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 will leave on Wednesday for Rome, where he will attend a conference in support of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, otherwise known as UNRWA. The conference is intended to support a collective response by the international community to protect the rights and dignity of some 5.3 million Palestine Refugees registered with UNRWA and ensure that the Agency’s funding deficit of $446 million is urgently resolved. While in Rome, the Secretary-General will co-chair a ministerial meeting of the International Support Group for Lebanon. He will emphasise the importance of supporting the people and State institutions of Lebanon. The Secretary-General will then travel on to Lisbon, where he will speak to the Islamic Community of Lisbon as it marks its fiftieth anniversary as an organization.
The Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, is releasing $30 million today from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to urgently support Palestine refugees through UNRWA. An exceptional grant of $15 million will enable UNRWA to avoid disruption of life-saving food assistance to vulnerable refugees in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, where over 2.5 million people are currently in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Donors are encouraged to step up urgently and increase their support for humanitarian action in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and in the region and for UNRWA as a major humanitarian aid provider. A press release will be issued shortly.
Staying in the region, Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, condemned the attack on the convoy of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in Gaza earlier today and wished those injured a speedy recovery. This grave incident must be promptly investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. He said that, until the legitimate Palestinian Authority is fully empowered in Gaza, Hamas has the responsibility to ensure that the Government is able to carry out its work in the Strip without fear of intimidation, harassment or violence. He commended the Prime Minister’s leadership and continuing efforts to address the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza and achieve reconciliation. Mr. Mladenov said that those who inspired and perpetrated today’s attack seek to undermine these efforts and destroy the chances for peace, and they must not be allowed to succeed, he said.
Turning to Syria, the United Nations is following developments in Afrin closely; however, details are difficult to verify as we have no presence in the district. Tens of thousands of people are believed to be displaced within Afrin. Between 20 January and 12 March, nearly 10,000 people were reportedly displaced to Tal Refaat and surrounding villages, 7,000 of whom are sheltered in schools and unfinished buildings. An additional 7,200 people were reportedly displaced to other areas of Aleppo Governorate. The United Nations has also received reports of civilian casualties, and restrictions on movements for many civilians. There are reports that some trying to leave Afrin have been prevented from doing so by the authorities there. Since 6 March, people in Afrin city have also reportedly suffered from severe water shortages as the source of water to the city has reportedly been damaged by fighting. The United Nations reminds all parties to take the necessary measures to safeguard civilian lives, allow freedom of movement, and to protect civilian infrastructure, as required by international humanitarian and human rights law.
I have a senior personnel appointment to tell you about: The Secretary-General is appointing Elliott Harris of Trinidad and Tobago as Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development and Chief Economist in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. He succeeds Lenni Montiel of Venezuela, to whom the Secretary-General and the Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs are grateful for his commitment and dedicated service to the Organization. Mr. Harris brings over 25 years of international experience in the fields of international economics and development policy analysis, coupled with knowledge of the UN system, multilateral and inter–agency coordination processes. Since 2015, Mr. Harris has served as Assistant Secretary-General and Head of UN Environmental Programme’s (UNEP) New York Office. Much more in my office.
**Commission on the Status of Women
Today, at 1:30 p.m. in the Economic and Social Council Chamber, the Secretary-General will hold a town-hall meeting with members of civil society on the margins of the Commission on the Status of Women. Also on the Commission, yesterday afternoon, the Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, spoke at the Spotlight Initiative event to eliminate violence against women and girls. She said that since the initiative launched last September, the UN and the European Union carried out a global consultation process to listen to the experiences of the women’s movement and civil society and based on these, the initiative has developed programmes that will be implemented over the next few months in various countries. The programmes are designed to strengthen the protection of women and girls, promote access to justice, and improve policy and legal frameworks. “Violence against women and girls has nowhere to hide,” she said. “We are coming for it, in all its forms and manifestations around the world.”
