it entirely whatever the recommendation of OIOS of WHO is… is taken?

Deputy Spokesman:  It has to follow the recommendations by the investigators, in other words, by the World Health Organization investigators.  But, beyond that, you'd have to check with UNAIDS.  We can't speak to the case in its detail, because it wasn't handled by the UN Secretariat.  However, the Secretary‑General does expect the case to be thoroughly investigated.  As you know, UN entities outside the Secretariat have their own rules that set out the terms of conditions of employment for its staff, including a code of conduct.  And the Secretariat does not have jurisdiction over these cases.  At the same time, the Secretary‑General is aware that the rules, regulations and investigative practices across the UN system need to be brought in line, and he's taken measures to address this.

Question:  So, just one final thing.  When he said at the stakeout that he's declaring zero tolerance, does he only mean for the Secretariat, or does it extend throughout?  Because you said that they have their own rules…

Deputy Spokesman:  No, he means throughout the system, and this is something that he's tried to make clear.  Yes?

Question:  Farhan, just to clarify, so this case is still under investigation?

Deputy Spokesman:  You would have to check with UNAIDS how… whether there's any final determination.  As far as we're aware, the investigation has just been completed, and now it's up to them to determine what follow‑up steps are to be taken.

Question:  It's up to UNAIDS?

Deputy Spokesman:  It's up to UNAIDS.  Like I said, the Secretary‑General is trying to make sure that the various standards of the UN system can be brought into line, because, of course, for obvious reasons, they do vary.  But, he wants to make sure that, throughout the system, there will be zero tolerance for sexual harassment.  He made that clear in his remarks to you on Friday, and we're pursuing measures on that level.  Yes?

Question:  Yes, what kind of measures… I think Stephen Lewis, whom we all know from his work on AIDS for so many years, recommended that an outside group… that the problem was that a lot of investigations were doing… were done by people who had a close relationship to the accused in every single agency where this popped up and that had to be some kind of outside investigate… you know, investigators.  Is that being considered?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, we'll see what the system as a whole can agree to, but the Secretary‑General has brought this to the attention of all of the heads of the agencies, funds and programmes.  As you know, the Chief Executives Board meets twice a year, and he brought this to their attention already as a way of trying to see how we can move forward on this.  But, the Secretary‑General and the Secretariat are trying to also lead by example, and we're trying to make sure that our efforts to have some consistency with how the system handles this will be brought across the system.  Yes, Edie?

Question:  On another subject, Farhan, as you just read, the UN humanitarian and Resident Coordinator in Syria and the UN Representative in Syria have called for a one‑month ceasefire.  Why did it… why did that come from them and not from the Secretary‑General?  And does the Secretary‑General support a one‑month ceasefire for humanitarian aid deliveries?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yes, of course, the Secretary‑General does support that.  He hopes that any sort of halt can be brought about on the ground, because it is urgently needed.  At the same time, of course, it's the officials on the ground and the country team on the ground who have most raised these concerns, given the sort of deterioration they've seen in places like Afrin, in Idleb, in Raqqah, and elsewhere.  And it's for that reason they've made that alarm today.  Yes, Dulcie?

Question:  Yeah, so, back to the case of UNAIDS, so is the goal now to standardize all responses across the UN system, including agencies to align with one policy?  Because it sounds like you're saying everybody has their own policy.

Deputy Spokesman:  Let's see what we can get.  Obviously, there's a range of different ways that different agencies handle it.  But, yes, we want to see how we can have a reasonable standard brought across the system.

Question:  What do you mean "a reasonable standard"?

Deputy Spokesman:  Ultimately, we want to see that there are procedures put in place in each and every area, in each and every agency, that can deal effectively with the problems of sexual harassment that we believe that the system as a whole must face.  Yes?

