20 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 Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

**International Day of Happiness

It is the International Day of Happiness.  This year’s World Happiness Report ranked 156 countries by their happiness levels, but it also focused on migration within and between countries and it ranked 117 countries by the happiness of their immigrants.  Finland is at the top of both rankings in the report, with the happiest immigrants, and the happiest population in general.

Second only to the population of this briefing room, exactly.

**International Days

Today is also French Language Day — la Journée de la Francophonie, as we would say.  According to the Observatoire de la langue française, 274 million women and men speak French globally, and today they have the opportunity to celebrate their shared language and the diversity of the Francophonie, through word competitions, shows, film festivals, literary meetings, gastronomic events and art exhibitions.


Today, the Secretary-General at 4 p.m. will speak at a ceremony to mark the International Day of Nowruz.  He will be there to say that for more than 300 million people, Nowruz is about new beginnings: the beginning of a new year, the arrival of spring and the renewal of nature.  He will say that Nowruz gives us a chance to renew our commitment to peace, sustainable development and human rights.

Meanwhile, Ján Kubiš, his Special Representative for Iraq, also has a message today to mark Nowruz, in which he says that this year, this day of renewal and hope, serves to celebrate the victory against Da’esh but also to remember the sacrifices and challenges of Iraq and its people, including the people of the Kurdistan Region.  Their determination, perseverance and foremost unity has resulted in this historic victory over the terrorist group, he says.

And Mr. [Tadimichi] Yamamoto, the Special Representative for Afghanistan, says that the UN family expresses hope that the year ahead brings harmony to the Afghan people, who deserve a future free from conflict and filled with prosperity and hope, above all else.

**Racial Discrimination

Tomorrow is another day, and tomorrow is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.  The theme this year is “Promoting tolerance, inclusion, unity and respect for diversity in the context of combating racial discrimination”.  The Secretary-General will be speaking on this theme at 3 p.m. today in the General Assembly Hall, and he will call on all countries to live up to the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human race.

You can follow the conversation on the Day through the hashtags: #StandUp4HumanRights #FightRacism #JoinTogether and #AfricanDescent.

**Information Society

Back to today: In Geneva, the Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, spoke at the World Summit of the Information Society.

She said that the digital revolution is taking place at a breakneck speed and that rapid advances in technology are having a profound impact on every aspect of our lives and societies.  But, she added, as fast as these advances are occurring, they are not taking place fast enough in many areas.  All people need to benefit and no one should be left behind.  The Deputy Secretary-General said that connecting the unconnected is crucial to achieving the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals).


Turning to Syria, our colleagues at UNHCR (United Nations refugee agency) say they are alarmed by a further deepening of the humanitarian crisis in Syria as fierce fighting in Eastern Ghouta, rural Damascus and Afrin causes massive new displacement.

In eastern Ghouta alone, more than 45,000 Syrians have fled their homes in recent days.  UNHCR is responding to urgent humanitarian needs on the ground, but it calls once more for the protection and safety of both the newly displaced and of hundreds of thousands of civilians still trapped by fighting and in dire need of aid.

UNHCR also reports that all existing shelters are extremely congested and overcrowded and lack basic sanitation.  People are queueing in lines for hours to use restrooms, and most have no lighting.  These are shelters for people coming out of eastern Ghouta.

**Central African Republic

Back here, the Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Ursula Mueller, briefed Member States yesterday on her recent mission to the Central African Republic.  She described how the situation in the country has deteriorated since last year.  Violence is spreading fast across the country, creating new emergencies, while urgent and critical needs that already existed are deepening.  The number of people displaced has reached record-high levels.  Over 690,000 people have been internally displaced — 72 per cent more than last year.  Over 546,000 people also sought refuge in neighbouring countries — 20 per cent [increase] compared to last year.


A couple of other scheduling notes: there will be Security Council consultations at 3 p.m. today on Lebanon.  The Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, and the Acting Special Coordinator for Lebanon, Pernille Kardel, will brief the Council.  Following consultations, we expect Ms. Kardel to speak to you at the stakeout.

**Press Briefings

After we are done here, Brenden [Varma] will speak on behalf of the PGA (President of the General Assembly).

And afterwards, we will be joined by Guy Berger, Director of Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).  Mr. Berger is here in New York in connection with the CSW (Commission on the Status of Women) and its focus on media.

