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20 December 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.

**Secretary-General’s Travel

Good afternoon.  This morning the Secretary-General was at the Holy See in Rome, where he had a private audience with His Holiness, Pope Francis.  During their meeting, they discussed a wide-ranging number of issues, including the climate crisis, poverty and inequality and many others.  Following the private audience, the Pontiff and the Secretary-General recorded a very rare joint video message together.  And we circulated the transcript, as well as the video.

The Secretary-General thanked Pope Francis for his exceptional global engagement and strong support for the work of the United Nations.  “You are a messenger for hope and humanity – for reducing human suffering and promoting human dignity,” the Secretary-General said, adding that our world needs that now more than ever.  He also expressed his deep appreciation for the Pontiff’s extraordinary service in promoting interfaith relations.  We need to do more to promote mutual understanding and tackle rising hatred, said the Secretary-General.  As I said, the full transcript has been shared and that audience concluded the Secretary-General’s visit to Italy and the Vatican.

**Syria

Back here Geir Pedersen, as you just heard, just briefed the Security Council via video teleconference.  The Special Envoy for Syria said that the past 12 months have seen a steady stream of violence, punctuated by escalation, in many areas of Syria.  All of this serves as a constant grim reminder of the need for a political process in Syria.  He said that he hopes that agreements can be reached promptly on an agenda for the Constitutional Committee, but until that happens, he sees no reason for new sessions of its small body.  Mr. Pedersen said that north‑western Syria has seen a deeply troubling escalation of violence in recent days and he warned that the cost of a full-scale offensive in the area is one we that cannot afford to pay.  He also added that we must enable de-escalation, leading to a nation-wide ceasefire, and pursue the release of detainees, among other steps.

**Iran

Yesterday in her briefing to the Security Council Rosemary DiCarlo, the Under-Secretary-General for Peacebuilding and Political Affairs, said the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear issue, as well as resolution 2231 (2015), are crucial to nuclear non‑proliferation as well [as] regional and international security, adding that we therefore regret the withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA in May of last year and the recent steps taken by Iran to reduce its nuclear-related commitments under that Plan.

**Decade of Action

The Deputy Secretary‑General, Amina Mohammed, yesterday afternoon briefed the Member States on kickstarting the Decade of Action to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals.  Four years after the historic agreement of 2015, she said, we are seeing growing awareness and pockets of progress, but our collective efforts are not approaching the scale we need, if we are to deliver on the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] by 2030.  We have an enormous hill to climb, she added.  The Deputy Secretary‑General said that, based on our outreach thus far, we have identified three fronts on which we must advance our work:  mobilization, raising ambition and finding solutions.  Her remarks were distributed.

**Uganda

From Uganda, our humanitarian colleagues tell us that in Uganda, the UN and other humanitarian organizations have dispatched medical supplies to treat 10,000 people due to the heavy rains that have affected some 300,000 people.  The UN has supplied oral rehydration salts, malaria medicines, health technical personnel, and vehicles.  Meanwhile, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has also provided space for 7,000 people displaced in a transit centre and the UN in Uganda has also requested funding from the Central Emergency Response Fund to support the Government‑led efforts.  At least 38 people have been reportedly killed, and 65,000 have been displaced since September.

**Migrants

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said today there has been a sharp decline in the number of migrants dying while attempting to cross international borders.  Migrant fatalities reached 3,170 by mid-December, compared to just over 4,800 this time last year, representing a 34 per cent fall.  Despite this, IOM said this year was still a stark one for migrants and for refugees.  The death [rate] among migrants departing Libya’s shores increased as smugglers put them at ever great risk, the outflow of people from Venezuela has left millions of people in severe hardship, and more than 200,000 migrants remain in reception centres in Europe.  More details on the IOM’s website.

