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3 March 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.

**Guest Today

Good afternoon.  After you are done with me, my guest will be Assistant Secretary-General for Human Resources Management, Martha Helena Lopez.  She will speak to you about the recently completed UN staff survey.  And as you know, at 1 p.m., we will have Kevin Kennedy piped in from the border between Turkey and Syria to brief you on his trip to Idlib yesterday.

**Gabon/Equatorial Guinea

Just a few minutes ago, the Secretary-General took part in a ceremony to mark the Special Agreement on the border dispute between the Gabonese Republic and the Republic of Equatorial Guinea.  The Secretary-General congratulated the two countries for demonstrating the political will, courage and perseverance necessary to put in place domestic measures to make this agreement possible.  The ceremony marked the successful conclusion of a United Nations mediation process, which aimed at facilitating a peaceful solution to the long‑standing border dispute between Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.  The Special Agreement will allow both countries to submit their dispute to the International Court of Justice.  The Secretary-General said he hopes the steps taken by these two countries will be an inspiration for others facing similar challenges.  By submitting their dispute to the International Court of Justice, he added, they are now showing the world that it is possible to find peaceful solutions, in accordance with international law.

**COVID-19

Just a regular update on COVID-19, Dr. Tedros [Adhanom Ghebreyesus] said today that there are now 90,893 reported cases globally and 3,110 deaths.  Twelve new countries have reported their first cases, with 21 countries having one case only.  Dr. Tedros stressed the actions newly affected countries take today will be the difference between a handful of cases and a larger cluster.  He said that, while containment is not possible for seasonal flu, it is possible for COVID-19, with contact tracing helping to prevent infections and save lives.  He also voiced concern over how countries’ abilities to respond are being compromised by the severe and increasing disruption to the global supply of personal protective equipment due to rising demand, hoarding and misuse.  He emphasized that this is a question of solidarity and cannot be solved by WHO or one industry alone — it requires all of us working together to ensure all countries can protect the people who protect the rest of us.

I know many of you who were following the Commission on the Status of Women: following the Secretary-General’s recommendation to Member States to amend the format of the sixty-fourth session of the Commission in light of the current concerns regarding COVID-19, the Commission decided that the sixty-fourth session will convene at 10 a.m. on 9 March for a procedural meeting.  The meeting will include opening statements, followed by the adoption of a draft political declaration and action on any other draft resolutions.  The session will then suspend until further notification.  No general debate will take place and all side events planned by Member States and the UN system in conjunction with the sixty-fourth session will be cancelled for next week.  The Secretary-General will address… as scheduled, he will address the ceremony.

**Syria

Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock visited the Syria-Turkey border today, and in a statement, he said that civilians across northwest Syria are experiencing a grave humanitarian crisis, and what they need is a ceasefire and for international humanitarian law to be respected.  He said that an estimated 2.8 million people in north‑west Syria need humanitarian assistance.  With $500 million of funding, we will be able to reach 1.1 million of the most vulnerable, he added.  Mr. Lowcock said that, with today’s generous $108 million contribution from the United States, more than $300 million has been received or pledged by donors.

Meanwhile, Geir Pedersen, the Special Envoy for Syria, saw the Turkish Foreign Minister and other senior Turkish officials in Ankara yesterday.  Mr. Pedersen is now in Cairo to brief Foreign Ministers of the League of Arab States on the situation in Syria.  Mr. Pedersen continues to strongly underline the desperate need for an immediate ceasefire and the protection of civilians.  Beyond that, what is needed are arrangements for Idlib that could ensure some stability and help create more conducive conditions for a political process.  Mr. Pedersen today announced today the appointment of Marianne Gasser of Switzerland as the Head of the Envoy’s office in Damascus.  Ms. Gasser has had a long career with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), including as head of its delegation in Syria.