After all of that, there will be a stakeout at the Security Council by the Head of the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons) — and he will be joined by the President of the Security Council after Mr. Berger is done here.

And tomorrow Claude Jibidar, World Food Programme (WFP) Country Director for the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), will be here to talk to you about the DRC and answer any questions you have about the World Food Programme in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

**Questions and Answers

Your turn.  Mr. Klein?

Question:  Yes.  With… with reference to the address you mentioned by the Deputy Secretary‑General, were any concerns expressed or does the Secretary‑General or Deputy have any comment on the latest developments concerning Facebook, the release of, without users' consent, of 50 million users' profiles that was allegedly used for political purposes?

Spokesman:  I think the debate around the personal use… the data… use of personal data, the… how that is… how it's done, the transparency that's needed is, I think, of concern for all of us.  I think this type of case, including others that we've seen, I think, are part and parcel of why the Secretary‑General on numerous occasions has called for all stakeholders — Governments, tech companies, civil society — to come together and reach some agreement, some basic agreements.  No one is looking for… the Secretary‑General is not looking for the UN itself to take the lead on these issues but to use the UN as a platform to bring all these players together to address some of the new frontier problems that we all have to face.  Edie?

Question:  Just as a quick follow‑up to that, wouldn't it actually be better, since this is an international organization that includes all of the players that you just mentioned, for the Secretary‑General to take the initiative and try and bring them all together?

Spokesman:  I think this is something that, you know, the… this kind of issue is something that he has been thinking about, that he's been discussing and talking about, notably, I think, in the… if you refer back to his remarks at the internet forum in Lisbon a few weeks ago, but this is a debate that needs to bring in all the players.  It's beyond… as we've seen, as we see every day, it's beyond just Governments.  Tech companies, civil society, users all have to come together, and we very much hope to, at some point, see them all meet under the auspices of the UN.

Question:  But what forum would be better?

Spokesman:  Well, I'm saying these are discussions… you know, finding the right forum still has to be decided, but I think this is one of these occurrences where the United Nations can play… can be the right platform to bring all of these players together.  Mr. Lee?

Question:  Sure.  I want to ask you about the march yesterday and strike, but just, on this issue of social media platforms, some… you know, the UN system is said to… to be saying that Facebook is stoking hate speech as to the Rohingya in Myanmar.  I've seen that… I mean, it's a headline.  But, at the same time, you know, I think I'd asked you when Sri Lanka turned off Facebook and other platforms recently and I think you'd said we… we favour freedom of expression.  And you have the DRC, which closes down social media routinely during protests, so, I guess my question is, what is the UN's position?

Spokesman:  This is an equilibrium we all have to think about and it's… you know, whether the debate is being had on a social media platform or in real life, of balancing the right of freedom of expression against the need to stop the dissemination of hate speech.  These are discussions that need to be had.  And they take place in the real world, and they take place on the cloud.  Your next question?

Question:  Sure.  I wanted to ask you, as I'm sure… well, I guess your window faces the other way, but in the… around the traffic circle yesterday, there was a march of UN staff.  It follows a strike in Geneva, and I've heard there may be strikes in Bangkok and other agencies.  So, I'm wondering, has the Secretary‑General come up with a position regarding… because the… the position of the staff in these various places seems pretty consistent, and they're pretty unhappy.  And I'm wondering, what is… I've heard that Amina Mohammed is meeting with the staff union in Geneva.  But is she the point person on this?  And, if so, what position is she bringing?  Is she… is she… 

Spokesman:  If I'm not mistaken, our head of management, Jan Beagle, addressed the International Civil Service Commission in Geneva very recently.  And I think one of the messages that she also gave… because, you know, these decisions are not taken by the Secretary‑General.  They're taken by the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC), which is a subsidiary body of the General Assembly.  It's not one over the Secretary‑General has any authority, but regardless, her message to the ICSC was that there needs to be greater transparency in how decisions are taken and how they're communicated.

Question:  But I guess my… one… one… you know, first, I had the question of, like, what is the jurisdiction of the Secretariat, for example, through OIOS over the ICSC?  And also does he stand behind…

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General does not have any authority over the ICSC.  Okay.

Question:  But then, Mr. [Michael] Møller's letter to all staff in Geneva saying, if you vote for a strike, you may face discipline, many people…

Spokesman:  I'm not sure that was the exact text of the letter.  Obviously, people… staff have responsibilities vis‑à‑vis work.  There are staff regulations need… those need to be observed.  Masood?

