14 March 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.


A few moments ago, here at Headquarters, the Secretary-General received a new report on the current global water crisis from the High-Level Panel on Water, which consists of 11 Heads of State and a Special Adviser.  Currently, more than a third of the world’s population is affected by water scarcity.  The report “Making every drop count:  an agenda for water action” calls for a fundamental shift in the way the world manages water so that the Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved.  “Water is an element at the core of who we are as human beings,” the Secretary-General has just said.  “Sixty per cent of our body is made up of water, so it is not an exaggeration to say that water scarcity is a matter of life and death.”  He will add that the report is a wake-up call to all of us to find and implement solutions to the global water crisis.  You can find the report online.


This morning, the Head of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), Jeremiah Mamabolo, briefed the Security Council on the situation in Darfur.  He reported that the mission has started phase two of its reconfiguration, including the redeployment of uniformed and civilian personnel to strengthen the Jebel Marra Task Force's operations.  The reconfiguration also entails a further reduction in the number of military, police and civilian staff.  Mr. Mamabolo warned that the stalemate in the Darfur peace process persists.  He called upon Council members to exhort the parties to the Darfur conflict to sign cessation-of-hostilities agreements and resume negotiations.  He said that would be the only way the people of Darfur, and the international community, could have any realistic hope for the achievement of durable peace in Darfur.  Mr. Mamabolo added that a significant amount of resources is required for post-conflict reconstruction and development of Darfur and he appealed to Council members to play their part.  As the mission engages in a stabilization phase, he said that we are duty bound to do it in a manner that consolidates, not compromises, the gains that our presence has achieved over the years.


Our colleagues from the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) yesterday said they are concerned by the ongoing violence in the city of Sabha.  They call on all parties to refrain from acts that endanger civilian lives and contribute further to the destruction of Libya’s infrastructure.  The Mission warns that the build-up of armed forces in the South risks further escalation.  It calls on all parties to work towards a ceasefire agreement, advance dialogue and reconciliation efforts, and refrain from rhetoric that may inflame the situation.  The mission also recognizes and commends the national and local leaders who are taking steps to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict and stands ready to support these efforts.


Our humanitarian colleagues inform us that escalating fighting continues to be reported in parts of eastern Ghouta in Syria, causing extensive civilian casualties and the destruction of civilian infrastructure.  As we told you yesterday, an estimated 147 civilians ‑ including 8 medical cases — were evacuated on 13 March, as observed by a United Nations team at the Al-Wafideen crossing to Dweir collective shelter in rural Damascus.  Other evacuations not observed by the United Nations are also reported to have taken place, including 126 people from Misraba on 11 March and 35 people today.  Following the evacuation yesterday, a United Nations interagency mission visited the collective shelter that received evacuees.  Families were assisted by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent with non-food items, hygiene kits and ready-to-eat food.  The shelter has a staffed medical point, water and electricity.  The delivery of humanitarian assistance, including medical and health supplies, for people in need in Douma and throughout eastern Ghouta remains urgently needed.

**State of Palestine

Humanitarian partners and the Minister for Social Development of the State of Palestine today launched the 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan for the Occupied Palestinian Territory to support the humanitarian needs of 1.9 million Palestinians.  The plan appeals for $539.7 million to address urgent humanitarian needs of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.  If funding is secured, humanitarian actors will be able to enhance the protection of Palestinians, improve vulnerable people’s access to basic services, and support their ability to cope with and overcome crises.  Around 75 per cent of the requested funds target Palestinians in Gaza.

**Peacebuilding Fund

The Secretary-General has appointed 10 members of the fifth Advisory Group of his Peacebuilding Fund.  The Peacebuilding Fund is the Organization’s financial instrument of first resort to sustain peace in countries or situations at risk or affected by violent conflict.  From 2006 to 2017, the Peacebuilding Fund has allocated $772 million to 41 recipient countries.  The appointees hail from Germany, Guatemala, Ireland, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Somalia, Sweden, United Republic of Tanzania and the United Kingdom.  The Secretary-General also thanks the members of the fourth Advisory Group for their advice and support which has considerably strengthened the impact of the Fund globally.  There is a note with much more details in our office, which will also be emailed to you.


The Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, is in Haiti today for consultations with the Haitian authorities.  He will reinforce the Secretary-General’s message of solidarity with the Haitian people and support to the Government, based on mutual respect and trust.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

At the end of a two-day mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, and the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, Sigrid Kaag, called on the international community to urgently address the crisis facing the country.  More than 13 million people need humanitarian assistance and 4.5 million have been forced to flee their homes due to fighting.  More than 4.6 million Congolese children are acutely malnourished, including 2.2 million cases of severe acute malnutrition.  Epidemics are spreading, including the worst outbreak of cholera in 15 years.  On 13 April, in Geneva, the European Commission, Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates will co-host the first-ever humanitarian donor conference for the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Humanitarian partners require nearly $1.7 billion this year to address humanitarian needs in the country.


The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator, Achim Steiner, will visit Zimbabwe from 15 to 18 March.   This is the first visit by a UN official since the end of Robert Mugabe’s Presidency and the transfer of power in November 2017.  During his visit, Mr. Steiner will meet with President Emmerson Mnangagwa and other senior officials to discuss how the UN can support the upcoming elections and actions it can take to assist in Zimbabwe’s economic recovery.  He will also meet with a number of independent commissions, including the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, National Peace and Reconciliation Commission and the Gender Commission.  If you want more information on this visit, we have a full media advisory or you can contact UNDP.

**Fall Armyworm

Our colleagues at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) launched a mobile application to enable farmers, agricultural workers and other partners at the front line of the fight against fall armyworm in Africa to identify, report the level of infestation, and map the spread of this destructive insect.  The Fall Armyworm Monitoring and Early Warning System mobile app provides valuable insights on how the insect changes over time and space to improve knowledge of its behaviour in Africa and guide best response.  Initially implemented in Madagascar and Zambia, the app is now being rolled out across all countries in sub-Saharan Africa affected by the invasive pest.  By early 2018, only 10 out of the 54 African states and territories — mostly in the north of the continent — have not reported infestations.

**Stephen Hawking

The Secretary-General responded to the death of Stephen Hawking with a tweet this morning in which he has said that Stephen Hawking was a cosmic force and an inspiration.  The Secretary-General says that he taught us the mysteries of outer space and the potential of our inner selves.  The United Nations has lost a friend and the world a strong advocate of science for the common good.

**Honour Roll

And today, our thanks go to Fiji, which has paid its regular budget dues in full.  This takes the Honour Roll to 67.

**Press briefings

Tomorrow, the guests will be Jose Antonio Ocampo, Chair of the Committee for Development Policy and Professor Diane Elson, Member of the Committee for Development Policy.  They will brief you on the Committee for Development Policy plenary, which is taking place this week here at Headquarters.  And after I am done here, you will hear from Brenden Varma, the Spokesperson for the President of the General Assembly. Yes.  Do you have a question?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Farhan, has the Secretary‑General seen the British Prime Minister's response to the poisoning of the former Russian spy?  Does he think that these actions that she's announced are justified?

Deputy Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General is deeply concerned over the reported use of a nerve agent in the United Kingdom to harm or kill persons.  He conveys his sympathies to those who have been harmed and expresses his sincere hope for their early recovery.  The use of nerve agents as a weapon, under any circumstances, is unacceptable, and its use by a state would constitute a serious violation of international law.  While the Secretary‑General is not in a position to attribute responsibility, he strongly condemns the use of any nerve agent or chemical weapons and hopes that the incident will be thoroughly investigated.  Yes, Joe?

Question:  Yes.  Could you repeat the funding target for the Palestinian humanitarian relief?  I think you said about $500 million or something like that?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yeah, it's $539.7 million.