**Lesotho

The UN team and its partners in Lesotho launched today a $34 million Flash Appeal to help more than 260,000 people who are facing food insecurity due to a severe drought in Lesotho.  The Government declared a national disaster on October 30th, and the new Flash Appeal will support the Government’s Drought Response and Resilience Plan.  The UN estimates that, at the peak of the lean season, between January and March, an estimated 71,000 people will be one step away from famine.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

Just a quick update from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  The country continues to face an acute and multifaceted humanitarian crisis which will require, in the months to come, substantial funding and reinforced coordination.  With more than five million people displaced to date, the DRC is the African country most affected by internal displacement, mainly due to violence.  The country is also home to some 517,000 refugees from neighbouring countries.  According to our humanitarian colleagues, in 2019, almost 16 million people faced severe acute food insecurity.  Epidemics have also affected the lives of millions of Congolese.  Despite shortage of funding, the UN and humanitarian partners reached over four million people with food aid and over 2.5 million people with health care.  We also distributed more than $20 million in cash assistance.  In 2020, we will have to redouble our efforts to respond to the needs and we’re asking for $1.8 billion to assist some 8.1 million people.

**International Human Solidarity Day

Today is International Human Solidarity Day.  This observance aims to celebrate unity in diversity, to remind governments to respect their commitments to international agreements and to encourage debate on the ways to promote solidarity for the achievements of the Sustainable Development Goals.

**Contributions

And we say thank you to our friends in Tajikistan… Tajikistan yes, yes, who will become the 145th Member State to pay their budget dues in full.  So, thank you.  I don’t know how to say thank you in Tajik, but I will say it in English.  Yes, sir?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  With regard to the Secretary‑General meeting with the Pope Francis at the Holy See today, was there, at any point, any discussion about the activities of Caritas, especially in Central Africa? There was an investigative report about sexual abuse for children by Belgium a priest from the Salesians of Don Bosco, I'm sure you're aware of this story.

Spokesman:  I don't think the issue of Caritas itself came up specifically, but as you know, the UN, very swiftly, took action in the Central African Republic when the report first came out.  Of course, we expect that Caritas and the relevant national authorities will investigate and, if needed, prosecute the people responsible.

Question:  Can you please clarify, was the end of the relationship between the UN and Caritas only in the Central African Republic or system‑wide?

Spokesman:  That's my… that's my understanding.  It was for this specific case in the Central African Republic.

Question:  So not system‑wide?

Spokesman:  That's my understanding.  If I am wrong, I will be corrected.  Yes, sir?

Question: Just to follow up to this question.  You said that the Secretary‑General discussed with Pope interfaith harmonies.  Are they planning any initia… new initiative to promote interfaith harmony and…

Spokesman:  Yeah, yeah.  This is an ongoing effort.  I think both from the Vatican's side with the joint appeal with the head of al‑Azhar in Cairo, the Secretary‑General himself went there.  The Secretary‑General, whether meeting with Christian leaders, Jewish leaders, Islamic leaders, Buddhists and other religions, I think, has been pushing this message.  And we're also doing it in the efforts through the Alliance of Civilization and also on the protection of holy sites.  You had a follow‑up.

Question:  It's a new question.  You know, Stéphane, that the protests in India against the controversial citizenship bill have spread, and there have been deaths among the protesters.  But, today, an important Indian leader, the chief minister of Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, called for UN‑sponsored referendum to… on this law, discrimination against Muslims.  Any thoughts on that?

Spokesman:  Look, this is not a specific answer to the call but the standard… what is important to understand is that the standard policy, right, for UN involvement in any electoral effort, any referendum or anything really is for a request from a national government.  That is our standard policy.  Sato‑san?

Question:  the protests and…?

Spokesman:  Well, on the protests, I think we are continuing, obviously, to follow it very closely.  We're concerned by the violence that we've seen, the fatalities.  What is very important — and this applies across the board — is that people need to be able to protest peacefully, and security forces always need to show restraint.  Yes, sir.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Is today the last press briefing of this year?

Spokesman:  No.  You will have to endure… you will have to endure me on Monday and Tuesday next week.  Then we will suspend on Thursday and Friday.  We will not brief on the 30th or 31st.  We will not brief on the 2nd.  But my dear colleague Farhan will be delighted to welcome you back on the 3rd of January, on Friday, at this podium to, to hopefully a very full room of well‑rested and well‑fed journalists.

Question:  So, today adequate for me to ask you the…?

Spokesman:  Your microphone.  You can ask me anything, but your microphone needs to be on.

Question:  So, how does Secretary‑General characterise 2019 this year?

Spokesman:  Let's give me a couple more days.  We can talk about that next week.  All right.  Thank you.  Oh, I'm sorry.  Please stay.  Reem is briefing on behalf of the PGA.  So I… it was my bad in my mission but… Reem, sorry.

For information media. Not an official record.