**Sexual Exploitation and Abuse
I also want to flag that the 2017 report of the Secretary-General on special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse has now been issued. It is available online on our dedicated website on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse at www.un.org/preventing-sexual-exploitation-and-abuse/. At 2 p.m., Jane Holl Lute, the Special Coordinator on improving the United Nations response to sexual exploitation and abuse, will be here to brief you in this very room.
Going back to the field, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, Ján Kubiš, welcomed the announcement of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to reopen the international airports in the Kurdistan Region to international flights. Mr. Kubiš said that this is a significant positive step that is certain to boost the atmosphere of partnership cooperation between the federal Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government. He called for the speedy implementation of this decision and continued dialogue to resolve all other outstanding issues.
Lise Grande, the new Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen, arrived in Sana’a yesterday to start her duties. Ms. Grande has served in some of the United Nations’ largest humanitarian operations and in peacekeeping missions, including as you know in Iraq most recently, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She has held leadership positions in India, Armenia, Angola and East Timor and has also served in Tajikistan and Sudan.
**Democratic Republic of the Congo
From the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, arrived today in Kalemie in the south-eastern province of Tanganyika, where 700,000 people are internally displaced. Mr. Lowcock visited the Katanyika internal displacement site, which is home to some 10,000 people who have fled violence. Women and children make up most of the displaced population. During the visit, Mr. Lowcock met with a group of women who shared their experiences of the violence and the difficult living conditions. Speaking to Mr. Lowcock, who is accompanied by the Netherlands Minister for Foreign Trade and Development, our former colleague, Sigrid Kaag, the women requested more humanitarian assistance, saying they needed education and health for their children and income generating activities such as farming or fishing. Mr. Lowcock also met with some young boys and girls who have left school due to the violence. The delegation also visited Kalumga site, home to 3,500 people who have been displaced since 2016. During the visit, the Humanitarian Coordinator in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kim Bolduc, also signed an agreement with the Tanganyika Governor to provide a more enabling environment for humanitarian action in the province.
In Ethiopia, our humanitarian partners and the Government today launched the country’s Humanitarian and Disaster Resilience Plan for 2018. The plan seeks $1.66 billion to reach around 7.9 million people in need of assistance following recent successive failed or under-performing rains mainly in the southern and eastern parts of the country, as well as an increase in conflict-related displacement in the border areas of the Oromia and Somali regions, and a lack of recovery activities.
The Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, today concluded a visit to Bangladesh to assess the situation of the Rohingya refugee population. During his visit, he met with Bangladeshi authorities and civil society representatives and visited refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar. Mr. Dieng said that international crimes of murder, torture, and rape were committed in Myanmar. The information received by the Special Adviser indicates that the intention of the perpetrators is to cleanse northern Rakhine State of Rohingya existence, which, if proven, would constitute genocide. He said that the Rohingya must receive protection and support as refugees while in Bangladesh, and the international community must do more to assist Bangladesh in support to the refugees. Mr. Dieng added that the solution to this problem lies with the Myanmar authorities, by creating the conditions for the Rohingya population to return home in safety. We have a note with more details.
Almost lastly, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today issued new protection guidance encouraging States to ensure Venezuelans who are seeking asylum have access to territory and refugee procedures. UNHCR said that in view of the situation in Venezuela, it is crucial that people are not deported or forcibly returned there. According to the UNHCR, since 2014 there has been a 2,000 per cent increase in the number of people fleeing Venezuela. While 94,000 Venezuelans were able to access refugee procedures last year, hundreds of thousands remain without any documentation or permission to stay legally in asylum countries, making them especially vulnerable.
You saw that, yesterday afternoon, we issued a statement in which the Secretary-General welcomed the joint statement issued by President Uhuru Kenyatta and Mr. Raila Odinga on 9 March declaring their commitment to work together to strengthen the unity of the country for all Kenyans.
Tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. there will be a press briefing by the International Parliamentary Union on the newly released report on Women in Parliament 2017. A big khalas. I've used enough words. Ms. Lederer?
