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

15 October 2019

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.

**Haiti

Speaking to the Security Council this morning, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, the Head of Peace Operations, reiterated that the end of peacekeeping in Haiti marks the beginning of a new partnership between the country and the United Nations.  He said it is an opportunity to ensure that the UN is providing the right support, at the right time, for the Haitian people.

However, Mr. Lacroix added that the people of Haiti are faced with a vicious cycle they have seen one too many times.  Without a confirmed government, key tasks, such as the submission of the budget and the organization of the legislative elections, remain stalled.

The President’s call for national dialogue and the formation of a unity government has been viewed by the opposition as “too little, too late”.  But Mr.  Lacroix pointed out that making the departure of the President as a precondition for dialogue leaves little room for negotiation.  Yet the formation of such a government may well be providing a way forward to lasting political solutions that are desperately needed.

Turning to progress achieved in the past 15 years, Mr. Lacroix mentioned — among other things — the UN’s support to the justice system and the development of the Haitian National Police, which has led to an almost 50 per cent reduction in the homicide rate.  Today, all of Haiti’s communes have full time national police presence.  The number of officers has grown from 2,500 in 2004 to 15,400 today.

**Syria

And turning to Syria.  Since the escalation of violence in the north-east of Syria last week, teams from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) have assisted some 31,800 people.  UNHCR said it has distributed blankets and other core relief items to some 20,250 people in three camps for internally displaced people and to another 11,550 people living in communal shelters in Al-Hassakeh and Tal Tamer.  The agency has also sent additional aid to Qamishli, including blankets for 52,000 people, plastic sheeting for 15,000 people and solar lamps for 20,000.  The International Organization for Migration (IOM), meanwhile, has reported the arrivals of hundreds of Syrian Kurds into Iraq following their departure from Syria in recent days.

And the World Food Programme (WFP) says that, as of today, it has so far provided immediate food assistance to more than 83,000 people fleeing towns in north-east Syria.  WFP has the capacity to reach over 450,000 people in the area with one round of ready-to-eat food packages.

And the Human Rights Office says that, since the Turkish offensive began on 9 October, it has verified a number of civilian casualties each day as a result of airstrikes, ground-based strikes and sniper fire.  The Human Rights Office is also appalled to learn of further attacks that affected medical facilities, which have been a particular and persistent feature of the conflict in Syria.  It calls for a thorough investigation of all incidents.

**Afghanistan

Turning to Afghanistan.  The UN mission there (UNAMA) released today a special report describing the severe impact of election-related violence on civilians.

Most of the violence is coming from the Taliban’s deliberate campaign to disrupt Afghanistan’s presidential election.

UNAMA’s findings indicate the attacks targeting the electoral process caused 458 civilian casualties.  That’s 85 people killed, 373 injured.  This includes 277 civilian casualties, including 28 killed and 249 injured, on 28 September alone.  That’s the polling day.  More than one third of civilian casualties have been children.

The report not only documents the harm to civilians caused by the Taliban’s violent offensive to disrupt the election but also highlights a pattern of abductions, threats, intimidation and harassment carried out by the Taliban against civilians leading up and during the elections.

**Burkina Faso

I have an update on Burkina Faso from our humanitarian colleagues.  Armed attacks and insecurity continue to affect parts of the northern, eastern and central Burkina Faso, driving forced displacement and increasing the number of people in need of protection and assistance.

As of today, 486,000 people have been displaced, a steep increase from around 80,000 in January, making Burkina Faso one of the fastest growing displacement crises in Africa this year.  Hundreds of thousands of affected people are struggling to produce or have access to sufficient quantities of food.  They also have limited access to water.

The armed violence and insecurity have also decimated health and education services, with more than 68 health centres forced to shut down, impacting over 800,000 people, and 2,000 schools closed, impacting over 300,000 students who can no longer go to school.

Over 500 people have been reportedly killed between January of 2018 and September of 2019.

As a note, the revised Humanitarian Response Plan, launched in August, called for $187 million to provide help to 1.3 million people, but it is only 35 per cent funded.

