The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
**Republic of Korea
On Friday morning, the Secretary-General travelled down to the coast to Gangneung to attend an official lunch hosted in his honour by the President of the Republic of Korea, Moon Jae-in. In his toast at that lunch, the Secretary-General said he was visiting in solidarity with the Korean people at a moment of great tension and opportunity. The Secretary-General added that the courageous initiatives of the Republic of Korea’s Government in relation to inter-Korean relations have the full support of the United Nations. The Secretary-General then met with Thomas Bach, the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Speaking to the press afterwards, the Secretary-General congratulated the IOC and the host Government for the organization of the games. He also expressed how grateful he is for the exemplary cooperation between the International Olympic Committee and the United Nations.
Prior to heading to the dinner offered by the President of Korea for the heads of delegations, the Secretary-General met with Han Zheng, member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and Special Representative of President Xi Jinping. The Secretary-General then attended the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the Secretary-General returned by train to Seoul. He will leave early Saturday morning for New York. And also related to the Olympics, Kenya’s first Olympic alpine skier, Sabrina Wanjiku Simader, has been designated the first Mountain Hero by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). Nineteen-year-old Sabrina will help UNEP draw attention to emerging environmental issues in mountain regions, such as climate change, waste and loss of biodiversity. She will also be lending her support to the United Nations Wild for Life campaign, which aims to end the illegal wildlife trade. Her kindred species is, fittingly, the snow leopard.
**Papua New Guinea
The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, today called on the Government of Papua New Guinea to take firm measures to combat corruption, build good governance and strengthen the rule of law, particularly in holding businesses accountable for the human rights impacts of their activities. During a day-long visit to the country, the High Commissioner met with Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, as well as the Chief Justice, Speaker of Parliament and civil society representatives. He said that while there are exemplary laws and policies in place to protect human rights in the country, they are reportedly often not enforced.
**Democratic Republic of the Congo
Our humanitarian colleagues tell us today that in 2017 alone, more than two million people were displaced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), double the total number of internally displaced people in 2016. That means that on average, 50 Congolese families were forced to flee their homes every hour in 2017. The number of internally displaced people in the country has risen to 4.5 million people, over 60 per cent of whom are children. This is the largest population of internally displaced people in Africa. In 2018, humanitarians require $1.68 billion for the Democratic Republic of the Congo but to date, only 3 per cent of the funding has been received.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is alarmed at the upsurge in violence across Yemen, which is resulting in increased displacement from various frontlines. According to UNHCR and partner data, more than 85,000 people have been displaced countrywide since 1 December 2017. Yemen’s west coast continues to be the highest source of new displacement, with some 61,000 people originating from Hodeidah and Taizz Governorates. Current military escalations on the west coast are leading to hundreds of people having to flee their homes on a daily basis. UNHCR is particularly concerned for those that remain in areas close to hostilities in Taizz and Hodeidah. As a result of prolonged fighting in those two governorates, conditions continue to rapidly deteriorate, exposing people to violence and disease, without basic services. For 2018, UNHCR is appealing for nearly $200 million to respond to critical and prioritized humanitarian needs but is starting the year with just 3 per cent of funding available. UNHCR reiterates its call to the international community to commit funds to the Yemen humanitarian response.
In Greece, UNHCR today said it is very concerned by reports from asylum seekers of sexual harassment and violence in sub-standard reception centres on the country’s islands, despite Government measures to address overcrowding and dire living conditions. According to UNHCR, thousands of refugees continue to stay in overcrowded shelters with inadequate security. In some of these reception centres, bathrooms and latrines are no-go zones after dark for unaccompanied women and children. One woman told the agency she had not showered in two months for fear of being assaulted. The agency called on the Government to step up its actions to protect people in reception centres to reduce the risk of sexual and gender-based violence. More information on UNHCR’s site.
The World Food Programme (WFP) is warning today that the twin scourges of another prolonged dry spell and an invasive crop-eating worm are set to sharply curtail harvests across southern Africa, driving millions of people — most of them children — into severe hunger. The warning follows an alert by regional food security experts that erratic rainfall, high temperatures and persistent Fall Army Worm infestation are likely to have far-reaching consequences on access to adequate food and nutrition over the next 12 to 15 months. Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Zambia and South Africa are the worst-affected countries.
Big thanks today to Austria and China. Both Member States have paid their full regular budget dues for 2018. The Honour Roll now totals 47.
And Monday is the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers. We will have as guests Dr. Siobhan O’Neil, Project Manager of the United Nations University’s Children and Extreme Violence Project, along with researchers Boukary Sangaré and Mara Revkin. They will brief you on the launch of the report entitled “Cradled by Conflict: Child Involvement with Armed Groups in Contemporary Conflict”. That is what I have for you. Yes, Michelle?
