29 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.


This morning, in the Economic and Social Council Chamber, the Secretary‑General took part in the UN75 inaugural launch event entitled “Youth in the Driving Seat”.  The Secretary-General asked the young people who were present to express their opinions and said he was there to listen and to learn from them.  He reiterated that the UN is striving to better respond to their concerns, hopes and fears.  All of that has been placed on the UN Webcast, WebTV page.


On the coronavirus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros [Adhanom Ghebreyesus] today announced that he will reconvene the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee to advise him on whether the current outbreak constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.  He said that, while just 1 per cent of the more than 6,000 cases have been recorded to date outside of China, person-to-person transmission has been recorded in three countries outside of China.  This potential for further global spread is why he has called for the Emergency Committee to reconvene.

Dr. Tedros has just returned to Geneva from China, where, as we told you yesterday, he met President Xi [Jinping] and the Ministers for Health and Foreign Affairs.  It was agreed that WHO will send international experts to China as soon as possible to work with Chinese counterparts on increasing understanding of the outbreak and guide global response efforts.  For its part, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has sent respiratory masks and protective suits for health workers and that shipment has arrived in Shanghai.  The agency will be sending more items in the coming days and weeks.  UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said that, while we may not know enough about the virus’s impact on children or how many may be affected, we do know that close monitoring and prevention are key.  Time is not on our side, she added.


The Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, briefed the Security Council on Syria this morning and said that hostilities have escalated in recent days in the Idlib area, especially around Ma’arat al-Numan, Saraqeb and western Aleppo.  The fighting in these areas appears to be more intense than anything we have seen in the last year, he said.  The most alarming reports have come from southern Idlib, he added, where hundreds of air strikes by the Government of Syria and its allies have been concentrated.  Meanwhile, non-State armed groups continue to shell Aleppo city, killing or injuring dozens of civilians.  Mr. Lowcock said the UN assessment is that at least 20,000 people have moved in the last two days, some 115,000 have left in the past week, and nearly 390,000 have fled in the past two months.

It is imperative, Mr. Lowcock added, that all parties agree to an immediate cessation of hostilities in and around the Idlib de-escalation area.  Mr. Lowcock added that the humanitarian situation in the north-east remains difficult, with some 70,000 people still displaced following the military operations we saw in October and an additional 90,000 people living in internally displaced persons camps.  This afternoon, Khawla Mattar, the Deputy Special Envoy for Syria, is expected to brief the Council.


The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Libya, Ghassan Salamé, has been invited to brief the African Union High-Level Committee on Libya, which has been taking place in the Republic of Congo.  The Special Representative understands the impact of the Libyan crisis on African countries, especially in terms of terrorism and migration, and expresses his appreciation to the close relationship with the African Union and its continued support for the United Nations’ efforts to bring about peace and stability to Libya.

**Central African Republic

The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) reports today that the situation in the town of Bria, located in the Haute-Kotto Prefecture, is calm but tense.  Over the weekend, there were clashes between factions of an armed group, the Front Populaire pour la renaissance de la Centrafrique.  The Mission has engaged in dialogue facilitation between factions of the group, as UN Peacekeepers continue to patrol in the area to protect civilians and prevent a resumption of the violence.  The clashes also led to the displacement of thousands of people.

**Democratic Republic of the Congo

Following her visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, called on both the country’s Government and the international community “to seize the opportunity to lift the country out of its deadly cocktail of conflicts, human rights violations and chronic socioeconomic problems”.  The High Commissioner began her visit in the Province of Ituri, before flying to Kinshasa, where she met with the President and other Government officials.


Today, the Government of Ethiopia, the UN and humanitarian partners launched the Humanitarian Response Plan for Ethiopia for 2020.  The Plan calls for $1 billion to help 7 million people out of the 8.4 million people identified as being in need of humanitarian aid.  It is expected that displacement caused by conflict, disease outbreaks, rain shortfalls in parts of the country and floods in others will continue to drive humanitarian needs in Ethiopia this year.  Currently, Ethiopia is experiencing one of the most severe desert locust invasions, which could lead to loss of livelihoods and food insecurity if not contained soon.