**Iraq

This just in… great.  Back here, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the Secretary‑General’s Special Representative for Iraq, spoke to the Security Council and told them that the country’s political leaders and communities will have to step up to the plate, placing the country’s interest above all else.  She discussed the recent killings of and attacks on protestors, saying that these abhorrent human rights violations are ongoing and fly in the face of all that is decent.  She said they have no place in a democracy, any democracy, and it is therefore imperative to put an end to these abuses and to bring the perpetrators to justice.  She added that Iraqi leaders must dismantle or formally integrate their armed entities under full State control without delay.  And she added that, after five months of protests, and the many injured and killed, it should be clear that peaceful protesters — backed by a silent majority — will not budge on their aspirations.  The Special Representative also told the Council members that the ongoing political indecision and dissension in Iraq do not give cause for immediate optimism.  She said Iraqis must find strength in diversity, recognizing a cohesive society as more than the sum of its parts.

**Rohingya

UN agencies and their partners today launched an appeal for $877 million to help some 855,000 Rohingya refugees [from] Myanmar who are in Bangladesh, as well as more than 444,000 vulnerable Bangladeshis in the communities which are generously hosting these refugees.  More than half of this funding will go towards vital services and assistance, such as access to food, shelter, clean water and sanitation.  This marks the third year of exile for most Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.  They are clear that they want to return home, but only when they and their families will be safe, can access basic rights and see a pathway to citizenship in Myanmar.

**Libya

Turning to Libya, our humanitarian colleagues tell us they are deeply concerned by the escalation in fighting around Tripoli since the end of February.  On 1 March, shelling in Ain Zara reportedly killed a child and injured three civilians.  Shelling around Mitiga Airport, on 28 February, hit an ambulance affiliated with a local hospital and prompted the evacuation of the hospital.  Aid workers continue to call on all parties to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and protect civilian infrastructure and avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, given their likely indiscriminate effects.

**Somalia

From Somalia, it is reported that 9,000 households — or about 56,000 people — have been displaced in the Jubaland State due to clashes that broke out in early February.  The Humanitarian Coordinator for the country, Adam Abdelmoula, stressed that all efforts must be made to minimize harm to civilians and damage to schools, health centres and homes.  He also said that it is imperative for all parties to safeguard the movement of civilians out of conflict areas in safety and dignity so that they may have unobstructed access to humanitarian protection and assistance.  Some 2.6 million people are currently displaced within Somalia due to conflict and climatic shocks.

**Wildlife

Today is what day?  You seem to be interested.  It is World Wildlife Day.  This year’s theme is “Sustaining all life on Earth”.  In his message, the Secretary‑General said that by overexploiting wildlife, habitats and ecosystems, humanity is endangering both itself and the survival of countless species of wild plants and animals.  He stressed the need to remind ourselves of our duty to preserve and sustainably use the vast variety of life on the planet:  “A world of thriving biodiversity provides the foundation we need to achieve our Sustainable Development Goals of a world of dignity and opportunity for all people on a healthy planet.”

**Noon Briefing Guest

Tomorrow, I will be joined at this daily briefing by the Humanitarian Coordinator for Haiti, my friend Bruno Lemarquis, and he will brief us on the humanitarian situation in Haiti.

**Honour Roll

Today we say thank you to our friends in Windhoek in Namibia.  They've paid their budget dues in full, which brings us up to a very healthy?  [Sixty-three.]  Bingo, Benno.  You win today.  Do you have a question?  Oh, excellent.  Yes, sir?

**Questions and Answers

Question:  Thank you, Steph.  With regard to Mr. [Ghassan]Salamé's resignation that first was announced on Twitter — I later learned that there was an email sent to the Secretary‑General — I need to have a feel.  How does the Secretary‑General feel at this stage?  He was personally involved in this issue for quite some time with the latest German initiative and resolution and Berlin meeting.  Now we, obviously, reach to a failure… stale… is it a failure?  A stalemate?  And what is the plan B, since the old… the old process is not… obviously, is not working?

Spokesman:  I'm not… I think… we're not characterizing this as a failure.  Mr. Salamé indicated, for the reasons he made public and same reasons he shared with the Secretary‑General, his wish to step down.  Our focus right now is on the transition.  We'll be discussing that transition with Mr. Salamé.  We don't want to lose the gains that have been made.  There, of course, have been challenges.  The… unfortunately, as you see, the fighting is continuing.  Civilians, you know, are getting killed.  Ambulances, hospitals are getting hit, which is completely unacceptable, but there's no plan B but to move forward, and that's what the Secretary‑General intends to do.

