18 April 2018

Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

Following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

Following my briefing, Ambassador Carl Skau of Sweden, will be here to brief you on the upcoming United Nations Security Council retreat that is taking place in Sweden.  And then, after that, don’t leave:  Brenden Varma will be here with you to speak on behalf of the President of the General Assembly and he has some important announcements.


Speaking of important announcements, the Secretary-General will leave New York on Friday, 20 April, to conduct his annual retreat with the Security Council hosted by Sweden.  And that will be followed by a State visit to Sweden.  Upon arrival, the Secretary-General will hold his annual informal working meeting with the Security Council, under the Presidency of Peru, on Dag Hammarskjöld's estate Backåkra in Skåne County, southern Sweden.  On Sunday, 22 April, the Secretary‑General will give the annual Dag Hammarskjöld lecture in Uppsala in Sweden.  The following day, he will have bilateral consultations with the Prime Minister of Sweden, Stefan Löfven, before heading back to New York in the afternoon.


Turning to Syria, in view of the current tensions, the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is undertaking intensive high-level consultations with the aim of proactively ascertaining the options for a meaningful relaunch of the United Nations-facilitated political process as called for in Security Council resolution 2254 (2016).  To this end, Mr. de Mistura attended the meeting of Foreign Ministers and the Summit of the League of Arab States, where he had consultations with the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States and the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, among others, as well as the European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini.  The Special Envoy attended meetings of the Secretary-General in Riyadh with His Majesty the King, His Royal Highness the Crown Prince, and the Foreign Minister.  The Special Envoy is today in Ankara for meetings with senior Turkish officials.  From there, he will proceed to Moscow and Tehran for consultations with senior Russian and Iranian officials.  He expects to consult several European Ministers and senior representatives of the United States, and others, on 24 and 25 April at the Brussels Conference.  He will then brief the Secretary-General on the outcome of these consultations, and in due course, brief the Members of the Security Council.

On the humanitarian side, our humanitarian colleagues inform us that some 137,000 people remain displaced from Syria’s Afrin district in the Tall Refaat, Nabul, Zahraa and Fafin areas as a result of hostilities and military operations that began on 20 January.  In addition, an estimated 150,000 people remain inside Afrin district, where access to people in need continues to be extremely limited.  While the United Nations continues to provide assistance to people displaced from Afrin, the United Nations does not have direct regular access to the district and humanitarian operations in the area continue to face access challenges, largely due to movement restrictions enforced by actors on the ground.  Yesterday afternoon, you will have seen that Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock briefed the Security Council, providing updates on Raqqa and other places.  The Emergency Relief Coordinator said that since Da’esh was forced out of Raqqa in October 2017, nearly 100,000 people have returned to Raqqa City.  However, conditions are not conducive for returns, due to the high levels of unexploded ordnance and improvised explosive device contaminating the area, as well as widespread and severe infrastructural damage, and a lack of basic services.  His briefing was online and live.


Yesterday, the Deputy Secretary-General met, on behalf of the Secretary‑General, with the Permanent Representative of Ecuador to the United Nations, Ambassador Diego Morejón.  The Deputy Secretary-General reiterated the Secretary-General’s condemnation of the kidnapping and murder of the three members of a media team near the Ecuadorian northern border with Colombia.  The Deputy Secretary-General conveyed the Secretary‑General’s condolences to the families of the victims and expressed the United Nations’ solidarity with the people and the Government of Ecuador.


A note from Chad:  Our humanitarian colleagues warn today that the food and nutrition situation in Chad is alarming.  In 2018, 4 million people are projected to be affected by food insecurity and more than 1.7 million people will need nutrition assistance in the country, including 200,000 cases of severe acute malnutrition among children under five.  Chad ranked second in the 2017 Global Hunger Index, highlighting the extreme vulnerability of its population.  This chronic crisis is accentuated by a deep economic and social crisis, and intensifying agroclimatic hazards due to climate change, which also impact the most vulnerable populations in the Sahel belt but also in new areas such as Tandjilé.  In 2018, $282.5 million is needed to save the lives of those most affected by the food and nutrition crisis in Chad.