Question:  Now, is that in addition to the funds being sought for UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East], or is it folded in…?

Deputy Spokesman:  That’s apart from what UNRWA seeks for its normal functioning.  The UN Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, has a regular monthly budget.  And what the UNRWA Commissioner‑General has been saying is that, given the shortfall in its regular funds, it will be expected to run out of funds to run its schools and its health programmes by May unless it gets further funding.  So, that's a separate issue.  This is a humanitarian appeal.

Question:  Well, okay.  Again, I want to clarify, because there is this meeting in Rome that the Secretary‑General is attending for the purpose of raising further funds to meet this shortfall for UNRWA.  You're saying… you're saying whatever is involved in those contributions is completely separate and apart from this $539 million humanitarian figure.

Deputy Spokesman:  This is about separate humanitarian needs, yes.  Yes, Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  My first question is about Libya.  You said there were fighting reported from Sabha, but we didn't know who's fighting who.  Is that… does that involve the [Khalifa] Haftar brigades or the pro‑[Muammar] Qaddafi remnants and supporters in that region?  Who's fighting who?

Deputy Spokesman:  There's some more details in the statement issued by the UN [Support] Mission in Libya, so I would just refer you to them.

Question:  Okay.  My… can I…  I have a second question?  It's a follow‑up to what Matthew asked last week about Officer [Matthew] Sullivan and the hugging of the Israeli Prime Minister.  Was he ever questioned why he did that or why he accepted that?  What happened exactly?  Were there any follow‑ups to that kind of unacceptable behaviour from a neutral UN officer?

Deputy Spokesman:  I think Stéphane [Dujarric] has spoken at length about this and talked about the circumstances of this particular occurrence, and I don't have anything to add to what Stéphane said.  Yes.  Hold on, please.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you, Farhan.  I have two questions on Venezuela.  Yesterday, after the meeting that the delegation from Venezuela had with Mr. [Jeffrey] Feltman, they told us that today they were going to have a second round of talks.  So, first of all, could you help us understand if, in fact, Mr. Feltman is going to have another session with this Venezuelan delegation?  And second, also, after that meeting, we were told that the UN most likely will send a… an exploratory mission to Venezuela to decide if, in the future, they will send an observation mission, but, so far, we haven't heard anything from Mr. Feltman himself.  So, does the Secretary‑General see with good eyes this possibility of an exploratory mission first to Venezuela?

Deputy Spokesman:  No, I will… I don't have any particular follow‑up activity to announce at this point.  As we have made clear from this podium, for there to be any UN observer mission, not just in Venezuela but anywhere, we require a mandate from a Member State body, which is to say, the Security Council or the General Assembly.  At present, we don't have any such mandate for Venezuela.  So, there's no question at this stage, unless that were to change, of sending electoral observers.  Regarding Mr. Feltman, yes, I can confirm that he met with a delegation of Venezuelan officials yesterday, including a presidential candidate, Henri Falcon.  I don't have any new scheduled meetings for today, but I will check after this with the Department of Political Affairs to see whether there's anything anticipated.  Yes?

Question:  Sure.  I was going to go a different way, but I just wanted to ask, on this… on the issue of… of Inspector Sullivan and Net… and Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, it wasn't just an incident… I want to… I guess what I wanted… and he didn't answer this.  In September 2016, Prime Minister Netanyahu quoted exactly what Inspector Sullivan said later in 2018 about the Iran bomb fuse speech being the best speech ever.  And so, it seems like the question really isn't… isn't whether he was surprised in the basement last week, but did anyone look into when was the quote given that Mr. Netanyahu quoted in September 2016? And… and I guess I'm asking because, again, many UN staff have wondered whether they can do the same thing.  Is it appropriate to praise… to… to offer that type of praise twice, not once but twice, at least?

Deputy Spokesman:  First of all, we do not control what the Prime Minister of Israel says.  That's his business…

Correspondent:  He was quoting Mr. Sullivan.

