15 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 short while ago in Rome, the Secretary-General delivered the opening remarks at the Ministerial meeting of the International Support Group for Lebanon.  The Secretary-General told the delegates that it is now absolutely essential for the international community to show strong solidarity with Lebanon, a country he called a fundamental pillar of stability in the region.  As such, he underscored that countries in the region should work to avoid any steps that could lead to misunderstanding, confrontation or escalation.  The strengthening of Lebanon’s institutions and the extension of state authority throughout its territory are of crucial importance, the Secretary-General added, while also welcoming the strengthened deployment of the Lebanese Armed Forces south of the Litani River.  The Secretary-General spoke to reporters afterwards, saying that it is a question of enlightened self-interest to support Lebanon.

On the side lines of the Lebanon meeting, which took place at the Italian Foreign Ministry, the Secretary-General held separate bilateral meetings with the Italian Prime Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, and Federica Mogherini, the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.  Earlier in the day, shortly after arriving in Rome, the Secretary-General attended the ministerial conference to mobilize collective action for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).  We are here to help UNRWA overcome the worst financial crisis in its history, the Secretary-General declared.  He warned that, for 2018, with pledges reduced, UNRWA faces a shortfall of $446 million.  If it cannot be met, he warned, critical services could be reduced or eliminated entirely.  He appealed to the participants of the meeting to give generously to bridge the UNRWA shortfall for 2018 with predictable, sustained and additional funding.  The Secretary-General will travel to Lisbon this evening, and he will speak to the Islamic community of Lisbon tomorrow.


Today, thousands of people reportedly left Hammouriyeh in eastern Ghouta in Syria, following reports of fierce fighting that resulted in civilian deaths and injuries, as well as damage to civilian infrastructure.  The actual number of people who have exited eastern Ghouta is not known, as is the destinations of all evacuees.  The UN has not observed the evacuations, but is visiting collective shelters where some of the evacuees are arriving.  This includes the Dwier collective centre, where families are being assisted by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.  The shelter has a staffed medical point, water and electricity.  The UN is conducting needs assessments at the shelters and stands ready to provide assistance to people in need who have evacuated from eastern Ghouta.  The World Health Organization (WHO) is sending hospital beds, medical equipment and medicine to help support health needs in the Dwier collective centre.  Also today, a UN/Syrian Arab Red Crescent/International Committee of the Red Cross convoy delivered food assistance for 26,100 people in need in Douma in eastern Ghouta.  However, much more is needed, including medical and health supplies, for people in need in Douma and [humanitarian] assistance throughout eastern Ghouta.  Today’s convoy follows a convoy last week that delivered food assistance for 27,500 people, as well as health and nutrition items.


The UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) continues to help stranded migrants in Yemen return home, with the latest of its humanitarian return movements taking place this week — one from Hodeidah for 41 Ethiopian migrants and a Croatian migrant, and the other from Aden for 144 Somali refugees.  So far, in 2018, IOM has helped nearly 660 stranded migrants return home from Yemen, while in 2017, 2,860 were assisted.  Every month, around 10,000 migrants enter Yemen.  Usually their hope is to reach the Gulf countries, but they often become targets of the conflict, seldom making it to their destinations.


The UN has allocated $9 million from the Nigeria Humanitarian Fund to provide life-saving assistance to some 60,000 children, women and men recently displaced by ongoing hostilities in Borno State.  The humanitarian crisis in the region remains one of the most severe in the world today, with at least 7.7 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in 2018 in the worst affected States of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe.  The $9 million allocation will support humanitarian rapid response in areas recently affected by large-scale conflict-related displacements, particularly in the northern parts of Borno, along the Maiduguri-Monguno axis.  In three months, close to 30,000 people have fled the violence in areas that are hard to reach for international humanitarian organisations.  They need food, water, shelter, blankets, clothes and medical services.  The funds will also support scaling up the response near the border with Cameroon in eastern Borno and northern Adamawa, where another 30,000 people have arrived in the past three months following military operations.  The funds will also help maintain UN Humanitarian Air Service operations, which are crucial for aid workers to be able to reach and deliver aid in remote areas of the north‑east.


