Following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
I have a trip to announce: The Secretary-General will leave New York on Monday for a visit to Havana, Cuba, where he will address the opening of the thirty‑seventh session of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC). During his visit, the Secretary-General will meet with the President of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel, and other senior officials. The Secretary‑General will be back in New York on Tuesday evening.
The Secretary-General is about to leave the United Kingdom now, on his way back to New York. He wrapped up the session of the Chief Executives Board earlier today. We issued a note to correspondents concerning the Board’s work on sexual harassment just now. And while he was in London today, the Secretary-General also visited the staff of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and thanked them for their valuable work.
You will have seen that earlier today we announced the Secretary-General’s decision to appoint Susan D. Page of the United States of America as his Special Adviser on Rule of Law, Global Focal Point Review Implementation. As Special Adviser, Ms. Page will support the implementation of recommendations from the review of the Global Focal Point for Police, Justice and Corrections Areas in the Rule of Law in Post-Conflict and Other Crisis Situations. Established in 2012, the Global Focal Point arrangement ensures a coordinated and coherent United Nations response to country-level requests for support in the rule of law sector. Ms. Page has had a distinguished career in the United Nations, as well as with the United States State Department. Most recently she served as Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Haiti, where she started up the United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti (MINUJUSTH). More is available in her bio note in our office.
And I have another appointment: today, the Secretary-General is also announcing the appointment of José Viegas Filho of Brazil as his new Special Representative for Guinea-Bissau and Head of the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS). Mr. Filho succeeds Modibo Touré of Mali, who will complete his assignment on 6 May 2018. The Secretary-General is grateful for Mr. Touré’s leadership and for the accomplishments of the mission. Mr. Filho brings over four decades of experience in government service and diplomacy. His most recent assignment was as Ambassador of Brazil to Italy from 2009 to 2012. A detailed biography is available.
In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, the first monsoon rains have been affecting the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees there. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is rushing additional aid to Bangladesh including 1,400 tents, the first batch of 10,000 tents that will be airlifted by the end of May. The aim is for the tents to provide emergency shelter for an estimated 60,000 refugees currently residing in areas at high risk of landslides and flooding. The Government has recently allocated new land for refugees to settle on. UNHCR, International Organization for Migration (IOM) and World Food Programme (WFP) engineers are working around the clock to flatten the land to accommodate those at greatest risk. And our colleagues at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also reiterated today the need for funds aimed at protecting and restoring the livelihoods of vulnerable populations, mitigating social tension, and carrying out longer-term environmental recovery and agricultural production efforts around Cox’s Bazar.
Jan Egeland, the Senior Adviser to the Special Envoy for Syria, told reporters in Geneva yesterday that there has been a marked decrease in the number of besieged and hard-to-reach people in that country. A year ago, he said, there were 4.6 million people living in hard-to-reach areas, and 625,000 people living in besieged areas. Today, following the recent fighting, 2 million people live in hard-to-reach areas, while 11,000 people live in besieged locations. Mr. Egeland said that the battle for eastern Ghouta, which was the last large besieged area, is over, with tens of thousands of people having left eastern Ghouta for Idlib. There are reports that many people may be leaving Yarmouk and Yalda and the areas south of Damascus for Idlib. Idlib, he warned, is already filled to the brim of internally displaced civilians in often desperate conditions, with more people on the way. His remarks are online.
Our humanitarian colleagues tell us that heavy rainfall in Kenya has caused severe flooding in at least 32 counties, out of 47, across the country. An estimated 100 people have lost their lives and 260,000 others have been displaced. The increased risk of disease outbreaks is a serious concern as flooding has compounded an ongoing cholera outbreak and a chikungunya epidemic. Floods and heavy rain have damaged infrastructure, preventing or limiting humanitarian access to many of the affected areas, and cutting off people’s access to markets in multiple locations. Education and health facilities have also been impacted, with at least 29 schools and 33 health facilities inaccessible. Extensive damages and losses have been reported to agricultural fields and livestock, with over 21,000 acres of farmland destroyed, and more than 19,000 livestock losses reported.
UNHCR is reiterating its call on the Rwandan authorities and Congolese refugees in Rwanda for restraint and calm, after recent clashes left one refugee dead and others injured at the Kiziba refugee camp in western Rwanda. The full circumstances surrounding this incident are still unclear but UNHCR is urging police and refugees to avoid any further confrontation, and to peacefully resolve issues. Over 17,000 Congolese refugees live in the camp. Many have been there for more than two decades, while a significant number were born there. Faced with dwindling assistance levels and food ration reductions as humanitarian funding levels have remained chronically low, residents began protests in February. UNHCR’s 2018 funding appeal for $98.8 million to support refugees in Rwanda is only 13 per cent funded.