And we also launched the Ukraine Humanitarian Response Plan for 2020.  The plan seeks $158 million to assist 2 million people.  This includes 200,000 internally displaced people — 850,000 people in Government-controlled areas and 910,000 in non-Government-controlled areas.  The Plan includes the provision of emergency assistance, protection, strengthening of the national capacity in coordination with development actors, and securing access to 3.4 million people in need.  Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine, the international community has contributed over $500 million for the humanitarian response.  With this support, the UN and other humanitarian organizations have been able to reach over one million people each year.  This is, however, only half of the targeted population due to lack of funding and limited humanitarian access.


Just to flag from UNICEF that today they said they are boosting efforts to fight pneumonia that could avert nearly 9 million child deaths.  Child deaths from pneumonia are concentrated in the world’s poorest countries and it is the most deprived and marginalized children who suffer the most.  According to a modelling done by Johns Hopkins University, scaling up pneumonia treatment and prevention services could save the lives of 3.2 million children under the age of five and create “a ripple effect” that would prevent 5.7 million extra child deaths from other major childhood diseases.

**Resident Coordinators

We want to welcome a number of new colleagues today.  The UN Development Coordination Office tells us that we have new Resident Coordinators in Bolivia, Congo, Tanzania and Thailand.  These appointments follow confirmations from the respective Governments.  Susana Sottoli of Argentina will serve as Resident Coordinator in Bolivia; Chris Mburu of Kenya will serve in the Republic of Congo; Zlatan Milišić of Bosnia and Herzegovina will serve in Tanzania; and Gita Sabharwal of India will be the new Resident Coordinator in Thailand.  Resident Coordinators seek to boost the development coordination among UN agencies, funds and programmes, which, as you know, will be crucial to support countries as we enter the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  We are also proud to announce that we will remain with full gender parity among all our Resident Coordinators covering 162 countries and territories.  We have the full biographies in our office and also on the SDG website.  Sherwin?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thanks, Steph.  Following your Note to Correspondents yesterday on the Middle East, this news headline:  "UN Rejects Deal of the Century", is that an accurate reflection of your position?

Spokesman:  Listen, I'm not in the business of analysing headlines.  I think the words that we used in the Note to Correspondents was very clear, that we'd seen the announcement, and the position of the UN on the two‑State solution has been defined throughout the years by relevant Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, by which the Secretariat is bound.

Question:  So, there are calls from the likes of organizations like Human Rights Watch for a rethink of the peace process.  Does the United States enjoy the full confidence of the Secretary‑General as the chief lead mediator in this conflict?

Spokesman:  Look, the United States remains a critical actor in the Middle East peace process.  Our work is defined and led by the Security Council.  We have been given mandates, and there are resolutions of the General Assembly and the Security Council, and we are bound by them.

Question:  Can I just make a final point?  For years, UN officials, Steph, have talked about this window of opportunity closing for a two‑State solution.  How does this plan produced by the White House yesterday affect the trajectory and the speed of that closing window?

Spokesman:  I would leave that to your… that analysis to you.  Maria?

Question:  Thank you.  Follow‑up on the resolutions you just mentioned.  They are mentioned, as well, in this presented-yesterday peace plan and in very detailed analysis of United Nations' efforts in two paragraphs.  It says that General Assembly and Security Council resolutions only stop at… are… have not and will not resolve the conflict.  Have you… do you have any comments particular on this part?

Spokesman:  I am going to, I think, disappoint all… most of you and just say that this… António Guterres is the Secretary‑General of the United Nations.  Right?  The work of the Secretariat, his work is bound by those resolutions passed by Member States.  Betul and then James.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  We have been hearing that the report by the Board of Inquiry investigating hospital bombings in Idlib has been delayed until March.  Can you confirm that?  And can you also give us a sense of why the report has been delayed when we hear UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock speaking at the Security Council and talking about hundreds of bombings in southern Idlib by the Government of Syria and its allies openly, and why has the report been delayed?