Deputy Spokesman:  …nor do we police that.  Regarding private opinions expressed by staff, they… they're capable of talking to people and expressing their private opinions.  This is not a case where someone was expressly trying to express their opinion in public.  That was not sought by Officer Sullivan, as Stéphane made clear last week.

Question:  But, when somebody calls you over in front of cameras and a microphone, you still choose what you say.  Maybe you didn't expect to be called over but it's not… it's…?

Deputy Spokesman:  As Stéphane made clear, he was doing his regular security duties.  He… there was no speaking engagement sought on behalf of the officer.

Question:  I have… I have a related question I wanted to ask you, and it had to do with… it's been said here by… by OHRM [Office of Human Resources Management], which did a press conference, et cetera, that UN — and you just said it, in fact — that UN staff are free to speak.  So, I wanted to ask you, this is a quote of… of a document obtained by the journalist Lauren Wolfe, who's recently written about “#MeToo” at the UN.  And the document says, "Identify"… it's a UN document.  "Identified a computer… a computer used to print an email that was later leaked to Inner City Press by correlating an URL at the top… URL at the top of the leaked document with web mail and DHCP logs," which is Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol.  Basically, it reflects that UN — and I believe it's OIOS [Office of Internal Oversight Services] — is conducting electronic investigations to determine which UN staff member leaked documents showing UN wrongdoing, they believe.  And so, how does this square with the idea that people are free to blow the whistle and that the UN wants wrongdoing and malfeasance to be confronted in any way possible?  And is it appropriate to… to identify whistle-blowers that communicate with investigative journalists?  Is that appropriate?

Deputy Spokesman:  No, whistle-blowers should be protected.  At the same time, as you know, there's a huge amount of confidential information in the United Nations, information that needs to be handled with great sensitivity.  And it is appropriate for different offices to monitor how those… that information is handled.  By the way, while we're on the subject of your questions, I just got an answer to you.  Mr. Feltman is not meeting the Venezuelans today.

Correspondent:  I just wanted to ask one… just… because it seems like there's… there could be a conflict between saying that whistle-blowers are free to speak, but we're free to investigate them because we're an organization that has confidential information.  So, I'm asking about this specific… and I believe you can answer on this one…

Deputy Spokesman:  Every institution, including all Governments, are free to conduct leak investigations, and they do so.  We try to make sure… and there are, as you know, different offices and different avenues for protection for whistle-blowers.  There's a whistle-blower protection policy, and that has to be enforced.

Question:  So, if somebody leaked — for example, I'm going to go back so it's not a hypothetical, an actual document — the Rwanda memo that went to Kofi Annan that said weapons are being stored and a genocide is about to happen, somebody leaked it to the press, would the UN… would it be appropriate for the UN to investigate who blew the whistle on human rights violations, which is the case in this…?

Deputy Spokesman:  As you know, there have been many different types of sensitive documents over the history of the UN that have, in fact, leaked to the press and no one has faced any consequences for that, precisely because it was in the public interest.  At the same time, a lot of business of the UN simply could not be conducted, the sensitive diplomatic work we're supposed to do could not happen if there was the presumption that all documents would leak.  Yes, Masood?

Question:  Stéphane, [sic] on this… maybe this question has been asked, but I'm a little late.  On Egypt, the continued incarceration of lots of human rights activists, lawyers and journalists and so forth, which I've been asking Stéphane the other day, but nothing has been done.  How does United Nations… has United Nations had any contact with the Egyptian Government?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yes, yes, we have at different levels, and we've made our concerns known.  I don't have anything new to add to what Stéphane has said, but we have said that.  Yes, Mario?

Question:  Just a follow‑up on Venezuela.  The Venezuelan ambassador was insisting yesterday that there are some mechanisms that the Secretary‑General can use to send a mission there.  It doesn't have to be a… an official observation process.  Is the Secretary‑General willing to… to do this?  And did you come to an un… a common understanding with the Venezuelans yesterday?