A report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) says today that there are strong grounds to believe that some of the people detained in Mexico during the early stages of the investigation into the disappearance of 43 students from Ayotzinapa in 2014 were arbitrarily detained and tortured.  These serious violations were in turn inadequately investigated and even covered up.  The documented cases of human rights violations took place after 5 October 2014 when the Office of the Attorney-General of the Republic took over the investigation.  The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, said that this is a test case of the Mexican authorities’ willingness and ability to tackle serious human rights violations.  For some three and a half years, the victims’ families have been fighting for the right to know what happened to their loved ones.  He urged the Mexican authorities to ensure that the search for truth and justice regarding Ayotzinapa continues, and also that those responsible for torture and other human rights violations committed during the investigation are held accountable.


UN-Women, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) called today for increased efforts to eradicate gender inequality in nationality laws, which is a key driver of statelessness.  In 25 countries around the world, nationality laws do not allow women to confer their nationality to their children on an equal basis as men, and in more than 50 countries, women are denied equal rights to acquire, change or retain their nationality.  These sex-discriminatory laws result in wide‑ranging human rights violations.  More information is available online.

**Natural Disasters

Natural disasters are costing farmers in the developing world billions of dollars each year, with drought emerging as the most destructive in a crowded field of threats that also includes floods, forest fires, storms, plant pests, animal diseases outbreaks, chemical spills and toxic algal blooms.  According to a new report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), between 2005 and 2015, natural disasters cost the agricultural sectors of developing country economies a staggering $96 billion in damaged or lost crop and livestock production.  Half of that damage — $48 billion worth — occurred in Asia, says the report, which was launched today at a conference in Hanoi convened by Viet Nam's government in collaboration with FAO.  You can find it online.

**Press Briefings

In a short while, I will be joined by Jose Antonio Ocampo, Chair of the Committee for Development Policy and Professor Diane Elson, Member of the Committee, which is part of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.  They will brief you on the Committee’s plenary, which is taking place this week here at Headquarters.  Also for press briefings:  Tomorrow, at 11 a.m., there will be a press briefing by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs on the release of the “World urbanization prospects:  the 2018 revision” report.  Then, at around 12:30 p.m., Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchenko, the Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations will be here to brief you.  That's it for me right now.  Anything before we go to our guest?  Yes?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  About, in fact, Russian elections was going to reach… was going to be on territory… occupied territory of Crimea.  The United Nations General Assembly adopted three resolutions we should define that as Crimea; in particular, it is the territory of Ukraine, temporarily occupied by Russia.  On 18 March, Russia intends to conduct presidential elections, including on the territory of Crimea.  What is the UN approach to these elections?  Don't you think that it is illegal to organize elections on occupied territory?

Deputy Spokesman:  Well, regarding the status of Crimea, of course, you've just mentioned the relevant General Assembly resolutions, and we… and, of course, we follow and abide by those resolutions.  Regarding elections, we'll have to evaluate as they happen.

Question:  But, the international community might not have enough right, right now, not right probably… power or leverage to stop illegal actions of Russia, but we still have right to speak truths, to tell truths.  And does UN has any official statement to Russian Federation about illegal elections on occupied territory?

Deputy Spokesman:  Regarding the question of Crimea, of course, we would remind all States that the General Assembly has pronounced itself on this matter.  Yes?

Question:  Sure.  I have some other things, but I want to be sure to ask, I'm sure you've seen the article in The Guardian quoting Michel Sibidé [sic] of UNAIDS [Joint United Nations Programme against HIV/AIDS].  What I wanted to ask you is, he seems to be attacking those who came forward in the sexual harassment case against Luiz Loures.  He's attacked them.  He's said that Loures is a… is… made a courageous decision.  And, of his detractors, he says, we know these people are taking their golden shan… handshakes from us here and knowing they have a job and then attacking us.  We know all about that.  We know every single thing.  Time will come for everything.  When I hear anything about abuse of our assets, I ask for an investigation.  Maybe these investigations are going on.  And so, many staff and many people in the… in the “#MeToo” movement see this as a direct threat against those who came forward.  And I wonder, what does António Guterres… who I'm… I… I would assume is a reader of The Guardian, what does he think of these comments?

Deputy Spokesman:  We're aware of this article.  Obviously, it's for UNAIDS and Mr.  Sidibé to explain what the comments attributed to him are.  Regarding what the responsibilities are… of UN officials are, we've made it very clear that we want to make sure that all accusations are heard, that anyone who has complaints comes forward and feel free to come forward and that no one denies that them right.  The Secretary‑General has made that clear, and he's made that clear to the other officials of the UN system.

