20 December 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.

**Sri Lanka

All right, good afternoon.  I have a couple… let’s start with a couple of statements.  The first one on Sri Lanka.  The Secretary-General welcomes the resolution of the political crisis in Sri Lanka through peaceful, constitutional means, and applauds the resilience of the country’s democratic institutions.  The Secretary-General calls on all political actors to seize the opportunity of the appointment of the new cabinet to resolve outstanding political differences in the same spirit of respect for democracy and in the interest of the people of Sri Lanka.  And that statement is now online.

**Senior Appointments

I have two senior appointments to tell you.  Today, the Secretary-General is appointing Karen Smith of South Africa as his Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect.  She will succeed Ivan Šimonović of Croatia, to whom the Secretary-General is deeply grateful.  Ms. Smith will work under the overall guidance of Adama Dieng, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide.  Ms. Smith is currently a lecturer of International Relations at the Institute for History at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

And the Secretary-General is also appointing Maria-Francesca Spatolisano of Italy as Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.  She will succeed Thomas Gass of Switzerland, to whom the Secretary-General is grateful for his commitment and dedicated service to the Organization.  Ms. Spatolisano has 33 years of experience in public service, including senior leadership in multilateral affairs.


In his final briefing to the Security Council as Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura said that the agreement to halt fighting in Idlib has held so far.  But, he added that we have never had for any length of time a nation-wide ceasefire or confidence-building measures that [had] been asked for in resolution 2254 (2015).  The Special Envoy said that since Sochi, he has been undergoing a marathon of consultations to enable the creation of a credible, balanced, Syrian-owned and Syrian-led constitutional committee.  He said that in recent weeks, diplomacy beyond the UN Secretariat has intensified, and he detailed the recent developments, which, he said, would leave him with the confidence that there has been real progress, although he added that we need to go an extra mile in order to have a list of names for the constitutional committee.

He offered his successor, Geir Pedersen, all the success in his vital work and ended his briefing by shaking hands with all the members of the Security Council, and he thanked them for their support over the years.  Mr. de Mistura has promised to go to the stakeout and he will honour that promise and that should be probably, if my estimates are right, in about half an hour or so, but we will let you know.  On the humanitarian front, we remain concerned about ongoing hostilities in the southern Idlib Governorate in Syria, with reports of civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure.  Between late November and 12 December, over 18,500 women and children and men were reportedly displaced, with the vast majority moving within Idlib governorate.  Initial food and non-food items have been provided by local humanitarian partners.  The new displacement comes on top of the more than 1 million women and children and men facing long‑term displacement in the governorate, many of them having been displaced multiple times.  The UN continues to urge all parties to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law.


In a new UN report that further underscores what our guests here said yesterday in the briefing, migrants and refugees are subjected to unimaginable horrors from the moment they enter Libya, during their stay there, and — if they manage to make it that far — during any attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea.  The joint report of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) details violations — including unlawful killings, torture, gang rape and slavery — committed by State officials, armed groups, smugglers and traffickers.  The report says that Libya cannot be considered a place of safety following rescue or interception at sea.  It also notes that the policies of the European Union and its Member States to curb the ability of migrants and refugees to reach Europe have contributed to trapping thousands of desperate people in Libya.


On Cameroon, our humanitarian colleagues there tell us that the needs have been growing steadily in the south-west and north-west regions of Cameroon this year, with insecurity leading to nearly 440,000 people being internally displaced.  Aid workers are ramping up their response but are impeded by lack of funding.  As of last month, only 35 per cent of the $15.2 million needed for the crisis in the south-west and north-west had been provided.  As of today, only 39 per cent of the 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan for Cameroon… only 39 per cent of the $318 million needed had been funded, making it one of the lowest-funded emergencies.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

The World Food Programme (WFP) said today it reached 5 million people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo this year.   This is double the number of people reached last year.  WFP significantly expanded its operations in the country due to the widening violence and displacement, poor harvest and endemic poverty.  The UN agency scaled up its interventions in the eastern provinces of Ituri, Tanganyika and North and South Kivu, where flaring conflicts forced many more people from their homes.  Assistance was provided in the form of commodities and cash, and specially fortified foods for the treatment and prevention of acute malnutrition, which affects 4.6 million children countrywide.  More information on WFP’s website.

