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

20 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.

**Middle East

As you are well aware, the Security Council began a meeting on the situation in the Middle East, and the Secretary-General, at its outset, reiterated his full personal commitment — and the commitment of the United Nations — to supporting the parties in their efforts to achieve a two-State solution.  Yet, he warned, we must face today’s sad reality:  after decades of support, the global consensus for a two-State solution could be eroding; obstacles on the ground have the potential to create an irreversible one-State reality.  The Secretary-General said that this is a time for dialogue, for reconciliation, for reason.  At this moment of grave consequence, he appeals for effective concerted action by all parties.  It is more important than ever, he said.  Nickolay Mladenov, the Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, also briefed the Council further, saying that the enemies of peace are growing more confident by the day.  They see every failure of the forces of moderation as a win for the forces of radicalization.  He warned that our window of opportunity is closing and, if we do not seize it quickly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be engulfed in the whirlwind of religious radicalization that remains present in the region.  President [Mahmoud] Abbas spoke on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and Ambassador Danny Danon also spoke on behalf of Israel.  And the Council members are currently speaking.


Turning to Syria.  Staffan de Mistura, the Special Envoy for Syria, said in remarks to reporters in Geneva today that we need to avoid a greater escalation of the fighting in eastern Ghouta.  He warned:  “We are looking in front of us at an increasing tragedy.”  He called on all those who have influence on the Syrian Government and on militant groups fighting in that area to use that influence to avoid any further escalation.  Panos Moumtzis, the Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, said in a statement yesterday that the recent escalation of violence compounds an already precarious humanitarian situation for the 393,000 people who live in East Ghouta — who account for 94 per cent of all Syrians living under besiegement today.  He said that overall access to East Ghouta remains woefully inadequate.  No convoys were undertaken in December 2017 and January 2018 due to limited access.  While requests for interagency humanitarian convoys for East Ghouta are systematically made monthly, just one convoy was allowed to the town of Nashabiyeh on 14 February, delivering life-saving food, health and nutrition assistance to 7,200 people.  This is well short, obviously, of the needs of the people.


Renewed civilian displacement in Iraq is under way from Mosul, almost eight months after the city was recaptured from Da’esh control.  One million people were displaced in the context of the military campaign to recapture Mosul, which concluded in July 2017.  Approximately half have since been able to return to their homes.  Since the beginning of the year, the number of civilians leaving Mosul has again picked up, with approximately 100 to 150 people per day arriving at camps and out-of-camp areas in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.  According to figures reported by the Kurdish Regional Government, some 2,900 people from Mosul have arrived at camps for internally displaced people in the Kurdish region of Iraq.  These displaced are primarily from the western part of the city.  Humanitarians are monitoring the situation and providing assistance to the displaced, as well as to vulnerable families.


The Burundi 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan was launched yesterday in Bujumbura, requiring $142 million.  It targets 2.4 million people in need of assistance across the country, more than double the number of people targeted last year.  Over one quarter of Burundi’s population is estimated to be acutely food insecure.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

Turning to the Democratic Republic of the Congo our colleagues at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned today that a humanitarian disaster of extraordinary proportions was about to hit the south‑eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as the Province of Tanganyika plunges further into violence, triggering spiralling displacement and human rights abuses.  Several areas of the province have seen atrocities and mass displacement, due to entrenched intercommunal conflicts and fierce clashes between the Congolese armed forces and militias.  The violence spreading across Tanganyika, which is three times the size of Switzerland with a population of some 3 million people, has now internally displaced over 630,000 people.  UNHCR is working with partners to redress this calamitous situation, but is appealing for increased assistance to help the population cope.  Last year, it received less than $1 per person in donor contributions for its programmes for internally displaced people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


And another note from our friends at UNHCR:  they announced today new measures to support the Government of Uganda’s refugee programme, including through a major biometric data verification exercise.  UNHCR has already deployed staff, with partner emergency teams, to start the exercise.  In total, more than 400 staff will register refugees.  The data verification exercise is scheduled to be completed by September of this year, including introduction of biometric checks at food distribution sites.  The tried and tested biometric system has already been used in 48 countries across the world.  In parallel, UNHCR’s independent Inspector General’s Office is rigorously pursuing its own oversight and due diligence measures, including investigations of several serious allegations received in 2017 on fuel embezzlement, one allegation of sexual exploitation and abuse, irregular tendering of water trucking, and fraud in procurement and food distribution.