Spokesman:  Sure.  The report has, indeed, been… the deadline of the report has been extended.  The Board is now expected to complete its work and submit a report to the Secretary‑General by 13 March.  This was done at the request of the Board.  I can't speak for them.  I mean, they are investigating and looking into incidents.  They felt they needed more time, and the Secretary‑General felt it was just right… it was appropriate to grant them that extra time.  Mr. Bays?

Question:  So, back to your Note to Correspondents with regard to the US plan.  There seems to be something missing from the statement.  The Secretary‑General has seen the plan, and then the Secretary‑General lays out the UN's previous position, which he says is defined by relevant Security Council and General Assembly resolutions.  Does the Secretary‑General believe that the plan unveiled by President [Donald] Trump is consistent with relevant Security Council and General Assembly resolutions?

Spokesman:  Look, we've seen the announcement of the plan.  I'm not going to get into that which will be left to others to decide, notably Member States themselves.  For us, there are parameters that bind us, and we need to keep within those parameters.

Correspondent:  But, surely, if he doesn't answer that absolutely central issue, then his words become weak, in fact, pretty pointless.

Spokesman:  No, I don't think they are pointless.  They are a reminder of his position.

Question:  One final question on this.  Does the Secretary‑General… now he's read it and absorbed it.  Does he think this is a peace plan or an annexation plan?

Spokesman:  I'm not going to characterize it.  The Secretary‑General did, in fact, receive a call from Mr. [Jared] Kushner yesterday afternoon, who briefed him on the plan, but I'm not going to go further than what I've said.  Joe.  I'll get to you.

Question:  Yes.  I don't want to get into the characterization of the plan either, but one of the principles, I believe, the Secretary‑General has repeatedly enunciated — and it's in the Security Council resolutions, as well — is the importance of direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  So, however you want to characterize this plan, it lays out one marker, one perspective, on resolving the conflict, contiguous boundaries, freeze on settlements for four years, recognizing a Palestinian capital in a portion of eastern Jerusalem, et cetera.  Would the Secretary‑General at least be open to direct negotiations based on the Palestinians' definition of what the appropriate border should be and this plan, even if you don't…?

Spokesman:  I think we're diving into weeds in which I have no interest in going into…

Correspondent:  Well, it's a question…

Spokesman:  Let me finish my answer… let me finish my answer.  I think if you look at and reread the voluminous number of briefings we have provided to the Security Council on this issue, you will find one thing that comes up again and again is the call for direct talks with the parties.  We… as I said yesterday, we continue to be committed to supporting Palestinians and Israelis to resolve the conflict on the basis of the resolutions.

Question:  I'm sorry.  But, would… let me follow up.  Would the Secretary‑General see this enunciated position, however you want to characterize it, plan, put out and endorsed by Israel, with some compromises by Israel, as one pole in direct negotiations and encouraging the Palestinians at least to enter into negotiations, not accept it, but enter into negotiations with their own position and try to find a middle ground?

Spokesman:  We have… I don't want to have to repeat what I've just said, so I won't.  Evelyn?

Question:  Further, on the same issue, the Secretary‑General's for the two‑State solution.  The new plan does have two States.  I won't characterise what kind of States they are, but would that… is that something…?

Spokesman:  We have laid out, in our words yesterday, our position.  You can all do a compare‑and‑contrast exercise.  Madame.  Welcome back.

Correspondent:  Thank you.  As you may have seen, there's an AP story today about a hack of various…

Spokesman:  There is, indeed, an AP story out today.

Question:  …about some UN computers in offices in Geneva and Vienna.  What do you know about that and particularly about who might have done it and what they got?