**UNICEF

And just wanted to flag a couple of reports.  One from UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), which says that an alarmingly high number of children are suffering the consequences of poor diets and food systems that are failing them.

In a new report on children, food and nutrition, the Agency finds that at least one in three children under five, or over 200 million, is either undernourished or overweight.

Almost two in three children between six months and two years of age are not fed food that supports their rapidly growing bodies and brains.

This puts them at risk of poor brain development, weak learning, low immunity, increased infections and, in many cases, death, according to the report.  There is more information online.

**Ecuador

I have been asked a couple things.  One, on Ecuador, and I can say that we continue to follow the situation in Ecuador closely.

And I can inform you that the Secretary-General welcomes the progress made in the dialogue process, as reported by the UN team in Ecuador and the Episcopal Conference.

**Tunisia

I was also asked on the second round of the presidential elections in Tunisia, and I can tell you that we congratulate the people of Tunisia for holding peaceful presidential elections.  The Secretary-General will be sending a letter of congratulation to the President-elect.

**Appointment

A senior personnel appointment that we released late yesterday:  The Secretary-General is appointing Mamadou Diallo of Guinea as his new Deputy Special Representative of the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS).  He will also serve as the UN resident coordinator in the country.

He succeeds David McLachlan-Karr of Australia, and the Secretary-General is grateful for his dedicated service during his tenure.

**Rural Women

Today is the International Day of Rural Women.  This year’s theme is “Rural women and girls building climate resilience”.  In his message, the Secretary-General said that rural women represent the backbone of many communities, but they continue to face obstacles that prevent them from realizing their potential.  He added that the devastating impacts of climate change add to their hardship.

At the same time, they are a repository of knowledge and skills that can help communities and societies adapt to the consequences of climate change through nature-based, low-carbon solutions, he said, and stressed that listening to them and amplifying their voices is central to tackling this issue.

**Briefings

At 11 tomorrow, we will have the launch of the Global Investors for Sustainable Development Alliance.

Sorry, did I make sense?  There will be a briefing here tomorrow on the launch of the Global Investors for Sustainable Development Alliance.  Speakers will include the Co-Chairs of the Alliance, along with the UN’s Chief Economist, Elliot Harris.  And the Secretary-General will be participating in the meeting of this global investors conference.

Mr. Klein, welcome back.

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you, although I don't know if you'll say that after my questions but… [laughter] We'll see.  It has to do with the budget, which I know you discussed extensively in the last few days, but… it's a two‑part question.  The first part is, I know as part of the budget austerity programme, there's a freeze on… general freeze on hiring, not filling vacant positions, at least for the time being.  So, I'm wondering how you can explain the recent appointment of two high‑level communications officials, including… I think, Mr. [Peter] Reid and Ms. [Zoe] Paxton, including filling one position that has been vacant for several years.  So, that's the first question. 

The second question is, what are the criteria for defining essential travel? You know, how transparent will that be in terms of defining what that means?  And how will it apply, all the way up the line to the Secretary‑General?

Spokesman:  I mean, it applies to everybody.  And, obviously, the Secretary‑General will make his determination about what invitations to accept, what travel to undertake, as will the Deputy Secretary‑General.  She, in fact, had been scheduled to travel to France, to Lyon, to attend the funding meeting of the Global Alliance on HIV/AIDS.  At the end, the trip was cancelled, and she delivered a video message.  So, I think senior managers will make those decisions.  The travel of department heads, of USGs [Under-Secretaries-General] is reviewed and cleared by the Office of the Secretary‑General. 

On the issue of hiring, obviously, some hiring will go on.  The message that was passed is on… obviously, on overall figures and percentage of vacancies that will need to be kept, but some hiring will go on.

Question:  But one of those positions — I think it's the one Mr. Reid is filling; I'm not entirely sure — had been vacant for several years so why suddenly now…

Spokesman:  It had been under recruitment for some time…

Question:  But what makes that…

Spokesman:  As I said, it is a matter of percentage and keeping overall vacancy rates at a level that will enable us to save money.  And, obviously, we're very happy to have Mr. Reid on, and it was an essential position to fill.  Abdelhamid, and then we'll go to the front row.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Last Wednesday, there was a terrorist attack in front of a synagogue in city of Halle in Germany.  The SG issued a very strong statement condemning that attack.  Right?  And it says admission the word "antisemitism".  On Friday, the twelfth, two days later, a terrorist attack took place in a mosque in Burkina Faso, killing 16 people.  In the synagogue, there were two people killed, with a strong statement from the SG, but 16 people were killed in a mosque in Burkina Faso; there was no statement.