Today, IOM reported that more than 10,000 migrants returned voluntarily and safely to their home countries from Greece between June 2016 and April 2018, with nearly 2,500 eligible migrants receiving targeted reintegration support. More than 80 per cent of the refugees came from Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia and Algeria; 8,375 were men, 2,125 were women, and special assistance was provided to 77 unaccompanied migrant children, helping them to reunite with their families. More details on this can be found on IOM’s website.
The Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Bintou Keita, will travel to Ljubljana, Slovenia, from 6 to 8 May to attend the United Nations Kosovo Trust-building Forum organized by the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) jointly with the United Nations Kosovo team and international partners. She will also meet with Slovenian officials on the margins of the Forum. Ms. Keita will then visit Cyprus from 9 to 11 May, where she will review with the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) ongoing progress in the implementation of the recommendations of the Security Council-mandated review of the Mission. During her visit to Cyprus, Ms. Keita will meet with United Nations officials, as well as relevant stakeholders on both sides of the island, representatives of the diplomatic community and civil society. And that is it for me. Yes, Masood?
**Questions and Answers
Question: Thank you, Farhan. Farhan, I would like to know about these reports coming out again and again about the… the United States armies or United States agents, army agents, in Yemen, and that they have been… also been part of the whole strike force inside Yemen. Is that something that you can verify?
Deputy Spokesman: No, we don't have any first-hand information, although we're aware of the reports. Obviously, we encourage all countries to take steps to demilitarize the area in Yemen, and we're working on efforts through our special envoy, Martin Griffiths, to bring the parties back to the negotiating table. We want to have the right atmosphere, so we want countries to lower their support for any military efforts inside the country. Yes, Farnaz?
Question: I want to follow up on the censorship of the UN Alliance for Civilization yesterday. They issued a statement saying… basically acknowledging that they had had an issue with the video being what they called "unbalanced" and asking names of certain countries to be omitted from the video, which amounts to censorship. The News Literacy Project, as you know, issued a second statement detailing the communication between them. In light of this new information, I would like to know what the position of the Secretary-General is of a UN agency attempting to censor media and ask that references to certain countries be deleted? And whether you think… is there an investigation? Will this… will they face any repercussions? And if not, what kind of a message then would it send?
Deputy Spokesman: Regarding the Secretary-General's views, yes, he was made aware of this incident that occurred yesterday at World Press Freedom Day. He believes that it is regrettable. The Secretary-General had no… and his team had no prior knowledge of the postponement of this event, or of this particular controversy. We are, of course, aware of it now and we want to make it clear that the United Nations and indeed UN bodies on the whole should not restrict the expression… the freedom of expression of journalists. When journalists appear in our forums, they should be free to express their views without obstruction.
Question: Right, but so one UN agency has engaged in censorship. So, what… what does that mean? Does that mean the Secretary-General regrets it and then, you know, business as usual? Or does it mean that they face consequences?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, we've made clear the need for groups, including the Alliance of Civilizations to allow freedom of expression. I have been in dialogue with Nihal Saad, who had said that they are trying to set up a time for a new event and they would encourage the journalists participating to speak and she had said, at least in what she had said to me, that they would be free to say whatever they chose.
Question: I think that's besides the point. Now, if they reschedule is not really the point. The point is they engaged in censorship. What consequences does a UN agency face if it's engaged in censorship? If the answer… you're saying… it sounds to me like you're saying they face no consequences, so if that's the case, then do you think that sends a message that… that UN agencies can get away with this and that the SG will look the other way?
Deputy Spokesman: He's not looking the other way. Like I said, he was not apprised of it and he does regret this. At the same time, it is not a UN agency. This is an initiative…
Correspondent: It said it is part of the UN…
Deputy Spokesman: Well, it includes people who are Secretariat staff. The High Representative and the people behind the initiative are essentially independent of the United Nations. This has been since the start. When it was founded in 2005, under Kofi Annan, but it was co-convened at that point by the leaders of Spain and Turkey. After that you had Jorge Sampaio of Portugal as the head, and now, you have Mr. [Nassir Abdulaziz al] Nasser. They have a degree of operational independence. But, yes, you're right that there are Secretariat staff who work as part of the secretariat of this body, but the leadership is distinct, but we have conveyed the message to them about what needs to be done.
