The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s noon briefing by Farhan Haq, Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General.
Good afternoon, everyone. Happy Friday, one and all. In remarks made earlier this morning, the Secretary-General said he was delighted that the General Assembly has confirmed the appointment of Michelle Bachelet as the new United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. He said that Ms. Bachelet has lived under the darkness of dictatorship. As a physician, he said, she knows the trials of people thirsting for health and yearning to enjoy other vital economic and social rights, and she knows the responsibilities of both national and global leadership.
The Secretary-General said that she takes office at a time of grave consequence for human rights, with hatred and inequality on the rise, respect for international humanitarian and human rights law on the decline, space for civil society shrinking and press freedoms under pressure. To navigate these currents, he said, we need a strong advocate for all human rights — civil, political, economic, social and cultural. His remarks are online.
In a statement we issued yesterday, the Secretary-General condemned the air strike earlier in the day by the coalition forces in Sa’ada, Yemen, which hit a busy market area in Majz District and impacted a bus carrying children from a summer camp. Local health authorities have confirmed that scores of people were killed and injured, the majority of them children between 10 and 13 years old. He expressed his deepest condolences to the families of the victims.
The Secretary-General calls on all parties to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law, in particular the fundamental rules of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack. The Secretary‑General emphasizes that all parties must take constant care to spare civilians and civilian objects in the conduct of military operations. He calls for an independent and prompt investigation into this incident.
And in a separate statement, Martin Griffiths, the Special Envoy for Yemen, said that the tragic incident should urge us all to exert more efforts to end the conflict through an inclusive intra-Yemeni dialogue. He hopes that all parties will engage constructively in the political process, including consultations scheduled in Geneva in September. There are also statements from the Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
**Democratic Republic of the Congo
We also issued a statement yesterday afternoon in which the Secretary‑General welcomed President Joseph Kabila’s decision to abide, as he has stated, by the Constitution of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He also welcomed the continued progress towards the holding of presidential and legislative elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on 23 December 2018. The Secretary‑General reiterates the United Nations readiness to continue working with the Government and people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to prepare the ground for free, fair and credible elections leading to a peaceful transfer of power.
And our humanitarian colleagues tell us that a rise in security incidents is affecting humanitarian aid delivery in many areas in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Tanganyika Province. So far, the suspension of humanitarian delivery by at least 10 organizations is directly affecting over 60,000 people. Almost all humanitarian sectors are impacted as projects are being implemented in health, water and sanitation hygiene, food security, and non-food items. The resurgence of violence in the Tanganyika region has left nearly 388,000 people internally displaced.
Yesterday, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent delivered United Nations humanitarian assistance consisting of hygiene kits, sanitary items and core relief items for 32,500 people in need of assistance in Dara’a Al‑Balad in Dara’a City. Needs in the area remain high both for those people who are returning and for as many as 100,000 people who remain displaced.
This week, fighting in the east and north‑east of Al‑Suwaidaa desert has newly displaced over 1,000 people from eastern rural As‑Sweida’a Governorate to As‑Sweida’a City, according to the Red Crescent.
In the Al-Yarmouk Basin area, in southern rural Dara’a, at least 7 people were reportedly killed and 14 others were injured between 4 and 6 August by unexploded ordnance. The United Nations and partners are seeking more sustained access to people in need in order to provide them with aid and services, including protection.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) is ramping up its assistance to Ecuador, which declared a state of emergency on Wednesday in the provinces of Carchi, Pichincha and El Oro due to the influx of Venezuelans. Since the beginning of the year, some 547,000 Venezuelans have entered Ecuador through the Colombian border. However, the influx is now accelerating and in the first week of August, some 30,000 Venezuelans entered the country at a rate of more than 4,000 per day. UNHCR has strengthened its presence at the key border crossings and is stepping up its emergency response by providing technical assistance and supporting the Government in shoring up its refugee status determination, registration and other protection mechanisms.
In Geneva, the United Nations Road Safety Trust Fund had the first meeting of its Advisory Board and its Steering Committee. The Trust Fund aims to catalyse efforts to address the global road safety situation by bridging the gaps in the mobilization of resources and ensuring coordination of action at all levels.
Representatives from five Member States representing each of the United Nations Regions — Argentina, Lebanon, Nigeria, Russia and Sweden — have been appointed to the Fund’s Advisory Board, along with representatives for businesses, civil society and academia.