**Security Council

And just lastly, yesterday the Security Council held an open meeting on drug trafficking in West and Central Africa.  Yury Fedotov, the Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), briefed and said that new and alarming trends in drug trafficking have been registered in the region, with disruptive and destabilizing effects on governance, security, economic growth and public health.  He said that post-conflict states and states in transition, including Guinea‑Bissau, require greater ambition to address drug and organized crime challenges.

**Press Briefings

After we are done, my guest here will be Ibrahim Thiaw, the Special Adviser of the Secretary-General for the Sahel and he will brief you on the situation in the Sahel.  Sidi Rais.  I apologize for starting… earlier than my usual lateness.  I just took people by surprise.

**Questions and Answers

Correspondent:  People not accustomed to that.  You… you're spoiling us.   Stéphane, I'm sure you're well aware of the intense negotiation and talks on the UK Yemen draft that's taking place, trying to pass it by tomorrow.  First of all, to give the monitors a mandate and also to enshrine the agreements in Stockholm that were not signed by the parties before they leave.

Spokesman:  They were agreed to.

Correspondent:  Agreed, but not signed.

Spokesman:  We can have that debate.

Correspondent:  It's a… it's a fact, but my question really is concerning the draft, the UK draft.  How important is it for the SJ… the SG to… to name violators of the United Nations resolution… and I'm speaking here about violations of armed embargo, for example, which is very destabilizing for Yemen and, of course here, I'm speaking about Iran.   How…?

Spokesman:  The question, sir?

Question:  How important… the question is how important is it to the SG to name violators, such as Iran, with the destabilizing effect of armed smuggling to the Houthis in a… in a draft?

Spokesman:  Our understanding is that the reference to Iran has now been removed.

Question:  But, what is the position of the SG?

Spokesman:  I will leave it at that.  Obviously, the Security Council is master of its work, and I just shared with you our understanding.   James?

Question:  If I could have a follow-up question on that, and then I have a question on Syria.   But, on Yemen, how important, given that you're trying to get monitors there, that you have this deal, it's a bit fragile… How important is it to the SG that something is passed as soon as possible?

Spokesman:  A resolution, as we've always said, is very important to us, to back the work that Mr. [Martin] Griffiths has successfully concluded in Stockholm.

Question:  Can I ask a Syria question?  In terms of what we've heard from Mr. de Mistura, clearly, there was an important meeting in Geneva earlier this week.  The Russian Foreign Minister, [Sergey] Lavrov, came up with a list of 17 new names.  Can you tell us how involved the Secretary-General was in that process in Geneva?  Did he have phone calls with… with Foreign Minister Lavrov?  How would you characterise those phone calls?  Was there an angry row between the two?

Spokesman:  The Secretary-General, as always in these processes with Mr. de Mistura and Mr. Griffiths, gets involved when his envoys feel he needs to get involved in that final push, or when he himself feels he needs to get involved.  There were phone conversations with various foreign ministers, and I think the outcome of the process was exactly how Mr. de Mistura described it, where we were thankful for the efforts put forward, and I think as he said again today, that there was an extra mile to go to.  I'm not in the habit of characterising the nature of… or the tone of the phone calls, but the Secretary‑General is a very… is always a very calm and level person, as you know.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  I have two questions.   The first one is one about Syria.  Any reaction from Secretary-General for the US decision to withdraw its forces from Syria?  And second question is given this major military… upcoming military development, there might be a Turkish military campaign.  Now, there are threats from the Syrian part and ISIS on those areas in northeast Syria, hundreds of thousands of people are fearing for their lives.  Is there any preparation by the UN for possible humanitarian disaster very soon?

Spokesman:  The UN's team in Syria is always watching the situation very closely, pre-positions aid as it needs to and is always… I mean, sadly, they have a lot of experience in this area, so we are ready to respond to whatever further aid and further crisis there is.  I'm not going to comment on military decisions taken by one Member State or another.  What is important for us is the peace process, the efforts of Mr. de Mistura; and any efforts, military efforts to combat extremist groups, such as Da’esh or others, it is important that all the parties take the utmost care in protecting civilians and protecting civilian infrastructure so as not to add to the already horrendous suffering of the Syrian civilians.