**Questions and Answers
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. Two questions. First, I believe that the Secretary‑General met outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and I wonder if he has any comment on the President's decision to change the Secretary of State. And, secondly, on Venezuela, has the UN received any request for electoral assistance?
Spokesman: Okay. Couple of things. Well, you know, the decision, as announced by President [Donald] Trump, is a decision taken by the US Government. We have no comment on that. On a personal note, the Secretary‑General has spoken by phone and met with Secretary of State Tillerson a number of times. I think he's always appreciated the relationship he has built with Mr. Tillerson during the time in office, and they've had… I think they had a very good and… good, positive relationship. And the Secretary‑General wishes Mr. Tillerson well, and of course, looks forward to a positive relationship with the successor to Mr. Tillerson. On Venezuela, I'm not aware that we have received in a… I mean, on the issue of electoral assistance, the answer remains the same, which is that we would need… a mandate would have to be given to the Secretariat by either the General Assembly or the Security Council to observe the elections in Venezuela. Abdelhamid?
Question: Thank you. Thank you, Stéphane. On the conference in Rome, do you have more details who will be participating in this meeting and who will chair it beside the Secretary‑General?
Spokesman: Which one?
Question: I mean the UNRWA meeting for fund‑raising for UNRWA, in… in Rome; right? Yeah. So if you have any details on that?
Spokesman: Yeah. Sure. The meeting is, in fact, called for and co‑chaired by Egypt and Sweden and a third country, which… and Jordan. Excuse me. Thank you very much. No disrespect to our Jordanian friends, but I'm getting old. You know, for the Secretary‑General, I think it's a very important meeting to try to rally the international community to ensure that the critical life‑saving and stabilizing work that UNRWA does in the region continues to be funded and is funded in a way that will enable them to serve the millions of Palestinians that are registered under UNRWA, especially… I think, especially on the issues of education and health.
Question: On a related issue, Stéphane, the White House hosted a meeting on Gaza saying that Gaza… it is going through a humanitarian disaster as we speak. Would Gaza issue be also one of the topics to be discussed in the Rome meeting, or is just only for UNRWA?
Spokesman: Well, it's UNRWA funding. So, UNRWA, as you know, is present in the… in Gaza, in the occupied West Bank. It's present in Jordan. It's present in Syria. By the way, I stand corrected. The conference is co-hosted by Egypt, Jordan and Italy. Okay. Señor?
Correspondent: Thank you, Stéphane. Another follow‑up on Venezuela. We understand there is a delegation of the Venezuelan Government here in New York City along with the opposition presidential candidate, Mr. Henri Falcon. And we understand that they are trying to look for a space maybe to meet with Secretary‑General [António] Guterres. They have said in Venezuela that they are actually having this meeting, which is quite a…
Spokesman: They are having meetings in New York. They will me meeting with Jeffrey Feltman, the Under‑Secretary‑General for Political Affairs. And in the meeting, it will be Delcy Rodriguez, the President of National Assembly; Jorge Rodriguez, the Minister for Communication; and Mr. Henri Falcon, who is, as you know, a candidate. Yeah?
Question: So, Mr. Feltman — not with the Secretary‑General?
Spokesman: Exactly. It's with Mr. Feltman. Matthew Lee?
Question: Sure. I wanted to ask you about… the Bishop of Bangassou in CAR [Central African Republic] has given a lengthy interview in which he said… he describes the sexual exploitation of people in the town by Blue Helmets or peacekeepers as being routine, not… not a… not an exception but, rather, the rule. He's given it to a Spanish newspaper. His name is Juan Aguirre Muñoz. And I'm just wondering, it seems contrary to everything that's been said in this room about the steps being taken. What is the response? Is the Bishop entirely wrong, or is it… what is the UN's response to this Bishop's description of the situation?