Our colleagues at the World Health Organization (WHO) report a 400 per cent surge in measles cases in Europe in 2017, compared to 2016.  The surge in cases in 2017 included large outbreaks in Romania, Italy and Ukraine.  These countries have experienced a range of challenges in recent years, such as declines in overall routine immunization coverage, consistently low coverage among some marginalized groups, interruptions in vaccine supply or underperforming disease surveillance systems.  Health ministers of 11 countries are meeting today in Montenegro to achieve the goals set out in the European Vaccine Action Plan by 2020, including measles and rubella.  Get yourself vaccinated:  that’s my message.  Khalas.  We'll go to our guest from Washington.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  In your view, what is the value of Mr. Abbas' speech, and, like, the fact that Israel never really heeds anything that is undertaken by the United Nations?  And should there come a point where the UN should enforce its resolutions, especially in terms of establishing an independent Palestinian State?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Quite a lot in your preamble.  I think the value of… I think it's very important for the parties to hear from Security Council members.  The Secretary‑General, through his representatives, briefs on a periodic basis.  It is an important way to reaffirm the consensus of the international community for a two‑State solution.  And I think, as the Secretary‑General said, that window is closing, that events on the ground are making that eventuality more challenging, but that we need to reaffirm our commitment to it, and again, ensure that the parties engage in negotiations on final status issues.  Mr. Abbadi?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  As you indicated earlier… excuse me… the Secretary‑General appealed for all the parties to engage in a concerted action.  Does he consider an international conference a forum for such action?

Spokesman:  Well, I think the Security Council in itself is an international forum.  We know what needs to happen.  We know that the parties need to negotiate and negotiate in good faith on all the outstanding issues.  Mr. Klein?

Question:  Yes, a two‑part question.  First of all, right after President Abbas concluded his speech in which he appealed to the Security Council for… for help in moving the negotiation process forward, he walked out before the Israeli ambassador had a chance to make his comments or any of the members of the Security Council had a chance to deliver their remarks.  Does the Secretary‑General feel that that was a constructive move… for the President of the Palestinian Authority to walk out immediately after his speech when he just talked about the importance of negotiations?  And I have another question, as well.

Spokesman:  I will let you and your colleagues do the play‑by‑play analysis of movements in the Security Council.  The seat of the Palestinian Authority was occupied, and I will leave the rest to you.

Question:  Well, I mean, the only thing is the Secretary‑General has frequently talked about the importance of direct dialogue, and here the President of the… of the Palestinian Authority was present and then he walked out.

Spokesman:  Indeed, the Secretary‑General will continue to call for the importance of that dialogue.

Question:  Okay.  The other… the other question is, in Mr. Mladenov's comments… remarks, he said “settlement construction is not a morally appropriate way to respond to murder”.  Isn't the converse really true, that murder is not a morally appropriate way to respond to settlement construction?

Spokesman:  I would say that there is a need to break the circle and to encourage both parties to come back to the negotiating table.  Erol?

Question:  Thanks, Steph.  Just to stay on this, obviously, the topic of the day, if not the topic of the years, but when the Secretary‑General says that the global consensus is really disappearing or operating in a two‑State con… con… solution and if that really happens, what then?  What the Secretary… does he has any Plan B, at least in thinking or what?

Spokesman:  I think the Secretary‑General said it again today.  There is no Plan B.  I think I would… don't listen to me.  Listen to him.  Yes, sir.  And then… sorry, and then Matthew.

Question:  Stéphane, I want to ask about Syria.  Today, I would say major military movement happened… took place.  The Syrian Government forces entered the City of Afrin.  That's the city that's under direct military operation by Turkey.  This could potentially mean direct confrontation between Damascus and Turkish‑backed forces.  Do you have any comment?

Spokesman:  We need to see an end to these military operations.  The more fighting there is, the less access we have to the people who need help, whether it's people who are being displaced by the fighting in the region… in the Afrin region or in eastern Ghoutah.  Every day that there is more fighting, there is more suffering.  Every day that there's more fighting, there's greater risk for confrontation between various parties and various powerful parties that are involved in this conflict.  I think it's as simple as that.  Mr. Lee?  Sure, yeah.  That's… Mr. Lee, please ask a question.  Sorry.  I didn't mean to take you by surprise.

Question:  Okay, I’m ready now.  Definitely.  No problem.  No problem.  The… actually… I'm glad to see you back, because I'd wanted to… I'd asked you last week, with Ursula Mueller heading to Cameroon, whether, in fact, she would go to the Anglophone areas.  One reason I'm asking is, since you were here, a study by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project has said that Paul Biya of Cameroon has spent 4 and a half years during his tenure in Geneva, at a cost of some $200 million to the country that he's… up to a third of the year, he's gone.  So, I wanted to ask you whether… given that the Secretary‑General took that golden… the golden statue — and you never did get back on what the gift registry number was — where is it?  And does he have any second thoughts given this troubling report of… of essentially a… an absentee rule during…

Spokesman:  I have not seen the report.  I'm not going to comment on the coming and goings of Heads of States, whether they're from Security Council chambers or from their own country.  The… my understanding is that Ms. Mueller will not be going to the Anglophone areas.  That's what I was told.