**Questions and Answers
Question: Thanks, Farhan. I have a question on Myanmar, but I had a follow-up on the SG's visit to South Korea. Did he meet at all with any members of the North Korean delegation or interact with the President or the sister of Kim Jong-un at the Heads of State dinner?
Deputy Spokesman: Yes, the Secretary-General did meet with Kim Yong-nam. They were together in the presidium as they had the Olympic ceremonies and the dinner hosted by President Moon Jae-in. And so he did have a brief exchange with President Kim, in which he once more reiterated, as he has done several times to you, as well, his expectation and hope that all parties will use dialogue to achieve the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Yes. Oh, yes?
Question: Sorry, I just had another question on Myanmar. Reuters has reported that in September last year, Buddhist villagers and Myanmar troops were responsible for killing 10 Rohingya men and burying them all in the same grave. And it was during the reporting of this story that the two Reuters reporters were arrested. Does the SG have any comment on this story and its finding?
Deputy Spokesman: Yes. We're aware of this latest report, the details of which are very alarming. And this once more attests to the need for a full and thorough investigation by the authorities of all violence in Rakhine State and attacks on the various communities there. And, of course, the Secretary-General, as you know, has called for the release of the two detained journalists and we continue to press for that. Yes, Mushfiqul Fazal?
Question: Thank you, Mr. Farhan. Do you have any update on the Bangladesh situation, as you said yesterday you were closely monitoring the situation, particularly the verdict of the former Prime Minister and leader of the opposition, Begum Khaleda Zia?
Deputy Spokesman: Yes and we are continuing to monitor the situation on the ground. As you're aware, we did appeal for calm and we expressed our concern at the violence and we continue to do so. Beyond that, all I can say is that our political colleagues are studying the situation, and if we have anything more to say about that, we'll say that at that point.
Question: Just one follow-up, Mr. Farhan: 15 specific corruption cases were filed against Bangladesh's current Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, in 2008. At the time, an army-backed civilian Government was in power, but Prime Minister has withdrawn her cases in abusing the power. Now the Government has sent main opposition leader, Begum Khaleda Zia, in jail, who is struggling for democracy and voting rights for more than a decade. Is the Secretary-General aware of the imbalance and misrule of a Member State like Bangladesh?
Deputy Spokesman: Like I said, we're monitoring all the various developments. If we have anything further to say, I'll let you know. James?
Question: Further question on the Korean Peninsula and the meeting of the Secretary-General. Does the Secretary-General propose to have any other relevant political meetings with the South Koreans or North Koreans before he leaves? And are there… were there any other meetings at any other level with the North Korean delegation? I know Mr. [Jeffrey] Feltman is there and I know that Mr. Feltman's earlier trip to Pyongyang may well have been part of this opening. Are there any more… were there any more meetings? And can you give us anything more, looking forward? Has the UN set up any further process to meet… to meet the North Koreans?
Deputy Spokesman: No, I don't have anything, any further meetings with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to announce. At this stage, the Secretary-General is back in Seoul and in just a few hours from now, he'll be departing back for New York, so there's no further meetings with officials on the schedule for this particular trip. Abdelhamid?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. First, can you confirm that the Secretary-General will be here on 20 February when President [Mahmoud] Abbas will address the Security Council? Will he attend this session of the Security Council if he's here?
Deputy Spokesman: To be honest, 20 February is so many days away that I can't make any guarantees of what will happen. At this stage, we'll take it as it comes, and we'll see what happens with that.
Question: My second question, Farhan. There's over 1,000 Palestinians that have been arrested since 6 December 2017. About 25 Palestinians were killed, including three last week. However, there is no statement on any of these killings, including there are at least four children among the killed. Why there is no statement when a child is murdered?
Deputy Spokesman: We are concerned about all violence and the deaths of all children. In this case, as you're aware, we do periodically brief the Security Council on all the developments, and we've continued to be concerned about violence and about arrests, where in the case of arrests, we want to make sure that due process is followed and people are either duly charged or else let go. But, in any case, Nikolay Mladenov and the officials that we have on the ground in the Middle East will typically keep the Security Council apprised of all developments. Masood?
Question: Yeah. Farhan, about this issue… Egypt. I mean, there have been so many arrests and incarcerations and that Mr. [Abdel Fattah al] Sisi is left all alone as a contender to the Egyptian… what do you call it… presidency. Do you have any figures of arrests as to what is happening to them now?
Deputy Spokesman: We're trying to get as reliable information as we can. I don't have any first-hand information on the arrests to share with you. Edie?
Question: And… and the only thing I wanted to ask, I've been asking that question, about the incarceration of Palestinian children in Israeli jails. And the last figures that I know was 400 and something. Has that been updated? Has that been changed? What is that?
