22 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.

**World Water Day

As you just heard in the press briefing that preceded us, today is World Water Day.  This morning, the Secretary-General spoke at the high-level event to launch the International Decade for Action, called “Water for Sustainable Development”.  He said that the growing water crisis should be much higher on the world’s radar, and stressed that safe water and sanitation are key to poverty reduction, economic growth and healthy ecosystems.  He added that water has historically proven to be a catalyst for cooperation, not conflict, but he warned that without effective management of our water resources, we risk intensified disputes between communities and sectors, and even increased tensions among nations.  His remarks are available online.  And I have a water-related update from United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) colleagues who, in partnership with global entertainer Beyoncé, have been working to provide safe water to women and children in Burundi.  So far, they have built 35 wells, and thanks to a new partnership with Gucci and CHIME FOR CHANGE, 80 more will be built this year, benefitting 120,000 women, girls and families.  More information on UNICEF’s website.


The Deputy Secretary-General is in Liberia today.  In her meeting with President George Weah, she underlined the commitment of the United Nations to support his Administration to achieve meaningful progress in addressing sustaining peace and advancing sustainable development.  She also attended an event hosted by President Weah to celebrate the completion of the mandate of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).  Speaking to the press afterwards, she said UNMIL is yet another successful peacekeeping mission in West Africa.  It was deployed in 2003 to a failed State, with State institutions in ruins, a non-existent economy and a disintegrated national police and army.  Since then, the State has been rebuilt, and more than 100,000 former combatants participated in disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes.  Justice and security institutions were restored.  She said that today, Liberians enjoy peace and UNMIL leaves behind a country that has great potential to achieve lasting stability, democracy and prosperity.

Ms. Mohammed said it is now up to the Government with the full support of the UN and partners to continue to address poverty, youth unemployment, illiteracy and lack of basic infrastructure.  Sustaining the international community’s investment in Liberia will require continued support by donors and partners.  UNMIL is leaving, but a strong United Nations country team will remain in Liberia to focus on development and improving the lives of Liberian people.

**Lake Chad Basin

This morning, the Deputy Secretary-General also briefed the Security Council ‑ via video conference, obviously — on the situation in the Lake Chad Basin.  She said that considerable progress has been accomplished in the fight against Boko Haram.  It is now crucial to stabilize the areas that have been reclaimed, and seize the opportunity to promote development, she said.  Ms. [Amina] Mohammed warned that violations of human rights continue to fuel insecurity in the Lake Chad Basin.  Investments in strengthening community justice mechanisms will be essential.  She added that it is also critical for counter-terrorism activities to integrate human rights and gender dimensions.  Turning to the humanitarian situation, she said that 10.7 million people need life-saving assistance in the region.  The Deputy Secretary-General called on Member States to ensure that the $1.6 billion humanitarian appeal is funded.  Finally, she said, we should recognize that security measures and military operations have proven their limits.  There will be no sustaining peace without sustainable development; and development gains will always be at risk without lasting peace.  Her remarks are available.


Staying in Africa, our colleagues from the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) today strongly condemned an attack against their camp in Kidal that took place early this morning.  Preliminary reports indicate that some members of international forces were injured in the attack.  No UN peacekeepers were wounded.  The attack occurred as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, was accompanying a visit of the Malian Prime Minister, Boubèye Maïga, and members of the Government to the Kidal region.  Mr. Annadif condemned this attack at a time of positive developments in Mali, illustrated by the Prime Minister’s visit, which, he said, is a strong signal for peace and reconciliation in Mali and an important step towards the return of the state across the territory of Mali.


Last note on Africa:  in a statement we issued last night, the Secretary-General congratulated African leaders for signing the African Continental Free Trade Area to create one of the world’s largest trading blocs, with over 50 countries.  He called it an important step towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and delivering on the African agenda of peace and prosperity.