The Fund currently has $11.8 million dollars and further contributions are expected over the coming months. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Road Safety, Jean Todt, thanked partners but added that much more is needed to fill the funding gaps, and the Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), Olga Algayerova, added that “transforming the global road safety situation, which represents 1.25 million deaths and an estimated economic cost of $1.85 trillion every year, urgently requires the strengthened involvement of a wide range of partners and the enhanced coordination of global efforts.”
I want to flag that International Youth Day is on Sunday. The theme this year is “Safe Spaces for Youth”. In his message, the Secretary-General said the hopes of the world rest on young people. However, millions live amidst armed conflict or organized violence and many face deprivation, harassment, bullying and other infringements of their rights.
“The world’s young people need safe spaces — public, civic, physical and digital spaces where they can freely express their views and pursue their dreams,” he said, adding that the UN is strongly committed to listening to their voices and opening pathways for meaningful participation in decisions that affect them. His full message is online.
And I am delighted to welcome two more Member States to the Honour Roll. Our thanks go to Ecuador and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines for full payments to the regular budget. The total is now 117 fully paid up Member States. Yes, Joe?
**Questions and Answers
Question: When the Secretary-General uses the term “independent investigation,” which has been used not only in what you just read out concerning the Saudi coalition bombing that killed a number of children, but also in connection with Cameroon, what does he actually mean by “independent”? Is that referring to an outside international body, or is it a reference to one of the… Saudi Arabia itself trying to conduct a quote “independent investigation”? And is this Secretary-General evaluating the status of Saudi Arabia on the… the so-called shame list or appendix attached to the Children and Armed Conflict Report?
Deputy Spokesman: You’re aware that the coalition was one of the parties on the list for this past year and acts that take place this year will be evaluated for next year’s list.
Question: Well, it had what you might refer to as an asterisk, because it was placed on the part of the list that said it was addressing the problem. Obviously, this incident reveals that perhaps that it is not fully addressing the problem, at least in relation to its strikes, but also if you can… if you can ask… answer the question of what the Secretary-General means when he refers to, quote, “an independent investigation”?
Deputy Spokesman: Yeah, that doesn’t inherently mean an international investigation. It does mean that investigation has to be done by an independent body. In other words, some body independent of the actual parties. Yes?
Question: Thank you. A follow-up to Joe’s question that… will that commission be then created by the Security Council? And that… or… or any other… which other independent body?
Deputy Spokesman: Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. At this stage, what we’re looking to see first and foremost is whether the authorities on the ground can themselves come up with a credible, independent investigation. If that step is not taken, we’ll have to see what other steps need to be considered and that could come up to other bodies at that point. But…
Question: But in punitive… in the case of punitive damages, what kind of things can happen? What can happen to the Saudi coalition? Will the United States and its partners be asked to stop supplying them with arms and ammunition?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, first things first. Let’s first have an investigation into what happened and see where blame lies. Yes, Evelyn?
Question: Was Mr. Griffiths’ presentation in an open meeting or not today? Are you talking about him on Yemen?
Deputy Spokesman: On Yemen, this is a press released that he put out. It’s not a presentation to the Security Council.
Correspondent: It’s not a presentation? Okay. But to follow up some of the other statements, while Iran has been criticized, not… in the Council and other places, the coalition, which bombs everything that moves right from the beginning, not just yesterday’s tragedy, seems to get very little criticism.
Deputy Spokesman: You have seen what we’ve been saying from the Secretary-General and as you’ve seen also from the Special Envoy, from the Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen and other officials, so we’ve been very clear and apportion blame where we see it. Melissa?
Correspondent: Yeah, sorry. You…
Deputy Spokesman: No, I’ve called on Melissa first. Everyone, take your turn. Melissa?
Question: Staying on Yemen, the head of the UN Human Rights Office has been barred from returning to Yemen. Apparently, his visa expired in June; it’s not being renewed. What can you tell us about what you’re being told about why it’s not being renewed? Does that mean he hasn’t been there since June? And are others on his team also facing the same problem?
Deputy Spokesman: I believe my colleagues in Geneva for the Human Rights Office have dealt with this matter and we are pursuing to make sure that the Government and the local authorities provide the official with the visa he needs to go about his work. Our point of principle is that all UN officials need to have visas provided from the Governments where they work so they can go about their work and that is the case in this situation, as well. Yes, Dulcie?
Question: You just said that UN will wait to see if an investigation is done on the attack yesterday. So who is the UN relying on to do that investigation?
Deputy Spokesman: As I answered your colleagues just minutes ago, first, let’s see whether the authorities on the ground can actually mount an investigation that is fully independent.
Question: Who… who are the authorities on the ground that you would rely on?
