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

16 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 Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.


Good afternoon.  The Secretary-General is in Germany today, where he delivered a keynote address to the opening ceremony of the Munich Security Conference.  He said that over the past year there had been two qualitative changes that made the global security situation worse.  For the first time since the end of the cold war, we face a nuclear threat.  He said that it was essential to maintain pressure on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to create an opportunity for diplomatic engagement on the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula within a regional framework, and for the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to hold meaningful discussions.  The second change relates to the broader Middle East, which he said had turned into a Gordian knot, with different interconnected fault lines that had created a quagmire.  He warned of the absence of a common vision in the region and said that even if interests are contradictory, the threats these conflicts represent would justify some efforts to come together.

Turning to cybersecurity, the Secretary-General called for a serious discussion about the international legal framework in which cyberwars take place.  Concluding his speech, the Secretary-General said that Governments and others have been unable to manage human mobility.  He warned that this had created mistrust and doubts about globalism and multilateralism.  This is a reason to unite, he said, and stressed the need to affirm that global problems can only be addressed by global solutions.  The Secretary-General also had several bilateral meetings on the margins of the conference, including with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, and the French Defense Minister Florence Parly, among others.


I have senior personnel news to announce.  Today, the Secretary-General is announcing his decision to appoint Martin Griffiths of the United Kingdom as his Special Envoy for Yemen.  Mr. Griffiths succeeds Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed of Mauritania, to whom the Secretary-General is grateful for his commitment and dedicated service.  Mr. Griffiths brings extensive experience in conflict resolution, negotiation, mediation and humanitarian affairs.  More about Mr. Griffiths in my office.


On travel, Mark Lowcock the Emergency Relief Coordinator and head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is scheduled to visit Tokyo on 20 February.  This will be his first mission to the country as Under-Secretary-General.  While in Japan, Mr. Lowcock will meet with Government officials to discuss the country’s key role in international humanitarian affairs, including in disaster risk reduction, emergency response and as a donor to humanitarian action worldwide.  He will also meet representatives of Japanese non-governmental organizations and the private sector, and participate in a public seminar on global humanitarian priorities and new policy approaches at the UN University in Tokyo.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

Regarding the Democratic Republic of the Congo, our colleagues at the World Food Programme (WFP) today said it is energizing two key elements of its emergency operation to prevent famine in war-ravaged Kasai:  cash distributions to the most vulnerable people and specialist support to check acute malnutrition in women and young children.  Since the launch last week of the cash initiative, 38,000 people have received the equivalent of $15 each for a month, enough to meet their basic food needs.  The intention is to more than double that reach in the coming weeks.  Recent airlifts from France have also enabled a significant scale-up of WFP’s nutrition interventions in Kasaï:  56,000 malnourished children treated in January, up from 21,000 in the final quarter of last year.  Assessments show that 3.2 million people, a quarter of the region’s population of mostly subsistence farmers, are desperately short of food, in a context of continued funding constraints, an upsurge in fighting between pro- and anti-Government forces and a rapid deterioration of the already poor road network due to the rainy season.  More information from WFP’s website.


Our colleagues at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today expressed their dismay over recent additional restrictions at border crossing points in Hungary that have further reduced access for asylum seekers and refugees.  For the past few weeks, UNHCR has observed that Hungarian authorities are, on average, only allowing two asylum-seekers a day to enter the country through the two “transit zones” at the border with Serbia.  Since asylum seekers who attempt to cross the razor-wire border fences are automatically removed, the agency said Hungary has practically closed its borders to people seeking international protection, in clear breach of its obligations under international law.  UNHCR also called the Government of Hungary to withdraw a proposed bill that would deprive people fleeing war, violence and persecution of vital support from non-governmental organizations and civil society.


The World Health Organization (WHO) today is announcing a new high-level commission, comprising Heads of State and ministers, leaders in health and development, and entrepreneurs.  The group will propose solutions to accelerate prevention and control of the leading killers on the planet — noncommunicable diseases like heart and lung disease, cancers and diabetes.  The WHO Independent Global High-level Commission on Noncommunicable Diseases is co-chaired by the President of Uruguay, Tabaré Vázquez; President Sirisena of Sri Lanka; President Niinistö of Finland; Veronika Skvortsova, Minister for Health of the Russian Federation; and Sania Nishtar, former Federal Minister of Pakistan.  Seven in 10 deaths globally every year are from noncommunicable diseases, the main contributors to which are tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol, unhealthy diets, and physical inactivity.  Low- and lower-middle income countries are increasingly affected, with half of premature deaths from noncommunicable diseases occurring in those countries.