Spokesman:  I beg to differ.  There was a statement from the Secretary‑General on that.

Question:  It was from [Miguel Angel] Moratinos, as far as I know.

Spokesman:  No, it was a statement from the Secretary‑General.

Correspondent:  I stand corrected.

Spokesman:  Once in a while, I get to win arguments, rarely, rarely.  [laughter] No, but there was a statement.

Correspondent:  I missed that.

Spokesman:  Michelle?

Question:  Thanks, Steph.  Have any more countries paid up?

Spokesman:  No, not… nothing to announce as of today of payments in full.  One of the issues, it was a banking holiday on Monday in the [United States], so payments were not processed.  We are getting some movements on some partial payments, which we hope to report on.  I was just speaking to our Comptroller, who said he's been in touch with various missions, and I think there is a sense from all Member States about the gravity of the situation, and people are trying to even give us partial payments if they can't give us full payments.  Maggie, then Edie.

Question:  Steph, the last two days in Lebanon, there have been very intense forest fires ravaging the country.  I'm wondering if the Prime Minister has reached out to the UN for any assistance.  He said today he's reached out to some countries, but also there's UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon] in the country.

Spokesman:  Right.

Question:  So, have they asked… I mean, that's 10,000 pairs of hands.

Spokesman:  I will check.  I'm not aware.  Doesn't mean it hasn't happened, but I will check.

Question:  And is there any assistance the United Nations could lend Lebanon, either from UNIFIL or from UNEP [United Nations Environment Programme] or something.

Spokesman:  I'm speaking without knowing everything, but that's not stopped me in the past.  Obviously, it depends exactly where the fires exactly are.  Obviously, I mean, UNIFIL, if it's in its areas of operation, I'm sure, would do whatever they can, but I'll check with our humanitarian colleagues.  Edie, then Evelyn and…

Question:  Steph, is there any follow‑up to the cost saving to the UN of closing down all the escalators and also the Delegates' Lounge after 5 and…

Spokesman:  Yes, on the… so, you know, some of the… I've gotten some breakdown of the cost.  The escalator is about $14,000 a year in terms of electrical consumption.  The temperature adjustments, we've kind of stabilized the temperature at 70 degrees.  We've also cut an hour off on each end, so, instead of 7 a.m.  to 7 p.m.  for the air conditioning and climate control, it's now 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.  And that saves us, as far as I understand it, $7,000 per day.

There's no hard figure for me to give you right now on the Delegates' Lounge.  There's, obviously, an impact on the cost… the revenue sharing that we have with our vendor, but I think the bigger issue for us was all the overhead in terms of extra security, electricity, all of that.  So, we're just trying to… you know, I mean, it may sound a bit like nickel‑and‑diming, but I think we've come down to that at this point.

Question:  And quite a number of us have been wondering whether any people who work at the UN — that includes contractors — are going to be losing their jobs as a result of these cuts…

Spokesman:  I don't know.  I've asked that question regarding our food vendor.  I'm not aware that that is the case.  Evelyn?

Question:  Yes.  Thank you.  To follow up on Edie's, what happens if there has to be 24‑hour duty like peacekeeping and so forth?  Do they work in the cold in the winter?  The heat goes off?

And, secondly, I may have missed, but did you give the number of civilians in northern Syria since the Turk… the… who were killed?

Spokesman:  The displacement number, I think we gave those yesterday, but I think I have…

Question:  Yeah, I have the yesterday's.  I just…

Spokesman:  Let me see if I have an update…

Question:  Any deaths?