Question:  Stéphane, on this… maybe this question has been asked earlier about this Turkish Government — what do you call — accusing the UN chief, UN human rights chief for bias and so forth in accusing Turkey of human rights violation in Syria.  Has that question been asked?

Spokesman:  Not today.

Question:  Okay.  I'm sorry.

Spokesman:  It's okay.

Question:  So, that is a thing they've been doing that today.  They've accused the human rights chief of the United Nations of bias and so forth and… and saying that he has no position…

Spokesman:  Look, the High Commissioner for Human Rights has his remit, his responsibilities, and he issues reports and statements how he sees fit.  That's his job.  That's his role, and he… his voice on human rights is a very important voice within the United Nations system.  And it's very… I think it's important for Member States to support the human rights architecture that they themselves have signed on to.

Question:  Okay.  Has the United Nations had any talks about this situation about this Philippines… that Philippines are not being allowed to leave the ICC (International Criminal Court)?  Has United Nations had any talks about that?  Why is it… Why is it being stopped from leaving ICC?

Spokesman:  Nobody… No one is not being allowed to do anything.  There are procedures to follow.  On Saturday, the Treaty Section of the UN Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) received notification, signed by the Secretary… the Foreign Secretary of the Philippines, informing the Secretary‑General, in his capacity as depositary of the ICC treaty, of their decision to withdraw from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.  The document given to us on the 17th constitutes a notification, pursuant to article 127 of the Statute.  The withdrawal should, therefore, take effect for the Philippines one year after the date of receipt, which is 17 March 2019.  So, no one has been barred from leaving.  Abdelhamid and then… 

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Yesterday, [Staffan] de Mistura said that he was very much concerned about the fragmentation of Syria.  Does the SG share the same concern? And on what basis he issued this statement saying that Syria could be fragmented into different part?  The other thing is related to a massacre committed by the International Commission… Coalition in Raqqah.  No mention of it… I mean the focus on human rights abuses and massacres in eastern Ghouta and Afrin, but nothing reported from the area where the United States is in control.

Spokesman:  I think… At the time that Raqqah… the attack on Raqqah was ongoing, we expressed our concern at the suffering of the civilians, at the lack of protection of civilians, and the fact that civilians were being killed during military attacks.  As to the fragmentation of Syria, I haven't seen Mr. de Mistura's full statement, but if you look at the picture in Syria right now, you will see many different military forces acting in ways which do not pertain to the unity of the country.

Question:  Thank you.  On the death of the 39 Indian nationals in Iraq who were abducted by ISIS, will the Secretary‑General or his Special Representative be talking to the Indian leadership and probing into… further look into the matter to investigate, provide resources in the…

Spokesman:  I'm sure that our team on the ground in Baghdad are speaking to the Indian representation in Iraq.  As you will have seen, the… Ján Kubiš, the Special Representative, issued a statement, saying how deeply saddened he was by the announcement that the 39 Indian nationals who were abducted by the now defeated Islamic State elements three years ago have now been confirmed dead.  This is yet another example of the barbarism and cruelty of this terrorist organization.  Mr.  Kubiš extended his deepest sorrow and condolences to the families of the victims, as well as to the people and Government of Iraq… India.  Benny Avni?  Sorry.  And then Linda.  Yes.

Question:  On this, as of 25 minutes ago, first day of spring, which you forgot to mention…

Spokesman:  We had a lot of days packed in a day today.

Question:  Yeah.  Who cares about spring on the eve of a big snowstorm…?

Spokesman:  Snowstorm, exactly.

Question:  So, there was this assassination attempt in Gaza last week of the Palestinian Prime Minister.  There is growing finger‑pointing among Palestinian factions who is behind it.  UN has a lot of presence in Gaza.  Will the UN be involved in investigation? Does the UN…

Spokesman:  No, the UN does… is not in the business of police investigations in Gaza.  We… Mr. [Nickolay] Mladenov condemned the attack on the Prime Minister.  We are thankful that he survived and survived well.  We were sorry to see a number people were injured.  We would very much hope that those who are responsible are brought to justice, but we ourselves have no way of knowing who may have perpetrated this attack.

Question:  But, as it threatens a goal the UN is… has been supporting very forcefully, which is Palestinian unity, yesterday, [Mahmoud] Abbas was saying… was threatening Hamas basically and… and vice versa.