Question: And what is that? What needs to be done?
Deputy Spokesman: That they need not to hinder the expression of journalists.
Question: Have you asked for an apology, a statement of apology?
Deputy Spokesman: It's not my position to do that. I believe that Nihal has made clear she will engage in dialogue with reporters on this and I will certainly… I would certainly refer you over to her. Certainly, I believe that she is in principle willing to give you a venue to say, you know, what you, unfortunately, were denied the opportunity to say yesterday.
Correspondent: I think the News Literacy programme has said that they will not participate in any event that they host and… and as a would-have-been panelist, neither would I, and I don't think the other panelists would, either.
Deputy Spokesman: That's your position and your right to exercise. Yes?
Question: A follow-up question to that. As was just stated, this is… the reason was clearly censorship, and the question that she gave was; "Will there be any consequence?" So, just in a simple yes-or-no response, will they face any repercussions for an act of admitted censorship by a UN-affiliated body?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, again, they have a leadership that's independent of us so that is up to them to resolve, and I would urge you to take your question to them. And I would refer you to their press releases, but they will continue to be in contact with you.
Question: So, that would be no, that would be no? Correct? They will not?
Deputy Spokesman: No. No, I've told you the Secretary-General's view. He only… he was only recently informed of this, but that's as much as I have to say on his position for now.
Question: On the same subject, I remember very well that when Mr. Nassir Abdulaziz Nasser was the president of the General Assembly, he practised censorship against the Syrian delegation on two separate occasions by asking the television not to report that same thing, so it's not a first precedent. He has a legacy of censorship. And how can a person like that be in charge of such an organization… of a partner agency?
Deputy Spokesman: I have no comment on his actions as the President of the General Assembly, which is outside my purview. Yes?
Question: Sure. I wanted to ask because this… this… after your briefing yesterday, Brenden [Varma] said, you know, it was… it's an initiative of the Secretary-General, and I guess I'm just trying to understand what are the minimum standards for such an entity to use the UN name? Like, it was initially very much associated with Spain and Turkey, and as it turns out, it's essentially censored for Turkey, Egypt and others. What is… is there some… how many of these entities are there in the UN system, where basically a small number of States create an entity, put "UN" in their name, but apparently have no accountability at all to the Secretary-General, or the General Assembly, or anyone else? What's the… the… what does the Secretary-General think of… of entities with "UN" in the name, in fact, according to you at least, not having any reporting responsibility to him, but spending public money?
Deputy Spokesman: We believe, and I want to make it clear here, that all entities that are part of the UN family uphold the values of the United Nations. In this case, that would mean allowing reporters to go about their work and to express their views without hindrance.
Question: Would that also… would allowing without hindrance also involve not suing reporters, such as FAO and WIPO [World Intellectual Property Organization] have done?
Deputy Spokesman: Matthew, I… as I made clear yesterday, you would have to talk to them about the reasoning behind their actions but they have the same legal rights as any other agencies and institutions.
Correspondent: I am trying to understand your approach to these three entities; one entity can sue a journalist for criminal defamation, and there's no response by your office; there's no inquiry by your office. You say, "go and ask them". In this case…
Deputy Spokesman: They have the same legal rights as any individuals and any organizations. If those were used in a way to chill reporting, that would be a different matter, but there are cases where individuals or organisations may believe that they have been defamed.
Correspondent: Isn't suing for criminal defamation, by definition… I believe that David Kay and other UN experts have said, by definition, it's censorship because it's an attempt to criminalise speech or reporting.
Deputy Spokesman: There are particularly facets of different cases and I would urge you to deal with those organisations on how they're going about those cases. Yes, please. No, no. Her first. She hasn't had a chance.
Question: Thanks. Do you have more details about the [António] Guterres’ visit in Havana, please?
Deputy Spokesman: That's as much as I have for right now. He will participate… like I said, there's a meeting of ECLAC, the Economic Commission of Latin America and the Caribbean. There will be a number of leaders in the region, and he may have bilateral meetings with them, but we'll try to provide readouts of those, but it will be his first meeting with the new Cuban president. Yes?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. Asking you about these continuous clashes between the Israelis and Palestinians at the border, especially on a Friday. Every Friday, it has become like a ritual. Every Friday the Palestinians are… are protesting at the border and are being attacked by the Israeli defence forces. Some are killed. When… this is going to erupt into a bigger crisis, obviously. So, has the Secretary-General had any conversation with the Israeli authorities or the Palestinians about this situation?