Spokesman:  Obviously, there are people that work in this building 24 hours a day, maybe not… obviously, they'll have electricity.  It may not be the most pleasant conditions in which to work, unfortunately.  I don't have any updated numbers to the 160,000, which is what we last had.  Linda?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Following up on this same issue, we know that each year the [United States] generally pays in November.  Are there any indications of money that's forthcoming and if it will be part of it or full?  And what will be the impact once the [United States] pays on all of this?

Spokesman:  Well, listen, the [United States] has a particular pattern of payments.  We have gotten used to it.  The issue, I think, as the Comptroller said, is that others have now paying… that used to pay earlier are now paying later.  We are in close touch with the United States.  We're having very good conversations with them, as we are with other Member States.  Obviously, as soon as people pay, no matter how much they pay, it has a positive impact on the cash flow.  Betul, and then I'll get to you.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Follow‑up on Syria.  Is there any UN presence in the north‑east of Syria?  And, also, the Turkish President said, absent an alternative plan to deal with the refugee crises, the international community should join our efforts to establish a safe zone, which the Government intends to form, and also relocate 2 million Syrian refugees and, also, if you could tell us if the Secretary‑General has a position on the foreign fighters.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  All right.  On Syria and our presence, we have… there is international UN staff in Qamlish… Qamishli — excuse me — Qamishli of both international and national staff, humanitarian staff.  The UN staff is staying and delivering.  We are… obviously, continue to be concerned about the safety of not only our humanitarian staff but that of our partners.  But I know there were some reports that I saw today that a humanitarian… UN and others had stopped delivering.  Speaking from the UN, that is not the case.  On the issue of safe zones, I mean, I think we have spoken out in the past on our issues with… our princ… on issues on the principle of safe zones, largely.  And, as for refugees, the principle remains the same, that any return — and this applies all around the world — any return of refugees needs to be done in a way that is voluntary, safe and dignified.

Question:  Can I just follow up?  If the Government says the returns will be voluntary, safe and dignified, would the UN cooperate?

Spokesman:  We're getting into hypotheticals at this point.  Yes, sir.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Question:  Thanks, Stéphane… 

Spokesman:  Everybody will get a turn, Masood.  Don't worry.

Question:  Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed his willingness to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia.  Does the SG have any reaction to this?

And, secondly, on the budget, are there any recent announced partial payments which give reason for optimism?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  We… at least personally, I try to stay as optimistic as possible.  I know there are a number… there are partial payments that are coming in.  We're trying to get the final information.  I hope to be able to report those to you. 

I mean, I've seen the press reports of the offer of mediation.  As always, we… any mediation effort is to be welcomed, but that's just a matter of principle.  Yes, sir?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  On Bangladesh, a student of Bangladesh engineering university, Abrar Fahad, killed by the ruling party, an activist, very brutally.  And the UN resident coordinator, Mia Seppo, condemned this horrific incident, as this type of incident taking place for free speech more randomly or it's a common phenomenon of Bangladesh.  So, what is… is the Secretary‑General… I'm wondering, is Secretary‑General aware of this Government ruling authority that called UN resident coordinator for her statement as she condemned this horrific incident?

Spokesman:  Yes.  The resident coordinator did issue a statement, as did a number of foreign missions in Bangladesh.  She did have discussions with the Foreign Ministry.  You know, I think, at this point, we very much recognise the actions taken by the Government in the aftermath of this horrific murder, and we encourage them to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.  Madame, and then we'll go back to front row.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  The Lebanese Foreign Minister said that he will go to Syria to talk refugees return, Gebran Bassil’s recent declaration.  Does it contradict with the UN position on the refugee… return of refugees?

Spokesman:  I… no, I mean, I don't see a contradiction.  I mean, I've seen the press reports of movement, but, obviously, the Lebanese Government, which has been a very generous host to millions of Syrians, is free to… can, obviously, engage in discussions.  The… as I answered Betul, the principle about refugee return is pretty clear:  Voluntary, safe and in dignity.  Monsieur?

