26 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.

**Gender Equality

Good afternoon.  I just want to remind you, flag to you that tomorrow at 6:30 at the New School, the Secretary-General will deliver a major speech on gender equality, entitled “Women and Power.”  The speech will highlight areas where the power balance needs to shift, such as in political representation, inclusive economies, the digital divide, climate and conflict.

If you’d like to attend and you have not yet RSVPed, please see Florencia [Soto Niño] in my office.  And the attendance is free.


Turning to COVID-19: In a joint statement, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Tourism Organization (WTO) said they are working in close consultation, as well as with other partners, to assist States to ensure that health measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 are implemented in ways that minimize unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade.

The tourism sector is fully committed to putting people and their well-being first, but the two agencies pointed out that the response needs to be proportionate to the public health threat, based on local risk assessments, and in line with WHO’s overall guidance and recommendations.

International cooperation will be key to ensure the tourism sector effectively contributes to the containment of COVID-19.


Turning to Syria, the situation in Idlib is increasingly dire following an increase in hostilities in the last 48 hours; that’s according to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Air strikes have been reported yesterday in 19 communities and shelling in 10 villages in Idlib and Hama.  Civilians continue to bear the brunt of the hostilities.

At least 21 civilians, including five women and nine children, were reportedly killed by air strikes, as well as ground-based attacks.  The strikes also hit and damaged educational and medical facilities, including several that were serving as shelter for displaced people.  Idlib Central Hospital was among the facilities reportedly damaged yesterday.

The UN continues to seek ways to expand the ongoing humanitarian response on the ground, including by expanding the capacity of cross-border mechanism to accommodate up to 100 trucks per day.

Needs on the ground, however, continue to outstrip the humanitarian community’s capacity to respond.

The most urgent need remains an immediate ceasefire and protection of civilians.


Turning to Ethiopia, the Government of Ethiopia, as well as the UN and our humanitarian partners released the 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan, which seeks $1 billion to reach 7 million people with food and non-food assistance.  Of these, 81 per cent are women and children.

Food insecurity, displacement as a result of conflict, disease outbreak, and climate-related factors, including drought and floods, remain key drivers of humanitarian needs in Ethiopia.


In Niger, the Government, along with the UN and its partners, today jointly launched the Humanitarian Response Plan for this year, as well as the Government Support Plan.

The UN Plan seeks $400 million while the Government Plan seeks $320 million.

The two plans combined will help 2 million of the most vulnerable.

Niger continues to face constant population displacement due to increased activities by non-State armed groups in the Tillaberi and Tahoua regions in the west and the Diffa region in the south-east, while food insecurity and malnutrition threaten millions of people across the country.

**Mali/Burkina Faso/Niger

Our humanitarian colleagues tell us that the border area of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger has become the epicentre of a fast-growing crisis with unprecedented levels of armed violence.

According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, armed assailants are directly targeting schools and forcing health centres to close, depriving communities of critical services.  More than 3,600 schools and 241 health centres are no longer operating in those countries.

To support national and local authorities, we, along with our partners, are scaling up operations to save lives and alleviate human suffering and are appealing for $1 billion to support the most vulnerable.  This month, $17 million has been allocated from the UN’s Central Emergency [Response] Fund for Burkina Faso and Mali to provide provisions of shelter, water and sanitation, protection, health and food security.

**Questions and Answers

Khalas.  Betul?

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  Two questions.  First, on the coronavirus, what measures have been taken for the UN Headquarters against the new coronavirus?

And the second one is on Syria.  Russia has been suggesting humanitarian corridors for the civilians to leave Idlib, but UN Humanitarian Chief Mark Lowcock said that there was nowhere safe in Idlib.  Has the UN asked the Russians where these civilians could go?

And how many babies and children — do you have an update on that — have frozen to death?

Spokesman:  On your last part, I do know there have been victims.  I don’t have an exact number.  We will try to get you one.

We are in touch with all the parties on the ground to see where and when we can reach the most… the people most in need of humanitarian aid.  Obviously, we’re doing, as we’ve been mentioning, some cross‑border operations.  And, as we’ve said, we are in touch with the Syrian authorities to see how we can also move aid into those areas.

What is important is that there’s a cessation of hostilities that will be the biggest positive move… immediate positive move that we could have in terms of getting aid in.

In terms of the COVID‑19, the coronavirus, the current risk assessment for the UN in New York is low.  We are, of course… the situation is, of course, evolving.  Risk assessment keeps getting updated.  It’s a dynamic process.  We are in constant touch with the local health authorities in New York.  We have our… we have well‑established procedures with them on how to deal with any case that may come up, with any health emergencies.  We have well‑established protocols in terms of how we integrate our response here with the Medical Service with the host authorities.

