16 January 2020

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.

Good afternoon.


Martin Griffiths, the Special Envoy for Yemen, briefed the Security Council on the situation in that country, and he said that Yemen had been kept safe in recent weeks even as the wider region had been in crisis.  Most importantly, he said, in this time of crisis, we have seen no major acts of military provocation in Yemen; and indeed, it has been one of the quietest weeks in Yemen since the war began.

Mr. Griffiths said the regional crisis has tested the resilience of the various efforts being undertaken by the parties and that these endeavours must make progress if we are to realize the ambition that 2020 will bring peace to Yemen.

Ramesh Rajasingham from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs also briefed the Council, and he said that Yemen is on the whole less dangerous for civilians than it was before the Stockholm Agreement, with civilian fatalities down by almost half.  But it is still a very dangerous place, he said, adding that, although clashes have mostly been contained, we continue to see mass-casualty incidents across the country.

Mr. Griffiths will speak to you at the stakeout after consultations are done, which is probably not before 1:15 or so.


Turning to Iraq, Marta Ruedas, the Humanitarian Coordinator for the UN in that country, expressed her strong concern today over the suspension in granting access letters to humanitarian actors carrying out critical missions in support of Iraq’s vulnerable people.

Such permissions were previously issued every 30 days by the mandated governmental bodies.  However, since November 2019, aid deliveries throughout Iraq have slowed considerably, due to the discontinuation of previously agreed-upon access authorization procedures, and the absence of viable alternative mechanisms.

Unless partners are allowed to immediately resume full, unimpeded movements of their personnel and supplies, humanitarian actor operations in Iraq may come to a complete halt in a matter of weeks.

Ms. Ruedas requested that the Government of Iraq provide clarity on the procedures for granting access authorizations for humanitarian organizations and to allow the UN to resume delivering aid effectively and efficiently for the people of Iraq.


And I was asked yesterday about how our humanitarian operations have been affected in Syria by the suspension of activity at two crossing points we had been using.

I can tell you that the health sector is the one most affected by the suspension of the Al Yarubiyah border crossing in north-east.  In 2019, 1.43 million medical treatments were shipped across that crossing point to support people in need.  These cross-border shipments have now come to an end.

WHO [World Health Organization] estimates that health service availability will be reduced in the medium term, and that gaps cannot yet be met through the other mechanisms.  Services that are expected to be most affected include child health; reproductive health; secondary health care, including trauma care; mental health; and nutrition.

In addition, to allow for the extension of the border crossing points into north-west Syria for another six months, the Security Council in passing resolution 2504 (2020) tasked the Secretary-General on the feasibility of using alternative modalities for Yarubiyah by the end of February.

The Secretary-General reiterates the importance of sustained, unimpeded and safe humanitarian access for all those who need it.  The Secretary-General, supported by the Secretariat and the UN humanitarian agencies, will do everything possible to respond to the request of the Security Council.


And on Libya, I can tell you that Special Representative Ghassan Salamé continues engagements with Libyan and international stakeholders ahead of the Berlin Summit.  The Special Representative met with Prime Minister Serraj in Tripoli yesterday to discuss the latest developments and the ceasefire and the preparations for Berlin.

Also yesterday, together with the Head of the World Health Organization in Libya, Mr. Salamé visited a temporary shelter for internally displaced people in Tripoli and listened to their concerns and needs.


And an update from the Philippines, where the UN and our partners are assisting with technical and logistical needs of local and regional authorities.  Although volcanic activity has decreased in the last 24 hours, authorities continue to evacuate people living within 14 kilometres of the erupting Taal Volcano, with over 57,000 people relocated as of today to 257 evacuation centres.

Humanitarian organizations are conducting assessments and have identified the need to support evacuees and host communities with water, sanitation and hygiene supplies, sleeping kits and health assistance.  The UN stands ready to provide further assistance if needed.

**Southern Africa/World Food Programme

And the World Food Programme (WFP) today said that a record 45 million people – mostly women and children – are gravely food insecure following repeated drought, widespread flooding and economic disarray in southern Africa.

WFP warns that, as the crisis deepens, the world must now step up to save lives and enable communities to adapt to climate change.

The agency is supporting 8.3 million people in eight countries – Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, Madagascar, Namibia, Eswatini, Lesotho and Malawi.

WFP is urgently calling for an additional $284 million for food needs, stressing the need for more frequent funding as climate-related natural disasters are becoming more frequent.


And, from Nigeria, the Humanitarian Coordinator for the UN in that country, Edward Kallon, said today he is deeply relieved that some civilians, including three aid workers, who were abducted by non-State armed groups in late December have been released.