Deputy Spokesman:  As you can see from the discussions we've been having, including yesterday, we are discussing these issues with a number of Venezuelan parties.  There's nothing to say in terms of any commitments made by us, but we are willing to listen to what the various parties have to say.  Yes?

Question:  Hi, yes.  On Syria, it's been reported yesterday that Russia's Chief of General Staff said that the United States intended to use a fake chemical attack as a pretext to strike Damascus and that Russia would retaliate militarily if it felt that Russian lives were threatened.  Is the Secretary‑General aware of this report?  And, if so, is he doing anything to help avoid any direct confrontation between Powers?

Deputy Spokesman:  We are aware of these reports.  Obviously, we want any such confrontation to be avoided.  This, again, speaks to the need to end all of the fighting, all of the military operations, throughout Syria.  And this is why we are redoubling our own efforts, including our diplomatic efforts, to resolve the situations so that it does not continue to escalate.  Yes?

Question:  I asked Stéphane this question twice, and he never came back with an answer.  Omar Kiswani, the President of the Palestinian Students Union at Birzeit University was snatched by Israeli security forces from the campus of Birzeit University.  I asked about it.  He said, “we'll get back to you”, and he didn't.  The second, I asked also about the new law that passed by the Knesset authorizing the Interior Minister to confiscate the blue identity of the Jerusalemites, “in case they're not loyal” to the State of Israel.  And he said, “I'll get back to you.”  And another question, [Mohammed al-Jabari], a 24‑year‑old Palestinian who's… who's disabled, cannot hear, cannot talk, was shot and killed in Hebron last, I think, Thursday, and also was not mentioned by any statement of any UN official, all these things.  So, can you have answer for me?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yeah, that's quite a big package of things.  On Omar Kiswani, we checked with the UN Special Coordinator's office and have no comment on his situation.

Question:  Why?  Is there any reason why not to comment?

Deputy Spokesman:  There are many topics in the world on which we do not have comment.  Secondly, regarding the question of identity in Jerusalem, this is something that we are examining.  I do think that, during our periodic briefings to the Security Council, that will be one of the topics that comes up in the briefing, and you can see our evaluation at that point.  And regarding the death of Mr. Jabari, of course, we're concerned about all of the deaths, all of the killings.  We want all of them to be fully investigated.  And, of course, our hearts go out to the family members of all those who have died in this violence.  Yes?

Correspondent:  Sure.  I wanted to ask you, the Philippines President, [Rodrigo] Duterte, has announced that he's withdrawing from the International Criminal Court.  And I know that it's often said from here that's totally different than the UN, but, recently, there was this… that interchange between Prince Zeid of the Human… Human Rights High Commissioner saying that Duterte should get a psychological evaluation due to putting Ms. Corpuz… Torpuz… the former…

Deputy Spokesman:  [Victoria] Tauli‑Corpuz.

Question:  Yeah, there we go.  On a list of suspected terrorists in the country.  And I wanted to know, since António Guterres is the head of the UN system, what does he think of… does he agree with Prince Zeid?  That would be my first question.  And does he have any comment on… on the withdrawal from the ICC by President Duterte?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, regarding the withdrawal, we have not received any formal communications so far concerning withdrawal.  As you're aware and I think we made this clear several times in the past, if a country submits documents to withdraw from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, it takes one year before that will take effect.  And as you're aware, there are some countries who, over the course of that year, have then withdrawn their withdrawal.  That's happened twice in recent years.  So… but, in any case, we don't have any formal receipt of any documents from the Philippines concerning this at this stage.  And I have no comment about what High Commissioner Zeid said.  Yes?

Correspondent:  Stéphane, [sic] on this… maybe this question was asked by… on this continued incarceration of Palestinian children by the Israeli authority… and I believe the number has gone to about 200 now…

Deputy Spokesman:  About 300.

Question:  Yeah.  So, is… has the United Nations had any conversation with the Israeli authorities to, what do you call, in the name of…?