Spokesman:  We've seen the…

Question:  Does the UN see a need to… to somehow pull its weight?

Spokesman:  I pull my weight all the time.  I'm not sure really what you mean by pulling our weight.  We have… we remain in contact through Mr. Mladenov with the Palestinian Authority.  The unity of the Palestinian Authority, the unity of Gaza is a critical element in enabling the people of Gaza to find peace and to move forward.  Ms. Fasulo?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  This is regarding Turkey.  We know that Turkey, you know, has attacked Afrin and has… it's gotten to the point where it's really defeated the Kurds there, but Turkey has indicated that it plans to go after the Kurds in other areas.  I was wondering, I mean, in case I may have missed it, if the SG has said anything about this further fight.

Spokesman:  Whether it's a current fight or a further fight, what we want to see is a full implementation of a cessation of hostilities, of resolution 2401, throughout the territory of Syria.  We're continuing to see the humanitarian impact of the two separate operation… two separate events that are going on within eastern Ghouta and in Afrin.  According to our colleagues at OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), more than 100,000 people have now been displaced by hostilities in Afrin.  The majority have fled to Tal Refaat, and the remainder went to Nubul, Zahraa and the surrounding villages.  The massive influx of internally displaced people (IDPs) is putting a strain on the host communities, which are already overwhelmed.  There's an urgent need for medical evacuation for the severely sick people that need to be hospitalized in the hospitals of Aleppo city.  Meanwhile, the latest updates which I just received on Ghouta is that, since 11 March, we estimate that more than 50,000 people have fled… have left east Ghouta.  UN teams have been visiting collective shelters in recent days in Rural Damascus where people who have fled Ghouta are staying.  Most… all of the shelters are well over capacity with more people continuing to arrive daily.  There's an urgent need for water and sanitation, non‑food items such as blankets, mattresses, clothing and other essential items.  Most of the people interviewed were in poor health conditions, likely due to years of lack of access to medical health care.  Oleg?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  My question is on the elections that took place in Russia last weekend.  Was there any communication between the Secretary‑General and President [Vladimir] Putin after that?  And also, I saw you responded to the questions relating… the vote… the casting of the votes in Crimea during the elections of the President of the Russian Federation.  And my question is, was there any reaction with regards what happened in Ukraine?  As you may have seen, the Ukrainian authorities blocked the Russian nationals from casting their ballots on the Russian diplomatic premises on that country. 

Spokesman:  I have not seen anything on that, but I will look into that.  My understanding is that the Secretary‑General will be writing a letter of congratulations to Mr. Putin, as he does when Heads of States are re‑elected.  Abdelhamid and then Matthew and then Masood.

Question:  Thank you.  Today Saif al‑Islam declared that he will be running for elections in Libya in September, although ICC has a wanted list, and he's on that wanted list.  So, is there any thought on that?

Spokesman:  We think that anyone who has been indicted by the ICC, actions need to be taken so those are acted upon within the international… within international legal norms.  Mr. Lee?

Question:  Sure.  I want to ask about elections and, separately, sexual abuse.  The… the… it was said… I think you'd said it once and Farhan [Haq] said it while you were away, that the UN can only help in elections in Venezuela with a mandate from the Security Council or the General Assembly, was said several times.  And, in… in looking into it, I mean, the UN provides a lot of electoral technical assistance through the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) without any vote by any of those bodies.  So, I wanted to ask specifically, not… not about observing and… and opining on the legitimacy of an election, but has a request been made for any type of electoral assistance?  And can you confirm that DPA of the Secretariat can provide that, as I understand they're going to be doing even in Cameroon, without any body… without any vote?

Spokesman:  Yeah, there's… I have to check specifically on Venezuela.  On… you're right that the issue… there's a difference between observing, sending UN observers, which requires a mandate, and providing electoral assistance is a different thing.  And there's no… as far as I know, there's no mandate required to offer technical… to technical assistance.  We do it in a lot of countries, some in… big parts we play and some smaller parts so…

Question:  So, are you saying that neither the Government nor the opposition in Venezuela has made any requests in that regard?

Spokesman:  No, what I'm just saying is I will get back to you on that specific question; I'm not denying or confirming it.

Question:  And PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), I was waiting for… 

Spokesman:  The what?

Question:  Yesterday's request… question about DP…

Spokesman:  No, I don't have an update on that.