Spokesman: Sexual abuse is not routine. Sexual abuse… it needs to be rooted out. The Sec… from the Secretary‑General on down to all his heads of missions are very focussed on rooting it out, on investigating each and every case. The… our colleagues in the Mission of MINUSCA [United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic] have already issued a press release, I think, a few days ago following the information about sexual abuse committed by its troops, as relayed by the Bishop of Bangassou. Reports of possible sexual abuse in Bangassou were brought to the attention of the Mission a few months ago, and a fact‑finding mission was conducted, including by the Force Provost Marshall, the head of the UN's Mission in Bangassou, and human rights officers. The Mission spoke to a number of local sources, including NGOs [non-governmental organizations], providing assistance of displaced people in the site. And the fact‑finding mission concluded that the reports could not be substantiated. We, of course, continue to maintain very close contact with local officials in order to ensure… so, if there's any other information that comes forward, we are able to investigate. And since then, the investigation has also re‑upped and reinforced its training for troops that are stationed in Bangassou in an effort to prevent any cases of sexual abuse.
Question: I guess, since this Bishop was in charge of, you know, a church where some 2,000 people were sheltered fleeing and he says that… that women and even girls were made pregnant by UN soldiers, has the UN sought to speak to the Bishop? Has the UN… did speak…?
Spokesman: The Bishop is a well‑known personality in Bangassou. The Secretary‑General met him. When we were in Bangassou, we visited the site. So, we're… every… people know the Bishop. The Mission knows the Bishop. What I'm saying is that the Mission investigated — human rights officers, Force Provost Marshall — to try to get information, and obviously, talking to all the people that need to be spoken to, and they could not substantiate the allegations.
Question: Yeah. Just… I guess I just want to know, it seems like it… like that would be a part of the investigation. If… if a person goes public…?
Spokesman: I have no doubt that the Bishop has… was… a conversation was had with the Bishop. Señor?
Question: Gracias. Just a follow‑up on Venezuela, the… some opposition groups were asking yesterday to the UN team in the country to… not to support this electoral observation. I know the UN needs a mandate from the Security Council or the General Assembly, but does the Secretary‑General support this idea of an electoral observation, or what would his recommendation be?
Spokesman: Again, for the Secretary‑General, he would need to get a mandate, so it's not whether he supports or doesn't support. It's a matter of Member States agreeing and voting on a resolution to dispatch UN observers for those elections.
Question: Does he think the conditions in the country are sufficient for free and fair elections?
Spokesman: Again, it's… this is a decision to be made by Member States. Monsieur?
Question: Merci, monsieur. In the note to correspondents, Mr. Adama Dieng… he urges the Security Council to consider different accountability options. We've seen that the Security Council has taken a few… a number of meetings on the question of the Rohingya, but the situation on the ground remains the same. Can you elaborate on what options Mr. Dieng is referring to?
Spokesman: Short answer is no. I haven't been able to speak to him. Sorry… I will try to speak to him, but I don't want to elaborate without having had a conversation with him. So, my bad. Sidi rais?
Question: Thank you, Stéphane. Many of those who exited eastern Ghouta have said that they were used as hostage… as human shields; civilians are being put in cellars with… and prevented from going. Some of these civilians have been shot and killed when they attempted to free or protest. There were protests. Do you have any first-hand information…? Are you meeting these people?
Spokesman: What I can tell you is that we did observe today an evacuation of 147 civilians. Among those, there were ten critical cases, mostly women and children from Douma. As we get more details, we'll share them with you. If any further evacuations of civilians are planned, the UN will be able… available to observe and provide assistance to them in the shelters where they will be hosted. On the humanitarian front, there are plans to send a humanitarian convoy to Douma in the coming days. The priority for us, for the Secretary‑General, I think, as he so eloquently stated yesterday, is the full implementation of resolution 2401 (2018). If you look at what has been happening all over Syria, if you look at what has been happening, especially in eastern Ghouta, it is clear that civilians are on the front lines of suffering, are taking the brunt of the suffering, that none of the parties seem to have any regard for the suffering of civilians. We want to see a full implementation of the resolution. We want to have full humanitarian access, unfettered, unhampered, to all those people who need to have it.