Deputy Spokesman: The figures have gone up and down slightly, but they tend to be in the neighbourhood of 450 to 500, and we've already expressed our concerns about the fair treatment of all prisoners and the need for due process and, of course, our concerns throughout the world about the detention of children also apply. Yes?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. In a follow-up to Michelle's question, you said that the Secretary-General met the President of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]. Did he have any contact at all, even shaking hands, with Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un?
Deputy Spokesman: I don't believe he met with her directly. Sometimes, they were in the same large area together, but he wasn't… didn't have any close contact with her, no. Yes?
Question: Sure. I wanted to ask you something that's the… the main Department of Political Affairs post for the Middle East and Western Asia has been… I guess had an officer-in-charge since January. And so, I wanted to ask you to confirm, because I've seen the letter from Miroslav Jenča naming Ms. Susanne Rose to be the head of that Department, and I want to ask you because there are some… number one, even the letter says she speaks basic Arabic, which, you know, I'm sure is an accomplishment, given that it's the Middle East post; there are people in DPA [Department of Political Affairs] that say it's pretty surprising. And number two, what is the role of Mr. Feltman? If, in fact, he's leaving in 31 March, this is a big post. Might it have made more sense to wait for his replacement to make this selection? How can you explain the appointment at this time of someone who speaks only basic Arabic?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, first of all, I wouldn't comment on appointments of staff and other personnel matters. This is basically a question where, as you know, for all such posts, they go through a competitive hiring process, and once the result of that is achieved, people name posts.
Question: But, I guess I'm saying… it's an important post. I don't think you would… you would dispute that, and my question is, since the letter by Miroslav Jenča today to staff says she speaks only basic Arabic, what… were the other candidates… it seems like that would be a… a basic requirement to cover the Middle East for the UN. No?
Deputy Spokesman: Ultimately, anyone who gets a post goes through a competitive hiring process, which is designed to find the best person qualified for the post.
Question: So, they say that Ms. Rose worked for Mr. Feltman when he was… for the US State Department in Beirut, so did he play any role at all in the selection of Susanne Rose, who used to work for him?
Deputy Spokesman: I would have no comment on this other than to point out that all of the relevant departments themselves set up boards to interview and select qualified candidates.
Question: Can we get more information about this process? In the spirit of transparency?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, beyond that, on all personnel matters, we don't comment on the details of hiring processes.
Question: What about the conflict of interest issue?
Deputy Spokesman: Like I said, this is chosen by a board, not by an individual. Yes. Yes, Linda?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. Regarding the Olympics, did the SG meet with any American officials?
Deputy Spokesman: There's no meetings with American officials to disclose for today, no.
Question: And then just quickly. I may have missed it, but has there been a response by the Secretary-General regarding the US-led coalition's action yesterday against the anti-Assad regime?
Deputy Spokesman: We, as you know, have been calling for a halt to all of the fighting in Syria, and that is what our chief concern is. Beyond that, I don't have comments about any specific forces. Yes? Nizar first. He hasn’t asked.
Question: Yesterday, the Russian ambassador at the Security Council raised an issue that 400 of Da’esh fighters — some of them are field commanders and others from the Islamic State — officials were pardoned and were allowed to leave, and 120 of them were re-recruited in the Syrian Democratic Forces east of Euphrates. Why such information, which was provided by Russia, was not included in the report? And how concerned are… that those former ISIS fighters will not be recruited in other areas of conflict in the Middle East?
Deputy Spokesman: As you know, we want to make sure that no nation encourages or recruits the members of Da’esh. Beyond that, I would just refer to the report by Mr. [Vladimir] Voronkov, which speaks for itself and is the result of the verified information that his office was able to put together.
Question: Yet, the ambassador complained that there… such information, which was provided by Russia and which happened in early January, was not reported in the report.
Deputy Spokesman: Mr. Voronkov and his office, like I said, tried to verify all information and put together as much of that… as much detail as they can into the report.
Question: Another question about Afrin. I mean, has the water supply shortage been addressed in any way? Do you have any information about that?
Deputy Spokesman: We would desperately like to be able to help the people of Afrin, including by providing water. Part of the problem is getting access to the area because of the heavy fighting. If the fighting can ease, we can get more assistance to the people in need.
Question: Did you establish…? Follow-up on the same subject?
Deputy Spokesman: That's like five questions. Sorry, sorry. Joe, did you have one? Okay. Then you can have one, and then Abdelhamid.
Question: Well, have you… have you established that the Turkish fighters really targeted the water supply, as has been alleged?
Deputy Spokesman: I don't have any way of confirming that, no. Yes? Yes, Abdelhamid.
