23 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.


I will start off with a statement on the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).  The Secretary-General is grateful for the generous pledges of approximately $100 million made at the Extraordinary Ministerial Conference entitled “Preserving Dignity and Sharing Responsibility — Mobilizing Collective Action for UNRWA”.  That Conference as you know was held in Rome on 15 March.  The meeting was an exceptional demonstration of high-level support for UNRWA's mandate and a recognition for the continued necessity of its work in support of over 5 million Palestine refugees.  Almost 20 donors pledged additional contributions, including Qatar, Norway, Turkey, Canada, India, Switzerland and many others.  The pledges made in Rome represent an important first step, yet a lot of work remains to fully close the critical shortfall.  The Secretary-General encourages all Member States and the private sector to provide support to UNRWA in order to close the still critical funding shortfall.  He reiterates that the services provided by UNRWA to Palestine refugees are essential and contribute to bring stability to the region.


Turning to Syria, we continue to support evacuees in collective shelters in Rural Damascus.  As of 22 March, an estimated 66,000 evacuees from Eastern Ghouta were being hosted in these collective shelters.  As we have been informing you, most of these shelters do not have the capacity or infrastructure to accommodate the large number of people that are currently arriving.  Though the United Nations is not in charge of the management of these shelters, it has — together with its partners — mobilized a rapid response, with non-food items, food, shelter, water, sanitation and hygiene, health, nutrition and protection assistance being provided to those in need through our partners at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.  Also, yesterday, airstrikes on the main market in the town of Harim — near the Syrian‑Turkish border — reportedly caused the deaths of dozens of civilians and injured many more.  The United Nations continues to call on all parties to the conflict to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure as required by international humanitarian law and human rights law.


Back here, the Security Council heard a briefing today from the Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, as well as the Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), David Beasley, who spoke by video conference on behalf of Rome-based food agencies.  Mr. Lowcock told the Council that it is possible to eradicate famine from the human condition within our lifetime.  He noted that the remaining risk of famine and hunger is now concentrated in a relatively small number of countries affected by large-scale, severe and protracted conflicts.  The behaviour of combatants in these contexts is often atrocious, he stressed, with warring parties that continue to damage and destroy water systems, farms, livestock and markets, while forcing mass displacement.  Mr. Lowcock said the Security Council had the means to investigate violations of international humanitarian law.  There are no humanitarian solutions to conflict, it is peace and political solutions that will disrupt the vicious cycle of conflict and hunger.

For his part, Mr. Beasley stressed that the number of people who are acutely hungry in the world has increased by 55 per cent in just the last two years, to reach 124 million.  He stressed that the link between hunger and conflict is as strong as it is destructive.  If you don’t know where your child’s next meal is coming from, you may be forced to make impossible choices, he said.  He noted that each 1 per cent rise in the rate of hunger is matched by a 2 per cent increase in migration.  Mr. Beasley also said that the price tag of programmes to tackle the root causes of hunger is far cheaper that the cost of the current conflict cycle: the World Food Programme could save $1 billion a year if all armed groups respected international humanitarian law, he explained.  He also stressed that ending wars is not enough; we need to help war-torn people rebuild their communities in the long term.


Our Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs colleagues tell us that humanitarian operations have resumed in Rann town, in Nigeria’s Borno State — that resumption took place on 19 March following several security assessments by the United Nations and non-governmental organizations.  However, United Nations aid workers have not yet been authorized to stay overnight in Rann, and daily operations are expected to continue until security conditions are met by the Nigerian authorities.  The United Nations and partners are providing life-saving emergency assistance in Rann including food, shelter and medicine to over 80,000 women, children and men, among them 55,000 internally displaced people.  The World Food Programme is planning to distribute food to at least 61,000 people this month.  Pre-positioning of food is also key ahead of the rainy season, which starts in June, cutting off road access to Rann.  Following the resumption of humanitarian activities in Rann, camp management and displacement tracking activities for impacted people have resumed, in addition to medical services.