Question:  Always on Syria, there were some reports yesterday of some chemical attacks in Idleb.  The US has expressed… expressed their concerns and was issued on that.  What's the reaction from the UN?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yes.  I mean, we've learned of… with the gravest concern of reports of the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria, including in Idleb, the Secretary‑General once again condemns in the strongest possible terms any use of such weapons for which there can be no justification.  He reiterates his call for unity in the Security Council in order to ensure that those responsible for the use of chemical weapons in Syria are identified and held accountable.  Yes?

Question:  A follow‑up on Syria.  You already mentioned Idleb, but I was wondering if you have any reaction to the… there were reports of hospital bombings in Idleb, and also a refugee camp in northern Idleb was targeted by the Kurdish militias.  Do you also have a reaction to that?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yes.  We're aware of the reports of shelling in Idleb and in other places.  Regarding reports of the shelling of hospitals, of course, we have taken a stand against any targeting of hospitals or medical facilities.  It's a major violation of International Humanitarian Law and must be stopped.  Yes, Dulcie again.

Question:  Okay.  Does the UN have a policy regarding top UN officials using UN symbols, like the UN flag, on their personal social media accounts?

Deputy Spokesman:  If they're using it for UN business, that's appropriate.  If it's for private business, no, you shouldn't use UN symbols for that.  Yes?

Question:  Sure.  I wanted to ask you again about Kenya.  It seems like… whatever, Citizen TV is still closed.  A gentleman I'd asked you about before, an opposition figure, David Ndii, has had his passport cancelled for attending the inauguration or self‑inauguration of Raila Odinga, and an opposition lawyer, Miguna Miguna, is… has been arrested.  And I'm wondering, what is… I know that, in an earlier stage, Mr. [Olusegun] Obasanjo was sent.  Is the UN actually trying to defuse what seems to be a mounting tension between the two sides in Kenya?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, we are concerned about any of these reports.  We want, once more, for all of the Kenyans to maintain a lawful and peaceful social and political environment.  And, in recognition of the critical role of security agencies in preventing violence and maintaining law and order, the United Nations urges law enforcement officials to continue to observe the law and respond proportionally in dealing with protests.

Question:  Right.  Well, what about, like, locking up these opposition people?  It seems… some people are saying they might lock up Raila Odinga, which would create a huge outcry.  So, I'm just wondering, is there an attempt by the UN to sort of…?

Deputy Spokesman:  We are in touch with different officials to relay our various concerns about the situation.  Yes?

Question:  Yeah, and I wanted to ask you one… it's something… yesterday, the… Patrick Ho, the head of the China Energy Fund Committee here, was denied bail.  And in the… in the hearing, basically, the prosecution said and the judge said that she found weight to be given to the evidence that basically the NGO [non-governmental organization] was a front for bribery to Sam Kutesa and others.  So, given that… how this trial is going, I'm wondering, again, Stéphane [Dujarric] had said that the Secretariat plays no role in sort of following through and making sure that China Energy Fund Committee can't continue to say it's a… in special consultative status with ECOSOC [Economic and Social Council].  I've written to the ECOSOC chair now twice, 28 November 2017 and today, but I don't have anything back.  Is there any spokesperson for ECOSOC that can at least say what the process is?

Deputy Spokesman:  There is a spokesperson for the President of the Economic and Social [Council], and I can give you that contact afterwards.

Question:  Because… because Brenden… oh.  Yeah.  Anyways, I'd written before to that same individual, and there was no response.  I'm just… guess I'm wondering, what is their… what is the… does the Secretary‑General… given that trial that's now moving forward and what's coming out in it, does he believe in the same way that he has… asserting himself as to agencies on other issues, that he should maybe get involved to ensure that there's not a… a named briber saying that they're in consultative status with the UN?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, UN bodies themselves have been dealing with the problems created by the China Energy Fund Committee in their own ways, but what you're talking about is consultative status that's granted by Member States through the Economic and Social Council, and that decision would have to be taken by Member States.  Have a good afternoon, everyone.

For information media. Not an official record.