He said that the humanitarian workers were providing life-saving support to Nigeria’s most vulnerable people in north-eastern Borno State and that they never should have been targeted.

Mr. Kallon also voiced concern over the fate of other civilians abducted in the December incident, as well as others who were taken in earlier incidents.


And just a note from Bolivia, as you may have seen, the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for that country, Jean Arnault, issued a statement last night in which he commended the ruling by Bolivia’s Courts regarding the extension of the mandates of the Executive and Legislative branches and subnational authorities.

He stressed for the electoral process to continue it is essential that all parties refrain from violent action or threat of violence.  In this context, Mr. Arnault joined the rejection expressed by many national actors to the recent statements made by former leader Evo Morales.

The Envoy also said that authorities have the obligation to protect and guarantee the full exercise of the political rights of all citizens, free from intimidation, regardless of political affiliation.


And you saw yesterday also that the Secretary-General met with Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Hussain Qureshi, the Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.  The Secretary-General and the Foreign Minister exchanged views on developments in the region.

For his part, the Secretary-General reiterated the importance of maintaining peace and stability in South Asia through political dialogue, diplomatic solutions and respect for human rights.

**Decade of Action

And two things to flag.  At 4 p.m. in the Economic and Social Council Chamber, there will be a screening of Eyes on the Goals: A digital series premiere.

This is a series of seven videos, each of them focusing on a particular Sustainable Development Goal.  The videos will also be released online today and once each video hits 10,000 views, $10,000 will be donated to an organization achieving the SDGs.  So please click often.

**Haiti Commemoration

And tomorrow morning at 10 a.m., the Secretary-General will preside over a ceremony to mark the tenth anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, and to honour the memory of the hundreds of thousands of people who died that day.

UN staff, ambassadors, and family members of some of the colleagues we lost that day, will gather at the Memorial Wall outside the General Assembly, in front of the UN flag that flew over the headquarters of the peacekeeping mission in Haiti.

Following the ceremony, participants will be invited to the North Lawn to see the Haiti memorial originally set up at the UN Mission in Port-au-Prince and moved to New York recently.

**Financial Contributions

And we want to welcome a few more countries to the Honour Roll:  Australia, Iceland, New Zealand and Poland, which brings us up to?

Correspondent:  58.

Correspondent:  10.

Correspondent:  58!


Spokesman:  Erol, I wish…  for once, I wish what you say is true.  It is 10.

Correspondent:  [inaudible]

Spokesman:  No, 10, 10.

Correspondent:  [inaudible]


Spokesman:  Let’s go.  193, while we’re at it.

After we are done with this stand-up comedy session, Elliott Harris will be here.  As you know, he is the UN’s Chief Economist and Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, along with Dawn Holland, Chief of the Global Economic Monitoring Branch in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.  And they will brief you on the launch of the World Economic Situation and Prospects Report 2020.

**Questions and Answers

Before we get there, yes, Madame.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Two questions.  First, have you looked into the detention of my colleagues in Egypt, which happened yesterday?

And, also, the German Foreign Minister announced that General [Khalifa] Haftar promised to abide by the ceasefire.  You said that Mr. Salamé talked to Mr. Serraj yesterday.  Has he been in touch with General Haftar?  And do you have any confirmation from him that he would abide by the ceasefire?

Spokesman:  No, I don’t have any confirmation.  Obviously, if this report is true, we would obviously welcome this, but it is important that all parties abide by the ceasefire for the sake of the Libyan people.

On Egypt, we are aware of the recent… of the reports that Egyptian security forces raided the Anadolu office in Cairo and, reportedly, as you mentioned, arrested four journalists, including one Turkish national.  And they’ve been detained in an unknown location.  We are concerned about these developments, as well as about the whereabouts and welfare of those who have been detained.

Freedom of expression plays a central role in the effective functioning of a democratic political system.  Egypt, as a State party to the international human rights treaties, has a responsibility under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to protect a media that is free to impart information and news.

Question:  A follow‑up.  Would you call for the release of my colleagues?

Spokesman:  Of course.  I mean, we call for the release…  anyone who is detained, we would want them to be released or at least, at a minimum, have information as to their whereabouts.

Nabil…  Ali, sorry, and then James.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  In the same spirit, a crackdown in Lebanon against peaceful protesters but mainly attacking journalists is happening by…  since 48 hours.  So many journalists were attacked, and their equipments were taken or…  broke or whatever.  So, any comment on this situation?

Spokesman:  Look, what we said, what I just said about Egypt, obviously, applies to every country in the world, that freedom of expression plays a central part in the functioning of a democratic system.  We are concerned about these reports of violence in Lebanon and the targeting of journalists.