The Deputy Secretary-General wrapped up her visit to Liberia today.  Prior to leaving, she visited a United Nations-supported fisheries project that provides employment for women and she also participated in a ceremony marking the handover of UNMIL Radio to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).  Ms. [Amina] Mohammed also spoke at the high-level meeting to initiate the design of the National Development Agenda for 2018-2024 — also known as the “Liberian Moment”.  She said that, at yesterday’s National Reconciliation Conference, Liberians from all over the country renewed their commitment to sustaining peace.  But, she said we will only build peace by addressing the root causes of conflict.  “Liberia has come a long way.  But, let us be clear-sighted:  we still have very serious challenges to surmount,” she added.  Ms. Mohammed commended the Government’s leadership in formulating its ambitious pro-poor vision, in which all Liberians have access to basic goods and services, and resources are carefully managed to contribute to the development of people, infrastructure and institutions.  To achieve this, she said, there are five key principles that must underpin Liberia’s new National Development Plan: inclusive national ownership; eliminating poverty; ending dependency on aid; partnerships based on transparency and mutual respect; and for development financing needs to be predictable and sustainable.


This afternoon, the Secretary-General will be speaking at the Turtle Bay Security Roundtable at the Japan Society at 3 p.m., and he is to tell them that the advances of the fourth Industrial Revolution, including those brought on by a combination of computing power, robotics, big data and artificial intelligence, have generated revolutions in health care, transport and manufacturing.  He is convinced that these new capacities can help us to lift millions of people out of poverty, achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and enable developing countries to leapfrog into a better future.  However, the Secretary-General will warn, together with these clear benefits, there are also clear risks.  The new technologies pose unforeseen challenges to regional and global stability.  The “democratization” of many of these technologies also means that non-State actors, including terrorist groups, could acquire them.  If you are interested in walking over to the Japan Society and attending the speech, please contact Mathias [Gillmann] in my office.  He will let you know how to do that.

**World Meteorological Day

Today is World Meteorological Day.  The theme this year is “Weather-ready, climate-smart” and highlights the need for informed planning for day-to-day weather and hazards like floods, as well as for naturally occurring climate change and long-term variability.  In a tweet, the Secretary-General today said that climate change is still running faster than us and we need to reverse the trend of increasing warming temperatures.  And as we mentioned yesterday, there is a report by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

**International Days

A couple of day to flag:  over the weekend we’ll be observing a few more International Days.  Tomorrow is World Tuberculosis Day, with the theme “Wanted:  leaders for a TB-free world”.  Saturday is also the International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims.  And on Sunday, we’ll observe the International Day of Solidarity with Detained and Missing Staff Members and the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  There will be an event at Headquarters to commemorate that very day.  Khalas, indeed.  Mr. President.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Hi, Steph.  On the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], do you have anything on the reports that we're seeing about eight decomposing bodies being found in the Ituri Djungu area by UN peacekeepers attached to MONUSCO [United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo]?

Spokesman:  No, we have not… we've seen those reports.  I know the mission on the ground is looking into them, and I hope to have something a bit later as soon as they report back to us.

Question:  We're… we're seeing a spike, though, in the DRC in interethnic conflict.  How is that changing the posture of… of… of peacekeeping in… in the country?

Spokesman:  I think under… the increased violence that we've seen, which has led to mass displacement of people, whether towards Uganda or in the South, towards the bordering countries in the South, is yet another sign of the challenges that Congolese people face every day.  The UN mission is there to help and support the people, as much as we can, and try to bring peace to a country that is under constant challenge.

Question:  Can I ask one more?  On the DRC, the relationship between South Africa and the United Nations, as it relates to investigations regarding sexual abuse and exploitation… there seem to be conflicting reports emerging from the South Africans, coming from the United Nations.  What is the relationship?  Have they sent investigators?  Are they cooperating?  Please provide clarity.

Spokesman:  Yes.  No, I think the South African Defence Forces have a team of investigators on site, which they had dispatched following the allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in February.  The South Africans have informed us that that team is now remaining in place, so the national investigative officers have now taken up looking into these latest allegations, and that's well within the five-day timeline that we request for response, so that is moving.  There is, I think, some confusion about national investigations and joint investigations.  The joint investigations between any troop-contributing country and OIOS [Office of Internal Oversight Services] is a different process from a national investigation.  A joint investigation was recommended, but it is not required.  The Member State in this case, South Africa, has been communicating and coordinating with United Nations on these matters.

Correspondent:  Same topic.  I actually… I think that's exactly what I had asked you yesterday; it was for an update on how the UN and South Africa were working together.

Spokesman:  Then we're providing it.  We're good.

Question:  Okay.  I have another question on the same topic.  The spokesman of the South Africa National Defence Forces has said that they are not suspending anyone until it's proved that they're guilty.  He said, "it's very difficult if you're investigating something, you just suspend someone at the moment.  The SANDF [South Africa National Defence Forces] is busy investigating to find out whether the allegations are correct before we can suspend anyone."  And I thought, like I've heard in other cases, the UN… how… what's the UN's response to this?  I thought that people were… if there was enough evidence to put it on your website and say we're, "beginning this investigation", that people were generally, maybe with pay, but suspended.