Deputy Spokesman: You’re well aware of who’s present on the ground.
Question: No, I’m not. I’m not there. Who are the authorities you’re referring to?
Deputy Spokesman: It’s the authorities in Yemen, and we’ll have to see whether an investigation can be mounted in that case in the first instance, and if not, then we would see whether other steps are needed beyond that.
Question: So… so the Yemeni Government you’re relying on? I’m just… I just would like something specific. Who are you relying on to do this investigation?
Deputy Spokesman: In this case, the authorities in Sa’ada. Yes?
Question: Thanks, Farhan. Secretary-General said that his choice for the Chief of UN Human Rights… Commissioner for the Human Rights is “perfectly suited” and that she lived “under the darkness of dictatorship”. If you can put a little bit more light, what does it mean, how that helps because she lived under the darkness of dictatorship? And also how the Secretary-General would like or did he, sorry if I missed that part, responded already to those critics or those who are a little bit more reserved accepting his nomination for this post?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, I’m not aware of any particular criticism of Michelle Bachelet. She’s had an esteemed record as a Head of State and head of UN-Women prior to this, so her record speaks for itself. Regarding the question of her past and the Chilean dictatorship, the fact is she knows from her own life how important human rights are and what it feels like to have your basic rights deprived. This is someone who herself has suffered from torture and from the loss of the members of her family and she knows exactly how bad things can go when human rights are neglected.
Question: When it comes just to follow up… when it comes to the… the criticism, there has been a criticism that she already met with some of the world leaders who doesn’t have a very great record on the human rights like in Latin America, in Venezuela, in Cuba, etc., so that was the criticism. How do you respond to that?
Deputy Spokesman: The simple fact of the matter is that part of the job of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is to meet with world leaders whose countries have… when she is the High Commissioner for Human Rights, she will have to deal with world leaders from countries that have bad human rights records as well as good ones. The important point is to reach out to all leaders and be able to have a dialogue with them to improve the records in each country. Yes, Bulent?
Question: Thanks, Farhan. Does the Secretary-General have any comment on the recent tension between the US [United States] and Turkey, or is he concerned about this tension?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, this is a bilateral matter and we trust and expect that the two countries will be able to resolve it bilaterally. Yes?
Question: Thank you, Farhan. On this… there was an agreement between the Israeli authorities and Gaza for allowing the supplies to go into Gaza and… but it seems that it has not worked out. Do you have any information on that, because new, what do you call, riots have broken out in Gaza, but do you have anything to say about that?
Deputy Spokesman: We are certainly very concerned about the tensions in Gaza. You’ll have seen what the UN Special Coordinator, Nickolay Mladenov, has been saying in recent days, and I would just refer you to his remarks. He has been working with the parties to see what can be done to avoid any further crisis in Gaza and he has been trying to avoid any escalation and bring the parties to an agreement.
Question: Have… have they resumed the… at least Israelis have allowed the supplies to be… I mean, do you have any information that that would happen?
Deputy Spokesman: There have been some agreements designed to… both to keep a halt on the violence as well as to allow for the return of the supplies. At this stage, further work still needs to be done to make sure that the situation is resolved. Yes?
Question: Thanks, Farhan. On human rights, last week, Canada called on Saudi Arabia to release women’s rights… women’s rights activists Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sada. I’m sure you’ve seen that it’s led to a diplomatic spat between the two countries. I believe that the UN has made statements concerning their detention and I’m wondering if you can tell me where the UN stands on the jailing of these two activists.
Deputy Spokesman: Yes. As you’re aware, we have raised our concerns about their detentions and more broadly, the Human Rights Office has expressed its concerns about the continuing arrests and apparently arbitrary detentions of human rights defenders and activists in Saudi Arabia, including women’s rights activists. And several times, including just a few weeks ago, the Human Rights Office made clear and urged the Government of Saudi Arabia to unconditionally release all human rights defenders and activists who have been detained for their peaceful human rights work. Any investigations must be held in a transparent manner with full respect for due process rights. All human rights defenders should be able to carry out their crucial human rights work without fear of reprisals or prosecution. Yes, in the back?
Question: So you said it’s up to the city‑level officials in Sa’ada to investigate this?
Deputy Spokesman: That’s not the what I’ve said. Ultimately, the question is what kind of investigation can be mounted on the ground first, and then we’ll see where we can go from there if you cannot have something credible.
Question: Are city‑level investigations in Yemen generally considered credible by the UN?
Deputy Spokesman: First, we’ll have to see who mounts an investigation and whether something credible is done and we can evaluate it at that stage. Yes?
