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

24 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 Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

Happy Monday, yes?  As happy as a Monday can be.  All right.

**Human Rights Council

As you may have seen, the Secretary-General spoke at the opening of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, saying that he came there to launch a Call for Action.  He added that he has decided to do it now — during the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations — because of the centrality of human rights in all of the UN’s work, and because human rights are under assault.  The Secretary‑General said that all our societies have benefitted from human rights movements led by women, young people, minorities, indigenous peoples and others.  Our Call to Action, he said, singles out seven areas where concerted effort can achieve a quantum leap in the progress or avert the risk of backsliding.  And that speech has been distributed to you.

**World Health Organization

Following his remarks at the Human Rights Council, the Secretary-General visited the World Health Organization’s (WHO) crisis centre, met with the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros [Adhanom Ghebreyesus], and he also spoke to reporters.  He praised WHO colleagues for their courage and dedication — noting he saw first-hand how their work to fight the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo helped save many lives.

On the COVID-19 outbreak, he also commended WHO for its work to contain the epidemic.  He appealed for all countries to assume their responsibilities and to do everything to be prepared to contain the disease, reiterating that this is possible.  He appealed for donors to support WHO’s funding appeals.  If there is truly something stupid to do, it is to not fully fund WHO appeals, the Secretary‑General said, because WHO appeals are vital to support Member States to avoid [that] these tragic diseases become truly global nightmares.  We will share a transcript of his remarks shortly.

And earlier in the day, during his daily update, WHO’s Director-General, Dr. Tedros, said he is concerned by the sudden increases of cases in Italy, Iran and the Republic of Korea.  However, he added, this does not mean the epidemic has become a pandemic.  He reiterated his call for all countries and communities to focus on preparing, and on protecting health workers, people who are most at risk of severe disease, as well as countries that are the most vulnerable.

**Deputy Secretary-General’s Travels

And the Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, spoke at the opening of the Special Session of the Regional Coordination Mechanism for Africa, that took place in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.  She said that the significance of the African Union as a strategic partner of the United Nations cannot be overstated.  The Deputy Secretary-General told participants that, like the rest of the world, Africa is not on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, and the goals of Agenda 2063.  While Africa has made notable progress in education, health and other social outcomes, she said that the pace of poverty‑reduction is slow, and inclusive growth — leaving no one behind — remains elusive.  Adding that there is no better example of a strong partnership around an SDG solution than the African Union’s initiative on Silencing the Guns.  Her remarks have been shared with you.

**Personnel Appointment

Senior personnel announcement today to share with you:  The Secretary-General is appointing Major General Ishwar Hamal of Nepal as the Head of the Mission and Force Commander of the UN Disengagement Observer Force, otherwise known as UNDOF.  Major General Hamal succeeds Major General Shivaram Kharel, also of Nepal, who served as the Acting Head of Mission and Force Commander from June to October 2019.  The Secretary-General thanks Major Kharel for his dedicated service during this challenging period.  Major General Hamal has had a long career in the Nepali Army since entering as an artillery officer in 1983 and he has had extensive experience with UN peacekeeping.  And his bio is available to you.

**Security Council

Back here, Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, briefed the Security Council this morning by video‑teleconference and he warned that more than 60 rockets had been fired into Israel since last night by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, while Israel has mounted attacks on Islamic Jihad forces.  Mr. Mladenov called for an immediate stop to the firing of rockets and mortars, which he said would only risk dragging Gaza into another destructive round of hostilities with no end in sight.  He added that women increasingly bear the brunt of the dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, and also highlighted what he called the ongoing health disaster in Gaza, where stock levels for 46 per cent of essential medicines have been completely depleted.

**Afghanistan

And on Friday evening, you saw that we issued a statement on Afghanistan, in which the Secretary-General welcomed the announced nationwide reduction of violence in the country.  He said he hoped this critical step will lead to intra‑Afghan negotiations and a comprehensive peace process.  And over the weekend, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released a report which says that parties to the conflict in the country killed and injured more than 10,000 civilians in 2019.  This is the sixth year in a row that the number of civilian casualties exceeded 10,000.  In addition, the UN found that, in 2019, the number of civilian casualties had surpassed 100,000.  That report was available to you.

**South Sudan

And also on Saturday, we issued a statement in which the Secretary-General welcomed the establishment of the Transitional Government of National Unity in South Sudan.  He commended the parties for this significant achievement and applauded regional and international efforts that contributed to the result.  He also called on the members of the Transitional Government to fully follow to the letter and spirit of the Agreement, so that the people of South Sudan can finally realize the benefits of a durable peace and stability.

**Financial Contribution

And lastly, I want to say thank you to our friends in Tarawa for a full payment of the 2020 regular budget.  Tarawa is the capital of which Member State? Kiribati.  There you go.  Exactly.  We all learned something today.  Edie and then Maggie.  Yeah?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  On Syria, the situation in Idlib has worsened every day.  Can you tell us what the Secretary‑General has done in the past three days to try and talk to the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Syria to try and come up with some kind of a ceasefire arrangement?

Spokesman:  I think, as the Secretary‑General told you on Friday, he had been passing on messages privately and publicly.  He had met with a number of PRs [Permanent Representatives] last week, and this evening, he is scheduled to meet with Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov in Geneva.  And he's also being fully briefed… he's meeting his envoy, Mr. [Geir] Pedersen, who will brief him on his contacts that have been had, as Mr. Pedersen has also been passing the same message of the need for de‑escalation and cessation of hostilities.

Question:  Is he meeting Geir Pedersen in Geneva…?