Question:  Okay.  And the other one has to do with these new cases of sexual exploitation and one case rape that were put on the… the conduct and discipline website yesterday.  There… there… there seem to be in… in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they involve South African personnel.  I know that we've heard of this before… we've heard of one round of these.  I'm just wondering, if these are the ones that were previously disclosed, I guess, before going in this monthly data… data dump, why is it that every… every line is pending, including identity… pending ID of personnel involved?

Spokesman:  No, I think these are new cases that took place… alleged to have taken place between 2014 and 2016 in North Kivu and in South Kivu.

Question:  Right.  So… okay.  So, how long… when did the UN… when… did when did they become aware of them?  Because I noticed these are done basically on a monthly basis.  It's not like they're…

Spokesman:  No, they're done…

Question:  So, it's always on the 20th? [Cross talk]

Spokesman:  The Mission has received reports of sexual exploitation and abuse involving five members of South African military contingent in the DRC.  According to the information available at this time, all five incidents involve paternity and child support claims.  Four of the incidents were reportedly ongoing sexually exploitative relations with adults.  One incident concerns the sexual abuse of a minor, though she is now an adult.  As I said, the incidents took place in 2014… between 2014 and 2016, both in North and South Kivu.  Ensuring the provision of assistance to victims is our priority.  The women and children have been referred to UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) and UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) respectively for support and assistance.  The Mission will continue to monitor their well‑being and needs, as well as provide any additional assistance, such as the collection of DNA samples for paternity testing.  We have informed the Member States of this allegation and have requested that the National Investigative Officers be appointed between five… within five working days and the investigation's being completed with new reduced 90‑day timeframe, due to the serious concern raised by the new allegations.  We've also requested that the investigation be jointly conducted with a team from OIOS (Office of Internal Oversight Services), but our requests for a joint investigation was previously rejected by the South African Government for the last set of allegations.  So, we do expect that that may be the case here, as well.  We're, of course, gravely concerned about the allegations, which come only a month after three reports of sexual exploitation involving the South African military contingent were received by the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO).  Allegations against this contingent continue to occur, despite our sustained efforts to partner with Member States and to prevent and address sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as other forms of misconduct.  The Mission and its partners on the ground encourage anyone who becomes aware of such behaviour to report so that it can take action.  We put the victims' rights and dignity first and are committed to ending impunity for all sexual acts.

Question:  So that was what was in the binder.  I… I… 

Spokesman:  No, it was not in the binder.  I carried it separately.

Question:  Oh, great.  Could I ask just one thing, because it's… I'm just wondering because it says down this column called "interim action”, "pending ID of personnel involved".  Does that mean that, despite this lengthy statement, that the UN has no i… knows who the victims are, but has no idea who the alleged…

Spokesman:  No, that… I don't believe that's the case.  Masood?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Two questions.  One is about this… the Saudi King is here and…

Spokesman:  Sorry?

Question:  Are they going to… Saudi… Saudi monarch is here, Salman, not… not in the United States…

Spokesman:  Not the monarch.  The deputy… the Prince, the Crown Prince, you mean.

Question:  What, sir?

Spokesman:  The Crown Prince, not the monarch.

Question:  The Crown Prince, yes, sir.  Salman [sic] is here, and he's apparently going to ask about Donald Trump for more arms and ammunition.  Now, has anyone from United Nations had the talk with any of the Saudi officials or Saudi monarch…?

Spokesman:  We expect the Crown Prince to be at the UN next week.

Question:  On Yemen, on… talking about Yemen, that the killing in Yemen has to stop.  I mean, it has become one of the nightmare cities…

Spokesman:  Masood, Masood, with all due respect, this is exactly what we've been saying here for quite some time.  Abdelhamid, and then we'll bring it to Brenden.

Question:  I want first to ask you if you know exactly what day he will be here, the Crown Prince.

Spokesman:  Monday or Tuesday.

Question:  Okay.  Thank you.  But my question is about two European human rights groups today gave testimony in the Human Rights Council about Israeli arresting Palestinian students, and they gave testimony about the kidnapping of Omar Kiswani, the President of Birzeit University Student Association, from the university, dressed in civilian clothes, and yet all… with all that information and… and been asking about the position of Mr. Mladenov about the kidnapping of Omar Kiswani and no answer so far.  Why is that?

Spokesman:  As soon as I have something, I will share it with you.  Brenden, they're all yours.

For information media. Not an official record.