The right to freedom of expression, to peaceful freedom of assembly, is a cornerstone of Lebanese democracy and must be respected, including as part of Lebanon’s engagements and obligations under international human rights agreements.

Question:  And just a quick follow‑up.  Do you think there should be accountability for attacks against journalists?

Spokesman:  It should be, whenever we see the use of force against peaceful protesters and including journalists, these things need to be investigated, and people need to be held to account.


Question:  Two questions.  The first one is, Nicolás Maduro, in his state of the state, invited international organizations to participate and verify the elections, the parliamentary elections.  He ordered one of his cabinet members to send a letter to the Secretary‑General.  So, I want to find out if you have received that letter and will be the prospect of a possible mission of election verification for Venezuela, if that was the case.

And the second one, Nicolás Maduro also released over a dozen of political prisoners at the beginning of this week.  However, it’s been claims by families of military detainees they have already been in jail for the time that the judges have given them the time to be detained, even though they believe that it is unjust, and they’re still not released from them.  Is any concerns that these military members detained have become appeased by the Government to try to pressure the opposition?

Spokesman:  Look, I…  let…  on your first question, we’ve seen the reports on the call for participation to oversee the elections.  I’m not aware that any letter has been received.  At any time a letter… a letter would have to be received, and a request would have to be… would have to be studied and see how applicable it is under past practices and laws of the United… and mandates of the United Nations.

On your second one, let me look into that situation.

James, and then Erol.

Question:  I have a couple of follow‑ups on Libya, if I can.

Spokesman:  Yeah.

Question:  First, a number of Security Council members are telling me there are discussions under way, if there was a ceasefire that was to properly take hold in Libya, to set up some sort of monitoring for that.  Can you tell us what sort of contingency planning is being done?  I’m told that the Hudaydah thing is one of the potential models, but clearly, Hudaydah is one city.  Libya is a vast country.  How many monitors would be required for this sort of operation?

Spokesman:  Look, the short answer is, of course, contingency plans are being made.  You know, our colleagues in the Peace Operations and Political Affairs don’t live in a vacuum.  They see the discussions that are going on and they understand how things may evolve.  So, there are all sorts of different, or different models.

We would have to see what the Security Council comes up with, and hopefully, there will be some discussions before to make sure it is something that is actually feasible.  But I don’t want to be dragged into an abstract conversation, but I think your question is self-answered.  Right?  I mean, one can look at Hudaydah as a model of, you know, people monitoring ceasefires in civilian clothes in a small area.  Libya, as you point out, is rather larger than the municipality of Hudaydah.

Question:  The new Secretary‑General report to the Security Council on Libya has been delivered to the Security Council.  One of the things that’s very notable about it is the situation in the east, particularly Benghazi.  It describes Benghazi becoming a hub of illicit economic activities, including the sale of drugs and arms, talks about assassinations, attacks and abductions.  How concerned is the Secretary-General about the situation in the east of Libya?

Spokesman:  Well, first of all, the Secretary‑General’s report has been given in advanced copies.  It’s not yet out as an official document, so I’m not going to get into details of that.  But the report is in the Secretary‑General’s words, so it reflects his opinion.  I think, by highlighting that situation, it’s a way of expressing his concern.

Erol, and then we’ll go to the back, and then we’ll move…  and then Maria, who’s been very patient, as always.

Question:  Thank you.  Two quick, I would say, follow‑ups.  First, it’s definitely follow‑up on my Turkish colleague question on four Turkish journalists.  When you say that you are condemning these act of the Egyptian authorities and you express all your concern, what actually did you do to change the situation on the ground?  I mean in the specific situation.  Did you call?  What you intend to do because…

[cross talk]

Spokesman:  I mean, first of all, contacts are being had at various levels, and I think speaking very publicly about the issue is also one way to act.

Question:  And a quick follow‑up is actually, since I don’t like to be seen as complicit in what is the criticism of you and, besides, to place it at…  I was full heartily for the Secretary‑General, but he was severely criticized exactly for giving a broad, through you or himself, broad answers, broad criticism of human rights abusers but not specific one.  It was Ken Roth’s words but many would agree with those, including these journalists.  So, what would you say on that?

Spokesman:  I think the Secretary‑General has been very strong and clear in his defence of human rights, in his defence of human rights defenders, and his defence of the rights of journalists to practise their trade unmolested and unhindered.

Yes, sir.

[cross talk]

Question:  [inaudible] specific.

Spokesman:  I think I’ve answered your question.

Yes, sir.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  My question is related to the Rohingya refugees of Bangladesh, who are now in Bangladesh.  There are reports of measles breakout in the refugee camps in Bangladesh in Cox’s Bazar, and 428 cases have been reported.  Is there any immediate plan to address this problem?