**Fall Armyworm

Our colleagues at FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization, launched today a comprehensive guide on the integrated pest management of the fall armyworm on maize.  The fall armyworm is an invasive pest affecting millions of hectares of maize across most of Africa, mainly crops in the hands of smallholder farmers.  More information online.

**Honour Roll

Today we thank the United Arab Emirates, which paid its dues in full for 2018, bringing us up to… 51.  A wrong guess takes away your right to ask a question.  I'm kidding.  Masood?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Stéphane, on this meeting between the Secretary-General and the Israeli Prime Minister at the Munich Conference, did they talk about anything about Middle East becoming a nuclear-free zone, and the Israel nuclear arsenal at all?

Spokesman:  I am not aware that this issue came up.  The conversation focused on the Middle East peace process.  Erol?

Correspondent:  Thank you.  You are really gracious.

Spokesman:  I am.  It's Friday.

Question:  It's Friday.  Glad that Secretary-General didn't mention Balkan… Western Balkans in Munich security conference.  However, today, or rather tomorrow, is the tenth anniversary of Kosovo independence and since United Nations do maintain like 400 peacekeepers or… or members of UNMIK [United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo] there, I wonder whether the Secretary-General would like… would like to say something on that occasion.

Spokesman:  There is no specific message.  You know, the UN is continuing to bring its support to the people of Kosovo through the mission that we have there.  It's a very important mission.  There are a number of political issues that still need to be resolved, and we very much hope the international community will come together to help resolve those issues.

Question:  [Inaudible] Member State of the United Nations?

Spokesman:  You know, the issue of membership of the United Nations is one that is set… is firmly in the hands of the member states of these United Nations.  Mr. Lee.  Are you ready?  Excellent.  Like a Boy Scout.

Question:  I am.  Always.  I wanted to ask you.  Maldives and Yemen.  On Maldives, there's reports that the opposition under Mohamed Nasheed and other parties have all asked the Secretary-General to get involved and… and somehow oversee the supposed all-star… all-party talks.  They say that they don't believe the current president will… will be as inclusive as he says, given his recent moves.  Does the UN intend to actually respond to that?  Have you received the letter?

Spokesman:  We're very aware of the request.  Contacts will be had in the next few days and I hope to have more on that for you.

Question:  Okay and on… on Yemen now that you've said that… that Mr. Griffiths is the one.  I had asked you before something about vetting about his previous position at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, where it's reported at least that there was sort of some fraud… missing money at the end of his tenure and I wanted to know two things.  One, whether this was looked at, and two, whether you can say, given that the penholder now also has… is… is the nationality of the… of the… of the envoy, and I ask this because having…  having FOIA-ed [Freedom of Information Act] the UK and been denied in full, what was the role of the penholder in… in nominating Mr. Griffiths as the… as the envoy?

Spokesman:  Mr. Griffiths will serve as United Nations staff member with all the duties of independence that that will… that brings with it.  So, Mr. Griffiths is not there to serve the purposes of the United Kingdom or anyone else.  He's there to represent the Secretary-General and serve the United Nations.  The nomination proposing Mr. Griffiths to the Security Council was made by the Secretary-General.  As far as the first part of your question, I think what you raised, everybody was aware of, and as far as I know, Mr. Griffiths was never accused of any wrongdoing personally, and I know he will serve the United Nations well, with honour and with integrity.

Question:  On this… thanks.  On the issue of the… of the sort of the independence… the international civil servant thing.  Yesterday, you had… I had asked you about an interview given by the head of UN-Women and, I mean, she's pretty… There seems to be some kind of either slippage or… or… has the Secretary-General looked at that interview that said whether this is an appropriate opining on current political issues in… in… in the country of the official involved?

Spokesman:  I think senior officials understand their obligations and if there was an issue, the Secretary-General would get in touch with them directly.  Nizar?

Question:  Yeah.  When the Secretary-General focuses more on North Korean nuclear threat, does it mean that it is more of a threat than the Israeli arsenal… nuclear arsenal in a very tense and inflammable area?  Since it is under the carpet doesn't mean it's less…

Spokesman:  First of all, the Secretary-General is focusing on the situation in DPRK and the threat of nuclear conflict for very obvious reason is that it is an area of high tension; it is an area where nuclear weapons are; and it is a global threat to peace and security.  As far as your comments about Israel, I have no knowledge of what you are raising, so I'm not going to comment on it.  The Secretary-General stands firmly for denuclearization.