Deputy Spokesman:  Yes, yes.  We periodically bring this up, but the basic point, as Nickolay Mladenov made clear in a recent briefing to the Security Council, is we believe that… that there shouldn't be any — oh, I have something also to say to you, Joe — that there shouldn't be any indef… detention without charge of children, and we have urged that all children be charged and go through the proper procedure.  And we continue to press for their release, and we do that across the board, not just for Palestinian children.  Joe, we got some further information clarifying that there is overlap between the humanitarian appeal and the UN Relief and Works Agency.  So, the Occupied Palestinian Territory's humanitarian relief plan covers prioritised humanitarian projects to be implemented by 99 agencies and NGOs [non-governmental organizations].  About 53 per cent of that request will be implemented by UNRWA.  So, about $286 million of that will be implemented by UNRWA.  UNRWA appeals for all of its programme for $400 million.  That's all of its humanitarian programs.  It also requests another $400 million for Syria and the region, including Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and another $750 million for its core programme budget.  So those are the various operations that need to be funded for UNRWA, but some of the humanitarian appeal money would go to UNRWA.  In other words, about $286 million of it will be implemented by the UN Relief and Works Agency.  Yes?

Question:  Just to… if you are aware that today UNRWA cancelled all the contracts with the engineers in Gaza because they have no money, and there is a protest in Gaza.  I don't know if you're aware of that.  Are you?

Deputy Spokesman:  As… as I said earlier in this briefing, our worry is that, without replenishment of funds, we won't be able to run any programmes starting in May, which is just a few months from now.  So, we desperately need money, and obviously, we're trying our best with what we have to maintain as many programmes as we possibly can.  But, for that, we need funding, and we're hopeful that, in Rome tomorrow, nations will understand our needs and try to support the Relief and Works Agency's programmes.  Yes?  Hold on.  No.  Okay.

Question:  I just want to… regarding the neutrality of the UN staff, I… I… I eye-witnessed two cases where an officer been asked to leave the mission immediately when his or her neutrality was compromised.  I was serving in Western Sahara.  Mr. Ruddy, an American, was asked to leave the mission immediately because he showed some sympathy to the Polisario and Mr. Devlin was also asked to leave the mission because he was accused of being… being un-neutral in that conflict.  So, why, in this case of Officer Sullivan, when his neutrality is compromised, why no question asked at least?

Deputy Spokesman:  Again, this is not a case where someone sought to express a public opinion.  That was put upon him through circumstances outside of his control.  Yes?

Question:  I just wanted to allow the follow‑up, but I just… I guess is… your answer about that it wasn't thrust on him, this also covers the September 2016 statement quoted by…

Deputy Spokesman:  He had not… he was not making a public statement.  That was something he had expressed to a person who then disclosed it.

Question:  Right, but he did it twice, with… I mean, in… given that the first time was… I don't know.  Was it appropriate?

Deputy Spokesman:  We've said what we've said.

Question:  Okay.  I wanted to ask you something else, which is that the… the… Cyprus is saying that its Foreign Minister will definitely be meeting with António Guterres in Rome.  They call it a 15‑minute meeting and said it was agreed to.  So, one, I wanted to know, can you confirm it?  But, two, is it possible to know, especially the ones that have already been agreed to, the meetings that the Secretary‑General will have while he's in Rome?

Deputy Spokesman:  No, we'll provide details of his meetings once they've taken place.  Stéphane is there in Rome, and he'll let us know.

Question:  But… just… it's a request, I guess.  There are officials that when they travel, like… when he's here, he has a public schedule.  So, the night before, they say he's meeting with X, Y and Z.  If you know, why don't you publish it on the…?

Deputy Spokesman:  To be very blunt, when he's traveling, the schedule changes at the… at a speed you could not imagine.  We have to change it at the drop of a hat.  It doesn't make sense to put it out a day in advance.

Question:  When is he… when is he due back in New York?

Deputy Spokesman:  Next Monday.  Come on up, Brenden.

For information media. Not an official record.