Turning to Syria, our humanitarian colleagues inform us that an estimated 167,000 people have been displaced by hostilities in Syria’s Afrin District, with the majority going to Tal Refaat, while others go to Nubul, Zahra and other nearby areas.  Access to Aleppo City for internally displaced people is currently restricted.  This is a particular concern for medical cases, as there is an urgent need for medical evacuations to specialized hospitals in Aleppo City for severely sick people.  Four deaths due to the lack of proper health care have also been reported.  The United Nations recalls the parties’ duty to evacuate and care for the wounded and sick, and calls on the parties to immediately facilitate medical evacuations of the wounded and sick to seek treatment in Aleppo city.  More generally, the United Nations calls for the freedom of movement for all internally displaced people.

Meanwhile, in recent days, some 5,000 ready-to-eat rations and 1,000 bundles of bread have been delivered daily to people in need in Zahra and Nubul, and 2,500 ready-to-eat rations have been delivered to people in need in Tal Refaat.  Medical supplies, mobile clinics and reproductive health services have also been provided to Tal Refaat, Zahra and Nubul.  A statement was issued, as you saw, yesterday from the Secretary-General, saying that he is alarmed at the persistent allegations of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  The use of chemical weapons, under any circumstances, is unjustifiable and abhorrent.  Equally unjustifiable is a lack of response to such use, if and when it occurs.  Impunity cannot prevail with respect to such serious crimes.  The Secretary-General reiterates his call for the Security Council to demonstrate unity and resolve on this matter.


Ahead of tomorrow’s World Meteorological Day, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) released its State of Climate 2017 report, which found that weather and climate-related events cost countries some $320 billion, making it the costliest year on record.  According to the report, the North Atlantic hurricane season was the costliest ever for the United States and eradicated decades of development gains in small islands in the Caribbean, such as Dominica.  Major monsoon floods in the Indian subcontinent and continuing severe droughts in parts of East Africa also contributed to 2017 being the most expensive year on record for severe weather and climate events.  The full report is on WMO’s page.


A new report out today sounds the alarm regarding surging levels of acute hunger:  some 124 million people in 51 countries were affected by acute food insecurity during 2017 — 11 million more than the year before — that’s according to the latest edition of the Global Report on Food Crises.  The report defines acute food insecurity as hunger so severe that it poses an immediate threat to lives or livelihoods.  The increase is largely attributable to new or intensified conflict and insecurity in Myanmar, north-east Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Yemen.  Prolonged drought conditions also resulted in consecutive poor harvests in countries already facing high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition in eastern and southern Africa.  Produced each year by a group of international humanitarian partners, the report was presented by the European Union, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) at a briefing in Rome.


Lastly, I was asked yesterday about the ports… the status of the ports in Yemen.  I can tell you that Yemen’s main ports, including Hodeidah and Saleef, have remained open since the Coalition eased import restrictions late last year.  We need these ports to remain open for humanitarian and commercial cargo without restriction.  We are concerned that commercial shipping companies appear to be calling on these ports less frequently, due to concerns over the ports’ future status and experience with long delays and other obstacles that increase the costs of doing business.  Bureaucratic impediments — including multiple inspections of vessels, arbitrary restrictions on imports and long delays in allowing vessels to enter port — must stop.  Even before the crisis, Yemen imported about 90 per cent of its staple food.  Maintaining the flow of these imports is absolutely essential.  Airports have remained open for United Nations and other relief agencies’ humanitarian flights since late November 2017.  However, Sana’a airport has been closed to commercial traffic since August 2016, which has prevented thousands of people from travelling abroad to seek medical care.  We are calling for Sana’a airport to re-open to commercial flights, at the very least for humanitarian cases.  Voilà.  Madame Landry?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Stéphane, concerning the Secretary‑General's statement yesterday on chemical weapons in Syria, is he planning to be active in trying to bridge the gap at the Security Council?  Because, clearly, there's been a stalemate for months over the issue of accountability.

Spokesman:  I think this is a subject of discussion in a number of his… of conversations he has at various levels.  It's clear that we do… the unity and the resolve of the Security Council on this issue is needed.  Accountability needs to be had when chemical weapons are used.  Mr. Lee?