I would also add that the UN being hosted in New York, in the United States, which is a country with a very robust public health system in which we have full confidence.

Question:  I have a follow‑up on Syria.  Is Russia suggesting that civilians go to the Government‑controlled areas or up to the north towards the Turkish border?  These humanitarian corridors.  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  I can’t get into the details of the discussions.  We are trying to reach people from whichever side.  Right?  I mean, whatever is more… I mean, it’s not an either/or.  So, we’re reaching people from Turkey through cross‑border and, obviously, also trying to move aid in through Government‑controlled areas.

Maggie, and then we’ll go to the back.

Question:  Staying on Idlib, you sort of rushed through it.  Did you say the UN is trying to expand to the 100 trucks, or did you agree it with Turkey?  Because yesterday you said something about trying to increase from 50 to 100.  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  We’re trying to expand.  We’re trying to expand to 100…

Question:  So it’s not been agreed yet.

Spokesman:  No.  Let me re‑look at what I read so I didn’t… yes, we’re looking for ways to expand to up to 100 trucks.

Question:  Okay.  So, will you let us know, then, when that discussion concludes, what comes out of it.  Thank you.  [cross talk]

Spokesman:  When the number’s reached, yes, ma’am.  Yes.

Question:  In regards to Ethiopia, is there any funding from the 2020 Response Plan going towards the locust crisis?

Spokesman:  Well, you know, we have put in a request… there was a joint request from FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) and WFP (World Food Programme) for response to the locust crisis.  Obviously, part of the Humanitarian Response Plan for Ethiopia will have to deal with the crisis… with the locust crisis.  Yep?

Question:  Thanks, Steph.  You mentioned the Secretary‑General talking before a bunch of students in New York about gender equality.  Do you think the issue of Harvey Weinstein is going to come up?  I wouldn’t expect him to address it… address the specifics of the case, but does he feel that the Weinstein conviction in some way represents a turning point?

Spokesman:  Whether or not… I mean, it’s not just a bunch of students.  Obviously, we hope it will be a bunch of you, as well, and it will be other invited guests.  But, obviously, it’s very important to speak to students.

Whether… you know, there will be a Q&A with the audience.  Whether it comes up, I don’t know.  But it’s clear, I think, to everyone that the conviction is an important turning point, and I think the Secretary‑General has always called for accountability of people who perpetrate violence against women.

Yep, and then Edie.  Sorry.

Question:  Two questions.  First is, are you able to give any more colour on what the Syrian Government has responded to you… to the SG’s office as you’ve been advocating for more ways to get aid in there anymore?

Spokesman:  It’s a constant… you know, we have a large presence in Damascus, it’s a constant dialogue.  Obviously, we’re dealing with an active conflict zone, which makes the delivery of aid extremely difficult, to say the least.

Question:  Thank you.  And then the second question is, just ahead of today’s meeting organized by Belgium on non‑proliferation, can the SG weigh in a little bit on where things stand with non‑proliferation and where… you know, what kind of a priority this is for him at the moment?

Spokesman:  The non‑proliferation of?

Question:  [inaudible] Security Council meeting.

Spokesman:  Yeah, I mean, you know, the issue of non‑proliferation is one the Secretary‑General, I think, has been very vocal about and will continue to do so.


Question:  Steph, does the Secretary‑General have any further comment on the riots in India over the new citizenship law?  And has he communicated at all to the Indian Government?

Spokesman:  I think he’s very saddened by the reports of casualties following the protests in Delhi, and as he has done in similar circumstances, he calls for maximum restraint and for violence to be avoided.


Question:  Thanks, Steph.  So, a couple of questions.  There have been reports of a UN staffer in Vienna who may have been diagnosed with coronavirus.  Do you have any information about that?

And, also, on Libya, I know that Special Representative [Ghassan] Salamé will be briefing the Council later today behind closed doors, but there was the political meeting in Geneva earlier.  Can you give us more details on who attended, how things went?

Spokesman:  Short answer is, yes, the meeting’s taken place.  Longer answer is I have no details to provide to you, because I have none.  But it’s, obviously, good that the meeting’s taken place.

Your other question… oh, Vienna.  Yes, there was… earlier today, there was a suspected case.  That person was transferred by… from the UN’s Medical Service in Vienna to specialized health facilities in Vienna, and it was subsequently cleared of having the corona… COVID‑19, so that person does not, repeat, does not have the COVID‑19.

Alan, and then we’ll go back to you, Maggie.

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Yesterday it was a meeting of Host Country Committee again regarding the ongoing problems with the issuing of US visas.  And according to Russian side, Russian diplomats addressed to Secretary‑General asking him to launch the arbitration procedure.  So, did Secretary‑General really get such a request?  And what will be the further steps?