**South Sudan

A couple of agency updates for you.  The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said today that more than 200 children were released by armed groups in South Sudan yesterday.  This was the second release of children in a series, supported by UNICEF, that will see almost 1,000 children released from the ranks of armed groups in the coming months.  The 207 children — including 112 boys and 95 girls — were released from the ranks of the South Sudan National Liberation Movement (SPLM) and from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA‑IO) and took place in a rural community called Bakiwiri, about an hour’s drive from Yambio, in Western Equatoria State.  During a ceremony, the children were formally disarmed and provided with civilian clothes.  Medical screenings will now be carried out, and children will receive counselling and psychosocial support as part of the reintegration programme.  Despite this progress, there are still around 19,000 children serving in the ranks of armed forces and groups in South Sudan.

**Universal Postal Union

Our colleagues at the Universal Postal Union and the International Narcotics Control Board will sign a cooperation agreement in Berne, Switzerland, tomorrow on confronting illicit trafficking of synthetic opioids and other illicit drugs through postal networks.  To protect postal operators and to protect people’s health in general, the two organizations will increase cooperation against trafficking and improve the detection and seizure of these substances.  They will also share information on trends and patterns in drug movements.  The agreement is driven by the epidemic in overdose deaths, fuelled by powerful fentanyl-related substances that can be 50 times deadlier than heroin.


I have a note today on dangerous hitchhikers carried by global trade.  These refer to plant pests and diseases, which, when introduced into new environments, can quickly take root and spread, impacting food production and causing billions in economic damage and control cost.  Our colleagues at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome tell us that the body charged with keeping global trade in plants and plant products safe has adopted several new — I have never heard of that word before — phytosanitary standards.  These standards developed by the International Plant Protection Convention aim at preventing destructive agricultural and environmental pests from jumping borders and spreading internationally.  One recent study in East Africa, for instance, found that just five invasive alien species could be causing as much as $1.1 billion in economic losses annually to smallholder farmers in the region.

**Press Briefings

Press encounters:  tomorrow at 11 a.m., there will be a briefing here on indigenous women defending human rights.

**Honour Roll

And the Honour Roll today.  We thank Phnom Penh in Cambodia, which just paid its regular budget dues in full, which brings us up to?  [Eighty-one.]  I think he was first.  Go ahead, Matthew.  You win today.  I know you're not going to yield.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  I have a number of things, but there's one that seems pretty newsy.  I wanted to ask you, it has, since your last briefing, emerged that current CIA head, nominee to State Department Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, travelled to Pyongyang and met directly with Kim Jong‑un.  I'm wondering, I mean, you've had statements on other breakthroughs.  This… what do you think of this one?  And also, the President, Donald Trump, said that there [are] five locations being considered for the talks.  None are in the US.  Maybe you will or maybe you won't.  Would the UN be willing to offer, for example, its premises in Geneva as a location for the upcoming talks?  Pompeo first.

Spokesman:  The United Nations is ready to support this effort in whatever way we can.  I've seen the reports, and we've read with interest the different articles that say Mr. Pompeo was in Pyongyang.  I have no way of confirming it.  In general, the Secretary‑General is very supportive of all of the diplomatic initiatives that are currently under way.

Question:  Are you saying that you doubt that he was there?  I mean, the President said he went there.

Spokesman:  No, I'm not saying I doubt it; I'm saying I have no… it's not for me to… I have no official comment.  I've seen the press reports.  Madame?

Correspondent:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Yesterday, the SRSG [Special Representative of the Secretary-General], Colin Stewart, informed the Security Council that Polisario refuses to meet him in Tindouf, Algeria, which has been the case for the last 20 years.

Spokesman:  Refuses to…?  I'm sorry.

Question:  To meet MINURSO [United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara], only meeting MINURSO east of the berm.  What do you think of that?  And what… what's the position on this…?

Spokesman:  I have no… the briefing was done in closed consultations, so I have no particular information.  I think the Secretary‑General's report is out, and I would refer you to that.  Yes, sir?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Follow‑up to my questions from yesterday in regard of illegal guns and gun controls by UN.  A few months ago, somebody with gun walked into Parkland High School, and since then, bunch of kids has changed the conversation of gun and gun control in US, which is one of the strongest hold of Second Amendment.  Why can't UN pick up from there and then make a change?  And…

Spokesman:  I think the issue of the Conventions that exist in the UN are… have to do with international trade.  The issue of national legislation is one that needs to be addressed nationally.