Spokesman:  I think there's… first of all, as you know, the United Nations has no authority, direct authority, over disciplinary matters involving uniformed troops.  That's the responsibility of the troop-contributing or the police-contributing country.  We are happy that the South African [National] Defence Forces [have] started their own investigation well under the five-day limit that we've put in place.  We hope that the investigation will be concluded quickly and if they are… if the charges are proven, that those who are responsible will face justice.

Question:  But I mean, how… for example, you've… you've made much here of… in… in South Sudan, the pulling out of the Ghanaian police force out… out of Wau, given allegations.  Is this a best practice to say openly…?

Spokesman:  I'm not going to… what is important for us is that the investigation be done thoroughly and quickly.  What we did in South Sudan under the police force was a decision to remove an entire unit from a place where the SRSG [Special Representative of the Secretary-General] thought it was high risk, but I'm not going to litigate this through the press.

Correspondent:  Just one last… so the SRSG doesn't think this is as… as serious…?

Spokesman:  No, that's not it.  That's not it… that's not at all what I said.  Rami?

Question:  Can they be deployed in other missions right now?  I'm asking you, because they're not being suspended.  I thought the UN said…?

Spokesman:  I think we need to… the investigation needs to be done and the investigation is the responsibility of the Member State.

Question:  Today, if they were deployed to another mission by South Africa, would that be acceptable?

Spokesman:  I'm not going to answer hypotheticals.  Obviously, anyone who has been found to have participated in any sexual abuse or exploitation should never be redeployed in a UN mission.  Rami?

Question:  Thanks, Steph.  Do you have a breakdown or any additional information on what specific countries contributed to UNRWA during the pledging conference in Rome?

Spokesman:  Yes, about 20 donors pledged additional contributions to UNRWA, because there's obviously… there was the issue of the speeding up existing contributions and new contributions.  And I think the… first and foremost, the Emir of the Qatar pledged $50 million in new contributions, for which the Secretary-General… we're all… and UNRWA is obviously very thankful for.  In addition, Norway pledged $13.6 million, Turkey $10 million and a doubling of their food aid, Canada $7.7 million, India $5 million and Switzerland $4.2 million.  Masood and then Abdelhamid.

Correspondent:  Thank you, Steph.  On this international outcry over the Israeli… the Palestinian girl incarcerated by the… by the Israeli authorities and consequently also, it brings up the issue of more than 200 Palestinian children are still in custody of Israelis and they do not want to bring them to trial.

Spokesman:  So what is the question, Masood?

Question:  The question is, has the United Nations had any talks with the Israeli authorities to release them?

Spokesman:  We've taken note of the case involving Ahed Tamimi who, as you know, was sentenced on reduced charges following a plea bargain.  She has been detained on remand for three months since her arrest in December 2017.  The human rights office continues to be concerned by Israeli practices of detaining children, most of them on remand, and that is before and during the trial.  According to international human rights law, the detention of children should be a measure of last resort in the shortest time possible.

Question:  Has the United Nations had any latest conversation?

Spokesman:  It's an issue that has repeatedly come up.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you.  The UN found Israeli guilty of targeting UNRWA schools in Gaza during the 2014 war and they asked for compensation.  In light of the letter received by the… from the permanent representative of Israel, would you expect Israel to cooperate and pay the damages?

Spokesman:  I think there have been… I don't have the 2014 details off the top of my head, but there were discussions had between the United Nations and the Israeli Government on that issue.

Question:  My other question, if you have the time and date of the meeting of the Saudi Crown Prince with the Secretary-General?

Spokesman:  It's early next week.  We'll share those details when we can.  Ben?

Question:  Just a follow-up on the Israelis being asked to pay a fine or compensation.  Was there also a letter going out to Hamas about the damage that was caused by them, as the Israeli ambassador had…?

Spokesman:  I haven't seen the letter you're referring to, so let me take a look at it and see what… and let me see what I can get about it.  Yes, in the back, and then Joe.

Question:  Yes.  According to media reports, a White House official stated that H.R. McMaster and President [Donald] Trump have been discussing McMaster's resignation for some time.  We know that H.R. McMaster met with the Secretary-General on 12 March.  Was the Secretary-General made aware beforehand that McMaster was going to be replaced by John Bolton, or did he come to know through media reports?