Spokesman:  In Geneva, yes, in Geneva and Mr. Lavrov in a few hours, also in Geneva.  Maggie?

Question:  Steph, in about two weeks, the CSW [Commission on the Status of Women] is going to kick off.  And amid this whole COVID‑19 situation, we're having delegates and participants coming from every corner of the world.  So, what's the UN doing at Headquarters to prepare?  And are you working with New York City health authorities also?  Because it would affect everybody.

Spokesman:  Sure.  You know, it's a good question.  We've… I was asking this morning to see if there had been any impact on registration.  So, we're still trying to find that out.  Obviously, it is the responsibility of the host Government to ensure the proper… that the proper policies and screening are in place.  We are asking people to follow the recommendations of WHO, notably on issues of personal hygiene, on washing hands and so forth.  But, it's a bit too early to tell if it has had an impact or if it will have an impact on the number of delegates that we expect to see here.

Question:  Follow‑up.  But, you're having several thousand people come, which, in a way, you're putting a strain on the New York City authorities with that.  You're giving them the extra burden, and you're saying it's their responsibility, the Host Country's…?

Spokesman:  Well, the screening… obviously, the health screening is the responsibility of the Host Country.  We will take whatever measures we can here.  I mean, I think you've probably seen the extra… the addition of extra hand sanitizers around the building, and it's important that people also take the proper precautions.

Correspondent:  Well… but wait.  So… sorry.  I know Sherwin's jumping out of his seat here.

Spokesman:  Sherwin can restrain himself.

Question:  Are you… yes or no, are you working with the New York City authorities at all in coordinating with them…?

Spokesman:  I'm sure… I will check, but I have no doubt that we're in touch with the New York City authorities, but I will get back to you on that.  Okay.  Sherwin?

Question:  Just a follow‑up.  There's… we understand that there's a task force that meets three times a week.  What does this task force discuss here at the United Nations as… in response to this, the spread of the coronavirus?  The sense I get from your podium is that there's a lot of congratulations going to the WHO in terms of how they've managed the response to this, and yet we're seeing the number of cases continue to spike, the number of deaths continue to spike in new territories like Iran and South Korea and Italy.  So, why this back‑slapping when people are dying and the numbers keep increasing?

Spokesman:  A, I don't think it's back‑slapping.  I also think the WHO, led by Dr. Tedros, is doing whatever they can to help national authorities deal with the spread of the coronavirus.  Obviously, the national authorities are the ultimate authorities who are in the lead on these systems.  WHO is working very closely with countries that are especially vulnerable where their health systems may be a bit weaker.  What is also important, I think, as the Secretary‑General said, is that the funding appeals for WHO to help contain the spread of the virus as much as possible, especially when you are looking at developing countries where, again, the existing health systems may be more vulnerable, is so important.  Evelyn?

Question:  Yes.  To follow up on Maggie's question, it's… I wonder if all these women are going to get visas, not because of the virus, but because some of them come from countries that Mr. [Donald] Trump doesn't like.

Spokesman:  That's a separate issue.

Correspondent:  Yes, exactly.

Spokesman:  We very much hope that the Host Country authorities will grant visas according to the requirements under the Host Country Agreements to delegates attending UN conferences, including especially the CSW that's coming up.

Question:  I mean, has the US Mission been involved in this, or you don't know?

Spokesman:  Well, I mean, the US Mission… the US authorities are the ones granting the visas.  We're not the ones doing it.  I think it's a little early to tell right now if there's been any impact on the number of…

Question:  Another question.  UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East], the… Mr. Mad… Mladenov mentioned UNRWA and that it was short of money.  Do you have any further details on how short they are and…?

Spokesman:  No.  We can get some hard data from UNRWA.  Okay.  Señor?

Question:  Steph, could you give us an update of the work that Mr. [Jean] Arnault is doing in Bolivia and if the… tell us if the Secretary‑General is concerned with the elections coming up, and there has been a lot of messages from different parts questioning that these elections are going to be free and fair, et cetera?  Thank you.

Spokesman:  You know, we… in terms of the elections, notably on… we have… we are providing technical assistance to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.  The Supreme [Electoral] Tribunal and the UN have also signed an agreement for a project to assist the Tribunal and the Departmental Electoral Courts in delivering a credible and inclusive electoral process.  The electoral assistance is part of a broader plan… a broader support by the UN to consolidate peace and political calm in Bolivia.  Mr. Arnault is continuing his work and his efforts, as well.

Question:  Just a follow‑up.  I believe up to a third of the candidacies that were put forward have been not approved by the electoral authorities, I think this high tribunal.  Do you have any comment on that?

Spokesman:  Well, I think what's important is people should have a right to appeal to the relevant institutions if they believe their rights have not been respected by the decisions taken regarding their participation in the election.  Maggie?

Question:  On South Sudan, what does the UN see as being the next steps now that we've gotten to the transitional… through the transitional…?

Spokesman:  I think the important step is to consolidate and to follow what was agreed upon is that the leaders put into action the agreement they have signed on to.  There's a lot of work to be done in South Sudan.  There's a lot of peace to consolidate.  There's a lot of work to be done in alleviating the suffering of the South Sudanese people, who have suffered not only because of war, but also because of natural disaster.  So, it's important, first of all, that the two leaders themselves follow the spirit and the letter of the agreement, and it's important that the international community and the regional institutions also support the Government.

Question:  And speaking of nation… natural disasters, do you have any update on the locusts?

Spokesman:  No, not today.  We hope to have something tomorrow.  Thank you, all, and see you tomorrow.

For information media. Not an official record.