Spokesman:  What the story refers to are attacks that took place in the middle of last year.  The damage related to the specific attack has been contained and additional mitigation measures implemented.  You know, the UN is no different from any organization or individuals.  The threat of future attacks continues, and the UN… our colleagues at the Secretariat detect and respond to multiple attacks at various level of sophistication on a daily basis.  This particular attack that your colleagues reported on is not a landmark event.  These things… attempts to attack the UN IT infrastructure happen often.  The attribution of any IT attack is… remains very fuzzy and uncertain.  So, we are not able to pinpoint to any specific potential attacker, but it was, from all accounts, a well‑resourced attack.  James?  Sorry.  Then I'll…

Correspondent:  Follow‑ups.  First on that, on the report of this hack by AP but first by The New Humanitarian, to give credit where credit is due…

Spokesman:  That's your job, yeah.

Question:  Yeah.  But, why did the UN cover up this attack?  Given that it was a hack on computers that carried sensitive humanitarian and human rights data, data that might involve partner organizations and aid agencies, didn't they need to know that you'd been hacked?

Spokesman:  It was not… as I said, we're under constant… like anyone, you know, there… attempts are made regularly.  The server in Geneva that you are referring to was part of a development environment and contained non-sensitive test data from two development servers used for web application.  People who needed to be notified were notified.

Question:  I have another couple of follow‑ups.  Can I do them now?  Okay.  So, further, we're going on from the plan that was announced.  There are reports that Israel is contemplating annexation of settlements, possibly as early as this weekend.  What is the message of the Secretary‑General to the Government of Israel on the possibility of annexing parts of the West Bank?

Spokesman:  Look, these reports have come up before.  We have always stood against any unilateral actions.  And now Mr. [Nickolay] Mladenov himself has said it repeatedly.

Question:  And my last follow‑up is, as you know, we're expecting the next meeting, as you've discussed, of the WHO Executive Committee in the coming hours.  And I just want to ask about the readiness of the entire UN system, and also, if they were to go to the global emergency designation, what would it mean for the UN system?

Spokesman:  You know, we are… on our… sorry.  Hold on a second.  Let me just look for something.  On our end, our health services, obviously, are very much aware of the situation.  There's been updated guidance put out on the intranet for basic precautions that people have to take.  Obviously, let's see what WHO deals with.  They are our voice on this within the UN system, and we will, obviously, follow their directives very closely.  Masood, you've been very patient.  And then we'll go to this side of the room.

Question:  I know your attention was diverted, I can imagine.  Yes, sir.  I'm… my question is also about Middle East, follow‑up to question by James and Mr. Klein.  Now, basically, it seems as though the Middle East peace process, as we know it, is dead.  Israel is ready to annex the settlements, and it has said so; especially Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it yesterday also.  So, now, my question is, is… what is it that the Secretary‑General can do?  What is it that he can do to… what do you call… bring about some sort of a semblance of settlement, if at all, and will that be possible during his lifetime?

Spokesman:  During the lifetime of the Secretary‑General?

Correspondent:  Yes, sir.

Spokesman:  I hope he lives a long time, so yes. 

Correspondent:  During the… while he is the Secretary‑General.

Spokesman:  Sorry.  Let me refocus here.  Listen, again, I sound like a broken record… I don’t know that records exist anymore.  We have expressed our position over and over again in the Security Council.  We have a Special Coordinator on the ground who is doing whatever he can, and we've expressed our concern at the appearance of moving away from a two‑State solution.  I mean, Mr. Mladenov and others have said it in the Security Council.  So, I would just refer you back to what we've already said.  I've outlined what our basic and, I think, firm principles are.

Question:  So, given the fact that you keep on saying that it's going to be… it's a broken record, but the fact, I mean, this situation is such that it will keep on happening again and again.  And now, I mean, I suspect or I fear that there will be massive protests, protests especially in Gaza and West Bank.  What is it… and the Secretary‑General… what is it that the Secretary‑General can do to avoid them or to bring about some sort of…?

Spokesman:  The Secretary‑General and Secretariat have voiced their position and are… will never rest in working with the Israelis and Palestinians in supporting them in trying to find a solution based on the relevant resolutions.

Question:  But in the…?