Correspondent:  But, mine is a gun going into the wrong hands.

Spokesman:  I'm not disagreeing with you.  I'm just stating our position.  Yes, sir?

Question:  Stéphane, thank you.  Can you clarify what happened in… in Douma with the DSS [Department of Safety and Security] advance team regarding the security situation in the area and whether the FFM [fact-finding mission] ultimately is going to be able to do anything…?

Spokesman:  Sure.  As you know, the United Nations is supporting the mission put together by the OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons], the fact-finding mission.  One of the ways that we support them is through security.  There was an advance UN security team that went into Douma yesterday, as is standard practice for these high‑risk missions, to see what the situation was like.  While they were there, they came under small arms fire.  There was also an explosive device that was detonated.  None of the UN staff were injured or hurt in any way.  The team went back to Damascus, and they got back to Damascus yesterday safely.  In view of the above and further security arrangements to secure the site, an additional advance security assessment visit [is] now required to enable the fact-finding mission to do its work.

Question:  Is it necessary to identify who was behind the shots…?

Spokesman:  I think… and I'm not going to go out on too much of a limb here.  The situation in Syria and in Douma is still… is quite volatile.  You come under small arms fire; I think your first initial reaction is to leave.  There is still a lot of… as I said, there's still a lot of volatility in the area.  We have no way of knowing who shot at us.  Edie?  Sorry.

Question:  A follow‑up, Steph.  Is there any indication of when this follow‑up security assessment might take place?

Spokesman:  I think as soon as they feel… as soon as practicable.  Yep?

Question:  Another follow‑up.  You talked about volatility, and you said you don't know exactly who shot at them, but do you… could you tell us early… too early to tell if they were targeted or simply got caught up in fire in the area?

Spokesman:  Listen, they were shot at.  Yeah.  Go ahead.  So, I mean, I can't speak to the intent of those doing the firing.  I can only speak from the perspective of those that were fired at.  Yeah?

Question:  Yeah.  On firing and the arms, but in a different part of the world, there are reports that Polisario elements in mid‑May [sic] fired warning shots at MINURSO observers to prevent them from accessing an area east of the berm.  I'm wondering what MINURSO reported on this?

Spokesman:  Let me check.  I have not seen anything on that.

Question:  Can I follow up on Syria?  Just… is there any other obstructions?  And are you worried… is the UN worried that the… the evidence in the area might disappear for some reason?

Spokesman:  You know, I think the issues of substance to the mission best need [to be] addressed to the OPCW.  We are supportive of the mission.  We would want… I think everyone would want to see the mission get there as soon as possible, and we will do whatever we can on our part to make that happen.  Nabil?

Question:  Thank you.  So, was the… the team escorted by anyone, by Syrian security forces or Russian Military Police or…?

Spokesman:  I'm not going to go into the details of who escorted them, but they did have an escort.

Question:  And can you tell us, please, about any damages in their cars or trucks…?

Spokesman:  No, I'm not aware of any substantial damage.  I know no one was… no one from the UN team was injured, and from I… the information that I have, they were able to leave in the vehicles that they came in, so… yes?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  UN officials who visit Myanmar come back and make recommendations, proposals.  My question is whether you ever hear any reaction to those proposals.

Spokesman:  No, I think there was an extensive briefing yesterday by our humanitarian colleagues.  They will… she will… as far as I understand, she will brief Member States, and then we'll see, obviously, what happens.

Question:  My question was:  Does Myanmar Government react to those proposals?

Spokesman:  You know, that's a question to them.  We've made our points.  I think a large part of the international community has made its message clear, notably on the implementation of the Annan recommendations.  The actions… we'll have to see what the actions are taken.  Evelyn?

Question:  Yes.  On… on the chemical weapons team, is there a timeline of how long they would be in the area?  Do you have any idea?  And are you sure they're in?

Spokesman:  No, I think… again… Sorry?

Question:  Are you sure they're in…?

Spokesman:  They're in Damascus.  I think; the question is… no, they're in Damascus.  As soon as we… as the security permits it, they will go into Douma.  How long they stay there, what they need to do, that's… those are OPCW questions.  Yes?