Spokesman:  No, the Secretary-General had no prior knowledge of the decision taken.  Like all of us, he read about this in the press, and the Secretary-General had developed a very constructive and positive relationship with General H.R. McMaster as national security advisor, and he looks forward to continuing that relationship with Ambassador Bolton.

Question:  I had one more question.  John Bolton has been quoted in the past as saying "there is no such thing as the United Nations", and that, if the UN Secretariat Building in New York lost 10 stories, "it wouldn't make a bit of a difference".  He also said it's a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law.  Does this raise any concerns for Secretary-General, that a person with such positions against the United Nations and against international law, will be appointed as national security advisor?

Spokesman:  Look, we'll leave analysis of past statements to journalists and historians.  We're not going to speculate about the future.  We're dealing with the present, and as I said, the Secretary-General looks forward to continuing the kind of relationship he had with the national security advisor with the new one.  Mr. Klein?

Question:  Actually, that was my question, but as a follow-up, since the Secretary-General did have a meeting with Mr. McMaster… General McMaster, is he planning, in the near term, to try to set up a meeting or at least a conversation with Mr. Bolton, who's going to assume his office on 9 April?

Spokesman:  I'm sure a conversation meeting will happen in due time, but I think Mr. Bolton first has to take office, so one National Security Adviser at a time, please.

Question:  And… and as you know, much more recently than his comment about lopping off the top 10 floors of the UN, he has written a piece justifying a pre‑emptive attack on North Korea, so I wonder whether that itself presents some concern to the Secretary-General?

Spokesman:  We're not… as I said, we're not looking backwards; we're looking… we're talking about the now, and we're not going to speculate…

Correspondent:  Well, this was very recent.  We're not talking about…

Spokesman:  I'm not disagreeing with you with that particular fact.  You and I agree on that fact, that it's very recent.  What I'm going to say to you is that we look forward to a constructive and positive relationship with Ambassador Bolton in his role when he takes office as national security advisor.  Sato-san?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I have two… I have two questions.  One is Turtle Bay seminar that… that you announced and the… what is the UN's position about the negative aspect of the using such new technology, for example, the killer robots or some drones?  Is there any…?

Spokesman:  Yeah, I think… first of all, I would encourage you to go listen to the Secretary-General, because I think he will touch upon these issues.  I think his point is that there is a fourth… what people have been referring to as a fourth Industrial Revolution, with technology developing at a pace that none of us maybe… some of us obviously, but most of us could not have imagined.  It's creating all sorts of new challenges, both negative, which we see even in recent days about the protection of data, about the use of artificial intelligence for nefarious means, but also, very much for positive gain, advances in healthcare and technology that makes our lives better and easier.  The point is that, I think, as a community, as an international community, we need to come together and kind of grapple and look at these different challenges.

Question:  Yeah, I know that the… the… the technology has more positive aspects, but that Turtle… Turtle Bay seminar is originally discussing about the disarmament and non-proliferation, according to the Japanese Mission's explanation, so I'm wondering if the… what the UN's position, or to UN… what does the UN see, that negative aspect of the technology that comes with disarmament?

Spokesman:  There's a need to look at the kind of frameworks and the systems that we have and to see are they the right ones to deal with these new technologies?  But, again, I would encourage you to read the Secretary-General's speech.

Correspondent:  One more question?  On Myanmar.  Myanmar.  Do you have any update on the Myanmar situation, especially any prospect for the cooperation between the UN and the Myanmar Government?

Spokesman:  The… you know, I know there's been questions… I asked to my colleagues about the envoy; the discussions for the naming of an envoy as requested by the General Assembly is continuing.  Obviously, you know, we need someone that has to be accepted by various parties, but also someone who has a… I think someone who has a strong profile.  That search for that person is very much continuing.  We have a very present country team in Myanmar.  They are continuing their work.  Our position remains the same, that we need to see… the Secretary-General stands for the implementation of the Annan… the conclusions of the [Kofi] Annan commission, that the Rohingya that have fled across the border to Bangladesh, their repatriation, their return, needs to be done in a safe, dignified manner that respects their rights as refugees, their rights as human beings, and that they're allowed to go home to exactly that, their home, and not some other locations where they may be forced to return.  And that's a message that was also passed in the Secretary-General's meeting this morning with the foreign minister of Bangladesh.  Those were the messages that he also, in addition, once again expressed the United Nations' gratitude to the Government and people of Bangladesh for their generous hospitality in hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees.  Carla, and then we'll go to round two.