Spokesman:  I… you know, I'm… Masood, with all due respect, I'm happy to moderate a discussion between you and Joe in looking at the situation on the ground, but I think I've run out of words here.  Yes, sir, and then we'll go…

Question:  Good afternoon, Stéphane.  Let us shift gears and go onto Africa.  I have two questions regarding Africa.  The first is the Sahel, and the second will be on the upcoming elections in Côte d'Ivoire [in] November.  So, regarding the Sahel, Madame Florence Parly, the French Minister for Defence, was in the US this week.  She had a visit with the Secretary of Defence, and she expressed concerns regarding potential reduction of military support by the US in the troubled Sahel, West Africa.  There are about 500 soldiers in Niger.  So, does the Secretary‑General share the concerns of Madame Parly regarding this?

Spokesman:  Look, the Secretary‑General has been very clear, is that he believes the international community should step up its effort and do whatever they can to support the countries on the front line, mainly the G5 Sahel forces, with robust and predictable support for their military anti‑terrorist action, and at the same time, also provide support for a number of the development aspects to address some of the root causes of what we're seeing.  Part of that is also what is going on in Libya, and that's no secret of the impact of the continued conflict in Libya on the precarious situation in western Africa.

Correspondent:  The second part was on Côte d'Ivoire.  Guillaume Soro… he's a former rebel, former president of the Côte d'Ivoire National Assembly.  He's in Paris.  So, he announced this week that he's going to be a candidate in the upcoming elections in Côte d'Ivoire, and he says he's been railroaded.  There's an arrest warrant for his… there's a warrant for his arrest.  He claims it's on trumped‑up charges.  Regarding the United Nations, he says his lawyer has placed a request with the United Nations to assure that his rights will be respected concerning this.

Spokesman:  I will try to get… I have nothing on Côte d'Ivoire, but I'll try to get you something.  David.  Oh, one…

Question:  Thanks.  Just a follow‑up on the Board of Inquiry.  What format will the conclusions of the Board… just if you have an update on what format the conclusions will be presented in.  Will they…?

Spokesman:  They'll be presented in written form to the Secretary‑General…

Question:  But will it be a full report or a summary?  And…

Spokesman:  The full report will go to the Secretary‑General, and then he will assess the next steps.

Question:  Has he made any decisions about…?

Spokesman:  No, I think he has to see the full report first.

Question:  And is there any possibility that he'll make it public at that point?

Spokesman:  There's a possibility of a lot of things happening within his lifetime, as Masood would say.  Yes, sir.

Question:  Just wondering if there's any word on the kind of malware or the vector used in the hack?

Spokesman:  No, nothing that I'm going… that I'm able to share with you… mostly because I don't know, but, obviously, I think our IT folks are constantly focused on the attempts that have… happen almost on a daily basis to penetrate the systems here.  Like… you know, again, it's like any other organization or like individuals or news organizations.  It's always about trying to stay one step ahead, and it's about ensuring that you learn from every incident, and you heighten the impact of protecting yourself.  And also, it's also onto… I mean, like any of us, it's also the responsibility… it's important that individuals follow the proper IT hygiene, to put it that way.  All the way in the back and then Carla.  Go ahead.

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Just a quick follow‑up on James' questions about the readiness of the UN with the coronavirus.  We can see here at the UN Headquarters a lot of Chinese groups coming every day.  Do we know exactly how many are they, for a week time, for example?  And did you start monitoring or some… did you put anything in place?

Spokesman:  First of all, I think it is very dangerous to start targeting certain people for the way… A, for the way they look or for we think they come from.  I know you didn't mean it that way, but I think it's a very important message to put out.  There are screenings being done, as we understand it, in our Host Country at various airports.  So, it's the responsibility of the Host Country.  We have no travel restrictions on UN staff at this time, but obviously, as I told James, whatever preventive measures we can all take from just washing your hands are being communicated very actively and proactively to staff of the United Nations.  Carla.