Deputy Spokesman: The Secretary-General and his envoy, Nikolay Mladenov, have been in touch at various levels with officials, and you've seen our concerns expressed about the violence. We want there to be restraint on the side of all concerned, including of the security forces, and we want all sides to take particular care to make sure that civilians and particularly children are not put in harm's way. Yes?
Question: I have a question. Yesterday, Mr. Egeland, when he was asked about the white helmets, he said they are brave, but they work only on one side. Is it correct to say that they work only where there's is Al-Nusrah Front, as has been the case in Aleppo and Khan Shaykhun, and in East… in Douma?
Deputy Spokesman: They work in areas where they have the ability and the access to work.
Question: Which coincides to be in Al-Nusrah Front areas?
Deputy Spokesman: Ultimately, we try to get… give them access to work in places… as many places as they can, but the question is where can they go about their work and get access to the civilian population.
Question: Well, staying on that, there's ample evidence that they have publicated [sic] videos about alleged chemical weapons, and the witnesses who testified in Damascus and in Hague said that white helmets were involved in that, and they were giving dates and biscuits for those who were participating in those videos. Is the United Nations going to investigate anything about that? And get…?
Deputy Spokesman: I have no confirmation of what you're saying right now.
Correspondent: But… but, the investigation in Hague is going on about this, and witnesses came out and said that.
Deputy Spokesman: Regarding the question of chemical weapons and the work being done by our colleagues in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), what I can point out is that the OPCW has said that the work, the initial work, the initial deployment of the fact-finding mission is complete. Samples were brought to the OPCW laboratory, where they will be split and then dispatched to the OPCW-designated laboratories. The analysis of the samples may take at least three to four weeks. Yes, Ben?
Question: Yeah, in regards to the UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] World Freedom Day ad, noticeably Fox News, which is obviously the number one cable news outlet in the US, was left off. Any… any reason why that happened?
Deputy Spokesman: UNESCO writes and places its ads as it sees fit. You can ask them about how they handle their communications.
Correspondent: Their response was that they didn't have enough time to… in the time they had to produce the advert, they didn't have enough time to… to reach out to us and others.
Deputy Spokesman: Then that's their explanation.
Question: Is that just more kind of feeling of anti-Fox feeling at… at the UN?
Deputy Spokesman: There's no anti-Fox feeling at the UN. We work quite well with Fox. Look at you and I talking right now. Yes?
Question: Sure, some other things, but let's… staying on this censorship theme. In Burundi, the Government has announced, in the run-up to the referendum on 17 May, that two international media are banned for six months, another one has been issued a warning, and local media has also been given a warning and I haven't seen any response. This has now gone out all over. It's a written order. Where is Mr. [Michel] Kafando? Or who's dealing with Burundi for the UN, given that the referendum is on 17 May and now reporting about it has been banned?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, regarding that, we would be concerned about any efforts to constrain the rights of media in Burundi to go about their activity, particularly in this phase, right before the referendum.
Question: But, you would, or are you concerned? Because it's been ordered. The order is already in place.
Deputy Spokesman: Yes, of course. We're concerned about any hindrance of the free media in Burundi.
Question: And I wanted to ask you about Susan Page. Just in seeing the announcement, I had asked, I don't know, a couple of weeks ago whether she was PNG, persona non grata. There was a big controversy with Haiti, when she mentioned Petrocaribe, and I saw at her IPI [International Peace Institute] just in the last week. Was it always the intention when she began in November that she would leave by May, or… or did this… is this a result of pushback by… by the Government of Haiti? And what's the process to replace her?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, she was not… no, no, she was not rendered persona non grata. She has this new position, and we are actively working on finding a new head of the MINUJUSTH.
Question: With all due respect to her, given… given that the issues around the Mission in Haiti around, for example, many people feeling that the failure to provide individual restitution to people injured by the cholera that's largely attributed to the UN having brought, does rule of law… does it strike you that it might be ironic to take the head of the Mission in Haiti and give them this rule of law post? Does the UN's non-payment of recompense and accountability to those injured by cholera comply with the idea of the rule of law?
Deputy Spokesman: We've already expressed what we're doing in terms of trying to deal with the cholera epidemic in Haiti, and that's an issue separate and apart from the task that she has had. Yes, Edie?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. As a follow-up on the Alliance of Civilizations, does the Secretary-General have any plans to write to the head of the Alliance of Civilizations to put forward the United Nations' views on total opposition to censorship of the media?
