17 February 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 Eri Kaneko, Associate Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.


Good afternoon.  We’ll try to keep this short because we will soon be joined over video by Yacoub El Hillo, the Humanitarian Coordinator for Libya, and he will brief you on the situation in that country.

**Secretary-General’s Travels

But first, the Secretary-General spoke today at the International Conference on 40 Years of Hosting Afghan Refugees, which took place in Islamabad, and he called the Afghan refugees’ experience in Pakistan a remarkable story of solidarity and compassion.

The Secretary-General said that he hopes the signals of a possible pathway for peace will lead to a better future for the people of Afghanistan.  At the same time, he said about the refugees, Afghanistan and its people cannot be abandoned.  Now is the time for the international community to act and deliver.  Our ability to succeed, he said, will be a litmus test for the Global Compact on Refugees — its promise of greater responsibility-sharing with countries that have shouldered the burden until now.

The Secretary-General also met with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, and he informed the Prime Minister that he continues to follow the situation in Jammu and Kashmir with concern and appeals for maximum restraint and full respect for human rights.  The Secretary-General reiterated his readiness to exercise his good offices if both sides agree.

In a press conference with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister yesterday, the Secretary-General said that his visit aims to recognize Pakistan’s outstanding generosity and solidarity over many decades and to highlight its place in confronting some of the biggest global challenges our world faces today.  He added that he was grateful for the work of the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP), and that he was happy that he inaugurated the new premises of their headquarters.

The Secretary-General also spoke out yesterday on development and climate change, expressing his dismay that, after the success of the Paris conference in 2015, our momentum has stalled.  He said that our planet is burning, but too many decision makers continue to fiddle.  The only answer is decisive climate action — by Governments, businesses and investors, mayors and governors, and citizens everywhere.  All of his speeches and press encounters are online.


On north-west Syria, Mark Lowcock, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said in a statement today that the crisis there has reached a horrifying new level, stressing that the only option is a ceasefire.  He says that, since 1 December, 900,000 people — the vast majority of them women and children — have been displaced.

Mr. Lowcock said that these people are traumatized and forced to sleep outside in freezing temperatures because camps are full.  He stressed that the violence in north-west Syria is indiscriminate, with health facilities, schools, residential areas, mosques and markets having been hit.

The Under-Secretary-General said there are now reports that settlements for displaced people are being hit, resulting in deaths, injuries and further displacement.  A huge relief operation, across the border from Turkey is under way, but it is overwhelmed.

Mr. Lowcock underscored that the biggest humanitarian horror story of the twenty-first century will only be avoided if Security Council members and those with influence overcome individual interests and put a collective stake in humanity first.


On Yemen, a detailed plan to complete the first official large-scale exchange of prisoners since the beginning of the conflict there was agreed yesterday in Amman, Jordan.  At the end of the seven-day meeting, the parties decided to immediately begin exchanging lists for the upcoming release, marking a step towards fulfilling their commitment to the phased release of all conflict-related detainees under the Stockholm Agreement.

This latest meeting was the third round of deliberations for a committee that is co-chaired by the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).  Martin Griffiths, the UN Special Envoy, urged the parties to move forward with this exchange with the utmost sense of urgency, saying progress has been too slow on this front.

He added that the parties have shown that, even with growing challenges on the ground, the confidence they have been building can still yield positive results.  Mr. Griffiths will brief the Security Council via video link tomorrow.

Also on Yemen, the Humanitarian Coordinator for that country, Lise Grande, has called “terrible” the strikes on 15 February, in which more than 30 civilians were killed and 12 others injured in the Al Hayjah area in Al Jawf Governorate.  She emphasized that “under humanitarian law, parties are obliged to protect civilians”.

The UN and humanitarian agencies deployed rapid response teams to provide first aid to the victims, many of whom are being transferred to hospitals in Al Jawf Governorate and Sana’a for treatment.  Partners are also providing support to the health facilities which are treating the injured.

Violence in Yemen has increased since mid-January, with escalating clashes along several front lines.  More than 30,000 people have fled their homes in recent weeks, and humanitarians are providing assistance in affected areas.  The full statement is online.