Question:  Follow‑up, please?  Numbers of casualties, totally agree, it's staggering.  Violation of international humanitarian law became part of the daily activities in Libya.  To what point that there would be either on… the Secretary‑General can use Article 99 and come to the Security Council and say, we need application… or enforcement of Chapter 7 or Article 7…?

Spokesman:  The… Libya is front and centre on the Security Council's agenda already.  What we need are people to respect the resolutions passed by Security Council.  What we need are people to respect the arms embargo.  Libya does not need more weapons.  Right?  Libya needs a political process that's supported by the international community, and we will continue to work towards that goal.

Question:  So, no indication of any intention to bring the Chapter 7…?

Spokesman:  I think I've just answered your question.  Ibtisam?

Question:  I have two questions.  The first one on Yemen, and there are some media reports regarding US' and other European countries' pressure on the UN not to… to… in order to suspend aid in Houthi-controlled areas.  Can you confirm that, or do you have any comments?

Spokesman:  I'm not in the business of confirming media reports.  I think the article referred to… talked about the US' position.  So, that's not for me to speak to them.  What I can tell you and it's been clear — we've said so publicly — is that, over the past… we've had in Yemen a number of constraints on our ability to deliver aid, notably in northern Yemen, which has made our work more difficult.  This impacts aid delivery and everything that goes with it.  There… we all agree that, I think, over the last few months, these restrictions have made our work more difficult and have made it sometimes untenable.  We've had discussion on this issue with our donors, notably during the Brussels meeting.  We've kept them up to date.  We've briefed them on the work that we're doing, whether it's on recalibrating the programmes and other actions we've taken.  We've also intensified… in order to overcome these challenges, we've intensified our discussions and had very frank discussions with the de facto authorities conveying the seriousness of the concerns we're facing and what the impact could be, and I think we've also appreciated the… how should I put it… the direct engagement of some of our key donors on this fact.  We've seen some progress because of these discussions, notably the cancellation of the proposed 2 per cent tax and other bureaucratic procedures that slow down the delivery of aid.  This is encouraging.  We hope that this trend continues.  I would refer you and I think you also heard what Mark Lowcock said in the Security Council recently.  He was very clear that verbal commitments in themselves are not enough, but that we actually need to see the proof in how we operate on the ground.  And then the other thing we're obviously working on is the need to recalibrate the delivery of aid if the commitments made don't allow us to work with our basic humanitarian principles, which is that humanitarian aid should be free of any political constraints, and it should be impartial, and it should be needs‑based.  If you recall, in the past, we have taken some difficult decisions to scale down assistance when the right operating environment was not in place.  I don't think anyone wants us to go back to that situation.  We do not want to have these discussions in place.  Our commitment to deliver humanitarian aid continues unabated.  That was a long answer.

Correspondent:  No, that's great.  Finally, we're getting good… long answers.

Spokesman:  Finally.  Whew.  Yeah.

Question:  Yeah.  I have another question regarding Syria.  So, you quoted Mr. Lowcock saying that, in Idlib, there is a need for ceasefire, and my question is, the US envoy or… Mr.… the US Special Envoy regarding Syria…?

Spokesman:  It's okay.  Don't worry.  Jeffrey, yes.

Question:  Mr. Jeffrey said that the US will be providing Turkey with the ammunition for Idlib.  So, what's your comment if you put this into perspective…?

Spokesman:  Our comment to all the parties remains the same, that what we need is an immediate ceasefire, an immediate cessation of hostilities, to get the humanitarian aid.  You're about to hear a first‑hand account of what the situation in Idlib is.  And I think, given what I expect Mr. Kennedy to say, it will be clear what is needed to help the people in Idlib.  Yes, sir, and then we'll go to Evelyn.