Spokesman:  I think the non… the issue of non‑issuance of visas, of stringent travel restrictions on representatives of certain Member States is an issue that’s of great concern to the Secretary‑General, and I think he’s expressed it himself directly here in the press conference not too long ago.

Both the Secretary‑General and his Legal Counsel continue to raise those concerns with senior host country Government officials in trying to seek a resolution to the issue.


Question:  So, just following up on the Vienna situation, has the UN thought about curtailing some travel, then, to hotspots or…

Spokesman:  You know, we are following guidance by WHO and, obviously, people should use… the guidance is that only travel… you know, essential travel to certain areas where the virus is present should be had.

I would say that, in the case of Vienna, the systems worked, and it’s the same kinds of systems we have here, where our Medical Service here is well trained to respond immediately to anyone who shows any sign of possible symptoms and then working very closely with the local health authorities.

Question:  So, on that, I was just thinking about CSW (Commission on the Status of Women), and I know you had said earlier when we asked about it that it’s up to the national authorities, the host country, to screen travellers.

Spokesman:  Right.

Question:  Which is fine, but then let’s say one of our delegates gets here and they show symptoms four days after arrival or five days after arrival; is the UN Medical Service set up to deal with it?

Spokesman:  Yes.  So, a couple of things.  First of all, anybody who comes to participate in a conference will receive a package with up‑to‑date information on COVID‑19, advice on prevention, on how to detect any symptoms, and treatment.  The packages will… information will also be made available to anybody attending a conference.  There’ll be reminders at the start of each event for participants to seek medical assistance, and the UN medical staff here is trained and able to provide assistance and will treat… will deal with the issue very quickly.

I mean, I’ve spoken a couple times in the last few days with our… with Dr. Jillann Farmer, who’s head of the Medical Service, and I can tell you, they are very much on top of that situation.

Yes, sir?

Question:  Thanks again.  There was a question before about the non‑proliferation meeting this afternoon.  I think there’s a bit more to it, which is that this is part of the run‑up to the NPT (Non Proliferation Treaty) Review Conference in April, and this is going to be occurring against a backdrop of things like Russia and the US significantly increasing their spending on nuclear arsenals and also at a time where diplomacy on North Korea and Iran is, let’s face it, going badly.  So, you know, what’s… what are going to be the guiding UN messages from you guys to the NPT delegates over the next couple of months?

Spokesman:  To come together and avoid any further backsliding that we have seen in the non‑proliferation regime.  You know, whether it was the ending of the Intermediate‑Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the US and Russia and other areas in the world where we’ve, frankly, seen a backsliding.

Yes, sir?

Question:  You mentioned before the increasing crisis in the border region of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.  Who made the request for the $1 billion?  And can you remind me, who is in charge at UN of that crisis?

Spokesman:  Well, you know, we have… the request was made by our humanitarian colleagues.  This was the $400 million UN plan and the $320 million plan requested by the Government, and then there’s a larger regional plan for… appealing for a billion dollars.  Our colleagues in the humanitarian office are, obviously, [overseeing] those humanitarian efforts in close liaison not only with the Government but with regional authorities.

Yes, Maggie?

Question:  Don’t close your binder just yet.  [laughter]  One more on COVID.  You said the other day you would get us some information on whether registration for CSW has been affected by the outbreak.

Spokesman:  Yeah, I mean, the… it’s a little early to tell.  The registration, in terms of people sending in applications, has not been impacted.  We’ve gotten… I mean, I talked to our security colleagues.  They’ve gotten the same number of requests for passes as in previous years.  What often happens is that, you know, you get X number of requests for passes, and then there’s actually X minus numbers actually pick them up.  So, in that sense, we have no indication…

Question:  And would you have data on what countries people are coming from that you could share with us?

Spokesman:  I will, but I think once we get closer to the date… because I said, it’s kind of like…

Question:  Well, it’s a week away.

Spokesman:  Right, no.  It’s kind of like press accreditations also for the GA.  We get a huge amount of requests.  Not everybody shows up.  So, we’ll have to see who actually shows up.  But I would stress that the situation is evolving every day and is fluid, and the risk assessments are done on a daily basis but that the risk for New York remains low.

Yes, ma’am?

Question:  I just want to come back to the question of visa and the Host Country Committee.  I was just wondering if you know if the number of visas that were not issued, let’s say, over the last year, is it unprecedented?  Is it higher than usual?  Do you have an idea?

Spokesman:  You know, I hate to use the term “unprecedented” because I haven’t been around for 75 years.  The number is high, and I will leave it at that.

Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.