Spokesman:  I’ll have to, I haven’t seen that particular report, but I’m sure… we have a huge humanitarian operation in Cox’s Bazar, and I have no doubt they’re on top of it, but I will get back to you.

Correspondent:  Thank you.

Spokesman:  Maria.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  So, almost one week has passed since Iranian Mission addressed a letter to Secretary‑General on the issue of, of denial of US visa to Iranian Foreign Minister, Mr. Zarif.  And, as I understand, this will be discussed tomorrow at host country meeting.  So, do you have any comment by now on this, or probably does SG has any decisions, particularly on the topic of legal actions?

Spokesman:  Well, you know, we have ‑‑ and I think in answer to some of the questions you’ve raised ‑‑ in the fall and recently, raised our concern with the host country about the non‑issuance of visas to certain delegations.  This continues to be of concern to us, and we continue to raise it.  And, as you said, it’s also being taken up by the Host Country Committee, but the act of the visa issuance is not one done by the Secretariat.  It’s done by the host country.


Question:  Can you confirm that the UN plans to convene its own conference on Libya, in Geneva following the Berlin one with the participation of the…

[cross talk]

Spokesman:  I think that’s something Mr. Salamé has talked about.

Yes, Nabil, and then…

Question:  Yes.  Back to Syria, Stéphane, are there any other alternatives to humanitarian or medical aids to arrive to the north-eastern part of Syria from Damascus, for example?  Would this be an option?

Spokesman:  Well, I mean, obviously, you know, humanitarian aid has been coming through crossing points, through Turkey and then Iraq.  That’s no longer…  Iraq is no longer an option.  We will continue to find the best ways to deliver, whether it’s through the cross‑border points from Turkey or through Damascus.  It, obviously, also depends on where the front, so‑called front lines are.  Right?  And things shift.  So, we will always be looking for that one that is the most effective to get the aid.  The most effective way for the aid to get through would be for the fighting to stop.

Question:  But, I mean, have you talked to authorities in Damascus about…

Spokesman:  We… our humanitarian colleagues spend quite a time doing that.

Question:  And do you think this is doable logistically and politically maybe…

[cross talk]

Spokesman:  Listen, what is, you know, you’re operating in a very challenging environment.  We’re looking at different options.  And as… as mandated by the… by the Security Council, we’re now looking to report back to them by the end of February on the different options.

Yes, ma’am.

Question:  Thank you.  With regard to the Iran nuclear deal and the three European countries having triggered this dispute mechanism, there’s now a joint commission.  And assuming that they can’t resolve this, eventually, it will go to the Advisory Board, which I understand consists of three members, one assigned by Iran, one by the European countries and a third one that’s an independent member.  I’m wondering if the SG’s office has been approached about considering people…  member… an independent member to…

[cross talk]

Spokesman:  No, not that I’m aware, but I will check.


Question:  Stéphane, on Monday, Mustafa Kassem, who is a US resident, as well as an Egyptian national, died in prison in Cairo.  Has the Secretary‑General heard about this?  I think Masood asked about it on Tuesday and…

[cross talk]

Spokesman:  I mean, we hope the circumstances surrounding his death are fully investigated.


Question:  Yes.  Sorry.  Back to Libya again and, again, back to General Haftar, because it does seem that there is one man who is standing in the way of the international process with regard to Libya.  The Secretary‑General is someone who has great experience dealing with General Haftar and, back in April, was negotiating with him for a long period of time just before he started his audacious offensive on Tripoli.

So, is the Secretary‑General worried that what is supposed to be an international gathering of Berlin going forward — now it looks like General Haftar will be there — is going to become yet another negotiation with General Haftar?  And is he frustrated by this?

Spokesman:  Look, I think the Secretary‑General, if he’s frustrated by one thing, is the continuing fighting, the continuing suffering of the Libyan people.  We will use Berlin as a way forward in the plan laid out by Mr. Salamé.  I don’t want to prejudge the conference, prejudge the discussions and the contacts that will be had, not only around the table but on the side.  I think let’s… let’s let Berlin happen before we judge Berlin.


Question:  Just one more.  Did the Secretary‑General have the chance to see the new report 2020 of human rights?  What’s…  and if he did, what are his conclusion or comments?

Spokesman:  I mean, he’s aware of the report, and I think the Secretary‑General is aware of the body of reporting that the UN’s own human rights mechanisms — the Special Rapporteurs, his own people — so, he’s… he’s very…  We always appreciate reading human rights reports by human rights defenders, and this one is no different.

I will go get Mr. Harris.

For information media. Not an official record.