Question:  Is there a reason for that?  Because she had a litany of what she considered the problems of the country, and if you do just a simple news search, you'll see that this is a…

Spokesman:  No, I understand.  I'm sure the overall humanitarian situation in the country will come up in discussions.

Question:  And the other one I wanted to ask you is… is… you'd said on Friday before you left that… that… or maybe it was Thursday that the… the exhibit that featured the advertisement of automatic weapons, tanks and rocket-launchers downstairs had been… the UN had asked for it to be cancelled.  So, I just wanted… I had this very simple question, which was… because it had gone beyond what had been approved, so it seems important.  And yesterday, Farhan [Haq] said there is a UN committee that had approved some sort of display…?

Spokesman:  There's a circ… there's a public document, which we can share with you, which lists the process of the way exhibits are organized, whether in the public area or in the not‑so‑public areas.

Question:  But, in… in… in that area of 1B, what… what type of armaments?  Because the thing was from… from the beginning of day one… many people have asked me, did the UN ever go take a look?  Because it was there for three days with a looping video of machine guns and with an enormous advertisement for… for tanks.

Spokesman:  Look, we trust that Member States will abide by their commitments.

Question:  But, what was the agreement?  I think you understand the question.  The question is, what… did the UN agree to tanks… what… what part of the armaments did they agree to…?  Can you find out?

Spokesman:  I'm not aware of the details.  If I can find out, I shall.  I have a statement from the Secretary‑General on the death of the Permanent Representative of Malawi, and it's in his words.  I have learned with sadness of the passing of Ambassador [Necton D.] Mhura.  Ambassador Mhura represented the Republic of Malawi at the United Nations since September 2016.  He was a skilled diplomat and a person of great learning.  The ambassador will be remembered for working tirelessly for the universal goals of peace, human rights and sustainable development.  He did so with inspiring dedication, as demonstrated by his active role as Vice-Chair of the Group of Least Developed Countries.  His loss will be keenly felt by peers and colleagues in New York.  I pay tribute to his contributions to the United Nations and offer my deepest condolences to his family and loved ones and to the Government and people of the Republic of Malawi.  Monsieur?

Question:  Thank you.  President Abbas also called for setting up some kind of an international entity to oversee the peace process.  Is that some… a path that you can… you will… you will support, or do you stick to the Quartet?

Spokesman:  I think the Secretary‑General's statement was clear of the need for the parties to engage in negotiations.  Mr. Abbadi?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  The Special Coordinator, as you know, spoke to the Security Council and so did… as the Secretary‑General did also.  And we know that the UN is part of the Quartet, but why isn't the Quartet as a group speaking up now?

Spokesman:  Look, we are but one‑fourth of the Quartet.  If there are updates for the Quartet as a whole to speak, we will share that with you.  Mr. Lee?

Question:  Sure.  I wanted to ask you, in… in [United Republic of] Tanzania, there… there… a university student was… was shot during peaceful protests to the way the upcoming election is being conducted.  And now the opposition parties have all been summoned in, essentially to figure out their role in the protests that… that led to the police killing this student.  Is the… what's the UN team there… what do they think of what's taking place in Tanzania?

Spokesman:  I had not seen those reports.  I will look into it and get back to you.

Question:  And, also, I wanted to ask, there's a… in India, a consultant of UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund], Prashanti Tiwari, has asked that immunity be waived as to Diego Palacios, who she accuses of sexual harassment.  Given statements that… and I was trying to figure out yesterday whether this "we don't cite immunity" statement by the UN only applies to peacekeeper sexual abuse or to sexual harassment alleged in this context? Is immunity going to be waived in this case?  And if not, why not?

Spokesman:  I will… hold on a second.  Let me see.  I need better glasses.  I have… I don't have the details of the case with me, but what I can tell you is that sexual abuse is a crime, and immunity is not there to protect people who commit crimes.  And immunity… so it's not even a question that needs to be asked.  It does not apply to crimes.

Question:  So if this person sues a UN official in court…?

Spokesman:  I don't… I'm not going to talk to you about the specifics of a case that I don't have that much detail about, unless somebody provides…

Correspondent:  But, I thought immunity exists unless you waive it, unless the UN chooses to waive it.

Spokesman:  No, immun… most… the vast majority of UN staff have functional immunity.  If you commit a crime… to cover what they do for work.  If you commit a crime, that is, by definition, not part of your function.  UNFPA tells us that they're aware of some claims by a former employee of one of the Fund's contractors, an NGO [non-governmental organization] in Bihar, India.  The person is not, and has never been, employed by UNFPA.  Unless her claims… nevertheless, her claims will, like any others, be looked into according to UNFPA policies and procedures.

Correspondent:  Right, but that doesn't answer the immunity question.

Spokesman:  I think I've answered it to the best of my ability.  So, it does not… if you have functional immunity and you commit a crime, it is clearly not part of your function, so the issue of immunity does not arise.  Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.