19 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.


The Secretary-General is on his way back to New York from Lisbon, where he received the honorary degree of Doctor Honoris Causa from the University of Lisbon earlier today. 

As you may be aware, António Guterres got his degree in Electrical Engineering at Técnico in the University of Lisbon, and he was also an invited full professor there in 2003, before he became first the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and then Secretary-General.

He will be back at UN Headquarters tomorrow.


The Deputy Secretary-General will depart New York today for Minsk, Republic of Belarus.  She will give the opening address at the Regional Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Coordination Leaders Forum: Building a Partnership to Underpin National Sustainable Development Solutions. 

The Deputy Secretary-General will also have bilateral meetings with senior Government officials, regional development officials and youth leaders during her visit.  She will return to New York on Wednesday.

**Central African Republic

Our colleagues from the UN Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) tell us that on 15 February in Bria, in Haute-Kotto prefecture, peacekeepers arrested the anti-Balaka leader Hervé Wassima following the arrest warrant issued on 31 January 2018 by the President of the Bria District Court.  Mr. Wassima is implicated in the attack on the UN Mission which resulted in the death of a Mauritanian peacekeeper on 4 December 2017.  He has been transferred to Bangui and placed in custody at Camp de Roux under the authority of the Public Prosecutor of Bangui.

The UN Mission in the Central African Republic has been informed of an allegation of sexual abuse by a member of the military battalion from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), formerly deployed to MINUSCA, against a 14-year-old girl who, as a result, became pregnant and gave birth to a baby.  The abuse reportedly occurred between 2015 and 2016 in Bambari.

In accordance with the UN policy on victims’ assistance and remedial action, the UN Mission referred the alleged victim and her baby to UNICEF and its implementing partners in the field for immediate and appropriate assistance.  An investigation team from the Office for Internal Oversight Services has travelled to Bambari to collect and preserve evidence, including DNA samples, in awaiting the forthcoming investigation of this serious allegation. 

In compliance with the memorandum of understanding signed with troop-contributing countries, the UN has informed the Permanent Mission of the DRC to the United Nations of this allegation and has requested the national authorities to appoint investigation officers and to complete their investigation within a 90-day timeframe, jointly with the UN.  If the Member State fails to do so, the UN will investigate this allegation within the same expedited timeframe.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

And on the same topic, we wanted to give you an update on the three allegations of sexual exploitation and one of serious misconduct involving military members of the South African contingent of MONUSCO, (the United Nations Mission) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  We have received a response from the Republic of South Africa within the expected timeframe of five days, confirming the deployment this week of National Investigation Officers with the intention to speedily investigate the allegations.

Also from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, our humanitarian colleagues tell us that on Saturday, two humanitarian workers were killed near Mushikiri, North Kivu, while on duty for the NGO Hydraulique Sans Frontières (HYFRO).  An additional colleague traveling with them is still being held. 

The Humanitarian Coordinator in the country, Kim Bolduc, has condemned this act of violence.  Deteriorating security conditions in North Kivu are worrying, and represent a major obstacle of the delivery of humanitarian assistance to thousands of people in need.


In Somalia, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for that country, Peter de Clercq, warned over the weekend that while drought relief and recovery efforts have helped the drought situation, the current humanitarian crisis is far from over.

Mr. de Clercq was in Puntland, where he met with local officials to discuss how to mitigate the drought’s effects and how to help people who’ve been displaced by it, among other issues. 

While a drought-related famine was averted in Somalia last year, there are still more than 5 million people currently in need of life-saving humanitarian assistance.  More information is available on the Mission’s website.


Our humanitarian colleagues are concerned for the protection and well-being of nearly 400,000 people in besieged eastern Ghouta in Syria, following reports of a further military escalation in the area.

Today, shelling and aerial bombardment on Duma reportedly resulted in 30 deaths.  Since 15 February, attacks were reported across eastern Ghouta resulting in scores of civilian deaths and injuries, including many women and children.  Over the same period, 36 mortar shells and rockets fell on Damascus city neighbourhoods and suburbs, also resulting in civilian deaths and injuries.