Question:  Yeah, thank you.  Thanks for the lengthy comments on Yemen.  Quick follow‑up on that.  Is it correct that there's a [Michael] Pompeo‑[António] Guterres meeting about that on 6 March?

Spokesman:  It is correct that we expect Mr. Pom… the Secretary of State to see the Secretary‑General on Friday.  It's… the meeting is at the request of the United States, so you'd have to check with them on the issues that they want to talk about.  I'm sorry?

Question:  Where is it…?

Spokesman:  Here in New York.

Question:  Yeah, and thanks for that.  And I do have a question on the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.  They released their report yesterday.  Sometimes the stuff comes out of the Geneva.  You keep it at arm's length.  Sometimes you accept it.  But, the key finding from the report, the Russian warplanes did a double‑tap strike on a market last July.  Forty‑three civilian deaths and a refugee camp in August, 20 civilian deaths.  Those two things, does the SG… do you see those as established facts now, that Russian warplanes did that?

Spokesman:  Look, I think the work of all the independent commissions that have been set up by the Human Rights Council, whether it's on Syria, whether it's on Myanmar and other places, are a critical part of the puzzle in terms of establishing what is going on in Syria.  Evelyn, and then we'll go…

Question:  Thanks.  On CSW, are they going to, on Monday, adopt resolutions also?

Spokesman:  They will adopt a political declaration.

Question:  That's it?

Spokesman:  That's as far… and any other resolutions they see fit.

Question:  Right.  And any plans for future meetings?

Spokesman:  Well, that… what is clear is that there was, I think, discussion about rescheduling it later on in the year.  Two things.  One, we don't know what's going to happen with the COVID‑19.  Second, the calendar of events… the calendar of conferences being held at the UN is decided by Member States.  So, if they want to reschedule, the Member States have to decide.  If there's a conflict, then some other part of Member States will have to decide to move that.  We will accommodate… do our best to accommodate whatever the Member States decide.  Yeah?

Question:  Good afternoon.  Question on the UN Committee for the Inalienable Rights of Palestinians.  They're in a delegation right now to India to talk about the possible role for India as a mediator in the Israel‑Palestinian conflict.  I want to ask you, of all the countries that have good relationships with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, why this Committee… why this effort to approach India, as opposed to any other mutually friendly country?

Spokesman:  That's a question you have to ask the Committee Chair.  It's a committee of Member States.  We, as the Secretariat, do not decide or direct them to where they travel.  It's a Member State… it's a legislative Member State committee.  It's up to them to see where they want to go.

Question:  Does the Secretary‑General feel there can be a different mediator in this process?

Spokesman:  It's not for the Secretary‑General to comment on their work.  Yeah?

Question:  Thank you, Stéphane.  Stéphane, to follow up the question about the Amazon rainforest, today, you mentioned that we are celebrating the World Wildlife Day.  So, my question is if you have any update, if the Secretary‑General has… did he have any talks with President [Jair] Bolsonaro about these regards in knowing…?

Spokesman:  No, I mean, there've been no direct discussions on that between the Secretary‑General and Mr. Bolsonaro recently, as far as I'm aware.  The issue of the loss of biodiversity, the loss of wildlife, as we see the destruction of some of the major rainforests in the world, is something that is of concern to us.  Benno, you can claim your question now.

Question:  Yes, now.  And just very quick, regarding Libya, for the succession of Mr. Salamé, is there at least a broad timeline?  Can we expect something in the next days or weeks or does it…?

Spokesman:  We want to move as quickly as possible, right, because we don't want to have a leadership gap or have the shortest possible leadership gap.  I think it's very important to have somebody there.  To say that the announcement took us a bit by surprise… We're obviously working on a list of people.  The process is then there's consultations.  We will move as quickly as possible, but not all the factors are in the hands of the Secretary‑General.  Yes, Evelyn?

Question:  Is there any update from UNHCR… anyone else, on the Syrian refugees pushing from Turkey to Greece…?

Spokesman:  No, I have… nothing than what we said yesterday.  Okay.  I will go get Martha Helena Lopez, and then we'll be joined by Kevin Kennedy.  Stay put, please.

For information media. Not an official record.