Correspondent:  It's an open secret that Israel has over… even [Ehud] Olmert admitted they have over 8,200 nuclear warheads.

Spokesman:  I hear what you're saying, and I think I've answered your question.  Monsieur, and then we'll go to the back.

Question:  Is there any meeting planned between [António] Guterres and [Mahmoud] Abbas next week?  If yes, when?

Spokesman:  The Secretary-General will be present during the Security Council meeting, which Mr. Abbas will attend.  As far as a meeting, I will check.  I should have checked the schedule before I came in and I will let you know.  [He later said that the Secretary-General and President Abbas will meet on Tuesday, 20 February.]  We will go to your colleague from Bangladesh, who's been very patient.

Question:  Thank you, Mr. Stéphane.  As you know, main opposition leader of Bangladesh, Begum Khaleda Zia, is in prison.  Millions of people demanding her release with peaceful demonstration, according to AFP and others' media report.  The media reported that the ruling authority put her in prison to disqualify the upcoming election, that delegation from the EU and diplomats from the US and other developing countries of Bangladesh already met her party leaders to know about Begum Khaleda Zia's update.  What action has been taken from the Secretary-General to release Begum Zia as she is facing politically motivated cases?

Spokesman:  I think, as you know, we have said that we're following this situation very closely.  We've expressed our concern and we would hope that the… like in any country, a… this is our principal position, that a climate could be created where free and fair elections could take place.

Question:  Stéphane, I wonder… a few days before the Munich Security Conference, there was special report for European Commission, saying that the best alternative for Balkans, which as we all know, went through bloody wars 20-plus years ago, through their integration in European Union.  And since European Union is still biggest peace project in the world, I wonder what are the views of the Secretary-General?  Is that a good future for Balkan countries or there is some other alternative?

Spokesman:  We… you know, obviously, that's a decision to be taken by the European Union.  It's a decision to be taken by those countries concerned in terms of the direction they wish to take.  We would support any ideas that would bring peace and prosperity to the people of the Balkans.  Sir?

Question:  But, what… what are his views on that, whether this is a good idea?

Spokesman:  As I said, these are decisions that need to be taken by the Member States concerned and by the European Union.  Masood?

Question:  Thank you.  Stéphane, on the situation in Rohingya crisis, they are languishing in… some in Bangladesh.  Is there any way that they will ever be repatriated back to Myanmar?  Because Myanmar… they are… still feel unwelcome in Myanmar, and that the UN special rapporteur over there had said that there have been so many killings of the Rohingya refugees, it borders on a crime against humanity.  So, is there any possibility of them going back at all?

Spokesman:  Well, you know, the possibility is that the situation right now is not conducive… I think as the High Commissioner for Refugees said recently, it's not conducive to the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya refugees.  Repatriation needs to be voluntary.  It needs to be done within existing law.  It needs to be done in a way that is respectful to the people concerned, and people need to choose where they want to go back to.  They need to be able to go back to the homes that they left.  They should not go back to camps.  They need to go back to their homes, the homes that they were forced to leave.  So, there are all sorts of conditions that the High Commissioner for Refugees feel have not been met.  But, the underlying point is that any return needs to be voluntary and should not be forced.  You had had some questions on the court in Kosovo, I think?  You had the answers?  Good.  Okay great.  Mr. Lee?

Question:  Sure.  Some questions about sexual abuse and harassment in the UN system.  The first is it's pretty high-profile, this guy called Peter Newell that had worked for UNICEF [United Nations Children’s Fund], that, in fact, wrote UNICEF's handbook on the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, has been convicted, not… not like the other case I was asking about, actually convicted of child rape of a 12-year-old boy, and so I'm wondering, given the person's role with UNICEF, which is the UN's child agency, what's the UN system's response to this?

Spokesman:  I will… I had not heard that report.  I will check into it.  What is clear is that anyone who is accused of such horrendous crimes needs to face justice.

Question:  Relatedly, I had wanted to ask and I… I… I was about to yesterday, and then I decided that sometimes discretion is the better part of valor, but given the totally unqualified expression of condolences and support that the Secretary-General gave to Ruud Lubbers' passing, may he rest in peace, I went back and looked.  It wasn't just an allegation.  The UN OIOS [Office for Internal Oversight Services] found that Mr. Ruud Lubbers engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment.  So, given… these days many people are saying if you're going to make a statement, something has to be said about the victims.  I understand that the person passed away, but I'm wondering how to read a statement that didn't… this was a high-profile, one of the first UN sexual harassment cases.  The person was relieved of their employment and OIOS found a pattern of harassment, how does that square with the… with the statement yesterday?  Is there… do you want to amplify that in some way in terms of the actual victims, or do you not want to?