Question:  On the issue of investigations, given what you said yesterday, I took the time to digest it.  I've also heard from some people that were surprised by it.  I want to just… just… so… to be clear.  The U… you said the UN can absolutely investigate perceived leaks because it deals with confidential information, if I take you correctly.  I mean, you said that it can do that, but you seem to also claim that no one is retaliated against.  So, the two things I wanted to know is, when can the UN investigate?  Is it… does it have to be information labelled confidential?  Can it be… in what cases does it… and… and if the Anders Kompass case or the Miranda Brown case or the Emma Reilly case, these are all cases of retaliation.  So, can you explain what you were saying yesterday?

Deputy Spokesman:  With the cases you're referring to, these are cases where the system itself examined what was happening.  We do that in compliance with our rules and our procedures, and we certainly make sure that all the whistle-blower protections are put in place.  That is why we look into those individual cases.  What you were talking about was a general question of:  Can leaks be investigated?  And with the United Nations, as with any other entity, you have the right to do that to make sure that the confidentiality of sensitive documents is protected.

Question:  So, for example, the UN's request to the 1718 Committee for a waiver and the use of a correspondent bank that was leaked, and I did publish it, can that be investigated?  Is that considered… what's… does it require the showing of harm to the UN to investigate it or…?

Deputy Spokesman:  Those are ultimately the judgments that are made by relevant officials.  It's clear, as with any number of institutions, whether State institutions or private institutions, that documents leak out.  But, it's also clear that, for the diplomatic work of the UN to continue, Member States have to feel secure in the confidentiality of many of those communications.  And so that is a judgment that individual managers will have to make.

Question:  So, is it Member State information… I just… this is the last… is it… is it information…?

Deputy Spokesman:  Like I said it's a decision that managers would have to make in terms of what they feel is important and sensitive.

Question:  Can you see why with… with the UNAIDS guy's comment about "I can investigate my enemies", why the two put together, an unfettered or unclear ability to investigate any leak, combined with threats from UN officials to investigate any opponents, might be problematic?

Deputy Spokesman:  There is no effort and, certainly, there is no encouragement to any sort of effort to pursue people who are making complaints.  Those are something… that's something that's entitled within the system.  And, as you know, there are a series of protections throughout the system for people who make complaints about issues at the workplace, whether sexual harassment or otherwise.  Again, I'm just stressing the basic point of principle that the UN does have the right, just as a point of principle, to protect the confidentiality of its communications.  Yes?

Question:  Thank you.  I just want to raise a question about the double standard of the Security Council.  I mean, they rushed yesterday to a meeting about an alleged attack or a likely… as the… Theresa May's letter says, that a Russian attacked two individuals in England.  Almost like a third world war, but the Rohingya Muslims had been uprooted.  Thousands of them were killed.  Thousands of women were raped, and the Security Council went with business as usual.  It only held one meeting, one consultation — closed consultation — and I think one statement.  That's all.  How… how could that… doesn't that compromise the credibility of the Security Council?

Deputy Spokesman:  Abdelhamid, I'm aware of the point you're making, but that's… it's not really a question, and you know as well as I do that I do not speak for the Security Council.

Correspondent:  I understand that but I'm talking about the credibility of the UN as a whole.

Deputy Spokesman:  I'm aware that you may want to draw attention to the double standards, but this is not really a place for speeches.  The Secretary‑General shares your view on the seriousness of the situation in Myanmar, which is why he used his ability, his authority, as Secretary‑General to bring the matter to their attention.  Yes?

Question:  On Myanmar, is there… can you give any update on… on naming the envoy that was called for by the General Assembly in December 2017?

Deputy Spokesman:  No.  Once we have an announcement to make, we'll make it at that point.

Question:  And… and… on… I heard… as I came in — and I'm sorry, I didn't get in right in on time — I heard you talking about a bilateral meeting with an EU counterparty in… in… in Rome.  Did you give a readout of the Cyprus meeting?  Because the Cyprus side is.

Deputy Spokesman:  No, there's no real readout to have.  It wasn't a very lengthy meeting.  They discussed a number of issues; as you might imagine, Cyprus would be among the issues discussed with the Cypriot Foreign Minister.

Question:  No, I'm saying the talks.  They're saying the President is ready to resume talks and that this was conveyed to the Secretary‑General.  That's the headline in the Cyprus…

Deputy Spokesman:  There's no readout we have to provide of the fairly brief meeting.  Yes?

Question:  Farhan, I'm sorry if I missed that.  Is there any update on Yemen?

Deputy Spokesman:  I provided an update just now from the International Organization for Migration.  I can share that with you afterwards.  Let me get to our guest.

For information media. Not an official record.