During the convoy to Nashabiyah on 14 February, UN technical teams reported a serious shortage of food supplies.  Cases of severe acute malnutrition were reported, with a local hospital identifying 69 cases of acute malnutrition and 127 children at risk.  Some basic commodities were available in the market, but prices were prohibitively expensive.

The UN team also saw expired anaesthetics, the use of which reportedly resulted in two deaths.  Reports of cases of communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, typhoid fever and scabies were also received.  Vaccines are running low, with the last campaign carried out in November 2017, and 600 children now are reportedly at risk.


Our Human Rights colleagues and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) express their concern about the persistence of forced displacement of indigenous people and farming communities in the rural areas of Caceres, in Colombia.

Since 19 January, at least 822 people have been displaced by violence, while in the Bajo Cauco area, the agencies note an increase in the number of murders.

They call on the authorities to review the prevention and protection policy in place, and to ensure the availability of the human and economic resources necessary to respond to the humanitarian emergency in these areas.  More details are available online.


We were asked last week about a Sri Lankan officer who was scheduled to deploy to the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL.  I can confirm that the officer’s deployment is on hold pending a review of the matter.  A decision regarding deployment of this officer will be made once the review is complete.   

We are in communication with the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka regarding the officer’s background and Sri Lanka is cooperating fully with our inquiries.

The United Nations takes reports of potential human rights violations very seriously.  As a matter of policy, we are committed to ensuring that all personnel serving with the UN meet the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity, including respect for and commitment to human rights.

**Honour Roll

For the Honour Roll: two new Member States are joining our Honour Roll today, having paid their budget dues in full for this year: Cuba and Turkey.  We are now up to 53.

**Questions and Answers

Are there any questions for me before we get to Brenden?  Yes?

Question:  Yeah, thank you, Farhan.  Farhan, there has been a major ambush against Iraqi security forces.  27 died in the… in that ambush during the weekend.  Is there any statement from UNAMI (United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq) or any from the Secretary‑General regarding the resurgence of what… what is called White Flag organisation in Iraq, which is an offspring of ISIS?

Spokesman:  Well, you've seen in recent weeks the Secretary‑General and Ján Kubiš, head of the UN Mission in Iraq, have warned of increasing violence in different areas.  And so we are concerned about the violence and have been speaking out about them as the incidents come.

Question:  Yeah, but this is rebranding of ISIS.  The… does the United Nations consider these White Flag organisation as terrorist organisation or not?

Spokesman:  Regarding that, I mean, obviously, the organization Da’esh and its offshoots are something that the UN has wanted the entire international community to be firmly against, and so we continue to ask for international unity against Da’esh.  Yes?

Question:  Yeah.  Thank you, Farhan.  Regarding tomorrow's meeting between the Secretary‑General and President Mahmoud Abbas, can you speak to any specifics of the issues that will be raised during this meeting?  And do we expect a readout?

Spokesman:  Well, once the meeting has happened, we'll see whether we can get a readout of that.  Obviously, the Secretary‑General looks forward to meeting with President Abbas, and he'll see him tomorrow morning.  They'll discuss the situation in the region, but anything further in the way of details would probably be provided afterwards.

Question:  President Abbas of late has been raising the idea of… that he wanted to reduce the… the role of the US in the peace process.  Is that something you would embrace?

Spokesman:  As you know, our focus is making sure that the parties, Israel and Palestine, return to negotiations so that they can deal with the issues that they face.  The United Nations, along with the other members of the Quartet, which, as you know, includes the United States, the European Union, and the Russian Federation, have tried to work together to bring the parties together to resolve all of the final status issues that remain.  Yes?

Question:  Sure.  I wanted to ask you, I asked last week about the Maldives and the opposition asking for mediation or something more from the UN.  There… the… the President there is now asking for an extension of the… of the state of emergency by an additional 15 days, and I'm wondering, one, any comment on that?  And, two, what's the UN done as to the request by the opposition?

Spokesman:  Regarding that, what I can say is the Secretary‑General is closely following recent political developments in the Maldives and is ready to offer UN mediation support if and when requested.

Question:  And can I ask about the state of emergency in Ethiopia?