Question:  Questions.  Many years ago — was it five or six maybe — when Richard Falk, Professor Richard Falk, professor of international law, was Special Rapporteur on the situation in the Palestinian… the occupied territories, he said the chances of a two‑State solution are growing more and more unlikely given the expansion of the settlements.  From a realistic point of view, how much territory is left?  And is this a lost cause?

Spokesman:  We don't believe that causes are lost.  As far as the numbers of settlements and territory, I think that research is publicly available.  I don't have those numbers.  What is your second question, Carla?

Question:  [Inaudible] there were reports that the risks of the coronavirus were exaggerated.  I don't know if they came from the WHO, but I know they were credible sources.  Do you know anything about that?

Spokesman:  No, I mean, our… my only source is the WHO, as it should be.  Masood and then Betul and then James.

Question:  Thank you.  Stéphane, now, about this… I mean, despite the fact they have been disappointed several times, the Kashmiri women and girls holding vigil in a place called Shaheen Bagh in Kashmir, are still hoping that somehow United Nations will bring some sort of semblance of understanding between the India and the Kashmiris so that they're released and so that they have their rights.  They're still being denied their right to Internet or the right to move around.  So, what is it that the Secretary‑General or, for that matter, the… his human rights… what do you call… commissioner…?

Spokesman:  The High Commissioner for Human Rights has spoken out on Kashmir, and I would refer you to what she said.  As for us, I think I've… I don't want to give you the same answer I gave you last week, but that's where we are.

Question:  But these women and girls…?

Spokesman:  We're… you know, I think it's been very clear for us that the final settlement of the dispute concerning Jammu and Kashmir needs to be reached by peaceful means in accordance with the Charter and with the full respect for human rights.

Question:  May I?

Spokesman:  Betul, then James, then Maria.  Then we will go home.

Question:  On Libya, Steph, we were expecting the 5+1… 5+5 military commission to convene in Geneva yesterday.  It didn't happen.  Is it going to happen?  If yes, when is it going to happen?

Spokesman:  I don't have an update for you on that one.  When we have confirmation, I will share that with you.

Correspondent:  My question was just asked.

Spokesman:  Excellent.  Good job.  Maria, let's see if you can ask a question that has yet to be asked or answered.

Question:  My question was asked actually today at Security Council, but it wasn't answered because Mr. Lowcock left early, so probably he could answer it instead of him about the numbers you get from Syria and the, for example, 81 civilians killed during one week in this month.  Where did you get this numbers…?  Because, like, there is no monitoring mission from UN in Idlib, other NGO or other organizations which provide you with information?

Spokesman:  Some of the numbers, I think, have been put out by the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  It is always challenging, obviously, to put those numbers together.  They do it from sources that we deem credible and reliable, but I think… I would look at the statements that they've put out, where, you know, on 21 January, eight civilians were reportedly killed.  There have been other reported air strikes, but we have no reason to doubt the numbers that they're using.  Okay.  Joe and then in the back.  Yep?

Question:  This is a follow‑up to that.  We heard this morning the severe humanitarian crisis, lack of medical supplies because of the closing of at least two of the border crossings.  We also heard that the Secretary‑General is supposed to report by the end of February, I believe they said, on alternatives.  Now, given the urgency, again, that we heard this morning about the medical crisis and the impact of the closings on that crisis, is the Secretary‑General going to move up his report on alternatives to match the urgency?

Spokesman:  Well, we're working as quickly as we can to come up with feasible options.  I think our colleagues on the ground are working in very difficult conditions to try to get aid to those who need it through cross‑border or, as Mr. Lowcock said, trying… attempting through some of the cross lines, which has proven very challenging.  Yes, sir.  We'll give you the last question.

Question:  Thank you.  On coronavirus, what's the Secretary‑General's opinion on the measures that the Chinese Government so far has taken to prevent further spread of the virus?

Spokesman:  I think the Secretary‑General is in full agreement with Dr. Tedros, the head of WHO, on China's… on being supportive of what China has done to date to contain the virus.  Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.