Question:  Yeah.  Getting back to the budget cuts and the rather, it seems, trivial savings in this building, you've only been able to outline one thing, which is the cost in escalators.  If we could have…

Spokesman:  No, and electricity… I did the electric…

Question:  Okay.  But could we have a full breakdown of what you're saving?  And, also, some… I mean, it seems that you're doing this to try and, you know, make some of the ambassadors here at Headquarters feel some pain.  But, I mean, are there similar measures?  The Geneva campus, I think, is bigger than this one.  Are you not cutting the lawns?  Are you not feeding the peacocks?  Is there anything going on in Nairobi?

Spokesman:  The peacocks are not being fed to the staff.  That much I know.  The lawn…

Question:  Is there anything going on elsewhere?

Spokesman:  Yes, cuts are going on elsewhere.

Question:  But not the lawn.

Spokesman:  Well… no, the lawn… the… you know, the lawn here, we have a contractor.  We have a contract with them.  Anyway, I think, after November through the early spring, the lawn goes into automatic saving mode, because it does not need to be mowed, which is another reason why we need to fight climate change, because, if it does stay warmer, we may have to cut lawn year‑round.

Question:  Vienna?

Spokesman:  I don't think there are any escalators in Geneva.  I will try to get my colleagues in Vienna and Nairobi to give us some indication.  The Nairobi campus, I think, is also very ecologically friendly.  And if we could use… I mean, for a while, Geneva, I think, had some sheep also mowing the lawn, which is cheap.  But all joking aside, I will get you some details.  But, you know, there are also other measures about postponing the purchase of IT compute… of renov… whether it's office furniture, whether it's vehicles in the special political missions.  I mean, we… it's like any family.  Right?  I mean, you need to start… you need to save.  And, you know, whether it's what is appearing to be a nickel‑and‑diming, it's… we'll take money where we can.  Cash is cash and is fungible.

Question:  Can I ask a quick follow‑up?

Spokesman:  You can try.

Question:  Have you had any complaints from any ambassadors?

Spokesman:  Not that I'm aware of.  Edie, and then we'll go to the back.

Question:  Steph, going back to Syria, when you mentioned that aid was… there were reports that the United Nations and agencies were not delivering aid in the north‑east, you said that is not the case when concerning the United Nations.  What aid is the UN delivering, and where are they actually being able to deliver it to… to… how close to the areas where there's fighting?

Spokesman:  We're, obviously, not in the area where there is fighting, but I think, as I just mentioned, WFP is distributing blankets and ready to eat meals.  I think I just… I kind of laid it out in the beginning.

Question:  But that's to the dis…

Spokesman:  But in order… in parts of the north‑east where the UN is and in Qamlish…

Correspondent:  Qamishli.

Spokesman:  Qamishli.  Thank you.  Okay.  Masood and then Frank.

Question:  Yeah.  Stéphane, on this… on Egypt, there have been human rights organizations and there are reports that many demonstrators incarcerated doing protests have still not been released.  Do you have any information on that and as to when they'll be released, if at all?

Spokesman:  No.  I don't have any specific information on that.  You may want to reach out to our Human Rights Office, but what is clear, whether it's in Egypt or other parts of the world, we stand for people's right to demonstrate freely and peacefully.

Question:  And, now, moving to India, Kashmir, there have been… yesterday even in Washington Post have been three or four editorials about this incarceration of the Kashmiris in their place… in their homes, and there have been write‑ups in every newspaper of the world.  Has the Secretary‑General been able to talk to anybody in India about this situation?

Spokesman:  You know, Masood, I appreciate and understand your interest.  I think the Secretary‑General did raise the issue of Kashmir during the bilateral discussions he had with leaders during the General Assembly and before.  The situation is what it is.  We have our position and our stance for a political solution, for — and I would refer you to our previous statement — and for the need for the human rights to be very much at the centre of any solution that is found.

Question:  Has the Secretary‑General had any talks with the Indian authorities, whether they be the Prime Minister or the home minister?

Spokesman:  The issue was raised during the General Assembly.  The issue was raised also during the G20 [Group of 20] summit that the Secretary‑General attended.  There have been contacts with both the Pakistanis and the Indians.  Frank?

Question:  I want to get back to your favourite topic of the escalator.  Can we get a fire safety officer in here to explain to us how shutting those escalators down doesn't impede exiting the building during a fire?

Spokesman:  There are two fire stairs that remain open…

Question:  And that's very handy for saving people, too.