Question: Is there any progress with regard to evacuation of the civilians on the political side? There were talk about Jaish al-Islam may want to exit from eastern Ghouta. Is the United Nations playing any additional role…?
Spokesman: What I've just said is we were able to witness the evacuation of 147 civilians. We have been facilitating meetings and made it clear that we're available to observe any other evacuations. I can only speak to what's actually happened. Yes, sir?
Question: About Idleb, the people they move him from, you know, civilian people and the fighter, whatever it is, they move him to Idleb. So in this road, any protection for these people? Or… because I heard in the news, like, yesterday…
Spokesman: The protection that the UN offers is to be there, to be on site. It is not military protection. We are there as civilian humanitarian workers. Sometimes the mere presence of UN officials does provide a layer of protection. It is… again, we have seen all too often civilians being targeted in Syria. Matthew and then Abdelhamid.
Question: Sure. I wanted to ask you about two meetings of the Secretary‑General, one today and one yesterday. The one today was with Ecuador's Foreign Minister. And I just… I guess I wanted to know, as I'm sure you know or know from Brenden [Varma], she's a candidate for PGA [President of the General Assembly], and there's a second candidate. He's met with her twice so far this year. Can you give a readout of the meeting? And is there any concern… is there any, like, equal time provisions or… or… what was… was there…?
Spokesman: Look, I mean there are 193 votes in the General Assembly. None of those include António Guterres. So, it's not an election…
Question: Was the race… is the race…?
Spokesman: It's not an election that he votes in. He has… it's not for him to endorse or to back any particular candidate.
Question: Did the… did the… did the election come up in the meeting?
Spokesman: I don't know. I don't have a readout.
Question: Okay, but, yesterday, you may… you prob… you may know this. I don't know if you will say it, but, in the meeting with H.R. McMaster, did the idea of a UN role… any UN role, even as a venue for the announced Trump‑Kim Jong‑un talks come up?
Spokesman: No, I'm not aware that that came up. They discussed… obviously, they discussed the Korean Peninsula. They discussed Yemen. They discussed Libya and had a broader discussion on peace missions. Okay.
Question: Can I ask you one other thing? Okay. I wanted to ask about Burundi, since there is an envoy. One, three human rights activists from the group PARCEM have been… have been sentenced to ten years in jail for reportedly setting up… organizing a human rights workshop. So, it seemed to many people to be a pretty extreme sentence, and I wonder if there's any comment on that. And, two, the President, Pierre Nkurunziza, has been… has been reportedly named the Eternal Supreme Guide of the CNDD‑FDD party, which people see as sort of a… part of a progression. They now say he's just a visionary, but I guess I wanted to know, is… does the UN think that the… the… the… what's happening in Burundi, given that you have an envoy, is it leaning more towards sort of one‑person eternal visionary rule, or are things going in the way in which the envoy was supposed to be trying to work on it?
Spokesman: I would… listen, it's not for me to comment on party roles that leaders… titles that leaders may get. I think the Secretary‑General's position on Burundi and his concerns about Burundi are outlined in his latest report on Burundi, and they stand. On the human rights access, I will check. Abdelhamid?
Question: Thank you. There are new reports from Yemen, saying that more civilians had been killed recently, but I… my question is about the new envoy to Yemen, Mr. [Griffiths], is he now in place? Is he in the field?
Spokesman: He's here. He's seeing the Secretary‑General today. So, he's taking office, but he is… my understanding is that he's not yet… he's not gone to the region yet.
Question: On the same subject, how is the flow of aid to Hodeidah and Saleef?
Spokesman: I have no update on that. We'll try to get you something for tomorrow. Thank you. And Brenden is up.