Spokesman:  Hold on, please.  Yes?

Question:  I just want to get back to the SG's meeting with President Abbas.  What's the time of the meeting tomorrow?  Is it before the speech or after the speech?  And can you give us a specific time?

Spokesman:  I think today, at the end of the day, when we get the afternoon appointments for the following day, we'll have a more precise time.  I do believe it will be after the Security Council meeting.  Yes?

Question:  Sure.  I wanted to ask about the… the six‑month state of emergency announced in Ethiopia and whether the UN, which has a major office there, what they think of recent developments there, if they're concerned, and what especially they think of this new state of emergency.

Spokesman:  I mean, the basic point is, of course, we have concerns about basic freedoms, so we want to make sure that all of the freedoms of expression, of peaceful assembly, and others will continue to be respected.  Regard… you know, regarding the extension, you've seen what we've had to say about the situation in Ethiopia over the course of the previous months, and our concerns… our previously expressed concerns about the treatment of all communities still applies.

Question:  Okay.  I'd wanted to ask you about UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) and India.  There's a complaint to the Foreign Minister of the country that… by… by a contractor, Prashanti Tiwari, that the head of UNFPA in India, Diego Palacios, sexually harassed her.  And they've asked the UN system, I guess, to… to… or they've asked India to ask the UN to waive immunity so that she can pursue these… these "Me Too"‑related charges.  And I think… maybe I've… maybe the… the… the not asserting of immunity was only… was… I'm not sure what it applied to.  What's the UN's system response to a case like this?

Spokesman:  Well, we'll need to check with our UNFPA colleagues.  Yes?

Question:  Yeah, there was 18 air attacks on Gaza during the weekend.  Do you have any position regarding that… these attacks against north to south Gaza up to Rafah area by the Israelis?

Spokesman:  Obviously, we're concerned about all the violence between the parties.  We… and we've been repeatedly asking for calm.  As you know, we'll also have a meeting of the Security Council tomorrow on the situation in the Middle East, and we'll bring the topic up again then.  Yes?

Question:  Sure.  I wanted to… to… last week, I'd asked Stéphane [Dujarric] about this reported fighting between the armies of the DRC and Rwanda on the border where there's obviously a UN Mission there.  Now there's some reports of actually exchange of… of… of… of dead soldiers from either side.  I'm not sure if it's true, but I guess I'm waiting… he'd said he'd check into it with MONUSCO.  Is MONUSCO aware of this fighting? And what do they think of it, given the history?

Spokesman:  Yes, the UN Mission MONUSCO is aware of reports of fighting in the border area, and they're looking into it.

Question:  And… and… and also, this is… I'm sorry to have to ask this, but the… the… the display that took place last week down in 1B regard… with… advertising essentially weapons, including tanks, rocket launcher, and automatic weapons, I understand that it was closed on Thursday… it was closed down, and on Friday, Stéphane said that what was agreed to wasn't what was shown, and, therefore, the UN asked for it to be closed.  This was after the UN said it had no role in it.  But I wanted to know — it seems important — what did the… which part… because… given the controversy, particularly in the light… after the Parkland, Florida, shootings about automatic weapons, which part of the exhibit did the UN, in fact, agree to, and which part of it went beyond that?  Was it the tank or the automatic weapon?

Spokesman:  The way the dis… the things that were being displayed were not what the organisers said would be displayed.

Question:  But which things?  Do you see what I… it seems…

Spokesman:  I understand what you're saying, but, ultimately, the… we trust that Member States, when they're telling us what they're going to show, that those are accurate.  That was not accurate in this case.

Question:  Who did they tell?  Did they tell DPKO (Department of Peacekeeping Operations) or Department of Management?

Spokesman:  We have a committee that deals with exhibitions inside the building.

Question:  Is there a way just… just in order to understand the UN's position on this, is there a way to know what they said would be shown and what part of it led to the UN closing it, so that future Member States cannot run afoul of this rule?

Spokesman:  We'll be clear with Member States as that proceeds, but regarding any concerns about the organizers, again, I would suggest that you talk to the organizer.  Have a good day, everyone.

For information media. Not an official record.