Question:  Sure.  First, I guess, on another readout — and it was… and thanks at least for providing some readout — of the meeting with Serbia's President, there's been more reporting there about… basically that… that… that, after a series of meetings with… with European and… and Western Powers that… that the discussion involved Kosovo, and that he basically said that it's impossible at this time for them to recognize Kosovo.  And I just wondered, you said “discussed various topics in the western Balkans”.  Even if this was… the… can you say a little bit more on that?  And how… how does the Secretary‑General convey, you know, heartfelt right‑or‑wrong positions expressed to him in those meetings to the Security Council and others?  What's the… does it end there?  Where does it go?

Spokesman:  Well, the Secretary… you know, there… the Secretary‑General reports to the Security Council on the work of the Mission on a regular basis, on UNMIK [United Nations Mission in Kosovo], as he's mandated to do.  And I think by any geographical definition, Kosovo is in the western Balkans.

Question:  Sure.  So, it's just a very diplomatic readout?

Spokesman:  That's what we do here.  It's our business, yes.

Question:  Exactly.  Kind of opaque.  I also wanted to ask about this… at 10:30 p.m. and again at 3 a.m., according to staff, Martha Helena Lopez, who did do a briefing here from OHRM [Office of Human Resources Management], sent various messages about possible strikes by UN staff, saying that salary can be withheld, saying "without prejudice to whether" it's a violation of other things.  And I guess I… one, some people were struck by the timing of it.  What was the… the…?

Spokesman:  Well, it's… if it's 3 a.m. somewhere in New York, it's 9 a.m.  someplace else or 3 p.m.  We're a global organization with staff all over the world.  So, frankly, the fact that it was sent at 3 a.m. should be seen as an understanding that we have a global force.  This… the message was really to help bring clarity to what questions staff members may have, and that's all it was.  It's about bringing clarity.

Correspondent:  But when you say, "without prejudice to", it leaves that question open, whether, in fact, the management here is going to end up saying that this… that going on strike beyond just a docking of pay may violate rules.  That's the whole purpose of saying "without prejudice"…

Spokesman:  It says there's no provision in the staff regulations and rules explicitly addressing the right to strike.  Without prejudice to the question of whether UN staff members have the right to strike, certain provisions of staff regulations and rules address the consequences of a staff member participating in a work stoppage.  Obviously, an unexcused absence could lead to a docking of pay, which in itself, withholding salary is not a disciplinary measure.

Question:  And will you… just the la… last one on this.  When a… when… when the Deputy Secretary‑General stopped in Geneva, can you say that she did meet with staff union?  And do you view this as a successful…?

Spokesman:  That's a good question.  I have to check on that meeting.  Ms. Lederer, and then I will escape this chemical… go ahead.

Question:  Just a quick question on World Water Day.  There seems to be some controversy about whether water should be… the right to water should be a human right.  Does the Secretary‑General have a position?

Spokesman:  I'm not going to delve into the legality of it.  It is clear that water is essential to life.  We have often criticized and condemned the use of water as a weapon of war.  We've seen, in various conflicts at different times, notably in Syria, where water plants and water sources were targeted as a means of pressure on the civilian population.  Without water, there is no life.  Mr. Lee, you get a question, and then, Ms. Landry, you get a question, and then I will escape.

Question:  Okay.  I'd wanted to ask you, since… since I'd asked you about the new South Africa… DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo] allegations of sexual… and so, as I'm sure you've seen, based on your answer to that question, the… the South African National Defence Force has fired… fired back lit… only with words… saying that… that it's disturbing and disconcerting that they're being… it's said that they're cooperating with the UN in such matters when the truth is the opposite.  So, I just wanted to ask you, not… are you satisfied with their cooperation?  Have they allowed…?

Spokesman:  I have no… I will try to get an update.  I have no update since… concerning their cooperation since we briefed you last, but I will get you something.  Okay.  Ms. Landry.  Madame?

Question:  On Western Sahara, we got zero information from Horst Köhler yesterday after the consultations.  So, I know that he met with the Secretary‑General.  Is the Secretary‑General hopeful that something can happen this year on Western Sahara?

Spokesman:  I think I would ask you to… for a little bit more patience.  The Secretary‑General's annual report on Western Sahara should be out, I think, going to the Council in a week or so.  I don't have the exact date.  And I think that will reveal the Secretary‑General's position and his look forward.  Thank you.  I'll leave you in Brenden's hands.

For information media. Not an official record.