On Iraq, the UN Assistance Mission there (UNAMI) continues to receive credible allegations of peaceful protesters targeted by “hunting guns” on the road between Al Tahrir Square and Al Khilani Square in Baghdad during the last several evenings, injuring at least 50 people.

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, strongly condemns the use of hunting rifles with birdshot, calling on the authorities to prevent the use of force and to hold those responsible for the abuse of force accountable.  Peaceful protesters should be protected at all times, she emphasized.


And this morning, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that, as more data comes in from China, they are starting to get a clearer picture of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Earlier today, China published a paper with detailed data on more than 44,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, which appear to show a decline in new cases.  Dr. Tedros said it is too early to tell if this reported decline will continue.

The data also indicates that more than 80 per cent of the patients have a mild form of the disease and will recover.  In about 14 per cent of the cases, the virus causes severe disease, while in 2 per cent of the reported cases, the virus is fatal.  As such, it appears that COVID-19 is not as deadly as other coronaviruses, including SARS and MERS, WHO said.

WHO continues to help countries prepare by sending testing kits to laboratories around the world.  They are also training health workers, sending them personal protective equipment, and working with manufacturers to ensure available supply.  Dr. Tedros reiterated that there is a window of opportunity and that resources are needed now to ensure countries are prepared.  He called on the international community to fund the $675 million appeal to support the countries’ preparations.

**South Sudan

On South Sudan, the UN Mission (UNMISS) welcomed the announcement by the presidency of South Sudan to return to 10 states, an important compromise to enable the timely formation of the transitional Government as promised to the citizens of South Sudan.

David Shearer, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, said that “compromise is possible when the political will exists”.  He urged all parties to reach out and embrace each other’s positions so that the peace deal can be fully implemented.  Under a new transitional Government, a process can be initiated so parties can work together to make a collective decision on the appropriate number of states, administrative areas and demarcation of boundaries.

Mr. Shearer added that “the formation of an inclusive transitional Government will inspire greater trust and confidence amongst citizens that the peace process will succeed and that the parties will come together to make decisions collectively”.


On Myanmar, the UN is alarmed by reports of an artillery shell explosion, which injured up to 17 children, at a school in Rakhine State last Thursday.  Sixty children were reportedly in the building when the incident took place.

This incident is part of an escalation of hostilities between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar Military across much of Rakhine State.  The hostilities continue to severely impact civilians.

The UN calls on all parties to the conflict to adhere to their obligations under international humanitarian law, including the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution, and to ensure that human rights are respected across Rakhine.

**Dominican Republic

And in response to questions we have received on the Dominican Republic, we can say we are aware of the decision of the Dominican Republic’s Central Electoral Board to suspend yesterday’s municipal elections after the vote started, due to technical problems, and [are] following the situation with concern.  We call on all national stakeholders and voters to exercise calm and restraint while the origins of the technical issues are being clarified.  We trust that new municipal elections will be held in accordance with the country’s legal framework and longstanding democratic tradition.

**Financial Contribution

And our thanks today go to Cyprus and Mongolia.  Both have paid their regular budget dues in full, thus taking the total of fully paid-up Member States to 50.  And that is it for me. Do you have any questions before we go to our guest?  Yes, Edie?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you.  A Libya question.  There was a meeting on the sidelines of the Munich security counc… conference this weekend by some of the party… most of the parties who were at the Berlin conference.  I saw some quotes from the German Foreign Minister.  I didn’t see anything from the UN.  What was the UN’s readout of that meeting?

Associate Spokesperson:  I’m not sure about our level of participation, but let me check, and I’ll get back to you on that.  Thanks.  Maggie?

Question:  Eri, on the COVID stuff you just read out, on the $675 million they’re appeal… the UN is appealing for, I’m just not clear on who that’s going to.  Is it all for China?  Does China actually need $670 million…?

Associate Spokesperson:  It’s going for the WHO’s efforts to address the… and to help…

Question:  But they’re addressing it primarily in China…

Associate Spokesperson:  And to help countries prepare… other countries also prepare for the possible spread of the virus.

Question:  Could we get a list perhaps of some of the countries the money might be going to?

Associate Spokesperson:  Sure, we’ll check with WHO.  All right, are we good?  Okay. Let’s see if our guest is here.

For information media. Not an official record.