Correspondent:  Thank you.  I just came from the Security Council, where they were discussing hunger as a weapon of war.  Mr. Beasley had said that… that very poor families, where hunger was… there was no way they could deal with it, people were starving, that they were accessible for recruitment by terrorist groups and Sigrid Kaag said that hunger, in many cases, is man-made, and it's got to stop.

Spokesman:  With respect, what is the question?  Because that's exactly what I just said.

Correspondent:  The question is, on the one hand, the Security Council is raising this.  On the other hand, the sanctions that are being imposed by the Security Council.  In the case of Iraq, it caused hunger that led to the deaths of 500,000 children.

Spokesman:  Sure, Carla.  I'm sorry, Carla.  It's Friday and I'm… what is the question?

Correspondent:  The question is there's a great deal of hypocrisy on the one hand saying that hunger is being inflicted for political…

Spokesman:  Carla, I beg you.  Please, a question.  It's Friday.  I'm tired.  Just what is the question?

Question:  All right.  How can the Security Council impose sanctions when they are opposed to the consequences?

Spokesman:  I think that's a question you need to ask Security Council members.  It's not a question for the Secretary-General's spokesperson to answer.  The Secretary-General has, in the past, commented on the use of sanctions.  He has called for sanctions to be just one tool, not a blunt tool, but a targeted tool.  And I think… and I will put my foot into analysis mode here, but I think you've seen over the last 20 years a… very much a change in how sanctions have been used, from more blunt to more targeted.  Mr. Lee?

Question:  Here are some questions for the spokesperson of the Secretary-General that hopefully can be answered today.  One is, has the Secretary-General spoken with Mr. [Michel] Sidibé of UNAIDS [Joint United Nations Programme against HIV/AIDS], following the publication of his essentially threats to staff?

Spokesman:  I don't believe they were threats to staff, and I'm not aware of a phone call.

Correspondent:  I ask this because there's a number of whistle-blowers within UNAIDS that are coming forward…

Spokesman:  The Secretary-General's message to Mr. Sidibé, to all the heads of agencies, is that you need to be forceful, and you need to be tackling the issue of harassment, of abuse of power head on, and to ensure that in all your agencies, there is the space for the people to come forward without any fear of retaliation.  That's the message.

Question:  Relatedly, has the Secretariat and… and agencies, but Secretariat as well, received inquiries by a donor group known as MOPAN to… to disclose… it's the Multilateral… I could look up the whole acronym, Norway's the chair of it right now, to disclose the number of harassment complaints and the actions taken? I'm asking you that.

Spokesman:  I'm not aware, but I also know that every year we put out a report, which outlines crimes committed and actions taken.

Question:  The other one I wanted to ask you is at the stakeout yesterday, the ambassador… the Permanent Representative of Nigeria, Tijjani Muhammad Bande, I asked him about these 47 people that were sent back to Cameroon, that… that UNHCR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] has said were sent back, and criticized.  He said he doesn't have any information on it.  I'm wondering, given that the Deputy Secretary-General is going to be in Abuja, is this one of the issues that she's going to try to get an answer to?

Spokesman:  She had raised it with various officials in the past.

Question:  But now, the Government is taking they don't know?

Spokesman:  I'm not aware that she plans to raise it.  If anything changes, I will let you know.  Ben?

Question:  Just going back to the appointment of Bolton, if memory serves me correct, you were here during some of that time, so you've obviously had… had met with him and advised about him to your bosses.  What… what can you tell us about that, and what will you be telling the Secretary-General of what to expect?

Spokesman:  You know, I'm the spokesperson for the Secretary-General, not the spokesman for the spokesman, so… it's not… the Secretary-General has met Mr. Bolton in the past in his capacity as High Commissioner for Refugees.  He doesn't need me for any specific analysis.

Question:  Okay.  I was going to say, is he going to move down to the 28th Floor?

Spokesman:  That's funny.

Question:  But I wanted… on UN Procurement, I wanted to ask you something.  It… it seems like there's a… there's a contract for the drones, or aerial unmanned systems?

Spokesman:  Unmanned.

Question:  And there was a declared winner, and… and somehow the winner… the… the… the low bidder is now being told that they're not getting the contract, and that Mr. [Dmitri] Dovgopoly of UN Procurement seeks to do sole-source negotiations with people that had higher bids.  I wonder if you can get a statement from them what the status of that is?

Spokesman:  I'll see… I'll see what I can get.  Okay.  Enjoy your weekend.

For information media. Not an official record.