Spokesman:  And I'm not sure escalators are the safest way to go in case of fire.  That being said, I'm not a fire expert, so I will try to get somebody to answer that question.

Question:  Can we get somebody from UN Security fire safety officer, can we get them in here?

Spokesman:  Yes, will do.  Let's… 

Question:  And number two.  Number two.  Can we get an accounting up to this month of the Secretary‑General's costs for him to go on his trips, what it costs up to this month, and what is the ROI?  What is the return on the investment of those trips?

Spokesman:  Listen, we can try to get you the budget for his… for the travel.  I mean, are you looking for a cash number in terms of ROI?

Question:  Yeah…

Spokesman:  How can you have a cash number on ROI…?  I mean, you know, he goes to… he went to Copenhagen, engaged with mayors who are critical to the climate solution.  These are long‑term investments in relationships and actions that the Secretary‑General needs to have.

Question:  But, then again, of course, there are situations where, during the summer, he'll go someplace, and then he'll see the same leaders during the General Assembly within a month or two…

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General is… if… I don't think there's anyone in this building who is more conscious of the costs and of saving costs.  I mean, if you will recall, one of the first things he did when he came in was to issue an order to minimize the use of private aircrafts throughout the UN, whether it's peacekeeping or political missions.  From the get‑go, he's been very focused on trying to solve this cash‑flow crisis by implementing savings.  The delegations have now shrunk to an average, I would say, of four or five people as opposed to what we had in the last 20 years, which could be as many as 20 people.  There is… he is cutting costs wherever he possibly can.  Evelyn, then Joe, and then Abdelhamid.

Question:  Did I hear you correctly that the escalators, who have been… which have had… have had trouble since you and I were children, that… are they deliberately shut down…?  [laughter] Because of the budget or what?

Spokesman:  Yes, we've… yes, yes.  They are… it's…

Question:  For how long?

Spokesman:  Until we get more money.

Correspondent:  Oh, for heaven's sake.  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Well, it's doing wonders for my legs.  Joe?

Question:  Okay.  I don't remember the escalators in my childhood, but it may go back…

Spokesman:  We didn't have escalators when I was a child. 

Question:  They may go back too far.  [laughter] But staying on that theme, you said it was… savings was $14,000 a year?  Was that correct?

Spokesman:  Yeah.

Question:  Could you tell us the salaries of these two communication high‑level officials who recently appointed, Mr. Reid and Ms. Paxton?

Spokesman:  There is transparency.  You can look up… Google "UN salary scale," and you can find it.

Question:  Okay.  But… I'm sorry.  I'm sorry.  Just… unrelated, you said yesterday that, as of yesterday, the Secretary‑General had not reached out personally to President [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan.  If this crisis continues, doesn't de‑escalate, as he asked it to be, is… will he be considering reaching out directly to… on a humanitarian basis, to President Erdoğan?

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General is highly engaged on this issue, as are his senior advisers, and they will continue to do so.  Abdelhamid?

Question:  Thank you.  I have two questions, one on Libya and one on Palestine.  It starts with Libya.  Can you confirm that the SG received a letter from Serraj, Fayez al‑Sarraj, the head of the Government of National Accord, and if he… regarding targeting civilians and some Member States continue to support [Khalifa] Haftar, General Haftar…

Spokesman:  No, I will check.  I don't know, but I will check.  Yeah.

Question:  The second, there is a young Jordanian girl.  Her name is Heba al‑Labadi.  She crossed the Jordan River to Israeli side on 20 August.  She was arrested by Israel, and she had been in detention since then.  She has been physically and psychologically tortured, according to a lawyer, and she has been on a hunger strike, and she was joined by seven others in detention.  So, is there any information… are you aware of this case…?

Spokesman:  No, I'm not…

Question:  She's a Jordanian citizen.

Spokesman:  No, no, I understand.  I'm not personally aware, but it doesn't mean the system's not aware, and let me check.

Question:  Can you give us…

Spokesman:  I will do that.  On this note, please enjoy the rest of your day and walk slowly and safely down the fire stairs.

For information media. Not an official record.