Spokesman:  I think a person passed away.  The Secretary-General's statement, I think, was what it was.  It was respectful to that person.  Separately, the issues surrounding Mr. Lubbers' departure from UNHCR are in the public domain.  They are what they are, and I think the Secretary-General's been very clear in his determination to fight the scourge of sexual abuse, of abuse of power in the Organization.

Correspondent:  Thanks.  One more on this.  It's just… I'm sure you've seen The Guardian article in continued reporting on the UNAIDS [Joint United Nations Programme against HIV/AIDS] clearing of Mr. [Luiz] Loures beyond… beyond the role of the executive director.  They've said that staff members… many of them have said they were virtually ordered to write letters of support for Mr. Loures, which seems to be pretty much almost the definition of… of… of cover-up.

Spokesman:  Look, I think these are allegations.  I would encourage you to speak to UNAIDS.  They are… you know, and they will speak for themselves in this case and answer what is… what are really just allegations.  The investigation was done.  It was done under the authority of the World Health Organization’s Office of Independent… of Investigative Services, so questions regarding that should go to UNAIDS and the World Health Organization.

Question:  And can you say anything more about this March meeting that the head of UN-Women team said that the Secretary-General was going to convene, I guess, on the sidelines of an upcoming conference, an all-agency meeting about sexual harassment?

Spokesman:  Not at this point.  Abdelhamid?  You're always welcome.  The doors don't lock.

Question:  Thank you.  I… there are news coming from occupied Palestine that Israel is building a major religious centre right near the western wall of the Al‑Aqsa Mosque, which is according to UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] a Palestinian heritage.  They are also extending the educational loans to the settlement.  It's one step before they annex the settlement and become part of the Israel.

Spokesman:  I haven't seen… I will take a look at the reports of the construction and get back to you.  Nizar?

Question:  After seven years of uprising, do you have any statements on the human rights there and especially many of the leaders remain in jail?

Spokesman:  Nothing new to what we've already said.  The concern that we've raised at the specific cases, the number of people who have been imprisoned.  Masood?

Question:  Egypt's Government's incarceration and arrest of the opponents of the Israeli… of the Egyptian President, [Abdelfattah al] Sisi, and that new election campaign that's about to go.  And he's arresting his own… his people over there, especially from the Islamic side, absolutely.  Does the United Nations have any sort of conversation with the Egyptian Government on this arrest and incarceration of the opponents of the president?

Spokesman:  We're continuing to engage with the Egyptian authorities on this issue and noting our concern with the reports regarding the limited political space in the country, including the number of recent arrests and detentions.  Yes, sir?

Question:  Thank you, Mr. Stéphane.  Just one follow-up on Rohingya.  UN's position is very clear that that the Rakhine state… the situation is not comfortable to return back, but just today, Myanmar foreign… home minister visiting Bangladesh, and Bangladesh authority has handed over a list of 1,673 families of 8,032 Rohingya to Myanmar to start the first phase of repatriation of the displaced people living in Bangladesh to their homeland in Rakhine.  So, what is your reaction?

Spokesman:  We're not privy to those conversations.  Our position is clear is that the return of refugees need to be voluntary.  Yes, sir?

Correspondents:  Sure, two questions.  One is in Turkey, there's always… always a lot going on, but now, journalists have, for the first time, been convicted and assigned life sentences for alleged participation in… in the alleged coup and given it's a life sentence and that these are journalists, including Ahmet Altan…

Spokesman:  I just saw the reports before coming in.  I should have something further for you on that.

Correspondent:  Okay.  And I wanted to ask you about the… the… the display, which is now gone that was downstairs, that I had asked you about yesterday.  You said you would look into it.  After that, I noticed that they put up a sign saying ask the organizers.  The UN is not embracing… it was basically showing automatic weapons, okay.  But, I did speak to the organizers as the sign encouraged me to do and as I believe Farhan [Haq] told me to do, and what they said is that the purpose of that… that advertising exhibition was it was all about peacekeeping, that these were items to be sold to countries for peacekeeping.  So, I just wanted to ask you…

Spokesman:  My understanding is that what was agreed upon and what was actually shown were not the same things, and that's why we've asked them to take it down.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  I asked you before and I ask again.  President Mahmoud Abbas is addressing the Security Council on the morning of the… of Tuesday at 10 a.m.  Is the Secretary-General… will be in the meeting?

Spokesman:  Yes.  That was part of the show that you missed.  Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.