Question:  But, there are now preparations for a military campaign.  When there was a preparation for military campaign, for example, in Eastern Ghouta, the Secretary-General himself came out and spoke about this concern.  Why not talk about this development now?

Spokesman:  We're watching… I think I've kind of answered the question.  We're obviously watching the developments very closely.   Yes, sir.  And then we’ll go to Evelyn.

Question:  Thank you, Mr. Stéphane.   The ruling authority of Bangladesh cracked down on opposition candidates and their supporters.  Now, fair and credible election is beyond imagination, even as one of the election commissioners also warned that level playing field is not there.  Is Secretary-General aware of the situation?  And what initiatives he is going to take to reflect the people will of… to reflect the will of Bangladeshi people on 30 December?

Spokesman:  We are following the situation closely and it is very important as a matter of principle that anywhere there are elections, that they be conducted freely and fairly and that the space be given for people to express themselves.  Evelyn?

Question:  Yes, after Mr. de Mistura spoke, several Council members mentioned the Constitutional Committee had to be balanced.  Is it balanced now or was it not balanced?

Spokesman:  I think Mr. de Mistura pre-emptively answered that question and he will be delighted to take your questions in a few minutes.  So, instead of hearing from someone who speaks for him, you can hear from him directly.   Sir, and then Linda.

Question:  Okay.  Just another follow-up question on Syria.  Do you have any knowledge if the United States is following Mr. de Mistura or the UN by their move to get out of Syria, and will the United Nations play any role in ground to take over the areas where the US will vacate?

Spokesman:  We're not an armed party in this conflict, so it is not for the UN to take over… "take over" area that one military or another may vacate.  I'm not aware that we were given any notice to the announcement.  Linda?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  This is in regards to Ukraine.  I was wondering:  Given the maritime disputes between Russia and Ukraine, is there any role that the UN is playing?  And specifically, has the SG been in contact with either party?

Spokesman:  I'm not aware of any role that we're actively playing on the issue, on the broader issue between Ukraine and Russia.   We've been very supportive of the Minsk process and continue to do so.  Yes, in the back?

Question:  Thank you.  Some months ago, [Benjamin] Netanyahu stood next to a nuclear bomb factory and threatened Iran with an invasion.  Some days ago, he openly boasted about his offensive missiles that can reach anywhere.  Do you have any position about this clear threat of security?

Spokesman:  I'll have to take a look at those comments and I will get back to you.  Mr. Bays and then Mr. Gly.

Question:  There have been widespread protests in the country where I know the UN takes a lot of interest, Sudan, not just in Khartoum, but around the country.  In the past, as you know, there have been crackdowns; there have been human rights violations.   What is… given this widespread feeling on the streets of… of Sudanese cities, what is the message from the United Nations to the Sudanese Government on how to handle these protests?

Spokesman:  It's important that people be given the right to demonstrate and express themselves freely and peacefully.   Majeed?

Question:  A follow-up on your statement.  You said, "we are watching the situation closely", but there's a threat of a military campaign.  Why there is no call for calm that usually have in situations like that?

Spokesman:  I think that was reflected in Mr. de Mistura's comments, and I think in… in terms of what I said yesterday that we have… we are not for increased military action.  We are for increased effort on the peace front.

Question:  About OCHA [Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs], one question?  There are questions on… on… through social media, actually, from the civilians in that area of where to run, like, run away and… and which exits they should take, which route to escape those areas, if that military action happens.  I'm talking about north-eastern Syria.   Is there any recommendation by OCHA about where the civilians should go?

Spokesman:  I don't want to add… I don't want to say anything at this point.  I think what is important is that, obviously, with all the people living in that area, the hundreds of thousands of people, that any military activity, as I've already said, not put the safety and protection of civilians at risk.  We're dealing in most parts of Syria not only with sort of a civilian population that lives in the area, but people who have already been displaced, once, twice, if not more, and we remain concerned about the threat of any military activity.  Okay.  I will get our guest, if you don't mind staying, and I'll be right back.

For information media. Not an official record.