Question: Just a follow‑up to Melissa’s question. As you know, Saudi Arabia has reacted very strongly against Canada, including taking certain concrete actions relating to trade and so forth, cutting off or recalling ambassadors. Has there been any similar communications or any communications at all from Saudi Arabia to the UN, criticizing the UN’s similar position as Canada’s position, criticizing the detention of the human rights activists in Saudi Arabia? Can you share anything of that nature? Or does Saudi Arabia just sit back and do nothing?
Deputy Spokesman: You’d have to ask the Saudis about that. I’m not aware of anything.
Correspondent: No, no, no. Not that easy. The… the Secretary‑General’s office or anyone in the Secretariat… wait, wait, wait… could I…?
Deputy Spokesman: As I just said, I’m not aware of anything. From our side, I’m not aware of anything. You would have to ask them.
Question: You’re not aware of receiving anything? Okay.
Deputy Spokesman: Okay. Yes?
Correspondent: I’m just getting around to Burundi today because it takes me a little longer to read the French. I… I… I was a little baffled by the Envoy’s statement yesterday. He said it was “wonderful” that the President wasn’t going to run for office in 2020. Well, isn’t that wonderful? It would be his fourth term, when he was supposed to have two, and he’s in the middle of the third term, having changed the Constitution. Secondly, when he’s talking about neighbours, the word “Rwanda” was conspicuously missing, where the influence of Rwanda in that country is a lot more than the UN or Uganda or anything else. I… I found it was the kind of speech… though I’m curious who learned something from it.
Deputy Spokesman: That’s not really a question, so I would just say…
Question: Sorry, but why… why is Rwanda missing? And why does he compliment people not going for a fourth term, when they’re already gone for a third?
Deputy Spokesman: Mr. [Michel] Kafando’s evaluation is his own evaluation with the Security Council. I don’t really have anything to add to it, but this is his presentation following his own research into the situation. Yes. Yes, Erol?
Question: Oh, yeah, to go a little bit back to Western Balkans, we didn’t for a while. In his newest report, Secretary‑General expressed again concern regarding situation in Kosovo and there are some reports from the ground and from the politicians of both… as I would say, from Belgrade and Pristina, that they would probably be ready to draw the new lines… bordering lines. How does the Secretary‑General see that possibility to draw the new lines between Serbia and Kosovo?
Deputy Spokesman: Well, any such activity would really require the dialogue and agreement between Belgrade and Pristina, and so we encourage them to have dialogue with each other on this.
Question: So are you saying Secretary‑General is actually commending that kind of initiative?
Deputy Spokesman: No, no. No, I literally just said the words, “this would require dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina”, so we encourage them to do that.
Question: But I am saying actually, they agree to draw the new lines, some would say that is opening of Pandora’s Box, because you have very unstable situation in Bosnia, where some local politicians are… are already saying if they are drawing the new lines, border lines in Kosovo and in Serbia, probably we should. That’s why I’m saying what is the position of Secretary‑General… I’m asking what is the position of Secretary‑General, in general, now, on… on the Balkan drawing the new lines in Balkans?
Deputy Spokesman: First of all, this is largely a hypothetical discussion because the parties themselves have not engaged in these discussions.
Question: No, they are already engaged, this is not hypothetical.
Deputy Spokesman: Once they are in discussions and agree to something we can evaluate it at that stage, but first and foremost, what we want them to do is to engage in dialogue with each other. Yes?
Question: Thank you. Follow‑up on this again, Saudi Arabia and the question from my colleagues over here. Has the Secretary‑General had any opportunity to speak with the authorities in Saudi Arabia about especially the human rights abuses that have been talked about by Canada and other countries? Has he had a direct conversation at all?
Deputy Spokesman: About the issue having to do with Canada? No, I don’t believe that that’s come up. Obviously, he’s been in touch with the Saudi officials through his time as Secretary‑General and we’ve brought up a range of different concerns including human rights concerns during those discussions.
Question: Just a clarification. I don’t know if… I don’t think the question was specifically about the dispute between Canada and Saudi Arabia. It’s the underlying issue of the detention of these human rights activists in Saudi Arabia. Yes, there was a general statement put out, but I think the question, if I’m paraphrasing it correctly is, has the Secretary‑General himself personally reached out to Saudi Arabia to ask them to release these human rights activists who are being held in tension?
Deputy Spokesman: We’ve supported the calls made by the Human Rights Office and the High Commissioner for Human Rights. All right. Have a good weekend. Come on up, Brenden [Varma].