Deputy Spokesman: I'm not aware of any… of what further steps might be contemplated at this stage. Yes?
Question: Going back to the issue of chemical weapons. I mean, here, most of the attacks, alleged attacks on chemical weapons happened in areas controlled by Al-Nusrah, and coincidentally, white helmets were available there to take pictures. So, is that worth… does the Secretary-General believe that this is worth looking into and investigating, whether this could be a false flag operation?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, the Secretary-General has made very clear the need for an accountability mechanism to deal with chemical weapons in Syria. As you know, we had the Joint Investigative Mechanism, whose mandate was not renewed, and he has since then repeatedly called for them to be some form of an accountability mechanism. In lieu of that, all we can do at this stage is the sort of fact finding work that's being carried out by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Question: Given, then, Mr. Egeland yesterday confirmed that they only work on one side, white helmets, isn't that suspicious that they are not like any other humanitarian organisation working?
Deputy Spokesman: Like I said, they work where they can get access. Yes?
Question: Yes, Farhan, about… maybe you have answered this question yesterday or earlier today, but the thing is, about this FAO meeting. FAO visit into North Korea taking place today. Is that something that you talked about? Or is that something that you know about? Food and Agriculture authority visiting North Korea?
Deputy Spokesman: I'm not aware of any visit by the Food and Agriculture Organization to North Korea. They haven't made any announcement about that.
Correspondent: No, sorry, yeah. North Korea.
Deputy Spokesman: To the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? I'm not aware of any FAO visit there. Okay. Yeah?
Question: Sure. I wanted to ask you about that video of Austrian peacekeepers in… in UNDOF [United Nations Disengagement Observer Force]. There's been now an acknowledgement in Austria that this video didn't just emerge now, that it was used by the Austrian military as a… as a training video, i.e. they knew all about it and there's an editorial in… in Austria saying: "Questions need to be addressed to the commander of the UN mission, as well as to the top floors of the United Nations in New York." What… what does the Secretary-General think? When it first came out, it seemed like it had been a lost video and that the questions were really simply for Austria to… to… to address, but given that the peacekeepers wearing UN helmets and under UN control are… are… are described by people that have seen the video as essentially either sending these Syrian police to their death or laughing as they were killed, what's the response by the UN?
Deputy Spokesman: We are aware that Austria is looking into this and we'll provide whatever support we can to their own inquiry. If there's any further steps to be announced from our end, we'll let you know.
Question: But, you disagree that there's questions as… as… as the press there is saying that it's not simply an Austrian thing, given that they were under UN control when this occurred?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, they were UN peacekeepers. Right now, like I said, Austria is looking into it and we're going to support that. If there's any further steps to be announced from our end, we'll let you know at that point. Yes?
Question: Well, it seems that whatever happens in that area, the Filipinos were kidnapped by Al-Nusrah Front then and it seems the United Nations is indifferent about what happens to the people who are controlling the area, who are… and to the presence of Al-Nusrah in that area, even until today?
Deputy Spokesman: No, nothing could be further from the truth. We're concerned about the activities by all of the armed groups in Syria.
Question: Was anyone who helped the… the Al-Nusrah Front to kidnap and then to rescue them through Jordan and Israel, was there anybody brought to accountability, how they helped them?
Deputy Spokesman: There's a general problem of accountability throughout Syria, which is what we've been asking for, not just about chemical weapons, but throughout the actions by all the parties to the conflict. Have a good weekend, everyone.
Question: A question to ask you about Cyprus?
Deputy Spokesman: Sure, why not.
Question: A spokesperson for the Turkish foreign ministry, Hami Aksoy, has said: "It is not possible to reach a federal solution with the Greek Cypriots' mindset. We believe it is time to try a new way." So, this is setting off waves, saying that essentially that Turkey is saying that the former framework for dealing with this may be thrown out the window. Is there a response from the UN? And people there continue to say that Jane Holl Lute is this temporary envoy. Is that something that you continue to deny?
Deputy Spokesman: There's nothing to announce about any visits and, like I said a few days ago, there's certainly no appointment of a special envoy to announce. Regarding these quotes, we're not going to respond to all of the rhetoric from different officials, but what we have made clear is the need for the parties to come back to the table, and we're trying to see what can be done to bring them back. Have a good weekend, everyone.