Question:  Follow‑up on that.  Stéphane, on a technical side, has your colleagues at OPCW shared with you how important time is in having more accurate investigation?

Spokesman:  It's basic logic to anyone that time is of the essence when you are to inspect a scene, whether it's a scene of a reported chemical weapons attack, whether it's a crime scene.  It's basic… I mean, I'm not a forensics expert, but it seems to be fairly basic.  We are trying to do things as quickly as possible to ensure that they get there as fast as possible within the least restrictive security environment.  Yep?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Following up on MINURSO, what does the SG think of the multiple recent threats against UN peacekeepers, such as MINUSMA [United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali], MINUSCA [United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic] and MONUSCO [United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo]?

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General, whether directly through statements or through himself, has been extremely concerned at the increased targeting and deaths that we have seen of peacekeepers.  And we've seen it throughout peacekeeping missions.  How to improve the safety of peacekeepers has to deal with both the kind of equipment they get, the kind of training they get, the kind of mandates they are given by the Security Council.  So, it's a partnership, really, between the Secretariat, the Security Council, the troop-contributing countries to ensure that the peacekeepers have the mandate they need, the tools they need, and the training they need to implement that mandate.  Mr. Lee?

Question:  Sure.  I… I wanted to ask you, the… the… in South Sudan, the Government has reportedly closed down BBC radio relay stations in Wa… in Juba and Wau.  And I wanted to know, one, if the mission… what they think of that?  And also, if there's any update that you may have on the allegations of sexual exploitation by the Ghanaian contingent in Wau.  It was announced with some fanfare that Mr. [David] Shearer had withdrawn them.  What's the outcome of the investigation?

Spokesman:  On the BBC, we're obviously concerned about the reports of closing of relay stations that are… that enable the BBC to be broadcast.  Freedom of expression must be at the cornerstone of efforts to achieve peace and stability in a truly free and democratic environment.  On South Sudan, I don't believe I have an update on the… on UNMISS [United Nations Mission in South Sudan], but I'll see what I can get.

Question:  And also, I wanted to ask, given… given the other Western Sahara questions, I wanted to ask you one.  Here's one, because you said, I guess, you'll look into it or… Morocco seems to be claiming that both Bir Lehlou and Tifariti are… where the UN has team sites are located within the buffer zone.  Frente Polisario says that's entirely false.  Obviously, this is a dispute about where these meetings take place.  What I wanted to know, it should be pretty straightforward for the UN to say, given how long it's had a mission there, are these two sites, Bir Lehlou and Tifariti, are they within the buffer zone or, as stated otherwise, are they not in the buffer zone?

Spokesman:  I don't have any new language on Western Sahara, so I'll get back you to.  Mr. Barada?

Question:  So, on the Security Council retreat in Stockholm, is there a…?

Spokesman:  It's not in Stockholm.  It's in Skåne County in southern Sweden.  It took a long time for me to figure out how to pronounce it properly, so I don't want to let my training go to waste.

Question:  That’s good.  You're going to be informing us about the… what is the main subject that the Secretary‑General is interested in discussing?  We know that the Sweden has some… some plans.

Spokesman:  I think some of it will do with issues of peacekeeping and a lot of the political… the current hotspots that the world is facing that are on the Council's agenda.  Mr. Lee, and then we'll turn it over to my Swedish friends.

Correspondent:  Okay.  I wanted to ask you… I've asked a couple times about this global service delivery mechanism, which sounds very dry, but would actually move 600 jobs out of New York to Mexico City, Budapest…

Spokesman:  You know, I apologise.  I will have language for you on that.

Question:  Even more than language, I want to add an extra question before… maybe this… maybe the language is already written, but there seems to be a question, not only just about how the cities were selected, particularly Budapest, where, in the past, the Secretary‑General, António Guterres, in his former job, already moved jobs to Budapest.  And I'm wondering, does he have any thoughts now that there are protests about Viktor Orbán and the position on migration of moving more jobs to Hungary?

Spokesman:  I will get back to you on all of that.

Question:  And… and has… how was it decided that four cities was the right run…?  There seems to be a question about that.

Spokesman:  I will get back to you.  Thank you.  Ambassadors, it's all yours.

For information media. Not an official record.