Question: Thank you. There is an explosion today that took place in a mosque in Benghazi. Several people were killed and about 80 wounded. The mosque called Saad ben Obadah. It's in the city of Benghazi. Have you had any information or any statement on that?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has not come out with a statement on this. It's gathering information. We have received some reports and certainly, we condemn all attacks on places of worship and all terrorist attacks, and we do so again in this case. Yes?
Question: Sure. I wanted to ask you, and thanks… thanks for sending this… I guess, answer on… on… on Burundi and why UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund] and the UN system are supporting the President's wife's radio station, but it didn't… as I'm sure you saw if you passed it along, it just said that we like to work with radio stations. It didn't address the free speech issues raised by actually assisting not just a Government radio station, but a station that's run by the head of the… the wife of the head of the country at a time only, today, since you sent me this, Reporters sans Frontières has come out and said that the Government is threatening to imprison radio journalist Bigirimana for reporting on forced contributions by youth gangs. So, I didn't… I mean… I want… maybe you can do it. Maybe I guess they cooked this one up, but what is the UN's… how can it claim, as it does, that it supports freedom of the press when the assistance to radio it's giving in Burundi is to a Government radio station run by an enemy of the free press described by press freedom groups?
Deputy Spokesman: The language that the UN Population Fund gave you is that they support a number of radio stations, not simply one, and beyond that you should probably contact our colleagues in UNFPA. I've given you the information that they have provided.
Question: Did this issue come up with the Deputy Secretary-General yesterday?
Deputy Spokesman: Like I said, we don't have the details of internal meetings with the heads of agencies. Obviously, they talked about common issues of concern between the UN Secretariat and UNFPA.
Question: Sure, I wanted to ask you two things on DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo]. One is just… you may have read it after me, and I'm sorry if I missed it, but the UN has come up with a very high estimate for the number of people it believes will be displaced by this joint DRC in Uganda operation in the wake of the killing of the Tanzanian peacekeepers. And I just wanted… it seemed… the numbers seemed so high I wanted to know. Number one, is the UN saying anything to the two countries about how they… they should be conducting this? Is that… is it a fait accompli? Is there any UN support to that operation? And also, what is the status of the inquiry by… led by Dmitry Titov, but apparently… into… into what went wrong? There's at least one media report saying that one of the reasons, sadly, that… that the that the peacekeepers were killed is the lack of air support, that a helicopter didn't fly to support them because there was a lack of pilots with night training. So, there are people that, if that's the case, said like… how can… how can… in a country like the DRC, how can you have helicopters with people that can't fly at night if the bases are being attacked at night?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, regarding that, the report by Mr. Titov is being finalized. I believe it will be ready to go to the Secretariat and the Secretary-General shortly and he'll have a look at that point. It has not been finalized so far, and then we'll evaluate at that point, and we'll try to share with the press the details of that report once we get that. Regarding your other question, we have some information out today, including what I just read at the first part of this briefing, concerning the large number of displacement of people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I would refer you to what UNHCR has been saying and yes, of course, we call on all fighting forces to halt their activities to cease further such displacement.
Question: What's the UN's position on the Ugandan Government saying we're going to take out the ADF [Allied Democratic Forces] because they attacked the peacekeepers? It's kind of being done in the name of the UN, no? Should they… should they… I guess what I'm saying…
Deputy Spokesman: No, I'm sorry, it's not being done "in the name of the UN". Please be accurate.
Question: No, I mean, they're saying you killed peacekeeper, therefore, we're going to take you out. If you're the UN, you should say, no, don't take them out, or take them out in this way. So, what are you saying to them?
Deputy Spokesman: I mean, obviously, we're aware of the constant unrest, and it's been going on for many years, as you're aware in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and specifically in the eastern parts. We have been trying, including through the efforts of our peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, to find ways to ease the situation. At the same time, we are aware that the activities by military groups continue. That must be brought to a halt, but we are trying to deal with the situation. And part of what I've been saying, including at the top of this briefing, was the need to fully fund our efforts to deal with the massive amount of displacement.
Question: But, when Uganda was firing… because it came up in this room. They claimed to have killed 100 ADF fighters. This was about a month ago, maybe five weeks ago. They claimed that they did it without crossing the border, but the people that were killed were at least 100 kilometres inside the border. Did MONUSCO ever find out how Uganda was able to kill 100 people at that distance? I guess I'm wondering doesn't MONUSCO have some kind of monitoring ability to see… or mandate to see how these two armies are, in going after ADF, actually doing these things? I'm just saying the UN is more involved than just issuing press releases about displacement, since it was the attack on the UN that's used as the pretext or as the triggering of these two military actions.
Deputy Spokesman: The fact that an attack on peacekeepers is used by different parties to explain their actions does not make it a UN operation or something that involves the United Nations. Our operations are done by the United Nations. Have a good weekend, everyone.